HL Deb 11 November 1830 vol 1 cc371-82

The Earl of Winchilsea, in moving the first reading of the Bill of which he gave notice on Monday last, said that he would make but very few remarks in explanation of the measure. He saw many noble Lords around him who were better qualified than he was, to undertake the important task which he had presumptuously arrogated to himself, that of bringing the question, the very important question, under their consideration, of the great abuses in the Administration of the Poor-laws. It was impossible for any man to trace the abuses of those laws, and the consequences of those abuses in the demoralization of the peasantry, and not be impressed with the necessity of inquiring into those laws, with a view of ascertaining if they could not, by legislative means, at least lessen the abuses, which would otherwise be destructive of the property, and subversive of the best interests of the country. The objects of the Bill which he had to submit were two-fold. It was confined, first, to endeavouring to restore the healthy operation of the existing laws, so as to confine the relief they gave to the classes for whom it was originally intended. The second object of the Bill was, to provide during a certain period of the year; for the Bill was confined to that period of the year which was comprised between the 1st of November and the 1st of May; the second object of the Bill was, to provide employment for the labouring classes; so that they might be enabled to get an honest subsistence, and not be thrown on the poor-rates for support, which were never intended to subsist that description of persons. These were simply and plainly the objects of his Bill. The original intention of the Poor-laws was, to give relief to all those who were unable to help themselves; such as the aged and the infirm, widows and orphans, and the diseased; and it never was contemplated that the law should give relief to stout and able-bodied men. It was the maladministration of these laws, not the laws themselves, which had increased the burthens on the land, and demoralized the people of the agricultural districts. He had had much experience on the subject, and he had by that experience learnt the bad tendency of another and a common practice—that of paying the wages of the labourer out of the poor-rates. That system, he was afraid, pervaded a large extent of country. There was another part of the system which pervaded many districts also, that was equally demoralizing—that was the practice of undertaking to give relief to able-bodied men, who ought not to be relieved. These practices gave an impulse to that bad spirit which was gaining ground in the agricultural districts. As a consequence of this practice of relieving able-bodied men, he had known from thirty to forty in one parish set to work on the roads, and paid at the rate of 6d. per day, or even less, by the parish. He was sure, from the conversation he had had with many of the peasantry of that county with which he was connected, that all which they wanted was employment, honest employment, and they would never ask parish assistance or desire parish relief. One great object, then, of his Bill would be, to enable his Majesty's Justices of the Peace, between the 1st of November and the 1st of May, to ascertain the number of unemployed labourers in each parish, and make an assessment on the land for their maintenance and support. The way he proposed to effect this was as follows:—In the month of October, every parish in which there was a prospect of any portion of the labourers being unemployed during the winter, should make a statement to the Justices assembled in Petty Session, and they should include in that statement all the labourers belonging to the parish, and living in or near it, who had nothing but their labour on which to depend for their subsistence, and who, if not employed, might be expected to demand relief from the parish. The labourers should be classed according to the labour they were capable of performing, and they should be paid according to the value of their labour, not in proportion to their family. The plan of giving relief in proportion to the size of a man's family had tended to demoralize the labourers and destroy their independence. According to that system, the best labourer just received as much as sufficed for his maintenance, and the worst labourer received an equal allowance. But the evil of this practice did not stop there. As a single man got no more than a maintenance, and as a married man with a family got also a maintenance, this mode of paying people, in proportion to the size of their families, encouraged those early and improvident marriages which increased the burthen of the poor-rates, and still further injured the peasantry themselves. The object of this Bill would be, to enable his Majesty's Justices to make a separate rate for the employment of labourers, to be called a labour-rate, and out of which the labourers should be paid in proportion to the value of their labour. This rate should extend over the whole of every parish, and such occupiers of land as provided a certain quantity of employment should have what they paid for labour deducted from the rate. So far as for the employment of labourers. The other part of the Bill was to restore the existing laws; and with that view he should propose to confine them to the classes for whose benefit they were originally intended. This was the brief outline of the Bill. He would not detain their Lordships further; but propose that the Bill should be printed, which he had then the honour to lay on their Lordships' Table. He should be happy to consult their Lordships' convenience in naming a day for the second reading of the Bill, and requested that any noble Lord would suggest the day that would be most suitable to their Lordships.

Lord Suffield

did not mean to enter fully into the discussion of the Bill then submitted to their Lordships; but he could not forbear to make a few observations. He must bear his testimony to the correctness of the picture drawn by the noble Earl of the evil consequences of the Poor-laws on the peasantry. If the noble Earl could accomplish the objects he had at heart, he would confer great advantages on the country: but he was afraid the Bill would not answer the noble Earl's expectations. To one part of it he was friendly, to the other part he was not friendly; and he should not give it his support. It was certainly the abuses of the Poor-laws which had demoralized the labourers, had reduced them to the state of vagabonds, and had disqualified them to raise themselves by their own exertions out of their present abject state. According to the present mode of administering those laws, the labourer who worked much received little; and he who worked little received much. It was not possible for human ingenuity to devise any scheme more destructive of industry; it rooted out all motives for labour. Another evil resulting from these laws, which he was afraid the Bill of the noble Earl would not remedy, was, that the wages of labourers were very insufficient. The Poor-laws had, he thought, a most grievous and injurious operation in that way. But the causes of insufficient wages were various, and were not confined to the Poor-laws. He must say that he did not think the extent of taxation was the cause of low wages. The lowness of wages was occasioned by a deficiency of employment, and if the fanners could employ the labourers advantageously, and with a profit, they would do so. It was because they could not make a profit in employing them, that they did it not. He did not think that evil would be removed by lessening taxation, and could not, therefore, think that taxation was the cause of want of employment. The great evil was a superabundance of labourers above the demand for labour. Many inquiries had been made into the causes of the distress of the labourers, and a committee to inquire was proposed last year, to which he should probably have been opposed, for, in fact, he did not think these causes were involved in any mystery. The subject that needed inquiry was not the causes of the distress, but the remedy for the evil. If any inquiries were now to be instituted, he would recommend a committee to inquire into the means of providing a remedy for the want of employment. It was the duty of the Government, however, to originate measures of relief, and not leave that, to individuals. He had reason to find fault with the Ministers for not taking the lead in such matters; they preferred waiting for circumstances. He admired the noble Duke's military character, the great merit of which was, he understood, waiting for the enemy, and he was now afraid that the principle which was admirable for the field was carried by the noble Duke's colleagues into the Cabinet, where it was utterly inexpedient. The great destitution of the people, and their want of occupation, must be remedied by going a step beyond the Poor-laws. Their Lordships must take some means to meet this evil, which was of a tremendous character. The difficulty was, for Parliament to find measures for giving employment to the labourers. The Poor-laws would not afford that. There was one mode, however, of getting rid of a superabundance of la- bourers, which he thought might be advantageously acted on. We had possessions abroad, and there were other countries which needed people, and he believed that a small portion of the annual sum paid for the Poor-rates would be sufficient to provide employment for the labourers if they were directed to colonise waste lands. The scheme of colonization was that which he approved of, and which he would recommend. He had formerly been one of several gentlemen who had proposed to colonise Southern Africa to a great extent, and they meant to raise 300,000l. for this purpose. The Government, however, had been afraid of the extent of their scheme, and took the plan into its own hands; but it failed, from limiting the outlay to the sum of 50,000l. The labourers might be employed in cultivating the waste lands of this country, or in colonization. A small portion of the poor-rates, so employed, would do a great deal of good. He believed, too, that the plan of giving a small portion of land to each cottager would be very beneficial. He knew one parish where this had been practised for thirty-six years, and during that time the Poor-rates had only risen Ad. an acre, they being at the beginning of that period 2s. 6d. per acre, and now only 2s. 10d., while in other parishes in the neighbourhood the Poor-rates were 10s. and 11s. an acre. In the parish he had alluded to, however, the population had been much increased, both by fair means and foul—such as perjury, to procure a settlement in the parish, &c, to which the peasantry, unfortunately, were too much accustomed. He would not then enter into the details of the Bill, but when it was printed he would give to those details the most patient investigation.

The Marquis of Salisbury

differed from the noble Lord, in thinking that the Poor-laws were of themselves good, but that the administration of them had been perverted. He thought the subject required investigation, and it was his intention to give notice of a Motion for a committee to inquire into the Poor-laws, after the recess. That, he thought, was necessary. If they did not find employment for the labourers, it would not be possible to prevent the demoralization of the people. He could not agree, however, to the opinion, that the want of employment arose from over-population. He could not agree to any plan for transporting the agricultural labourers, whom, notwithstanding their demoraliza- tion, he considered to be the most valuable portion of our population.

Lord Suffield

explained, that he did not attribute the evils of want of employment to the Poor-laws themselves, but to the mal-administration of them. At the same time it should be remembered, that when they were passed, the Justices had the power to fix the rate of wages.

Lord Teynham

wished to make a few observations, because he had long studied the Poor-laws, and was as well acquainted with them as any man in England. He contended that the 43rd of Elizabeth was a most benevolent and wise law, intended, like all her laws, to promote the happiness of her people. The noble Lord had stated that taxation had had no influence on the Poor-laws: he thought quite differently. It was since the American war, when taxation had increased so much, that the condition of the agricultural labourer was deteriorated, and he conceived that deterioration had been mainly caused by two measures of finance. These two measures were, the duties on hops and the duties on malt, which had prevented the poor man from brewing his own beer, and driven him from his cottage. When he had ceased to be a brewer he had ceased also to be a baker, and then had to go to the shop and the ale-house for all his food and drink. He had heard that the farmers around Battle, and that the farmers in several parts of Kent, had agreed to give their labourers 15s. a week. They had met and resolved to do this in consequence of intimidation. He doubted the efficacy of the noble Earl's Bill, and would recommend the Government to come to the help of the Poor-laws. It was a cruel thing that the property in land was so excessively burthened; and he would also recommend that the Government should tax funded property to support the poor. He was, on the whole, glad to see their Lordships disposed to take the Poor-laws into consideration, as he was sure that, unless that were done, the agricultural districts would be ruined.

The Duke of Richmond

rose, not to discuss the Bill of his noble friend, because he had not yet heard it read, but to deny the statement of the noble Lord who had just taken his seat. The noble Lord was not authorised to make that statement, as he was sure that he could not prove it. He did not deny that the farmers of Kent and Sussex might have agreed to raise the wages of their labourers, but he denied that they had done so from the motive of intimidation. The farmers of Kent and Sussex were not accessible to such motives, and he hoped the noble Lord would give them credit for nobler motives. He rose chiefly for the purpose of contradicting that assertion, and he would not discuss the Bill of his noble friend. He differed entirely from the noble Lord in thinking that the Government should have anything to do with the administration of the Poor-laws, for they were the last things he wished the Government to take the management of into its own hands. In his opinion, an inquiry into the Poor-laws, and their administration, would be much better conducted by a Committee of the Lords and Commons than by a Government Commission. The noble Marquis (Salisbury) had said, that he intended, after the recess, to introduce a motion, for an inquiry into the subject, but he hoped the noble Marquis would find it convenient and proper to bring it forward sooner. A noble friend of his (Lord Suffield) had remarked, that the main cause of the distresses of the poor, and the low rate of wages, was plain enough; that it was the superabundance of labour, compared with the demand for it. But then there were many who differed about the causes, and it was necessary that others besides the Ministers, and persons whose residence was chiefly in town, should be examined. What did the Ministers and those who resided chiefly in London, Brighton, Cheltenham, and such other places, know about the operation of the Poor-laws? It was necessary to have inquiry made in order to call the attention of Government to the subject, and to enlighten those who did not understand it. He did not agree with those who might think that the repeal of taxes would have little effect in relieving the distress of the people. He did not think, however, that it was particularly requisite to reduce materially the tax on hops, because that was an article in which there was no reason to dread a competition; but he should be very glad of a reduction or repeal of the tax on malt, and on other articles, and he was satisfied that a reduction might be made without loss to the revenue, as the consumption would be increased. He hoped the Government would consider whether something might not be done in the way of repealing, reducing, or equaliz- ing taxes. He thought it right to throw out these few words, but he should hardly have risen, had it not been to repel the attack on the yeomanry of the counties of Kent and Sussex.

Lord Teynham

took all that the noble Duke had said in good part, as he was sure that the noble Duke could never mean to say anything that was not parliamentary. But still he must persist in the opinion which he had given—which was, that the yeomanry of those counties had raised their wages, not out of choice, but compulsion. He had received a letter to that effect from a most respectable individual, well acquainted with the circumstances, in which it was stated, that the farmers had been forced to promise fifteen shillings a week, although they could not pay it, and he was ready to produce that individual at the Bar if required to do so.

Lord Stourton

thought the question one of deep concern to the country, and any suggestion, coming from any quarter, to ameliorate the condition of the labouring classes, would not fail to interest the feelings, and excite the sympathy of their Lordships. He agreed with those who thought that distress was not universally prevalent. He could say, at least, that the people who lived in the quarter where he resided were in as good circumstances as they had been for the last thirty years. Having himself a good deal of land in his own hands, he had laid his books before him, and compared the remuneration which the labourers received, and the prices which they paid for provisions; and he could take upon himself to say, that at no time for these last thirty years were they in better circumstances. He mentioned this in order to shew that the Poor-laws themselves were not the cause of the evils: even the abuse of the Poor-laws in the administration of them was rather symptomatic of the evil, than its cause. The real cause of the evil lay deeper; and he agreed with the noble Lord near him (Suffield)who found it in the superabundance of labour above the demand—in other words, the surplus of unemployed labourers. That prevailed to a most lamentable extent in Ireland, and from Ireland it spread into this country. If, then, they intended to apply an effectual remedy, they must go to the root of the evil. Unless they did this, they did nothing; for the noxious weed of poverty would burst through every regulation of a different description. The labourers must be in a comfortable condition all over the empire, otherwise they could not very long remain in comfort in any particular quarter. Suppose you could place Poland where Ireland was now, and could pour the corn into this country, still the steam bridge across the Irish Channel would afford access to this; country of immense numbers of unemployed labourers, and it would be impossible by any regulations to keep them back; for you could not pass a Non-intercourse Act between the different quarters of the same empire. He was sorry to have to trouble their Lordships at so much length. He did not mean to say whether the Poor-laws ought to be introduced into Ireland. He did not feel that he was sufficiently acquainted with Ireland to be able to give a confident opinion on the question. But he was rather disposed to think that these laws might be partially introduced in Ireland; that was, by confining the parochial relief to the aged and the infirm. He appealed to the Government, whether some means might not be adopted to provide employment for the poor of Ireland— especially as the Government itself would derive great advantage from it in the way of taxation. There was, as he understood, a great deal of land in Ireland that might be reclaimed from rivers, &c, and the operation would afford employment to multitudes of labourers, who might be located and colonized on the lands when reclaimed. It was well known that the middle-men were in the habit of letting to the peasants the borders of bogs; and, in truth, the Irish peasantry, in the present circumstances, must have land, or they could have nothing, for they could not get employment. From this state of things mendicity rose of necessity, and forced the labourers over to this country; and it was in vain to hope to check them, for the steam would burst all barriers. He hoped he had not expressed himself in such a way as to occasion unpleasant feeling in any quarter. He felt exceedingly grateful to the noble Duke for bringing forward the great measure of 1829, and he had expected that it would be attended with the best effects on the industry of Ireland, by attracting British capital to that country, and he had only to lament that the agitation which had been raised lately in that country had in some degree disappointed his hopes, and deprived Ireland of many of the advantages which it would otherwise have derived from that wise and healing measure. But after the Union with Scotland, the latter country had, in the same manner, been for some time deprived of the benefits of that Union by the discords of parties. When the party dissensions had ceased, which, for a time deprived Scotland of the beneficial influence of that measure, it derived from it the greatest advantages. So the Union with Ireland, which was yet in its infancy, and the benefits of which had been destroyed by party dissensions, would come, he hoped, to be mutually beneficial. He hoped, indeed, that the time was not far off when the measure would attain its full manhood—when the obstacles would be thrown down, and Ireland reap the full benefits of the Union. These dissensions and agitations acted at present in Ireland like the virus of typhus fever, but he hoped that the political, like the natural virus, would be expelled by plenty of food and raiment.

Lord Carbery

was decidedly opposed to a repeal of the Union, for a repeal of the Union would lead to a separation of the two countries, and that would lead to the destruction of both. The salvation of both depended on their remaining united. He agreed that the agitation in Ireland had been a serious obstacle to the investing of British capital in that country; for that required tranquillity, and could not be established in the midst of the agitation, which was now unhappily raised by men who had other objects in view than the prosperity of Ireland. He himself knew instances in which preparations had been made, immediately after passing the Relief Bill for investing capital in Ireland, and these preparations had been suspended in consequence of these agitations.

Viscount Gort

was also opposed to the dissolution of the union between the two countries. No man had more ardently opposed the Union at the time it was first brought forward, than he had, but he did not feel himself called upon to say whether if he were placed in the same circumstances again, he would have acted in the same manner. As matters now stood, however, he was fully persuaded that the dissolution of the Union would be attended with the destruction of both countries. The scenes at Clare and Waterford had shown what kind of legislators Ireland would have, if the Union were dissolved. When the Speaker of the Irish House of Commons put the question, that the Union Bill should pass, there were some in the House, and those of considerable legal learning, who gave their opinion that the measure might be resisted by force. He at that time had the command of a military body; and he then stated, that as the measure had been passed by a majority of the House, and would, no doubt, be adoped by the whole Parliament, he would submit to it, and would defend it with all his power, as he would have defended a measure of which he should have fully approved. He stated this, in order to show that there was no inconsistency on his part in now decidedly opposing a repeal of the Union.

The Earl of Winchilsea

was desirous of explaining, as this point seemed misunderstood, that his Bill applied only to those parishes where there were able-bodied, unemployed labourers, and not to any others. He was persuaded, that the yeomanry neither of Kent nor Sussex to whom allusion had been made, had done any-thing improper.

The Duke of Wellington

assured the noble Lords who pressed this matter upon the attention of Government, that the Government had not been inattentive to the subject. The real truth was, that the administration of the Poor-laws was so various in different places, that it was impossible to find out where the evil lay, or to prepare any one measure which would apply to all, for what would answer in one place would not. answer in another. A noble Duke had said, that the Ministers knew nothing about the administration of the Poor-laws; and it was true that they could not well know how they were administered in every parish, when the modes of administration were so exceedingly various. But the variety of these modes proved how very difficult it must be to find out a general remedy. He agreed in what had been stated respecting the consequences of the resort of the superabundant unemployed Irish to this country; but there again it was extremely difficult to find a remedy. The noble Lord opposite (Suffield) had himself suggested two remedies, or plans, which he thought would be attended with advantage in Norfolk; but it did not follow that what would be a beneficial plan in Norfolk would answer in Kent and Sussex. The Government, however, felt every disposition to do all that lay in its power to remedy the evils which had been the subject of so much complaint.

The Duke of Richmond

was glad to find it now admitted on all sides, that his motion of last year was not a factious one.

The Marquis of Salisbury

felt himself bound to say, that he had heard from a person of considerable influence in the Government, that if the noble Duke's Motion had been confined to an inquiry into the state of the Poor-laws, he would not have opposed it.

The Duke of Richmond

Then the Government ought to have moved as an amendment, that the latter part should be left out.

The Bill read a first time, to be printed, and read a second time, on Tuesday week.