HL Deb 07 July 1831 vol 4 cc930-42
The Earl of Winchilsea

rose to move the second reading of the Bill which he had recently laid on their Lordships' Table for the relief of the Agricultural Labourers. The existing system of supporting able-bodied men out of parish rates, without labour, was a practice at once so humiliating and demoralizing, that it had diminished, if not totally destroyed, the good feeling which formerly prevailed between the labourer and his employer. The effects were so mischievous, that it was absolutely necessary to introduce some legislative provision for the purpose of checking this practice. That he thought would be effected by this Bill. The anxiety he felt on this subject did not arise from speculative and fanciful theories, but from practical experience of the operations he had himself seen carried into execution. The adoption of this Bill by their Lordships would by no means do away the necessity of the other Bills which his Majesty's Government had expressed their intention of proposing; and more especially of that great measure, to the consideration of which the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack had pledged himself that he would apply his powerful and comprehensive mind. The main object of this Bill was to enable parishes to levy a rate for the purpose of hiring lands for the employment of labourers, and to enable them to effect this, where there were more labourers than were generally employed, the Bill provided, that a certain proportion of the parishioners—three-fourths, four-fifths, five-sixths, or any other proportion with which their Lordships, should the Bill go into Committee, might think proper to fill up the blank, must consent to the proposition. He intended to propose, that the Bill should be in operation only during the winter months, from the 1st of November until April, and that its duration should be limited to two years. The evils of the present system were much increased by the law of settlement, which gave a man a claim to relief after he had been hired for a twelvemonth, which prevented a free intercourse of labour; and by the difficulties which the apprehensions of the owners and occupiers of land threw in the way of a labourer's obtaining land to the yearly value of 10l., as he would thereby also establish a settlement. He had known many instances where honest and industrious labourers, if they could have obtained a small spot of ground, would have been able to maintain themselves and families, but who were prevented doing so by the operation of these 1aws, and were consequently thrown on their parishes for support. Should the Bill go into a Committee, it was his intention to propose two additional clauses; the one, that the owner of tithes, derived either from a corn rent or from money payments, should have it in his option either to agree to the rate which the Bill authorized, or to pay as a rate the average poor-rate which he had paid during the preceding five years. The second clause would have for its object to relieve the owner and occupier of pasture from being subject to the same payment as the owner and occupier of arable land, the former not requiring the number of labourers which the latter did. He was perfectly convinced that no time was to be lost in getting rid of the present degrading and demoralizing system, which was alike injurious to all parties. If the Bill was carried, we should hear no more of poor labourers being obliged to walk backwards and forwards on the roads by way of employment, and he hoped to see the peasantry again happy and contented. His Lordship concluded by moving that the Bill be read a second time.

Lord Wynford

gave the noble Earl credit for his good intentions, and his great and practical knowledge in all sub- jects connected with agriculture, but feared that he would fail to accomplish the object which he had in view. He was afraid the principle of the Bill could not be so amended as to render it fit to pass into a law, though he was desirous that it should receive the fullest investigation, for he somewhat doubted the soundness of his own opinion, when opposed to that of the noble Earl. Indeed, there was one part of the plan, which allowed parishes to have an increased quantity of land to support their superfluous population, which met his approbation. The quantity of land which it was permitted to parishes to hire by the former Act, was probably, then, sufficient, but the number of unemployed agricultural labourers had since so much increased, owing to the poorer lands being thrown out of cultivation, and other causes connected with the depression of agriculture, that it was no longer sufficient. The preamble of this Bill asserted, that many farmers who have the means of paying labourers would not employ a sufficient number, by which they increased the burdens of those who employed a proper proportion. There was very little land that was not susceptible of an improved method of cultivation, and the country was sustaining an immense loss of capital, besides a large proportion of the best part of the population being unemployed, and reduced to idleness and want, from the neglect of tillage; but this was not the fault of the farmers, as this Bill alleged. If they had capital, and could use it to advantage, it was absurd to make a law to compel them to do this; it was self evident they would employ it. The heavy and unequal pressure of taxation on agriculture, had deprived the farmers of their capital, and the great importation of foreign corn, when the crops were bad, prevented them from indemnifying themselves, and took from them all hope of profit when the season was favourable. These were the causes of so many agricultural labourers being out of employment and the same causes would continue to operate so long as the English market afforded opportunities for untaxed farmers to enter into competition with our heavily-taxed people. As cultivation increased abroad, it must diminish at home, and we could not consume the produce of other countries and of our own. He entreated their Lordships to examine the evidence which had been collected by their Committee on the Poor- laws; they would there find the testimony of many persons of different stations of life concurring in the statement, that much land had been thrown out of tillage, that the capital of the farmers had been so much reduced, they had not the means of employing a sufficient number of labourers, and the price of produce was insufficient to remunerate them. In some poor-land districts one fourth of the population was out of employment, but if adequate prices could be procured, sufficient employment could be found for the whole of them. This Bill was an attempt to compel the farmers to do what they could not do in their present condition, and what, if their situation was improved, they would be glad to do without compulsion. His noble friend proposed to exempt tithe owners from the operation of the Bill, but annexed a condition which he (Lord Wynford) could not understand. He also proposed to make a distinction between pasture and corn-land farms, but he was afraid it would be very difficult to introduce any clause to provide for these two descriptions of land. The small farmers would also demand attention, many of whom employed no labourers beyond their own families. Were such persons to pay a labour rate? If that were proposed, it would do inconceivable mischief. There were other objections to the measure, which, if it went into a Committee, he should feel it his duty to state, but every attempt to relieve the poor should, in his opinion be encouraged, and, therefore, although he believed the existing evils lay too deep for this Bill to reach—he should vote for the second reading, being convinced, that no beneficial scheme could be devised without much discussion.

The Earl of Winchilsea

said, one of his principal objects in proposing the measure was, that the practice of supporting able bodied men without labour, out of the poor-rates should not be continued. With respect to the objection taken by the noble and learned Lord (Wynford) as regarded the small farmers and shopkeepers, he expected that these persons would be very much benefitted if the measure was carried into execution. In a large parish in which he had introduced a similar plan, fifteen or sixteen years ago, it had been the practice previously to support the great body of agricultural labourers by paying part of their wages out of the poor rates; now the small farmer and shopkeeper contributed to this rate as much in proportion as the largest farmer in the parish. He wished to do justice to the proprietors and occupiers of the soil, and admitted to its fullest extent the argument, that it was distress which prevented them from being liberal to those whom they ought to have employed. They were reduced in circumstances and fallen in fortune, but even at their expense it was necessary immediately to do justice to the peasantry of England. By providing them employment during the winter months, their moral condition would be improved, and they would be restored to that state of honest independence which was once the characteristic of the agricultural labourer. Above all, it would restore those kindly feelings which he deeply lamented should have been ever destroyed, that once existed between the owners and occupiers of the soil, and their industrious servants. He would not enter further into the evils which affected this class, but at a future time he might feel it his duty to bring their state before their Lordships. At present he could only say, he believed his Bill would be attended with beneficial results if passed.

The Marquis of Lansdown

felt the strongest objections to all the regulations of the Bill before their Lordships, with the exception of that clause which enabled parishes to hire a larger quantity of land than at present, for the employment of the labouring poor. He believed that quantity was only twenty acres. No advantage could possibly be derived from this small proportion. It was not sufficient, generally, to benefit one-eighth of the population. To increase this quantity was the only point of the noble Lord's measure to which he could assent. With respect to the principle of the Bill, he thought its only effect would be, an additional poor-rate, and he must call for the assistance of the House to join him in opposing' such an addition. The Bill, too, he believed, would tend to confirm all that was most mischievous in the administration of the Poor-laws as they at present existed, because it gave to Magistrates the power of fixing the rate at which the labouring poor should be employed, and from their decision there was no appeal. From the moment their Lordships laid down a certain amount as wages, from that moment the farmers would refuse to pay a higher rate than the law allowed. The parish overseers were to estimate the unemployed poor in their several parishes, and the number to be employed by each fanner was then to be settled. The Magistrates were to see that each one employed the regulated proportion. They were to inquire into the number of his family, and apportion the number of servants he would require. That was a system of interference that could not be carried into effect, and would not be tolerated. He also considered the measure highly objectionable, inasmuch as it interfered with the farmer in the management of his estate, by dictating the exact quantity of labourers he was to employ: moreover, by exempting the farmer from the payment of the rate, on the condition of his employing a certain number of labourers, this Bill made it his interest to employ the cheapest and worst set of workmen. The noble Earl had stated, that he did not intend this measure to be a fixed one, but proposed that it should operate for two years only. The House, however, must be aware of the extreme difficulty of getting rid of a measure of this kind after it had once been acted upon. He admitted, that the state of the labouring poor deserved the serious attention of Parliament; but it was their duty to examine most carefully the means proposed to remove the existing evils; for when once any measure was carried into operation, they could not at their pleasure get rid of it so easily as of any other sort of legislative remedy. Another objection was, that it would tend to make parishes the sole tenants of the land. The authorities to be created by this Bill would, as it appeared to him, after it had been a short time in operation, get into the management and control of all the land. The farmers and occupants were not to have the management of the number of hands they employed—that was to rest with the parish overseers. This would take from the farmers the desire of having land in their hands; and in proportion as they had less, the parish would have more. In this manner the whole labouring population might be cast upon the parish authorities. There were circumstances, he confessed, in the state of the labouring poor, which called for anxious consideration on the part of every man who valued the peace and happiness of the country; and he thought it desirable that some measure should be adopted, with a view to give the labouring population employment. He did not think, that the present measure ought to receive the sanction of the House; but he trusted that Parliament would not separate without being induced, under the recommendation of his Majesty's Government, to agree to the granting of certain sums of money to particular individuals, by which a considerable excitement to labour might be created. In that way encouragement might be given to individuals to embark in undertakings which would return them a due proportion of profit; but compelling a farmer to provide that which he could not with any regard to his own interest give, would, he thought, be detrimental to the agriculture of the country, the prosperity of which, after all, must be the foundation to which they must look for the encouragement of labour, and the relief of the labouring classes. He felt it his duty to oppose the Bill.

The Earl of Winchilsea

said, the noble Marquis had misunderstood one or two of the proposed enactments of the Bill. It was by no means the intention of the Bill that the number of labourers which each farmer should employ was to be regulated by the Magistrates or Overseers. It would, indeed, be. a most objectionable measure to give power to any individual to decide on the number of labourers his neighbour should employ. The noble Marquis had stated, also, that the proposed measure would have the effect of encouraging idleness; and that able-bodied men would, through laziness, prefer being supported by the parish-rate to working; but it was expressly stated in the Bill, that no able-bodied man should have any claim whatever on the rates, except in return for work. Able-bodied men might derive assistance, in case of a temporary want of employment, but they would not encourage idleness. He by no means denied, that there were points in the Bill which required amendment; he was anxious it should go into Committee, where the objections could be entered into. This could not be called a compulsory measure in any respect: the rate to be levied required the consent of a certain proportion of the inhabitants of the parish; it could not be levied at the will of the Magistrates. He sincerely hoped the noble Marquis would not persevere in his opposition, but permit the Bill to go into Committee.

The Marquis of Lansdown

admitted, that nothing could be worse than the present state of the labouring classes of this country—but, he repeated, he did not think the proposal of the noble Earl would tend to their relief. The noble Earl had certainly shown he had not understood the intention with which the Bill was proposed, but he must confess, that the noble Earl's explanation had only confirmed his opposition. He found, by the Bill, that the parish officers were to class the labourers, and that the Justices were to apportion and determine the amount and rate of wages to be paid. It was of very little consequence who apportioned the rate; his objection was, that any person should have the right of fixing an additional rate on the farmers. It was to the principle, and not to the details, that he objected, and though it was with regret, he found it necessary to oppose the Motion.

The Bishop of London

regretted that he must oppose the Bill on the same grounds as the noble Marquis; for he perceived it provided for the assessment of the parishioners, for the purpose of enabling parish officers to have a certain quantity of land for the employment of the poor. He was also averse from giving parishes the right of apportioning the quantity of labourers which land might require for tillage. This should not be taken out of the hands of the farmers; it would inflict injury also on the tithe-owner, and the tiller of pasture land. The occupier of the latter would be called on to give employment to a certain number of individuals, but the tenant had, in all probability, engaged to pay a higher rent for such land, under the idea that it would not require much expense of tillage; and, on this principle, landlords always obtained a higher rent for pasture than for arable land. If, then, the tenant of such pasture land had made an agreement to pay 2l. 10s. per acre, and was obliged either to take a larger number of labourers into his employment; or, in case of not doing so, submit to pay an additional rate, the profits of his land might not amount to the sum he had covenanted to pay his landlord for rent. The tithe owner, too, was also treated very unjustly by the noble Earl's Bill. In addition to the poor-rate on tithes, which the tenant paid and deducted, he would, by the noble Earl's Bill, be obliged to pay a labour rate; and that, too, in some cases, while the value of his land was decreasing, as in the instance of pasture land. He would be compelled to support a certain number of labourers more than he required. This, of course, would decrease the value of his land, and consequently the tithe-owners' share. In addition to this injustice, he did not see how the measure of the noble Earl would attain the proposed objects. If it would lighten the evils now complained of, he would certainly be most anxious to let it go into the Committee, where amendments to the obnoxious clauses might be made; but he did not think the noble Earl's Bill would, in any manner, benefit the distressed poor. The principle of the Bill was defective, and appeared only calculated to perpetuate and increase the evils complained of. How those evils originated merited inquiry: he attributed them to the error of following the ancient boundaries of parishes in assessing poor-rates, without considering the extent of population and property. In some parishes, this error had been avoided. but in others it was acted on. This division of parishes should be re-considered as, he believed, thereby the burthens of the country might be relieved. For the reasons he had stated, he must oppose the proposition of the noble Earl.

The Marquis of Salisbury

did not approve of the Bill in all its details, but he thought there were parts of it which it might be desirable to pass into a law; he, therefore, trusted the House would allow the Bill to go into a Committee, where, he thought, it might undergo such revision as would remove the objections of the noble Marquis, and the right rev. Prelate. Should this suggestion not meet with their Lordships' approval he should propose to the noble Lord to withdraw his Bill as it stood in its present form, and not allow it to be negatived, for, if he did, the effect would be, to deprive them of carrying those points of the Bill which appeared desirable. He hoped the noble Marquis and right rev. Prelate would not persevere in their opposition, but would allow the Bill to be discussed in Committee.

The Duke of Richmond

said, he could not allow the Bill to go through the form of a second reading. He believed, that the Bill was radically wrong in principle, and tended solely to perpetuate one of the greatest evils of the present system of poor-laws. It put the improvident and the provident man, the man who spent his summer and autumn earnings in the beer-shop or public-house, and the man who preserved those earnings for his support in the winter, in precisely the same situation: it did more, it actually encouraged the opinion, unhappily existing among some classes in the country, that whether a man were prudent or not it made no difference, for at all events he must be provided for. Entertaining as he did this opinion of the Bill, unless the noble Earl wished to withdraw his motion, he should have no hesitation in moving that it be read a second time that day six months.

Lord Ellenborough

entertained great doubts as to the expediency of the measure, but recommended the House to allow the Bill to go to a Committee, in deference to its author, than whom nobody had more attended to the state of the labouring poor. He did not, however, mean to say, that the Bill would be found to be an efficient measure.

Viscount Melbourne

considered, that the state of the labouring poor deserved their Lordships' serious consideration, but at the same time they must take care not to violate sound and wholesome principles. The preamble of the Bill was as follows: "Whereas, to the great injury of a parish in which many occupiers of land may be found, who are employing their full proportion of labourers belonging to the parish in which their land is situated, whereby such labourers have avoided becoming chargeable to the said parish, other occupiers of lands and tenements with equal ability have refused so to do." This, he must contend, contained statements, of the correctness of which it was difficult, if not impossible, for their Lordships to form a correct judgment, without an inquiry into each particular case to which they referred, For example, it was stated, that on certain portions of land only a certain number of labourers were employed, and that on such land more might be engaged. How were their Lordships to decide such a case? Were they to regulate the manner in which each individual should manage his land, and the number of labourers he should employ? The thing was impossible. The preamble went on to say, — "And whereas, it was expedient, that encouragement should be given to such landholders as are willing to employ their full proportion of labourers, and to the end that such persons may not be subjected to the additional burthen of contributing to the maintenance of these la- bourers, whom the other landowners in the parish ought to employ." Now, how could their Lordships affirm such a statement as this? How could they know that certain fanners had equal abilities to employ labourers? This preamble contained such dangerous principles, that it ought not to receive the sanction of a second reading. No man was more anxious than he was to do every thing which could improve the condition of the labouring classes in agriculture, but he did not think, that the proposed measure would have that effect. He was, therefore, unwilling to vote for the second reading of this Bill, and sending it to a Committee, which would only create a delusion in the public mind, and raise hopes as to the improvement of the condition of the labouring classes, which, by this Bill, could never be realized.

The Duke of Wellington

said, that he would vote for the second reading, in order to see what might be done in the Committee, as the practice which one part of the Bill proposed to introduce was already adopted, and with good effect, by many parishes in England. He did not think, however, they should attempt to force its adoption, but when he saw that such a plan had been adopted in certain places, voluntarily, he could not refuse his assent to the second reading of a Bill which only went to ensure the more general adoption of a beneficial practice. He was anxious to ascertain if it was not possible to render that practice more general. He also wished to send the Bill to a Committee for this additional reason— that there was one part of it on which most of their Lordships seemed to be agreed, and it might be a matter of consideration, whether it would not be advisable to divide the Bill into two, and to preserve that part in a separate form on which so many of their Lordships seemed to be agreed.

Earl Grey

could not consent to the second reading of a Bill, in the principle of which he could not concur. If he could agree in the principle, he should have no objection to go to a Committee to examine its details; but when he heard so many noble Lords declare the principle vicious and the details objectionable, he did not think, that by going into a Committee, they would have any chance of correcting either the one or the other, and therefore, he could not support the second reading. He admitted the existence of that distress which it was sought to relieve, but it did not follow that they were therefore to adopt every measure which was proposed as a measure of relief. This Bill would tend, he thought, to raise hopes which could not be realized by it. He had no objection to that part of the Bill which provided, that parishes might hire land on lease for the employment of their poor; he thought this might do much good, if properly managed. As to going into the Committee for the purpose of dividing the Bill, he thought the more simple and easy course would be, if there were any part of it that could be adopted, to introduce it in a separate form to the House; and he therefore recommended, that it should be withdrawn, and the unobjectionable part introduced as a new Bill. This would be the better course, as objections were entertained by several of his noble friends to the measure, both in principle and detail. He gave the fullest credit to the intentions of the noble Earl, but he did not think they could be achieved by this Bill, and if the motion was persisted in, he must vote against the second reading.

The Earl of Carnarvon

would have assented to going into the Committee, if he did not see the utter hopelessness of coming out of it with any practicable result. The objections were so strong, that no amendments could remove them, he would, therefore, recommend his noble friend to withdraw the Bill. He would then have an opportunity of bringing forward that part of it to which there was no objection in a separate shape, and with a better prospect of success. Their Lordships all felt very acutely the situation of the labouring; poor, and it must be their united wish to devise some mode to improve their condition. As the measure which the noble Earl had so benevolently brought forward did not meet with the concurrence of the House, he must join in the recommendation of other noble Lords, and advise his noble friend to withdraw his Bill.

The Earl of Winchilsea

said, that seeing no hope of carrying the measure against the opposition offered by the noble Lords opposite, he would withdraw it; but after this, he would leave the matter to be taken up by the Government, satisfied that the subject was one which deserved serious consideration, and which could not be too soon taken in hand. It had been said, the Bill would be a violation of the funds intended for the relief of the poor; but he contended, the system now adopted in many counties was a still greater and worse violation. The noble Duke had properly staled, that the Bill was not vicious in principle, but that its principle had been adopted in many parts of the country, and he thought that, at least, ought to have induced their Lordships to go into the Committee. He must, however, again strongly impress on the Government, the positive necessity of devising some remedy for the evils pointed out. It would be most impolitic to allow the winter to approach, and leave the condition of the labourer as it was last winter, when such effects had been produced. It had been said, that if the Bill passed, the farmers would not adopt its provisions— but wherever the plan had been tried, they had shewn no indisposition to class the labourers, and pay them according to their value. He owed it to the farmers and proprietors of land in those counties with which he was acquainted, to rescue them from the imputations which had been cast upon them.

The Duke of Richmond

said, his noble friend was too warm on this subject, in defending the farmers, who had not been attacked; or if any attack had been made upon them, from whence had it come? Why, it had been made by the Bill, which said, they could employ many more labourers than at present. If, then, they found the farmers did not employ so many as they ought, how could they be trusted to classify them as the Bill proposed?

Bill withdrawn.