HL Deb 02 July 1834 vol 24 cc1066-73
Mr. Ellice

and others from the Commons brought up the Poor Laws' Amendment Bill.

Earl Grey moved, that the Bill be read a first time, and stated that it was his intention to move the second reading on Monday next.

The Earl of Malmesbury

felt it impossible to avoid making a few observations on this important Bill in the present stage. Their Lordships were in the sixth month of their sitting, and they were now called on to consider a measure which yielded to none in importance that had ever occupied the attention of Parliament—not even the Reform Bill: for it was impossible for any mart to foresee what would be the result of the present Bill, if ever it should be carried into operation. He looked upon it—and he trusted he was right in doing so—as not being a party measure; but he most deeply lamented the course which his Majesty's Government had been pleased to follow with respect to it. The Bill embraced three distinct subjects—viz., relief, settlement, and bastardy, which, in his opinion, it would have been much better to have dealt with in three separate measures. If this plan had been adopted, he was aware that the Bill relating to relief must of necessity have originated in the other House, but the other two Bills might have been introduced in the House of Lords, and have been disposed of before the present time; for since Easter their Lordships had had little else to do but to listen to the tedious proceedings connected with the Warwick Bill. The Bill which had just been brought up contained not less than ninety clauses, and it was reasonable to suppose, that their Lordships would devote a long period to its consideration. On the 17th of April last the Bill was brought in by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and it had consequently remained under discussion in the other House for no less a period than seventy-six days. If their Lordships should devote the same time to its consideration, the Session would be prolonged to the middle of the month of September; and even then there would remain other very important questions for deliberation. He thought it would be a far wiser and more just proceeding as regarded the poor, whose interests were involved in the present measure, to let it stand over till next Session, and thus an opportunity would be afforded, which had not as yet been given, for the proper understanding of the proposed enactments. He admitted, that great abuses prevailed in the mode of administering relief to the poor, but he had always thought that those abuses arose more from the mal-administration, than the defect of the existing law. He was sure, that every one of their Lordships who had paid any attention to the subject would admit, that within the last three years a very great improvement had been made in the administration of the Poor-laws. A diminution in the amount of the poor-rates of three and a-half per cent had, in fact, taken place during the last year. He was aware that that diminution might in part be attributed to the fall in the price of provisions; but he would appeal to their Lordships, whether a change in the administration of the existing laws had not worked wonders as respected the condition of a vast number of parishes, both in the country and in this metropolis? He was confident, from the knowledge he possessed of the mode of transacting business in that House, that justice could not be done the Bill, if their Lordships should determine to begin the consideration of its various enactments in the month of July. He, for one, should not be able to be present during the discussions in Committee, and he thought that the attendance of any great number of Peers was not to be expected at so late a period of the Session. There was no part of the Bill to which he could give his unqualified approbation. He could neither give his assent to the enactments relating to relief, settlement, nor bastardy in particular. He could not help calling their Lordships' especial attention to this last subject, and he trusted they would legislate with respect to it as men. He appealed to their feelings as men, and he asked them, whether they would throw upon the unfortunate seduced woman the whole burthen of maintaining her child, and allow the seducer to stalk abroad with perfect impunity? He repeated, that at the present period of the Session the Bill could not meet with proper consideration, and he saw no imperative necessity for its passing in the present year. A great improvement had already taken place in the administration of the existing law, and he had no doubt that a still further improvement might be expected in the course of the ensuing year, in consequence of the suggestions of the Commissioners and the example of well-regulated parishes. Under these circumstances, would it not be better to allow the matter to rest until next Session, instead of passing such a mass of enactments as was contained in the Bill on the Table, and with not a word of which were their Lordships as yet acquainted? And let them bear in mind, that all these various and complicated enactments were to be put into operation under the direction of a set of Commissioners possessing no local knowledge, and who would cut off all communication between the lower and higher classes, and deprive the poor man of the privilege he now possessed of appealing to the rich man against the decisions of a grinding overseer. He spoke feelingly on this subject; he spoke on behalf of the poor population in the southern part of this country; and he trusted that their Lordships would hesitate long before they passed into law a measure only inferior in importance to the Reform Bill; if indeed, considering the general application of its provisions, it could properly be said to be less important than any subject whatever which had hitherto occupied the attention of Parliament.

Earl Grey

entirely agreed with the noble Earl in thinking that the Bill just brought up, was less than any other, a party measure; and he trusted that it would not be so considered. The Government had, as in duty bound, bestowed the most careful and deliberate attention on this most complicated, difficult subject; affecting, as the noble Earl had most truly stated, most extensively the interests of the people, and involving more important consequences than almost any other measure ever submitted to Parliament. Such being the character of the Bill, he hoped their Lordships would consider it maturely and deliberately, without reference to its being in form proposed by his Majesty's Government, but with reference only to the effect which its application was likely to have on the country in general. That such a Bill required mature deliberation he admitted, and he regretted, in common with the noble Earl, that it had not been brought up to that House at an earlier period of the Session; but when he directed their Lordships' attention to the character of the Bill, and to the interests which it affected, he was sure they would acknowledge that the subject to which it related was one of no easy adjustment; and they, therefore, perhaps, would not wonder that the Bill had not found its way sooner to that House. He did not, however, think that their Lordships would, as the noble Earl apprehended, come to the discussion of this question in an unprepared state, when he recollected how long the able report of the Poor-law Commissioners, in which the whole subject was developed with great ability and accuracy, had been before the public, and when he also recollected the long discussions which the Bill had undergone in its different stages in the other House of Parliament, and more particularly in the Committee. Those who had attended to these discussions, and had watched the changes which had been made in the Bill, must be prepared to take the measure into consideration at the earliest opportunity; and he was of opinion that the pains bestowed on the investigation of the subject by the Commissioners, and by the other House of Parliament, would be found greatly to facilitate their Lordships' deliberations. Such being his opinion, he could not give his assent to the noble Earl's proposition, that the passing of the Bill should be deferred to another Session, believing as he did, that so far from any advantage being gained by such a proceeding, much inconvenience was likely to arise from the sort of agitation which might be excited. The noble Earl had stated, that the Bill ought to have been divided into three separate measures, two of which might have originated in that House. He could assure the noble Earl, that the expediency of dividing the Bill into separate enactments had not escaped the attention of Ministers; but after the most mature deliberation, it seemed advisable to them, that the whole subject should be taken together as one system, and that all its parts should be combined in the same Bill. He, however, understood from very good authority, that the noble Earl was misinformed as to the power of Government to originate any measure in that House, either relating to bastardy or settlement. Under these circumstances, he must press their Lordships to proceed to the consideration of the present Bill with as little delay as was consistent with its mature consideration, and with the due performance of the ditty which now devolved on them, of concurring with the other House in the settlement of this important question, which had been under discussion ever since he first entered Parliament, now nearly half a century ago. During that period the abuses and evils which had arisen from the Poor-laws, chiefly perhaps from their defective administration, had formed the subject of constant discussions and propositions; and now that a new system was submitted to Parliament, formed after the most careful deliberation, and which, if carried into effect, would, he believed, be attended with great advantage, he did trust that their Lordships, even if they should be obliged to extend their sittings to an unusal period, would apply themselves diligently to the consideration of the Bill, so that it might be passed into a law during the present Session. The remarks which the noble Earl had made relative to some of the provisions of the Bill were in his opinion rather premature; but to the principle of the Bill generally he did not understand that any objection was likely to be offered. Indeed, the evil arising from the present state of the Poor-laws was so generally admitted, and he believed not denied by the noble Earl himself, that he did not see how their Lordships could absolve themselves from the duty of making some attempt to remove or diminish it. It might be true, that that evil arose in a great degree from the mal-administration of the Poor-laws; and he was ready to admit that in parishes where they were well administered great improvements had been introduced. But he was sure, that when their Lordships looked to the state of the Poor-laws themselves, when they considered the different principles upon which those who had to administer those laws acted, and how difficult it was, to introduce improvements which had been effected in one parish into another where different notions and strong prejudices prevailed, they would not be indisposed to take into their deliberation a measure which was proposed with the view of putting an end to those inconveniences, to which the circumstances he had alluded gave rise. Considering the length of time the Report of the Commissioners and the Bill itself had been before the public, he did not think he was acting unreasonably in fixing the second reading of the Bill for as early a day as possible. After the second reading he should not object to some time intervening before carrying the Bill into the Committee, if any noble Lord should make a proposition to that effect.

The Marquess of Salisbury

wished the noble Earl to postpone the second reading to a later period than Monday next.

The Duke of Richmond

was inclined to agree with his noble friend, that it was right to take an early day for the second reading, else they would never get it into Committee. It should be recollected that the Bill did not go so far as the Commissioners proposed, and the second reading only pledged them to the principle of the Bill. He himself should not give his consent at once to every part of the Bill, but should wait till it got into Committee, and there form his opinion upon it, but he could not think that the consideration of it should be indefinitely put off. The second reading merely went to the principle of the Bill, and that principle was, that the Poor-laws should be amended, so that the honest and industrious labourer should be protected against maintaining the idle and dissolute. It was their duty to do all they could to reinstate the labourer in that situation in which he trusted to his honest exertions and industry, and did not apply on every occasion for parish relief.

The Marquess of Salisbury

said, that his object was not what the noble Duke seemed to suppose, namely, to postpone the Bill indefinitely. He wanted more time given for its consideration. There were a number of clauses that showed that the principle of the Bill was nothing more than to institute a Central Board of Commissioners, and to take the management of the poor out of the hands of their natural guardians, and to give it to these Commissioners. More was proposed to be done than was necessary for the advantage of the poor, and an immense patronage was to be created, which was not required.

The Lord Chancellor

said, that the chief point involved in this Bill was whether their Lordships should retain their properties or not. It was the opinion of the Commissioners, and in that opinion he concurred, that if this measure, or a measure similar to it, were not speedily adopted, the property of this country would shortly change hands. He did not think that this question ought to be made a subject of attack upon Ministers, or for divisions against the existing Government. He hoped the question would be taken into unbiassed and serious consideration by their Lordships, and that without delay. He trusted that it would not be allowed to stand over till next winter, or till any future Session of Parliament, nominally that their Lordships might have time to consider the subject, but actually in order that it might be made to answer the views of jobbers in vestries and local agitators in the country. If it were with a view that the question should be properly understood that the Motion for postponement was made, he should be the last man to oppose it, but as the delay was not necessary for that purpose, he hoped his noble friend would not consent to withdraw his Motion for the first reading of the Bill.

The Bishop of London

said, that al- though the Bill might not be calculated to alleviate all the evils of the present system of Poor-laws, yet the principle on which the measure was founded, undoubtedly was to reinstate, as far as possible, the labouring classes, in the condition which they enjoyed some few years ago. He was wrong, however, in saying a few years—for the object was, to bring them into the situation in which they were found about half a century ago. Such was the principle of the Bill as it left the hands of the Commissioners, and although it was altered in the other House of Parliament so as, in some manner, to impair its efficiency, yet he could not help thinking that the noble Earl had mistaken both the principles and machinery of the Bill. The Commissioners had recommended nothing but what had stood the test of experience, and which had been tried in large and important parishes, and been found to answer beyond the expectation of its most sanguine well-wishers. He, therefore, felt assured, that if the main principles of the Bill were adopted by their Lordships, they would do that which was consistent with the best principles of humanity, and the truest and soundest principles of economy.

Bill read a first time, and Tuesday was fixed for the second reading.