HL Deb 24 April 1837 vol 38 cc218-30
The Marquess of Clanricarde

in moving the second reading of the Bill for the Improvement of Lands in Ireland, said, that it would be only necessary for him to make a few remarks on the subject. All the Reports'of Commissioners were in favour of such a measure as the present. Several Bills having the same object in view had been proposed, but they had fallen to the ground in consequence of the provisions leaving too much to the landowners. It was provided by this measure, that Commissioners should be appointed by the Lord-lieutenant in Council, to examine and report how far, and where, works could be undertaken, and to decide to what extent the lands should be chargeable on account of them. He believed that it had been objected to this Bill, on the one hand, that it gave too much power to the Commissioners; but they were bound to give notice to the landowners of their operations, and also to apply to Parliament for a specific Bill to carry into effect those public works which they might think desirable. He thought, therefore, that no arbitrary power was given to the Commissioners. On the other hand, it had been said, that the Bill did not go far enough, but that the Commissioners ought to have power to proceed with the works themselves, without taking any previous step. But that, he thought, would be giving them too much power. This subject was very much connected with Poor Laws, inasmuch as it would have the effect of producing a demand for labour, and thereby afford the means of relief to the able-bodied poor. He was confident that if this Bill were passed into a law, several works of importance would be undertaken, and thus, while public improvements were made, considerable advantages would result to the poor. He believed that the Poor Law question was one of the most complicated and difficult questions ever submitted to Parliament; but it was undoubtedly one of those questions which might be discussed without reference to party politics. In fact, it might be considered, as a question that had been pretty well decided, for both the Government and Parliament had determined that some decisive steps should be taken for the amelioration of the condition of the poor in Ireland. He thought his Majesty's Ministers deserved credit for endeavouring to carry out the principle, but he believed that there were great difficulties connected with the application of the details of the Poor Law system to such a country as Ireland. The first step that had been taken on this subject was, to appoint a Commission of Inquiry into the condition of the poor of Ireland; and on looking at the names of those who composed that Commission, he thought the selection had been most admirably made. That Commission had given rise to the report which had been laid before Parliament, and he must say, that they were able, important, and excellent documents, particularly the third report. Those documents contained such a mass of valuable evidence as had never before been collected. In the third report he thought he could discern a great deal of the ability and discernment of a right hon. Friend of his, Mr. Blake, the Chief Remembrancer, who had joined a most comprehensive view of the state of that country with a zeal and energy, which, though not ostentatiously, was efficiently brought to bear upon the inquiry in which he was engaged. The next Step which had been taken with regard to the question of Poor Laws in Ireland was, he thought, not quite so wise as the first. It was decided last year, by the noble Secretary for Ireland, (Lord Morpeth), that a Poor Law Bill for Ireland should be introduced this year; but he thought that some little haste had been displayed in the manner in which the data on which that measure appeared to be founded, had been collected. On the 22nd of August last, the Secretary for the Home Department directed Mr. Nicholl, a gentleman of great ability, undoubtedly, to look over a great mass of documents, and to pursue an inquiry, with a view to ascertain how far it was advisable to apply the workhouse system to Ireland, Now, he thought the proposition which had been brought forward was not a conclusion such as ought to have been jumped to in haste. He had seen no reason why the workhouse system should be applied to Ireland. The Commissioners, in their third report, after recapitulating the great body of evidence which they had collected, said they could not recommend the application of the workhouse system. Then he should like to know how and why anybody else could recommend it. It was said that the system had worked well in England; but it should be recollected that no two countries were so much unlike, in reference to this question, as England and Ireland. He had no objection to the application of the principle of the English Poor Laws to Ireland, but when they came to details they were bound to consider the vast difference that existed between the local circumstances of the two countries. Lord John Russell had said, that the amount of distress in Ireland was much smaller than that in England in the time of Elizabeth. That might be very true, but in other respects he did not think the statistics of the two countries at all alike. Looking at the statement of Fletcher of Saltoun, 130 years ago, it would appear that there was a greater analogy between Scotland and England than between Ireland and England. The real state of Ireland was not to be collected from the report of Mr. Nicholl, who visited that country in the month of August, and therefore saw it at the most favourable season of the year, that being the time when the people were more generally employed, and their circumstances consequently better than at any other period of the year. To introduce the system, then, on the authority of the documents furnished by Mr. Nicholl would be most fallacious. The average per cent, of pauperism stated by Mr. Nicholl, was far below that given by the Commissioners in the Report, which he said was greatly exaggerated, but which was founded on more correct information than he was in a condition to obtain. The Commissioners had ascertained and given the exact population of Ireland, and they found that there was an immense body of labourers who for thirty weeks in the year were out of employ; they stated that there were upwards of 585,000 labourers, who had no lands out of employ during that period. It appeared from accurate cal- culation that in a given space of ground the proportion of Irish labourers to English was as five to two. Was not that an enormous proportion? But it was not equal to the difference in the amount of capital, which in England was generally fifteen times more than that employed in Ireland. The workhouse system, even if the whole of the workhouses proposed were erected, would not be sufficient to meet the poverty and destitution which prevailed in Ireland. And the effect of attempting to establish that system would be to check emigration and every other means that were calculated to benefit the poor of Ireland. For look at the corollary which would be naturally suggested to the minds of men, if a law should be passed, for relieving the poor in their own country. He knew it was said, that this plan was to be followed up by other acts for ameliorating the condition of the poor, and that emigration was still to be encouraged. He was glad to hear it, although he did not go quite so far as his right hon. Friend, Sir R. Wilmot Horton, who thought emigration was a panacea for poverty, and a permanent resource of relief to a superabundant population. He doubted, however, whether there was ever a case to which it could be more properly applied than that of Ireland; but the Government had begun at the wrong end, because if they held out to the people there, that the destitute were to be relieved by the state at home, they would say, why then should they go abroad? He thought the first step which should be taken should be to relieve the aged, infirm and helpless in Ireland, and he thought that might be done by extending the dispensary system. He would even go so far as to provide almshouses for some classes of the poor. And here he could not help touching on another point—he alluded to that, which in fashionable phrase was called the workhouse test. He would ask what right had they to apply the workhouse test to a poor creature who was reduced to a state of want by the loss of an eye, or a limb, or some faculty that rendered him incapable of labour? He contended that they had no right to apply the workhouse test to one whose state of destitution was such, that soul and body could scarcely be kept together. He said, that the first step to be taken was to provide relief for the infirm and the helpless, and next, to assist emigration which had been going on to a considerable degree in Ireland of late years. Let them do that, and suffer the Bill which he now brought before the attention of their Lordships' House to come into operation, and he thought that in two or three years they would perceive something like an efficient system of relief at work in Ireland. But he must say that their first step certainly was not to relieve the sturdy mendicants of Ireland, but to provide for the relief of the unfortunate and disabled poor. The noble Marquess concluded by moving the second reading of the Bill, which he thought would tend to obviate the mischiefs and dangers of the proposed system of Poor Laws for Ireland.

The Earl of Limerick

agreed with the noble Marquess in a great deal that had fallen from him. He recollected the time when the subject of Irish Poor-laws was first started in Ireland. He believed the plan to have emanated from a very respectable gentleman, but who was one of those visionaries in which this country abounded, who having a little property, and nothing to do, amused themselves with speculations and projects of various kinds. Had not the former laws proved extremely mischievous? And had they not been driven to the necessity of passing laws of considerable severity to mitigate the evils that had arisen from them? And now what proposition had been brought forward? and why had it been started? The Minister for Ireland—and here he begged to say that he wished to abstain from all party feeling—the Minister for Ireland, knowing that a certain measure had been of a most dangerous nature, promised to bring in a similar one for Ireland. A commission was instituted, and that commission made its report; but that report was not deemed satisfactory, and another agent must be sent out to Ireland for the purpose of a fresh inquiry. Who was directed to resort thither? A gentleman from England, as he understood, of great ability, but perfectly ignorant of Ireland. However well informed men might be on other subjects, the ignorance that prevailed in this country with respect to Ireland was excessive. His opinion of the proposed Poor-laws for Ireland was, that it would not relieve the people of Ireland; but that, if carried into effect, it would in two years pauperise the whole of Ireland. Besides, the people of Ireland did not call for these Poor-laws. It was true that in some towns it might form a very pretty subject for discussion; but, generally speaking, there was no demand on the part of the people of that country for the introduction of Poor-laws. Being interested in the prosperity of Ireland, and being convinced that if the step proposed for establishing Poor-laws in Ireland were once taken it could never be retraced, and believing that some better means must be adopted to relieve the poor of that country, he should support the views of his noble Friend, and he hoped that what had fallen from him would have its due weight with the House.

The Earl of Devon

thought this an inconvenient time for going into a lengthened discussion on the subject of this Bill; but he thought the House was under a particular obligation to his noble Friend for having brought it forward. He would not say that he anticipated very extensive benefits from the Bill, but he thought it a link in the chain of public improvement in Ireland, and that it might be productive of great good in affording employment to the people. He could not, however, agree with his noble Friend in his view of the proposed system of Poor-laws for Ireland, as being the mere idle speculation of persons who had nothing else to do. But as it was a subject of great importance as well as difficulty, he thought those who had drawn attention to it were deserving of the thanks of the country. He was quite sure that the measure of his noble Friend would be looked at without any reference to party feeling; and he was equally sure that persons of all parties must feel the necessity of devising some scheme for reducing that mass of poverty which was known to exist in Ireland. He concurred in a good deal that had fallen from the noble Marquess in reference to the report; but, able as it was, it bore the marks of haste, and indications that Ireland was not sufficiently known to the gentlemen who made it. He had been a supporter of the amended Poor-law for England, and he must say that he believed the workhouse system would operate well in Ireland. However, he thought that now the subject was brought under the notice of Parliament it ought to be fully discussed, and he was satisfied that some alterations must be made in the details of the measure which had been introduced into the other House. It was true that the subject was surrounded with difficul- ties, but that ought not to deter them from entering on it with an intention of carrying some efficient and beneficial measure.

The Earl of Wicklow

said, that it was well, while great measures were pending in the other House, for their Lordships to express their opinions on them, because they did not come before that House in a regular shape until a late period in the Session, when there was but little time left to discuss the principles of them, and barely enough to deal with the details. The Government, he conceived, had acted judiciously in introducing a measure of Poor-laws for Ireland. It was one of the utmost importance, and one, therefore, which called for the fullest and most deliberate consideration. It had been unanimously received in the other House of Parliament, it was desired by the country, and all seemed to think, both in this country as well as in Ireland, that some legislative provision should be made. He quite agreed with his noble Friend when he stated that his Majesty's Government, having determined to introduce a measure of the kind, had acted judiciously in appointing Commissioners of inquiry—nay, he would go further, and say that the gentlemen composing that commission were clever and well-informed men, and that they had paid the utmost attention to the subject on which they had been deliberating for the space of two years. He would admit, also, that his Majesty's Government had acted judiciously in having sent an experienced gentleman to that country to investigate the circumstances connected with the subject still further; but when he saw the discrepancies which existed between that gentleman's report and the report of the Commissioners, he was strongly of the opinion expressed by his noble Friend opposite, that his Majesty's Ministers, in introducing a Bill founded exclusively upon the report of that gentleman, had acted both hastily and injudiciously. He thought it would have been better and more prudent on the part of his Majesty's Ministers had they taken more time for consideration before they had introduced a Bill so entirely at variance with the report of their own Commissioners. This difference was particularly striking in the estimated expense of building and supporting the poor-houses, and in the probable number of persons it would be necessary to relieve. Under these circumstances he really conceived it to have been the duty of the Government to make still further inquiry before they had framed such a Bill as that which had been introduced in the other House of Parliament. If, according to that measure, destitution were to be made the only test for relief, it would be impossible, in a country such as Ireland, to refuse with justice to carry it to the full extent of the destitution that might arise. Then, again, instead of its preventing the able-bodied poor from coming to this country, he thought it would have the opposite effect. However, taking into account the clamour that would be made in Ireland in favour of it, and the odium that would attach to any person who might oppose it, he had determined to give his support to any measure for the relief of the poor of that country which should be sent up to them from the other House of Parliament. He certainly would not take upon himself the responsibility of throwing obstacles in the way of any measure intended and professed by his Majesty's Ministers to be beneficial to the country. With regard to the Bill then under the consideration of their Lordships' House, he confessed he was disposed to view it favourably, and for this reason—that it appeared to him to have been framed very much upon the principles recommended by the Poor-law Commissioners. The only thing he lamented in connexion with it was, that it had been proposed upon the responsibility of an individual, instead of having been brought forward on the authority and responsibility of his Majesty's Ministers, the more especially as it was a measure conferring large powers of taxation. To the principle of the Bill he certainly had no objection, and would leave the consideration of the details for Committee. Regarding the question of Poor-laws for Ireland, every one whom he had consulted on the subject seemed to him to be agreed on these two points—that in the present state of that country the proposed system of poor-houses would neither be suitable nor beneficial, and that relief should not in the first instance be extended to the able-bodied poor.

The Earl of Roden

did not object to the principle of the measure of which the noble Marquess had moved the second reading, but with regard to the more interesting and important one of Poor-laws —indeed, he might say the most import- ant that his Majesty's Ministers had introduced—he was anxious to say one or two words, because, as a constant resident in Ireland for many years, he had had some grounds for forming the opinion at which he had arrived on the subject. The noble Marquess had very forcibly pointed out and commented on the difficulties which were connected with it, but in the conclusions to which the noble Marquess had come he could not altogether agree. That a measure of Poor-laws was essentially necessary as a first step towards the amelioration of the country, the scene of misery and wretchedness of which he had been an eye-witness in Ireland, bore in his mind appalling evidence of the fact. When he beheld those scenes he could not avoid wishing that some provision for the poor were established by the law of the land. Of the difficulties connected with the subject he was fully aware, and he had only to hope that those who had taken upon them the responsibility of introducing a measure of relief would take care that it should be well sifted and considered, in order to render it applicable, if possible, to the existing state and circumstances of the country.

Lord Brougham

said, that to this most important, most difficult, and, he would add, most delicate of questions—poor laws for Ireland — they were in some degree committed. The preliminary question had already been decided; and it was therefore too late to ask the question, should there or should there not be a Poor-law for Ireland? After the best reflection he was capable of giving it, he should certainly answer in the affirmative—at least to a certain extent, he would not say how far. There were some whose opinions were worthy of respect, and who were personally acquainted with the state of Ireland, who had strong doubts upon the preliminary question; while others were disposed to negative it altogether. But he was also aware of this—that what had passed, elsewhere not only in this but last Session of Parliament, precluded the possibility of those persons exercising their judgment upon that point one way or the other. He did not see the use, however, of keeping separate the two points, "shall we or shall we not have a measure introduced," and secondly, "what shall that measure be?" He did not think there should be an answer given to the first until they saw their way to an answer upon the second of these questions. He did not think they could fairly or consistently come to a resolution that there ought to be a Poor-law introduced into Ireland without their having first satisfied themselves and made up their minds what that measure should be. He had, therefore, felt convinced, when he saw, that last Session of Parliament the chief Secretary for Ireland announced that a Bill on the subject would be introduced this Session —he had taken it for granted that his Majesty's Ministers had investigated the subject, had made up their minds upon it, and would have been able to show what was the nature and principle of the measure which they intended to introduce with a view to remedy those grievous and crying evils of which Ireland had to complain. He was, however, surprised to find, that the date of their order for a commission of inquiry was last November, which in a case like this was tantamount to committing the Government to the first question before they had arrived at the second. On the first, therefore, they were no longer at liberty to exercise their discretion. There was an illustration of what he said in the speech of the noble Earl opposite, who said he was not a free agent in this matter — that he should support that plan if he could get no other. Now, they should, in his opinion, come to the discussion of the question as free and unfettered as possible. He could not but see a very material difference between the circumstances of the two countries respecting the applicability of what was called the workhouse system. In England there were labourers, but experience had shown that there were work and wages for them if they wished to avail themselves of them; but in Ireland, he grieved to say, according to the first Commissioner's Report, there seemed to be a want of work, and a deficiency of reward for it when it was to be had. The unhappy state of the working classes formed the most heartrending picture that language could paint. It appeared that breaches of the peace were often likely to arise from the fact of strangers coming to a village or town where the labourers were scarcely able to earn the smallest pittance from those who had work to give them, and attempting to procure employment. The Report to which he alluded also staled, that in many instances the Irish labourers had declared they would be content if they could have 6d. a-day secured to them all the year round. He did not think, therefore, that the workhouse test was likely to be attended in a country where such a state of things existed with the same beneficial effects as in England. He would support the Bill introduced by the noble Marquess and every other Bill likely to attract capital to Ireland, because he conceived such measures would be calculated to go directly to the root of the evil. With regard to emigration, he thought it should be encouraged by every safe and possible means. He looked upon it as a sovereign remedy, and one, therefore, that ought to be kept asunder from that of Poor-laws. He feared they were beginning at the wrong end. Their measure of relief should only extend to the lame and impotent, while the plan of emigration might be promoted for the advantage of the able-bodied. He apprehended that the introduction of a measure of a different nature would create exaggerated hopes and expectations of the right to relief, and of effectual relief being given from those poor-houses, a circumstance which would considerably mar their plan of emigration.

Viscount Melbourne

did not regret, that the noble Marquess had taken that opportunity of introducing the question of Poor-laws, for he agreed with the noble Earl, that during the progress of measures through the other House of Parliament it was well that their Lordships should express an opinion on them. He could assure every noble Lord who had spoken that all the remarks they had made, and all the difficulties they had suggested, should receive from his Majesty's Government that ample and serious consideration which their importance entitled them to. The noble and learned Lord had adverted to what had taken place last August, when the noble Lord the Secretary for Ireland stated, that the present measure of Poor-laws would be introduced this Session; and it had been said, that it was a very hasty measure on the part of Government, that they had not made up their minds upon the subject, and that the commission bore date subsequently to the expressed intention of Government to bring forward that measure; but the noble and learned Lord should recollect that the intimation made last year by his noble Friend in the other House was not the first intimation that had been given on the subject; on the contrary, it had been mentioned in the Speech from the Throne at the commencement of the Session 1836, had been responded to in the address, and they had been bound long before that even to introduce the measure. They had founded the general principles of the measure on the Report of the Commissioners, but they had thought it wise in addition to have the opinion of a person with regard to those general principles who, speaking with all respect for the Commissioners, from the station he held in this country, and from the occupation in which he had been engaged—that of carrying into effect the English measure—was likely to assist them in coming to a proper conclusion. He would not now go into the details of the measure; but objections having been made to its connexion with a system of emigration, he would observe, that it did not appear to him to be inconsistent with giving relief at home. That was not a check to emigration in this country, which went on to a considerable extent, notwithstanding that there was a right to relief already established for every member of the community who might stand in need of it. He quite agreed with every noble Lord who had spoken as to the difficulties of the question; but he conceived the noble Earl opposite rather exaggerated its importance when he said it was the most important measure which had been introduced by his Majesty's Ministers. It had been said, that the workhouse system was not applicable to Ireland, in consequence of the great amount of destitution which it was probable it would be necessary to provide a remedy for. Now, upon that point, he would remind his noble and learned Friend that some objections had been taken respecting those counties in England in which poverty prevailed to an extreme degree. It had been said, that the number of paupers was too great, and that it was impossible they could find employment for them; but somehow or other it had, been found; and persons who had opposed the system which had been applied to England on those grounds had said, that since it had been carried into effect in Sussex, Kent, and Hampshire, labour and wages had been found in much greater abundance in those places. He did not mean to say, that the case of Ireland was not much more appalling, and that this effect could not be relied upon to the same extent; but he conceived the measure could be worked out in some degree, and that perhaps when they came to grapple with its difficulties they would not find them of so formidable a character as from the first view of the case they were inclined to imagine. He perfectly agreed with noble Lords on both sides of the House, that the question was one which they ought to approach without any party feeling whatsoever, and he could in conclusion assure them that there was no other wish on the part of the Government than to shape and consider the measure so as to render it practically beneficial to the country.

Bill read a second time.

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