HL Deb 27 June 1837 vol 38 cc1630-60
Earl Stanhope

said, after an absence of some years from that House, an absence not occasioned either by indolence or by inattention to public measures, he now came forward to Parliament, not, he owned, without some apprehension, to present a most important petition. Having observed the concurrence of men who differed greatly in their political opinions—having observed them to concur with reference to measures that were of the most pernicious tendency—having observed them give their support to measures which had produced all the difficulties and dangers which now beset the country, and, as there appeared no hope that Parliament would redress the grievances complained of—as he saw no reasonable expectation that any proposition for that purpose would be favourably received, or would even be impartially considered, he thought it useless, and worse than useless, to attend Parliament any longer. He preferred leaving the business of legislation to those who had the entire, undivided, and undoubted responsi- bility of all those measures that had produced the misery and confusion which now prevailed in the country. It would have been useless for him to have attempted anything, because he well knew that he should not have received any sufficient support. Such was the disgust which he felt at the delusion and party spirit that prevailed—such were the feelings of despondency with which he then viewed, and with which he still continued to contemplate, the future prospects of the country, that he would not have consented to return to that House had he not been desired to do so by large bodies of his countrymen, whose interests he was anxious to defend, and whose rights he was determined to support. It was peculiarly his duty to do so, and to act in that House as the representative of the labouring classes, for they were not represented in the House of Commons. He considered it to be a distinguished honour to be intrusted with a petition from the West Riding of the county of York, a district with which he was altogether unconnected, and which he had not visited for thirty years. The petition came from a meeting which was unexampled for the numbers who attended it, and certainly was unequalled in its political tendency. He understood that not less than 250,000 individuals attended that meeting; and according to the opinion of some military persons (and they were, of course, the most competent to judge) that meeting consisted of nearly 300,000 persons. All of that immense mass were actuated by the most perfect unanimity, and they preserved the utmost order and regularity in all their proceedings. They evinced great judgment and discretion in abstaining (although there was great inducement for them to act otherwise) from adopting or discussing any matter not immediately connected with the subject brought before them. But the meeting was not important merely from the immense numbers that attended it, nor even with reference to the subject that was brought forward, coming home, as it did, to the business and bosoms of all. But that meeting derived its interests from the spirit which was manifested by all—it derived its interest from other circumstances also to which he wished to call their Lordships' attention. He would read an extract from a letter which he had received, and which was written immediately after the conclusion, of the meeting. The writer there said, "We have shown them what we can do peaceably: but we shall meet no more in that way—when we meet again we shall present a different aspect." This was the only petition which had been sent from any meeting of the West Riding of the county of York, and he could assure their Lordships that he spoke with all the sincerity of his heart when he said, that though he felt it to be his duty to present and to support this petition, he regretted that it had not devolved on some person whose abilities were more equal to the task than his. It was his intention to confine himself to such remarks upon general principles as the present state of the law and the present state of the population of the country appeared to demand. Resolved to abide by the rule which he thus prescribed to himself, he should abstain from bringing forward any individual cases, though he could produce innumerable instances, which could be substantiated upon oath, to show the grievous cruelties, the flagrant injustice, the intolerable oppression, that had been practised under the so called Poor-law Amendment Act, and in all human probability would continue to be practised under it, so long as that statute remained in force. Reserving, then, to himself the right at any future time of entering into the whole or any part of that most important and extensive subject, he would on the present occasion say nothing with respect to one of the worst, perhaps the most immoral, enactment of the whole measure; neither should he then say anything of the insufficient medical relief which the law allowed; he should for the present leave that to remain the subject of inquiry with the Committee of the House of Commons now sitting—a Committee whose inquiries would not, he apprehended lead to a Report that would prove satisfactory to any party. That Committee, as their Lordships must be aware, had been appointed to inquire into—what? the principle upon which the measure was founded? No such thing, but into the manner in which the law had been administered. They were not authorized to institute any inquiries of any sort or description into the principle of that most odious and oppressive law. Of what value, then, could the report of such a Committee prove?—of what possible weight or value could the verdict of a packed jury prove under any circumstances?—of what authority or influence could be the pro- ceedings of any court in which four-fifths of the jury were known to be favourable to one view of the case? The Report of that Committee would be drawn up by those who must be regarded in the light of a packed jury, and who in addition to their known prejudices were resolved to take their evidence, not from the parties aggrieved, but from those new viceroys who had been invested with despotic power; their testimony and that of their assistant-commissioners formed the evidence that was received. If the tools, the instruments of the Commissioners, were to be the witnesses, what show even of justice could be maintained? What could be hoped from such an inquiry, if that were the course pursued, instead of allowing his hon. Friend, who had so well deserved the gratitude of the country for the humanity and the patriotism with which he devoted himself to the cause of the poor, to bring forward evidence for the purpose of substantiating the statements he had made? Instead of that, the Committee directed their inquiries to other matters, which, so far from bearing upon, were perfectly distinct from the subject matter of his statements. The object of the Committee ought to have been to arrive at general results, whereas, judging from the coarse they had taken, it would appear that their purpose was to exhaust the patience and faculties of all concerned, and to bring the inquiry to a premature conclusion. Such a specimen of the collective wisdom—

The Earl of Radnor

rose to order, observing that it would be clearly a breach of the courtesy which one branch of the Legislature owed to another, thus to discuss proceedings of which they possessed no official knowledge. Nothing could be more irregular than canvassing the proceedings of the House of Commons.

Earl Stanhope

was perfectly in order. The proceedings of the Committee were on the table of the House. [The Earl of Radnor denied this.] He wondered how the noble Earl could be ignorant of the substance of that evidence. Had he not read the newspapers?—was he not aware that there were serious debates both in the Committee and in the House of Commons itself as to the publication of the evidence from day to day? But as he said at the outset, it formed no part of his intention to occupy the time of the House with mere matters of detail; he should rather proceed, as in the first instance he undertook to do, with adverting to broad and general principles. The first great principle of the Act was the establishment of a triumvirate, or rather dictatorship, unknown to the constitution of England, and inconsistent with public liberty. It was a power more formidable than had ever been exercised in this country—a power as unjust and far more oppressive than that of the Star Chamber. The power of which he spoke was conferred by the 15th clause of the Act, which gave to the Commissioners authority to make regulations which were to be binding upon his Majesty's subjects, and which it would be a misdemeanour to infringe. Then a subsequent clause gave to the Commissioners the power of forming unions with limitation as to territorial extent, and authority, not only to create new, but to dissolve existing, unions. Thus was a power conferred upon the Board of enforcing, nay of enacting, rules and regulations, of which Parliament not only had no knowledge, but which were not even in existence at the passing of the Act. Now, what conferred upon Parliament the right to delegate its own power to any body of men whatever? He was prepared to maintain, that it was not competent to Parliament to invest another authority with the power of forming rules and regulations which were to have the force and effect of the statutes of the realm. On this ground, then, he should say, that an Act of Parliament conferring these powers was so inconsistent with the acknowledged principles of the constitution, that he did not hesitate to describe it as illegal, as invalid, and as destitute of any claim to obedience. Our ancestors had, with unexampled constancy and courage, resisted their lawful sovereign in his attempts at the establishment of arbitrary power, and he yet trusted that a spirit would arise amongst us which would save their posterity from the disgrace of submitting to the despotism of an authority the least qualified to be made the depository of any power. He hoped that Englishmen would be awakened thoroughly to a sense of the evils, the injustice, the extreme cruelty, of permitting such a power to be exercised over any class of the community, but, most of all, over the working classes, who, far beyond others, were entitled to the protection, and even the favour, of Parliament. His noble and learned Friend behind him (Lord Wynford) had, as their Lordships must recollect, taken an active part in the proceedings of that House on the subject of the Poor-law Amendment Act, as it was called, and his strong opposition to the measure must also be fully recollected. On one occasion he spoke of it in these words:—"It is impossible to contemplate a move complete system of grinding slavery than this Bill will subject the poor of this country to. They must eat, drink, sit, sleep, or work at the bidding of the Commissioners. They will hardly be permitted to breathe the air, or enjoy the light, without their permission." Again, his noble and learned Friend said, "Pass this Bill, and the poor of this country will become more complete slaves than were the villeins who formerly existed in England, or than the slaves in the West Indies. The poor have no representatives, they look to your Lordships for protection. It is our first and highest duty to defend them against oppression and wrong. Your Lordships' dignity, and power, and influence in the country depend on the poor being satisfied that you faithfully and vigilantly discharge this duty." This Bill, as the House must remember, was introduced, and supported, and carried by an Administration professing Whig principles, and professing, also, the most tender regard for the liberties of the people. Strange to say, it was at the same time supported by those who professed Conservative principles, and this would appear to him one of the roost extraordinary and unaccountable occurrences that had ever taken place, if he did not know that in political life the professions made were the direct contrary of the conduct pursued, and he did not scruple to say, that the conduct pursued on this occasion was as grievous and oppressive as could possibly be imagined; it was as great an act of tyranny as if an Administration succeeded in inducing a complying House of Commons to abolish the Habeas Corpus Act, for such abolition would not be more unjust, it would certainly be far less injurious, than the arbitrary rule of the Commissioners over the poor and unprotected. It was an Act under which no labouring man could feel himself safe, whatever might be his industry, his frugality, or his good conduct. His being reduced to destitution was frequently, he might add most frequently, no fault of his. A change in the circumstances of the country putting an end to the demand for his labour, the bankruptcy of his employer, an endless variety of circumstances, over which he could have no control, might reduce him to the condition of a pauper, and subject him to the tender mercies of the Commissioners. There were many amongst the supporters of the Act who often raised their voices in praise of the advantages of self-government, but yet that measure proceeded upon a principle directly the reverse, for it divested the rate-payer of any authority in the expenditure of the money which he himself contributed to the maintenance of the poor, and, proceeding upon a stern principle of centralization, contrived that all power should be taken away from those, who by means of local and personal knowledge were likely to exercise that power in a manner the most advantageous to the public at large, as well as to the poor. So far from the rate-payers possessing a shadow of power or jurisdiction, no human being had the least authority or control excepting those who derived it from the Commissioners or their subordinates, and in order to render this power as complete as possible, the 46th section of the Act gave to the Commissioners the fullest possible power to appoint and dismiss all paid officers. He need hardly remind their Lordships that at all times the workhouse system was considered one of extreme privation, and yet the promoters of the measure to which he was referring appeared to have thought that the purpose of carrying that measure was advanced by representing the old workhouses as scenes of luxurious enjoyment, where the paupers passed their time in case and indolence; but those who made those assertions, appeared to forget that in those days the parishes taxed themselves. Now, though it was perfectly true, that the money was not always well expended, it would be absurd to suppose that the rate-payers imposed undue burthens on themselves, or consented to the payment of more money than was necessary. Surely, if the workhouses had been such luxurious residences as they were represented, the doors of the overseers would have been thronged with applicants demanding to be admitted to all the advantages which those establishments afforded; but what was the fact?—why, at no assignable period did there exist the least ground for supposing that the people had ever regarded those workhouses otherwise than with the utmost repugnance, and as the worst possible place to which they could have recourse. They had frequently been told, that the situation of a pauper in a workhouse was, and ought to be, worse than that of an independent labourer. On that point, he should observe, that no one who knew anything of the labouring population of this country would suspect any man of being unwilling to work unless he was incapable, and he did not hesitate to affirm, that a man unable to work possessed an undoubted right to those comforts, at the expense of the public, in a workhouse which he might have enjoyed in his own dwelling. On the subject of the alleged idleness of paupers, he should add this remark, that the offence was of rare occurrence, that the law of Elizabeth was sufficient for its punishment, and, if duly enforced for its prevention; it consigned paupers convicted of idleness to the common gaol. From his own experience of the humble classes of this country, he should say, that idleness amongst them was a fault of very rare occurrence, and that the whole number of idlers in England was very small. He had been in the habit of employing labourers for upwards of twenty years, and within that period the number he employed was very considerable. No doubt he found great difference as to the skill possessed by different individuals, but in no instance had he been under the necessity of discharging a labourer on the ground of idleness. Speaking generally of the workmen whom he employed, he should say that they received employment gratefully, and as a gift for which they could render no equivalent; on this point, he begged to set his own experience against that of Dr. Kay, as well as against that of Mr. Tuffnel, the viceroy of Kent. Dr. Kay had very distinctly and very candidly acknowledged that the purpose of those concerned in the management of workhouses had been to render them as like prisons, and in every respect to make them as uncomfortable, as possible. That appeared to be a frank avowal, but yet it fell short of the fact, for the workhouses were inferior to the prisons provided for the confinement of malefactors. A right rev. Prelate, whom he then saw in his place, had asked on a former occasion, by what right were those unfortunate paupers confined within workhouses, and prevented from attending divine worship on Sundays? The question had been fairly and pertinently put, yet without sufficient comprehensiveness—Why limit the inquiry to Sunday, why not at once ask, as he did, "By what right do you confine them on any day of the week?" He did not overlook the fact, that there was an allegation to the effect that no confinement did prevail; that the condition of the paupers remaining in the workhouse was, that they should not quit its walls until they were in a condition to provide for themselves. So it was; and then they were to choose between confinement on the one hand, and death by starvation on the other. Was any noble Lord, he would ask, prepared to say that Parliament possessed the right of offering to the poor such an alternative? What right had they to say to a man accused of no crime—"You must be a prisoner, or you must starve." Such a mode of dealing with our fellow subjects was not only not according to law, but clearly in opposition to every principle of justice; and he should repeat that the act was illegal and invalid, for amongst its other enormities, it went to create and aggravate the very evils it proposed to remedy. Under it a man's property was, he would suppose, seized and sold—he had no longer house or home—he could not avail himself of any employment that might offer, and then the Commissioners sent him to one of their new prisons, because he proved unable to accomplish the impossible task of providing for his own subsistence. In that prison he must remain for life, or become burthen some, or perhaps dangerous, to the community. The effect of the law had been that the country swarmed with vagrants, and, considering their condition, it did them great credit that they had not yet become housebreakers or highway robbers. The condition of the labourers of England was fast approaching that of Ireland, where, according to the doctrines of the political economists, the most perfect system prevailed—where no one had a right to claim relief, where all were allowed to go about the country and obtain such casual assistance as fortune threw in their way. Could it be any wonder, then, if crime became frequent when no greater penalty attached to its commission than fell upon those who were accused of no offence? Never yet had there existed a country capable of enjoying happiness under such a state of things; never yet had he heard of a community in which poverty was treated as a crime, in which every principle of humanity was trampled under foot, or in which the divine precepts so strenuously enjoining charity were set at nought. The title of the Act described it as one for "the Amendment and better administration of the laws relating to the poor in England and Wales." It ought to have had for its title "a Bill for abolishing all relief for the poor of England and Wales," for the measure as it stood "gave the word of promise to the ear and broke it to the sense." The principle of the former Poor-law did not inflict imprisonment, but afforded protection; it gave the right to employment or relief, but the existing law gave neither. In that, however, it had not even the merit of originality, for so far back as the year 1604, a project of a similar law was under consideration, upon which occasion it was that Serjeant Snigg said, he thought too highly of Parliament to suppose it capable of giving its sanction to any such proposition. Had he lived to have any knowledge of the Reformed House of Commons of 1834, he would have arrived at a very different conclusion. He would have seen one of the inherent rights of civil society grossly and unblushingly invaded; for nothing could be more unquestionable than the right of every man to subsistence; it was one of those natural and eternal rights of which no Parliament possessed the authority to deprive him—it was one which no Parliament could invalidate or interfere with. Every man had a natural right to the protection of his person and his property; he had a right to subsistence, without which those other rights would be of no value. His labour was the only property of the poor man, and to that his right was beyond question or dispute, and how total was the disregard of it which that Act involved, so deteriorated was the only property of the poor man in its value that in some parts of the country he was now obliged to work for 2s. 6d. a-week. By means of what was called free trade, and by that tremendous edict of confiscation known by the name of Peel's Bill, a stagnation had been produced in many branches of manufacture, which reduced the labourer to the lowest extremity of distress. The unlimited use of machinery had brought the handloom weaver from 5s. 6d. a-week to a much lower rate of wages. On what principle of justice could such evils be inflicted by any Legis- lature, as those of depriving a man of employment, of a just remuneration for his labour, and then of imprisoning him because he could not accomplish that which in itself was impossible? Had the House of Commons, which did not represent the labouring classes, any such right? The House of Commons, he would repeat, did not speak the sentiments of those classes—did not represent their wants or their wishes. Could such a House abrogate the just claims of such a body of men? and if Parliament possessed no such right, he should once again say, that the act was illegal, was invalid, and could not claim the obedience of the community. It was the first and highest duly of their Lordships to defend the poor against the oppression and fraud of others. Let it not be forgotten that all the tumultuous proceedings which took place in November 1830, arose from the distress which then prevailed throughout the country, and that the cry which was then raised was for more employment and for higher wages, and not, as was unduly represented, for a Reform in Parliament. With regard to the question of a Reform in Parliament, their Lordships might recollect that in 1832 he had stated, that if the grievances of the country were not redressed, the argument in favour of a Reform in Parliament would become unanswerable. He would now again warn their Lordships that if they persevered in the present measure relating to the Poor-law, Universal Suffrage would become inevitable. It was said not long ago by a person who was a member of the Cabinet, and who was a zealous Reformer, "Without Peel's Bill we never should have carried the Reform Act." Nothing could be more true than this statement, for he was sure that without the distress that prevailed in the country at the time and the discontent which accompanied it, the people of this country would never have consented to so entire a change in the constitution of the House of Commons. But let them continue this measure of a new Poor-law, and he had no doubt that some of those who were disposed to favour what were called organic changes, and also regarded the new Poor-law with satisfaction, would also say, "Without a New Poor-law we never should have carried Universal Suffrage." What was the language which had been held to himself by a farmer of great intelligence, and distinguished by his attachment to what were called Conservative opinions? He said in a letter lately addressed to him, "If this New Poor-law be not repealed, we shall all wish for Universal Suffrage. His own opinion had always been that a real and equal representation would be most salutary to the country, but Universal Suffrage would give to a numerical majority that exclusive power which could not be exercised without an infliction of gross injustice on every class of the community. There was, however, this great consolation, that in the event of a general election, which could not now be deferred nor averted, when an appeal must be made to the country, the people in all the districts of the kingdom would loudly and strongly express their sentiments on this question, and that they would declare their full concurrence in the language of the petition, "that they considered any Government, whether Whig, Tory, or Radical, which adopts the Poor-law Amendment Act, is unworthy of the confidence and support of the people of this country." He must say, that if it had been intended to forward that most dangerous and destructive of all projects, the partition of property, no means could have been devised for that purpose more effectual than the New Poor-law. The design of effecting that partition had been openly proclaimed, and this New Poor-law would assure its success. There was no man who had a heart within his bosom who could enjoy the luxuries which his station could command, when those around him wanted not only the comforts but the necessaries of life. There was no man who possessed the ordinary share of intelligence who was not aware that his property must be injured when the property of the labouring classes prevented them from consuming to the same extent as before the articles in which his property consisted. There was no man who had a decent understanding who could consider his property secure when he was surrounded by men in a state of destitution and discontent, and whom want might drive to despair. Unless the property of the poor man in his labour was held sacred and inviolable, it was idle to expect that the property of the rich man would be respected. Their Lordships enjoyed their estates, and deservedly, by virtue of title-deeds and muniments which evidenced their right to possess them, but the rights of the poor man were recognised by a title as ancient—by the statute of Elizabeth, as well as natural right. He would therefore warn their Lordships against continuing a system which, by destroying the security of property might undermine every foundation of civilized society. It was admitted on all hands that this law required very considerable amendments, and he allowed that such amendments might be made if the Act itself were founded on just principles; but a law like the present, which was founded on principles so unconstitutional and unjust, which violated the rights and destroyed the security of property—a law like that could not be amended and must be entirely repealed. Such was also the prayer of this petition, which did not ask for an exemption from the operation of the law, but most earnestly requested its immediate and entire repeal. He trusted, that in the course of this Session, which would probably not be of very long continuance, the House might be informed by some Minister of the Crown whether it was or was not intended to carry this act into execution in the manufacturing districts? He now declared, that if the Government attempted to carry it into execution in those districts, they would do it at their peril. He did not mean to say that they would do it at the peril of their individual character as a Government, but at the peril of the public peace, at the peril of the property, at the peril of all the institutions of the country. It had been said by the noble and learned Lord opposite, In one of those splendid and really Ciceronian orations which he had delivered at the bar of that House, that if their Lordships lost the affections of the people of this country they would fade and wither like a blossom that had been plucked from the tree. Let their Lordships preserve the respect and retain the affections of the people, and they need not apprehend the consequences of a collision, as it was called, with any other House of Parliament. But if they lost those affections, as they undoubtedly would if they continued a measure which led to oppression and injustice—if they lost that respect and affection, their doom was fixed, their days were numbered, and the destruction of that House was inevitable. He would fain add to what he had already said his own expostulations on this subject with their Lordships, did he not know from experience that his opinions had no weight in that House. Upon this occasion, however, what he might say might perhaps be considered as entitled to some consideration, as it was not only the expression of his own individual opinion, but that of immense numbers of his poorer fellow subjects, by whose support and confidence he was honoured, and of whose interests he considered himself to be the representative in that House. He had now stated all that he considered it necessary to say at present upon the subject, and, he should move that the petition do lie on the table. The noble Earl concluded by presenting the petition which was signed by the chairman, Mr. Stocks, on behalf of the meeting.

The Earl of Harewood

might be expected, perhaps, as having some connexion with the district from which the petition proceeded, to state the reasons which induced him to follow the course which he had thought fit to pursue in reference to the meeting at which the petition was agreed upon. Before he left the country a deputation had waited upon him, and requested him, as Lord-lieutenant, to call that very meeting. He declined, however, to call the meeting, and he would state why. If there had been any question as to proceedings which were in progress, and had not yet become law, it would have been his duty, as Lord-lieutenant, to consider the reasons urged for convening such an assembly, and to have acted afterwards as he had thought most fitting. But several circumstances had taken place which did not allow him to take that course. In some instances the Commissioners had gone into towns for the purpose of assisting in carrying the law into operation, and resistance had been made to them, and in some cases the Commissioners had been obliged to leave the town. When an application, therefore, had been made to him to call a meeting, which would declare their sympathy with this out-of-door expression of opinion, he felt that if he complied with the requisition, he should be placing himself at the head of an assemblage avowing its wish to repeal a law when the law itself had been in some degree resisted. Under these circumstances he refused to call the meeting, but he had the satisfaction of stating, at the same time, that the parties to whom he communicated his refusal ac- quiesced both individually and collectively in the propriety of the course which he had thought it his duty to pursue. He was not going to enter into the merits of the Poor-law Bill, but after what had been stated with respect to the immense bodies of men who were assembled on the occasion referred to, and with respect to the deep interest which they took in the proceedings of the day, he felt bound to say that all this was strictly true. He was not surprised at the interest which these large masses took in the matter, because for weeks and weeks before this meeting was held great pains had been taken to impress upon their minds a very strong feeling against the measure. He was not saying this in support of the Poor-law Bill, but in support of the cause of truth, and he must also state that the conduct of those who were assembled was peaceable and quiet in the highest degree. He must also observe, that it was true that the law was most hateful to the inhabitants of the West Riding, but then he must state why it was so. The system of management of the poor in the West Riding of Yorkshire was excellent. Nothing could be more complete, and they had a feeling that the new law would push out a system which they considered to be working well, and introduce an arbitrary and oppressive system in its stead. This was the feeling which was at the bottom of the opposition offered by the West Riding to the measure. It was true that they objected to its operation as a Poor-law, but they also objected to the management of the poor being taken out of their own hands. With respect to the manufacturing part of the country, he should like to see, and he thought there must be some alteration made in the application of this law to those districts. He was sure, indeed, that as it stood it could not be carried into effect. Now with regard to such a place as Hull. Hull was an immensely large parish, and what were the Commissioners about to do? Why, they were adding thirty-three parishes to this parish, which was as large already as could be managed separately. He maintained that this very circumstance rendered the Act of Parliament nugatory and impracticable. Their Lordships would recollect that in manufacturing districts factories might be stopped all of a sudden, and children and others thrown entirely out of work, and they knew that the principle of the Bill was, that no able-bodied person should receive relief out of the workhouse. He knew, that it was not intended to act upon the strict letter of the law in this respect, but it was impossible to prevent persons entertaining a feeling that it would be acted upon. He said, therefore, that some alteration in the law was necessary as far as regarded its application to the manufacturing districts. He must also say, and in saying so he meant not to cast blame anywhere, that an example already set had been followed by those who were engaged in promoting this immense meeting. He knew that it was the opinion of the parties who were engaged in promoting that meeting that a similar example had on other occasions been set by the Government itself, and that to produce an impression there must be a great demonstration. He was not going into an argument respecting the Poor-law, he was not capable of doing so, but he wished to state these facts as an apology fur the meeting. There was no bad feeling against the Poor-laws in the West Riding, but there was a feeling against the present system, particularly to that part of it which related to the powers exercised by the Poor-law Commissioners.

The Marquess of Tavistock

said, that although he knew nothing about the manufacturing districts, the House would perhaps allow him to say a few words about the midland counties, to which he belonged. He had for twenty-five years acted as a magistrate in the county in which he resided, and which he had had the honour of representing in Parliament for many years, and he believed he could say from his own personal experience that there was no county in the kingdom in which the old law had produced greater evils, and where the benefits of the change effected by the recent enactment had been more signally manifested. In 1828, when a Member of the House of Commons, he presented a petition in which the evils of the Poor-law system and the deplorable condition of the people were set forth, giving, as he well recollected, a frightful picture of the state of the manufacturing districts in particular; and at the time of presenting that petition he recollected lamenting to be obliged to state that in consequence of the operation of the existing Poor-law he felt the duties of his magisterial capacity becoming daily more and more irksome and painful to his feelings. Happily that state of things no longer existed. They had found it a most pleasant change; and so beneficially had it worked to all parties, and all classes of the agricultural community in the county in which he resided, that he could assure their Lordships that he could hardly believe that he lived among the same people. There was no longer any want of employment. The measure was not, as was supposed by the noble Earl, unpopular among the deserving poor. He could assure their Lordships it was quite the reverse. The night-watches had been universally abolished as unnecessary. The labouring poor were well off and contented, and were, moreover, becoming well disposed towards their employers, and respectful to their superiors: and this, instead of regarding them as they formerly did, in the light of oppressors. The poor and infirm were better taken care of, and in sickness they were better attended to. He would say nothing of the enormous saving to the rate-payers, which amounted in many parishes to forty, fifty, and even sixty per cent. He spoke merely of the altered condition of the labouring classes; and he could truly say that now, instead of finding amongst the poor that crime and distress prevailed, he found himself residing amongst persons such as he had just described. He was not much in the habit of addressing their Lordships at any length upon questions of a party character, but he felt it his duty to say these few words in reference to the observations of the noble Earl; and, he was persuaded, that he was speaking the sentiments of all parties and classes amongst his neighbours who had witnessed the working of the two systems. He and they, on account of the change that had taken place, felt greatly indebted to the present administration, to his noble and learned Friend (Lord Brougham), and also much indebted to the noble and gallant Duke opposite, for the truly useful and patriotic manner in which, so much to his honour and so far above all party considerations, he had given his valuable testimony in favour of the working of this useful, but much calumniated, measure.

Lord Portman

felt grateful to those who passed and who supported this measure. The noble Earl, who presented the petition, assumed to himself the character of representative of the labouring people of this country. He was not aware, by what right the noble Earl assumed that title. He must say, that no man had a right to claim to himself the particular privilege of asserting in that House, or elsewhere, the opinions of men which he had not the means of making known to them as their specific opinions. The noble Earl did not represent the labouring population amongst whom he lived. He could tell the noble Earl, that the mass of that population, who happened to be in employment, were thankful for the passing of this Act. He would venture to say, that they saw that their condition was bettered; they saw their masters taking more pains to improve their condition—they saw them employ their children, who before were paid a small pittance out of the poor-rates, and they were grateful for the education which their children received, and for the improvement that took place in their situation, instead of seeing them idling about the streets as formerly. He would, therefore, say, that the noble Earl did not represent the masses of the labouring classes of this country. Perhaps, he had been looked upon as a person holding something approaching to radical doctrines, because he had at one time represented a division of the metropolis, the inhabitants of which were regarded as holding opinions which were not very moderate; but he was quite sure, that he had never heard, during the time of his canvass, any doctrines so radical as those he had heard from the noble Earl. And he was sure, that there was not one of his former constituents who would, for an instant, hesitate to support the Poor-law Amendment Act, because they wished for universal suffrage. He should be glad to find, that they were so likely to have so large a mass engaged in supporting the Poor-law Act, and he hoped that they would attend to the noble Earl's advice, and they would believe that, in supporting this Act, they would obtain universal suffrage. He was, however, certain, that universal suffrage was much farther off than if this Act had not passed. Perhaps the noble Earl would recollect the riots which, in 1830, started up in the county of Kent. If a leader should now be wanted, it was natural to suppose that the county of Kent would furnish one. He recollected, that great anxiety was felt at the time of these riots; and he could tell the noble Earl, that at that time the wages of the labouring classes, which the noble Earl had described as so altered by the Poor-law Amendment Act, as to be reduced to half-a-crown a week, were at that time less: the mass of the poor in November, 1830, were working for less. The noble Earl had told their Lordships, that it was the Poor-law Act which reduced wages to half-a-crown a-week; but it was clear that other circumstances might do that; the causes, for instance, that produced these riots. They had heard a great deal of the triumviri, but he believed that these triumviri were doing much more good than the duumviri—he meant the distinguished representative of the labouring classes in that House, and another gentleman out of doors, who took the same title. He must say, that if men, placed in a public situation, were not protected by Parliament while using their discretion to the best of their abilities, it was in vain to hope that men would consent to be placed in such situations. The situation was one of the deepest anxiety; and he was sure, that no one went to the Commissioners on business connected with the Poor-laws, who was not treated with an attention, even with reference to the most minute particulars, which was most praiseworthy. They had been told, also, by the noble Earl, that the principle of allowing persons to make rules and regulations which were to have the effect of law, was new in the annals of this country. Had the noble Earl never heard of the laws relating to friendly societies, or to saving banks? Was not the noble Earl aware, that the regulations then made, when submitted to the barrister, and approved of by him, became law after being enrolled at the quarter sessions? Was not the principle here similar? And he should like to know, if there was any objection in practice to the adoption of this principle? There was another great objection put forth, namely, that the rate-payers had nothing to do with the management of the poor. But what was the fact? The rate-payers elected guardians as their representatives, and from the persons so elected, the circumstances which were to guide the judgment of the Board of Guardians, were known; so that though the rate-payers did not themselves distribute their money, it was done by their representatives at the board—the men of their own choice. It was also said, that all the officers were appointed by the Commissioners. He apprehended, that the noble Earl must refer to the assistant-Commissioners, as the relieving officers, the medical officers, and the clerks of the unions were all elected by the Poor-law Guardians. He was quite certain of this, that the parties assembled at this large meeting, who were described as consisting of peaceable and well-disposed men—he was quite certain that if they knew the mode in which these Poor-laws had been carried into operation in the south of England, if they had seen the misery and the destitution that once prevailed, and the way in which that was now disappearing, instead of expressing themselves so strongly against this Act, they would have done what would have been quite reasonable—they would have called upon the Poor-law Commissioners and upon the Government to suspend the operation of the act in their immediate district until they were satisfied that there the Poor-law Amendment Act was necessary; and further, if they became converts, on reason, to the act, they would have absolved themselves from their allegiance to the noble Earl, and would have found that there was not that mischief in the arrangement of the Commissioners which had been put forth. But it was much more likely to happen that in so large an assembly there should have been something of violence and misrepresentation. If they had been told that the sick, the infirm, and the aged were at least as well cared for as before; if they had been told that every case of distress was regularly brought before the Board of Guardians, who patiently heard, if needful, the parties themselves, and attended to their statements; if they had heard also that a discretion, and a most useful discretion was vested in the Board of Guardians; if instead of talking of imprisonment, they were told that there was an opportunity, if needful, of giving relief out of the workhouse under certain special circumstances, and in cases of temporary distress, and that when they had one or two children they were much better taken care of, they would not have agreed to the petition that had been presented that evening. If the word "workhouse" were dropped for a moment, and that of "school" substituted, and an offer were made to a man who had two children, for instance, to take them from him and place them in a school, where they would be well cared for, clothed, and educated, be believed that no man of sense would object to what many of their Lordships who had children were obliged to submit to. If, then, their Lordships could bear to part with their children for such purposes, why should not the man who called upon others out of their industry to support him consent to part with his children for a time? They did not send their children to a distance, they were not placed where they could not be seen, they were in the workhouse where the parent might see his children as often as he pleased. This was not cruelty towards the children of the poor, nor did he believe that the act inflicted cruelty on any of the poor. He did not intend to deny that there might not be individual cases where the Guardians might have erred in judgment, and where the Poor-law Commissioners might have been misinformed also; but he need hardly state that the system generally was working beneficially for the poor, and as generally beneficially for the rate-payers. He knew, that in a question of this kind whether the diminution of the Poor-rates was more or less was the least consideration. It would not be justifiable for a single instant to take any step to lessen the Poor-rates which would in any way injure the poor. He was quite certain, that through the western parts of England the Guardians of the Poor, and the labourers in employment themselves, would receive as the most dreadful announcement that either the noble Earl, or any Member of the other House, had obtained leave to bring in a Bill to repeal the Poor-law Amendment Act. He hoped her Majesty's Ministers—and those noble Lords opposite who were in possession of that power to place themselves in the situation which his noble Friends possessed, if they were removed from it—he hoped that neither one party nor the other would hesitate, for a moment to state broadly and manfully that they would not, as far as was in their power, consent to the repeal of that Act.

Lord Wynford

was gratified to hear that this Bill worked so well. He was always aware that there were great abuses in the old Poor-laws, and he should be glad to have seen these abuses remedied; but he thought these remedies might be applied in a less expensive and less arbitrary manner. He would ask the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack whether any man, or set of men whatever, could make by-laws which were contrary to the laws of the land? By what right did the Commissioners imprison men in their workhouses? He could not help thinking that the power granted to the Poor-law Commissioners went to a most unconstitutional extent, and that they had used them in an arbitrary and oppressive manner.

Viscount Melbourne

said, it was with very great concern that he saw such a petition as that presented, agreed to, and concurred in at a meeting so large, so numerous, so respectable, and so tranquil in their conduct as was represented by his noble Friend. That petition having been so agreed to, he certainly did look with great concern at its being presented by his noble Friend. He was extremely anxious that every petition emanating from the people, and more especially from so great a meeting as that referred to, or indeed from any portion of the people, should find some noble Lord to introduce it, and give a fair representation of it in the House. But he must own, that he felt, to a certain degree, a portion of uneasiness and no small feeling of alarm, that the noble earl—of ancient name and family, of such property in the country, of undoubted zeal and feeling for the people of this country, and of unquestionable philanthropy—should have passed so unqualified a censure on an act of the Legislature, on a law of the land, and should have made himself instrumental in conveying doctrines and opinions which, he must say, were in a high degree destructive and subversive of all law and order. He owned he had listened to the speech of his noble Friend with great concern and apprehension. His noble Friend had stated many reasons for his not taking that share in the debates of the House, which formerly he was accustomed to take. These reasons made him deeply regret his noble Friend's absence. He regretted that they had not been favoured and assisted with his noble Friend's advice in the course of their proceedings; but he could hardly believe that his noble Friend had really stated the reasons of his absence. His noble Friend had stated that he experienced neglect from their lordships, that his opinions had not been attended to, that he had little influence, and that he could be of little use, when both sides of the House concurred in a course of proceeding which was destructive to the best interests of the country. Now, be begged his noble Friend to consider whether these motives were sufficient to justify his absence on such an occasion? Whether he was sufficiently justified in absenting himself upon the occasion of the discussion of a Bill which he stated to be pregnant with the most violent injustice and cruelty? A Bill which in its consequences would, in his noble Friend's opinion, work so decided a change in the constitution of the country—which would effect the destruction of their Lordships' House, the ruin of the property of the country, and the total destruction and subversion of the constitution, and which would bring a moral chaos back again. If the noble Earl were aware that such consequences would result from that measure, surely it was his duty not to listen to his feelings of disgust, but to attend in that House and exert himself to the best of his ability in order to try to avert from the country those evils of which he had before him so clear and distinct a prospect. He believed that the powers given by the Bill were absolutely necessary for the purpose of carrying the measure into effect; and he believed that the principles on which the Bill was founded were perfectly sound and just. As to the question of his noble Friend with respect to carrying the Bill into effect in the manufacturing districts, he begged leave to say, that he thought a certain degree of prudence and discretion would be required in the working of the Bill in those districts; but at the same time he must say, that he did not see those difficulties in applying the principles and practice of the Bill, even in those places, which were apprehended by the noble Earl. He understood that a great number of unions had been already formed in the manufacturing districts, and that the Bill worked well and proceeded quietly, and had produced satisfaction. It was not his intention on the present occasion to enter into any details of the measure; but he would distinctly answer a question which had been put to him, and he would say that undoubtedly it was the intention of her Majesty's Government to maintain the principles of this Bill. But though they would do so, they were not unwilling to listen to any amendments that should be shown to be necessary, and they would attempt, as far as it was possibly in their power, to carry this measure into effect with prudence and discretion, with circumspection and care.

Lord Brougham

denied, that the Poor- law Commissioners had any power to confine people in the workhouse, nor could any person be so confined. But all the inmates of the workhouse must conform to certain rules and regulations of the House. Wherever there was any large number of persons together, it was necessary for their common comfort that there should be certain rules and orders in the management of the business of the house. The inmates of the workhouse, living under the protection and comforts which the roof afforded, must yield to a certain discipline; and he would venture to say that if that discipline were relaxed, if there was no rule or order, the very inmates of the workhouse would be the first to complain that it was still more irksome, more inconvenient, and personally more uncomfortable than before. It was said, that the Commissioners were desirous of making the workhouse as disagreeable as possible. Now he did not believe that any of the Commissioners had ever desired any such thing. He would not enter upon this subject at any length, and more especially after the able manner in which it had been treated by some noble Lords who had preceded him. It was said, that this Bill was extremely unpopular amongst the labouring classes. He should lament extremely if the Bill were unpopular amongst that most useful and most important class of her Majesty's subjects. But it was his firm belief, founded not merely upon his reflections on the subject, but what was far more material, upon testimony which was strengthened by what had fallen from his two noble Friends (the Marquess of Tavistock and Lord Portman), that amongst the labouring part of the community this Bill was not unpopular, that amongst all the industrious, all the well-disposed labouring men, those who deserved to be called the labouring part of the community, that amongst all these the measure was a favourite, and not an odious law or an oppressive law. That where it was not yet introduced, and therefore not understood, the measure was unpopular, was, he thought, highly probable; and that there were some, a much smaller portion, and a less respectable portion of the community of the districts where it had been introduced, who viewed it with dislike, was much to be expected; but those were not the labouring people, they were not by any means, the bulk of the labouring poor. The merit of this great measure was not the saving it effected in the poor-rates, not the benefit it conferred on the proprietors of the soil—though in conferring a benefit on them they also conferred a benefit, not indirectly or circuitously, not through accident or contingency, but of necessity and by a direct and inevitable operation, on those labourers whom these proprietors employed; but what was its chief recommendation in his eyes, and why he chiefly rejoiced in its success, was because he believed it was increasing largely the comforts of the labouring poor. He believed, that it tended to elevate their character—he believed that it arrested both their downward progress in comfort and the downward tendency of their habits, which must have led to the inevitable degradation of their character. Their downward progress in circumstances, habits, and character, was arrested by this Act; and, he believed, that no Act had been passed for a long time which tended so much, both mentally and physically, to improve the people. With respect to the introduction of this Bill into the manufacturing districts, and with respect to the powers given to the Commissioners, he had but little to add. With respect to the powers of the Commissioners, he should like to know how many local acts had been passed from time to time, and whether they did not contain much more stringent rules and regulations than those allowed to the Commissioners? There was only this difference between them—that instead of these powers being confided to persons singled out from the community, placed in a conspicuous situation, answerable to the Commissioners, and under the constant superintendence of the Executive, and, above all, of a watchful people and Legislature—instead of being confided to persons surrounded by all these securities, these powers, stringent as they were, were confided to persons locally situated, and who were under no kind of control or responsibility whatever, and who had no watch over them of any sufficient effect. Under the present Poor-law general powers were given which were to be executed by those in whose hands it would be most safely confided, and under control and check which in former instances did not exist. He believed that a sound judgment was employed and a due discretion used with respect to the power that was to be exercised. His belief was, not- withstanding all he had heard, that the power given had been wisely, judiciously, and successfully exercised. No attempt had been made rashly, or too rapidly, to carry the system into effect, or to spread it unnecessarily over parts of the country where it might be thought less adapted for than in others; but there had been a careful consideration in each case before there was an extension or application of the powers given by the Act. It might also be said, that where there were great defects in the administration of the old law, and that where it would be in many places a great improvement to introduce the new, yet in such cases, if parties were asked, did they want the new Poor-law they would immediately say "No." "Did they wish for it?" "Far from it" "Did they require it?" There would still be the same negative answer. And if the same parties were asked had they managed hitherto their affairs so well that they did not require any assistance, the same parties would give an answer in the affirmative. Men were satisfied with their own management or with their own conduct, men were not willing or disposed to find fault, and this they would do in many instances conscientiously, although most erroneously. In doing this in the present matter, they would only fall into the same error to which all mortals were prone to fall, that of being too easily satisfied with their own actions, and at the same time to exaggerate the faults and too little satisfied with the conduct of others. Men were too apt to believe that others did the same thing less well than themselves. The noble and learned Lord concluded by remarking, that in portions of the country where it had been said the new Poor-law could not be introduced it had been tried, and proved successful.

The Duke of Richmond

, in reference to one observation made by the noble Earl, wished to remind their Lordships, that the number of Poor-law Commissioners was restricted, that the Act of Parliament provided that their expenses were to be defrayed by means of an annual vote, and that it was not to be supposed, with such a restriction, that assistant-Commissioners who were not absolutely required, would be appointed. He ascribed to the absence of the noble Earl from this country his ignorance as to this fact. The noble Earl, however, had come forward with a petition from the West Riding of York. He wished to ask the noble Earl if the petition that he now presented, was the same petition as that which had been adopted at the meeting of which he spoke? Was that precisely the petition which that great meeting had sanctioned with its approbation? Had no alteration been made in it? Why did not the noble Lord, if he attached so much importance to the petition, bring it up to that House, and from his seat there the very next day, move for a repeal of a law which he declared to be so had, and so injurious to the interests of the people? The noble Lord did no such thing, but he waited until it was evident the Session was coming to a close, and the noble Earl then made a speech, which he did not mean to say was intended, but which was calculated, to cause the people of this country to rise against the law, by telling them that it was a law which ought not to be obeyed. Though the noble Lord who did this might call himself the representative of the labourers, yet he (the Duke of Richmond) trusted, that the labourers would never be persuaded by clamour to set themselves in opposition to law; but if a law pressed heavily upon them, that they would petition Parliament against it, for in Parliament attention would be paid to their petitions. He trusted that they would not be influenced by those whose motives in opposing the law were not very clear. The Poor-law Act was now the law of the land, and he wondered that the noble Earl should not have told the labourers in his district that which he had told to the labourers of Sussex, that it was the law of the land, and they must obey it. Why, he would tell the noble Lord, that many of the guardians were men who had risen by their industry from the rank of labourers, and who were bound to the labourers by every feeling. Instead, then, of these men being the enemies, they were, in fact, the best friends of the poor. This he knew well, and the noble Lord, whom he did not believe to be a very good judge upon the matter, and whom he did not think did his duty with respect to it, ought to know it also; for the noble Lord, instead of taking his seat in the House of Lords, and telling the poor they were starved, ought to have gone to the Board of Guardians, and there seen the mode in which relief was given to the poor. He had attended the Board of Guardians from the commencement of the Act. He had done as a noble Friend of his who had spoken upon this question, and they had seen how the Guardians had acted. They had noticed every case which had come before the Board, they had had every particular application explained, and they had seen the Board of Guardians go as far as they possibly could in giving relief to those who applied for it. He knew, that in the workhouse, the paupers were better off than they were at home. At these Boards not only the Guardians attended, but he was happy to say some of the gentry and the magistrates also. He considered, that the noble Lord would discharge his duty more properly in mixing with the Board of Guardians, than making complaints in that House which could not be proved. It was impossible, that in so great a change as that which had taken place, that individual cases of hardship should not occur; but he asked the noble Lord, if he did not abandon his duty in not taking care that where such cases might occur he was not present to have them remedied? He asked the noble Lord, if he had never seen or heard of crowds of labourers complaining of the operation of Gilbert's Act? Had he not seen cases in which magistrates were pressed for relief by those persons? Had he not heard of the former system being complained of? Did he not know that unless a man behaved ill, unless his family were abandoned by him, and that his children were running about the streets, they got no relief, and that it was in such cases the magistrates were authorised to grant relief? He contended for it, that the morality of the people had been greatly improved by the present system. He wished that the noble Lord would look for the effects of the system that he decried in the accounts of the savings banks—he wished him to look to the increase in the friendly societies—he wished him to look to the great number of benefit clubs. The able-bodied and the really industrious labourers were now contributing to and joining such establishments. He had asked one of them how it was that he had become a member of such a club. The man's reply was, that before the present system was established he knew very well, that if he belonged to a club the overseer would hear of it, and then every man who did not belong to such a club, and asked for it would receive relief, while he would be refused. It was notorious, that before that system, there was a premium upon idleness and dissolute conduct; whereas, now the attempt was made by labourers to become honest and independent. He cared not for the saving effected by the Poor-law Amendment Act, for he was one of those who would go as far as any landlord could to benefit the country—he cared not for the saving effected; but he cared very much for the character of the people. It was his opinion, that if the noble Lord, instead of going abroad, had not left his own country, he must have come to the conclusion that the new law was most beneficial. It had been said, that by the present system the paupers were imprisoned: he considered there was no more imprisonment with respect to paupers than it could be said to be imprisonment with respect to soldiers when they were ordered not to leave their barracks between the hours of ten at night and six in the morning. A man asked for relief, and it was given to him. There were certain regulations, and if there were not the paupers might be coming and going out of the workhouse all day long. The rule was to give three hours' notice of the intention to leave the workhouse. He had known cases in which paupers had come back to the workhouse on the very day that they had left it. The noble Lord said, there were great grievances under this system; but were there not grievances of a much more serious nature under Gilbert's Act? He declared that he never could give his consent to an alteration in the principle of the present law. Formerly the case was, where one man had saved, where he put by a little provision, in order that he might maintain himself decently, and that another chose to go into the public-house and expend all his earnings there, and when the autumn came that man went to the parish for relief, whether it was that he laid out his money in the beer-shop, or was dismissed for his misconduct (for it was that most commonly occurred), relief was given to him by the overseer: and who was it paid for it? The honest and industrious labourer was called upon to pay for that; and he was deprived of some of the comforts which they would all wish to see the labouring classes enjoy, and this for the purpose of maintaining the idle and the dissolute. It was his opinion that the labouring classes of England would not believe the noble Lord when he told them that the guardians were not their friends. It was his opinion that the labourers of England would not believe the noble Lord when he told them, that the farmers or the owners of property did not desire to see them in a safe and a wholesome condition. He knew the farming classes well; and from his connexion with them he could say it was their desire to raise the condition of the honest labouring classes. Such persons, then, were not to be supposed to be the enemies of the poorer classes, because they would not permit every man who chose to put their hands into their pockets. The act was calculated to better the condition of the labouring classes, and none had a right to complain of it but the idle or the dissolute.

Earl Stanhope

said, the reason he had not been there to oppose the new Poor-law Act was, that at the time it was passed he was in a country that was happier and better governed than this—namely, Germany. He was not present in that House, for he did not think that a Bill passed by a reformed House of Commons would have been sanctioned by the House of Lords. The reason why he had not attended the board of guardians was, that he had no right to attend—he was not a magistrate, and he would not be elected; and he disapproved so much of the Act that he would take no part mediately or immediately in carrying it into execution. The noble Duke had asked him if the petition he presented was a petition from the meeting of which they had spoken. He had to state that no petition had been adopted by the meeting, but a series of resolutions were agreed to, and the petition was verbatim et literatim the same with those resolutions. It was quite true, that the noble Lords on his side—the illustrious Duke (the Duke of Wellington) had, with his followers, given his sanction and support to the Ministry in passing the new Poor-law Act. Both parties agreed in its adoption, and he had no chance in opposition; but upon this point he might quote the dictum of George 3rd, and in the course of a long reign it was the only bon mot he had been ever known to utter. George 3rd said, that "he believed Mr. Pitt was generally in the right; he believed that Mr. Fox was occasionally in the right; but when both Mr. Pitt and Mr. Fox agreed on the same point, then he was sure they were both in the wrong." it had been objected that under the old system the poor were to be seen drawing carts. Now, he must say that he was sure a pauper would prefer drawing a cart to the being, as he was under the new Poor-law, separated from his wife and children. He begged to say, that as long as he appeared in that House he should appear there as the representative of the poor and the labouring classes, for they had no representatives in the other House.

Petition laid on the table.

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