HL Deb 29 June 1837 vol 38 cc1687-700
Earl Stanhope

, after presenting seven petitions from the west Riding of Yorkshire, praying for the repeal of the Poor-law Amendment Act, said, that the part of the subject to which he was desirous of calling the attention of their Lordships was so much less extensive than that which he had lately felt bound to bring before the House that it would not be necessary for him on this occasion to trespass on their Lordships' patience at any considerable length. The subject was also of far less importance as it was truly observed by a noble and learned Lord (Lord Brougham) not now in his place, that the saving, what ever it amounted to, afforded no justification whatever nor indeed any reasonable apology, for a measure which would be oppressive in its operation, and injurious to the poor. It had been said that if their lordships did not pass the Poor-law Amendment Act the old system would lead to a confiscation of the property of the country. He would say that their lordships had reason to dread such confiscation if this law were suffered to continue. In Chichester, for instance, the rates had been reduced to one-third of what they were before. In a parish immediately near his own residence a reduction had taken place from six shillings in the pound to three shillings; and in a parish in the Isle of Thanet the poor-rates had been reduced from 7s. to 4s. It was perfectly clear that there were many other circumstances which might produce a considerable reduction in the rates without the interference of the new poor-law. It might arise from an aditional demand for labour in consequence of the extensive public works which had of late years been undertaken, and the increased circulation of money from the operation of the joint-stock banks, and in a considerable degree from the unusually low price of provisions. If there had been a great deficiency of employment, and higher prices it would have been found utterly impracticable to carry the present law into execution. There had been a reduction in the poor-rates in the parish of Walsall, in the year 1822 nearly one-half, without the aid of the Municipal Commissioners or of Parliament. But such reductions were entirely owing to the facility of obtaining employment, and to the increased amount of wages. The reduction in the instances stated in the return on the table arose also in part from the alteration made in the law of settlement, and from the great saving of expense in litigation. These returns, moreover, did not contain a complete statement of the expense incurred as it was well known that considerable sums were spent in several parishes in the encouragement of migration and emigration which were not included in the Return. There were also other expenses which were not stated, namely, the sending the agricultural labourers wholesale to the manufacturing towns, where the labourers supported themselves by the industry of their children until they were disabled at an early age and returned to their parishes. Thus a considerable amount of expense was incurred by the parishes, which did not appear in the returns laid before Parliament The statement, to be correct, ought to be a statement of all the sums expended upon the poor. It was obvious that in some cases, and more especially when the former system was well administered, that the introduction of the new system would lead to much additional expense. They must build prisons, for such they were, call them as they might. He was ready to prove that they were prisons. He should like to know whether these prisons did not impose an additional burden? The principle of the former poor-law was strictly economical. If furnished the labourer with such relief as he required in cases of exigency, and it prevented him from becoming what he must inevitably become under the operation of the new law, a permanent burden upon the country. He had inquired in a parish near him into the practical operation of the new law, and the answer he received was, that the poor were much worse off and the rates increased. The petition which he had presented from Tiverton complained also of the enormous expense of the working of the new system. The noble Duke (Richmond) had said that this measure was favourable to the labouring poor and was popular with them. Was the noble duke disposed to subject that opinion to a fair trial [the Duke of Richmond "Yes,"] If the noble Duke, with his great influence from his official character of Lord-lieutenant from his large territorial possessions., and his personal character and conduct, would convene a general meeting of the landlords farmers, and labourers of Sussex, and would do him (Earl Stanhope) the honour of an invitation to be present, as otherwise he would have no right to be there, although he had no power of speech to stir men's minds he should feel it his duty to go there, and he should be greatly astonished if the result of such a meeting was not a resolution condemnatory in the highest degree of the new system. One of these petitions was from Tiverton which called upon their Lordships to take the complaints of the petitioners into serious consideration, and to apply such remedies as in their judgment were considered most necessary. They declared that the new Poor-law did net give satisfaction to the rate-payers or the paupers, and that the new workhouses, instead of being a refuge for the destitute, resembled houses of correction, in which poverty was treated as a crime. He had to assure their Lordships that not a single petition had been confided to him in which there was not a complaint against the bastardy clauses in the new Poor-law. The expenses incurred under the Act were very considerable. By one Return made to Parliament it appeared that the expenses of the establishment were 185,000l., and that of in-door relief 104,000l., making a total of 289,000l., By that expenditure it appeared that there were 18,000 and odd paupers supported at the rate of 15l. 6s. 10d.. per annum for each, or at the rate of 5s. 10d. per week for every pauper. He considered that the new Poor-law was the effect of the workings of those mischievous persons, the political economists. He agreed in the petition that he had presented from Montgomeryshire, that the new Poor-law was contrary to the principles of humanity and of justice, and that it was deservedly disapproved of by the farmer, the labourer, the tradesman, and the operative. He concluded by moving that the petitions be laid on the table.

The Earl of Radnor

thought, that the House, as well as the persons who had intrusted their petitions to the noble Earl opposite, had great reason to complain of that noble Earl's conduct; for, though he had had the petitions in his possession for a considerable time, he had, it appeared, refrained from presenting them at an early period of the Session, when, if the statements they contained were true, there would have been time to redress the grievances complained of, or, if the statements were false, to refute them. It was now, however, impossible for their Lordships to enter into any inquiry on the subject, or to correct the various misstatements which he (Lord Radnor) would venture to say had been made by the noble Earl. The other night the noble Earl had described himself as the representative of the labouring classes. [Earl Stanhope: I said I was acting as their representative.] Well, a most unfaithful representative of those classes the noble Earl had been. If the labouring classes were oppressed, as the noble Earl stated, to such a degree by the new Poor-law, he would have acted more fairly and justly by them by bringing forward their complaints at a time when they might have been redressed, than by endeavouring to excite their animosity against the law by declamations in that House, which, however satisfactorily they might have been replied to by other noble Lords, no opportunity could now be afforded for disproving. The noble Earl, like all other persons who complained of the operation of the new law, never condescended to inquire on the subject; they would not take the trouble to make themselves masters of the evidence which had been given before the Committee of the House of Commons, or to witness with their own eyes the practical results of the new Poor Act. The noble Earl had brought this accusation against the new law—that its object was to relieve the rate-payers; and the noble Earl said, that that was admitted to be the main object of the measure when it passed the Legislature. He happened to be present during the discussion of the Bill, and he asserted that such was not stated to be the principal aim of the measure. The noble Earl would never have made such a misstatement if he had been in his place in that House when the Poor-law Bill was brought under their Lordships' consideration. But the noble Earl did not choose to attend there to oppose a measure which he considered per- nicious to the interests of this country, destructive of the security of property, and degrading to the lower orders. No; the noble Earl preferred to live in another country, which he said was much better governed, and yet he did not hesitate to describe himself as acting as the representative of the people of England! And what was it that the people of England were told by their acting representative?—that Germany, forsooth, where arbitrary Government existed, and where no representatives of the people, either virtual or actual, were to be found, was a better governed country than theirs; and that he desired to assimilate the British institutions to those of a foreign nation which was so dear to him. The noble Earl, in order to enjoy himself in the happy realms of despotic government, had abandoned those functions which he was born to exercise in his native country, had neglected the interests of those persons of whom he now boasted himself to be the acting representative, and, in consequence of his absence from their Lordships' House, was ignorant of what had actually taken place. Most of the noble Earl's statements were, consequently, erroneous, and the particular statement that the main object of the new Poor-law was to reduce the rates was borrowed from The Times newspaper, and from Cobbett's works. He was ready to admit that it was represented that an increase of the rates must ensue, unless some measure to amend the old law were passed; but he maintained that the principal ground on which the new law was supported—and the ground certainly on which he supported it—was, that it would tend to ameliorate the condition of the labouring classes. The noble Earl asserted that that result had not been produced, but the noble Earl did not choose to investigate the facts of the case. The noble Earl declined to be a guardian of the poor, for, if he chose, he might be a magistrate, and an ex officio guardian. He refused to place himself in a situation to redress the grievances which he said the poor in his neighbourhood laboured under, but having collected a vast number of statements from The Times newspaper, he came down to that House and made inflammatory speeches, calling upon the labouring classes to resist the Poor-law, which he described as illegal and unconstitutional, and using language which had a tendency to excite his con stituents—the people of England—to acts of treason and rebellion. The noble Earl had expressed his conviction, that if a county meeting should be held in Sussex, he would be able to secure the adoption of a violent resolution against the Poor-law Act. He certainly believed it to be possible, that in a large collection of persons some clamour might be raised on this subject; but he was sure, that if the noble Earl would condescend to make inquiries among the industrious, honest labourers of this country, he would find that they were not dissatisfied with the operation of the Bill; on the contrary, they felt that it operated to their benefit. But if the noble Earl went among the vagabond and the dissolute, the keepers and frequenters of beer-shops, and the little shopkeepers who had been accustomed to extort money from the labourers, by charging fifty and sixty per cent, profit on their goods, he would undoubtedly be told that the new Poor-law was a bad law, and that it worked exceedingly ill. In addition to other charges against the new Poor-law, he was surprised that the noble Earl had not complained that it had effected an entire change in the appearance of the labourers. He wondered, that the noble Earl had not told their Lordships that, since his return from Germany, he found that the labourers had no longer ruddy faces, and that starvation was depicted in their countenances. The noble Earl predicted, that unfortunate consequences would flow from the Poor-law Act; but none of the petitions which he had presented, except that from Tiverton, ventured to state that any evil results had actually been produced. All the others dealt in anticipations of evils, which the petitioners imagined might possibly ensue. But in places where the law had been longest in operation—in Sussex, in Wiltshire, in Suffolk, in parts of Norfolk, and Berkshire, no grievances were felt, and the working of the measure had been most satisfactory to the people. It appeared, that the average annual expense of the poor in a certain number of parishes in Suffolk, for three years previous to the formation of the new unions, was upwards of 200,000l.;and, according to the account for the quarter ending on Lady-day 1836, which was the highest quarter in the twelve months, the annual expense of the same parishes was 88,000l., showing a diminution of upwards of fifty per cent. He should observe, too, that, together with this saving, the condition of the aged poor, none of whom were forced into work- houses, was improved. The noble Earl had designated those workhouses, prisons; and at another time, called them, in a sarcastic tone, comfortable asylums. Prisons they were not, in any sense of the word. All the persons in them might quit them whenever they chose, and their departure was even desired by the parties who had the management of the workhouses. They were, in point of fact, anti-prisons—they were, in truth, comfortable asylums; and he would undertake to say, that if the noble Earl, without professing himself to be an enemy of the new law, would make inquiries among the inmates of those asylums, he would find that the aged and infirm were infinitely better off there than at their own houses. The expense of building new poorhouses had been commented on, but if, in spite of that charge, the poor had diminished, that circumstance only proved that the law had operated much better than could have been expected. The noble Earl had stated, that the Poor-law had come into operation under favourable circumstances; and that various large works now going on, had supplied subsistence to the unemployed labourers. The noble Earl greatly exaggerated the extent of the benefit thus produced. There had been 36,000 paupers in Suffolk; and he understood that the total number of persons employed on the Birmingham and Liverpool Railway, did not exceed 6,000. It could not, then, be supposed that the paupers of Suffolk and of other counties, had found employment in such a way. They had, in point of fact, found employment on the spot. The farmers, finding themselves relieved from the payment of a heavy rate, laid out some money in the improvement of the land, and consequently employed more labourers. In corroboration of his statement, he might mention, that the increase in the consumption of draining tiles, was very considerable during the last two years. The noble Earl said, that the Parliament, instead of passing the Poor-law Act, ought to have established a labour-rate. Now, he (Lord Radnor) could speak from experience as to the effects of a labour-rate. In a parish in Wilts, a labour-rate was established about three or four years ago, and the consequence was, that the poor-rate had increased sixfold, and the parish had now to contribute to the union in proportion to the increased average occasioned by the labour-rate. The last charge brought against the Poor-law Act by the noble Earl was, that it was the work of the political economists—a new-fangled set of people who had risen up of late years. He regretted, that the science of political economy had not been earlier understood in this country, for he believed that many of the evils which the country laboured under, arose out of a total ignorance of political economy. But the noble Earl carried his animosity against political economy beyond the limits of moderation. He objected even to machinery, and deprecated its use. [Earl Stanhope: The unrestricted use.] He should be glad to learn how the noble Earl proposed to restrict the use of machinery, for the same argument as was employed against the employment of the most complicated machinery, might be urged against the use of the simplest utensil; and it was rather extraordinary to hear the noble Earl declaim against what constituted the source of all the prosperity of those constituents of his in the West Riding of Yorkshire, from whom he presented a petition the other night.

The Duke of Richmond

said, that if the noble Earl's statement were true that he possessed some influence in the county of Sussex and in the city of Chichester, he could only owe it to the conviction that the people of that county entertained, that nothing on earth would induce him to advocate a measure which he thought injurious to any class of his fellow-subjects. The people of Sussex knew, too, if they knew any thing of his character, that the attractions of twenty provinces in Germany, or any places in the world, would never induce him to quit his country when he thought any measure was likely to be introduced into Parliament calculated to injure the interests of the people. The inhabitants of Sussex knew that he devoted many days in the year to attendance at the board of guardians; and that it was not his habit to come to the House of Lords to excite the labourers to stand up against the law of the land, but that in his capacity as guardian of the poor he was always ready to attend to the statements of the labourers and to redress their complaints. He would not accept the challenge of the noble Earl to convene a general meeting of the inhabitants of the county, because he should be sorry to be obliged to tell the people of Sussex that the noble Earl had abandoned his duty in Parliament; and that he came among them, not for the purpose of investigation, but of exciting them against the law. He would, however, be extremely glad to accompany the noble Earl through the county for the purpose of examining the state of the workhouses and the condition of the poor, and if the noble Earl, instead of returning to the palaces of Germany, would condescend to visit the cottages of the poor of this country, he would undertake to convince the noble Earl that they were in a better position under the new law than they were under the old system. Many of the objections urged by the noble Earl to the new law applied with greater force to the state of things previously existing in several parts of the kingdom. For instance, in the union of South Birstead, which was under the operation of Gilbert's Act, the workhouse was situated ten miles distant from that parish, and the board of guardians met only once a-month. The members of the board were farmers, and though paid, had other business to attend to, whereas the relieving officer, appointed under the New Poor-law Act, had exclusively to attend to the state of the poor, and to make a Report to the board of guardians, which met once a-week. Under the new law, the board of guardians was chosen out of the middle classes, whom he regretted to hear the noble Earl call the enemies of the poor. In the parish which he had stated to be under the operation of Gilbert's Act, a pauper, if refused relief by the board of guardians at one of their monthly meetings, could not apply to a magistrate, but must go to the visitor, who actually resided at a distance of sixteen miles from the parish. This was undoubtedly a great evil, and if it had occurred under the new law, the noble Earl would scarcely have failed to comment upon it. But it was passed over in silence, because it took place under a law passed by an unreformed House of Commons. Indeed, it seemed that the noble Earl had lived so long under a despotic government, that he could not endure the Acts of a Parliament representing the people. With reference to the case of Chichester, which had been adverted to by the noble Earl as an instance of the excellent manner in which the poor might be attended to without the aid of the New Poor-law Act, he begged to inform their lordships that that city was not under the operation of the act of Elizabeth, but of a local act very closely resembling the new law in its provisions. Every rate-payer voted at the election of guardians; and it appeared from the evidence of the clerk to the board that no out-door relief was given, and that the inmates of the workhouse could not go in and out of the place as they pleased. But if they went into a comparison of the relative expenditure and the relief afforded to the inhabitants of Chichester and the union of West Hampnett, they would find the result to be in favour of the management adopted in the latter. In Chichester the population was 9,000, and in the union of West Hampnett it was 15,000. The average number of inmates in the workhouse of Chichester was 146; in the workhouse of West Hampnett 165; the expenses of the year ending March, 1837, were, in Chichester, 2,216l.; and in West Hampnett, calculating by the expenses of the last quarter, they were 5,300l. Now, if 146 were a fair proportion of persons to be taken into the workhouse at Chichester out of a population of 9,000, then the West Hampnett union would be justified in taking, on the same average, 243 persons, whereas the average had hitherto been 165, being a balance of seventy-eight in favour of West Hampnett. Again with, respect to expenditure, if 2,216l. were a fair amount of relief to be dispensed to a population of 9,000, then 9,963l. would have been a fair amount for a population of 15,000. Allowing, therefore, for argument sake, that the expese of the machinery at West Hampnett exceeded Chichester by even 400l., then the union had expended 937l.more in propotion than Chichester. He thought that a debate in their lordships' House was better calculated to bring out the truth by thus comparing facts than inflammatory speeches on the hustings. In some unions it was the practice to give out-door relief in money, and in others it was given in bread, and this latter practice he more approved of, as it was safer, and in the case of families prevented that relief which was meant to provide the necessaries of life from being spent in the beer-shops, which had too often profited by that relief which was given in money. The noble Earl had stated, and in a sarcastic manner, that the aged and infirm were not better off than under the old system; but those individuals who had been called before a Committee of the House of Commons had said nothing in the way of complaint; all that they had said was, that out-door relief ought to be administered to able-bodied men. He would not say that this might not in some cases be done, but he thought the effect of it would be, that the farmer, knowing a labourer to be in receipt of money from the Poor-rates, would lower his wages in proportion; thus, if instead of 14s, the farmer only paid 10s. he would make those industrious people who contributed to the rates, pay for the labour of which he received the benefit. He wished further, to refer to what the noble Lord had said of the practice of paying medical men on each case in which they were consulted. He believed that in most of the unions medical men were appointed to whom a liberal salary was given; he had also good reason to believe that more medical assistance was provided than under the old system. He hoped the noble Lord would take the sense of the House from the numbers that were then present of those that were his usual supporters, and that he would take the advice that was thus silently conveyed. In conclusion he would challenge the noble Lord to bring-forward the subject when Parliament again met.

The Earl of Hardwicke

thought that the statements of the noble Lord had been fully answered. The noble Lord had said much about the present state of the agricultural classes, but he had not adverted to their state before the enactment of the present Bill. What was then the language of the landlords? That under the old system they could not go on; that they were borne down by the arrogance of the poor and by a labour-rate, and they begged to be relieved by legislative interference. He would not for one moment countenance a law that conferred a benefit on the middle and higher, at the expense of the lower classes, but he believed that the law had become necessary to check the improvidence of the lower orders. He believed also, that the new law had caused a diminution of crime.

Lord Hathcrton

said, that the refutation which the statements and arguments of the noble Lord had received was complete. The noble Lord had expressed a hope that the shackles which had been imposed on the agricultural, might not be put on the manufacturing classes; but the noble Lord appeared to forget that the system had been already applied to the manufacturing districts, and had been found to work well. From Warwickshire, Staffordshire, and other counties where it had been tried he had heard not a single complaint. Stoke-upon-Trent was an instance of the excellent working of the system; it contained a population of from 50 to 60,000, and during the late months there had been a strike amongst the workmen to the number of 30,000. It might naturally be supposed that under such circumstances the workhouses would have been overflowed, but he believed that the guardians of the poor had not experienced any difficulty, and he had heard no complaint either from them or from the mechanics.

Earl Stanhope

begged most distinctly to deny, that he had ever influenced the getting up of any petition that had been intrusted to him. At Chichester the meeting had been convened by the mayor, and it was against his wish that a resolution was passed requesting him to present the petition to their Lordships. When invited to resume his place in that House by the largest and most important public meeting ever held in this country—he said the most important, because they conducted themselves with such order, regularity, and good temper, as was unprecedented in so large an assembly—he had felt bound to comply with the request—but so far from exciting the people to rebellion, or stirring them up to disaffection, he had taken no part in getting up that or any other meeting, and had attended none unless requested. It was easy to taunt him with wishing to breed confusion in the country, but what could he gain by such a course? His possessions were far smaller than those of the noble Duke or the noble Earl, but he was as unwilling to lose them as they could be to lose their splendid inheritances. The misery arising from civil discord would be such as no tongue could tell, or heart conceive, and he should be the most irrational and wicked of mankind, if he attempted to produce it. If he could be so insane and criminal as to wish to produce discord and confusion, he could pursue no course better calculated to attain that end than to uphold the New Poor Law. The experience of every day and hour confirmed his conviction, that that law had placed the torch under the property and institutions of the country, and with this belief it was his right and duty to use every possible legal and constitutional means of repealing it. The noble Earl had represented Germany as a country under arbitrary and despotic Government. Let the noble Lord say what he would, Austria had been happy under the paternal sway of the Emperor Joseph, and the grinding slavery of the New Poor-law was unknown there. He had been asked why he had not opposed the Poor-law Amendment Bill in its passage through the House, but he had previously seceded from parliament, and never expected to enter its walls again. He appeared among their lordships more as a conscript than a volunteer, and it might be supposed that he had now no great inclination to address unwilling audiences; but when the destruction of their lordships' House was inevitable unless this act were repealed, he felt it his duty to use every means in his power to effect that end. No man by law could be compelled to act as a guardian, and no humane man, he thought, ought so to act. The whole merit or demerit of carrying the law into execution ought to rest on the shoulders of those who supported it. The noble baron (Hatherton) seemed to think there would be no difficulty in carrying the New Poor-law into effect in the north of England. Upon this very grave and prudential matter he would abstain from giving any opinion; he would only say that the noble Earl, the Lord-lieutenant of the West Riding of Yorkshire, had stated that it would be utterly impracticable to introduce the law into that quarter. The noble earl had said, the opposition to the law was got up for party purposes; but so far as he (Lord Stanhope) was concerned, it was quite unconnected with such objects. The noble Duke seemed to think that he (Lord Stanhope) opposed this measure because he had opposed Parliamentary reform. The fact was, that he had voted for the second reading of the Reform Bill, though God forbid he should have voted for the Bill itself; and when he found that their lordships were threatened with the exercise of a most unconstitutional power, which in former and better days would have led to an impeachment, he withdrew himself from the House, and took no further part in the discussion of the measure. So far back as 1822 he had declared that Parliamentary reform was necessary, and that the demand for it would be irresistible, unless the grievances of the people were redressed. He had opposed a plan of reform not drawn out on sound principles or with due prudence; he wished for a fuller representation of all classes of the population, and thought it highly unjust that the labourers of England should be unrepresented. If the noble Earl (Radnor) were disposed, as the House might be led to conclude from some words that had fallen from him, to favour universal suffrage, he could adopt no plan so certain to ensure success as to maintain the new poor law. A noble Earl (Hardwicke) had suggested to him to move for a committee next Session to inquire into the working of the law. No Committee was needed to prove the law to be unconstitutional, nor could he wish for one that would ramble about the subject like the Committee appointed by that loyal, conscientious, and enlightened body, the House of Commons. He regretted to have been obliged to trespass on the attention of their Lordships longer than he had intended, and he begged to return his sincere thanks to those of their Lordships who had honoured him with their attendance, a small number, indeed as they now presented the singular spectacle of a House consisting entirely of speakers.

Petitions to lie on the table.