HL Deb 15 August 1839 vol 50 cc339-54
Earl Stanhope

, on the Order of the Day for their Lordships to go into a Committee on the Poor-Law Commission Continuance Bill, urged the postponement till to-morrow. He did not make this request on his own account, because, notwithstanding the lateness of the hour, and his own advanced age, he still possessed health, strength, and ability sufficient to discharge his duty, and would have no Objection to remain in that House till the same hour to-morrow night; but he did ask it for the sake of the question itself. Noble Lords must be aware of the horror and indignation with which this realm viewed the continuance of the New Poor-law, and the powers of those by whom it was administered. Was it then decent, was it not adding insult to the injuries they had heaped on the people, to bring forward at that hour of the night, a measure necessarily involving so many important and interesting considerations? He felt it would be impossible for him to do justice to the question, but though he should expire in the attempt, he was at least determined, that at every single stage, the bill should meet with his decided opposition.

The Marquess of Lansdowne

, considering the present period of the Session, and the temporary simple nature of the bill, which contained no new provisions, but merely continued the board of commissioners for another year, felt compelled to press the order for its committal. At another stage the noble Lord might state his objections, in which he apprehended he stood single in that House, to the entire principle of the bill.

Lord Wynford

assured the noble Marquess, that there was one more opponent of the principle of the bill besides his noble Friend. He appealed to the noble Marquess whether it was right at that hour of the night, to discuss a bill in which the public took so deep and general an interest?

Order of the Day read. On the question that their Lordships resolve themselves into a Committee,

Earl Stanhope

said, although the motion of the noble Marquess furnished him with an opportunity of going at length into the whole question then before the House, he was not disposed at that hour of the night to take so wide a range. He should, therefore, consider it more for the convenience of their Lordships to limit his observations on the present occasion, to the question whether the power of the three Poor-law Commissioners ought to be continued for another year. He was the more inclined to follow that course, because he was ready to admit, that any objections which might be urged against the bill itself, and which might be removed if the bill went into committee, would not afford a valid objection against the motion with which he intended to conclude his obsertions, namely, that this bill be committed this day three mouths. He felt that it was requisite that the discussion should be limited, as he had already stated, for no subject could long engage the attention of their Lordships, which embraced such important considerations affecting the rights and interests of a class of the community, which was not represented in the other House of Parliament, and which was therefore specially entitled to the protection of their Lordships. It was from a thorough conviction that in one discussion, to whatever length it might be protracted, it would be utterly impossible to go through the various parts of this subject in a satisfactory manner, that he thought it was desirable, that they should be all submitted successively to the consideration of their Lordships. Limiting himself, therefore, to what he conceived to be the main purport of this bill, he should say nothing at present upon the annihilation of the ancient and inestimable right of the people to self-government, and upon the flagrant injustice with which vestries had been despoiled of all control in the management of their own concerns. He should also be silent as to the formation of Poor-law unions, some; of which were of an extent and contained a population very inconvenient to the poor. Nor should he say anything of the appointment of those novel officers called guardians by a strange misnomer, who were not, however, the guardians of the poor, and in many cases not even elected by a majority of the rate-payers. He should pass over in silence those new prisons erected under the name of workhouses, which were intended as prisons, and which, according to the expression of an assistant Poor-law commissioner, were built to inspire a salutary terror in the minds of the poor. He should say nothing at present of the starvation dietary adopted in those prisons, or of the deaths which had ensued in them in consequence of it, especially in the Bridgewater workhouse. He should take no notice of the laws respecting bastardy, which had produced such demoralizing influence as was shown by the Parliamentary returns now on their Table, exhibiting but a small portion of the cases in which mothers who had been seduced, had murdered themselves and their offspring. Nor should he enter at present into a variety of other considerations of great importance. He should also be silent as to a point which he considered of very little importance, but which was nevertheless deemed very interesting by some of their Lordships—he meant the rapid increase of the amount of the poor-rates under an Act of Parliament, which was recommended to their approbation as a means of preventing the loss of their estates, but which he now said would produce at no distant period the entire confiscation of them. Preserving silence on all these points at present, he would state, that he objected to the appointment of these three Poor-law Commissioners, because their Lordships had no right or legal authority whatever to transfer to them, or indeed to any other body, the power of making rules, orders and regulations which were to have the force and validity of law. He did not state that as his own opinion, which might be of no value and have but little weight with their Lordships, but he stated it on authority which ought to be regarded even by them with due respect. Locke said, that the Legislature was empowered only to make laws, and not to make Legislators, nor was the executive to govern otherwise than by promulgated and established laws, not to be varied in particular cases. Blackstone observes, in speaking of the legislative and executive powers, that wherever these two powers were found together, there was an end of public liberty, and that it was incumbent on the promulgators of the law to publish the same in the most public manner. He would quote another authority, which was that of one of the wisest of mankind, and whose representative their Lordships then saw sitting among them—the great Lord Bacon. Lord Bacon declared, that If authority be given by the Sovereign to any commissioner or other, to govern otherwise than by known and published laws, then the Sovereign conferred a greater power than he himself, or herself possessed: adding, and, thus, commissioners who will not administer justice by law, but by their own will, may seem rather to desire to be kings than to rule the people under the Sovereign; and in giving such authority, the King ordains, not subordinate magistrates, but absolute Kings. There was no occasion for their Lordships to look through the pages of the new Poor-law to discover that the powers of the Poor-law Commissioners were unlimited, uncontrolled, and irresponsible. And yet when, on a former occasion, he had applied to them the title of dictators—a title which he should repeat whenever he had occasion to name them—a noble and learned Lord seemed quite amazed and lost in astonishment, could hardly believe his ears, and seemed utterly surprised and confounded, that such a term should be so misapplied. If that title was not rightly and properly applied to such persons, if it did not truly designate them, it ought to be expunged from the dictionary as devoid of sense. So unlimited, so extravagant, and so inordinate was the power of those three Commissioners, that there was no restriction as to the size of the unions they might form, or of the quality of the food which they might introduce into them. So that, if their Lordships imagined an extreme case—which in arguing an abstract matter of principle they had a right to do—there was nothing in the law, supposing that these commissioners were inclined to divide the whole of England into two unions, one for the north, and the other for the south, and to condemn the inmates of these new prisons to half an ounce of bread and a tea-spoonful of gruel a day; there was nothing, he repeated, in the law to prevent them from doing so, or to remedy such an abuse of power after, they had committed it. Their Lordships all knew that there was no power of which Englishmen were so jealous as that of taxation. There was no minister since the days of Charles I., whose fate was; well known—there was no Minister of| modern times bold enough to attempt to exert that power without the concurrence of that body which called itself the House of Commons; and yet, if commissioners could be appointed with unlimited powers of taxation—if, for example, the noble Lord opposite, who was at the head of Treasury, and the right hon. Gentleman who filled the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer, and that great political economist, who had his whole life and being in finance, who wrote on no other subject but finance, who talked on no other subject but finance, and who dreamt on no other subject but finance—he meant Mr. Joseph Hume—if such a triumvirate could be appointed commissioners to impose taxes, it would be less objectionable by itself, it would be less obnoxious to the country, and it would be far less injurious in its results than this Act of Parliament, which conferred upon three commissioners, despotic and irresponsible powers, which they were at liberty to exercise at discretion upon the poor. Let their Lordships go another step farther. If it were legal, if they had a right, if it were not an usurpation, which was in itself illegal, and which could, therefore, be lawfully resisted, to appoint such commissioners, why should not the powers now vested in them be vested in the Sovereign? That would be less objectionable than the present system, for the Sovereign must exercise them under responsible advisers, Where, how- ever, were the responsible advisers of these three Poor-law Commissioners? That brought him to another argument, and that argument was founded on the manner in which the three Commissioners had violated the very words and intention of the Act itself with respect to the sanction to be given to their general rules and regulations. Their Lordships would find, that, by the 16th section of the Act, any general rules, which were to be applied to more than one union, were not to operate until 40 days after they had been laid before the Secretary of State for the Home Department. If in that time they were disallowed by the Secretary of State, they were not to operate at all; but if they were sanctioned by him, then they were to be laid before the two Houses of Parliament. Their Lordships would not have forgotten, that, when objection was made elsewhere to these arbitrary powers of the three Poor-law Commissioners, it was stated by a noble Lord, who had since taken his seat among their Lordships, that there could be no abuse of those powers, because they were first to be sanctioned by the Secretary of State, and afterwards laid before both Houses of Parliament. Was it not, then, a mockery to find, that in every year which had elapsed since the passing of the law, the Commissioners had evaded it, by not making any general rules at all? Their rules were all special, not general; and the reason, he supposed, was, that these worthy personages were unwilling to be overwhelmed by the compliments which they would have received for their legislation from all parts of the country. It appeared that about two years ago, on the motion of an hon. Friend of his, the Member for Kent, a return was made for all the general rules, orders, and regulations which had been laid before the Home Secretary by the Poor-law Commissioners under the 16th section of the Act. What were they? Orders about matters of no importance. That return was not furnished voluntarily; it was extorted from the despots by an order of the House of Commons. There had been a subsequent return, made by order of the Secretary of State for the Home Department, and which had been introduced very skilfully at the present moment to smooth the way to the passing of this bill. Blackstone had said, that it was incumbent on the promulgators of a law to publish it in the most public man- ner; but by this Act no direction was given to the Commissioners as to the manner in which they should give publicity to such of their rules as were to have the force of law; it was left to their will and pleasure and discretion. They had the power to publish their rules by the 18th section of the Act, but so far were they from being desirous to promulgate their laws, that they had, if not by a general, at least by a special order, desired that the proceedings at the meetings of the boards of guardians should be strictly secret. They had proceeded with large professions of their anxiety for the public good, with hypocritical pretences of being desirous to elevate the condition and to improve the character of the labourers, and vet at every step they proceeded with a degree of secrecy which was unknown in every other tribunal save that of the inquisition. Nor was this all; for a fragment of one of their special orders was to be found in an excellent pamphlet, called "Practical Remarks on the Severities of the New Poor-law," by Mr. Nicholls—not the dictator of that name, but an elected guardian of the Bourne Union. That gentleman gave, in his pamphlet, an extract of a letter from the notorious Mr. Chad wick, addressed to the clerk to the board of guardians of the Bourne Union, dated July 20, 1837. It was to this effect: That "individual members of the visiting committee, or other guardians, are not empowered, as such, to visit the workhouse or individual inmates, without the previous leave of the board. So that, instead of throwing open the doors of these prisons, not to the inmates of them, but to visitors, there was a strict order from Somerset-house to prevent individual guardians from entering them, except by permission of the board. There was another point, also, in which he thought that the country had a right to complain of the conduct of those dictators, and in which they executed the law in a manner not intended by those who were its authors. When a late most eminent writer, then a Member of the other House of Parliament, Mr. Cobbett, proposed, on the original discussion of this measure, that a clause should be introduced, declaring it to be illegal to separate men and their wives in the workhouse, it was said by the noble Lord who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, and now a Member of their Lordships' House, that such a clause was unnecessary, inasmuch as such a separation was not intended by, the bill. And he spoke not from memory—for at the time he was absent from this country, and had seceded from their Lordships' House, to which he had returned with feelings of regret—he spoke not, he said, from memory, but from records which were familiar to their Lordships, and which were generally authentic. He found from those reports, that when a noble Friend of his brought up a petition from Stoke Regis, and expressed his apprehension that such a separation of man and wife would soon take place in every workhouse, the noble and learned Lord who then occupied the Woolsack, said, that it was quite impossible, and that the wildest imagination had never dreamt of such a thing. What was his horror and astonishment, when having recently found his way into a house of not very reputable character, and not very distant from the chamber in which they were then assembled, he heard a Minister of the Crown declare, that such a regulation was absolutely necessary, that it had always been intended, and that there was not one word to be said against it. He was aware that their Lordships were now arrived at the end of the present Session. It was impossible for Ministers to say what might happen in the next Session, or even before its commencement. For himself, he took no part in those discussions which were considered of a party nature. But some persons might speculate on such an event as a change in the Administration. Advice might, in such a case, be given to dissolve the Parliament; and he knew that by the dissolution of Parliament, the powers of the Poor-law Commissioners would be dissolved too. Now, for the sake of argument, he would assume, that the exercise of those powers had been beneficial and advantageous to the country, instead of being most injurious and most oppressive, and he would ask their Lordships what practical inconvenience could arise from the cessation of those powers? The whole surface of England had been carved out into unions at the mere caprice and discretion of these dictators. When a proposal had been made as to the expediency of introducing the operation of the New Poor-law Act into Manchester, the answer from the authorities was, that it could not be done without the assistance of the military and a large body of the police. It was strange that a law so beneficial should require such strong measures to be taken to enforce it. The noble Lord, the Secretary of State for the Home Department, upon hearing this, thought discretion the better part of valour, and wisely forbore to press forward the design. In all the unions now existing, the rules and regulations were framed by the board at Somerset-house, and might serve as models for the rules to be adopted by any new unions, if the power of the Commissioners were to cease. With regard, however, to these rules and regulations, he wished the Ministers would agree with each other, as to the extent and meaning of that celebrated measure, the Poor-law Amendment Act. He referred to the usual channels of public information for the words used on a former occasion by the noble Viscount at the head of the Government. The noble Viscount said— He knew not for what reason the commissioners should be invested with those large powers to which the right rev. Prelate had adverted, unless to enable them to adapt the provisions of the Act to the peculiar circumstances of peculiar parts of the country. That certainly did appear to be the only reason that could possibly be assigned for passing the Act. But, unfortunately for the noble Viscount, one or two colleagues of his, in introducing the bill, recommended it principally for the uniformity of systems which it would produce throughout the country; so that the noble Viscount supported the bill, because it would lead to the establishment of different systems in different localities, and his colleagues supported it, because its consequence would be the universal adoption of the same system. The noble Lord, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, expressed himself as follows:— An immense advantage would be obtained by the establishment of an uniformity of system throughout the country. A similar opinion was given by Mr. Hume, who said, If there was any one thing more important than another to the complete success of the measure, it was the uniformity of the plan proposed. Sir T. Fremantle "thought that, the principle of the bill was a uniformity of system for all parishes," and other Members of the House of Commons expressed themselves to the same effect. But the noble Viscount was not only opposed by his own colleagues and supporters, but by his subordinates, for Mr. Chadwick, secretary of the Poor-law Commissioners, in a letter, dated January 31, 1837, stated, that their orders would "conduce to that uniformity which was so important to the efficient working of all unions." There was, therefore, no agreement either between the noble Viscount and his colleagues, or between him and the Poor-law Commissioners, upon the question, whether the intent of the Act was to produce uniformity or diversity. In many unions the system adopted was utterly at variance with the orders of the Poor-law Commissioners, because, in some cases, they made concessions to the authority and influence of individuals, upon whose mistaken support they relied for carrying into operation this detestable law; reserving, however, to themselves the power of drawing the cord tighter, as soon as an opportunity was afforded to them. There was no doubt that the new Poor-law was the cause of all the tumults which had already taken place in the country, and would be the cause of those much more serious tumults which, he feared, we should yet witness. With respect to the new Poor-law being the cause of the increase of crime in the country, be would read to the House extracts of letters from a clergyman who had long acted as a magistrate in a neighbouring county:— I have seen," said the writer, "its miserable effects with sorrow and regret, and well know the evils it has produced in the very numerous offences it has occasioned against the law, arising out of those miseries; and I have ceased to act as a magistrate, since I was not allowed to prevent crime, but only to punish it. I am so totally disgusted with the present inhuman and dangerous system of poor-law, that no consideration would induce me to enforce it. I can see no security for the peace of the country until the new law (as if made on purpose to produce disturbance) shall be either repealed or amended. It has been the cause of almost every crime of late, whether burglary, felony, or arson, within my knowledge; and the last nine men whom I committed to the county gaol, and who were tried almost all for capital offences, and transported for life, declared that they had been driven to despair by the refusal of both relief and employment. If he did not wish for the maintenance of public peace and for the preservation of the ancient institutions of the country, and of property itself, which would be endangered, and at length destroyed, if this pernicious Act were persevered in, he should have remained silent, and allowed the evil to take its course. He could entertain no doubt that the new Poor-law, if not repealed by Parliament, would be repealed by the people, but he deprecated the convulsions which would be occasioned by such a repeal. Those convulsions would be of a most tremendous nature, and such as no military or police force could prevent. Whatever might happen, it would be a source of great satisfaction to him to reflect that he had frequently, although ineffectually, warned their Lordships of the danger which they were incurring. He should persevere whether he were supported by few or many, or even without any support, in the discharge of what he felt to be his duty to the people of this country. He trusted that the people would, by such means only as were consistent with law and order, oppose this Act, which violated not only all laws, but trampled under foot the dearest and most sacred rights. To use the words of a noble Friend, whose memory he venerated, and whose loss he deplored, (he meant Lord Eldon), he would say, if Parliament would not do its duty, the people must do theirs. Upon all occasions he felt as strongly upon the subject of this Act, as if he were likely to come within the operation of its cruel and merciless provisions, and to be subject to its injury, its injustice, and its oppression. He had always recommended the people earnestly and fervently to seek the removal of this oppression by all legal and constitutional means, and having thus discharged this duty, to leave the result to Providence, which at its own season and in the fulness of time would judge between the oppresser and (he oppressed. He had limited his remarks, as he promised to do in the outset, to the appointment of the dictators of Somerset House, without bringing forward his reasons against the principle of the Poor-law Amendment Act. The House would have to decide on the fate of the measure now before them. He should attach no importance to any amendment which might be proposed to it, because, in his opinion, no amendment was practicable of a bill founded on principles so unjust and so subversive of the rights of the people, and which would be passed, if passed at all, by a Parliament in which the people were not represented. The noble Earl concluded by moving that the bill be read a second time that day three months.

Lord Wynford

said, that considering how much agitation prevailed throughout the country on the subject of this bill, and considering its great importance, he was sorry to see that it excited so little interest in the House as to be discussed by a number of Peers barely sufficient to form a jury. When the new Poor-law Act was first introduced, he had objected to the appointment of Commissioners invested with such powers as that Act conferred upon them, because he considered it unsafe and unconstitutional to invest any men with powers so extensive. He thought, also, that it was most unwise to allow three gentlemen sitting at Somerset House, and knowing nothing whatever of the management of the poor, to control and direct the proceedings of country gentlemen, who from their station, habits, and experience, were much more competent to point out and carry into effect such amendments as might be from time to time required in the provisions of the Poor-law, for the purpose of remedying present evils. He had never been blind to the abuses which existed under the old system of Poor-laws, and he should be sorry to see the ancient mode of administering the law again resorted to, but he could not approve of the alteration which had been made by the new Act. It was as absurd to appoint the three gentlemen at Somerset House to direct the administration of the Poor-laws as it would be to subject all the farmers in the kingdom to such laws and ordinances as might be devised by a committee composed of gentlemen taken from the Stock-Exchange. These were his opinions when he had had no experience of the operation of the new law, and everything that, had taken place since had convinced him that his first impression was correct. He should, therefore, give his support to his noble Friend, and if they stood alone, the majority against them would not be very great. It was said that the effect of the new Poor-law had been to diminish the amount of the poor-rate; that might have been the case in some large parishes, but in small parishes he knew that the effect was directly the reverse, and that the expence had been considerably increased. But the expence was one of the very least of the considerations upon which the expediency of the measure depended. God forbid that he should purchase a reduction of expenditure by lowering the condition of the poorer classes! He had been told, however, that wages had been raised in consequence of the new law. Could any noble Lord point out a place where wages had been raised from this cause? Did not every man know that wages, on the contrary, had been diminished? Then how had the poor been benefited by this measure, when it was universally acknowledged that it would be impossible to improve their moral condition without raising their wages? Unless that was done-, no education could be given to the lower classes, for at present, at the earliest moment at which a child could earn only a few halfpence for the support of its parents, it was condemned thenceforward to severe labour, which not only deprived it of all opportunity of mental improvement, but weakened and destroyed its physical constitution. It was not without cause that the people of this country were discontented. If he only looked at the dissatisfaction new prevailing in the country, without saying that concession should always be made to popular clamour, he should think there was sufficient ground for resisting the present bill. He was convinced that the dreadful laws now in force would never be changed while the gentlemen who now sat at Somerset House continued in office, and he was, therefore, anxious to put an end to their jurisdiction as speedily as possible. The Poor-law Commissioners had made a regulation that every man shall support his family out of his own wages. If crimes were committed in consequence of this absurd and iniquitous regulation, he (Lord Wynford) had no hesitation in saying that the greatest part of the guilt must lie at the door of those who drive the poor to such extremes. To support such a system as this was to legislate against nature; the attempt could not be made without mischief. There were many of the topics connected with this question, on which, had he not been present in the House since half-past three o'clock that day, he should be inclined to dilate. The poor had no representatives in the House of Commons; they had no hope but in their Lordships' justice, and he feared that that hope would be much blighted when they knew from the division that was about to take place, how very few of their Lordships thought it worth while to assist in the consideration of a question which affected at least three-fourths of the people of this country.

The Marquess of Lansdowne

said, that the benefits of the new Poor-law could not have been attained or perpetuated but by the existence of an authority central in its nature, capable of communicating with all parts of the country, and of introducing that degree of uniformity and similarity of principle, necessary to prevent such a law from becoming obnoxious to the inhabitants. It was from the Conviction, that if the powers of the Commissioners were withdrawn, unions would cease to be formed, and workhouses, which under the new system would be the sources of so many advantages to the poor, would cease to be built. That war between the labourer and his employer, and between parish and parish, carried on for the purpose of throwing the burden from one parish to another, would again disgrace the country and degrade the poor, while it crippled the exertions of the independent labourer. It was to avert these calamities, that this bill had been introduced, in the hope that being adopted by their Lordships, the system might be suffered to remain in operation, while an opportunity was afforded to their Lordships to consider whether any and what amendments might with propriety be introduced at some future opportunity. He was not prepared to admit with the noble and learned Lord opposite, that wages had in the least degree decreased in consequence of the enactment of the new Poor-law, but he was prepared to maintain, that its tendency had been decidedly to raise the wages of the independent labourer. He was persuaded, that opportunity had not yet been afforded for the full benefits of the law to be worked out, but it had had a marked and salutary influence in raising wages. In proof of this, he would state the very gratifying fact, that during the last year, when the price of provisions had been considerably above the usual rate, the number of the depositors in the savings'-bank had increased more than 50,000, and the amount of deposits had increased more than 1,800,000l. They had the testimony of Mr. Tidd Pratt, than whom no man was better acquainted with these subjects, that this increase had taken place in a greater degree in the rural districts, than any other part of the country. He asked their Lordships, whether, if the new Poor-law had not had a salutary influence, an increase of the deposits to such an extent would have been possible? It was only as a temporary measure, that he called on their Lordships to agree to this bill, without which, he firmly believed the great experiment now in progress fur ameliorating the condition of the poor, would not receive a fair trial.

Earl Stanhope

observed, that no attempt had been made to answer the arguments he had urged as to the unconstitutional and illegal nature of this measure, and still less the reasoning he had offered to their Lordships, to shew that no Parliament in which the labouring classes were not fairly represented, had a right to pass this measure. He could see no reason why the commissioners' power should be continued. The noble Marquess had said, that the new Poor-law had had the effect of raising the wages of labourers; but he forgot that 400,000 workmen were employed in the construction of railroads, and that the demand for their labour, as well as the stimulus given to the iron trade and various other branches of industry in consequence, produced a rise in wages all over the country. No man who had considered the subject for one moment could possibly doubt, that the natural, immediate, and inevitable tendency of that execrable measure, was to lower wages and grind the faces of the poor. The inmates of a county gaol were better fed, and better cared for, than the unfortunates who were reduced to take refuge in an union workhouse. Convinced, as he was, that numberless evils were caused by the new system of administering relief to the poor, he must entreat their Lordships not to be parties to its continuance by adopting the present measure.

The House divided on the original motion—Contents 10; Not-Contents 2:—Majority 8.

List of the CONTENTS.
DUKE. Normanby.
Richmond. VISCOUNT
EARLS. Melbourne.
Verulam LORDS.
Liverpool Rayleigh
Shaftesbury. Cottenham.
Lansdowne Earl Minto
List of the NOT-CONTENTS.
Lord Wynford TELLER.
Earl Stanhope

Bill read a second time.

House in Committee.

Bill went through committee. The House resumed, and report received.