HL Deb 03 July 1840 vol 55 cc411-9
The Marquess of Westmeath

rose for the purpose of moving for a select committee to inquire into certain elections of Poor-law guardians and other matters relating to the Poor-law Act in Ireland. He admitted that the recent Poor-law Act was a matter of vast importance to Ireland. He had opposed the introduction of it both in that House and elsewhere, and in so doing had exposed himself to the reproach of seeking his own interest as a landed proprietor. Such a view had never entered his mind. He held documents at that moment in his hand, which proved beyond all possibility of doubt that he had been but too true a prophet of the results of this measure. He believed that it had been brought in with the best intentions by her Majesty's Ministers, but unfortunately it had been converted by a certain party in Ireland into a mere political scheme. The evils of it had been immediate and disastrous. One of its leading objects had been to secure a proper provision of guardians. This was to be accomplished by votes taken in manuscript, which were to be returned to certain officers named in the bill, who were to declare on whom the majority of suffrages had fallen. In most parts of Ireland—and he held in his hand the returns from nineteen counties—these elections had been accompanied by the most violent interference on the part of the Roman Catholic priests. The main characteristic which marked all the elections, arid particularly in the western parts of Ireland, was the combined efforts of the Roman Catholic priests to get their own partisans chosen into these offices, and thereby to put down the landed interest. Mobs had gone about to intimidate electors; armed parties had been employed in the night to take away from others their polling papers; individuals had gone about in the day-time either to get the voting papers from the parishioners, or to get them filled up according to their own wishes. In some places there had been fraudulent nominations of guardians, in others attempts at forgeries had been detected. In several cases individuals had been punished for these offences, but in no instance had they been brought home to the leaders in these transactions, owing to the influence of the Roman Catholic priests. In the county of Cork the Government had instituted a long and protracted investigation into these transactions, but there a Roman Catholic priest had acted a most prominent part in endeavouring to screen the policeman who had been guilty of the forgeries. On one occasion a priest, in defending a forgery, had let out his knowledge of it by exclaiming, "I wonder how they found it out." In the city of Dublin there had been sixty-eight well-established cases of forgery, and it had therefore become necessary to proceed to a new election: In Longford extreme violence had been displayed in open court, and in consequence the commissioner, Mr. Hancock, proposed to the Roman Catholic priests that each party should nominate two parties only, in order to avoid excitement and expense. That was the only place where this arrangement had taken place. The priests were discontented with it, and boldly avowed their determination to exercise the power which they had. A confederation to carry these elections in favour of the Roman Catholic party was general throughout the country. The lowest partisans were the great objects of the partiality of the priests, and in most instances had been elected guardians. Publicans keeping houses of the worst description, mere slews of vice, had been preferred to men of character and of landed property. But this was not all. Strange manŒuvres had been tried upon the rating and valuation of tenements, particularly in the city of Dublin. In that city 314 houses had been originally rated at 10l.; and yet on those houses the rating had been altered the most Radical manner. Mr. Vaughan, a respectable valuator, had given every reason why the original rating should not be disturbed; and yet, notwithstanding his reasons, the valuation was completely altered. Mr. O'Connell, the returning-officer for the union of Ennistimon, in the county of Cavan, had publicly advised the electors to elect those persons whom their priests recommended, and no one else. An investigation into that case had been ordered, and the minutes of it were then on their Lordships' Table. And yet all that the commissioners had said to that gentleman Was, that if he acted thus again, he should be removed from his situation. The Poor-law Commissioner appointed in the county of Westmeath was a Dr. Phelan, who had been a member of the National Association. Of this the Government was perfectly aware at the period of his appointment. A meeting had been held in Mullingar for the purpose of dividing the county into unions, where Dr. Phelan attended, and made some statements as to the population of certain parishes which he had formed into unions, which had since turned out to be utterly false. Another very gross case had occurred at Cashel, where the object was, to exclude the landed proprietors from those elections. The election at Cashel took place at such an hour (contrary to the notification contained in the advertisement), that it was concluded entirely behind the backs of the landed gentry, and a noble Friend of his (Lord Hawarden) had made a complaint to the Poor-law commissioners on the subject. All these circumstances tended to show that a system prevailed throughout Ireland, which rendered it necessary for Parliament to interfere immediately with the view of providing some strong remedy. The existing power of appeal he held to be of no substantial advantage whatever. He submitted, therefore, that he had made out a case for a committee of inquiry into the working of the Poor-law in Ireland, according to the terms of his motion, which he concluded by submitting to their Lordships.

The Marquess of Normanby

thought that the noble Marquess had selected his cases somewhat capriciously. He had commenced by stating with perfect candour that he had been originally an opponent of the Poor-law, both in their Lordships' House and elsewhere. The noble Marquess had proceeded to observe that the working of this system in Ireland had assumed an entirely political aspect. He was ready to admit, that in some parts of Ireland there had been partial instances of political bias; but he thought that this had been also observable in the case of the election of the ex-officio guardians. He appealed to their Lordships whether the noble Marquess had given them any grounds whatever for desponding as to the successful operation of that law which they had lately passed. No obstacle had been thrown in the noble Marquess's way in making out his case; all the papers which he had moved for were given without difficulty. He certainly thought that the noble Marquess must have been imposed on by some person, who furnished him with these details, and that they would eventually turn out to be unfounded. His information was completely at variance with that of the noble Marquess on this subject. He thought that the noble Marquess had selected for his statement every case in which an appeal had been made. There were in Ireland 104 unions established, and there had been thirty-four re-elections. As far as they could judge from the papers on their Lordships' table, there were only fourteen complaints. It should be understood that many of these unions contained several electoral divisions; and that of the complaints several were not from unions, but merely from electoral divisions. It was really surprising how very small a portion of the noble Marquess's statement was confirmed by the papers on their Lordships' table. It was true that forgery had been brought home to two policemen in the North Dublin Union. The Poor-law commissioners forwarded the particulars to the Government, one policeman was dismissed, while the other was forced to resign. Another complaint had been made in the Mallow Union against a policeman for similar misconduct. An investigation had taken place, and was conducted by the assistant Poor-law commissioner. Three magistrates superintended, and he would take a speedy opportunity of submitting to their Lordships these magistrates' opinion. He would, however, admit that this was a part of the subject well worthy of the consideration of the Poor-law commissioners. It might be beneficial to inquire whether any additional guards could be established on the transmission of those voting papers, and the commissioners had for some time back had the matter under their consideration, and he trusted that that investigation would be productive of much good. The noble Marquess had alluded to Leitrim, and had mentioned cases of abuse which had occurred in that part of the country. But it was impossible for their Lordships to know anything of those cases, and it would have been desirable that the noble Marquess should have moved in the first place for the production of papers relative to those outrages, and the proceedings of those armed parties to which he had alluded. At present there were no means of ascertaining whether those outrages were of a character to call for inquiry from their Lordships. He had been informed, however, by a Member of the other House of Parliament, that the noble Marquess was entirely mistaken as to Leitrim, and that nothing of the kind which he had stated had taken place there. This showed the necessity of having on the table papers in regard to those transactions on which their Lordships could rely, and how little dependence was to be placed on communications made by interested parties. He was perfectly ready to meet the noble Marquess on the cases contained in the papers upon the table of the House, but it was impossible to answer at once every complaint brought forward where no notice was given. The noble Marquess had stated that only persons of the lowest class found favour with the priests, and were appointed guardians. Now, he was informed on authority on which he placed perfect confidence, that it was by no means persons of this description who were elected guardians. On the contrary, respectable farmers had generally been elected, who were well qualified for the office, and who had been found to perform their duty in a satisfactory manner. When, therefore, the noble Marquess was misinformed as to the character of the persons elected, and as to what had taken place in Leitrim, was it not possible that he was also misinformed as to the other cases which had been brought before their Lordships? At all events when the statements were of such a conflicting nature their Lordships would see the necessity which existed for having official papers on the Table of the House before deciding whether there was sufficient ground for the appointment of a committee. With regard to the South Dublin union, there again the noble Marquess was misinformed. He had received a communication from the Poor-law Commissioner, from which he found that the valuator alluded to had admitted his error, but another person had been appointed in his place. In the case of Mr. O'Connell, the commissioner stated that it was impossible to dismiss him at the time of the election, because such a step would have the effect of stopping all the proceedings. When the election was over, however, the commissioners communicated their opinion on the subject to Mr. O'Connell, and no repetition of the offence had since taken place. As to what the noble Marquess had stated with respect to Westmeath, it was impossible for their Lordships, he conceived, to appoint a committee for the purpose of inquiring whether certain portions of an estate adjoined each other or not. The noble Marquess had candidly acknowledged that he had been misinformed as to the subject of the correspondence on their Lordships' table, and if the noble Marquess was so egregiously mistaken in 1839, it was for their Lordships to consider whether they would grant a committee upon statements which the noble Marquess might three weeks hence acknowledge to be completely wrong. As to the case of New Ross, he did not think that the noble Marquess had opened it sufficiently to induce him to trouble their Lordships with any remarks with respect to it. He was persuaded that the origin of all these things began with the ex-officio guardians, who were anxious to exclude, not only Roman Catholics, but all persons differing from them in political opinion. In New Ross there had been a direct exclusion of all the liberal party from the bench, save one. That such things had taken place was deeply to be regretted. There were faults on both sides; but practically speaking, the bill was working well, and he was sure their Lordships would hesitate before, by consenting to this motion, they added another to the many difficulties which the commissioners experienced in carrying the bill into effect. He would put it to their Lordships whether it was possible to consent to a motion of this kind upon such grounds as had been laid by the noble Marquess. There were many parts of the papers upon the table which he wished to explain, but considering the state of the House, and the period of the evening, he should refrain from doing so, and would confidently leave the fate of the motion in their Lordships' hands.

The Duke of Wellington

said, when this bill was under discussion in their Lordships' House, it was obvious that the execution of its provisions would be a matter of considerable difficulty, and he which had taken place in the two Parliamentary boroughs of the county Tippe-amendments had not been introduced to localize as much as was possible the expenditure, and to throw it upon the proprietors for the support of the paupers on their estates and town lands, so as to give them an additional interest in the welfare of the people, and to induce them to take care of those unfortunate persons, not from motives of humanity alone, but also from motives of economy. It would have been impossible, considering the state of Ireland, to execute this measure, if strong powers had not been established in the Poor-law commissioners, and accordingly very strong powers indeed had been confided to them as to the election, the appointment, and the duties, of the guardians. The commissioners had the power to dismiss the guardians and appoint others in their place, as well as to do every other thing which it was necessary to do in order to enable them to carry the measure into effect as the law intended. In order that Parliament, and the public, and the Government, might know what was passing, the commissioners were required to keep a record of all their correspondence, and it was in the power of their Lordships, of the public, and of the proprietors of Ireland, to make complaints to the commissioners and to place on record all that passed, so as to enable that House or the Government to see whether further inquiry was necessary. That, however, had not been done. The intentions of Parliament had not been carried into effect. The grossest abuse had certainly taken place at some of the elections of guardians; but then the poor-law commissioners had not done their duty in bringing the circumstances connected with those elections under their cognizance, and properly recording them. In point of fact, therefore, their Lordships could not take cognizance of them. Besides, it was absolutely impossible, as stated by the noble Marquess (the Marquess of Normanby), to enter, at this late period of the Session, into such an inquiry, as the noble Marquess behind him demanded, with the hope of adopting any ulterior measures this Session, or indeed, without injuring the operation of the Poor law in Ireland. Their Lordships had not materials, as far as he could see, to be brought under their consideration, and could, therefore, come to no decision during the present Session. He recom- firmly believed, that the measure never would have passed that House if certain benefit of the recess in order to set the matter right, and to have the law properly administered throughout Ireland. With regard to the valuations that had taken place, there was no doubt that political considerations had been mixed up with them, because they went to establish a certain degree of political power. If the valuations were too low, however, the abuse of the law was as great as if it were too high. As far as the execution of the Poor-law was concerned, the higher the valuation the better; but that did not suit some parties. It was, of course, objected to, and then came disputes upon the subject. There was no way of deciding this question, except by strict inquiry on the part of the Poor-law commissioners, the result of which should be put upon record, and produced at any time, it might be considered advisable, in order to show what had passed. He hoped the noble Marquess would consent to withdraw his motion, in order that their Lordships might know next Session—should it be deemed necessary to revive this discussion—what the grounds were upon which they stood, whether an inquiry was necessary, and whether, upon inquiry, it should be advisable to amend the present law, or enact a new one.

The Earl of Glengall

thought, that the noble Marquess had passed rather lightly over several of the charges which had been brought forward in support of this motion, and that one in particular which related to the South Dublin Union. It appeared, that in that union 314 houses had been valued at a certain rate by the valuators in which rate an alteration had been made for reasons best known to those who made it. The value of those 314 houses had been raised from various sums to 10l., and as he understood in this manner. A gentleman named Seaton, who attended at the registry session for the Radical interest, was one of a party appointed by the Poor-law guardians to go round and inspect the valuation, and having represented that those houses had been valued too low, induced the Poor-law guardians to raise them to 10l., for the purpose, evidently, of conferring upon them the Parliamentary franchise. In St. Catherine's parish, the value of twenty-seven houses was raised in the same way. He had also to complain of the valuation mended the noble Marquess not to press his motion at present. Let them have the rary, being two Poor-law unions, namely, Clonmel and Cashel. The reason of all this might, he thought, be traced to the returning officers, who were not men of sufficient respectability, and who were vested with too much power. He would suggest, that an alteration should be made in that part of the bill. He thought, that the most proper persons who could be elected returning officers were the high constables of the districts. They were gentlemen of the highest respectability; they were elected by the grand juries, and they were required to give security to the amount of 2.000l. or 3,000l. for the collection of the county cess. The bill allowed any individual to be a returning officer; and the consequence of which was, that generally speaking, they were persons who kept dram shops. If fair and proper elections of Poor-law guardians could be had (and there was no doubt they could, if the returning officers were respectable), then he thought, the whole operation of the law would go on well, and give satisfaction both to the people at large, and the gentry of the country. Motion withdrawn.