HL Deb 26 July 1842 vol 65 cc619-30
Duke of Wellington

in rising to move the second reading of the Poor-law Amendment Bill said: My Lords, I was one of those who supported the Poor-law as it was introduced some years ago by my noble and learned Friend, and I did so on ascertaining the inconveniences and evils which attended the system of working under the old Poor-law up to that period; and being sensible that the only remedy which could be found for those evils and inconveniences was in the measure proposed by my noble and learned Friend. My Lords, I have since had the satisfaction of contemplating the working of the measure, which then became the law of the land, and I must say that I have been satisfied with its results. It has undoubtedly improved the condition of the working classes, and it certainly does place on a better footing the relations between the working classes and their employers. It has enabled those who had the care of them to provide better for the aged and destitute than has been hitherto the case, and it has in general given satisfaction throughout the country.

My Lords, I don't mean to say that I approve of every act that has been done in carrying this bill into operation. I think that in many cases those who had charge of the working of the bill have gone too far, and that there was no occasion whatever for constructing buildings such as have acquired throughout the country the denomination of bastiles, and that it would have been perfectly easy to have established very efficient workhouses, without shutting out all view of what was passing exterior to the walls. I say, then, that in some respects, the system has been carried further than it ought to have been, and I shall also say, that its features have assumed a harsher character in some parts of the country than was necessary; but this has been owing, I must admit, in a great degree, to the adoption of another law by Parliament, I mean what is called the Dissenters' Marriage Act, the regulations depending on which were connected with the execution of the Poor-law Act, and rendered necessary the establishment of unions in many parts of the country which were not yet ripe for the formation of those unions. But notwithstanding the circumstances to which I have just now alluded, I must in general state my approbation of the working of this act. I have paid great attention to the subject. Wherever I have resided, I have attended the meetings of guardians of unions in my neighbourhood; I have visited several workhouses in different parts of England, and I must say I never visited one in which the management was not as good as could be expected in such districts of the country, and which did not give universal satisfaction. Under these circumstances I have great pleasure in moving the continuance of the existing Poor-law, particularly of the commission for five years longer. My right hon. Friend in the other House intended to propose at the same time the continuance of the commission and some provisions of a larger nature than those embraced in the present bill, for applying a remedy to many evils which required amendment in the original law and in the existing system. But as the Session is near its close, and the determination of the commission is approaching so nearly, it has been found impossible to carry the provisions I have alluded to during the present Session of Parliament. Therefore, the original amendments of many parts of the law have been struck out from that measure, which contains no- thing but the continuance of the commission, and some few clauses for which it was deemed indispensable to provide. The first clause, as I have said, provides for the continuance of the commission for five years. The next provides that the number of assistant-commissioners shall be nine, and, at the same time, enables the commissioners, if they find it necessary, to appoint persons to make special inquiries. By the act of 1834 the commissioners were required to lay before the Secretary of State, and eventually before Parliament, any general rules they should make for carrying on the system of management of the poor throughout the country. Many rules laid down by the commissioners had been special rules, and, consequently, could not come within the knowledge of the Secretary of State and of Parliament. But this has since been prevented, and this bill contains a special enactment that those general rules should not be altered by special rules without the consent of the Secretary of State. It does not appear necessary to draw attention to any other parts of the bill. It embraces some important provisions for enabling the commissioners to act in accordance with the wishes of Parliament as intended in 1834. Any further steps that may be necessary for this purpose, will be submitted to Parliament in the next Session. The noble Duke concluded by moving the second reading of the bill.

Earl Stanhope

said, that, as had been stated by the noble Duke, the present bill was only a fragment of that larger measure which the Government were either unable or unwilling to carry through in the present Session. It was hoped by many, and he was of the number, that a short bill continuing the power of the commissioners for one year, until the whole subject could be brought fully under the consideration of Parliament, would have sufficed, but it appeared, that Government must have the unconstitutional powers of the commissioners extended to five years—powers which, if asked for in the better time of constitutional freedom, would not have been allowed to be exercised even for a single day. It must be well known to their Lordships, that many of those who gave to Ministers a temporary and reluctant support on this occasion, had been returned to Parliament on their solemn pledge to oppose the renewal of the bill, as it had previously passed the Legislature. With respect to the Government, he must say, that though he was not prepared to expect, that a much greater share of relief would be given by them to the poor, than had been sanctioned by the previous Ministers, yet he owned he did not expect, that the present men in office would be prepared to bring on themselves a larger share of public odium than had belonged to their predecessors, The present were strange times, when men were called on to prove questions which heretofore required only to be stated, in order to receive a ready assent. Who would have thought, in the better times of our constitution, of deeming it necessary to prove, that the union in the same persons of such powers as were placed in the hands of the Poor-law commissioners, was not only unconstitutional, but illegal? As he was forced to do it, he would offer a few quotations from high authorities in support of his argument, Locke said, thatߞ The Legislature is empowered only to make laws, and not to make legislators. Blackstone, speaking of the executive and legislative powers, observed, Whenever those lieu powers are to be found together, there is an end of public liberty. But he would go back to a more ancient and more venerable authority. Coke, in his reports, saidߞ When an Act of Parliament is against right or reason, or repugnant or impossible to be performed, the common law will control it, and adjudge such act to be void. He would now come to modern authority, and he could not quote a higher than that of his noble and learned Friend, whom be regretted that he did not see in his place on the Woolsack. His noble and learned Friend (the Lord Chancellor) had said, in speaking of the powers which the Poor-law Amendment Act gave to the commissioners, How is this system to be worked out? By investing with absolute power three commissioners. My Lords, this is a new mode of; whether it is a wise cue or not I leave to your Lordships-, consideration, but it is one which may lead to the most inconvenient practical results. To invest a certain number of individuals with an absolute authority to carry such measures into effect, however convenient they may be to the Government of the day, is, in my opinion, an unsound and indefensible system of legislation. Mark, my Lords, the extraordinary powers which are to be intrusted to those commissioners. In the first place, they have the power to pass these laws. I do not say they have the power themselves alone, but they can do so with the assistance of the Government for the time being. Nothing can be more objectionable. They have the power of enacting laws for the undisputed government and control of the people in the various workhouses, for the unlimited control, too, of the guardians, and for the entire management, in short, of every thing connected with the workhouses which it is proposed to establish, and, finally, they are empowered to pass such laws as they may think expedient; and for what purpose? Why, to carry this bill into effect.' The next opinion on this subject, which he would quote, was that of the noble and learned Lord, the Chief Baron of the Exchequer, who saidߞ With respect to the commissioners, he was decidedly opposed to the union of the legislative and executive power which it was proposed to repose in them. This was a delegation of authority—a sort of imperium in imperio, which he would never bring himself to allow. It was a new system of legislation—a species of despotism which it was his solemn conviction the country would never be brought to submit to. He would next quote the opinion of a noble and learned Lord (Wynford), late the Chief Judge of the Court of Common Pleas, who must be held a very competent and high authority on all great legal questions. That noble and learned Lord, whose absence he regretted, had expressed himself very strongly on the power proposed to be given to the commissioners, and he had reason to know, that he was still of the same opinion which he expressed, when he delivered the speech from which he was about to read an extract; and he begged the attention of their Lordships to the graphic foresight with which the noble and learned Lord had predicted what would be the condition of the poor, if the bill then pending should pass. It is impossible." said the noble and learned Lord, "to contemplate a more complete system of grinding slavery than this bill would 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 allowed to breathe the air or enjoy the light without their permission. And he added,ߞ 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. To those quotations he would add the high authority of one whose death he should never cease to deplore—one whose attachment to the great institutions of his country was too well known to require comment from him,—he alluded to the late Lord Eldon, who described the Poor-law Amendment Bill as the most infamous law that had ever been enacted in any Christian land. He would entreat their Lordships to consider well the principle which they were upholding in enacting this law, Let them look at the manner in which it had been supported. It had had the support of many who were sent into Parliament on a pledge to oppose it, and who in violating that pledge had covered themselves with ignominy and disgrace. It was said, that the commissioners were to be continued only for five years, but their Lordships would find that the object aimed at was to render those powers perpetual. Was there, let him ask, any argument which could be used for continuing them which would not be equally applicable at the end of five or six years hence? The bill before them was, and was intended to be, an act for continuing and confirming the power of the dictators without any attempt to mitigate the system in its influence on the poor, or any effort made to appease their just resentment; and under what circumstances, let him ask, had the Ministers of the Crown the hardihood to bring forward this measure? It was in a period of distress the most awful and extensive which had afflicted the country for many years—distress so alarming in its character and effects, that if it were to extend much further, it would tear up all those bonds by which society was held together, and bring about revolution, bloodshed, and anarchy. This measure was brought forward at a time, too, when the distress already existing was aggravated by the Corn-law, and by what might be fairly expected to be the result of the new tariff, a measure which there was little doubt would drive hundreds—nay, thousands, out of employment. Accounts were every day received from the manufacturing districts of the increased and increasing numbers moving about destitute of work and of food—of many who had actually perished through want of food. Did their Lordships disbelieve or doubt any of those statements? Had any one of them been denied? It had been said, that none of this distress was caused by the Poor-law. That he denied. It was caused by the Poor-law, because many who had claims for relief would, and did, forego their claims rather than be relieved on the terms laid down by the Poor-law commissioners. The great object of the Poor-law seemed to be to render the grant of relief as odious as possible in the minds of the people. If there were any one subject on which the great majority of the community seemed to agree it was on the propriety, the justice, and humanity of not withholding out-of-door relief from the really destitute. On that subject the bill before their Lordships was as silent as the grave. Not a word was said about it; so that if distress extended—and it would extend, no doubt—the relief must be at the will and pleasure of the dictators of Somerset-house. No matter what the cause of the distress, whether it arose from improvidence or idleness, or whether it was caused by circumstances over which the poor man had no control,—it was treated in the same way by the commissioners. What was this but treating poverty as a crime, no matter what its cause? All were to get relief only by consenting to be immured in those prisons or workhouses which the noble Duke had admitted had acquired, and very properly acquired, the denomination of bastiles. [The Duke of Wellington: No, no.] He had understood the noble Duke to use the word " bastiles" as applying to the union workhouses.

The Duke of Wellington

No, no, no. My Lords, I must set the noble Earl right. When I said, " acquired the denomination of bastiles," I referred to the term as being given to them by the noble Earl himself.

Earl Stanhope

would take the fact to be so, but from some cause they had acquired the denomination of bastiles. They were, however, worse than bastiles. They were not erected for confining political offenders. No lettres de cachet sent a man there for any state offence. The crime for which men were sent to these modern bastiles was that of being poor. It would be well for the poor if these were bastiles in the French sense of the term, but he repeated, that in the mode of confinement, in the restriction of liberty, in the quantity and quality of food, the treatment of the poor in the union workhouses was worse than that of any bastile. The commissioners stated in their reports that the great object of the new law was to abolish out-door relief. In 1835 it was proposed to discontinue out-door relief altogether, but if that had been adopted, the Poor-law would long have ceased to exist, and the two Houses of Parliament also. It was singular to observe to what inconsistent arguments those persons were reduced who were driven to find apologies for the continuance of this bad law. He conceived it to be admitted—he spoke with all doubt—by his noble Friend the illustrious Duke near him, that the system had been carried too far and extended too rapidly. It was not denied by its most eager advocates that some of the regulations of the union workhouses were as unnecessary as they were revolting to our feelings; but it was said at the same time that they furnished a good test of destitution, the existence of which could not be ascertained without workhouses. When the opponents of the law, on the other hand, represented the intolerable injustice of forcing people into these workhouses, his noble Friend the Lord-lieutenant of Cambridgeshire told them that they were comfortable asylums for the poor, the aged, and the helpless. If that were true, how could they serve as tests of destitution? Again, the refusal of out-door relief was stated to be the chief feature of the Poor-law Amendment Act, and yet, after all, they were told that outdoor relief was still granted to a very considerable extent. That was undoubtedly the case, but what did it prove? That the authors of the plan found it impossible to carry into effect the principles which they themselves had adopted, and shrank from carrying out the workhouse test in its full extent. He knew it had been said, among other apologies for the measure, that it had tended to exalt the character of the labouring poor. Let their Lordships look to official documents, and they would find, that since the enactment of this New Poor-law, there had been an enormous, a most melancholy, a most fearful increase of crime. He was grieved to hear it said by his noble Friend, the noble Duke who moved the second reading of the bill now before their Lordships, that it had tended to improve the condition of the labourers. The situation of the labourers must, of course, vary to some extent in different districts; but he must say, that they were now, except when fully employed and earning full wages, in a more lamentable state of destitution all over the country than they ever had been before, so far as his recollection extended. As to the economy of the measure, he would say nothing of the state of the agricultural districts, for in them there was no proper standard of comparison; but he knew a parish in the county of Surrey, in which, at the passing of the act, the poor-rates stood at 3s. in the pound, the same as they had been for sixty years previously, but now they were at 11s. in the pound. They were told, that it was a principle of English law that no wrong could exist without its remedy; but what redress were the poor of this country allowed against those who inflicted wrongs on them? It was adding insult to injury to tell the poor man whose attention was absorbed by providing the means of daily sustenance, that he might move the Court of Queen's Bench for a writ of certiorari. He did not think that such a writ could issue If it were proved in any case that the guardians had acted in strict conformity with the rules, orders, and regulations received from the Poor-law commissioners, which, according to the words of the act, were to have the force and authority of law. Repeated cases of misconduct on the part of those functionaries had come before the public; and what in that case had been the conduct of the commissioners? They had been judges in their own cause, which had been investigated by the assistant-commissioners, and by the very boards a guardians against whom complaint had been made. He was aware, that, as had been pointed out by the noble Duke, a clause in this bill declared that no assistant-commissioner should, in future, be so employed. That was true enough; to employ an assistant-commissioner would be too glaring, but the commissioners might employ any person whom they chose to select, not being an assistant-commissioner, with the assent of the Secretary of State. Their Lordships must be aware, that not a few, but innumerable cases had occurred, in which petty offences had been committed in order that those who committed them might find refuge in a gaol. A gaol, with all its terrors, appeared to them to be preferable to the comfortable asylum provided by the commissioners. Such was the injustice of the New Poor-law, that it made mental and physical distress, moral degradation, and political disaffection, equally penal and productive of the same consequences. Under the operation of that atrocious statute, which Lord Eldon properly termed the most infamous act ever passed in a Christian country, injustice hail been inflicted, cruelties and crimes had been committed, which it was out a human power to remedy. The Legislature might regret their proceedings, they might wish to retrace their steps, they might even repeal this law, but they would not be able to recall to life those who had been murdered in those new prisons. He spoke not unadvisedly, he used not rashly, or without due consideration, the term " murder." In order to be guilty of murder, it was not necessary to administer a deadly poison, or inflict a mortal wound. That crime was committed when any human being placed another, knowingly and willingly, in circumstances in which death must be the inevitable consequence. It was said last Session by the first Minister of the Crown, that this system was to be considered in the light of an experiment. It was, indeed, an experiment on the patience of the people, but one that would probably fail. Human patience and endurance had their limits; there was no animal so senseless which a long succession of ill-treatment might not drive at length to act in self-defence. The most dreadful and atrocious cruelties, the most flagrant and intolerable enormities, had been perpetrated under this act— oppressions which infinitely exceeded that of ship money, which led to the great rebellion, and brought Charles 1st to the scaffold. What were the ordinances of Charles 10th of France? They were undoubtedly a violation of the constitution granted to his subjects, but no practical evil had yet been found to flow from them, when the monarch was hurled from his throne, driven with his family into exile, and his heirs excluded from the succession. Could it be supposed, in the face of these historical facts, that the dictators of Somerset-house would be allowed to continue in the enjoyment of the power which they had unjustly, and, he thought, illegally acquired, and which they exercised with so much tyranny and oppression? If that power was destined to continue, then let nothing more be said of the British constitution being the envy and admiration of surrounding nations; let it be rather considered in its present state as a constitution which necessarily required an extensive and organic reform. Whatever calamities and convulsions might ensue, and convulsions must follow. The Duke of Wellington: Hear.] He rejoiced that the noble Duke ha heard it, for he could not hear it too frequently or too forcibly declared. [The Duke of Wellington: I admire it.] The noble Duke will hear it in a voice of thunder from the people. Before sitting down, he would implore their Lordships to consider well what would be, what must be, and what ought to be, the fate of that House, of their Lordships, individually and collectively, and of all-the institutions of this country, it being weighed in the balance they should be found wanting. It was unnecessary for him, having so fully delivered his sentiments on this subject on former occasions, to trespass longer on their Lordships' time. He would move, that the bill be read a second time that day six months.

Lord Brougham

quite concurred in the last observation of the noble Earl, and would be disposed to adopt the course which it pointed out. He had had so many opportunities of discussing this question, and of meeting his noble Friend on the grounds on which he had so long carried on his opposition to this bill — he had so repeatedly urged similar answers to the repeated and similar arguments of the noble Earl, that he did not think that it would be necessary for him to go, at present, into the general question. It would have been incumbent upon him, as a friend of the measure before the House, as originally a promoter and ever after a supporter of that measure, on the grounds of the general good which it had, on the whole, effected, and the highly beneficial results it had produced towards those whose condition was the main object of its enactments—the labouring classes — it would have been incumbent upon him, as such a promoter, and as such a supporter, if the noble Earl had brought forward anything new, if he had varied those charges which they had so often heard proceeding from him, if he had even materially varied the language in which those charges were couched, if he had spared a few epithets, and abstained from a little vituperation, or replaced it with new reasons—if he had brought forward facts, or specific charges founded upon fact, either against the provisions of the measure, or against the conduct of those by whom those provisions were carried into practice—if such had been the course taken by the noble Earl, he too might have been bound to enter now at large into the question. But their Lordships would suffer him to observe, with respect to the lack of specific charges and statement of facts, on former occasions, that, when the noble Earl was reminded of this lack, and when, pressed for particulars, he at length did, bring forward specific charges, they were met, readily and at once to the entire satisfaction of their Lordships; and now, after having answered the particular charges then brought against the measure —after having defended it to their Lordships' satisfaction, they were only met with a repetition of wholesale, undefined attacks, and all the former vague generalities, without the former specific charges, and facts. With reference to the latter part of the noble Earl's speech, it was not, for him, unusually immoderate. Such speeches were supported by precedent, but it was he who had furnished, and he alone who had followed this precedent—who had pursued the system of making appeals to the passions of the people, by advancing such charges as that of murder, and enunciating such anticipations as those of impending rebellion; a species of prophecy which, more than any other, tended towards its own accomplishment. The noble Earl talked of both Houses of Parliament being exposed to the highest risk from the excited state of the feeling in the country upon the subject of the Poor-law; but while the noble Earl advanced such opinions, he certainly took no pains to allay that feeling which he affected to deplore, and possibly did dread. He would appeal to their Lordships—he would appeal to the noble Lord himself, whether, in his calmer moments, if, indeed, upon this subject, who was visited with calmer moments, whether he would not lament having ever used the expressions which he had just uttered. But he did not believe that the good sense of the people, or the feelings of the most suffering portion of the people, would so far be led away by such declamations, as to make them forget, as others had forgotten, their duty to the peace of the country — their duty to the law of the land—their duty as good subjects to the Crown, as good citizens to their families, and as prudent men to themselves.

Original motion carried without a division. Bill read a second time, and ordered to be committed on Thursday.

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