HL Deb 28 June 1842 vol 64 cc694-9
The Earl of Mounlcashell

rose, pursuant to notice, to bring under the consideration of the House certain returns relative to medical charities in Ireland. The noble Earl referred to a circular letter written by Mr. D. Phelan, an assistant Poor-law commissioner in Ireland, to medical men connected with charitable institutions in that country, marked upon it "private and confidential," to which a great many answers had been received. The medical men answering the letter answered it in confidence, on account of its being considered a private communication. The letter sought to obtain their opinion of the present mode of dispensing medical charities. Now there were ninety-three answers returned, but twenty-nine only had been made public. He had on a former occasion moved for the production of all the returns on the subject in the possession of the Poor-law commissioners of Ireland, but except the few produced they were kept back. This was most unfair, because the opinions of the medical men could not be obtained. He begged to mark the Jesuitical manner in which Mr. Phelan had acted in the matter. Before Mr. Phelan wrote the circular he went on a tour of inspection in Ireland, visiting not fewer than 600 dispensaries of one sort or another, and having heard what the opinions of the medical persons were he made his selection and sent the circular in question to the persons whose opinions were to him the most satisfactory. It was obvious, from what Mr. Phelan stated, that he desired to obtain the opinions freely in the first instance, for he said,— Many persons would give information more freely in this confidential manner than in any other. Having selected what he pleased out of the ninety-three letters, he obtained twenty-nine, and the Poor-law commissioners stated in their return that out of the twenty-nine two had declined to have their letters made public, so that reduced the number to twenty-seven, which number had been further reduced to fourteen, which had been printed in an appendix to the medical report upon the Table. Now, he considered that under the previous order of the House the Poor-law commissioners were bound to make a return of all the letters. The Poor-law commissioners had, however, acted otherwise; they had disobeyed the order, and had entered a minute in their proceedings of the 25th May, 1842, stating,— That under the circumstances stated by Mr. Phelan" (Mr. Phelan's statement being that the letters were private, and ought not to be published without the consent of the writers), "the Poor-law commissioners did not think they were required to give up the letters where the writers desired they should not be made public. But the twenty-seven letters were given up, to which the parties did not object. He begged to inquire, by what authority the Poor-law commissioners kept back the other letters? They said they could not give them up because they were private letters. But what right, he might here ask, had an assistant Poor-law commissioner to write on public matters, and inform the parties that his communication was private? Now he had received several letters from medical men who were anxious that their recommendations to the Poor-law commissioners should be made public. The fact was, that the letters which they had not made public contained opinions adverse to their own, and this was the reason why they had been suppressed. The noble Earl then named some medical gentlemen who had written to him on the subject, and read an extract from a letter of one, which showed that the writer was at variance with the Poor-law commissioners on the subject. The Poor-law commissioners had been endeavouring to deceive their Lordships, by not giving the opinions of persons adverse to their own views, as regarded the mode of administering public charities in Ireland. Was that the way to obtain the truth? If their Lordships agreed with him in thinking that the House had been treated with disrespect, he trusted they would show that opinion by adopting some measure which should prevent a recurrence of such misconduct. He begged to assure the House that he was not influenced by any party feelings in the case, but he thought, as a Peer of that House, he should not be doing his duty were he not to bring this subject forward. In the first place he thought that Mr. Phelan was to blame; but the Poor-law commissioners having adopted his view, and having pasted the minute to which reference had been made, they had made themselves responsible, and to them he should look for the production of the letters that had been kept back. The noble Earl then dictated to the Clerk at the Table the words of the motion for the production of the missing correspondence, which motion having been formally put from the Woolsack,

Lord Wharncliffe

said, the commissioners had been quite ready to communicate all the documents which they properly could. Mr. Phelan had deposited the twenty-seven letters which he had obtained the permission of the writers to make public; and the commissioners had thought, that unless the House of Lords should make further order, the remaining sixty-two ought not to be made public, as, whether Mr. Phelan was right or not in marking his letters private, his correspondents had a right to consider their answers private. The commissioners and the Government were, however, perfectly willing that all the letters should be produced, if their Lordships, under the circumstances, thought it right or necessary to call for them. He did not think, however, that the House of Lords would give an order to have the letters laid on the Table which were marked private. He should, therefore, oppose the motion of the noble Earl.

The Duke of Richmond

entirely concurred in the sentiments expressed by his noble Friend who had just addressed the House, and thought that their Lordships would never give their countenance to the production of letters written under the impression that they were private and confidential. He must also express the deep regret with which he had heard so much strong language applied to the conduct of these public officers.

The Earl of Glengall

said, that there was a great deal more in this matter than appeared at the first blush. These letters were written for the purpose of getting up the medical report which was now on their Lordships' Table. He would not say much on the subject of that report, as he believed the whole subject would come before the House on Thursday or Friday next, as he knew that there were some forty or fifty petitions to be presented from the officers of the different dispensaries and hospitals, and from the gentry of Ireland, stating that this medical report was not to be relied on. He was not in the habit of using strong language, but he must say, that there was scarcely five lines of truth in the whole of that report. The commissioners directed Mr. Phelan to write a letter—not a private letter—but that gentleman chose to put "private" on it. In every instance he signed himself "Assistant Poor-law Commissioner," but he added the word "private," so that he might use those which he pleased. From a knowledge which he had of some of the persons to whom this letter had been sent, he had no doubt that many libels had been circulated against the officers of the different medical charities. By the late Government it was proposed to transfer the supervision of the medical charities to the different boards of Poor-law guardians, who were mostly elected by the priests and by agitators. The scheme of this report was to effect the same object, and therefore the word "private" was affixed.

Lord Monteagle

deprecated those discussions in which the most unmeasured language of vituperation was indulged towards the commissioners of Poor-laws, the late Government, and every one that did not concur in the political opinions of certain Lords. Whilst he could not agree that the Poor-law guardians were the mere tools of the priests and agitators, he would concede this much, that a great deal of political agitation and religious fervour had entered into the elections of guardians. But surely the course pursued by the noble Lords opposite was calculated to keep up the irritation instead of (what all real friends of Ireland desired) allaying that irritation, and removing party feeling as much as possible from the consideration of the subject, from which of all others it ought to be excluded—that was, the treatment of the poor. He thought that discussions of this kind could end in no good. The Poor-law commissioners acted in perfect good faith, and so did Mr. Phelan. The motion of the noble Earl was to have all these letters laid before them. He thought they could not act more improperly than by calling upon a person holding an official situation to betray a private trust; and what could be betraying a private trust more palpably than giving up private letters to be publicly examined? He thought such a course most injudicious, and he called upon their Lordships to oppose the motion of the noble Earl.

The Marquess of Westmeath

said, the public were well aware that a board had been appointed to regulate the" Irish medical charities, which scheme had not the sanction of the generality of the landed gentry of that country, inasmuch as many of those charities were from private sources. He would not vote for a forcible production of private papers, but he felt that such communications were resorted to for a purpose. By such private and shuffling means it was intended to mislead Parliament.

The Earl of Wicklow

thought it inexpedient to obtrude arguments on a bill (the Medical Charities Bill) which was yet to be discussed by their Lordships. When it came before the House no doubt it would receive due consideration. The noble Earl deliberately accused the commissioners of violating an act of Parliament and of committing a breach of the privileges of their Lordships' House. He thought that the commissioners did not by any means deserve the severe and sweeping censure of the noble Earl, who had failed to prove his case. They could not have obeyed the Orders of the House in any other way. It was rather an unfortunate allusion made by the noble Earl to the inquiry of last year—a transaction which was always to be regretted when it was remembered. He thought that the secretary of that commission was too severely punished by dismissal from his office for a very venial fault. He said so to the Home Secretary at the time, and he now hoped that Mr. Stanley, the gentleman to whom he alluded, who had a large family, and who was otherwise a most worthy and deserving person, would be restored to the situation which he once occupied, and which he was given to understand was now vacant.

Lord Colchester

The question was whether the return was a true or a false He thought no public officer ought one. He thought no public officer ought to be permitted to select what letters he pleased out of a mass of correspondence, and to suppress others, in a matter involving the public interest. Those which he suppressed in such a case, must be suspected as containing information and opin- ions contrary to those which he entertained on the subject.

The Marquess of Lansdowne

thought the letters must be produced if the House made an order to that effect. The commissioners were not to blame; he could not say as much for their Lordships' House, when he looked at the order which they had made in this case, and which was not marked by their characteristic prudence and consideration. That order called on all persons to whom letters had been written and marked private by D. Phelan, to deliver them up whether they wished to do so or not. It was impolitic as well as unjust to subject people in public departments to such an ordeal if in their zeal for the public service they wished to obtain by private means information which they could not obtain by public. Such a precedent would tie up the hands of public officers, and he hoped the House would not sanction it.

The Duke of Wellington

wished that in all such cases involving the character of public officers like the present, noble Lords would give reasonable notice of their motions, that Government might have proper time to examine into the facts by communicating with the necessary parties. He hoped the House would not agree to the motion, It was his own opinion that the letters demanded ought not to be produced, He hoped the noble Lord, would, there, fore, withdraw his motion, and let the case of the letters to which he alluded be a matter of future inquiry.

The Earl of Glengall

was happy to confirm by his testimony the praise which had been bestowed on Mr. Stanley.

The Earl of Mountcashell

did not consider the letter private, signed D. Phelan, Poor-law commissioner. As, however, it seemed to be the wish of their Lordships that he should not persevere with his motion, be should withdraw it.

The Duke of Richmond

would not consent that the motion be withdrawn, and moved that the House reject it.

Motion put and negatived.

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