HL Deb 22 August 1843 vol 71 cc995-1001
Lord Teynham

rose to move, according to notice, for certain returns. In addressing their Lordships on this occasion, he would suggest to her Majesty's Government, whether it would not be wise to sanction a larger extension of out-door relief to the poor than had for the last few years been conceded to them, and offer a few reasons why he deemed it wise for her Majesty's Government to call upon their Lordships to grant a select committee to inquire extensively into the operation of the Poor-law. The manner in which the act was now put in operation was not the same as that in which it was at first carried out. During the first few years of its existence there were those who co-operated as guardians most cheerfully, but who withdrew, not owing to any alterations made by Parliament, but in consequence of the manner in which the alterations were carried into execution by the powers at Somerset-house. He sought at the hands of their Lordships and of the Government, that there should be a merciful carrying out of the act, in regard not only to the wants, but to the feelings of the poor, and he would suggest a few reasons why he thought the manner in which the law was now carried out might be moderated, and alterations might be made without detriment to the character of the labourers and to the general condition of the country. He had a right to assume that, in the coming winter, relief would be offered to many or the option of going into the workhouse, on which terms relief would be refused; and with reference to the misery which must be endured if there were not a relaxation of the present system, he implored the Government to ward off such misery by relaxing the present practice. There were many who up to the time of their failure had maintained an unimpeachable character for honesty and integrity. He would set before their Lordships a case:—A man had laboured diligently from morning to night, earning such wages as proved insufficient to support himself and family; his strength decayed, and his inability to earn what was before insufficient compelled him to apply for relief; he was required to throw down his flail and leave his thrashing-floor to go into the union workhouse; the man loves his family and refuses the proffered aid; he is tempted to take some corn for flour, or for a shilling; his dishonesty is discovered, and he is punished; during his punishment his family are obliged to seek refuge in the workhouse, and when he leaves the prison he is obliged to follow them there, bearing a stigma on himself and them. It was to prevent such cases as these that he implored a relaxation of the act. There were general circumstances which rendered it very needful in the opinion of many that there should be such relaxation, if it could be done without detriment to any parties. He would take the following case:—There was a certain district, under the superintendence of a board of guardians, in which certain wages were paid to able-bodied men, which were barely sufficient to provide food for a man, his wife, and two children. Then what was a man to do who bad five children, where not one of the children could earn a penny? That was a case in which relief might be afforded by giving a little flour, or bread, or money, or by receiving three of the children in the house; but no relief would be granted unless the whole family submitted to the workhouse test. Then with regard to task-work, men working at task-work were not all of the same strength, and could not earn equal wages, or the work was not equally profitable. In cases where men were thrown entirely out of work, not by their own misconduct, but by the necessity of the times, they should not be submitted to the workhouse test. If their Lordships entered into an inquiry into the subject, they would have before them men who had sat at boards of guardians, and were capable of fulfilling their duties with propriety and with kindness, who had devoted themselves to such duties, but who had withdrawn themselves wholly because they would not be parties to the exercise of cruelty towards their fellow-creatures, not from the act itself but engendered by the orders from Somerset-house, and which did not essentially form any part of the act itself. He would remind their Lordships, that one of the reasons assigned for altering the Poor-law was the immense burthen which the maintenance of the poor cast upon the country, and expectations were held out to the country, that the burthen would be far lighter. Let that question be inquired into, and he feared it would turn out, that the expectations of the country would be egregiously disappointed. With respect to local interests, where a man with five children applied for relief and they were all obliged to go into the workhouse, what was the consequence to the union? Why, the family were maintained at an expense immeasurably beyond what it would be if he had been allowed to earn as mach as he could; and if this loss was multiplied by cases in twenty or 100 parishes, it would show that no financial wisdom had dictated the rule. If their Lordships took the inhabitants of a workhouse, and considered what they were earning ere they entered it, and what they earned now, they would find that there was an amazing loss of productive industry to the country. These men before they entered the workhouse were immeasurably more producers of food than consumers of it; now they were consumers more than producers. Let their Lordships next consider the expenditure in workhouses. Take any workhouse, and let a committee of those concerned in providing for the expenditure inquire into the amount and into the manner which the accounts are kept, and their Lordships would receive from every such committee wise and valuable suggestions as to the economy of the House. The reports of such committees might be laid before their Lordships. The peculiar circumstances under which out-door relief was granted required attention. There were many persons who once possessed a little cottage and garden, or who had a small pension, and with industry, aided by occasional charity, their gains were adequate to their wants. But if brought to necessity what must they do? Sell their cottage or their pensions, and go into the workhouse. He knew a case of a man who had a pension of 35l. a year from the Merchant Seamen's Society, and who had been compelled to sell it and go into the workhouse. Sick persons would sometimes, for some reason or other, not live in their own parish, and in such cases they had been refused relief, though in one instance it was only next door. These and other instances ought to be inquired into, and he mentioned them to show their Lordships that there was ground for inquiry. Where men deserted their families, it should be ascertained whether the desertion was with a vicious intention, or whether it were not abonâ fide seeking for employment. He also begged to call their Lordships' attention to the internal regulations of the workhouses. In some cases, where members of a family were inmates of a workhouse, although no private interviews were allowed, frequent opportunities or personal intercourse were afforded. In other eases interviews were only allowed two or three times a-week, and when they were permitted they took place in a crowd, where —as a poor man who had written to him on the subject expressed himself—they were thrown together like sheep in a pen, and there was little opportunity for domestic intercourse. It would be found that, in many of the unions, it was a rare occurrence for husbands and wives to see one another's faces. He might also mention another circumstance of great importance—the system of classification. It was undoubtedly most desirable that the strong, the hale, and the robust, should be separated from the weak, the aged, and the infirm; that the pure should not be allowed to associate with the impure; and that persons of good character should not be compelled to mix with bad characters. This was a matter of great importance, especially with regard to children and young persons who might be inmates of workhouses. There were many other topics connected with this subject into which he conceived it was most desirable that a full and careful inquiry should be instituted. One of these was, the operation of what was commonly called the bastardy clause of the Poor-law Act. He thought also that an inquiry ought to be instituted into the proceedings of the Poor-law Commissioners,—not only as to what had been done by their authority, but as to what had been left undone; and that some provision should be made to meet cases in which parishes annexed to unions might consider that their junction with such unions would prove disadvantageous to them, and might wish to avoid the connexion. These were the points to which he had considered it his duty to call their Lordships' attention; and he begged to thank them for the patience with which they had listened to him. He must confess he did not on the whole regret that the proposed amendments in the existing Poor-law had not been brought forward during the present Session; because he was convinced that the knowledge now possessed, as well by their Lordships as by Members of the other House, as to the working of the Poor-law, would not enable them to adopt efficient and satisfactory amendments. Indeed, he believed that object would not be accomplished until a full and searching inquiry had been instituted on the subject before Parliamentary committees. The noble Lord then moved for A return from the several parishes in England and Wales, for the year ending the 30th of June, 1843, and for the four preceding years, of the number of persons charged with absconding and leaving their wives or children chargeable to the parish, distinguishing such as absconded from within the workhouse from such as absconded from without; and also, a return of the number of such persons, during the same period, as have been apprehended, and of such as are known to have been re-united to their families without being previously apprehended.

Earl Stanhope

said, he had not intended to make any observations on this subject, with respect to which he had frequently expressed his sentiments, had not the opinions he had long entertained been confirmed and strengthened by the impressive address of his noble Friend. He had not, during the last and the present Sessions of Parliament, addressed their Lordships on this important topic so frequently as he had done during previous Sessions; and he had abstained from doing so, because he entertained the expectation that a bill for the amendment of the Poor-law would have been brought forward in the other House of Parliament. He would, on this occasion, trespass on their Lordships' attention for a very few moments. He begged to suggest to his noble Friend that it was utterly useless to move for returns on this subject, because they had no security for the production of those returns. He had, during the last Session of Parliament, moved for the production of certain returns respecting the operation of the Poor-law, but they had not been laid on the Table; and about four years ago he had also moved for returns which had never been produced. He did not mention these circumstances because he was desirous of insisting upon the production of the returns to which he alluded, but because he considered that their Lordships ought to determine whether they would permit their authority to be defied and disregarded in this manner by the Poor-law Commissioners. Was it expected that, he should go to Somerset-house and make a representation to the commissioners, requesting them to furnish him with the papers he required? He would state at once that he did not recognize any legal or constitutional power as being possessed by those dictators; and he would hold no communication with them. He was somewhat surprised that, after the convincing and powerful manner in which his noble Friend had exposed the extreme cruelty, oppression, and injustice of the existing law, he should content himself with asking merely, as he had himself expressed it, for a more merciful administration of that law. For his own part, he objected not only to the cruelty and injustice of this law, but he objected to its principle. It was a piece of despotic legislation, which our ancestors would not have endured for a moment, and which ought no to be allowed to exist in any country He was aware that it was competent to the Poor-law Commissioners, in the exercise of those extensive powers with which they were invested, to allow some relaxations of the existing law; but such relaxations had frequently been demander of them, and in many cases ineffectually. He demanded, on behalf of the oppressed and injured poor of this country, the full and entire repeal of this obnoxious and cruel law. He had no fear but that such a result would ultimately, and at no remote period, be attained; for the force of the people would be directed to the accomplishment of this object, and if it was not conceded by Parliament it would be achieved by them.

Lord Wharncliffe

did not object to the production of the papers for which his noble Friend had moved. He regretted that the noble Earl had indulged in one of his usual tirades against the Poor-law Commissioners. The noble Earl intimated that, if the repeal of this law was not conceded by the Government, it would be accomplished by force. [Earl Stanhope: By moral force.] He had understood the noble Earl to refer to physical force. He regretted that the returns for which the noble Earl stated he moved last Session had not been produced; and if the noble Earl had said one single word on the subject to any member of her Majesty's Government—without applying to those whom he had termed "dictators"—the returns he required should at once have been laid on the Table.

Earl Stanhope

, in explanation, said, he had used the word "force" in allusion to moral, not to physical, force—to that moral resistance which, if properly applied and directed, no Government could withstand.

Motion agreed to.

Their Lordships adjourned at half-past seven o'clock.