HL Deb 20 July 1843 vol 70 cc1274-80
The Marquess of Clanricarde

rose to draw the attention of the House to the circumstances detailed in the petition, relative to the Edenderry Union, and to submit his motion for the production of certain papers connected with this case. He believed that this case would afford the best possible illustration of the working of the Poor-law in Ireland, so far as that law had as yet been brought into operation. The facts of the case were simply and briefly these:—The Poor-law Commissioners, in making their arrangements for the introduction of the law, had come to the determination of building an union workhouse at Edenderry, and in pursuance of that resolution they sent down an authorised person to select a site, and make the other necessary arrangements for the erection of the proposed building. The board of guardians attended to assist the persons so sent down by the commissioners, and in discharge of their duty they represented to him that the site he had chosen was an improper one—that it was in a situation which could not afford a proper supply of water, and which would render proper sewerage of the House impossible. In spite of all the information thus given, and the strong remonstrances made by the board of guardians, the officer of the commissioners persevered in his selection, the commissioners confirmed it, and the house was built. The result justified the objections of the guardians, for since the erection of the house considerable expense was incurred for bringing water from a distance for the ordinary daily uses of the house; and the report of the medical inspectors stated that the cess-pool was in such a state as to be most injurious to the health of the poor. All this was done against the wishes and in contempt of the representations of the board of guardians. Again, a contract had been entered into for building the house for the sum of 5,600l., to which was subsequently added the further sum of 1,100l. for fixtures and other contingencies. By the terms of the contract the house was to have been completed, and possession given to the board of guardians on the 1st of May, 1840. It was not completed until December, 1841, when possession was obtained by the guardians, who thereupon raised money to liquidate the debt for building, and paid off the whole sum of 6,7001., including the additional 1,100l. before named. But in Oct. 1842, the commissioners, finding, he believed, that in consequence of the way in which the work was done—defects and inconveniences existed— issued their order to the guardians to raise a further sum of 1,250l. for new or additional works. To this the board of guardians very naturally and reasonably demurred, as being grossly unjust, as fixing on them and the union a great expense, which, if necessary, had been rendered necessary only by the conduct of the commissioners themselves. The commissioners applied to the Court of Queen's Bench in Ireland for a mandamus to compel the board of guardians to raise the required sum. The guardians met them fairly in court. The case was fully heard, but judgment was not immediately pronounced. But the whole of the facts, the whole of the argument, and the law, were so clearly and convincingly laid down, that although judgment was delayed, it was perfectly notorious that, when pronounced, it would be, and must be, in favour of the guardians. How did the commissioners act? Before the judgment of the court was pronounced, while as yet the case was in fact before the court, they, being fully aware of what that judgment would be, sought to evade it. They rescinded that order for raising the 1,250l., although their application for a mandamus had been founded on an affidavit sworn to by one of their own commissioners, and tried to overrule the order, and annul the judgment of the Court of Queen's Bench, by substituting a new order on the guardians for a similar amount. The Court of Queen's Bench gave judgment, he believed in April, in favour of the board of guardians and against the commissioners. But in the interim the commissioners had prepared and issued their second mandate, in order apparently to evade the consequences of the judgment, and to oppress the union in an iniquitous and illegal way, and compel the guardians to raise the required sum. He contended that the commissioners had no right to issue any such order after the workhouse had been handed over to the board of guardians: up to that time they certainly had the power by law. He asked the House for the papers in this case because it was most necessary that their Lordships should have them before them, when they came to consider the law in its amended form, and to discuss the contemplated changes, and the alterations that would be suggested. Those papers would justify all the objections which he and other noble Lords had urged against giving to the commissioners those extravagant powers, which they feared would be greatly abused. In giving judgment in this case, Mr. Justice Burton had said that the judgment was delayed in consequence of an intimation from Government that it would be expedient, under then existing circumstances, that it should be so delayed. From this it was plainly to be inferred, that a correspondence had taken place between the Government and the commissioners on the subject. The noble Marquess concluded by moving an address for copies of all communications between the board of guardians of the Edenderry Poor-law union and the Poor-law commissioners, relating to the cost of the Edenderry poor house, and to loans to be raised for defraying such cost.

The Duke of Wellington

admitted, that when the Irish Poor-law Amendment Bill was before the House, it would be a very proper time for examining the powers of the commissioners, and for considering what checks upon those powers ought to be imposed. He had no objection to the production of the papers.

The Earl of Glengall

wished to assure their Lordships, that the case now brought before them was by no means a solitary one. It was not the only instance in which the administration of the Poor-law in Ireland had been characterised by indiscretion and despotic exercise of power. He wished to call the attention of her Majesty's Government to a circumstance of very great importance, considered with regard to the administration of the law. He alluded to a statement which had been going the round of the newspapers, that two gentlemen had just been appointed under the Poor-law commissioners, to inquire into the circumstances attending the prevalence of fever in Ireland. Of those gentlemen, one, he believed, had been a Poor-law assistant commissioner—the other, if not strictly speaking an assistant commissioner, had at least been also employed in the Poor-law department. One was a medical gentleman—the other had been, and he was not sure that he was not still, an assistant commissioner. Now, if the statement were correct—and he saw no reason as yet to doubt its correctness—and if both those gentlemen were to be placed in the same position as the other assistant commissioners, then there would be imposed on the country an additional sum of 1,400l. a-year, and imposed for what? To inquire into the state of fever in Ireland. Of what possible use could such an inquiry be now? He affirmed—and no man had a better opportunity of knowing the fact—that never in the memory of any man living was there a period marked by so little of fever. During the last three years they had most extensive and searching inquiries, and most voluminous evidence and reports, on that subject, all of which confirmed his opinion. But, supposing these reports insufficient, if the Government had been desirous of obtaining further information as to the actual state of fever at the present time, they had a prompt and most effective mode of obtaining that information, without cost to the country, for nothing would have been more easy than to have addressed a circular letter to the 800 doctors of dispensaries and fever hospitals scattered all over the country; and in the course of a single week they would have had 800 replies, conveying all the required information. Nay, they could have added to that effective force the doctors of the 130 Poor-law unions that now, unfortunately, he feared, existed in that country. Between those dispensary, fever hospital, and Poor-law unions, there was the truly formidable force of no fewer than 930 doctors saddled on Ireland! Just let noble Lords think of it-930 doctors! That was a fearful state of things enough, and some suspected that there was a good deal of jobbing connected with those said doctors and dispensaries. At all events, if the statement was a fact—if those two appointments had been made, and made under such a pretext—then he must say that so gross a job had never fallen under his notice. But if those parties were to receive emoluments, and to enter on inquiries, let them not be busied where no inquiry was wanted, where no evil existed—let them, if they must be grievance-hunting, institute an inquiry into something that was a grievance, into something that was felt to be an evil and a disease that required doctors' aid. Let them inquire into the epidemic that prevailed among cattle, and let them report, on its causes and cure, He doubted whether the Gentlemen alluded to were competent to undertake the useful inquiry he suggested, and he could now only express a hope, that on next Monday their Lordships would be vouchsafed some information respecting this inquiry into a state of things upon which they were all quite well informed already.

Lord Wharncliffe

rose merely to make one observation with respect to the amended order, to which the noble Marquess had alluded—the order for raising the additional sum of 1,2501. It appeared that, in the first order issued by the commissioners, there was a technical informality, on which judgment in the Queen's Bench must have been against them. The order was, therefore, issued in an amended shape, and the question was now, supposing the order to be strictly and technically formal, whether the commissioners had the power, under a particular clause of the Irish Poor-law Act, to issue such an order for levying money, and to compel obedience.

The Marquess of Clanricarde

said, that what had fallen from the noble Lord opposite, only tended to show that they ought to have the orders alluded to laid on the Table, and if possible the affidavit also of the assistant-commissioner. It was quite certain that the commissioners had unlimited power over all matters connected with the workhouse, until it was given up to the board of guardians. In attempting to levy money for the house after it was given up to the guardians, the commissioners were too late—too late in law, too late in justice, too late in fact. They found that they were so; and what did they do? They amended their order so as to make it appear that the expenditure of this 1,250l. had taken place before the house had been given up. It was then a most important consideration whether the commissioners had, or ought to have, a power so liable to abuse, by virtue of which, and by means of an amended order, they could defeat the provisions of law and the requirements of justice. To the union of Edenderry it was, perhaps, of no great comparative importance that it should have to pay a sum of 1,250l.; but it was a matter of importance that justice should be done; it was a matter of vast importance as regarded the future operations of the law, and in its effects upon the country at large.

Lord Carbery

was convinced that the whole law must be revised. The law must be either a blessing or a curse—he feared that, hitherto, it had been only the latter. The mode of its administration had excited great discontents, and the disturbances and loss of life which some time ago took place in his part of the country, was one of the sad results. The people were really anxious for a fair and equitable provision for the poor, and to such they would give most cheerful support; but seeing money taken from their pockets without their consent—seeing it expended without their concurrence, or the concurrence of their natural representatives and protectors—expended lavishly and without any real benefit to the poor themselves —they were not unnaturally nor unreasonably discontented, and demanded a change either in the law or in its administration. He hoped such alterations would be made as would bring the law into favour, and make it operate beneficially to all classes.

The Duke of Wellington

wished that his noble Friends would communicate with the noble Lord, the Secretary of State for Ireland, the nature of the amendments they wished to have introduced into the bill, and the grounds for those amend- ments, and then if they should not be introduced while the measure was before the House of Commons, it would be competent for his noble Friends to propose them when the bill came before them.

Motion agreed to.

Their Lordships adjourned.