HL Deb 02 July 1847 vol 93 cc1118-32

On Motion that this House do now resolve itself into Committee,


admitted the importance of connecting the Board by which the Poor Law Administration was conducted with the proceedings of Parliament. He wished to see this Board of Commissioners not only possessed of power to execute its functions, hut acting under full and strict responsibility also. It would be a great advantage to have a responsible Member of the Board always present in Parliament to answer any charges which might be alleged against the administrators of that law; for it was only right, if charges were false, that they should be at once contradicted; and, upon the other hand, if they were true, there was a sort of punishment in exposing before Parliament the delinquency of the Commission. The officer whom this Bill appointed to sit in Parliament would doubtless have the opportunity of meeting all the charges alleged against the Commission. There would be the dread, the wholesome fear, on the part of this functionary, of being called at once to an account before a tribunal where he must on the spot answer and explain—where the falsity of the charge might be proved, or its truth established—where, if false, the matter would drop, and, if true, that sort of castigation would be administered which a Parliamentary debate often supplied. But, on the other hand, there were great and serious disadvantages attending the position of this officer as a Member of the Cabinet or of the Government, for every charge against the law would be taken up as a charge against the Government; every circular issued by the Commission might be rendered the pretext for an attack on the Government. Those charges would be taken up by Members of the Opposition, right or wrong, to attack the Ministry; they would be answered, right or wrong, by the Government in their own defence, and the upshot would probably be, that matters which should be calmly, fairly, and dispassionately discussed, would become the staple of party attacks, and, perhaps, the ground upon which a Government might be displaced. He did not wish to see a question like this—a question so vitally affecting the welfare of the country—a question requiring great calmness and moderation, made either a Ministerial or a Cabinet question. This would not be giving the Poor Law fair play; for that law would be attacked, not because it was a bad law—not because there was any real objection to the steps which were taken, or the circulars which were issued, with reference to the administration of that law—but because those measures afforded the adversaries of the ruling powers a ground for assailing the Ministry. On the other hand, the measures proposed for the administration of the law might he most unjustifiable and improper; hut, whether right or wrong, they would be defended by the Government and their supporters, who might say, "We admit that these measures are not approved of by all among ourselves; but we must support them because they are Government measures, and because they are attacked by the Opposition." The objections which were taken to the different measures of Poor Law administration in detail, would render that law peculiarly obnoxious to attacks of this kind. They had seen that humanity, or a false notion of humanity, was the main ground of the complaints which were urged out of doors—and often in-doors—against many of the proceedings of the Poor Law Commissioners. It was said, "What a cruel and dreadful order this is for the separation of the sexes!" and a great clamour was raised against many regulations for the administration of the law because they were not considered consistent with kindness and humanity. Their Lordships would see, then, how very obnoxious to attack every arrangement of the proposed department was likely to prove. Not only would the Government be attacked in doors, but a cry of cruelty would be raised against them out of doors; and the clamour of the multitude would be excited against them for what might be a perfectly sound and consistent performance of their public duty. They might have issued an order which was humane and merciful to the poor man—they might have acted merely in the strict and rigid discharge of their public duty, and yet a clamour might be raised against them in the country. There was always a numerous class of men ready to take part with any one they thought had been injured or treated with cruelty, but who did not see that what they called cruelty was in reality lenity and kindness to the persons on whose behalf their feelings were excited. Nothing could be more certain than that it would afford great pleasure to many humane individuals if all paupers were to be furnished with a dole of money out of the profits of the wealthy classes of the community. These humane persons would say, "What can possibly be better than to take care that there shall be no poor in the land, and to give those persons 20l., or 30l., or 40l., a year out of the estate of Lord So-and-so, or Mr. So-and-So?" But these individuals must remember, that if they laid down a rule that there should be no poor in the land, there would be no labourers, and the consequence would be that the rich would become poor, and the poor of both classes starve. The best object to which these humane persons could apply themselves, would be to take care that the poor should have no inducement to be idle, and every inducement to be industrious; but if they promulgated out of doors the doctrines to which he had referred, they would excite a constant clamour against the Government on the subject of the poor. The question in Parliament, if the department for the administration of those laws was connected with the Government, would not be whether the measures proposed were good or bad—which was the real question that ought to be considered—but whether their rejection would shake the Government of the day; and, according as the balance of parties might be, the bad measure might be carried, or the good measure might be rejected. It was understood that a general election was now near at hand; and he would ask their Lordships to consider in what a position the Government might have been if they had had a Poor Law Minister associated with them who, with the assent of his Colleagues, had laid down some particular mode and form of administering the Law. Then see how the administration of the Poor Law in all its details must necessarily depend upon not only the firmness of purpose which any given Ministry might possess, but also upon their firmness of tenure—their chances of retaining office. What if the country were ever to be afflicted with a Government so feeble that it hardly could be said to have a majority in either House? Many of their Lordships might think such a calamity impossible; he hoped it was, but having lived longer than most of them, he had seen something very like what he was now describing, a Government with a great majority of the one House decidedly against them, and a small fluctuating uncertain majority, varying from two to four, and averaging three, for them. How would the Poor Law work in that case? How could it even be administered under such a Government? An order is propounded as a measure in contemplation for the administration of the department. It is plainly in the spirit of the law; it is clearly right; at all events, it is believed by the whole Cabinet to be right; all the Ministers deem that their bounden duty requires them to adopt it. They know it is sure to be attacked; they are aware that the cry out of doors is against it; they are certain that within doors the Opposition will support that cry, and oppose the measure. The Cabinet meets; the discussion begins; all in one voice, strong in their right opinions, fearless in the discharge of their duty, supported by the courage of public virtue, all agree to hold the clamour and the opposition cheap, and manfully to do their duty. But, recollect, says one older and more wary than the rest, "we shall be beaten, and then we must go out;" whereupon one chorus of indignant virtue is raised—"Who cares for that? Let us go out." "Nothing will be to me a greater relief," says one. "I have long-been panting for it," cries another patriot. "The load of the Great Seal," says the noble Lord on the woolsack, "why it is not to be borne." So all seem resolved to do their duty and quit their places. "But, then, just before finally resolving," says a cautious Minister, "just let us consider what will our friends say?" "Aye, truly," answers a Friend, an old and consistent Whig—" truly, that is to be considered—don't let us do anything to offend the party." "Oh, never mind the party," cry the others; "let us stick to our principles, and think only of our character." "Oh, but before making the plunge, only think of the injury which our principles must receive. It is on account of our principles that I am so unwilling to leave our places; who cares for place?—but for principle—it is everything." "Aye, so it is," all answer; "then if this liberal Government is broken up on account of the detestable Poor Law, which I heartily wish I never had heard the name of—then our enemies come in and our principles arc gone for ever." This consideration is decisive: it works like a charm; there is magic in the very name of principle—the party must be supported for the principle—the Government must remain in for the principle—the Poor Law must be abandoned for the principle. So a unanimous and most satisfactory conclusion is arrived at by the whole of the firm and virtuous Cabinet, to remain in office at all hazards, and at all hazards to sacrifice the proposed measure, as if it had been an Appropriation Clause, or any other thing to which they were all pledged. Such a scene as he (Lord Brougham) had faintly pourtrayed had been exhibited in past times; such a scene might be exhibited again; against such hazards he felt most anxious to protect the administration of the Poor Law—and if he wanted an instance in which precisely such things as he had been supposing were very likely to occur, he already had it in what already had happened to this Bill. He considered that one of the greatest blots upon the Bill now before them was the clause which had been introduced into it in the other House, providing against the separation of married paupers above a prescribed age; and he tendered his respectful hut hearty thanks to the Government for having gallantly opposed that proposition: he could not tell, however, for certain, that they would act so to the end—he had his misgivings. The separation of the sexes in workhouses was a part of the arrangements of the system, and was no part of the law. Now, suppose it had become necessary, for certain reasons, a month or two ago, to issue a general order to enforce that salutary part of the system, which was so much misunderstood, he had great doubt whether—on the eve of a general election—it would not have required more nerve than many Governments possessed to issue so unpopular an order as it would have been represented to be, and to expose themselves to the feeling which might have been excited against them on this ground at the hustings. He had therefore much more than doubts respecting the policy of making the Poor Law become a party measure. Again, the requisite knowledge of the details of the Poor Law Department was not to be acquired in a day, and still less the firmness necessary for the discharge of so delicate and so difficult a duty, exposed to so much obloquy and so much misrepresentation. This firmness was the growth of experience; it was only gained by time and by practice. Yet the President of this Department would, if his Government went out, retire from office before this firmness and this knowledge of the details of his department could possibly be acquired. It was already a great evil that the Ministers who had under their control the affairs of India, as well a: other public offices connected with the Government, did not remain in office long enough to learn the details of their respec- tive departments; and here was another public officer, with many details as well as principles to learn, who would not make up his mind to get the habits necessary for the discharge of his duty, If he felt that his tenure of office might not be for more than six months. His opinion was, that the President of the new Board should be unconnected with party—that he should be chosen for life or during good behaviour—and that he should have a seat in Parliament. He thought it better on several accounts that the President should have a seat in their Lordships' House, rather than in the House of Commons. He would not then dread meetings of his constituents; he would not then dread so much the defeat of his party and their going out of office; and he would not dread his own failure of re-election. It had been asked elsewhere of the new President, "Who will elect him?" It was at all events possible that he might lose his seat if he did not take a course agreeable to popular clamour, or to the local feeling of the place he represented. Such a functionary ought to be qualified by knowledge, by temper, by firmness of character, but, above all, he ought to have a seat in Parliament from which he could not be expelled.


rejoiced that his noble and learned Friend was convinced, that to detach the Poor Law department from the Parliamentary action of the Government was attended with grave inconveniences. Much of the imputations and many of the accusations to which the Poor Law Commissioners had been exposed, arose from the fact that they were considered a sort of mysterious and irresponsible tribunal; and he firmly believed that they would not have been directed against a responsible officer sitting in Parliament, or if they were so directed, they would have been promptly and completely confuted. He was prepared to contend, however, that very few of the acts of the Commissioners had been open to cavil or objection, though repeated inquiries had been made into their conduct. Hitherto, whenever information was desired in Parliament respecting any act of theirs, it was sought for by the circuitous method of communicating between Ministers and the authorities of the Commission, and not by the direct answer of a public Minister sitting in Parliament. The admission of his noble and learned Friend, that he saw the necessity of giving the chief officers a seat in Parliament, saved him (the Marquess of Lansdowne) from saying more on this point; and he only hoped his noble and learned Friend would also see the necessity of lodging the power of the Commission in the hands of one person, who would be much better able to discharge his duty and vindicate his conduct than if he were bound up with persons exercising an independent or co-ordinate control. the next consideration was one of great importance—should this chief officer be in connexion with the Government of the day or not? From the moment he became convinced of the necessity for the appointment of such an officer, he felt confident that he should possess the confidence of Government also, and should hold his office in connexion with it. He came to that opinion because he could not but recollect that up to the present moment there had been no instance in our political history of any great department existing in Parliament, and, above all, in the House of Commons, not connected with and possessing the confidence of the Administration of the day. the reason was obvious. If the heads of departments were independent of Government, they might be in opposition to Government, and then it would be impossible to carry on the business of the country. It could not be expected that those gentlemen should not take part in the questions before Parliament, in which they might be forced to side with Government or with the parties opposed to it. He had not seen any of the difficulties pointed out by the noble and learned Lord as likely to occur from the connexion of this office with the Government of the day, occurring in other public departments which offered quite as much temptation for the exercise of party objects and influences. The noble and learned Lord was well acquainted with the circumstances of the Board of Control of the administration of the affairs of our Eastern dominions, and know that time after time different attempts had been made to regulate and control the authority exercised by us over the latter empire, which had always resolved themselves into the avowed necessity that this department should be controlled by a body in connexion with the Government of this country. Let their Lordships just consider also what power the Secretary of State for the Home Department possessed, that they might judge how far this officer of the Poor Law Commission would be open to party in- fluence. On the part of those who had filled the office of Secretary of State for the Home Department, he would say they had performed the most delicate functions—duties most accessible to opposition, and most likely to awaken those morbid feelings of sympathy, day after day, without any such imputations. Life and death lay in their hands—to them was given the power to decide whether or not the last penalty of the law should be put in force against the condemned malefactor. Petitions and representations founded on that morbid sympathy in favour of the criminal were addressed to them as a last resort; and on them the Secretary of State was compelled to pronounce his fiat, and to give advice to his Sovereign. Yet he had never heard of a case in which an attempt had been made for mere party purposes unduly to awaken public sympathy, and to excite against the Secretary of State that torrent of abuse which the noble and learned Lord apprehended would be directed against the authority entrusted with the administration of the Poor Law. He had full confidence that the House might depend on the good sense and proper feeling of the officer in power for the due discharge of his duties, as they did with the heads of other departments. It was undoubtedly an experiment, because the administration of the Poor Law was in itself an experiment; but he did not think that whatever might be the party entrusted with the execution of those duties, they would abuse or improperly fulfil them; and he hoped the House would agree with him in thinking that a member of the new Commission should have a seat in Parliament.


said, it was impossible to have listened to what bad fallen from his noble and learned Friend, or from the noble Marquess, or to have watched the practical working of recent legislation on the Poor Laws, without perceiving that whatever course they might pursue with respect to that question, must be beset with difficulties, or that, in fact, they were now in the midst of a very serious difficulty. He owned that he fully agreed with his noble and learned Friend in his apprehension of the inconvenience that might result from giving a political character to the discussion in Parliament on the administration of the Poor Law, from the Chief Commissioner being practically a Member of the Administration; and he also felt that there was serious reason to fear that, by so connecting the Board with the Government, they ran a serious risk of altogether unsettling the present system of administering the Poor Law; but while he saw the importance of these objections, he was by no means sure that they would weigh so much, with him as to overpower in his mind other considerations which appeared to him to be in favour of the measure. If it were possible so to define the functions and duties of the Commissioners as to render them only administrative or executive officers, without any discretion in the discharge of their duties, it would then be unnecessary and undesirable to subject them to immediate Parliamentary responsibility, as proposed by this Bill; but, after every attempt had been made to effect this object, it was found to be impossible to lay down any one rule for the administration of the Poor Law, and it therefore became absolutely indispensable to invest the Poor Law Commissioners with a most extraordinary character, giving their orders the force and authority of law, and permitting them to exercise, on topics of the most exciting character, a power beyond that of the law and of Parliament. That being so, a direct responsibility to Parliament appeared to be the best, and, indeed, the only check on the abuse of that power which might be apprehended. He also agreed with the noble Marquess that the proposed direct responsibility to Parliament would operate as a great protection to the Poor Law Commissioners themselves; because, no doubt, attacks had been made on the Commissioners which would not have been made, and misrepresentations indulged in which would have been stifled in their birth, had there been a responsible Member of the Board present in Parliament. He thought, also, that it would be of the utmost importance to secure individual responsibility as well as a general Parliamentary responsibility; because hitherto one great fault had been that there were several persons against whom, collectively, charges were made, and who bore those charges collectively; but there was no individual and personal responsibility. The responsibility would be much more effectual if it were centered in one individual. At present the practical working of the system, as regarded responsibility, was most unfortunate, because, while it was divided between the Government and the Commissioners, there was no individual member of either body in whom even that portion or share of responsibility war, cen- tered. Nor was there, under the present system, any Member of the Government whose duty it was to make himself practically acquainted with the daily working of the system of Poor Law administration. He admitted that by the proposed arrangement the temptation to attack the Poor Law Commissioners from party motives would be increased; but he thought, even with that disadvantage, the plan would be a better one than the present system, by which the administration of the Poor Law was made a subordinate department attached to the Home Office, for which, however, the head of that Office was not responsible. He thought that the advantages to be expected from direct responsibility would wholly counterbalance any evils that might arise from an increased disposition to make the administration of the Poor Law a field for party warfare. Yet, on the whole, he confessed that it was not without considerable doubt and hesitation that he thus leant to the impression that to connect the head of the Poor Law Board more closely and immediately with the Government, would be advantageous. But, if direct responsibility was insisted on, it would place a person even of the strongest nerves and the greatest firmness in a position very embarrassing, to make him responsible to Parliament in person for the discharge of all the daily functions of his office—to subject him to cross-examination on all his official conduct, without, at the same time, giving him a confident assurance of that amount of support and protection which he would be likely to receive as a Member of the Government. And even, notwithstanding that it had been urged that, on the eve of a general election, a Government might hesitate to give an active support where it might militate against their own popularity, yet, without some such connexion with the Government, he feared that an individual even of extraordinary firmness might be disposed to shrink from so serious a personal responsibility if he felt that he stood alone; and, in making his orders, or in managing the administration, of the law, might rather consider what would save himself from attack, than what would be most for the benefit of the poor. It had also been argued that the head of the department to which the administration of the Poor Law was confided, ought to be a Member of that House. No doubt that might get rid of some of the difficulties of the case; but he must think that there would always arise grave objections to any plan which would require that the medium of explanation between the department and Parliament should be a Member of their Lordships' House, when it was remembered that the subject of the Poor Laws was one on which quite as much, if not more, interest was felt in the other House. For all these reasons, therefore, and although from some objections he entertained he should do so with reluctance, he should give his support to the measure of Her Majesty's Government, as being the best that could be adopted under the circumstances, and one that, at least, ought to be tried. He did not say that he agreed in all its details, but he quite approved of the great principle of the measure—that of making the head of the Poor Law department a Member of the Government, and personally responsible to Parliament.


objected to the details of the measure. How could they be certain the person at the head of the department would be returned to Parliament? There had been instances when Members of Government were unable to obtain seats in the House of Commons; and it was much more likely that a person obnoxious to so much popular feeling as the head of the Poor Law Commission would necessarily be, might lose a scat more readily. He thought the measure would prove a great difficulty as it now stood, and that it could be greatly improved.


observed, with reference to the Irish Poor Law, that neither the Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant nor the Under Secretary could give the time necessary for attending to the proper administration of the law; their connexion with it was, therefore, purely nominal, and it appeared to him that their responsibility was altogether illusory. On that ground he apprehended that similar results would ensue in this country from associating with the real working officers of the institution public functionaries who had neither time nor opportunity to fit them for carrying a Bill of that character into practical operation. He thought that the condition of Ireland, with reference to the Poor Law, was not a desirable state of things, and further inconvenience would arise if the office of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland were to be abolished. It was true that they might have a central authority in London, with a Commissioner possessing the power of a Board in Dublin.


said, that the general merits of the measure having been discussed, he might now say that he saw no objection to delaying the third reading of the present Bill till after the Irish measure should have been fully discussed. The state of the law affecting the administration of relief to the poor was different in Ireland from what it was in this country; and it ought to be different, seeking the marked difference that there existed between the state of society in the one country as compared with the other.

House in Committee.

On Clause 1,


said, that he saw no advantage in there being honorary Commissioners. Those public functionaries, who, ex-officio, were members of the Board of Control, never really proved to be useful or efficient members of that Board; and the business of it did, in fact, devolve upon the President and the Secretaries. He thought that such a precedent ought not to be followed on the present occasion.


observed, that those officers who were to be ex-officio members of the Poor Law Board were more or less connected with the administration of the Poor Law; as, for example, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Home Secretary.


suggested that the words should be, not "Secretary of State for the Home Department," but "one of Her Majesty's Principal Secretaries of State." The law of England did not recognise any such division of labour amongst the Secretaries of State as disqualified the one for discharging the duties of any of the others.

Clauses 1 to 8 agreed to.

On Clause 9,


said, there was very little chance that both the officers whom the Bill declared to be eligible to seats in Parliament would get elected.


observed, that one of them might be a Member of the Upper House—it would then be convenient that the other should have a seat in the House of Commons.

Clause agreed to.

On Clause 10,


said, that the appointments of persons employed under the old Commission were immediately to cease and determine on the clay on which the Commissioners constituted by the present Bill entered on their office. He thought it a hard provision.


explained that it was absolutely necessary the powers which existed under the old law should cease and determine before those conferred on the new administrative body could come into operation.

After a few words from the Earl of ELLENBOROUGH, Lord CAMPBELL, and Lord WHARNCLIFFE,


proposed to omit certain words importing that, so soon as the Commissioners now to be appointed should enter on their office, all officers appointed and employed by the Poor Law Commissioners should cease to hold their several offices and employments. A great amount of patronage would be thrown loose by that provision just on the eve of a general election.

On question that the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Clause, House divided:—Contents 16; Not-Contents, 14: Majority 2.

List of the CONTESTS.
The Lord Chancellor Fortescue
DUKE Chichester
Norfolk Grey
Lansdowne VISCOUNT.
Clanricarde Falkland
Devon Beaumont
Shaftesbury Wrottesley
Cowper Campbell
List of the NOT-CONTENTS.
DUKE. St. Germans
Richmond Ellenborough
Exeter Stanley
EARLS. Lyttelton
Radnor Bolton
Malmesbury Redesdale
Nelson Colchester
Stradbroke Wharncliffe

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 11 to 22 agreed to; on one of which


expressed a hope that, as the Government were about to take the administration of the Poor Law under their more immediate control, they would consider the propriety of issuing some instruction or recommendation with a view to classification being adopted, at least to the extent of separating young women and girls of good character from those of bad character. The guardians in many cases had made a regulation to this effect, and the Commissioners had approved of it; but there were unions in which it had not been done, and serious mischief had resulted.


did not think it would be easy to frame a general order, defining what should be done in this respect; it must be left very much with the boards of guardians.

On Clause 23, providing that married persons above 60 years of ago should not be compelled to live apart in workhouses,


mentioned an instance in which a man who had been twenty years in the house under the old system, took means to procure employment and left the house as soon as he found that under the New Poor Law he must be separated from his wife. The clause under consideration would bring a vast number of couples into the workhouses, because they would find that they could be more comfortable there than outside. The law would be much better loft as at present, the guardians having power to allow husband and wife to be together where special circumstances were considered to make it right.


was understood to object to the clause.

Clause negatived.

The remaining clauses agreed to after short discussion.

Bill to be reported.

House adjourned,