HL Deb 09 May 1848 vol 98 cc804-7

LORD BEAUMONT, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, explained at some length the nature of the associations, the difficulties under which they laboured, and the means which he intended to take to remove them. This Bill involved the great question of the right of association, and on that account became of much more importance than might at first appear to a casual observer. He acknowledged the principle that for good and useful purposes men had a right to combine, and not only that, but having combined, that they had a right to claim the protection of the State and legal facilities for effecting their objects; it also involved the great question of social economy, namely, placing within the power of the labouring classes the means of making themselves independent, and assuring that independence in their old age by means of sacrifices during the earlier portion of their lives. Nor did the Bill lose its importance, when they considered the numbers to which it referred. After stating the history of the Odd Fellow, the Forester, and similar societies (one of which societies consisted of 350,000 members, and 4,000 distinct lodges, scattered over different parts of the country), which had been decided to be illegal, as coming within the provisions of the Act of the 39th of George III., cap. 76, the noble Lord argued at some length that, as they were purely of a charitable character, they ought to be put on the same footing as all those other societies which were within the provisions of the Benefit Societies Act. At present the surplus funds were invested in the names of individuals as trustees, as the society could not make an investment in its own name. The trustees often refused to act; large sums were consequently unavailable; and though the instances of actual fraud were few, there were no means of proceeding against the parties where such cases had occurred. This was an evil which ought to be remedied. He proposed by this Bill to render these societies legal. He maintained the principle, which he found had been adopted in the other House of Parliament, that men had a right to associate, and men had associated from a very early period, to provide for themselves and their families in time of distress. The better to secure this object, affiliated societies had been formed which presented far greater advantages than the small isolated societies registered under the 9th and 10th Victoria. In the former, if severe local sickness prevailed, the effect on a society of so vast an extent was scarcely felt; but though they might struggle on under ordinary circumstances any great local affliction immediately exhausted the funds of the isolated societies. The Odd Fellows, Foresters, &c., were not secret but charitable societies, and none of the objections to secret societies were applicable to them. By the Act of George III. all corresponding and affiliated societies were rendered illegal; but that Act was only_intended to prevent societies having political objects, and that was proved by the fact, that the Freemasons' Society was specially exempted by name as a society having charitable objects. These societies being equally of a charitable nature, and having no immoral tendency, likewise claimed to be similarly exempted. One evil in the present system was, that the tables were not generally correct; and the result was, that the young members of the society paid for the old, and unless there was a constant influx of the former, and a corresponding removal of the latter, the society soon became insolvent. He believed nothing could be more advantageous to the country generally, than for the Government to call together three or four of the most eminent actuaries to prepare a standard table for all friendly societies. At present one actuary takes one data, another another, and the greatest variety consequently exists in their deductions. For his own part, he should be sorry to encourage young men to enter into these societies unless their present tables were corrected; but he had every reason to expect that if this Bill passed, the large affiliated bodies would apply themselves to the subject, and with their experience they would be able to ascertain and fix a secure rate of contributions. These institutions were most valuable to the country, creating a good feeling, and tending to unite in charitable objects and in friendly views persons of various classes and callings. The petitioners had approached their Lordships in a manner the most respectful, and had professed their attachment to the Government and constitution; and their simple object being to obtain security for those funds which they contributed, in order to provide aid for themselves in old age, he trusted that they would not plead in vain, but receive at their Lordships' hands a measure, which while it inculcated the principle of mutual support, gave to the labouring man a feeling of independence, and allowed him to look to coming years without the prospect of a workhouse. The noble Lord concluded by moving the second reading of the Bill.

The MARQUESS of LANSDOWNE said, he was desirous not to throw any impediment in the way of relief being granted to the evils complained of: at the same time he must state that he could not assent to the principle of the Bill as moved by his noble Friend, which would have a tendency to legalise all societies affiliated together and communicating by signs. By the provisions of this Bill it would be extremely difficult to ascertain whether such societies were kept within the legitimate objects which, of course, they would profess; and, therefore, in giving his assent to the second reading of this Bill, he must not be considered as agreeing to the principle farther than a desire to see this particular society to which the noble Lord had more particularly alluded, and which certainly had a claim upon the attention of their Lordships, provided with a remedy for the evils of which they complained. If, therefore, their Lordships should agree to the second reading, he trusted that it would be so framed in Committee as to limit its provisions to this society. With regard to the defects in the internal regulations of such societies, he considered that a serious evil; and he might mention that Mr. Tidd Pratt had been engaged during the last fortnight in investigating the abuses which had lately been detected in some of the savings banks in the south of Ireland, and which were said to have originated in defects of the law. Those abuses had resulted, he was sorry to say, in the loss of an immense amount of property which belonged to the poorer classes of society, thereby still further aggravating the calamities which had already spread consternation and dismay among the people. He mentioned this to show the necessity of stringent regulations upon the subject, and with these observations he would offer no opposition to the second reading of the Bill.

LORD BEAUMONT said, with regard to the abuses of which the noble Marquess complained, the societies of which he was the advocate had nothing to do; they were fully aware of the defects in the management of most provident institutions, and their great object was, that they might be exempted from these evils by having powers to act as a legal society. He should be very willing when in Committee to endeavour to frame the Bill in conformity with the views of the noble Marquess.

Bill read 2a. and was referred to a Select Committee.

House adjourned.

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