HL Deb 12 June 1868 vol 192 cc1462-5

rose to move That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, to request that She will be graciously pleased to issue a Royal Commission to inquire into the Operation and Administration of the Laws for the Relief of the Poor in England and Wales. The noble Marquess, who was imperfectly heard, was understood to say it appeared to him imperatively necessary that no further time should be allowed to elapse till an inquiry took place into the administration of the law relating to the relief of the poor, which he could not but consider as a scandal and disgrace to the country, and which had produced among the people a painful feeling of discontent. The subject would require a prolonged investigation, which could not be given to it by Members of the Legislature during the Session; but which could be devoted to it by them during the Recess, aided by gentlemen best fitted for such an inquiry. It was only necessary to call their Lordships' attention to the cases which had been brought forward in the public Press to show that unless something were done the gravest censure would justly be attributed to the administration of the laws relating to the relief of the poor. But in his censure of the system in general, and in some degree of those who had the administration of relief, he rejoiced that he was not obliged to point out any defect, or want of skill, or efficiency on the part of the noble Lord who now presided over the Department. It was the system itself which was condemned by; the public at large. In speaking of the numerous scandals which had been made public it was impossible to say what was the number that still remained unknown. When it was considered that workhouses were literally prisons, though those confined had been guilty of no fault but poverty, the importance of classification among the inmates must be at once apparent. Yet in this respect how little had been done. Another point to which he must call attention was the system of unpaid nurses in workhouses, and who were in many cases totally unfit for their duties. Very little had been done to improve the condition of things in this respect. It was also most important that the system pursued with reference to the appointment of medical officers should be altered. There were cases which had appeared in the public papers, where it had been shown that the officers who had discharged their duty in the most able manner had been hunted out of their places because they had ventured to perform their duties in a proper and humane spirit. In connection with the internal economy of workhouses, it was impossible not also to allude to the state of the casual wards in the provinces. He admitted that considerable improvements had been effected in this respect, but much remained to be accomplished. It was well known that in some instances masters of workhouses had been appointed without due regard to qualification, and there were cases in which they had been appointed, notwithstanding a previous dismissal from office. Again, attention should be directed to the miserable pittance doled out to paupers advanced in years and not admitted into the houses—it was not enough to keep body and soul together. He entirely agreed with a very able article which had recently appeared in the leading journal on this subject, in which many evils of the present system were traced to the defective constitution of the Boards of Guardians. It would be presumption in him to endeavour to point out the proper remedies for the evils of the present system; but he hoped their Lordships would give full consideration to so important a subject, and that the imperfections of the advocate would not damage the cause he had undertaken. He would not attempt to point out the remedies that were required. That he would leave to noble Lords who were much more competent than himself; and he hoped their Lordships would therefore consent to an Address for a Royal Commission who might inquire into the subject during the Recess, and report to the House at the meeting of Parliament.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, to request that Her Majesty will be graciously pleased to issue a Royal Commission to inquire into the Operation and Administration of the Laws for the Relief of the Poor in England and Wales.—(The Marquess Townshend. )


said, it was not from any want of respect for the noble Marquess, nor from any failure to appreciate the purity of his motives, that he felt bound to oppose the Motion; but he did so on the broad ground that the noble Marquess had failed to make out any sufficient ground for the presentation of an Address to Her Majesty. The whole subject connected with the details of the administration of the Poor Law had, during the past few years, been investigated by Committees of both Houses of Parliament, and had undergone careful and thorough examination; and with regard to any individual case of grievance or oppression, he could only say that it had always been the object and the desire of the Poor Law Board, and that it was still, to cause the fullest inquiry to be made into it whenever it was brought under their notice. There was at all times the greatest desire to give the fullest information to their Lordships upon every point connected with the working of the Poor Laws, and any information in the possession of the Department would be freely placed at the disposal of the noble Marquess. The noble Marquess had spoken of twenty cases of death from starvation within a limited period; but if his noble Friend could point to one case of that character in which due and proper inquiry had not been made, no time should be lost in making it. While he differed from the noble Marquess as to the necessity for the appointment of a Commission, he did not differ upon certain important principles. One was that the law should be administered economically, in such a way as to relieve real destitution, and yet to prevent the money of the ratepayers from being paid to those who did not deserve it; and this was the principle which the Department would always endeavour to enforce. He fully agreed with the noble Marquess as to the necessity for the employment of paid nurses in the hospitals and infirmaries. This was a point to which the Board had given anxious attention; the Bill before the House would give the Guardians increased power to appoint such officers, and it would be the constant endeavour of the Board to enforce the carrying out of the measure when it was passed. He enter tained the same sense of the importance of classification as the noble Marquess did. The Board had used every exertion in this respect, and had lost no opportunity of improving and introducing it wherever they could; and he believed that if the noble Marquess would inspect the various metropolitan workhouses, he would find that it had already been carried out to a considerable extent. The inspectors had given great attention to the subject of vagrant wards in the metropolis; and but yesterday, in company with the Secretary of the Board, and on the invitation of the guardians of Marylebone, he visited the new vagrant wards which they had provided, which seemed to furnish all that could be desired in the way of ventilation, cleanliness, and separate accommodation, and which were but a sample of what was being done in various parts of the metropolis. Repeating his readiness to give his noble Friend the fullest information in reply to any question he might put, he concluded by urging that no necessity had been shown for the appointment of a Commission.

Motion (by Leave of the House) withdrawn.