HL Deb 30 March 1868 vol 191 cc457-65

Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee, read.

Moved, "That the House do now resolve itself into a Committee on the said Bill."—(The Earl of Devon.)


suggested that the measure should at once be referred to a Select Committee, that Committee confining its attention to the provisions it contained. The tendency of the Bill was to increase the power of the central Board, a spirit directly contrary to that of the original Poor Law. Now, he believed the more that power was increased the less disposition would there be to serve the office of guardian, and the essence of the system would be destroyed.


said, he thought it due to their Lordships and to the importance of the measure that he should give an explanation of its provisions, in accordance with the understanding on which the second reading was agreed to. If, after he had made such an explanation, their Lordships were of opinion that sound legislation would be promoted by the course suggested by the noble Earl (the Earl of Ellenborough), he should offer no objection. The object of the Bill was to remove various obstacles which interfered with the satisfactory working of the Poor Law, and to enlarge the powers of the Poor Law Board with reference to local administration. The Board had not the slightest desire of unduly over-riding the discretion, generally exercised wisely and properly, of the local authorities; for they would prefer to see the improvements which were from time to time necessary initiated and carried out by the local guardians. Experience, however, had shown that, in some cases, an opposition was offered to improvements which might almost be designated pertinacious, and that, serious evils would result were it not for the action of a central authority. It was to deal with such cases and to remedy evils at present existing that additional powers Mere now asked for. The 1st clause was designed to give greater publicity to the general Rules or Orders of the Poor Law Board, by directing their publication in The London Gazette. The 2nd dispensed, with a view to economy, with the neces- sity of sending copies of Orders to the justices' clerks of petty sessional divisions; for gentlemen attending petty sessions were ex officio guardians, and would therefore, in that character, become acquainted with such orders. The 3rd repealed the exception contained in 30 & 31 Vict. c. 106, s. 2, and thus brought under its operation unions and parishes in the metropolis. The 4th clause dispensed with the consent of a majority of two-thirds of the guardians in certain unions to an alteration in the composition of such unions by the Poor Law Board. It likewise gave the Board power to deal with Gilbert Unions, a proposal which had been distinctly recommended by two Parliamentary Committees. The 5th clause enabled the Board to combine parishes with a population not exceeding 300 with adjoining parishes. There were many small parishes which did not seem to require a separate guardian, and which frequently did not possess the opportunity of an adequate choice. These the Board would have the power of combining with other parishes for the purpose of representation. He now came to three clauses, which had for their object to give additional power to the guardians in reference to matters that had of late attracted a considerable amount of public attention. Those clauses were 6, 7, and 8. Their Lordships could not but be aware that much feeling had been aroused on the subject of various matters connected with the management of workhouses, although the points to which attention, had particularly been drawn were, in certain instances, the inadequacy in point of numbers, or unfitness of the officers charged with the management of the poor. The absence of paid nurses had been particularly complained of. The effect of the 6th clause was to give the Poor Law Board power, when the guardians had been called on for twenty-one days to appoint the necessary officers and had failed to do so, to step in and nominate such officers and to fix their salaries. The next clause provided for the appointment of a paid visitor. At present the Poor Law Board were empowered to appoint a paid visitor under 11 Vict. c. 59, whenever the Visiting Committee, which must necessarily be appointed by every Board of Guardians, had failed, for a period of three months, to make such appointment. But it was obvious that that provision might be evaded, and instances of such evasion had taken place. Meetings might be held nominally once a month by the Visiting Committees without in any way discharging their duties. The Poor Law Board should therefore have power to appoint a competent person to act as visitor in cases where the Visiting Committee had failed to do their duty, or had not been appointed. Under the next clause, the limited power which the Poor Law Board at present possessed with regard to buildings was extended to the providing of drains, sewers, ventilation, furniture, fixtures, medical and surgical appliances, and other conveniences. By a provision in the original Poor Law Act, and subsequently by Amendments under the 29 & 30 Vict., the Poor Law Board were empowered to spend upon buildings a sum not exceeding one-tenth of the average amount spent in the union during the three preceding years. But that power did not extend to the matters to which he had referred. Their Lordships could hardly have watched the investigations which had taken place during the last eighteen months or two years without observing the great and increasing importance which was attached to these things. Their Lordships were aware of the powers in Mr. Hardy's Act, which gave to the Poor Law Board, in the event of the failure of the Board of Guardians to do so, power to provide the necessary articles in the interests of the poor of the metropolis. That power it was now proposed to give with regard to the country in general. And on this subject, he would take that opportunity of saying that the Poor Law Board could have no object but to see that the requisite conveniences for the recovery of the inmates were duly provided. Supposing Parliament were to intrust them with the powers they now asked for, it would be their wish and their duty to bear in mind the sources from which the necessary expenditure would come—namely, the rates, and to take care that the workhouses and infirmaries should hold out no inducement to unfit persons to enter them. There was no necessity for dwelling on Clause 9; but Clause 10 was one of a very important character. By that clause it was intended to extend the provisions of the District Schools Act, so as to make them applicable to the insane and imbecile poor chargeable on the rates. Their Lordships were aware that those persons only could be kept in workhouses who came under the head of harmless insane, and this was a very large and numerous class, and one for which inadequate provision was made at present. The object of this clause was, where unions had obviously no means of dealing with the imbecile or harmless insane, to enable them to combine into districts, such districts to be managed in the same way as the school districts were, for the purpose of establishing and maintaining a common asylum. It was with a view to give necessary powers for dealing with harmless, insane, and idiots that Clause 10 and also Clause 14 were introduced. Clause 14 gave power to the guardians—but, in the first instance, with the consent of the Poor Law Board—to send the harmless insane either to asylums supported by public subscriptions, or to asylums for the reception of harmless idiots, or to remove them from one workhouse to another. It was a permissive clause, and he thought the guardians ought to be invested with that power. Clause 11 provided that, instead of, as at present, the major part of the whole body of guardians being required to give their consent, the consent of the majority of the guardians assembled after due notice should be sufficient for the formation of a school district. Clause 12 was one which involved matters which must be dealt with elsewhere, and to which, therefore, he need not then refer. The 13th clause contained a provision which was necessary in the event of a separation of a parish from a union in a school districts, or the addition of a parish to such union. He now came to clauses which were of very great importance, calculated, as he believed them to be, to carry out and secure the application of just and proper principles recognized in almost every measure upon the subject of the Poor Law since the original Act of 1834. He referred to the clauses bearing upon the religious rights and privileges of inmates of workhouses, and securing to them proper opportunities of religious instruction and freedom from interference with their religious opinions. The principles embodied in these clauses were recognized in the 4 & 5 Will. IV., in the Industrial Schools Act, and in Orders of the Poor Law Board, which had most justly for their object the protection of individual religious belief. Experience showed, however, that the means provided for securing this religious liberty had not been altogether effectual. From the opposition of the guardians in some cases, and from other causes, it had been found that there were no sufficient means of ascertaining and recording the religious views of the inmates of workhouses, and that it had become necessary to have some more definite and clear legislation. This point was distinctly laid down by the Committee of the other House, which terminated their sittings in 1864, and their recommendations formed the basis of the clauses now proposed. Clause 16 provided, that the master or superintendent of the workhouse should keep such a separate register of the religious creeds of the pauper inmates as should be prescribed by the Poor Law Board. That was no new regulation. A register was to be kept under the Industrial Schools Act, and in the Indoor Relief List there is a column in which the religious opinion of each inmate is to be inserted. But that column was mixed up with other entries in a book kept solely by the master; and experience showed that a clearer and more distinct record was required, accessible to the ministers of religious denominations, for the purpose of enabling them to take the necessary means of affording religious instruction to the inmates. He cordially concurred, therefore, with the recommendations of the Committee that a creed register should be kept. Clause 16 provided for the keeping of such a register, and Clause 17 enacted that the master or superintendent should enter in such register as the religious persuasion of any child under fourteen the creed of the father, if this could be ascertained, and if not, the creed of the mother. In the case of an illegitimate child under that age, its creed was to be deemed that of the mother. If, however, it could be shown that the child had been baptized in some other religion than that of the father or mother respectively, the entry in the registry was to be made according to the baptism, unless the father, or, in case of his death or absence, the mother, should otherwise require. Clause 18 provided that, where all other evidence failed, the certificate of baptism should be deemed sufficient evidence of the child's creed; and, further, that if any question arose as to the correctness of the register, the Poor Law Board, after inquiry, should have the power of directing any entry to be amended. Clause 19 provided that every minister of any denomination officiating in the church or chapel of such denomination which should be nearest to the workhouse or school should be allowed to inspect the creed register at reasonable times; and Clause 20, that such minister might, conformably with the regulations of the Board, visit and instruct any inmate of the same creed entered in the register. By Clause 21, every inmate for whom a religious service according to his own creed should not be provided in the workhouse on Sunday, and on any other day required by his religion to be kept sacred, should be permitted, subject to certain regulations, to attend once on such days some place of worship of his own denomination within a convenient distance, of the workhouse. Lastly, no child visited regularly by a minister of his own religious creed for the purpose of religious instruction should, at the written request of such minister, be instructed in any other religious creed, or be required or permitted to attend any other religious service than that of the creed under which it was entered in the register; unless any child above fourteen should desire to receive instruction in some other creed, and should be considered by the Poor Law Board competent to exercise a judgment upon the subject. He trusted that these clauses would meet with approval, and that their Lordships would be of opinion that they embodied sound and necessary provisions. The next clauses to which he would refer dealt with the appointment of auditors. At present the whole of England was divided into groups of unions, each group having its own auditor, who is appointed by the chairman and the vice-chairmen of the unions within the group. It has been recommended that this system should be altered; that the districts should be enlarged; and that there should be a smaller number of auditors—men who would devote the whole of their time to the work, instead of men who, for the most part, had other occupations. There were clauses carrying out these recommendations, and it was hoped that, in this way, a regular supervision of accounts would be secured. By Clause 26 the Board abandoned patronage which at present belonged to them relative to the appointment, in certain temporary districts, of registrars, who were now to be elected by the guardians. Clause 29 would facilitate the bringing of appeals against rating in which two unions might be interested, thus reducing the expense of such appeals. Clause 33 gave power to the justices at petty sessions to make an order upon a husband to maintain his wife; and in the case of parents wilfully neglecting to pro- vide adequate food, clothing, medical aid, or lodging for children under fourteen, whereby the health of such children was endangered, Clause 35 gave power to the guardians to institute a prosecution, and made the offence one punishable on summary conviction before two justices by imprisonment, for any period not exceeding six months, with or without hard labour. These were, he believed, all the explanations in reference to the provisions of the measure with which he need then trouble their Lordships. He was quite willing to refer the Bill to a Select Committee; but it would be on condition that the Committee should confine itself to the clauses of this Bill, and not discuss the general question of Poor Law administration.


, whilst approving the proposal to extend the powers of the Poor Law Board, concurred in the opinion that the increased powers should be scrutinized closely. This, however, was essentially a Bill of details, and it was exceedingly difficult to understand its clauses without reference to previous Acts and Committees. Therefore, it would be desirable to refer this Bill to a Select Committee, which would be better able to discuss the effect of the clauses than would a Committee of that House. He concurred with the noble Earl that the Select Committee ought not to go into the general question, but ought to confine itself to the clauses of this Bill. One of the clauses which raised a doubt in his mind was that relating to the appointment of a visitor. The character of it seemed to be peculiar; for it proposed to enable the Poor Law Board to appoint a person to superintend, control, and inspect the guardians appointed by the union at the expense of the union itself. The general principle on which legislation had hitherto proceeded was that local bodies elected by the ratepayers should control their own affairs and pay for the expense of such control, and that the Government should provide an adequate system of inspection, and pay for it out of the Imperial funds. Without very strong reasons that general principle ought not to be infringed. Boards of Guardians were supposed to enjoy the confidence of the ratepayers; and it would be rather hard to pay a person appointed by the Government to inspect them out of the funds they administer. While expressing a doubt with regard to this clause, he thought it might be worth while to consider whether one kind of inspection might not be introduced, and that was inspection by medical officers. The present Inspectors of the Poor Law Board were not able to make frequent visits to any particular union; and they did not possess the knowledge and experience necessary to enable them to advise guardians as to the management of their infirmaries, the accommodation required by patients, the arrangements as to nursing, and a variety of details upon which it was most desirable that guardians should be advised by a competent person. Those who acted as chairmen of local Boards would feel their hands strengthened by the appointment of such an officer. He was glad to observe that the noble Earl had taken a power of establishing infirmaries in certain places. He did not think those infirmaries were needed in rural unions; but in large and populous places such as Birmingham, he thought they might be established with great advantage, not only to the sick poor but to the ratepayers themselves, in the greater economy which would ultimately result from the good management of the sick poor. The clauses providing instruction for the children of poor persons in workhouses in the religion to which their parents belonged were entirely in accordance with the general principles of our legislation. The provisions for securing contributions from men who had deserted their wives and families were excellent. He would not now refer to certain Amendments of which he had given Notice, and which, personally or through some noble Lord, he proposed to move in the Select Committee.


moved that the Bill be referred to a Select Committee.


pointed out that extreme inconvenience frequently arose in unions from the fact that guardians representing small outlying parishes, and who never attended the ordinary Board meetings, went down sometimes in a body on special occasions, and outvoted those who generally conducted the business of the union, often preventing important improvements from being made. He suggested that there should be Poor Law divisions in the nature of electoral districts; and that each division of a union should be represented by guardians who, in their number, bore a just proportion to the wealth and population of the district they represented, and who should be as few as possible.


pointed out that there was no power taken in the Bill for the erection of infirmaries.


said, he could not approve any provision tending to reduce the number of guardians attending a Board. It was never found inconvenient to have a large Board. On the contrary, it was extremely desirable that a Board should be large and that many persons in a country district should be made acquainted with the working of the Poor Law Board—an object which could be attained only by having large Boards of Guardians.


con curved in the proposal to refer the Bill to a Select Committee.

Alter a few words from The Earl of DEVON in reply,

Motion (by Leave of the House) withdrawn; and Bill referred to a Select Committee.

And, on April 2, the Lords following were named of the Committee:—

L. Abp. York E. Ducio
D. Richmond E. Ellenborough
M. Salisbury E. Kimberley
K. Devon V Eversley
E. Denbigh L. Clinton
E. Hardwicke L. Egerton
E. Carnarvon L. Northbrook
E. Grey