HL Deb 12 May 1868 vol 192 cc95-105

THE EARL OF CARNARVON moved for Copy of Correspondence which has recently passed between the Poor Law Board and the Guildford Board of Guardians in reference to the Relief of Vagrants. It was not his intention to raise a discussion on the general question of casual relief—he only desired to call attention to a particular case in a particular union, which appeared to him to involve such a principle of injustice that he hoped his reference to it in that House would have the effect of preventing its occurrence elsewhere. He understood that the Poor Law Guardians of the Guildford Union had appointed as their relieving officer for the casual poor a police-constable. To such an act of the Board he did not think there could be any substantial objection; but he had been further informed that this relieving officer in carrying out his duties had proceeded upon the principle of inquiring into each particular case before granting relief, and when he considered that the applicant was what was called a professional tramp, he refused relief. Now although he was supported by the Board of Guardians in the course he had taken, he (the Earl of Carnarvon) wished to point out that the views of this officer in this respect were absolutely and wholly wrong. Vagrancy, as their Lordships knew, was treated by the law as an offence, and was punishable as such. But to inflict punishment upon a vagrant by absolute starvation—by refusing all relief—whether the applicant was a professional tramp or not, was wholly contrary to the law. The duty of the guardians was simply to administer relief to those who were really in want of it, and the relieving officer was bound to afford board and lodging for the night to any casual applicant, provided he had no bonâ fide reason for supposing that such person was merely simulating destitution for the purpose of obtaining relief under false pretences. When the circumstances of this case at Guildford were brought to the knowledge of his noble Friend at the head of the Poor Law Board (the Earl of Devon) he immediately sent down instructions to the Poor Law Guardians in respect to the treatment of the casual poor, which instructions the guardians were to communicate to their relieving officer for his guidance; but the guardians by a majority of votes decided against obeying these instructions. Things therefore went on as before. When the Poor Law Board was again applied to it again sent down similar instructions for the guidance of the relieving officer; but with the same result as before, as the guardians a second time decided by a majority against communicating them to their official. A third time was the case brought before his noble Friend, and a third time did he issue instructions to the Board of Guardians; but on this occasion his noble Friend did not communicate his instructions by letter, but by an Inspector, whom he sent down to Guildford, and who pointed out to the guardians that they had been acting illegally in regard to the treatment given by their relieving officer to the casual poor; but once more the guardians refused to communicate the instructions to the relieving officer, on the ground that he must have been already aware through the newspapers of the views of the Poor Law Board on the subject. He (the Earl of Carnarvon) would not comment on these facts, but he would ask his noble Friend the President of the Poor Law Board, how far it was possible for Boards of Guardians to set at defiance the central authority; and, whether he was not possessed of certain powers by which he could reduce a recalcitrant board to obedience? If the noble Earl did not possess such a power he ought to ask Parliament to give it to him, and doubtless it would be cheerfully accorded. In speaking of the Guildford Board of Guardians, he ought to have mentioned that a small minority of them, headed by the rector of one of the neighbouring parishes, had struggled hard, but in vain, against the vis inertœ of the majority; and it was owing to that minority that this matter had not been allowed to go to sleep.

Moved, "That there be laid before this House, Copy of Correspondence which has recently passed between the Poor Law Board and the Guildford Board of Guardians in reference to the Relief of Vagrants."—(The Earl of Carnarvon.)


said, he had no objection to produce the Papers which were the subject of his noble Friend's Motion; but he thought it would be convenient to modify the terms of his noble Friend's Motion, so as to include the whole of the Correspondence which had taken place upon the subject. He should imitate the example of the noble Earl, in not, on this occasion, going into the large and vexed question of the treatment of vagrants in this country, which was one of the most difficult subjects with which the Poor Law Board had to deal. The statement of the noble Earl with regard to the facts of the case in question was substantially correct, with the exception that the police constable was appointed to the office, not of relieving officer, but of assistant relieving officer, his duties being strictly confined to administering relief to the casual poor. The course pursued by that officer was clearly contrary to law. The officer exercised the discretion which it was perfectly right he should do, taking care that relief was not given to those who ought not to receive it; but, on the other hand, he had taken on himself to refuse relief where it ought to have been given, and where—as subsequently appeared—there were no visible means of subsistence, and where the parties refused had gone into the town to commit offences in order that they might be sent to gaol. The Poor Law Board had communicated with the Board of Guardians, on two occasions, by letter, and a third time by sending down an Inspector, and had informed them that: whatever the character of the persons who: might present themselves as claimants for: relief, although belonging to the class of I vagrants, the law required that the necessary relief should be given to them if: destitute, and they requested the Board of Guardians to communicate that opinion to the official acting under them whose conduct was immediately concerned. On the last occasion, when the Inspector attended the meeting of the Guardians, he, in a long interview, impressed on them the real state of the law, and urged them to communicate instructions to that effect to the officer. In the course of the discussion on that occasion, the Chairman stated that the officer was already in possession of those instructions; and in consequence of that statement—in which, from the position of the person making it, they could not but place reliance—the Poor Law Board had not taken any further steps. His noble Friend, asked what power the Poor Law Board had with reference to a recalcitrant Board of Guardians in such a case? They had no power to act upon the Board of Guardians; but they had power to send their instructions direct to the assistant relieving officer, and to dismiss him in case he neglected or refused; to obey. He hoped their Lordships would give their attention to the Papers which would be laid before them, where they would see exactly the course pursued by the Poor Law Board; and if the Board found it necessary to interfere further, they would not shrink from doing so.


said, that no doubt the question of vagrancy would before long force itself on their Lordships' serious attention, when it would be absolutely necessary to enter into a most searching and comprehensive examination of the whole Poor Law system of the country. It was a most formidable principle that every person should be entitled to maintenance at the public expense without reference to character, conduct, or circumstances; and to render it safe they could only deal with the destitute. If relief reached any class above destitution, it necessarily involved injustice to every other class. The system rested on three guarantees—the labour test, the work house, and the small area of rating, as involving vigilant caution, knowledge, and attention to business. But the system had gradually departed from every one of these guarantees, and the consequence was that out-door relief had largely increased and the rates were rapidly increasing. Abuses had been gradually creeping into the whole system, and the time was not distant when he believed it would be necessary for the safety of the country to consider the whole question, which was much more formidable now than when the new Poor Law Act was first passed. He had been intimately acquainted with the late Mr. Senior, who was the real author and framer of that measure. He was in constant communication with him while he was pursuing his inquiries as a Poor Law Commissioner, and he well remembered, when congratulating him on the passing of the Bill, and saying that the country was now permanently safe in consequence, that gentleman told him not to be over certain—they had a lease for thirty or forty years, but before that period expired they would have the whole thing to do over again. He hoped their Lordships would give this question their most serious attention.


said, that the question of vagrancy was a very important one, and he thought that the number of professional vagrants, which was gradually increasing, required a serious check. He concurred with the noble Lord who had just spoken (Lord Overstone) in thinking that very great abuses had crept, and were creeping into the administration of the Poor Law, and as to the great evils that were likely to ensue; but he was sorry to say that the disposition of the present day was to prevent a check being put to these evils, and rather to aggravate them. The real truth to be borne in mind was, that the purpose of the Poor Law was not that the funds raised under it, in many instances from very poor persons, should be administered as charitable gifts, but for the relief of destitution. He believed, after all, that the principle adopted by the Guildford Board of Guardians in regard to vagrants was a right one—namely, to discourage the system of professional tramps, who were not travelling about in quest of honest employment, but were mere idle vagrants who shunned work. The only way of dealing properly with that class was through a police officer; but that was not strictly the law. It would require some alteration before that could well be done. Relief should be given even in cases of vagrancy where there was believed to be destitution; but the parties should be brought before the magistrates next morning and committed for vagrancy. He had been Chairman of a Board of Guardians since the institution of the new Poor Law, and therefore he had had a good deal of experience in the matter, and he believed it to be impossible in many instances to grant relief to vagrants in workhouses in all cases, because in some unions there was only one workhouse for several parishes upon different lines of road. The result was that in the towns where there was no workhouse the paupers went to the overseer or to the relieving officer, if he resided in the place. Now, it appeared to him that neither of those persons was competent to deal with cases of vagrancy. They did not like to expose the windows of their residences to be broken by the violence of those persons, in the event of refusal to relieve them. He (Lord Redesdale) thought that the best course to pursue would be not to admit vagrants into the workhouses except in cases of sickness, when they must be maintained until their recovery. There were some persons who had peculiar views in reference to Poor Law relief; and, probably, some of those who raised objections took the view that the amount raised by rates should be administered as charity, and that there should be a general relief of all who came and asked for it. If such a system were introduced into this country it would lead to evils of a most dangerous character; and he certainly hoped that some law would be passed which would be founded upon this principle, that while the honest vagrant should receive relief the inveterate professional vagrant should as such suffer by the law. He thought it would be better to have separate houses for vagrants, administered under the discretion of a police officer appointed by the Board of Guardians. When Boards of Guardians were accused of obstinacy, he must say that, for the most part, the majority of a Board were better judges than the minority as to the manner in which relief was administered.


said, that he had no objection to the alteration proposed by the noble Earl the President of the Poor Law Board; but he hoped that the Correspondence which was to be laid before them would bring out the exact facts of the case. He had been informed that the Board of Guardians had three times distinctly negatived the proposal to communicate the instructions of the Poor Law Board to the relieving officer. He should entirely agree with his noble Friend the Chairman of Committees, that public money was given with a view to relief and not with a view to charity, if the proposition were applied to the able-bodied poor only. He also agreed that relief should not be given except in cases of absolute destitution. But if the rule were applied by his noble Friend to the case of the sick and infirm, who were qualified for admission to an infirmary rather than a workhouse, then he must altogether dissent from the doctrine. With this qualification he was prepared to accept a great deal of what had been said by his noble Friend. Great difficulty arose from the area of taxation for Poor Law purposes being too narrow; and if this area took in more than the class of property that the rates now alone pressed on, much of the difficulty would disappear. Every one who attended a Board of Guardians in a poor district must be aware that it very often happened that a large proportion of those who contributed to the poor rates were very little above the position of those who received relief, and he had himself very often felt the injustice of pressing men who could hardly keep themselves to increase the rates.


protested against the doctrine that it would be prudent to extend the area of taxation; for he could conceive nothing more dangerous than enlarging the area of taxation beyond the area of administration. Nothing could be more enticing than to have the power of relieving the poor by spending other people's money; but he looked with great alarm upon a national poor rate with a local area of administration. Possibly, however, all that his noble Friend meant was to refer to the propriety of bringing under the incidence of rating, property which was now unfairly exempted from rating; but not to interfere with the principle of having the area of taxation and the area of administration conterminous. This principle involved a careful and scrupulous administration of relief out of the rates. The money spent in rates was part of the wages fund of the country, and that amount could not be raised by rating for relief of the poor without tending to diminish wages by diminishing the demand for labour, inasmuch as labour could only be paid for out of the fund at the disposal of the employers for wages. If the owners of land should raise a cry for aid to support the poor from anything like national rating or a national taxation he believed that they would have an almost unlimited amount of confusion and waste. This would give rise to the mischief, not merely of spending money, but that also of deteriorating raid degrading the character of the people by the spread of pauperism with all its evils, moral as well as physical.


said, that there could be no doubt that the evil of vagrancy was increasing to a very serious extent, and deserved the serious attention of the Legislature. He agreed with those who thought it was encouraged in some places by well-meaning but inefficient members of Boards of Guardians. He was quite of opinion that the time had come for taking serious steps to diminish the mischief, and that result could only be attained by the adoption of more coercive measures—by inquiring into the character of vagrants, and informing those who were not really destitute that if they applied again they would be punished.


explained that, in saying it might be desirable to enlarge the area of taxation in reference to the Poor Law, he did not mean in a geographical and territorial sense, but that there was a particular kind of property on which taxation rested at the present moment with undue severity and injustice. He very much objected to the whole Poor Law relief falling almost entirely on real property—to three-fourths of the population benefiting by an expenditure which had to be borne by the other fourth. That was what he meant in the observations to which objection had been taken.


said, the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Carnarvon) stated that he went along with the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees as far as the able-bodied poor were concerned, but that he could not agree with him as regarded the aged and the sick poor. For: his own part he (the Earl of Kimberley) thought the noble Earl was wrong in the reservations he had made on that point. As a matter of humanity it was right to make a distinction between the manner of treating the sick and the aged poor, and the manner of treating the able-bodied poor; but, as regarded the principles on which relief should be given under the Poor Law, he maintained those principles ought to be applied to all classes of the poor, without distinction. The treatment of all should be based on the idea of giving relief, and not of dispensing charity. In giving relief to aged and sick paupers they must have strict rules which would pre vent aged and sick persons from having comforts within the workhouse which those of the same class did not enjoy out of it, and from coming upon the rates when they might be supported by their own relations, if they were able to support them, or when they might be in a position to obtain the relief they required for themselves. That was no imaginary difficulty. The question often arose whether medical aid should or should not be given by the parish; it was then the duty of the guardians to scrutinize these cases, and if they thought the relatives of the sick person had the means of supplying relief, then they should refuse the assistance of the parish doctor. Undoubtedly, if the sick poor required parish relief, it ought to be afforded them in the most humane and efficient manner; and he hoped improvements would be made in the administration of the law in that respect, and that due vigilance would be exercised to secure that the attendance on the sick poor should be as good as it ought to be. Then, again, as to the aged poor, it was obvious that, if they gave relief indiscriminately to aged persons, they took away all inducement to lay by money as a provision for old age, and would teach them to look upon the whole wealth of the country as their insurance fund for the time of infirmity and old age. If that were not guarded against, they would fall hack into that system of universal pauper ism from which they only emerged by means of the new Poor Law. There was a great tendency among the industrial poor to slide into the position of paupers. This argument was used among them—"Why should we work hard to maintain our families, when we see parish assistance given to other men who are as able as we are to support their families?" He contended that one of the duties of Boards of Guardians was to see that the interest of the industrious and deserving poor was properly cared for. He meant that they should not be put in a position in which they could justly complain of the relief that was given. It was a mistake to suppose that the burden of the Poor Law fell only on the rich—it fell very heavily on the poor also. He had frequently met with poor persons who remonstrated against the relief given to persons who, they said, were perfectly able to maintain themselves. The poorer ratepayers were as jealous as any class of the community about relief being granted where it was not really deserved. These were feelings which it was desirable to encourage, and he trusted that, in considering any alteration in the administration of the Poor Law, they would be carefully borne in mind. He wished, however, to be understood as being entirely in favour of such improvements in the administration of the system as would insure that the assistance which must be given should be given in the best and most effective manner possible, and as opposed to any economy wL.ch might produce hardship or insufficiency of relief. He believed that in many parts of the country there had been neglect in that matter. He thought there ought to be more supervision exercised on the part of the Poor Law Board, and that not merely on the plea of economy, but to introduce efficiency and to prevent those hardships in the administration of the law which, if not prevented, might be used as arguments hereafter for the subversion of the whole system. Thinking that our Poor Law ought to be maintained on its present principles, he hoped that he might be excused for making these few remarks.


said, that the Poor Law could not be carried out in the present day with the stringency which was originally contemplated; and no one who had attended to the subject could doubt that a very great change had within the last few years occurred in its administration. There could now, in the great majority of cases, be no just complaint that the workhouses were not suited to their purpose or were inadequately provided for the comfort of their inmates. To his own knowledge there were workhouses which had become not hospitals, but what the French called hospices, where the inmates obtained a great deal more comfort than people of the same class out of them. Special care should, he thought, be taken that too great an extension was not given to that change. Endeavours should be made to keep down vagrancy by giving what relief was absolutely necessary to vagrants, but nothing beyond that. Houses had been hired in some cases expressly for the purpose of receiving vagrants, and this was a better system than taking them into the workhouse. Union rating had been substituted for parish rating—an alteration which called for the exercise of great vigilance, lest the resources of the union should be wasted by persons who were, perhaps, less interested in their economical application in consequence of the extension of the area of taxation. But the question of area was far too large a subject to be discussed on an incidental Motion like the present; and he thought their Lordships would all agree that a national system of rating would be at tended with great danger of abuse and of a national system of pauperism. The noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Kimberley) had advocated the bringing of other species of property beside that now subject to it under assessment to poor rate; but that would involve a change in the whole system of the existing law, and would raise a very large question which ought not to be settled without the very gravest and fullest deliberation.

Motion amended, and agreed to.

Ordered, That there be laid before this House, Copy of Correspondence which has recently taken place with the Poor Law Board in reference to the Relief of Vagrants in the Guildford Union.—(The Earl of Carnarvon.)