HL Deb 27 February 1871 vol 204 cc920-7

Order of the Day for the Second Reading, read.


, in moving that the Bill be now read the second time, said, he would take the opportunity of entering more largely into the question of vagrancy than was necessitated by a simple exposition of this measure. Those who had attended to the question were probably aware that scarcely any subject had occupied to a larger extent the attention of the Legislature. The first statute was of as early a date as the 14th century, having been passed after the great pestilence. Its object was to punish or discourage vagrancy, and it enforced the principle that every able-bodied poor man must labour for his living; and it contained a provision that no person, on the colour of pity or almsgiving, should, on pain of imprisonment, give anything to encourage vagrants in their slothful disposition. This showed that our forefathers considered indiscriminate charity as one of the most fertile causes of vagrancy. The other statutes, of which an interesting synopsis had been given in a lecture by a Poor Law Inspector, were not of so lenient a character. The stocks, bread and water, corporal punishment, the pillory, cutting off the ears, branding with a hot iron, slavery, transportation, and hanging had been tried at various periods; and when these cruelties were abandoned, we had been content to employ the milder punishment of the treadmill or the tramp-ward. Recent legislation had been chiefly based on an Act of George IV., which, with few amendments, had remained the principal statute on the subject. In 1864 an important measure was passed, known as the Houseless Poor (Metropolis) Act, the chief object of which was to increase the accommodation provided for that class, and to charge the expense of their lodging and maintenance on the "common fund" of the metropolis, instead of on the several parishes or unions. It was, no doubt, a useful Bill; but it was one-sided, looking rather to the benevolent treatment of the vagrant than to the repression, as far as was consistent with humanity, of vagrancy. The result, therefore, as might be expected, was an immediate and considerable increase in the number of vagrants relieved in the metropolitan workhouses. In May, 1864, prior to the operation of the Act, the nightly average was 612; in May, 1865, it rose to 1,106, and in May, 1866, to 1,203. Now, there was some misconception in the public mind as to the existing number of vagrants. The number actually relieved in the workhouses of England and Wales was not so large as was popularly imagined. Taking the night of the 1st of July, when it was usual to take a Census, the number relieved in 1866 was 1,086 in the metropolis, and 4,075 in the rest of England and Wales. In 1867 the numbers were 1,573 and 5,248 respectively; in 1868, 2,085 and 7,946; in 1869, 1,802 and 6,692; and in 1870, 1,760 and 6,630. Taking the 1st of January, the numbers in 1866 were 1,501 and 4,469; in 1867, 1,452 and 5,027; in 1868, 1,673 and 6,129; in 1869, 1,802 and 7,020; and in 1870, 1,627 and 5,430. These figures showed that as the country had recovered from the commercial depression there had been a considerable diminution in vagrancy. They did not, however, show the whole number of vagrants in England and Wales. As far as could be ascertained by the police, the whole number on the night of the 1st of April, 1867, was 32,528; and in 1868, 36,179. No later Returns had been published; but it was believed that such Returns would show a diminution corresponding with that exhibited by the Poor Law Returns. Turning to the remedies which had been suggested to meet this evil, he would first allude to the proposal that the relief of vagrants should be entirely in the hands of the police. This he, at first sight, thought would be very advantageous, for it might be expected that vagrants would have a salutary dread of the police, and that applications for relief would be discouraged. There were, however, serious and, as he thought, fatal objections; in the first place, the police would be taken away from their proper duties; and, in the next, the building of separate sets of wards in connection with police-stations would involve a considerable expense. While rejecting the scheme for these reasons, he admitted that the police might be employed with advantage as assistant relieving-officers—that was, might be entrusted with the temporary relief of vagrants. A second plan, entitled to careful consideration, was that of "way-tickets," to be given to a vagrant at one workhouse as a passport to another, in the absence of which he would be treated as a professional tramp. This, however, was not consistent with the cardinal principle of Poor Law administration—that the necessaries of life should be afforded to all persons absolutely destitute, but not to such an extent as to encourage them to live at the public expense and to discourage honest labour. Under this system, every person of good character who might set out on his travels in search of work would be entitled to food and lodging at the public expense, and this would be an encouragement to a large class of persons to subsist by such means. It would, moreover, encourage the officers of a union to give away tickets to any persons who might be likely to fall on the rates, and, while holding that every obstacle to the free migration of labourers should be removed, he doubted the policy of offering an artificial stimulus to such migration. Another difficulty was, that if vagrants were divided into two classes, honest wayfarers and professional tramps, the latter would be refused way-tickets, and would yet be punishable if they slept in the open air or in outhouses or farm buildings. A respectable person, on account of nobody knowing his character, might thus be refused a ticket, and consequently be unable to obtain shelter. Such persons would necessarily fall on private charity, which would be called forth by the knowledge that there were persons unable to obtain shelter in the workhouses. The Poor Law did not say that persons of good character should be relieved, but that all destitute persons should be relieved. He deprecated, moreover, the introduction of a passport system, the evils incidental to which on the Continent were well known. Passports were easily forged, and could always be procured by the dishonest; while a respectable man was sometimes unable to procure them. The object to be kept in view was to err neither on the side of humanity, nor on that of severity; but this system would err in both directions—in the latter as regarded the honest wayfarer, in the former as regarded the professional tramp, who would be liable to imprisonment as a rogue and vagabond. He ventured to say that the magistrates would not carry out such a law. It was better to adhere to the system hitherto pursued, with such ameliorations as appeared advisable. One of the defects of the present law was that the Poor Law Board had no power of securing uniformity of treatment as regarded food, lodging, and the labour test. Nothing could be worse than what now happened; that the treatment was comparatively inviting in one Union and deterrent in another. The object of the Bill was first to deal with a class which, though not vagrants, were of a similar class—namely, paupers who were in the habit of taking their discharge from the workhouse, and after a very brief interval of returning to it. It not unfrequently happened that inmates—generally persons of bad character—left in the morning, passed the day in immorality or crime, and returned in the evening. The Bill consequently provided that if a pauper, who had not previously discharged himself within one month, gave notice to leave the workhouse he might be detained, by order of the guardians, for 24 hours; that if he had discharged himself once or oftener within a month, he might be detained 48 hours; and that if he discharged himself more than twice within two months, he might be detained 72 hours. Nobody conversant with the administration of the Poor Law would object, he thought, to this regulation. With regard to vagrants, they had a great objection to being detained in the workhouse beyond the single night they slept there. The Bill provided, not only that they should not be entitled to discharge themselves before 12 o'clock, and before they had performed their allotted task, but that persons who at frequent intervals habitually entered the workhouse should not be entitled to discharge themselves before 9 a.m. of the third day after their admission. This, it was believed, would prove a considerable check upon such practices. The 6th clause enabled the Poor Law Board to issue orders securing uniform diet, lodging, and work throughout England and Wales. By the 7th and 8th clauses any vagrant absconding from the casual ward before he is entitled to discharge himself, would be dealt with as an idle and disorderly person under the Act 5 Geo. IV., c. 83, s. 3; and anyone who has been previously so convicted, or anyone who shall wilfully destroy his clothes, or injure the property of the guardians, was to be dealt with as a rogue and vagabond under the 4th section. The 10th clause provided that where, as in the metropolis, an Asylum Board existed, it might be intrusted with the carrying out of the Bill. The object in view was that where, as in large towns, separate establishments might be built for vagrants, where they might be relieved at smaller cost, and where a separation might be made between the professional tramps and other vagrants, the Boards which under a recent Act managed Asylums for the sick and other classes might manage the vagrant wards, thus avoiding a needless multiplication of Boards. The uniform treatment which the Poor Law Board, if the Bill passed, intended to secure, the separation of the vagrants into two classes, the sufficiently severe task of work, and the power of detention would, he believed, prove great improvements in the present law, without introducing that excessive severity which defeated its own object by stimulating indiscriminate almsgiving.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."—(The Earl of Kimberley.)


said, that he would reserve the discussion of the details of the Bill till the next stage, but having had some experience of the issue of way-tickets, especially in his own county of Hampshire, he would make a few remarks on what the noble Earl had said in reference to that subject. The promoters of that system had urged it as a provisional measure, in the hope that the Government would take up the question. They had been placed in considerable difficulty. Vagrancy had been increasing for many years, and each county had been more or less thrown on its self-defence. In this position the system of way-tickets was, he believed, the best; but he was glad that the question was likely to be made the subject of legislation for the whole country, with a view to a uniform system. As for the hardship apprehended by his noble Friend, to those who for various reasons might be unable to obtain tickets, such persons would be treated just as tramps now were, and would be deprived of the advantages to be enjoyed by the honest wayfarer. The system had been in force in Gloucestershire, and one or two other counties, and he was not aware that tickets had been forged in a single case. He doubted, indeed, whether it would be worth while on the part of anybody to forge them. As to the system encouraging vagrancy, the best reply he could give was that during the last few weeks it had been in operation in Hampshire, and had almost cleared the county of that class of professional tramps. He agreed with his noble Friend in the propriety of detaining vagrants till noon, for he believed nothing would be so much disliked by them as interfering with their habits and throwing them out of their plan for the day. Under the ticket system the honest wayfarer in search of work obtained the privilege of a slightly better diet, was insured food and lodging at the different workhouses along the route, and in a few days was passed out of the county, and so far expedited on his journey. There was no chance of repressing vagrancy, unless the public were satisfied that every fair provision was made for the honest wayfarer, for they would otherwise indulge in indiscriminate almsgiving and thus encourage professional vagrancy; but if the public would determinedly support the movement he thought satisfactory results might be brought about. As far as he was yet acquainted with the provisions of the Bill he was disposed to concur in most of them.


said, he entirely concurred in the Bill to which the noble Earl had asked them to give a second reading. At the same time, he must point out to his noble Friend (the Earl of Carnarvon) that no scheme could be effectual which was not applied to the whole country. It would be very unsatisfactory to have way-tickets in one county and not in another. He cordially approved the Bill, especially the power of preventing the worst class of paupers from leaving and returning to the workhouse as frequently as they chose. As to the statistics quoted by the noble Earl on the subject of vagrancy, he understood his noble Friend to infer that vagrancy was on the decrease. Now, so far as his own experience went, it was steadily increasing — of late, indeed, to an alarming extent; and he would ask whether the latest Returns showed a decrease as far as the whole kingdom was concerned?


explained that with an improved state of trade the number of vagrants fell from 7,946 in 1868, to 6,692 in 1869, and 6,630 in 1870; but he had not wished to draw any inference as to a steady decrease of the evil.


said, he was not about to take that occasion for criticizing the Bill. He wished to observe that it was a great inconvenience to the labouring class that they could not travel at an expense in any degree corresponding to the advantages enjoyed by other classes. He believed that honest vagrancy would be materially diminished by a slight alteration in railway law. It would be easy to carry labouring men about from place to place at very trivial charges, either by trains specially designated for the purpose, or even by goods trains, at all events with much less danger and hardship than at present. This should be accompanied by the condition of their being allowed to renounce their claim to compensation in case of accident. If any person had a power of renouncing at the railway station his right to compensation for accidents, the companies could carry passengers at a very much cheaper rate than was now practicable. He believed such a provision would gradually introduce an entire revolution in the mode of travelling of the labouring class, and would remove a grievance from which they now suffered greatly, while it would almost wholly remove the existing difficulty of distinguishing between the honest labourer and the professional vagrant.


said, he was much obliged to the noble Marquess for the suggestion, assuring him that the point had not escaped the attention of the Government, though not in connection with the present Bill. The Board of Trade had a plan under consideration last Session. He did not go so far as to think that railway companies should be allowed to kill as many labourers as they pleased.


said, they would have the option of renouncing claims to compensation or not.


thought that practically they would have no chance; they would either have to go at very inconvenient hours and at high fares, or accept this onerous condition. He did not think such a provision would be popular, and he was sure it would not be adopted by the Government. He admitted, however, that the law required some revision, and, without speaking for the Government, it had always been his opinion that in case of cheap trains, there should be a reasonable limit to compensation, thus enabling railway companies to offer cheap fares without being exposed to exorbitant claims.

Motion agreed to; Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Thursday next.