HL Deb 20 November 1884 vol 294 cc26-37

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said: I have taken charge of this Bill on this occasion, as I did during the last Session of Parliament, and it is precisely the same measure which passed the other House on that occasion, but was not received with favour by this House. The measure not a great while ago passed the other House apparently with very little difference of opinion, and I hope I am not wrong in anticipating that your Lordships will give it a second reading to-night. There is certainly very little difference of opinion in the other House with respect to Parts I. and II. of the Bill—the parts dealing with Poor Law elections—and I do not think that in this House there was any serious difference of opinion with respect to these two main parts of the Bill. It is not necessary for me to go through the provisions of the Bill, as I described them fully on the last occasion. I ask your Lordships to give the Bill a second reading, and I am glad to see that no Notice of opposition to this stage has been given. I have learned privately from the noble Marquess (the Marquess of Waterford), however, that he proposes to move that the Bill be referred to a Select Committee. I shall be surprised if the noble Marquess thinks it necessary to persevere in that Motion, because there is nothing about the Bill which—so far as I can see—should make it necessary for such a course to be taken. The subject of the Bill is one with which many of your Lordships are particularly familiar, and I certainly do not think that it could be better considered in a Select Committee than in a Committee of the Whole House; if it is thought necessary to refer such a Bill as this to a Select Committee, I hardly know where such a rule would stop. There are very few Bills read a second time in this House which might not, on similar grounds, be referred to a Select Committee, instead of being considered by a Committee of the Whole House. The noble Marquess will, no doubt, state his reasons for making this proposal; but I must say it does not seem to me either necessary or convenient. It could be amply considered in the Committee of the Whole House, and I hope your Lordships will not adopt the course suggested by the noble Marquess. I would, however, now ask your Lordships to give the Bill a second reading.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."—(The Lord President.)


said, that last year, when the Bill was brought forward by the noble Lord, the House for certain reasons rejected it, and he should like briefly to state those reasons. One was, that the Bill had passed through the House of Commons in a most extraordinary manner. In the Committee stage, the Government declared that there were certain clauses of the Bill which they could not accept, and those provisions were accordingly struck out. The Report stage being taken at 2 o'clock in the morning, the Chief Secretary, in an empty House, put back the obnoxious clauses into the Bill; but there was still more extraordinary conduct on the part of the Government with regard to this measure. The late Chief Secretary, in the strongest way—in language much more eloquent than he (the Marquess of Waterford) could use—had, in 1883, condemned these clauses. The late Chief Secretary had shown unmistakably that they would be unjust to owners of property in Ireland; and yet, in an empty House, on the Bo-port stage, these clauses were put back again by himself. In consequence of that, and of the fact that the Government did not seem able to make up their minds about the Bill, and the time at which it was sent up rendering it impossible to consider so complex a scheme, their Lordships very properly refused to read the measure a second time. The history of the Bill this Session had also been a very curious one. Parliament was brought together, they understood, for the purpose of considering only the Franchise Bill; but, so far as he could see, the whole result of the Session would be the passage through the House of Commons of the Poor Law Guardians Bill, because every other result could have equally been obtained if the same conciliatory spirit had been shown by the Government in the summer as they now exhibited. This spirit did honour to Her Majesty's Government, and had given great satisfaction to every Member of their Lordships' House and to the country generally. But, at the same time, the only thing which would not have happened if a sensible course had been followed in July would have been the passing of this Bill through the House of Commons twice in one year. The present Chief Secretary, whose knowledge of Ireland must of necessity be extremely limited, had said he was in favour of the Bill; but this was a Bill affecting very materially very great interests in Ireland, and the right hon. Gentleman must be extremely clever if he had been able, in the short period he had spent in that country, to arrive at the conclusion that this was a Bill which should be passed. They must remember that the right hon. Gentleman was bound by the fact that Mr. Trevelyan accepted the measure last Session, and also by the fact that the noble Lord (Lord Carlingford) had adopted it. It was not adopted by the Government in the other House; but in this House the noble Lord had taken it over as a Government measure. The Chief Secretary had, very naturally, felt himself obliged to declare in favour of it; but it had been passed in a very extraordinary manner. He was told by certain Liberal Members of the House of Commons connected with Ireland that they had no idea the Bill would be read a third time until they saw it had passed in the newspaper; and though it was now said that there was no great difference of opinion about it, Conservative Members had assured him that they had no idea the Bill was coming on until they heard it had been read a third time. It was not usual in, he believed, either House for the Report and third reading stages of a Bill to be taken on the same day; but, with the assistance of the Government, this Bill had been shoved through the House of Commons, the Report and third reading being taken on the same day. He (the Marquess of Waterford) did not now propose to object to the second reading; but after that was agreed to, he should ask their Lordships to accept the very moderate and sensible proposition—which his noble Friend did not seem to agree with—and move that the Bill be referred to a Select Committee. There was every reason why that course should be adopted; in fact, he believed it to be impossible to go with any minuteness into the Bill, except through the medium of a Select Committee. They could not consider the merits of the clauses in the Whole House. Their Lordships were aware that the difference between England and Ireland was very great with regard to Poor Law matters. In England the owners only paid rates on their own occupation. In Ireland they not only paid rates on their own occupation, but they paid half the rates on their tenants' occupation, and the whole of the rates of tenants under £4. In short, they paid five-eighths of the whole poor rate of the country. In England, again, they had the ex officio element on the Boards; every single magistrate became an ex officio Guardian. In Ireland, he thought, the landlords had a right to, at least, one-half of the representation on the Board; and in saying this he was only quoting what the late Chief Secretary himself said in 1883. The Bill altered the whole complexion of the law upon the subject. He would be very glad to have the law of Ireland assimilated to that of England; and he thought it would be very easy to deduct from the ten ant's rent the rate payable by the landlord on an average of ten years, and then make the occupier pay the whole rate. What he objected to was that they made one body—namely, the landlords—pay the greater proportion of the rates, and gave to another almost an entire disposition of the funds. This Bill reduced the ex officio members from one-half to one-third; and if that should be done it would be useless for them to attend at any Board meeting. Then there was the question of proxies. He believed that in England there was no great feeling in favour of proxies, although, he believed, there was a system of proxy voting in England of which people were not very well aware. That was to say, English landlords not living in the district had the right of voting by proxy; but in Ireland, if they had no proxies, they could not possibly vote in the different Unions in which they had property, because they could not be in several different places at the same time. Proxies were more or less necessary. This Bill again proposed to reduce the qualification of voters for elected Poor Law Guardians. He did not think it necessary to go lower in the scale of qualification; but that was a minor detail, to which he did not object very much. Last year, however, Lord Fitzgerald had told them that he objected very strongly to the proposed reduction of ex officios. That noble and learned Lord said that there were certain points in the Bill of which he approved. He (the Marquess of Waterford) agreed with him. There were several points in which he did not see any great harm, and others which he thought a decided improvement, among the latter being the provision that elections should take place every three years. He had no objection to the ballot, which, as had been shown, would protect tenants from agitators, and anything which had a tendency in that direction would be cheerfully welcomed by noble Lords connected with Ireland. There was a third point which, under restriction, would, in his opinion, be an advantage; and that was that the petitions against the election of Guardians should be tried by County Court Judges instead of by the Local Government Board. There was another point, however, upon which he wished to say a word, and that was, the extravagance of Boards of Guardians in Ireland. They had been used in this agitation to injure the landlords. He had a quotation from the hon. Member for Sligo (Mr. Sexton) in which he advised Boards of Guardians to pay large sums for the support of suspects and evicted tenants, and promised the Boards that half of these sums would come out of the landlords' pockets, while the other half the Land League would, in some way or another, see defrayed. These Boards had been used, over and over again, for the purpose of supporting the agitators against the landlords. In Tralee, for example, he found that sums of from 15s. to 20s. a-week were given to the families of suspects and evicted tenants, while families of equal size of ordinary paupers only got 1s. 6d., 2s. 6d., and 3s. 6d. The extravagance of these Boards was well known, and if the ex officio members of the Boards were reduced in number it was impossible to say where this extravagance would end. In fact, this Bill might be called a Bill for the purpose of doubling the poor rate in Ireland, and in any case that would be its effect. They must also remember the Labourers Act had placed new duties on these Boards. That Act had so far been a failure, and he thought it was likely to remain unworkable; but if they removed the ex officio members from the Boards of Guardians they might have the most dreadful jobbery committed and the most enormous expense incurred, without any of the persons who had to pay the greater part of it having the slightest opportunity of saving a word in protection of their rights. He was sorry to learn that the Government was inclined to refuse to assent to the Bill being referred to a Select Committee. He believed that a Select Committee would be able to give the matter careful consideration, and to collect valuable evidence on the different points on which they were at issue. The Report of such a Committee would be useful to the people of Ireland, and also to their Lordships' House. He was not prepared to say that the present system of election was the best that could be devised. It had been in operation for a long time, and it was quite possible that a better system might be introduced. The ex officio members were probably not the best representatives of the owners of property, and a scheme might be suggested by which owners of property could elect representatives for themselves. Then some mode of dealing with the question of proxies might be discovered. All these things were possible if they took evidence and went into the matter thoroughly; but he objected to the House passing without consideration a Bill that was of such immense importance to the future interests of the ratepayers of Ireland.


said, it was quite evident from the conduct of some of the elected Poor Law Guardians that the ex officio element on the Boards of Guardians in Ireland was very requisite, and that some modification of the present system of representation was absolutely necessary, in order to preserve the balance of power equally between the two Parties; and therefore he should support the suggestion to refer the Bill to a Select Committee.


said, he was also of opinion that the importance of the ex officio element could not possibly be overrated. He could wish, however, that ex officio Guardians would attend the meetings of the Boards with greater regularity than they did at present, as he thought that would produce a good effect by enabling them to keep touch with the people in Ireland. He hoped the Government would see their way to acquiesce in the suggestion as to a Select Committee. He would remind their Lordships that the Lord Chancellor of Ireland could, and often did, without the recommendation of the Lord Lieutenant of an Irish county, appoint magistrates on his own mere motion; and the men so appointed to the Bench and thus qualified to act as ex officio Guardians were usually men of the same class in society as the elected Guardians.


said, he had listened to the debate. He had heard argument which might be good or bad for alterations in the measure; but he had not heard any strong reasons why the objections that had been urged against the Bill should not be considered in the form of Amendments in Committee of the Whole House. A prominent Member of the other House of Parliament had told him, on one occasion, that he was always struck by the admirable manner in which the House of Lords performed their duty in Committee. He did not wish their Lordships to lose any of their reputation; and he did not see why their Lordships should not have this opportunity of displaying their ability in that respect. Two classes in Ireland took different views, and it was very important for them to know the arguments that would be used in the House of Lords in considering this subject. He certainly did not think their Lordships ought to take the course proposed by the noble Marquess opposite (the Marquess of Water-ford).


said, he very much regretted to hear that the Government were not prepared to accede to what he considered the very moderate proposal that had come not only from the Opposition, but from the Ministerial side of the House. It was obvious that questions relating to local subjects in Ireland were eminently those that ought to be referred to the consideration of Select Committees. All of them had not the knowledge of Irish matters which was necessary to enable them to come to a decision on a question of this kind. In a Select Committee it would be possible to bring forward evidence and collect facts which would be of material assistance to their Lordships. They must remember that the case of Ireland in regard to local taxation was very different from that of this country. In England the poor rate had come to be regarded as a hereditary burden. They had borne it for 300 years, and so had become accustomed to it; but in Ireland it had been imposed for the first time within the memory of persons who were still living. Of course, this was an enormous revolution, and their Lordships ought to consider the matter carefully before they agreed to the important changes in regard to it that were proposed in this Bill. That was not the only difference. There was in Ireland this other important difference—that the proprietors paid half the tenants rates; and surely it was in accordance with the elementary principles of taxation that those who paid half the rates should also have half the representation. In any case when legislation was proposed which would deprive the proprietor of that which the old doctors of Constitutional Law held to be an elementary and primitive right, such legislation ought to be examined with the greatest possible care, and adopted only after the most careful consideration. He did not wish to refer at length to another and somewhat disagreeable subject; but it was well within their knowledge that the state of society in Ireland was not exactly similar to the state of society in England, and that agreement between the elected and ex officio members was not to be looked forward to in Ireland with the same confidence as it was in this country. It seemed to him that while the arguments were strong in favour of referring the Bill to a Select Committee, there were absolutely no arguments against the adoption of that course. This was not one of those measures that had to be passed in hot haste. It was not even one of the Government's main objects to pass it before Christmas. It was, on the contrary, a measure that would do just as well if it were passed next February, or next July, or next December. They were at the beginning of a long Session, and there would be ample time for a thorough consideration of this question; and he thought it would be much more satisfactory if they went to work with full knowledge of the subject, such as could only be obtained by the proposed inquiry. He could not understand the reasons of the Government for objecting to the proposal that had been made; and, for his part, he would certainly vote with the noble Marquess if they went to a division.


said, that the ex officio Guardians rarely attended the meetings of their Boards. Many of them were selected on the ground of their property qualification only, and looked upon their position as ex officio Guardians simply in the light of an honorary distinction, and without any intention of attending to the duties; and he thought that a system of election might be devised which would give them much better Boards than they had. As Chairman of a Board of Guardians, he could say that the ex officio members never at- tended, except on some important occasion, such as the election of a Chairman. If this Bill passed in the state in which it was, the Chairman, in a vast number of cases, would be elected by the Nationalist Party; and the whole control would, consequently, be put into the hands of that Party. That was the reason why the so-called National Party in the House of Commons was so anxious to have this Bill passed. If the Bill was referred to a Select Committee they would be able to see whether, instead of having the ex officio Guardians, some scheme might not be devised by which the owners of property would be represented by the men who would attend the meetings of Guardians and give assistance, which the Boards very often wanted. He cordially approved of the suggestion to refer the Bill to a Select Committee.


said, he thought that the Bill ought to be referred to a Select Committee, in order that the views of the officers of the Local Government Board in Ireland on the questions dealt with in the measure might be ascertained.


in also supporting the proposal, said, that Mr. Parnell had given this distinct advice—that in all cases where it was possible Land League candidates should be selected; and the consequence was that on almost every Board of Guardians where the Land League predominated the whole of the ex officio Guardians had been thrust out of the Chairmanship and other posts they had occupied. One reason he had for wishing to have the Bill referred to a Select Committee was that he would like to know what the experience of the Local Government Board in Ireland had been of the working of the present system. He (Viscount Midleton) had watched the experiment with very considerable attention; and, so far as he had been able to gather, the results had been the reverse of satisfactory. In Dungarvan the whole of the Guardians had resigned in a body, because the rates were so high. In other Unions there had been extreme difficulty in getting the Guardians to discharge the duties imposed upon them, and they had only been induced to do so by the threat of the Local Government Board that they would suspend all Guardians, and appoint officials, if they were to do the work, as there was this unwillingness on the part of Guardians to perform the duties of the office, and especially the duty of collecting the rates and discharging their functions as a Sanitary Authority. He thought that it would be a great mistake to shut the door to those who were willing to do the work. If this question was not settled now it would be necessary for the Government to widen the scope of the inquiries, and to appoint a Commission to inquire into the whole working of the Poor Law system in Ireland. He thought the least that could be asked was that before the passing of a Bill which would effect such vital changes as this Bill would, they should be fully informed, which he ventured to say even the Lord President himself was not, of the facts of the case, and that, instead of being required to depend upon ex parte statements, they should have the impartial evidence of men who had spent their lifetimes in the practical working out of the system. He entirely joined in the appeal that had been made to the Government, and, if necessary, he should vote with the noble Marquess.


said, that if this Bill were considered in Committee of the Whole House it might be entirely altered, and so give no satisfaction to anyone. If, on the other hand, they took the more moderate course of referring it to a Select Committee, they might evolve a Bill that would give general satisfaction to all Parties.


said, that when the Bill was previously before their Lordships he had expressed the opinion that it contained two provisions that were objectionable, and nothing had occurred to alter the opinion. One of the provisions to which he objected was that which abolished proxies, and the other was that for reducing the number of ex officio Guardians and reducing the qualifications. It would be very easy for their Lordships to strike out these clauses in Committee—it would be merely the work of a few minutes. In his (Lord Fitzgerald's) opinion, the present was not a time in which to reduce still further the just influence of property. He held, however, that if certain alterations were made in it the Bill would be a very good one. He thought his noble Friend (Lord Carlingford) would act rightly if he yielded to the wishes of noble Lords opposite. If the second reading were agreed to he would willingly assist in amending the Bill in Committee of the Whole House, and in that way it might be made a very good measure.

Motion agreed to; Bill read 2a accordingly.

Moved, "That the Bill be referred to a Select Committee."—(The Marquess of Waterford.)


said, that on the merits of this question of procedure he had not heard anything which had changed his opinion. He was not in the least convinced that noble Lords who took an interest in this subject required more information than they had already. He believed it was one of the most familiar of subjects to the noble Marquess (the Marquess of Waterford) and the noble Lords who had spoken on it, and that they did not want any information to help them to form a judgment, or to enable noble Lords who sat with them to do the same. Every one of the noble Lords opposite who were so anxious to refer the Bill to a Select Committee had voted last Session against the second reading; but the speech of his noble and learned Friend (Lord Fitzgerald) had great weight with him, because his noble and learned Friend was a friend of the Bill, as he had voted last Session for the second reading. He would, therefore, consent to refer the Bill to a Select Committee.

Motion agreed to; Bill referred to a Select Committee.