HL Deb 08 March 1888 vol 323 cc546-58

, in rising to call attention to the present system of Poor Law relief, especially with reference to the apparent inadequacy of those systems to cope effectually with the distress recurring from time to time among large numbers of unemployed persons in the Metropolis and other populous places, and to move that a Royal Commission or a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the subject, said, that on seeing the Notice he had placed upon the Paper, perhaps the first reflection which suggested itself to the minds of noble Lords was that there had been several inquiries into kindred subjects of the Poor Law, and that reflection might be followed by a misgiving whether an inquiry at this moment would be of practical use. He hoped to show that at present there were certain aspects of the matter which were of a most serious character, and with regard to which some action ought to be taken. As to previous investigations, there had been none since 1878. He did not intend to enter into any explanation of the legislation on the subject. He would merely say that there had been various amending Acts of Parliament; but in the main the present law was based upon the legislation of 1834 and 1835. He had no desire to attack the administration of the Poor Law by the Local Government Board. On the contrary, so far as he had been able to observe, that Board displayed very considerable skill in conducting the course of their administration along the somewhat difficult path of exercising central supervision. Still, it was to be noticed that many powers and regulations which existed were allowed to remain inoperative in consequence of the diversity of administration in different Unions. In one Poor Law district certain regulations were carried out, while in another they remained a dead letter. There was, for instance, great variety in regard to outdoor relief. Probably their Lordships would agree that the extension of the system of outdoor relief was not to be encouraged, and that it led to many abuses. Cases of abuse were not now so frequently heard of as formerly; but not long ago an Inspector told him of a Poor Law Guardian who, when it was pointed out to him that the giving of outdoor relief on the scale which his Union was adopting was calculated to have the effect of reducing wages, frankly answered that the rates were so heavy that he did not see why they should not get some of them back in the way of reduced wages. In the Metropolis there existed the utmost diversity in the giving of outdoor relief. In one district there were 952 persons receiving outdoor relief, while only 1,845 were in the workhouse. In another there were 1,612 persons in the workhouse and only 43 persons receiving outdoor relief; while in a third, with 2,537 persons in the workhouse, there were as many as 4,860 receiving outdoor relief. This difference was perfectly astonishing. Great diversity also existed in different districts as to the labour test and as to boarding out of children. No doubt the advantages of that system were very great. The effect on children of workhouse bringing up must be very injurious, He was well aware that boarding out required anxiety and the greatest care; and he believed in regard to a matter of this importance they should obtain useful information by means of a Royal Commission or Select Committee. There seemed, also, to be great uncertainty in the minds of the officers as to their actual powers, and the consequence was that there appeared to be as great a divergence between the practice of one relieving officer and another as if they were acting under different laws. That the present system was inadequate to meet the emergencies of depressed times, might be judged from what took place at the beginning of 1886 and from what happened in the present winter. We were now passing through a period of distress which brought the weak points of the machinery into prominence, and the experience so obtained ought to be utilized, and defects which became apparent should be remedied. At the beginning of 1886 there were considerable disturbances and complaints of want of work, and an earnest appeal issued from the Mansion House was successful in obtaining a vast quantity of money for the relief of the distress. The distribution of that money led, he thought, to a great deal of demoralization. Why did the public subscribe it? Because they believed that the Poor Law administration was not adequate to meet the emergency. During the present winter there had been another agitation and outcry against the want of work, and though the meetings of the unemployed had been suppressed, it could scarcely be supposed that the distress had passed away. The Returns of the Poor Law Board, no doubt, showed a great diminution in the number of persons applying for relief as compared with former years; but that was to be accounted for otherwise than by a diminution of distress. Charity had been more organized, and a large and increasing number of people would not resort until the very last extremity to the poor-house. This fact was in some degree corroborated by the correspondence that had passed between Poor Law Guardians on the one hand and the Vestries on the other. The former said there was no abnormal distress, because the numbers in the poor-house were not abnormal; while the Vestries pointed out that hundreds of men were applying to them for work. There had been a great deal of incredulity as to whether the number of unemployed was so large as had been represented; but the number was undoubtedly very large. This was to some extent shown by the crowds of men who were ready to work for 1s. a-day in yards that had been opened by voluntary efforts to meet the distress; there were large bodies of men seeking work and unable to find it. The noble Marquess (the Marquess of Salisbury), in replying to a deputation a few days before the Session began, said— I must express ray own confidence that any attempt on the part of the State to step into the place of the ordinary employer, and to establish, a relation between it and the working classes similar to that between the employer and the employed, would only result in the long run in producing far more frightful, widespread, and permanent misery than it was designed to remedy. Many of those who heard or read these words of the noble Marquess must have been reminded of the French droit au travail and the public workshops that were established at one time in France. He might remind their Lordships of the work done in Lancashire at the time of the Cotton Famine. Useful works were carried out upon the sole responsibility of the Local Authority; the drainage of towns and villages was improved, new roads were laid out, and employment was provided in a variety of other ways which gained the approval of no less an authority than Sir Robert Rawlinson, who said— In all cases local distress was relieved on works of a beneficial character upon the sole responsibility of the Local Authorities, who devised the works, employed the men, and superintended them; this being a guarantee that the works in each case were of a useful character. In the end, towns and villages were sewered, houses were drained, parks formed, cemeteries laid out, waterworks executed, and some 400 miles in length of streets and roads formed in the best manner, which were at the commencement tracts of mud. The sanitary condition of the district was raised, comfort secured, and life and health prolonged. Sir Hugh Owen, Secretary to the Local Government Board, had shown that in many districts in the Metropolis and in other towns the Local Authorities might execute works which would provide remunerative employment for those in need of it. One important point to which a Commission might advantageously give attention was how best to produce co-operation between the distributors of relief from the rates and charitable organizations. As to the urgent nature of the distress no doubt could be entertained by anyone who studied the Returns of the Local Government Board. In February, 1885, the total number of persons receiving relief in the Metropolis was 97,000; in 1887 the number was 104,000; and this year the number was 110,000. He was anxious to guard himself against the charge of a desire or hope of obtaining anything like State relief for the poor; but in face of the continuance of distress he wished to urge the need of some action in the matter. He earnestly hoped that the Government would grant an Inquiry. People would not abstain from indiscriminate alms-giving until there was an assurance that the Poor Law system provided effective relief for absolute suffering and destitution. The only persons who would regard with dissatisfaction any investigation would be the advocates of Socialistic doctrines, who were anxious to make capital out of distress, or any supposed unwillingness of those in power to endeavour to see what could be done in a proper manner to relieve that distress. In conclusion, he suggested that it would be well to improve the machinery of the Poor Law so as to introduce greater uniformity in its adminstration. He begged to move the Resolution which stood in his name.

Moved, "That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying Her Majesty to issue a Royal Commission to inquire into the present systems of poor law relief, especially with reference to the apparent inadequacy of those systems to cope effectually with the distress recurring from time to time amongst large numbers of unemployed persons in the Metropolis and other populous places; or that a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the subject."—(The Earl of Aberdeen.)


said, he hoped that the request of the noble Earl would not be refused by the Government. By inquiry they might discover means of making the Poor Law appear less harsh to the class whom it chiefly concerned. There ought, in his opinion, to be cooperation between charities and Poor Law administrators.


said, that the want of uniformity in the administration of the Poor Law was one of the great advantages of the system, because no cast-iron rule which could be devised could possibly meet the varying circumstances of different localities. The principle of the Poor Law was that it should be administered by the representatives of the ratepayers in each district—subject, of course, to certain general rules and regulations laid down by the Central Authority—the belief being that the people of a district must understand its circumstances better than anyone else. The practice of boarding out children, to which reference had been made, was encouraged as much as possible by the Local Government Board; but it was necessary to take care that children were not sent to unsuitable homes, and orphans could alone be dealt with in this way. Children who were taken into the workhouse by their parents could not be sent into the country, because the parents might claim their discharge at any moment. Local authorities had also been encouraged to permit children to leave the poor-house in order to attend schools outside. But there was difficulty and disadvantage in this except in workhouses where there was a large staff. In the workhouse of a small district, if the schoolmaster and schoolmistress were discharged, there would be no one left to look after the children, when not in school except the adult paupers, and, as their Lordships knew, it was very undesirable to place children in their leisure hours under the control of paupers. In his Motion and in his speech the noble Earl had mixed up two very distinct things, the relief of distress and the duty of finding work for the unemployed; and with reference to the second point the noble Earl had alluded to Sir Robert Rawlinson's declarations at the time of the Cotton Famine in Lancashire. He believed that Sir Robert Rawlinson had distinctly said that the device which was resorted to in Lancashire was unsuitable to the Metropolis, because no such works as were carried out in Lancashire could be usefully carried out in London. As regarded the Motion itself, which seemed to imply that the Poor Law system was inadequate to meet any emergency which had arisen, he was obliged to join issue with the noble Lord. There was no evidence that that was the case, so far at least as the relief of destitution was concerned. The principle underlying the Poor Law was that no one was to receive relief from the poor rates unless he was destitute, and the Poor Law had nothing to do with poverty apart from destitution. The position he had laid down could be made good by figures. In England and Wales on the last week of January last the number of paupers, excluding lunatics and vagrants, was 778,000; in the corresponding week of January. 1880, the number was 795,000; and in 1870 it was 1,054,800, or 276,000 more than in January last. For the Metropolis the corresponding figures were—this year, 109,000; 1870, 166,000, or 57,000 more than at the present time. Therefore, there was no danger of the Poor Law system coping successfully with the present emergency, as it had successfully coped with more serious emergencies in the past. The real and first test to compare our position now with that at any former time, was to take the proportion of pauperism to population, and if this were done it would still further strengthen his contention. In January, 1870, for England and Wales the proportion was 47.5 paupers to every 1,000 of the population; in January last, it was only 27.5. In the Metropolis in January, 1870, it was 52.3; last January it was 25.9. If pauperism in England and Wales now bore the same proportion to the popula- lation that it did in 1880 we should have 1,341,000 paupers instead of 775,000. He quite admitted that in the Metropolis there had been an increase since the 1st of January in the number of persons chargeable to the rates from 106,000 to 109,000, but that had been owing to the long-continued severity of the winter. Perhaps, as a noble and learned Lord opposite suggested, recent legislation had increased the proportion of indoor paupers in London and large towns, but the figures he had given included in-door and out-door paupers. They must all remember that those who administered relief were not distributing a charity, but they were distributing a fund to which all ratepayers contributed according to their means, and the distributors must cast aside sentiment, and he guided less by their hearts than by their heads. Belief was only given to able-bodied male persons when they were out of employment and destitute. The test of destitution was admission to the workhouse or the performance of task-work, and tests were necessary for the protection of many ratepayers, who had a struggle to maintain their independence. Undoubtedly there was a large amount of suffering in the country at the present time, but it was not larger than it had been formerly, and it had been met with a fortitude which excited our surprise and admiration. If relief out of the poor rates were too easily obtained, present evils would be intensified rather than minimized. On behalf of struggling ratepayers, he implored their Lordships to do nothing that would make the administration of relief more difficult or that would make it more easy for those who were unsuccessful in the battle of life to come upon the rates. The slightest addition to the rates was a serious matter to those who were struggling to preserve their independence and were just above the line of pauperism. There was great difficulty in separating the deserving from the undeserving, and the problem was not likely to be hastily solved. It was a more difficult one for those who administered a public fund than for those who administered a private charity. He claimed that, at the present time, there was no ground for saying that the public provision for the mitigation and relief of destitution was inadequate to any emergency that had arisen, and there was no ground to fear a general breakdown of the system. The absence of uniformity between one Union and another did not necessarily involve any charge against the administration of the Poor Law. The noble Earl seemed to be referring to the case of Greenwich, where there was a large amount of outdoor relief compared with St. George's-in-the-East, where the amount was small; but the circumstances of the two Unions were not similar, and undoubtedly St. George's was one of the best administered Unions in the Metropolis. The case of Greenwich had been the subject of special inquiry at the instance of the President of the Local Government Board. There had been a large increase of house property of the smallest and poorest class simultaneously with the closing of local factories and works, and as there was a deficiency of workhouse accommodation a disproportionate amount of outdoor relief had necessarily been given. As to the question of distress in the Metropolis, he should like to say that London and other large centres of population had unfortunately been flooded for the past year or two by numbers of people who had come from the agricultural districts in the hope—delusive, no doubt—of obtaining work. One of the cause, but perhaps not the chief cause of this, had been the idea that large charitable funds were being distributed in the Metropolis and elsewhere. Very little sufficed to draw people artifically from one district to another. Their Lordships might have noticed that in the course of last autumn a number of people took to sleeping in the open in Trafalgar Square. As the weather became colder the attention of some philanthropic persons was directed to the miserable condition of these people, and it was thought that it would be a good thing to supply them with coffee and refreshments at night. The result was most unfortunate, because the news spread, and numbers of others in a like condition came to the Square in the hope of sharing in the distribution. Trafalgar Square was in the Strand Union, and that union did not possess a very large casual ward. The consequence was it soon became overcrowded, and the Guardians had each night to send 500 or 600 people to common lodging-houses in the district. The lodging-houses were obviously more attractive than the casual wards, especially as they were near Covent Garden. So that the coffee in the Square, the lodging-houses, and the hope that work might be got in Covent, Garden in the morning induced a very-large number of people to visit the district. When the Guardians found promises in which to put these people under the casual wards' system, the influx ceased. The noble Earl said he thought that the present was an opportune time to inquire into the matter to which he had called attention. He was not quite certain of that. There were many persons just now who were more subject to kindness of heart than to hardness of head in this matter, and he hoped that so far as a Royal Commission was concerned their Lordships would not agree to the Motion of the noble Earl. The Royal Commission on Agricultural Depression and the Royal Commission on Depression in Trade had already dealt with the causes of distress, and nothing could be added to our knowledge on these points. There could exist no reason for the appointment of another Royal Commission on the same subject And under no circumstances could they accept the motion as it stood; but if there was a general feeling in the House that an inquiry by a Committee of their Lordships would be of service, he, or the President of the Local Government Board, would be prepared to confer with the noble Earl and endeavour to frame such a Reference as would be acceptable. At the same time, the Government were not without fear that even the limited inquiry which he had indicated would raise hopes which could not be satisfied, and would tend to intensify rather than diminish the evil which existed.


said, he was glad to hear the concluding sentences of the speech of the noble Lord who had just sat down, because he thought that an inquiry by a Committee of their Lordships might prove very useful. At the same time, he quite admitted the danger of which the noble Lord had spoken, and thought they must balance that danger against another—namely, that if they refused an inquiry, misrepresentations and wrong impressions as to the administration of the Poor Law might be entertained. If an inquiry were held these misrepresentations and wrong impressions might be removed, and many schemes proved to be impracticable. He concurred in a great deal which, the noble Lord who had spoken for the Government had said, and he was exceedingly glad to hear him bring forward the figures as to the amount of pauperism in the country. There was an extraordinary misconception on that subject. He thought that the last year with reference to which they had a Return showed only a very small increase over the lowest year in the previous period. Although there was great depression and more unemployed persons than usual, there were certain indications that the distress had not been so acute as persons represented it to be. Our system of Poor Law relief was based upon the principle that no person should be allowed to suffer seriously in health, still less to die, for want of food, shelter, and the ordinary necessaries of life. They could not go further than that. It was not a system of general charity, but one for saving life and preventing suffering, and whenever they passed from that sound principle they got into difficulties. As to uniformity, he knew that there were great differences between unions in different parts of the country. He knew of unions similarly circumstanced, where the administration of the law was carried out in a different way from what it was in the other. The noble Lord had stated that one of the causes of the recent distress was the migration of the agricultural labourers into the towns. That was said to be the case to a very large extent, but he should like to know to what extent. His own opinion was that the distress in the Metropolis was mainly due to the failure of the docks in the East of London, and to certain changes with regard to other industries, which were now left stranded. Then, again, there had been a singular increase of vagrancy in many parts of the country, and the cause of this was not very clearly known. As to the establishment of relief works, he would point out to his noble Friend that such a step meant that people would crowd into any locality in which they were started, besides which it would be a departure from the ordinary principles of the law. An important point was the co-ordination of private charity with the Poor Law. They ought not to extend the Poor Law system so as to kill private charity, and on the other hand they wanted to encourage thrift among the working classes, and to lead them to take advantage of benefit clubs and of opportunities to lay by for times of sickness and old age. It was only by a strict administration of the Poor Law that they could induce those people to do that. While, however, he held that a strict administration of the Poor Law was of the highest importance, it was also of great importance that its general administration should have the confidence of the respectable labouring population. They required to have for that administration the moral support, not of the richer classes only, but of the whole body of the population, and therefore he did not think that inquiry would be misplaced.


said, he was glad to hear that the Government did not object to an inquiry. But he was anxious for an inquiry on different grounds from those contained in the Motion. The Motion of his noble Friend, in its introductory part, rather implied that it was based on the inadequacy of the present Poor Law to meet existing requirements. Now, he thought that inquiry would show two things—that there had been a gross exaggeration as to the amount of distress existing, and that the Poor Law properly administered was equal to the emergency. The distress in London in the winter of 1861, as shown by the statistics of pauperism, was very severe; and a Select Committee stated in their Report that there was strong evidence that such distress could have been relieved by the Poor Law Authorities, inasmuch as the machinery of administration was sufficient, and the Guardians possessed the requisite powers for raising the necessary funds, but that the charge would press hard on some parishes in the Metropolis. Since 1861 legislation had been passed in regard to the common Poor Law fund, which had improved the system. His noble Friend was anxious for co-operation between charity and the Poor Law. That cooperation had now being going on for a long period. They now had the Poor Law for giving general relief to the poor, the police to look after vagrancy, and the Charity Organization Society for dealing with other cases deserving help, and other societies all co-operating to- gether. He believed that the result of the forthcoming inquiry would be to remove much dissatisfaction, and to clear away much misapprehension both as to the amount of distress existing and as to the means of relief.


said, he received only too much evidence of great misery existing, a vast number of people suffering, and many suffering without their misery being made known to the public. He was also made aware of the great and increasing feeling of doubt as to whether the Poor Law was competent, as at present administered, to deal with that distress. He much desired to see that doubt set at rest. He was thankful to the noble Lord behind him for the statistics he had laid before them; and he had little doubt that the result of inquiry would be very much what the noble Lord who had spoken last had predicted. Among much sad information that they had received during the last winter, some of the saddest was that there was no more than the normal amount of distress. If it was normal, it was far too great to be allowed to exist without larger attempts being made to remove it. It was said that there were but 2 per cent of the sufferers who were honest. If so, it was no matter for congratulation that the other 98 per cent were not honest. Whatever were the merits of the Poor Law itself, doubts arose as to its administration, and those doubts seemed certainly at first sight the more reasonable because of the great variety of that administration in parishes in the circumstances of which none but the Guardians themselves could see any difference. He would not for a moment advocate giving way to indolent and ignorant doubt; but doubt on this subject led to spasmodic and mischievous action under the influence of panic, and it was to be hoped that the contemplated inquiry would create confidence and silence many alarms. Reference had been made to the Charity Organization Society as supplementing the working of the Poor Law; but the excellent operations of that Society applied only to the Metropolis, and even only to parts of the Metropolis. So long as the doubts to which he had alluded existed, not only would relief subscriptions be started, perhaps injudiciously, but an undesirable ill- feeling would exist towards the Guardians of the Poor. If that inquiry should make it clear that the Guardians were serving the poor in the best way, real advantage would be gained; but if it should turn out that the existing state of things was likely to be permanent, to continue "normal," or gradually to increase, they would probably require something more than the present Poor Law to meet the necessities of the situation. This was meant simply for the relief of the poor in their hard times, not for a cure of poverty. The present proportion of the worthless class to the rest of the poor might easily be made much larger by throwing into it, through ill-advised administration, many of the rather feeble poor who were still willing to do their best, and if the result of inquiry should be to check the increase of the worthless class by encouraging systems of thrift, inducing the people to resort to them, or to make themselves more skilful in their trades, this would do great national good, and we should cease to supply material for the agitator and the anarchist.


said, that the fund out of which rates were taken was the fund which provided wages for the working population, and you could not encroach largely upon it without diminishing the amount of employment which could be given, adding to the number of unemployed and getting into a vicious circle. What was given in charity was one thing, what was exacted from the ratepayers was another. The effect of enormous rates in diminishing employment showed how dangerous it was to extend indefinitely the claims upon the wage-supplying fund by any undue laxity of Poor Law administration which tempted men to rely on relief out of public funds.


said, he would withdraw the Motion in its present shape, and confer with the noble Lord opposite as to the terms of one which might be open to fewer objections.

Motion (by leave of the House) withdrawn.