HL Deb 05 February 1894 vol 21 cc64-72

Clause 20 (Election and qualification of Guardians).


I rise to move that Subsection (1) be struck out. It reads thus: "There shall be no ex officio or nominated Guardians." I cannot understand why it is that Magistrates are no longer to be ex officio Guardians. My experience, which is not a very short one, is that they do very useful work, and I think the noble Earl opposite will corroborate that view. They bring knowledge to bear upon these matters, and, so far as I know, they have been well received by the elected Guardians. It is said that they attend only when some job is to be perpetrated. But if that is true, it is a statement that applies equally to elected Guardians. The noble Earl opposite, I am sure, will corroborate me when I say that the ordinary business of the Board of Guardians is carried on by a certain number of elected Guardians and a certain number of ex officio Guardians not anything like the number composing the Board. The Board over which I preside consists of 41 elected members and 14 ex officio members. The average attendance is about 12 or 16 elected members and four or five ex officio Guardians; but if some appointment is to be made—the appointment of a doctor, or a nurse, or a porter —the room is tilled with both classes of Guardians. Therefore, as far as (hat point is concerned, I think there is little to choose between the ex officio and the elected members. I cannot understand why there are to be no ex officio Guardians. Therefore, I beg to move the omission of Sub-section (1).

Amendment moved, In page 20, to leave out line 34.(The Duke of Richmond and Gordon.)


I am bound to confess that my experience is the same as that of the noble Duke— that ordinarily there is a small attendance of elected and ex officio Guardians, but that there is a sudden influx of members when any appointment is to be made. There is no difference in this respect between the elected and ex officio Guardians. Hut I do not rest the case for the abolition of ex officio Guardians on that. The matter rests on broader ground. No other body now exists on which there is an ex officio element; it: belonged to a state of things which had now passed away. The ex officio element is not present in County Councils. Those bodies are composed entirely of elected members, or Aldermen elected by those elected members. It is proposed that the District Councils should be composed in the same way. To retain the ex officio on them would be to continue the use of a piece of garment not at all suited to that which we now wear. One great objection to ex officio Guardians is the extraordinary uncertainty as to their number. In some Unions there are scarcely any, while in others they practically swamp the elected members. That is a very unsatisfactory state of things. No one who knows the work of Boards of Guardians can say that ex officio Guardians have not done very valuable work. But I hold that if they are abolished there will be no difficulty on the part of gentlemen who have been ex officio Guardians obtaining seats as elective members. It is a mistake to suppose that there is a universal desire on the part of gentlemen to become Poor Law Guardians, to discharge exceedingly onerous and disagreeable duties. I say that, in the first place, people are not at all eager to be on Boards of Guardians; and that, in the next place, when they are on, they are not at all eager to attend the meetings. If the Bill passes it may be safely prophesied that those who think they can introduce salutary reforms in the administration of the Poor Law will be able to obtain election. When they find what the duties are, and how very moderate and limited, after all, are the powers they exercise, they will get very tired of the work. Another reason is this: People who speak of the numbers who will be anxious to serve on Boards of Guardians forget the difficulty which will be experienced in attending the meetings. There are many parishes in which the distances are great and in which it is almost impossible for anyone to perform the duties of Guardian who has not a good deal of tim3 to spare and a conveyance at his disposal. For all those reasons I believe that the men who are now ex officio Guardians, and who will be valuable members of Boards, cannot fail to become elected members if they choose. The Bill will bring the composition of these Boards into harmony with our institutions generally. I can quite understand that there may be those who feel a certain amount of distrust as to what might be done by elected Boards; but a long experience has convinced me that it is quite impossible to have a satisfactory administration of the Poor Law unless those upon whom that duty is cast have to a considerable extent the support of the better class of people in the Union. I do not by better mean the higher class, because frequently complaints are made by men in the position of labourers in regard to what they consider lax administration of the law. If one endeavours to press the law beyond the point which the public opinion in the district will support, a reaction is created, and administration is rendered more difficult. In the present state of things we cannot expect these Boards to secure general support unless the law is administered by elected Guardians. The feeling that has been created by the measures that have been adopted by noble Lords opposite— and very wisely adopted indeed—to make Local Administrative Bodies elective is that nothing but Elective Boards will have the confidence of the people generally. Some of the dangers that are apprehended are real, but I think we shall put the administration of the Poor Law on a sounder basis by having elected Guardians than by attempting to control the Boards by ex officio members. These are the reasons why I support this sub-section. It represents opinions which to a large extent I believe to be well founded.


I support the sub-section not only because of the arguments already advanced in favour of it, but because I feel satisfied that the best and most active of the Magistracy or nominated Guardians, if they take the trouble to offer themselves, will have no difficulty in obtaining election, just as Magistrates have found it easy to obtain seats on the County Councils. No doubt an opportunity is afforded in the case of County Councils through the co-optation of Aldermen. I am not myself favourable to the system of Aldermen, and I am not going to recommend that system on this occasion. I would point out that if you only have elected Guardians you reduce the number, and in that way you render it more difficult for Magistrates to obtain seats. If they are elected they must obtain seats that have been occupied by somebody else; but there are two Amendments which follow this which go a long way to meet that difficulty, by providing that County Councillors residing in the district or representing it shall by virtue of their office be members of the Boards of Guardians. I shall support the retention of this sub-section excluding ex officio or nominated Guardians with the intention of voting in favour of County Councillors being members of the Boards by virtue of their office.


I hope the noble Duke will not press his Amendment to a Division. I think there is no difference of opinion on either side as to the value of ex officio Guardians personally, but it seems to me that the further and wider we extend our popular representation the less enviable is the position of an ex officio. We who occupy ex officio positions on these Boards of Guardians, I believe, are as eager to test the feeling of our fellow-citizens and to be returned as elected members as we are in the case of County Councils. We speak with far more authority as elected members than as ex officios. Though I agree with all the noble Duke and the noble Earl have said as to the value of the services of ex officio Guardians in the past, I also feel that they will be largely and widely elected.


The old inclination, undoubtedly, was some time ago to value the presence of these ex officio Guardians not only on account of their merits and the services they have rendered in the administration of the law, but also because they represented a class of opinion which will probably fail now to be represented on these Boards. But as time went on, I asked myself—What are the grounds of my trust in these ex officio Guardians? Well, it is the general character the Magistracy has borne, and the general type that it has represented. But what security have I that that character will be maintained, and that that type will be permanent? After all, ex officio Guardians are Magistrates appointed by the Lord Chancellor. And how do I know what the motives may be which may guide a Lord Chancellor at any particular epoch of our history? He is but human. He is exposed to all the motives which more and more press upon the Executive Government and the advisers of the Crown. He is more and more likely to have his ideas tinged by the feelings of those with whom he may act; and it is quite possible that a Lord Chancellor may arise who would say that some particular class of opinions ought to be more represented on the Magisterial Bench than it is; that appointments ought to be made with a view to those opinions, and not with a view to judicial or other qualities which have hitherto distinguished the Magistrates. And I felt that if by any mischance a Lord Chancellor were to arise with whom such consideration would have weight, I did not see what protection we should have from seeing very much worse persons appointed as ex officio Guardians than we could possibly expect under any system of election you could invent. I confess that, with that prospect in view, and seeing the trend which things were taking, my trust in those ex officio Guardians very much diminished; and in the matter of the Poor Law, as in the matter of the Licensing Law, I think those persons are making a very great mistake who treat the character and type of the Magistracy of this country as things fixed and certain, and put upon them their confidence with reference to any controversies of the day. The Magistracy is liable to change—perhaps more liable than that of any other institution. I do not, therefore, advise my noble Friend to press his proposal to a Division. I think we must frankly accept the elective system, and make the best of it. I do not say that in all respects it is perfect; I think I should have preferred a mixture of various systems which would have modified the defects of all. But as we have it now, so we must deal with it. But I am unable to take the sanguine view of the noble Lord below the Gangway (Lord Monk Bretton), or of the noble Lord behind mo (Lord Winchilsea), that the Guardians of the future will be similar to the Guardians of the past, or that the same class which have found their way there as ex officio Guardians will find their way there as elective Guardians. I am not saying that they would not be elected if they wished. That is not the quarter in which I discern danger. But I look to America, and I see there the constant tendency of the leisured classes to get rid of all the various annoyances which they think accompany elections by simply withdrawing from public duties altogether. I need not say that I do not praise, but, that I deprecate, such a tendency in my own country. But as far as my experience of life has gone, I see that slowly, not very perceptibly, but still certainly, the same malady which has committed such fearful ravages in America has begun to affect us too. One of my great objections to all measures of this kind is not so much that it changes the character of the men who are elected, as that it diminishes the inducement to men of the leisured class to take their share in public life and duty. To my mind, one of the great dangers of the time—though a slowly moving danger— is that men of that class will shrink from those duties; and the more you surround them with difficulties, and the more you impose upon people the duty of canvassing, and all the necessities which accompany an election, and especially after the first excitement is over, the more they will gradually retreat until they entirely leave those duties to persons who think that they see in them some mode of social advancement or of social profit. That is not such a roseate view as that of my noble Friends who have spoken, but I believe it is a true view. I believe that it is a true one, and that the responsibility of those who have diminished the inducements to the leisured classes to take part in public life is very great, and that their responsibility may even extend so far as to paralyse the action of many of our public institutions. However, be that as it may, there is no advantage at present to be derived from advocating ex officio Guardians. As an institution they have ceased to command the respect and confidence without which the institution could not do useful work. There is no advantage in attempting to prolong its existence.


I am extremely glad that any course of reasoning has brought the noble Marquess to agree to any single line of this Bill. I am still more glad that he has come to a conclusion which will save us the trouble of a Division. But I feel bound to rise, in consequence of the words with which the noble Marquess concluded his speech. Ho spoke of ex officio Guardians, owing to the alterations which have been made, having lost the confidence of the country or having ceased to deserve it.


No, no. I said that the institution no longer commanded confidence. I spoke not of the men.


The institution can only cease to command confidence if the men of whom the institution consists have ceased to command confidence. That is a very serious observation. It is one against which I wish to utter an earnest and emphatic protest. I do not believe that any change which has been made can, or has, altered the constitution of the Magistracy in such a way as that it deserves one whit less the confidence of the people to-day than it did at any time since it has existed. Unless ho meant— and probably the noble Marquess does mean—that the institution can only deserve the confidence of the country if the vast majority of the Magistrates are drawn from his own particular Party and his own social class—[Cries of "Oh !"] —unless he means that, I deny that any change has been made. There has been no change made except for the endeavour to prevent the Magistracy consisting to the same extent as before of those of a particular political opinion and of a particular class. Nothing more than that has been done; and I believe that at the present time it would not be incorrect to say that over 80 per cent. of the Magistracy consists of gentlemen of one political opinion. Can the institution have ceased to deserve the confidence of the country because changes have been made which have had no greater effect than that? I could quite understand the view of the noble Marquess—and there are many who share it—that the most desirable thing that can happen is that the vast majority of the Magistracy should be of one particular opinion. [Cries of "No !"] I quite understand that, but I do not share that view. If it is not considered that that is desirable, I do not know why objection should be taken to a change which brings about a state of things in which the preponderance is somewhat less. There are many who think—and honestly think—that the great majority of Liberals are not fit to take part in the administration of the law of this country. I have had many such representations made to me. But we cannot be expected to share that view, and we do not believe that the vast majority of the people of the country share it. There are a great many people in this country in these democratic days, days which have, no doubt, been rendered more democratic by the system of county government which the late Government introduced—there are many Conservatives even—who believe that the men deemed fit to serve on County Councils, though they might be shopkeepers, were just as well fitted to be Magistrates as the county gentry themselves. I am talking of Conservatives now. I have had representations from Conservative quarters as well as from Liberals, urging that there should be some change in the Magistracy, and desiring that the Magistrates should not be limited to one class of the community alone. If I were to lay down, in the exercise of my duty, that men should not be placed on the Bench because they are trades people, I am certain that it is from Liberals alone that I should receive the most earnest remonstrances. I am certain that in somewhat extending the class from which the Magistrates are now taken, and in being careful that those of one political opinion are not disregarded, I am adopting a course which is likely to increase general confidence in the Magistracy of the country and in the administration of the law. I am well aware that anyone in my position endeavouring to do his duty is in a situation of great difficulty. The noble Marquess thinks I have done far too much. A great many people think I have done far too little. I am in the unfortunate position of having pleased nobody and being abused by everybody. The only satisfaction that I can feel is that of doing my duty and of being satisfied with the duty that I have done.


I am not going to follow the noble and learned Lord in the remarks he has made. I only desire to say that what I have always held is that politics ought to have nothing to do with the appointment of Magistrates. As Lord Lieutenant of Banffshire, I can say that I have recommended many men for the Bench of whose politics I have not the remotest idea. After what the noble Marquess has said I feel I should not have his support in the Amendment, and that if I wont into the Lobby I should only have a following of the minutest character. I therefore ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment (by leave of the Committee) withdrawn.

House resumed, and to be again in Committee To-morrow.

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