§ Order for Third Reading read.
§ LORD NORTON
I beg leave to enter my protest against this Bill. I really do not believe that many of your 128 Lordships know what the contents of it are, and I cannot help thinking that the authorities on the bench below me, if they had had time to see this Bill, would not, I think, have approved of them. The fact is that at this time of the Session a great number of one-clause Bills slip through Parliament which hardly gain any attention at all, and which are supposed from their size to be of little importance, though they may be full of great mischief. This is simply a Bill of one or two clauses to enable the Poor Law Unions to form representative associations for the purpose of conferring on the subject of the Poor Law, and to enable boards of guardians to charge their expenses—travelling and other expenses for coming up to London—upon the poor rates. I very much object both to the association and to the charge upon the rates. It is becoming a growing fashion in the country for all bodies, great and small, to whom anything like executive functions are entrusted by Parliament, to try and turn themselves into a sort of legislature. Not content with the small executive functions assigned to them, they want to give themselves legislative functions also. I think the danger is very great, because their own functions are very much neglected for the more agreeable share in the association—a Parliament, as it might be called—and discussing general questions. But still more do I think that it is very dangerous to charge the cost of attending such functions as these upon the rates. I have inquired during the short time I have known, accidentally, of the existence of this Bill, as to what precedent there is for it, and I find that there are two precedents which this Bill follows. There is the Act of 1890, which enables county councils to associate and to discuss county council matters, and to charge the expenses of their conferences upon the county rates to a certain limit—as this Bill also proposes a certain limit of these conference expenses—and there is also an Act which enables municipal corporations to associate in the same way for the same purpose, and also to charge their expenses upon the borough rates. I think, after eight years' experience, it will be difficult for your Lordships to say what good has come from 129 either of these Acts. This Bill has passed through the other House. It took two days' discussion in Standing Committee; therefore it was thoroughly discussed. But, in the course of discussion in Committee in the House of Commons very considerable checks were inserted against what everybody allowed to be a very questionable and dangerous proceeding. In the first place, the limit of expense was very much reduced, and, in the second place, there were a great number of checks as to the mode in which these expenses should be incurred. The thing that created most opposition was the reduction of the limit of expenses, which, in the first draft of the Bill, was £10, and in the Bill now before your Lordships was reduced to £5; and a similar reduction was made in the travelling expenses. Now is it not quite clear that, it having been the main point of discussion in the House of Commons to get rid of this limit, the limit will not last long, whether it be in a reduced form or any form at all? That limit will very soon give way, and, if it is necessary to do so, another little one-clause Bill will be introduced, which will slip through as easily as this one will. Therefore do not suppose that the limit is worth, anything at all. The other checks introduced by the Committee of the House of Commons are equally in vain, for they will only require alteration in the regulations. I cannot see that there is any reason at all to justify our going on with further proceedings of this kind. The principle is simple, it is the general principle of associating bodies of all kinds in order to give them status and the position of national and representative institutions, the expenses of which are charged upon the public funds, and so endow bodies which Parliament has constituted as executive bodies with quasi-legislative functions. Your Lordships must know that there is hardly an institution which is not pressing for similar associations. The head-masters of public schools are pressing for association of this sort, and there are other bodies all trying to form themselves into associations. The only reason that I can assign is the desire for securing uniformity of procedure; but do your Lordships suppose that this mode of conference will produce uniformity of 130 procedure throughout the country; or, even if it did so, would your Lordships think it desirable that, by methods of this sort, the administration of the poor law in Lancashire should be made absolutely uniform with the administration of the poor law in Wiltshire? I always understood that a great want about the poor law was its power of adaptation to what is wanted in any particular district, and anything like a rigid uniformity would be very undesirable. However, I do not think that the conferences of such associations would result in anything like uniformity. Even now representatives of the poor law unions do confer from year to year, only they do not charge their expenses on the public. What advantage would the public derive from these gentlemen coming to London at the expense of the public? Their hotel bills would be paid, and their other amusements no doubt. They would confer upon the subject of poor laws for a certain time before the dinners which would be charged upon us. The power of conferring exists now, and that power is all that they can possibly want. Anything in the nature of extending the power and making these bodies representative would, to my mind, be detrimental to the usefulness of their present conferences. I think we should be very cautious in allowing this sort of thing, the demand for which is increasing from year to year. At this late stage of the Bill it is not possible for me to do more than most strongly protest against the continuance of this kind of legislation; and I feel convinced that if I could get your Lordships to consider this subject you would take the view I have taken of it.
Perhaps, in courtesy to the noble Lord, I ought to say that the Local Government Board—although this is not a Government Bill—so far approve of the objects of it as to accept certain responsibilities under the by-laws which govern the conditions under which these moneys may be spent, and under which these visits to conferences may be made by the representatives of the boards. The noble Lord has already given, one very good reason why the Local Government Board should have taken the line that they have done—namely, that Parliament has 131 already shown its approval of the principle by agreeing to the Act of 1890, to which the noble Lord referred, empowering county councils to have an association, to the expenses of which they may contribute. There is also a Municipal Corporations Association, to which boroughs and municipal governing bodies are allowed to contribute, so that Parliament has actually approved of the principle, and therefore I submit that the Local Government Board was justified in presuming that Parliament would not object to the principle being extended to boards of guardians; and the Local Government Board approve of the principle themselves, because, from their own experience of the County Councils Association, they find it a very great advantage that the county councils should have an opportunity of meeting and conferring together as to the effect that legislation may have upon their administration of the affairs placed under their charge. Exactly the same advantages are anticipated from giving similar powers to boards of guardians. Parliament may decide to legislate, and it is desirable that these bodies should have an opportunity of meeting together and conferring as to whether the proposals of Parliament are of such a practical character as they will be able effectually to carry out. As regards the expense, it is true that the sum mentioned by the noble Lord is correct, but that sum is the maximum; it is compulsory that £5 and no more shall be subscribed by the board, but only as a maximum, and it is very possible that it will not be such a sum as that that will fall upon the rates. The principle has been already approved by Parliament, and there can be no doubt that the Local Government Board was justified in anticipating that Parliament would proceed upon the same lines with regard to this Measure.
§ EARL STANHOPE
I have only one word to say. My noble Friend assumed that every board of guardians would send representatives to this central association. They may, or they may not. The subscriptions may be £1 or 10s., but an no case will they exceed £5. This, Association of Poor Law Unions will be of great use, and I can speak from, experience, as I have assisted at former 132 conferences of the same character. I hope your Lordships will agree to confer this power now.
That the Bill be read a third time.
§ Motion agreed to, and Bill passed.