HL Deb 17 March 1899 vol 68 cc1110-24

My Lords, I rise to move— That it is expedient that a Royal Commission be appointed to inquire into the administration and working of the Poor Law. There is a story told of a French cook who was very extravagant in the matter of meat, and his master sent for him and reproved him. He said: "You ask for more meat; what has become of the ox that was brought into the larder two days ago?" The French chief was equal to the occasion, for, putting his forefinger and thumb into his waistcoat pocket, he pulled out a meat lozenge and said, "Voila le boeuf, de Monsieur." I wish I had the condensing power of that French chief, but, unfortunately, I have not. The subject which I have to treat is a vast and vital one, and I am sorry to say that though I shall endeavour to compress my remarks as far as possible, I may have to claim your Lordships' indulgence for a longer time than I would desire. I feel that any opinions I may personally give on such a question are worthless, and I shall therefore quote from authorities before whom, I am sure, your Lordships will have to bow on this vital question. I need not take your Lordships far back into the history of the Poor Law legislation of this country, but I would point out that there is one feature which runs through the whole of it, and that is a very marked distinction between those who are able by their thrift and their industry to maintain themselves, and those who through want of thrift and through want of industry have been unable to maintain themselves, and have to be maintained through the thrift and industry of others. So much so was this felt in olden times that "sturdy vagabonds" and "valiant beggars" were kept to continual labour in such wise that they may get their own living by the continual labour of their hands. A sturdy beggar was whipped for the first offence, in some cases his right ear was cropped for the second offence, and, if again offending, he was tried at sessions for loitering and idleness, and, if convicted, executed as a felon and enemy to the commonwealth. Other Acts contained provisions, if possible, more stringent in the first instance, against sturdy beggars and able-bodied vagabonds, who were branded with the letter V on the shoulder and adjudged slaves for two years; and if they ran away they were branded with the letter S on the cheek, and adjudged slaves for life. You find this principle in a modified form in the Act 43rd Elizabeth. This Act was so loosely administered that abuses of the strongest possible kind grew up, and the labouring population was pauperised and demoralised. This ultimately led to the appointment of a Royal Commission, and I venture to think—65 years having elapsed since then—there are causes sufficient now to justify the reissue of a Royal Commission to inquire into the whole of this vast subject of the treatment of the poor. The Commission of 1832 included amongst its members two bishops and Mr. Nassau W. Senior and Mr. Edwin Chadwick, men thoroughly acquainted with this subject. The inquiry lasted two years, and after going thoroughly and diligently into the administration and general working of the Poor Law the Royal Commission in 1834 came to the following conclusion— It is our painful duty to report that in the greater part of the districts which we have been enabled to examine, the Fund which the 43rd Elizabeth directed to be employed in setting to work children and persons capable of labour, but using no daily trade, and in the necessary relief of the impotent, is applied to purposes opposed to the letter and still more to the spirit of the law, and destructive to the morals of the most numerous class and to the welfare of all. I do not think that any of your Lordships, except those who have had their attention specially drawn to this subject, and have gone through the Report of the Royal Commission, have the least idea or any conception of the extent to which demoralisation through lax administration had run at that time. I will read to your Lordships a few extracts from the evidence and statements of fact on which the Commissioners formed their conclusions— In North Wales—a district of comparatively good administration—the payment of rent out of rates is nearly universal. In many parishes it is extended to nearly all married labourers. Paupers thus become a very desirable class of tenants, more so than the independent labourers, whose rent at the same time this mode of relief enhances. There is a consequent rise in value of apartments from £1 to £2, e.g.:— A baker, in Suffolk, with a family of eight, had his rent, £13 a year, paid by the parish— plus 2s. 6d. a week for his children. Able-bodied relief, in money, without labour, was common. Relief from the parish in aid of wages was called "Allowance"—sometimes "Bread money. At Yardley, Hastings, all unemployed were put up for sale weekly. The clergyman of the parish had seen 10 knocked down one week to one of the farmers for 5s. About 70 men were let out in that way out of 170. In the Vale of Taunton all farm labourers during the whole or part of the year received a portion of their wages out of the poor rate. Parish Employment."—A man, if he did not like his work, would say, "I can have 12s. a week by going on the roads, and doing as little as I like. In some agricultural districts mismanagement had led paupers to the notion that they had a right to be exempted from the same labour as independent labourers. The position of paupers was so much better that the wives of independent labourers regretted their husbands were not paupers. The overseer of Kettering said the men's remark is, "You must have your 12s. a week, or 10s., whether you work or not. I would not be such a fool as to work—blast work—damn me if I work, etc. In the parish of Sidford Gore poor rates were £650 per annum, of which £114 were paid in six months to men who did not do one stroke of work for it. Labourers much deteriorated—They do not care for regular work, prefer idle work on the roads. At Burnash, in East Suffolk, labourers were put up to auction—hired as low as 2d. or 3d. a day—the rest of their maintenance made up by the parish. The consequence was that farmers turned off regular hands in order to hire them by auction when wanted. Labour Rate System—Ratepayers agreed to employ each a certain number of labourers having settlements, not according to the employer's wants, but according to his rental or contribution to the rates. The evidence taken by the Poor Law Commissioners teems with cases such as I have quoted as samples, showing the utter demoralisation that a lax and injudicious administration of the Poor Law had brought about, and which led to the conclusion already quoted, to which the Commissioners had, after a most full, patient, and searching inquiry unanimously come. The Commissioners recommended that there should be a discontinuance of outdoor relief to the able-bodied, who should be relieved only in the workhouse. The 4th and 5th William IV. was passed on the basis of the Report of the Commissioners, and those who had profited by the lax administration, and found that they could no longer get relief except in the workhouse, where they would have to work, became discontented, with the result that a Committee of the House of Commons was appointed in 1838. That Committee reported as follows— The evidence shows the practice of confining relief to able-bodied male paupers in the workhouse has been established in many districts of guardians. The Committee are convinced that the utmost benefit has resulted from the general adoption of this system of relief. They strongly recommend that it should in future be adhered to, subject to such occasional departure from the ordinary rule as it appears local boards have been ready to adopt, and the Commissioners to sanction in cases of real necessity. What were the results of this change in the law? Industry took the place of idleness, the people became more independent, and thrift increased among the working classes. I will not trouble your Lordships with figures to prove this, but the statement rests on abso- lutely incontrovertible facts. The Poor Rate, which in 1851 was 4.5 per cent. of the whole population, was, in 1891, 2.4 cent. As regards thrift, it was stated the other day in a Return—I forget where it was issued—that there were 13 million investors in building societies, friendly societies, etc., and the total sum invested was 300 millions sterling. That was the state of things up to recent time, and it is the result, I venture to say without fear of contradiction, of a just administration of the Poor Law as laid down in its principle by the Royal Commission of 1834, and confirmed, as I have read to your Lordships, by the conclusions come to by the Committee of the House of Commons in 1838. But, my Lords, we have come now to a different state of things. The evils we had to complain of 65 years ago were evils and abuses in the administration of the law. We have now to complain not of the abuses in the administration of the Poor Law, but of abuse of the Poor Law root and branch, its principles and everything else. I do not think your Lordships have any idea of the sort of language which is being used with reference to the Poor Law at the present time, especially against what is called the workhouse, which is the test of a man's ability to maintain himself or not. Here are some flowers that I have gathered from the flowery path of abuse with which the road to the poor house is strewn. I have culled them from the Press in various places, and they are as follows— Down with the workhouse," "that bastille," "prison," "penal hospital," "place of banishment and disgrace, where existence is intolerable and indefensible." "Down with vile laws and worse administration." "A general gaol delivery may not be feasible all at once—it is a question of time." "They should not be imprisoned in their old age and deprived of their civil rights, i.e., votes. Aye, votes! There's the rub. This is the tone and language used with reference to the Poor Law and workhouses by irresponsible speakers and writers. But even otherwise wise and prudent men seem to have lost their mental balance in this matter. I have here a quotation from a speech of a very distinguished Member of the Government (Sir M. Hicks Beach), who, speaking at Newport, said— The Government intended to reform the Poor Law, and to give to the deserving"— (that is to say, the Government are going to separate the sheep from the goats)—"comfortable quarters—something they would not look upon, as he feared they now looked upon the workhouse, with loathing and pain. My feeling when I read this was—Where was Mr. Long, that he did not muzzle his colleague? I cannot conceive it possible that in the Cabinet he showed signs of this "Poor Law phobia"—a fit that probably subsequently came on as the result of having been bitten on his way from Downing Street by" General "Booth, set on perchance by a Cabinet colleague. Nothing could be more demoralising than such language. Now, my Lords, I am a very plain, simple-minded Scotsman, and do not see anything but what is put before me, or listen to anything but what I am plainly told. Therefore, I do not for one moment say or believe that there is anything beyond all these speeches or writings than the purest and most unmitigated philanthropy; but there are other people who take a different view, and who think they see something political behind this. I will take the Leader of the Opposition in another place. He takes the view that there is something more than pure philanthropy in all this, for when he was appointed to his present position he referred to the question of Old Age Pensions, and said it was almost scandalous that Her Majesty's Government had brought in no Bill dealing with this subject, inasmuch as it was in the belief that they would get Old Age Pensions that so many people had voted for the present Government at the last General Election. He quoted from documents and bills that were circulated in Birmingham and elsewhere at the General Election, which led one to believe that behind all this philanthropy there is a political and vote-catching object. "General" Booth has asserted that the people have been deceived, and that they had been promised Old Age Pensions by the present Government. I read in a newspaper the other day that there were 100 Liberal Unionist Members in the House of Commons who had pledged themselves to Old Age Pensions at the election, and who were most indignant that nothing had been done by the Government, and had memorialised Mr. Balfour to that effect, apropos to which there was a very sensible letter in the "Times" the other day from Major Rasch, who said he was not going to whistle for a wind to keep floating in the air the kites which these gentlemen had flown at the General Election. As I have said, there are people who think that there is in all this something in the nature of politics and vote-catching. Happily, there are people who take a sound non-political view of this question. The subject of Old Age Pensions has been fully and fairly considered by a Committee, of which Lord Rothschild—than whom there is no better man on finance—was a member, and that Committee presented the following Report— The Committee have been forced to the conclusion that none of the schemes submitted to us would attain the objects which the Government had in view, and that we ourselves are unable, after repeated attempts, to devise any proposal free from grave and inherent disadvantages. I have here some independent views. There are many from which I could quote, all objecting to this Old Age Pension scheme, including many friendly societies. I will take a very independent opinion. The Cambridge Debating Society at its last meeting, which was presided over by Mr. Campken, unanimously passed the following resolution— That a general system of Old Age Pensions provided by the State would be subversive of voluntary thrift, antagonistic to the friendly societies' system, and detrimental to the welfare of the community. I own that as far as I am concerned that resolution absolutely expresses what I feel on the subject. And as regards pauperisation in the case of a man who cannot provide for and keep himself, and has to be kept through the thrift and industry of others, I cannot see what difference there is between that man receiving 2s. 6d. from the rates and his receiving 2s. 6d. from the State. I should be glad if anyone could logically show me that there is any difference in principle between the two, and how a man who is pauperised by receiving from the rates ceases to be pauperised by receiving from the State. I said I would endeavour not to give my own opinion, but to quote the views of men before whom I think your Lordships will have to bow on a question like this. I will give you the opinion of Mr. Loch, the able and energetic Secretary of the Charity Organisation Society, who knows more about the poor, I believe, than any other man. In a letter he wrote to me some time ago, Mr. Loch said— They are the worst friends of the people who, with such a past before them"— by that he means, of course, the success that attended the strict administration of relief in accordance with the rules laid down by the Royal Commission of 1834— now preach laxity of administration, using other words, no doubt, to represent their meaning, or propose to re-establish Poor Law employment. Within the last two hours I have received another letter from him, the substance of which is that he thinks, looking to the change which has been made in the candidature for the post of guardian of the poor and of the electorate, and the effect that this Old Age Pension scheme might have, if put into practice, upon friendly and other societies, that it is desirable that there should be a Commission of Inquiry into the whole subject. Mr. Mackay, whose name is well known to anyone familiar with the subject, and who has been engaged for the last two or three years in writing a history of the Poor Law, says— The best statement, perhaps the very best extant, of the principles of public relief is that in the Report of the Commissioners on the continuance of the Poor Law Commission, dated December 31st, 1839. The opinion of that Commission is that— The condition of the pauper should be less eligible than that of the independent, and that relief at home—namely, out-door relief—is inconsistent with this. The only test of destitution is to be found in the pauper's willingness to give up his own resources for a maintenance offered in a Poor Law establishment. That is the opinion he quotes as the best he knows, and this writer on this great question adds— It has always seemed to me there is no escape from the cogency of this argument.

Mr. Mackay

says that the diminution of pauperism has fully justified the wisdom of the founders of the Amending Act of 1834, and he favours the appointment of a Royal Commission. I have only to add that the late, Lord Lyttelton, in the year 1875 brought a Motion before this House to the effect— That it is expedient, in the administration of the Poor Law, to revert more nearly to the principles laid down in the Report of the Commission of Inquiry of 1833. This Motion was, by leave, withdrawn, but I am glad to say that the present Leader of the Opposition (the Earl of Kimberley) on that occasion expressed his approval of this resolution. I hope my Motion will also receive the support of my noble Friend, my object being rather in the direction pointed out by Lord Lyttelton, and approved by my noble Friend, than in the direction of these vague, humanitarian, economic, political schemes of Old Age Pensions. You may, perhaps, ask how it is that I have brought this matter before your Lordships, and why I should presume to put myself forward and speak to your Lordships as I have ventured to do, but I hope you will observe that I have given quotations from experts on the subject, and not merely my own views. At the Vestry of St. James's, Westminster, the question of the administration of the Poor Law cropped up a few years ago, and I proposed that the vestry clerk and myself should draw up a Memorandum on the subject. This we did, and in doing so we were necessarily obliged to go thoroughly into the question, and the conclusion we came to was that— It is respectfully admitted that while under the operation of this Act (the Poor Law Act) during all these sixty years abuses have been checked, the well-being of the poor has been duly cared for, and provision exceptionally made for cases of emergency. All, then, that is needed at the present time is no new Poor Law, or change in principle or system of relief, but simply a wise, judicious, discriminating, and kindly administration and exercise of the powers conferred by the existing law upon those entrusted with the care and relief of poor persons permanently or temporarily unable to maintain themselves. The view I held then I hold now, and I am anxious that a Royal Commission should be issued. If there is anything political in all this, if vote-catching has anything to do with the philanthropy of the times and these philanthropic measures which are in the air floating about like cork on the Thames, a Committee of the House of Commons is not the body to whom such a matter should be entrusted. A Commission of a purely judicial character, accustomed to sift evidence and to give their opinion without fear and without favour, is the proper body to deal with this question. A Commission of this character, my Lords, is what we want to see appointed. I believe myself that is a great mistake to think that any good can come of these philanthropic, political measures. I do not care where they come from. I do not care whether they are imported from Germany or whether they are the political product of a Birmingham workshop. I look at them all in the same light, and with the same view, and I think we want full inquiry into this matter. I hope it will be understood by those who favour these schemes, whatever they may be, that they are not the sole persons in the world who have any sympathy and feeling for their suffering fellow-men; but that there are many others who know much about the subject, and who feel as deeply as any one of those gentlemen to whom I have referred, and who are as anxious as they are to hold out a helping hand to those who have fallen in the battle and in the race of life. I thank your Lordships for having listened to me so long, and I now move the Motion standing in my name on the Paper.


My Lords, as I have taken a considerable part in the administration of the Poor Law in London and have sat for many years as a working Member of the Chelsea Board of Guardians, I should like to be allowed, with your Lordships' kind permission, to say a few words with regard to this subject. I do not quite understand how the speech of the noble Earl tallies with the proposition that he has put before your Lordships' House, because it appears to me that the noble Earl has already got exactly what he wants, and that is a condemnation of the system of indiscriminate out-door relief, and a condemnation by a strong Royal Commission which has only just concluded its labours. Not only does that Commission condemn out-door relief, but it finds itself quite unable to suggest any means whatever of satisfactorily solving the question of Old Age Pensions, which we know has been represented by some authorities to be the simplest thing in the world. It appears to me that what would logically follow from the speech of the noble Earl is this, that the noble Earl should ask this House to express its agreement with the Report of the Royal Commission on Old Age Pensions. It has been suggested to me that there is one other function that the noble Earl might ask this House to discharge, and that is to suggest that some sort of Committee of Inquiry might be instituted with a view of finding out what are the opinions of Her Majesty's Government on this question of Old Age Pensions. My Lords, I confess that I am not altogether in agreement with the speech of the noble Earl. My experience has taught me that although in the vast majority of cases it is either want of thrift or want of industry that drives persons into the workhouse, still there is a residuum of cases, and I venture to think a considerable percentage of cases, in which it is unavoidable illness or misfortune which has driven people to the shelter of the workhouse. I am not prepared to go so far as to agree with the noble Earl in saying that it is in all cases either want of thrift or industry that drives people into the workhouse.


I did not say that it was so in all cases.


The noble Earl said a strong division ought to be made between the persons in the workhouse, or supported by the rates, and persons not supported by the rates. I think there are many persons, in the workhouse and in receipt of relief outside the workhouse, who are just as worthy of the consideration of the State as the persons who have managed to keep their heads above water. But I principally rise to call your Lordships' attention to the very curious state of things which exists in London, and in London alone, I believe, with regard to the question of indoor and out-door pauperism. In London four-fifths of the money expended on the Poor Law is expended in in-door pauperism, and only one-fifth in out-door pauperism; whereas, if we take the rural districts in Wales, for instance, we find that the exact opposite is the case, and that four-fifths of the total sum spent on the Poor Law is spent on out-door relief, and only one-fifth on in-door relief. Now, there is a simple explanation of that fact—namely, that in London we have a Metropolitan Common Poor Fund which every union subscribes to and draws upon. Originally, when that Common Poor Fund was set up, one of the contributions that was made from that fund was a sum of 5d. a day in respect of every in-door pauper. That, my Lords, was, in my opinion, a wise and judicious proceeding. It was perfectly right, I think, that that 5d. a day should be paid. This sum did not quite cover the expenses of a pauper in the workhouse—that is to say, the cost of a pauper outside the administration expenses, but it very nearly covered it. The cost of feeding and clothing the inmates was computed at 3s. 3d. a week, or somewhere between 5d. and 6d. a day when I was on the Chelsea Board of Guardians, and I think it was quite right that that charge should be thrown on the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund. But 10 years ago a further sum of 4d. a day was paid, and is now paid, out of the Common Poor Fund, making a total of 9d. a day for every pauper in the metropolitan workhouses. The result is that it absolutely pays the unions of London to have their workhouses full. They would gain money if they paid a pauper a shilling a week to come into the workhouse. Ninepence a day more than covers the cost of feeding and clothing the inmates, and the administration expenses, of course, are the same whether a workhouse is full or only three parts full. I think it is right that the expenses of in-door pauperism should be thrown on the Common Poor Fund, and that the Common Poor Fund should continue to contribute as much as it does towards the poorer districts in the way of equalisation of rates, but I am not perfectly certain that it is desirable that you should put a premium on every man and woman who seeks the shelter of the workhouse. It appears to me that that is a matter that might, well be considered by the Local Government Board. I do not share the view of the noble Earl that it is necessary at the present moment to have a Commission to inquire into the whole operation of the Poor Law, because it certainly does seem to me that things are moving in the right direction. Pauperism is decreasing throughout the country, and the noble Earl will be perhaps even more glad than I am to find that the decrease is princi- pally in out-door paupers. Consequently it appears to me that outside the question of Old Age Pensions, which, so far from being solved by the Commission, is still in a very fluid state, I do not think the question of the administration of the Poor Law calls for any special action on the part of the Government at the present moment. Of course, I admit that there is between Old Age Pensions and the Poor Law a very considerable connection, because, after all, the Poor Law is one of the means of distributing Old Age Pensions. It may or may not be the best means. There may be another means to be devised, but until another means is devised I should be very sorry to see out-door relief entirely stopped, and I think the best way of dealing with 'Hit-door relief is for the boards of guardians to look into every case as far as possible themselves, and if they cannot do that to employ the very best people they can to look carefully into every case. It is a question of administration and not so much a question of the Poor Law. As far as the Poor Law itself is concerned it appears to me we are moving in the right direction, and I doubt very much whether a Royal Commission will be able to do more than to suggest what almost every Poor Law reformer does suggest is necessary—namely, that there should be a further classification of inmates in the workhouse, and that you should not take that rough and ready test of a man being a pauper and say that because he is a pauper he must have been thriftless and idle, but that they should be put into different categories by persons who have investigated every case on its own merits. That appears to me to be the great reform of the Poor Law that is desirable.


My Lords, I only rise in consequence of what my noble Friend opposite (Lord Monkswell) said as regards the Measures which might be taken by executive action to improve the present position of the inmates of our workhouses. May I remind your Lordships that only as late as 1893 a Commission was appointed to inquire into the Poor Law, and that Committee presented in 1895 a very exhaustive Report, not upon all subjects included in the Poor Law, but upon all that portion which deals with the provision made for the poor, and particularly the aged poor. In the House of Commons the other day, in a discussion upon the subject of cottage homes, the President of the Local Government Board, in his speech, called attention to what the Local Government Board had been doing by executive action. Mr. Chaplin said that shortly after the present Government came into office it was his duty to examine into this question, and his colleagues and himself came to the conclusion that it was desirable to call the attention of all the different boards of guardians in the country to the desirability of trying, by means of improved administration, to do something in the nature of drawing a greater distinction between the treatment of the poor who are deserving and the poor who cannot be included in that category. As long ago as July 1896 the Government addressed a Circular to all the different boards of guardians, drawing their attention to the desirability of classifying more strictly the aged and deserving poor in the workhouses. In connection with that, the Board called the attention of the guardians to what is called the General Consolidated Order, which was passed many years ago, and which provides that guardians shall, so far as circumstances may permit, divide and further sub-divide the inmates, having regard to their moral character and previous habits, upon any other grounds that might seem to be important. And the Local Government Board asked them to give special attention to this matter, so that, all those whose circumstances had become so reduced as to force them into the workhouse, but who had been up to the time of their going there leading decent and respectable lives, should be separated from others who, from their habits or speech, or for any other reason, were likely to cause them any discomfort. A separate Circular was issued drawing attention to the fact that there should be special facilities given for their friends to visit them, and for them to visit their friends, and that they might be permitted out for that and other purposes, and when they desired it they should also be permitted to attend their own places of worship on Sunday. And further, it was suggested that, whenever it might be possible, further arrangements might be made for the improvement of their condition. Some time after that Circular was issued the Local Government caused inquiries to be made as to what attention had been given to their suggestions and instructions, and very satisfactory replies were received. I only mention this, my Lords, to show that it is in the power of a Department, by executive action, and without the necessity of appointing a body like a Royal Commission to introduce improvements into the administration of the law in consonance with the views of more advanced opinion; and it is desirable, I suggest, that before anything of the kind is done we should be perfectly sure what are the schemes that may be put forward, having the very proper object in view of securing an administration of the Jaw as generous as possible in spirit, whilst at the same time, of course, not losing sight of the intention of the framers of the Poor Law, that those who provided the funds should be carefully guarded. I believe that is the intention of the Government so far as the Select Committee to which the Cottage Homes Bill has been referred is concerned, and any Bill of a similar character that may be brought before the House. Therefore, there is inquiry going on at the present time in many different directions, and I think it would be wise to wait for some result of these various inquiries before coming to a decision such as that suggested by the noble Earl.


My Lords, I shall not press my Motion; but in reference to what my noble Friend has stated I should like to point out that what I said was wanted was a wise, judicious, discriminating, and kindly administration and exercise of the powers conferred by the existing law upon the various authorities. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at twenty-five minutes after Five of the clock.