HL Deb 26 March 1914 vol 15 cc734-46

rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether the Local Government Board will issue, before the Poor Law Institutions Order, 1913, comes into actual operation, an explanatory Circular, explaining the legal duties and powers of guardians of the poor as to the relief of necessitous married women, widows, and children; urging the guardians to give relief to the necessitous and not wait till they are actually destitute, and also advising the guardians not to deprive mothers of the care of their children without grave cause; and in cases where they do remove the children from the mother to a distance beyond that which she can walk, to exercise their powers under the General Order of February 7, 1898, enabling guardians to pay the travelling expenses of the mother's journey to see her child at least once a quarter.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, when the other day we were discussing the case of Sarah Savage the most rev. Primate stated that there was no fault in the law in respect of the relief of a widow left with young children, and that as a matter of fact, according to his experience, boards of guardians generally made a practice of giving a woman in such circumstances outdoor relief. Now I venture to think that the most rev. Primate is under a misapprehension in that respect. I think he would find, if he inquired, that there are a large number of unions where it is a definite practice not to give such a widow sufficient outdoor relief for the children as would enable her to keep her family together. The most rev. Primate the other night gave me the impression that he thought most unions were in the practice of giving such relief. I certainly have been able to ascertain that that is far from being universally the case. I fancy that there are many more unions than the most rev. Primate thought who make it a practice not to do so, and who will not, as a matter of fact, give a widow in such circumstances that outdoor relief for her children which would enable her to keep her family round her and her home together. As I said on that occasion, they will pay a larger sum than is necessary to help the mother to keep her home together to board some of her children out with some other woman, or again, they will put some of the children into one of those great institutions in which the philanthropists of the mid-Victorian era so heartily believed, but about which we are not quite so enthusiastic.

The Local Government Board have lately issued an Order in respect of Poor Law institutions, but it has not yet come into force. That Order deals with almost every aspect of the Poor Law, but I do not think that it deals sufficiently with the case of the widow with children. It alludes to it, but it does not do anything that can be described as endeavouring to influence Poor Law authorities strongly to assist a widow of good character to keep her children round her and her home together. Therefore I suggest that before this Order comes into operation the Local Government Board might issue a Circular explaining the legal duties and powers of guardians of the poor as to the relief of necessitous married women, widows, and children; urging the guardians to give relief to the necessitous and not wait till they are actually destitute, and also advising guardians not to deprive mothers of the care of their children without grave cause; and in cases where they do remove the children from the mother to a distance beyond that which she can walk, to exercise their powers enabling them to pay the travelling expenses of the mother's journey to see her child at least once a quarter. If the law is adequate for this purpose and it is only some of the Poor Law authorities who are failing at present to act on what seems to me to be clearly the most wise, as well as the most humane, system of relief in these cases, surely it lies with the Local Government Board to do all it can to enlighten these authorities and to make the way smoother for them to conform to the better practice.


My Lords, the noble Earl has, I think, earned again the gratitude of the House for his action in bringing this matter forward. I should be very sorry indeed were it to be supposed that I differ from him, as far as I followed his words, in any single thing that he has just said. I agree with him entirely that at this moment action is wanted in this preeminently difficult question, on which boards of guardians ought to be, and I think would be, exceedingly glad to receive authoritative counsel and advice. I do not think that among the perplexities of the whole Poor Law question there is any greater than the question of what to do with mothers and children—I use the phrase "mothers" rather than "widows," because they are not always widows—mothers and children in whose cases the difficulty arises. The Royal Commission on the Poor Law, which reported in 1909, presented documents which I think it is not presumptuous to say no one of your Lordships has mastered in their entirety. There are, I think, forty-one volumes—thirty-nine containing the evidence and two containing the Reports on this subject; and that any one of your Lordships should have mastered one-tenth of that material would be to me surprising, though I should be delighted to hear that it was so. But if any one will look at nothing more than the index to these volumes and will see what is shown to be the number of headings under which this question has to be considered, and the way in which it overlaps with almost every other point in Poor Law administration, it will be brought home to him, not only how large the question is, but how extremely difficult it is, and that difficulty is shown by the variety of ways in which in different parts of the country boards of guardians handle the perplexities of it.

I heartily share the view of the noble Earl that the relief ordinarily given to widows who are left with children whom they have to support is miserably inadequate and utterly unsatisfactory, and, from its inadequacy, harmful in two or three quite different directions, not in the children's interests only but in other ways as well. But the subject is enormously complicated when we remember, as I said a moment ago, that we are dealing, not with the case only of widows with children, but with unmarried women who have a large number of children. If a clear rule that relief is obtainable in the one case which is never to be obtainable in the other were laid down, it would be found practically unworkable in practice. The question is still more complicated when the fact is remembered that women who have never been married but have perhaps several illegitimate children come frequently into the category of the feeble minded. It is constantly the case that guardians of the poor find themselves pulled up by the practical impossibility of leaving the mother with control of her children because she is obviously incapable of the exceedingly difficult task of providing for her children if the money were placed in her hands. Then we come to the whole question of what means you are to adopt for inspecting in the home the family which is being brought up by means of the aid given by Poor Law guardians. If you could apply to a mother with her children the same rule as is made for the foster-mother when the children are boarded out, part of the difficulty might be met. The law again, it appears, puts certain difficulties in the way of following that particular rule.

The whole of these facts are brought out with great clearness and at very full length in both the Majority and the Minority Reports of the Royal Commission, and, as I have said, the difficulty is evidenced by the extraordinary variety of usage that is found to prevail. I have here an extract from the Minority Report, which upon this subject has gone into statistics with very great care, showing the almost infinite variety which is to be found in the practice of different unions in the matter. The Minority Report says— Most unions which have rules prohibit outdoor relief to widows, whatever their legitimate family, who have had an illegitimate child; indeed, ' any person who may have given birth to an illegitimate child' is commonly excluded. Widows who have only ' a small family,' or if an able-bodied widow ' of the working class,' not more than two children, are made ineligible in some unions. Par more usual is it to require the widow with only one child to keep herself and child without relief at all, after the first six months—some say after the first three months, after the first two months, or even the first month—of her widowhood; at least, say some boards, if the child is a year old, eighteen months old, two years old, or of school age. Many unions express the same idea by providing that children in excess of one or two should, in preference to any grant of outdoor relief—and in face of the present strong objection of the Local Government Board to the presence of children in this institution—be taken into the workhouse, the general mixed workhouse that we have described. On the other hand, some unions expressly provide for outdoor relief to a widow with only one child, or without any dependent child at all, and even, subject to being considered by the whole board, to widows with illegitimate children born since their widowhood. All that I want to press upon your Lordships is that this is a matter in which guidance is very necessary from the central authority. It is absolutely impossible either for this House or for, I think, anybody else to lay down a hard-and-fast rule and say how the thing ought to be practically carried out.

The Scottish Poor Law, which is not on all fours in its operation with the English Poor Law, has, with the logical instinct of my fellow countrymen, declined to place in the category of able-bodied women who have children to support. They say that this fact at once takes away from the characteristic of being able-bodied in the sense of being in a position in which to be able necessarily to earn a livelihood. The general policy which we all desire to promote, not with regard to these people only but with regard to many other cases of distress and difficulty connected with rescue work and a hundred other things, is not to break up the family bond; for even if the children afterwards turn out well, it is never to be forgotten that to take the children away from the mother means the breaking of that tie which is of infinite importance to mother and children, quite apart from the question of their ordinary advancement in the occu- pations to which the children go. I believe that it would be impossible to form a proper estimate of what are the rights and wrongs of this matter and how it ought to be handled until the Local Government Board does what it has never done yet—namely, provide us with statistics as to what is the evidence of the respective or relative success in life afterwards of children who have been taken away and children who have been left with their parents in such circumstances. These would not be difficult statistics to obtain. Unless we have something of that sort we are obliged to theorise rather from a priori evidence than from anything we can clearly say is proved to us with certainty.

Your Lordships are probably familiar with what is known as the Strassburg system, which suggests that the relief given to a widow with dependent children should be such as to enable her to withdraw from the labour market, that it is undesirable that she should be going to work, and that in the public interest the money given to her should be such as to enable her to take the domestic rather than outside duties as her primary care. The importance and necessity of that is emphasised by this fact, proved beyond doubt, that inadequate relief given to widows who have children to support has a tendency not merely to be detrimental to the children, who have not thus got sufficient means for their upbringing, but to drag down women's wages in the neighbourhood. If a considerable number of women receiving inadequate support from the Poor Law are obliged to go to work in that way, and yet when going to work are known to have aid from the Poor Law as well, it has the tendency of prejudicially pulling down the wages of women's work in that particular village or neighbourhood.

I am purposely dwelling upon the difficulties of the situation rather than upon the manner of relieving them. But there is another complication that comes in at this moment. We have multiplied, most wholesomely, committees for child feeding in schools in certain circumstances. These committees are wholly independent of the ordinary working of the Poor Law, but you have in the schools a number of children of widows receiving outdoor relief out of the rates, who in a totally different capacity are in a category with those with whom these committees have to deal. In London that difficulty has reached an acute point in some cases. Neither authority has power over the other, and the overlapping and difficulty has been considerable, all of this going to add to the complication of what is one of the most complicated questions with which Poor Law guardians have to deal. The fact that they find it so perplexing is the explanation of the variety of usage, and it is also the explanation of the real inadequacy of the relief that guardians give; because the moment they try to handle the question properly they find how very much larger than what is now given the aid ought to be if the results are to be of the kind we desire.

The noble Earl implied that I suggested the other night that the common usage of boards of guardians was to give ample relief. If I seemed to do so, then I expressed myself badly. I think it is most inadequate, but that there are boards of guardians who, having studied the subject, are handling it adequately I do not think the noble Earl for a moment would deny, and I should be glad to see their example followed elsewhere. The whole of the arguments arising from the facts which I have quoted seem to me to show, what I and many others of your Lordships have been advocating for a long time, that this matter does call urgently for legislative interference and action. I mean that the whole question of the outcome of these great Reports of the Royal Commission on the Poor Law has hung fire a great deal too long. I have been myself on two different occasions on deputations to His Majesty's Government on the subject, to press that in some branches, at all events, of the matter real action should be immediately taken; but there has been the merest tinkering with it by trying in some small way to handle it in this corner or in that. The large subject has been brought within practical reach by the way in which these voluminous Reports to which I have referred have been compressed into certain definite recommendations to which it is possible to say yea or nay.

I want to see this matter taken up by the Government of the day and handled with a little more courage than has been yet shown. I believe it to be one of those cases in which the lack of legislation is due in some sense to the practical unanimity of everybody in desiring it. When legislation is unanimously desired by everybody there is, I suppose, in another place certain difficulty in getting time devoted to it because it is not a matter that has any Party push behind it, and I believe that good causes have suffered more than once by the very unanimity I have referred to. This I believe to be one of those cases. The result is that we are drifting along just now without any adequate handling of a subject which needs to be grasped firmly and dealt with with a good deal more courage than has yet been shown. But in the meantime much can be done, if the delay is still inevitable; and I join with the noble Earl in saying that I would welcome exceedingly, and I know that many boards of guardians throughout the country would welcome exceedingly, a real handling of the subject by a competent and far-reaching Circular from the Local Government Board, putting together the facts that emerge from the different groups of evidence to which I have referred and giving the kind of guidance that many boards of guardians want as to how they ought to deal with this matter. We have evidence, not from England, Scotland, and Ireland only, but from the Continent as well, for the subject is not one which is confined to any one country and in no one country has the difficulty been really conquered. I believe that if the Local Government Board would deal with it in some way which would enable us to understand better what they, with all their knowledge and responsibility, feel to be right in regard to this question, many boards of guardians would follow that lead and many of the difficulties to which the noble Earl has so rightly and wisely called attention would be diminished if not removed.


My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot pretend to have a tithe of the knowledge of the administration of the Poor Law which is possessed by the most rev. Primate, who has made the question a great study and to whose remarks we have all listened with much interest. But I can say that the Local Government Board quite appreciate the difficulties of the question and the complexities which the most rev. Primate has just pointed out. As to the speech of the noble Earl who drew attention to this question to-day, I should like to point out that the Institutions Order which comes into force next week and to which he has referred is an Order relating to the government of Poor Law institutions other than institutions provided specially for children and sick persons. It in no way affects the principles which should govern guardians in arriving at a decision whether relief is required, or their powers or duties as to the manner in which relief, if required, should be afforded. There does not, therefore, seem to the Local Government Board any particular reason why a Circular explaining the duties and powers of Poor Law guardians as to the relief of necessitous married women or children should be issued before the Institutions Order comes into operation.

With regard to the question as to whether or not a Circular is really required, I would like to point out that the Local Government Board have on three occasions within the last few years—namely, on March 18, 1910; on June 16, 1910; and on December 29, 1911—issued Circulars, of which I think the noble Earl has copies—if not, I can hand him copies—explaining the principles which should govern guardians in the administration of relief. One is entitled "Administration of Outdoor Relief," the second refers mainly to children under the Poor Law, and the third is a Relief Regulation Order. Two of these Circulars contain special reference to the cases of widows with children, and I think the noble Earl will find that in them a very liberal interpretation is placed upon the term used to describe the condition of persons who are qualified for relief, and that there are no very hard-and-fast rules laid down.

The noble Earl seemed to think—at least so I judged from what he said—that the Local Government Board had rather encouraged depriving mothers of the care of their children, but the statistics of the Local Government Board show that boards of guardians generally are very reluctant to deprive mothers of the care of their children without grave cause. On January 1, 1913—I do not think there are any statistics later than these—no fewer than 110,110 children were receiving outdoor relief with their widowed or deserted mothers, the total number of children receiving outdoor relief altogether being 178,815, so that I think it will be seen that a very large proportion of the children were not separated from their mothers.


More than a third were.


The total number of children relieved in institutions was only 70,676, and of these 34,677 were orphans or deserted children; the remaining 35,999 included sick children requiring infirmary treatment and babies with their mothers. The most rev. Primate just now asked whether the Local Government Board could not supply further statistics. I may say that the Board are considering the compiling of a good many more statistics. I am not sure, however, whether they are in the direction which the most rev. Primate suggested, but I will make inquiries and see what can be done. No doubt the compilation of these statistics would involve a great deal of trouble, but I should think that probably they might be obtained.

With regard to the last part of the noble Earl's question, I should like to say that there is no reason to suppose, from the information at the Local Government Board, that boards of guardians are reluctant to exercise their powers under the General Order mentioned, which enables them to pay the expenses of poor persons to visit their relatives in institutions. No case of complaint on this subject has reached the Local Government Board, but if the noble Earl has any cases to bring forward in which boards of guardians have failed to exercise their powers the Local Government Board would be very glad if he would give them the particulars and they would willingly communicate with the boards of guardians on the subject.


My Lords, your Lordships will be very much obliged to the noble Viscount for the answer he has given, but I think that probably almost every one of your Lordships who has listened to this debate will feel that an answer of that kind, which is of a strictly official character, is hardly an adequate reply to the kind of speeches delivered by my noble friend behind me and by the most rev. Primate. I would venture, therefore, to suggest to the Government that something more than an official reply of an ordinary sealed pattern nature is required. I have no doubt that the general feeling of the Local Government Board is well enough in this matter, and I have no doubt also that a large number of children are properly relieved without being separated from their parents.

But the most rev. Primate has made a statement in which he points out that there is a great variety of treatment in different parts of England, that there is a great want of knowledge as to how this matter ought to be met, that there is a feeling amongst those interested in the question that guidance is required, and that there are any number of difficulties of all kinds. There is a want of statistics, a general want of official action in the matter, and both my noble friend and the most rev. Primate have asked for a Circular or Memorandum from the Local Government Board dealing adequately with this matter. The noble Viscount says that Circulars have been issued. I am informed that the Circulars of recent years have been inadequate to meet the kind of case put forward to-day. I do not think, when two such distinguished members of your Lordships' House put a case of that kind before the House, that that ought to be a sufficient answer.

I would venture very respectfully to suggest to the noble Viscount who leads the House that he, or some one on his behalf, might promise to consult the Local Government Board as to whether a thoroughly adequate Memorandum on this subject could not be prepared. I do not say necessarily that it should be prepared immediately. What we want is that within a brief period all the intelligence and skill and knowledge and experience of the Local Government Board should be directed towards preparing a Memorandum which should convey to boards of guardians in all parts of England a thoroughly adequate conception of this subject, so that they may know the difficulties and the various methods in which those difficulties may be met on the advice which the Local Government Board are enabled to give them. If the Government would give us some promise of that kind your Lordships would be very satisfied.


My Lords, I regret that the noble Marquess should have been dissatisfied with the reply that was given by my noble friend behind me.


I was not dissatisfied with it as far as it went, but it did not go far enough.


I agree that the noble Marquess's dissatisfaction was very largely on the ground that the answer given by my noble friend was of an official pattern. I am afraid he cannot expect anything but a reply of an official pattern from me. The noble Marquess has been good enough to express his satisfaction with the reply as far as it went; and, of course, after the important speech to which we have listened from the most rev. Primate upon the question it will be only natural that the Local Government Board should take his views into consideration and once more consider the question as to whether a further Circular or Memorandum should not be issued. Certainly the views which have been expressed by the most rev. Primate, by the noble Earl, and by the noble Marquess shall be represented personally to the President of the Local Government Board. If they are dissatisfied with the result—that is to say, if no adequate Circular is issued—I hope they will bring the matter before the House again on a subsequent occasion, when we shall have an opportunity of further debating the question. Meanwhile, however, I can assure the noble Marquess that the matter shall be brought to the personal attention of the President of the Local Government Board.


My Lords, perhaps the House will allow me their indulgence to say a few sentences more. What I would like to press upon the noble Earl who has just spoken on behalf of His Majesty's Government is this. Would he ask his colleague the President of the Local Government Board to direct his special attention to these cases? The nation has provided for old-age and also for sickness. Both these great movements had to be the subject of Acts of Parliament. I maintain that the most deserving and the most necessitous class in the whole kingdom are neither the aged nor the sick, but the widow with children, and that class can apparently be dealt with without legislation. It is a question of administration, and I would appeal to His Majesty's Government and to the President of the Local Government Board to take this class of case up and make it a special branch of administration, as has been done in the case of the aged and the sick. I can assure the noble Earl that in the Circulars which have been quoted by the noble Viscount, this subject is only touched. It is not dealt with and settled. My appeal is that it should be settled.


My Lords, I am as much out of order in answering as the noble Earl was in making his further request, but I shall certainly see to it that the point is brought before the President of the Local Government Board.