HC Deb 28 July 1868 vol 193 cc1908-16

Bill, as amended, considered.

MR. NEATE moved the insertion of a new clause, (Greater uniformity in treatment of casual poor). The hon. and learned Member observed that there was a competition of cruelty on the part of the different unions. They were constantly inquiring what was the maximum of labour, and what was the minimum of accommodation for the casual poor. The result was, the treatment of that class of paupers sank in some cases below the level of humanity. He believed the Poor Law Board intended to issue a Circular to the various unions with the view of having a uniform system. He was in favour of uniformity as among the unions; but he thought the principle of uniformity, as to the treatment of all persons coming under the denomination of "casual poor" had been carried too far already. It was true that very many of those persons adopted a vagrant life voluntarily; but there was a large minority of the casual poor who were in that wretched condition from no fault of their own. Magistrates, in many cases, told prisoners who were brought before them as vagrants that "if they would take themselves off to some other districts they might be discharged at once." But this was altogether foreign to the purpose for which they were appointed, and it would be attended with good results if the Home Secretary were now and then to remind magistrates so acting that they sat not as protectors of the rates, but as administrators of the law. A distinction ought to be drawn between mere vagrants and persons temporarily destitute. Mere vagrants ought never to be sent to the workhouse, for they knew perfectly well that the only courses of living which they followed were beggary or robbery, with now and then a mixture of the two. It would be very desirable if some statement were given to the House of the intention of the Poor Law Board with reference to this subject, which deserved, if time allowed it, a much fuller discussion.

Clause (Greater uniformity in treatment of casual poor,)—(Mr. Neate,)—brought up, and read the first time.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the said Clause be now read a second time."


expressed regret that his hon. and learned Friend, in accordance with the Notice which had been given, had not brought forward this subject at an earlier period of the Session, when it might have received that careful consideration which its importance demanded. The first portion of the clause related to the issuing of orders prescribing the time and conditions of the admission of casual poor into the workhouse; and the second enacted that vagrants should be detained in the workhouse a certain specified time after their admission. He doubted the wisdom of the latter provision because it would naturally occur that vagrants would avoid the workhouse, seeing they were liable to be detained. The visiting of the casual poor by one or more Guardians was a thing which he considered would be impossible to carry out. So much for the clause. Then came the question as to what were the intentions of Her Majesty's Government with reference to the order proposed to be issued? In reply, he had to say that the Poor Law Board were fully conscious of the need of uniformity in dealing with this matter. It was obvious that no system which endeavoured to separate the really deserving poor from the vagrants would be successful unless uniformity were had recourse to. Vagrancy had increased very considerably all over the country within the last two years, owing, doubtless, to the financial crisis and the consequent absence of employment. But in the metropolis, where a novel system of dealing with vagrants had been adopted, it was found that the proportion of vagrants in London in January, 1868, had only increased by 11½ per cent over the number in January, 1866, whereas throughout the rest of the country the increase of vagrants was no less than 50 per cent. That clearly proved that the practice in London was better than the practice in the rest of the country, and accordingly the Poor Law Board had it in contemplation by a General Order to extend the system which had already been found so beneficial in practice. It would be required, for instance, that Guardians should take the responsibility of a sound and vigilant discrimination between deserving travellers in search of work and professional vagrants not really destitute, by the appointment of officers capable of exercising such discrimination; and that where practicable the police should be appointed assistant relieving officers. Another provision would be that a proper search should be instituted, to secure that persons applying for relief should have no means of obtaining lodging or food in any other way. A book of descriptions would also be kept, in which the persons of the vagrants, together with their line of travel, would be described. Again, it was very desirable that uniformity should be secured, at least between neighbouring unions, in the diet and lodging of vagrants, and also in the task of work which they would have to do in return for their lodging and food; and some provision might well be made under this head for increasing their task of work in the case of continued applications for relief by habitual tramps. With regard to the accommodation of tramps, it would be very desirable that baths should be provided in all cases, and that each person should have a separate or divided bed place. The forthcoming Order would likewise suggest in cases where it might be practicable that the accommodation for deserving travellers should be different from that given to professional vagrants. He trusted that the provisions of the Order, as he had sketched them out, would be satisfactory to the House, and would be productive of beneficial effects in checking vagrancy; at all events, the attempt was well worth making. In another respect also it might be found possible to assimilate the practice in rural districts to that which obtained in the metropolis. In the country the expense of maintaining vagrants was sustained by the unions separately, while in London it was thrown on the common fund. And there was a reason for putting this charge upon the common fund which did not hold good in other cases, that with regard to vagrants that knowledge of local circumstances, which was the safeguard of local administration, did not apply. Vagrants were generally the poor of the country, and not of any particular union, and, looking at the matter in that light, it might be a subject for future consideration whether, by analogy to the common fund in the metropolis, the charges for vagrants might not be thrown upon the county rates. It might also be matter for consideration on some future occcasion whether the care and custody of vagrants might not be put entirely into the hands of the police. However, nothing of this kind was proposed to be done by the Order which was shortly to be issued, and he merely mentioned these points for the information of hon. Members. There was one thing which would do even more to check vagrancy than any improvement, however meritorious, in local administration, and that was, if some means could be devised of checking the mistaken bestowal of alms by the charitable public. When the public came to understand that persons really in want of relief could obtain it either from the poor or from the county rates, they would be less disposed, he hoped, to bestow mistaken charity than they were at present. But as long as the indiscriminate bestowal of alms to anybody who asked; for them continued—and it was always easier to give than to refuse—vagrancy; must continue to flourish in this country.


considered the subject dealt with by the clause before the House one of the gravest importance. He was very glad that his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Neate) was not going to press his Motion, because lie did not think it went to the root of the question. This matter of vagrancy would, in his opinion, never be ameliorated unless they treated casual poor as they treated all other classes of poor. The present system was really nothing more than a system of shifts and contrivances in order to throw the burden of maintaining vagrants off the shoulders of one parish upon another, Instead of meeting the evil, or attempting to face it, we strove to shift these vagrants from one place to another at the least possible expense and inconvenience. Thus we had some 50,000 people constantly circulating all round the country, and proving just as great a burden to the ratepayers as they would be if settled in one place, and had the means afforded them of living decently, instead of being, as they were, a curse to the whole body politic. Unless the question were looked upon in this large view, they would never be successful in abating this great pest to society. The present system reminded him of hunting crows from one field in order to let them settle down upon another. The evil would never be abated unless they grappled with it boldly and in a large comprehensive manner.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill read the third time.


Mr. Speaker, I hope the House will not think me unreasonable if I move at this stage of the Bill that Clause 3 be struck out. I shall also have to object to clauses from 6 to 12 inclusive, which are connected with Clause 3 in substance; but the clause to which I now object is the 3rd. By that clause the Poor Law Board is enabled, after giving notice to the Guardians, to appoint what officers it may think fit in any or each union of this country, and to direct what salaries shall be paid to these officers out of the rates, thereby acquiring a power totally to supersede every Board of Guardians in the country with reference to the appointment of officers and the payment of these officers out of the rates, which each Board of Guardians is bound to collect. This, Sir, is a very decided step towards the establishment of a centralized power; and I further find that it is understood in the House that this step is taken with the immediate view of appointing chaplains of other denominations than the Church of England, and among these Roman Catholic priests as chaplains. We have had some discussion upon this clause, and a division. This clause is mixed up with miscellaneous clauses in this Bill, but taken in connection with the clauses from 6 to 12, inclusive, it constitutes a separate portion of the Bill; this is understood and acknowledged. I wish, then, to show the House the sort of sense in which these provisions,; when taken together, are understood by the conductors of some of the Roman Catholic papers. Last Saturday there appeared an article on the subject of these clauses in The Weekly Register, a well known Ultramontane Roman Catholic paper, and I will take the liberty of reading the concluding portion of that article to the House, in order to warn the House and to warn the country of the sort of operations that the conductors of this newspaper expect the clauses, to which I have alluded, will have, when the power they confer is enforced by the Poor Law Board. This is the conclusion of the article— As the Bill has already passed the House of Lords, it will be law in a day or two, and the Marylebone, Pancras, and Chelsea Boards of Guardians will have lost their proselytizing power, and be compelled to carry the Poor Law into effect, in accordance with the enlightened and generous views of the Whig and Tory Governments, and of the two great parties in Parliament. We promise these low-bred, discomfited bigots that they may calculate upon a rigid surveillance of their future conduct, and upon the adoption of energetic measures to force them to do their duty, however sorely it may go against their grain, Now, Sir, no one can read this paragraph, which is strictly in accordance with the tenour of the whole article, without seeing that the conductors of this newspaper—which is a very influential Roman Catholic organ, advocating Ultramontane principles—consider that these clauses in the Bill are virtually penal upon the Guardians of the unions to which they allude—nay, more, virtually penal upon the Guardians of the unions throughout the whole country. It is obvious, Sir, that a law is not less a law because it passes this House, when there are not above 100 Members remaining in town to attend our Sittings than if it had passed in a House of 500 Members; and my conviction is that these clauses would not have passed unless the House had been in the feeble condition in which it is usually found during the dog days. These clauses will, nevertheless, have the force of law. There were but two Amendments made on these clauses. Both of them were made last night. The first Amendment was to this effect—whereas, the 10th clause stood so that every adult pauper, every adult inmate of a union-house, would be compelled, whether he or she liked it, or whether they disliked it, to receive the visitation of a minister of the particular denomination, to which such pauper inmate was entered on the Creed Register, as belonging. The House was last night merciful enough to decide, that, if after once receiving the visitation of such minister or priest, any pauper objected to a renewal of the visitation, he should not be compelled again to submit to it. We had a division upon that point, in which those Members, who have been the most active promoters of these clauses voted against this Amendment; for the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wolverhampton (Mr. C. P. Villiers) proposed an Amendment upon that Amendment—whereby he would have again interposed the authority of the Poor Law Board, that of the central authority—to control the freedom, the discretion given in this Amendment, to the unhappy pauper as to whether he would continue to receive or would decline the ministration of the priest or minister of the denomination to which he is under the Bill to be registered as belonging. This Amendment was rejected, but the Amendment which the House has adopted goes only to this—There is no power in the man to alter the description of the religion to which he is held to belong in the Register, the entry being made in the first instance when he comes into the union-house; but he may object to receive the ministrations of the individual minister or priest after he has been once visited by him. Now, I say that this exception which we introduced last night in favour of the religious freedom of the individual, small as it is, un-mistakeably proves the stringent character of the whole measure. But there was another Amendment made last night, and it is still more remarkable. When the title of the Bill was read the learned Lord Advocate—and the Lord Advocate is always held to be the Minister for Scotland in this House—moved, that the title of the Bill should be altered so as to mark clearly that the operation of the Bill is limited to England and Wales. As a good Scotchman, the Lord Advocate has taken care to exclude his own country from the operation of the measure. Sir, it is a well-known fact that the policy of the Ultramontane party, in this and every country, where the State is not Roman Catholic, is to secularize the State; to divorce the State from all connection with any religion as its own. The operation of these clauses will be to constitute the Poor Law Board, which is a secular Board, but which, as has been over and over again stated in the course of the debates on this Bill, is at present subject to, and acting under, Ultramontane influences—[" No, no! "]—I say that has been over and over again stated, and that no one has denied it in debate. The operation of these clauses is, I repeat, to constitute that secular Board the supreme judge of the religion of the inmates of those workhouses; the supreme judge of the religion in which the children in those workhouses shall be brought up; the sole arbiter as to which of the various religious denominations in this country the religious teaching of deserted children shall be committed. Take then this Bill, as exemplified by these clauses, and it is clear that the central power of the Poor Law Board is to over-ride the Guardians of every union in the country with respect to the appointment of officers and the allotment of salaries to those officers. A Creed Register is for the first time established as a public document; not as a document in the manner it has hitherto existed, for the information of the Guardians only, and for their guidance, but as a public document open to the ministers of every denomination in order that they may claim the inmates of those workhouses according to the description of their religion in the Creed Register as their peculiar property. I have described the Amendment by which there is to be a partial mitigation of this system in the case of individual adults; but as the Bill now stands, under the operation of these clauses, when once a man, or a child, whether a boy or a girl, is entered upon the Register, as belonging to a particular denomination, he is the property, the religious property of the minister of that denomination who may undertake to visit the workhouse; the minister of whose chapel is nearest the workhouse having the preference in claiming or asserting this property in the pauper inmates or children of his denomination. Now, Sir, these provisions have been proposed in two Parliaments and in several Sessions; but never until this House was in its present debilitated condition have those provisions received the assent of the House. They are of a most stringent character, and I wish to take this opportunity of making known to the whole body of Guardians throughout the country the nature and extent of the power which these clauses give to the central authority, the Poor Law Board, over them. I wish to inform them that in the opinion of the Ultramontane journal, which I have quoted, this power is to be exercised in the sense of being a penal power. I wish to inform them of the kind of regulation and coercion to which these clauses will subject them. And I wish to do so particularly before this present Parliament is dissolved. For if the Ultramontane organ, to which I have referred is correct in its assertions, there is a coalition between the Leaders of the two great parties in this House for the purpose of thus crippling, incapacitating, and coercing the local administrations of this country in all matters connected with the religious teaching, not only of the adults, but of the children in every union workhouse or union-house throughout this country. Sir, it is my belief that the allegation of proselytism, which this Ultramontane newspaper adduces against the Guardians, is if not altogether unfounded, to say the least grossly exaggerated; and, let it be remembered, that this allegation comes from an Ultramontane newspaper, the organ of the men, who are themselves the most unscrupulous of proselytizers. This allegation is, I believe, a mere attempt to conceal or to excuse the extension of this central power of the Poor Law Board over the administration of the Poor Law in matters, which enter more deeply into the social condition of the people than any others. No Parliament has hitherto permitted this central authority to reach to such an extent. Sir, we are told that we are in the midst of a crisis. So we are. It is said to be a crisis for the Irish Church. So it may be. But the crisis that we are passing through is, in my opinion, a constitutional crisis. The attempt is to secularize the State, whilst its central power, as secular, is increased over matters connected with religion. All this tends to the establishment of a far less free and a much more coercive system of government than that under which we have hitherto lived. Seeing, therefore, that the bearings of the clauses are of the most important description, that they touch the constitutional system of this country, that they invade the great principle of religious freedom, and the system of local self-government and local administration, I have thought that it would be inconsistent with my duty, as there has been no general discussion on the main provisions and purport of this Bill, and as these clauses form the most operative and characteristic portion of the measure; for these reasons I think it inconsistent with my duty, to those I represent, and to the Guardians of the poor generally, not to take this opportunity of informing them of the stringency of this measure, and of the opinion of its future operation which is entertained by those who have been and are the chief promoters of this Bill,

Amendment negatived.

Bill passed, with Amendments.