Imágenes de páginas

Art. IV. 1. The Act for the amendment and better Administration of

the Laws relating to the Poor, in England and Wales, with explanatory Notes, and a copious Index. By John Tidd Pratt, Esq. Barrister at Law, who assisted in preparing the Bill. Second Edi

tion, with Preface. 12mo. pp. xxviii. 140. Price 2s.6d. London, 1834. 2. Report from His Majesty's Commissioners for inquiring into the

Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Laws. Pub

lished by Authority. 8vo. pp. 128. London. 1834. 3. Four Lectures on the Poor Laws, delivered in Trinity Term, 1834.

By Mountifort Longfield, Esq. Professor of Political Economy in

the University of Dublin. 8vo. pp. 100. Dublin, 1834. THE Poor Law Amendment Bill was

the redeeming act of an unproductive session ; and never did a more beneficial measure receive the sanction of the Legislature. The conduct of Government with respect to this Bill merits the highest praise. In the first instance, a Commission was appointed to collect evidence from all quarters, that might serve as a safe basis for general principles. The results of their indefatigable and judicious labours were laid before the public in a cheap form. Inquiry was thus invited, and the communication of opinion challenged in the most open manner. After this, the Report of the Commissioners, with the Evidence, was also reprinted in a portable form, and at a low price, so as to render every person inexcusable who should neglect to avail himself of this accessible source of information, and yet through ignorance oppose the beneficial reform contemplated. At length a Bill, in harmony with the Report of the Commissioners, and founded upon that valuable mass of evidence, was brought forward by his Majesty's Ministers. Their object could not be mistaken. It could not even be supposed to have any relation to party interests, to political theories, or to any sinister views. The virulent clamour raised against the Bill proceeded chiefly from a quarter which had hitherto given its support to the measures of Government. The objections with which it was assailed, were such as, whether through affected ignorance or studied misrepresentation, did not really touch the merits of the Bill. They were addressed chiefly to the passions of the populace, and had no claim to attention as argument. Of this description were the hypocritical alarms expressed as to the injury which the Bill would work to the morals of the lower orders, and the ravings of the Times and Herald about the worse than Turkish despotism that was about to be created in the persons of the Central Commissioners,—a sort of English pashas! In spite, however, of these obviously dishonest and malignant attempts to impede the passing of the Bill, it received the sanction of both Houses without encountering any material or very respectable opposition, and certainly without receiving from the wisdom elicited in debate much improvement.


It has now become the law of the land, and our readers will

perhaps not be displeased to have laid before them a succinct account of the nature and provisions of this great measure of economical reform.

Its main design may be described, in a word, as an attempt to restore the English Poor Laws to their original shape and opera• tion; to re-enact the principle of Elizabethan Poor Law; and to repeal and abolish that monstrous growth of quarter session legislation, and statutory innovation which have reversed altogether the operation of the original statutes. Mr. Tidd Pratt tells us, that the objects of the Poor Law Amendment Bill are two :

• Ist. To raise the labouring classes, that is to say, the bulk of the community, from the idleness, improvidence and degradation into which the ill administration of the laws for their relief has thrust them.

• 2d. To immediately arrest the progress, and ultimately to diminish the amount, of the pressure on the owners of lands and houses.

It is to be observed, however, that these two objects are intimately connected.

• The Act aims at effecting these objects, not by denying relief, not by affecting in the slightest degree the grand principle of the Poor Laws, that no man, whatever be his misconduct shall want the means of subsistence, but by providing an administration by which that subsistence shall be given in a way which shall be favourable, instead of destructive to the welfare of society.

· The administration of the Poor Laws has been as yet intrusted to three sets of functionaries :

1. Annual overseers. 2. Vestries. 3. Magistrates.

* All of whom have been proved, by the most extensive experience, tbe unfit for the duties confided to them.

[ocr errors]

This is very plain and bold language, Mr. Tidd Pratt, but is it quite correct ? Had each of the three classes confined themselves to the duties originally confided to them, and the poor laws remained unchanged in principle, there would have been little occasion for introducing a new administrative body. In fact, Mr. Pratt's language would convey the idea, that the Act proposes to set aside these functionaries altogether. It does no such thing; and if it did, it would be a very foolish and impracticable Act. It does not abolish the annual overseers, but it provides for the appointment of a permanent assistant overseer, elected by the owners and rate-payers, with a salary chargeable upon the rate; a plan already authorized by the 59 Geo. III. c. 12, and extensively adopted with the greatest advantage. It appears from the returns of 1831, that paid assistant overseers were then employed in no fewer than 3249 parishes; but in the worst parishes,

3 B


[ocr errors]

no such officer was appointed, because the adoption of the plan was made dependent on the will of the vestry. All that the new Bill does, then, is to give power to the commissioners to enforce what the statute of 59 Geo. III. permitted, in respect to the appointment of such an officer. *

Then the Act does not take away the administrative power of the magistrates, but, to employ the words of Mr. Tidd Pratt, “it

converts the magistrate from a functionary without jurisdiction, ' until an appeal has been made to him, into an administrator.' • It enables him to form and carry into execution his own plans of improvement, instead of being a passive spectator or a ' mischievous opposer of the improvements made by others.' It constitutes him an ex officio member of the body of guardians, -a modification of the old vestries, in which capacity he may be useful; but deprives him of the mischievous prerogative which he was able to exert as a court of appeal.

· That the parochial authorities must be under superintendence,' observes Mr. Tidd Pratt,—that they cannot be allowed to give or refuse relief to an indefinite extent, according to their partialities or interests, has always been admitted. And, therefore, from the 43d of Elizabeth, and, indeed, from an earlier period, the parochial authorities have been placed under the control of the justices. But there is this most important difference between the powers hitherto exercised by the justices and those now confided to the Commissioners. The justices could not lay down any general rules, but they could make an order, and that an order from which there was no appeal, in every individual case. The Commissioners can lay down general rules, but cannot interfere in any particular case.'

But the justices did lay down general rules, and act upon them, and enforce them; and hence originated the allowance system. We are surprised that Mr. Tidd Pratt should state the case so inaccurately in point of fact, however correct in technical law. The Report of the Commissioners expressly states, that the practice of giving a stated weekly allowance to families—a regular parish pension in aid of income,— has been sometimes matured

into a system, forming the law of a whole district, sanctioned and enforced by the magistrates, and promulgated in the form of local statutes, under the name of SCALES. (See copies of some of these Scales at p. 21 of Report.). Now we beg to ask, whether these are not general rules' with a vengeance; rules made in defiance of common sense, in direct contravention of the spirit of the poor laws, and, in many cases at least, there is reason to fear, from motives not so respectable as mistaken humanity, The injustice done to those among the industrious poor who re

[ocr errors]

* See Report, p. 105.

frained from accepting of this bounty upon pauperism, by such a system as this, is too palpable to have escaped the notice of these Quarter Sessions Solons. And the following extract from the Evidence warrants the suspicion, that the real object of the allowance system was to keep down the rate of wages ;-—in other words, to defraud the labourer under the pretence of relieving him.

«« In obedience,” says Mr. Villiers, “ to the Instructions, I made inquiry into the origin, in these counties, of the system of applying the parish rates in aid of wages; and I found the period usually referred to was during the years of scarcity towards the close of the last century. In Warwickshire, the year 1797 was mentioned as the date of its commencement in that county, and the scales of relief giving it authority were published in each of these counties previously to the year 1800. It was apprehended by many at that time, that either the wages of labour would arise to a height from which it would be difficult to reduce them when the cause for it had ceased, or that during the high prices the labourers might have had to undergo privations to which it would be unsafe to expose them. To meet the emergency of the time, various schemes are said to have been adopted, such as weekly distributions of flour, providing families with clothes, or maintaining entirely a portion of their families, until at length the practice became general, and a right distinctly admitted by the magistrates was claimed by the labourer to parish relief, on the ground of inadequate wages and number in family. I was informed that the consequences

of the system were not wholly unforeseen at the time, as affording a probable inducement to early marriages and large families, but at this period there was but little apprehension on that ground. A prevalent opinion, supported by high authority, that population was in itself a source of wealth, precluded all alarm. The demands for the public service were thought to ensure a sufficient draught for any surplus people; and it was deemed wise by many persons at this time to present the Poor Laws to the lower classes, as an institution for their advantage, peculiar to this country; and to encourage an opinion among them, that by this means their own share in the property of the kingdom was recognized; and to these notions, which were prevalent at that time, must be ascribed the spirit in which the Poor Laws have been administered for thirty years past. The Rev. Mr. Broomfield, of Napton, in Warwickshire, stated to me, that he remembered that in the

year 1797, when a meeting was called in that parish, to take into consideration the best means of supporting the labourers during the high prices, and that a regular distribution of flour by the parish, in aid of

wages, had been agreed upon, his father, who was then the incumbent of the same living, warned the meeting of the system they were introducing, reminding them of the feeling which then existed among the poor with regard to being supported by the parish, and the probable result of confounding in their mind all distinction between alms and wages, saying, that if their pride upon this subject was once destroyed, the Poor Laws would become a most formidable engine directed against the morals and the property of the country; a prediction, the fulfilment of which, Mr. Broomfield lamented to say, he had long since survived." p

126. Mr. Longfield has, in his fourth lecture, exposed the preeminently mischievous effect of this most abominable and fraudulent system, which reflects deep disgrace upon the Great Unpaid who originated, and the Legislature which suffered it.

· Norfolk and Berkshire may dispute for the credit of having originated the allowance system. The motives which first led to its introduction, may also be made the subject of dispute. It is said to have commenced in a season of scarcity in the year 1795. Provisions rose in price, and it was feared that they would soon rise so high, that the wages of a labourer would be inadequate to the support of himself, and his family. At the same time, great apprehensions were entertained of the spread of the opinions which the French Republic was endeavouring to propagate, and the progress of discontent among the labouring classes was viewed with great alarm. It was falsely supposed that to raise the wages of labour, might mitigate the evils of a scarcity, and enable the labourer to purchase his usual meal. It was also supposed that the wages of labour were naturally, or ought to be artificially regulated by the price of provisions, but it was feared that if an addition to meet the exigency was made to the wages, it could not be taken off when the prices fell without exciting general dissatisfaction. To steer clear of all those difficulties, the magistrates, who were entrusted by the law with the power of ordering relief in urgent cases, invented the allowance system, or that of scales, as it is frequently called. They fixed upon a certain scale of wages, varying according to the price of flour, and the number of the labourer's family. These scales varied in different districts, some making the wages vary directly as the price of flour, and others making them consist of two parts, of which one was to be fixed, the other to vary according to the price of flour, but in all cases they were to increase with the number of persons composing the labourer's family. These scales were most prevalent in those districts where the labourers were dependent principally upon agriculture for employment.

• But it is manifest that in many cases a farmer would find it more for his interest to leave some of his work undone, than to employ a labourer with a large family, and pay him the high wages prescribed by the scale of allowance. In such cases, which would be most numerous, men with families would be thrown entirely out of employment, and the parish must be burthened with the expense of their maintenance. To prevent this consequence, farmers were allowed to make the best terms in their power with their labourers, and if the sum paid was less than the sum prescribed by “ the scale,” the difference was paid by the overseer on the part of the parish. This was the allowance system in full vigour; and certainly no system could more effectually fix upon a standard of comfort, below which the condition of the labourer could not fall. In seasons of plenty, or of scarcity, whether his family was large or small, whether the demand for labour was

« AnteriorContinuar »