Local taxation and poor law administration in great cities

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Local taxation and poor law administration in great cities  (1869) 
by William Rathbone






22nd JUNE, 1869,



25, Parliament Street.





House of Commons,
June 22, 1869.

Mr. Rathbone, in rising to move "That in the opinion of this House a closer and more harmonious correspondence between the Central and Local Poor Law authorities, and in consequence a more uniform and efficient system of parochial administration, would be established, and the incidence of Local Taxation would be safely rectified, if, as in the case of Education, grants, conditional on efficiency, were made from National sources through the medium of the Poor Law Board," said:—I must explain. Sir, in justification of my bringing this Resolution before the House, that, though the subjects of local taxation and the administration of the Poor Law have at the instance of county members engaged the attention of the House on more than one occasion during the present Session, they have generally been considered in their relation to and effect upon the agricultural districts.

I propose, now, to call attention to the evils and injustice which the defects in the present Poor Law system entail upon the large towns, and especially upon the poorer classes of their population. These appear to me to be so serious that I cannot rest satisfied without bringing them under the notice of the House, relying upon the kind forbearance which it never fails to extend to the embarrassment of inexperienced members, and upon the indulgence of which, as I am painfully aware, I stand in great need.

I will endeavour. Sir, to state as clearly as I am able, and as briefly as the circumstances will admit, the reasons which have induced me to bring this subject before the House, and to explain a resolution which not only points out the existence of certain evils, but, as I venture to believe, indicates the remedies by the application of which they may be removed. I am aware that the proposal embodied in the Resolution I am about to submit to the House has been regarded in some quarters as an attempt on the part of the ratepayers of large towns to escape from those burdens to which they are justly liable, but I think I shall be able to show that the opinion cannot be justified.

I contend in the first place with the hon. baronet the member for South Devon (Sir M. Lopes) that a large portion of the wealth of this country altogether escapes contributing to local taxation, and that this exemption is unjust towards the rest of the community. I maintain, further, that the change in the law of settlement, joined to the increasing facilities and cheapness of locomotion, together with an imperfect administration of the Poor Law throughout this country, has had the effect of throwing upon the large towns great masses of pauperism which, though created elsewhere, yet fall upon their local rates. I maintain in fact that the alteration in the law of settlement, combined with the other causes to which I have alluded, has greatly modified the purely local character of pauperism, while it has left this pauperism to be dealt with out of rates levied solely from local sources; and, further, I think I shall be able to prove from the arguments and facts which I purpose bringing under the notice of the House that these evils and this injustice are very inimical to the efficient administration of the Poor Law. And if I am able to establish these propositions I hope that the House will not refuse to consider the remedies which I shall venture to propose.

Now, Sir, some short time since the hon. Baronet the Member for South Devon (Sir M. Lopes), speaking as a landed proprietor, pointed out how the hardship of levying local taxation exclusively upon the occupation of real property pressed upon the agricultural districts of the country. I think I shall be able to show that it presses with far greater injustice upon the small householders in our large towns. The House has always evinced a disposition to consider the interests of that class, although it has not until recently been sufficiently powerful to enforce its claims, and I venture to think that a grievance which presses alike upon the always powerful landowners of this country, and upon the now powerful body of householders, is a grievance that cannot long remain unredressed.

The principal wealth of our large towns is the commercial, manufacturing, and trading capital, and yet it is exactly this capital which does not contribute, except incidentally, to local taxation. I maintain that the classes who possess this property do not contribute their fair share towards the rates levied to support, in sickness, accident, or poverty, those without whose labour their wealth would never have been created. Nay, more, as their wealth has increased, as the large towns have expanded, and as the burden of supporting the poor in the large towns has become heavier, the proportionate contribution of this class towards local taxation has actually diminished. They do not contribute upon their capital, because their capital consisting chiefly of personalty is, as a rule, exempted from liability. They do not contribute upon their domestic expenditure as they used to do, because the rich merchant, broker, or banker, instead of living as he formerly did, and as his fathers had done, on the spot where his business was carried on, and in the midst of those whom he employed, now lives out of town and beyond the area of its taxation. The amount, consequently, which he contributes to its poor rate is insignificant, if compared with his means. And I would ask whether it is unreasonable to suppose that this has something to do with the withdrawal of that class from the most important part of the duties of a good citizen—the guardianship of the poor. It is no slight evil that the class whose experience, from their having had to deal with expenditure on a large scale and with economy on a large scale, would be peculiarly valuable, should have almost entirely withdrawn themselves from parochial work.

After much inquiry into this subject, I find that, broadly speaking, the per-centage of his income that a man pays to the poor rates is often in the inverse ratio to the amount of his income. The wealthier he is the smaller the per-centage he pays. Take the case of a man doing a large business with only a moderately large office and warehouse. He only pays on the rent of his office or warehouse, whatever his profits may be. I know the case of merchants who have made the calculation, and find that their rates vary from ½ to 2 per cent, on their incomes, while the average per-centage of the rates of the porters in their employ amounts to 3¾ per cent, on their incomes. In other words, the labourers pay from twice to seven times as much in proportion to their incomes as do their employers, the merchants and brokers alluded to. And if you take the case of the shopkeepers, the inequality becomes even more apparent. The proportion of their income which two of the most prosperous shopkeepers in Liverpool pay to the poor rate amounts to 5 per cent., and if this is the case with these wealthy and prosperous tradesmen, how heavy must be the burden upon the men who are striving hard, and who barely succeed in gaining sufficient to maintain and educate their families. Upon this class of small tradesmen the pressure of the poor rate must indeed be very oppressive.

I repeat, therefore, that in the large towns, and I have no doubt the same is the case in other places, the poorer class contributes to the poor rate a larger proportion of its income than the richer, and the poorer in each class contribute a larger proportion of their income than the richer. No one, I presume, will for a moment contend that such a state of things is just or defensible.[1]

It may appear strange that such an argument should be brought forward by the representative of a mercantile community, but the merchants of this country are neither so foolish nor so short-sighted as to believe that any system can be good for them which transfers to the shoulders of their labourers the burdens which ought justly to fall upon their own.

It may, perhaps, be contended by some that the owner and not the occupier really pays these rates. Not the whole we may be sure. No one will dispute that any addition to the rates must be paid in the first instance by the occupier. When it has become permanent, it is perhaps gradually, but only partially, transferred to the occupier. But I do not think that any practical man will deny that a man pays more for his house, rates and rent together, in a place where the rates are high than he does in a town where the rates are low. By increasing the area of taxation we should only meet part of the injustice; we should only tax residential expenditure and should still leave a large amount of the wealth exempt. And even to catch the residential expenditure, we must so increase the area as to make the parishes too large and cumbrous to manage. Indeed the areas of many existing parishes are far too large already. How can you expect a merchant, banker, tradesman, or professional man, who has his own business to attend to, to give that minute constant and daily attention to the subject which is necessary, if he would attempt to deal successfully with the large masses of pauperism which many of our large parishes contain? Take Liverpool for instance, which contains not only the parish of Liverpool but four other townships besides. Take, however, the parish of Liverpool alone; its workhouse, hospitals, and schools, under the management of one vestry, contain at times over 6,000 inmates, a population in excess of that of some towns which return a member to this House. Its poor rate is over £190,000 a-year, and the sum actually expended in the relief of the poor over £100,000 a-year. A work surely large enough to tax to the uttermost the administrative powers of a Board of Guardians.

I also venture to assert that a large mass of pauperism accumulates in the large towns, for which they are in no way responsible, and with the burden of which they ought not to be charged. I would point out that although much of the pauperism of the country may arise from labour employed in particular trades and places, there is no inconsiderable amount of floating pauperism which cannot be attributed to the locality, and which may be fairly considered as national in its character, and chargeable upon the general wealth of the country. By the 28 & 29 Vict. the Settlement laws were greatly altered, and residence in any place for a year made the person so residing in that place chargeable to the local rates. The result of this alteration of the law, combined with increased facility and cheapness of locomotion, and with the want of efficient management of the poor law, has I contend, been to throw upon the large towns great masses of pauperism which have been created elsewhere, and to throw upon the local rates the support of persons from whose labour the locality has derived no benefit whatever. The vague possibilities of employment, especially in times of distress (and this is a point to which I desire especially to call the attention of the House) attract to the large towns numbers of people greatly in excess of the labour requirements of these towns; and this excess, so far from contributing in any way to local wealth, is almost sure, sooner or later, to increase the burden of the rates. The surplus labour adds nothing to the limited fund available for employment of labour in these large towns, while it adds enormously to the numbers of those whose maintenance depends upon the limited fund.

And I would point to another difficulty with which we have to deal. It is almost impossible in the large towns to exercise the same control over able-bodied pauperism which is possible in the smaller towns and in country districts. It is almost impossible to make the same minute and close enquiry where such a vast number of cases are concerned. It is from a knowledge of this fact that great numbers of the least industrious and least profitable classes of the community flock to our large towns where their idleness and profligacy have a better chance of escaping detection. These masses of surplus population have been called our reserves of labour. Now a reserve of labour, to be of any use, ought to be available when it is wanted, but these reserves as they are called do not come to the large towns in times of prosperity. They flock to large towns in times of distress, and therefore, far from being reserves of labour, they are simply reserves of pauperism, and the large towns instead of receiving any benefit from their labour are simply charged with their support. This evil is very much increased by the want of any uniform efficient system for the treatment of the sick, the lunatic, and the infirm, in many parishes throughout this country. I will venture to point out to the House the result of this absence of uniformity and efficiency. A man living in a parish which makes no proper provision for the sick poor falls ill. There being no proper provision for giving him medical aid in his own parish, his sickness remains unattended to until it has become chronic, and he himself ultimately becomes a permanent burden upon the industrious portion of the community. After allowing matters to go on in a way that those who are acquainted with the habits of our working population can easily understand, he hears that in another parish, either by private charity or good parochial management, efficient provision is made for the curing of sickness. He contrives to reach the parish, is admitted to a hospital, is dismissed as incurable, and hangs on in the parish for more than a year in the hope that something may turn up. The year's residence in the parish now makes him irremoveable, and the burden of his support falls not upon the parish that neglected but upon the parish that performed its duties. I received a letter some short time since from the very able and intelligent master of our Workhouse, strongly urging this point upon my attention; and in the letter he mentions a curious instance which occurred within his personal knowledge. He says:—"You will possibly remember a man coming before the Workhouse Committee to make an application for assistance on leaving the House, who had on four or five different occasions come across from the Isle of Man for the express purpose of getting into the hospital to be cured of skin disease, and on each occasion was treated and sent out cured. The Isle of Man had the benefit of his health, the parish of Liverpool the expense of his sickness." Thus the House will see that parishes are not unfrequently punished for doing their duty by adequately providing for the cure of sickness, yet sickness, as every one connected with the administration of the poor law knows, is one of the most prolific causes of pauperism. Still I do not advocate a return to the old Law of Settlement. It was most oppressive to the labourer, and often most unjust to the owners of property, that a man should be thrown upon the rates of a parish when he became ill, sick, or useless, simply because he was born there, while he might have lived and worked elsewhere. But still in remedying one injustice we ought to be careful not to commit another. While relieving the farmer and the landowners of a burden which ought not in justice to be borne by them, we must take care not to throw that burden upon the small householders of our large towns, a class who are still less able to bear it.

I think, Sir, that I have shown the present incidence of taxation is doubly unfair,—that it not only throws upon the large towns burdens which do not belong to them, but that it unfairly distributes those burdens, even amongst the different classes of their inhabitants; and I think I have shown that the wealthy classes, now exempt, ought to be made to contribute their fair share towards local taxation.

I now come to another portion of my subject. My resolution says, "That in the opinion of this House a closer and more harmonious correspondence between the central and local poor law authorities would be established;" and of course it infers that it ought to be established. There can be little doubt that the waste and demoralization of the present system clearly demand some correction, and when we consider this branch of the subject we shall, I believe, though by a different road, arrive at the same conclusion. I think I have shown incidentally in the first part of my speech that the want of uniformity and efficiency in our poor law system as regards the sick not only does not promote good management, but that it is antagonistic to the attainment of that result. Since I placed this motion on the paper I have received from various parts of the country letters pointing out numerous abuses which flourish under the existing system. One guardian has sent me instances of almost incredible carelessness in the collection of the rates, and the loss which has resulted has of course inflicted great and undeserved injury upon those who have honestly paid their rates. Another guardian writes to tell me of serious and numerous instances of defalcations on the part of officers employed by the guardians—defalcations which would have been impossible under a proper system of audit. From another quarter I have received a paper showing the existence of enormous discrepancies in adjacent parishes in the amounts given in the relief of the poor. In one parish, for instance, the amount given in out-door relief was 1s.d. per head per week, while in another parish close by the amount given per head per week in out-door relief was 3s. 10¾d. It must be perfectly evident that either one parish is making paupers wholesale by administering insufficient relief, or that the other parish by giving relief in an extravagant and a wasteful manner is securing the same result. Indeed, I believe that both systems of making paupers are practised in almost every parish in the kingdom. I believe that great numbers are continually added to the class of habitual paupers by not granting relief with sufficient discrimination, and above all with sufficient promptitude in times of great and exceptional distress. I believe also that great numbers are continually being made paupers by the granting of relief which ought never to have been granted at all.[2]

And how are the rates sought to be kept down in the poorer parishes? Not merely by under-relieving the poor, but by the short-sighted policy of paying the officials so badly that it is rarely possible to obtain men of education and capacity sufficient to qualify them for the performance of the duties with which they are entrusted. Not only are half-educated and badly-trained men placed in these responsible offices, but even the governorships of houses and the posts of relieving officers are frequently given to men who have failed in other departments of life owing to the absence of those very qualities which are eminently essential in the offices which they are now appointed to fill. And yet on the efficiency and good management of the governor of the workhouse not only the welfare of the inmates, but the whole poor-law system in the locality, depends. And if you have incompetent relieving officers, you either do not relieve those who ought to be relieved, or you relieve the idle and the profligate, to whose support the rates ought not to be called upon to contribute.

I have here a letter from a gentleman of considerable experience as a Guardian, who says:—"One great defect in the working of the present Poor Law Board in our large towns arises from the almost impossibility of providing efficient supervision on the part of the guardians; indeed, I think it would be almost unreasonable to expect from guardians of the poor such a sacrifice of time as would enable them to exercise any thorough supervision of details. It has often surprised me to see how much time has been given to their duties, which are very laborious, and I do not see why you should expect from guardians more than from an unpaid bench of magistrates, or from the members of a town council. Yet I hold that the management of a workhouse is far more difficult than that of a gaol, and requires far more constant watching to prevent abuses creeping in. Unless a Poor Law guardian is to be expected to do his work more thoroughly than a magistrate or a town councellor, I do not see how the evils of which you complain are to be removed, because I am convinced that a workhouse, in which the master is not thoroughly supported by the guardians, is at any time liable to fall into a state of over-crowding from any relaxation in the exercise of the laws which empower the managers to insist upon a strict labour test." Speaking of the necessity of increased inspection, he says:—"I may mention a case which I saw myself in a hospital ward, which was considered by the Guardians and by the Poor Law Inspector to be managed in a very efficient manner. In this ward I saw a man lying on a bed, and on examining into his condition I found that he had been in the ward for a long time—so long, that extensive bed sores covered his back. The discharge from his sores had soaked through the sheet, and the straw of which the bed was made ran into his sores. Of course a remedy was at hand when attention was drawn to the case, for the nurse had a number of water cushions in her room, and the doctors ought to have noticed the shocking condition of their patient. Unfortunately in poor-houses neglect is too general, and we want a thoroughly good inspection to stir us all up to our duties."

Under our present no-system,—for it is no system, whatever we may call it,—neglect is easy, tempting, and general. Good management requires hard, steady work, and requires, moreover, men of experience and training, and experience and training are rarely to be found in our parochial officers, although there certainly are some exceptions, because there is no system by which this training is provided, and no adequate promotion to stimulate to improvement. They are rarely to be found in our Guardians, because, however heartily they may throw themselves into their work at first, they are very apt to become weary and tired of it just when they are really beginning to understand the nature of their duties. The consequence, as I have said, is an utter want of uniformity of management. A pauper can move from parish to parish always finding some place where he can live in idleness, spreading in every direction the foul disease of habitual pauperism, continually becoming more proficient in teaching and learning iniquity. Parish after parish makes the same costly experiments and the same costly blunders, unaware of the fact that these experiments and blunders may have been made in adjacent parishes; frequently too the same parish with new opportunities repeats the old blunders. I do not hesitate to say that one-half of the failure of our Poor Law system might be avoided if the Poor Law Board were only in a position to collect, preserve, and redistribute, in a way acceptable to the Guardians, the records of an experience which is daily being gained and lost in the different parishes throughout the kingdom.

I do not wish to weary the House by quoting many extracts, but I must trouble the House with a very few statistics to show how pauperism flourishes under the system I have described. And I would venture to point out that this increase of pauperism is all the more serious because it is contemporaneous with a vast increase in our wealth. As an illustration of the increase in our wealth I will take the gross annual income assessed to Income Tax in the borough districts of Liverpool. This assessment increased from £4,000,252 in 1849 to £6,714,748 in 1859, or 60 per cent.; and again, from £6,714,748 in 1859 it increased to £9,568,878 in 1868, or 42 per cent. more. Wages also have risen during the same period. From the last census it would appear that the increase of population in the borough of Liverpool, consisting of the parish of Liverpool and four other townships, was a little under 20 per cent, in ten years. On the other hand, to show the increase of pauperism, I will take two periods, 1858 and 1868, each following a year of commercial panic, each therefore being one of those periods of distress which test the success or failure of the Poor Law; for it is in periods of exceptional distress that any failure of the Poor Law adds fearfully to the amount of habitual pauperism. Taking then these two periods—the average number of paupers in receipt of relief in the first half of 1858 was 30,038, and had risen in 1868 to 44,136, an increase in ten years of 14,098, or over 43 per cent. As the result you have 42 per cent, increase in wealth, a little under 20 per cent, increase in population, yet over 43 per cent, increase in pauperism.

In the metropolis, while the increase of population is only 19 per cent., the increase of pauperism in ten years, from 1858 to 1868, is 110 per cent.

I think I have shown the House that the present system is unable to cope with the existing evils and injustice—in other words, that the Poor Law has proved a failure as far as our large towns are concerned.

But it may be said the Poor Law Board ought to remedy this; with its experience it ought to be able to counsel, assist, guide, and where necessary control the different local parochial authorities. What is the history of the Poor Law Board? It was instituted, in 1832, to prevent the entire agricultural population of the country from sinking into pauperism; and to a great extent it succeeded. But in order to succeed it ruled, I believe it was obliged to rule, with a very high hand. It had to exert a tremendous despotism over the Boards of Guardians, and the consequence was a perfect storm of public indignation. When the crisis had passed it was found that the power nominally placed in its hands could not always be employed, and years of enforced inactivity ensued. I do not wish to trouble the House with extracts from Blue Books, but if any honourable member doubts what I have stated, I would refer him to the evidence given before Committees of this House between 1861 and 1864. They will there see with what bitterness the attempt to exercise any authority over the guardians of the different unions was received, and if they doubt the evidence given by witnesses opposed to the Poor Law Board, they have only to read the evidence given by the officers connected with the Board itself. One of the most able officers connected with the Poor Law Board, in answer to a question about the resistance offered to the Poor Law Board, said: "My experience obliges me to say that they resist any order, or almost any suggestion which is made to them; they eventually, perhaps, submit, and do as they are requested to do after a considerable number of letters have been written." And when asked: "Have they not gradually submitted in many cases?" he replied, "They do submit, when you have gone to law with them, and they are beaten; but I am quite satisfied that I am right in saying that this species of hostility to the central authority has prevented some of the rules and regulations of the Poor Law Board, and very wholesome rules and regulations, those which have acted well elsewhere, being sent to these places." This will be found at page 112 of the First Report of the Select Committee on Poor Relief, published in April 1861.

While suggesting a remedy for this state of things, I cannot conceal from the House my opinion that though reforms in the administration of the poor law may check the pauperism of this country, and may even tend to effect a considerable diminution in it, we shall after all have to make a change in the principle on which we have acted. But for this change, I fear, the country is not yet prepared. I do not think that it is a sound or beneficial principle that a pauper, however indolent and however vicious, should have an absolute right to relief at the expense of the industrial portion of the community. That principle is not recognized in Scotland, and yet people do not starve there. But it is contended that it is a hard proposition to refuse to the pauper, whatever may be his moral qualities, that absolute right to relief which he now possesses. I can only say from my own experience, derived from an intimate acquaintance with the crowded streets and courts of a large town and its workhouses, I would infinitely rather that those for whom I care most in the "world should be exposed to any amount of physical suffering, or even to death itself, than be subjected to the degradation and temptations which are inseparable from the system at present adopted in our large towns, under which multitudes of our working classes are continually sinking. And I do not see how we can blame them as long as the temptations which at present exist are placed unneccessarily in their way.

Of course any improvement in the management of our Poor Law must involve an improvement in the Poor Law Board itself. As a Board it is a mere delusion. It never meets. The members in addition to the President, viz. the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Home Secretary, the Lord Privy Seal, and the President of the Council, are mere dummies as far as Poor Law administration is concerned. The President who is the only reality in the whole business, not only changes with every Government, but frequently during the same administration Improvement will be extremely difficult until you strengthen the permanent element in the Board. I have not the slightest doubt that the Right Honorable gentleman the member for Wolverhampton (Mr. Villiers), the Right Honorable gentleman the member for the University of Oxford (Mr. Gathorne Hardy), or the present head of the Poor Law Board, could either of them work out the reform that is necessary if they only remained long enough at the Board to be able to originate and carry it out. Formerly the Board could boast of such men as Sir George Cornewall Lewis, Sir G. Nichol, and Sir John Shaw Lefevre amongst its permanent, working, not political members, and there ought to be such permanent members now.

I am afraid that when I come to propose my remedy I may be met with an argument to which I should like to offer a few words in reply. We are all deeply grateful to the Right Honorable gentleman at the head of the Treasury and his colleagues for the vigilant, I might almost say the fierce, guardianship which they have displayed in defence of the public purse. But I venture to think they may be in danger of confining their attention too exclusively to the money raised by Imperial taxation, and overlook the fact that the money raised by local taxation deserves equal attention. For the local expenditure and the local taxation, especially in a free country like this, directly affect the large masses of the people upon whose soundness the national fabric rests; and if time allowed me I think I could prove from the history of other countries the danger of mismanaging local taxation and administration. But it is not necessary to refer to other countries. I would ask, what country was ever brought more nearly to the brink of ruin than this was under the old Poor Law, when our whole agricultural population was sinking hopelessly into pauperism, and the whole landed income of agricultural districts was in danger of being swallowed up by pauperism, and that, too, it must be remembered, under a system of purely local taxation, locally administered.

I have now to ask the House to consider whether my proposal that, as in the case of education, grants from national sources, conditional on efficiency, made through the medium of the Poor Law Board, would not tend to remedy the injustice and diminish the evils. As much of the wealth of some classes is at present only subjected to Imperial taxation, it would certainly to some extent adjust the inequalities incident to our system of local taxation, not only as between different districts, but as between different classes living in the same district. I believe, too, it would promote harmonious action between the central and local Poor Law authorities, and tend to produce a more uniform and efficient system of parochial administration.

The Privy Council on Education,[3] which has to deal with local authorities, cannot coerce, and the managers of schools are quite as jealous, if possible even more jealous, of the interference of a central authority than are our Boards of Guardians. Religious and personal feelings enter more into Educational than into Poor Law matters, and the funds of school managers are their own or their own raising. Yet the Inspector is voluntarily invited and readily listened to as a counsellor and friend. I believe that a similar power should be entrusted to the Poor Law Board. Let the Board be made the medium of grants, conditional on efficiency, the grants to be made from national sources, and relieve the local ratepayer from some of the taxation we are heaping on his devoted head. It is just such grants should be given, first, because in that way income other than that derived from or expended on rental would bear its share; secondly, because the grants being conditional on efficiency,[4] well-managed parishes would receive from other than local sources compensation for expenditure entailed by other than local pauperism. It would place the Poor Law Board in more intimate and more cordial relations with the Boards of Guardians throughout the country, and thus make the system of management more uniform, because inspectors' reports would be far more carefully and minutely made when they had to certify as to the efficiency upon which these grants depended. Their reports would be far more carefully read, and their suggestions would be far more likely to be listened to, when these grants depended upon their being followed.

I wish to add,—and I trust to make this clear, because it is the gist of the whole proposal,—that I do not suggest that these grants should be made in any way that would relieve the local ratepayers from the consequences of waste or extravagance on the part of Boards of Guardians. If the proposal is tried at all, its scope will no doubt be confined, in the first instance, to the scope of the proposal made by the Guardians of Birmingham, Liverpool, Warrington, and Stafford. That proposal was to relieve the ratepayers from the exclusive cost of sickness, lunacy, and imbecility. And the way the plan I suggest would work would be this: The Poor Law Board would first ascertain by inspection, and by taking the population and other circumstances into account, what would be the fair amount of sickness? for instance, which ought to be provided for in each district in the country, and, having ascertained and fixed that with regard to each district, they would be authorised to grant the district a sum in proportion to the amount of such sickness that ought to be provided for. Now the House will perceive at once that the amount of this grant being fixed, additional expense, whether caused by a greater number of sick being thrown upon the rates, whether by epidemics, whether by lax management on the part of the Guardians, or by other causes, would still fall upon the local rate. A system of thorough Government inspection would prevent the sick from suffering from dishonest parsimony. I have, for purposes of illustration, referred only to the case of the sick, but it will be seen at once that the principle is capable of application to any portion of Poor Law expenditure. And I should propose that the grants should be limited to a portion only of the minimum necessary expense of any department of the Poor Law dealt with, so that the balance, whether reduced by economy or swelled by extravagance, should still be borne by the body who would elect the local managers.

For this plan I claim no originality; its chief value I think is that it puts into a practical form suggestions which have been the result of the experience of much wiser men than myself.

The hon. Baronet the member for South Devon (Sir M. Lopes) referred especially to sickness, lunacy, and imbecility, as the subjects which might best be dealt with at any time when it was intended to relieve the inequalities of local taxation. The Metropolitan Poor Bill of the Right Hon. Gentleman the Member for the University of Oxford (Mr. Gathorne Hardy) carried out in the Metropolis the principle of bringing to the aid of particular parishes grants from a wider source for the maintenance of persons suffering from sickness, lunacy, and imbecility. And I think no one could have read or listened to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wolverhampton (Mr. Villiers) without having been convinced that he was led by his great experience to advocate most strongly the strengthening of the permanent trained element in our Poor Law system, while I believe that the speech of the present President of the Poor Law Board (Mr. Goschen) fully sustains the proposal I now make. He spoke of the uselessness of attempting to carry out powers, however extensively conferred, for enforcing which no adequate machinery had been provided, and he also spoke of the importance of bringing about, if possible, a more cordial co-operation between the central board and the local authorities. Well, Sir, my proposal seeks to provide that machinery, and to bring about that co-operation. I regret to have detained the House so long. I hope I have not overstated the importance of the evils which I have brought under the attention of the House. I hope I am not too sanguine in believing that the remedies I have suggested would make the taxation more just and the administration more efficient; in believing that it would secure to the sick greater care, and to some extent check the attempts of what I may describe as our criminal paupers to prey upon the industrious portion of the community. I believe that it will tend to prevent our being startled at one time into hasty and therefore wasteful expenditure by those disgusting exposures which are occasionally made, at another time frightened by rising rates into equally inconsiderate and equally wasteful parsimony. I believe that a nation, the mass of whose citizens are individually virtuous and industrious, can stand very heavy and even wasteful expenditure, and yet prosper. But if that waste and expenditure tend, as I believe the waste and expenditure of the Poor Law system does, to destroy the industry, the virtue, and the independence of the working population of the country, it as surely tends to undermine the very foundations of national greatness and prosperity. I sincerely thank the House for the patience with which they have listened to me.

Liverpool, 31 October 1869.


I have printed and venture to send you the accompanying Speech, because no one has attempted to dispute the statement it contains, that the present Poor Law is a failure in large towns, and that the present state of Local Taxation is unjust and oppressive to their poorer inhabitants.

The plan I propose of National Grants founded upon Government inspection would, in the opinion of some of those best acquainted with the working of our Poor Law system, materially improve its administration, and would certainly remedy in part the unjust incidence of Local Taxation.

Since the delivery of the speech I have been asked how it would be possible practically to carry out this system of National Grants, and on what data the amount of the Grant is to be estimated. I am assured by able men of great experience in Poor Law administration that the plan might be safely carried out, under a proper system of inspection, by head-money for Lunatics and those under medical care, such Grants being dependent upon the proper and efficient treatment of such cases. But, if it be thought necessary to provide against any temptation to abuse, the Grant (the parochial arrangements for sickness and lunacy having been duly certified as completely efficient) might be calculated according to the average number of Lunatics and persons under medical treatment during the three years immediately preceding the Grant.

It is conceded on nil hands that the Law and Administration cannot remain on their present footing, and the attention of Parliament will, no doubt, be again drawn to the question in its various aspects. I shall be only too happy if any one better qualified to deal with the question than I pretend to be should propose a more; complete remedy for the admitted evils, and, I need hardly add, most grateful for any criticisms or observations which may suggest themselves to you.

I am, Sir,

Your obedient servant,


  1. Would there be any injustice, as far as the rich are concerned, if a portion of the poor rate were defrayed out of a national rate, levied on all kinds of property, or even out of the general taxation of the country, to which, as income-tax payers, they directly contribute?
  2. If adequate relief is not given promptly to industrious poor when in temporary want, they lose strength, heart, and hope, and sink into chronic pauperism. On the other hand, if relief is granted easily to the idle and worthless, they become confirmed in their idleness, and the weak are tempted by the example of successful imposture.
  3. It is most important to observe how this has worked in our system of Education; how grants dependent on the Inspectors' Reports have enabled the Privy Council of Education, as the central trained permanent body, not only to improve school administration in particular districts, but to raise the standard of management throughout the country.

    The school managers, knowing that their grants of national pecuniary aid depend on the Inspector reporting that they have fulfilled the required conditions, are naturally anxious to obtain his good opinion; and he thus possesses an influence, which—though he has rarely occasion to allude to it—prepares the way for a favorable reception of his suggestions.

    Again, in the numerous schools which the Inspector visits, various arrangements and contrivances are tried to meet the same wants and difficulties. He soon sees which are the cheapest and most successful, and can generally induce the managers of the other schools in his district to adopt them.

    If the Poor Law Inspector could come thus—as it were with grants in his hands—he would be in a favorable position to consult with and advise the Guardians, and be able to excite amongst them a wholesome emulation which would tend to raise all the parishes in his district up to the highest point of efficiency that had been obtained in any one of them.

    Does any one who has watched the progress of education in England doubt that much of its success is due to the emulation thus produced? Advice backed by pecuniary aid is very differently received from that which appears to the recipient to be gratuitous interference.

  4. One of Mr. Lowe's principal objections to this plan seemed to be the impossibility of a test of efficiency. I contend that efficiency in Poor Law matters might be tested as easily and accurately as in schools.

    Any one who has much knowledge of hospitals knows that an experienced Inspector could, without much difficulty, ascertain and report whether a hospital contained the air, space, and appliances which a hospital ought to contain. He could ascertain the amount and nature of the medical attendance, and could test the quality of the medicines. The number of paid nurses might be fixed by rules, and their qualifications and training ascertained by looking at a few dressings and bandages, or examining whether bed-sores exist to evidence neglect.

    It is surely far more easy to test efficiency in matters connected with the body than in those connected, as education is, with the mind.

    Government must think the efficiency of Lunatic Asylums can be tested by inspection, or why do they inspect even private establishments of this kind? They already give grants dependent on the results of inspection to Prisons, the efficiency of which is far more difficult of proof than that of Hospitals and Lunatic Asylums. And by such conditional grants they have greatly improved the Police system throughout the country.

    Mr. Lowe has already shown that he can organise such a system of effectual inspection in the far more difficult work of education, and I am sure, if other difficulties were removed, a far less able man than Mr. Lowe could organise a system of inspection of Poor Law administration that would produce a state of uniformity and efficiency which certainly does not now exist.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.