Page:EB1911 - Volume 22.djvu/89

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75
POOR LAW


accounts, and carrying out the directions of the guardians, who in their turn are subject to the general or special regulations of the local government board.

It may be mentioned here that the chief difficulty in understanding the English poor law arises from the fact that there are three authorities, each of them able to alter its administration fundamentally. The poor law is not only the creation of statutes passed by parliament; it is also controlled by the subordinate jurisdiction of the local government board, which in virtue of various acts has the power to issue orders. In a single year the local government board may issue nearly two thousand orders, over a thousand of them having special reference to the poor law. It is not possible therefore even to summarize the mass of subordinate legislation. A third source of authority is the local board of guardians, which, within the discretion allowed to it by statutes and orders, can so variously administer the law that it is difficult to understand how procedure so fundamentally different can be based on one and the same law. This elasticity, admirable or mischievous, as we choose to regard it, is the most characteristic feature of the English poor law system. The various officers of the union, from the medical officers to workhouse porters, including masters and matrons of workhouses, are generally appointed by the guardians, and the areas, duties and salaries of all the paid officers may be prescribed by the local government board.

Among a multitude of miscellaneous duties and powers of the guardians, apart from the ordinary duties of ordering or refusing relief in individual cases and superintending the officers of the union, the duties devolve on them of considering the adjustment of contributions to the common fund whether of divided or added parishes, and matters affecting other unions, the building of workhouses and raising of money for that and other purposes, the taking of land on lease, the hiring of buildings, special provisions as to superannuation and allowances to officers, the maintenance and orders as to lunatics apart from individual instances, and the consideration of questions of settlement and removal. A paramount obligation rests on the guardians to attend to the actual visitation of workhouses, schools and other institutions and places in which the poor are interested, and to call attention to and report on any irregularity or neglect of duty. Guardians may charge the rates with the expenses of attending conferences for the discussion of matters connected with their duties (Poor Law Conferences Act 1883). In relation to expenditure the guardians have very considerable but restricted powers. Their accounts are audited by district auditors appointed by the local government board.

Overseers of the poor are still appointed under the statute of Elizabeth, and the guardians cannot interfere with the appointment. As, however, the relief of the poor is administered by boards of guardians, the principal duties of overseers relate to the making and collection of rates Overseers. and payments. The guardians, by order of the local government board, may appoint assistant overseers and collectors.

The conditions of persons entitled to relief are indicated by the terms of the statute of Elizabeth. If they fall within the definitions there given they have right to relief. A fundamental principle with respect to legal relief Conditions of Relief. of the poor is that the condition of the pauper ought to be, on the whole, less eligible than that of the independent labourer. The pauper has no just ground for complaint, if, while his physical wants are adequately provided for, his condition is less eligible than that of the poorest class of those who contribute to his support. If a state of destitution exists, the failure of third persons to perform their duty, as a husband, or relative mentioned in the statute of Elizabeth, neglecting those he is under a legal obligation to support, is no answer to the application. The relief should be afforded, and is often a condition precedent to the right of parish officers to take proceedings against the relatives or to apply to other poor unions. The duty to give immediate relief must, however, vary with the circumstances. The case of Wanderers under circumstances not admitting of delay may be different from rs

that of persons resident on the spot where inquiry as to all the circumstances is practicable. The statute of Elizabeth contemplated that the relief was to be afforded to the poor resident in the parish, but it is contrary to the spirit of the law that any person shall be permitted to perish from starvation or want of medical assistance. Whoever is by sudden emergency or urgent distress deprived of the ordinary means of subsistence has a right to apply for immediate relief where he may happen to be. Persons comprehended within this class are called “casual poor,” although the term “casuals” is generally used in reference to vagrants who take refuge for a short time in the “casual wards” of workhouses. Various tests are applied to ascertain whether applicants are really destitute. Labour tests are applied to the able-bodied, and workhouse tests are applied to those to Whom entering a workhouse is made a condition of relief.

As to the nature and kind of relief given under the poor laws the great distinction restored rather than introduced by the amendment of the poor law system in 1834 was Nature and giving all relief to able-bodied persons of their families in well-regulated workhouses (that is to Nature and Kind of Relief. say, places where they may be set to work according to the spirit and intention of the statute of Elizabeth), and confining outdoor relief to the impotent-that is, all except the able bodied and their families. Although workhouses formed a conspicuous feature in legislation for the poor from an early period, the erection of those buildings for unions throughout the country where not already provided followed immediately on the amendment of the system in 1834. Since that time there has been a constant struggle between the pauper class and the administrators of the law, the former naturally wishing to be relieved at their own homes, and in many instances choosing rather to go without aid than to remove within the walls of the workhouse. Relief given in a workhouse is termed “in (or indoor) maintenance” relief, and when given at the homes of the paupers is termed “outdoor relief.”

Admission to a workhouse may be by a written order oft the board of guardians, or by the master or matron (or in their absence by the porter) without an order in any case of sudden or urgent necessity, or provisionally by a relieving officer, or overseer or churchwarden. Any person who Workhouse Rules. is brought by a policeman as having been found wandering in a state of destitution may be admitted. It is to be observed generally, with respect to all persons who may apply for admission into the workhouse under circumstances of urgent necessity, that their destitution, coupled with the fact of being within the union or parish, entitles them to relief, altogether independently of their settlement, if they have one, which is a matter for subsequent inquiry.

The regulations for the government of workhouses fall under two classes: (1) those which are necessary for the maintenance of good order in any building in which considerable numbers of persons of both sexes and of different ages reside; (2) those which are necessary in order that these establishments may not be almshouses, but workhouses in the proper meaning of the term. The inmates of a workhouse are necessarily separated into certain classes. In no well-managed institution of this sort, in any country, are males and females, the old and the young, the healthy and the sick, indiscriminately mixed together. Guardians are required to divide the paupers into certain classes, and to subdivide any one or more of these classes in any manner which may be advisable, and which the internal arrangements of the workhouse admit; and the guardians are required from time to time, after consulting the medical officer, to make necessary arrangements with regard to persons labouring under any disease of body or mind, and, so far as circumstances permit, to subdivide any of the enumerated classes with reference to the moral character or behaviour or the previous habits of the inmates, or to such other grounds as may seem expedient. The separation of married couples was long a vexed question, the evils on the one hand arising from the former unrestricted practice being very great, while on the other hand the separation of old couples was felt as a great hardship, and by express statutory provision in 1847 husband and wife, both being above the age of sixty, received into a workhouse cannot be compelled to live separate and apart from each other (10 & 11 Vict. c. log, § 23). This exemption was carried somewhat further by contemporaneous orders of the board, under which guardians were not compelled to separate infirm couples, provided they had a sleeping apartment separate from that of other paupers; and in 1876 guardians were empowered, at their

discretion, to permit husband and wife where either of them is