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The coincidence of the most material points of the highly approved Reports of the Committees of the two Houses of Parliament on the Poor Laws, with opinions, part of which have been already published, and part communicated to his friends, is so flattering and gratifying to the author of the following Observations, that, prevented at present, by indisposition, from attendance in Parliament, he is induced to commit them to the press, in the hope they may not be altogether unacceptable or useless to the country. It only within a very short period occurred to him that the communication of them might be beneficial at this moment: the consequent necessity of their appearing before the opening of the Session has not allowed him time to revise them, nor to indulge in that kind of attention and correctness of arrangement which might have rendered them creditable to him as a writer. A careful revision would have enabled him to avoid several repetitions which, of course, occur in such hasty writing, where the clear and full explanation of the subject, rather than the credit of the composition, is regarded ; repetitions, however, which often impress more strongly the information and opinions intended to be conveyed. SHEFFIELD PLACE, 12th Jan. 1818.
It has been judiciously observed, that the Poor Laws, carried into effect as they now are, contain within themselves the principles of their own destruction, and that of the country. And it has been also observed, that so insufferable are the oppressive, and evidently ruinous consequences of the present practice respecting the poor, that, if not remedied, the whole system will be cried down by clamor.
That such should be the opinions of some of the most intelligent men in the country, and that a sense of regret at the existence of those laws should become every day more generally prevalent, can no longer be matter of surprise. It is, however, highly necessary to obviate the mischief and desolation that would arise upon suffering the hasty abolition of those laws to take place, either from general clamor, or from the ruinous principles inherent in their frame and constitution, or from the corruption wbich has been progressively introduced in the mode of carrying them into execution. On the general subject, there now remains so little disagreement among our well-informed men, that there is seldom occasion to discuss it in the abstract. of Practical remedies are much more difficult to devise, and admit more shades of difference; and it is truly said, that the axioms of poiltical economy, like those of natural philosophy, can only result froin experience and repeated observation.”
Great is the mischief that has arisen from the system of com, pulsory charity : it destroys the connecting feelings between the several ranks of society, and their mutual dependence on each other;
it has ruined the morals of the people, rendered them odious and insolent, and independent of character ; it encourages the worthless and audacious, whilst the poor of real merit often lose the benefit of that charitable assistance, which in this country they
would certainly experience, if pity was not suppressed by the feeling of that senseless and extravagant expense incurred by the present system.
A dependence on parochial relief, in all cases as now administered, has lessened the honest exertions of the poor, depraved their morals, and destroyed all notions of a provident spirit. charity, it ceases to deserve that name when it furnishes an indiscriminate relief, extending bounty to improper objects, and thereby multiplying their number: as undistinguishing benevolence, it offers a premium to indolence, prodigality, and vice: as inconsiderate pity, it rashly stops that natural course of things, by which want leads to labor, labor to comfort, the knowledge of comfort to industry, and to all those virtues by which the multitude add to the strength and prosperity of a couytry; and neglecting that respectable poverty which shrinks from public view, it encourages all those abominable arts which make beggary and parish relief a better trade than labor.
It would have been most happy for this country if the contribution for the poor had continued voluntary, as is the case in every other country in the world, except England.
The provisions of the law for the poor in England and Scotland are nearly coeval, and in principle nearly the same; but the latter prudent and sensible nation has managed far better, and differently, than England, in not admitting the glaring abuses and mismanagement that have prevailed here: they have avoided the impolitic system of compulsory charity, and preferred the continuance of voluntary contributions. It appears, however, in the few instances where they have in a degree followed the bad example of this country, that the same evil effects have been experienced."
The difference in the results of the management in the two countries is to be ascribed “ to the different mode in which relief has been administered, and to the different description of persons in whom the raising, managing, and distributing the parochial funds is respectively vested."
The writer of these observations, who has had forty-eight years' experience in the management of the poor, and, as a magistrate, is fully aware of all the difficulties which have arisen from the abuse of the Poor Laws, and the misconception of their great object; considers all the deviations from the principle of 'the law of Elizabeth as promoting the mischiefs which now embarrass iis.
Originally the maintenance of the poor was principally an ecclesiastical concern; a fourth part of the tithes in every parish was ap
See the instance in the county of Selkirk, Commons' Report, p. 153.
propriated for that purpose ; and whatever more was necessary to be done, was made up by voluntary contributions. The tithes of many parishes had been bestowed on the monasteries; the relief of the poor consequently devolved on them, and when their dissolution took place, the poor, and other persons who had been maintained by them in idleness, were in a manner deprived of subsistence, and became disorderly; to repress the irregularities of those idle and needy persons, and of the soldiers and mariners who were turned loose after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the 43d of Elizabeth was enacted.
The preceding acts of Edward VI. and of Elizabeth appointed overseers and persons to make voluntary collections only
for the poor.
The law in question, although proved by experience in our times to have been erroneous in principle, cannot be blamed as a matter of expediency under the circumstances which gave rise to it; but a false interpretation, and bad execution of it, have rendered it noxious in the extreme, highly oppressive of the landed interest, and or all occupiers of land, and has crippled the resources of the country.' It has been so much misconstrued and abused, that it has in a great degree destroyed a provident spirit on the part of the lower ranks, and promoted the neglect of their families and children by suggesting notions that the parish is obliged to maintain, not only their children, but themselves also; thereby leading them to look to other means of subsistence than their own industry. A greater mischief cannot be imagined.
The original law answered all the purposes for which it was intended; it gave a power to the parish officers to provide for the relief of the lame, blind, old, and impotent, being poor and not able to labor, and to set the idle to work, and also to set to work the children of all those parents who were not thought able to keep and inaintain them, and to apprentice them out.
The words, “set the idle to work,” have been strangely misconstrued, and considered as making it obligatory on the parish officers to find employment for the people, or to relieve them, which was by no means the intention of the act: it only meant to give a power to the parish officers to oblige or force the idle to work ; it was intended as a punishment for vice, and not for the relief of
The tax levied on the country under the name of Poor Rate, previously to the late extraordinary increase, amounted to seven millions sterling, a surn surpassing the whole revenue of the greatest empire, two or three only excepted; and in the current year it is supposed that it will amount fully to ten millions sterling.