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Report of the Poor-Law Commissioners for Scotland
An article from Tait's Edinburgh Magazine c1844

From the narrow and partial character ofthe Commission appointed to inquire into the administration and operation of the Poor LawB in Scotland, little could have been expected from its investigations; and very little, we regret to say, on which an effectual legislative measure can be based, has been attained. The Commission consisted of highly respectable individuals; yet, what could be expected from the labours of two Scottish peers, two Scottish landed proprietors, and two Scottish clergymen—with the single counterpoise of one English barrister—except what has resulted; namely, that the whole of the' Scottish Commissioners should concur in recommending the existing system, with a few modifications,—some of them unquestionably improvements, and others of doubtful character,—and that the solitary Englishman should dissent. Such is actually the case. Lords Melville and Belhaven, Mr. Home Drummond, and Mr. Campbell of Craigie, the Rev. Mr. Patrick MacFarlan of the West Kirk of Greenock, and the Rev. Mr. James Robertson minister of Ellon, concur in judgment; and Edward Twisleton, Esq., alone dissents. The principle of his dissent will, we believe, be adhered to by the great majority of the people of Scotland, not being ministers, members of kirk-sessions, or landowners. It might save time to transfer the reasons of dissent verbatim to our pages; but, in order to understand the grounds of it, the recommendations embodied in the Report may first be briefly noticed.

We cannot regret the appointment of the Commission; for though neither Sir Robert Peel’s, nor any other government, b likely to legislate upon its Report, the evidence collected must reinforce the arguments that have previously been found in other reports and statements, for the necessity of a thorough revisal and sweeping alteration in the Poor Laws of Scotland.

After taking a general view of the existing law, and its varied operation over the kingdom, and pointing out some minor defects in its administration, (while none are admitted in its principle,) it is acknowledged that the relief afforded is, in many cases, inadequate; yet no provision b-made for making an adequate amount of relief imperative. Nay, it b gravely proposed, that the only protection which the poor at present enjoy against the administrative bodies—the right of appeal to the Court of Session—should be abolished. The expense, trouble, and delay attending such appeals are, no doubt, injurious to the paupers, whether as regards their right to relief, or the amount of relief requisite; but it is not on this ground that the Report proposes to abolish the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, but because “It is not desirable that there should be any appeal from the decision of the parochial managers as to the amount of allowance” We find the evidence of. Mr. Dunlop adduced in support of this innovation of the existing law, or for the abolition of this single, however inadequate, defence of paupers against the oppression or parsimony of heritors and kirk-sessions. "Yet, what does Mr. Dunlop’s evidence amount to?—to just nothing. He says, that, if heritors and kirk-sessions evade their duty, they should be controlled; but, that if they fairly and honestly exercise their discretion, I am not sure that any other body is more likely to judge properly.” Certainly not; but if here, as elsewhere, is a particle of mighty force. The Court of Session may not be the best court of appeal; something better, or more easily worked, and summary in operation, might be devised ; but it b surely infinitely better than none. In the newspapers, the other day, we saw Mr. Dunlop boasting, and justly, of having, by law, compelled the Kirk-session of Fodderty to grant an infirm aged pauper 4s. 6d. a-week instead of the miserable pittance it allowed him. Would he then be for abolishing the privilege of appeal, and for trusting wholly to heritors and kirk-sessions in all cases “fairly and honestly exercising their discretion?” On this point the Commissioners theorize as extravagantly as do those who would abolish Poor Laws altogether; for of what use are laws for the relief of the impotent poor without the means of enforcing them? With the solitary exception of Mr. Twisleton, the Commissioners gravely state, that, “In our opinion the desired result will be best obtained, not so much by authoritative interference with managers, as by the influence of reason and good feeling, aided by public opinion, in gradually leading them to a right exercise of the powers [powers of sparing their own pockets!] with which they are invested. We have stated, and we believe it will, on all hands, be admitted, that in many parishes the poor are adequately provided for. They have been brought to their presentsatisfactory condition without the aid of compulsory measures applied by courts of appeal. There has been no external interference with the management in those parishes, except in a few instances, by the Judge Ordinary ordering the managers to meet and consider and dispose of the claims of paupers. We can see no reason why the same law should not produce the same effects in other places.” —i—There is not in the Report a more palpable fallacy than this. The Commissioners are compelled to admit, that the relief given is, in general, inadequate ; but they forget that the Border parishes, found in a better condition, owe that superiority neither to the influence of “reason nor good feeling,” nor “public opinion,” but to their proximity to England, and to the adoption of compulsory assessments. At what far distant periods do the Commissioners expect to see the heritors and kirk-sessions of the whole of the northern provinces, from the mere influence of “reason and good feeling," voluntarily granting the same rate of allowance to the impotent paupers of their parishes, which are at present given in the assessed parishes of Roxburghshire and Berwickshire?

The gentlemen whose evidence is adduced, as to the proper quantum of allowanoe to be given, may be taken as pretty fairly representing the opinions likely to be held by the most liberal bodies of heritors and kirk-seseions; and we find that their ideas of what is adequate relief, vary as six to one, or from one shilling to six shillings. Would no appeal be required where such remarkable discrepancy of opinion might be expected to arise? Dr. Handyside, who is described as Secretary to an Association for obtaining a Government Inquiry into the administration of the Scottish Poor Laws, considers 3s. 6d. a-week sufficient relief for a man with a wife and four children, “at the working period of life,” and Is. a-week sufficient for a single man. In proof of this, he mentions a man whom he knows, who does very well with a shilling —sixpence of it going for “a pretty comfortable lodging,” and the other sixpence for “nourishment,” “very coarse, but sufficient.” Now, we really think that some appeal might be required against a body of heritors and a kirk-session regulating their allowances on this gentlemans frugal scale; and yet he must be a fair example of prevalent opinions as to the wants and capacities of pauper stomachs, and, as a medical man, be held a well-qualified judge. Mr. Suter of Inver-asm considers Is. fid. a-week the just sum, or “a fair allowance;” which is certainly a vast improvement upon Dr. Handyside’s rate. The ideas of other witnesses may represent those of a somewhat more rational kirk-session. Dr. Forbes of Inverness says 3s. 6d. a-week; Mr. Macaulay, 5s. a-week; and the Rev. Mr. Willis of Glasgow, “nearly 1s. a-day,” for “a helpless, destitute, and infirm old man.” Mr. Sheriff Alison considers 5s. 6d. a-week the very least that should be granted to a man with a wife and two children who cannot get work in the factories. Now, the opinions and estimates of the local managers of the poor will be quite as likely to vary as those of the intelligent witnesses whose evidence is here cited; but the price of food—of meal, bread, and potatoes—never varies in different localities in any corresponding degree; and who, then, is to judge between the extremes of the scale? Between the Is. of Dr. Handyside and the 6s. of the Rev. Mr. Willis where lies the just medium? Their own witnesses condemn the recommendation of the Commissioners, and demonstrate that some court of appeal, whether the Court of Session or not, is absolutely necessary, both for regulating the amount of allowance, and the rights of claimants to relief. What is urged against compulsory assessments in the Report is equally fallacious with the total abolition of appeal. The same line of argument is employed in both cases; namely, that the present system works so well, that there is no need for trying another,—the voluntary method being that approved by the “intelligence of the country.” The country is, however, acting in the face of its own intelligence, as, besides in many rural parishes, in every considerable town compulsory assessments are now being resorted to.

Resisting assessments, abolishing the right of appeal, and leaving the administrative power where it at present exists, namely, in heritors and kirk-sessions, the Commissioners suggest one check, or seeming check, on abuses and mal-administration, which we must now examine. It is, indeed, the only novel great feature of their scheme of reform. This is the establishment of what is called a Board of Supervision, in Edinburgh. This Board is to consist of unpaid functionaries whose duties are, to receive half-yearly Reports from the different parishes on the state of paupers with classified lists, giving the requisite information about the numbers and condition of the poor, the amount of relief granted, or reasons for relief being refused, and such like. From these Reports, the Board is to draw up and transmit an annual Report to the Home Secretary, on the general management and condition of the poor throughout the kingdom. The said Board is to possess no authority whatever to enforce its commands on the several parishes, so far as we see, save to the extent of exacting a parochial report,—to have no power “ of interfering with the management of the parochial Boards, except by representation and advice.” Conceive such a body of unpaid functionaries—everybody’s business being nobody’s business—without power or authority, and, probably, from its very constitution, without the desire of interfering with the penurious or oppressive administration of heritors and kirk-sessions; certainly haying much more sympathy with the administrators than with the class whose interests they are presumed to superintend and protect! In the administrative body no change is considered necessary. The heritors and kirk-session are, as of yore, held quite sufficient; though the compulsory rate-pay-ers, where such exist, may be entitled to a vote, and feuars to appear by their representatives—not in a body, lest their numbers should swamp the heritors. None are to be considered heritors who have not a valued rent of £5 Scots and upwards. In town and burgh parishes, the magistrates, as generally at present, are to be considered “heritors," and are as such to act with the ministers and kirk-sessions. In special circumstances a union of parishes is recommended; and also the erection of workhouses for the infirm, the aged, and orphans, in places with above five or six thousand of a population, by what we consider the most conclusive reasoning in the whole Report. One good new feature is the recommendation of medical relief on a liberal scale. This is, indeed, regarded as a measure of economy; but, like every thing else, it is a mere recommendation, and is to be left to the discretion of the Parochial Boards — is., of the heritors and kirk-sessions. The Duke of Richmond, whose opinions appear to have had great weight with the Commission, instead of granting medical relief to the poor, approves of medical dubs instituted by themselves. His Grace is perfectly right. Not only are medical dubs, but feeding clubs, and dothing-and-lodging clubs, most desirable, if the poor, for their own benefit, could afford to establish such. It was not to be expected that a body so cautious and circumspect as the Commission, should venture to give any decided opinion, where medical authorities are discordant, as to the causes of the fatal fevers and epidemics that, for so many years, have desolated Edinburgh and Glasgow, and other Scottish towns, annually decimating the working classes, and often exceeding that fearful rate of mortality. But the evidence of different eminent physicians is given; and, when examined, will be found less at variance than at first sight appears: the main dispute being, what are primary and what secondary causes, and not about the character of the constant concomitants, and the results of these periodical calamities.

The Report contains some useful recommendations regarding the care of pauper lunatics, and the abuses which exist in granting what are called posies or licenses to a pauper, to beg or claim relief while on his route to his parish of settlement. These pastes are often made the pretext for vagrancy and imposture, and in some localities are an enormous abuse. They are, on the other hand, sometimes made the instruments of oppression and crudly to the wandering poor. Instead of sending either the respectable pauper, or the vagrant mendicant and impostor, to roam from parish to parish, in virtue of the pass, it is recommended that destitute paupers be relieved where they first apply, and kept rill their place of settlement be ascertained; recourse to be had on 4t for repayment of the expense of maintaining and transmitting. The recommendation is good; but we fear that, without some very stringent enactment, the plan would be quite inoperative in many parts of the kingdom. At present, the Highland parishes pay no attention whatever to such demands when made by Southern parishes. Those who give about a shilling or two a-year to their poor when at home, cannot be expected to transmit for their maintenance elsewhere.

A considerable change in the law of settlement is recommended, but which is in fact a return to the old law of Scotland. It is recommended that a settlement shall not be acquired, even by a native of Scotland, in less than seven years of industrial residence; and in the case of the English and Irish, it is recommended that the law be assimilated to the law of England, which allows no right of settlement to Scottish, Irish, or alien paupers, on any terms. The sight is not seldom seen—and a painful one it is—of a Scotsman or Irishman, after spending twenty or thirty yean of an industrious life in England, being shipped or marched back, in old age and destitution, to the country and parish where he is forgotten. We should hesitate about the adoption of so harsh a law; but it is recommended by the Commissioners on the grounds of justiceor perhaps reciprocity in injustice may be as apt a phrase.

In another point of suggestion, the Commissioners depart widely from the example of the English Poor-law. They recommend that the fathers of bastards be prosecuted criminally, and by summary process, if their offspring shall become chargeable to the parish; and that married men, who desert their wives and children, be subjected to similar penalties.

It is recommended, that in every parish where there is an assessment, the collection made at the church-doors be left to be distributed by the minister and kirk-session at their discretion, in small aids or gratuities, to the modest poor; nor does it seem to be imagined that such discretionary power may foster favouritism, whether sectarian or secular. Dr. Gordon states in evidence, that the bestowal of pecuniary assistance dean the way for insinuating a little sound spiritual advice, or increases the clergyman’s "moral influence;’9 certainly a desirable object.

One point most strenuously laboured in the Report, is the assertion—reflecting as it does upon the whole of the landed proprietor of Scotland— that by heriton and kirk-sessions starving out paupers, a share of the burden which ought to fall upon the agricultural parishes, now unassessed, is thrown upon the towns which are assessed. This is flatly denied, and the denial is supported by reference to several city parishes; while it is contended that the condition of the poor in the rural parishes is in reality better than that of the city poor. This is so directly in the face of former allegations, and experiences, and the returns given in by the officers of the City Workhouses and Houses of Refuge,—which show a great proportion of the destitute to be from the agricultural districts, and especially from the Highlands,-^that there must be some mistake. The rate of wages and that of the allowance granted to paupers ought surely to settle this question; and in contradiction to the opinions of three clergymen which are cited, we would refer to the Reports on the State of the Poor from the different Scottish parishes lately given in to the General Assembly, and to those in the New Statistical Account. Besides, it is forgotten that the aged and destitute poor, either from want of cottages, or with the hope of obtaining employment, resort to the towns, and thus leave both the parish funds and the alms of the charitable to the few that remain. In what condition would the rural parishes be found, if no outlet for their destitution existed ? The Commissioners state that the complaint is universal in the towns, whether assessed or unassessed, of the influx of destitute and impotent persons from the country; and in spite of what we must roundly term the special pleading for the Scottish heritors, found in the Report, we must believe the complaint not without cause.

The Report enters fully into the question of the right of able-bodied paupers to relief. On the head, as on many others, every member of the Commission b at issue with Mr. Twisleton. It is certainly the most difficult point of all, in legislating for the poor, and one upon which we own it b not easy to come to any satisfactory decision. The Poor-law of Scotland recognises no right to relief in the able-bodied pauper; but the practice of the country softens the severity of the law, and very extensive aid is given, as was seen during the late period of manufacturing distress. Yet the relief has been wholly voluntary, and the Commissioners would make no change in the respect. No assessment to be authorized for the relief of the able-bodied poor, whether temporary or permanent; and their claim to relief is not recognised, even through the stringent medium of workhouses. Nor are we surprised that the last system of relief should, from what is seen of its working elsewhere, find few admirers in Scotland. But the Report, we are sorry to find, recommends nothing at once satisfactory and definite in its stead. The distress of the able-bodied b left to be relieved by any casual means as it may arise; except that it suggested that a fund shall be formed from the collections at the church doors, applicable by the minister and kirk-session to the relief of the able-bodied paupers of the parish, when such distress occurs. Although the arrangement did not invest the kirk-sessions with undue powers, it b otherwise objectionable; as it will be found in most cities, that, in the parishes in which the paupers reside, little or no money is raised at the church doors; while, in the wealthy parishes, where large collections are raised, there are few or no parishioners likely to become even occasional paupers. On thb head, and on the condition of the labouring poor of the large towns, there b a good deal of sensible remark; but nothing, we fear, to influence legislators, except the warning to do nothing; not to interfere, save in a few minor points, with the present law. For that law, indeed, there b throughout the most reverend respect; and whoever may Jt>c found dissatisfied with the Report, it assuredly cannot be the best body of the landowners and clergy of Scotland. We cheerfully admit, that, within the limits of that law, it suggests several improvements, of which, however, the most important of all, the increase of pauper allowances, is left to “reason,* *a discretion,” and “the force of public opinion.” To the same vacillating or inoperative motives— where bodies of men are concerned—are to be left the medical relief of the poor, and other improvements suggested; so that we cannot see much necessity for legislating on the subject, save for the return to the old law of seven yean being required to obtain a settlement. All else b discretionary. The Board of Supervision suggested, endowed with power to intermeddle, but with none to control, would, from the first, be found irritating, if active; though, from its constitution, it would, we fear, be more likely to become, after the first year or two, slumberous and useless; like all other great unpaid central boards, leaving its routine business to its officer..

We cannot entertain the thought that any government will attempt to legislate on so important a subject as Poor Laws for Scotland on the narrow bash laid down in the Report; so that our few remarks may be altogether misapplied, and our space misspent. But the public of Scotland look with anxiety for the Report of a Commission that has been a great deal talked about, and long to know what b to be expected from its labours. When, to what we have said above, are added some of Mr. Twiale-ton’8 reasons of dissent, the inefficient nature of the remedies proposed will be perfectly intelligible. Mr. Twisleton dissents, First, “Because the proposed alterations in the Scotch Poor Laws are, he fears, insufficient to remedy the defects which are admitted to exist in their administration." His second reason is, that, while it b admitted that the provision at present made for the relief of the aged or infirm poor is, in many parishes of Scotland, inadequate, the main reliance for the supply of this deficiency seems to be placed on the proposed Board of Supervision, which b to have no administrative control or direct authority. "But," says Mr. Tibleton, “It appears to me that the striking inadequacy of the allowances at present made to the aged and infirm poor in a large proportion of the unassessed rural parishes of Scotland, arises, not so much from ignorance of facts, as from want of funds; which, again, is owing in no email degree to theories respecting the effect of any provision for the poor, even when it b restricted to the aged and the infirm. And any statements, made annually in Reports, tending to show that this class of poor are in a destitute condition, will be met with the usual answer, That the only cure for such evils is, the moral and religious education of the young," &c., &c &c. We need not follow out the hackneyed argument of certain amiable visionaries, of which Scottish selfishness b but too ready to avail itself; and which enough practical good sense laughs to scorn. Mr. Twisleton’s third reason of dissent is, that parish assessments are not universal, because not made compulsory; and lie regards "the mischiefs that hare been attributed to assessments for the destitute, aged, and infirm, as remarkably exaggerated, if not altogether visionary.” The just and equitable principle of compulsory assessment as reaching non-resident heritors, and those who contribute little or nothing to church collections, it is impossible to set aside. Evidence of its imperative necessity is found in the present and past condition of almost every unassessed parish in Scotland, and the immense majority are still unassessed; and if the matter be left wholly to the heritors, will remain so.

Mr. Twisleton farther dissents, because it is not made compulsory oil managers to provide medical attendance for paupers; nor, in large towns, Houses of Refuge and Poor-houses; and because even where such erections are recommended, the matter is, like medical relief, left entirely to the discretion of the local managers. While he would leave many details of arrangement to the local managers, he considers it necessary that the principles of dealing with a subject so difficult, should be settled by Parliament. He considers the Scotch law defective and anomalous in levying the rate ; which defects the Report does not propose to alter. This seems a just objection, but might be no insuperable obstacle; and the main proposition, in which probably many of the people of Scotland will dissent from the dissent, will be found in the provisions which Mr. Twisleton deems necessary respecting the able-bodied poor. Yet Mr. Twisleton s plan is an improvement on the Poor-law of England. He says, “It seems to me desirable that in all towns which have a poor-house with Wards for able-bodied men, [the Report recognises no such Ward,] the managers of the poor should have a discretionary power, with the consent of the Board of Supervision, to assess the inhabitants for the purpose of setting to work destitute unemployed persons, without requiring them to enter such poor-house.” This seems a liberal and wise provision, if the right of the able-bodied to relief is recognised at all. To some extent it must be admitted; and the limitations and safeguards to be set, seem the chief difficulty in legislating for the poor of Scotland; unless parliament is more disposed to defer to ancient prejudices, class interests, and the love of power, felt by existing administrative bodies, than to the principles of justice and enlightened humanity. The Commissioners have entirely overlooked one important consideration, when asserting that compulsory assessments are not required, from the liberal amount of the ordinary voluntary collections at the church doors. The consideration we allude to, is the disruption which took place last year in the Established Church, and which, though the new Seceders may not be nearly so numerous as is alleged by themselves, must tend to diminish the Church-door collections very materially both in town and country. If the “Free Church,” following the theories of Dr. Chalmers, supported each congregation its own poor, our argument would be demolished; but we hear of no such intention, and therefore compulsory assessments become the more necessary, in order that Dissenters and Churchmen, resident and non-resident heritors, may all contribute to the support of the poor upon the only equitable principle.

It seems a little curious that the Commission reinforces its Report with a copious extract from the report of a late Committee of the General Assembly of the Church on the Management of the Poor of Scotland. That Report, of course, upholds entire the good old system of church collections and voluntary alms, administered to the poor by the minister and kirk-session; and finds the great remedy for all defects, in Church Extension, and additional endowments to the clergy of the churches lately erected. It is worthy of notice that this Report of the Committee of the General Assembly does not propose to abolish the right of appeal to the Court of Session by paupers, which the Report of the Government Commission proposes to abolish, substituting no jurisdiction in its stead. Is this, without lack of charity, to be explained by the fact, that the power of the Court of Session over rural kirk-sessions appears, till within the last twelvemonth, to have long lain dormant? Its recent interference to compel the heritors and kirk-session of a parish in Fife to double, or—if we remember aright—to quadruple the allowance granted to a destitute widow with several children, has naturally aroused the jealousy of those hitherto uncontrolled and irresponsible bodies, who dole out the miserable pittances vouchsafed to the destitute, aged, and infirm poor of Scotland in by far the great majority of the Scottish parishes.

Any one who chooses to take the slight trouble, may, in our pages1 learn, from what will be reckoned the best authority—that of the parochial administrators of the Poor Laws—what has been, and is, the real condition of Scottish paupers; and may then judge whether the recommendations contained in this Report are sufficient to redress the inherent evils of the system.

The Report closes with observations which, coming from so respectable a quarter, must have influence, especially with Highland proprietors, and which we have much pleasure in quoting :—

"The Scottish nation has hitherto had the character of being pre-eminently an educated people. We deeply regret to find that, instead of an improvement havii.g taken place in this respect, there is rather a deterioration. This fact is accounted for partly by the children being employed in manufactures at a very early age, and partly by the diminished scale of wages, owing to which, parents are less able than formerly to pay the school fees. Whatever be the cause, the effects are greatly to be deplored. The evidence which we have received has led us to form a decided opinion that one of the principal causes of pauperism in many parts of Scotland, particularly in the Highlands and large towns, is to be found in the imperfect education of the children of a large proportion of the working-classes. We attach to this matter the highest importance ; but do not consider ourselves authorized to offer any special recommendation as to the education of those who are not actually paupers, from the doubt we entertain of the subject being within the scope of the Commission.”

In conclusion, we emphatically repeat that no government can legislate upon this most unsatisfactory Report.


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