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An Account of the UNFUNDED DEBT and DEMANDS OUTSTANDING on the 5th Day of January, 1817.
The Select Committee of the House of Commons appointed to consider of the Poor Laws, and to report their Observations thereupon from time to time to the House, have, pursuant to the Order of the House, considered the same accordingly, and agreed to the folbowing Report.
YOUR Committee have forborne to avail themselves of the permission to report their observations from time to time to the House, from the persuasion that they could not do justice to so extensive and intricate a subject, by presenting it in detached parts before they had the means of taking a deliberate view of the whole; and not seeing it probable that they could recommend any such alteration of the existing laws as would afford immediate relief in those cases of severe and urgent pressure, which can scarcely be deemed to have arisen out of the ordinary operation of this system, they could not feel themselves justified in offering any suggestions hastily to the House on questions of acknowledged difficulty, enhanced in a high degree by the circumstances of the times, and on which they cannot but recollect, that the remedial efforts of the most able and
enlightened men have practically failed.
In bringing under the view of the House the whole of this system of laws, they feel it unnecessary to refer minutely to the statutes which passed antecedent to the reign of Queen Elizabeth may be sufficient to state, that they were generally directed to the relief of the impotent poor, by the contributions of the church and the alms of the charitable, and to the suppression of vagrancy and idleness; for while permission to solicit support from private benevolence was given to those who were disabled by age or infirmity, it became probably extremely difficult to repress the same practice in others, who " as long as they might live by begging, did refuse to labour, giving themselves to idleness and rice." Enactments the most harsh were therefore provided against "strong beggars, persons whole and mighty in body;" and the relentless rigour of these laws, which was consummated in the first year of Edward VI. visited the offence of vagrancy with the barbarous penalties of slavery, mutilations, and death. And although these severities were somewhat relaxed, even before the expiration of that short reign, yet they
did not wholly give way to a milder system till the beginning of the last century.
The impotent poor, on the other hand, were permitted to beg within certain districts, and no means of exhortation were spared to excite the people "to be liberal, and bountifully to extend their good and charitable alms towards the comfort and relief of the poor, impotent, decrepit, indigent, and needy people." Subsequent statutes in the reign of Edw. VI. were directed to the same object, till at length by the 5th Eliz. c. 3, upon the exhortation of the priest, bishop, and justices in sessions, having been directed in vain to those who were unwilling to contribute, the justices, after repeated admonition, were empowered with the churchwardens to assess such persons according to their discretion for a weekly contribution. Thus gradually was established a general and compulsory provision for the maintenance of the impotent poor; it was modified and extended by various successive enactments, and at length matured and consolidated by the statute of the 43d of the same reign, which continues to this day the fundamental and operative law on this important subject.
This statute enacts, that "the churchwardens and overseers shall take order from time to time (with the consent of two or more justices) for setting to work the children of all such whose parents shall not be thought able to keep and maintain their children; and also for setting to work all such persons, married or unmarried, having no means to maintain them, and use no ordinary or daily
trade of life to get their living by; and also to raise by taxation, &c. a convenient stock of flax, &c. to set the poor on work ;" and also competent sums of money for and towards the necessary relief of the lame, impotent, old, blind, and such other among them, being poor and not able to work."
This new and important principle of compulsory provision for the impotent, and for setting to work the able, originated, without doubt, in motives of the purest humanity, and was directed to the equitable purpose of preventing this burthen falling exclusively upon the charitable. But such a compulsory contribution for the indigent, from the funds originally accumulated from the labour and industry of others, could not fail in process of time, with the increase of population which it was calculated to foster, to produce the unfortunate effect of abating those exertions on the part of the labouring classes, on which, according to the nature of things, the happiness and welfare of mankind has been made to rest. By diminishing this natural impulse by which men are instigated to industry and good conduct, by superseding the necessity of providing in the season of health and vigour for the wants of sickness and old age, and by making poverty and misery the conditions on which relief is to be obtained, your Committee cannot but fear, from a reference to the increased numbers of the poor, and increased and increasing amount of the sums raised for their relief, that this system is perpetually encouraging and increasing the amount of misery it was designed to alle
viate, creating at the same time an unlimited demand on funds which it cannot augment; and as every system of relief founded on compulsory enactments must be divested of the character of benevolence, so it is without its beneficial effects; as it proceeds from no impulse of charity, it creates no feelings of gratitude, and not unfrequently engenders disposi tions and habits calculated to separate rather than unite the interests of the higher and lower orders of the community; even the obligations of natural affection are no longer left to their own impulse, but the mutual support of the nearest relations has been actually enjoined by a positive law, which the authority of magistrates is continually required to enforce. The progress of these evils, which are inherent in the system itself, appears to have been favoured by the circumstances of modern times, by an extension of the law in practice, and by some deviations from its most important provisions. How much of the complaints which have been referred to your Committee may be attributable to one cause or the other, it is perhaps not easy to ascertain. The result, however, appears to have been highly prejudicial to the moral habits, and consequent happiness of a great body of the people, who have been reduced to the degradation of a dependence upon parochial support; while the rest of the community, including the most industrious class, has been oppressed by a weight of contribution taken from those very means which would otherwise have been applied more beneficially to the supply of employment. And, as the funds
which each person can expend in labour are limited, in proportion as the poor-rate diminishes those funds, in the same proportion will the wages of labour be reduced, to the immediate and direct prejudice of the labouring classes; the system thus producing the very necessity which it is created to relieve. For whether the expenditure of individuals be applied directly to labour, or to the purchase of conveniences or superfluities, it is in each case employed immediately or ultimately in the maintenance of labour.
This system, it is also to be remarked, is peculiar to Great Britain; and even in Scotland, where a law similar in principle was about the same period enacted, the intelligent persons to whom the administration of it has been entrusted, appear by a valuable report (for which your Committee are lately indebted to, the prompt exertions of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland) to have possessed so much foresight and judgment as to its effects, that they have very generally and successfully endeavoured to avoid having recourse to its provisions for a compulsory assessment. Their funds, therefore, continue to be derived, except in comparatively few places, from charity, and are dispensed with that sound discrimination, which in the ordinary transactions of life belongs to real benevolence; and the committee of the General Assembly state, "That it is clear to them, that in almost all the country parishes which have hitherto come under their notice, where a regular assessment has been established, the wants of the poor and the extent