Front Page Titles (by Subject) 221.: CONDUCT OF THE MINISTRY WITH RESPECT TO THE POOR LAWS EXAMINER, 27 OCT., 1833, PP. 675-6 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIII - Newspaper Writings August 1831 - October 1834 Part II
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221.: CONDUCT OF THE MINISTRY WITH RESPECT TO THE POOR LAWS EXAMINER, 27 OCT., 1833, PP. 675-6 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIII - Newspaper Writings August 1831 - October 1834 Part II 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIII - Newspaper Writings August 1831 - October 1834 Part II, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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CONDUCT OF THE MINISTRY WITH RESPECT TO THE POOR LAWS
This is the sixth of Mill’s leading articles on the parliamentary session of 1833 prompted by Le Marchant’s The Reform Ministry; for the entry in his bibliography and the context, see Nos. 216-20. In the Somerville College set of the Examiner, it is listed as title and enclosed in square brackets.
who has not read the volume of Selections from the Evidence collected by thePoor Laws Commissioners?1 Such a body of documents on the condition of the working people of any country never, probably, were brought together. It might be termed, “The Theory and Practice of Pauperism.” It is there we may learn what pauperism is; it is there, too, that we learn by what successive stages the labouring agricultural population of the greater part of England has been pauperized: sunk from the condition and feelings of independent labourers subsisting upon the earnings of their own labour, to the state of mind of reckless sinecurists, whose grand object is to be supported in comfort for doing nothing, and rapidly passing even from that state into the still worse—of extorting the payment they deem adequate to their wants, by riots and nightly incendiarism. This deplorable degeneracy has not arisen from the legitimate application of the original principle of the Poor Laws, that of giving food to those who can work, only in exchange for labour, within the walls of a workhouse. It has sprung from the gradual creeping-in of a series of illegal practices, by which wages have ceased altogether to be the reward of labour;—those who will, and those who will not work; those who have large families and those who have none; those who can obtain employment and those whom, on account of their bad character, no one will employ, being placed exactly on a par; except, indeed, the man who has saved something—he alone is prevented from obtaining employment till it is all spent.
Foremost, and worst among the contrivances by which all this mischief has been effected, is the system of roundsmen, or, as it is otherwise called, Labour Rate. By this plan all the labourers who have settlements in a parish are parcelled out among the rate-payers of the parish, each being required to employ, and pay at a certain rate, a certain number of labourers, (fixed by the vestry,) whether he has occasion for their labour or no! This is a trick to enable the farmers to throw an undue share of the burden of supporting the surplus population upon the shopkeepers and other inhabitants of the parish. Its most striking effect is, that it pauperizes at one stroke all the labourers of a parish. As the Commissioners say,
Under the Labour Rate system relief and wages are utterly confounded. All the wages partake of relief, and all the relief partakes of wages. The labourer is employed, not because he is a good workman, but because he is a parishioner. He receives a certain sum, not because that sum is the value of his services, but because it is what the vestry has ordered to be paid. Good conduct, diligence, skill, all become valueless.2
Another effect is, that by compelling the parishioners to employ all their own poor, however idle and inefficient, this system forces them to cease employing those who have settlements elsewhere; who, consequently are thrown back upon their own parishes; where, if there is no employment for them, they, too, from being industrious and independent labourers, sink into paupers.
While the country is resounding with these lamentable facts, elicited by the inquiries of the Poor Laws Commission, and published by authority, a Cabinet Minister introduces a Bill into the House of Lords for legalizing and extending the system of Labour Rates.3 Lord Althorp requests the opinion of the Commissioners on this precious Bill; unnecessarily enough, but in order to leave his own ignorance still more utterly without excuse.4 The Commissioners write to him in reply a most unanswerable letter, (it is printed among the Parliamentary Papers of the Session,) condemning the Bill utterly, and stating its inherent and irremediable vices most lucidly and cogently. One of the Commissioners delivered an able speech against the Bill from his place in the House of Lords.5 Nevertheless, the Bill, introduced by one Cabinet Minister, supported by another,6 and opposed by none, passes the House of Lords, and is sent down to the Commons. Arrived there, it is supported by Lord Althorp;7 and, but for the radical Members, who, headed by Mr. Charles Buller,8 mustered to speak and vote against it, (and with whom Mr. Poulett Thomson and the Solicitor-General, to their infinite credit, warmly co-operated,)9 the Bill would have become law!
If anything could be more discreditable than the conduct of Lords Lansdowne and Althorp on this measure, it would be the reasons they gave for it. The Bill, they allowed, would be exceptionable as a permanent measure, but good as a “temporary palliative,”10 until something more effectual could be done. It is scarcely credible, that after all which had been written on the subject by the Commissioners, these Ministers could have remained in such a state of complete ignorance of the very first rudiments of the subject as this implies. As well might they propose, that when a fire breaks out, as the fire-engine is a long way off, the interval till it arrives should be employed in throwing on, as a temporary palliative, all the oil that can be procured. In the very letter which Lord Althorp solicited and obtained from the Commissioners, they had urged with irresistible force, as the crowning evil of the Labour Rate system,
the great additional difficulty which it will create in the already arduous task of Poor Law amendment. When the direct employers of labour for some time have extorted from others the payment of a still greater part of the wages of their labourers, when the best class of labourers, those who are not settled in the place of their employment, have disappeared; when what now remains of repugnance to relief, or of degradation in accepting it, has been destroyed by its being merged in wages; when all the labourers have been converted into a semi-servile populace, ascripti glebae, without fear, but without hope—where (ask the Commissioners,) can we look for the materials of improvement?11
These poor Lords, precisely as they took the word of the licensing magistrates for the horrible effects of the beer-shops,12 took, in like manner, the words of the country gentlemen, and of their agricultural colleague, the Duke of Richmond, for the “palliative” tendency of the Labour Rate Bill, because it would have “palliated” the immediate burden of poor-rate upon the farmers; that is, upon the landlords. And neither of the two dupes was capable, we do not say of finding out by their own native faculties, but even of understanding after it had been clearly pointed out—that if a Labour Rate alleviated the pressure upon one portion of the rate-payers, it could not do so but by laying an exactly equivalent burden upon another portion; and if it could, what then? There is not one of the abuses of the Poor Laws but was originally introduced for the sake of lowering the rate, and did, at first, actually have that effect. Too great eagerness to lower the rate by “temporary palliatives,” has brought us into our present state; a state from which, instead of being extricated, we shall sink deeper into the vortex every year, till society itself is swallowed up, unless the evil is met and combated by means in every respect the reverse of those contemplated by the authors and promoters of the Labour Rate Bill.
The Ministerial pamphleteer sounds a loud note of preparation for Poor Law Reforms;13 and before the introduction of this Bill we had really entertained hopes, that with such advisers as the Commissioners, Ministers, without touching the principle of the Poor Laws, (of which we approve,) would contrive, if not a radical reform, at least the means of a considerable improvement of their administration. Now, it will be our good fortune rather than their merit, if instead of amendment, we do not obtain something which will render all the abuses ten times worse. Men who could not be taught by their own Commissioners to understand the elements of a single branch of the question, will make a hopeful figure in dealing with the general problem of Poor Law amendment!
There is no soundness in their understandings, no power of fathoming a subject even of not extraordinary depth. The person who talks loudest and longest to them carries them along with him; nor have they even the ordinary good sense to distrust suggestions which come from an interested quarter.
[1 ]Officially entitled Extracts from the Information Received by His Majesty’s Commissioners, as to the Administration and Operation of the Poor-Laws (London: Fellowes, 1833).
[2 ]“Copy of the Letter,” PP, 1833, XXXII, 345.
[3 ]See Lennox, Speech on Employment for Agricultural Labourers (13 June, 1833), PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 18, cols. 664-71. For the bill he introduced, see No. 220, n11.
[4 ]For the letter, and the Commissioners’ reply, see PP, 1833, XXXII, 342-6.
[5 ]Speech on Labour Rate (3 July, 1833), PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 19, col. 67, by Charles James Blomfield (1786-1857), scholar and reforming churchman, Bishop of London since 1828.
[6 ]Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, Lord Lansdowne, Speech on Employment for Agricultural Labourers (13 June, 1833), ibid., Vol. 18, cols. 675-7.
[7 ]Spencer, Speech on Employment for Agricultural Labourers (5 Aug., 1833), ibid., Vol. 20, col. 357.
[8 ]Buller, Speech on Employment for Agricultural Labourers (5 Aug., 1833), ibid., col. 357.
[9 ]Charles Edward Poulett Thomson, Speech on Employment for Agricultural Labourers (5 Aug., 1833), ibid., col. 358. The Solicitor-General, John Campbell, did not speak, but voted against the Bill (ibid., col. 359).
[10 ]The phrase was used in the debate by Joseph Marryat (ibid., col. 359); “temporary measure” appears in the speeches by Lennox (n3), by Petty-Fitzmaurice (n6), and by Spencer (n7).
[11 ]“Copy of the Letter” (see n2), p. 345.
[12 ]See “Report from the Select Committee on the Sale of Beer, with Minutes of Evidence” (21 June, 1833), PP, 1833, XV, 1-260, which led to “A Bill to Amend an Act Passed in the First Year of the Reign of His Present Majesty, to Permit the General Sale of Beer and Cyder by Retail in England,” 4 William IV (15 Aug., 1833), ibid., I, 165-74 (not enacted, but a similar bill in the next session was enacted as 4 & 5 William IV, c. 85 ).
[13 ]Le Marchant, The Reform Ministry, pp. 78-89.