Front Page Titles (by Subject) 253.: THE POOR LAW AMENDMENT BILL SUN, 12 MAY, 1834, P. 2 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIII - Newspaper Writings August 1831 - October 1834 Part II
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253.: THE POOR LAW AMENDMENT BILL SUN, 12 MAY, 1834, P. 2 - 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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THE POOR LAW AMENDMENT BILL
On the same day as Mill’s article on the Poor Law in the Morning Chronicle (No. 252), this leader appeared in the Sun, its concentration being on the parliamentary discussion. This is Mill’s first contribution to the Sun. Headed “London, Monday Evening, May 12, 1834,” it is described in Mill’s bibliography as “A leading article on the Poor Law Amendment Bill in the Sun of 12th May 1834.”
the majority of friday night, the most overwhelming by which any great measure of national improvement has been carried through any of its more important stages within our remembrance, places the fate of the Poor Laws’ Amendment Bill beyond all peril.1 And many are the instructive lessons which a Ministry capable of profiting by experience may derive from this brilliant instance of successful daring. Ministers have set themselves an admirable example; let us hope that they will follow it; let it not be lost upon themselves, as it certainly will not upon others. The spirit in which this measure was conceived forms a most striking contrast to that of ordinary politicians. They have been moved to exertion by the mere magnitude of the evil to be remedied, without waiting till it was clamorously urged upon their notice from without. Having resolved to do something, they really gave their minds to the consideration, not of the floating opinions which they might be able to collect upon the subject, but of the subject itself; and asked themselves, not what measure was most likely to meet with general acceptance, but what remedy was best adapted to the nature and extent of the disease. Further (and to this, next to the goodness of their cause, they are most indebted for their success), while the subject was still under investigation, they took measures for informing the public mind. The facts and reasonings which were to form the basis of their own conviction, they laid before the nation at large, and supplied to all persons who took an interest in the question the means of acquiring a very competent knowledge of it before they commenced legislating. Having thus laid the foundation of what governments hitherto have so seldom known the value of—a rational and enlightened public judgment—they, with a manly confidence in that judgment, dared to propose all that they clearly saw to be indispensable. They came forward with no truckling half-measure, but threw themselves upon the intelligence of the country, and claimed support simply on the ground of deserving it, and the result is the most signal triumph. Let this be an example to them of what enters so little into the calculations of vulgar statesmen—the vast power, in the present state of the world, of truth and reason. That power is singularly underrated, which is the less astonishing as it is so seldom tried. That knaves should not know how to estimate it can surprise no one. But the multitude of well-meaning persons who prefer any means of influencing the people rather than a direct appeal to their reason, and place their trust anywhere rather than in strong argument strongly stated, is wonderful and lamentable. If the success of poor law reform could cure either Whigs, Tories, or Radicals, of this weakness, it would be the beginning of a new era in the greatness of England, and in the civilization of the world.
What is now of importance is, that Ministers should stand firm, and resist any mutilation of the measure in passing through the committee. There may be room for amendment in some of the minor details; and the great principles of the measure may be considered as safe. The only danger is, that under the appearance of a trifling alteration in the details, the enemies of the Bill may succeed in slipping in something which may clog the main wheels of the machinery.
The point which it is of most importance to protect is the very one which has been most assailed—the powers of the Central Board; a more ridiculous clamour than the outcry against this Board, coming, as it does, from persons who admit the existing evils to be unbearable, we never remember to have met with. All attempts to reform the pauper system by laws, without some person to look after their execution, is visionary. How did the abuses come in? Not for want of laws; for it is notorious that all the practices which have brought on the present intolerable evils, were, from the commencement, and have at all times been, illegal. Declare them so once more, and what will be the effect? Perhaps another hundred parishes in the whole country will follow the example of the hundred, or thereabouts, who have already reformed their administration. In all the others the same motives which have introduced the abuses will cause their continuance, and the progress of ruin will scarcely be retarded, much less stopped. Whatever laws you enact, if you wish them to be obeyed, you must create a special authority, with power to examine whether they are obeyed or not, and to enforce obedience, and this is literally all the power which the bill confers upon the Central Board. The discretionary authority which has been so much declaimed against goes to nothing but the power of tempering in the application, or altogether dispensing with, those rules, which, if there was no such power, must be peremptorily enforced in all places, and under all circumstances.
For instance, the fundamental principle of all poor law reform is, that relief to the able-bodied shall, except in peculiar cases, be given only in the workhouse. The bill accordingly says, that the Board may compel parishes to enlarge their workhouses, and if they do not voluntarily consent, may tax them to the extent of one-tenth of one year’s rates for that purpose.2 Therefore we have an outcry as if heaven and earth were coming together; one journal talks of “bashaws,” another of the “star chamber.”3 Meanwhile, how stands the obvious reason of the case? That if the bill had not done this, it must itself have ordained that every parish must provide a workhouse adequate to contain the whole of its pauper population. The discretion of the Board is positively nothing but a power to mitigate those pecuniary and other obligations which the law must otherwise have imposed in their fullest extent upon the whole kingdom, without any exception, or consideration of local circumstances.
Again, the Board has power, by the provisions of the bill, to determine whether any and what relief shall be given to able-bodied persons not resident in the workhouse.4 The necessity of putting an end to out-door relief, as a general rule, is so clearly demonstrated, both by theory and experience, that the most violent opponents of the measure go no further than to say that the rule ought not to be inflexible, and that a latitude must be given. A latitude, then, is given, but as the parish authorities are altogether unfit to be trusted with it, the legislature, supposing it to be at all in earnest in desiring poor-law reform, would, if there were no Central Board, have no choice but to prohibit out-door relief altogether. Yet so contemptibly ignorant is the clamour, that the very persons who accuse the bill, even as it now stands, of harshness, are the same who inveigh against the power created expressly for the purpose of moderating its harsher provisions, whenever it is not found necessary to enforce them strictly.
We trust the Ministry will not give ear to Mr. Hawes’s suggestion of what he calls a tribunal of appeal.5 Appeals are on questions of fact, or on questions of law, not on questions of expediency; there cannot be an appeal against a regulation. If a body were constituted with power to review and set aside the regulations of the Central Board, that body could only be another Central Board, and instead of one “triumvirate” there would be two, one to watch the other. We have not two treasuries, or two admiralties, one to act, and the other to look on and stop the first when it does wrong. There is no need of paying two sets of officers to share the responsibility between them. Responsibility to Parliament and public opinion is the only check it is possible to have upon either, and that check can only be weakened, or rather annihilated, by being divided.
[1 ]On 9 May, the second reading of the Bill (see No. 252) passed the Commons with a majority of 299 (319 to 20) (PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 23, col. 842).
[2 ]By Sect. 19.
[3 ]Leading articles in the Courier, 2 May, 1834, p. 2 (using the variant “Pacha”), and in The Times, 5 May, 1834, p. 4.
[4 ]By Sect. 45.
[5 ]Benjamin Hawes (1797-1862), M.P. for Lambeth from 1832, made the suggestion in his speech of 9 May in the Commons (PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 23, col. 838).