[The Pall Mall Gazette, 25. November 1869]

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The Pall Mall Gazette. Nr. 1494, 25. November 1869. S. 1/2.
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OUR recent strictures upon the conduct of the St. Pancras ratepayers in electing, and still more in supporting, the guardians whose conduct in office has been the objects of so much just condemnation do not seem to call for any sort of qualification. Still there is another aspect of the question which must be taken into account before drawing any practical conclusion. If the ratepayers had insisted on keeping the old infirmary in use simply for the purpose of killing sick paupers, or if the economy which really actuated them had been pursued for its own sake, and with no reference to the state of their own pockets, there would have been nothing for it but to resort to wholesale disfranchisement. Men who compel the sick whom the law consigns to their mercy to breathe sulphureted hydrogen, because it is a safe way of getting them off their hands, or whose desire to save sixpence in rates is compatible with lavish expenditure in other ways, can never, by any process short of miraculous conversion, be safely entrusted with a voice in the administration of poor relief. But in this case it is not necessary to take so extreme a view. There is no doubt that the small shopkeepers of Northern London do find the poor rate a very heavy burden. This fact supplies no excuse for the steps they have taken to lighten it, any more than infanticide is excused by the fact that the food and clothes of a child cost money. But it is nevertheless an element which should be kept in mind when we are considering how to put things on a better footing. The business of life must ordinarily be carried on by men who would keep pretty straight if they were not tempted into crooked ways; and if it is in our power to remove temptation from them without injustice to other people, it will probably be easier to do so than to find men of stronger principle to take their places. A poor ratepayer, who feels that humanity, at all events at the outset, is a very costly process, will commit acts of cruelty, of which, if the outlay demanded of him had been less, he would honestly have thought himself incapable. In dealing with persons of this class it is important, therefore, to determine whether the pressure laid upon them admits of being lightened—in other words, whether they get more than their just share of it. If it turns out that they have been hardly dealt with in this respect, our dislike of the means they have taken to help themselves ought not to hinder us from helping them in a more legitimate manner. By so doing we shall be really effecting two ends at once—the redress of a grievance which is not the less a grievance because it has been met in an improper spirit and by disgraceful acts, and the removal of one, at least, of the principal motives which have led to their abuse of their powers.

That the unequal distribution of rates in London constitutes a real hardship to the poorer districts will hardly be denied. The class which comes most often on the parish for relief naturally congregates in particular districts. In some parts of the town there is still a considerable social mixture, and the poor live in a nest of back streets with a facing of wealth all round them. But more often the proletariat of the capital dwells in a colony of its own, and men whose work may lie at the other end of London go home at night to Whitechapel or Bethnal-green. Consequently the neighbourhood which bears the cost of maintaining these men when they are out of work is rarely the neighbourhood which benefits by their work when they can get any. The theory on which the poor rate is supposed to be distributed—that the pauperism of each district is supported by the property of the district—is thus set at defiance, and the pauperized artisan |50 apply for relief to a ratepayer with whom, except as a pauper, he has no relations whatever. Thus the wealthier class escapes the responsibilities which of right belong to it, and, as commonly happens, is none the better for escaping them; while the middle class comes in for responsibilities which it has only incurred accidentally, and by an equally common process is exasperated and hardened by the inequality.

The objection most frequently urged against the equalization of the poor rate over the whole of London is that it would tend to discourage economy. Under the present system, it is argued, relief is administered by the people who have to pay the cost of it, and whose interest it is to calculate it on the most limited scale, whereas on a system of equalized rates each parish would be administering a fund contributed by the entire metropolis, and the increased cost of careless or lavish expenditure would only be slightly felt by the particular district guilty of it. It is evident, however, that the consequences of the present system are very much more sweeping than they were designed to be, and that in our anxiety to ensure prudence we have ensured a degree of niggardliness which occasionally is not distinguishable from wanton cruelty, It becomes worthy of consideration, therefore, whether the attempt to maintain necessary economy by indirect means has not led us to overlook the possibility of maintaining it by direct means. Now that the burden of poor relief in London falls almost exclusively on a few parishes—and that the least able to sustain it—the most brutal expedients are, as we have seen, resorted to in order to lessen the pressure. The theory which underlies the existing relations between the central and the local authorities is that the latter are always well-meaning, but a little apt to be behind the age. This defect is supposed to be met by the appointment of inspectors, who test the practice of the guardians by the standard prescribed by the Commissioners, and report all defections and shortcomings; upon which the Board notifies to the guardians the points in which their administration is faulty, and the guardians gratefully adopt the wise counsels of their superior officers. It is needless to say that this pleasing picture is often quite imaginary. The guardians think they know their own business much better than anybody can tell it them, and they resent the suggestions of the Poor Law Board as so much wanton interference with their darling fetish of local self-government. Unless the public are prepared to have the abominations of St. Pancras repeated whenever the same conditions recur they must insist on giving the Poor Law Board authority to say, this must be done, and if you do not choose to do it we shall step in and do it for you. If a department of the Government, the head of which has always a seat in Parliament, and is frequently a member of the Cabinet, cannot be trusted with this amount of discretionary power, what is the use of keeping up a Central Board? Why not make each board of guardians an independent republic, and abandon the farce of subjecting them to a common authority? But when things have been carried thus far there will be nothing to prevent their being pushed a little farther. If Parliament can enable the Poor Law Board to say to a board of guardians, you shall do this, it can equally enable them to say, You shall not do that. The authority which is competent to enforce humanity must be competent to restrain extravagance. The lavish expenditure of other people’s money which is predicted by some alarmists as the result of an equitable distribution of the poor rate must take one of three forms—a too generous scale of relief, over-payment of officials, or a needless erection of new buildings. Certainly these are not the sins which the metropolitan guardians are at present most inclined to; but even conceding—which we are by no means disposed to do—that the fact of the poor rate being raised from the whole of London equally would work a complete revolution in all three respects, what is there to prevent any one of these kinds of outlay from being subjected to the control of a vigilant central office? The average cost of a pauper’s bare maintenance and the average salary of workhouse officials are known quantities in poor law calculations, and if any one board of guardians—or, to put a case of extreme improbability, if all the boards of guardians in London—chose to exceed these sums, the Commissioners would be able to forbid the excess being paid out of the rates and thus to leave the guardians responsible as for debts incurred of their own mere motion. To the erection of new buildings the consent of the Poor Law Board would still be an indispensable condition, and they would have as efficient methods of ascertaining when they are wanted. If it was still found that little items of extravagance slipped through the meshes of central supervision, it might be expedient to subject the metropolitan guardians to some special check in the shape of paid chairmen—appointed by and responsible to the Poor Law Board—whose consent should be requisite for all expenditure beyond a certain sum proportionate to the number of paupers.


  • Social cases. 1869