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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 86

VIII.—Reform of Poor Law Machinery

VIII.—Reform of Poor Law Machinery.

No Poor Law administration will, however, be stable until its members enjoy the confidence of the public, now effectually destroyed by the defective manner of their election. The reform of the administrative machinery of the Poor Law is therefore a matter of vital importance, especially in the metropolis. Indeed, it is probable that this side of the problem will force itself upon the notice of Ministers long before they can be induced to deal with the equally urgent reforms already referred to.

The administration of the Poor Law is, in England and Wales, committed to 647 boards of guardians, acting for 647 aggregations of 14,827 parishes. In London there are 30 boards of guardians acting either for separate parishes (14) or for "unions" (16) of smaller parishes. The "overseers of the poor," appointed by two J.P.'s, have become practically obsolete as to function.

The boards of guardians are mainly elected by the ratepayers (either annually or triennially in the month of April, according to the particular arrangement in force for each parish)upon a system of plural voting, each elector having from one to six votes, according to the rateable value of his house. Owners are entitled to vote as well as occupiers, and may even vote by proxy; and an occupying owner can give double votes. If, moreover, he is rated for more than one house, whether as a "house-farmer" or not, his voting power is further multiplied in proportion to the number of his houses. Under this system it occasionally happens (as in Bethnal Green in April, 1889) that a minority of the large householders prevails over the poorer majority.

The elections are conducted carelessly, voting papers being left at each house by a policeman, and collected next day, without any safeguards against personation or fraud. Very little public interest is aroused; and only a small proportion of the papers are filled up.

Justices of the Peace in any parish are ex-officio members of its board of guardians; but they seldom attend. The Local Government Board may nominate additional members of any board. The bulk of the work is left in the hands of the paid officials; and the "clerk to the guardians "—frequently a local solicitor—is often an official pluralist (as in Chelsea) receiving huge emoluments, and practically beyond control.

We need in our Poor Law representative government, "one man one vote" on the County Council register, uniform triennial elections, exclusion of all J.P.'s and other nominated members, abolition of rating qualification, payment of members for each day's attendance, election arrangements under the Corrupt Practices Act page 18 on the lines of those for the School Boards (but allowing, as now for Parliamentary elections, though not for municipal elections, meetings, &c., in working men's clubs), and removal of the alleged disability of married women to be guardians or electors of guardians.

Each board of guardians now administers relief, and collects its rates independently of the others; but in London the cost of the maintenance of the poor inside the workhouses, infirmaries and schools, the salaries of Poor Law officials, and the expenses of vaccination, are defrayed from a "Common Poor Fund," and divided amongst the parishes in proportion to the rateable value of their property. This principle needs to be further extended. But any complete equalisation of the London poor-rate requires an efficient central authority; and the metropolis sadly needs a central "Board of Guardians" to ensure the extinction of the demoralising inequality oi treatment which thirty separate administrative boards in one city can never fail to produce. Unity of administration would make possible, not only much stricter classification and educational discrimination, but also a relaxation in the treatment of the aged and the worthy, along with the needful discipline in separate establishments for the wilfully idle. The financial economy of amalgamation, in space, in time, and in money, need only be mentioned.

No reformer would, however, for a moment propose to add any functions or powers to London's only central Poor Law organisation, the Metropolitan Asylums Board. London needs a single Poor Law Council, which, like its County Council and School Board, must spring exclusively from the direct election of the people. The Poor Law Council should retain for itself all power of deciding the principles of administration and of poor relief, delegating nothing to local boards of "district almoners" but the duty of administering and granting relief upon those principles. It would naturally take over all the powers, duties, and property of the Metropolitan Asylums Board, and the administration of all workhouses, casual wards, and Poor Law schools. The London Poor Law Council should be placed as nearly as may be practicable in the same position as regards independence of the Local Government Board as the London County Council and School Board.

Outside the Metropolis it appears unnecessary to make any immediate alteration of Poor Law machinery or change in Poor Law areas. The existing 647 Poor Law Unions cannot be disturbed without the most serious readjustments of property, debts, officers, rates, and official machinery. No one would propose to transfer them to the County Councils, which are quite unfitted for the detailed examination of individual cases which should form the leading feature in Poor Law administration. It will probably be found that "district" as distinct from "parish" councils' are needed only in London, where they will replace the existing vestries and district boards of works. In a few of the larger counties an authority intermediate between the parish and the shire may be called for; but this can best be supplied by local committees of the county council, empowered to administer local affairs on the lines laid down by the whole council. Even in page 19 these eases the Poor Law Union could not be adopted as the area, because it is desirable that the areas of the local committees should be, as far as possible, homogeneous in character, with special separation of urban from purely rural districts. Now most of the Poor Law Unions were deliberately formed so as to unite urban with rural districts, in order somewhat to equalise the rates, and distribute any special pressure. They often cut across municipal boundaries and unite the most diverse districts. Thus, the Barton Regis Union includes Clifton and other suburbs of Bristol, with a large slice of purely agricultural country. Leeds is in three Poor Law Unions, each containing a huge cantle of the neighbouring rural area. The omission of the Poor Law administration from the Local Government Act was an inevitable necessity of the incongruity of the union areas with those of any possible arrangement of district councils.

Nor can Poor Law administration be made wholly parochial. The 14,827 parishes in England and Wales cannot possibly each have its workhouse, its infirmary, its lunatic asylum, its casual ward, and its labor yard. The parish council may well be empowered to remit cases to the appropriate union institution, and possibly act as a local consultative committee to the board of guardians of the union, and to the public authority administering the aged pensions; but further than this no experienced Poor Law worker would desire to go. To allow the parish council to grant out-door relief would promptly land us in all the demoralising horrors of the Old Poor Law; and to make each parish maintain its own poor would bring back all the absurdities of the old Law of Settlement, with the inevitable results of "closed parishes," demolition of cottages, compulsory removals, litigation, inter-parochial envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness. We must therefore retain, outside London, the Poor Law union with its board of guardians, reformed as to election, the members paid for each day's attendance as well as reimbursed their reasonable travelling expenses. They should be relieved of their present medley of sanitary and educational functions, and thus set free to devote themselves entirely to their task of worthily administering the collective provision for the poorer citizens.