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VII.-ABOLITION OF THE CASUAL WARD. For the first 200 years of its history-indeed, during the whole era of the middle ages-Poor Law legislation aimed almost exclusively at repression, not relief; and we must, to-day, not forget the necessity of undertaking the reformation of sturdy rogues and vagabonds.
Many otherwise sensible people have a most immoral belief that all paupers belong to this class. They forget that one-third of the paupers are children, one-tenth insane, and one-half infirm, aged, or disabled adults. Less than one-tenth are classed as able-bodied adults; and of these three-fourths are women, mostly deserted or widowed mothers, with families demanding all their strength. Only 3 per cent. are classed as usually adult able-bodied males; and even as to these the Local Government Board explains (p. 278 of C. 5813) that they include "those relieved (1) on account of sudden and urgent necessity; (2) on account of their own sickness, accident, or infirmity; (3) on account of the sickness, accident, or infirmity of some member of the family, or through a funeral; and (4) on account of want of work.” The number of vagrants relieved is only about 6000; and the total number of “sturdy beggars” profiting by the Poor Law must be but a trifling proportion of the population. Nevertheless vagabonds exist in demoralising num. bers, moving gaily from one Queen's Mansion” to another, until their faces become perfectly well-known to the superintendent.
The existing casual wards appear, indeed, to be permanent foci of moral infection. Filled almost exclusively by habitual tramps, they serve at present merely to deprave their inmates The few innocent persons who drift into them from sheer lack of shelter are almost inevitably drawn into the eddy of the evil current, and become permanent casuals. The only reform that can be suggested is total refusal to recognise or provide for the “ poor traveller," now become obsolete; the admission to a “Reception Ward” of any destitute person, and his searching individual examination there; the stern and rigorous commitment to a penal “labor colony" of every recognised habitual casual; and the prompt discharge, after humane succor and performance of a reasonable task of useful labor, of the merely destitute laborer, who should be in every possible way assisted to obtain employment. We might certainly take as much trouble to save human lives from the shipwreck of permanent pauperism as we do to prevent the loss of ships and cargoes on our coasts.
For the chronic cases of sturdy vagrancy, idle mendicity and incorrigible laziness, we must have recourse to organised pauper labor, strictly disciplined and severely supervised. These classes, like the criminals, are the “ failures of our civilisation; and whilst thay must be treated with all just kindness, and offered opportunities earning their subsistence, they must nevertheless be sternly denied all relief until they are willing to repay it by useful labor. The present Poor Law system fails to deal with them; and all reformers demand further public action. Mr. Charles Booth urges* that we must "o open a little the portals of the Poor Law, or its administration, making within its courts a working guild under suitable discipline,” and eliminate the idle loafers from society by making their existence in the ordinary community more and more impossible, whilst we, on the other hand, offer them constantly the alternative of the reforming “ labor colony” to which all incorrigible vagrants and beggars could be committed by the magistrate for specified terms on the indictment of the police or Poor Law officer.
*“ Life and Labor in East London," p. 168.
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 Aco 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 of 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 diate 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 these cases 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.
The foregoing tentative proposals for Poor Law reform all proceed, it will be seen, on the lines of "depauperising” the present collective provision of the community for its weaker members, and of “democratising " the machinery of its administration. They do not form a complete scheme; for they deal neither with the “unemployed ” nor with the constant Poor Law problem of the widow with young children. To those far-sighted reformers who see that we shall not always have the poor with us, they are offered as provisional measures kept carefully upon progressive lines. No attempt is made to do more than to suggest immediately practicable reform, of which nothing but popular apathy delays the execution.
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