Speech on Labourers Acts (1901)
by Daniel Desmond Sheehan
House of Commons of the United Kingdom
MR. SHEEHAN (County Cork, Mid) said he had listened with the utmost attention to the eloquent and exhaustive speech of the hon. Baronet the Member for Wexford on the administration of the Local Government Act, with whose remarks he entirely concurred. He did not propose to follow on the same lines. There was another phase of the administration of the Local Government Board to which he would direct attention, especially as it affected the well-being, comfort, and better housing of a large protion of the Irish population. He referred to the manner in which the Labourers Acts were interpreted and administered, to the almost interminable delays which occurred, and to the generally unsatisfactory condition of their application. The duty was forced upon Irish members by their constituents every other day of bringing under the notice of this House instances of hardships and of the vagaries and absurdities of Local Government Board inspectors in the rejection of applications 93 for labourers’ cottages. Any cause appeared to be good enough to deprive a poor labourer of his cottage.
In the case of the Cork Rural District Council they found the inspector advancing the luminous reason for throwing out whole batches of cottages that they were apparently not required. In other cases the equally solid and conclusive reason was advanced that the landlord objected, the tenant wanted the land for himself, and a host of other equally silly and absurd causes. It was a standing ground of complaint with the working men in Ireland that the Labourers Acts were not administered in a manner sympathetic to them, and as this was a question which seriously affected the material and moral progress of the country it was one which should engage the very best attention which the Government could bestow on it. He held if there was to be any respect for the administration of the Labourers Acts in Ireland, definite and conclusive reasons should be assigned in each case by the inspector, setting forth the points of evidence upon which he decided to reject cottages. This would be at least one step in the right direction, and he felt assured that if an Order to this effect were issued by the Local Government Board fewer cottages would be rejected, and the feeling of discontent which at present existed amongst the working men would be considerably lessened.
Schemes of cottages were often prepared with great difficulty and expense by rural district councils, they investigated every claim, and passed none which did not appear to them a just and reasonable one, and yet when these schemes were sent forward to the Local Government Board, when inquiries were held and the result sent down to the councils, after all the care and all the trouble that had been taken in communication with them, was it not a galling state of things that frequently more than one-half of the cottages originally applied for were rejected? Undoubtedly one of the great contributory causes to the depopulation of Ireland was the fact that the working classes were so badly housed. The Labourers Acts have been in operation for close upon twenty years, but it was a striking commentary upon the manner in which they had been administered 94 that thousands of labourers in Ireland still lived in wretched abodes, and that in no case, except perhaps in that of Macroom , in his own constituency, was the limit of taxation in respect to cottages—namely, 1s. in the £—reached. In this age of progress, and when the means of travelling to other countries were so moderate, people would not live in hovels in which the brute beasts would not be housed, and which were the fruitful breeding grounds of epidemics of the worst and most malevolent kind.
He now came to the question of delays—delays of the law and of the Local Government Board. Notwithstanding the replies of the Chief Secretary to questions of his on the subject, he contended that the Local Government Board were responsible for delays in the holding of inquiries into improvement schemes, and he had the admission of the right hon. Gentleman that three inspectors had to be appointed temporarily to cope with the work which the Custom House authorities in their carelessness allowed to accumulate. This, to his mind, was sufficient refutation of the assertion of the Chief Secretary that no delays occurred. He held, and he knew it of his own knowledge to be a fact, and he was certain if the Chief Secretary took the trouble to inquire he would find it to be so, that even, after all the preliminaries had been complied with, and all the necessary documents sent to the Local Government Board, a year often elapses before an inquiry was held. Then, if there were any appeals from the decision of the Local Government Board, they must go before the Privy Council, and more time was wasted. And, finally, before the order would be made absolute, a Local Government arbitrator must assess the compensation to be awarded to the landlord and tenant. Hence it not infrequently happened that from the time a rural district council adopted a resolution to execute an improvement scheme until that scheme was finally sanctioned by the Local Government Board a period of three years elapsed, which, if the laws were properly framed and applied, should not take six months altogether. Such were the law’s delays, and such the absurd red-tapeism of the well-known circumlocution office in Dublin. Not only did this meaningless procedure involve 95 loss to the ratepayers, but it was also a great injustice to the labourers, who were kept for years waiting for cottages.
The next point in his criticism of the Local Government Board was the fact that the supervision exercised by their engineering inspectors over the erection of labourers’ cottages was most inefficient and most unsatisfactory. Indeed, of their inspectors it might be said they came, they saw, and they reported. That appeared to be the beginning and the end of their work. The duty was cast upon them of seeing that the houses were properly built with the right materials, and the final instalment of the contract money could not be paid to the contractor until a certificate was given by the Local Government Board engineering inspector that the house was in every way built according to plan and specification. It was notorious that contracts had been frequently scamped, that the cottages had been jerry-built and put together anyhow, with the result that the occupants were in a constant state of revolt, rents were not paid, repairs had to be constantly made, the cottages were a disgrace, and the purpose and intention of the Labourers Acts were frustrated. Of course, it was not to be supposed that the engineers appointed by the rural district councils were to be absolved from all blame. He was free to admit that they were often incompetent, and selected without due reference to their qualifications, but, if this was so, why did the Local Government Board, which possessed a veto in the matter, sanction their appointment, and why did it not put down its foot and insist on the appointment of properly qualified engineers? Looked at from any point of view, he submitted that the Local Government Board was primarily responsible for the erection of badly-constructed houses, and that before the bar of public opinion they would be held guilty of gross neglect in this respect.
The most scandalous feature in connection with the administration of the Labourers Acts, the greatest defect in their provisions, was the manner in which they dealt with fishermen. He was not exaggerating when he said that there was no more deserving or industrious body of Irishmen than the fishermen off its 96 coasts. They reaped the harvest of the sea, they swept it with their nets, they braved its dangers, they had a most irksome and a most toilsome calling, yet would it be believed they did not come within the scope of the Labourers Acts; they could not become tenants of labourers’ cottages unless they devoted a considerable portion of the year to agricultural work, and were paid for that work by actual wages. Could anything be more absurd or more unjust than this? He had before his mind at this moment the cases of a number of fishermen in the Skibbereen Union, who recently applied for labourers’ cottages, but every one of whose applications were rejected because the Local Government Board inspector held that they did not spend a sufficient portion of the year at agricultural work, though they gave evidence that they worked occasionally for neighbouring farmers. All he could say of such conduct was that where Local Government Board inspectors thus interpreted the law, God help the poor fishermen.
He took occasion some months ago to visit a number of houses occupied by fishermen in south-west Cork, and he could not convey to this House by words the faintest idea of their wretchedness and squalidness. Many of them had only one compartment, which was kitchen, bedroom, and all; others had no proper division for the sexes, and young and old, male and female, lived and slept indiscriminately together, and this was doubtless a shocking picture, but it was painfully true, and what was more, it was a disgrace to the Government which did not seek to instantly remove it. He could honestly aver that in any single one of the fishermen’s houses which he visited none of the gentlemen sitting on the opposite benches would even kennel a dog for which they entertained the slightest regard. That being so, he made an earnest appeal to the Chief Secretary to introduce legislation early in the next session which would bring fishermen by mere right of their avocation within the operations of the Labourers Acts; and not only did he make this appeal for fishermen, but extended it also for the rural tradesmen, and for every class of working men who were not at present 97 decently housed, and whose position and prospects would be improved, whose social status would be elevated were they provided with better dwellings and reasonable plots of land. The rural tradesman was a most important part of the economy of any district; he was necessary to the farming, fishing community, and he should be fixed and rooted on the soil. He hoped the Chief Secretary would not overlook their claims when an amendment of the Labourers Acts came to be considered.
He would now pass to the personnel of the inspectors. The Irish Government departments appeared to be repositories for all the half-pay officers of the Army, for Militia colonels—he believed they called them Saturday to Monday colonels in this country—and for at least one son of a well-known Orange member of Parliament for the north of Ireland, whom he did not see in his place at this moment. He maintained that it was ridiculous and absurd to expect that there could be proper administration of the Labourers Acts when gentlemen such as these were appointed as inspectors. What did they know about legal technicalities? Nothing whatever, and he was firmly convinced when any question of doubt arose their leanings were not on the side of the unfortunate labourer. A juster selection, and one more in accord with the views and opinions of the people, should be made than that at present favoured by the Government.
He wished in conclusion to say a few words on the question of appeals to the Privy Council. As the law at present stood, should any party feel dissatisfied with the result of the Local Government Board inquiry, they might appeal to the Privy Council, which would necessitate taking the whole union staff to Dublin, and would mean the addition of a considerable burden to the taxes borne by the ratepayers. A much simpler method in his opinion was, if there must be an appeal, let it be to the county court judge or the Land Sub-Commission, neither of which tribunals could be regarded as prejudiced on the labourers’ side. He did not wish to occupy the time of the Committee further, but he expressed the hope that the Chief Secretary would seriously take into 98 consideration the advisability of reforming, where such was found to be necessary, the administration of the Labourers Acts.
NOTE: First major speech delivered by D. D. Sheehan MP. in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, concerning the inadequate provisions for housing of Irish labourers and fishermen under the existing Labourers Acts, during the Service Estimates debate on 8 August 1901.