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114 The Story of Parliament


“While Victorian parliamentarians had a general preference to avoid intervention, this did not stop them passing pioneering legislation to protect workers, consumers and the environment”


central interference. When central bodies such as the Poor Law Commission were created to oversee and ensure some uniformity across local bodies, they were often very unpopular. Men at the commission, founded in the 1830s, were dubbed the “tyrants of Somerset House”, in reference to their London headquarters. Moreover, the state and parliament played a key


part in economic development, the growth of social policy and industrial regulation. As the building of new roads, canals or docks in the 18th century had done, the construction of railway lines required the sanction of legislation, as did the continuing enclosure of land. Tus parliament was key to the reshaping of the British landscape in the 19th century through private legislation secured by railway companies and landowners. Te state’s role in intervention and regulation


in the early industrial economy in order to protect workers and consumers was more controversial. Early in the century, many industrialists and political economists argued in and outside parliament that the state’s role in the economy should be limited to upholding contracts and property rights and dismantling barriers to trade. Tese issues aroused lively debates in parliament, which resulted in the gradual expansion of state activity in this area. Tere was a familiar pattern to such


developments. A good example is the passage of the Factory Acts to regulate child labour in the 1830s and 1840s. Te harsh working conditions experienced by children working in Lancashire’s cotton industry attracted increasing public and media attention by the 1830s. Humanitarian campaigners, including MPs like Lord Ashley (later the Earl of Shaftesbury) and Michael Sadler, called for the state to regulate conditions and limit working hours for women and


children. Tere was a series of parliamentary inquiries and bills promoted by individual members, until the Whig government passed the 1833 Factory Act. Tis limited hours and established an inspectorate to enforce the legislation. Criticised as inadequate, the measure was subsequently strengthened by acts passed in 1844, 1847 and 1850, which closed loopholes and reduced the working day in cotton factories to 10 hours. Legislation to protect consumers from adulterated food


and drink followed a similar path. A permissive bill was passed in 1858 after parliamentary inquiries. Tis enabled local government to appoint scientists to check for adulteration, and allowed councils to impose fines. It was further reinforced by legislation passed in the 1870s. Te Victorian parliament was also the first to pass laws in response to the air pollution produced by the Industrial Revolution. While Victorian parliamentarians generally preferred to


avoid intervention this did not stop them passing pioneering legislation to protect workers, consumers and the environment. Much of it operated at a local level, with the laws evolving in a piecemeal, case-by-case way. Nevertheless, it set important precedents that were built on by the 20th-century state.


Te Irish question Irish representation under the Act of Union of 1801 was based on the country’s wealth, rather than its population. Tis, and the government’s failure to enable Catholics to sit in parliament—despite the fact that they had been able to vote in parliamentary elections since 1793—deprived the Union of widespread popular support. Opposition was first organised by the Catholic Committee in 1804. By 1823, the movement had embraced wider political aims under the energetic leadership of Daniel O’Connell. By looking beyond Catholic emancipation to the repeal of


the Union and the restoration of an Irish parliament equal in status to that of Great Britain, O’Connell skilfully exploited popular resentment against a settlement that increasingly appeared


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