A Tory councillor has been accused of bringing the party into disrepute after he appeared to express regret that the workhouses had been closed down – in a meeting about mental health services.
Michael Hytche’s comments were branded “Victorian thinking” by the Lib Dem opposition of Torbay Council in Devon, where the Conservatives have the majority.
But councillors said that instead of lobbying to keep existing services, Mr Hytche’s only contribution to the meeting was reportedly to lament the loss of a system whereby the poor and mentally ill were required to carry out manual labour in exchange for food, fuel and clothing.
According to the Torquay Herald Express, Mr Hytche said: “Since the workhouses have been closed down, what has been put in their place? As far as I can see, nothing has been.”
The Lib Dem councillor Mark Pountney told the local newspaper that the reaction at the health scrutiny board meeting was “stunned silence”.
“People’s jaws hit the ground when he made the comment,” Mr Pountney said. “At best it was a poorly chosen remark that could be seen as offensive to other people. It lacks a complete understanding of the problems people face and shows an element of Victorian thinking.”
The Lib Dems have since claimed that the remarks have brought the council into disrepute, and the Conservative group confirmed that they will be debated at the next full council meeting before a decision on possible further action is made.
Mr Hytche has defended his comments, telling the Herald Express he was not “for one minute” calling for workhouses to be brought back.
He said he had intended to draw attention to the lack of funding for mental health services provision, saying: “The remark was meant to say people were looked after by their communities better back then.
“People nowadays can be treated worse as the system cannot cope with everyone.”
One commenter on Twitter said Mr Hytche “seems stuck in the past”, while a Torbay resident called for his “removal from oversight of Torbay mental health provision”.
Kevin Foster, the Torbay Conservative parliamentary spokesperson, said he was “proud that in the 1930s Conservatives part of gov [sic] that abolished [workhouses]”.
“Some of my family suffered in the past due to the workhouse system,” he said, adding: “[They] should never return.”