HC Deb 21 April 1812 vol 22 cc708-16
Mr. Maurice Fitzgerald,

knight of Kerry, said that from the beginning of the present alarm respecting a scarcity of pro" visions in Ireland, he had called the attention of government to that subject, and had requested of them to quiet the fears of the people, and to take the necessary steps to prevent the impending evil. The right hon. Secretary of State for Ireland, had, however, been deceived by false statements, and had asserted to the House that the scarcity was only local; and that enough of grain existed in Ireland, not only for the supply of that country, but also to relieve the wants of England, and to afford enough for distillation from corn. Notwithstanding those assertions, and notwithstanding the improved state of the agriculture in Ireland, which surpassed in so short a time whatever the most sanguine expectation could have anticipated, still it was too well proved that a scarcity existed at the present moment. He thought, in consequence, that the readiest method of affording relief to the population of Ireland, was to put a stop to the distillation from grain, which consumed fifty thousand quarters a week.—The right hon. gentleman concluded by moving, "That an humble Address should presented to his royal highness the Prince Regent, stating, that it appeared necessary to the House, in order to obtain a necessary supply of food for the poor of Ireland, that the distillation from grain should be stopped, and praying his Royal Highness to give directions for such measures as would speedily effect that desirable object."

Mr. Wellesley Pole

said, he had listened with great attention to the speech which the right hon. gentleman had just delivered, and he had some difficulty in persuading himself that it was spoken by the same gentleman, who about a month ago had favoured the House with another speech, in which he had taken a completely different view of every part of this subject. The right hon. gentleman, indeed, seemed completely to have forgotten the greater part of the opinions which he had advanced, and the arguments which he himself had urged at the period to which he alluded. The right hon. gentleman had said, that when he addressed the House a month ago upon the subject of the high price of provisions in Ireland, he had advised the immediate stopping of the distilleries, in consequence of the scarcity of grain. To this assertion he was under the necessity of giving a direct contradiction, the right hon. gentleman had given no such advice, nor had he expressed any opinion that the state of Ireland with regard to grain was such as to require the suspension of the distilleries. On the contrary, the right hon. gentleman had declared that he was rather inclined to think that there was no real scarcity, and contented himself with merely calling for some returns. The right hon. gentleman had, indeed, expressed some apprehensions upon the subject, and had called for those returns in order to see whether his apprehensions were well or ill-founded. He was therefore very naturally astonished to hear the right hon. gentleman now state, that he had a month ago informed the House of the scarcity of grain in Ireland, and had recommended the measure which he now proposed. He would appeal to every gentleman who was present in the House, on the former discussion, he would appeal; to the right hon. gentleman's own friends who sat around him, whether that was a correct representation of what passed upon that occasion, and he would ask further, whether not only the right hon. gentleman but all the gentlemen on the other side of the House, with one single exception, had not expressly concurred in the statement which he (Mr. Pole) then made, viz. that though there was considerable pressure felt in many parts of Ireland on account of the high price of provisions, it arose not from an actual scarcity, but from the interruption which had taken place in the intercourse between different parts of the kingdom? Was then the right hon. gentleman justified in coming down to the House and preferring such heavy charges against the Irish government, and in censuring him (Mr. Pole) for not paying proper attention to a statement which was never made, and for not complying with advice which was never given. It might be supposed from the manner in which the right hon. gentleman had introduced this subject, that he really believed that the Irish government had taken no pains to ascertain the actual state of provisions in Ireland, and that they had totally neglected that most important part of their duty; it was impossible to conceive a charge more completely destitute of foundation. The government of Ireland had directed its attention to this subject with the most anxious solicitude. That government did not, indeed, think it necessary when the first alarm was felt respecting the high price of provisions (arising from the cause which he had stated) to take in the first instance, a measure so injurious to the commercial interest of Ireland, and one which would give such a blow to the revenue as to stop the distilleries, but when it was found to be necessary, the Irish government did not lose a moment in resolving upon the measure, and he came down yesterday to give notice of his intention to move for a Bill to stop the distilleries. The right hon. gentleman might suppose that he had given that notice in consequence of the previous one given by the right hon. gentleman, but that was not the fact; for he had sent notice to Ireland last Saturday of his intention to move for the Bill precisely on the very day on which the right hon. gentleman, who had just come from Ireland prepared with full information upon the subject, thought it right to propose the measure. Was it then fair or candid, he asked again, for the right honourable gentleman to come down to that House and accuse the Irish government of inattention to one of the most important parts of their duty? When this subject was before under the consideration of the House, he communicated all information of which the Irish government was in possession, that information was corroborated by all the Irish gentlemen in the House, who also approved of the conduct of the Irish government in not stopping the distilleries, with the exception, as he had before stated, of one single gentleman. It was at that time agreed on all sides of the House, that the high prices of provisions in Ireland arose not from any real scarcity, but from the great market which had been opened for the grain and spirits of Ireland. He did hope at that time, that the measures which were adopted would have the effect of lowering the prices, or at least of preventing them from rising; in that hope he was disappointed, and it therefore became necessary to have recourse to the strong measure of stopping the distilleries. Mr. Pole then entered into a comparative view of the difference of prices in 1801, a year of considerable scarcity, and 1812; and admit-ed that they were, generally speaking, higher at the latter period: but he begged to remind the House that the price of every article had increased since 1801, and therefore it was not to be inferred that because grain or potatoes were dearer now than they were in 1801 that therefore there was an actual scarcity, because there had been a considerable change in the value of money since that time. It was also to be recollected, that the price of labour had encreased above one half since 1801; and he could not but hope, that the present high prices of provisions would induce the gentry and farmers in Ireland still further to increase the wages of their labourers, which certainly were inadequate, so that some good might come out of this evil. Mr. Pole then adverted to the assertion of the right hon. gentleman, that there was an actual scarcity in Ireland; and contended, that it was very greatly over-stated. With respect to Dublin, where a very considerable pressure was felt, he begged to inform the House, that very considerable supplies had recently reached that city coastwise, to prove which, he read a letter from Mr. Middleton the clerk of the market) and he was happy to add that those supplies were progressively increasing. With respect to the county of Cork, a part of Ireland where the greatest apprehensions were entertained, it appeared from a report most admirably drawn up, that those apprehensions are unfounded. The right hon. gentleman had stated in the county of Clare potatoes had risen above the average price, it was true that the price of potatoes had risen, but he could state upon the most indisputable information, that there was not the smallest ground for apprehending a scarcity either of grain or of potatoes in that county. Mr. Pole then read a letter from Mr. Hamilton, agent to the duke of Leinster, a gentleman of the greatest respectability, and whose means of obtaining information were most extensive. He was not, he confessed, authorised to make use of that gentleman's name, but he had too high an opinion of his character to suppose that he would put his name to any statement which he would be unwilling to avow. That gentleman stated, that in the county of Kildare (which the right hon. gentleman represented to be in a state of famine) there were plenty of potatoes, that grain was dear, but that oats had on the last market day fallen seven shillings a barrel. Mr. Pole then read a letter from Limerick, dated the 14th November, which stated, that there were abundance of potatoes, and that orders had been received and were about to be executed for several thousand barrels of oats for Scotland, Spain, and Portugal, and yet Limerick was one of the counties in which the right hon. gentleman said there was a scarcity. In the King's County there were great quantities of wheat and oats. He should like to ask his honourable colleague (Mr. Parnell) whether he agreed with the right hon. gentleman respecting the scarcity which he stated to exist in the King's County; he was sure he could not. In Kilkenny, oats had fallen at the three last market days; and a committee which had been appointed to examine into the state of provisions in that county, had reported that there was no ground for apprehending a scarcity. In addition to all this, he begged to state, that he had received a letter from one of the governors of that most extensive and excellent charity, the House of Industry in Dublin. The consumption of provisions in the House of Industry might naturally be supposed to be very great, when it was known, that upon an average 3,000 persons were daily fed in it. The gentleman to whom he alluded had lately been upon a tour into different parts of Ireland with a view of purchasing provisions for the use of the charity of which he was a governor; and it was his decided opinion, founded upon observations which he had carefully made during the course of that tour, that there was no real ground for apprehending that there was an actual scarcity of provisions in Ireland. The fact was, that the crops in Ireland were far from being deficient, and if her export trade had not encreased to such an extent, there would not have existed the smallest alarm about scarcity; nor would it have been necessary to stop the distilleries. He appealed to the House, whether with all this various mass of information before them, the Irish government would not have been culpable, if it had upon the first appearance of a great increase in the price of grain, immediately had recourse to the strong measure of stopping the distilleries, and thereby injuring both the trade and the revenue of the country, without taking pains to ascertain whether there were or were not real grounds for alarm. The Irish government would have very ill discharged its duty, if it had acted from information derived from one or two quarters, or if it had given way to the clamours of a mob. The government was bound to obtain information from every quarter; to investigate, to analyze and compare the whole; and to form its determination upon the general result. Such was the conduct which the Irish government had pursued, and he trusted that it would meet with the approbation both of the House and of the country. The Irish government had not acted rashly or precipitately, it had proceeded gradually to apportion the relief to the evil as it increased, but it now felt that it could no longer, consistently with its duty, delay having recourse to the strong measure of proposing to stop the distilleries. The Irish government was neither inattentive to the duties it had to perform, nor ignorant of the responsibility under which it acted. It was neither guided by partial information, nor influenced by clamour; and it would have been no more justified in having recourse to the strongest measure in the first instance, than it would be in not adopting it, now that its necessity became apparent. The right hon. gentleman had censured the measure which he (Mr. Pole) had recommended, of prohibiting the exportation of spirits from Ireland to foreign parts, and had represented it as being useless and absurd; but he contended, that to keep in the country a large quantity of spirits for home consumption that were destined for exportation, must necessarily lessen the quantity to be distilled, and of course diminish the consumption of grain. The right hon. gentleman had stated, that there was no export of spirits from Ireland to foreign pans; where the right hon. gentleman got his information he did not know, but most undoubtedly it was completely erroneous. He had stated upon a former occasion, that this export trade of Ireland was in its infancy, but in the month of February alone it amounted to above 220,000 gallons, which was rather more than one-fourth of the whole quantity of spirits distilled in that month. How then it could be contended, that the prohibition of such a large export would not lessen the quantity of spirits distilled, he would leave to the right hon. gentleman to explain. The right hon. gentleman had stated, that several cargoes which had been shipped for Spain and Portugal had been brought back again, and several applications hail been made by merchants to the Board of Customs for leave to reland their cargoes. Here again the right hon. gentleman had been completely misinformed, no such cargoes had been brought back, no such applications had been made. One cargo that had been shipped for Guernsey had indeed been brought back, because it was found that the spirits could be sold at a better price in Dublin. Unless, therefore, the right hon. gentleman could shew, that one cargo from Guernsey was several cargoes from Portugal, his statement and the argument he had built upon it fell to the ground. He now begged leave to advert to a charge which the right hon. gentleman had made against him, and which was as extraordinary as it was unfounded. The right hon. gentleman had said, that he (Mr. Pole) wished to rival his predecessor, by doubling the duties on spirits, lie should be most unworthy of the situation which he had the honour to hold, if he could be actuated by such a motive. He wished, indeed, he could rival Mr. Foster in talents, in information, in experience, and in every quality that was necessary for the office which he had the honour to hold. That was the only species of rivalry which he wished to enter into with Mr. Foster, a man who was an honour and an ornament to his country, who was one of its best friends, and one of the best men, and one of the truest patriots it ever produced. The right hon. gentleman knew little, indeed, of him, if he could suspect him of being actuated by any unworthy motives of rivalship towards Mr. Foster.—The right hon. gentleman, however, disapproved of the increase of the duty upon spirits; he supposed that the right hon. gentleman did not know how the proposition for doubling the duly had been received by his friends who sat around him, that they had expressed the strangest approbation of it, as a measure calculated to improve the health, the morals, and the industry of the people of Ireland, and that it had not met with one dissentient voice in that House. Mr. Pole then adverted to that part of the right hon. gentleman's speech which relate, to the propriety of proceeding by proclamation rather than by Bill, and entered into a detailed account of the process under which the grain went previous to distillation, in order to shew that a considerable portion of the stock of grain which the distillers had, could not be rendered serviceable for consumption as food, even if the distilleries were immediately stopped. He contended, therefore, that it would be as useless to the country as it would be oppressive upon the distillers to stop them immediately. He should recommend the adoption of the plan which had been followed in this country on a similar occasion, and should propose to stop the distilleries on the 4th of next mouth, by which time the distillers would be able to work off the grain that was in a state of preparation, and to allow them a fortnight to work off their worts and wash—He wished before he sat down to notice another inaccuracy in the statement of the right hon. gentleman, who had said, that 50,000 barrels of grain were used weekly in the distilleries; the actual consumption did not exceed 35,000 barrels a week. He wished also to take this opportunity of doing justice to the Irish distillers, who had uniformly conducted themselves in the most exemplary manner, ever since his attention had been directed from his official situation to their proceedings, and he should have acted most unjustly towards them, if, to gain a little popularity, he had put an immediate stop to the distilleries. He never would propose a measure that appeared to him to be unjust and oppressive, to gratify public clamour, or to acquire popularity for himself. He should conclude what he had to say, by asking the right hon. gentleman, why, if he thought three weeks ago that this measure was necessary to preserve Ireland from a famine, he had not come over, and stated his opinion to the House; or at least, why he had not written over to some of his friends upon the subject? But he supposed the right hon. gentleman had some duty to perform, which he considered paramount to that of attending to the distresses of the people of Ireland. Mr. Pole concluded with moving, as an amendment to the right hon. gentleman's motion, to leave out all the words after the word "that," and to insert these words:

"That leave be given to bring in a Bill to revive and continue, for a time to be limited, so much of the Act of the 49th of the King, for the prohibition of the distillation from grain, as referred to that part of the United Kingdom called Ireland."

Mr. Ponsonby

did not think it would be safe to allow so long a period for the distillers to work off that part of their stock which was on hand, and which could not be applied to human food. No longer time should be allowed than was actually necessary for the passing of the measure. From the information he had received from undoubted authority, the state of the country was most alarming. This was a fact which could not be disguised; and those who had informed the right hon. gentleman that the contrary was the case, were induced so to do, merely from interested motives, and with the intention of deluding and misleading him.

Sir J. Newport

said, the delay proposed by the right hon. gentleman would only tend to keep out of the market that grain which was absolutely necessary for immediate consumption. Any such delay, therefore, was strongly to be deprecated.

Mr. Shaw

observed, that it was utterly impossible for the distillers to work off their stock on hand in a less time than that proposed by the right hon. gentleman. They could not take any improper advantage, or make any new purchases by such an arrangement.

Mr. Stewart

declared his approbation of the amendment, and conceived that no more time was proposed to be allowed to the distillers than was actually necessary to work off their present stock.

Mr. Parnell

felt considerable doubt, whether, even supposing there was a scarcity, the stoppage of the distilleries would have any good effect.

Mr. O'Dell

said, he had just arrived from Limerick, and that there was no scarcity dreaded in that part of the country, as potatoes never were more cheap or more abundant.

Mr. Hutchinson

agreed that every measure ought to be taken to prevent the consumption of grain, and for the support of the population of the country; at the same time, the House ought to be cautious how they injured so respectable a class of people as the distillers of Ireland, more than was necessary. A clause could easily be introduced, to allow them to make use of such grain as was in their possession, and so prepared as not to be fit for any other use.

The original motion was then put and negatived. The amendment was carried, and leave given to bring in the Bill. Mr. W. Pole then brought up the Bill, which was read a first time, and ordered to be read a second time to-morrow.