HC Deb 27 June 1815 vol 31 cc1009-11

On the motion for the second reading of the Bill to repeal the law with regard to the Assize of Bread,

Mr. Calcraft

expressed a wish that this motion should be postponed, as he, among others, who applied, had not yet been able to obtain from the Vote-office a copy of the Report of the committee upon which the Bill was, founded. This was, besides, a matter of such general interest, that he thought it ought not to be passed until the next session, in order that the public should have sufficient opportunity to consider its merits. For himself, he declared an inability to comprehend how the public could be benefited by a measure of this nature. There was no assize law as to beer, and yet that article had not become cheaper on that account. The assize law only fixed the maximum at which bread should be sold, but by no means prevented bakers from selling at a cheaper rate if they thought proper.

Mr. F. Lewis

regretted, that the hon. gentleman should experience any difficulty in procuring the Report of the Committee; but he saw no reason why the second reading should be delayed, as the measure had been already so long under consideration, and as the session was not likely to continue many days.

Mr. Alderman C. Smith

had no objection to the Bill, but wished that the bakers should be protected.

General Thornton

was anxious that the Bill should be passed with all convenient expedition, and wished that its provisions were extended throughout the country.

Mr. Alderman Atkins

thought that the House should be very cautious how they overturned a system which had stood the test of 700 years. The principle of the Assize Law was, in his opinion, unobjectionable, although the mode of taking the assize was imperfect, and réquired modification. It was known that the chandlers settled among themselves the price at which candles should be sold per dozen, and would it not be better for the public that this price should be settled by the magistrates than by interested parties?

Mr. R. Smith

declared, that he had not yet seen the Report alluded to.

Mr. F. Lewis

argued at some length in support of the Bill. The total repeal of the Assize Law would, he said, alone be effectual, and this was demonstrated by a mass of evidence examined before the Committee; from which it appeared, that no modification would avail to produce the desired effect. The Assize Law had, in fact, uniformly served to render bread dearer instead of cheaper, and bread was notoriously lower in those places where no Assize Law prevailed. The hon. alderman (Atkins) bad no doubt asserted the tendency of this law to reduce the price of bread, and yet that alderman was among those who contributed so much to agitate the public some time ago, by alledging, that if wheat were at 80s. a quarter, bread must be sold at 16d. a loaf. Yet if such were the effect, a quantity of wheat which would sell at 4l., would in bread produce 7l. 14s. So much for the profit of the bakers, and the consequences of that system of assize, for which the hon. alderman was an advocate upon this occasion. It appeared in evidence that the assize was not merely the maximum, but afforded a pretext for keeping up the high price of bread. For the witnesses examined before the Committee, generally-answered, that no respectable baker would sell bread at a lower rate than that fixed by the assize, because bread so sold was generally considered of inferior quality. Then as to the manner of fixing the assize, it mattered nothing to the baker at what price flour was sold under the existing law, because that price settled the price of the loaf, and that might be easily fixed by arrangement between the mealman and the baker; which arrangement was indeed the more easy, as the latter was generally the agent of the former. The latter, in feet, who was often a very poor man, had his flour at long credit from the former; and yet the price settled upon such credit, formed the standard by which the price of bread was fixed. It was obvious, therefore, that the public must suffer under the existing law, and that such a law ought to be abolished. The evil was inherent in the law, and no modification as to the mode of fixing the assize could avail. Another modification which he intended to propose in the committee, was to amend the law as it now stood, imposing a penalty on the baker for any bread which he might have on his premises being short of weight, and to inflict the penalty only for such bread as he might offer to sell or actually sell, under the full weight provided by act of parliament. He would also, of course, abolish the right of searching the premises for such bread, as it was often a great oppression upon a man to be fined for certain loaves being deficient in weight, which perhaps were never intended to be offered for sale. He agreed with the hon. alderman that the passing this Act was only an experiment, as was the case indeed with almost every act which that House passed; but he thought it impossible to make the experiment fairly, without wholly repealing the present law. He was anxious that the measure should be carried with as little delay as possible, and therefore should propose that the Bill be committed on Friday.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

suggested, that as little time should be lost as possible in the present advanced state of the session.

Mr. Tierney

thought it would be better to pass such a measure at the commencement rather than at the end of a session, because there would then be time to mark its operation, and to amend it if found deficient.

Mr. Whitbread

concurred in the opinion expressed by his right hon. friend, and thought that it would be better to make the Bill as perfect now as possible, and then leave it to be taken up again and passed at the beginning of the next session.

Mr. F. Lewis

said, that one argument, and a very strong one, for passing the measure now might cease to exist at the Commencement of the next, or of any Other session; he meant the present low price of corn; at the same time he was disposed to meet the wishes of the House.

The Bill was then committed for Friday.