HC Deb 10 March 1815 vol 30 cc115-25

Mr. Robinson moved the order of the day for the third reading of the Corn Bill.

Mr. Protheroe

said, that as in the course of the last two years, he had spoken at least nine times on the subject of the corn laws, he thought it unnecessary to trespass on the time of the House now in rising to move an amendment to the motion which had just been made. He lamented the popular commotions which had taken place, panegyrised the general conduct of the right hon. gentleman who bad brought forward the measure, and concluded by moving, That the Bill be read a third time on that day six months.

Mr. Fremantle

seconded the amendment, and observed, that the Bill being founded on averages which were known to be fallacious, the operation of it could not be effectual in producing stability of price. He regarded the measure as one of the many attempts to support the defective state of the money system, and that it had been proposed at the worst time that could have been chosen. He thought that even a regard to the public feeling should induce the House to suspend the passing of the measure, even if the Bill did not appear to them impolitic and unjust.

Mr. Wilberforce

said the hon. gentleman who had just sat down seemed to think, that all the danger and mischief were on one side only; but if those who had argued in support of the Bill were correct in their opinions, the measure was absolutely necessary. There was a general impression, that the opening of our ports freely for the importation of foreign corn would prevent agriculturists from supplying our home market, and would occasion a general decline and decrease of agriculture. If that were true, what could be more serious, what more alarming? If it were true, it was necessary for the general weal of the empire that the Legislature should adopt proper remedies before it was too late. Gentlemen said, that every thing should be left to find its own level. He admitted this principle generally, but did they not see that in the present state of circumstances it was inapplicable? If the whole of Europe were under one government,—if it were one great family—if all were, as much disposed to dispense happiness as they were often found inclined to injure one another, he should then say, let every country produce that which the nature of its soil and other circumstances may render beneficial, and let it supply other nations with its superabundance. Nothing would be more just than that principle; but it was worthy of the most serious consideration, that those very countries from which we might derive supplies, were countries which, at no great length of time, might be united against this nation. If that were the case, we had sufficient reasons for not trusting to their kindness, or good policy. As to having been supplied by France at a particular period, he begged the House to remember, that that was not owing to the situation of our commerce, but because the French emperor found it a productive source of revenue. But would gentlemen put the happiness of so many millions upon an issue like that? Would they trust to the tender mercies of France for supplies? Would they trust to any commercial interests whatever? No; there could not be any truth more certain than this,—that a great country like England, should be independent of foreign nations with regard to her supply for food. Providence had given us the means of satisfying all our wants, and we should be ungrateful and undeserving, if we did not avail ourselves of its kindness. He was astonished, therefore, to hear honourable members argue, that we should depend on the policy of foreign nations for our existence. Did the great commercial gentleman, who had spoken so frequently on that subject (Mr. Baring) suppose that Trance would not raise the price of corn, when the demand for it was increased? If honourable gentlemen would consider that point, they would find that all the reasoning was not confined to one side. He would next say a few words as to the policy of promoting the agriculture of the country; and instead of speaking of the country gentlemen in the way which an hon. member had done, he would say, that it was the pride and honour of this nation, that we had that race of men in the country who fertilised the districts around them more than any other country in Europe. The manufacturing interests ought, no doubt, to be protected; and he was persuaded, that he, who had sprung from a commercial stock, and had so long represented a district where manufactures flourished to a great extent, would never be suspected of undervaluing commerce. But he wished it to be remembered, that no less than one hundred and fifty articles were prohibited, for the purpose of favouring our own manufactures. The whole would be injured in the end, and none more than the manufacturer. The agriculturist must be paid somehow or other; but people would give up some things, especially articles of luxury, for necessary food. Notwithstanding, therefore, all that had been said on behalf of the manufacturing interests, the House should consider the situation of the peasantry, who could not attend to plead their own cause; they should consider them as calling on the Parliament with ten thousand tongues, to protect them and their families. With respect to the restricting price, he had not heard one single argument to shew, that because the sum was fixed at 80s., the price of corn must necessarily be raised to that extent. But that price would a fiord a sufficient inducement to the agriculturist to improve his lands, because he knew that his expenses would be repaid by it. He should have thought, however, that 76s. were a sufficient price; but he saw most distinctly, that it would be better to go beyond what the consumers thought necessary, in order to protect the growers. He said, therefore, it would be with considerable apprehension he should stop at 76s., if those persons more conversant with the subject than he was should persist in preferring 80s.; though if we were guided by his own opinion, he should deem 76s. sufficient. If, however, the lower price was likely to diminish the cultivation of land, he thought it might produce an injury to the country that it would be terrible to contemplate. On this head, one side was as much concerned as the other,—the consumer as much as the grower; and if the alteration of one-fifth might tend, as had been represented, to introduce a scarcity of corn, it should at all events be avoided. Having, therefore, come to this conclusion, he felt it his urgent, though painful duty, under the present peculiar circumstances, to vote in favour of the measure. If he was in error upon the subject, his error was at least an honest one, for he had used every faculty he possessed thoroughly to understand it: and he was convinced that by passing the present Bill they would preserve from the greatest degree of danger and ruin even those very persons who imagined they saw nothing but ruin and distress in it.

Lord Barnard

thought a protecting price should given to the grower, and therefore heartily concurred in the present measure.

Mr. Smyth

(of Cambridge) contended, that the agricultural interest ought not to be denied that artificial protection which parliament had given to every other interest in the country. He would have preferred the price being fixed at 76s. instead of 80s.; but now that the question was, whether 80s. should be preferred to 63s. he felt it is duty to vole for 80s. by supporting the Bill.

Sir Henry Parnell

corrected a misrepresentation which had been very prevalent with regard to the measure which he had proposed upon this subject about two years ago, and insisted that that measure would have been by no means so operative as the present, as his measure would have only added 15s. per quarter to the existing import price. This allegation the hon. baronet sustained by describing the nature of his plan, the rejection of which he the more deplored, because if it had been adopted the distress since prevailing among the agricultural interests would have been prevented, and most probably no tumults whatever would have occurred. The hon. baronet observed, that as to personal interest he could have none whatever upon this subject with any view to rent, all his property being let out upon long leases. He contended, that the Lord Mayor was wrong in asserting, that bread would rise to 16d. if the present measure was adopted. The very week after he had made that assertion, he had been obliged to declare, according to the regular returns, that bread should be reduced one penny in the peck loaf, although the measure was then under discussion in the House. This showed, that the assertion was unfounded.

Mr. Gore Langton

conceived no principle more sound than this, that the Legislature should not unnecessarily interpose upon any occasion, and therefore thinking the present measure quite unnecessary, he felt it his duty to oppose it. But, independently of this consideration, the public opinion was so decidedly expressed against it, that he should consider himself guilty of a serious dereliction of duty, and unworthy of being the representative of the county of Somerset, if he did not enter his protest against this most iniquitous and abominable measure.

Mr. C. Grant

thought, that the measure was far from unnecessary. Those who denied that it would lower the price of bread, only paid attention to its immediate and instantaneous, and not its future effect. A precarious market was always a dear one, whilst a secure market would always be a cheap one. The effect of the measure would be to maintain a medium price, and in a short time would probably keep that price even below the medium. The reason that so many petitions had been presented against the Bill, was that manufacturers lived collected in towns, whilst agriculturists were scattered over the country, and had not so many opportunities of assembling. If the Bill should not pass, agriculture would decline, and not only those lands little apt to produce corn would be thrown out of cultivation, but a proper degree of expense and skill could not be bestowed on those of a more favourable kind.

Mr. Marryalt

did not intend to have once more introduced himself on the House, had it not been for the appeal of of the noble lord who associated the opposers of the Bill with the recent dis- graceful proceedings. [A general cry of No, no!] He was glad to hear this denied. If any of the opponents of the measure had any part in the outrages which had taken place, they had adopted the most effectual mode of injuring the cause: or he rather thought, had made it a pretence to obtain other objects. He remembered a time, when the cry of 'No Popery' was raised, as at present that of 'No Corn Bill!' and he recollected a street, in which the mob exclaimed, 'Throw us out so many guineas, and we will not smash your windows.' He thought the same motives actuated the present rabble. He did not oppose the principle of the measure, but the price, which he thought was fixed so high, as to press heavy on the community.

Mr. Gooch

said, that although he opposed the proposition upon this subject in 1813, because he thought it unnecessary from the very high price of wheat, he should support the present measure because the price of wheat was so very low, and the consequent distress of the farmers so very severe.

Mr. Round

was anxious to treat the representations of the people, as conveyed through constitutional channels to that House, with all possible tenderness and respect, yet could not prevail upon himself to surrender to temporary feeling, the fixed and deliberate conviction of his own judgment upon a question of great national import. He shortly advocated the principle of the Bill, as calculated to give effectual protection to the interests of British agriculture; with confidence afforded to the grower of grain, a most important object of sound policy would be obtained. The rendering this country independent of foreigners in so material an article of its subsistence as bread corn, a plentiful supply would be insured from our own resources, and cheapness must follow a plentiful supply. Such being his conscientious view of the subject, and conceiving the measure (stript of the misrepresentation and misconception which had gone forth respecting it) as tending to promote the real and permanent interests of every class of the people; he trusted the Legislature would continue the calm exercise of its deliberative functions, and persevere in the cause it deemed to be right, for the benefit of the community at large.

Sir Gilbert Heathcote

said, that in this last stage of this obnoxious Bill he felt himself indispensably called upon to oppose it. He had heard no new arguments in support of it, and therefore remained firmly of opinion, that if the House passed the Bill it would put the whole kingdom into a state of dreadful ferment. [A cry of No, no! from the ministerial benches.] Gentlemen might cry 'No, no!' but he referred them to the innumerable petitions from every part of the kingdom, signed every where by the most respectable classes of society, as well as by the manufacturing, labouring, and lower orders; and he would ask them how they could fly in the face of so many thousands on thousands who felt themselves deeply interested, without supposing they must create a very great sensation in the whole country. The high price of 80s. had been fixed as a fair remunerating price, but he had heard no other authority for it but the opinions of surveyors, who had been proved to be interested. [Here ensued much coughing and other signs of impatience.] He would endeavour to discharge his duty as a representative of his constituents as well as he could, and, notwithstanding the disinclination there seemed to be in the House to give him a fair hearing, he was resolved to give his opinion. As an independent member of that House he had a right to do so; no such interruptions as those which had been offered should prevent him from doing what he conceived to be his duty; and if he should be obliged to retire from the House, he would take care the people of England should have his sentiments on the subject. There was no question that was more universally understood throughout all the various classes of the community than this was; it was obvious to the most common understanding. In confirmation of this, he mentioned a petition which he had within the last ten days received from several of his own tenants who rented land from him at rents which had been lately raised; and the sole prayer of their petition was that they might be permitted to pay their old rents. If this were acceded to, they would think they were sufficiently remunerated for every improvement they could make in their several farms. This clearly shewed that they did not see this measure in the same point of view that many members of that House did. He warned the House that it was putting a most powerful engine into the hands of the reformists, who would draw from it this incontrovertible conclusion, that a House of Commons which was properly constituted, and a fair and actual representation of the people, would not dare to treat their constituents with such contempt. He was himself an avowed reformist, and as such, might not perhaps be the most agreeable companion in that House; but he wished to do his duly, even in giving good advice to those who were not over-desirous to hear it. He condemned the precipitation with which the Bill had been hurried through the House. Gentlemen had said a great deal about popular clamour out of doors, but he had no hesitation in stating that he witnessed as much clamour within that House; and if it were intended thus to cry down and discourage every member who thought proper to oppose the will of the minister and the majority, that House was soon likely to become a mere chamber for registering the edicts of the Crown. The hon. baronet concluded with expressing his resolution, should the Bill pass that House, notwithstanding the continued and universal objections of the people, to use every effort in his power to have petitions presented to the Prince Regent, with a view to prevent its final enactment.

Mr. Huskisson

, while he allowed that great attention was due to the numerous petitioners who had approached the House on this subject, contended, that in many instances these petitioners had been misled by statements similar to those in which the chief magistrate of the city of London had chosen to indulge. He maintained that unless the measure were adopted, the people of this country would, ere long, be compelled to eat foreign bread, and to eat it at a dear price. Adverting to the argument which had been deduced by the opponents of the Bill from the fact, that during the late war every effort to prevent naval stores from reaching this country had proved ineffectual, he asserted that it went to establish the necessity of the present measure, for that the price of those naval stores had actually been doubled. He trusted that the good sense of the country would at last submit cheerfully to a measure intended to conciliate all conflicting interests.

Sir W. Curtis

maintained, that the citizens of London were competent to form their own judgment on this subject, and were not likely to be misled by the statement of any individual. The Lord-mayor might, in the warmth of discussion, have gone somewhat too far in stating that bread would be 16d. when corn was 80s. a quarter. It must be recollected, however, that bread was now near a shilling, when the quarter of wheat was little more than 60s.

Mr. W. Smith

hoped, that one good effect these discussions would produce, would be to cause the method of taking the assize of bread in London to be very closely considered. He did not object to the principle of the measure, but to the price proposed, of which neither evidence nor reasoning had shown the propriety. He lamented that such should have been the rapidity of the proceedings of the House, that many of the petitions intended to be presented to the Commons, would now find their way to the Peers.

Mr. Tierney

complained, that Parliament were hastening to a decision on this important subject, while the petitions of the people were yet pouring in upon them. All he wished was, that the question should be more fully investigated, and for that purpose he recommended the hon. gentleman who proposed the amendment, to substitute the second Monday after the Easter recess, as the time of reading the Bill a third time. He was convinced that the House were by no means in possession of sufficient information to enable them to decide correctly on a subject of such difficulty, and at the same time of such importance. None of the witnesses who had been examined before the committee were even asked what they conceived would be a fair protecting price in time of peace. Surveyors had said, that for six or seven years past, they were accustomed to estimate the value of land on the supposition that corn would be at 10s. a bushel. This period was, however, a time of war, and the supposition of that price could hardly be applied to a state of peace. He believed that the great farmers of this country, and a great part of the landed proprietors, by no means wished for so high a price as 80s. As to Ireland, no man could wish more sincerely than he did for its agricultural improvement. He was convinced that with encouragement, it was capable of becoming the granary of the United Kingdom. The Irish farmers, however, did not demand 80s. as a protecting price; but the evidence was, that about 72 shillings would be a sufficient protection for them. If, then, they only asked 72s. why should we fix 80s.? He had heard no one reason assigned why it should be at that price, in preference to some of the lower prices mentioned by other gentlemen. He conceived the necessity of this high price to be quite unsupported by evidence or reasoning.

Mr. Bathurst

rose amidst loud cries for the question, and defended the Bill at considerable length.

Mr. Baring

opposed it, and said that if the measure should be carried, he would propose two amendments; the one to render it liable to be repealed during the present session, the other to make it coextensive with the Bank Restriction Act. He recommended the hon. mover of the amendment to adopt the suggestion of his right hon. friend near him.

Mr. Protheroe

however declared, that he had heard nothing to induce him to relinquish or alter his original amendment.

The House then divided:

For Mr. Protheroe's amendment 77
Against it 245
Majority 168

List of the Minority.
Abercrombie, hon. J. Leader, W.
Allan, col. Lubbock, J.
Atkins, ald. Leigh, sir W.
Atherley, A. Manning, W.
Baring, A. Mackintosh, sir J.
Barclay, C. Marryatt, Joseph
Babington, T. Methuen, Paul C.
Butterworth, J. Moore, P.
Boughey, sir J. Morland, S. B.
Buller, Mr. Madocks, W. A.
Burdett, sir F. Nugent, lord
Calcraft, J. Onslow, serj.
Calvert, C. Palmer, col.
Curtis, sir W. Peel, sir R.
Combe, H. C. Philips, G.
Courtenay, W. Portman, E. B.
Davis, R. H. Piggott, sir A.
Dowdeswell, J. Ridley, sir M.
Estcourt, T. G. Robinson, A.
Ellison, C. Romilly, sir S.
Fawcett, H. Simeon, sir J.
Finlay, K. Shaw, sir J.
Fremantle, W. H. Shaw, B.
Forbes, C. Sheliey, sir T.
Farquhar, J. Smyth, J.
Gascoyne, I. Smith, ald. C.
Graham, sir J. Smith, R.
Hammersley, H. St. Paul, H.
Howard, hon. W. Smith, A.
Hamilton, lord A. Taylor, M. A.
Harcourt, J. Tierney, rt. hon. G.
Harvey, C. Vane, hon. W.
Heathcote, sir G. Williams, R.
Horne, W. Whitbread, S.
Horner, F. White, M.
Howorth, H. Wilkins, W.
Jervoise, G. P. Wynn, C.
King, sir J. D. TELLERS
Knight, H. G.
Lambton, J. G. E. Protheroe.
Langton, W. Gore W. Smith.

After the Bill had been read a third time, Mr. Portman proposed by way of rider, the substitution of 76s. as the protecting price instead of 80s. On this proposition another division took place.

For Mr. Portman's amendment 73
Against it 213
Majority 141
Mr. Baring

next proceeded to make his two motions; the one for rendering the Bill liable to be amended or repealed during the present session, was agreed to; and that for making its duration co-extensive with that of the Bank Restriction Act, was negatived without a division. The Bill was then passed, and at two in the morning the House adjourned.