HC Deb 10 March 1817 vol 35 cc917-20
General Mitchell

rose to present a Petition from the town and neighbourhood of Belfast, praying for an immediate Stoppage of Distillation from Grain. The petition stated, that there was a danger of an absolute want of food for the population of Ireland, a danger much increased by the great quantity of grain consumed in distillation. It was signed by every respectable gentleman and freeholder or merchant in the town of Belfast. From what he had heard the other night, he was afraid there was not much hope that a stoppage of the distilleries would take place, if he should move that the petition be taken into consideration. He should wish to know, however, whether the ministers were disposed to take any steps towards the stoppage of the consumption of corn in that manner. It had been urged, that if there was a scarcity of corn in Ireland, importation might take place; but it was to be considered, that other countries had also suffered, and that the chance of relief by drawing supplies from them was very small. The potatoe crop it was known had failed as well as that of grain. The hon. member then read a list of prices in different parts of Ireland, to prove the scarcity of oats. The price of oatmeal varied from 26s. to 36s. the hundred weight. When a question of such importance as the supply of food to the population was under consideration, the manner in which the revenue would be affected by the measures taken, was of secondary weight. He thought, however, that the revenue would not be injured by the prohibition of distillation from grain, as the sugar now bonded in this country, would be brought forward to pay the duty from the apprehension of a higher tax which might be imposed on it.

Mr. Windham Quin

said, he was convinced there was much grain in Ireland unfit to be applied to any purpose but distillation or the manufacture of starch. It was to be considered, that if by the stoppage of the legal distilleries, illicit stills were set at work, the consumption would not then be, as it was now, limited to inferior corn.

Mr. Maurice Fitzgerald

said, he was surprised at what he had just heard, because on a former evening when he had brought this question before the House, the gallant officer had pronounced a decided opinion against the stoppage of the distilleries even in Ireland. It was to be remarked that the petitioners, consisting not only of the gallant officer's constituents, but of the whole inhabitants of Belfast, prayed for the stoppage of the distilleries as a measure necessary to save them from famine. If this assertion of the petitioners was true, it was certainly the duty of parliament to interfere. As to the prices which the gallant officer had quoted, if he meant to adduce them as an argument to induce the House to stop distillation, he thought he was erroneous, for he had omitted to state the prices in the distressed district. For his own part, he thought the ministers had been much to blame in suffering, when they knew in February the state of Ireland with regard to provisions, the distillation from grain to continue.

Mr. Marryat

said, he had at first been of opinion, that it would not be expedient to stop distillation from grain, but that opinion had been shaken by what he had heard the other night, and still more so by the petition which had that night been pre- sented. The petitioners referred to the high prices as proofs of the scarcity of corn; they stated, that three millions of pound weight of corn would be consumed weekly in the distilleries, if they were not stopped—though the whole of the grain in Ireland was necessary for the preservation of the lives of the people. He thought the petitioners would not have made such assertions, if the facts had not been within their knowledge, and the statement derived weight from the acknowledged character of the men, who, they were told, were well affected to the government, and thus not disposed to throw odium on the ministers, or raise a clamour without grounds. He should offer a few observations, therefore, as to the suspension of the distillation from grain. Much had been said by those who objected to this measure, as to the encouragement which would thus be given to illicit distillation. But they were told, on the other hand, that illicit distillation had already received a check from the high price of grain. When, some years ago, a committee of the House examined the subject, they were informed, that though when corn was plentiful, illicit distilleries were encouraged by high and low, yet in time of scarcity the people themselves went about pulling them down, because they consumed the means of subsistence. It had been said also, on good authority, that that description of corn was used by the distillers which was unfit for human food. This was to be taken with much allowance; it was to be recollected, that the Scotch had been exporting their inferior grain, while they had been buying up in Lynn, and the other ports of Norfolk and Suffolk, the very best barley which could be procured, for the purposes of distillation. Experiments had been made in London as to the practicability of employing damaged corn in the distilleries, and much discoloured barley had been so used. But this was grain merely discoloured on the outer husk, and still fit for human food, for as to that in which fermentation had taken place, it was just as unfit for distillation as for nourishment. The delicacy of interference on this subject had been talked of; but it was to be recollected that they had passed the corn bill, in order to protect the landholder from low prices; they might, therefore, surely protect the people from too high prices, by the stoppage, of distillation. That prices were now very high could not be denied. The quartern loaf was here from 17½d. to 18d. and in Ireland prices were still higher. At this late period of the season it was said, but little could be saved by the measure suggested. Those who argued thus did not take into consideration, that the distillers would apprehend that if distillation from corn were not immediately stopped, it soon might be, and they would therefore distill from the cheapest material while it was lawful, even a greater quantity than would serve the remainder of the year. The prospect of the supply from the next harvest was not good; as the corn had remained last autumn two months longer on the ground than in ordinary years, the farmers had had so much less time to prepare their ground. It was said that prices would have risen more if there had been any scarcity of corn. The present method of threshing enabled the farmer to bring it to market so rapidly that this conclusion was not warranted. Above all things, it was to be considered that if the stoppage of distilleries should turn out to be inadvisable after that measure had taken place, the evil was easily reparable: but if, on the other hand, famine was the consequence of not resorting to that precaution, a serious responsibility would rest on the government.

Mr. Knox

contended, that the distilleries often used corn of the best quality. There was no danger at present from illicit stills, which were viewed by the people with jealousy, and were thus more effectually stopped than they could be by armies of excisemen. He most seriously urged the necessity of the suspension of distillation from grain. Tumult had already taken place, on account of the scarcity, and the stoppage of the distilleries was necessary to preserve Ireland not only from misery and famine, but from insurrection.

Sir N. Colthurst

thought it would be highly impolitic to prevent distillation, as the distillers made use of corn which it was impossible to convert to any other purpose.

The petition was read, and ordered to lie on the table.