HC Deb 17 February 1819 vol 39 cc0-448
Mr. Stuart Wortley

presented a Petition from the occupiers of lands in the West Riding of, York, for imposing protecting duties on the importation of provisions. On the motion, that it do lie on the table,

Sir Robert Wilson

said:— Sir; I really was in hopes, from what passed in this House on the very first day of the session, when several corn-petitions were presented, that the gentlemen styling themselves agriculturists would have stifled, with their own hands, those petitions which were known to be then in circulation. I am, however, disappointed; and those petitions are creeping into this House day after day, until, in a short time, we shall be surprised by the swarm thus almost imperceptibly introduced. It appears to me the agriculturists do not know, or will not consider, the temper and condition of the labouring classes, or they would never hazard the further exasperation of feelings which have never been completely tranquillized since the last corn-bill was passed; they never would thus madly throw a firebrand into combustible elements, which, if once enkindled, cannot be extinguished without leaving fearful traces of desolation. What claims have the agriculturists to this special favour from this House at the expense of the labouring-classes? Can they plead, that when they do obtain a high price for their corn, they ameliorate the condition of the agricultural labourer? On the contrary, do they not still confine them to eke out scanty wages with scanty subsistence and parish relief? Do they not do this, relying on the power which they have over the greater part as tenants at will, subjected to ejection from their habitation at a moment's notice? The labouring classes are now suffering the greatest distress from the high price of provisions. They will not submit to starve silently under a system of new prohibitory duties, operating as an additional tax upon bread-corn. If the agriculturists persist, the table of this House will be loaded, not merely with counter-petitions, but petitions against the existing corn-laws. With difficulty the people are now restrained: on the least encouragement, their petitions would pour in from every part of the kingdom. It is to be hoped, those gentlemen of landed property who are too wise and liberal to concur in the projects of the petitioning agriculturists, will use their influence to persuade them to desist, and think of plans to diminish, not to aggravate, the burthens of the people. If they will not take warning, they will endanger the public tranquillity, and put all property in jeopardy. They withdrew from the last contest with great advantage: let them not recommence it, lest they should be involved in a rash and perilous pursuit that may end in their ruin.

Mr. Stuart Worthy

declared, that he did not agree with the opinion of the petitioners. But with regard to the remarks of the gallant officer, he begged to observe, that it was impossible for any gentleman to stifle those petitions, as the gallant officer desired. The petitioners, it should be understood, only asked for the appointment of a committee, in. order that they might have an opportunity of proving the truth of their allegations, and he could see no objection to the presentation of such a petition. It was, indeed, his duty to present it; and whatever might be his own opinion, he submitted that he was the representative of agriculturists as well as of manufacturers; and that it was incumbent upon him to attend to the interests and wishes of both. He had advised the petitioners not to urge this petition, but still as they required him to present it, he could not consistently decline to do so.

Sir R. Wilson

disclaimed any intention to deprecate the presentation of a petition from any body of men, adding, that he meant only to impress upon the House, that the agitation of the question referred to by the petitioners was but too likely to produce a great deal of mischief, and that to prevent such agitation, it was desirable that gentlemen should use all fair influence to prevent petitions of this nature from being presented.

Mr. Alderman Wood

concurred with the gallant officer in deprecating such petitions as that under consideration, observing, that in order to settle the matter, it would be much better in the hon. member to move at once for the appointment of a committee to consider the corn laws. The country had been thrown into a state of suspense and uneasiness, by the rumours afloat, and the petitions circulating upon the subject of the corn laws. It was apprehended, indeed, that some legislative measure was in contemplation upon this subject, and hence considerable alarm was excited. To decide, then, upon the question at once, it was rather to be wished that the hon. member would move for the appointment of a committee, which motion would, he had no doubt, be rejected.

Mr. Wynn

said, he could not agree with the last speaker, that a motion should be made for any committee upon, this subject, or that any farther legislative measure should be proposed with regard to corn. It was, no doubt, the duty of the hon. member to present a petition from his constituents, but he could not help expressing his regret that this petition was urged; for the very entering into any discussion of the object referred to was, in his opinion, pregnant with danger, as such a discussion was calculated to excite alarm among a variety of conflicting interests. Every man who heard him must remember the general ferment that prevailed but a few years ago, when the last corn bill was under discussion, and could not fail to be impressed with the evils likely to arise out of such discussion. To the bill alluded to be was a decided opponent. He resisted it, indeed, in every stage of its progress; because he was convinced, that no benefit would arise to agriculture, or to any branch of the public interest, equal in any degree to the disadvantages which were likely to be the result. Such was his deliberate opinion, and that opinion was justified by experience; for it appeared that while the agriculturists were universally dissatisfied with this law, its existence was the source of general complaint among the other classes of the community. On these grounds he should enter his protest at once against the proposition of any legislative measure on this subject, under the specious pretence of benefiting agriculture.

Mr. Stuart Worthy

assured the House, that he had no intention of bringing forward any motion for a committee.

Sir James Graham

said, that the part of the country with which he was connected, was well contented with the law as it stood, and the distinct declaration on the part of ministers, he was sure, had had a powerful and beneficial effect in all the farming districts. He hoped that no encouragement would be given to the presenting of petitions of this kind in future.

Sir R. Wilson

again disclaimed any intention to interfere with the subjects' right to petition, but repeated his opinion, that gentlemen who consulted the public peace should endeavour to dissuade those upon whom they had influence out of doors, from urging petitions of this nature. Neither had he any intention of depreciating the character of the agricultural body; but he felt it his peculiar duty to attend to the fair claims of the manufacturing interests and of the labouring classes. He had no doubt that it would be much more for the interest of the agricultural body, to content them- selves with the advantages which they had derived from the corn laws, than by provoking any farther discussion of the subject to risk the loss of those advantages, and to put the tranquillity of the public in jeopardy.

Ordered to lie on the table.