HC Deb 26 February 1821 vol 4 cc940-5

The House having resolved itself into a committee to which the Corn Averages acts were referred,

Mr. Robinson

said, that he thought he should best discharge his duty by confining himself to the immediate point to which the resolution with which he proposed to conclude would refer, without entering at all into the more important question as to our agricultural distress. With respect to the averages, as taken heretofore, it was known that a great deal of intricacy and confusion prevailed upon the subject of the laws relating to those averages. The laws alluded to were the acts of the 31st, 33d, 44th, and 45th of his late majesty. As to the latter, they had for some time been repealed in practical operation. Then with regard to the acts of 1791 and 1793, it was rather difficult, upon reference to the act of 1791, to ascertain what the state of the law really was. If the committee should agree to the resolution which he had to submit, it was his intention to propose a bill for embodying all the useful provisions of the existing law upon this subject. The laws, at present, were extremely voluminous as well as confused, and it was his intention, in the bill which he proposed, to reduce the bulk, as well as to simplify the meaning of those laws. His bill would not, indeed, amount to more than one-third the extent of those laws. That bill would, however, comprehend hot only omissions but additions; the latter were founded principally upon the recommendation of the committee of last session, before which evidence had appeared to show the evils belonging to the present system. By that system, the average was taken in each of the twelve maritime districts, and from these, collectively, the general average was fixed. But, to form the average of each district, the average was previously taken in each town of that district—that is, the total of the corn sold in each town, as well as the total of the price paid for such corn, and the One divided by the other, constituted the average, and the same division as to the corn and the price in the aggregate of those towns, constituted the average of the district. Such also was the system by which, in dividing the total of the corn by the total of the prices in the twelve districts, the average of the kingdom was fixed. Thus the general average depended upon the average of each of the towns comprehended in each district, and hence it was clear, that the price of corn, in a particular town of any district, might have a very undue influence upon the general average. This influence was found, in some instances, to Operate very unjustly, where speculators had gone to particular towns to purchase corn on such terms as to produce a fictitious price. Such instances had, indeed, occurred, not unfrequently. Hence, it was perfectly evident, that the object Of the law as to averages was defeated; that object being to ascertain the general bona fide price Of this article. He proposed, therefore, to abolish the plan of taking the averages from the twelve maritime districts, and to substitute that of taking them from maritime counties and towns, to fix the general average from the aggregate of the corn sold in the whole, divided by the total of the price paid for it. The object of this arrangement was, to defeat such speculations as had been entered into within the last year for the purpose of unduly influencing the settlement of the average. Another alteration Which he meant to propose, and Which would form an addition to the existing law, although it would produce no influence upon the averages was, to include the counties of Kent, Essex, and Sussex, among those from which the averages were to be taken. Hitherto the average prices were received from those counties, but not inserted among the general averages from the maritime districts, the average Of London alone being deemed sufficient for these counties. But Why these counties were omitted he could not comprehend, particularly as they Were so largely engaged in the Corn Trade The next addition which he had to propose referred to the power vested in the king and council for the appointment of those towns from which the averages were to be taken. By the existing law the king in council was empowered to transfer the taking of averages from one town to another, upon the representation of the magistrates at quarter-sessions. But he rather thought that the power of the king in council should be enlarged, and that his majesty should be authorised to omit one town without inserting another, as well as to insert any town which, with the advice of his Council, it might be deemed expedient to select, from increase of trade and population. Now as to the Omission; it Was proposed to omit altogether the taking of averages in the midland counties, and in Scotland; for those averages were not deemed material, as the averages in the maritime counties would form a natural criterion of the prices in those districts, the return of averages from which, heretofore, had never had any influence in fixing the general average. Besides, by this omission, a certain saving of expense would accrue to the public, through the abolition of the office of inspectors in such places But while some inspectors were to be removed, a somewhat better provision should be made for those inspectors who were to be retained; for heretofore an inspector was allowed only 13l. a year. The advance of salary which he proposed, he meant to be paid from the public purse, and not from the county funds. He did not mean that in any instance it should exceed 30l. a year. The committee were aware that at present every dealer in corn was bound to give information Within one month subsequently to the time at which he might begin to act Considerable inconvenience and much loss had been sustained by the circum- stance of the dealer's not being bound to give such information till after the lapse of that period. Last year it happened that dealers in corn, or persons calling themselves dealers, went abroad from market to market, purchasing corn in large quantities, sometimes with money, and sometimes without any intention of payment; but always for the purpose of producing a fictitious price in the returns. There was then no way of finding these persons out. He therefore proposed to give that discretion, for the future, to the inspector, as should authorize him to require that the party making these returns should previously to so making them, have signed a declaration of the kind he had already alluded to. By the bill which he proposed to introduce, it was intended that the inspectors of corn returns should in future be in the appointment of the Board of Trade, and not in the Treasury, as heretofore. They would in future be incorporated as a distinct branch of the Board of Trade. It was also intended, that the Isle of Man should be included in the returns. By the former laws upon this subject, returns were received from that place, and he saw no reason why they should not at present; for it was very possible that large quantities of foreign corn might be imported into that island, and from thence into England. Another part of the bill would be the including Ireland in the returns. It was known that large quantities of corn were imported from that country, some of it of the best quality. By the spirit of the late acts, Ireland ought to have been included; but by a technical misconstruction of the word "British," at the Custom-house, Ireland had not been included in the returns. He would conclude with moving, "That it is expedient that the several acts, passed in the 31st, 33d, 44th, and 45th years of his late majesty's reign, for regulating the importation and exportation of corn, grain, meal, and flour, into and from Great Britain, be repealed, and other provisions made in lieu thereof, for the United Kingdom."

Mr. Calcraft

said, he had looked upon the averages as settled by the late acts. The bill ought to be viewed with jealousy; and he would therefore watch it in every stage.

Mr. Baring

could not but express his regret that the right hon. gentleman had brought forward the subject at this particular period. It was calculated to cre- ate considerable anxiety, as well among the agricultural classes as the consumers. Policy as well as justice should have prevented the agitation of this subject; seeing that the system of taking averages was understood to have been settled upon the discussion of the last Corn bill. He was the more surprised at the proposition, as it was an opinion pretty generally settled, that the import of foreign corn had nothing whatever to do with the distress of the country or that of its agriculture. The proposed bill, was calculated not only to create uneasiness among the consumers, but to inspire the growers with false hopes.

Mr. Irving

said, that if the public looked for any relief from the measure they would certainly be disappointed.

Mr. H. Sumner

said, that the measure would, in his opinion, protect those who were now subjected to fraud.

Mr. F. Lewis

disapproved of joining the average amount of Irish corn to that of this country, because the Irish corn was of an inferior quality to the English.

Mr. Curwen

said, that the House was not aware of the injury which the country suffered by the frauds which had been practised in the mode of taking averages. He was sure that, within a very limited period, the country had lost at least a million by the frauds which had been committed. Large quantities of corn were imported from Denmark into the Isle of man, and from thence shipped off to England. The greatest injury resulted to the English farmer from the introduction of foreign grain.

Mr. Ricardo

conceived that the effect of the measure would be to raise the importation price. An hon. member had spoken of the injury which an accumulation of foreign corn accasioned in the English market. That might be so; but the only remedy for this evil was, for this country to lower the prices of corn nearly to the standard of the prices of the continent. The only way to keep out foreign corn, was by putting high duties upon the importation of it. Now, suppose a year of scarcity had arrived, and that a high duty had been placed on the importation of foreign corn, would any minister at such a time of distress, attempt to enforce that duty—and shut out relief from a starving people? Impossible; and, therefore, the ports would be left open and free, and the immense importation which the hon. gentleman looked upon as so great a misfortune, would take place. Much had been said as to a remedy for the distress of the agriculturist: he was of opinion, that the only remedy for that distress was the total repeal of the corn laws and, sooner or latter, a measure of that sort would be adopted.

Mr. Lockhart

could not see that any alteration in the mode of taking the averages would at all relieve the agricultural distress. The high state of the taxation, at a time when the value of the land was so depreciated, was the great cause of the evil. That evil was, no doubt, greatly increased by the measure which a right hon. member (Mr. Peel) had introduced into that House. If the system which that measure sought to establish was not departed from, the consequence must be absolute ruin and convulsion.

The resolution was agreed to, and a bill ordered to be brought in.