HC Deb 12 February 1823 vol 8 cc98-105
—Mr. Wallace

rose, in pursuance of notice, to move for the revival of the committee of last session, to consider of the best means of maintaining and improving the Foreign Trade of the country. He made this motion not merely upon the general ground, that the commerce of the country was likely to receive important advantages from the labours of such a committee, but also upon a special reason, arising out of the circumstances under which the committee had separated at the close of last session. He was sure that the House would recollect, that when the dock system was first established in this country, certain exclusive privileges were granted to those who expended their capital in promoting it. Those privileges, however, were only granted for a limited period, and many of them were about to expire. The first to expire were those granted to the West India Dock Company; and that body, contemplating their approaching expiration, had presented a petition to parliament, praying for their further continuance. That petition had been met by others, of which the prayer was directly the reverse; and these conflicting petitions had been referred to the consideration of the committee upon foreign trade. The committee, feeling the importance of the question, not merely as it related to individuals, but also as it affected the commercial interests of the country at large, thought it to be their duty to suspend the examination of the subject upon which they were then engaged, and to devote their attention to the inquiry which the House had entrusted to its care. In consequence, they prosecuted that inquiry with the utmost diligence, and, before the close of the session, collected all the evidence which was material to it. By the time, however, that such evidence was collected, the session was nearly brought to a conclusion, and the committee then felt that they had neither time, nor indeed (owing to many members having left town) numbers sufficient to offer au opinion upon it, that was likely to prove satisfactory either to the House, or to the nation in general. That consideration led them tee defer the delivery of their opinion to the present session, when they trusted that they should be re-appointed; and when they were more likely to come to a satisfactory decision. Such, then, was the situation in which the question rested at present. Evidence had been collected and materials for decision had been prepared; it remained only for the House to place the committee once more in such a situation as would enable it to give, and the House to receive, the opinions which it had derived from a thorough examination of the whole subiect.—Having stated this special ground for the re-appointment of the committee, he deemed it unnecessary to enter into any of the general grounds. The principal objects to which the committee had directed its attention were well known to the House; the course of its inquiries was also known; and the result of theta had been in some instances brought before it in a legislative shape. Neither did he feel it to be necessary to enter into any detailed account of the export trade of the country: indeed, at the present moment, the materials for such a discussion, were not in his possession. Still, in bringing forward a motion like the present, he could not avoid calling the attention of the House to the very different situations in which the commerce of the country now stood, from that in which it stood at the tune when this committee was first appointed, At that time, great distress pervaded the nation, and a general feeling of despondency prevailed among ail classes of society. The general export of the country in the four years from 1815 to 1819, had decreased 14 millions in official value; and he took the official rather than the actual value, because the official value was the measure of quantity, and because it was from quantity that the hest measure was derived of the employment afforded to the different classes of the community. In the year from the 5th Jan. 1819, to the 5th Jan. 1820, the export trade fed no less than 11 millions; and in looking at that part of it which was more completely of British and Irish manufacture, he found that the difference in four years, was 8,414,711l.; and that in the year from 5th Jan. 1820, to 5th Jan. 1821, there was a decrease of 8,929,629l. Nobody, therefore, could be surprised, that at that period the industry of the country appeared to be in a state of the utmost depression—that our manufacturers were most of them unemployed—that our agriculturists were many of them embarrassed—and that the country, to use a phrase which an hon. friend of his had employed in presenting a petition from the merchants of London, exhibited all the appearance of a dying nation. Though the condition of the agricultural interest was not at present as favourable as he could wish, still it was most satisfactory to him to state, that not only did the exports of last year exceed those of all the years to which he had just been alluding, but also those of the most flourishing year which the country had known during the continuance of the war. In all the material articles, there had been a considerable increase. The export of cotton had increased 10 per cent; of hardware, 17 per cent; of linens, 12 per cent; and of woollens, 13 per cent; and the aggregate exports of 1822 exceeded those of 1820; by 20 per cent; and those of 1821, by 7 per cent; not- withstanding a deduction was to be made from the exports of one great article, refined sugar, owing to a prohibitory decree of Russia, amounting at least to 35 per cent. Such was the state of the export trade at the present moment, and he did not know that any stronger reason could be given for the revival of the committee on foreign trade, than that which the flourishing state of that trade naturally suggested. It could not fail to strike the observation of every member, that we held that trade at the present moment upon a very different tenure from that upon which we held it during the war. At that time, we were almost the only nation in the world that had any foreign trade: at present, we had to stand against the competition of every other nation; and, happy was he to perceive, that we could stand against it with every prospect of success. To make that prospect even more satisfactory, nothing more was necessary than to institute a revision of our commercial system, to remove the greater part of our prohibitory laws and restrictions, and to put ourselves in a situation that would enable us to avail ourselves of the chances and contingencies which the state of time world seemed ready to open to the commercial skill and enterprise of England. On many of the subjects which had been originally submitted to the consideration of the committee, the opinions of the committee had been declared to the House, and the House had adopted such measures upon them as seemed best suited to the circumstances of the case. If there had not yet been sufficient time for the country to reap any great benefits from those measures, there had still been sufficient time to show, that none of the evils which it was predicted would arise from them, had been realized. Whilst they had released time navigation laws from the mass of useless legislation by which they had been formerly incumbered, it was gratifying to observe, that time navigation of the country had not at all diminished, and that the effects which, it had been confidently stated, would occur with regard to one particular branch of our trade had by no means taken place. He had had a paper recently placed in his hands, which showed, that instead of the Levant trade coming through Holland into the ports of this country, as had been predicted, English vessels were now actually exporting articles of that trade from British ports to those of Holland. They had likewise been told, that the Norway trade, as also that of the North American colonies, would be cut up by the roots, if the measures proposed were carried into execution. They had been carried into execution; and, from information which he had received, he could assert that the Norway trade had actually increased in the last year; that debts there which had been thought desperate had recently been recovered; and that the North American trade had been extended, instead of undergoing the diminution which had been so loudly threatened—The committee had also been instructed to look at the great question of opening further facilities to our commerce with the east. They had consequently taken it into their consideration, and had offered their opinions upon it to the House, which were found to concur with those formed by a committee of the other house of parliament, that had been deliberating upon the same subject. The advantages which had been anticipated from the measures which the committee had proposed to the House, had not proved so great as had been expected; but still considerable advantage had been derived from allowing English ships, of a certain burden, to be placed on the same footing with foreign ships, and to sail direct form our ports to India. The committee was desirous that the same privilege should be extended to all descriptions of ships, but they could not recommend such a measure to be adopted, as they were bound down by a specific act of parliament, which in common fairness to the East India company, ought not to be infringed. He trusted, however, that that great body, which received so much benefit from the act in question, would, at an early period evince, a disposition to make some concession from its strict rights to the general good of the community.—The last subject on which the committee was instructed to inquire, was the burdens imposed on the shipping of the country. That subject had not been neglected by the committee; and he felt great pleasure in now returning his thanks to one great corporation for the alacrity and zeal with which it had carried the recommendations of the committee into effect. In consequence of foreign ships being placed more nearly upon a footing with our own, many of them had already sought, in dangerous weather, a shelter in our ports; and, if one of the many vessels which had formerly been scared from our coasts by the heavy duties which they had to pay on entering our harbours, had been, or should be, saved from shipwreck by such an alteration in our commercial policy, the labours of the committee would be amply repaid. Valuable as all the measures to which he had been alluding had proved to the country, they were not more valuable than the declarations which they had elicited from the government and from the House, of the real principles on which they thought that British commerce ought to rest; namely, that they ought to get rid of the old restrictive system of commerce, and to adopt one more liberal in its nature and more beneficial to the intercourse of foreign nations with this country. Those declarations had had their full weight both at home and abroad: they had already made several of the nations of Europe more liberal in their commercial restrictions: many countries had already placed English ships on the same footing with their own, and had shown a disposition to act towards us, on a system of complete reciprocity. He was convinced that we could adopt the principle of reciprocity with perfect safety to the navigation of the country. For his own part, he had no doubt upon the subject; and he trusted, that in a short time the country would have none also. He was aware, however, of the difficulties with which they had to struggle at every step in their endeavours to arrive at a free trade—difficulties which arose, not merely from old and antiquated prejudices, which, he trusted, would gradually fade away; but also from a morbid sensibility incident to the manufacturers of this, and, he believed, of every other country, which induced them to believe, that every advantage granted to the foreigner was a positive injury to themselves. He was as much alive to the real interests of the manufacturer as any man could be; but, in discussing a great question in which all the interests of the country were concerned, he must be convinced, before he was persuaded to yield to their remonstrances, that it was a real danger which they feared, and not a mere idle alarm or visionary apprehension. He therefore trusted, that while the House showed a readiness to give the protection that was all times due to the manufacturing interests of the country, it would also remember its duty to the nation at large, and to the commercial interests of the whole community.—The right hon. gentleman concluded by moving, "That a Select Committee be appointed to consider of the means of maintaining and improving the Foreign Trude of the Country."

Mr. Baring

rose to acknowledge the obligations which the trade of the country owed to the right hon. gentleamn. The merits of the right hon. gentleman were fully appreciated by the merchants of London. There was but one opinion amongst them, and that was, that since the first establishment of the Board of Trade, all the exertions of all its former presidents were not, when united, equal to those which had been made by the right hon. gentleman alone, during the time he had tilled that office with so much honour to himself and so much advantage to the community at large.

Mr. Ricardo

rose for the purpose of paying his tribute of respect to the merits of the right hon. gentleman, who had so lately filled the office of vice-president of the Board of Trade. He would say this; that, much as the right hon. gentleman's plans had benefitted the commerce of the country, they would have benefitted it still more, had all of them been fully carried into effect. They had met, however, with too many obstacles from interests that were hostile to his improvements; and, though he regretted the circumstance much, he must still observe, that those interests ought to be tenderly dealt with. He thought it would be wiser to make a compensation to any parties who might be injured by the alteration, than to persist in a system which was proved to be detrimental to the commercial interests of the nation at large. He had heard with the greatest pleasure, the very liberal speech which the right hon. gentleman had made that evening; nor was it with less satisfaction that he had heard his flattering account of the export trade of the country. It had been said, that the exports were greater now than they had been during the most flourishing year of the war. It ought likewise to be stated, that during the war our great foreign exports went to meet our great foreign expenditure; whereas at present we received valuable returns for every thing we exported. In looking at the general state of the country, it was satisfactory to find that, amid the gloom and distress in which the agricultural interests were involved, its foreign commerce was in a flourishing condition. He was sure that it must be the wish of all who heard him, that it might long go on, prospering and to prosper. His only reason for rising was to bear his testimony to the extraordinary merits of the right hon. gentleman.

Mr. Hume

rose to express his deep regret that the country was likely to lose the services of the right hon. gentleman, who, for the last two or three years, had devoted his attention so beneficially to the public. If ministers had had the interest of the nation as much at heart, as the making a provision for their friends, they would have contrived, in some way, to have secured the assistance of the vice president of the Board of Trade. It had most fortunately of late become the general opinion, that the interest of the state was involved in the interests of individuals, and the labours of the right hon. gentleman had been applied to carry this principle into effect. It was, therefore, deeply to be lamented, that he was compelted by circumstances to retire from his situation.

Mr. Secretary Canning

cordially agreed in what had just fallen from the hon. member for Aberdeen. He regretted, as much as any man, that any circumstances should have occurred to induce his right hon. friend to withdraw his aid from his majesty's government. What those circumstances were was not perhaps a fit subject for discussion: he could only say, that there was no member of the government who did not join with blot in appreciating most highly the talents of the coadjutor they were about to lose. Though feelings of delicacy might induce his right hon. friend to relinquish the situation he now held, no effort would be left untried, on the part of the king's government, to replace him in an office equal to his high abilities and eminent services.

The committee was then re-appointed.