HC Deb 14 February 1823 vol 8 cc117-23

The report of the Committee of Supply being brought up,

Sir T. Lethbridge

said, that not finding any intimation from government of its intention to bring forward measures for the relief of the agricultural interest, he wished to put one or two questions to the ministers of the crown. He was much gratified to find the last paragraph in the royal Speech, characterizing the lauded interest as the most important interest of the country; but he regretted that that sentiment was not followed up by a pledge, that government would meet the great question of agricultural depression in that manly way which its consequence demanded. He dreaded lest the landowners of England were to be left during another session in their present depressed—he had almost said degraded—situation. It was impossible for government not to be aware of their distress. The five hun- dred petitions could not possibly be forgotten, which had been laid last session upon the table of the House. With all his respect, and no man entertained more, for the high talents and character of ministers, he could not but take their forbearance to propose some measure upon the subject, as an omission of their duty. It should be recollected, that the landed interest had become depressed by no fault of their own; but by the impolitic conduct of the legislature. With produce brought from foreign countries, and sold in the English market, at a price with which the home grower could not compete—with the effect produced by the return of the country to a metallic currency—it was scarcely necessary to look farther into the main cause in which the distress originated. After commenting upon the unreasonableness of those arrangements which threw the tithes, the poor-rates, and the cost of criminal prosecutions, almost entirely upon the landed property, the hon. baronet concluded by asking, whether government had measures in contemplation for the relief of the agricultural interests?

Mr. Secretary Canning

said:—It is quite impossible to find fault with the hon. baronet, and nobody can be less disposed to do so than myself, for having availed himself of the opportunity of bringing up the present report to express his regret and disappointment at not seeing introduced into his majesty's Speech from the throne any specific promise of relief for the agricultural interest. On the other hand, the hon. baronet does great injustice to his majesty's ministers, if he supposes that either on this, or on any former occasion, they have been deficient in a desire to give relief, if relief be practicable, by any of those direct measures which the hon. baronet deems to be beneficial; still less, if he supposes that they do not look with the most sincere sympathy to distresses, which have undoubtedly prevailed to a degree which every man who is interested for the welfare of the country must acknowledge and deplore. If it had been in the power of his majesty's ministers to afford relief, they would not have waited for the call of the hon. baronet. I regret, as much as the hon. baronet, that it was not possible to add to the concluding paragraph of the king's Speech a declaration of his majesty's ministers' intention to propose some specific measure of relief; but I am sure the hon. baronet will agree, that it would be most unfair and injudicious to purchase either his support, or a temporary popularity, by holding out expectations of relief, which, after the most anxious, laborious, and conscientious consideration, they could not themselves believe to be attainable. I can assure the House, that for the last four months during which I have had the honour to sit in his majesty's councils, and for many months preceding that period, the attention of the government in general, and especially of some individual members of it, has been anxiously directed to the consideration of this subject. I will go further, and own, that for a time I was sanguine enough to believe that some direct measure might be devised; and, if I at length yielded to the complete conviction, that the measure which was for a time in contemplation could produce no beneficial effect, it was an unwilling and reluctant conviction, but still it was sincere; and with that sincere conviction, it could have done no service to the country, or to the interest in question, but, on the contrary, must have been of the greatest disservice to both, to agitate any measure which could end only in disappointment, and which could have no other effect than that of exciting hopes which it would be impossible to realise. With that conviction—with the strong, though reluctant feeling which I entertain, of the necessity of arriving at such a conviction—I am compelled to say, that with regard to any direct measure for the immediate relief of the distresses of the agricultural interest, the government do not, under all the circumstances, profess to see their way. If there be shame in this avowal, it is shame which the government must share with two consecutive committees of this that his House, composed of men, the most capable, from their experience and practical knowledge, of devising remedial measures for the interest with which they were immediately connected. In addition to this, if the hon. baronet thinks he can submit any measure of his own to the consideration of the House, I can assure him that it will be received, on the part of the government, as I am satisfied it will be on the part of the House, with the most anxious and deliberate attention. Convinced, however, as the government is, that they can advise no measures for the immediate relief of the agriculture of the country, they would not discharge their duty, if they did not at once declare this their sincere, deliberate, and honest conviction. But, though no direct remedies be practicable, it does not follow that collateral remedies may not be applied. It is a disputed point in this House, whether the remission of taxation will afford direct relief, or whether its remedial effect on the agriculture of the country will only be collateral. Without entering into this question, I will only observe that while there was a possibility of affording relief by this means, the government would not have done their duty, if they had not turned their attention to this point; and, I am not afraid to say, that the only measure directed to the relief of the agriculture of the country, which it is their intention to propose, will be comprised in the statement of my right hon. friend, the chancellor of the exchequer, on this day se'nnight, when he will submit a remission of direct taxation to the consideration of the House. I trust, that in any thing I have now said, I shall not incur the imputation directed by the hon. baronet against the government, of a want of feeling for that interest which the crown has justly pronounced to be the most important of all. But, if this interest be, as it undoubtedly is, the most important of all, because it is the basis upon which all others must stand, I trust I may venture to indulge the hope, that all those other interests cannot be materially and steadily advancing, without operating a gradual relief to that great interest which is the foundation of all; and that this relief, though it many not be so repaid and immediate as we could desire, will at least be steady and permanent in its operation.

Mr. Curwen

said, he deeply lamented, that his majesty's ministers had come at last to this conclusion, that no relief but that of time could be afforded to the distresses of the agricultural interest. He did not hesitate to say, that the country was placed in a more perilous situation than any in which it had yet stood, by the declaration of the right hon. secretary; nor did he see any prospect of amelioration, except from a remission of the direct taxation, which immediately affected the agricultural interest. It was not sufficient to relieve the community in general, ministers must come directly to the point of relieving the burthens of the agricultural interest. It was far from his wish to break faith with the public credi- tor; but he thought the funded interest ought to be immediately charged with a fair proportion of the poor-rates. Indeed, the holders of funded property might thank the House for calling their attention to this subject—the immediate carrying of which into execution would avert a crisis which every man would dread, and which would fall heavier upon the fundholders themselves, than upon any of the other interests taken singly. The property belonging to the fundholders was more than that which belonged to the owners of lands and houses. He would, however, only say that they were equal, and that consequently 50 per cent of the burthens should be laid upon them. It would be better to do this at once, than to wait till the agricultural interest should be ruined. It would not be fair that one interest in the country should be absorbed, while another bore no part of the burthens. He would not wish to break faith with the fundholders, but the agricultural interest had a right to call for justice, considering the great distress which that interest was suffering—distress which, in his opinion, did not arise from over-production, but from diminished consumption, which would operate a deterioration in the quantity produced, till that would be insufficient for the demands of the country. He would admit that some benefit would arise from a diminution of taxation; but more would be effected by making the burthens fall equally upon all classes of the people.

Mr. Robertson

was anxious, as he felt deeply interested in this question, to offer a few remarks for the consideration of the House. He wished to bring the question distinctly before them, and to state what were his views and intentions with respect to it. They had heard, from time to time, different reasons assigned for the prevailing distress. He, however, believed, that the system of credit which had been adopted in this country for many years, was one great cause of the evils the people were now labouring under. As this suggestion was new, he threw it out for the consideration of members, previously to the period when he might bring it more formally under their consideration. During the French and Spanish war, from 1740 to 1749, the government borrowed money at the rate of 3 and 4 per cent. Now, he would contend, that if their credit was as good at present as it was then, they should not have been borrowing money, during the late wars, at 7 or 8 per cent. He would explain. There was no money borrowed in the 3 per cents, during those recent wars, but at the average rate of 5 percent for all sums paid into the exchequer; besides which, there was given to the loan contractors, a sum of 40l. in addition. For what reason was that sum given to them? Why should it be presented to them, when they did not advance one farthing for it? Now, it was quite evident to him, that it was this system of borrowing on ruinous terms, which had plunged the country into those difficulties of which all classes were complaining. They were now completely in the hands of a great moined body in that metropolis, who could, at their pleasure keep the interest of money at as high a rate as they chose. [No; and hear, hear!] He contended, in answer to the gentleman who said "No," that they could do so, in a very great measure; else why could they not obtain money now upon as advantageous terms as had been done at the time to which he had alluded? That war had not ceased for one year, when the 3 per cent stock rose to 102; and now that stock had not exceeded 80 per cent. Was there any thing in the general concerns of the country which would lead to this result? Were the profits oil capital employed in trade greater, or was the quantity of capital less? No man would say so. The fact was, that so abundant was capital, that the monied men were completely at a loss what to do with it; and therefore they were throwing it into the hands of every desperate government which might ask for it. The fact was, that during the war we had, though nominally borrowing money at 3 per cent, been actually paying 8 per cent for it. At the rate at which the stock was sold to the public, the interest was above five per cent, and the bonus to the contractors brought it to what he had stated. Now, in his opinion, it would have been better to have made all sums of money borrowed be received immediately into the exchequer, and all interest paid immediately out of it. Had this been done, it might have made the nominal interest a little higher during the war; but at present money could have been raised at perhaps two per cent for the purpose of paying it off, and thus relieving the country. Say that, at the present price of the 3 per cents, the in- terest was¾, and that the same could be raised at 2 or 2½, then there would be a saving to the amount of the difference in the whole annual charge on the debt. If the public could come immediately into the exchequer, and lend 100l. at 2½ per cent, then 100l. of 3 per cent stock could be purchased, and besides the securing of one-sixth in the interest, every 400l. borrowed would pay off 500l. This would be a greater relief to the country than any other measure which had been proposed. The only just system would be to bring all sums borrowed immediately into the exchequer. He had thrown out these hints now, and he intended, in the course of the session, to bring forward a motion for the reduction of the interest of the national debt.

The report was then brought up, and agreed to.