HC Deb 09 June 1823 vol 9 cc810-8

On the motion of Mr. Huskisson, the report of this bill was brought up. Counsel were then called in, and Messrs. Adam and Wilde appeared at the bar as counsel, and were heard against the bill. As soon as they had concluded, Mr. Huskisson moved, "That the Amendments made by the Committee to the Bill be now read." Upon which,

Mr. Fowell Buxton

rose and said, that feeling a sincere interest for the welfare of the population affected by the present bill, he should trouble the House with a few remarks upon it. He would not, he said, follow the example of the Learned counsel, who had just been heard at the bar of the House, by going into the question of the merits of the bill upon the principles of political economy; not only because he felt himself unequal to the task, but because a different question now presented itself; namely, whether the petitioners against the measure should be allowed to prove their case by evidence before the measure was carried further? It was indeed objected to the petitioners, that the bill did not rest upon disputed facts, but rested on admitted principles of political economy; but, when the matter under investigation was one on which the petitioners felt that their very subsistence depended, it was rather hard to say to these poor people, that they should lose their bread by principles of political economy. They knew nothing of those principles; but if they did, they might submit to the House, that it had itself not been over consistent in its observance of those principles. The laws, as they now stood, had been framed during the last reign, and, no doubt, upon what were then deemed "the soundest principles;" and it seemed strange to the petitioners, when they were told, that the "soundest principles" now called for their repeal. The petitioners also begged humbly to represent, that they had seen the greatest fluctuations, as to what the "soundest principles of political economy" were. And indeed the House must know, that certain principles of political economy were acted upon some fifty years ago, and which were then undoubted, until Adam Smith gained great credit by overturning them; and recently they had heard his hon. friend, the member for Portarlington (Mr. Ricardo), combat the doctrines of Adam Smith in many particulars, with a clearness and force which had certainly persuaded him (Mr. F. Buxton) of his hon. friend's correctness. The petitioners, therefore, were certainly entitled to ask, what security there was, that some future system of political economy would not overturn the system of his hon. friend, which had overturned the system of Adam Smith, who, in his day, had overturned the system of those who had gone before him? What was right, he could not pretend to say. On the one hand, he saw united together, men who maintained, by general reasoning of great cogency, that the very petitioners would be benefitted by the repeal: on the other hand, he saw the petitioners who ought to know something of their own interest, positively declaring, that the repeal would be their ruin. Between them he would not pretend to decide; but would move that the question be referred to a committee. The petitioners had as yet never been heard at all; and they respectfully submitted to the House, that if allowed to produce evidence, they should be enabled to establish a case sufficient to show, that the existing laws ought to be allowed to remain. Some facts, however, which bore on the measure before the House had been elicited by a committee which sat on a subject connected with the present; namely, the petitions of the Coventry silk-weavers in 1817. No working weavers, but some master manufacturers were then examined. The town-clerk of Coventry was asked the amount of the poor-rates in that city—Answer, 19s. in the pound. The treasurer of Spital-fields was asked the amount of the poor-rates there—Answer, 6s. in the pound. The Spital-fields weavers therefore might justly say, "You tell us the acts under which our trade is established makes us paupers. What is the fact? Our poor-rates are only one-third as much as those of the independent weavers of Coventry." Again, it was inquired by the committee, what was the ordinary amount of a silk-weaver's earnings per week at Coventry?—Answer, from 5s. 6d. to 10s. per week. What was the ordinary amount of a silk-weaver's earnings per week in Spital-fields?—Answer, from 14 to 15s. per week [Hear]. The Spital-fields weaver might therefore say, "You tell us the tendency of free competition is, to raise our wages. What is the fact? Our wages are double those of the silk-weavers at Coventry." And yet it was asserted, that the bill which would deprive them of those earnings and place them on a scale with the Coventry weavers, would be a benefit to them! He also begged of the House to consider, what, if the petitioners were correct, would be the moral effect of this measure. It would tend to pauperise the working population of Spital-fields. It was proved before the committee in 1818, that the weavers of Coventry received, half their support from their employers, and the other half from the parish. In Spital-fields, the workmen were paid entirely by their masters, and were therefore relieved from the moral deterioration which the system of paying wages out of the poor-rates produced. The low wages of Coventry had produced the system of what was called half-pay apprenticeships, which, as was well known, had, given rise to the most frightful profligacy and vice among the young persons thus employed. Now, nothing of this kind was to be seen in the population of Spital-fields, than which a more moral and industrious manufacturing population did not exist among the working classes. So convinced were the committee of 1818, of the evils attending the system adopted in Coventry, that they actually recommended the extension of the Spital-fields act to that place, as the only remedy that could be devised. This was the opinion of the committee of that House, even without hearing the Spital-fields weavers; for they had, as yet, never been heard at all. It was a maxim of the Roman law, that he who decided without hearing both parties, was wrong even when he was right; for he did a wrong to the parties, even when he was correct as to the facts. Upon these grounds, he should, without giving any opinion on the merits or demerits of the bill, move, "That it be re-committed, for the purpose of being referred to a select committee."

Mr. Huskisson

said, that he might admit the whole of the facts stated by the lion, gentleman, and also by the learned counsel at the bar, and yet oppose the amendment. It was said, that the bill would have the effect of increasing the poor-rates, by throwing the weavers upon them for part of their subsistence. Now, if the poor-rates had not been increased much in Spital-fields, it should be recollected, that the weavers there, in periods of distress, had received very considerable assistance from the public purse. But he was prepared to contend, that, if the present regulations were continued, instead of rendering the weavers partly dependent on the poor-rates, they would make them entirely so, by depriving them of all employment. It could not be denied, that if there existed a competition in any part of the country, by which the work could be done for half the price paid in London, the effect would be to deprive the masters in London of all business, and of course the workmen of employment. They would therefore be in a worse situation than the weavers, in the country; for, undoubtedly, the business would be transferred to that part of the country where it could be done cheapest. This had been already the case in several branches of the trade, in which competition had been raised in other parts of the country. As soon as it was known that such competition existed, a dispute arose between the masters and the journeymen; it was then referred to the magistrates who would not interfere, but suffered the book of rates to continue according to the regulations of the act. The consequence generally was, that the particular branch of business in which the competition arose, was lost to the metropolis, and transferred to that place where it could be done cheaper. And so it would, ultimately be with the entire of the silk trade, if the present regulations were allowed to remain. He contended, that if regulations fixing the rate of wages higher in the metropolis than in other parts of the country, were allowed to continue, the result would be, the introduction of evils to the workmen themselves which no poor-laws could remedy. If the rate were to be fixed in London, why not extend it all over the country? But, for such a general extension, he was satisfied no person would contend. Under these circumstances, he would, object to going into a committee; since the facts likely to be proved in it would not affect the principle of the bill.

Mr. Ellice

said, he would, not go into an inquiry into the principle of the bill, but he thought there were some facts connected with it, upon which the House ought to have information before it proceeded further. He would admit, that it was an unwise principle to regulate the price of labour; but parliament had regulated the price of bread and other articles; and if one such regulation was to be done away with, so ought all. If the Spital-fields acts ought to be repealed, many others ought to be repealed also. On all accounts, if it were only to obtain the peaceable assent of the artisans in the metropolis, who were by no means the unthinking uneducated people the right hon, gentleman imagined them to be, he implored him to allow the whole matter to he again brought under consideration in the ensuing session.

Colonel Wood

wished the measure to be postponed till next session. It had been his fortune to command, for a number of years, a regiment of militia, which was chiefly supplied with recruits from Spital-fields. Now, several of the men who had served under him had requested him to say a few words in their behalf. He had, therefore, great pleasure in stating, that, as far as his knowledge of them extended, a more honest, respectable, and well-conducted set of men did not exist.

Mr. P. Moore

complained of the manner in which it was attempted to hurry this bill through the House. He had not had time to road over the evidence which had formerly been collected upon this subject, neither, he believed, had the right hon. gentleman. He trusted that he would allow the bill to be fully deliberated in a committee next year.

Mr. T Wilson

was of opinion, that the repeal of the Spital-fields acts would be beneficial to the weavers and artisans generally. Still he thought that, under all the circumstances of the case, it would be advisable to allow the bill to go to a committee above stairs.

Mr. Hume

said, that if he could persuade himself that any fresh information could be afforded upon this subject, he would have no objection to go into the committee. But, what information could they get by such a proceeding, which they were not already in possession of? He was convinced that it would only be a waste of time to take the evidence of the weavers themselves; and, as to the evidence of the master manufacturers, the House had it already, and one and all of them called for the repeal of these impolitic acts. With regard to the argument raised upon the statement that the wavers had never applied to the poor-rates for relief, he should merely observe, that the evidence attached to the report on the poor-laws distinctly proved that statement to have no foundation in fact. He agreed with the right hon. gentleman opposite, that these acts had not promoted the manufacture's Spital-fields.

Mr. Bright

was of opinion; that inquiry was, never more called for. What was asked for was merely inquiry. And, ought the House to refuse it merely because some persons talked largely about the principle of political economy? The hon. gentleman then entered into some details to show the disturbances that had prevailed at Coventry and in Spital-fields, before these acts for the protection of the workmen were passed. Distress, confusion, and discontent, might be the result if these acts were repealed. The trade of Coventry would be removed to London, and it would be easy for a few dissolute men to breed disorders in the metropolis. Whether there were not some regulations in these statutes which required all oration he would not decide, but if so, that was an additional motive for sending the whole subject to a committee.

Mr. Ricardo

was as anxious for inquiry as any member, in cases where it was at all necessary; but, admitting all that the opponents of this bill stated they could prove, it would not change his opinion. If these acts were indeed so beneficial, they ought to be adopted all over the country, and applied to every branch of manufacture; but the question was, whether labour should or should not be free? The quantity of work must depend upon the extent of demand; and if the demand was great, the number of persons employed would be in proportion. If these acts were repealed, no doubt the number of weavers employed in London: would be greater than at present. They might not, indeed, receive such high wages; but it was improper that those wages should be artificially kept up by the interference of a magistrate. If a manufacturer was obliged to use a certain quantity of labour, he ought to obtain it at a fair price. It had been said, that the weavers of Spital-fields received very little from the poor-rates. True, And why? Because there was so little to be distributed among them. Very little could be raised in the parish; and sometimes, when great distress prevailed, resort had actually been had to government, for large sums for the relief of the poor. An hon. member for Bristol had talked about political economy; but the words "political economy" had, of late, become terms of ridicule and reproach. They were used as a substitute for an argument, and had been so used by the hon. member for Weymouth. Upon every view which he could take of the subject, the bill would be beneficial both to the manufacturers and the workmen?

Mr. G. Phillips

supported the bill. He thought that ministers deserved the highest praise whenever they had the manliness to break through any of the absurd regulations which fettered our commerce.

Mr. Brougham

said, he did not wish to give a silent vote upon this question, lest the grounds of that vote should be misunderstood. He approved highly of the principle which went to the repeal of the acts—acts which, he was most willing to allow, were framed upon no sound principles, and the continuance of which he felt convinced would do no good, either to the workmen or their employers. But he would have the House to consider that these acts, erroneous and mischievous as they were, had been acted upon for halt a century. When this had been the case—when the people who were most deeply interested, and who had for so long a time adopted and regulated themselves, not by their own error, but by the error of the House itself; when they came to pray that those errors should be continued, or at least inquired into, it would be but fair to hear them. To go into the inquiry, therefore, would be a point of policy, for he did not think that that inquiry would be fatal to the measure; and he would recommend it just for the purpose of carrying that measure into effect in such a way as to secure the hearty approval of all parties. If the measure were to be hurried in the meantime, and without inquiry, that would not, he feared, be the case. When a large class of persons had prejudices—he would call them prejudices, and admit that they were not well-founded—had come to the bar of the House, and not only been heard by their counsel, but had prayed to give in evidence, he was of opinion that it was neither justice to them nor to the question itself, to dismiss them with half an hour's speech at the bar, without allowing them the proof they had offered. The effect would be, to send them away disappointed, and to confirm them in those prejudices which a full and careful inquiry might have removed.

Mr. W. Smith

thought that the inquiry should be gone into, even though it should delay the measure till next session.

Mr. Monck

, though friendly to the principle of the bill, thought it ought not to pass unless accompanied by the repeal of the combination and emigration acts.

Mr. Byng

would vote for the committee as he did not think that a delay beyond a week would occur.

Mr. C. Grant

observed, that from the arguments advanced by the various advocates for the committee, it was evident that it would be impossible to finish its inquiry that session. The mere appointment of the committee would operate with respect to the bill as an adjournment, sine die; and that was a course which he could not agree to. It had been said that his right hon. friend, in submitting the present bill, had founded it on principles of political science, and not on any practical effects as to the manufacture in Spital-fields, How, he could a sure the House, that in the repeated communications which his right hon. friend had with the master manufacturers, he had grounded his arguments for the repeal of these acts on facts alone. With respect to the argument founded on the absence of distress amongst the Spital-fields manufacturers, he held in his hand a resolution of the benevolent committee of that district, which stated the extent of the distress at one time to be so great, that 24,000 workmen were unemployed, and taking their families at the rate of two each loom, the calculation made the number of sufferers 48,000.

Sir J. Mackintosh

said, he was disposed to vote for the committee, not for the sake of obtaining further information, for he wanted none—not against the bill before the House, for he was friendly to it; but simply on the principle of conciliation towards those who, under a misconception of its effects, thought their interests were injuriously affected by it. He would accede the committee in condescension to the feelings of that large class of persons. But, if he thought its appointment would have the effect of postponing the bill till next session, he would not vote for it; because he was convinced the result of such a momentary attainment of their object would only continue the existing irritation, and renew future opposition to a measure which he felt ought to be carried into effect. Should a committee be granted, he trusted that by a wise selection of its members, and by framing the-instructions so as to limit the object of inquiry, the House would guard against such a result.

The House divided: For the Committee 60. Against it 68.

List of the Minority.
Abercromby, hon. J. Denison, J. W.
Bankes, H. Ebrington, lord,
Brougham, H. Farrant, R.
Bennet, hon. H. Gurney, H.
Benett, J. Glenorchy, lord.
Bernal, R. Grant, J. T.
Byng, G. Grattan, J.
Bright, H. Hutchinson, C.
Beresford, sir G. Heber, R.
Calvert, C. Houldsworth, T.
Calvert, N. Hamilton, lord A.
Calcraft, J. Honywood, W. P.
Cripps, J. Irving, W.
Campbell,— Jones, J.
Cooper, B. Kennedy, T. F.
Curwen, J. C. Knatchbull, sir F.
King, sir J. D. Smith, W.
Leader,— Sumner, H.
Lennard, T. B. Tulk, G. A.
Mundy, E. Wood, M.
Mansfield, J. Wood, col.
Moore, P. White, L.
Mackintosh, sir J. White, col.
Monck, J. B. Whitbread, S. C.
Maxwell, J. Westenra, hon. H.
Nolan, M. Williams, J.
O'Grady, S. Williams, sir R.
Pelham, J. G. Buxton, T. F.
Robertson, A. Ellice, E.
Smith, R.