HC Deb 03 May 1824 vol 11 cc426-32

On the motion of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the House resolved itself into a committee, on the Customs (Coals and Linens) till. The right hon. gentleman said, his object was, to correct am error in the bill, and this had made it necessary that it should be recommitted. At present it was proposed in the bill, that the reduction of the bounty on linens should commence on the 5th of July, 1824. The date should be the 5th of January, 1825; and he now submitted a resolution to that effect,

Mr. Spring Rice

said, he hoped that, in endeavouring to prevail upon the chancellor of the Exchequer to alter his opinion, he should not be accused of inconsistency; for he had seen, on various occasions, gentlemen who were more pledged than he could be supposed to be by character or experience to the principles of free trade, to make exceptions in particular instances. He was persuaded, that if individuals interested in the linen trade had as frequent access to government, as those in the silk and other great manufactures, although he did not expect they could prevail on the chancellor of the Exchequer to abandon those principles which he thought right, they would induce him to consent to such modifications as would produce the least possible evil. He had no wish to see bounties permanently continued, nor if they were not in existence, would he now come forward to demand them. The chancellor of the Exchequer had made one concession in making the bounties remissible at different periods in the course of ten years, instead of taking them off all at once; but, in a country where there was little encouragement and where the people were looking for the lowest possible profits, care should be taken not to destroy, by legislative enactments, the individual exertions of persons, both in that country and in this, to procure employment for the people. He would suggest, that the date should be more remote. If they were allowed two or three years to prepare for the measure, they might be able to meet the consequences; but to commence the reduction at once would, in his judgment, be impolitic, and could not fail to produce the most injurious consequences.

Mr. Dennis Browne

expressed his astonishment at the ignorance which prevailed in this country with respect to the real condition of Ireland. Gentlemen seemed no more to be aware of the consequence of taking off these bounties, than they were of the interests of the remotest part of America, although Ireland was, in fact, within a stone's throw of them. At one time he heard there were no exports of coarse linens, and that they drew no bounties. Both assertions were equally fallacious, and he was astonished that any minister could make so great a mistake. It had been said, that the chancellor of the Exchequer had made a great concession; but he maintained that he had no right whatever to interfere with these bounties. The people of Ireland had a chartered right to every possible advantage, until that branch of national industry had arrived to a state of perfection. This was a language which had been held by the British parliament, and echoed by the British king. No country had ever stood higher than England for a proud sense of honour and good faith, amongst foreign nations; but it was a monstrous violation of national faith with respect to Ireland, to interfere with her, or to meddle with her in any way: and it was quite absurd for the chancellor of the Exchequer to apply any of his rules of policy to her in her pre- sent situation. He had been for many years a member of that House, and there was not a single year in which some attack or other had not been made upon the unfortunate linen trade. He had never seen a more unanimous feeling of detestation, than at the expression of an intention to repeal these bounties. If gentlemen could only foresee the ruin which it would produce in Ireland, they would be convinced of the impolicy of the proposed measure.

Sir H. Parnell

said, he would, in the first instance, examine the question with reference to facts only, and endeavour to show that the opinions of the member for Kilkenny were erroneous. The hon. member, and all those who, with him, advocated these bounties, conceived the system which governed the linen manufacture of Ireland, to be perfection itself: and whenever a part of it was touched, without taking much trouble to think about the matter, at once proclaimed the manufacture would be destroyed, and the country ruined. He had taken pains to find out how these bounties could secure the object of those who supported them. It was said, they were necessary to maintain and extend the manufacture of coarse linens in Ireland. But this manufacture had more to fear from other causes than the loss of the bounty. It had to contend against the English and Scotch manufacturer of coarse linens, who imported foreign yarn at 1s. a cwt., which was cheaper by 25 per cent than the Irish could make it. Although foreign yarn might be imported into Ireland on the same terms the Irish were prevented taking advantage of it, by an Irish law for regulating the sale of yarn. This required that all yarn sold in Ireland should be wound in a particular manner; but the foreign reel did not admit of its being so wound. Some attempts had been made to introduce the use of foreign yarn, but the Linen Board had enforced the regulating law, and levied the penalties; and the consequence was, that the manufacture of coarse linen was leaving Ireland. The Scotch and English manufacturer had also the advantage of mill-spun yarn, which the Irish manufacturer was deprived of by the regulating law. The way, therefore, to assist and extend the manufacture of coarse linen in Ireland was, not by bounties, but by repealing the law that prevented the use of foreign yarn. Ireland would then be on a footing of equality with England and Scotland, and could successfully come into competition with Germany. If, in place of importing foreign yarn free of duty, a high duty was imposed upon it, as some advised, then Germany would have the whole foreign trade in coarse linens wholly to itself. But if the bounties could extend the linen manufacture, it was by no means clear that it was desirable to give to this manufacture a preference over all others. He believed that no greater error was committed than to suppose that the linen manufacture was very beneficial to the peasantry of Ireland. Those consequences which usually flowed from an extensive manufacture in other countries, had not occurred in Ireland. The operative spinners, flax-dressers, and weavers, still lived in a state of great poverty. They were able merely to obtain the bare necessaries of life, without any small comforts and conveniences. This was owing to their being all cultivators of land, and paying away the wages they earned, as manufacturers, in rent to their landlords. The rate of rent they were willing to give to obtain land was, all their earnings as manufacturers would enable them to give, with a prospect of providing themselves with the plainest food. In this way the linen manufacture did not produce that rise of wages which was necessary, to place the operative workman in a situation superior to that of the agricultural labourer; and therefore, it was to take a very superficial view of the effects of this manufacture to say that it had been of any general advantage to the lower orders. If it was right, under any circumstances, to give encouragement to the extension of manufactures, the cotton manufacture would be in every respect preferable to the linen. It was the successful rival of the linen already, and the universal use of it made it likely to continue to prosper. As it was usually carried on by workmen living in villages and giving up their whole time to it, they would earn better wages, and by going to market for their food would form a new demand for the productions of the regular farmers. The hon. baronet now said he would examine the question on more general principles. He denied that the bounty could give any advantage to the Irish manufacturer. The hon. member for Kilkenny had spoken of the bounty, as if it was on the production of linen and paid for linens sold in the Irish market; but the bounty was on the exportation of linens, and it had no operation till it was sold to the consumer abroad; and then its whole effect was to enable the consumer to buy the linen at a price just so much lower than the natural price, as the amount of the bounty. As the coarse Irish linens were chiefly sent to our colonies, the bounty was, to all intents and purposes, a nullity, except for the advantage of the West-India planter; for as no foreign linen could be imported into the West Indies, this bounty had not even the effect of giving to Ireland any superiority over foreign linens. As to the bounty being necessary to give employment to the people, no doctrine could be more at variance with the actual operation of the bounty. The quantity of employment depended upon the means of paying for it, that was, upon the quantity of capital in the country; but the bounty was to maintain a trade that, without it, would not pay the ordinary rate of profit, and thus it was a waste of capital to prevent loss, so that it contributed directly to diminish the funds for giving employment to the people. But, let its effect be as great as the advocates of it say it will be, in affording employment, after all, as it cannot create new capital it can only transfer employment from one occupation to another; and just in proportion as it may extend the linen manufacture in Ireland it will diminish employment in some other business. Under all these circumstances, as no case had been made out to justify the continuance of the bounty, he should vote against postponing the repeal till a later period than that proposed by the chancellor of the Exchequer.

Mr. Hutchinson

regretted that he had to rise after the observations of the hon. baronet, but, in opposing his views, he spoke the sentiments of others better acquainted with the subject than himself. His hon. friend asserted, that the condition of the people engaged in Ireland, in this particular branch of manufacture was not improved by the continuance of the bounties; but those engaged in the trade entertained an opinion exactly the reverse, and the manufacturers in the south and west of Ireland strongly opposed the repeal of such bounties. There was ready for presentation a petition from the county of Cork, signed by 60,000 persons, which asserted the advantages to be derived from the operation of the bounties now sought to be reduced. Under such circumstances, he put it to the chancellor of the Exchequer, whether he would press his measure, which, however right in the abstract was deprecated, in its practical operation by the great bodies of the people who conceived themselves affected by it. He particularly pointed out to his majesty's government the value attached to the coarse linen trade of Ireland in the report of the parliamentary committee of last year, and how the diffusion of that trade had introduced industry and peace in those districts which were previously a prey to riot and insubordination. He thought the right hon. gentleman should at least pause, and pay some deference to the fears and feelings of the Irish, even though those fears and feelings might be ill-founded or unjust. The woollen trade in Ireland had been ruined by king William, in consequence of an address from that House, and the linen trade established in its place. He would say therefore, that this trade had a right to every protection and encouragement which it could possibly receive from that House.

Colonel Trench

approved of the general principle; but the linen trade had always been a forced trade. It had been made by the bounties, and those bounties ought not now to be discontinued. He knew that much linen was made for the sake of the bounties; and however just the general principle on which it was proposed to repeal them might be, still something ought to be conceded to the fears of the people.

Mr. Dawson

said, he had made many inquiries on the subject, and had been informed by several manufacturers, that the taking off the bounties would have no effect on the trade. These gentlemen were well qualified to judge what would be the effect of the repeal. For his own part, he thought the repeal would be of no disadvantage. The trade was too well established to be hurt thereby. Linen to the amount of 2,500,000l. was manufactured annually, and the amount of the bounty paid never exceeded 90,000l. The reduction proposed was only 9,000l. a year; and it did not seem possible that this small sum could have any effect on this trade. He thought, under all the circumstances, that every encouragement possible should be given to the trade in Ireland, and though he generally voted with ministers, he would most certainly not do so on the present occasion, if he thought the measure would be of any injury to that trade. He was surprised at the opinion of the hon. baronet, that the linen manufacture was of no benefit to Ireland. It was a manufacture not carried on in crowded cities, and gave both health and comfort to the people. It was favourable to morals, it was altogether a home manufacture, and every part of it was productive of wealth.

Mr. Hume

thought the hon. baronet had been quite misunderstood. It was his opinion, that the bounties were of no good to the peasantry, whatever they might be to the consumers. The reduction proposed was so gradual and trifling, that it was quite absurd to suppose that any evil could result from it.

Sir H. Parnell

replied to the observations of the member for the county of Derry by saying, that it was not a correct way of judging of the effect of the linen manufacture, to look only to the province of Ulster. There might be found other reasons which explained the prosperity of that part of Ireland, independent of the linen manufacture. What he was ready to maintain was, that the linen manufacture had not led to the improved condition of the lower orders; that their earnings were very low; that a great part of those earnings were absorbed in rent; and, on the whole, that there were many extensive tracts of country in Ireland, where the linen manufacture existed, without the operative manufacturers being in a state to command more than the most miserable subsistence, with bad clothing, and bad habitations. This was a proposition he was ready to go into in the detail, whenever a fit opportunity presented itself. As to the opinions contained in petitions, he paid very little attention to sweeping assertions of the improved condition of the people; and as to linens having been made for the sake of the bounties, that he knew had been the case, but greatly to the discredit and injury of the manufacture. On the whole, he begged the House to remember, that the bounties cost the country 300,000l. a-year, and as the rate at which they were to be reduced was only 10 per cent a-year, they would still cost the country at least one million and a half, without doing any good whatever. Be hoped a more rapid repeal of them would yet be adopted.

The House resumed, and the report was ordered to be received to-morrow.