HC Deb 17 May 1824 vol 11 cc760-6

Mr. Huskisson moved the second reading of this bill.

Mr. Handley

said, that however beneficial this bill might be to the right hon. gentleman's constituents at Liverpool, still he was informed by competent judges that its effect would be very different on the general interest of the agriculture of this country; since it would hold out an encouragement to foreign countries to deluge the British market with their corn. Entertaining this opinion, he should move as an amendment, "that the bill be read a second time that day six months."

Mr. Denis Brown

said, that, considering the particular interests of Ireland, he would oppose the bill.

Mr. T. Wilson

said, he was disposed to promote the principle of the bill, if the right hon. gentleman would consent to discuss the last clause first: he alluded to the clause which regulated, that there should be 1961bs. of flour for every 5 bushels of wheat.

Mr. Huskisson

said, that an insinuation had been thrown out against him respecting this bill which he felt it necessary, in the first instance, to repel. Nothing could be more unfounded. He never had introduced, and never would introduce, a measure to that House—and he should be unworthy of his situation if he did so—at the instance of his constituents, which was at variance with the interests of the empire at large. He had given notice of this measure before he had heard one word on the subject from any gentleman at Liverpool. The history of the bill was simply this. During the course of the last winter, many representations had been made to him, but not one from Liverpool, stating that a considerable quantity of foreign flour was importing into this country, principally from Hamburgh and Dantzic, for the purpose of being ground and sent out in flour to the West Indies. The persons from whom he had received this information were not at all concerned in the trade in corn. They were West-India merchants; and, on looking into the matter, he found that their representations were well founded. He ascertained, by a letter which he received on the 9th of March, that there were then 14,000 barrels of flour in Liverpool, and about 8,000 barrels in London, which had been recently imported from Dantzic and Hamburgh. The circumstance which led to this speculation was the difficulty which occurred in arranging and securing the supply of flour from America, for the British West-India colonies. The subject being once started, it naturally led to the consideration of the state and condition of the large quantity of foreign wheat, which had been for years locked up under bond in this country, and a good deal of it in a perishable state. In the view which he took, he saw on the one hand, that there were colonies dependent upon Great Britain for their supply of flour, and that it would be wise to allow some portion of that large British capital to get vent which was locked up in foreign wheat, merely for the purpose of having it put into a state fit to be trans-shipped for colonial use. As the law stood, this foreign corn was exportable as corn, but not as flour. What was there unfair in permitting that to be sent as flour, which could go as corn?—in fact, so far, to make that which was technically unexportable, legally exportable. Did the House think that, when such a consideration arose, it was fair to overlook the fact, that from one million and a half to two millions of British capital was locked up in this warehoused foreign corn, and some of it perishable? Did not the productive capital of individuals constitute the wealth of a state; and ought it not to have fair play when such a case arose as he had mentioned? Besides, see the extent of rigour which they were inflicting, if they acted up to the law inexorably, and permitted this corn to decay in stores, when a portion of it could get vent in a foreign market. As the law stood, this corn must perish in store; it was not convertible, when it approached putridity, into manure, or food for any kind of cattle. A remarkable instance of that had occurred not long ago. There was a calamitous fire which consumed extensive stores in Liverpool; in the property so destroyed, there was a quantity of wheat; still the consumed, and deteriorated particles were capable of being converted into manure and food for swine, but to no purpose—the law as it stood disallowed that convert ability. All that he proposed to effect by this bill was merely to allow so much foreign wheat to be taken out of the granaries and converted into flour, to meet the immediate colonial consumption. He meant no interference whatever with the corn-laws, nor had he the slightest intention of holding out any encouragement to foreign growers to deluge this country with their produce. With respect to the quantity of flour which was made from the bushel of corn, be had yielded to the suggestion of the hon. member for Cumberland, that the barrel of flour should be six bushels, and not five, this was to meet the condition of the old corn which was gradually decaying. It was very singular that this alarm should have been suddenly created about the effect of this bill upon the home-market, when merely some bran could alone find its way there from the operation of his bill. A month ago, the very same gentleman entertained "no apprehension from opening the ports, and letting the corn itself out of the warehouses. Respecting the general markets, who could, in this month of May, anticipate what would be the state of the coming harvest? The present average price of corn was 66s. [cries of "no" and of "63s."]. He would repeat, the price was as he had quoted it from the average made up yesterday of the last week's sales. Were they quite confident, that between this time and the 15th of August, the average might not rise to 70s.; and then they would have the market open, and on the eve of their i own harvest market, to 440,000 quarters of foreign corn? Why, then, all this bugbear about the operation of the present bill, which was simply and strictly what he had stated it to be. Could the landed interest be reasonably afraid of being injured by such a further supply as would come into this country, by a bill that made oats once imported into it, exportable from it? By acceding to his measure, the country gentlemen would be at once consulting their own interest and giving a fresh stimulus to native industry. The tubs, hoops &c. in which flour came from Dantzic, were formed in that country, and gave employment to a vast number of industrious mechanics. If we allowed foreign corn to be ground in this country, and afterwards exported from it, the tubs which contained it must be formed of stares taken from the demesnes of English gentlemen and wrought into shape by the industry of their tenantry. He did not see any reason why, with our extensive colonial connexion, we should not appropriate to ourselves that trade which was at present carried on lucratively by foreigners, and in which he had no doubt we should soon acquire that superiority over them which we were now ending in every other branch of commerce. But gentlemen on the other side asked him, "What security was there that this flour would not get into home consumption?" He would reply to this question by asking them another—"What security had they, that Dantzic flour, or that bonded wheat did not at this moment get into the home market?" The only security which they had was the vigilance of the officers; and he left it to the House to decide, whether it was likely to be increased or diminished by the regulations which he was now proposing. He was surprised that gentlemen should be so much alarmed as to the effects of this bill. For his own part, he considered it to be of importance only as a commercial measure, and was almost ashamed of having said so much to prove, that it was perfectly unimportant to the landed interest.

Mr. Leslie Forster

agreed with his right hon. friend as to the principle of this bill, but was obliged to differ from him in some of its details. He was therefore in some difficulty as to the course which he should pursue. He did not like to oppose the second reading; but he had certain objections to it, which he must press if they were not obviated in the committee. He wished, at any rate, that this new trade should be founded upon correct principles; because he considered it to be one which in time of plenty, could be productive of no harm, and which in time of dearth might be productive of the greatest advantage."

Mr. Huskisson

observed, that he intend- ed to confine the operation of his bill to the corn that was bonded previously to the last act.

Sir E. Knatchbull

said, he was not disposed, when prices were rising, to withhold a liberal relief to the mercantile body, whose capital was employed in the warehoused wheat. Under these views, he should recommend his hon. friend to withdraw his amendment.

Sir J. Sebright

said, that after the clear statement of the right hon. gentleman, he had no wish to oppose a measure which, without injuring the agricultural interest, was to afford relief to another great class of the community.

Mr. Lockhart

expressed his determination to oppose any effort to disturb the corn-laws. It had been said—why not relieve so much British capital now locked up by the operation of the present laws Who could say it was British? Was it not likely to be foreign capital? It was his conviction, that the present bill, if suffered to pass, would deteriorate considerably the security of the land proprietor and cultivator, and destroy altogether their dependence on any future legislative protection.

Colonel Wodehouse

said, he should not give any opposition to the present measure; but, with reference to the whole question of the corn-laws, he trusted the House would exercise the greatest caution, and that it would not, from any quarter, take opinions upon trust; as he believed there was no question on which opinions, most confidently advanced, were so erroneous as on that of the corn-laws.

Mr. Cripps

observed, that, from the first moment the foreign corn was introduced, he was convinced the sooner it was got rid of the better for the agriculturist. The effect of its remaining undisposed of was, to produce great fluctuations in the price of home wheat.

Colonel Wood

thought the bill ought to be postponed until they knew the condition of the next harvest. Though the price of corn was higher at present than it had been for some time past, the capital of the British farmer was still in a very poor condition; and no measure was so calculated to deteriorate it still more, as breaking down the present system of our corn-laws.

Mr. Huskisson

begged to say, that he had not stated any intention on his part to change the corn-laws. All that he had observed on the general question was, that he disapproved of that part of their operation which opened and shut the ports by striking averages, where the fractional shilling made the alteration. Such a system must, from its very operation, lead to a constant fluctuation of prices.

Lord Althorp

viewed the present measure as one of perfect indifference to the agricultural interest. The measure would not come into operation until the 15th of August; and if it should then appear that the harvest was not likely to be a good one, the bonded wheat would of necessity be thrown into the mass of foreign corn that would, on the opening of the ports, be introduced. As to the general question of the corn-laws, it was his opinion, that the present system of averages led to the fluctuations of price—one of the greatest evils that could affect agriculture.

Mr. Bright

said, that the bill had for its object to allow British merchants to turn a large capital to some purpose. He was sorry the right hon. gentleman had given way on the larger and smaller number of bushels. But he yet hoped to see this country the great granary of Europe, importing the wheat of all other nations, and exporting it to other countries, according to their respective wants.

Sir J. Newport

said, that with the modifications of the measure, and with the understanding that the corn-laws were not to be altered, until the public mind was more prepared for such a change, he should not oppose the bill.

Mr. Sykes

expressed his approbation of the plan, so far as it went: but was of opinion, that it did not go far enough. He trusted, however, that, at some future period, the right hon. gentleman would be prepared to carry it to a further extent.

Sir F. Burdett

said, he agreed with the hon. gentleman who had just sat down, and thought that the country gentlemen took a very wrong view of their own interest, in supporting the system of the corn-laws. The present, however, was not the occasion for entering into the large question. When that occasion did arise, he should certainly avail himself of it to point out the errors of their present policy. If any one trade required more than another to be entirely free, it was that very trade of corn. The more food was brought into the country, the better was it for our manufacturers. To augment the quantity of food was to increase the energies and to promote the industry of the country, and by that means to create a greater demand for the agricultural produce. Some gentlemen had objected to the present measure as tampering with the corn-laws; but, the whole system of the corn-laws was itself a tampering one. His own objection to the present measure was, that it was too trifling—that it did not go far enough; for if there was any thing in the principle of free trade, it was as applicable to corn as to any other commodity. But, when they talked of free trade, he would ask what trade in this country was free? The government, it would appear, stood in awe of some ignorant prejudice, and upon that account were unwilling to push the experiment further; but, as far as he could see, there was more of that prejudice within the walls of that House, than any where else [hear, hear!] In fact, the fault of the measure was, that it did not interfere enough with the corn-laws. He would vote for it, however, trifling as it was; and when the proper time arrived, he would undertake to shew, that the interests of the manufacturer and of the landed proprietor were one and the same; and it was a mistake to suppose that one could prosper in the depression of the other; and that it was only by acting for their combined advantage, that they could arrive at any useful policy. He hoped that some permanent measure would be established at last, instead of changing from day to day, as they had been doing with respect to this question, for such a number of years.

Mr. Handley then withdrew his amendment, and the bill was committed.