HC Deb 25 April 1825 vol 13 cc150-61
Mr. T. Wilson

rose to present a petition, signed by a numerous and respectable body of the merchants, bankers, ship-owners, and other inhabitants of the city of London, amounting to upwards of 5,000 persons, on a most important question; namely, a revision of the Corn laws of this country. He hoped, as the subject was one of deep and general interest, that the House would favour him with their attention, while he made a few observations upon it. The petition was the result of one of the most numerous and respectable public meetings that ever was convened. The meeting was so unanimous, that but a single hand was held up against two of the resolutions on which the petition was founded. The petitioners begged leave to express their opinion, that a high price of food generally, as compared with the price of other countries, was a very great evil: it deprived the mass of the people of many comforts; it lowered the energy of labour in this country; it retarded the production of wealth; it had an injurious effect on commerce; and was prejudicial to the English character; generally, in foreign markets. They were also of opinion, that the constant variation in the price of corn was an evil scarcely less than the existence of extravagant prices themselves. Under the existing system, the people never could have the benefit of corn the growth of foreign countries, until that article had reached a very high price here. In consequence, they had to pay nearly double the sum which ought to be paid for that article when imported, because the foreign markets were guided by ours; they assimilated as nearly as they could to our prices; and when those prices rose, a progressive rise took place in the continental markets. By delaying to open the ports until corn was at an extravagantly high rate, they were ultimately obliged to pay double the price for which they might have purchased it, had the ports been opened a few months before. There was another inconvenience produced by this extraordinary rise of price. When the price mounted up to a great height, foreign countries were immediately induced to unlock their surplus produce, for the purpose of deriving the benefit of that high price. When corn thus came in from all quarters, the market was completely deluged with it; and it afterwards took three, four, or five years to relieve the country from it. During this time the landed interest must bring their corn to market under circumstances of great disadvantage. They were compelled to sell it for what they could get; which would not be the case, if there was a fair protecting duty, and the ports were allowed to be commonly open. Under these circumstances, and considering, likewise, that the present law was subject to great abuse, and that the regulation of the trade had not operated in the way which was contemplated when the law was framed, the petitioners came to parliament to request that the act should be repealed, and that a different and more beneficial system should be pursued. They stated, that a fixed duty on the importation of corn appeared to them to be the most wise and efficacious measure that could be adopted. It was, they conceived, the only way in which a fair trade could be carried on; since by it they would get rid of the mischief to which the country was at present liable from fraudulent returns; and, if the landed interest did not get such very high prices as they did from time to time, they would receive fair remunerating prices, and would enjoy a steady market. The petitioners took the liberty of stating their belief, that the difference between the charges in one country and in another afforded the best criterion of what a protecting duty should be. The petitioners wished such a duty to be levied as would allow corn to be sold at a fair price. They were by no means desirous that it should be so low as to induce a depression of price, that would be injurious to the landowner. The petitioners observed, that it might be supposed, by those who had not considered the subject, that the manufacturing interest was at variance with the landed interest. This they denied; and they declared their firm conviction, that the principles advocated by them, would, on the contrary, lead to an increase of trade which would be most beneficial to both parties. As he had been intrusted with this petition, he would say, that as no man would go further than he would to place this trade on a proper foundation, so no man would approach the subject with greater delicacy. It was hardly possible for any person to say what was the exact price which would afford a fair protection to the landed interest. In apportioning that protection, if he erred, he certainly would rather err by giving too much than by giving too little. He was anxious, as far as possible, to place trade of every kind on a footing conformable with the sentiments of the right hon. gentleman who was at the head of the Board of Trade. There was one circumstance which rendered it awkward to bring this subject before the House at the present moment—he meant the returns, from the British consuls, of the prices of corn at different markets on the continent. They were so low, that he feared the circumstance would stagger the feelings of some gentlemen. But, it should be recollected, that for five or six years this country had not been open to the grain of the continent. There must, therefore, during that time, have been a great accumulation of corn; and it was no argument to say, because wheat was now at 20s. the quarter, that it would not rise to 30s. or 40s. when the ports were opened, and a part of the superflux disposed of. If the landed gentlemen consulted their own interest, they would take the present time, when the manufacturing and mercantile system was in a course of revision, and when agriculture was well paid, to assist in the alteration of the Corn laws. The petitioners were most anxious that their sentiments should be laid before the House, previous to the discussion of this subject, on the motion of the hon. member for Bridgenorth. He feared that he had stated their opinions in an imperfect manner; but he hoped he had said enough to show, that the petitioners were not hostile to the landed proprietors; but that they merely wished to remove a system, which produced fraud and inconvenience, and for that purpose were desirous that a fixed rate of duty should be established.

Mr. Gooch

said, that the petition was certainly entitled to the attention of the House, as it came from a most respectable body of individuals. He should not, therefore, object to its being received; but, if any subject ought to be less tampered with than another, it was this very subject. He would ask, was there, before the hon. member for Bridgenorth gave notice of his motion, a single petition on the subject of the Corn laws? Did not every class of his majesty's subjects appear contented? Did not his majesty, in his gracious speech from the throne, declare that tranquillity and happiness reigned in every part of the country? If this was the case, he must call on the hon. member for Bridgenorth to state a much stronger case than he had yet made out, before he could assent to the intended alteration. He did not mean to say that the Corn laws did not want revision. The time might come when it would be necessary to revise them. But that time had not arrived. At present, corn was only kept up to a fair price. He wished the hon. alderman and his friends in the city, had let this question alone. If interference were necessary, the country gentlemen could act for themselves. At present, he believed, the workmen in the city received greater wages than they ever did. They had nothing to do on Sundays and Mondays, but to stuff themselves with roast beef and plum-pudding. To talk of poverty in the city, was all a mere humbug. The agitation of this question had created a ferment throughout the country; and he had received many letters expressive of the great apprehensions that were entertained with respect to the proceedings of parliament. Individuals were afraid, if the system were altered, that they would be reduced to the same situation as that in which they were placed some years ago; and that they would be again borne down by the poor-rates. He would say to the country gentlemen, that they would be duller "than the fat weed that rots on Lethe's wharf," if they did not exert themselves on this occasion. He would ask of the right hon. gentleman, whether his majesty's government intended to make any proposition on this subject in the present session?

Mr. Huskisson

said, that the hon. gentleman wished to know whether it was the intention of his majesty's government to propose any general measure of relief with respect to the state of the Corn laws in the present session, and he had no difficulty in stating to him in answer, that his majesty's government had no such intention. If it had been contemplated in the present session to introduce such a measure, he thought it would have been the duty of those to whom it was intrusted to have taken an earlier opportunity for bringing it forward. But, viewing all the circumstances connected with the present state of those laws, and all the considerations which were embraced in so extensive a subject, it would, he thought, take up much more time than was convenient, if he entered into any detail, until the question was fairly before them. He would himself suggest to parliament, at an early period of the next session, the propriety of entering on a general revision of the state of the laws for regulating the trade in corn between this and foreign countries. If the hon. member for Bridgenorth brought forward his motion on Thursday, he would have an opportunity of stating the reasons which had induced him and his colleagues to adopt the opinion, that it was not desirable, in the present state of the session, to go into the inquiry. At the same time, he felt no difficulty in saying, that he had a proposition to submit to the House on a matter that was connected with this subject: he alluded to the wheat which was now shut up under bond. He thought it would be useful, even to that class of persons who objected to an alteration in the Corn laws, if that wheat, under certain regulations, were suffered to come into the market.

Mr. Heathcote

earnestly hoped, that the hon. member for Bridgenorth would not bring this question forward. The subject was now agitating the country in an alarming degree. Why should they go into this question now, when they were told that they would have it all over again next year?

Mr. Whitmore

said, he was sorry it was not in his power to comply with the suggestion of the hon. gentleman. He was persuaded that considerable advantages would arise from the discussion of this very important subject; and therefore he should bring it forward on Thursday. So far from creating that degree of alarm which gentlemen declared had been produced by the notice on this subject, he felt a firm conviction that the statement he should make on the occasion would considerably allay any unpleasant feelings which existed at present. A few words had fallen from his right hon. friend, as to the late period of the session, which he held to be a reason for not bringing the subject before the House at present. That, however, was not his (Mr. Ws.) fault; as he had given notice of his motion at a very early period of the session. But it had been postponed on two different nights, to make way for the Roman Catholic Relief bill. He hoped the House would come to the discussion on Thursday, fully and firmly resolved to investigate it with that temper and coolness which he was persuaded it deserved.

Mr. Curwen

said, that, although he should not probably agree with the hon. member for Bridgenorth in his whole view of the subject, there was one point in which he would agree with him; and that was, in the conviction, that there was not a sufficient quantity of grain to serve the country until another harvest arrived. He was satisfied that they had been for some time consuming more in proportion than they grew. He was therefore favourable to inquiry.

Mr. Alderman Thompson

wished to know whether his right hon. friend meant to persevere in his intention of bringing in bills for the repeal of the duties on foreign manufactures? If he did, the present state of the Corn laws would, inevitably prevent our manufacturers from competing with those of foreign countries; particularly if protecting duties; were to be reduced from 60 to 10 and 15 per cent, as was contemplated.

Mr. Baring

said, that the House and the Country could not possibly be placed in a more unpleasant situation than that in which it would assuredly be plunged by the course which government intended to take on this occasion. The hon. member for Suffolk had asked a question, as if he had a right not only to an answer, but to such an answer as he wished himself. The right hon. gentleman had said, in return, that the government would do nothing this year, but that they would, early in the next session enter into an examination of the whole subject of the Corn laws. Now this was the most disadvantageous step that could be taken. The hon. member for Boston had told them, that there was a considerable ferment in the county of Lincoln; and the course his majesty's ministers were about to adopt was calculated to produce a state of excitement throughout the entire country. Whilst this question remained undecided, no landlord could tell what his lease, what his agricultural property, was likely to be worth; for it was an undoubted fact, that the value of the lease depended on the scale c f protection which was extended to the growth of corn. In such a state of things, landed gentlemen could not make settlements and arrangements regarding their property. They could not tell what provision they might make for themselves, or for those who were to come after them. All this depended on what would be done to regulate the price of corn, When the right hon. gentleman said, that nothing would be done now, but that next year the question should be looked into, did he not perceive that, during all the intermediate period, he was keeping up a clashing of interests? It was saying, "You shall go through the whole year under a vicious system, which government intends to cure next year." The hon. member for Suffolk had admitted, that the law was most unsatisfactory; but then he said, "O you must do nothing with it." He should like to hear from that hon. gentleman, why the present was not a proper time for considering this question. He should like to know why the country was to be kept in a state of alarm for a whole twelve-month. It did not become them, in the discharge of their duty, to sit there, and do nothing with this question until next year. He conceived that the protection afforded by the present law was too high. There ought to be a protection; but he objected both to the form and the amount of the present protection.

Mr. Alderman Wood

said, that the meeting at which the petition was got up, had assembled at a very recent period. He could not, therefore, conceive how their proceedings could have disturbed the country. When so many measures were adopted in furtherance of the principles of free trade, it was fitting that an alteration should be made in the corn trade. The country would be placed in a most unfavourable situation, if, when the duties were lowered on foreign manufactures, the price of bread was continued at its present high rate. Under such circumstances, it would be impossible for England to compete with foreign countries.

Sir E. Knatchbull

expressed a hope, that the hon. member for Bridgenorth would see the expediency of putting off for the present the motion of which he had given notice. He deprecated any alteration in the existing laws, until the necessity of such alteration had been proved by the actual experience of some inconvenience. After the declarations which had been made by ministers, that it was not their intention to propose any alteration in the course of the present session, to procure the appointment of a committee would be altogether useless.

Lord Milton

said, that, as he had presented so many petitions to the House on both sides of this subject, he could not allow the opportunity to pass without making some remarks upon it. The petitions to which he alluded came from two classes of the people. One was, that of the landed proprietors, who wished for no alteration in the laws; the other was, the class comprising the manufacturers, who felt that the price of food was enhanced by the existing regulations, and who therefore wished them to be abrogated. The first class of petitioners complained, that they were just recovering from a state of great depression, and that they required the protection which was now afforded them. The manufacturers, on the other hand, stated, that they were entitled to share the benefits which were at present exclusively enjoyed by the growers of corn. They urged, that, as the agriculturists had very lately received a considerable boon in the free exportation of wool, they were entitled to be relieved from the restrictions on the importation of corn. He expressed his regret at the decision which had been come to by his majesty's ministers to postpone for the present any alteration. He thought it was their duty to come to a decision on so important a subject at the earliest possible period. He perfectly agreed with the hon. member for Boston in thinking, that the country would be in a state of ferment and alarm; and he would ask whether it was right that such a state of things should continue until the next session, and, perhaps, until a general election took place? But, it was urged, that such a question should not be agitated, unless upon the most pressing necessity. He would ask, whether the price of the food of the people was not at all times a question of importance, and of pressing necessity? He would ask too, whether it was not better to discuss such a question at a time of general prosperity, than wait until additional protections were prayed for on the one hand, and petitions for cheap bread preferred on the other? At a period like the present, when the prosperity of the country was increasing, and when the minds of men were cool and undisturbed, it was, that a question of such vast national importance should be discussed. He hoped, therefore, that the hon. member for Bridgenorth would persevere in his motion; as he was sure that much advantage would be derived from discussion.

Mr. Wodehouse

expressed his dissent from the view which had been taken of this subject by the petitioners.

Mr. Frankland Lewis

said, that as for any idea which might be entertained of setting this subject at rest without a very full discussion, it was wholly out of the question. The matter was too important and too generally interesting to admit of any other mode of disposing of it. The law, as it existed, was bad, because it was placed upon a very inconvenient footing; and it was also wrong in two points; first, because the degree of protection was fixed in a depreciated currency, and it was therefore impossible now to ascertain its just amount; and secondly because the returns were made in an incorrect manner. He was perfectly ready to admit, that although he had voted in the year 1815 for the law as it was then altered, he was now sorry that he had done so, being convinced that the alteration between a free importation on the one hand, and the entire exclusion of corn on the other, was a most injudicious and erroneous regulation. He thought, however, that it was highly preposterous, that his right hon. friend, whose attention was occupied with so many subjects of not less importance than this, should be called upon at once to come to a decision upon a topic which would require such deliberate discussion. It was far too mighty to be grasped by any individual, and could only be safely and satisfactorily treated by the united consideration of the government and legislature.

Mr. Calcraft

thought, that ministers were bound to fix the earliest day for the decision of this important subject. His complaint against them was, first, that they had not done so; and, secondly, that they had not given the House timely intimation of their intention not to touch the question during the present session. He maintained that it was not too late to to enter into a revision of our Corn laws; and if it were, he agreed with his hon. friend, in thinking, that the session ought to be extended, in order to afford time for doing so. It was well known that the country was imposed upon by frauds in taking the averages, and that a remedy for the evil was loudly called for. He thought originally, and thought still, that the protecting duty was too high; but, notwithstanding this, and the great facility given to fraudulent returns of the prices, the right hon. gentleman was not inclined to go even so far as the averages. The course adopted by his majesty's ministers was, to say the leastof it, the most inconvenient that they could possibly have hit upon. The House and the country had a right to find fault with them for not having taken an earlier opportunity of making known their intentions on the subject. He hoped, at least as far as the averages were concerned, that ministers would consider their decision and immediately do something to correct the evils of the system.

Sir T. Lethbridge

said, that the landed interest had nothing to do with the bring- ing forward of this question at present. Since it had been agitated, considerable excitement had taken place in the country; and he thought that the right hon. gentleman ought to come forward with some measure, and take the subject out of the hands of his hon. friend. He never wished to see prices higher than they were at that moment, and should be happy to see the old principle of open ports and fixed duties again acted upon. There were at that moment 400,000 quarters of wheat in bond, which might be released with great benefit to the public. With respect to the amount of the duties, all he had to say was, that it was better they should be too high than too low? because it would then be easier to alter them.

Mr. Huskisson

hoped that the House would allow him, under the peculiar circumstances of the case, to go beyond the strict limit of an explanation, The hon. member for Wareham had complained, that ministers had not given notice that it was not their intention to bring forward any measures regarding the Corn laws this session. Now, he appealed to the experience of every member who heard him, whether it was at all the custom for government to give notice, not only of what they did, but of what they did not intend to do. He had said, however, that it was not his intention to take up the subject until next year; he had made no secret of it, but had undisguisedly told every member who chose to ask him the question. Another hon. member had inquired, whether the hon. gentleman had given his notice in concurrence with the wishes of the ministers? That question had been already answered. The hon. member for Taunton had complained of the present state of the Corn laws, as if it had been now for the first time admitted that they ought not to be permanent. He would, however, take that opportunity of observing, that, so far from the present laws being permanent, it was expressly stated in this report of the committees, in 1821 and 1822, to be only a temporary arrangement. He felt obliged to throw himself on the candour of the House, in the situation in which he found himself. He had entered the House at the close of the speech of the hon. member for the city, and had scarcely heard one word of it, when the question had been put to him, out of which the present discussion had arisen. He had replied —and it was the only reply he could make under such circumstances—that when the time for debating the subject should arrive, he would be ready to enter into it. At the same time, he did not hesitate to say, that he thought it would be impossible to come to any conclusion during the present session. The hon. member for Kent had said, that he wished no alteration to be made until some actual inconvenience had been felt. That, however, was begging the whole of the question; because, the very reason put forward by those who advocated an alteration in the law was the general inconvenience which had been experienced. He again appealed to the House, to give him credit for having weighed well the reasons which had induced him to withhold any proposal on the subject, and to wait until the motion of the hon. member for Bridgenorth should be before the House, when he intended to explain the operation of the change in the system of duties on the manufacturing interests, and the consequent effect which must be wrought in the corn laws. He should also be then prepared to state what it would be more easy to accomplish in the next session, with respect to those laws, and to show the expediency of adopting some protection, by means of duties, instead of the present objectionable alteration between a free trade in, and the entire exclusion of corn.

Mr. T. Wilson

expressed his satisfaction at the last part of the right hon. gentleman's speech, though he thought he had been guilty of some little inconsistency with respect to the Corn-laws, as compared with his other commercial regulations.

Ordered to lie on the table.