HC Deb 01 December 1826 vol 16 cc208-16

On the order of the day for going into a committee of supply,

Lord Folkestone

took the opportunity, seeing the President of the Board of Control in his place, of asking whether it was the intention of ministers to introduce any measure respecting the Currency, in consequence of what had taken place in the Committee on the Small Note Bill in the last session of the last parliament?

Mr. Huskisson

said, that he was not at that moment prepared to reply to the question of the noble lord,

Lord Folkestone

said, he thought the present a proper opportunity for remarking upon the extraordinary situation in which parliament was placed, by the conduct of ministers, with respect to the Currency and the Corn-laws. Parliament was assembled at an inconvenient season of the year, and at a time that, it was admitted by all, the greatest distress pervaded every class of the community. Yet they were told by ministers, that no discussion should take place upon the subject, on which the greatest excitation was raised throughout the nation. When the members met together, they were told that no information should be given; that no debate should take place on these points, on which information and debate were most desirable; in short, that the only purpose for which their attendance was rendered requisite, was to pass an act of indemnity to ministers for a measure, which more than any other measure of their administration, had obtained for them the approbation of the country. He saw no ground for this delay. There had been, indeed, a great deal of blustering, that come what may, ministers would abstain from declaring their views; but they were greatly mistaken, if they thought that such a declaration on their part would satisfy the country. Both parties—those who thought that the agriculture of the country ought to receive additional protection, and those who thought that it ought to be deprived of the protection which it already possessed —were equally interested in the determination of the question; and in the meanwhile, therefore, the general agitation was in consequence extreme. He was utterly at a loss to conceive what rational advantage could ensue from the delay in settling so important a matter. To talk of inconvenience was to trifle with the feelings of the whole country; and was more especially absurd, when it was perfectly well known, that on former occasions inconvenience was not deemed a sufficient reason for postponing the consideration of matters of national importance. He perfectly well recollected, that some years ago, when a scarcity was expected, parliament sat during the months of November and December, expressly to make such an alteration in the Corn-laws as might meet the anticipated necessity. When it was thought expedient by his majesty's government to propose certain strong measures, the tendency of which was to violate the liberty of the subject, no similar plea of inconvenience was allowed to prevent the meeting of parliament at the present season of the year. He could not conceive why his majesty's ministers had been unable to make up their minds on this vital question before the meeting of parliament. When he had just now put a question to the right hon. gentleman opposite, as to any intention to renew the committee of last session on the state of the Currency, with a view of settling certain points still mooted, the right hon. gentleman was not prepared to answer the question. As it was impossible that his majesty's government could have any measures in contemplation with which that right hon. gentleman was not perfectly acquainted, he did not think that he should be acting unfairly towards the right hon. gentleman's colleagues, if he inferred from the right hon. gentleman's disclaimer, that they had no intention at present of proposing any measure with respect to the two important subjects to which he had alluded. That was a statement, indeed, which he had heard in other quarters. Recollecting as he did how the last session opened; recollecting that in February, only six weeks after the occurrence of what was generally known by the name of "the panic," the country had been described by the right hon. gentleman and by his colleagues, as having been within eight-and-forty hours of returning to a state of barter, a state of utter confusion, entirely incompatible with its welfare and existence, and therefore that it was necessary to call the immediate attention of parliament to the providing of a remedy calculated to prevent the recurrence of such a danger:—recollecting that all the evils which had been endured had been attributed, and most justly attributed, to the deranged state of the currency—recollecting that on that occasion his majesty's ministers lost no time in bringing the question under the consideration of the House in a manner which met with his entire concurrence; recollecting all these things, he owned he was surprised that the plea of inconvenience was now set up, in order to avoid the discussion of a subject allowed on all hands to be one of the most important that could by possibility be brought under the consideration of the legislature: The consequence of the proceedings adopted by his majesty's government at the commencement of the last session was, that a bill was introduced for the purpose of putting an end, under certain exceptions and modifications, to the circulation of small notes. That bill, however, experienced material alterations in passing through the House. It being contended, that the principles respecting paper currency applicable to England were not applicable to Scotland and Ireland, and especially to the former, a select committee was appointed to take that part of the subject into consideration. Every body must recollect, that, towards the close of the last session —a session which it was known immediately preceded the dissolution of parliament—an extreme degree of hurry prevailed in all the proceedings of parliament. The Corn question, the Currency question, and a great many other questions of importance were postponed; and the report of the committee to which he had alluded was not brought up, until within a few days of the prorogation, and, together with the evidence, was not printed until several months after the dissolution, of parliament. From that evidence, it would appear, that the real difficulties of the question had not been mooted, or canvassed, in the committee. It had been argued by various gentlemen, and especially by the right hon. gentleman opposite, that, to restore the currency to a satisfactory state would be to restore agriculture to its former easy situation. And yet the House would be surprised to hear, that, in the whole of the proceedings of the committee to which he had adverted, no inquiry was made by the right hon. gentleman, or by any other member of it, as to the effect which had been produced on the agriculture of Scotland by the substitution of a paper for a metallic circulation. With respect to that part of the inquiries of the committee which related to Ireland, it had undergone a most imperfect consideration. The conclusion of the report of the committee stated, "That in the imperfect state of the information which the committee had obtained with respect to Ireland, they were unable to come to any decisive opinion on that part of the question submitted to their investigation." Now, was it fitting that a great national question should be left in this undetermined condition? Was it fitting, when all our distresses had been over and over again attributed to the state of the currency, that the real state of that currency should be left in doubt? The committee asserted, that, their information was so imperfect on the state of the Irish currency, that they could not give an opinion; and yet this very question, on which that of the Corn-laws, and so many others of importance, were said to depend, was to be left in this uncertain state. The committee went on to say, "It will probably be deemed advisable to fix a definite, though not an early, period, at which the circulation of Ireland of all notes below 5l. shall cease. And it is deserving of consideration, whether measures might not be adopted in the interim for the purpose of ensuring such a final result by gradual though cautious advances towards it." And yet, notwithstanding this uncertainty, the House was to be left in darkness, as to whether any further measures were to be introduced, and ministers were unprepared to say whether they would take any step on that important subject. He repeated that parliament and the country were most unfairly treated by ministers, by the protraction of those important subjects, and he felt it his duty thus early to enter his protest against the continuance of such delays.

Mr. Huskisson

observed, that the noble lord had discovered more in the answer which he had returned to the noble lord's question, than that answer really implied. The noble lord had asked him, whether it was intended to renew the committee of last session on the Small Notes bill, or to take any steps with regard to the report which had been presented by that committee. His answer was, that he was not prepared to inform the noble lord whether or not it was intended by government to propose either the renewal of the committee, or the adoption of any proceedings founded on their report. From that answer the noble lord chose to infer prematurely that no steps whatever would actually be taken. He again stated, that his majesty's government had not had an opportunity of considering if it was necessary or not to renew the committee in question; and, therefore, he was not prepared to say whether they would do so, or whether they would take any steps on the report already presented. The noble lord expressed his surprise, that when a report had been presented in a former session, on a subject involving questions of the greatest public interest, his majesty's government ten days after the meeting of parliament on a special occasion, and at an unusual period, declined any proceeding on that subject until after the recess. The noble lord, who was a great friend to the liberties of the people, and a great stickler for the constitution, could not see for what purpose parliament was assembled, if not to dispose of the currency and corn questions. It was assembled in deference to the constitution: it was assembled because his majesty's ministers had advised a breach of the law on a subject of great and peculiar importance. His majesty's ministers conceived, that having violated the laws, they were bound to call parliament together to sit in judgment on their acts, and either to indemnify them for what they had done, or put an end to the continuance of the violation. His majesty's ministers conceived that on the very same day on which they advised a violation of the constitution, they ought also to advise his Majesty to call parliament together as soon as they could conveniently be assembled. It was on that ground, and for that purpose, that parliament had been summoned to meet; and he was sure it was not surprising to the majority of the House, or to the country at large, that it was not proposed to parliament, at the present time of the year, to proceed to the permanent settlement of such great questions as those connected with the corn and the currency. It was never usual to bring on important questions such as those, within a few days of an expected adjournment. The noble lord must be aware, that from the circumstance of this being a new parliament, important questions could not, for some time, be proceeded with to any great length; and it would be extremely unfair and injurious to the country, to bring forward any important measure which could not be pursued to its termination. The noble lord said, that all this was a pretence; and that his majesty's ministers had not made up their minds with respect to the plan which they intended to propose regarding the Corn-laws; and that it was because they were not ready, that they did not come forward. He could only say, in answer, that his majesty's ministers were prepared and agreed with respect to what measures they should bring forward, with a view to the permanent settlement of the Corn-laws; but that they thought it would not be conducive to the interests of the country; they thought it would be calculated to occasion a most injurious division of feeling and conflict of opinion, if they brought forward such a subject at a time when it was impossible to pursue it to its accomplishment. The noble lord said, that he recollected parliament having been called together at the present period of the year, for the general despatch of business; and among other instances, had specified one in which it was assembled for the purpose of providing means to obviate an apprehended scarcity. But that was quite beside the present question. The present case was simply this—ministers having adopted certain measures which appeared to them to be expedient, although in violation of the law, parliament had been assembled to say whether they had done right or not. A period might be very unfit for the consideration of a permanent alteration in the law, which was extremely fit for the consideration of the propriety of a temporary expedient which had grown out of an urgent occasion. He perfectly admitted to the noble lord, that the question respecting the Corn-laws must be looked at with more or less reference to the question respecting the currency. But what he maintained was, that those two questions —questions of such magnitude—could not be advantageously considered at the present inconvenient season; and that it was much more wise, therefore, to postpone them until the ordinary period. The noble lord had reproached him with not having in the committee on small notes directed any inquiries, to ascertain how far the comforts of the agricultural labourers in Scotland had been affected by the introduction of one-pound notes. The fact was, however, that so remote was the period at which those notes had been introduced into the Scotch circulation, that nothing could now be known of the effect which had been produced by them; and therefore that he should have been laughed at if he had put any such questions as the noble lord had suggested. He was satisfied that neither by the House nor by the country would his majesty's government be censured for not bringing forward the subjects of the currency or the Corn-laws, at this particular period.

Mr. E. D. Davenport

maintained, that the first subject that ought to be considered, was the best mode of placing the currency on a more stable footing; and that with regard to the price of corn, or of any other commodity, it was useless to discuss it, while one of the principal elements of that price remained unfixed. When he reflected on the manner in which the currency had been mismanaged during the last ten years; the fluctuations which had taken place in it; and the way in which, by such means, large classes of the people had been robbed, without knowing how they were robbed; he felt that it was the question which, before all others, ought to receive the grave consideration of parliament; and he pledged himself, after the holidays, to call the attention of the House to it, and to show that it was the fluctuations in the currency, and not the speculations of individuals, that had produced the gigantic evils with which the country had been visited during the last year.

Colonel Torrens

expressed his satisfaction at the postponement of the consideration of the corn question. The appearance of things indicated the probability of a scarcity; and, if so, by the spring, the evil of protracting the existence of the present laws on the subject would be too manifest to be denied by any one.

Mr. Benett

objected to the postponement, and observed, that ministers were bound to state to the House the course which they intended to propose on the corn question. As long as this was unknown, the country would be kept in a state of suspense, highly injurious to all parties. No man was safe in entering into any transaction connected with the purchase or sale of land, while he was ignorant of what might be the future proceeding on that question. He therefore regretted the delay, and for the very same reasons on which the gallant colonel had founded the expression of a contrary sentiment. It was said, that every day would show more and more the impolicy of those laws. He expected that various meetings would be held in different parts of the country, some to obtain their repeal and others to obtain protection for the landed interest. At those meetings he anticipated that violent and intemperate language would be used by both parties, and more particularly by that party which sought to alter the present system. That this would be the natural effect of postponing the discussion, no man of any reflection would venture to deny. Various meetings had been held at different places; and he must particularly mention the one held in the Common-hall of London, in which the landlords had been branded with the name of monopolists, and other absurd titles, but though they had been exposed to this species of abuse, no retaliation had been exercised by the landlords. The language used by the meeting at Manchester was scarcely less violent; and the only place which had discussed the question with temperance and moderation was Leeds, where several gentlemen had argued it with a degree of talent and information which would not have disgraced the best speakers in that House. For himself, he could only say, that however closely he might be connected with the landed interest, he had always acted upon a thorough conviction, that the interests of commerce, manufactures, and agriculture, were intimately combined.

The House then went into the committee.