HC Deb 01 May 1826 vol 15 cc764-74
Mr. Secretary Canning

rose to give notice of a motion for to-morrow, with regard to the distresses which now pressed down the working and manufacturing population of the country. He was sure, he said, that a measure of relief at the present crisis would come home to the feelings of every member of the House; and, whatever might be the inexpediency of interfering to disturb a measure which government had refrained from altering, there were moments when general expediency should give way to cases of particular emergency. Under the existing distresses, it was the intention of government to propose to the House a measure the least pregnant with evil, and the most calculated to do good. In the neighbourhood of those districts where the distresses most generally prevailed, there was a large quantity of corn in bond, which, by the existing law, could not now come into consumption. On a late occasion, when the corn question was debated in the House, government had decided, that no alteration should this year be made in the Corn-laws; and the determination was made in the firm persuasion that the present was not the time to bring the measure forward; and their opinion on that point was still the same. It did appear, however, that, under the present painful circumstances, a measure might be resorted to, without in any degree prejudicing the general question. It was therefore the intention of government to propose a bill to enable the quantity of corn accumulated to come into consumption. It appeared that the quantity of bonded corn in the whole kingdom—including Hull, Liverpool, and other sea-ports—amounted to 250,000, or 300,000 quarters; and the letting out of that quantity into the market could have no material effect on the agricultural interest, and would do away with that actual state of distress and suffering in the very neighbourhood where a principal part of that corn was bonded. The mere fact of the co-existence of great and urgent distress, with ample means of affording relief, was in itself the strongest argument in favour of the measure which government proposed to introduce; and he was quite sure that every gentleman present must feel the necessity of interfering to alleviate the present season of calamity. As it was impossible to ascertain the state of the future harvest, and to calculate how far it might be productive or otherwise, it was also the intention of his majesty's government to apply to parliament for a bill, empowering them, during the recess, to give general or partial importation to foreign corn, according to the circumstances of the country. Those were the measures which government had to submit to the consideration of the House, believing that, under the present pressure of severe distress, there could be but one opinion as to the necessity of affording relief. Circumstances might arise in which it would be necessary to continue the act when the bonded corn should have been consumed. Last year the importers of corn had a claim on his majesty's, ministers because they imported under the conviction that the Corn-laws would have been repealed; but the case was different with respect to the holders of corn at the present time, who introduced it, not in ignorance, but to take its chance of high or low prices. He supposed it was hardly necessary to say that, in proposing the present measure, there was no intention on the part of government to benefit those persons who might be the holders of bonded corn. Under the exercise of that power which it was proposed that parliament should place at the discretion of government, it was intended to fix the duty on foreign corn at 12s. the quarter. Those were the suggestions which his majesty's government had thought proper to offer. With respect to the act of the 3rd of George 4th cap. 60, there was no intention whatever of disturbing or interfering with that act, further than might be necessary to carry into effect the measure which he had now proposed. The right hon. gentleman concluded by moving that the House should to-morrow resolve itself into a committee on that act.

Mr. Tierney

rose only for the purpose of saying that he felt the most perfect satisfaction at what he had heard from the right hon. gentleman. He entirely concurred in all that he had stated. He trusted that the proposition would meet with the unanimous concurrence of the House; for this was an occasion on which it was peculiarly desirable that no discussion that could possibly savour of disagreement might occur.

Mr. Philips

said, that he also felt great gratification at hearing that it was the intention of government to propose a measure likely to be productive of such important benefit to the country. He was not disposed to enter at present into any discussion; but he could not avoid stating what he had recently heard from a very intelligent gentleman connected with the manufacturing districts. It was his own opinion, that the stock of cotton in the possession of the manufacturers was not very great, owing to the very high prices to which it had been artificially raised last year. In this opinion, he was fully borne out by the statement of the gentleman to whom he alluded. That gentleman stated further, that his House was ready to go on with business, if there was any prospect of obtaining returns; but at present the state of the exchanges was not favourable, and remittances could not be made without a certain loss. He added, that, if an importation of foreign corn was allowed, it would afford an opportunity of obtaining a vent for their produce, and the advantage which the manufacturers desired by this measure was not so much the lowering of the price of corn here, as the obtaining a mode of disposing of their goods elsewhere. Though he would not offer any objection to the temporary measure now proposed, which he felt would be productive of much good, yet he thought the most effectual way to prevent a recurrence of the calamities under which the manufacturing districts were now suffering, would be to allow as a permanent measure the importation of corn under certain fixed duties.

Mr. Canning

rose for the purpose of explanation, lest the speech of the hon. gentleman should lead the House into any mistake, with regard to the proposition he intended to submit to it tomorrow. It was not the intention of government to enter into a revision of the general question of the Corn-laws, and for this reason—that the circumstances which justified government in this partial step would unfit the country for a temperate discussion of that measure. He would give no opinion as to the point to which the hon. gentleman had adverted; nor did he wish to be implicated by what he had said. He wished it to be distinctly understood, that the present was intended only as a temporary measure, and to meet a partial exigency.

Mr. Philips

said, he so understood it, but he had taken the opportunity of stating the opinion of a very intelligent manufacturer, that the importation of corn would be a most important advantage; not so much, as it would lower the price of corn, but as it would afford the means of a vent for a large proportion of manufactured goods.

Mr. Ellice

rose for the purpose of asking the right hon. gentleman, whether the present was the only measure which government had to propose to the House? He was aware of the steps which had been taken to repress any violent proceedings in the manufacturing districts, and he concurred in their propriety; for, what ever was the cause of the distress there, any attempts upon the security of property ought not to be suffered to exist for one hour. He was satisfied that the power to put an end to violent proceedings was in good hands, and that it would be used with firmness and moderation. But, at the same time, that violent proceedings should be repressed, some immediate relief should be given to the great sufferings which pressed on the unfortunate manufacturers of those districts. Aware of the great extent and severity of the distress, he had come down to the House that day, to ask whether it was not the intention of government to grant some direct and immediate relief; and, if he should be answered in the negative, to give notice of a motion for the grant of a specific sum for that object, and introduce the subject on the discussion of the motion of his hon. friend (Mr. Hume) on the state of the nation, on Thursday. The mere act of making corn more plentiful and cheap would not relieve the wants of the starving manufacturers. They should be put in possession of the means of buying that corn. As far as information from the distressed districts might be relied upon, the case had now arrived at that urgent crisis which fully justified the immediate interference of parliament by a grant of pecuniary aid. He wished, therefore, to know from the right hon. gentleman, whether government intended to propose any measure of the kind to the House?

Mr. Canning

said, it was not at present the intention of government to submit any other measure to the House than those of which he had already given notice. He did not, however, think proper to enter at that moment into any discussion of the grounds on which the decision of government rested.

Mr. Ellice

said, that under these circumstances he would reserve himself until he should hear the propositions of ministers to-morrow, and exercise his own discretion as to whether he should bring forward the subject in a separate motion on Thursday.

Mr. E. Wodehouse

expressed his full concurrence in the measure proposed by government, and agreed also that the present was not the fit moment for entering into a discussion upon it. At the same time, after what had fallen from the hon. member for Wotton-Bassett, he could not confine himself to a simple acquiescence in the proposition. He was anxious to state—

Mr. Tierney

begged to put it to the hon. member, whether he was not entering on matter which must lead to the discussion that he himself had already deprecated? Any partial discussion, until the matter came regularly before the House must be injurious.

Mr. Canning

wished to remind the hon. member, that the question did not stand now for consideration. But nothing would be lost by a delay of the discussion until the matter was brought regularly forward, as the House must be aware that the discussion on the bill which it was intended to introduce, would let in ail the topics which it could be possible to urge at present. He also put it to the House, whether it would not be better that, in the outset of measures on this critical occasion, there should not appear to be that difference of opinion amongst members, respecting the relief to be afforded, which, if it did not altogether spoil the effect of, would in a degree paralyse the exertions for, relief, which were likely to be made throughout the country.

Mr. E. Wodehouse

said, he had no intention of going into any discussion at present, or to offer the slightest opposition to the measure. On the contrary, he congratulated the country on the proposition by which a very considerable relief would be afforded to the distressed districts. At the same time he must say, that the country gentlemen, who really were all disposed to concur in any measure by which relief might be afforded, were not fairly dealt with by some hon. members who differed from them on the general question of the Corn-laws. It was not long since the supporters of those laws were told in that House, that they were devoid of common honour, common honesty, and common sense, and were also said to be devoid even of Christian and humane feeling. This was the language held by the noble member for the county of York.

[Here there was a very general cry of "order," in the midst of which, lord Milton rose, and was about to address the chair, but there seeming to be a very general disposition in the House that the discussion should not be carried further, the noble lord resumed his seat without making any remark.]

Mr. James

said, that he fully concurred in the observation of the hon. member for Coventry, that some immediate pecuniary relief should be afforded by parliament. It would be absolutely useless to throw a supply of corn into the market, if some means were not afforded to the starving poor to purchase it. He thought that ministers would do well to imitate the excellent example of his majesty, and give up a part of their large salaries to prevent their countrymen from starving. They ought also to review the estimates, in order to ascertain what sums might be saved, to rescue thousands of poor starving manufacturers from destruction. Was this a time to lay out so large a sum as 9,000l. in the purchase of two pictures, when the inhabitants of whole districts were dying with hunger—when they were told of one unfortunate woman who had stolen a joint of meat, and who, being pursued by the owner, was discovered in the act of dividing it in an uncooked state among her half-famished children—when they heard of another female who continued for twenty-four hours after giving birth to a child, without being able to obtain food or sustenance of any kind—when they heard of some unfortunate men lying under the feet of the horses belonging to the troops sent to repress their violence, and praying that they might be trampled to death, rather than that they should perish through hunger—when they heard of other wretched men feeding on cats—[here there were evident symptoms of impatience on the part of many hon. members.] He hoped the House would hear him for a short time. It was the last time he should ever address them; for if his constituents were to give him 1000l. a-year, he would not consent to sit any longer in that House. He, however, begged now to be heard, and he would not detain the House ten minutes. He did not think he was out of order in any thing he had said, and he begged again to ask, whether, under the dreadful circumstances of want of food which he had stated, some immediate relief should not be afforded by parliament?

Mr. H. Sumner

rose to order, and wished to have the opinion of the chair as to whether the hon. member was not irregular in thus proceeding, there being no question before the House?

It was intimated to the hon. member that there was a question before the House.

Mr. James

then resumed. He must say, that any man who did not feel deeply for the frightful distress which now existed in so many parts of the country, did not deserve the name of Englishman. Why, if the unfortunate people now suffering were blacks, the House would never hear the end of it. The table would be loaded with petitions from all parts of the country, as they had recently seen with respect to negro slavery. Why did not the party called the saints come forward on this occasion, and exert themselves in the mitigation of human suffering which existed almost at their own doors? Why did they not get rid of their colonial, or rather anti-colonial office, and send down part of the large sums subscribed to the sufferers at Blackburn? Half the sums which they had expended in printing petitions, would, if sent down and distributed among the distressed districts, do more good in a day, than they with all their printing and parchment would be able to effect during their lives. He would repeat, that the distress was of that dreadful character, that it required immediate and substantial relief; and ft was the duty of that House to afford it at any expense. It was not too late for ministers to review the estimates, and try what sums might be reduced, in order to save starving multitudes. If, however, this course was not pursued—if, when the people asked for bread, they gave them bayonets, they would find it would not do. It would therefore be better at first to adopt that course by which the most speedy relief could be afforded.

Mr. T. Wilson

said, that while he concurred with his majesty's ministers in the propriety of the measure of which they had given notice, he also agreed with the hon. member for Coventry, that that measure alone would not be sufficient. It would be necessary to give the people some means of purchasing the bread thus rendered cheaper. It was not a want of corn but a want of employment, and consequently of the means of purchasing food, which caused the distresses now felt in the manufacturing districts. He had every hope that the meeting to be held in the city to-morrow would be productive of much; but still he could not anticipate that its result would be sufficient to meet the evil to its whole extent. Under these circumstances, he thought that government ought to come forward with some proposition for affording pecuniary aid; and that, if any measure was intended, it ought to be made known at once, intead of going to the city for relief in the first instance. He would suggest that, if pecuniary aid was afforded, it might be advanced to the parishes in the distressed districts in aid of the poor-rates, and the application of it confided to the local authorities, who would have the best means of knowing cases in which relief was most required.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that he earnestly hoped that those citizens of London who had the means of contributing to the relief of the distress now existing, would not be checked in their charitable efforts by any thing that had fallen from the hon. gentleman who had just resumed his seat. Government had felt it their duty to step forward in aid of those efforts, and the House must know that their situation was one full of difficulty. But, in submitting any proposition to parliament, the thing which of all others they deprecated was, that what they felt themselves bound to do should have, the slightest tendency to damp that generous ardour in the cause of humanity, which had hitherto been, and he hoped would always continue to be, the characteristic of this country, and the ready means of animating all classes of his majesty's subjects to the performance of their public duties.

Mr. Secretary Peel

hoped he might be allowed to add a word to what had fallen from his right hon. friends. It had been his painful duty to receive reports of the distress which existed, and of the disorders which arose out of it, and to take the most effectual steps in his power to repress those disorders, and to prevent their recurrence. Yet, while he did this, he could not withhold the expression of his deep commiseration at the severity of the distress, or his admiration at the patience and forbearance with which (with some few exceptions) that severity of suffering had hitherto been borne in the manufacturing districts. He had every confidence in the effect of the measures now proposed, and of the exertions which he had no doubt would be made to render them still more effectual; and he hoped that this occasion would be the means of strengthening those bonds which united the higher and the lower classes in this country, by affording additional manifestations of great liberality on the one side, and of a grateful sense of it on the other. He trusted that they who were blessed with superfluous wealth would use their efforts on this occasion in the most effectual manner to mitigate and, if possible, remove the sufferings of their distressed countrymen. Immediate and active measures for this purpose would be considered more necessary here, when it was recollected what had been already done by the charitable efforts of the local authorities and the affluent residents in the districts. In some places, three subscriptions had been already raised; in others most liberal donations had flowed from the bounty of private individuals; and, in all, the most humane exertions had been made by the rich to administer to the wants of their poor neighbours. All these had yet been found insufficient to meet the evil; but he looked forward with a confident hope that the result of the meeting, which was to be held in the city to-morrow, would accomplish that object.

Sir J. Wrottesley

said, that, if the whole of the country gentlemen knew, as they were now sure to know, of this proposition, it would meet with their full con- currence. They would, also, he had no doubt, contribute their individual exertions to promote the benevolent object which the intended meeting in the city had in view. Much, he knew, might be expected from the result of that meeting; and, recollecting what had been done on a former occasion, he was sure that that expectation would not be disappointed. He remembered that a few years ago great distress existed in the county which he represented. The resident gentry subscribed most liberally towards its alleviation; all their efforts would nevertheless have been ineffectual, but for the aid derived from a committee sitting in London for the purpose of receiving subscriptions. That committee was headed by a most excellent and charitable individual, who had at the time a seat in that House, he alluded to Mr. Wilberforce; and by its humane and active exertions many were saved from starvation. He had another object in mentioning this circumstance. Previously to that time, he had frequently been called out to repress disturbances; but, since this relief had been afforded, and the sympathy and kindness of the rich manifested, a degree of corresponding respect and affection had been shewn towards them by the poor. In their feelings and conduct they had been, from that time to the present, the most exemplary part of the labouring population in England. He would conclude by expressing a hope, that some course would, on the present occasion, be adopted towards the distressed classes in Lancashire, and that it would be attended with similar salutary results.

Mr. J. Smith

said, he did not rise for the purpose of prolonging this discussion, but merely to make a remark, which might be important to be known; namely, that there existed in the city a very general sentiment, that on such occasions as that of the meeting to be held to-morrow, the inhabitants of London were not efficiently assisted by persons of rank and fashion at the west end of the town. He did not make this remark without foundation; for he himself had witnessed it in several instances. He hoped, however, that those to whom he alluded, who could spare time, would attend at the meeting to-morrow, and that they who might not be able to attend would send liberal subscriptions. He hoped this hint would not be lost at the present alarming crisis, when every possible exertion should be made by all classes to alleviate the sufferings of the starving manufacturers.

Mr. Curteis

expressed his concurrence in the measure, and added, that he did not believe there was one among the country gentlemen who was not ready to do every thing in his power to relieve the distresses of the manufacturing classes. The measure now stated to the House would, he had no doubt, give much relief. At the same time, he should hope that the right hon. gentleman would, in carrying it into effect, keep within the limits he had prescribed. He admitted and lamented the existence of the distresses in the north; but he could assure the House, that there also existed a considerable degree of distress among the agricultural classes in the south. Government, he was glad to say, had behaved with great kindness in answer to several applications made to them on the subject, and he trusted that some applications now before them, would meet with similar attention.

Mr. Canning

assured the hon. member, that he should consider himself as acting most unworthily, if, under cover of a temporary measure, he should either now, or at any future time, insidiously carry it further, so as to affect the greater question; with which he would admit it was in some degree allied. While he expressed this on his own part, he would hope that the hon. member would not complicate this question, by mixing it up with measures with which it was not necessarily connected.

The motion was agreed to.