HC Deb 04 May 1826 vol 15 cc831-41
Lord Folkestone

presented a petition from Paisley, setting forth,

"That it appears to the petitioners that, of all the subjects which have engaged the attention of the House for many years, there is none so important in all its bearings as that with regard to the Currency of the country; that the petitioners are of opinion, that the fatal consequences resulting from the circulation of paper money are now too clearly demonstrated to require particular enumeration; that from its very nature it is liable to be suddenly augmented and diminished in quantity; that such sudden diminution or augmentation is productive of the utmost embarrassment to the pecuniary affairs of the people among whom it is current; that, while the quantity is increasing, it creates and cherishes a spirit of imprudent speculation, subversive of the patient habits of sober and persevering industry; that the inevitable effect of contracting the circulation is a depression of the price of all commodities and of property of every description; hence ensue bankruptcies, misery, and starvation; the arm of industry is paralyzed; prudence, diligence, and honesty, are robbed of their reward, and all confidence between man and man totally destroyed; such, may it please the House, is but a very faint out-line of the appalling picture which their unhappy country at this moment presents; that the petitioners are fervently anxious to impress upon the House, that the distress and wretchedness which the people of Scotland are now experiencing, on account of the drawing in of the base paper money, are absolutely indescribable; that, on this account, at least one third of the working population of that town have been thrown out of employment; and that, as no legal provision is made for their subsistence, their very existence is dependent on the precarious aid of charity; and the petitioners are apprehensive that, were the venders of that false money, which is almost the only circulating medium in that part of the country, called upon to pay their notes in the legal coin of the realm, the same deplorable occurrences might take place there which have been productive of so much misery in other parts of the united kingdom; for these and other reasons the petitioners are persuaded that the speedy introduction of a metallic currency throughout the whole kingdom is most essentially necessary, not only to restore domestic happiness, but also to preserve its existence as an independent state; that, although the petitioners are most desirous to see the fraudulent paper money superseded by a sterling gold and silver currency, yet they are decidedly convinced that this object cannot be attained without still further lessening the amount of the circulating money, by which operation the value of that which remains must be proportionally augmented, and therefore that it is obviously reasonable that an adjustment of all money contracts, a reduction of the government expenditure, of the taxes, and of the nominal amount of the national debt, ought at the same time to be made, correspondent with that increase of value; the petitioners do therefore humbly, yet urgently, entreat the House, to make such enactments as will deliver the people of Scotland, in common with their fellow-subjects, of the United Kingdom, from the scourge of a false and misery-producing paper money, and ensure to them the benefit of a sterling gold and silver currency, and at the same time to institute measures for a suitable reduction of every branch of the public expenditure, of the taxes, and of the nominal amount of the national debt, and also for making an equitable adjustment of all money contracts."

Lord Folkestone

said, he would take that opportunity of asking whether any report might be expected this session from the committee of Inquiry, relative to the circulation of small notes in Scotland and Ireland; and also whether, if that report should be laid before the House this session, it was intended to bring in any measure founded upon it?

Mr. Huskisson

said, he could only state, that the committee were still pursuing the inquiry. Whether, after the examination of all the evidence, they would have time to consider it in all its bearings, so as to make a report this session, was what he could not undertake to say. He could speak only as an individual member of the committee. He had been seldom absent from its sittings, but he felt it quite impossible to give any other answer than that which he had then returned.

Lord Folkestone

assured the right hon. gentleman, that he had put the question merely for the sake of information, and in order to ascertain how the fact really was. The petition was one highly deserving of the attention of the House. The distress at Paisley and Glasgow was extreme, yet not a word was there in the petition to show that the petitioners laboured in the slightest degree under the delusion, that their sufferings resulted from the Corn-laws. The petition was important, not only for what it did state, but for what it did not state. Ministers, in his opinion, were deeply culpable for their recent conduct, which tended directly to foment the delusion respecting the Corn-laws. The noble lord stated, that if an apprehension had not prevailed at Paisley, that parliament was about to be dissolved immediately, and the petition had remained there a few days longer for signatures, many thousands more would have been added to it.

Mr. Portman

wished that ministers would be content with the first resolution, relative to the admission of the bonded corn, and would refrain from pressing the second.

Mr. Bright

called on ministers to proceed with the measures they had introduced, relative to the corn question. An alteration of the Corn-laws was become essentially necessary to the welfare of the country. Instead of shrinking from their duty, he trusted they would keep parliament together; and, as they had touched it, that they would now thoroughly investigate the whole question. It would be monstrous if parliament were to separate, without having provided for the first wants of the people.

Mr. J. P. Grant

observed, that great attention was due to this petition. The manufacturers of Paisley were suffering as severe distress as any part of the kingdom yet not one single act of outrage had been committed there. He disagreed from them, however, as to several points. He was convinced that the result of the inquiry would be different from the opinions they had stated.

Mr. Monck

agreed with the petitioners as to the danger of a paper currency. Sometimes the circulation was inconveniently contracted, and at others excessively extended. The country was now endeavouring to pay in gold what it had borrowed in a depreciated paper. This attempt was the touchstone that was trying the safety of every class of the community. The difficulties of the state were, he believed, never greater. It was undoubtedly desirable to adhere to the ancient standard, and he thought that, of the two evils, the least would be, to adjust our difficulties to our currency, instead of endeavouring to adjust our currency to our difficulties.

Sir R. Wilson

defended the conduct of the majority who voted with ministers in favour of the proposed measures. The first measure seemed to have little opposition, but he thought the second, to which so many objections were made, not less necessary. Ministers, he contended, ought to have the discretionary power of opening the ports, in case of necessity. It was said, that if corn should rise to a famine price, ministers might do so on their own responsibility, and afterwards come to parliament for an indemnity; but such a course would have this disadvantage,—and a disadvantage, be it remembered, which would fall with most severity upon the agriculturists,—that ministers, in that case, must throw open the ports without any duty whatever, for they had no power to impose a tax without the sanction of parliament. In the measure proposed, provision would be made for letting in corn, upon the payment of duties to be regulated by the degree of necessity for opening at all.

General Gascoyne

said, that, from the circumstance of many petitions not having been presented this session against the Corn-laws, it was not to be inferred, that the people were indifferent to that question. If they had refrained from petitioning, it was because they considered it useless to do so, when it was understood no discussion was to take place. They viewed the proceedings of parliament, with reference to this subject, with the deepest anxiety. As it had been brought under consideration, it was his opinion that there ought to be a strict in- quiry before parliament separated. He hoped that ministers would persevere in the measures they had introduced. He did not export that, at that period of the session, the House would go fully into the corn question; yet it was of so much importance that something should be done as early as possible, that he wished the inquiry to be commenced immediately.

Mr. Maberly

thought, that, if any change was to be made in the currency of Scotland, such alteration would prove ruinous to the country. If Scotland knew its own interest, it would cover the table of the House with petitions against such a measure. Indeed, with the exception of the present petition, and one from the town of Dunse, there seemed to be but one opinion on this subject all through Scotland.

Sir F. Burdett

wished to guard himself against being supposed to acquiesce in the sentiments of the petition, or to concur in the doctrines which it contained. It put forth as an axiom, that which was extremely doubtful; and many of its conclusions were inconsistent one with the other. He, therefore, protested against letting that petition be considered as a manual of political economy on this subject. As to the question, whether the Corn-laws had been instrumental in creating any part of the present distress—he thought no man could have a doubt about it; but then, it was not in the manner which some gentlemen supposed. That distress was brought about by the recent interruption of trade; which circumstance must, of course, have had its effect upon agricultural produce. With respect to the question to which the petition related, whenever the noble lord brought forward the subject, he should endeavour to shew, that the conclusions contained in the petition were contradictory in themselves.

Lord Folkestone

considered it a very sensible and well-argued petition, and on that score he would venture to say it was deserving of the serious attention of the House. He was well aware that numerous petitions had been presented on the other side; but this showed that the unanimity of opinion on this subject was not so great as had been represented; and, within the last two months, a considerable change had taken place in the opinions of persons in Scotland on this question.

Sir T. Lethbridge

presented a petition from an individual named William Phillips, a corn-dealer, in the city of London, stating, that the petitioner was the holder of 4,000 quarters of wheat, which had been imported previously to the 15th of May, 1822, and on which a duty had been paid to government of 10s. per quarter; and that he had kept the wheat under the hope that it would arrive at a higher price, but that, owing to the measure now before the House, he was likely to sustain a very serious injury; and praying the House either that no alteration should be made in the Corn-laws during the present session, or that a proper compensation should be allowed to the petitioner for the loss which such alteration would occasion him. The hon. baronet said, he knew nothing of the petitioner, and the petition was certainly somewhat a singular one. The House would, naturally enough, be surprised that he should present a petition from a corn-dealer, but he felt it to be his parliamentary duty to present the petition of any man who might feel himself aggrieved. There was a strange kind of sensibility in these corn-dealers; and whilst he was on his legs, he would mention a subject which had come to his knowledge on the best authority. He understood that on Saturday last, before there was any declaration from the government of an intention to submit the proposition, of which notice had been given on Monday—before any one could have suspected that such a measure was in agitation, there was a considerable degree of activity in the trade of corn in the market of Liverpool. But he trusted the government had it in contemplation to set the question at rest altogether [cries of "No, no."]. He pressed it on the government to put an end to the subject, and for this reason.—The ministers had carried their proposition for unloosing the bonded corn, amounting to 3 or 400,000 quarters, and the effect of the discussions in that House had been already to produce a considerable stagnation in the corn transactions; so that no gentleman need apprehend any thing like high prices; at least, he was sure no man could entertain the idea of a famine price. He was convinced that none of the king's ministers had such an opinion; and if they had, it behoved them to lay the statements before the House on which that opinion was founded, and that might altogether alter the view of the case. If parliament were to be dissolved now, and a new parliament assembled soon alter, it would be much better to throw the responsibility of the measure upon them, than invest the ministers with this power; which, although they asked, they said they did not desire. He was satisfied that ministers would not abuse that power, yet he should prefer that they had it not, and he was sure that this was the sense of the country; for, if ministers were to get this power, it would be to place at their disposal the value of every man's acre in the country, at least, of every man's quarter of corn. Ministers knew very well the quantity of corn in the country, and therefore they could not apprehend a famine price; and he trusted that, having carried their first point, and thereby satisfied one part of the country, they would abandon their second point, and satisfy the other. He hoped the right hon. gentleman opposite would state, that it was the intention of the government to put off the measure, not merely for the present evening, but sine die.

Mr. Huskisson

said, that, as he should have an opportunity to-morrow of discussing this question, he would not now say one word on that subject; nor should he have risen at all, had he not been informed that the hon. baronet had, before he entered the House, made a statement which conveyed an insinuation that persons in Liverpool, if not in London, had received some early intimation of the measure which ministers intended to propose, before it had been brought forward in that House. And as, from his own connexion with Liverpool, he could not avoid concluding that such insinuation must have been directed against himself, he should not be performing a duty which he owed to himself, if he did not repel the charge with the utmost indignation, and most positively and unequivocally declare, that there was not the slightest foundation for it. Indeed, he defied any one to say, that any individual, either in London or Liverpool, had received the slightest intimation from him of the intention of government to bring forward this measure. He would state to the House the only circumstance that had occurred in the matter. He had received a letter about ten days ago, from two eminent corn-factors of Liverpool, and the proposition which that letter contained was, the propriety of allowing the distressed people in Lancashire to purchase the bonded corn, free of duty, for their own use. When he had received that letter, he had acted in a manner quite in consistent with his usual custom; for he had declined noticing it, and from that hour to this, the letter remained unanswered. But he trusted those gentlemen would be satisfied with the reasons which induced him to abstain from so doing. Therefore, if there had been activity in the corn trade, either in London, Liverpool, or elsewhere, he challenged the hon. baronet, and the whole world, to produce a single expression, or intimation the most remote or indirect, to connect the change of the market in the slightest degree with any act of his.

Sir E. Knatchbull

said, that the whole transaction had originated in a misapprehension; for it was impossible any man could believe that an individual of the high character which the right hon. gentleman held in the country, could be guilty of such conduct. But he must express his regret, that the government had felt it their duty, at this particular time, to agitate a question of so great delicacy that nothing but the most urgent necessity could justify them in bringing forward. He lamented the determination of government to bring forward the question tomorrow evening.

Mr. H. Sumner

said, that he did not place the least reliance on the report which had reached his ears respecting the stir in the corn trade in Liverpool on Saturday last. At the same time, he must say, it appeared to him incompatible with the discharge of the duties of the President of the Board of Trade, to represent such an important commercial town as Liverpool.

Sir T. Lethbridge

begged to assure the right hon. gentleman, that he had not the slightest intention of making any such insinuation against him as he had supposed, though he must still declare his belief respecting the activity which prevailed in the corn-market at Liverpool on the day mentioned.

Mr. Huskisson

expressed himself quite satisfied with the assurance given by the hon. baronet; but he had felt himself called upon, as a man of honour, to repel an insinuation which he had been given to understand had been thrown out. There was another remark made by the hon. member for Surrey, which he felt himself equally called upon to deny, namely, that it was impossible for him, holding the office he did, to represent the town of Liverpool. He repelled that charge also. He would tell the hon. member for Surrey, that he was as independent a member of that House as himself.

Sir F. Burdett

said, he had heard the remarks of the hon. baronet, and was so far from having had the slightest suspicion of the imputation which the right hon. gentleman supposed, that when he rose to repel it he was quite surprised.

Mr. Brougham

said, he was quite satisfied at the explanation given by the right hon. gentleman; but was not surprised at the indignation with which he had risen to repel the accusation. Nothing could be more satisfactory than the denial; and it appeared to him, that if such a charge was to be preferred, the situation of the right hon. gentleman would be one of extreme hardship: for the right hon. gentleman was placed in circumstances which precluded the possibility of his having made any communication on the subject; and for this simple reason, that on the very day alluded to, it was made a matter of charge against the right hon. gentleman, that, in truth and fact, he himself knew nothing at all about the matter. So far from there having been any decision on the question, neither the right hon. gentleman or his colleagues seemed to have had the slightest concert or deliberation; for they came down to that House, and submitted, as a matter of the greatest importance, a question, of which forty-eight hours before they had not the slightest intention. Before he sat down, he wished to offer an explanation of the vote he had given on a former evening, which was misunderstood by an hon. and learned friend, whom he did not now see in his place. It had been supposed, that they who had voted in the majority were desirous of stopping all inquiry into the distresses of the unfortunate sufferers in the North. He could only say, that as far as his vote went, and that of those who habitually acted with him, nothing could have been further from their thoughts; but, had they voted for the resolution of the hon. baronet, it would, in fact, have had the effect of getting rid altogether of the general measure, to which they attached the highest importance. They regarded even this partial measure as calculated, if not to mitigate, at least to guard against the increase of the existing distresses. Had he voted in any other way than in the majority he should have been guilty of gross inconsistency; but how the consistency of the gentlemen opposite could be made out, was a question with which he had no concern. On the 18th of April he and his friends insisted on the necessity of some measure respecting the Corn-laws, to establish fixed duties, and get rid of averages, in order to prevent the corn-dealer, the farmer, and consumer from being in a state of uncertainty. This measure was the next best thing to that which he and his friends desired, and therefore it was that they had given it their support.

Mr. Benett

said, that his hon. and learned friend had given a good explanation of his vote, but he thought it would require all the ingenuity of the right hon. gentlemen opposite to explain away the inconsistency of their conduct.

Mr. Peel

thought, that he should sufficiently answer what had fallen from the hon. gentleman by observing, that the measure proposed by the hon. member for Bridgenorth was intended to be a permanent one; whereas, the measure now proposed by ministers arose out of a case of necessity, and was only intended as a temporary expedient.

Sir J. Sebright

gave it as his decided opinion, and also as the opinion of all those with whom he had conversed on the subject, that, if this measure should be adopted, the Corn-law question would be settled, and that we should have the ports open at a duty of 12s. His own view of the Corn-laws did not differ much from that of the right hon. gentleman. He did not at all approve of them. He thought them prejudicial to the country. He wished to see the ports open at a fixed duty. As to what should be the amount of that duty, perhaps he might not agree with the right hon. gentleman. Ministers had been praised for their decision. It had been said, that nothing on earth should induce them to make any alteration in the Corn-laws this session; but the burning of a few looms had caused them completely to change their tone. Where was now their boasted resolution? For his own part, he made no scruple of saying, that he did not consider 12s. a sufficient protecting duty.

Lord Althorp

said, that he had, at one time, in common with the President of the Board of Trade, and others, considered the present session an unfit time for the discussion of the great question connected with the importation of foreign grain. But, after what had been already said and done with regard to the question, and when the House was actually, after all their declarations, in a committee on the Corn-laws, he could not continue to abide by that opinion, but would, notwithstanding the late period of the session, earnestly recommend them to settle the question at once, and abandon all temporising and partial propositions. He disagreed with the hon. baronet (sir T. Lethbridge) as to the nature of the course to be pursued; but he agreed with him most sincerely, that the matter ought to be set at rest as soon as possible. When it had been mooted so plainly, such a course would be most satisfactory to all parties; and he for one would vote against any temporary measures, in the hope that they might be able to secure a permanent arrangement.

Lord J. Russell

agreed with the noble lord as to the propriety of some such resolution. What they wanted was, steadiness in the conduct of government; and that would soon give steadiness to the laws affecting agriculture.

Mr. Whitmore

said, he did not wish to prolong the discussion, but he thought it important to observe, that whoever might suffer from a change in the Corn-laws, the petitioner, at all events, had no reason to complain. When the permission of taking out bonded corn, upon the payment of ten shillings, was given last year, it was with the understanding, that the question of the Corn-laws was to be decided during the present session; and, therefore, if he was to suffer from any change in the laws, he could not say now he had not received sufficient notice of the alteration.

Ordered to lie on the table.