HC Deb 11 May 1826 vol 15 cc1122-35

On the order of the day for the second reading of this bill,

Sir T. Lethbridge

said, he would not detain the House by a repetition of the arguments that bad been urged against the bill; but his opinions as to its injustice and impolicy were unchanged, and he therefore should take the sense of the House upon the second reading. He objected to it chiefly as a measure totally uncalled for by present circumstances. Though he thought that, generally speaking, it was a bad system to adopt, to legislate according to the feelings of people out of doors, which the hon. member for Aberdeen had just professed his willingness to do with regard to his machinery, as he considered it to be the duty of that House the rather to lead public opinion than to follow it; yet, as the doctrine of public feeling had been seconded by the president of the Board of Trade, and by the secretary for the Home Department, he should think himself justified in adopting the same line of argument. The first class which, to a man, were opposed to the measure, were the corn-dealers,—a class with which he did not generally sympathise. A great excitement had been created amongst that class, on account of the attacks which had been made on their property; but that body could meet and express their opinion and feelings simultaneously, as they all met at the corn market; but not so the corn growers, who were diffused throughout the country without any means of communication. If, therefore, he felt for the corn-dealers, he felt doubly for the corn-growers; as the present measure militated principally against their interest. There were 400,000 quarters of bonded corn to be introduced into the market, and 500,000 quarters to be imported; and all this at a time when it was known that there was abundance of corn in the granaries of the country. He denied that the corn had been kept back in the hopes that there would be a scarcity; though he would admit that it was reserved from the prospect of a better market. If ministers were to have the discretion they asked for, he did not wish them to state the price at which foreign corn was to be imported; he would rather that they did not: the measure was theirs, and it was right that they should take all the responsibility, if they took any. He, therefore, was glad that they had said nothing regarding either the price or the duty.

Sir W. W. Wynn

said, that at the first introduction of this measure he was not disposed to view it in a favourable light; but, after the best consideration he had been enabled to give it, he thought the decision which the House had come to on the subject was highly creditable to it, and showed the feeling which it entertained for the distresses of the country. He believed that the fears of many hon. members were unfounded, as to the quantity of corn now in bond. It had been stated at 400,000 quarters; but he had reason to think that it did not exceed 269,000 quarters. Peeling that the measure was not likely to be productive of the injury which some hon. members anticipated, he would vote for the second reading; but he would reserve himself as to the details of the measure, until it should be in the committee.

Colonel Wood

regretted that the hon. baronet had determined to take the sense of the House on this measure; for he thought the general question lost much in the opinion of the country by those frequent divisions. If, however, the hon. baronet pressed it to a division, he would vote for the second reading. He would not do so because he approved of the bill as a whole. And here he would observe, in reference to what had fallen from the right hon. Secretary for Foreign Affairs on a former evening, that he would not be one of his "compurgators" in bearing him out as to the necessity of this measure. He would, however, go to a committee, and he would there propose that 65s. be the price at which foreign corn should be imported, with a duty. This he thought would satisfy the country, and be a most important alteration in the Corn-laws. He would reserve his arguments on this point until he went into the committee, when he hoped he should be able to persuade the committee of the advantage of such a regulation. Some hon. members had wished to have a free trade with a fixed duty, but he thought such a step extremely objectionable; for no fixed duty ought to be allowed to continue at a scarcity price. It would therefore be idle to suppose that a fixed duty would settle the question for ever. When a scarcity arose, they would have to come to parliament again to alter that fixed duty. But it was said, that if the ports were opened at a fixed duty, no scarcity could arise. He had read Mr. Jacob's report on the subject of foreign supply, and he found that the utmost we could now expect from the Baltic would be 500,000 quarters. The hon. member went on to contend, that a graduated scale would also be insufficient. The only safe mode would be the present law modified, by reducing the import duty as low as possible, consistently with the state of the country.

Mr. Bankes

said that the measure, as it now stood, was different from that which had been first introduced. The alterations made were certainly improvements; for had the first proposition been carried, to open the ports at a duty of 12s., there was no doubt, whatever hon. gentlemen might say to the contrary, that that would continue to be the duty, whenever the question might be discussed hereafter. But, notwithstanding the alterations that had been made, he still thought the question extremely objectionable. His first objection was, that the agitation of the Corn-laws was not at all necessary at the present moment. The introduction of the measure at this time showed a great inconsistency on the part of ministers. What, he would ask, had occurred since the 18th of April, when the House came to a decision on the question? What did ministers expect from this measure? In what degree did they expect that the liberation of the bonded corn would lower the price of the markets? Was it 84s, or 10s. per quarter? If it were lowered 10s or even 20s. per quarter, would it afford any relief to the manufacturing districts? If it would not, how could ministers lend themselves to a delusion so perilous as the present was in every respect? Did they not see that those who were without money, and without employment could not buy corn, even at the most reduced rates? Would they tell him how those unfortunate individuals could be benefitted by the present measures? Let them answer this question plainly, and not talk to him about such solemn nonsense as "moral effect." Another great objection which he had to this plan was the time at which it was proposed, and the mode in which it was to operate as relief. "Probitas laudatur et alget" was an observation of some antiquity, but one which had been completely verified in the present instance. Whilst the people were quiet, no aid had been administered to their distresses; but, as soon as they began to be riotous, measures were devised for their immediate relief. On these grounds he retained all the objections which he had originally felt to this proposition. He gave credit to ministers for the alterations which they had made in it; but they were not such as to reconcile him to it, for he was convinced that whatever was founded in deception and delusion must end in frustration and disappointment. He should therefore conclude by moving as an amendment, "That this bill be read a second time this day month."

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that it was a great satisfaction to him to know, that though many gentlemen had felt warmly in the discussions which had recently taken place on this measure, all of them had abstained from examining it with any undue degree of heat and violence. He trusted that they would still preserve the same moderation which had hitherto guided them, and that whatever exasperation might prevail elsewhere, none would be perceived within the walls of that House. He was anxious to make a few remarks on this question, because the greater part of what he had hitherto heard, referred not so much to the question itself, as to the course which government had pursued upon it, and the moment at which it had brought it forward. The hon. member for Dorsetshire had told the House, that he had four objections to it. The first of them was, that government had acted with inconsistency in proposing the measure at all. Now, that might be a good argument as against the government; but, if the measure were right, it was no argument against the measure. He asserted, however, that government had not acted inconsistently. It was true, that when his right hon. friend, the President of the Board of Trade, was asked, early in the session, if it was the intention of his majesty's government to bring forward a general revision of the Corn-laws, his answer was in the negative. The reason was, that the last session of a parliament was a most unfit time for the consideration of a subject of so much importance. The little by-battles that had occurred on the presenting of the several petitions on the subject sufficiently showed the spirit in which the general discussion would have been carried on. But, although his majesty's government thought it inexpedient to enter on the revision of the whole system of the Corn-laws, it by no means followed that it was inconsistent on their part, when any necessity called upon them to do so, to propose a temporary suspension of the laws, such as that under consideration. It had been said, that it would have been better if ministers had allowed things to take their chance, and if, instead of a previous application to parliament, they had, in the event of unfavourable circumstances, resorted to what he was astonished to hear called the "royal prerogative." He confessed he thought that honourable gentlemen, who used that argument, spoke much too lightly of the act of suspending the laws of the country. But suppose ministers had determined on that course,—suppose, after the termination of the session corn had risen as it did in 1816, and ministers had exercised the power which had been alluded to, would not that have been as great a prejudice to the main question as the present proposition? Would it not have been desirable that parliament should be summoned in the midst of their holiday relaxation to discuss the question—and, be it observed, to discuss it only negatively, and that under the clear and undoubted indication, that the existing law had been proved insufficient to meet probable contingencies? The course which had been adopted appeared to him to be much more fair, manly, and constitutional. The hon. gentleman's second objection to the measure was, that it would do no good. His majesty's government never pretended to bring it forward as a panacea for distresses, which they admitted were no more occasioned by the Corn-laws, than by any road-bill that had passed the House. But, would any body say that when there was intense distress,—when there were congregated hundreds of human beings who were unable to obtain more than a mere pittance to support their debilitated frames,—and when there were many who were not able to obtain even that, that the price of corn would have no effect? The measure was proposed to meet a possible contingency—to prevent corn from rising to a price so high, that the prevention could not be deemed by any man to be unimportant. For himself he must say, that, if ever there was a case in which the excesses of men in distress were to be pitied, it was in the case to which the hon. member for Dorsetshire had alluded. They were excesses produced by excess of misery. Not a symptom of bad feeling had been evinced, until the mistaken notion entered their heads of destroying the power-looms, to which they fancied their dis- tress was attributable. Under these circumstances it would have been extreme and miserable cowardice on the part of his majesty's government, to have abstained from proposing a partial remedy for the evil, lest their motives should be misrepresented. The course which government had taken, in order to suppress the outrages which had occurred in the manufacturing districts, proved that they were not under the influence of fear; for, on the first appearance of them, they had poured into those districts a body of troops sufficient to protect all good and terrify all ill-disposed persons. He was sure, therefore, that nobody who rightly considered the matter would attribute the concessions which government were inclined to make to the suffering subjects of his majesty, as the result of any timid or unworthy policy. The hon. member for Dorsetshire had desired ministers not to talk to him about the solemn nonsense of moral effect. Who had used the phrase he did not know; but, if the effect -of the measure were to soften any exasperation of feeling which existed in the manufacturing districts—if it tended to prevent agitators from turning that exasperation into any political purpose—he should not be inclined to shrink from the term which had been used. On the contrary, he should be prepared to contend, that government would not be acting wrongly in consulting the feelings of those with whose interests it was charged. With reference to the reflections which had been made by the hon. member for Dorsetshire on the petitions which had been received from the manufacturing districts against the Corn-laws, they had; not reflected upon the landlords, and therefore there was no occasion for the hon. member, as one of that class, to reflect so strongly upon them. Why the hostility of the landlords should be so strongly directed against this measure, he could not well understand, for he believed no measure was better calculated to promote their interests. He contended, that in the report of 1821, and more especially in the report of 1822, on the agricultural distress, there were many resolutions calculated to pave the way for a permanent revision of the Corn-laws, and for placing them on a very different system from that on which they were placed at present. He said that, under such circumstances, the country gentlemen could not take a course better calculated to prejudice them on any future consideration of the Corn-laws, than that which they were taking at the present moment. He hoped that many gentlemen of that class would take the advice which had been tendered them by his hon. friend the member for Brecon-— advice which reflected the greatest honour upon him. His hon. friend was as deeply interested in the question as any member whom he then addressed — but his hon. friend had frankly declared, that if this bill were passed to a second reading, he would support it, and would move for a modification of it in the committee. He hoped that his example would be followed by other country gentlemen; and that those of them who had no pressure from without, owing to existing circumstances, to which he need not more particularly allude, would give to government the power of doing great good, without the possibility of doing by it the slightest harm.

Lord Clifton

hoped that this measure would be merely temporary, but felt himself bound, in the choice of evils, to vote with ministers. From every information he had been able to collect from the best informed persons, he believed there was no probability of any scarcity, much less of any famine taking place in the country before the next harvest. So far was he from thinking that there was any "solemn nonsense" in the moral effect which this measure was described as likely to produce, that it was on account of that very "moral effect" that he voted for it. No practical evil, he was convinced, would arise from it; and if it tended, in any degree, to satisfy the public mind, it was at any rate one advantage gained.

Mr. Benett

declared the cause of the existing distress to be the recent tampering with the currency, and added his conviction, that it did not arise out of the Corn-laws. The relief which this measure professed to give to the manufacturers, would be inefficient, if it were not attended by a paper currency; besides, the letting loose the bonded corn, would be of no advantage to the destitute and unemployed manufacturers, unless it were given to them. The effect of the measure must be either to reduce the market price of corn or not. If it did reduce it, it would involve the agriculturists in distress without relieving the manufacturers, and thus it would ul- timately prove destructive to the manufacturing interests by annihilating the home market, which was infinitely more valuable to them than the foreign.

Mr. Wodehouse

said, he would certainly give his support to the proposition of the hon. member for Brecon, and allow the bill to be read a second time. Any objections to the detail could be much more conveniently urged in the committee.

Mr. Stanley

gave notice, that in the committee on the bill, he would propose a clause that the local committees, upon producing certificates of their having bought the bonded corn let loose into the market for the purpose of distributing it among the distressed manufacturers, should be entitled to claim from the Treasury repayment of the duties paid upon it. In making this proposition, which would have the effect of localizing the relief afforded by government, he trusted he should have the assistance of the majority of the House.

Sir E. Knatchbull

felt compelled to vote against the second reading of the bill. He had heard with considerable satisfaction the proposition which had come from the last speaker, but could not guess how far it would meet the approbation of government.

Lord Milton

said, he was rejoiced to hear that the proposition of the hon. member had the approbation of the hon. baronet; but if the hon. baronet supposed the House could get through this question without some discussion on the Corn-laws, he would find himself greatly mistaken. The measures now proposed proclaimed to the world that the Corn-laws were laws which could not be permanent in this country. They were laws for fair weather, and whenever a storm arose, it became necessary to re-consider them. Honourable members must, therefore, if this measure passed, make up their minds to consider fully the whole question at an early period of the next session. He was not absurd enough to suppose that the Corn-laws were the sole cause of the existing distress in the manufacturing districts; but he had no hesitation in saying, that in one respect they had a great effect in producing it, and that was in the interruption which they gave to the commercial interests of our manufacturers with foreign countries. Honourable gentlemen might depend upon it, that the Corn-laws would be settled in one way or another before long. In his opinion they could only be settled in one way; and that was upon the principles of free trade. With respect to the measure more immediately before the House, he did not think that it would be of any effect; neither did he suppose that ministers thought it would be of any effect, except in preventing any aggravation of the existing distress. Ministers must, however, give him leave to say, that the time at which they had proposed this measure, had led, in certain quarters, to the opinion, that they had other views than those which they professed in proposing it. He was bound in justice to say, that he did not entertain such an opinion. —He gave ministers credit for the views which they professed to entertain—and hoped that they did not intend to let the present measures be merely insulated and temporary. He contended, that in whatever view this question was taken, it resolved itself at last into the amount of the burthens which the different classes of the community bore. Now, he maintained that the landed gentlemen formed that class of the community which had the least cause to complain of the burthens imposed upon them. [Hear, and cries of "No."] He said "Yes," for who were the chief cause, who the great instigators, who the main supporters, of the late war, which had imposed such a weight of taxation on the nation, but the country gentlemen? [Loud cries of "hear," from various quarters of the House, which was re-echoed back for some time, accompanied with cries of "No, no."] He! should not be put down by cries of "No,] no." He said it was "Ay, ay," and he: defied and challenged the other side to prove that he was incorrect. The country gentlemen were the instigators, and the promoters of the late war. He did not say that, in so doing, they had acted wrongly. He knew that members of his own family had supported it as strongly as any persons; but he repeated, that it was the country gentlemen who had pledged themselves to expend life and fortune in support of that war. Now, what was the case? When the fortune became really affected—he said nothing of the life, by the diminution of two shillings, or even one shilling in the rent of the acre, they declared that they had already paid for that war in the direct shape of taxes, and ought not to suffer any further diminution of their income. Now, he could shew that the Corn- laws, which were the creature of the war, added 10s. a quarter to the price of every quarter of wheat grown in this country; and, as the consumption of the country amounted to 14,000,000 or 15,000,000 of quarters annually, they inflicted a taxation of 7,000,000l. annually, on the people of England, for the benefit of the landowners and of the landowners alone. Let the landowners controvert that position if they could; and when they could, then, but not till then, they might say, that they had expended their fortunes in support of the war. The plain fact was, and it was impossible to disguise it, that they had raised their fortunes, instead of having spent them, in the war; and they now endeavoured, by the operation of the Corn-laws, to keep up the high rents which they had contrived to get from their tenants during that period. In spite of all the opposition he might meet with in making such a declaration, he would contend, that the effect of the Corn-laws was, to inflict a heavy taxation on the people of England. It was not, however, in that view of the question that he considered the Corn-laws most impolitic. Their great impolicy was in their acting as a non-intercourse bill with the country. He would gladly support any measure that was calculated to relax the fetters which this bill imposed upon the country, and, conceiving that the present measure would have that effect, he gladly gave it his support.

Mr. Secretary Peel

regretted very much that the noble lord had made a speech, which, with whatever good humour it might have been delivered, was, in consequence of the introduction of some topics, calculated to interrupt the temperate and moderate course in which the debate had hitherto proceeded. An opportunity had been taken by the noble lord to involve the House in a very important discussion, which, however fit for consideration on another occasion, was certainly rather ill-timed on the present [cheers, with cries of "no, no!"]. When he heard it preferred as a charge.—

Lord Milton.

—Not as a charge.

Mr. Peel

continued.—Well then, when he heard the landed interest referred to as having supported the government at an arduous crisis, he felt that they had a right to look back to what they had done with conscious pride and satisfaction, considering the glory their country had acquired, and the services they had ren- dered it. Though he supported with the greatest cordiality a measure opposed by many of the country gentlemen, he yet felt it his duty to vindicate them from a charge to which he felt they were not obnoxious. The noble lord said, they were unwilling to submit to the reduction of their rents and their extravagant profits. It was not more than three or four years since agriculture had been suffering great distress, and during the whole interval the price of corn had not been such as to afford any exorbitant rent. In fact, the agricultural interest was now only just recovering from the depression of 1821. He was not disposed to go at length into the general merits of the measure before the House. These had been already ably discussed. With respect to the two suggestions of the hon. member for Brecon and the hon. member for Wootton Bassett, he was not able, at that moment, to form an opinion; and he requested the House to give them a deliberate consideration before they adopted them. The present measure appeared to him more fit than any other for the exigency, as it left every thing else indefinite, and purposely avoided any intimation of opinion with regard to the general question. Another suggestion made by an hon. gentleman was one that required very serious deliberation. He had no doubt it originated in the best intentions, but he saw many difficulties in the way of its being carried into execution. He would not then go into the question, whether public aid ought to be granted to the distressed manufacturers. But he would state his opinion, that if aid was to be granted, the direct course was to be preferred. Many objections arose as to the details of this proposition. The remitting of the duty on the corn taken out of bond, for the relief of the distressed, would give a preference to those places which were in the neighbourhood of the warehouses where the corn was lodged. Those who were distant from the ports would not have the same opportunity of benefitting themselves. Another objection was, that it would give a premium to the purchase of bonded corn. It was desirable, however, that the home grower should stand at least on the same footing with the holder of foreign corn. On any future occasion the same course would, in all probability be called for. He would therefore rather that direct aid should be given from the Treasury. He had never given a vote in that House with a more perfect conviction that the measure he supported was not only favourable to the general interests of the community, but he wished it to be distinctly understood, that he considered it to be expressly and mainly for the interest of the agriculturist, concurrently with all the other great interests of the country. There were three courses which the House might pursue. The first was, to enter on a general discussion of the whole question; but, on that point, the House had thrice decided, and he therefore did not think it necessary to consider that. The other two courses were either to leave things as they were, or to pass the bill; and he was prepared to contend, that to pass this bill was more conducive to the advantage of the landed interest than to leave things as they were. If this bill was passed, what would be its effect, in case corn did not rise? None, for then it could not come into operation. In case corn did rise, it would provide against an emergency calculated to cause much evil in the country. Taking the average price of corn during the last twenty-five years, it was evident that the chances were not so few, as to make it certain that such a contingency would not arise. Looking upon the situation of the country, it was evident that some preparation ought to be made; for a new parliament was of necessity to assemble soon. In case the emergency arose during the dissolution, how was the executive government to proceed, if a slate of distress like the present should arise? The distress of the present moment was owing to the glut of the market, caused by the over speculation of last year; and that a state of distress might again arise, none could attempt to deny. The probability of it was evident from the average prices of corn during the last twenty-five years; in sixteen years of which it had exceeded 70s. per quarter, and in eight of which it had been more than 90s. Was not this contingency to be guarded against? The remedy for the evil was not to be procured at the moment. It ought to be provided before-hand. As to the amount of corn imported during that period, he found, by consulting the returns, that during nine years of those twenty-five, the quantity imported had been more than 9,800,000 quarters, making an annual amount of about 1,100,000 quarters, which left for each quarter of the year about 290,000 quarters. Now, the amount of foreign corn and flour in the warehouses, did not exceed 290,000 quarters, and the whole contingency of importation of which so much apprehension had been excited, did not amount to more than 800,000; a quantity of trifling amount compared with the annual consumption. What measure, therefore, could be more advantageous to the agriculturists than the present, which would prevent the possibility of having recourse to dangerous and sudden importations during the summer, and would render it imperative on a new parliament to enter upon that important topic? He disclaimed for himself and his colleagues all motives arising from fear, alarm, or distress. They were actuated by far different feelings— by the necessity of preventing a scarcity of food in the country, as well as a hasty decision of the Corn-laws from being made. By giving to the government the power which it sought for at present, the country gentlemen would place those laws beyond the reach of any sudden alteration, and would enable themselves to enter next year, into a fair and full discussion of them.

Mr. H. Sumner

said, that his main objection to this measure was, that it was not called for by circumstances of necessity. No case had been made out for it, and any inference to be drawn from the state of the markets was unfavourable, rather than favourable, to it. It was now said, that it was not so much the amount as the invariability of duty which was the desired object; but was the letting of the bonded corn into the market a means of securing steadiness of price? Quite the contrary. The price of corn had never been so unvarying as for the last seven years, but this influx of bonded corn would generate great fluctuations in the price. He asserted, from a knowledge of the circumstances, that 50s. would not remunerate the grower of corn. He then entered into a defence of the country gentlemen against the charges which had been brought against them, and denied that any measures taken by them had contributed to bring the country into its present state. Injustice had been done that class of gentlemen, than whom there were not any men to whom the national character was more dear, or who felt more sensibly for the other interests of society. He concluded by declaring his determination to oppose this measure in every stage.

Mr. Wharton

said, he belonged to what were called the country gentlemen in that House, and his object in rising was to defend them from the charges which had been brought against them. It had been said, that it was they who brought the country to its present state of distress by supporting the last war. For himself, he should say that he was not one of those who supported that war: on the contrary, he had always opposed it, and supported every measure which was calculated to hasten its conclusion. He was, therefore, innocent of all its consequences, and he hoped his country would acquit him of being accessary to its bad effects.

The House then divided: For the second reading 189; Against it 65; Majority 124.

List of the Minority.
Ashurst, W. Hurst, R.
Bankes, H. Ingilby, sir W.
Barnard, visc. Inglis, sir H.
Bastard, E. P. Johnson, col.
Becher, W. W. Jones, J.
Belgrave, visc. King, sir J. D.
Benett, J. Kingsborough, visc.
Bond, J. Luttrell, J. F.
Burrell, sir C. Manners, lord C.
Burrell, Walter Marjoribanks, sir J.
Calcraft, J. Osborne, lord F.
Cavendish, lord G. Pollen, sir J.
Cavendish, C. Powell, W. E.
Chandos, marquis Pryse, Pryse.
Chaplin, C. Pym, F.
Corbett, P. Rickford, W.
Corry, visc. Ridley, sir M. W.
Cotterell, sir J. G. Rowley, sir W.
Curteis, E. J. Sebright, sir J.
Dawson, M. Sefton, earl of
Dickinson, W. Shaw, sir R.
Duncannon, visc. Smith, Abel
Fane, J. Smith, hon. R.
Fleming, J. Sumner, G. H.
Grant, J. P. Trant, W. H.
Gooch, T. Tremayne, J. H.
Gordon, hon. R. Vivian, sir R.
Guise, sir W. Webb, E.
Gurney, R. H. Westenra, hon. H.
Harvey, sir E. Wharton, J.
Handley, H. TELLERS.
Heron, sir R. Knatchbull, sir E.
Honywood, W. P. Lethbridge, sir T.