HC Deb 12 May 1826 vol 15 cc1139-44

On the order of the day for going into a committee on this bill,

Mr. Benett moved, that the House should resolve itself into a committee, to take into consideration the act of the 3 George 4th ch. 60, for the purpose of altering the amount of duty specified in the present bill, from 13s. to 17s. per quarter. The duty appointed by the Corn-laws, at the time of their passing, had been 17s. He could see no reason why it should be lower now. The amount of the difference of the duty of 17s. instead of 12s. on the corn at present in bond, would be, at 5s. per quarter on 300,000 quarters 75,000l., a sum which, he contended, ought rather to be given to the relief of the distressed manufacturers, than allowed to be put into the pockets of gamblers and speculators in corn; it would afford no inconsiderable relief to the distressed manufacturers, if that sum which could be raised on the country, could be given to them, and not to the corn dealers. He hoped that the hon. members who supported economy and retrenchment would support him, as he had done them on many occasions.

Mr. Portman

said, if he thought that the admission of the bonded corn at a duty of 12s. would be ameans of affording more effectual relief than if the duty was higher, he would oppose this amendment; but believing otherwise, and thinking that the difference would only go into the hands of corn-dealers, he should support it.

Mr. Huskisson

repeated the statement which had been already made, that the reason for fixing the duty at 12s. was because that was the rate of duty according to the Corn-laws as they now stood. The additional 5s. was merely a temporary duty, imposed for the purpose of restraining the excessive importation which might otherwise occur within the first three months. But this, which was the very object of the 5s. duty, did not apply to the case of bonded corn, where the quantity was fixed. He deprecated the reflections which the hon. member for Wiltshire had made on corn-dealers. They were merely in the situation of any other persons who bought and sold, and were justified in deriving the best profits they could from their merchandise. The hon. gentleman had applied to them the terms speculators, gamblers, and he knew not what other opprobrious designations. Such imputations were unjust. There was not a more useful, a more respectable class of traders. The hon. gentleman had surely not considered the peculiar circumstances in which they were placed. A considerable quantity of the corn now in bond had been imported in the year 1822, a part in 1823, a part in 1824, and the remainder in 1825. The price at Rotterdam, of wheat similar to that now in bond, was 35s. 6d. the quarter; and if to this was added the freight, the loss by waste, the duty of 12s. and other charges to which the corn-importer was liable, their profits could not be very extravagant. If the hon. gentleman recollected further, that if they brought out their corn under this bill it must be before the 15th of August, it was evident that if the duty was fixed at so very high a rate, the corn-dealer might very much to the detriment of the country, choose to run the risk of keeping his com in bond, in the hope that the ports would be regularly opened. Therefore, looking to all the circumstances of the case, recollecting that the law as it now stood only imposed a duty of 12s., and that the 5s. duty was only for a temporary purpose, he thought the House would not be induced to retard the progress of this bill by going back into a committee.

Mr. Baring

said, that if he thought the duty of 17s. would have the effect of making the price of bread one farthing dearer, he would oppose the amendment of his hon. friend. But he was satisfied that the difference would only go into the hands of the corn-dealers—a most respectable class of men, undoubtedly—but nevertheless by no means entitled to such a bounty as this would be. The duty of 17s. while it would not enhance the price of bread, would bring a sum of money into the Exchequer. The government had proposed 12s., and it was for them to make out that this was the fit duty. They said it was the duty according to the present law: he said it was not; for if corn were to come into the country under the present regulations, it would pay a duty not of 12s. but of 17s. The right hon. gentleman had said, that corn at present, or recently, was selling at Rotterdam at 35s. 6d. He, however, felt confident that persons taking corn out of bond under this bill could replace it at a price under 30s. The letters from Liverpool which the right hon. gentleman had read on a former occasion, stated the price, before these discussions, at 32s. This corn, with a duty of 12s., could be brought into the market at 44s., which would give an enormous profit. By adding the 5s. to the 12s. duty which the ministers proposed, he did not think that the House could be charged with acting unfairly. He regretted the necessity of these special interferences with the Corn-laws. There was a great want of a permanent law. These casual alterations gave rise to gambling; and if the system should be continued, he had no hesitation in saying, that it would give rise to a great deal of corrupt gambling. It was right that the importers should have a reasonable benefit; but this they would have if the duty was 20s. a quarter. If ministers should persist in fixing the duty at 12s., they would have an amount of profit, which was quite absurd and useless. He should think that the duty ought to be that which would be paid, if corn was imported under the ordinary operation of the Corn-laws; but, at all events, it should not be less than 15s.

Mr. Ellice

thought that, in the settlement of the duty, some regard ought to be had to the quality of the corn in bond. A great deal of it was of so inferior a description, that 12s. duty was as much as, at the existing prices, it could bear. He fully agreed with ministers in the propriety of postponing the general con- sideration of the Corn-laws until the next session. Until the operation of our late measures with respect to the currency was seen, legislating upon the Corn-laws would only be legislating in the dark.

Mr. T. Wilson

denied that the dealers in corn deserved the aspersions which had been cast upon them.

Mr. Whitmore

thought it would be impolitic, as well as ungracious, to lay on a higher duty than the 12s. With a higher duty, the price obtained would hardly remunerate the original importers.

Mr. Monck

agreed entirely with ministers in postponing the general discussion of the Corn-laws to the next session; but he merely concurred in this postponement, on account of the change which had been made in the state of the currency. He trusted that now, when country gentlemen saw that ministers could not, or would not, protect them in their high prices, they would direct their attention to a more legitimate source of wealth—a reduction of the burthens of the country.

The amendment was negatived. The House having resolved itself into a committee, the clause imposing a duty of 12s. was agreed to.

Mr. Stanley

said, that he had no reason to change the opinion which he had formerly expressed upon the subject under discussion. He was quite sure that the present measure would be productive of little permanent benefit. He nevertheless thought that as it had been held out as a means of affording a temporary relief, it would be ungracious now to stop short. With a view, however, of rendering that relief as extensive as possible, he should propose a clause, that on a certificate from the chairman of any local committee for the relief of the distressed in the manufacturing districts, that a quantity of bonded corn had been purchased for the relief of the distressed districts, government should remit to the committee a sum of money equal to the amount of duty paid upon that corn, to be employed in the further business of relief.

Mr. Huskisson

objected to the proposed clause. He thought that the hon. gentleman's late visit to Lancashire had made so great an impression on him as to induce him to confine his view of this subject to the distress in that neighbourhood alone. But there were other parts of the country which felt the pressure, and which were quite as much manufacturing districts. Shropshire, Warwickshire, Somer- setshire, Gloucestershire, Nottinghamshire, the whole of the west, and great part of the north-east coast of Scotland, ought properly to be called manufacturing districts; and it would be very difficult to extend to them the relief which the hon. member's measure was meant to afford. If any such power as that which the hon. gentleman proposed, should be given to the charitable committees, it must be universal. A committee in the west of England purchasing corn in their own markets would be as well entitled to the allowance as that which was under bond. The immediate effect of the measure would be to interfere with the poor-rates; and it would be impossible to put it into practice without an inquiry into the relative proportions which certain districts bore in this respect to others. He knew, from good information, that at Manchester the poor-rates were considerably less than in many other places where similar distress prevailed. If, therefore, relief were to be given under the proposed clause, it should be given with a view to this difference. In the county of Sussex, with which he was connected, and where there were nothing like manufactures, but where distress prevailed, in consequence of excess in the agricultural population, the poor-rates were four times as much in amount as in some parts of Lancashire. He was very reluctant to acquiesce in any change in the system of the poor-laws; because, objectionable as they might be, and subjected as they were to abuses of various kinds, they were calculated to afford the most essential relief during those periods of distress to which the manufacturers of this country were occasionally exposed. He was convinced it was better to trust to a system, the efficacy of which had been tried, than to hazard an experiment which was objectionable in its principle, and difficult, if not impossible, in practice.

Sir John Wrottesley

objected to the bill generally, and expressed his conviction, that if the currency had not been interfered with, the present distress would not have existed. He was sure, also, that if an immediate return to the former system was not adopted, still greater distress would be felt.

Mr. Peel

opposed the clause, on the ground that it was likely to afford opportunities for numerous frauds, and that it would not reach the distress of the interior of the country, without doing, at the same time, considerable mischief. He objected to it also on the ground, that if any public aid should be granted, it would afford a precedent which would always be resorted to, and the amount of the tax on corn would always be looked to as a fund for relieving any temporary distress. He was particularly desirous of avoiding any thing that might prejudice the general question of the Corn-laws.

The clause was withdrawn. After which the report of the committee was brought up.