HC Deb 24 November 1826 vol 16 cc125-37

The House having resolved itself into a committee on the Corn Impor- tation acts, to which the Order in Council of the 1st of September was referred,

Mr. Huskisson

addressed the committee. He began by observing, that as the Orders in Council for the opening of the ports for the admission of oats, oatmeal, peas, beans, and rye, which had just been referred to the committee, was issued, not only without the authority of law, but in direct contravention of existing statutes, and as his Majesty had called parliament together at this time chiefly for the purpose of having that order submitted for their consideration, he thus took the earliest opportunity of submitting to the House the grounds on which his Majesty had been advised to issue that order. This was a duty which ministers owed to parliament, to the country, and to themselves; and if it should be the pleasure of the legislature to grant them the indemnity for which they sued, so far from its becoming a dangerous precedent, it would rather tend to strengthen and confirm the precise bounds by which the different authorities in the state were limited. They owed it also to themselves to seek the indemnity of parliament, as they would otherwise be subject to certain legal consequences for having so advised the Crown; and they likewise owed it to those subordinate officers who acted under their orders in opening the ports. The date of the Order in Council was the 1st of September. At that time most of the members of parliament were resident in the country, and had opportunities, in their several districts, of observing the state of the harvest. That circumstance would render it the less necessary for him to go into any lengthened statement, on the present occasion; and he was certain the recollection of those members would bear him out in the assertion, that never was there a period when the reports from the different parts of the country so entirely concurred as to the harvest, and he hoped that those reports would be sufficient to justify ministers in the course they had pursued. With respect to the state of the crops at that time, he would say first, that wheat, taken as a whole, was deficient in quantity and quality; and the quality of course affected the value of the quantity. Barley, on the whole, would not make more than about two thirds of an average crop. Oats were generally deficient, and beans and peas much more so; and such had been the appearance of those crops in the ground, that in the month of July the prices were rapidly rising. About the middle of June, when the price ought to be at the highest, as the old stock would at that time be nearly exhausted, the average price was 22s. 11d. On the 4th of August, taking the average of the whole kingdom, it had risen to 27s. 3d., and had considerably exceeded that price in many districts. The House were aware that the two weeks from that date were the only weeks which were left to be included in the general quarterly average. The last of those two weeks it had risen s. 6d. above that price, at which, if it were the general average of the quarter, the ports would be open for the importation of foreign oats. With this information as to the general deficiency of the crop, and the consequent apprehended scarcity, they waited to see what would be the price in the two remaining weeks. In the week ending the 18th, the general average price was 28s. 2d.; in that ending the 25th, it was 29s. 4d.; and in the last days of the month it rose above 30s. On the 1st of September it was 30s. 7d., and was continuing to rise rapidly. The committee would bear in mind, that in several districts where oatmeal, and not flour, constituted a very large proportion of the food of the people, its price rose very much above that which had been quoted as the general average. Besides the knowledge of these facts, his Majesty's ministers had also the information, that the crop of oats was in general a failure in several foreign countries from which oats were usually imported. Knowing this, and seeing that great scarcity was to be apprehended at home, not merely from the deficiency of the oat crop, but from the general failure of leguminous productions throughout the country, owing to the great drought which prevailed, it became necessary to take steps to obtain a timely supply of food, not merely for the cattle, but for that large portion of the people who were dependent on oatmeal for food. But another circumstance which operated on his Majesty's ministers was, that the accounts from Lancashire and from Ireland were of such an alarming nature, as almost to excite despair; and if the drought had continued, if Providence had not lent its aid by a timely fall of rain, the potatoe crops must have been ruined. In that case, they would have had to fall back on the scanty supply of oats which, remained, and must have found themselves in a state of the utmost distress for a supply of food for the great mass of the people. During the whole of his experience, never did the country appear in a situation more alarming. To add to the grounds of apprehension, the hay crop, in the richest parts of England, was in a condition to call forth fears of the utmost scarcity, and the fact was, that at the season of the year in question, such was the miserable state of vegetation, that it was absolutely necessary to feed cattle with green fodder, as in the depth of winter. In such a condition of the country, with such prospects, could there be the slightest hesitation in taking any step that might be requisite for securing to the country a supply of the first necessary of existence? Could his Majesty's ministers, for a single moment, entertain a doubt that their first duty was, at whatever risk, to guard against the impending scarcity, by the admission of peas, beans, and grain? The statements he had made, verified as they must have been by the observation of hon. gentlemen, fully warranted him in asserting that had ministers waited till the 15th of November, when by law the ports might have been opened, the consequences would probably have proved most calamitous. From the rapid rise of prices before the first of September, their continued elevation subsequent to that period, the condition of the crops at home, and the prospects of supply from abroad, he had not the slightest difficulty in saying, that the minister who should hesitate to advise the admission of foreign grain, would be unworthy equally of the favour of the monarch, and of that fair and liberal confidence which was reposed in the ministers of the Crown, while parliament was not sitting. He put it to the committee, whether it could for a moment bethought, that any minister deserved to be trusted by the Crown, or supported by parliament, who could for a single instant hesitate to choose between a breach of the law on the one hand, or the risk, nay the certainty, of famine on the other. Having submitted to the committee these observations, he trusted he had said enough to justify the measure that had been adopted, so far as it related to removing the prohibition, which would have excluded grain until the 15th of November, and he would have contented himself with having said thus much, had that measure been confined to simple removal; but there was another feature of the case which required notice. He al- luded to the duty to be imposed on the grain admitted, or rather, he should say, undertaken to be paid thereon. The advisers of the Crown, on this occasion, had departed as little as possible from the spirit of the existing Corn-laws. They required the parties importing to pay certain duties; that is, the order in council imposed upon the importers the necessity of entering into an engagement to pay a specified duty, provided that duty should be sanctioned by parliament; and, in pursuance thereof, bonds had been entered into. Therefore, the act necessary to be passed on the present occasion, should not merely indemnify the parties who incurred this responsibility, but should, if parliament took the view of the subject which he did, empower the Crown to recover those duties. Honourable gentlemen might differ as to the amount of duty to be imposed. The principles upon which ministers had acted in settling these duties, he would now explain. It was enacted already, that if the price of oats was above 28s. the duty was to be two shillings permanently, and two shillings additional for the first three months.

It must be obvious, that the only intention for which the additional duty of two shillings had been imposed for the first three months was, to check the amount imported, lest it should exceed the wants of the country, and thus be injurious to the home-grower. If they had taken a right estimate of the harvest of the year, such a check would have been deemed unnecessary. The whole oat crop had hardly exceeded one half of an average crop. Instead, therefore, of checking the importation of this, species of corn, ministers were called upon to give encouragement to the largest importation. On the 8th of September, the average price of the whole kingdom exceeded 30s. a quarter; on the 5th of August it had exceeded 30s. 4d. in not less than six districts. If no foreign corn had been introduced into the country until the 15th of November, the time at which it might have been imported by law, it was impossible to conceive that the price would not have gone on rapidly increasing, until by the 15th of November, the return would have been very considerably above the legal importation price.— On the subject of the amount of the duty, he would observe, that he thought it should not have exceeded 2s.; for had 4s. been imposed, there could have been but little doubt that the importers would have waited until the 15th of November, and taken their chance of being then able to introduce it at the nominal duty of 4d. per quarter. In confirmation of this, he would observe, that of the quantity imported, 600,000 quarters of wheat, 150,000 were actually overheld, the owners declining to pay the duty of 2s., and rather desiring to take their chance on the 15th of November. In the last week, the prices were 29s. and 30s., in thirteen or fourteen counties out of the twenty-four, from which he had received reports; and these reports, he could inform the committee, were from counties where the great mass of the population were, in a considerable degree, dependent on oats for their food; amongst which might be included Durham, Cumberland, Northumberland, Chester, Gloucester, and Lancashire, and a few others. In Lancashire the price was 35s.; affording another strong proof of the necessity there was for opening the ports, and of obtaining a supply of that article. Under all these circumstances, he trusted he had made out a case to justify ministers in taking off the prohibition, and in securing the country from the dangers by which it was threatened—dangers, from which, he trusted, the decision of the House would encourage the advisers of the Crown, at all times, to guard the country. What, in addition to the indemnity, he intended to conclude with proposing to the committee was, that the duty specified in the order in council should continue till the 15th February, when the next averages would be struck, and, in the mean time, that corn should be permitted to be introduced on the payment of that duty, as it had been done since the issue of the order in council. When the committee looked at the price of grain generally, and of wheat in particular—when they considered the scarcity of food for cattle, and for the great mass of the population—they would, he was satisfied, concur with him in thinking, that not only had a sound discretion been exercised as to the past, but that a continuation of the system would be highly expedient. H e would conclude by moving,

1. That all persons concerned in issuing, or advising the issue, or acting in execution of, an Order of Council of the 1st day of February, 1826, for allowing the importation of certain sorts of foreign corn, shall be indemnified. 2. That the importation of foreign oats, oatmeal, rye, pease, and beans, be permitted for a time to be limited, on payment of the duties hereinafter mentioned: that is to say, for every quarter of oats 2s.; for every boll of oatmeal 2s. 2d.; for every quarter of rye, pease, and beans, 3s. 6d.; and that all bonds which may have been taken for the payment of such duties shall be duly discharged.

Sir E. Knatchbull

said, that in looking at the situation in which the country was placed at the period alluded to, his Majesty's ministers were perfectly justified in the course they had adopted. This was his own opinion, and it was also the opinion of many gentlemen with whom he concurred in the general view of the Corn-laws. But, in saying this, he begged not to be understood as meaning to retract any thing he had formerly said with respect to that question. His sentiments remained unaltered on that subject; but he thought the case now before the committee formed no part of that general question. He was ready to admit, that a sufficient case had been made out for the measure adopted by ministers. In expressing that, he believed that he only spoke the feelings of the landed interest. He would go further, and say, that he only spoke their sentiments in declaring, that all the country gentlemen were greatly indebted to ministers for that which they had done. He made this observation, because it was asserted, most unjustly, that the landed interest were the only persons who differed from public opinion upon this most important subject. He knew it was a principle generally admitted among persons concerned in commerce, that, after any unusual depression, they were at liberty to seek for a remuneration of their losses in advanced prices. That was, as he understood, a general principle in trade and manufactures, and it was not at all unfair. But it was not applicable, at all times, to the agricultural interest. That interest had been as depressed as any class in the kingdom, and no good could result from exciting jealousy between them and the manufacturers. The best remedy for the evils of the country was to look them fairly in the face, and not to enter into any recrimination between the different classes of society. When the great question came under consideration, he hoped the House would not be told that landlords were oppressive, and exacted rents that their tenants could not pay. He trusted, that all declamation addressed to the passions of the people would be avoided, and that the question would be discussed without any mixture of prejudice. He did not think this a proper time for entering upon the question of the Corn-laws, and he was glad that ministers had confined themselves to the immediate question before the House.

Mr. Whitmore

did not rise to oppose the measure now under consideration. He believed it was the only course ministers could have pursued. But it was most desirable, without now attempting to enter on the merits of the great question of the Corn-laws, that an early settlement of it should take place. He could not help pointing out to the House the strange nature of the law by which the corn trade was to have been regulated. They were now deliberating upon the third instance of its infraction within the last three years. Could a heavier censure fall upon any law than that simple fact? They passed a law which suffered repeated infractions from the executive government: they were suddenly convened to consider of the infraction, and they all felt satisfied that the breach of the law was the only safe conduct which government could adopt. The year before last they adopted resolutions in direct contradiction to this law: they did the same last year: and now they were assembled to pass an act of indemnity to ministers for breaking through it. He put it to the House, if such a law ought any longer to disgrace the Statute-book. He was prepared to show, at the proper time, that it was not only in hostility to the general prosperity of the country, but that it acted most injuriously on that interest for whose benefit it had been enacted. He concurred with the hon. baronet in hoping, that no recrimination or angry feelings would be allowed to mix themselves up with the consideration of this question. It was one of vast importance to all interests, affecting, as it did, not only the prosperity of the agricultural, but the manufacturing and trading classes. It was likewise a question of great difficulty, which it became all to approach with calmness; and he trusted, the passions and interests of individuals would not be mixed up in a matter so intimately affecting the universal safety and well-being of the state. With respect to the recent act of ministers, it was one forced on them by circumstances, and of which the strongest advocates of the existing system did not venture to complain.

Colonel Wood

wished the hon. gentleman had followed the example of the hon. baronet who preceded him, and refrained from any animadversion on the Corn-law. As he had made many allusions to it on different 6ccaskms, it would have been well if the hon. gentleman had taken the trouble to ascertain what that law was. Among the various publications which had appeared upon it, he had perused one which had been put forth by the hon. gentleman. In that pamphlet he found it asserted, that the principle of the law of 1815 was, to cut off all intercourse, as to the trade in grain, with foreign countries; that the trade in corn was rendered, by that law, the exception, and not the rule; and that the object of it was, to screw up the prices at home to an unnatural elevation. Now, so far was the trade in corn made the rule of the law in 1815—so far was it from being made the exception, that it was established, that when the averages were at 63s. and under, the import duty should be 25s., and when above 63s., then the import duty was to be only 2s. 6d. He would leave it, then, to the House to determine, how just had been the assertion of the hon. gentleman, that the object of the law and its effect had been to cut off all intercourse in foreign grain. He begged the committee to look at the three resolutions then passed; the first of which declared, that all corn, come from where it would, should be landed and housed for exportation duty free; and that it should be exported also duty free. He noticed this to show how necessary it was for those who undertook to write upon any law, first of all to understand it. This most valuable regulation they owed to the late Mr. Rose; and the declared object of it was, that whether the country was engaged in war on her own account, or remained neutral in the wars of other countries, there should still be a resource for times of difficulty, in the importation of foreign grain; that the factors of the Baltic might be induced, as it were, to transport their warehouses from Dantzic to our own shores. So much for the design of cutting off all trade in grain. Now, as to the second argument, that of screwing up prices. This was a charge made by the hon. gentleman. This had been a subject upon which the press had been incessantly at work for six months, and such was the misrepresentation to which they had recourse to bring down the Corn-law. The arrangement made by that law went to give the home-growers a remunerating price, and the command of the home-market, while enough grain was produced to feed the whole population; and the average price had been, during five or six years past, not 80s., as it had been assumed by the opponents of that time, but 60s. The price of bread for four or five years past had not been complained of nor could it be complained of. As to the measure now under consideration, he agreed, that there was not the slightest objection to the step taken by government, in opening the ports on their own responsibility. There was one thing which he did not exactly understand in the statement of the right hon. gentleman. He did not know, as oats had risen to 30s. at the time of publishing these orders in council, why the ports had not been opened at once at the duty of 4s. Again, as on the 15th of November about the time of striking the averages, the ports had been opened till forty days after the opening of parliament, were they to remain open, as under the operation of the law in opening them they would have been, till February, the next period for striking the averages? Upon that question depended another; namely, whether there was any necessity for passing this bill of indemnity now, or whether it could not have been as well done in February? He deprecated the aggravating attempts of the press to dissever the manufacturing and agricultural interests, and hoped that the House would adopt measures which would have the effect of putting a stop to them.

Mr. Warburton,

member for Bridport, expressed a hope, that the intimation thrown out by the Foreign Secretary of State would be rigidly adhered to, and that any measure relative to an alteration of the Corn-laws would be brought forward in that House without any previous intimation elsewhere; so that every member would come equally unprepared and equally unprejudiced to the discussion of this important subject.

Colonel Torrens

, member for Ipswich, said, he was aware it was irregular to allude to any discussion which had taken place in that House on a previous occa- sion, but he might, perhaps, be allowed to assume that, at another time, no matter when, and in a certain place, no matter where, an hon. gentleman had used expressions something similar to the following:—that the traders and manufacturers were seeking to convert themselves into lords and gentlemen, by turning lords and gentlemen, into beggars. Now, if he had heard any such expressions used by any gentleman, he should immediately conclude, that the party so using them deserved to be ranked among the exclusive advocates of the landed interests. For himself, he must object to any attempt to sever the feelings and interests of one class of subjects from those of another. All the great interests were so united and bound together in interests, that they could not elevate one for any length of time but at the expense of the other. He considered the value of land as the true barometer of national opulence. He rejoiced to see that value increased, because it indicated national prosperity. The difference between the agricultural gentlemen and himself was, that he would surround it by a natural and congenial atmosphere of national wealth, while they were anxious occasionally to make the mercury ascend in the scale, and to preserve its precarious elevation by an artificial pressure. If the prices of land should, by these means, be brought so high as to raise the prices of grain and cattle much beyond the level of the European markets, capital would emigrate to more happy climes, and leave the agriculturist to lament over the desolation which he had brought upon himself. It would not be the pulling down alone of the trade and manufactures, but it would resemble the last effort of despairing frenzy, which would drag down the pillars of the temple, and bury itself in the ruins.

Mr. Western

said, he considered that ministers were justified in the course they had pursued, and that, seeing the temper and feeling of the House, he would not at present enter into the general question of the Corn-laws.

Mr. Wodehouse

concurred with the last speaker in approving of the conduct of ministers. It was his intention to have gone more at large into the general question of the Corn-laws, but, observing the temper and disposition of the House on the subject, he forbore doing so for the present.

Mr. Calcraft

thought that ministers could not have acted otherwise than they had done. He would not anticipate the general discussion. He was one of those, who felt great inconvenience at the postponement of the question; yet he could discover many good reasons for that postponement. He approved, therefore, of the determination of government to promulgate nothing until after the holydays. He advised every member to use his best endeavours to allay animosities, and abstain from any observations, until the opportunity should arrive for a full and conclusive discussion of the subject.

Mr. Benett

deprecated the appointment of any more committees to examine into the operation of the Corn-laws. He conceived such a step to be utterly needless, after the mass of information which had been collected on the subject.

Mr. Alderman Waithman

observed, that all the interests of the country were so closely connected, that any measure which tended to uphold one of them exclusively, was certain, in the long run, to be injurious to that very interest. In avowing himself friendly to some alteration in the Corn-laws, he did not consider himself to be seeking the advantage of his own constituents at the expense of any other class of the community. He fully agreed with an hon. gentleman who once represented the city of London, that he was not so much sent to parliament to guard the interests of the city, as to guard those of the country at large, and, indeed, he might say, of posterity. In conclusion, he would not compliment ministers on the policy which they had pursued with regard to this question, for he thought that if they had any feeling, they must be nauseated with the compliments they had received already. However, this much he would say, that they would have been highly criminal if they had abstained from acting as they had done.

Mr. Hume

asserted, that, both in the House and out of it, there was a unanimous opinion, that the question of the Corn-laws ought to undergo immediate discussion. Such being the case, the conduct of ministers appeared very extraordinary. There were hundreds of petitions to be presented from the manufacturing districts against those laws; and no gentleman would perform his duty in presenting them, if he did not state fully the nature of their contents. Discussion would thereby arise upon the subject daily; and the certainty that it would do so ought to induce ministers to assign a reason for wishing to avoid it. If they expected farther information on the subject, the avowal of such expectation would be a fair reason for postponing the discussion of it; but if they did not, they were not consulting the wishes of the country in not proceeding with it immediately. They had heard much of the interest of the manufacturer, and of the agriculturist, but there was one interest of which they had not heard one word of, and that was the interest of the people.