HC Deb 21 April 1828 vol 18 cc1614-20
Mr. D. W. Harvey

begged to call the attention of the House to a petition in every way deserving it, not only because it was signed by nearly twenty thousand persons engaged in the pursuit which gave employment to the artisan and revenue to the state, but as it involved principles of acknowledged importance, and which were daily pressing on the attention of the statesman, the philosopher, and the economist. He felt, moreover, peculiarly gratified in being the selected medium of communicating to the House the sentiments and feelings of so large and valuable a portion of his fellow-citizens, who might be considered as representing the claims of every class of men, under whatever denomination, who subsisted by their industry, and whose property was their labour. Unconnected with either of those great and conflicting interests whose struggles for ascendancy embarrassed the government and prejudiced the people, he had a steady and straight-forward course to pursue, and from which no inducement should divert him—that of standing up at all times, and under all circumstances, as the unflinching advocate, however feeble, of equal rights and equal protection. Personally considered, it was no object to him, whether trade perished or agriculture flourished, for he had no community with commerce, nor with the lords of the soil. Springing from the people, he was of the people, and was proud of being their champion, either in or out of that House. At the present moment this petition was of peculiar interest, as it was intimately in alliance with a subject which absorbed, more than any other, the attention of parliament—the Corn-laws. The present might not be the most suitable period to eater on the investigation of that question; but of one thing he was certain, that the course which the government had selected was the worst, as time, not very distant, would fatally demonstrate. Disguise the matter as they would, the policy of the ministers was prohibition in corn, at the same time they had not the courage to say so. That a high protecting duty would, for a period, be advantageous to landlords, he did not deny— and it was equally so to those who were fettered with covenants, stipulating for high rent; but a great and mischievous delusion was practised on the farmer generally, who had been led to believe that a measure which gave to the landlords high, rents would at the same time secure to them high prices. A greater fallacy was never palmed on credulity, and so the farmers would discover; for while they were excited to be of good cheer, and to live in expectation of improving times, instead of finding light hearts they would have light pockets, until the sequel would make every tenant a pauper, and every pauper a criminal. Still such was the policy of the government, who had been compelled to yield to a power they had apt the courage to resist nor the virtue to abandon; and he now called on those of his majesty's ministers, whom he saw in their places, especially those of them who had. been hallowed as the apostles of free trade, and also pretended to have got ". guarantees" for their accomplishment, to tell to the petitioners—and through them to the industrious millions of our agricultural labourers, our ingenious artisans, our mechanics, what plan they had in store by which protection was to be given to their labour, which was not only their sole property, but the source of all that wealth of which the few had so much, and from which the many were unhappily estranged. Are we to be told that the people, having no, parliamentary influence, were of no importance? that interest and not industry was the exclusive object of their concern? Such deadly doctrines will not be tolerated for ever. Let the ministers speak out, that the people, may at least know their doom. Do they mean to assert that opulence is to be maintained by oppression? and that the rents of landlords are to be kept up by a system which, while it makes bread dear, renders labour worthless; which compels a man to work hard and long, and then closes the markets against the sale of his productions? [hear, hear.] The petitioners are too candid, too intelligent, and too ingenuous, to advocate a system of exclusion; they ask for themselves and for the country an unrestricted exercise of their manual and mental labour, in whatever way and by whatever means it can be usefully directed. But they proceed to state, if government deem it expedient to pursue an opposite course, and while they admit the desirableness of free trade deny its practicability, then they claim to be brought within the same circle of protection which they so readily grant to the landed interest. Equal rights for unequal conditions is their motto; and the denial of their claim would be an act of the foulest injustice. He might be told, that labour must be left to find its own level; that no plan can be devised by which protection can be extended to the working classes. But he would ask, if. it cannot be accomplished, why erect the fortunes of the privileged few on the overthrow of the industrious many? A system of government which gives an artificial dignity to the idle, by degenerating the people, is a bad system, and cannot be tolerated. But though it was not his place to suggest plans and remedies, it was the duty of government to provide them; and if his majesty's ministers would apply the same means to secure a remuneration price to the labourers as they did to obtain high rents for landlords, they would find its accomplishment less difficult and more meritorious. The hon. member said, he would only further remark, that at no distant day this important subject must receive the earnest consideration of parliament—things could not remain as they were. There seemed a desire in some to get rid of the poor, in tearing them up by the roots, and transplanting them from the land of their fathers to some inhospitable region, they cared not where; while others seemed even inclined to annihilate the Poor-laws, a system of maintenance which, though greatly abused, he did not hesitate to declare as the best practical demonstration of the benevolence of the Christian religion [hear, hear]. For one, he was equally opposed to the inhumanity of compulsory emigration, and to all interference with the provision for the poor. There was no mystery in the request of the petitioners—it was manly, honest, and just—and he would conclude by reading the last sentence of their petition, in which he cordially concurred:—"Your petitioners are therefore desirous of calling the attention of your honourable House to the necessity, either of adopting some legislative regulatory measure tending to insure a liberal and fair remuneration rate of money wages throughout the United Kingdom, or immediately to abolish all existing monopolies, admit an unrestrained importation of Corn, and all other articles of subsistence and comfort; and to reduce the salaries and pay of all placemen and pensioners, and fixed money obligations, as shall cause a reduction of taxation equivalent to the reduction in the rate of wages."

Mr. Fyler

said, that reference had been made, on this subject, to the principle of political economy, that labour should be allowed to find its level like every other commodity. That might be very true in a new state, where the demand for labour was equal to the supply; but it would not do in a country like this, where the disproportion between labour and the demand for it was so great. He concurred with the hon. member, that the petitioners were entitled to protection in the price of labour, which was their only commodity, as much as other classes who had been protected by legislative enactments. The principle on which the petitioners went was not a new one. It was admitted in the Spitalfields act, which was in force some few years ago. There were no doubt many objections to that act, but they would not apply to a general act of that description—an act by which a committee of the masters and journeymen might meet at. stated periods, and fix a scale of prices by which the majority might bind the minority. The petitioners did not call for a fixed scale of prices, but that committees of the employers and employed should have the power of meeting and regulating the prices according to circumstances. He did not say that this would have an immediate effect in raising the price, but there could be no doubt that it would quiet the minds of the workmen, prevent those fluctuations of prices to which they were now liable, and enable them to make such calculations as would meet their wants from day to clay. He hoped that government would turn its attention to this important subject.

Mr. C. Grant

said, he was ready to do justice to the character of the petitioners, and to the eloquent manner in which their case was introduced; but without now going into the general question, he would observe, that that which the hon. member who introduced the petition had only indirectly glanced at was broadly stated by the hon. gentleman who last addressed the House. The principle which that hon. member advocated was, that a general act should be passed regulating the rate of wages in the several manufacturing districts; that was, that the principle of the Spitalfields' act, which had been very properly repealed, should be revised, and made applicable to all the manufacturing districts. If this were not conceded to them, they asked that there should be an abolition of all monopolies, a free trade in corn and other necessary articles, a reduction of taxes and pensions, and other matters which would embrace a very wide field of inquiry. Now, he could see no necessary connexion between the two prayers of the petition. It did not follow that because there was not a free trade in corn and other articles, and a reduction of taxation, that there should be an act for regulating wages. For the sake of the petitioners themselves, he should deprecate any such measure; for he was sure it would be found to injure them to a very considerable extent, and he was surprised ! that the experience of the Spitalfields measure did not show them the evil consequences of establishing a fixed rate of wages. One effect of that law in Spitalfields was to drive a great part of the trade from that district to other parts of the country. He was surprised it was not thought of, that the proposed general measure would have the same effect on the kingdom, with reference to other countries, which the Spitalfields act had on that district, as compared with other manufacturing places. But the fact was, that the silk trade, at present, was not in such a state of depression as to require legislative interference. Four or five years ago, a man might earn from 25s. to 30s. a week, at particular kinds of silk; but now, by changes in the fashion, the same silk was not in request, and the greater part of the trade was in silk of an inferior kind, at which a man could earn about 17s. or 18s. a week. He could wish it were more; but still he must say, that the trade was not so depressed as to call for any legislative measure, and that if ever there was a case in which the principles of free trade were completely triumphant, it was that of the silk trade.

Mr. Hume

concurred with the right hon. gentleman in his remarks as to free trade. On that point he thought the petitioners in error, and also in their opinion as to the regulation of wages; but he concurred with them in their call on the legislature for the same measure of protection that was given to the richer classes of the community. This might be considered the petition of all the working classes; to they all concurred in the principle, that, if they could not obtain the protection for their trade, they should at least have the advantage of a general extension of the principle of free trade, so as to do away with all monopolies.

Mr. A. Dawson

denied that the petitioners asked parliament to regulate the rate of wages. AH that they wished was that a committee, composed of the employed and the employers, might be enabled from time to time to make such arrangements, as circumstances might require. If such a plan were practicable, it might prove very beneficial; and it would at least remove a cause of discontent from the minds of thousands of human beings.

Mr. P. Thompson

expressed his firm conviction, that if any act were passed to regulate the rate of wages, not a twelvemonth would elapse before petitioners would crowd to the House to implore its repeal. If ever there had been a triumphant illustration of the principles of free trade, it existed in the present state of the silk trade; which had increased within the last eighteen months more than it had done for the preceding forty or fifty years.

Mr. Alderman Waithman

very much doubted whether the silk trade had improved generally, although in some descriptions of articles it might have done so. The very statement of the right hon. gentleman, that the workmen who, four or five years ago, could make 30s. a week, make now only 16s. or 17s., was a proof of this. The proof of the prosperity of that, or of any other trade, was to be found in the importation of the raw material, and the exportation of the manufactured article. Now, with respect to silk, we exported a great deal of raw material, and imported a large quantity of manufactured goods. For his part, be was quite at a loss to know what kind of reciprocity had been established between this country and France on this subject. It was undoubted, that there had been a great reduction of the profits of weavers, and of all persons concerned in the silk-trade. The petitioners threw the House into the dilemma of answering their question—why they protected other trades if they did not protect theirs. The petitioners said, if the House could not throw off all restrictions from trade, they should do the best they could with reference to corn and other, things.

Mr. D. W. Harvey

expressed his regret that the government appeared disposed to sacrifice the manufacturing interest in order to advantage those who benefitted by the monopoly of the com trade.

Mr. F. Lewis

said, that the silk manufacturers at present enjoyed a protection amounting to thirty per cent on manufactured goods. Under these circumstances it was not right to accuse government of sacrificing the manufacturing interest.

Mr. Alderman Thompson

admitted that the silk manufacturers were protected to the extent of thirty per cent, but then the corn growers were protected to the amount of seventy-five per cent. Thus the manufacturers were prejudiced to the extent of forty-five per cent.

Sir G. Philips

expressed his surprise that the right hon. gentleman should maintain that the manufacturers were placed on an equal footing with the growers of corn. For his part, he believed that protecting duties had none but a bad influence on manufacturers. If every protecting duty on foreign manufactures were removed, he believed the manufacturers would be improved thereby.

Ordered to lie on the table.

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