HC Deb 06 December 1830 vol 1 cc780-90
Mr. Alderman Waithman

wished to say, that as he found the subject of Salaries and Pensions had been taken up by the Minister in whose hands it could be most successfully prosecuted, it was his intention to forego bringing that subject before the House, according to a notice he had given on a preceding evening. He would at the same time give notice of his intention, after Christmas, to lay certain facts before the House relative to the state of the country; and he trusted that the House would adopt them, as they were facts—not opinions. It was also his intention to move the repeal of the house and window taxes, though he trusted that the Government would take this matter on itself.

Mr. George Dawson

then adverted to the impression which had been made on the public mind by the reports which had been published of the salaries and pensions enjoyed by public men, and the reports which had been circulated of the intention of the present Ministers to reduce them, which, if allowed to be circulated without some explanation, might have some bad effect. He knew what was the wish of the House, and he knew in what manner the present Government was pledged to encourage economy; at the same time he thought the House ought not to forget what had been effected by former Administrations. It was only justice to former Governments to remind the House of what they had done, and he determined when he heard the hon. Members opposite taking such credit to themselves for reducing the situations of Vice-treasurer and Postmaster-general of Ireland, to make a statement of the reductions which had been made by the former Administration. It was his intention to have made such a statement on the present, occasion, but finding the Chancellor of the Exchequer was not in his place, he should postpone it, and take the earliest opportunity, when it was convenient, to make it. Such a statement ought to be made. It was equally due to the dignity and character of the late Administration and the House of Commons.

Sir George Warrender

wished to take that opportunity of stating that, he hoped the present Ministers would continue to enforce that rigid economy with which they had begun. If they should zealously pursue the course they had marked out for themselves, they would be entitled to, and he had no doubt that they would obtain, the cordial concurrence of that House, and the support of the country. Their course of proceeding hitherto had been such as entitled them to his fullest confidence. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer were in his place, he would ask him if he did not consider it desirable to refer the papers, giving an account of pensions and salaries, to a committee, in order that its errors might be corrected and explained? He remembered being on a committee formerly —the committee moved for by the hon. member for Dorsetshire; and in that committee, which sat for two years, several errors in the documents laid before it were corrected. It was desirable, in his opinion, that such a committee should now be appointed, in order that the truth should be known. It was most desirable that misrepresentation should be checked, and error put down. The truth was itself painful enough, but if it were separated from error, and only the truth were told, that would allay much of the irritation which now prevailed in the public mind. He ventured to recommend some measure like a committee, with no view of hostility to the present Government, which he regarded from its proceedings as eminently entitled to confidence, but as tending to promote a public benefit. He was scarcely able to express the satisfaction with which he had heard that the present Ministers had not filled up several situations in England, Scotland, and Ireland, which had fallen vacant since their accession to Office. If they pursued the same prudent wise career, they would fix themselves firmly in public opinion.

Mr. George Dawson

was willing to give the present Government credit for their reductions, but they must carry them much further than at present to surpass the reductions of the last Government.

Mr. Baring

was understood to say, that the paper describing the salaries and pensions of public officers had created a great sensation in the public, and was calculated, if uncontradicted, and if unexplained, to shake the general confidence in all public men, and even in the Legislature. He wished that the paper should be examined, by a Committee, and if so examined he was sure that none of the objectionable items would be found to belong to the last ten or fifteen years. He wished that that paper should be brought fairly before the public, and if it were brought fairly forward, he was sure it would be seen that none of the corruption of which it was supposed to be evidence had taken place of late years. He should say, that very little of such corruption had existed since he had been in the House, and he recollected little or none of such corrupt influence being employed as might be presumed from that return. He repeated, that the paper in question was calculated to produce a most painful effect, and to shake the confidence of the public in all public men, and in the Legislature itself. It would be proper, therefore, that a Committee should analyse that paper, and separate the truth from the falsehood, and show what part of it was derived from late and what from former Administrations. He wished to say one word on another subject—the subject of an inquiry into the general distress of the country. A worthy Alderman had previously alluded to this subject; but he must express his doubts as to the utility of that general inquiry which he suggested. An inquiry into all the causes of the national distress could not produce any good, and he should be sorry to see the House go into an inquiry which could not end in conferring credit on itself or benefit to the public. A parliamentary inquiry into the condition of the southern parts of the kingdom, into the districts which were now visited by disturbance, would be very important, and might be very useful. Commissions had been issued to support the authority of the laws, which had been violated in those districts, and which must be supported for the benefit even of the poor themselves, for it was essential to their happiness that property should be protected, and that all men should have confidence in the protection of the law; but those Commissions, it was known, were likely to punish a class of persons who had been driven into outrage, partly by distress, and partly by the terror of others. He knew that the papers moved for by the right hon. Baronet would show the sums of money raised and expended for the poor; but he wished for an inquiry into their condition, which would show the general nature of the payments they received, the extent of their remuneration, and the defective system under which the Poor-laws were at present administered. It was a great misfortune, that in many places the labourers were paid wages out of the poor-rates, and he should like, therefore, to have an inquiry into the mode of administering the Poor-laws. The evils of the poor-rates were very great, but whether any remedy could be found for these grievances was a grave consideration. After all the schemes which had been brought forward on this subject, he must say—after applying his mind to the subject too—that he had no hopes that any legislative remedy could be found for such extensive grievances. At the same time he should think that the House abandoned its duty if it did not examine the subject, and ascertain what was the state of the administration of the Poor-laws, and if any remedy could be found for the evils which existed. To that extent he hoped that the House would institute an inquiry, and, so limited, it would produce a very good effect; but he could not think that an inquiry into the general causes of distress would be useful. He would repeat, as he had before stated, that generally the great interests of the country were not in an unfavourable position, and that what the country wanted was quiet, order, peace and confidence. To ascertain the state of the agricultural districts was most important, for the other interests, he must repeat, were moving well.

Colonel Sibthorp

was of opinion, that the country was in an alarming crisis, and if any proof were wanting of the correctness of the reports that were circulated in the newspapers, it might be found in the circumstance that a great number of Members of that House had received leave of absence on account of the disturbed state of those parts of the country with which they were connected. He wished to say nothing of the defunct, though not absent Ministry; but he believed, that all the economy and reductions for which they took credit had been forced on them by that House echoing the demands of the people.

Mr. George Robinson

remembered, that the hon. member for Callington had been one of those who last Session resisted an inquiry into the state of the country, which was then proposed. There was no subject of more importance, which called more earnestly for the deliberations of the House, than the condition of the labouring classes, with a view to remedy their distress. He and others thought such an inquiry necessary last year; but the hon. Member had then deprecated it, as leading to no satisfactory conclusion. He would request hon. Members to turn their serious attention to the situation of every class in the country, and not confine themselves to the state of the southern counties, but inquire into the state of all the industrious classes. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer were not absent, he would venture to throw out a suggestion which he thought worth attending to. It would be recollected, that last Session the hon. member for Dover had proposed a general inquiry into the state of taxation, with a view of better adapting it to the present state of our circumstances. The motion was negatived, though supported by many members of the present Administration, and he hoped they would now take an early opportunity of proposing such an inquiry, with a view to a revision of taxation. It was most important first to inquire into the distress, but after that was accomplished, and all possible relief afforded by the reduction of taxation, he hoped that an inquiry would be set on foot as to the propriety of improving the mode of levying taxation. After every retrenchment had been made, it should be ascertained what were the best means of levying the taxes necessary for the payment of the National Debt and the public service, so that they should be equally levied on all classes. At present, industry was most unequally oppressed by taxation, and it ought to be relieved. Hints were given several times last Session of the propriety of imposing a Property- ' tax, though they had not been favourably received. The late Chancellor of the Exchequer, he remembered, stated, that the measure of a Property-tax had been under the consideration of his Majesty's Government; and he recollected that the right hon. Gentleman, the member for Liverpool, now unhappily no more, said, that he considered the imposition of such a tax would be necessary. The noble Lord who was at present Chancellor of the Exchequer was, he believed, not unfavourable to a tax on property, and under such circumstances, he hoped, after the Government had retrenched, that it would consider the propriety of revising our whole system of taxation—after it had done all it could to lighten the burdens of the country, that it would consider of measures to levy the necessary taxes more equally, and with greater facility. He did not say that funded property ought to be taxed, but at present that went quite free, while taxes were levied on the necessaries of life, which operated most injuriously on the poorer classes. That was a subject which he should, perhaps, enforce more at length when the Chancellor of the Exchequer was in the House, and he would then only observe, that he hoped that the inquiry, if one were instituted, would not be confined to the southern counties, or to one part of the administration of the Poor-laws, but extended to all the causes of national distress.

Sir Robert Peel

thought the hon. Gentleman had shown, by his own observations, that such an inquiry as he had recommended would be vague and unsatisfactory. He had mentioned one topic on which he desired a special inquiry, namely, the operation of taxation in producing the general distress. For that he wanted a Special Committee. If a committee were appointed to inquire into the causes of the general distress, that cause would undergo investigation; and was he to be told that it would be possible for one committee to inquire into all the causes of distress? That one committee would have to inquire into the effect of the Corn-laws—of the Poor-laws—into the effect of taxation; and, after having inquired into the effects of all these things, it would have to find out remedies for the distress. If, however, a committee could be appointed to inquire into the subjects mentioned by the hon. member for Calling-ton, he thought it would be beneficial. The time was come when it would be most expedient for the House to institute some inquiry into the state of the agricultural districts, and into the causes of the disturbances in the southern counties; and particularly into the practical operation and administration of the Poor-laws. An inquiry, limited to the defects of the administration of those laws, might be most useful, and he would willingly go into it, without any reference to party or politics, but solely with a view to better the condition of the labouring classes. It was of great importance to get a few facts, so that the present condition of the labourer in some counties—in the weald of Kent and Sussex, for example—might be contrasted with his condition in other counties, under different physical circumstances, and with his condition in past times. He should like, also, to contrast the condition of the agricultural labourers in those districts where wages were paid out of the rates, and where roundsmen were common, with their condition in those districts where the wages of the labourers were wholly paid by the employer, and roundsmen were unknown. The practical operation of the two systems would then be accurately known, which would be of great use. He would inquire also into the influence of rents, and into their amount. At present, it was generally stated that high rents had contributed to the distress. That was not his opinion; but in the Committee those who supported that opinion could be heard, and the land-owners might have an opportunity of proving its incorrectness. The Committee might inquire, too, into the probability of our population finding a vent in our colonies of North America. A gentleman, who had been sent thither to make inquiries into the quantity of land yet unappropriated, and into the best conditions of making grants, had lately returned, and he had made his report to the Secretary of State for the Colonies; and a Committee, having his information, might examine how far voluntary emigration might be looked to as a means of relief. If he only had complete information as to the present state of the agricultural labourers in two or three counties, and their condition in the same counties forty years ago, and some knowledge of their condition in other counties, he would not say that some remedy for the distress might not be devised; for he still remained of opinion, that a correct arrangement of a few prominent and leading facts was the best foundation for future measures. If he were placed in the Committee, he should make it his object to devote his time to the inquiry; and the public time of public men could not be better employed than in investigating such a subject.

Sir E. Knatchbull

for one, courted a full inquiry into all the particulars of the county he represented. Justice would not be done to the landowners and the farmers unless such an inquiry were instituted. Charges had been made against them which ought to be refuted, and which he was sure a Committee would refute. The actual state of the tenantry and of their landlords ought to be ascertained. It was said—most unjustly he believed — that rents were too high, and must be re- duced; that was a subject that ought to be investigated, and, if they were too high, they ought to be reduced. The situation of the labourers, too, demanded investigation. Many of them, when employed, obtained adequate wages; but there were too many of them; and many of them got no employment, so that their condition was most unequal. At the same time the farmers who paid these men proper wages, and those who did not, had both to contribute equally to the poor-rates, so that as long as the present system continued there were strong motives for the farmer in no case to pay adequate wages. He was convinced that an inquiry would do a great deal of good, he implored inquiry, and he hoped that it would relieve the sufferings of the labouring classes, and restore them to that place in society which they ought to occupy.

Sir Robert Peel

hoped it would be understood that he attributed the present condition of the agricultural classes to no particular persons, nor did he speak of it as caused by the fault of any body of men. He was afraid that the condition of the agricultural labourers had been gradually deteriorating for several years past but he did not attribute that as a fault to any one class. He wished it also to be understood, that he had never once thought or said, that the deterioration in the condition of the agricultural labourers was caused by the conduct of the upper classes.

Mr. Ormsby Gore

complained of the unjust interference of the parish officers with the labourers' wages, and condemned the payment of wages out of the poor-rates. The hon. Member referred to the conduct of Lord Gage, but was set right by being informed that the noble Lord had explained that matter in the newspapers. He had heard that many people had only 1s. a week, and were compelled to live on that. That was a sad blot on this country. It was cruel, unjust, and impolitic. He believed that what an hon. friend had stated on a former day, that the negroes were better fed and clothed than English labourers, was quite correct. It was necessary to state this, for there was, he believed, a bill to be read tomorrow, to make a compulsory rate for the relief of the poor. The House could not be too cautious, for the newspapers found their way into every cottage of the country as well as into the drawing room. In the county with which he was connected (Salop), there had been no disturbances, and there no interference took place with the labourer, and wages were never paid out of the poor-rates. Generally the people received 9s., 10s., or 11s. a-week, and he | had not heard of any complaint. An endeavour was there made to keep up the spirit of independence by fixing a stigma on those who, being able to work, consented to receive or made any application for parish relief.

Mr. Long Wellesley

explained and defended the conduct of Lord Gage, as it had been already explained and defended by his Lordship in the public prints. He wished to suggest that, should a committee be appointed, it would be proper to inquire into the sums of money expended out of the poor-rates for litigation.

Mr. Owen O'Connor

wished the inquiry, should one be gone into, to be extended to Ireland. The distress of the people there was very great. When he saw the comfort of the English people, he was astonished at their complaints and disturbances. The Irish had nothing but a few potatoes and salt to live on, and wretched cabins to dwell in.

Mr. O'Brien

also wished that a committee should be appointed, and that its researches should be extended to Ireland. The arm of justice was about to fall on the extremely poor, and he thought that care should be taken to heal the wounds which might be inflicted. The committee ought to be appointed immediately.

Mr. Curteis

said, Lord Gage was a most upright and honourable man, and he was satisfied that no blame whatever could be justly imputed to that nobleman. He denied that it was the practice to pay wages out of poor-rates in Sussex, but he wished to ask, how it was possible that a man who was earning 12s. a week could maintain eight or ten children? The distress was not caused by low wages, but want of employment. He had paid 1s. 9d. per day for wages through all last winter as an amateur farmer, and he knew that where the farmers could afford it they paid 2s. per day; but they could not find employment for all the labourers. He wished that an inquiry should be instituted into the condition of all classes; and he was sure, if something were not done, and speedily done, society would fall into a most lamentable state of disorganization.

Sir John Bourke

complained of Con- naught being much neglected by Parliament. Ulster, Munster, and Dublin, had received large grants of public money; but Connaught had never received any. There was great distress at present on the sea coast of that part of the country, and the potatoes had been a very short crop. He suggested the propriety of reforming the Grand Jury system, and of granting some part of the public money to promote inland navigation. Advances to promote the industry of the Irish at home would be the most effectual means of improving their condition, and of keeping them in their own country.

Mr. A. Trevor

said, he agreed with the member for Sussex (Mr. Curteis), that an inquiry should be made into the state of the agricultural interests; and that means should be taken to afford the labourer a fair rate of wages without injuring the farming or landed interests. He could not agree with the member for Callington in his view of the state of the country, which he considered to be in a state of lawless insubordination, and till that was put down, he could have little hope of any good arising by any other means proposed.

Mr. P. Howard

implored the House, as it was about to vote away the produce of the taxes, to direct its attention to economy, and by all means to endeavour to manage the income and expenditure in such a manner as to allow of the repeal of the Malt-tax, which now pressed so severely on the agricultural classes.