HC Deb 17 May 1830 vol 24 cc774-84
Mr. E. Davenport

said, that he had the honour to present to the House a Petition, which, whether they considered the subject to which it referred, the place from whence it came, or the great number of signatures attached to it, would, he was sure, be admitted to be one of considerable importance. For himself, he had to entreat the indulgence of the House—the more particularly when he considered how many of those hon. Members by whom he was surrounded would have done the subject much greater justice than it was in his power to do it—while he entered into some few details connected with the topics to which the Petition referred. This Petition was from one of the greatest commercial towns in the world: it was signed by 25,000 of the inhabitants of that town, and it prayed for a Reform in the Com- mons House of Parliament. The petitioners expressed the reluctance with which they approached the House on this occasion, after the rejection of their former prayer; and seeing with deep regret the apathy with which the House seemed to view the approach of poverty to their own threshholds, they stated, that they did not look with much confidence to the result of their present application. The petitioners differed from many Members of that House, when they stated, that in every well-regulated state the people ought to be in a prosperous condition where no external cause operated to prevent it; and finding themselves, in common with other classes of the community, in a state of distress after several years of peace, it was a proof that some mismanagement existed in the manner in which the country was governed. To the want of a Reform in the Commons House of Parliament they attributed much of that mismanagement of which they now complained. One of the first objects to which the petitioners wished to call the attention of the House, was the bill which passed in 1819, commonly called Mr. Peel's Bill, for an alteration in the Currency. When that measure was introduced, it was contended that the return to metallic payments would not make a difference of more than three or four per cent in prices; whereas it had the effect of increasing the burthens of the country to nearly double what they were, while the nominal amount of taxation remaining the same, the real amount taken from the pockets of the people was nearly twice as much as they paid in a paper currency. The petitioners therefore submitted that the amount of taxation should be greatly reduced to place the public in anything near the state in which they were before that bill came into full operation. But no such reduction had taken place; and this was one ground on which the petitioners asserted the necessity for Parliamentary Reform. The hon. member for Callington had stated, in 1827, that every kind of agricultural produce had fallen at the rate of thirty or thirty-three per cent, or that money had risen in value in that proportion since the passing of the right hon. Gentleman's Bill; the subsequent suppression of the small notes had occasioned a further rise in the value of money, to the extent, he believed, of twenty per cent, so that the whole extent of the change could not have been less than fifty per cent. That the manufacturers of Birmingham had participated in the evil consequences resulting from this measure was sufficiently evident from the fall of price on twenty-six articles of their ware, a list of which he held in his hand, with the respective prices annexed. As the House appeared disinclined to listen to details, he would observe generally, that the fall of price between 1818 and 1828, might be estimated at about thirty-six per cent, while from the year 1828 up to the present period it amounted to at least twenty-two per cent added to that. He was sorry to observe, that he should be obliged to renew the complaint of the hon. member for Knaresborough, a few nights since, as several members near him were speaking in a louder tone than himself. Part of the prayer of the petitioners referred to the pressure of taxation, to relieve them from which nothing effectual had hitherto been done. It was a reproach to Parliament that the people should be oppressed with such an intolerable burthen at a period when 113 members of the Privy Council were permitted to share amongst them an income of 650,164l. annually, leaving each, on an average, about 5,783l. a-year, which, in fact, exceeded the revenue of a "sovereign" in North America. According to the present state of things, the humble followers of industry were habitually sacrificed to the receivers of taxes. The petitioners prayed for a considerable reduction of taxation and a thorough reform in the Commons' House of Parliament. The next subject to which he should refer more immediately concerned the right hon. Gentleman opposite. He alluded to what that right hon. Gentleman had stated with respect to the alleged prosperity of the town of Birmingham, in contradiction to the representations of those who had the best opportunities of obtaining local information. The right hon. Gentleman had stated that Birmingham was in a state of prosperity, and he had quoted, as proofs of this, the traffic on the roads and canals, and particularly the increase of traffic on the Worcester and Birmingham canal. The reason of this was, that the ship canal at Gloucester had rendered that almost a sea port, and increased the business on the Worcester and Birmingham canal. That canal had also obtained a larger supply of water, and an impediment to its communicating with Birmingham had been removed, which sufficiently accounted for the increase of business, without supposing that Birmingham was flourishing. The hon. Member next referred to a statement of the right hon. Gentleman, that some ground rents had sold in Birmingham for 100 years' purchase. But the fact in this case was, that by the purchase the ground was converted into freehold, and by the purchase its value was considerably augmented. The value of the land was 3,500l., while the purchaser gave only 500l. for it, so that the right hon. Gentleman had done any thing but prove by that fact the prosperity of Birmingham. The right hon. Gentleman had also quoted the number of four-wheeled carriages in use in Birmingham, but he believed that the four-wheeled carriages referred to by the right hon. Gentleman were only poney-chaises, which the people had taken to use instead of gigs. The real four-wheeled carriages, such as gentlemen use, and such as were generally understood by the term, had increased, he believed, in Birmingham since 1818 about one-fortieth. In 1818 there were thirty-eight such carriages in Birmingham, and in 1828 there were thirty-nine. But a different sort of proof might be derived from the state of the poor in Birmingham. In the last year the outdoor poor had increased 445, and since 1818 they had increased full 1,400. [Some impatience was here again manifested.] The hon. Member observed, however impatient the Members were to give relief to the Jews, and however sorry he was to introduce such a subject as a sort of sandwich between two discussions on that question, yet perhaps they ought to think that some attention was due to the complaints and sufferings of 25,000 Christians. The hon. Member then adverted to the state of the iron-trade, and stated, that of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire furnaces no less than forty-five out of 107 had been blown out; while of the forty-five furnaces in Shropshire, fourteen had been blown out since 1828.

Mr. Trant

rose to order. He must object to the hon. Member entering into so many statements on presenting a Petition [Cries of "Order!" and "Chair, Chair.!"]. The hon. Member might content himself with an impromptu speech on such a subject.

Mr. E. Davenport

, in continuation, said, he did not know whether the hon. Mem- ber's interruption were an impromptu suggestion or not, but a more disorderly one he had never witnessed in that House. He would then proceed to a topic on which he hoped he should have that hon. Member's support, since he had taken up his seat on that (the Opposition) side of the House. The petitioners prayed for Reform in Parliament, and in that he cordially concurred. He had been a Reformer since the time of the disgraceful expedition to Walcheren. The Parliament was not a fair representation of the people. As it was a selection from the mass, it ought to be better than the mass of the people; but it was not. He did not think it was a fair specimen of the average talent of England. If he threw a net across the Strand, he believed that the first 658 men he caught would constitute a House of Commons which would obtain the confidence of the people, and be more worthy of it than the present House of Commons. A Reform might be obtained on constitutional principles, which would satisfy him. He would have the Septennial Act repealed; and he cordially concurred with the petitioners in desiring to see the expenses of elections diminished; so that talents and character might have a fairer chance than at present against money. If any person should propose the vote by ballot, it should have his consent, not that he thought that mode of voting good of itself, but it would operate, in the present state of society, to check corruptive influence. Property ought, indeed, to have its legitimate influence; but at present it had a very unjust and improper influence, tending to control everything like freedom, and this influence might, probably, be corrected by the ballot. It was a statement of the petitioners that all the industrious classes were suffering greatly, because the money was taken out of their pockets to go into the pockets of the receivers of taxes, and they stated, that for all these evils there was no remedy but a Reform of Parliament. He called on the House to attend to the prayers of the petitioners in time, before the House lost the confidence of the people altogether, and before they took the means of Reform, and, perhaps, of avenging their own wrongs into their own hands. The Reform Meeting at Birmingham had been followed by similar meetings all over the country, and Reform was becoming a favourite topic with the people. For the rest he had never been slow to express his opinion, either in that House or elsewhere, and he should still have the courage to do so without entertaining any apprehension that the societies he had alluded to would meet the fate of other societies across the water, or that he should be afflicted with the disease which went by the name of the "Scarlett" fever. The hon. Member concluded by moving that the Petition be brought up.

Secretary Sir Robert Peel

* said, that he never was more surprised than by the speech of the hon. Member. The hon. Gentleman had informed him that he should state, in the course of his speech, on presenting the Petition, some facts in opposition to the statements which he (Sir Robert Peel) had made on a former occasion, when he had quoted various facts to show that Birmingham was not in that state of extreme and overwhelming distress, past all hopes of relief, that had been stated on several occasions. The hon. Member had been since that time getting information on the spot, and after all his local inquiries, what refutation had he given to his statements? He had stated on a former occasion, in reply to the hon. Member, that he would allow him to select what indications he pleased of increasing prosperity, and that he would leave the House to judge by the indications selected by him, whether or not Birmingham were in that state of distress described. He had then stated that there was an increased consumption of articles subject to Excise-duties, which argued no distress among the poor. He had also stated, that on all the turnpike roads about Birmingham there was a great increase of tolls, and that on every canal in the neighbourhood of Birmingham, there were proofs of an increased traffic; and the hon. Gentleman, leaving his statement as to the roads untouched—leaving unnoticed his proofs of increased consumption—had stated that there was in one single canal a large increase, which he ascribed to other causes than the increase of prosperity, and which, he said, were sufficient to account for the increase of traffic on the canal. But the hon. Member had by this confirmed his argument. He had not contradicted by facts, after all his inquiries, one single statement which he * The Secretary for the Home-department appeared to-night, for the first time, in the House, subsequent to his father's death. (Sir R. Peel) had formerly made to the House, to show that Birmingham was increasing in prosperity. The hon. Member proved by his admission, that there was an increase in the prosperity of Birmingham. The only other point to which the hon. Gentleman had adverted, was the increase of four-wheeled carriages. The hon. Gentleman had found out that the inhabitants of Birmingham had changed their gigs into four-wheeled pony chaises, which accounted, he thought, for the increase of four-wheeled carriages. He had quoted the increase of different kinds of carriages formerly, to show that the middle and lower classes had increased in comforts. Had he referred only to such carriages as were used by the rich, he should have been told that these were the luxuries of the rich, and that the poor were suffering. He had quoted the number of two-wheeled carriages, therefore, as well as the number of four-wheeled ones, because the two-wheeled ones—the gigs—were used by the lower and middle classes, and the increase in them showed that the lower and middle classes had increased their enjoyments—their comforts and luxuries. The hon. Gentleman said, that only one four-wheeled carriage had been added to the number in Birmingham for many years. He did not know where the hon. Gentleman got his information, but he could assure him that the returns in his possession showed a considerably larger increase. As he wished to quote no Returns not in the possession of every hon. Member, if the hon. Member would move for those in his possession he would second his Motion.

Mr. E. Davenport

said, he would save him the trouble.

Sir Robert Peel

said, he did not want to be saved the trouble. He wanted the hon. Member, and all other hon. Members who complained of the effects of that Bill which bore his name, and who continually stated that it had been productive of evil to the country—he wanted those hon. Members to hear the facts which disproved their assertions. He had stated on a former occasion, that the number both of two-wheeled and four-wheeled carriages had increased in Birmingham; and he had quoted that increase to show that the people had increased in comforts and luxuries, which he took to be an indication of increasing prosperity. In order to obtain, the information, he had applied to the Ex- cise and to the Tax-office, and had required as full and accurate a Return as possible of all the carriages that paid taxes. There could be no higher authority than the Returns of the Excise and Tax-offices; and if their accounts of the number of four and two-wheeled carriages showed an increase in them, what better proof could be obtained of the increasing prosperity of Birmingham? He had not rested his proofs, however, on this alone. He was willing to admit that an increased revenue raised from the people, by an increase of taxation, was no proof of their increasing prosperity. But when he found, though the rate of taxation was not increased, though it was even diminished, that the revenue increased, was not that a proof that the people possessed an increased means of consumption—that they actually consumed more and were increasing in comfort? The hon. Member stated, that there was only one additional four-wheeled carriage in Birmingham for ten years: but this was a mistake; and he wished that the Returns he quoted were on the Table of the House, that every member might correct him if he made a misstatement. In 1819, then, the number of four-wheeled carriages in Birmingham was 38; in 1820, 38; in 1821, 38; in 1822, 44; in 1823, 55; in 1824, 68; in 1825, 94; in 1826, 106; in 1827, 137; in 1828, 157. Thus, since 1819, when the Bill was passed, which the hon. Gentleman said had ruined Birmingham—which the petitioners said had involved that town in bankruptcy, and made it unable to pay rates and taxes—[Mr. E. Davenport was understood to deny this. Sir Robert Peel said he had taken down the words of the Petition]—this Birmingham, which had been ruined by the Bill of 1819, had then only thirty-eight carriages, and in 1828 it had no less than 157. But the hon. Gentleman accounted for this by saying, that the people had converted all their gigs into four-wheeled pony chaises; that all the people who had kept a taxed cart and one horse, had changed their vehicles for a pony chaise. Now, if the hon. Member's statement was true, there ought to have been a great reduction of the number of two-wheeled carriages; that was the way the hon. Gentleman accounted for the increase of the four-wheeled carriages. But if the gigs had been so converted, the two-wheeled carriages must be put an end to; but the Returns by no means bore out the statement of the hon. Gentleman. It appeared by them that the number of these vehicles in Birmingham, in 1819, was 301, and that from that time they had increased in regular progression, up to 1828, when they amounted to 470. The hon. Member stated that Birmingham was in such a state of distress that it could not pay rates and taxes; but he had no hesitation in saying that Birmingham paid its taxes and rates as well now as at any period. [Mr. E. Davenport was understood again to dissent from the statement about the taxes and rates.] It was said (continued Sir R. Peel) that by the Bill of 1819, Birmingham had been so much reduced, the hon. Gentleman had said it, that prices had been reduced 56-per-cent, while the burthen of taxation had been increased beyond the power of the people to pay, to the same amount. The hon. Member stated as a consequence of that Bill, that the inhabitants could not pay their rates and taxes; but he should be able to show that the rates and taxes were never levied there with greater ease than at present. He had a return of the arrears of rates at different years; from which it appeared, that those arrears amounted, in 1818, to 3,904l.; in 1820, to 8,571l.; and in 1829, to 1,031l. He had a similar return also, as to the arrears of taxes, which he would read to the House.—In the year 1819, the amount of taxes assessed on Birmingham for the half-year, ending on the 5th of April, was 18,000l.; of these taxes the amount paid was only 7,000l., while the arrears were 11,000l. In the year 1821 the arrears were 10,324l. In the year 1823 they were 7,899l., and in 1825, the year of prosperity, be it recollected, the arrears were 5,748l. In 1828 they had fallen to 1,734l., and last year they were only 2,522l. Indeed he believed that there never had been less distress at any-period in Birmingham than at the present moment. The hon. Member had formerly-stated, that the consumption of butchers' meat in Birmingham had decreased one third; he knew not from what sources the hon. Gentleman derived his information on that subject; but he was certain that the statement of the consumption of meat being one third less than it had been was not supported by the fact. To shew that the condition of the working classes was not deteriorated, he would advert to the Returns connected with the Savings Bank. The total amount of money deposited there was about 50,000l., and the total number of accounts actually opened was 3,547. In the last month the amount of money taken out was l,252l. and the amount paid in, 2,403l., leaving a balance of 1,150l., money paid into the Savings Bank. But this was not all. The payments of every kind on every article of taxation had received a sensible increase. The taxes had increased on "window's, on houses, on servants, on horses, on carriages, and on dogs, indeed on every article of luxury, enjoyment, or necessity, except two, and he would give the hon. Member the full benefit to be derived from them: they were the taxes on horse-dealers and hair-powder. He thought it unnecessary to pursue this subject further. The hon. Member had not been able to impugn any of the statements he had formerly put forth; and having therefore shown that the situation of the population of Birmingham was not such as he represented, he should not trouble the House with any further details.

Mr. Robinson

said, he could not agree with the right hon. Baronet in the conclusion he drew from these statements, and he protested against the system of answering all complaints on such subjects, by reading a few isolated and unauthenticated documents. He knew, however, in defiance of these documents, that the families receiving parochial relief in the town of Birmingham had increased from 2,469 in 1826, to 3,878 in 1830, and that there was an increase of distress in that town, to the amount of at least fifty per cent, since the year 1826. He feared it would be found, even if he admitted the correctness of the right hon. Baronet's statements, that the comforts of the poor were diminishing, as the luxuries of the rich were increasing, and that the want of employment was severely felt, notwithstanding all the boasts of prosperity.

Mr. E. D. Davenport

, in reply, said, the only conclusion to be drawn from the right hon. Gentleman's statements was, that the 25,000 petitioners had put their signatures to a string of falsehoods. He denied, however, that the right hon. Gentleman had disproved any portion of them, although he admitted that he was mistaken in that part of the argument which related to the consumption of butchers' meat. He repeated, however, his assertion, that the boasted increase of trade on the Worcester Canal was the result of peculiar circumstances; and he contended that houses should bring 300 years' purchase, rather than 100 in a situation like the one alluded to. He also denied that four-wheeled carriages had increased in the way the right hon. Baronet supposed; for it would be found a great many of them were mere pony chaises.—Petition to be printed.