HC Deb 09 November 1830 vol 1 cc334-8
Mr. Portman

begged to ask a question of the right hon. Secretary opposite, which appeared to him to be very material in the present state of the realm. It was well known that this metropolis, and a portion of the country, were in a state of great excitement. Many attempts had been made in that House to ameliorate the condition of the poor, and, under existing circumstances, he could refrain no longer from asking his Majesty's Ministers whether they had any measures to propose, and at what time they meant to propose them, with the view of relieving the extreme pressure of the lower, and also of the middling classes, who, in consequence of that pressure, were unable to employ as many of the labouring poor as they wished to employ. If Ministers had no such measures in contemplation, then individuals, however humble, must call upon Parliament to assist them, and to support them in their endeavours to effect this object.

Sir R. Peel

said, he must protest against this course of asking, day after day, questions with regard to the measures contemplated by the Government. It must be evident to every hon. Member, that scarcely any measure could be proposed which would not, directly or indirectly, affect the condition of the labouring poor. Was it possible, then, that he could enter into the details which an answer to the question of the hon. Member must necessarily lead him into. The hon. Member had mentioned the metropolis; did the hon. Member mean to inquire whether the Ministers had in contemplation any partial measure; or, did the hon. Member refer to general measures?

Mr. Portman

—To general measures.

Sir R. Peel

said, that an answer to such a question would include details which the House, he was sure, would not expect him to be prepared to enter into. He was ready to give a specific answer to any specific question; but, with all the respect he entertained for the hon. Member, he must refuse to attempt to satisfy the hon. Member on a subject so general as that to which the hon. Member's question referred.

Lord Althorp

said, that the right hon. Gentleman seemed to have misunderstood the question of his hon. friend. His hon. friend meant to ask merely, whether the Ministers intended to propose any measures for the relief of the labouring poor. It was not intended to ask the right hon. Gentleman to enter into any details. He thought the country would be very much disappointed if it went forth, that the Ministers did not intend to submit to Parliament any measures for the relief of the labouring poor, for that was a subject of the deepest importance, and one that called for the especial consideration of the Government, and of the Parliament. This subject had hitherto been left to individual Members of the House, and the difficulty individual Members had met with in prosecuting their task had made every Gentleman lament that Government did not take this important subject into their own hands.

Mr. Slaney

concurred in the view which the noble Lord had taken, and hoped the Government would attend to his recommendation. He was convinced, from long acquaintance with the subject, that unless the Government were speedily to take it up, the most disastrous consequences would ensue.

Sir R. Peel

hoped he had said nothing from which it could be inferred that he was indifferent to the condition of the labouring poor, or that he was insensible to the deep importance of the subject. Was it not, however, clear, that almost every measure must affect their condition? Did not the remission of the Beer-duty affect the condition of the labouring classes? Would not the passing of Irish vagrants, and any measure for the employment of the Irish poor at home, and thus preventing their immigration into this country, affect the condition of the labouring poor? How, then, could he answer a question so complicated as that of the hon. Member? He thought the hon. Member must himself see the impossibility of this. He wished, however, most studiously to guard himself against the possibility of its being thought that he differed from the hon. Member, or from the noble Lord, as to the importance of the subject to which the hon. Member's question related.

Mr. Portman

begged to remind the right hon. Secretary, that although he did not wish to precipitate measures, delays were sometimes very dangerous, and that the people might become desperate.

Sir R. Peel

said, he really thought that this subject would be much better dealt with by individual Members of that House than by the Government. Why should not some Gentleman, who from experience was acquainted with the wants of the labouring poor, introduce a measure on the subject? If the hon. Member himself, who was so competent to form a judgment on the subject, would propose any measure, or any inquiry which might lead to a practical result, he (Sir R. Peel) would be most happy to co-operate with him.

Mr. Portman

said, he must decline the challenge which the right hon. Secretary had given him, because he thought it the duty of the Government to bring forward a measure on the subject.

Sir J. Wrottesley

concurred in the view taken by the hon. Member (Mr. Portman) near him. He would take that opportunity of observing, that the subject required immediate attention. The disturbances which had taken place in a neighbouring county, and which were extending to other places, must be instantly looked to. Much of the early part of his life had been passed among tumults, and he knew from experience that there was no more effectual way of quelling disturbances than for the Government to give to the local authorities more assistance when their ordinary force was not sufficient. The maxim obsta principiis was never more applicable than in the case of tumults: they would spread over the whole kingdom if they were not crushed at the commencement. The Government, however, must go further, and endeavour to remove the causes of discontent. He was, therefore, by no means satisfied with the answer of the right hon. Secretary. Individual Members could do little without the co-operation of the Government, and a subject of so much importance as the condition of the labouring poor could not be efficiently dealt with except by the Government itself.

Sir Robert Peel

thought it would be a great advantage if conversations and remarks of the nature which had just been made, were preceded by some notice, and he must be allowed to observe, that the remarks of the hon. Baronet who had just spoken, seemed to convey some reproach upon his Majesty's Government for supine-ness with reference to the late disturbances—a reproach the most entirely unfounded that could possibly be uttered. It was extremely difficult at one and the same time to enforce the strictest economy, and exercise the energy that should belong to the governing power in any State. Infantry and cavalry were to be disbanded, scarcely a soldier was to be allowed in aid of the civil power—Government were compelled to dismiss the yeomanry; and when disturbances arose, they were told that they ought not to leave them to be suppressed by the constables, but ought instantly to crush them with a strong-hand. He would call upon the hon. member for Kent to say, if his Majesty's Government had not done all, under the circumstances, which could be expected of it for the suppression of those disturbances? He had further to state, that though at a great public inconvenience, and to the neglect of other pressing matters, the Secretary for the Treasury was at the present moment at Maidstone, endeavouring: to trace the causes of that extraordinary mystery which had, up to the present moment, eluded their most careful investigation; there were also at Maidstone every police officer, who in the present state of the metropolis, could be spared. To this he had to add, that he had authorized the Lord Lieutenant of the county to call out, and embody the yeomanry rather than resort to the regular military force. It would be a gross error to suppose that the disturbance in a neighbouring county was local. Its object, he could have no doubt, was general—the fires constituting its overt acts, were neither executed by the hands, nor devised by the heads, of the peasantry of the county of Kent—no suspicion attached to the resident population—the whole of the matter, whatever might be its origin, was devised by other heads than theirs, and proceeded upon principles, not local, but general. Though, up to the present moment, no detection had taken place; but he did hope that the time was near when not only the hands by which the offences were committed, but, what was more important, the heads by which they were devised, would be brought to condign punishment.

Sir Edward Knatchbull

bore testimony to the fact, that Government had given immediate assistance on being applied to, and he had much satisfaction in being-able to state, that in the eastern part of the county the efforts for the suppression of disturbance had not been altogether unsuccessful; and in the eastern part of the county he had the means of knowing that many of the inhabitants had used great exertion to discover the causes of the disturbance, and to put an end to it. Similar exertions had also been used in other parts of the county, for the same purpose; but the continuance of those exertions was more than could be expected from individuals if public measures were not resorted to for the restoration of peace and tranquillity. From every inquiry that he was enabled to make, he could declare, that the conflagrations in the county of Kent were not caused by the peasantry of the land. He was persuaded that the peasantry were actuated by a very different feeling from that which influenced the authors of those outrages; the peasantry were, he was assured, full of attachment to their employers, and the least likely men in the world to commit acts of that diabolical character. Another consideration led him to acquit the peasantry of the county of Kent; they were not so ignorant as not to be aware that those burnings would prove most injurious to their own interest—even destroying the very means of their own subsistence.

Mr. Briscoe

thought it was due to join with the hon. member for Kent in saying that the Government had done all that could be expected of it to ascertain the authors of these fires, and put an end to them. He regretted that the spirit which prevailed in the county of Kent had spread itself to two parishes in the county which he had the honour to represent, but he entertained not the least doubt that the labouring poor of the district were perfectly innocent of those offences.

Petition to be printed.