HC Deb 18 February 1831 vol 2 cc674-85
Lord Althorp

moved the Order of the Day for the House to resolve itself into a Committee upon the Canada Acts.

On the question that the Speaker do leave the Chair,

Mr. D. Browne

said, he was aware that he was taking an unusual and extraordinary course in making any opposition to the Speaker's leaving the Chair, and he hoped the House would visit him with its displeasure if he did not make out a case that justified his departure from the common course. He had had some petitions put into his hands from the western parts of Ireland, and when the. House heard the nature of those petitions, he was sure they would think he could not be justified in postponing the presenting of them even until Monday next. In these petitions the strongest complaints were made of want of employment; and it was stated, that many thousand persons on the western coast of Ireland were in a state of starvation, which they expected would overwhelm them before the end of the month. He thought these statements alone would fully justify the extraordinary course he had taken. He had taken that course in the full conviction that his complaints would meet with due attention, for he had been seventeen years in that House, and he had always found them! most anxious to attend to the interests of Ireland. The House would easily understand the wretched condition of the people of Ireland when they looked at the population of Ireland. In that country, with her lakes, and bogs, and mountains, there was a population of 250 persons to a square mile; while in England, with all her wealth and manufactures, there were but 222 persons to a square mile. There were great numbers of persons living on the poor-rates in England, and yet the distress here was admitted to be terrible. It must, however, be much worse in Ireland, where no such relief was afforded to the poor, and where there were twenty-eight more persons to a square mile than there were in this country. He had received from Mr. Lyons, the Parish Priest of Kilmore, in the Barony of Erris, a statement, that before the end of February there would be 30,000 persons without food. There had been a quantity of seaweed thrown up on the shore for a number of years; that weed had made an excellent manure, with which the land had been improved; but, unfortunately, in the year 1829, the sea-weed failed, and the land remaining without manure, the crop of the following year was deficient, and a scarcity of food had been felt ever since. That, however, was not all; the potatoes crop had failed, and the people, for some time back, had been obliged to have recourse to the wretched means of picking up shell-fish on the sea-shore, in order to delay as long; as possible the consumption of their stock of potatoes. For the next three or four months this want of food would be most severely felt, and it was to provide against the dreadful consequences of it that he now directed the attention of the House to the subject. There were 200,000 people who, within that time, would require, not food gratuitously—for they did not ask for that— but money, or the means of earning it. He thought that the Government ought to devote a sum for the support of these people, by providing the means of employing them in public works. For that purpose a sum of 200,000l. would be required. He had taken the average number of persons at 200,000, and the average time during which they would require assistance he had taken at four months. The amount of assistance he had estimated at 1l. per head, which was only 2¼d. a day, and that, he thought hon. Members would agree, was only just sufficient to keep souls and bodies together. He said, that in his opinion, the Government ought to supply the money for the purpose he had mentioned. He would not bring forward a specific motion on the subject, as he had confidence in his Majesty's Ministers, and was satisfied that they would do every thing they could for the welfare of Ireland, He had mentioned these things to the Secretary for Ireland, and he wished the Government to act for themselves. He disliked the practice of Government in this country sheltering; itself under a Committee of that House, for he thought that, in a case like this, it ought manfully to adopt or reject the proposition submitted to it. There were many persons who objected to giving money to the people, and he was himself opposed to the principle of mere gifts: but in this case the Irish did not ask for gifts, they only wanted the Government to grant the money as the means of paying for public works, for these poor people wanted nothing more than the means of employment. In what he had stated he had been guilty of no exaggeration; he had stated what he believed to be strictly true, and he had done so at this moment, because he thought it to be his duty to forget every thing, under such circumstances, but the absolute necessity of bringing the case of these poor people before the House. He knew that their attention was this evening to be called to matter of the utmost importance, but though he was, aware of that fact, he thought it his duty to make this statement, that the Government might interfere to prevent these people from starving. When the money should thus have been advanced by the Government, 150,000l. of it must be applied to the public works, but the other 50,000l. must be at once distributed gratuitously; for, as there was no provision for the poor in Ireland, this money was required for their support. Allow him to observe, that he had no interest whatever in the barony of Erris. The money, however, could be advantageously employed in improving the neighbourhood of that place, for there was now no road into that place. The want of communication along the coast was very severely felt; and for 150 miies of the coast (at least, if the sinuosities and promontories were taken into calculation, the distance was fully equal to that), there was not anything like a public road. He thought it was the duty of Ministers to advance this money, and next year the Crown might come on the people, and take, in re-payment, their produce, in preference to the landlord and tithe-holder.

O'Gorman Mahon

believed that his hon. friend had only made a modified statement of what was the fact. He wished also to impress on the Government the necessity of interfering between the unhappy peasantry and those who took every thing from them. He called on them to protect that peasantry from starvation. There were some very excellent landlords, who were most anxious to do every thing in their power to assist their poor tenantry. One of these was the Marquis of Sligo, who was now absent from London on that very account; and another excellent landlord, Sir Richard O'Donnell, had returned to his estate for the same purpose. While he was on this subject, he would suggest, that Ministers ought to take that property the original allocation of which had been for the maintenance of the poor, and employ it for the purpose of maintaining them. He believed there could be no mistake as to what he meant—and he should not flirt with the matter—he meant the Church property, part of which had been originally destined for the maintenance of the poor, though the Church, for the support of its own Ministers, now took a large sum from the earnings of the people, and made them no return whatever. He took that opportunity of stating, that the tax en steam-boats would be thought, in Ireland, to be directed against the poor of that country, and he recommended that it should be limited in its nature, and imposed only on cabin passengers. He joined the hon. member for Mayo in impressing on the Government the necessity of turning its attention to this subject.

Mr. J. Smith

said, that the statement which the hon. member for Mayo had made had been this day confirmed in substance by the testimony of several most respectable persons with whom he had communicated on the subject. The noble Lord (Althorp) had last night told them, that he had taken into his consideration the state of the Poor-laws of England. It was now to be hoped, that he would turn his attention to the necessity of providing a Poor-law for Ireland. He would now only add, that on Monday next he should present to the House, petitions similar to those now in the hands of the hon. member for Mayo.

Mr. Stanley

said, however inconvenient the course taken by the hon. member for Mayo might be, he should not feel justified if he allowed the petition to be laid upon the Table without observation. He wished it was in his power to assure the House that the statement of the hon. Member, as to the intensity of the distress, was exaggerated: all the inquiries he (Mr. Stanley) had made, and they were both numerous and anxious, showed, that, in the baronies of Erris and Tyrawley, distress prevailed to a degree little short of famine. Distress existed also, as was well known, both in Galway and Sligo; but not to the same, extent. He had himself received a petition from the barony of Tyrawley, which he intended to present to the House; and the subscribers to it set out their sufferings in language at once most simple and most forcible. They stated, that they had been obliged to sell their moveables; that the scanty crop of grain had been sold to pay rent; that the potatoe crop had, to a considerable extent, failed; and that the linen-trade being at an end, they could only depend upon the soil, for which they knew no means of compulsory production. "Give us (said the petitioners, in conclusion) but the means of maintaining our wives and our families—we shall be thankful—we will be industrious—we will be happy." Severe as were the sufferings of the petitioners, their representations of them to the House did not contain a syllabic of insubordination, or even of discontent; and for this reason it was doubly deserving the attention of Parliament. Government was called upon, under these painful circumstances, to meet the difficulty, and to provide a remedy; but he asked the hon. member for Mayo, or any other Irish Member most zealous for the interests of that part of the United Kingdom, to define what were the means in the hands of Ministers? How could they afford relief on every occasion when the potatoe crop failed? Was a remedy to be found, as some had urged, either in a spoliation of the property of the landlord, or of the Church? It was one of the most painful parts of his duty to be obliged to state, that much of the prevailing distress was attributable to the landlords. They had not come forward as they ought to have done; and as a proof of it, he might mention, that he had been furnished with a statement of the rental of one of the baronies he had named, amounting to 10,400l. a-year; and the House would scarcely believe him when he added, that out of this large rental no more had been contributed to relieve distress than 100l. Of this sum, 70l. had been subscribed by non-residents, and 30l. by one individual, a constant absentee, resident in Kildare. Was Government, then, to be called upon to make up the deficiency of local subscriptions, or give additional means of employment? If he had used strong, perhaps harsh, terms towards Irish landlords, he used them advisedly, and not without knowledge. A gentleman, well qualified, had been employed to inquire and report upon the condition of the part of the country in question, and he stated, that the local subscriptions were trifling, the rents in general high, and exacted to the uttermost farthing. The hon. member for Mayo had certainly not gone too far, perhaps not far enough, in the just tribute which he had paid to the Marquis of Sligo, for his liberality in a neighbouring barony: he had made large importations of provisions, and he had sold them for labour at a very low rate, besides introducing 1,000l. worth of flax to keep the women also in employ. If such conduct had been general, petitions like that now offered to the House would never have been prepared. Some hon. Gentleman had alluded to a charitable appeal to the British nation, and he (Mr. Stanley) was convinced that it would not be made in vain. This was a legitimate mode of obtaining and applying relief, but it was not within the sphere of the duty of Government to bring forward a proposition for gratuitous contribution for the removal of local distress. There was, indeed, one mode in which he thought Government could fairly and honourably interpose — by opening the means of new industry. Ministers were prepared to submit to Parliament a proposition for the advance of a very large sum of money, upon sufficient security for repayment, to be employed upon public works. It was evident that it would be necessary to use the utmost caution, in order to take care that the public funds were not wasted or misapplied to a purpose for which they were not intended. All he could add at present was, that Government was most anxiously engaged in considering the details of a plan to be submitted to Parliament.

Sir R. Peel

agreed, that nothing could be more painful than such temperate appeals to the commiseration of the House, as that which had been made on the authority of a petition by the right hon. Member, and the pain was not lessened by the conviction that no adequate means of relief could be provided. On one point he had long made up his mind—that a Committee could not be proposed—a public grant could not even be asked without aggravating the prevailing distress. The mere expectation that Government was about to attempt a task it was impossible for it to perform, would tend to dry up even such scanty, miserable, contemptible sources of relief as had been referred to by the right hon. Gentleman. Even the despicable contribution of 100l. out of a rental of 10,000l. a year would be withheld, if it were supposed that Ministers would come forward with relief; and the mere chance that Government would appear in the markets would instantly raise the price of all the necessaries of life. He (Sir R. Peel) thought, therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman had acted with becoming prudence and reserve in not saying anything more specific as to the intention of Government, although he could conceive the existence of such a pressing and overwhelming necessity as might compel the abandonment of the ordinary rules of policy in this respect. True it was, that the right hon. Gentleman could not withhold the fact, that the Government had had an agent in the distressed district; but it showed, that those in authority had taken the proper means to obtain correct information. Government ought not to undertake that which it could not succeed with and which nothing but general sympathy and individual charity could accomplish; and he was perfectly content, from his own experience, to leave the matter in the hands of the Government, without at all requiring it to explain its views. If urged by an overruling necessity, the right hon. Gentleman should hereafter come down with a definite proposition for the relief of distress, he was sure that it would receive a ready assent from the sympathy of Par- liament. The House could not see a whole population starve, without resorting to any and every plan of relief in its power, not merely from motives of humanity, but on the solid grounds of an enlightened policy. He could not certainly go so far as the hon. Member who had recommended that the landlords should be deprived of their rents, and the clergy of their tithes, as he was opposed to any such tyrannical measures as implied a confiscation of property.

Mr. D. Browne

explained. He did not mean to recommend that landlords should be despoiled of their rents, or the Church of its tithes, but merely that if Government advanced money to aid particular districts, it should have a claim for repayment prior to those of the landlord and the Church.

Sir R. Peel

could not go along with the hon. Member even to that extent.

Mr. O'Council

observed, that if the State advanced money for such a purpose, it would, in point of law, have a prior claim. He had not intended to have spoken, but, as he had risen, he might add, that he entirely concurred in what had fallen from the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Stanley), who had pursued the most prudent and the safest course. That right hon. Gentleman was, however, much mistaken if he thought that distress was confined to the western coast of Ireland. With regard to the particular barony, the wants of the poor were, perhaps, ten times greater than the whole rent-roll, and he knew that two or three of the landlords were themselves so distressed, that they could not afford the relief they would otherwise be happy to give. This was not the case with all, and he knew one opulent landlord, though it would be wrong to mention his name, who did not subscribe a shilling to remove the sufferings of his neighbours in 1802, and who seemed, in 1831, determined to pursue the same course. Before he sat down, he would observe, that the distress in the neighbourhood of Dublin was very severe, and out of 14,000 persons in the town of Naas, he believed that 6,000 were in a state of starvation. April would not arrive without many other districts being included in the pale of distress.

Mr. Stanley

had understood, that there was no immediate prospect of famine in any other district than the baronies of Erris and Tyrawley.

Sir J. Bourke

said, the Irish landlords were themselves in such poverty, that in most cases where relief was not afforded by them, it arose wholly from their inability to afford it. The abolition of the fishery bounties was another cause of the distress in that part of Ireland, which had not been alluded to; and, though he did not say, that such a measure was not proper, it entitled the poor of Ireland to sympathy. Whatever might be said of the conduct of the land lords of Ireland, he felt great satisfaction in adverting to the example lately set to them by the Marquis of Anglesey, who chartered a vessel himself, filled with provisions for the relief of the poor. He trusted the sentiments uttered that night would induce the landlords of Ireland to look more closely to the situation of their tenantry. He was satisfied it would tend considerably to alleviate distress, if Government advanced money, in conjunction with the Grand Juries, for the promotion of public works, wherever there was a prospect of ultimate success. It would produce future wealth, and prevent a recurrence of the deplorable distress which now existed.

Sir John Newport

was understood to say, that the system of high rents was too prevalent in Ireland; that nearly the whole produce of the soil was absorbed in rent and tithes; and that landlords too often proceeded upon the fallacious principle of presuming upon a temporary rise in the price of agricultural produce, as a permanent ground for the imposition of rent.

Mr. Wyse

did not mean to argue against the assertion, that it would not be in accordance with any principle of good Government to advance any large sum at the present moment. The western coast of Ireland was subject to periodical visitations, nearly reaching, and occasionally far surpassing, that which had been just described. He wished, therefore, that means should be found for giving permanent relief. What sort of panegyric was it on the Government of this country that, after so many years, Ireland did not manifest any portion of that moral and physical improvement which characterised this country? There must be something wrong either in the local authorities, the landlords, or the peasantry. Some of the evils under which Ireland laboured had been justly and truly stated. The landlords were too much the ty- rants, and not sufficiently the fathers, of their people. They seemed to consider them as serfs, and that they did not owe as much to their tenants as the tenants did to them. He was also bound to state, however, that, from commercial and other causes, including the change in the currency, the landlords of Ireland were placed in such a situation, that they could not extend to their tenants that relief and assistance which was required. During the war, they had contracted loans and mortgaged their estates, and as these mortgages were not reduced, they were disabled from affording employment to their tenantry. The right hon. Secretary (Mr. Stanley) had pointed out the mode in which the evil might be remedied, in a manner in which he so fully concurred, that he had given notice, for the 4th of March, of a motion, the object of which was employment of surplus labour, and calling into action the resources which were now dormant. He did not think the advance of a certain sum would be sufficient, though it might give a stimulus for the moment. The fund must be kept up, and it was necessary the Government should co-operate with the people, and the people with the Government. The Board of Works should have the assistance of the country; and those who derived incomes from the country, and were absent from it, should contribute largely. If they did not give their knowledge and skill, they should, at least by their purses, render assistance to Government. The Government should also adopt a system of conciliation, which would do more than proclamations or Acts of Parliament to tranquillize Ireland. He wished to seethe two countries mingled together, and standing, as they ought to do, in full companionship. He wished to have the Union consummated, and was anxious that no proceeding should be adopted tending to divide the two countries. It was upon this ground that he conceived the proposed tax on steam passengers should be strongly reprobated. It was important that not the slightest doubt should exist in the minds of the people of Ireland as to the intentions of this country. Labour was the only property of the poor man, and every facility should be given to him to bring his labour to the country where he was best remunerated. A shilling was a small sum, but it was considerable to a poor man, and, if a tax were needed, he said, let it be imposed upon the rich absentee, and not upon the poor labourer who came to this country for a livelihood, and returned with his earnings to his family. He could assure the House that it need not fear ingratitude from Ireland: every shilling that was advanced would be repaid with interest and affectionate regard. He need only refer to what took place in 1822, when the name of England was hailed with blessings even in the remotest part of Ireland, to show what was now to be expected by adopting a liberal course of policy. He was sure he should not appeal in vain to the generosity of the House.

An hon. Member contended, that the only remedy applicable to Ireland was a graduated system of Poor-laws. They had heard of an Irish landlord, who, out of a rental of 10,000l. per annum, gave 100l. to relieve the wretched and starving peasantry. After such an instance, could any one doubt that Poor laws were necessary? In his opinion, a system of Poor-laws would do more good than all the measures ever proposed for Ireland.

Mr. Maurice Fitzgerald

said, that what ever might be the extent of the distress, it was a matter of difficulty and danger for Government to make large pecuniary advances. He had stated this as his opinion elsewhere, and he should be unworthy if he hesitated to avow it. He spoke not merely from principle, but from experience. When the Government yielded to overwhelming circumstances, and made an advance for the purchase of food, some years ago, the consequence was, an enormous loss to Government, and the enhancement of every article of provisions. More recently in conjunction with the noble person now the Lord President of the Council, (the Marquis of Lansdowne) he (Mr. Maurice Fitzgerald) went to the Duke of Wellington, then at the head of the Government, to ask for assistance for the inhabitants of a particular district, which it was apprehended would be visited with famine. The Duke of Wellington did not think the distress justified the interference of Government. He said, he feared to meddle with the markets, for the moment Government became a purchaser, the prices were enhanced. By local exertions the evil was averted, chiefly owing to the exertions of two clergymen—the one Protestant, the other Roman Catholic. A subscription was made to the amount of 200l., and the evil was in this way prevented. Before Government was called upon, therefore, to act, every local exertion should be made, for nothing was more dangerous than to encourage the idea that, wherever there was distress, a ready resource might be found in pecuniary aid to be derived from Government.

Mr. Sadler

said, that it must be in the remembrance of hon. Members, that he had frequently declared his opinion, that it was incumbent on them, not merely to remedy the past distresses of the Irish poor, but to anticipate their recurrence. Nothing could rescue the poor of Ireland from the periodical returns of famine, but a wise system of Poor-laws. In no other civilized country were the poor wholly destitute of some such provision. The misery complained of that evening confirmed him in his opinion, that the wretched condition of the people was not attributable to the excess of their numbers. Where was it that the peasantry were now reduced to the extreme verge of existence? In Mayo, one of the least populous of the Irish counties. He attributed their misery, and that of all Ireland, to the drainage of the capital of the country by absentees, who drew from that one county as much as 80,000l. annually, out of which they did not contribute to the maintenance or relief of the poor one farthing in the pound. For the evils thus occasioned, there was no remedy but in a system of Poor-laws, which, it was unnecessary for him to say, were no new invention, and the delay of their introduction into Ireland was inconsistent with justice and mercy.,

Mr. Staney

begged that the House would allow him to reply to one point of the speech of the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down, as he thought it particularly worthy of consideration. The hon. Gentleman stated, that the fact of Mayo, the least populous county in Ireland, being at this moment the most distressed, proved that the wretchednesss of the people was not attributable to the excess of their numbers. But the hon. Gentleman did not seem to be aware that the excessiveness of a population is not to be estimated by the proportion which the numbers of men bear to the number of acres, but which they bear to the quantity of capital by which they are to be employed.

The Petitions laid on the Table.

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