HC Deb 23 January 1832 vol 9 cc709-20
Lord Morpeth

rose to present a Petition which it was necessary he should preface with a very few observations. The petition had been agreed to at a meeting convened at the Court-house at Leeds, for the purpose of addressing the Houses of Parliament, to take into its consideration the best mode of immediately applying some measures of relief to the poor of Ireland, by the establishment of Poor-laws in that country. The petitioners were not only respectable, but so eager to affix their signatures, that in the short space of two days not less than 6,000 persons had signed the petition he now presented. They were determined not to permit any misconstruction to be put on their object or motive, and, therefore, prefixed to the prayer of their petition a request that the House would, previously to attempting the establishment of a provision for the poor, make a legislative arrangement for the application of the Church lands and Church property, in a due proportion to the purpose for which it was undoubtedly originally set apart—namely, the maintenance and relief of the poor. He thought the subject worthy of consideration.

Mr. Strickland

acknowledged that, he had once advocated the extension of the Poor-laws to Ireland; but, on a due consideration of the subject, he felt, if such a provision were made by Parliament, it must not take place until the question relating to tithes was settled, and then must be strictly defined and limited; nor should such a system of Poor-laws be introduced into Ireland as were now in operation in this country. It was a subject of considerable delicacy and difficulty, yet it was impossible not to acknowledge, that it was of such vast importance that it ought to attract the earliest attention of that House. Indeed the time was not, he thought, far distant, when it would be necessary that we should revise our own Poor-laws, which contained many very objectionable provisions. It deserved to be remarked, that the present petition was similar to one sent from the same place last year, but that was only signed by 800 persons, while this was signed by 6,000.

Mr. James Grattan

concurred in the propriety of speedily taking the subject, into consideration, and he did not think it would be an improper basis on which to found the superstructure, that Tithes and Church property should bear a large proportion of the charge for the support of the poor throughout Ireland. He trusted the Committee now sitting on the subject would recommend that.

Mr. O'Connell

said, as the subject of the provision for the poor in Ireland had been started, he should now state, not by the way of giving a notice formally on the subject, but to prevent any one being taken by surprise, that he should to-morrow, before five o'clock, propose that Lord Killeen should be added to the members of the Committee above-stairs sitting on the subject of Church property in Ireland, and that, if opposed in that motion, he should certainly divide the House upon it.

Mr. Hume

thought that it was merely an act of justice to make provision for the poor of Ireland. He would not, however, recommend that that object should be effected by the introduction of such a system of Poor-laws as existed in this country. That system had operated most mischievously in England; and before they could place the people in that situation of industrious prosperity in which they ought to stand, it would be necessary to new-model those laws. The tithe system had been most oppressive in Ireland; but he considered the tithe question to be effectually settled in that country. The people would no longer pay tithes. The House might vote as it pleased, but there was an end to the system; for the people were unanimously resolved not to pay tithes. What was the next great evil? Why, Church property; and if Ministers were anxious that Ireland should be pacified, they would institute a rigid and efficient inquiry, in order that they might see how far that property could be rendered available for the benefit of the people. He should be glad if that property were applied to beneficial public purposes. At the same time, he would provide liberally for the clergy—he meant to say, for that portion of them who worked. Ministers ought not to wait until the Legislature took up this subject, but should at once take it up themselves. Church property was public property, in every sense of the word, and he would carry the whole of it to the credit of the Exchequer, and only pay out of it those who earned their salaries.

Mr. John Weyland

said, he desired to see a system of Poor-laws extended to Ireland, but he did not desire to see the whole charge of maintaining the poor fall upon the tithes and revenues of the Irish Church. The burthen ought to be shared in a just proportion by the proprietors of the land. It was equally unfair to say, as the petitioners did, "Don't redress the misery in Ireland, arising out of the want of Poor-laws, until you settle the questions of Tithe and Church property." The hon. member for Middlesex had told them exultingly, that the people of Ireland had settled the question of tithes—that they unanimously refused to pay them. They disobeyed the law, and certainly their disobedience ought not to be pointed at with approbation. Such language as that which they had just heard was too often used in that House, and that language he would always most strenuously oppose. If laws were bad, let them be altered and amended in the regular way; but it would be a disgrace to them as English gentlemen, and Members of the House of Commons, if they were to concede any point of this species of domination. Were they, because a number of people broke the laws, to yield obedience to them, and say, "We will alter the law conformably to your wishes?" He was ready to give the situation of the poor of Ireland all the advantage of a fair and deliberate inquiry; but he would not bow to any species of intimidation. It was a question of momentous consequence to the well-being of the State at all times, whether combinations of this kind should not be compelled to give way to the laws of the land, before even a necessary measure of reform or redress were even agitated. He, therefore, for one, was thankful to his Majesty's Ministers for having put this subject in a train of inquiry.

Mr. Blackney

said, the statements made by the hon. member for Middlesex were quite correct; the tithe system was much worse in Ireland than in England. Ireland was disturbed from one end to the other by the tithe system. He was not a sectarian, and, therefore, did not feel peculiarly aggrieved. He only felt himself called upon to say a few words in consequence of what fell from the hon. Member who had last spoken. In six counties of Ireland—Kilkenny, Wexford, Tipperary, Carlow, Queen's County, and Kildare—the system of tithes was actually at an end. The people would not pay them, they had come to the resolution not to pay this unjust and oppressive tax. They were united to evade the payment of tithes, but they did not break the law. The system could not last. The goods taken on distraint could not be sold. There were eight or ten law processes by which the payment of tithes could be enforced, but they were all evaded. The opposition was given by the peasantry. He knew one parish in Kildare, in which the people had consented to pay 4d. an acre legally to resist the payment of tithes, and they declared, that they would rather subscribe 2s. or 5s. an acre than not resist the payment.

Sir John Johnstone

said, he had been requested to support the petition, but he could by no means agree with the whole extent of its prayer. He was most desirous that the question should be settled as speedily as possible, and saw no reason why Church property as well as lay should not contribute equally to the provision to be made for the Irish poor.

Sir Edward Sugden

said, it appeared from the remarks made by the hon. member for Carlow, that the people, in different parts of Ireland, resisted the payment of tithes, and evaded the law. Now he conceived that those who could encourage or defend such a system were the worst subjects of the King, and the worst enemies of the country. He would ask, whether, from the statement which had been made, they were to infer that Ireland was in so peaceable a state, and disposed to be so obedient to the law, as to render it wise, safe, or prudent to grant to that country so great an additional extent of franchise as was contemplated by the Bill then before the House. Would not this accession of political power tend to increase the existing evil?

Mr. O'Connell

said, that judging from the observation which had just been made by the learned Gentleman, it would seem that he had not read the Irish Reform Bill. If he looked at the Bill, he would find that it did not extend the elective franchise at all. Before the Union there were 300,000 voters in Ireland. These had been cut down to 15,000 or 16,000, and the Reform Bill would not add more than 300 or 400 to the number. He denied that the people of Ireland were violating the law by their opposition to the payment of tithes. There was no law to prevent the evading the payment of tithes. Process might be served on those who were in arrear, and their property might be distrained and offered for sale; the law authorised that as the means of recovering the tithes. But men might turn their backs on the auctioneer, and refuse to purchase the goods so taken in distress. That, however, was not breaking the law; and he defied that House to make any law to compel the people of Ireland to purchase what they did not fancy or did not want. At the same time he wished it to be understood, that he desired to see the working Clergy of the Protestant Church fairly paid. He was sure that not a man in Ireland would object to a hard working curate getting 200l. a year, but every man objected to a rector getting 1,800l. and giving his curate, who did all the duty, 75l. The entire national will of Ireland was opposed to tithes; and he would ask of those who talked about the firmness of English Gentlemen, what would be said to them, supposing the English people to be as unanimous upon any given point as the people of Ireland were with respect to tithes, if they stood up, and recommended that the very great majority of the community should be coerced to make their opinions agree with those of a small minority?

Mr. John Weyland

said, it was not very statesman-like in the hon. and learned member for Kerry to remark that the will of even a great majority of the people was to prevail over the law.

Mr. Blackney

said, he for one would by no means countenance the breaking of any law. He had merely made a simple statement of facts.

Mr. Callaghan

approved of the petition. The distress in several parts of the south of Ireland, particularly in Cork, was such as to admit no longer of delay. The half-yearly assessments were expended, and the poor were in a state of starvation and extreme misery.

Mr. Sadler

said, he must deny that the meeting by which this petition had been adopted was so numerous as the noble Lord had represented. It was got up by the Political Union, who by previous concert, filled the apartment in which the meeting was held, and had it all their own way. Had the petition truly represented the feelings of the enlightened and respectable inhabitants of the town of Leeds, he was sure that its prayer would have been for the immediate introduction of a system of the Poor-laws into Ireland without regard to the tithe question. He, however, was ready to admit, that the system of collecting tithes as it existed in Ireland ought to be done away with. That was an opinion he had ever avowed, at the same time he would stand up for the right of the poor to support, and he would always advocate the just claims which the sick and the indigent in Ireland had to a legal provision for their relief. They had heard much about the great grievances that arose from tithes in Ireland, but was nothing to be said about the rack-rents which were enforced, and the grinding oppressions that were in many instances practised, by the landlords in that country? Abundant was the complaint as to the distresses levied for tithes, and the sale of the poor man's property to satisfy the demands of the tithe proctor; but were there not such things as the clearances of estates in that country by the great landed proprietors, and the turning adrift the population of a district? Were not the inhabitants driven from their houses without shelter and provision, and doomed to perish, because some unfeeling landlord, perhaps an absentee, considered their numbers too redundant. That was the case, and the landlord, knowing that he should not be called upon to contribute a farthing to their relief, calculated upon an increase to his already, exorbitant and grinding rents by their expulsion. Not only did the suffering and houseless poor of Ireland demand the most prompt and efficient relief, but it was also due to the working population of England that they should obtain it. The desertion, oppression and expulsion of the Irish poor from their own houses compelled them to seek employment and food in other countries, hence they flocked into every market of labour, and by undertaking all sorts of employment at the lowest terms on which it was possible for human beings to subsist, they greatly injured and deteriorated the condition of the English labourers, cruelly diminished the value of their wages, and increased the difficulty of their finding employment. A poor law for Ireland, therefore, was equally required by the industrious classes of all parts of the empire, and, to render it effectual, it must fall upon all property by whomsoever possessed and especially, upon the property of absentees. Ought the landed proprietors of Ireland, to escape that impost which should be justly laid upon their property for the support and maintenance of the suffering poor engendered on their estates because there were evils connected with the collection of tithes which required redress? One of the resolutions adopted by the meeting from which this petition had emanated, called for the refunding of all the Church property which had been formerly appropriated to the support of the poor, with a view to apply it to its original purpose. This retrospective resolution touched very deeply upon the vast estates of many of the lay impropriators, who no doubt would struggle to the last extremity before they surrendered their property, and the persons who framed the resolution knew this fact as well as the House. Without entering upon that question at present, however, he would merely remark, that if the introduction of Poor-laws into Ireland was to be postponed until such an object as that should be effected, they might thus put off indefinitely that most salutary and much-called-for measure. The question of Irish Poor-laws was one that it was not possible now to overlook: it would force itself on the attention of the Legislature, and he would take that opportunity to give notice, that he intended, with the least possible delay, to again submit to the House the justice and expediency of making a legal provision for the support of the poor of Ireland. That was a question, he would repeat, which must be settled before they could enter upon such a large and interminable question as that of Irish tithes.

Sir John Brydges

said, he hoped soon to see a modified and improved arrangement of Poor laws introduced into Ireland, founded upon the English system, but leaving out the parts which were most objectionable in practice. As to the remark made by the hon. member for Middlesex, that the tithe system was at an end in Ireland, he begged leave to tell that hon. Gentleman, he did not consider himself to have a seat in that House for the purpose of obeying the mandates of certain discontented people however numerous. He, therefore, should strictly do his duty to all parties according to his conscience and the law of the land.

Mr. Hunt

said, there would be no peace in Ireland until Poor-laws were introduced into that country. The noble Lord who presented the petition considered that it related to a different subject, when up got the hon. member for Middlesex and said, the business was all settled, people refused to pay the tithes. He wished to God they could make the hon. Member prove his words for then probably they should hear no more of the business. As to the meeting itself at which this petition was adopted, it consisted of about 800 persons out of a population of 130,000, and it was notoriously a packed meeting, which did not fairly represent the people of Leeds. The man, who was the principal agent in getting up that meeting was Mr. Baines, the editor of a paper at Leeds, and he was assisted by a Mr. Smithson a notorious individual, who he (Mr. Hunt) understood had roasted the Bible and had written against every species of religion. It was a little faction in the borough of Leeds that had got up this petition, and the design of it was, not to promote any measure for the relief of the poor of Ireland, but merely to thwart the benevolent objects and views of the hon. member for Aldborough.

Lord Morpeth,

in moving that the petition should be printed, observed, that he would not follow the hon. member for Preston into the arcana of Leeds politics, but would only say as to the meeting being a packed one, that the petition was signed by 6,000 persons, and the only reason for the meeting not adjourning to the open air was, that the room was sufficiently capacious to hold the persons who attended. He was informed that the parties were most anxious to have another meeting in the open air, in order to satisfy the hon. member for Aldborough (Mr. Sadler) that the petition embodied the opinions of the majority of the inhabitants of Leeds.

Sir Robert Peel

was surprised that no member of his Majesty's Government had risen on this occasion to protest against the doctrine that had been promulgated by the hon. member for Middlesex, with regard to the settlement of the tithe question in Ireland. Looking at the present state of that country, the Government was imperatively called upon, for the sake of the peace of society, putting all other motives for the moment aside, at once to protest against the doctrine of that hon. Member. Though there was no doubt that each individual clergyman in Ireland had as just and legal a claim to the possession of his tithe as any man who heard him had to the possession of his landed property, yet did the hon. member for Middlesex assert, openly in that House, that such claim had been, by the means of force and of combination, practically and actually defeated. What chance, on that hon. Member's own reasoning, would he himself have of resuming the Church property in Ireland for the purposes of the State, if the existing right to the possession of it could be in this manner effectually defeated? The landlords and landowners of Ireland might depend upon it, that if they sanctioned such a mode of dealing with tithes—if they supported or countenanced the doctrine, that by such illegal combinations as had lately taken place in that country, a legal title could be defeated—an interval of two years would not elapse, before that doctrine would be visited on themselves, and their claims to their rents met and defeated by similar means. The course which had been followed in resisting the just claims of the clergyman would, if successful, be immediately tried in resisting the payment of rents. What was there to prevent great bodies of men from combining together in passive resistance, as it was called, to the claims of the landlords, as well us to the claims of the clergymen? If the landlords of Ireland at all countenanced such illegal combinations against the just claims of the clergy, they were miserably deceived if they imagined that they could themselves escape a spoliation not more unjust, and equally easy of execution. He trusted that, in whatever the Legislature should deem it right to do with regard to the adjustment of the question of tithes in Ireland, care would be taken, that no persons there should profit by their own wrong. God forbid that any party should succeed in appropriating the Church property in Ireland to the State; but even that would be a less evil than the robbery of the Church for individual aggrandisement. If the State ever did confiscate to public uses the property of the Church—he apprehended that the landholders of Ireland would not, and he fervently hoped they might not, benefit by the change. It was said by the hon. and learned member for Kerry, that it was only by means of the military or the police they could enforce the payment of tithes in Ireland; but was it by such an argument as that that this great question was to be settled? It was for the Legislature to determine what modifications should be made in the tithe system; but as long as the law remained as it was, it was their duty, as legislators and as members of society, to take care that just and legal rights were not defeated either by force, or by any species of resistance, active or passive, to the law.

Lord Althorp

observed, that the right hon. Baronet, as well as every other Gentleman in that House, was fully aware already of the course that had been taken by his Majesty's Ministers with regard to the question of tithes in Ireland, and it was not fair, therefore, that he should consider them answerable for the statements or views which might proceed from the hon. member for Middlesex on that subject. It was, besides, so very inconvenient to get up long discussions on petitions, that he (Lord Althorp) did not feel called upon, whenever any hon. Member might rise on such occasions, and give expression to sentiments in which he did not concur, to state his dissent from such sentiments. The course which the Government intended to pursue on this subject was before the House, and his right hon. friend the Secretary for Ireland, had already so clearly stated the grounds on which that course had been adopted, that he (Lord Althorp) did not think that there was the least occasion for his rising to protest against the sentiments that had fallen from the hon. member for Middlesex. He would only observe, that any course of proceeding which tended to defeat the just claims of any man, whether he be clergyman or layman, if not opposed and put down, must lead to the destruction of the whole frame of society. Whether combinations for such a purpose were within or without the law, mattered nothing. The security of property in Ireland depended upon the putting an end to such proceedings.

Sir Robert Peel

admitted, that the practice of raising discussions on petitions was a most inconvenient one; but he must be allowed to express his gratification at having elicited such an explanation from the noble Lord.

Mr. Sheil

acknowledged that, generally speaking, it was an inconvenient practice to get up discussions on the presentation of petitions; but the question to which this petition referred was one that pressed much on the public mind at present, and therefore, a discussion with regard to it, even in this incidental way, could not be avoided. There could be no doubt as to the right of the actual incumbent in Ireland to his tithe, under the existing law of the land; and he was ready to admit that, in abstract justice and right, his claim was equally well founded. But the Legislature ought under the circumstances in which the question now presented itself to them, to consider not only what the law was, but what the law ought to be, and should seek to provide some remedy for a state of thing that could no longer be suffered to continue. The right hon. Baronet opposite could not deny that an alteration was necessary in the tithe system, but then he had not given them the benefit of his advice on that point—he had not told them in what way it appeared to him that a beneficial alteration might be effected in the law upon that subject. The landlords of Ireland would, no doubt, be obliged to the right hon. Baronet for his benevolent warnings; but he (Mr. Sheil) begged to assure the right hon. Baronet, that their case was, after all, not quite so deplorable as he seemed to imagine, and that he was mistaken in supposing that the payment of rents rested at all upon the same footing as the payment of tithes in Ireland. The parson had all the weapons which the landlord possessed, and out of the armoury of the law, he was provided with still more, for the purpose of recovering his tithes; but, against the tithe system, the public opinion in Ireland had revolted. Such a fact might be a deplorable one, but it was one that could not be denied; and such being the case, what was the remedy? Could they enforce the payment of tithes in Ireland? Was it a crime on the part of the peasant to refuse to buy the tithe-pig, or to go to the mart where the goods of his neighbour that had been seized for tithe were offered for sale? The right hon. Baronet had, to his eternal honour, in the instance of Catholic Emancipation, made a concession to public opinion. Shall there be no concession to public opinion in Ireland on the question of tithes? The policy of the Legislature was, to take measures on this subject in time. It was one that would not brook delay; and the only way to produce a good result was, to pass, as soon as possible, some measure on the subject that would satisfy the people of Ireland.

Sir Robert Peel,

in explanation, said, that he had merely risen to protest against the doctrine of the hon. member for Middlesex; and that it was not for him, on such an occasion, to go into a subject which was at present under the consideration of a Select Committee of that House.

Mr. Hume

said, that a great deal of unnecessary noise had been raised as to the expressions that had been used by him on this occasion. He utterly denied that a single word had fallen from his lips calculated to interfere with the rights of an actual incumbent. He had not said any thing that at all warranted the attack that had been made upon him by the right hon. member for Tamworth. He had merely called the attention of the Government to this petition; and, in so doing, he had said, that there were two evils in Ireland, the Tithes and the Church property; and that, with regard to the first of those evils, he might say nothing, as the people of Ireland had settled that question. He repeated that it was settled, and he would appeal, in proof of that assertion, to the statement of the hon. members for Carlow and Kerry, who had just come from Ireland, and who had told them that the people would pay no more tithes. There was nothing in what had fallen from him that at all warranted the insinuation that he would encourage the depriving any individual clergyman or landowner of his property.

Mr. Blackney

said, he had also been misunderstood. What he had stated was, that the people were prepared to make great sacrifices to defeat legal processes to recover the payment of tithes. The idea that rents would be endangered because of the opposition to the payment of tithes he considered ridiculous. He could take upon himself to assert that rents had not been better paid these fifteen years than at present.

Petition to be referred to the Committee on Tithes.