HC Deb 05 February 1834 vol 21 cc108-19

The Report on the Address to his Majesty was brought up and read.

Mr. Cobbett

said, he objected to that paragraph which spoke of agricultural distress. For his own part he could not reconcile those conflicting statements, that great distress existed amongst the agricultural classes, and that tranquillity prevailed throughout the country. He should not have troubled the House, but that these statements would have the effect of producing an impression throughout the country that there was a want of sympathy and commiseration in that House with the owners and occupiers of land as well as with the agricultural labourers. He should, therefore, move the omission of the following passage:—"We lament, in common with your Majesty, the distress which the proprietors and occupiers of the land continue to suffer; but it is satisfactory to us to learn that in other respects the state of the country, both as regards its internal tranquillity and its commerce and manufacture, affords the most encouraging prospects of progressive improvement." This picture of tranquillity would, no doubt, be very satisfactory if it were true, but unfortunately it was not. With respect to this tranquillity, he would take upon himself to say, that there was no Gentleman in that House who came from the country districts of England but knew that no such thing as tranquillity existed there. He would ask whether hon. Gentlemen could shut their eyes to the fact that day after day the Press was teeming with accounts of incendiary fires throughout the whole of the agricultural districts? It was beyond all dispute that during the last three months, there had been in the county of Norfolk alone an average of four fires a night? With these fearful facts staring them in the face, would that House venture to assure his Majesty the internal tranquillity of the country was in a state; of progressive improvement? There were other parts of the Address with which he found fault. He objected to it as much on the ground of its stating too little as of its stating too much—of its saying nothing, as of saving that which was not the truth. Instead of talking of progressive improvement and internal tranquillity in the same breath that it lamented the existence of distress amongst the proprietors and occupiers of land, it should have stated the extent and nature of that distress, and said something about the means of relieving it. Instead of congratulating the King upon what they all knew to be false, the House ought to offer some kind of comfort and relief to the farmer. He should, in consequence of this omission and of the misstatements contained in the Address, move an Amendment, proposing to substitute for the sentence to which he had already referred the following words:—"We have, in common with your Majesty, to lament the continuance of the distress amongst the agricultural classes, and to assure your Majesty, that the nature, the extent, the causes, as well as the lamentable effects of that distress, shall be objects of our immediate and most anxious consideration." He could not say whether the House would or would not take this subject into consideration; but if they did not, they would not perform their duty to their constituents. What excuse could be made for neglecting the inquiry? Not the excuse of ignorance because they had before them the Report of the Agricultural Committee of the last Session. He was aware that the Report of the Committee did not recommend further inquiry, but it contained evidence to show that further investigation was necessary. Hon. Members might say, the Report recommended nothing, and that it was the opinion of the Committee that the less the House meddled with the state of agriculture the better. He must admit, that the Committee said nothing; and the more shame it was to the thirty-seven English Gentlemen who sat on that Committee, that they had not brought their labours to any better termination. He was not, however, correct in saying, that the Committee had done nothing. They had, unfortunately, done something which was worse than doing nothing, they had recommended to that House not to interfere in the affairs of the agriculturists, as such interference would, in their opinion, create more mischief than good. He by no means entertained such a low opinion of all the Members of that House as to suppose, with those thirty-seven Gentlemen, that the House was not fully capable, if it went honestly to work, of proposing and carrying into operation measures which would give effectual relief to the agricultural classes. In allusion to the state of agriculture, the hon. mover of the Address last night said, that the extinction of tithes was one of the practical modes of relieving the agriculturists. This was a curious remedy. What, he would ask, had the extinction of tithes to do with agricultural distress? Oh! it was said, tithes operated as a check to improvement, and prevented the more extensive application of capital to land. What was the fact? Tithes had existed for 1,000 years; and it was reserved for the wiseacres of modern times to discover that they were the cause of paralysing agricultural enterprise, and of ruining the English farmers. The evidence collected by the Committee of last year proved, that land was not now so well cultivated as it used to be; that the crops were smaller, and at the same time there were more hands than could find employment in the rural districts. How was it, then, that whilst there were more hands than could get employment, there was at the same time a want of those hands for the improvement of the land. This ought to be inquired into. Were tithes the cause of these difficulties? Who was to find out a remedy for these evils? Who was to find out the cause of them?—Why, that House, whose especial duty it was, to find out the causes of evils, and to provide a remedy. It was their duty to tell his Majesty that they would endeavour to provide a remedy; and he thought the hon. member for Hampshire had fallen into a great error in asserting, without inquiry, that the extinction of tithes was such a remedy. If tithes were a hinderance to agricultural improvement, they should be declared so by Parliament; but then rent must necessarily be also a hinderance. He defied any man on earth to show him that tithes were a greater hinderance to improvements than rent. If the principle of the hon. member for Hampshire were correct, so also was the principle that rent was a burthen on industry. He was not the possessor of any land, not even of as much as he could stand upon, nor was it at all likely that he should ever have any; but he could easily conceive how pleasant it would be for him, if he had a farm worth 40l. or 50l. a year, to have the whole of the tithes upon that farm abolished. But he denied that the abolition of tithes would be productive of any general good. The extinction of tithes as a remedy for agricultural distresses was a mere fiction; and if his Majesty's Government acted upon it, unless rent were also abolished, they would be guilty of as great a delusion as ever bad been practised by any set of political quacks in this world. The abolition of tithes would neither stimulate industry, find employment for the idle, nor bread for the hungry. The hon. member for Ipswich bad dwelt at some length upon the prosperous state of the commerce and manufacture of the country. It was not quite clear, whether the hon. Member meant by commerce, what was understood as commerce by our ancestors, namely, the shipping interests. That great interest was in a declining state; and the Report of the Committee on Commerce and Manufactures would fully corroborate what he had stated. He had read part of the evidence taken before the Committee, and the whole of the Report of the Agricultural Committee; and, if it was asserted, that manufactures were prosperous he would ask, how that was consistent with the fact that agriculture was suffering? Suppose that commerce and manufactures were flourishing, what were those interests, great as they were, compared to those of the agricultural population? The persons employed in agricultural pursuits formed sixteen-twentieths of the population of the country. He was not making a hasty assertion, and he spoke within compass when he made that statement. Supposing that the other branches of industry were in a flourishing condition, were they to be contented because a few money-mongers, and because a few pawnbrokers on a great scale were said to be prosperous? Were the owners and occupiers of the land to be contented because a few haberdashers had become as rich as Lords, and because Lords dined with haberdashers, and shot game for them. He did not, as he said before, own the breadth of his hand in land; but he had some acquaintance with agriculture. He knew that the estimate which he had made of the agricultural population was not too great, and in proof of this assertion he would refer to Salisbury among other towns, the inhabitants of which were described as not engaged in agriculture, and yet there was scarcely a man in it who did not earn his bread by some connexion with husbandry. Was not the man who made a plough and a cart dependent upon husbandry. Though no farmer himself, he felt an identity of interest with the tillers of the land, and he opposed the passage in the Address because it indicated an attempt to sacrifice the occupiers and owners of land for the benefit of a few money-mongers. In fact, the land was eaten by them, and the landowners would, ere long, be ejected from their estates. Upon the presentation to the House of a petition from the Dissenters that very day, praying relief from Church-rates, he inquired whether the petitioners did not also seek to be relieved from tithes? The answer was, "Not yet." He felt now, as he had felt at the passing of the Test and Corporation Acts, and as he then told the noble Lord, that the Dissenters would never stop, and the noble Lord could not stop, until they were relieved altogether from tithes. What was really wanted was, that justice should be done to the common people, and unless that were done it would be in vain to hope for tranquillity. According to the newspapers, fires were constantly taking place throughout the country. The very papers of that morning gave an account of four; and it was a remarkable fact that of late the average convictions was not more than one in every forty burnings. This he called a remarkable fact, because it clearly proved, that an extensive combination of the labourers created a difficulty of detecting the incendiaries. There had been more fires within the last year than during 1830, when a Special Commission was sent down to try the offenders; and yet there were few or no convictions. He was sorry to observe some late proceedings of farmers in a parish in Norfolk. They, it appeared, had come to the silly resolution of reducing the wages of labourers 1s. per week until the incendiaries were discovered. This was the proceeding of men out of their senses, conscious of distress, and perfectly incompetent to apply a remedy. This act was in itself a proof that there was an evil at work which the sufferers themselves did not understand, and afforded an additional ground for inquiry into the state of the agriculturists. It was the duty of Parliament to search out the evil, to trace its cause, and to provide the remedy. It was the duty of that House to declare as much to his Majesty. It was a sense of duty alone which had induced him to bring forward his Amendment. He had no desire of calling for a division, and should be perfectly satisfied if he could receive any assurance from the noble Lord, that some inquiry would be instituted by Government. The Speech was anything but tranquillizing; it would rather operate as a firebrand. He was certain that the passage as it stood would be considered throughout the country as an intimation that there was no intention of giving the agriculturists any relief. He would ask again, why was the fact of disturbance denied? Why was inquiry refused, when the Government could command the hearty concurrence of every honest man in Parliament? It was necessary to do something, and unless something were done, the industrious portion of the community would be thrown into despair, whilst bad men would be encouraged in their work of mischief. The hon. Member concluded by proposing his Amendment.

Mr. Fielden

seconded the Motion.

Lord Althorp

said, it appeared to him that the hon. Member had entirely misunderstood what was intended to be conveyed by that part of the Address to which he had alluded. The hon. Member seemed to think, that it was intended to express to his Majesty something which would leave no hope of improvement in the state of agriculture. No such object was intended by those who framed the Address. The hon. Member had expressed his regret, that neither the Government nor the gentlemen who composed the Committee of last year, had recommended further inquiry into the condition of the landed interests. He thought, that Government would be wrong in recommending any such inquiry after the Report of that Committee, unless they bad good ground to expect that they could devise measures to relieve the distress which existed. The hon. Member had said truly, that the Committee of last year had stated, that the cultivation of land was worse at present than it had been some years past; that agriculture was on the decline; and that great distress prevailed amongst the agricultural population. But the hon. Member ought to have remembered that, after the fullest investigation into the subject, the Committee had concluded that no legislative measure should be taken respecting it. It was, however, competent to the hon. member for Oldham, or to any other Member of the House, to propose such inquiry, or to make any other specific motion on the subject that he pleased; and he would take upon himself to say, that any proposition which would benefit the agriculturist, without detriment to other interests, would have the cordial co-operation of his Majesty's Ministers, and also, he believed, of every independent Gentleman of that House. He admitted, with the hon. Member, that a system of incendiarism existed in some parts of the country; but that fact would not justify the Government in saying, that the country generally was not tranquil. Though incendiarism, existed, it did not prevail to such an extent as to justify any man in saying that the people of this country were not at present in a state of tranquillity. In respect to tithes, he would say only one word—namely, that when that question came to be considered, he would undertake to prove, that the effect of tithes, as an impost upon agriculture, was very different from rent. He thought also it could be shown, that they checked the cultivation of land, and, if it could be so shown that the effect of tithes was to discourage the investment of capital in land, he was sure that a change in the mode of collecting them would be considered beneficial both by the payers and by the receivers of tithes. No man felt more sincerely than he did for any distresses under which the landed interests might labour, and there was no man who would feel more happy in relieving such distress; but he felt bound to say, that he could not see how any legislative interference would accomplish that object, or in any way improve the condition of that great body.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Finn

wished to say a few words to the House upon that part of the Address which related to the alleged disturbances in Ireland, and the operation of the Coercion Bill, of which Ministers boasted so much. That was a most unconstitutional measure, directed against the rights of his much-injured and much-misrepresented country. He would like that the right hon. Secretary for Ireland should give him some account of the application of the secret service money in the county (Kilkenny) which he had the honour to represent in that House, in order to see how far this very secret service money had been influential in creating the alarm, if not the reality, of the disturbances complained of. Nine-tenths of those disturbances had their origin in this fruitful source of bribery and corruption. A system of espionage amongst the lowest underlings in and about office, disgraceful in a civilized nation, had been complained of, and justly complained of, in England; but he would venture to affirm, that for one spy in England, there were to be found twenty in Ireland; and yet no exertion was made to put a stop to so abominable a system. They were told that Ireland was disturbed, and that England was enjoying tranquillity. Now, with the single exception of the crime of murder, the unlawful outrages which that unhappy country had to answer for, were by no means so great as were represented. He would warn the right hon. Secretary for Ireland to beware how he credited these reports; to close his ear to the place-hunting, proud expectants of office, and listen to the disinterested and wholesome advice of those who had the real welfare of their country at heart. He gave credit to Ministers for the best intentions, but they had been labouring under delusion. He would ask the right hon. Secretary for Ireland, whether, in the whole course of his experience in office, he had reason to observe that the agitation of the Repeal question, so much reprehended, could fairly be connected with a system of "excitement and violence" in Ireland, as alleged in the Speech from the Throne. He considered that passage of his Majesty's Speech to be one at once unjust and impolitic, as being itself calculated to excite feelings of a most angry and dangerous nature. The hon. Member concluded by moving the following Amendment:—"And we beg leave to represent to your Majesty, that the people of Ireland, in seeking the repeal of the Legislative Union between Great Britain and Ireland, have committed no act of violence, but have strictly confined themselves to the exercise of their undoubted and indefeasible right of publicly discussing the merits or demerits of that measure, and of respectfully petitioning both Houses of Parliament for the alteration or abrogation of that or any other Law which they may deem injurious to their interests."

Mr. Littleton

rose to reply to the question put to him by the hon. member for Kilkenny, as to whether there had existed any connexion of political feeling with the outrages complained of in Ireland? His reply would be decidedly in the affirmative. The tone and character which these political discussions had assumed, was such as to excite the people to a very general resistance to the laws. The hon. member for Kilkenny had made allusion to the working of the Coercion Bill. For the satisfaction of the hon. Member, and of the House, he would beg to read a comparative statement of the stale of crime, and the numerical amount of outrages in the county of Kilkenny, at two distinct periods of time. He had compared the returns for seven months previous to the passing of the Bill, and for seven months afterwards, up to the 31st of December last; and they were as follows:—

For 7 months previous. For 7 months after.
Burglaries 428 62
Burnings 30 9
Injury to cattle 34 5
Assaults by Whitefeet 151 34
Illegal notices 127 27
Injury to property 44 24
Firing with intention to kill 17 3
The following he said were very important. Previous to the passing of the Bill the robberies of arms amounted to sixty-five, and afterwards there were only two. Administering of illegal oaths 135 in the former period, and in the latter five. The total of the two numbers was 1,072 and 227; leaving a diminution of no less than 845, to bear testimony to the efficacy of the measure of last Session.

Mr. O'Connell

declared, that the mea-sure of last Session was one of robbery, of injustice, and cruelty; and miserably de-fended by such evidence as that which had just been adduced by the right hon. Secretary for Ireland. That right hon. Gentleman had favoured the House with a statement of the decrease of outrages in the county of Kilkenny, but nothing could be more fallacious; and he would refer the; right hon. Gentleman to a more happy instance of the decrease of crime in another part of Ireland. The county of Clare had been the scene of disturbance, much more violent and extensive than the county of Kilkenny. The county of Clare had been tranquillized—and how? Not by means of Coercion Law. Two Special Commissions had been issued, and by these constitutional proceedings, the disturbances had been quelled. The right hon. Secretary for Ireland boasted of a de-crease of cases of outrage in the county of Kilkenny, to the amount of eight hundred and odd out of 1,072; but he was happy to tell the House, that in the county of Clare, the decrease of disturbances had been seven to one greater than in Kilkenny; in fact, there was no appearance of outrage left, though no Coercion Act had been applied to it. He was prepared to show by the returns, that such had been the case. The question was, whether the Coercion Act had worked well or ill? The right hon. Secretary had given an opinion in its favour, but not till he had been asked to speak on the subject. In the last Session the right hon. Secretary was silent when addressed on the subject. As to political excitement, which had been so much deprecated, and to which was ascribed all the crime and outrage of which Ireland had been the scene, it could be proved, that at those times when political excitement in Ireland had been highest, offences were least in number and enormity. His Majesty's Government talked about "a final adjustment of tithes" as a measure calculated to "extinguish all just causes of complaint." But how was his final adjustment to be arrived at?—By dispassionate, friendly, and conciliatory means. The subject should be discussed without passion, without anger, without violence; and then the measure might give permanent peace to Ireland. The question was one of vast and deep importance, as all parties seemed to agree that on a "final adjustment of tithes" depended the peace and prosperity of the agricultural districts in that country; and that no permanent tranquility could be had without it. It was a measure of paramount importance, and, he, therefore, hoped the Government would give it the best consideration. It should be a complete, a full, and satisfactory measure; no delusion, He spoke it without disrespect to the House, but really there had been such curious experiments tried of late years in respect to Ireland by the legislative wisdom, that he could not avoid alluding to them. Why, they had seen two or three Tithe Bills passed for the benefit of Ireland by the present Ministers, which had increased rather than diminished the burthens of the people. And were these burthens to be aggravated by such language as that they had just heard? But Ireland did not look for words—for promises; they would no longer satisfy her. Ministers must show by their acts, that they were zealously disposed to afford relief of a substantial kind. To return to the proposed "adjustment of tithes." How could this be done without sacrifices being made in some quarter or other? Did Ministers propose to play a game where everybody was to win, and nobody lose? The people of Ireland would not be con tented with anything short of the total extinction of tithes. And could this be done without loss somewhere? And who was to suffer? He did not wish to exonerate landlords from the maintenance of the religious establishments of the realm; but the labourers must be exonerated: One-tenth of the gross produce of the land was by law appointed for the support of the Protestant religion in Ireland; whilst the landlord's share was about one-third of the gross produce. Let part of the latter be devoted to keeping up the Protestant Establishment. No one denied the claims of the Protestant Clergy to maintenance and reward for their labours. But why should the people be compelled to pay for a clergy whose service they did not want, and by whose labours they did not benefit? No juggle of legislation could uphold such a preposterous claim; and he therefore repeated, that he would exonerate the people of Ireland from all contribution to the temporalities of a church they did not belong to. He had received a letter, from which it appeared, that in the county of Kilkenny, there was a parish in which not one Protestant was resident; and yet this Church, which was one of venerable antiquity, and therefore, perhaps, not left to perish, was supported by the tithe system. Any attempt to keep up tithes and ecclesiastical temporalities in such a place as that must be unjust, and must eventually fail. Ministers had proposed an excellent specific to allay the Repeal agitation by this adjustment of tithes, if it were to go to the extent, and be of the nature he had mentioned. The right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Littleton) would thus prove himself a much better; agitator than himself, by taking away all desire for the Repeal. Let the people of Ireland be freed from that dictation, that subjugation, under which they now groaned. Let their burthens be diminished; let the Protestant Clergy have what was their due; but let not the mass of the Catholic population be called upon to pay other clergy than their own.

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