HC Deb 07 June 1836 vol 34 cc161-5
Mr. Ewart

said, that he rose to present a petition from the clergy, nobility, and other inhabitants of Malta, praying for a redress of the grievances under which they laboured. As the subject was one of importance, he felt it his duty to state as briefly as he could the grievances of which the petitioners complained, and the remedies for which they prayed. The grievances that affected the Maltese were pretty well known in that House, as they had been the subject of several former debates there, and he trusted that the period was at length arrived, beyond which the correction of those grievances would not be delayed. There had been many instances of colonial misgovernment on the part of this country, but he would venture to say, that the hitherto ill-conducted government of Malta had been pre-eminent for its mismanagement. In no one of our colonies was to be found such a number of highly-salaried officials, whose remuneration was generally in the inverse ratio of the duties which they had to perform. The petitioners complained that they had long wanted a Council or Legislative Assembly, and that under the old Constitution of Malta they had an assembly of that description. They stated, that they petitioned the Crown some years ago for such a Council, and that a Council was established, consisting, however, of only eight persons, the majority of them holding office under the Government, and the whole of them being under Government influence and control. They stated, that this was a mere mockery of the assembly that they had sought for, and they now prayed that such a Legislative Assembly, constituted upon the principles of the British Constitution, would be granted to them. The next prayer of the petitioners was, that they should, for the benefit of the population there, get a well-digested and properly compiled code of laws, the decisions under it to be propounded, not in secret, but before the public, and open to public inspection and animadversion. The next prayer of the petition was, that they should enjoy the advantage of a free press in Malta. He was happy to say, that the wise liberality of his hon. Friend at the Colonial Department had already induced him to comply with this demand of the people of Malta, and that the press there was now free. With a free press at their command, the Maltese would not fail to make known their grievances and wants, and he was sure that, under the present Administration, the evils of that colony would be redressed. The next prayer was, that a system of general and popular education should be introduced into Malta. Under a former Government a University had been established at Valetta, but it was conducted on exclusive principles, and had not given satisfaction to the people at large. The petitioners next referred to the restrictions and burdens which fettered and injured the trade and commerce of Malta. Their complaints on that head well merited the attention of the House. The supply of grain to the island had long been conducted under a complete system of Government monopoly. There formerly existed an institution in the island for supplying the inhabitants with grain. The Government had taken that department under its control, and the supply was now completely in the hands of Government. The petitioners truly stated, that the wants of the population, and the interests of Malta, required that there should be a free trade in grain. He (Mr. Ewart) hoped that, under the auspices of his hon. Friend, this unjust institution would no longer be allowed to remain, and that the merchants and inhabitants of Malta would get the benefit of a free and unrestricted commerce. The petitioners further complained, that the quarantine laws of Malta were different from those established in any other of our colonial possessions. Under our general colonial law our merchants and traders were exempted from paying any thing for the support of the quarantine establishments, but to that Malta was an exception. Our merchants and traders there were obliged to pay for the quarantine, which, being a Government establishment, should, on general principles, be maintained by the Government. His hon. Friend beside him would present a petition from the merchants trading to Malta, and he would no doubt call the attention of the House to the commercial policy pursued towards that island. It appeared to him obvious that Malta should be made a free port and entrepôt for our commerce in the Mediterranean. It seemed to have been constructed by nature for such a purpose, and upon no other principle could the government of Malta be conducted with advantage to the inhabitants and the empire at large. Since this petition had been forwarded to him, he had learned from his hon. Friend, that it was the intention of the Government to send out a Commission to inquire into the grievances of the Maltese, and to suggest the remedies that might be deemed advisable for their removal. On the part of the petitioners, he was ready to assent to that arrangement, upon this understanding, however, that the Commission should be based upon the principle of full and free inquiry—;that no opposition on the part of official characters in Malta should be allowed to stand in its way, and that its proceedings should be open to the free and unrestricted observation of the public press. He assented to the Commission, he repeated, on the understanding that it should be conducted as the Commission of Municipal Inquiry had been conducted in this country—in open court, and upon the genuine British principle of doing justice to all parties. But though this Commission should go out, he hoped that his Majesty's Government would not suspend the application of remedies to such evils as were pressing, and required immediate amendment. He trusted, that the Government, in such matters, would take counsel from the merchants trading to Malta, and he also hoped that there would be no objection to the Commission reporting from time to lime, such reports to be laid upon the table of the House. Entertaining the confidence that he did in the present Colonial Government, he would consent to the sending out of this Commission, reserving, however, to the petitioners the power, should the Commission prove unsatisfactory to them, of appealing to Parliament, and bringing the whole of their grievances before the House of Commons and the country.

Petition to lie on the table.

Mr. Holland

said, that he held in his hand a petition from the merchants connected with the trade to Malta; and, as it was intimately connected with that just read, he would take the liberty of presenting it now. The petitioners prayed the House to abolish the charges levied for quarantine, and to render the trade with Malta free and unrestricted. These petitioners had been often before the House on this subject, and it was only a few months ago that they had presented a memorial to the Colonial Department with regard to it. On that occasion they had experienced nothing but kindness and courtesy, and since he had come into the House that evening, he understood from the hon. Baronet (Sir G. Grey) that it was the intention of the Government to make an alteration regarding the corn trade of Malta; indeed, he understood the hon. Baronet to say, that it was the intention of Government no longer to interfere with the grain trade of that island. It appeared from the returns on the table, that the customs' duties collected in Malta, from 1825 to 1834, amounted to 97,797l. 17s. 6d. This gave an average of about 9,800l. per annum. The expenses of collection during that period amounted to 27,598l., which reduced the net annual revenue derivable from the customs to 7,041l. In the quarantine department, in 1834 the amount collected was 3,717l. 18s. 2d. The expense for collection during that year was 4,727l. 14s.. 6d. This department was therefore a losing concern. In the Report of the Commissioners of 1830, it was recommended that the salaries, &c, in Malta, should be reduced to the amount of 15,000l. per annum. If the Government would act upon that recommendation, the customs' duties there could be dispensed with, and the quarantine expenses confined to the collection of duties from vessels under foreign flags.

Petition to lie on the table.

Mr. Hume

presented a petition from Charles Vere, who had been imprisoned in Malta for having opened a school without a licence. He hoped that the petitioner's case would be inquired into.

Sir George Grey

would briefly state to the House the course which the Government had adopted with respect to the complaints made. They had found that much was to be done. In the first place, there was but one press in the island, and that was in the hands of the Government, so that nothing could be published through the press but with the sanction of Government. The Government had felt, that a minute inquiry was necessary, and with the concurrence of Sir F. Ponsonby, the Governor of Malta, who was now in this country, had determined to send out a Commission to inquire into the several complaints made. They thought that a Commission on the spot would be a much more effectual mode of getting at the facts of the case, than an investigation by a Parliamentary Committee. As to the composition of that Commission, it would be such as no objection could be made to. With respect to the reduction of the customs' duties, he would only say, that it would be impossible to sacrifice so large an amount as 10,000l. or 11,000l. of annual income, until it was ascertained what reductions of expenditure could be made. For the same reason he could not speak at present as to the reduction of the quarantine charges. In Lord Aberdeen's time the sum of 3,000l. of quarantine expenditure had been charged on the revenues of the island. He thought it would be impossible to charge that expenditure on the consolidated fund. He did hope, through the inquiries of the Commission, to effect many beneficial changes in the island, but it would be impossible to proceed with any until the inquiry had been made.

The petition to lie on the table.

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