HC Deb 08 April 1845 vol 79 cc358-74
Mr. Milner Gibson

said, it would be in the recollection of the House that he had moved, in the course of the last Session, for certain Returns illustrating the Statistics of Agriculture. Those Returns had for their object to show the number of acres under cultivation, the different kinds of produce raised, and also the total amount of produce in the United Kingdom. They were, he believed, in entire ignorance of the number of acres under cultivation, and of course of the amount of agricultural produce raised; and he still thought, as he had done last year, that it was very important that this information should be supplied. Her Majesty's Government, on the occasion to which he alluded, expressed their approval of an attempt being made to obtain this information; and the right hon. Gentleman the late President of the Board of Trade then undertook to make an attempt to accomplish the object he contemplated. He would, therefore, not now enter into a detail of the measure, nor need he go at length into the subject, as the importance of it was admitted. He would simply submit to the House the Resolution he had submitted last year, with the view of eliciting from Her Majesty's Government the progress they had made in fulfilling the promise given last year, and of ascertaining whether they might hope that there would be laid before Parliament some information on this very important subject, stating the amount of agricultural produce in the United Kingdom, and also the number of acres under cultivation, with the different kinds of produce raised. It was strange they should be in ignorance on so important a subject. Statements of the most conflicting nature were made in consequence of this ignorance, and he believed that the Public Service had suffered on many occasions from the want of information. He would not trespass longer on the time of the House, but would take the liberty of moving the Resolution he held in his hand:— That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, representing that, in the opinion of this House, it is desirable to obtain authentic information upon various matters connected with the agriculture of the United Kingdom; that this information is altogether deficient, so that at this time, even the extent of land under cultivation, and the amount of its produce, are subjects only of vague conjecture; that the total absence of all statistical knowledge in reference to this important subject has at various times proved detrimental to the public interests; and praying Her Majesty to devise measures for supplying to parliament from time to time, statements of the breadth of land under cultivation for each species of produce respectively, with the amount of produce derived from the same, together with such information as will exhibit, as far as practicable, a perfect view of the agricultural capability and production of the United Kingdom.

Sir G. Clerk

apprehended that the hon. Member for Manchester, in placing in the hands of the Chair precisely the same Motion as he had made about this time last year, had brought the question before the House rather with the view of ascertaining what steps had been taken on the subject, than with any serious intention of calling upon them to affirm it by a vote; for the same objections still existed to the form of the Motion of the hon. Gentleman, involving, as it did, many minute details; and these objections, he thought, would render it impossible for the House to consent to it. At the same time he was prepared to admit to the hon. Member that this was a question of very great importance, and that very great benefit would arise if they had the means of obtaining complete and accurate information on the points embraced in the Resolution. But in this country, the obtaining of such information with due accuracy was a matter attended with very great difficulties. His right hon. Friend the late President of the Board of Trade had paid great attention to the subject in the course of last year; and in fulfilment of the understanding, he might say the pledge, his right hon. Friend had given to the hon. Member, that this subject would engage the attention of the Government, he did, in the course of last autumn, in conjunction with the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for the Home Department, make an endeavour to obtain, through the assistance of the Poor Law Guardians in the various Unions throughout England, the information required. Questions were referred to the Poor Law Commissioners, with the sanction of the Secretary of State, in order that, through the machinery placed under their superintendence, answers might be elicited. The Commissioners stated, in their reply, that so many practical difficulties existed with reference to the boards of guardians, that, at the present moment, it would be impossible to carry the plan into effect. There was no objection on the part of the Government to lay before the House the letter written to the Secretary for the Home Department by his right hon. Friend the late President of the Board of Trade, with the reply, and the reasons stated by the Poor Law Commissioners why they found it impossible to comply with the proposal submitted to them. It not being in the power of the Poor Law Commissioners or the Government, as the law now stood, to impose on those bodies any duty not immediately connected with the administration of the Poor Law, it was impossible to expect that they would take the trouble of making the returns requested from them. Therefore, although no objection to the Motion was entertained by the Government, it would be impossible to furnish the information in such a shape as would be satisfactory. Under these circumstances—he meant the difficulty of attaining accurate statistical information with respect to the number of acres under cultivation, the various kinds and amount of produce, the question being involved in so great difficulty, that he was not enabled to point out to the House any satisfactory means of overcoming it—be trusted that the hon. Member had no serious intention of pressing the Resolution. He was ready to give full consideration to every proposition made for the purpose of obtaining accurate and complete information, and to do everything in his power to afford it; but the present case being one of so peculiar a kind, he hoped the hon. Member would withdraw the Resolution. He repeated that he had no objection to lay before the House the letters showing the steps which had been taken by Government in this matter, if the hon. Gentleman would substitute a Motion for that Correspondence for the Motion he had submitted to the House.

Mr. Aglionby

concurred entirely in the view taken by the hon. Member for Manchester as to the importance of procuring accurate information respecting the agricultural produce of the kingdom; and he believed the subject had attracted the attention of the country at large. He certainly should like to see the two letters referred to by the right hon. Baronet opposite, in order that the steps taken by the Government might become known. He must, however, take the liberty to remark that the Government had not done very much, according to what he had heard, to forward the views of his hon. Friend. An application had been made to the Poor Law Commissioners, and through them to the boards of guardians, to get the desired information; but had there been nothing else done? Had any application been made to the Tithe Commissioners, who were probably well qualified to furnish valuable information in some respects? He was quite aware there were difficulties in the way. One said he could not do it, and another said he could not do it. But in his county, he apprehended, there would not be much difficulty, for any or every farmer knew pretty well what land was under tillage in his neighbourhood, and what the nature as well as the quantity of the produce was. He believed that the difficulties apprehended by his hon. Friend would not be found to exist in the north; he himself would readily undertake to furnish the information that was requisite respecting the agriculture of his own parish; and he believed that if the same course was to be proposed to persons similarly circumstanced as himself, the result would be, he did not doubt, to supply very accurate returns throughout the whole kingdom.

Mr. Christopher

said, that he took quite as deep an interest in the subject as the hon. Member for Manchester, and had made some inquiries as to the mode of collecting information respecting the agriculture of the kingdom. He, however, experienced the same difficulty that had been felt last year, in so far as regarded the Resolution before the House: though he was most desirous that every facility should be afforded him to attain his object, he feared the course pursued would not have the desired effect. It might be easy enough to produce returns annually to that House, and pretty accurate returns too of the number of acres of land under cultivation, and also of the particular description of cultivation; but that would form no criterion whatever of the agricultural produce of the country. He had heard it stated that persons who were desirous of speculating in grain could form, by going through the country and looking into the state of the crops before the harvest, a vague conjecture of what the produce would be; but if they were to have Parliamentary Returns laid upon the Table of that House, with the view not only of guiding those who were interested in speculations in foreign corn, but also of letting the farmer know the best time for bringing his grain to market, he should say that unless those returns were accurate, they would do a great deal more harm than good. He had fully expected that his hon. Friend opposite would have furnished them with some means of arriving at the desirable conclusion which he had mentioned, and he thought that his hon. Friend was bound to do so before calling for the Returns.

M. Warburton

was glad that there seemed to be a general concurrence by hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House, that if the information moved for could be obtained, it would be highly desirable. He could not help thinking that where there was a will a way would be found. His hon. and learned Friend the Member for Cockermouth, had told them that the best source for obtaining the information would be the Tithe Commissioners. Every one knew that under the Tithe Commutation Act, surveys had been made of every parish, and the amount of acreage in each parish had been distinctly ascertained; and that, he thought, would be the first step towards obtaining the information sought for by his hon. Friend. He recollected having been some years ago on a Committee, nominated by the late Lord Sydenham, the proposal before which was, that instead of employing the local country surveyors to rectify all the old surveys, the officers of the Ordnance Survey should be employed in making the corrected surveys. They stated to the Committee what the total amount of that survey would be; and he (Mr. Warburton) believed that if their estimate were contrasted with the actual cost of the survey, as paid by the different parishes, it would be found that in all, not less than 700,000l. or 800,000l. would have been saved. The objection, however, he recollected, which was then raised to employing the Ordnance Surveyors was, "We object to an accurate acreable survey of the different kinds of land, because it might be made the basis, at some future time, of a revision of the land tax." He repeated, however, that where there was a will there was a way, and he thought that the Gentlemen might, if they choose, furnish the Returns which had been moved for.

Mr. Darby

said, that the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Cockermouth, had stated that the hon. Member for Manchester did not want to ascertain the amount of produce. Why, as it appeared to him (Mr. Darby), that was just the very thing that the hon. Gentleman did want. If they went to those who had valued for the Tithe commutation, he believed that they might obtain pretty nearly the value of the land, and the species of crops which it bore at the time when those valuations were made; but he was fully convinced if the hon. Gentleman imagined that he could get a return of the amount of produce which would not be calculated to deceive persons, instead of affording information, he feared that he was very much mistaken. He asked the hon. Member how he proposed to get this return? The hon. Gentleman was bound to show how he would obtain it, and that it would afford real information, instead of misleading persons, before he asked the House to assent to his proposition. He had no objection to that portion of the Motion which referred to the return of waste land, nor did he think that there would be any difficulty in obtaining it.

Mr. F. Baring

was glad to find that the right hon. Gentleman opposite, who had spoken, representing Her Majesty's Government on this occasion, had treated the subject in the way that it deserved from its importance; and as he understood that there was every anxiety on the part of the Board of Trade to obtain such information as they would be able to obtain, he was quite sure that his hon. Friend, as well as he himself, however anxious they might be to procure the information, or however valuable they might consider it, would not attempt to move for information which it would be impossible to obtain. As he had understood his hon. Friend, at first at any rate, he was not at all anxious to have such information as the hon. and learned Member for Sussex shadowed to himself; the only object, as he understood it, was, to ascertain the quantity of land in each parish that was employed in the various species of cultivation. He was perfectly aware that whatever other advantages this country might possess, the difficulty of obtaining statistical information was exceedingly great—more especially he knew, that it was excessively difficult for the Government to procure statistical information concerning agriculture. He remembered that his noble Friend the late Lord Sydenham was very anxious to obtain certain statistical information, merely for the purpose of affording accurate information to the country, and he caused certain letters to be written with the view of obtaining it. There was, however, an impression, he (Mr. Baring) supposed, that Lord Sydenham was anxious to get it for some Corn Law or taxing reason; at any rate he could not get the information he required, nor had he any means of procuring it. Since then, the Poor Law and the Tithe Commissioners, with other authorities, offered them a means of procuring that information. He would therefore suggest to the right hon. Baronet the propriety of furnishing some information in order to make a beginning. An impression might no doubt arise that it was required for the purposes of a land tax, or some other tax, but in a short time that impression would subside, as in other cases; such, for instance, as that of the census, from which persons at first shrank, who afterwards freely supplied the desired information. Once commenced, they might rely upon getting the required information more accurately from year to year; and they might discover, too, that the truth, when arrived at, would not be more disadvantageous to the agricultural than any other party. With regard to those statistical returns, "Porter's Tables," which were presented from the Board of Trade, and which were in considerable arrear, although their value depended upon the speed with which they were produced, he begged to express a hope that Her Majesty's Government would give every assistance in their power to enable those returns to be produced from year to year.

Mr. Henley

said, that if they acted on the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion, and obtained information by dribbles at first, it might be years before they would arrive at the amount or description of information desired. The suggestion of the hon. Member for Bridport to make an Ordnance Survey of the whole country, would also incur a delay which he thought very unreasonable — particularly as they might be certain that four out of five persons would demand to know for what purpose the information was sought before they consented to furnish it. Statistical information, if true, was, no doubt, very valuable; but if of a doubtful character, was worse than useless; and in the alleged difficulties of obtaining that which was now asked for, free from doubt, he fully believed.

Dr. Bowring

thought that what was done elsewhere might be done here. There were no less than 12,000,000 of agricultural returns made to the Government of France. In Belgium, their statistical information was also very complete; and he did not see why the valuable facts collected by the Tithe Commissioners should not be turned to account in this country.

Mr. Gladstone

regretted that the hon. Member for Kendal had felt it necessary to say that there seemed to have been a want of will on the part of the Government to effect the object of the hon. Member for Manchester. As far as he was concerned, he disclaimed any indifference upon the subject, because he not only thought the object a valuable one, but held distinctly that the parties to whom it was valuable were, first, the public at large, but particularly and especially the agriculturists. He had last year stated that those who congregated in towns to conduct the foreign corn trade, by their extensive information supplied to a considerable degree the want of accurate details; but the farmer enjoyed no such advantage, and suffered from the want of it. As far, then, as the will was concerned, he thought there should be a common desire on both sides of the House to prosecute the object in view. But the difficulties were greater than some hon. Members supposed. He saw no reason why it should not be stated that the object of Lord Sydenham was sought to be attained through an inquiry addressed to the clergy, from some of whom very good answers were received, from some defective answers, and from some none at all. He did not attribute the last two results to a supposition on the part of the clergy that a change was about to be made in the law—but mainly to the fact that they were too much occupied with other matters connected with their sacred functions; and he should be sorry to see them charged with any such office as the collection of agricultural information. He did not blame those who had applied to them; it was a fair experiment, but for a permanent system he considered it highly objectionable. The hon. Member for Cockermouth said that the Government had not shown sufficient zeal in endeavouring to acquire information. He could only say that they had considered, in succession, every class of officer who was primâ facie capable of undertaking the task—the tax collector, parochial officer, churchwarden, overseer, Excise officer, in fact, every class of public functionary. And, as regarded the Tithe Commission, however valuable for its own purposes, it must be put upon a different footing before it could be made instrumental in attaining the object of the hon. Member for Manchester. Its proceedings, after many years' labour, had not embraced above one-half the country. But the necessary tardiness of its labours was not the main objection. It was appointed to make a most important inquiry into each parish once and for all. The inquiry being made, the function of the Tithe Commissioners ceased with regard to the parish inquired into. The proposal of the hon. Member for Cockermouth was, therefore, rather a formidable one, as it would incur the expense of maintaining the Tithe Commissioners in London, as a central authority, with local agents to collect information; and, although desirous that such statistical information should be procured, he was not prepared to consent to such costly machinery. He agreed with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Portsmouth, that they should begin by degrees, and that, having once obtained any information, it would be easy to advance until they obtained it in a shape satisfactory to all. If they were to bandy such accusations as absence of zeal and want of will, then farewell to any hope of agricultural statistics. Upon the subject of the amount of produce, he did not think they could expect any correct information at present. He thought that the first question to be considered was, whether they could ascertain the breadth of land employed for each of the principal agricultural crops—to which he did not see any insuperable difficulties. He would advise, in the first instance, an application to the Poor Law Guardians on that subject. By such a step they would manifest their confidence in them, and do much towards disarming jealousy and dispelling suspicion as to the intentions of the State. The information would be easily obtained by well-qualified persons in the several localities; and it involved no inquisition into private concerns. The nature of the crops was almost a matter of common notoriety, and the acreage of the fields was known quite nearly enough for the purposes of practical accuracy. It would be a great step even to obtain what was now in view—accurate accounts of the breadth of land under each head of produce in the course of the spring. Gentlemen engaged in the corn trade had modes of ascertaining the yield of particular crops with considerable accuracy; it was no mere view of the quantity of straw—no guess-work, but the result of actual examination, though partial, including the number of grains in the ear and the weight of the grains; the farmer was the only person destitute of such information. He (Mr. Gladstone) quite agreed that they ought not to send out inaccurate statements under an imposing title of Parliamentary sanction; but still with regard to the breadth of land accurate information might be had, and even with regard to the yield of the most important crops; though it would be premature to entertain that part of the subject at present, it was not altogether beyond hope that accounts might be procured which should be of material value. He hoped, when hon. Members came to read the correspondence which had taken place, they would be inclined to take a favourable view of the scheme proposed; and if anything could be devised even for the limited purpose now in view, he was persuaded that the benefit would most of all belong to the cultivators of the soil.

Mr. Hume

was glad at length to hear from the other side of the House that such a proceeding as this was proper. As to the means, the Tithe Commission was now in course of closing, and as far as it had gone the clergy had taken care that every acre should be upon the map; 9,558 parishes had been already surveyed. The mere surface, however, would be of no use; there must be an annual Report, and some resident agent for the purpose in each parish. At the India House a plan would be found accurately laid down, as there was not a Village in Bengal in which there was not a clerk resident, who kept an account of every foot of ground: upon that the taxation was levied, and the rent calculated, and the produce of each species of grain could be ascertained. In the United States also the late population Returns gave every bushel of corn grown in every village. The time, he hoped, was coming, when we should have such statistics, taken by the aid of the schoolmaster or some other person in each parish.

Colonel Sibthorp

Really the idea of any Gentleman presuming to say that a schoolmaster should come round upon your land and survey its productive properties is one which I never expected to hear proposed. Let me catch a schoolmaster on my land—that is all. The only question would then be whether he would venture to come a second time or not. I wonder how the hon. Gentleman would like it if it were proposed that some person should go into his cellar and see what wine he had got. Certainly we live in very extraordinary times, when these dictatorial attempts are made to invade the sacredness of private property. I venture to say that the hon. Gentleman would not like it to take place in his house in Bryanston-square. But, perhaps, the hon. Member for Bolton, who has already been paid so much money for the statistical information he has afforded, would be willingly employed again in making a survey of the kind. That would not be a less waste of the public money than the former payments to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. C. P. Villiers

considered that the hon. and gallant Member for Lincoln had spoken somewhat too plainly, and had only been a little less discreet than other hon. Members around him, who evidently objected to a Motion of this nature on the ground that it was a species of usurpation, very similar to that of a person invading one's cellar, to ascertain what quantity of wine he had got. But he wished to tell the hon. and gallant Member what was the difference between the two cases. The hon. and gallant Member and those about him did not undertake to supply the country with wine; but they did undertake to supply the country with bread, and, therefore, the people were anxious to know what were the means they possessed for supplying them with food. But that was a point of much difficulty; for the hon. and gallant Gentleman and his Friends did not wish to let the country know what was the difference between the supply and demand. But that, was a description of information, nevertheless, which it was most desirable to possess. This he conceived to be the principal reason why hon. Gentlemen opposite and the Government itself, as it would seem, objected to this inquiry. The hon. and gallant Member for Lincoln told the House the other night, that his constituents objected to its being ascertained what was the increased produce of the land they occupied. No doubt they did; for no sooner would the fact be known than their rents would be raised. He did not think the House could depend upon the information obtained by any other means than what was proposed by his hon. Friend (Mr. Gibson); for two important classes were opposed to such an inquiry—the landlords, who were hostile to all interference with what they considered their private affairs, and the tenant-farmers, who were afraid that the effect of the inquiry would he to raise their rents. He believed that was the real state of the case. Though hon. Gentlemen appeared to have very little faith in an inquiry of this nature, instituted by the House of Commons, yet they seemed to place great reliance on the Reports of Commissioners who were sent abroad to make similar inquiries. At two distinct periods persons had been sent by Government to the Continent, to collect information as to the means and quantity of production from the land; and when they returned, and made their reports, arguments and legislative measures were founded upon them. Mr. Jacob and Mr. Meek had at different times been employed by the Government on such missions; and it was also the practice of the Government to receive such kind of information from the British Consuls; and he believed that the result was somewhat of an alarming character as to the prospects of the quantity of produce capable of being introduced into this country. He mentioned this in order to show that it was considered by hon. Gentlemen opposite quite possible to ascertain the quantity of the produce of the soil when it served their own purpose. Of this he was convinced, that where there was a will it was very practicable to find a way; and he had no doubt the information which his hon. Friend sought to obtain might without difficulty be procured.

Mr. Beckett Denison

, for his part, did not think there was any strong objection on the part of Gentlemen connected with the lauded interest to the Motion proposed by the hon. Member for Manchester. At all events, he was certain that no such motives as had been imputed to them for opposing the Motion had any existence. He should be glad to have such returns produced, and he thought they might be obtained without much difficulty or expense.

Mr. Gibson

replied, that the hon. Gentleman complained that he had not suggested a plan whereby to effect the object he wished to attain. He certainly thought it would not have become him to suggest a plan. It was impossible that the House of Commons could go into the details of a plan calculated to effect the object he had in view. It was a much fitter duty for a Committee. But he thought that a plan might be suggested, of sufficient accuracy for practical purposes, to obtain an account of the average number of acres sown with the different kinds of grain. Instead of troubling the House with his own reasons in support of this belief, he preferred quoting the opinion of a Gentleman who had been described by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Newark (Mr. Gladstone,) as being, of all men in England, the man most competent to give an opinion upon this subject—he meant Mr. Saunders. That Gentleman was examined before the Committee on Agricultural Distress in 1835, and the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Sir James Graham) asked him this question,— Do you think it would be desirable to have some more accurate statistical information published annually, with regard to the precise quantity of land sown in the different parishes in England with wheat, barley, and oats? Mr. Saunders's answer was,— I cannot conceive a duty more important upon the Government than to ascertain the quantity of food which the public is likely to be supplied with. He was then asked,— If the Legislature were to endeavour to obtain such returns, do you think they could be made with accuracy? The answer was,— I am persuaded they could: and it appears to me strange how Parliament can consent to remain in the dark upon a subject of such importance. He wished to know how one ought to proceed when one moved a Resolution, and was told by the Government that there was a desire to carry out the object of it. Of all perplexing situations, he was in a most perplexing one, because he did not like to take an hostile course with a Government which seemed favourable to his views; at the same time, when an hon. Member did not carry his Motion to a division, but allowed it to pass off in an easy manner, he was exposed to censure. Would the right hon. Baronet (Sir R. Peel) say this—that if there were found a difficulty in striking out a plan, a Committee should be appointed to examine and discuss the practicability of the different plans, and report their opinion to the House. If the Executive Government had not time for these things, why should they not avail themselves of the services of Gentlemen of the House of Commons, who were competent to give an opinion upon the subject? He, therefore, begged to ask the right hon. Gentleman (Sir Robert Peel) whether he would have any objection, if hon. Gentlemen could be found who would undertake the duty, to take advantage of their services?

Sir Robert Peel

had not the slightest objection to the object sought to be obtained by the hon. Gentleman; but he did not see how a sound inference could be drawn unless the quantity of the produce of land under cultivation in the three kingdoms was ascertained. He believed that in Scotland there would be no difficulty to collect this information from the parish schoolmasters; but with respect to the employing the Poor Law Guardians, he rather thought that it would be bad policy to mix them up with any political subjects. Although it might be a saving of money, yet he doubted whether the end could be so effectually attained as by the employment of persons expressly for the purpose. At the same time, the employment of different persons in every parish might lead to an unnecessary expense; and it occurred to him whether or not the country might not be divided into districts, and persons be appointed to superintend each district. He thought that would be preferable to taking the localities by parishes. At the same time, he would suggest to the hon. Gentleman to consider whether it would not be better to allow the Correspondence on the subject to be produced before coming to any conclusion. At all events, he trusted the hon. Member would not press his Motion to a division. He begged to assure the hon. Gentleman, and the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, that there was no wish on the part of Her Majesty's Government to prevent the production of the information they wished to obtain by the production of the Correspondence. All that could be said was, that it might be incomplete; but he did not think that that was a very great objection; but he would repeat that it was indispensable that information should be obtained from the three parts of the kingdom; and he must say that no man could more zealously and faithfully have discharged the duty he had undertaken, to perfect some plan for obtaining official information on this and all other subjects, than his right hon. Friend the late President of the Board of Trade. On the whole, he thought that the Executive Government would probably be better able to mature a plan than a Committee of the House; but if the hon. Gentleman despaired of that, then he (Sir Robert Peel), for one, could assure the hon. Gentleman that he had not the slightest objection to the appointment of a Committee. He could assure the hon. Gentleman, and also the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, that there was no ground for their impression that the Government were adverse to the production of the knowledge which they sought; or that there existed in their minds any idea of making a distinction between wine and corn. There was not the slightest foundation for it. He would further assure the hon. Member for Manchester, that the Executive Government would lend any weight it possessed, or apply any machinery it could command, to obtain the object which he had in view.

Motion withdrawn.

House adjourned at twelve o'clock.