HC Deb 05 February 1845 vol 77 cc154-64

The Report of the Committee having been brought up,

Mr. Hume

said, that although he had no objection to the substance of the Address, yet he could not allow it to pass without making some observations. Whilst congratulations were offered on the prosperous state of the finances of the country, no hope was held out of any relief being afforded to the people—an increase of our Naval Establishment was adverted to, but no hope held out of any corresponding reduction in other establishments to meet that increase of expenditure; no hope respecting the Army being reduced; no notice taken whether anything would be done in regard to the Customs or the Excise departments, in which the whole community were of opinion great changes should be made. The right hon. Baronet had taken upon himself the task of regulating the principles on which our commerce was to be founded, and he had adopted those principles partially; but he (Mr. Hume) had hoped that the House would have received an intimation from him that he was about to relieve our commercial interest from the troublesome charges to which it was subjected, and that he would remove from the list five or six hundred excisable articles when he could not produce one-half the amount of revenue which was paid for the salaries of the clerks engaged in this department. He was free to say that the Speech contained very little. The first three paragraphs were complimentary, the next adverted to increased expenditure, then the Income Tax, and all the rest was nothing. If, however, the right hon. Baronet would say he would reduce other taxes, he should have his support. Let the right hon. Baronet reduce the indirect taxation which fell so heavily upon the humbler classes. The present taxation of the country amounted to 55,000,000l., which was too much. The right hon. Gentleman stated last night that a party attack had been made upon him on account of his proceedings in respect to affairs at Tahiti; he was not one of the party; on the contrary, he thought the conduct of Her Majesty's Government was such as deserved the thanks of the country, for their firmness in adhering to their demands, in maintaining the honour of the British Flag; and for the manner in which they had settled the matter amicably. He believed their conduct had tended to remove those prejudices which former acts had created in the minds of many of the French people; and had tended, moreover, to promote that good understanding on which alone depended the maintenance of peace between the two countries; and peace was the only object to be sought for. He heard the Speech of the hon. Mover with pleasure, because he admired the moderation of his views. At the same time, he wondered how some hon. Gentlemen could allude to the visit of the Emperor of Russia, and entertain the hope that his Majesty would reduce the duties on imports into his kingdom, until we were in a condition to set an example to the whole world. Let us amend our Commercial Code and Customs Duties, and other nations would soon follow our lead.

Mr. Williams

commented on three points contained in the Address. The first paragraph adverted to the improved condition of the country. That improved condition he admitted in the manufacturing districts, and many men had been taken into employment; but the Speech made no mention of the distress of those who were millions in number, namely, the agricultural classes. With reference to them there were indications in the country which called for the most serious attention of the Government. Witness the incendiary fires, which were an unhappy exemplification of the existence of utter distress. The Speech ought to have made some allusion to the condition of these men, from whom the value of the estates of hon. Gentlemen and others was derived. Next, as to the financial condition of the country, he denied it was so prosperous as it was represented. The expenditure of the country was much too great. The hon. Member for Huntingdon, in seconding the Address, said that the revenue last year exceeded the expenditure by the sum of 3,300,000l. The revenue in 1837 was 2,100,000l. beyond the expenditure, so that there was now only an excess of 1,200,000l. over the year 1837, with an addition of 8,000,000l. of taxation. What then became of the economical management of the finances of the country? This was a state of things which ought not to endure, and which could not be permitted to endure. The late Government were brought into difficulties by becoming entangled with the disturbances in Canada, and the war in China, and their difficulties were further increased by the ruinous export of bullion caused by the state of the Corn Laws. At the present moment the difficulties which embarrassed the late Government no longer existed, for the disturbances in Canada, and the war in China, had been settled. The country during the last year enjoyed a very extraordinary degree of prosperity, and there was no occasion for such a large expenditure as was now kept up, compared with the year which he had just named.

Mr. S. Crawford

wished to call the attention of Her Majesty's Government to that paragraph in the Address which thanked Her Majesty for the Report of the Commission appointed to inquire into the law and practice with respect to the Occupation of Land in Ireland. He hoped that Her Majesty's Government would give some intimation of their intention to introduce a measure on this subject. He never knew Ireland in a more disturbed state than at present. Murders and assassinations prevailed to an awful extent in one or two districts of that unhappy country; and it would be quite impossible to repress such lawless violence without making some just regulation with regard to the law of Landlord and Tenant. He trusted that the Session would not be allowed to pass over without the introduction of some such measure as would satisfy the people that they would experience the protection of the law in this respect. The Address adverted to the loyalty of the people. He concurred in that declaration; but at the same time he must express his belief that a spirit of dormant discontent existed among the labouring population with regard to the Poor law, and the consequences of that measure. The people were deeply discontented on that subject. That law had had the effect of cancelling the right of the labouring men to claim from the land and the property of England their labour and sustenance; and it had given the poor man nothing in return for what it had taken from him. Such a state of things could not continue without producing a greater degree of discontent than that which unfortunately at present existed.

Mr. Wallace

, although offering no opposition to the Address, wished to guard himself against being supposed to acquiesce in the continuance of the Income Tax.

Sir R. Peel

said, that nothing could be more cautiously worded than the Address, for it bound no one in any matter whatever. It only suggested certain things, and was not meant by Her Majesty's Government to commit any one upon that subject. Nothing could be more unjust than to do so; and he never should hold an acquiescence in the present Address to bind any hon. Gentleman to vote for the continuance of the Income Tax.

Mr. Wakley

said, that the improved discipline on the other side showed pretty clearly what the result of the consideration of the Income Tax would be. A Property Tax met with general approval in this country; he believed it would be impossible to propose a more popular tax; but the right hon. Baronet would find that a tax upon incomes derived from trades and professions, would not receive the consent of a large portion of the community. It was thought that if a sliding scale was applicable to any description of taxation, it was never more so than to real property as distinguished from professions and trades. However, the operation upon the public mind would be chiefly regulated by the proposals that might be made with respect to the other taxes. If those taxes which interfered with trade and commerce, injured the labourer, and pressed upon the necessaries of life, were removed, he then thought that even the present tax upon income would be borne without a murmur or complaint. It had been inferred that there was no distress among the masses of the people of this country; but among the unskilled labourers there was an amount of suffering which Members of that House little knew of. It was impossible to paint a picture of the calamities and sufferings endured by that class in such colours as the reality required. He hoped that when the right hon. Baronet brought in his alteration of the Law of Settlement, some means would be taken to alleviate their condition. The Speech from the Throne contained very little, but perhaps there was the more to hope for on that account. Already several measures, of which no mention was made in the Speech, had been announced by Members of the Government, and amongst others, that to which the right hon. Baronet had lately alluded. He should be glad to hear of an intention to abolish the Law of Settlement. The horrors suffered by the poor under the operation of that iniquitous law defied the power of language adequately to describe. This was the common practice:—A labourer who has gone to a distance from his own home, has married, and reared a family, and dies. His wife makes an application for relief: what is the answer? "Well, we will give you a loaf or two of bread, or a shilling or two, but if you come again, we shall give you an order for you to be received into the union workhouse, and when the proper time has expired we shall pass you home." "Home!" says the poor creature; "what home?" "Your husband's settlement," replies the relieving officer. "Why," says the suffering woman, "my husband came from his parish twenty years since—I have never seen any of his relatives—I know of no one who resides in the town—I have no friend or relative of my own there. The relieving officer replies, "We cannot, help that; we must act in accordance to the law; and if you apply again we shall pass you to your husband's settlement." Does she apply again?—No; she suffers all the miseries of starvation rather than be removed to a place where she would be unknown; nay, I have myself seen a mother suffering her offspring to die of want rather than submit to the lot held out to her. I believe that it is the wish and desire of the right hon. Baronet (Sir James Graham) to remedy this crying evil. I believe that the Bill introduced by the right hon. Baronet last Session would go a considerable way in doing so; and I do hope that during the present Session he will mature a Bill on the subject in a bold and masterly spirit. There is no intimation in Her Majesty's Speech with regard to the Poor Law. That question is a painful one; it is still unsettled; and it is impossible that that law, as it now stands, can much longer remain in force in this country. As one fact is worth a thousand hypotheses, I will state to the right hon. Baronet a circumstance which fell under my own observation on Saturday last. It is not, unfortunately, unique: it is too general. A labouring man of good character, and who was only twenty-six years of age, died in a state of great misery and destitution in the parish of Isleworth, in this county. He had been living with his wife six weeks before, in the parish of Iver, in Buckinghamshire. It appears that he and his wife, being both very ill, were obliged to apply for relief, and a small expense of some 25s. or 26s. was incurred for their maintenance during a period of nearly three weeks; but just before three weeks expired, finding they were to be passed to Isleworth, they went to Ruislip, and by the aid of friends procured an apartment where the furniture—for I myself saw it—was not worth 2s. Well, Sir, the parochial authorities came over from Iver, and took the man and his wife—both suffering under illness—and carted them to the village of Isleworth, and when there they put them down and said to the relieving officer, "Here are these parties, we have brought them home to you." The poor man being ill and out of work, and his wife also ill, and both of them in a state of misery and privation, the latter said, "You must go to the relieving office." These poor people said, "We must have sustenance—we must have relief, or we shall die." Now, see what are the effects of the size of your unions, and of not allowing relief to be given in parishes. That woman started in a state of extreme feebleness to Hillenden, a distance of five miles, leaving her husband at home without money or food, and this in the depth of winter, and described to the relieving officer there the state of destitution she and her husband were in. What was his answer?—and remember, it was, as the relieving officer himself afterwards told me, the only answer he could legally give in conformity with the Act of Parliament—he told the woman to go to the doctor of the union, and if he gives you an order for relief, you shall have it. The woman then went from Hillingden to Uxbridge, and saw the doctor, who promised to go and see her husband at Isleworth. The woman then went back to her wretched home, without bringing a single thing to afford her sick husband the slightest help, or even hope of obtaining relief; without money and without food, and this after she had been walking a distance of eleven miles. In a short time, the medical gentleman called upon the poor people, and was immediately struck with their wretched appearance, and at once said, "I see you are starving; you are in want of the common necessaries of life." And he then gave them an order upon the relieving officer. What has she then to do? She had to go back five miles to the relieving officer again: and when with him what does she receive? Money was not given her. She had not the opportunity of purchasing what she wanted; but an order was given to the value of 3s., which she is to serve upon the grocer in the parish of Isleworth, from whom she gets grocery to that amount. Now, observe; that women in the depth of winter has walked twenty-one miles, leaving a husband at home in a dying state, she being herself in a state of suffering and disease, before she could obtain relief to the value of 3s.; and that is the way in which you, the wealthy Legislators of this country, afford relief to the destitute. I know not what words to use to designate such a system as this; and yet, from our weakness, or from our cruelty, we call this furnishing relief to the poor by our precious legislation. Is this, I ask, a state of things that is to continue? That poor man, with his constitution broken down and destroyed for want of food, accidentally injures one of the toes of his feet, a locked jaw comes on, and he dies. On Tuesday last he died. Now, I again ask, is this system to be continued? Do the gentry, the nobility, and the wealthy people of England believe that their lives and property can be secure so long as the poor of England can be thus treated? Do you call this ministering to the necessities of the poor? Is it not a system pregnant with danger to you every moment of your lives? Do you believe that, under these circumstances, the millions of England can be satisfied? or that they will treat Parliament with respect, or yield a cheerful obedience to the law? I say, they will not; and I further say, we ought not to advise them to do so. If they were not discontented—if they were not dissatisfied—with such a state of things, they would be unworthy of the name of Englishmen, and it is utterly impossible that you, in a time of danger, when their bold hearts and ready hands would be needed to serve you, can expect that they will ever again exhibit that boldness, courage, and manly daring, which they have displayed in former times. But kindness, frankness, and generosity are the characteristics of the people of England, which they ever evince towards those who treat them well. You do not know their worth, or make proper allowance for the natural good sense and understanding which they possess. They do not expect impossibilities from you. They know very well that an Act of Parliament cannot cure all the ills which human flesh is heir to; but what they do know is, that no man who is free from crime, and who is willing to work, when in health, for his bread, should be treated in the manner I have just described to you, when in a state of disease and destitution. I do trust that what I have stated will induce the right hon. Baronet (Sir J. Graham), to inquire into this subject. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has devoted much time to its consideration. He showed, last Session, the most anxious desire to collect every kind of information that could assist him in his efforts to amend the existing state of things; he listened most patiently and considerately to every suggestion that was made to him; and I am bound to say that he did not reject any suggestion from any preconceived opinions or prejudices of his own. I beg him, therefore, to investigate the case I have stated, and ascertain whether the same thing is not at this moment going on throughout the whole of England; and, if so, I ask him, can he hesitate to introduce a measure to alter such an odious, such an abominable state of the law? My hon. Friend the Member for Montrose (Mr. Hume), in the course of his remarks, stated that he thought the Government had acted wisely with reference to the affair at Tahiti. I perfectly agree with him in that view. It is the universal impression that that unfortunate misunderstanding has been settled with perfect honour to the Governments of both countries. It has been settled without giving painful feeling to either nation. With regard to the Slave Trade, a more difficult question could never have occupied the attention of the British Government. It has pressed upon us for many years; and we now learn that not the settlement, but the consideration of it is to be referred to two individuals, appointed by England and France. If France is satisfied with the person appointed on its behalf (the Duke de Broglie), I am confident there is no man in England who can be dissatisfied with the appointment of Dr. Lushington. I do not think the Government could have adopted a wiser course. Dr. Lushington has shown throughout the whole of his life that no subject was more dear to his heart, nor was there one to which he had devoted more attention, than the suppression of slavery and the Slave Trade; and that he not only understood the subject, but that he was most earnest and sincere in his desire to see it abolished. With respect to the Right of Search question, I will only make a single remark. When a boy, I went to sea, and I can assure the House that there is not a thing more aggravating, more annoying, or more exciting than that of having a boat come alongside of you, and overhaul what is going on in your vessel; and I am astonished, considering how the right has been persisted in, that it has not led to hostilities between this country and other nations. It is marvellous that peace should have been maintained under such a system. I hope therefore, that something will be devised to get rid of such an exciting, such an annoying, and, apparently, though not really, such a degrading practice. Some remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Mr. Sharman Crawford), has called to my mind the striking contrast between the actual condition of things in Ireland, and the state of that country as described in the Address. It appears to me that the facts stated by my hon. Friend, and the statement contained in the Address, are totally inconsistent; there is no agreement between them. The Address states that the large masses of Her Majesty's subjects are yielding a cheerful obedience to the law; while, on the contrary, we are informed by my hon. Friend, that the people of Ireland are, in many parts, in a most lawless state. Now, I am not disposed to rake up old grievances, but would rather let bygones be-bygones. My opinion is that the right hon. Baronet is desirous to do justice to Ireland. I hope his friends will let him, and that the benevolent intentions of the right hon. Baronet will not be thwarted by those near and around him, that is, by his ordinary supporters. But it does seem strange that it should be stated in the Address that things are going on satisfactorily in Ireland, and that the spirit of discontent has almost disappeared, when we find that so lately as Monday last, a Resolution was passed by the Repeal Association in Dublin, in which it was intimated to the Irish Members of this House, that they should not attend their places in Parliament. The words of the Resolution are these:— That however desirable it may be that discussion should take place in the House of Commons, with a view to expose the injustice of the proceedings connected with the late State Trials, this Association is so deeply impressed with a sense of the hopelessness of obtaining redress for the wrongs of Ireland from the Imperial Parliament, that we cannot recommend that the Irish Members should be called upon to attend such discussion. That the attendance of the Irish Repeal Members in the Conciliation Hall would be most conducive to the great object of the Association—the restoration of our domestic Legislature. I must confess that I agree with those who consider that Ireland has been an ill-used country. Let us anticipate better times. I will only refer for one moment to the trial, which led to the imprisonment of Mr. O'Connell and his friends. Before that trial I believe the prevalent feeling in England was, that Mr. O'Connell's proceedings were not justifiable. He had crested in England a feeling prejudicial to himself, by indulging in language reproachful and offensive in regard to the people of this country. But immediately after his memorable trial, and before the decision come to by the House of Lords, the universal impression throughout this country was, that in that trial he was a persecuted man, and that his case was not fairly investigated by an impartial jury. That was the universal impression, and that impression has received the strongest possible confirmation by the decision of the House of Lords. It has been decided by that House that it was altogether an unlawful proceeding, and that the indictment was so framed and drawn up, as to make it next to an impossibility that the accused parties could extricate themselves from such a legal net-work. And what is the impression of the public mind in England now? I can assure the right hon. Baronet, from the frequent communications which I have the opportunity of holding with the working and middle classes of the people, that the public mind of England is in a very feverish state with regard to the relative positions between England and Ireland; and Ireland is looked upon here as being a source of weakness to this country rather than a source of strength. An impression universally prevails that Ireland has been an ill-used and persecuted country, and has not received justice from the English Government. When the Irish Members are present in the House of Commons they make loud complaints against our conduct; and, I believe we deserve those complaints; but at the same time I have never seen come from the Irish Members themselves any series of measures which they would place upon the Table of their own Parliament if they had one in College Green. Now, I do say that that has not been acting justly by us, or wisely by themselves. If they will frame such measures as they deem best calculated to promote the interests and welfare of Ireland, and submit them to the consideration of the Imperial Parliament, and if that Parliament should incur the responsibility of rejecting them, my firm conviction is, that the people of England would join in demanding a Repeal of the Union, and would urge that demand upon the Government and Parliament of this country; because the people of England are strong in their love of justice, and they do not wish the persecution of any class or portion of their fellow men. They do not desire partial laws, and believing, as they then more than ever would do, that the people of Ireland were a persecuted people, they would unite with them in demanding full redress. In order, then, to relieve me and many other English Gentlemen who feel strongly upon this subject from the difficulties which at present beset us in this matter, I will conclude by expressing my earnest hope that the Irish Members, without delay, will frame such measures as they deem best calculated to promote the interests of that country, and then if we reject them, the responsibility will be upon our heads.

The Report of the Address was agreed to, and was ordered to be presented to Her Majesty by the whole House.

House adjourned at a quarter to eight o'clock.