HC Deb 20 March 1846 vol 84 cc1280-3

I wish, on this occasion to ask the right hon. Gentleman a question with respect to the course to be pursued with the Bill for the repeal of the Corn Law. Eight weeks have now elapsed since Her Majesty made Her Gracious Speech from the Throne. The right hon. Gentleman, after making his first statement of the measure he intended to bring forward, allowed a fortnight for its consideration, before any discussion of it was called for. Three weeks were then engaged in a preliminary discussion; and after that the Bill was introduced. It does seem to me, therefore, that after so much discussion, the right hon. Gentleman would be perfectly justified in doing that which he declared it was his intention to do, namely, to go on with the discussion of that Bill, from day to day, until the measure should be brought to a close. I should have thought it unnecessary to mention this, had it not been that another right hon. Gentleman, the Secretary of State for the Home Department, stated, in answer to a question put to him the other evening, that it was his intention, on the first day after the second reading of the Corn Bill, to propose the first reading of the Bill for the Protection of Life in Ireland. Now, I could very well understand how, if it was thought that the Corn Bill was of such urgency that all other measures should be postponed to it, that the right hon. Gentleman should have postponed this measure relating to Ireland, and have gone on with the Corn Bill until it was finally disposed of. But such I do not understand to be the intention of the right hon. Gentleman; and such being the case, I think the passing of that Bill will not be hastened a single day by the postponement of the Bill for altering the Corn Law. And on other grounds, I think there will be great inconvenience from longer delaying this measure. If the third reading of the Corn Bill have to be postponed for the first reading of the Irish Bill, that third reading might have taken place during the time that the first reading of the Irish Bill would otherwise take up; and the effect will only be further to delay the second reading of the Irish Bill; so that no time will be gained in the passing of that Bill to which the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department attaches great importance. I wish therefore to express my hope that the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury will adhere to the regulation which he stated he should adopt. Certainly I do not complain, with reference either to the promoters of the measure, or those who oppose it, of any delay that has taken place. But I think there has been so full and sufficient a discussion of the measure, as to call upon the right hon. Gentleman, without any risk of being charged with hastening on the measure with undue precipitancy to proceed at once from the second reading to the Committee on the Bill.


Sir, I can assure the noble Lord that I never felt greater anxiety with regard to the progress of a measure, than I do with regard to the progress of the Corn Bill. I have received communications from many parts of the country, from those even who are adverse to the policy of Her Majesty's Government, earnestly desiring that some decision on the Corn Bill should be come to. In the first place, there are many who feel that, on account of the state of the crop in this country, there would be the greatest advantage in having free access to that corn which is now in bond, in order that it may be mixed with the corn of this country which is not in a state for making the finest flour. And on that account, on account of the peculiar state of our harvest, there is especial inconvenience in delaying the decision of Parliament with regard to the duties which shall attach to foreign corn; because it is quite clear that, in the expectation that foreign corn will be admitted at a duty of 4s. instead of 18s. that no foreign corn will be taken out of bond. That has a most material effect upon the demand for our own domestic produce; and, in point of fact, for some weeks past, there has been less corn sold in those towns, the markets of which determine the average that regulate duty, than has been the case, I believe, at any former period. Independently of these considerations it must be borne in mind that the Resolutions respecting all the Customs Duties having been reported to this House, the Treasury has, in conformity with the established usage, directed the Customs to permit all articles included in the Tariff to be admitted at the new rate of duty. Consequently, at the present period, all the articles which compete with the great manufactures of this country are now admitted at a low duty. A bond having been taken from the parties that they will abide the ultimate decision of Parliament, with reference to these duties—all foreign articles of manufacture connected with the linen, with the woollen, and with the cotton manufactures—all foreign articles, almost without exception, are admitted under that Treasury order at a duty of ten per cent; and many articles connected with agriculture—all cattle, for instance—are, under that Treasury order, admitted duty free. That constitutes another very urgent reason why the decision of Parliament with regard to the Corn Laws should be pronounced at as early a period as possible. If it is pronounced at an early period, of course there will be no difficulty in enforcing the bond that has been given to pay the higher duties. But, the longer the time that elapses between this freedom from duty, or this reduction of duty, and that period when, if higher duties be demanded, they must be required from the parties, the greater will be the embarrassment caused, and the greater will be the difficulty of enforcing the payment of these higher duties. On those grounds, I am certainly most anxious that we should proceed with all expedition consistent with due deliberation on the Corn Laws; and it certainly it is my intention, so far as the measures of Government are concerned, to postpone every question which can possibly be postponed, which might interfere with the progress of the Corn Bill. But, then, we are in this position with respect to a Bill of very great importance which has been sent down from the other House—a Bill, the introduction of which nothing could justify but an urgent necessity, in the opinion of Her Majesty's Government, that some extraordinary law should at once be passed. If we took no step whatever with regard to this Bill—and I apprehend it is not impossible even for us not to read this Bill a first time till after the Corn Bill has been disposed of—but I confess it would be a very unusual proceeding, when a Bill has been sent down to us from the other House, to postpone all proceedings on it whatever for some weeks. I am, therefore, compelled to take this course; but I take it with considerable reluctance. I propose—adhering to the arrangement that was made on another night—I propose to take the second reading of the Corn Bill on Monday next. After the second reading of the Corn Bill, I think it would be right that the House should have the opportunity of expressing an opinion upon the first reading of the Bill for the Prevention of the crime of Assassination in Ireland. But I should not propose that any other stage of that Bill should interfere with the progress of the Corn Bill. I should propose, therefore, to fix the first reading of the Bill for the Prevention of Assassination on Friday next. It is possible the debate on the second reading of the Corn Bill may terminate on Thursday; but if it should not—if the anticipation of my noble Friend, that the debate will proceed till Friday, and then terminate, should be realized—in that case, I should propose, certainly, that the continued debate on the Corn Bill should have precedence over the first reading of the Irish Bill; and it would be necessary, in that case, to fix the first reading of the Irish Bill for the Monday following. But as it is possible that the debate on the Corn Bill may terminate on Thursday, I will now fix it for Friday, with the distinct understanding that the first reading of the Irish Bill shall not interfere with the second reading of the Corn Bill, though I think it possible that that debate may not terminate till Friday night. As I have stated, I yield the precedence to the first reading of this Bill with great reluctance; because I am convinced that it is of very great importance to all parties—I do not say that the Bill should pass, but that the ultimate decision of the House upon the subject should be known. We all know that trade is affected to the utmost extent by the uncertainty that prevails. I should have thought it contrary to all usage, and of course inconsistent with the great importance of the subject, to have adopted any other plan; and I have suggested that course which appeared to me, upon the whole, to be most consistent with the public interest.