HC Deb 11 March 1847 vol 90 cc1148-56

, on rising to move for— A Comparative Return of the number of deaths which have occurred in each parish of Ireland, or from as many parishes as may be practicable, in each of the three last periods of six months, commencing the 1st day of September, and ending the 1st day of March, respectively, with a summary for each period"— said, that he had been in hopes no objection would have been made to this Motion; but the right hon. the Secretary for Ire- land informed him that there were difficulties in the way of complying with his desires. He regretted this; for he was sure that there was no matter at present which it was of so deep an interest to the House and to the country to know as the rate of mortality now prevalent in Ireland owing to starvation and disease. The objection to be made was, as he understood, that there were no registers kept by the clergy in Ireland, and no compulsory power at the disposal of the Government by which they could call upon the clergy to make these returns. It might be true that there were no registers kept in the parishes in Ireland; but, at the same time, he thought it was scarcely possible to believe that no record of the number of deaths which had taken place in so short a period had been kept. With regard to compulsory power, he begged to observe that when, in 1841, and afterwards, in 1843, returns were ordered by the House of the numbers of illegitimate children christened by the clergy in each parish in England and Wales, there was no compulsory power to oblige the clergy to make those returns, and still they made them without any objection. The state of things in Ireland was horrible; the late Government had treated the destitution of that country on a better plan, and done more to relieve it, than the present Government, who were administering the affairs of Ireland on the principles of political economy, and hence the afflicting situation of that country. An hon. Member had told the House the other night, that he had reason to know that the constabulary were in possession of information showing that 240,000 persons had already died of famine in Ireland. As he (Lord G. Bentinck) understood, there was a mortality going on in the workhouses, containing 111,484 inmates, at the rate of 77,630 persons a year. In his opinion, it was a matter of far too great importance, and too deep interest, for the House and the country to be left in ignorance upon it. It was impossible to say that the people of Ireland were to be allowed to die off without any record of their deaths being taken. There ought, in his opinion, to be no secrecy, no concealment about the number of deaths that had been occurring during the last six months, as compared with the same period last year. He could not believe for a single moment that a single clergyman, whether a Protestant divine or a Roman Catholic priest, would refuse, if applied to by the Government, to give a comparative return of the deaths that had taken place in his parish in the course of the last six months, as compared with the six months of the antecedent year; and he thought his Motion ought to be consented to by the Government.


could assure the noble Lord and the House, that if he felt any difficulty in acceding to the Motion which the noble Lord had brought forward, it did not arise from any wish that the House and the country should not have the fullest and most accurate information respecting every thing relating to the present distress in Ireland, and with regard to that destruction of human life which, on more than one occasion, it had been his painful duty to declare to the House, had gone on, was going on, and, he feared, would go on, to an extent which all must deplore. The Government had already assented to Motions for the production of two returns, which, he believed, would comprise all the information which the Government had it in their power to give the House from official sources respecting the number of deaths that had occurred. One of those Motions was for a return of the coroners' inquests in Ireland in which verdicts had been returned of deaths arising from destitution since the famine commenced. That had been ordered by the House. The other was the Motion of the hon. Member for Limerick (Mr. Smith O'Brien), in assenting to which, the Government agreed to give such information of the deaths from famine as they were in possession of through the constabulary. The difficulty he felt with respect to the Motion of the noble Lord was, that he did not know to what quarter to address the orders for the returns, with any sure prospect of getting an answer. He regretted, and thought it was matter of reproach to the country, that there was not established in Ireland a system of registering of births, marriages, and deaths, as in England and Wales; but the absence of such a system was owing to difficulties with respect to religious questions, which had hitherto made it impossible to establish such a system in Ireland. Still, however, he was not without hopes that those difficulties might be got over, and a similar system to that in force in England be provided for Ireland also; but at present he did not know where to look in Ireland for accurate information of the kind required by the noble Lord; and he must say, he thought that nothing could be more inexpedient than to produce false and inaccurate statistical information to the House of Commons, because such information could only have the effect of misleading both the House and the public. That was one objection which he felt to agreeing to the Motion of the noble Lord; another was, that any information that could be obtained on this Motion, must be entirely voluntary; for there was no description of public functionaries in Ireland who could be called upon to give these returns. But then the noble Lord said, "Address the order to the Protestant and Roman Catholic clergymen in each parish; probably they have kept a record of persons dying in their parishes." This species of information, however, he (Mr. Labouchere) was afraid, would be found to be very inaccurate. He thought it would be dangerous to ask the clergymen in Ireland to give returns of this kind, which would be so liable to inaccuracy, and which, if inaccurate, might mislead the House and the country. The noble Lord had also mentioned, that, on two occasions, the House had ordered returns of the number of illegitimate children christened in each parish in England and Wales, and that the clergy had not complained of making the returns. It was to be remembered, however, that the clergy in England and Wales were obliged by law to keep a register for their several parishes; but in Ireland, neither the Protestant nor the Roman Catholic clergyman was required to keep any list of the deaths which occurred in his parish; and if any clergyman should be found to have done so, the object would be found to be some purpose of his own. Why were they to think that such registers were generally kept by the clergy in Ireland? Under these circumstances, all he could do was this: he would write to Ireland, and inquire whether any means existed there of getting accurate information of the kind desired by the noble Lord. As he had said, he thought it would be undesirable for the Government to produce returns which must necessarily be of a vague and inaccurate character, and therefore must mislead. If it had been possible to give these returns in an unquestionably accurate shape, he should have been happy to comply with the noble Lord's request, because he concurred with the noble Lord in thinking that it was the duty of the Government to give every information in their power respecting the present condition of Ireland. The hon. Member for Limerick (Mr. S. O'Brien) had stated the other night—he (Mr. Labouchere) was out of the House at the moment, and he was very sorry that it had happened so—that the Government had it in their power, he had reason to think, to give a return by which it would appear, from facts known to the constabulary, that no less a number than 240,000 persons had died from famine in Ireland. He did not believe that anything of the kind was the case; he did not believe that any information of such a horrible description had reached the Irish Government; his belief was—he did not speak with perfect confidence, but he would make inquiries—his belief was, that no such information was in the possession of the constabulary. The noble Lord had intimated that the destruction of human life that was going on in Ireland, was owing to the Government having acted on a system of political economy; and the noble Lord had contrasted their conduct with that of the late Government, and said that the late Government had done more in providing food for the people than the present Government had done. Now, if the noble Lord would look to the quantity of provisions sent into Ireland by the present Government, as compared with the quantity sent by their predecessors last year, he would see that a much greater amount of food had been provided by the present Government than by the last. However, he did not wish to impugn the conduct of the late Government on that account, because of course he knew that the distress was very much greater this year than last; but he must say that he thought nothing could be more unjust to the Government, or more dangerous to the people of Ireland in their present condition, than to say to the Government in that House, "You are responsible for the present state of things in Ireland." Those who said that, were bound to state what were the means the Government had left unattempted for the purpose of alleviating the existing distress. There had existed in Ireland for a long time a most unfortunate idea, that it was within the power of the Government to meet a calamity like this; and certainly he was afraid that what the noble Lord had that night said, holding, as the noble Lord did, so distinguished a position in the House and before the country, was calculated to foster that delusion. He (Mr. Labouchere) was satisfied in his own mind that the Government had done all that was in their power to alleviate the distress; and he would declare that the Government had shrunk from no responsibility, had spared no exertions, but had used, with, he might say, a lavish hand, the resources of the British Treasury, to mitigate the calamity which they felt it was out of their power altogether to relieve; and for the noble Lord to come forward, without offering a single argument to support his assertion, without mentioning a single fact to rest it on, and to assert boldly that the Government had been sacrificing the lives of thousands of their fellow-countrymen at the shrine of political economy, was in his opinion most unjust and most dangerous. The Government had not done so. Political economy did not teach any such lesson; political economy did not teach any Minister that extraordinary exertions should not be made on the occurrence of a season of extraordinary calamity and distress; but it did teach, that if the aid a Government gave was not conducted on a proper system, its effect would be to tend to cripple the resources of the country to which it was extended. That was the impression upon the minds of the Government, and under that impression they had resisted the demand to supply the whole country with food, because they were of opinion that doing so would lead to an increase of human suffering in the end; but he repeated that every means had been used to relieve the pressure of the calamity that were in the power of the Government, and therefore he said that it was most unfair in the noble Lord to have said what he did. He would communicate with the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and would inquire whether there were any means of procuring the required information; but he doubted whether the means existed of giving it with certainty, and he should certainly object to a Motion of this kind unless they did exist.


said, that after what had passed, it was very objectionable to allow things to remain in their present state. He suggested to the right hon. Gentleman, whether the duty did not devolve on the relief committees to give these numbers. He believed that, owing to a false delicacy, the Legislature had committed a great mistake in not assimilating the law in England and Ireland; and that, owing to there being no poor law in Ireland, the country had been brought into this great dilemma. The maxim should now be "Save where you can:" the relief committees could possibly give the required information now; and when a full poor law was extended to that country, giving out-door relief, the relieving officers would be able to supply the particulars.


said, that there were no means in Ireland by which a correct return could be made to the Motion of his noble Friend, and he would, therefore, suggest that the noble Lord should leave the matter in the hands of the Government, who might be able to give him some approximation towards the actual numbers.


would not enter further into this discussion, but, if there were any means by which the number of deaths could be obtained, he would make every inquiry to discover them; at the same time, he agreed that to give any numbers which had been incorrectly ascertained, would be injurious rather than advantageous. He wished, however, to say, that considering the great extent of the present calamity, the difficulty with which the subject was surrounded, and the representations which were made against the conduct of the Government and the Legislature, he thought it proper to give notice that the next day, on the Motion being made to the House that the Speaker leave the chair on the Permanent Relief Bill for Ireland, he should make a statement both of what had been done, and of what was now doing, and why it was necessary to provide out-door relief for the people, chargeable on the property in Ireland.


said, that under the circumstances, he should be content to leave the subject to the exertions of the Government; but, if he were challenged to produce any proof of the facts he had stated, he would show that the mortality in the workhouses was ninefold more this year than it was last year; for the right hon. Gentleman had given a return of the number of deaths in the workhouses, and they were, in one week, 1,493 against 162 last year, which showed an increase of mortality ninefold beyond what it was last year. What, then, had been the amount of sustenance said to have been sent within the last three weeks? There had been sent from England 218,000 quarters of corn. Now, in the year 1845, the apprehension of a famine in Ireland did not arise till October; whereas, on the 22nd of August last year, it was well known to every Member of the Government that the potato crop in Ireland had entirely failed; therefore the Government had last year three months notice of the approaching famine beyond what the Government had in the preceding year; and yet the amount of provisions last year was only 218,000 quarters, whereas the Government in the former year had provided 100,000 quarters, though there was three months less notice, and though the deaths were only one-ninth. He thus thought that he had a complete case against the Government for not having provided the food which was necessary. If he appealed to what had been done in other countries, it would be found that France had been largely supplied by the Government; that last year Russia, when a famine had eccurred in Poland, and the Emperor of Austria, had provided food for the people, and had brought into play all the ammunition waggons and a great part of the power of the army, to provide that none of the subjects of Russia or of Austria should be permitted to perish of famine; and he contrasted these cases with what had occurred in Ireland, where it had been stated that as many as 240,000 had died of famine, or, if not of famine, of pestilence, which was the consequence of famine. He thought that in making this statement he had brought pretty strong facts in support of his opinions in moving the present resolution. However, after the assurances which had been given by the Government, he would leave the matter in their hands, feeling satisfied that there would not be the smallest difficulty in obtaining accurate returns from the ministers of any religion. It might be that from some parishes they would get no returns, but they would procure accurate returns from a certain number; and if they could be procured from one-half the parishes, they might draw a comparatively just and accurate conclusion of what had been the comparative mortality in the entire island.


would be sorry to throw any obstacle in the way of the noble Lord; but he had introduced in his reply an assertion and an assumption relative to the number of deaths supposed to have taken place from famine, which required a single observation. The noble Lord said that he had brought forward facts, and yet he had made an assertion with respect to the number of deaths which was unsupported by any fact or authority; and what the noble Lord had asserted upon that point was as much an exaggeration as was the noble Lord's supposition the other day with respect to the amount of the biddings for the last loan. With regard to the supply of food by the French Government, he knew that they had not purchased food except for their army and for Algiers; and when the noble Lord thus made these assertions, there was not any opportunity of discussing them; and he thought it was not quite fair to make observations of this kind on such a question as to whether the Government could procure accurate returns.


wished to make one observation. As it had been said that the noble Lord had only made an assertion and an assumption, he must remark that the numbers quoted by the noble Lord were taken from a return laid on the Table of the House; that return showed the number of deaths in workhouses in one week in January last to be 1,493, and in the corresponding week of last year to be only 162. That therefore was not an assumption, nor was the other a mere assertion. He knew that the number in the workhouses was greater this year than the last; but they were not quite double the amount, and that circumstance did not make much difference in the calculation. With respect to the total number of deaths in Ireland, the noble Lord had made no definite statement; that was the very question on which he wanted information. The noble Lord had said that reports, which, if not entitled to absolute respect, merited great consideration, set the number of deaths at 240,000. The right hon. Gentleman thought that there was no authority for this number of cases, whilst he (Mr. Disraeli) believed them to be greater; and what he wanted was correct information. The noble Lord had founded upon two returns the statements, one of which the right hon. Gentleman had called an assertion, and the other an assumption. The right hon. Gentleman said also, he had reason to believe that the French Government had not provided food, except for the army and for Algiers. That statement was perfectly accurate; but the right hon. Gentleman had forgotten to tell the House that the French Government had employed all the stores in the magazines which had been provided for the army, and which were stored with provisions sufficient for three years, in supplying their own people with food.

Motion withdrawn.