HC Deb 03 April 1848 vol 97 cc1207-13

I cannot but express my extreme regret and dissatisfaction at the answer given by the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade to the questions put to him respecting the Navigation Laws, as well as at the answer he gave a few days ago to a somewhat similar question. At the commencement of the Session Her Majesty, in the Speech from the Throne, gave notice of the introduction of four measures into this House. One of those measures related to the repression of crime and outrage in Ireland; the second to the advancement of the social condition of the people of Ireland; the third to the promo- tion of the public health in England; and the fourth to the laws relative to trade and navigation. Some of these measures have been introduced into this House. One of them has passed into law; two others have reached various stages in their progress; but of the Navigation Laws we have heard nothing of a definite kind until within the last few days, and it is announced to-night that the Bill for the amendment of those laws is not to be introduced before the Easter recess. Now, the introduction of the Bill after the Easter recess means, in the present case, that it will not be laid on the table before probably a late period in the month of May; in point of fact it means, for all purposes, and it is well it should be understood, the abandonment of the subject for the present year. I, for my part, am strongly of opinion that the country will not be satisfied with that proceeding—if it is so—upon the part of Her Majesty's Government. I think there never were clearer or stronger reasons than those, diversified as they were in their nature, which have been assigned, that it was the duty of Her Majesty's Government, independent of the intimation in the Speech from the Throne, to have made serious efforts for the settlement of the question during the present Session. But after that intimation in the Speech from the Throne, they were bound by a double tie, to make the effort. I do not mean to impute indifference to this important subject; but I draw different lessons from experience to those of Her Majesty's Government, if they think, provided they move for the Committee early in May, and lay the Bill on the table late in that month, we shall see an Act amending the Navigation Laws passed in the course of the present Session. I hardly know whether I can ask Her Majesty's Government for any declaration that can be satisfactory to myself, after what has been said by the right hon. Gentleman; but if they will express a resolute determination to press Parliament for a definitive judgment on this question during the present Session, and so to regulate the Parliamentary business that no matters of smaller importance shall set it aside, I shall very gladly receive such an assurance from them. We are going into Committeee to-night upon a Bill (the Jewish Disabilities Removal Bill) doubtless of great importance, but yet one which was not announced in the Speech from the Throne; and we are going into Committee upon that Bill on the very night on which the Minister of Trade informs us that he cannot name a day for opening the question of the Navigation Laws—that there shall be ample notice given before the Government takes such a step—but that, certainly, it shall not be before Easter. I trust that, in justice to the House, in justice to the country, to the great interests concerned, and to themselves, the Government will state whether they are determined to obtain the definitive judgment of Parliament upon this question during the present year?


It is certainly the wish of the Government to be able to introduce the important question of the Navigation Laws during the present Session; but I will not declare it as their determination, that, whatever the state of the public business may be, they will proceed with that Bill to the hindrance of other measures; and I cannot think that the right hon. Gentleman is right in what he requires in that respect. I did state a few nights ago what were the means which the Government had of applying time to the consideration of the public business; and I suppose the right hon. Gentleman would hardly have had us allow the income-tax or the Mutiny Act to expire in order to take up the question of the Navigation Laws. We have at present got through the greater part of the Jewish Bill: there may be other questions of urgent importance yet to be considered; for instance, with reference to that very question which the noble Lord asked me tonight relative to the state of Ireland; and if it were necessary to proceed immediately to consider the state of Ireland, we should not like to be precluded from doing so because we had made a pledge with regard to the Navigation Laws. Certainly there are two things which appear to me hardly compatible—requiring so many things to be brought forward and completed by the Government, and yet allowing so few days in the week at their disposal.


said, it was not fair upon the shipping interest to press on the repeal of those laws when a Committee was sitting upon them in another place.


concurred with the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down, that they should not interfere with those laws whilst a Committee of the other House was sitting upon them.


could not agree that because a Committee of Inquiry into the Navigation Laws had been appointed in another place, that House should therefore delay the consideration of the question. On the contrary, when that Committee was acceded to, it was made a distinct understanding by the Government that it should not form any reason for a delay in the consideration of the subject. He assured the House, that he felt as strongly as anybody could feel, not only the importance of a deliberate consideration of the Navigation Laws by that House, but of its taking place if possible during the present Session. There were many reasons which rendered it desirable that no delay, not absolutely necessary, should take place in the final disposal of that important subject; and the only reason which his noble Friend had given for delay was, the amount of consideration which it was positively requisite the Government should give to other business. For himself, he conceived that they would make no real progress in the Bill by laying it on the table before Easter. He hoped, however, to do so then, and that the House would be able, after a full consideration, to bring that most important subject to a satisfactory conclusion during the present Session.


said, that a strong feeling existed out of doors that something should be done to apply to the shipping interest the same principles that had been applied to other mercantile interests, and that the shipowners should be compelled to adopt those principles as the basis of future legislation.


did not know what authority the hon. Gentleman had for saying that a strong feeling existed on the subject out of doors, for he had heard of no public meetings. But if public feeling had been awakened at all, it was in a contrary way to that indicated by the hon. Member, and was in favour of the continuance of the Navigation Laws. There were large and important classes in the country, who, whether from mistaken ideas or not, were convinced that the Navigation Laws were essential to the commercial welfare of the empire; and he trusted that Her Majesty's Government would not suffer themselves to be hurried in the consideration which they were no doubt giving to this vital question.


wished to ask the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade another question in connexion with the cargoes of cotton now in the port of Havre—whether or not it was not the custom in former times—in times of war especially—to grant licenses whereby particular cargoes had been brought into the country, and which could not have been so brought in under a strict enforcement of the Navigation Laws? And, also, whether it was not now in the power of the Board of Trade, or at least of the Privy Council, to issue an order by which British property at present at Havre, might be sent here? An order of this kind would probably not offend the Gentlemen who were opposed to any alteration of the Navigation Laws; for the object in asking for it was to furnish employment to British shipping; and when the right hon. Gentleman recollected the small stock of cotton in the Liverpool market at this moment, he would see the necessity of affording every facility towards the early increase of that stock. He differed altogether with the hon. Member for Sunderland (Mr. Hudson) as to the general opinion out of doors in reference to the Navigation Laws. He was convinced that nine-tenths of those at all connected with trade and commerce were for a repeal; and from what he had learned in some of the Committees on which he had sat lately, and particularly in the Committee appointed to inquire into the cultivation of cotton in India, he had found good reason to believe that the abolition of those laws would be as beneficial to India and our other colonies as to the general interests of this country.


said, he knew very well that there was at Havre a quantity of cotton which was not wanted there, but which was very much wanted in this country; and he also knew that, under the existing Navigation Laws, that cotton could not come from France to England, but must go back to America. He fully admitted the hardship; yet that was the law of the land. It was in fact one of the essential principles of the Navigation Laws, and he thought it would be quite improper of the Government, whatever might be their individual opinion, to take upon themselves to set aside the law of the land by an Order in Council. He knew no instance of the kind; and though he agreed with the hon. Gentleman as to the impolicy of those restrictions, yet he thought it would not be justifiable for the Government to take the step which he recommended.


said, the state of the case was this. We had a great scarcity of cotton in England. There was admittedly a large quantity in Havre belonging to merchants, who were very desirous that they should be allowed to bring it to Eng- land. All they desired was that they should have the liberty of bringing it here in British ships. It was against the law, however, for them to bring from Havre in British ships cotton which was now in the Havre warehouses. They had upon the table of the House the Queen's Speech, containing the announcement that it was the intention of the Government to settle the Navigation Laws; but when the Minister was asked whether the question was coming on or not, he would not give a definitive answer; but the noble Lord did give an answer which left him to think that there was very little danger of its coming on this Session. Agreeing in the importance of having that cotton brought to this country, and admitting the impolicy of the Navigation Law restrictions, the President of the Board of Trade was yet unable to say when he should be able to introduce his Bill with regard to those laws. However, there certainly was time enough before Easter to enable the right hon. Gentleman to pass a law authorising the bringing that cotton from Havre to this country; and he had listened with anxiety in the hope of hearing him announce his intention of bringing forward an unopposed Bill for that purpose. As yet, however, he had observed no such intention on the part of the Government.


suggested, that as they had suspended the Navigation Laws last year in the case of corn, the justification being the scarcity of that article, they might consent to a similar experiment now, when the circumstances were the same with regard to cotton. The House should remember that the thousands of workmen who had been thrown out of employment in the manufacturing districts had had their distress increased by the accession to their numbers of those of their countrymen who had been expelled from the mills in France; and all that was asked was, that the cotton which was lying useless in the French ports should be allowed to follow these unfortunate people.


thought that, despite the indignation testified towards the President of the Board of Trade, the right hon. Gentleman was quite right in refusing to supersede the law of the land by an Order in Council. It was his (Mr. Baillie's) opinion, that even if they did so far repeal the Navigation Laws as to permit the cotton sent to France to be imported into England, the Provisional Government would at once issue a counter order, forbidding it to be taken away. The French Government would look to the employment hereafter of their workmen, and they would of course take care that the supply of cotton should not fall short.


could not join in the recommendation to bring in a Bill to remedy what was termed this "partial grievance." He was of opinion that a great principle was involved in the question, and that if the cotton referred to were allowed to be introduced, similar attempts would be made to introduce coffee and sugar, and other articles of colonial manufacture, from France and the Continent. The Government ought at once to make up their minds upon this subject, and either to state that they did not intend to interfere with the Navigation Laws this Session, or, on the other hand, to lay their measures on the table of the House.


said, the price of cotton was very low at present, and he could not see any very strong plea for relaxing the Navigation Laws in order to introduce an article of which the prices were at present low. If it were not a case for relaxation, he must protest against thus attacking the Navigation Laws by a side wind.

Conversation at an end.