HC Deb 26 April 1850 vol 110 cc875-89

On the Motion being again put for going into Committee of Supply,


said: Sir, this is a Motion for going into Committee of Supply, to vote the public money, and it really is a matter of great interest that the House, before they agree to vote any more of the public money, should be in possession of the financial statement of the Government for the year. I maintain we are not at present in possession of the financial statement of the Government for this year. It is true that about two months ago Her Majesty's Ministers favoured the House with their general view of the finances of the country, and what they intended to do with respect to the remission of taxation. It is always held in this House to be a matter of great importance that the financial statement of the year should be made as early in the Session as possible, because before we voted the supply it was always considered of primary importance that our constituents should be able to form an opinion as to whether they could hear the burden of the supply. First of all it was intimated whether it was in the power of the Government to make any remission; and when they knew what the remission of taxes was, probably or possibly, they would be better able, through their representatives, to say if they could meet the exigencies of the occasion. Her Majesty's Government have always considered it to be a matter of self-congratula- tion and just pride that they could meet the House of Commons and make their financial statement early in the Session; and Her Majesty's present Government, I must do them the justice to say, took an early opportunity of making it nearly two months ago; but though they commenced it two months ago, they unfortunately have not yet finished it. I am not sure we shall not find ourselves in the same position as in the year 1848, when Her Majesty's Ministers were also extremely elate that they could early in February—I think the 17th of February—make their financial statement; but in that remarkable year of 1848, the budget commenced on the 17th of February was not concluded until the 25th of August. I will shortly remind the House of that remarkable occurrence; for we may he about to enter into a similar course, and Her Majesty's Government may be about to adopt an identical career with that of the year 1848. In the year 1848, Her Majesty's Ministers, in the course of the financial exposition, got entangled with the sugar duties. Her Majesty's Ministers, in 1848, produced a new Sugar Bill that was not successful. They withdrew it, and produced a second one, which met a similar fate. A third Sugar Bill was produced, and all those Bills were accompanied with schedules, as we see in recent Bills—schedules very similar to those stamp schedules that were lately criticised in this House so successfully, that Her Majesty's Ministers at this time find themselves in the same position as in the year 1848. Nearly two months have elapsed, and, though we see the Government commencing the Session with a statement of their views of the finances of the country—views of course matured, well-digested, and the consequence of many councils—we are now at the 26th of April, and there is no Member of this House who has a clear idea what are the objects and views, and what will be the policy, of the Government with regard to the finances of the country. It is of great importance, especially after the late division or divisions of that kind, that Her Majesty's Government should tell us whether they will proceed—I will not say with their measure respecting the stamps, for that is already given up, but whether they intend to introduce a new measure. If they introduce a new measure, they are again, we may say, commencing their financial exposition. All that has happened hitherto is the repeal of one excise duty; but no person can say that is the budget of the Government. All that recommends it is, that it repeals the duty on an article of excise; and as it is the repeal of an excise duty, and not of a customs duty, it recognises a salutary principle. I am aware that it is always understood that some indulgence should be exhibited to the finances of a Whig Ministry. We cannot, it is admitted, expect that the Government should excel in every branch. The foreign policy of the Government, by its peremptory decrees, maintains the dignity of the country, and, by its numerous blockades, vindicates our supremacy of the seas. The Colonial Office, by its ingenuity in manufacturing constitutions, upholds the well-won reputation of this country as the pattern of liberalism throughout the world; and there is always in the pigeon holes of a Whig Cabinet a traditionary policy that inevitably renders Ireland rich, and England content. These are things that may well compensate for an apparent deficit, and sometimes for a proposition to double the income tax. I agree with the majority of the House, that the finances of the Government is a subject that should always be treated with indulgence; but there is a limit even to Parliamentary patience, and, as two months have elapsed since we had the financial exposition, and, so far as we can form an opinion, there is no prospect whatever of its ideas being fulfilled, or its plans completed, I think it would be indiscreet on our part hastily to vote the public money without giving the Government an opportunity of clearly telling us what their intentions are. I assume it—and it is not a monstrous assumption—as a fact that we shall hear no more of the Stamp Act, for the case of the Stamp Act is a much more aggravated case of Ministerial incompetence than the case of the Sugar Bill; and if three failures on the Sugar Bill brought the end of the budget to the 25th of August, it follows that four failures on the Stamp Act already amount to a certainty that the original scheme of the Government, or any scheme similar to it, can no longer be contemplated as a political probability. What was the principle of the budget of Her Majesty's Ministers? It was this—more embarrassed how to deal with a surplus than even with a deficiency, the Minister announced that it was resolved to recognise the claims of a great interest in this country that was suffering, and which, from a peculiar combination of circumstances, was recognised specially by Her Majesty's Ministers, and universally acknowledged to be the only interest that was suffering. Relief to the agricultural interest was the voluntary offer of Her Majesty's Ministers. A certain sum was allotted—a particular amount was appropriated to be given immediately, and distinctly, for the relief of that suffering interest. The Chancellor of the Exchequer owes us that moiety of the surplus, and the House will acknowledge that we come forward to remind him of that promise with no ill grace, because, in the interval, we made more than one attempt to relieve another interest, that, to our astonishment, we also found was suffering, without any reference whatever to our prior claims; for we were perfectly prepared to waive those claims if that could serve our suffering fellow-subjects. But those attempts have not succeeded; one of them recently, within the last five minutes, has failed; and now, when Her Majesty's Ministers ask us to form ourselves into Committee of Supply to vote the public money, I cannot consent to do so without some distinct expression from them of their intentions, and of their means to secure that relief to the suffering interest of agriculture which has been so long and so voluntarily promised us by Her Majesty's Government. I ask the House and Her Majesty's Government, have the circumstances changed which prompted Her Majesty's Ministers, at the end of February, to announce to the House that a considerable portion of the surplus was to be applied, as it ought to be, for the relief of that interest? Have the circumstances that since occurred in the country, with respect to that interest, rendered their exigencies less severe; or are they of a nature to justify Her Majesty's Ministers in changing their opinion with respect to the distress of the agricultural interest? I know there was an opinion prevalent on the Treasury bench—indeed it was often intimated to us—that, when we met after Easter, we should meet with more cheerful countenances, and that the dark cloud which lowered over the broad fields of England would have vanished. Is that the case? There are Members in this House who can give testimony on that subject. Now, we are told by a high authority, a Member of the Government, in another place, that this unprecedented depression of the agricultural classes is an exceptional case; but exceptional in what respect? Are we to understand that low prices are exceptional? Why, I thought it was to obtain low prices you changed your legislation. I cannot agree that the circumstances are exceptional; and it is not to the credit of this House, of the present Government, or of the late Government, to believe that the circumstances are exceptional. If we were selling wheat, for instance, at 80s. the quarter, I could understand the logic that would tell me that the circumstances were exceptional; but, when we are selling at 35s. the quarter, instead of denouncing the circumstances as exceptional, you ought to tell us that they are consequences most legitimate. By the unhappy fact of which we are aware, notwithstanding the logical deductions of the new philosophy, we must look upon this state of things as one of a very permanent character; and it is, therefore, still more important that Her Majesty's Ministers should inform us what they intend to do for the relief of the agricultural interest, assuming, as I do assume, that their legislation respecting the stamps is defunct. If it were necessary to relieve the agricultural interest three months ago, and if to do so was the spontaneous suggestion of Her Majesty's Government, it is more necessary now that they should come forward and offer that relief; and, on an occasion like the present, when we are asked, as a matter of course, to form ourselves into a Committee of Supply to vote away the taxes which are wrung from a suffering community, the most suffering part of which it is our unhappy lot to represent, it is not too much to tell the Government that the time is gone by when it can be a matter of course for any Ministers to have a Committee of Supply while their financial exposition is still imperfect—I will not say disgracefully imperfect, for hard phrases do not mend a case; and when a part of its completion is, the relief from taxation of a suffering interest of the community. I invite Her Majesty's Ministers, before they expect us to vote away the public funds, to come forward and tell us distinctly whether they mean to proceed with another attempt to complete their budget on their original scheme, and if not, what they propose to do for the relief of the suffering agricultural classes of this country.


Mr. Speaker, I think it was hardly worth while for the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire to have delayed the House from proceeding with the practical business of the evening, either for the sake of the information which he has conveyed, or for the sake of making those inquiries which he has made. In the first place, the hon. Member informs hon. Members that when the House goes into a Committee of Supply they probably go into it for the purpose of voting away the public money; and as my right hon. Friend the First Lord of the Admiralty has given notice of his intention of bringing in the Navy Estimates in Committee of Supply, that information was, I think, hardly required by the House. In the next place, the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire informed the House that it was the usual course for all Ministers, very early in the Session, to bring forward the budget, to state what taxes could be removed, and then to proceed with the supplies for the year. Now, that is not the usual course—very far from it. Such a course in times of peace would not be very expedient, and in times of war it would be utterly absurd and impracticable. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman, in the first place, has given us information very superfluous, and well known to all the world, and has also given information which is totally incorrect. But the hon. Member went on to make certain comments with respect to our proceedings as to the finances of the year. I think what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer stated very early in the Session was sufficiently plain: he stated that he found, according to his estimates of expenses and of receipts for the year, there would be about 1,500,000l. of surplus revenue. Of that surplus he proposed to devote one-half to the relief of the public burdens, and the remaining half to the redemption of a portion of the public debt incurred within the last few years. Whether that was a wise course or not—whether suited to the circumstances of the time or not, nothing could be more clear than the line of policy indicated thereby. That policy, which was stated on the 15th of March, we were pursuing at the present time, and one of the excise duties which pressed heavily upon the improvement of the dwellings of the poor of this country has already been removed. Such being our general policy, I certainly shall not accept the invitation of the hon. Gentleman to go into any detail with respect to those financial measures, or to state now what course we propose to pursue with respect to any particular measure which may be before the House. But as the hon. Gentleman has invited us to the general consideration, I cannot avoid—having stated what our policy is—calling the attention of the House for a few moments to the policy which has been pursued by the hon. Gentleman himself, and those who have acted with him. The policy of the hon. Gentleman and his party is not a little remarkable, and it is one which appears to me not a little wavering and inconsistent. The hon. Gentleman, as we were informed by the public papers, before the commencement of the Session, expounded a great plan of finance of his own, which, whether it was advisable to adopt or not, certainly had one very strong feature in it—a feature honourable to the hon. Gentleman, namely, that he proposed to maintain the credit of the country very high, and to have a very considerable surplus above expenditure for the purpose of establishing a sinking fund, in order to keep the funds high, and to enable all persons who had need of borrowing to do so at a very low rate of interest. Probably this plan would not be agreed in by persons who had thought much upon finance; but at least it had this very creditable feature in it, that it was founded upon the basis that the revenue was always to exceed the expenditure of the country. Then again we were told on the first night of the Session that the grand question was to be to endeavour to obtain the restoration of protection. The Amendment upon the Address did not, hewever, exactly contain that proposition; and no sooner was that proposition negatived, than we were told that it was quite clear there was a majority of the House against protection, and there was no need of talking of protection any more, or of making any Motion on the subject of a restoration of protection. That was entirely inconsistent with what we were told on the first night of the Session. Futher than this, the hon. Gentleman propounded in the last autumn a great plan by which the revenue was to be increased and be kept considerably above the expenditure. During the last few months we have seen, however, that when any hon. Member brought forward a Motion for the repeal of any duty, whether of paper, of the window tax, of marine insurance, however little it might affect the agricultural interest, or however little it might relieve the landed interest—whether the proposition might come from my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, or any other hon. Member who pro- fessed to hold strong opinions upon free trade, or whoever it might be, still the hon. Gentleman the Member for Buckinghamshire and his Friends appeared only eager to diminish the revenue of the country, and to bring it below the expenditure. The hon. Gentleman talks of our plan of finance; I am not ashamed of the principle of our plan; it is one which combines some relief to the country, with a continued surplus of income above expenditure. But a course of policy which consists in voting with any person or any party who has objections to a particular tax, and who, having studied that particular tax, deems it more objectionable than any other, for hon. Gentlemen to come down and, without considering the general state of the finances, to vote for anything that will impair the general credit of the country—that does appear to me for a great party a most singular and extraordinary course of policy, and one which does not seem calculated to raise them very much in public opinion. But some hon. Members who proposed a reduction of taxation, proposed also a diminution of expendiditure. One hon. Member proposed that 20,000 men might be taken from the Army, or that great reductions might be made in the Navy, or other means might be resorted to for preserving the balance, and for making our receipts still exceed our expenditure; but the hon. Gentleman opposite, who voted with the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, had no excuse of that kind. It was contrary to their views to make those great reductions in the expenditure, and, therefore, they exposed themselves to the chance of being responsible for making a great inroad upon our finances, and leaving them in that state in which the credit of the country could not be maintained either at home or in the eyes of foreign countries. Some persons say, that if these reductions of taxes were made without any corresponding reduction of expenditure, and the revenue of the country would not suffice for the expenditure, the House would find itself obliged to impose those taxes upon provisions, upon the admission of foreign corn, and of foreign articles of general consumption which it has been the policy of different Governments and of different Parliaments of late years to reduce. [Loud cheers from the Protectionist side of the House.] By the cheers which I have just heard, there really does seem some ground for entertaining that opinion; and I must say that a more wild-goose chase I cannot well imagine. To suppose that be- cause a certain number of Gentlemen had voted with them for the reduction of the tax upon windows or upon paper, that they would thereby find themselves in a majority in favour of the restoration of protection, and that a majority of the House would be found to restore a tax which would go to enhance the price of food in this country—a more visionary expectation I cannot conceive. If their great plan of finance, which they have not openly revealed to us, is that they will vote for every diminution, and for the abolition of every tax, with the hope that if the taxes were reduced they may get a duty imposed upon all foreign articles of consumption, and especially upon corn, I must say, that a worse plan of finance—a plan of finance based upon more shallow views, or one which tended more to destroy the credit of the country in the first, and to destroy the peace of the country in the second, place, was never conceived by any party which had numbers, wealth, and station in this House. The hon. Gentleman has invited me to this discussion of his plan of finance, by the observations which he has made upon ours. I am sorry to see that he has utterly departed from that very honourable notion which he entertained before the House met, that, whatever we did, we must keep up the credit of the country, and that we ought to have a large surplus revenue over expenditure. I think that if the hon. Gentleman, and those who act with him, had adhered firmly to this principle, they might have kept up a high reputation in this country, and it might have been said of them at least, that their views of policy were conformable to that which had been followed in the best periods of our history. The hon. Gentleman also alluded to something which he supposed to have passed elsewhere. I have seen reports of things, too, which have transpired elsewhere, and I have seen that it is said that people are beginning to ask not only what revision of salaries there should be, and what reduction of offices, but were also beginning to ask whether it was possible any longer to pay the dividends of the national debt. I doubt whether such questions are really and seriously asked by any portion of the people of this country. I do not think it wise that such notions should be set about, especially in the high places in which currency is given to them. I believe that any such notion will obtain no credence or followers among the people of this country in general. I think really that if hon. Gentlemen opposite, instead of abandoning their own course of policy, and striving to get into a majority by following in the train of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Manchester, and adopting and following his views, were to resort to their own policy, and place plainly before us whether they adhere to protection, and meant to strive to obtain it, or whether they keep it in reserve for some future occasion, or whether, as in point of fact I believe is the case, although they do not venture to say so to the farmers of the country, they utterly despair of obtaining again a return to the system of protective duties—[Cries of "No, no!" from the Protectionists.] Well, if that is not so, let us have a direct Motion to that effect. There is a large party of protectionists who are calling out and saying that so long as free trade continues every interest must be suffering. If that be so; if the country be really suffering under these influences of free trade; and if that policy which has been pursued since 1842 be an utter mistake—if the people are weary of going on in the road to ruin in consequence of that policy, I say it is the duty of those who entertain that belief to bring the whole question before the consideration of Parliament. At all events, I will say, that we are not afraid of meeting that question. We are ready to meet it at any time; but we hold, that, at the present time, while the revenue is sufficient for our expenses—while that revenue shows, both by the duties of excise and many other duties, that there is no falling off in the consumption of the great articles which pay duty in this country; that there are other circumstances which will show, and which can be stated whenever that question is brought forward, that the great masses and the great majority of the people of this country, are now in the enjoyment of as great comforts as they have ever enjoyed.


said, that the noble Lord should have thought the information of his hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire superfluous, he could readily understand, for it must be unpleasant for the noble Lord to be reminded in that assembly, pledged, as it was, to the principle of free imports, that a great and important interest in this country was still suffering. The noble Lord, far from endeavouring to explain the financial position of the country, had most ingeniously diverged from the real question at issue, and given them an elaborate statement founded partly on fact, but trenching also very materially on the agreeable and more seductive ground of fiction, as to a proposition which had been made at some time or other by his hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire. But when the noble Lord found fault with what he had truly termed the "great scheme" of his hon. Friend, he might be reminded that that very scheme had been mentioned with the highest eulogy, and even plagiarised by the right hon. the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the introduction of the budget. He was unwilling to protract the debate, but he had risen to protest against the injustice of several of the assertions of the noble Lord. In the first place, the noble Lord said that they had followed every Gentleman who might have proposed some reduction of taxation, irrespective of the justice of the claims and of the expenditure of the country; and the noble Lord had had—what should he call it?—the courage, to say that his hon. Friend and the great bulk of his supporters had voted with the noble Viscount the Member for Bath for the repeal of the window duty. The noble Lord was not correct in that statement, and he asked him now to retract it. The noble Lord said, that they had voted for any reduction that might be proposed, without thinking of the maintenance of the credit of the country, and instanced the vote which they had come to an hour ago. The sum of money implicated in that vote was under 200,000l a year; and let him ask the noble Lord what was the present available surplus which he proposed to grant by way of relief to some interest or other? Was it not a sum greatly exceeding that? Upon what ground then did the noble Lord accuse Gentlemen on that (the Opposition) side of the House of voting for a reduction of taxation without the least regard to the maintenance of the public credit? He maintained that the party with which he had the honour to act, had never given a vote during the present Session of Parliament without a direct reference to the maintenance of public credit. If he wanted any justification of that assertion, he would find it in the concluding portion of the noble Lord's own speech; for he had admitted that they (the protectionists) were not without a policy which would supply the necessary funds for that purpose. But he (Lord J. Manners) assured the House that the votes which they had given in favour of the re- duction of taxation could be, and were, fully justified altogether irrespective of that policy, and without any consideration with regard to the reimposition of what the noble Lord called "the taxes on the food of the people." When the noble Lord took the opportunity of accusing them of acting in a headlong and improper manner, he-cause they had voted for the repeal of taxes, in favour of which nothing had been said, and in favour of which nothing could be said—when the noble Lord took the opportunity of making that accusation against them, in vindication of the policy which they (the protectionists) impugned, and in defence of a budget which was rapidly falling in pieces before their eyes, he would tell the noble Lord that if that was his defence, they were perfectly willing to leave the question in his hands.


assured the noble Lord at the head of the Government, that however well-intentioned, and however honest in heart and disposition, he was totally mistaken in the course of proceeding he had adopted. He said this even although the noble Lord was backed up by his (Colonel Sibthorp's) right hon. relative (the Chancellor of the Exchequer). That right hon. Gentleman had told the House some time ago that he had a surplus at his disposal. He would tell him to his face that he had no surplus at all; that, indeed, if he put the debtor and creditor account together, he was worse than nothing. With regard to the noble Lord he would only say that there was a time when the house of Russell was the farmer's friend; but he was sorry to say that the present representative of it had entirely lost that feeling. The noble Lord did not seemd to be well pleased with certain votes which had been given on that (the Opposition) side of the House in favour of economy. He, for one, confessed that he was rather of an economical turn, and he must take the liberty of saying that he wished that other hon. Members beside him would use their power and influence a little more than they did to support the measures of economy which he brought under the notice of the House. Dinner was a good thing, and amusement was a good thing; but duty ought to be paramount to either of them. Before sitting down he would ask the noble Lord whether the deanery of Hereford had yet been filled up? and if so, by whom? and what was the salary connected with it?


replied, that the deanery of Hereford was not yet filled up.


said, that a novel scene had taken place that evening, which he had witnessed with much attention. There was crimination and recrimination, but he was fortunately in a condition to blame both. The hon. Member for Buckinghamshire called on Her Majesty's Government, very properly, to give relief to the agricultural interest. He (Mr. Hume) had pressed on the Government the propriety of giving relief to all interests, and he had proposed the honest and legitimate mode of reducing expenditure, in order to obtain a surplus. Hon. Gentlemen opposite complained that the Government had not a policy, but he complained that they had, and seemed determined to abide by it—namely, that no farther reduction in expenditure should take place. It was impossible, therefore, that they could have a surplus; but who was to blame for that? Why, hon. Gentlemen opposite. They came to the rescue when the Government was in difficulties. ["No, no!" from the Opposition benches.] But he maintained that they had done it. Every Committee who had inquired into the subject had laid it down that the best and only way to obtain relief was by the reduction of our establishments. He had complained of the Government taking five or six millions from the pockets of the people for the Army and Navy, and made an appeal to the House for a reduction of the number of men employed; and what was the consequence? Hon. Gentlemen opposite joined the noble Lord, and he (Mr. Hume) was left in a miserable minority of some forty or fifty. If they wanted relief, they should take those means by which relief could be obtained, and do as they would in their own establishments—reduce their expenditure when it balanced their income. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said that he had no money to give relief, but hon. Gentlemen might give him money for that purpose by reducing the national establishments. So far both sides had been quarrelling about nothing, and he thought they were both to blame. When our establishments were reduced, and a surplus was obtained, it might be applied towards the relief of the most deserving parties. Above all, however, he begged the House to consider, that as this was a commercial country, and as the welfare of the agriculturists themselves depended on the prosperous condition of commerce, it was most de- sirable to remove every fiscal restriction on commerce at home and abroad, and everything that tended to injure the health and comfort of the mass of the population.


begged to remind the hon. Member for Montrose, who had made a very interesting speech, that it was quite beside the question raised on the Opposition side of the House. They had only asked for 300,000l., which was at present unappropriated, and which they thought might as well be applied to the relief of the agricultural interest.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Supply considered in Committee.

House resumed. Committee report progress; to sit again on Monday next.

The House adjourned at a quarter after Twelve o'clock till Monday next.