§ MR. BOOKER-BLAKEMORE
, interrupting the hon. Gentleman, said, that as he had waved his right to bring forward his Motion at an early period of the evening, he (Mr. Blakemore) and other hon. Members had understood that it would be postponed to some future day. He (Mr. Blakemore) thought the Motion ought not to be pressed at that hour (half-past 11), and would suggest that the hon. Gentleman should fix some other day for its consideration.
§ MR. SPEAKER
observed, that in point of order the notice of the hon. Gentleman had only been postponed until after the House had come to a decision upon the Motion of the noble Member for the City of London.
§ MR. CAIRD
proceeded to say that at so late a period of the Session he of course could have no expectation of having the Bill passed; and for two reasons that was neither necessary nor desirable; first, because it was now too late to be brought into operation for the present crop; and secondly, because he was desirous that the country and the agricultural class should have ample time to consider it. If he were allowed to bring it in, the Bill would be printed and canvassed during the autumn, and, if generally approved, it might be passed early enough next Session to be 196 brought into operation for the corn crop of next year. Full time would thus be given for its discussion by the important classes affected by it, whose opinions were entitled to every consideration, while no real delay in its operation was caused by postponing the actual passing of the Bill to next Session. In venturing to introduce a Bill on this subject he felt it his duty carefully to consider the several objections urged against the Bill, which the Government had brought in last year, by those right hon. and hon. Members on the opposite side, who might be regarded as most directly representing the agricultural interests in that House, and without impairing in the least degree the efficiency of the inquiry, he trusted that he had succeeded in removing every reasonable cause of objection on their part which he had met with. Those hon. Members stated that to the general principle of the advantage of such information they were favourable; and he was also fortified by a Resolution come to by the Central Farmers' Club of London in February, 1856, that a system for obtaining these returns, carried out on broad and equitable principles, would be of general advantage to the country. The Bill which he proposed, therefore, differed from that introduced last year by the Government in several important particulars. The returns were not to be compulsory; they were not to include live stock; they were to be limited to the ascertainment of facts, which were the only statistics of any value; they were to be obtained through a different machinery than that of the Poor Law; and lastly, farmers were to have the option of making their returns direct to the official department in London through the Post office, while a clause was introduced to prevent the communication or use of individual returns for any purpose except for compilation into general results at the office in London, by imposing a penalty upon the officer who divulged them. In all these important particulars this Bill differed from that of the Government, while he had introduced a system of inspection to provide a check on the accuracy of the returns, a point overlooked by the Government. He believed hon. Members opposite would acknowledge that the main, if not the whole of the objections which were urged against the Bill of the Government had thus been removed. But in removing these objections it might perhaps be thought that he had taken away all 197 security for the efficiency of the inquiry. If time had permitted, he believed he could satisfactorily prove that that was not the case. By limiting the inquiry to the acreage under each crop, opposition would, he trusted, be disarmed, and in the unlikely case of information being still refused by any on that point, it could be ascertained with the utmost accuracy through other means of local information. There was, therefore, no longer any necessity for a compulsory measure. With regard to returns of live stock, such information would no doubt be useful and interesting, but it was not necessary in a national view, inasmuch as the numbers were not subject to seasonal variations like the produce of corn; and even if a sudden deficiency
1853. 1854. 1855. 1856. Increase per cent. Acres of wheat in Ireland 326,896 411,284 445,620 529,363 62 Acres of wheat in Scotland No return 168,216 191,300 261,842 56 Average price of preceding year 40s. 9d. 53s. 3d. 72s. 5d. 74s. 8d. 73
§ The supply of wheat thus followed closely on the heels of demand; and, as there was every reason to suppose that the same high price which prompted the Irish and Scotch farmer to extend his breadth of wheat had a like effect in England, they might judge of the great national importance of this inquiry, and how entirely our statesmen would be misled as to the foreign supply of corn necessary in any year for the wants of the country, if they founded their calculations on a permanent acreage of wheat in each year, when that acreage was found to have increased by two-thirds within two years. This Bill, if permitted to pass, would provide the public, by the 1st of August in each year, with an accurate basis of fact which they had never yet possessed, upon which every one interested could form his own estimate according to his judgment. The farmer would then no longer be at the mercy of the speculator—the miller would not, as he had during the last few years, continue to buy only for his immediate wants—the merchant would be able to estimate the probable requirements of the country, neither deluging our market at one time with an over supply, nor deterred by the uncertainty and utter want of reliable information from providing adequate supplies when they were needed, and thus, as had happened more than once during the last three years, exposing the country to a198
§ were ascertained, they could not remedy the want by foreign importation as they could with corn. So that this, which was the most objectionable branch of the inquiry in the Bill of the Government, was altogether dispensed with. He was prepared to show that the variation in the breadth sown with the several crops in this country from year to year was much greater than the variation in the rate of produce, and much more difficult to estimate. To show the importance of ascertaining every year the acreage under each crop, and with what rapidity supply follows demand, he had the statistical returns of Ireland and Scotland, in so far as regarded the acres under wheat, for the last four years:—
§ needless but most hurtful panic. Then, as to the machinery: the Government proposed to adopt that of the Poor Law, but on three occasions—in 1845, 1853, and 1854, experiments which were tried through the machinery of the Poor Law either failed altogether, or were but partially successful. He submitted that the office of the Registrar General afforded a better machinery for an inquiry of this kind. It had a representative in every district of the country, it was purely a statistical office, unconnected with rating or taxation, and was accustomed to distribute, collect, digest, and arrange much larger masses of return than were contemplated by this Act. Moreover, in taking the census returns, it had been an entirely successful office, and especially popular with the fanners, not fewer than 225,000 of whom, at the request of the Registrar, in 1851, voluntarily returned the acreage of their farms and the number of labourers in their employment, in addition to that which was compulsory—viz., the numbers, names, and ages of themselves and their household. This fact was a sufficient proof that the farmers, if properly approached, and for an obviously useful and not inquisitorial purpose, were more likely to facilitate than obstruct this inquiry, and were not that narrow-minded class which they were too often represented to be. But there was another matter for their 199 consideration in determining the machinery. That was an office which conducted its business with economy, and he had an estimate to show that the whole cost of this inquiry, conducted, as he proposed, need not much exceed £20,000. Having thus as shortly as possible given an outline of the measure, the object and principle of which had already been recognized by her majesty's Government and by the other House of Parliament, he trusted that he might now be permitted to introduce this Bill with the general assent of the House. The importance attached to information such as the Bill proposed to furnish was evinced by the memorial presented three years ago to Lord Aberdeen from the bankers and merchants of the city of London—a memorial said to have been signed by the most influential array of city names which had ever been affixed to any similar document. England alone, of the three kingdoms, gave no return of her crops, and without England the agricultural returns of Scotland and Ireland were comparatively unimportant. She held, in truth, rather an unenviable position among the nations in this respect, for he had been told by a member of the Statistical Congress which met at Brussels in 1855, that the only great States of Europe which did not collect any such information were Spain, Turkey, and England! Having given much attention to this subject for many years, he was convined that it was of at least as much importance to the farmer as to the merchant, but it was not alone for the benefit of either, and assuredly not solely to aid scientific inquiry, that he ventured to propose this measure. It was because he believed that it would tend to equalize the supply and the price of bread to the mass of the community, and that it would prevent those unnecessary panics which they had seen enhancing for a time the price of bread to the poor man and his family, often, too, in the winter, when they could least afford to pay it. He did really look upon the measure as one of the first importance. They met there to discuss a great variety of subjects, and grudged no expense in Commissions and Boards of inquiry and administration for nearly every imaginable object. They spent millions in any part of the globe where they conceived the honour or the interests of England to be involved; but here, at home, with a population greater than we could support from the produce of our own island, Parliament had hitherto taken no steps to 200 ascertain information of such vital moment. And yet the well-being and comfortable subsistence of the people were the best proofs of good government, as they were the surest guarantees of the permanence of order, and ought, therefore, to be the very first objects of concern to a State. Believing that this Bill give an adequate basis of information from which to estimate he probable supply of food, in ample time to provide against deficiency, and that it would thus, in a great measure, prevent those immense fluctuations in price which had proved so injurious to trade and commerce, so delusive to the farmer, and which had been found to press in times of unnecessary panic with so much severity on the poorer classes of the people, he should conclude by moving for leave to bring in his Bill.
§ MR. PACKE
said, he was happy to find that the hon. Member had abstained from inserting in the Bill a clause of a compulsory nature. The measure would thus be satisfactory to the farmers of the country, and he, under these circumstances, and considering also that it was not to pass into a law this Session, should not oppose its introduction.
§ MR. STEUART
had seen so much of the unsatisfactory working of this system in Scotland, that he was unfavourable to its introduction into England. He moved the adjournment of the debate.
§ MR. BENTINCK
also expressed his satisfaction at the circumstance that the hon. Member did not propose to make the operation of the Bill compulsory, but could hardly reconcile the statement which the hon. Member had made to that effect with the announcement that steps were to be taken for insuring the accuracy of those returns which the Bill was intended to procure. He could only say that if the Bill were made compulsory, it was likely to be met by the most strenuous opposition.
§ MR. BOOKER-BLAKEMORE
said, he did not think the introduction of the Bill ought to be opposed, while he should by no means pledge himself to give it his support. If, however, leave were given to bring in the Bill, hon. Members would have the advantage of being able to discuss its provisions with their constituents during the recess.
§ Motion for the adjournment of the debate withdrawn.
§ Leave given.
§ Bill presented and read 1°; to be read 2° on Wednesday next, and to be printed.