HC Deb 11 July 1862 vol 168 cc243-53

said, he rose to make a statement regarding the supply of food, and to put a question to the First Lord of the Treasury with reference to the collection of agricultural statistics. If he had no other reason for calling the attention of the House to the subject before the close of the Session, he might find an argument for so doing in the unfavourable character of the weather during the last two months. The cold state of the atmosphere was unprecedented at this period of the year, the Registrar General having reported that the temperature during the month of June was four degrees lower than it had been at any time during the previous forty years. Such continued cold, accompanied as it had been by wet, could hardly fail to be prejudicial to the crops, though he hoped that no serious damage had yet been sustained which might not be repaired, at least on the well-cultivated lands, by a few weeks of sunshine and heat. His information from several of the largest corn-growers led to that conclusion; but it had generally proved in England that a season characterized by cold weather was an unfavourable one for wheat. The question was one of growing importance, from the increasing dependence of the country upon foreign food. Since 1847 about one-fourth of the population, on the average, subsisted on foreign corn. But in the last three years that proportion had been gradually increasing, and within the last harvest year probably not less than one-half the population of the kingdom were fed on imported corn. That was partly the result of very deficient harvests in 1860 and 1861, but partly also, he believed, it arose from a diminished breadth of corn. The high price of labour, and the increasing value of live stock and animal produce, concurred, in his opinion, in tending to diminish in the United Kingdom the extent of land in corn, and to increase that of pasture. The farmers in Ireland had been adopting that system to a large extent. Between 1849 and 1859 the extent of corn land in Ireland had diminished one-fifth, whilst the number of live stock had increased one-half. Such a change would be perfectly legitimate and proper, and would be productive of little inconvenience, if they had any means of knowing with accuracy the extent to which it was taking place. But how vast the results which such a change might be silently working! If one farmer found it his interest to lay one-fourth of his corn land to grass, the probability would be that the same circumstances might influence all others. Now, one-fourth of the corn-crop of these kingdoms might be taken at 10,000,000 quarters. A deficit so vast, coming suddenly and without warning, would agitate every market, and unhinge all monetary operations. To some extent, he believed, they were experiencing the effects of such a change. The deliveries of home-grown wheat, as shown by the corn returns for the last sixteen weeks of that and the previous year, were 50 per cent less than the average of preceding years. The crops of 1860 and 1861 were, no doubt, most defective, but he could not help believing that so vast a decrease, especially in the present year, was partly caused by a diminution of the breadth sown. Now, a return of the acreage under each crop would give timely warning of any serious change. It was important to consider the principal sources of the supplies. Last year North America gave us three-eighths of our whole supply; Russia, one-eighth; Turkey and Egypt, one eighth; or five-eighths in all were thus drawn from distant sources of supply. The remainder was got from the nearer parts of Europe; but, as the large proportion came from a distance, it was important that early notice of our probable requirements should be obtained. Moreover, we might have formidable competitors in the world's corn market. France, which in 1858 and 1859 gave about one-fifth of our foreign supply, imported last year upwards of 5,000,000 quarters of wheat and flour. It would be a great mistake to treat the question as one solely affecting the farmers. He believed them to be fully as much interested in obtaining reliable information as any class, for they had the earliest command of the market, and might take advantage of that position if they had any means of accurately anticipating the course of prices. But the vast importance of the question as affecting the supply of food ought to override every objection in a country which so largely subsisted on foreign corn. It also most materially affected both financial and commercial proceedings. The payments for foreign corn in the last year amounted to the vast sum of £35,000,000 sterling, and that was £15,000,000 more than in any one year before 1860. But if they extended their calculations, and made a comparison of the cost of foreign corn and provisions for 1860, 1861, and 1862 (calculating the remainder of the present year in the same ratio as it had hitherto maintained), and compared it with that of 1857, 1858, and 1859, they would find the most startling result. That which cost £66,000,000 in the former three years, was increased to £118,000,000 in the latter. So that we had been paying in the last three years not less than £17,000,000 a year more for foreign corn and provi- sions than we had been accustomed to do. Agricultural statistics would not prevent that, but they would give us timely warning of what was coming. Again, in regard to commerce, the transport of such vast supplies was a matter of immense importance. Upwards of 3,000,000 tons weight of corn were imported last year, and must have employed that amount of shipping. And if they calculated three months as the average voyage, the conveyance of that supply would occupy for the whole year one-fourth of our foreign-going ships. Surely a question thus vitally affecting the supply of food, and the financial arrangements of the country, and giving such vast employment to the mercantile marine, ought not to be treated as solely a farmers' question. What had been done by the Government? The right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Duchy (Mr. Card well) some time ago suggested the employment of the county police as the most economical machinery for collecting the Returns. But whether they employed the police or any other machinery, they must pay for the additional duties they imposed upon the persons employed; and, in his opinion, therefore, the employment of the police would be just as expensive a method of obtaining the information as any other that might be resorted to. The Home Secretary had sent a circular to the different counties to ascertain what the feeling was with regard to the collection of agricultural statistics, and the employment of the police in that duty, and the result was as follows—Thirty of the counties were favourable to the collection of statistics, but only fifteen of that number were favourable to the employment of the police; twenty-one expressed no opinion as to the advantage of the collection of statistics, but objected to the duty being performed by the police; six deferred the question for further consideration; and only two objected to the collecdion of agriculture statistics altogether. In his own opinion the Office of the Registrar General afforded a machinery by which agricultural statistics might be most effectually, most economically, and most easily obtained. He did not say that they might not be obtained through the Office of Inland Revenue; for he knew that in Scotland the machinery existed in that office, by which the duty might be performed without any difficulty whatever, and he knew also that the Inland Revenue Office in England believed itself quite capable of performing the duty, and that the work could be done by that office and its sister office in Scotland for a sum not exceeding £20,000 a year, but there were reasons which induced him to give the preference to the Registrar General's Office. As the acreage was the only fact that could be ascertained, the inquiry should be limited to that, and it might be completed before harvest in each year. No Act of Parliament was needed—only an order of that House, and provision made for the necessary expenses. He was at a loss to know who really were the opponents of the measure. He believed that much of the former opposition to it on the part of certain farmers had died out, and the great body of them was not against it; for it had been most successfully done in Ireland and Scotland, and in several English counties. The great landlords were not against it, for the House of Lords had already passed a Bill on the subject. The Returns he asked for were not of an inquisitorial nature. He should have been extremely glad to have included in them the live stock bred and reared in England; but as that was of comparatively minor importance, and the farmers looked upon a return of live stock as exceedingly inquisitorial, he should not propose to enter into that part of the question. He would venture to adduce one opinion which, he believed, would have the greatest weight with both the House and the country. It was that of the lamented Prince Consort. In July, 1860, as President of the International Statistical Congress, the Prince, in his opening address, referred to agricultural statistics in these words— The Registrar General of Ireland has proved by his success in obtaining these Returns, at a comparatively moderate expense, and by the voluntary assistance of the landowners and cultivators, as well as of the clergy of all denominations, that the apprehension was groundless that it could not be done without inordinate cost, or without injuring individual interests. We must hope," he added, "that considering its importance with regard to all questions affecting the food of the people, this inquiry will not only be extended to England and Scotland, but also to the continent generally, wherever it may not already have been instituted. He trusted that such an opinion would have its full effect on Her Majesty's Government, and he begged to ask the noble Viscount whether the Government would take the matter up seriously, and themselves bring forward a plan for obtaining Returns of the acreage under the various crops in Great Britain.


said, he had substantially answered the question of his hon. Friend at an earlier period of the Session. He was far from denying the advantages to be derived from the publication of accurate agricultural statistics; but he thought that such Returns would be unsatisfactory if they did not include live stock. At the same time, he agreed with his hon. Friend that to include Returns of live stock in the first instance would add to the difficulty of obtaining agricultural statistics, and it might be more prudent therefore, to confine the Returns at first to the quantity of ground on which corn was actually grown in this country. It had been rather assumed that there was great objection in that House to the production of such Returns; and no doubt there was some time ago a feeling against enforcing the collection of such statistics, but the opposition had, he believed, very much diminished, and the Returns from the quarter sessions, to which the hon. Member had referred, showed that there was no indisposition on the part of the owners of land to furnish the information. There was still some apprehension on the part of tenant farmers that the effect might be to increase their rents; but that objection might be met by avoiding the publication of individual Returns and giving the Returns for the district only. He felt that the publication of such information as the hon. Member desired could not do the farmers any possible injury, while the commercial interest might derive from it great advantage. The result of the inquiry addressed by his predecessor to the different counties was certainly not such as to justify the employment of police in collecting agricultural statistics. His hon. Friend, after ascertaining what the general nature of the replies was, had communicated with him with referenee to the practicability of obtaining these Returns through the Registrar General; and he had had an interview with the Registrar General upon the subject. The Registrar General did not think it impracticable, but he saw more difficulty in the matter than his hon. Friend appeared to think existed. He (Sir G. Grey) was not, however, without hope that that office might be made available for the purpose, and that if Parliament would sanction the expense, the Returns might be obtained through its machinery. In his opinion, that agency would be better than the Inland Revenue Office, because he doubted whether the excisemen going to the houses of farmers, for the purpose of obtaining the necessary information, would be looked upon with much favour. The hon. Gentleman said that he did not think it necessary that an Act of Parliament should be obtained to carry out the object in view. No doubt an Act of Parliament would not be necessary if the making of the Returns were not to be compulsory; and it was not intended, when it was proposed that the police should be employed, that the measure should be compulsory in the first instance. He would communicate further with the Registrar General upon the subject.


said, he wished to thank the hon. Member for Stirling for the clear, able, and comprehensive manner in which he had brought the subject before the House. Still, he was somewhat at a loss to know how the hon. Member obtained his information with regard to the amount of food consumed in this country, for the most remarkable differences of opinion existed amongst agriculturists upon the subject; and the consumption had been variously stated in the Mark Lane Express at from 15,000,000 to 30,000,000 of quarters. It was as important to have statistics of food as of population, and only the most ignorant amongst the farmers could have the smallest objection to giving the best possible information upon that very interesting subject. Certainly, when his hon. Friend brought forward the question on a former occasion, he did not receive any great amount of encouragement, but he trusted that there had been a change of feeling since then, and that there was no longer any objection on the part of those who represented agricultural constituencies in that House to the information being supplied. He hoped that the Home Secretary would at an early period next Session bring forward a measure upon the subject.


said, that the hon. Member who had just sat down might, perhaps, include him and other Members on that side of the House amongst the most ignorant class of farmers, because they happened to differ from him in opinion. Although many of the persons engaged in agricultural pursuits might not possess an amount of intelligence equal to that of the hon. Member for Derby, and although, perhaps, they might entertain some prejudices, their prejudices were entitled to respect, and it was not by stigmatizing them as ignorant that those who desired this information would be likely to effect their object. He doubted very much whether the farmers would derive any benefit from these Returns. There was no doubt, however, that they would be very beneficial to corn merchants and persons engaged in trade, and the large and intelligent class of farmers in Scotland, who might be described as large capitalists; but he believed that the ordinary class of tenant farmers would derive no advantage whatever from them. As to knowing when they had best dispose of their corn, he believed that the old principle of threshing the corn as soon as it was ready, and selling it when threshed, would be found in the long run to be more advantageous to the farmer than speculating for high prices. It had been said that a great willingness had been found on the part of landowners to forward the production of agricultural statistics; but that fact, if it were a fact, might lead to increased unwillingness on the part of occupiers. He believed the feeling of farmers generally was, that the Government Returns would be acted upon in some way to their disadvantage; and as long as that feeling existed, great difficulty would be found in inducing them to consent to any compulsory system, even though their refusal might expose them to the attacks of the hon. Member for Derby.


said, that his noble Friend (Lord Hotham) had so well expressed the feelings with which he (Mr. Henley) viewed this question that he should not have thought it necessary to address the House but for the remarks of the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Bass). If anything could have been done to render the collection of agricultural statistics impossible, the hon. Member for Derby had contrived to do it. The hon. Gentleman appeared to have forgotten what had previously taken place on the subject some fourteen or fifteen years ago, when the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Halifax (Sir C. Wood) was Chancellor of the Exchequer. A Bill was brought in for the purpose, which was not very favourably received by the agricultural interest, who were in no very pleasant humour in consequence of the legislation which had taken place shortly before that period. That Bill, however, might probably have passed if those who wanted the information had been ready to pay for it. But the Chancellor of the Exchequer refused to do so. The course pursued on that occasion roused a strong feeling in the country, and to use a common expression had the effect of "putting their backs up." They said, "You are introducing an inquisitive measure for the advantage of a certain class of persons, and want us to pay for the information." He was not prepared to say whether any advantage could be derived from the modified system proposed, but he was satisfied that the difficulty experienced in getting it adopted was owing to the course pursued on the occasion to which he had referred.


said, he was not surprised that the hon. Member for. Derby, who was a large buyer, should be in favour of agricultural statistics. They all knew that the hon. Member, being at the head of a great establishment, which required to know the extent of the growth of barley, was obliged to obtain the information sought by these statistics, no matter at what cost; it would therefore, no doubt, be a great advantage to him if he could acquire that information at the public cost. But, when the hon. Member talked of the ignorance of those who might oppose these Returns, he must say he could not see how the farmers in any shape or way would be benefited by them. If there was any good in such Returns, it would be something which gave a fair average, on which they could depend; but there were such variations from one year to another that even the acreage would involve all sorts of difficulty. The business of the hon. Member for Derby was, no doubt, a very good one, and he could afford to buy the information he required; for himself, he protested avainst the public money being expended to enable a few wealthy men to obtain information at the expense of the community.


said, he thought the information, whether as to barley for malting, or wheat for the bread of the people, intimately concerned the general welfare. It was of great advantage that the earliest possible information should be had on the subject, and in case of a deficiency purchases should be made abroad as speedily as possible. It was quite true that a person in the position of the hon. Member for Derby, was deeply interested in acquiring the information; but he could command it sooner than any one else, and might sweep the markets of the produce he required; but if these statistics were supplied by the Government, every one would be as well informed as the hon. Member himself, and would have the same advantage in the market. He therefore hoped that no petty prejudice would prevent the Government from taking up the subject in a vigorous and determined manner.


said, he did not believe there was as much prejudice as was represented in the agricultural districts against the production of information; but as the benefit was to be general, the expense at least ought not to be charged on a class. Returns on the acreage sown would be of value, because the season would always indicate the prospects of harvest. In other countries such information was collected, and in France special pains were taken to obtain it; and, speaking generally, it had of late years been remarkably correct. It could hardly be that in this country the only subject on which information should not be furnished should be the subject of the food raised for the people. The expense of obtaining the information, however, ought not to be thrown on the county rates.


said, he must deny that the tenant farmers could justly be termed ignorant. They were generally a most intelligent as well as a most respectable class, and they deserved to have their opinions fairly considered. If a Bill were brought in upon the subject, he should feel himself at liberty to support or oppose it, as the character of the measure might appear to justify. He thought, however, that the proposed returns would mislead the tenant-farmers, from their necessary incompleteness. What was really wanted was more accurate information as to the statistics of foreign grain.


said, he thought the opinion of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Hubbard), from his great information on all such subjects, was deserving of the greatest weight with the House. He also trusted that next year the Government would take up the question, and secure the same information regarding agriculture in this country as they were all so anxious to obtain respecting everything that affected the corn-markets abroad.


said, there might be a considerable class of farmers who were obliged to thrash their corn as soon as they got it in, in order to pay their rent; but it did not follow that they were not interested in the result of the harvest, particularly in years of scarcity, being made known to all the world at the earliest moment. Any attempt to obtain from the farmers throughout the country the amount produced per acre would be entirely hopeless; but that was not at all necessary to enable us to judge of the probable amount of the harvest. By taking note of the sales by auction of farm produce in July and August the means of reckoning probable averages would be afforded. The Government might obtain all the particulars they required without any inquisitorial process.


said, he believed that it would be advantageous to the whole community if the best information were collected on these matters. In 1854, England, from her want of accurate knowledge of the state of the markets, sold to France an enormous quantity of corn at a very moderate price, and rebought it afterwards at a great enhancement. The loss of money thus sustained would have paid the expense of collecting these statistics ten times over.


denied that there was any obstinate prejudice against the taking of agricultural statistics among the tenant farmers in his part of the country.


said, he thought there was an almost unanimous opinion in favour of the collection of agricultural statistics in some form; the only objection was to their being obtained in an inquisitorial manner. He trusted the Government would, by acceding to the views of the hon. Mover, endeavour to wipe away from this country what he considered to be a disgrace to it.