HL Deb 17 March 1815 vol 30 cc0-249
Lord Grenville

said, that before the order of the day was moved for the committal of the Bill now depending in their lordships House for imposing a duty on the importation of foreign corn, he was anxious to call the particular attention of the House to the petition from the Corporation of London, which he bad presented the other day, praying to be heard by counsel at their lordships bar; and he requested that the petition might be read. [The petition being read, his lordship resumed.] Under all the circumstances of the case, the motion which he was about to submit to their lordships on the subject of this petition, appeared to be one so little liable to objection, that he could hardly conceive how any doubt could exist as to whether or not it ought to be agreed to. He was totally at a loss to understand what parliamentary regulations or forms could stand in the way of the petitioners, when they prayed that on this question, where their interests were so deeply concerned, they might be permitted to state their case by counsel at their lordships bar; but as, on a former day, some doubt had been suggested, whether the petitioners could be regularly heard, he should shortly lay before the House, the grounds on which it appeared to him that their lordships were bound to comply with the prayer of the petitioners. In doing this, it was by no means his intention to enter into a fresh statement of those arguments respecting the general principle on which he had on a former occasion, perhaps at too great length, dilated—arguments, however, which as he thought had met with no satisfactory answer at the time, and still remained unrefuted. But the particular point here, related not so much to the mischief, generally speaking, which, in their opinion and in his, would result from this mode of legislation, as to the mischievous effects which it must have on their particular interests. Their lordships had already, by the second reading of the Bill, decided that the subject ought to be entertained. They had decided, generally, that it was fitting to legislate respecting the importation and price of corn; but surely on all parliamentary grounds, the petitioners might come to their lordships bar to show that there was no necessity for legislating on the subject at this particular time. It never, surely, could be presumed that the corporate body of the city of London could not enlighten their judgment and inform their minds on points with which many of their lordships might be unacquainted, though upon these points even the principle adopted by the supporters of this measure must in a great measure rest. If, then, most valuable information on this important question could be obtained from the petitioners, was the opportunity of furnishing that information to be denied them? In the rapid, not to call it precipitate, mode in which this business had been conducted, he had felt that personal inconvenience which resulted from the want of sufficient time adequately to discharge his duty. It would ill become any individual indeed to complain of labour or personal inconvenience, when he could by that means materially promote the interests of any number of his fellow-subjects, and particularly of large classes of the community. But such was the effect of the precipitate manner, if he might so call it, in which they had proceeded with this measure, that he felt it impossible to devote the time and labour to the subject which its vast importance so peculiarly required. During the short time which had elapsed since he had presented this petition, he had endeavoured, as far as he could, to ascertain whether there existed any parliamentary rules to stand in the way of their lordships compliance with this application. From all the researches which he had been enabled to make, and the information which in so short a space of time it had been in his power to procure, his belief was, that there was no order of their lordships House, no general practice or rule that could operate against complying with the prayer of this petition. There was certainly nothing against it in their orders; he believed nothing against it in their practice; and, indeed, it was not easy to conceive how any general rule could be adopted, to settle precisely in what cases petitioners should be admitted to be heard at their bar, and in what cases they should not be heard. He need not, surely, remind their lordships, that they did not confine this privilege of being heard, to individuals who prayed to be heard for their own private and particular interests. On the contrary, counsel had been heard at their bar on matters of the highest public interest, as affecting large classes of the community, but in which the interests of one class were not more particularly involved than those of other classes; and surely it could not now he contended, if parties were to be heard for their own peculiar interests, that because it so chanced that they had interests most important to them, but which happened at the same time to be of importance to other classes of the community, they must therefore be excluded from all opportunity of stating their objections. Was it the rule of the House, that parties must not appear at their lordships bar for their interests because they had a double claim to be there heard? The petitioners in the present instance requested to state to their lordships for consideration, the manner in which this measure would affect their own local and peculiar interests. But at any rate, the metropolis must feel whatever affected the general state of manufactures and trade all over the country; and even if they had not been directly or immediately concerned, they ought still to be heard. If the measure now in progress in their lordships' House was calculated to produce great and extensive mischief in every quarter of the country, as the petitioners thought, and he thought it was, how could the metropolis escape from its full share of the evil? And if the city of London must be affected with that which pressed heavily on the great mass of the community, why should not the corporate body of that city be permitted to lay their case before their lordships by counsel and witnesses at their bar? It would be but a waste of time, therefore, to argue, that even if the city of London could be exempted from the direct and immediate consequences of the measure, they had clearly an interest to support it, on the ground that whatever was deeply felt in other quarters of the kingdom, must be deeply felt in London. The measure now in contemplation, as the petitioners conceived, would be deeply felt all over the nation, and still more deeply felt in the metropolis. As far as his researches had gone, then, he repeated that he did not know of the existence of so perverse a rule as that petitioners should not be heard for their interests merely because their interests happened to be the same with those of the mass of the community. But if there had existed so strange a regulation as that a petitioner should not be heard, because another happened to have the same interest in the question, the petitioners here had a peculiar and local interest that no measure should pass without inquiry, the immediate effect of which would be to enhance the price of that which formed the basis of the subsistence of the great mass of the population. Suppose for a moment, that there were some foundation for the theory, that the effect of this measure would ultimately be to reduce the price of corn; yet it ought to be considered, that this future good must be brought about by the infliction of a present evil. Surely, then, these petitioners had a right to come before their lordships, and state the information which it might be peculiarly in their power to give as to the extent of the evil, and the manner in which it would operate on the manufacturing and commercial industry of the city of London, and the rest of the community. Supposing that the theory of the supporters of the Bill were as sound as he believed it to be fallacious, it was surely of some consequence, even in that view of the subject, that their lordships should be apprised of the full extent of the evil or inconvenience which for a time at least must be the result of the proposed regulation; and it was important, too, that they should be heard as to those facts which might justify or destroy the hopes of those future benefits which their lordships expected the country to derive from it. It had not been said in their lordships House, he trusted it would not be said there, that those who petitioned against the measure were incapable of forming an accurate opinion upon the question. It would be paying a false compliment to Parliament to say, that great additional light on the subject had not been gained from without. For his own part, he confessed that he had derived much information from the publications which had appeared; and he believed that if Parliament, had been called upon to legislate on the subject at the time when the matter was first mentioned, they would have done so with infinitely less knowledge on both sides than they now had. The application now made to their lordships was, that the petitioners might be heard in this particular stage of the measure, when the information which they should be able to give their lordships would bear more immediately and directly on the question. If any one imagined that it was so peculiarly the province of Parliament to consider what were the general principles of commerce upon which they ought to legislate, that they would disdain to receive any information from without; yet, on certain particular points, the corporation of London might be able to furnish information, which it would be impossible for their lordships to obtain in any other manner—points of which the importance was admitted, and with respect to which the reports of their committees would supply them very inadequately with the means of knowledge. The first point was this:—that perhaps the petitioners might be enabled to furnish their lordships with evidence both of fact and experience as to those particulars on which the supporters of the measure rested their cause; he said evidence of fact and experience; he spoke not of opinion, though the report of their committee shewed in every page that the opinions of the witnesses had been asked, and properly asked. But supposing no opinions were to be asked from these petitioners, their lordships might derive most important evidence from facts and experience as to what had been the past operation of those laws which had been considered as similar to that which it was now proposed to enact. They might inform their lordships whether it had been found that the discouragement of importation had produced no inconvenience in the metropolis. It had been asserted, that the experience of the early part of the last century afforded a strong argument in favour of a similar system for the present day. That was a point which rested partly on experience of the past, and partly on the opinions of men supposed to be peculiarly qualified to come to an accurate conclusion on the subject; and no doubt the opinions of such men ought to be asked, and received with respect and attention. But though they were to refuse to listen to the opinions of these petitioners, would their lordships refuse to hear them state facts, which it was most material for their lordships to know, before they finally decided a question of this magnitude? The period to which he had adverted was not so remote as to render it impossible to bring forward facts relating to it as connected with this system. The latter period, from 1766 to the present time, was certainly not too remote. With respect to that at least, many important facts might be communicated; and could their lordships refuse to listen to them? In considering how the laws on this subject had operated, in encouraging or discouraging importation, how far the average price corresponded with the natural price of corn, with other matters most important to be ascertained to what could their lordships resort but the evidence of facts and experience? It had been said, that though there was no necessity at present to legislate on this subject, the measure would be productive of much good at a future period. On what ground did that opinion rest? If it rested on the dearness of grain during the last twenty years, how could they know whether this was a good ground to rest upon, without an examination of facts? It surely ought to be shown, that the dearness of corn was owing to the bad effects of the principle acted upon during the period in question. If the inconvenience was serious and lamentable, their lordships ought to inquire whether the evil had resulted from the check imposed by the war upon importation, or from the supposed discouragement of agriculture. If it should appear that the dearness of corn had been the effect of the difficulties thrown in the way of importation, it would be then for their lordships to consider whether they ought to render that inconvenience which arose from a state of war, permanent in time of peace—if, indeed, they were to have peace. Suppose it were conceded that it was a wise system of legislation to encourage one species of industry at the expense of others, in opposition to the common sense of mankind; was it expedient to adopt a permanent system, a system calculated to operate for twenty years on this the most important of all subjects, in a situation in which nothing else was permanent, when they knew not whether they were to have peace or war; or even, if they were to enjoy the blessings of peace, when they knew not in what condition matters were likely to settle and rest? To legislate on such a subject, under such circumstances, was, he must say, very little becoming the wisdom and dignity of Parliament. On the subject of the manner in which the average price was calculated, he should not attempt to add any thing to what had been said by a noble friend of his; but he must advert to the answer given by another noble friend, that this average price of 80s. was not the result of minute inquiry, and careful and certain calculation, but founded upon an arbitrary guess. Good God, what an expression, when applied to such a subject as this!—an arbitrary guess from the opinions of a few witnesses, without proof or calculation. Half a dozen witnesses had given their opinions as to what appeared to them to be a proper price, and the average was struck out of these opinions. But their lordships were bound to be satisfied by some strong proof as to what was the proper average with relation to the present price and the general quantity now raised. It was idle to ask any particular farmer at what price he could raise corn. It depended on the county, on the parish, on the nature of the farm, and the nature of the different kinds of land on the same farm. With respect to the witnesses who had given their opinions respecting the price at which corn could be raised, those opinions always had a reference to the time at which the question was asked, and the charges of cultivation at that particular period. All the witnesses, either directly or indirectly, so qualified their opinions. If, then, the time was so studiously taken into account in giving these opinions, where was the proof that because 80s. might be a proper average at one period, it was therefore a proper average price now? If the charges of cultivation were diminished, why should not a lower average answer the purpose? They had now on their table, among other valuable information, a table of charges, and he defied any man to examine that table, without being convinced from the nature of the charges, that they must be very much reduced by the diminution in the price of corn. This proved the necessity, if they meant to fix the proper average, of much more minute and accurate information, and for that reason they ought not to legislate on such general grounds. He deprecated any interference whatever; but if the average had been named before with reference to the charges of cultivation at the time, why did they not now proceed on the same principle? Lord Grenville then proceeded to speak of the assize. On that subject he had been told, that under the present system 80 shillings for corn would make the loaf 16d. A noble earl (Liverpool) denied that, and seemed to think he could support his denial by proof—[hear!] Well, then, why not allow of the matter's being tried by proof at the bar? Bread was now 11¾d. the quartern loaf, and the average at 63s. It was hard to conceive, that if the average rose to 80s. bread would not be more than a shilling. All this was matter of proof. The pressure on manufactures was to be examined; that was also matter of proof, and on those things evidence was adducible. It was expedient to look carefully into the effect of the price of bread on the rate of labour, and that again on the dearness of manufactures, as influencing their reception in the foreign market. He had some time since received a table, stating this inquiry in a particular point of view. He had desired the idea to be enlarged, and believed he should have received the improved table from the person in question, but for the hurry of the Bill. He had, however, this day, on coming to the House, received from another person, a table of the nature he mentioned: he had not had time to make himself master of it, but it doubtless contained much important information. This ought not to be excluded from their lordships means of knowledge. The table gave the alterations of the value of bread for twenty-six years, with the contemporary alterations in the cheapness of manufactures. A noble earl (Liverpool) had said that our superiority in manufactures depended on our capital, fuel, and machinery. Inquiry might be directed to shew how much capital, British or otherwise, was directed to foreign manufactures, what means they had of fuel, what skill of machinery. He believed, in the latter point at least, there was no deficiency in what was called our rival nation. Philosophically speaking, he could not desire that a knowledge of mechanics should belong only to one nation. The great question was, would you refuse to inquire into the allegations of the petitioners coming forward to prove that their allegations were founded? His lordship then moved, "that the petitioners be permitted to give evidence, and to be heard by counsel at the bar of the House."

The Lord Chancellor

said, that in every view of the present question as connected with the petitioners, and as involving manufacturing interests, he was inclined to attribute to it great importance: but in all its views, he must speak his fair opinion upon it; and he should speak that without considering the consequences to which he might be subjected, and to which, indeed, he had been subjected long before this discussion. In this free country, God forbid that any reasonable petition should not be received: God forbid that any should be rejected with disdain. The House would, in himself, hear a man who had lived through the most trying times of the country; and he would declare that he had always seen the petitions of the subject received with attention by that House, and their merits then decided on by the judgment of that House alone, They could recur to no other standard. The House, must be the final judge, and on its own discretion too. It was the only true and constitutional mode: but if that mode were once given up, from that moment the country was given up; but that moment, he for one, would not wish to survive. It was to him of no consideration whether the Bill was to serve the manufacturing or the agricultural interest—to satisfy him, its benefits must be general. Of the language that had been used on this subject, he could not help saying, though without allusion to whom it might have been used, or without pointing to this House, or the other, or the City, that that language was not calculated in general to work the ends of a true and solid deliberation. From all this, heats and disturbance must arise. As to petitions, it was the practice of the House to attend to them, but not to such a degree as to paralyse its judgment. There were points on which it would allow of no interference; and this was done without infringing the rights of the subject. No petitions, for instance, were allowed on Tax Bills: as to the Corn Bill, the House must decide on their own judgment. The majorities on it were greater than he had ever seen; and after this declared sense of the House, how could he persuade himself that the noble lord was not acting against his better judgment? How could the city of London be heard by counsel against the Bill? It was against the rules of the House. He would suppose nothing of the past session, nothing of the present, but that this was the second reading—and that the city of London petitioned. The rules and practices of the House were against the petitions being received. These rules and practices, the lex et consueludo parliamenti, were among the safeguards of the constitution, and they could not be violated with impunity. He said nothing of this from disregard of the City. He had a great respect for it as a body, much regard for many of its members: he had received much attention from it. But to all petitions in the same spirit and substance as the petition of the City, he must oppose the rules of the House. He knew that the number of petitions against the Bill was almost unexampled. The number of petitions for it was yet nearly as numerous; the signatures were not indeed as many, but that might be owing to obvious causes. But the point on which his consent must turn was, whether the petition on the table complained of certain and specific injuries. Did it point out what manufacturers would suffer; did it speak in the name of the injured individuals? No; he could find nothing but opinions upon the general principle of the Bill. If this was allowed as a sufficient claim for the hearing of counsel, why must not Bristol be heard,—why must not Birmingham,—why not Cheltenham,—why not, in fact, every town in the kingdom? [The duke of Gloucester here expressed tome dissent.] "The noble duke," said the Lord Chancellor, "cries, Hear! I wish he would hear, and I now tell him, that as I think all petitioners equal, I know all peers to be so." He then proceeded—If they were to hear the petitions of the City against agriculture, why not hear those of agriculture in turn? Their bar might be thus perpetually occupied by debating upon general principles. The greater occupations and duties of the House must be at an end. It was impossible to sup- pose, that the Legislature could ever have sanctioned practices so directly subversive of its main uses. If one petition, complaining generally of a principle, was to be listened to, why not listen to all that might be offered? He would turn to the noble lord himself: no man possessed a larger share of parliamentary experience, and he would ask him, had he ever met with a fact of the kind to sustain his present application? Had he been able to prop it up with a single precedent? As to himself, he had sat on that woolsack 13 years, and he would not be fit to sit an hour longer there, if he could not decide this. His experience necessarily furnished him with the history of a multitude of bills and petitions, and he had never seen one received when it did not turn on particular injuries received. General interests, in which the whole community had an equal share, were not suffered to come into those petitions. As to the phrase of rejecting the petition, or any petition, with disdain, it expressed no idea of his; but he could not allow himself, in matters of right, to distinguish between corporation and corporation, or corporation and individual. He considered every man coming to that bar as a respectable Briton, and to be relieved as far as its rules might allow. Now, if the petition was not to be sustained on authority and precedent, on what was it to be sustained? He must give his negative to the motion. To support the rules of the House, was actually to support the constitution, of which they were among the safeguards.

Earl Grey

could not help feeling considerable surprise at the speech which he had just heard. The matter of it was most new to him, and the agitation under which it had been delivered made it still more peculiar. But he must, however, reluctantly, advert to the address made to a noble duke near him. That noble person had been told, that all peers were equal. Certainly, whatever might be the cause of the declaration, there was no man in that House who stood less in need of it: those who had the honour of being in habits of intercourse with that noble person, were fully acquainted with that truth; and there was perhaps no peer among their lordships in whom the consciousness of high rank was less obvious and obtrusive. The noble lord had disputed the petition on the ground of its generality. He said he would consider the Bill as one, then before their lord- ships for the first time. The value of this concession was nothing. The petitioners might in any stage of the Bill desire to be heard. That noble lord had said, that if one city had a right to be heard by counsel, so had all the rest. No doubt of it. So they all had. If London had a right, so had Bristol. It was perfectly certain, that if they had a right to complain, they had a right to be heard. He was told, that thus the House would be overcome with petitions: but was this incapable of remedy? Was it not possible to tell the petitioners that the matter of their petitions had been already determined, and that it was not necessary to examine into them further? But was there no instance of evidence being given and counsel heard on a petition on the general principle? Two years ago, had not counsel been heard on the Orders in Council? The question had been then indeed driven to a painful extremity, one which no friend to the country could contemplate, without regret at the train of measures which drove it on. But then the principle was the general one of injury to the commercial prosperity of the country, and evidence was brought to confirm it. But, as to the favourite argument of the noble lord, was he to be told that it was a good answer to the city of London—we cannot hear you, because Bristol has as good a right to be heard as you have? But the petition did actually come within the limits of the noble lord. One of its clauses turned on the assize of bread; which, by diminishing the loaf, was now in the light of an injury, and as such suitable for the relief of parliament. There was no doubt that regulation in such matters had a tendency to lower the quantity; and here was an injury to be removed, or at least examined into. This was an immediate concern of the coporation of London. There was another point of view, important also. The corporation fixed the assize. It was asserted that the quartern loaf would rise to 16d. It was a mailer of moment to them to prove that if injury was done here, it was by the assize laws, and not by their management of it. But who were the petitioners? The corporation of the city of London. Had they no special interest? Undoubtedly they had, and that in three ways—as consumers, as men interested in the common prosperity of the country, and as masters of that multitude of mechanics and artificers that formed the la- borious class of the city. But this petition must not be taken alone; the injuries were distinctly stated in a petition of the Mayor, Aldermen, and Common-council, in March. It stated, that raising the price of bread raised the expense of manufacturing labour. The present petition was coupled by direct reference with the former, and it came to their lordships bar asking to be heard by counsel to the complaints already detailed. He could conceive nothing that came more within the rules of the House. But was the practice to be actually adopted of narrowing the entrance of the subject's complaints? He should conceive this an unhappy innovation indeed. He felt the advantage of a liberal reception of those appeals almost as important to the House as to the complainant. Like the poet's mercy—"It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes." The exercise of the right of petitioning, prevented the bursting forth of those desperate dissensions which often produced convulsions under despotic governments; and on no subject should their lordships show themselves more ready to listen to the complaints of the people, than on that which related to their subsistence.

The Earl of Liverpool

would confine himself strictly to the question now before the House; which was, not whether the petition of the city of London should be received, but whether the petitioners should be heard by counsel in support of the allegations it contained. His objection to this was founded on a principle from which the House never departed, namely, that they would not hear particular parties on a question of general legislation. A departure from this rule, in the present instance, would justify and authorise a similar application from every individual in the country, whatever his condition or degree, who thought his interests affected by the present measure. This, it was obvious, would lead to endless delay; and on this ground of policy it was that the House would not hear individuals on their special interests, when a measure of general policy was before them. The present Bill affected the whole country; it proposed no separate regulation for the city of London; and he was convinced that if the House were to go on hearing evidence, and listening to counsel for ten years to come, they would hear precisely the same arguments as bad been already urged. The whole subject had already undergone ample consideration. For three sessions it had been before parliament; and the committees of the House, of Commons, which had twice reported upon it, were open to the members to the city of London, where they had ample opportunity of furnishing every information. Last session, also, their lordships' committee had reported that though between 70 and 80 petitions were presented, and that of the city of London among the rest, yet not one of the petitioners had thought fit to come forward. The committee were empowered by the House to examine all the evidence they might think fit to offer: this was a public notice to all, and afforded ample opportunities for the production of evidence.

Lord St. John

said, that the country was in such circumstances as would render it unwise to go into the subject. There was an impossibility on the part of all men to go on under the present circumstances. The shopkeeper, the farmer, the manufacturer, all found an equal stagnation. The petitioners had last year had an opportunity of stating any information they possessed, and they did not avail themselves of it. Now they came forward, when the opportunity was gone by. He did not think they had any fair claim to ask for an opportunity, which they had so long neglected. The noble lord who had brought forward the motion, said that the whole system of protections was founded on error. But what else had brought this country to such a state of prosperity? Great Britain was not meant by nature for that greatness to which she had attained. It was her constitution and her wise regulations that had carried her to such a pitch of elevation. His lordship took the opportunity of delivering his sentiments upon the Bill, respecting which he had heard nothing to change his opinion, contending that it was a measure of general benefit and advantage, by the encouragement it afforded to agriculture, and the raising a supply within ourselves.

The Earl of Hardwicke

stated, that the committee of the last session had taken great pains to procure evidence on the part of the petitioners, though unsuccessfully.

The Earl of Selkirk

said, that if they suffered corn to fall too low, it could not fail to rise again to an exorbitant height. A very considerable part of the land of the country being thrown out of cultivation by the want of encouragement to the farmer, there would necessarily be a great deficiency in the produce—such a deficiency indeed as could not be compensated by any importation: the quantity of corn imported into this country in the years of greatest scarcity was not more than ten millions of quarters of wheat, which was only a tenth of the quantity consumed—perhaps not more than three or four weeks consumption.

Earl Stanhope

rose to order, and begged the noble lord to consider the question before the House.

The Lord Chancellor

said, that if the noble earl had wished to confine the House strictly to the question, he should have interfered four hours ago.

The Earl of Selkirk

contended, that he was strictly in order; all the reasons he had slated were so many reasons for speedily passing a measure which would give confidence to the farmer.

The Earl of Darnley

thought the petitioners should be heard at the bar, as they had stated a special interest, viz. the assize of the quartern loaf. And he should be able to prove, if the question was inquired into, that the quartern loaf would not be so high as was apprehended. The loaf had never been so high as 14d. in any year when the average price was 80s. except in one instance. Although he should at all times do his duty, without any regard to clamour, he thought the utmost attention should be paid to petitions.

Lord Erskine

stated, that it had never been the practice of Parliament to hear petitioners by counsel, unless they could prove some special interest, distinct from the rest of the community; else there could be no end to petitions; one town might state it was not satisfied with the evidence adduced by another town, and beg to be heard by counsel merely for the sake of delay. He expressed himself favourable to a measure for the protection of the farmer in the employment of his capital.

Lord Grenville

briefly replied. The arguments that a special interest was the only ground on which petitioners could pray to be heard, was, he thought, erroneous, because, in the first place, no general rule could be adduced to bind down the conduct of Parliament, which was only to be guided by its discretion; and because the argument of his noble friend, that petitions would be presented, praying to be allowed to adduce evidence, merely for delay, would apply to cases where special interest was concerned, as well as to others. For example, on a measure affecting the woollen trade, every village, every individual concerned in that manufacture might petition to be heard; but the House, in its sound discretion, would interfere to frustrate their intentions. It was that discretion only which should be the rule of their conduct; and in the present case sufficient reasons had been adduced to show that the petitioners should be heard.

The House divided: Contents, 11; Non-Contents, 59: Majority against hearing counsel, 48.

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