HL Deb 16 May 1820 vol 1 cc388-95
Lord Calthorpe

rose to present a petition from the merchants and manufacturers of Birmingham, and observed, that its object was to induce their lordships to inquire into the distress of which the petitioners complained, and with which they were most grievously afflicted. The petitioners were, highly respectable persons, who would not come forward with frivolous complaints. They did not speak the language of unmanly despondency, but, conscious that the trade and manufactures of the country were in a state of great depression, they were anxious to see them restored to their wonted prosperity and vigour; or, if there existed any obstruction to that restoration, that its cause should be ascertained. Although he did not expect that any such inquiry would remedy the distress of which the petitioners complained, he thought the wish they expressed deserved the serious attention of their lordships. This petition spoke the language of a considerable portion of the manufacturing interest of the country; and it appeared to him that it would be but showing a fair concession to the opinion of such persons, and a just sympathy with the existing distress, if their lordships went into an inquiry, even though they should expect no advantageous result from it, and though they believed the evil to be one which admitted of no parliamentary remedy. On these grounds he was persuaded that the conciliatory disposition of their lordships would induce them to listen to the prayer of the petitioners, and that they would proceed to investigate the cause of the commercial distress, with the view of ascertaining whether they possessed the means of relief, and whether the subject was one fit for legislation. As he had reason to hope that his majesty's ministers would concur in this view, he should be happy if they took up the investigation themselves. He had perfect confidence in their intentions, and would be most happy to leave the subject entirely with them. For the present, therefore, he would make no mention relative to this petition, except that it do lie on the table.

The Marquis of Lansdowne,

before he offered any observations on the subject of the petition, wished to ask the noble lord opposite, whether it was his intention to propose to refer it to a committee, or to propose any other mode of inquiry into the distress to which it referred?

The Earl of Liverpool

said, he had no objection to answer the question of the noble marquis. His noble friend had alluded to the supposed intention of instituting an inquiry in another place, and it might be a question whether a simultaneous inquiry on another branch of the evil complained of would be advisable. To such a proceeding, with proper limitations, he could have no objection; and were a motion of that nature made by the noble marquis, or any other of the noble lords on that side of the House, he should not oppose it, but would take the opportunity of stating what his view and that of his majesty's government on the subject was. Thus far he was desirous to go to satisfy the public anxiety. No advantage, he was convinced, could be gained from a general investigation, and he was most desirous that no misconception should take place on the subject. While he stated this much, he must at the same time observe, that he did not intend to make any proposition on the part of the executive government. He did not think that the executive government ought to come down and propose to institute an inquiry on a subject of this kind, unless they were prepared with a cure, or distinctly saw some remedy which it would be in the power of parliament to apply. As he had said, however, he would make no objection to any inquiry which might be proposed by any other noble lord, provided it should be properly limited. With regard to the petitioners, he wished to bear testimony to what the noble lord who had presented the petition had said of the respectability of their character, as well as to the general good conduct of the people of Birmingham. The great mass of the population of that town had behaved with a patience and loyalty which, when they had any claim to make, must certainly entitle them to every proper indulgence on the part of their lordships, and particularly to the indulgence they now asked—that of having the opportunity of fully explaining the grievances of which they complained, with the view of obtaining a remedy.

The Marquis of Lansdowne

concurred in what had been said respecting the petition, which he regarded as fully meriting the character of the noble lord who presented it and the noble earl opposite had given it. In suitable language it stated the situation of the country and of the petitioners; it did not attempt to point out any remedy, but called upon their lordships to consider the subject. To such an appeal he was confident their lordships would listen. He had hoped that the noble earl opposite would have thought proper to recommend the instituting, either in or out of that House, such an inquiry as might lead at least to an explanation of the causes of the present distress; and, if no immediate remedy could be applied, to show the grounds on which it would be necessary that the evil the country was now suffering ought to be longer endured. Being satisfied that no such inquiry could be usefully instituted, without the concurrence of the executive government with the two Houses of Parliament, he was most desirous that the subject should be taken up by his majesty's ministers; but having ascertained that neither the noble earl opposite, nor any of his colleagues, entertained any such intention, and understanding also that the noble lord who presented the petition did not mean himself to call for any farther proceeding, he should certainly consider it his duty to submit to their lordships a motion for instituting an inquiry; but he could not think it advisable to propose such an inquiry upon that extensive and complicated scale which an investigation of the situation of the country in all the branches of its distress would require. He was satisfied that the inquiry would be likely to prove most advantageous, if limited to some practical points, Ho should therefore, on some subsequent day, propose the appointment of a committee to investigate only the means of extending the foreign trade of the country, He was far from thinking that such an inquiry as be intended to propose would be sufficient to relieve the executive government and parliament from searching to the bottom the causes of the other evils under which the country suffered, in order to remove them, if possible, or to prove to his majesty's subjects that the remedy was not in their power. He was afraid his shoulders would not be sufficiently strong to bear the burthen of instituting a more extensive inquiry; and on that account, as well as the utility of confining the investigation to a single object, he wished to limit it in the manner be had stated. He should, on Friday see night, take the opportunity of moving the appointment of a committee.

The Earl of Liverpool

declared, that to the noble marquis's motion, limited as he meant to propose it, he had no objection. When the proposition for appointing a committee should be made, he would state his view of the subject, but certainly not with any intention of opposing it. What it might then be proper to do would be a subject for future consideration. In the mean time, he should not object to the petition being referred to a committee.

Earl Grosvenor

understood the motion proposed to be brought forward by the noble marquis to be limited to the manufacturing interest, but he hoped that an inquiry into the agricultural distress would not be neglected.

The Earl of Liverpool

observed, that the notice applied only to foreign trade. He approved of the limitation of the inquiry; but as, in the observations be intended to make on the motion, he would take a general view of the state of our trade, it would be impossible for him to do so without entering into a consideration of the situation of the agriculture of the country. At the same time be was fully satisfied that there was no necessity for rendering the inquiry more extensive than the noble marquis proposed to make it. That noble lord had most properly limited his notice to a single object, and it would be for the consideration of the House whether they would afterwards go into any other inquiry.

The Marquis of Lansdowne

was aware that his motion would not prevent any noble lord from proposing to extend the powers of the committee, or to institute further investigations; but if any inquiries were to be instituted, he thought it most desirable that they should be limited to distinct points. He was afraid that, if their lordships embarked in a general investigation, a door would be opened for the admission of every theory, and that they would finally be able to come to no conclusion; whereas, by confining the inquiry to one branch of the existing distress, there was a chance of attaining to something like a practical result.

Earl Grosvenor

thought the observations of his noble friend very proper. He was only anxious that it should not appear to the country that their lordships were disposed to devote their attention to the manufacturing or trading distress only.

The Earl of Lauderdale

thought it impossible for their lordships, with so many petitions on their table, to neglect taking notice of the agricultural distress; but what he chiefly rose for was, to implore their lordships not to enter into an investigation of the general state of the country. If they went to such an inquiry, the number of witnesses, and facts of all sorts, which would be brought forward, would only render an accurate conclusion impracticable, and open a door to fresh discussions and disputes. He therefore approved of the manner in which his noble friend had limited his motion; but he also thought with him that the executive government ought at the same time to search with activity for the means of applying a remedy to the distress. One of the greatest uses of parliament was the prosecution of distinct branches of inquiry of the nature of that to which the committee was proposed to be limited; but this did not relieve the executive government from the performance of their duty.

The Earl of Darnley

thought it would be better if no question respecting the distress of the agricultural interest were brought forward, for he did not conceive that any remedy could be applied to the evil. The petitions of the numerous individuals before the House deserved every consideration; but he was afraid a cure for their distress could not be easily found. He thought it his duty to take the earliest opportunity of stating his opinion on the subject.

Lord Erskine

differed in opinion with his noble friend who had just spoken. He thought a remedy for the agricultural distress was much more easily to be found than their lordships appeared to imagine. He, however, agreed in the propriety of; making the inquiries into the commercial and agricultural distress distinct and separate. He should, perhaps, take an opportunity of bringing the latter subject; under their lordships consideration, and would then explain the grounds on which he was of opinion that the application of a remedy to agricultural distress was easy and simple.

The Earl of Donoughmore

was sorry that government appeared to have thrown the consideration of the distressed state of the country off their own shoulders, because he was convinced that any proposition on the subject would come with more prospect of success, from minister, than from the side of the House: on which he stood; and he hoped he might be allowed to say, that to do so would be nothing more than their duty. Could they possibly have a more important duty than that of attending to the distress of; the country? With all the details of that distress his majesty's ministers must of necessity be better acquainted than any other individuals in parliament. They must have before them facts, the knowledge of which no other persons could obtain. A proposition brought forward by them would be certain of having effect; while, from the side of the House on which he sat, it was almost sure of a negative.

The Earl of Liverpool

felt it impossible, after what had fallen from the noble earl who spoke last, not to trouble their lordships with a few words. He had not stood in the way of the discussion of the state of the country, for their lordships would recollect him to have stated, that when the proposition of the noble marquis should be brought, he would not confine himself to a silent vote in its support, but should on that day be prepared to enter into, not a limited discussion, but into the consideration of every subject connected with the motion. Here he would have wished that the matter had been allowed to rest; but the noble lord had supposed that, because his majesty's ministers did not come to parliament with a proposition on the part of the executive government, they neglected their duty. He agreed with the noble lord that it was their duty at all times, and more particularly at a time like the present, to inquire into the state of the country; and he was ready to admit, that if they had not inquired they had neglected their duty. But did it follow that they had been guilty of such negligence because no proposition had been submitted to their lordships? Without any disrespect to that or to the other House of Parliament, he might say that the executive government would have done wrong in making an appeal to them the first step on such an occasion. Before any proposition was made by the executive government to parliament, it was necessary that ministers should be prepared to state whether they had any cure to offer, and what remedies might or might not be applied. No noble lord was, however, precluded from taking up the subject; but, before his majesty's ministers assumed that office, they ought to be able to make some precise proposition, and to say distinctly what was most fit to be done. He would not assert that something might not and ought not to be done, but this he would say, that in political economy far more danger was to be apprehended from doing too much than from not interfering at all. A reference to the Statute-book would show, that attempts to cure supposed evils had been the cause of great mischief. What their lordships had to complain of was, not that in past ages the legislature had done too little, but that, doubtless with the best intentions, too much had been done. It was fit, therefore, that their lordships should go into the inquiry with these considerations impressed on their minds, and give that deliberation to the subject which its importance required. Inconsiderate propositions, in such cases, from individuals, were dangerous, but if brought forward by the executive government, they became ten times more dangerous.

Earl Grosvenor

was far from proposing that agricultural distress should make a part of the inquiry about to be brought forward, and he was indeed far from supposing that any good could be done by the inquiry: that is, that any effectual remedy would be found by the committee. It was, however, proper that those who suffered so severely should have their prayer for inquiry satisfied. In his opinion, there was only one remedy for the public distress, and that was the application of the strictest economy to every part of the public expenditure; and he must say that, from all he had yet seen, he was almost in a state of despair as to the application of this effectual remedy. From what was every day passing, it was impossible for him to believe that ministers were earnest in the prosecution of that economy which could alone give prosperity to the country.

The petition was laid on the table, and their lordships were orderd to be summoned for Friday se'nnight.