HL Deb 25 April 1825 vol 13 cc142-9
The Marquis Camden

presented a petition from several Land-owners and Land-occupiers, against any alteration of the Corn Laws. The subject, he said, was one involving very important interests, and required that their lordships should proceed with great caution.

The Earl of Lauderdale,

seeing the noble earl opposite in his place, rose to ask what were the intentions of his majesty's government on this subject? He did not mean to enter, in the smallest degree, into the general question; but he could assure their lordships, that there prevailed a great degree of agitation on the subject; and as long as the question was left open, numerous petitions would be sent to their lordships. Not only the agriculturists and the manufacturers were interested in it, but the monied men in the City, as every body must know who attended to the state of the exchanges, were affected by this question being kept open. He, therefore, hoped the noble earl would state whether his majesty's ministers meant to propose any alteration in the corn laws during the present session.

The Earl of Liverpool

said, he had no objection to give as satisfactory an answer as possible, to the question of the noble earl. At the same time, he could not, consistently with the importance of the subject, and the duty which he owed to the public, answer the question of the noble earl without troubling their lordships with a few observations. Their lordships were aware, that the last time the subject was brought under consideration, was in the year 1822. At that time the parliament did not adhere to the system of 1815: some alteration was made; and it appeared from the report of the committee of the House of Commons, that it was in the contemplation of the committee to recommend a further alteration in the whole system of the corn laws. Thus the question stood at the beginning of this session, and now stands, subject, however, to a small qualification which he should hereafter mention. He had no difficulty in stating to their lordships, what he had previously stated in private, that, in his opinion, some alteration ought to be made in the general system of the corn laws; he thought, however, that it would not be expedient to make that alteration during the present session. He said this present session, because it was probable that, in the next session, it would be found necessary to take up this great and important question in all its bearings.— There were some points to which he would briefly allude, in order to show their lordships, that enlarged inquiry and considerable discussion would be necessary, before they could hope to settle the question on any sure and proper grounds. Their lordships all knew the difference of opinion which prevailed on this subject; and no one knew it better than his noble friend who had put the question. If the country were allowed to remain in any uncertainty, their lordships' table would be crowded with petitions. Petitions would come from one large and respectable body, praying for an alteration, which would have the effect of lowering prices; and there would also be petitions from another class equally respectable, against any measure which might have a tendency to produce any such effect. Their lordships must not conceal from themselves the truth, though it was clear to every enlarged view, that no statesman could doubt, that all the interests of a state were closely combined, and that whatever promoted the welfare and prosperity of one, also ultimately promoted the welfare and prosperity of others. Still, those who would come to their lordships with petitions on this subject, did not take this comprehensive view. On this question there was one branch of the great and leading interests of the country, which always endeavoured to prevent the price from falling too low; while there was another branch which always wished to keep the price as low as possible. No statesman could overlook this difference of opinion, or perhaps condemn the persons who entertained these different opinions; but, it was his duty to attend equally to all the great interests of the country. On this important question he had had many communications from more than one quarter: he had heard numerous doctrines about free trade; but, in the course of all the discussions of this question which had fallen under his notice, its true difficulties were never fairly considered. He hoped and believed that their lordships would give him credit for saying, that no man could be more desirous than he was, to see the trade of the country placed on the most liberal footing; but, when commercial principles were applied to corn, obstacles arose which were not easily overcome. In all other kinds of manufacture, if a fixed protecting duty were imposed, it would be easy to abide by it. Whatever might be the state of the home supply at a particular time, things would at length come round, and the manufacture would find its level. But, it was not so with respect to corn; because, at however equitable a rate the duty might be fixed, still periods and seasons might occur, in which no protecting duty whatever could be adhered to. In a time of great scarcity it could not be said to a starving population, that they should pay any thing in addition to the natural price of corn. He threw out these observations merely to show, that there was a great difficulty belonging to this question; but, he was perfectly satisfied that their lordships must proceed to its consideration, with the view of making some alteration in the present system. This, he thought, would appear to be called for on several grounds. The price of corn in this country was now nearly double what it was in 1815, when the present system was fixed. The argument used in making that arrangement was, that it was necessary to raise the price, in order to secure a reasonable profit on cultivation. This appeared to be by no means necessary now, with 80s. for the importation price. He felt, however, that he should not be rightly discharging his duty, if he ventured to give any opinion as to what ought to be the duty, or import price. Next session an opportunity would be afforded their lordships for a full consideration of the subject. In the mean time, he should only state what appeared to him to be the different principles on which their lordships would have to decide. He had stated, that the present system could not be maintained—that was to say, with respect to the importation price—in consequence of the effect which it had on the value of labour. Their lordships would, therefore, have to proceed on one of three principles. First; they might alter the importation price, and in other respects retain the system. Secondly; they might alter the existing system altogether, and, adopting the recommendation of the committee of 1822, impose protecting duties with a maximum, beyond which importation should be perfectly free, and a minimum, under which no importation should be allowed. Thirdly; a general protecting duty might be fixed, getting rid of the present system of averages. Either of these latter plans would form a complete alteration in the present state of the Corn laws; but, the last mode could not be resorted to, without placing somewhere a discretionary power to remove the duty altogether in a time of scarcity. Much difficulty would be found in establishing a maximum or minimum along with a fixed protecting duty. If, therefore, a fixed duty should be rejected, their lordships would have the option, either of adhering to the present system with an alteration of the import price, or establishing a system of protecting duties with a maximum and minimum; or else of taking a maximum and minimum without any protecting duty. He knew not whether he had made himself intelligible; but, he thought it right to lay before the House the different systems which it was likely their lordships would have to discuss. He must again repeat, that it was not his intention to propose any alteration in the Corn laws during the present session. He did not know, however, but that one particular part of the present system might sooner be brought under their lordships' consideration; he meant the question relating to the bonded corn winch had been and still was in warehouses. That question had already undergone some alteration with respect to Canada corn. With regard to the other bonded corn, those members of the landed interest whom he had consulted on the subject were favourable to the contemplated alteration. As to the general question, he certainly could not think it right to enter on its consideration at that late period of the session; but, aware that it must in due time come under consideration, he was anxious to put the House in possession of his views and feelings on the subject.

The Marquis of Lansdown

said, he had a petition to present from the city of London, praying for a revision of the Corn laws, which he should submit to their lordships to-morrow. He concurred in much of what had fallen from the noble earl opposite; at the same time, he must observe, that the result of much deliberate and serious reflection on this subject had brought him to the conclusion, that it would be ultimately impossible for parliament to continue a system of restrictive Corn laws. It would, therefore, be the duty of parliament to look forward to the doing away of the system altogether. He agreed with the noble earl, as to the difficulty of fixing a duty which would not be found very inconvenient in periods of scarcity or abundance; but, at the same time, he regarded such a plan as the best calculated to prevent scarcity. While, however, he entertained this opinion as to a fixed duty, he was far from regarding parliament to be now in a situation to determine the average price, which would afford a sufficient guarantee to the British cultivator, and next the average rate of productiveness on the continent. He was sure that most erroneous notions prevailed as to the average cost and price of agricultural produce on the continent, and that there was great difficulty in determining what it was likely to be, in such a way as to enable their lordships accurately to fix a rate of duty. In coming to a determination, it would be their lordships' duty to endeavour to conciliate all the interests in the country, and to take care that the balance should not incline too much to the one side or the other. Their great object should be, to arrive at something fixed and permanent; for, bad as the present system was, he would rather retain it with all its faults, than change it for one still liable to fluctuation. It was obvious that if too high a price were fixed, the manufacturing interest would have just reason to complain of the dearness of provisions, which must raise the price of every kind of labour. If the price were fixed too low, the landed interest would he injured, and with it, as recent events had most strikingly proved, every other interest in the country would be seriously affected. Their lordships would then be assailed with a clamour, and parliament would be again compelled to raise the price. On these grounds, he thought he could not too strongly impress on their lordships, the necessity of considering this important subject in all its bearings; and, in their revision of the present system, of looking to the establishment of a permanent law, which would be capable of conciliating the interests of all the different classes of the empire.

The Earl of Lauderdale

thanked the noble earl for the exposition he had given of his views on the Corn laws. It was not his intention then to deliver any opinion, as to any particular plan which it might be proper for parliament to adopt; but, he must remind their lordships, that while they were considering the subject, speculation would be at work. It was therefore necessary to delay their determination as little as possible, and to make the new system one of more certainty than the present. A fixed and permanent arrangement ought to be adopted, suited to a time of peace. The noble earl had stated, that under the present system, corn was in this country twice the price at which it was sold for on the continent; but, he should recollect, that when the last arrangement was made, the agriculturists were told that 80s. was to be the minimum. Their complaint, however, was, that the price had never reached 80s. However, during the existence of the arrangement, bread had never been at an unreasonable price. If it were intended to come at last to a permanent arrangement, he did not conceive that the task could be accomplished, without a most laborious inquiry, not only into the state of agriculture in this country, but into its relative situation in the other parts of Europe. When their lordships considered that the present system, under various modifications, was the same which had endured for more than a century, they could not be too cautious in departing entirely from it. He did not say that it was perfect; but, it was one under which the agriculture of this country had long flourished. On this ground, he dreaded alteration. He dreaded it, because, if any change was to be, it ought to be to a permanent system, which was difficult; and, because the situation of the landed interest was different from that of any other. Capital was embarked on land under leases of twenty-one years, and the value of that capital would be instantly affected by any alteration of the law. All he should say at present was, that he hoped the inquiry would be extensive, and that the discussion would be conducted with liberality.

The Earl of Liverpool

wished to make one observation more, in consequence of what had fallen from the noble lords opposite. He fully agreed with them in the importance of a careful investigation, and that if a change of system were made, it should be one of as permanent a nature as possible. But, if they were to look to the price of grain in this country and abroad, they would find that nothing could be of a more varying nature. To be convinced of this, they had only to refer to the prices of the last thirty years. The different rate of taxation in this and other countries necessarily caused a great difference of price, and rendered it difficult to come to a decision on the question of duty. The variation in the weight of the taxation, too, from seventy to forty millions, was a cause of fluctuation. Prussia, Poland, and other countries, from which foreign corn was usually imported, were all poor; but, as they increased in wealth and civilization, their power of supplying us would become less. These were all circumstances hostile to that permanency which was so desirable. Their lordships would have to consider, whether they would adhere to the present system, or adopt one of protecting or fixed duties; but, in whatever way they might proceed, it appeared to him, that they never could expect to obtain that certainty which would enable them to fix an unalterable price.

Lord King

said, he wished a determination to be come to on this subject as speedily as possible; for, in consequence of the agitation of the question, bargains between individuals must be at a stand, until a settlement took place. He was glad that the noble earl opposite was to call the attention of parliament to the subject; and he hoped that an understanding would be brought about between the landed interest and the manufacturers. Wheat in some of the continental ports was 18s.; but, if the market was opened in this country, it would rapidly rise perhaps to 56s. or 60s.; but, whatever might be the present price, great difficulty would be experienced in founding on it a fixed rate for importation. One great inconvenience of a high rate was, that when the ports were suddenly thrown open, an immense importation took place. Some measure ought to be adopted, to restrain the excessive importation which took place in such cases.

The Earl of Rosslyn

hoped, that nothing would be done in this matter without a complete inquiry, and without having the whole subject sifted to the bottom. The burthen of proving the necessity of change lay upon those who proposed to alter the present system. As the change would affect the state of every contract throughout the country, the intended investigation would require great caution and delicacy.

Lord Calthorpe,

after expressing his opinion in favour of the proposed investigation, presented a petition from the Chamber of Commerce of Birmingham, praying for a revision of the Corn laws.

The Earl of Darnley

was glad to hear that this important subject was to be inquired into. He always regarded the landed and commercial classes of the country as hiving one common interest. Of this he was certain, that if the landed interest was injured by any change in the corn laws, the British manufacturers would lose their best customers. He approved of the plan of coming to no decision until next session.