HL Deb 26 April 1825 vol 13 cc165-70
Lord Melville

presented a petition from the commissioners of supply, justice of the peace, and freeholders of the county of Edinburgh, praying that no alteration might be made in the present system of the Corn Laws.

The Earl of Roseberry

presented a similar petition from the commissioners of supply and freeholders of the county of Ross. He was happy to hear that the opinion of the noble earl opposite was, that some change was necessary; but, entertaining such an opinion, he could but regret that the general question should not have been gone into during the present session. He was not himself prepared to say what change was desirable. There were many and great difficulties connected with a fixed duty; but, at the same time, the present system, by which corn was altogether excluded until it reached a certain price, was very injurious. He was happy, however, to see that ministers, by the introduction of the two measures, relative to Canada corn, and corn in bond, had taken precautions which would prevent the ports from being open. These were both good measures; and he hoped no person connected with the landed interest would feel any jea- lousy concerning them, or endeavour to oppose them.

The Marquis of Lansdown

rose pursuant to notice, to present a petition, praying for the revision of the Corn laws, from the merchants, bankers, manufacturers, and others, of the City of London. It was his intention to have called their lordships' attention to the subject on presenting their petition; but, after what had been elicited from the noble earl opposite yesterday, he felt that he should only be trespassing on the House to go into the general question at any length. At the same time he felt it a duty which he owed the petitioners to say, that the petition was most respectably signed, having attached to it 6,000 names, and among them those of the principal bankers, merchants, and commercial men of London. It was also his duty to state, that while the petition prayed for an alteration in the Corn laws, it by no means contained an unqualified demand of free trade. It called for importation under a protecting duty, capable of counterbalancing the burthens imposed on the British cultivator; and the petition could not, therefore, be said to come from persons who were led away by abstract principles, or theories. —He had already stated his own opinion of the necessity of some alteration in the Corn laws; and he fully concurred with the noble earl opposite, as to the impossibility of doing any thing on the subject at this late period of the session; but here he must observe, that he was convinced the alteration could not be long delayed without great danger. The keeping up the present system with the avowed determination to alter it, must be attended with great inconvenience, from the incitement it would give to speculation. It was impossible to look at the prices of corn in this country compared with the rest of Europe, without entertaining the apprehensions of their being run up here to 85s., which would open the ports, and cause an influx from all parts of the world. Such an event might bring the price of corn down to 40s. or even to 30s. the quarter, and thus produce one of the most violent revulsions this country ever experienced. Under these circumstances, he approved of the admission of corn from Canada, and of the intention to release the foreign corn bonded in the warehouses. He hoped that the effect of those measures would be to prevent corn front rising. Against such a revulsion as the opening of the ports would produce, it was the duty of parliament to provide, and that he thought could only be done by something like a fixed duty; but, the security to be derived from such a measure, would mainly depend upon the duty being of a permanent nature. He admitted that there were difficulties in the way of determining what that duty ought to be. It was undoubtedly true, that war would have the effect of altering the price of agricultural productions, by increasing the burthens on cultivation; but, at the same time, war gave the agriculturist an additional protection against importation, by increasing the price of freight. Thus there was a certainty of a countervailing protection, in the very circumstance which the noble earl had adduced as most likely to prevent the establishment of a permanent duty. Before he sat down, he must advert to one other point. As it had been positively stated in another place, that the agitation of this question had caused an alteration in the course of exchange unfavourable to this country, he would take that opportunity of assuring their lordships, that he had been informed, from the best authority, that that unfavourable course of exchange was in operation previous to any intimation of an intention to alter the Corn laws. It had been produced by a great demand from this country for cotton, coffee, and various other articles of foreign produce, which were paid for in money. The agitation of the question of the Corn laws might, in some degree, have contributed to the present state of exchange; but it certainly was not the sole, nor the main cause.

The Earl of Limerick

agreed in opinion with the noble marquis, as to the mischievous consequences of a sudden opening of the ports, but could riot concur with him in what he had said, as to the admission of corn from Canada, and the releasing of the bonded corn in warehouses. The consequence of the admission of Canadian corn would be to afford an inlet to the corn of the United States. There being only a river between the two territories, it was impossible to prevent smuggling; and the corn of the United States would, in future, be brought to this country, under the name of Canadian, as the timber of those states now was.

The Earl of Lauderdale

did not rise to discuss the important question to which their lordships' attention had been called, but to make one brief remark on what had fallen from his noble friend. The noble marquis had stated, that he had it from authority that the alteration which had taken place in the rate of exchanges was occasioned by the importation into this country of raw produce from abroad; and he had also said, that that importation originated in a demand for our manufactures. [Here lord Lansdown observed that he had been misunderstood.] Well, then, he was wrong in his manner of stating what had been said, but that made no difference as to the argument, because a demand for raw materials could originate in nothing else. But, if the demand were both ways equal, there could be no variation thereby produced in the exchanges; there would then be only an equal value going out and coming in. If there was any difference, it must arise from the state of the demand for home consumption. And here he wished the manufacturers would bethink themselves in time, of the consequences which would infallibly ensue, if the landed interest was impoverished. It was only when the landed interest was in a state of opulence that the manufacturer flourished. In this country the landed, mercantile, and manufacturing interests could not be separated. If the landed interest were thrown into a situation in which they could not consume largely, no class in the country would suffer therefrom so much as the manufacturers.

The Marquis of Lansdown, in alluding to the alteration in the course of exchange, observed, that he had stated that it occurred before the agitation of the corn question; so long ago as thirteen or fourteen months. He believed it to have been chiefly produced by a demand for produce from abroad; but he had not said that the importation was paid for by manufactures. On the contrary, he ought to have gone on to say, that the foreign articles had been paid for in specie. In consequence of a great demand for coffee and cotton, persons had speculated on a great rise in those articles, and importations had in consequence taken place from all parts of the world. He admitted the justice of the general principle stated by his noble friend, and agreed with him in opinion, that the true foundation of the manufacturers' prosperity was the growth of the home demand. He hoped the manufacturers would remember, that it was to the increase of that demand that they had recently been indebted for their relief from a state of great difficulty and depression.

The Earl of Liverpool

observed, that when the object was, to ascertain the cause of any difficulty, it was not unusual with inquirers to run into speculative extremes. In the present instance, his opinion was, that the truth lay between the noble marquis and the noble earl. He agreed, that one great cause of the alteration in the rate of exchange was the demand front the continent for manufactures which we paid for in cash; but he did not believe that the noble lord was correctly informed, when he alluded to the possibility of the ports being opened without producing any great effect. There were at the present moment, as he was informed extensive speculations going forward on the continent, in the article of corn but things must take their course, and these speculations should not be permitted to alter the proceeding which parliament might think proper to adopt. As to the propriety of attempting no alteration at the present session, he would rest it upon this consideration—that it was not probable they could come to any conclusion in the course of the session. As to the apprehension that was expressed on the subject of the exportation of corn from the United States of America, he thought it was considerably over rated; for if they looked to an account of the corn brought from the United States in the shape of flour, and all the corn was brought in that shape, their lordships would see that there existed no reasonable ground of alarm. They would find that the great supply in times of scarcity came not from America, but from the countries bordering on the Baltic. The immense expense of conveyance, and the long passage from the United States, would always operate as a sufficient check in that quarter; even if they had such immense supplies as seemed to be anticipated by those who were fearful of the amount of exports from America. That objection being removed, and there being other means of checking the interference of the United States, Canada was entitled to a preference as a part of the British dominions, above all other countries, if it should be found and necessary to give encouragement to any.

Lord Ellenborough

thought it was impossible to legislate permanently on the subject; for that could only lead to absolute freedom or absolute prohibition. If they would legislate with equal justice between the consumer and the producer, they must change with the changing circumstances of the times. What would be a fair duty this year, would not be a fair duty next year; and he regretted much, that at a period when the manufacturing and agricultural interests were in a state of prosperity, the question should have been introduced, and the inconveniences of a prospective change incurred without any necessity.

Lord King

observed, that the noble earl opposite had stated that some change would take place. Undoubtedly some change must take place. And, why must it? Because corn was too dear. Now, if that was the case, a great injustice would be done to the consumer by not adopting it without delay. Why should it not be adopted this year, instead of next year? The delay was injurious to the landed interests, now that it was announced that a change was to take place; seeing that it was calculated to unsettle their bargains and other transactions. He conceived that the landed interest, who paid poor rates, and church rates, and tithes, had a right to call for a protecting duty. About 10 or 12s. a quarter on wheat, and a proportionate duty on barley and oats, would, he thought, afford the landlord a fair compensation for those rates which were paid exclusively out of the land. This question, however, ought to be a measure of government. It ought to be settled, as it was termed in courts of justice, out of court; and he would rather choose the noble earl opposite and the president of the Board of Trade to settle it, than any parliamentary committee.

Lord Dacre

wished to abstain from giving any opinion upon this subject, until it came fairly before the House; nor should he now have offered any observations upon it, but for the manner in which his noble friend had just spoken of it. His noble friend had said, that 10 or 12s. would be a fair protecting duty. But, their lordships could not decide whether or not that would be enough to pay the expenses of the grower, until they first ascertained the relative expense of living in this and other countries. There were many other considerations which must be also well weighed first. The system hitherto pursued had been beneficial to all interests: whether the one about to be introduced would be beneficial to the country, remained to be considered.

Ordered to lie on the table.