HL Deb 31 March 1828 vol 18 cc1364-76
The Duke of Wellington

said, he rose for the purpose of moving for certain papers, which would tend to show their lordships the operation of the act of the last session, relative to the introduction, for home consumption, of Corn warehoused before the 1st of July, 1827. In performing that task, he would avail himself of the opportunity it afforded him of stating to the House, the nature of the measure to regulate the introduction of foreign corn, which it was the intention of government to propose to parliament, and the principle upon which that measure was founded. Thir lordships were well aware that there existed a variety of opinions respecting the introduction of foreign Corn; some persons holding that its importation should be regulated by a high duty, while others contended for its free introduction. He had therefore considered it his duty, and his colleagues had considered it their duty also, in the measure which they were about to propose to parliament, to steer their course between the two extremes, and to propose a measure which would conciliate all parties, and be at the same time favourable to the public. Their lordships would recollect that, notwithstanding the difference of opinion which existed on this subject, all parties agreed that there ought to be some measure brought forward to regulate the introduction of foreign wheat; and while some had expressed the opinion that Corn ought to be imported into this country free from duty, and others had thought that a small duty on its introduction ought to be imposed, and if ever there should be a fixed duty, in his opinion it ought to be a small one,—all had agreed that some protection should be afforded to the agriculturist of this country. The opinion of those who contended for a small duty was founded upon the great burthen of taxation in this country, the particular burthens on land, and the superior mode of tillage. The opinion of those who were in favour of a low duty went to establish a system under which the poorer lands of this country, which had been brought into cultivation by the application of labour and capital, would be thrown entirely out of cultivation, and even the richer lands would be affected. This country, he would maintain, had been brought into the state of cultivation in which it now was, by the protection which had been invariably afforded to agriculture by parliament, and which had induced gentlemen to lay out their capital upon the cultivation of waste lands. The effect of the proposition of those who were for a low duty would be to throw the poorer lands out of cultivation and turn them into waste, to reduce the cultivation of the richer lands, thus diminishing the productive powers of the country, and filially to throw this country for support and subsistence on foreign countries. Besides these circumstances, he begged their lordships to consider the consequences which must result if the powers from whose dominions those resources were generally drawn were to lay a heavy tax on the exportation of Com or upon its transit. He entreated their lordships to consider what must be the consequences of such an act on the part of those powers: for the performing of which they might be fully justified. But supposing such moderation on their part, as to allow this country to continue to draw supplies from their dominions, he entreated their lordships to observe that this country would find itself, under that system, at all times in the same state in which it found itself in years of famine, and would be exposed to the largest prices of Corn; for though the cost of production in Poland would not be increased, yet prices would be regulated here, not by the prices in that country, but by the profits which were to be derived by all those who were concerned in the importation of the corn. Under those circumstances, a reduction of duty would not be productive of a reduction in price, considering the state of agriculture, but would, on the contrary, produce an enormous increase of price. He begged their lordships to look to Ireland, and to consider what must be the consequences of the want of encouragement to agriculture, when applied to that country, a country which last year supplied England with two million quarters of grain; the quantity of wheat imported being no less than four hundred thousand quarters. He begged their lordships to consider what must be the consequences of cutting off from that country the only source of industry—the only manufacture, with one exception which remained to her. He was sure that no man who felt for that country would think it prudent to make, such a sacrifice, in order to introduce corn into this country at a cheaper rate. But he spoke not only with reference to Ireland, but also to this country. He was ready to state that the gentlemen of this country had, by the expense of their capital, and the labour which they had employed on their estates, raised the agriculture of the country to its present prosperous condition; and nothing could be more unjust than to take from them that protection by which they had been enabled to bring cultivation to the state in which it now was, and to deprive them of those profits which were so justly their due, on account of the capital laid out by them. He would say that the merchant, the manufacturer, the poor, and the whole public, were interested in the maintenance of the independent affluence of the nobility and gentry of this country; that the government were interested in supporting their influence on account of the assistance which had always been derived from them in every branch of internal government, and on account of the support which they had afforded to government under every circumstance. If it were in his power to make corn cheaper by lessening the protection which the landed gentry had always received, he would not do it, but would leave this country under an expense which it was for its interest to suffer, considering the condition of Ireland.— Having expressed his opinion upon the system of importation at a low duty, he would now make a few remarks with respect to the other system—that of entire prohibition, which had been greatly complained of. The truth was, that such a system could not be carried strictly into execution, without exposing the country to the greatest evils—first of all from want, next from high prices, and also from a superabundance of corn, arising from the introduction of a greater quanity of wheat than was required, at a period when the scarcity had been relieved by an abundant harvest; and lastly, from the depression of prices, affecting not only the produce s of corn in this country, but also the importers of foreign grain. Those evils could be relieved only by the illegal interference of the government, or by ministers coming down to induce parliament to consent to the suspension of the law. There was not a doubt that the system of prohibition had produced all the evils to which he had alluded.—He understood that a noble lord had stated, that there were resources in the act of the year 1822, which allowed the diminishing of prices for paying duties; but the country could no more bear the price of 70s. as a prohibition, than that of 80s.; and the noble lord greatly deceived himself if he supposed that a duty of 17s., for three months, and of 12s. ever after, could be borne, when the price of wheat rose to 70s. Under those circumstances, we were driven from the consideration of a prohibition and a fixed duty, unless a small one had all the objections of a prohibition. Government had, therefore, gone to the consideration of a measure adopted on the principle of the bill introduced to their lordships' House last year—that of the duty rising as prices fell, and falling as prices rose, allowing thereby, in proportion as the price of corn in this country was best calculated to bear it, foreign corn to come in by degrees, under certain duties. He wished their lordships to recollect, that after the bill had come under their consideration last year, and was abandoned by the noble lord who had introduced it, an act was passed to enable the holders of corn which had been bonded previous to the 1st of July, 1827, to introduce that corn into the home-market for consumption, after the passing of the act, upon payment of the duty proposed by the bill which had been allowed to drop. From the papers which it was his intention to move for, he would show their lordships the result of the operation of that act. When the bill was brought under their lordships' consideration he had supported it, and he recollected stating his opinion, that that would be an experiment of the measure which had been discussed during the session. He admitted, however, that the experiment had not been a perfectly fair one; for the truth was, that by one of the clauses of that act, those who had corn in bond were obliged to take it out between the months of July and May. They were therefore induced to take out more than they otherwise would have been disposed to do, had they been left entirely to their own discretion. He entreated their lordships to bear this fact in remembrance. The corn in bond on the 1st of July, 1827, amounted to six hundred and thirty-three thousand nine hundred and five quarters; of which five hundred and thirty-one thousand five hundred and seventy-five quarters had been taken out of bond, and one hundred and nineteen thousand four hundred and thirty-four quarters were the amount in bond on the 15th of February last. Under these circumstances, the act had proved ineffectual; because it had brought the corn out of bond, when he believed the price in this country was not such as to render the introduction of corn necessary; he therefore asserted that the measure had in that respect been ineffectual; and it had also been ineffectual in another point. Of that corn which had thus come out of bond, three hundred and eighty thousand quarters were taken out at a duty corresponding to the price of 50s. under the old bill, and ninety-five thousand quarters came out when the price was at a rate lower than that at which it was intended so large a quantity should be admissible. At the same time he begged their lordships to recollect, that the corn had been forced out of bond by the clause to which he had alluded, which obliged the holders of corn to take it out previously to the 1st of May; and he also begged of them to recollect, that the act had also been ineffectual in this respect, inasmuch as there still was retained in bond one hundred and nineteen thousand quarters, being about one fifth of the whole quantity. In the measure which it was now the intention of government to propose to parliament, the duty, when corn was at 50s. the quarter, would be 34s.; and from 34s. it would go on decreasing 1s., according as the price of corn increased 1s. until corn rose to 64s. At that price the duty would be 20s.; at 65s. per quarter, 18s.; at 66s. per quarter, 16s.; and at 56s. per quarter, the duty would be the same under this bill as under the last. The difference of the duties under the present system, compared with the bill of last year, would be this:—With corn at 50s. the quarter, the duty would be 34s., being a decrease of 6s.; at 55s. there would be a decrease of Is. of duty. He had already said that at 56s. the duty was the same as under the last bill. At 57s. there would be an increase of 1s.; at 58s. there was an increase of 2s.; at 60s. there would be an increase of 4s.; at 61s. an increase of 5s.; at 62s. an increase of 6s.; at 63s. an increase of 7s.; and at 64s. an increase of 8s.; at 65s., and 66s. also, an increase of 8s.; at 67s. an increase of 7s.; and at 68s. an increase of 6s. With respect to oats and barley, it was proposed that they should remain in the state in which they were placed by the law last passed.— There remained now only another point to which he wished to draw their lordships' attention. Their lordships would remember that, during the discussion of the bill of last year, he had moved an amendment, the object of which was to prevent frauds in the system of averages from being carried into execution by means of the warehousing system. Since last year a great deal had been done to remedy those frauds. In the first place, the Irish and Scotch corn in the market had been included in the averages; and returns from a great number of places, not before included, were added. The difficulty of fraud would be increased in proportion to the quantity on which the average was struck. Besides this, the additional duty laid on the article itself would render the gain by any fraud, from the price varying between 1s. and 2s. only, so small, that it would scarcely be worthy any person's while to attempt imposition. Their lordships would recollect, that in discussing this question last year, he had stated that it was his wish to introduce some regulations which might put an end to all such frauds. He was, however, aware that it was difficult to frame regulations strictly applicable to the trade in corn. The objection to them was founded on the injury which the trade might experience from any regulations. Under these circumstances, and considering the duty now proposed, to be such as would be admitted by every one as sufficient to give a full and fair protection to the agriculture of the country, he trusted their lordships would be satisfied without any interference with the bonding system.—Having now mentioned every thing he wished to state, he earnestly entreated their lordships to consider what he had just proposed, before they entered into any discussion. He had only to move for an account of the average price of wheat from the 1st of July last to the latest period; and also for a return of the quantity of foreign wheat entered for home consumption during the same period, and the rate of duty paid thereon.

The Earl of Falmouth

said, he had entertained a sincere hope that what the noble duke had to bring forward would have been so entirely satisfactory to parliament and the country, as to give occasion for no observations whatever. He confessed, however, that though the outset of the noble duke's speech had afforded him the hope that those expectations would be realized, he had been disappointed with what had followed; and though he could assure the noble duke that he thought every thing which emanated from him entitled to the utmost consideration, he could not but make known his disappointment. Circumstances had changed since a bill of a nature similar to the one now proposed was discussed last session. Their lordships were aware that circumstances had changed most favourably, notwithstanding the arguments which had been urged in favour of that bill, and the evils pointed out as likely to arise from a moderate harvest. Those anticipations had been completely falsified by the result; but a quantity of wheat, amounting to more than five hundred thousand quarters, had been entered for home consumption, which had thrown down the price of the averages to a rate at which it was impossible that wheat could generally be cultivated in this country. If he understood the noble duke rightly, it was intended to give to the farmer a boon of only 4s.; but he did not think 4s. sufficient. It might perhaps seem that, being a landholder, he was unreasonable; but he begged to call their lordships' attention to the state of the country. One broad fact stared them constantly in the face; namely, that without agricultural prosperity it was impossible there could be general prosperity in this country. Every tradesman in a country town was aware that the farmer was his best customer. Much had been said about superabundance of population, and of the increase of crime, particularly of the crime of poaching. There might be a complication of causes, which tended to increase the evil, but the principal cause was, because the farmer could not at the present prices, employ the superabundant population. Those prices were calculated on the nice economy of parliament—prices at which the farmer could just put his wheat into the ground, in those parts of the country not peculiarly favourable, on account of the soil or other circumstances. The farmer was called upon to exert himself against the evil of superabundant population, at the same time that the sources from which his industry and exertions were to spring were dried up. He thought that, placed as they were, it would be better to wait a year or two under the operation of the existing Corn-laws, than to adopt any crude or incomplete measure.

Lord King

said, he could not allow that opportunity to pass, without expressing an opinion upon the present proposition. He had heard it rumoured a day or two ago, that the pivot price would be raised 2s.; but now out came the reality, that the addition, instead of being 2s., was actually 4s.; and at certain points and turns of the market, it was to make no less a difference than 8s. between the scale of prices in the new bill and that of last year. To such a system of legislation he might content himself to reply in a single observation, couched in three or four well-known words, and these were— "this is too bad." If in fair weather they were to attempt to maintain these prices, when the seasons went beyond the average, what were the people to expect when a reverse took place? He begged, on this first movement of the government upon the Corn-laws, to assure the noble duke, that if he meant this to be a permanent bill, he was never more mistaken in his life, than in endeavouring to effect such an arrangement as this. Last year's bill was bad enough for the country; but this was "too bad" indeed. It was intolerable to expect that such a plan to increase the market price could be maintained: it was quite chimerical, The noble duke had said, let them look to Ireland. And well they might, for Ireland alone had the merit of preventing the consummation of the original design of these Corn-bill framers; namely, their keeping up the prices at 80s. To Ireland this country was indebted for the prices being lowered to 50s. or 60s. Those who concocted the bill in 1815, and their 80s. price, did not contemplate the effect which the importations from Ireland would produce upon the market. It was Ireland, then, that had enabled the British population to subsist, in spite of these 80s. speculators. Bad as last year's bill was, and worse as the present looked, there were, it seemed, individuals who were yet unsatisfied with what they called adequate protection. He wished such people joy of their feelings: a more unreasonable class of expectants had never been left to brood over their chagrin. He was sorry that he neither could agree in the principle of the noble duke's resolutions, nor in the general doctrine which he had propounded in introducing them.

Lord Goderich

said, that though this was not the proper time to discuss the proposed bill, he wished to express his anxious desire that this question should be brought, if possible, to a satisfactory termination in the course of the present session. It was high time that the country should know how it was really to stand respecting these laws; for he could not imagine a greater evil than the continuance of the present incomplete plan for two or three years longer. He assured the noble duke, that he felt the greatest anxiety to look with a favourable eye upon any approximation to a fair settlement of this question. If his noble friend had, however, through any views of policy or consistency, introduced his clause of last year, he should have been obliged to object to at least that part of his proposition. But, as his noble friend did not intend to propose that clause, the question was reduced to a matter of degree, upon which he hoped they would come to a fair understanding. As far as he was himself concerned, he was prepared to sacrifice much of his individual opinion, to produce a general conciliatory arrangement. He would not pretend to say that there were not details in the proposition before their lordships which went beyond his view of what was necessary; but as far as regarded the addition of the 4s., he was not adverse to it. He would repeat, for God's sake let the question be now settled, and he hoped that in the consideration of this formidable subject, they would exclude from their minds all individual and party feelings, for the better attainment of a satisfactory conclusion to the business.

Lord Redesdale

was of opinion, that the country did not stand in need of a law, the effect of which must be to lessen the amount of agricultural produce, and consequently still further to diminish the employment at present afforded to agricultural labourers. The importation of one million quarters of foreign corn must, it was calculated, reduce the market-price in this country 2s. a quarter, and it had been further conjectured, that the opening; of our ports to that commodity would take no less than seven millions out of the pockets of the agriculturists, and consequently diminish in an equal degree the employment of labour. If this was the case, the farmer, instead of receiving the reward of his own labour, would be incapable of availing himself of the labours of others; and the consequence would be a degree of distress of which it was impossible to form an adequate idea. He much wished noble lords would turn their attention to the real amount of the labour called into activity by the agriculture of the country. He alluded not merely to the number of persons more immediately employed in the management of land, but to that numerous class of persons whose occupation it was, to produce the various necessaries consumed by individuals engaged in agriculture. The number of our population so engaged would be found to be infinitely greater than all those who derived their subsistence from the manufacture of articles intended for foreign markets. That was a most im- portant consideration.—Another point deserving attention was this:—Supposing our ports to be open to the importation of foreign grain, and two or three consecutive bad seasons to occur, the unavoidable result must be, that instead of cheap, we should produce dear corn. This was the necessary consequence of depending for our supply upon foreign soils. The only means in our power of having cheap corn was to have a large production of that commodity at home. An error into which the opponents of restrictions in the corn trade were liable to fall, was this:—they considered the production of corn as constituting the whole of agriculture; forgetting altogether the important article of wool. Now this was absurd; for if a question was to be examined, it ought to be investigated in all its bearings and relations. We went on importing foreign wool to an extent almost incredible, while we had lying in our warehouses immense quantities of our own growth. The direct consequence of this was, to lessen the number of sheep in this country, and to impair agriculture to an equal extent. If the noble duke were to propose a duty on manure, their lordships would think it a very extraordinary tax; but the importation of foreign wool, as at present permitted, diminished our breed of sheep, and was neither more nor less than imposing a duty on that manure which was necessary for the production of corn. There was another consideration deserving of attention: if by permitting the importation of wool the legislature reduced the profits of agriculture in the article of wool, they necessarily increased the price of meat; for if the farmer could not obtain a profit on his wool, he would be obliged to raise the price of meat, in order to secure a profit somewhere. He should like to know the amount of population employed in agricultural pursuits, and the number not directly so engaged, but whose employment arose out of the profits of agriculture, and the necessity that existed for supplying the wants of agriculturists through their agency. If such information was afforded, their lordships would find that the trade, commerce, and manufactures of the country were, in comparison, of little consequence. The effect of the measure proposed by the noble duke would be this—that, if it allowed a fair price to the farmer in good seasons, it would utterly ruin him in bad ones; for, when the agriculturists had only half instead of a whole crop, the consequence would be that, by the importation of foreign corn, the farmer, instead of gaining a profit, must inevitably be ruined. The system on which the Corn-laws were founded was this: we contemplated the importation of foreign corn only when it was found that, unless we resorted to that course, greater inconveniences would ensue. Importation was, in fact, intended to prevent scarcity. What were the results of a perseverance in that system? Improvement in agriculture; and, instead of an increase, a diminution in the price of corn, amounting, in late years, to nearly one half. If their lordships looked impartially at the subject, they must perceive that the only way to have cheap corn was by raising the condition of agriculture; and that the only way to have corn permanently cheap was to produce it ourselves. Of one thing he was assured—that if the duty on the importation of foreign grain was to undergo any modification, it ought not to be rapidly or suddenly diminished. If any other course was adopted, it would be impossible to prevent the dangers and losses consequent to the agriculturists upon a succession of bad seasons. When a bad season occurred, and the farmer obtained not more than half a crop from his ground, he could not be expected to sell for the same price as was practicable under more favourable circumstances. He could not too frequently press upon their lordships' attention the importance of inquiring into the amount of population employed in the cultivation of land, and in supplying necessaries of various kinds to persons so employed. It was not of so much importance to what price corn might chance to rise in this country, so long as it contained sufficient for the food of its population, for every thing else bore about an equal proportion to the price of corn, and was regulated accordingly. The effect of the high prices of corn was, to encourage increased agriculture to such an extent, that we had now succeeded in bringing the quantity of grain produced in this kingdom much nearer to the proportion of our population than formerly; consequently all the great interests of the state were in a more secure position. That position he should be exceedingly sorry to disturb or endanger by the adoption of measures so different in character from those under which the country had hitherto prospered, and attained its present pitch of greatness.

The motion was agreed to.