HL Deb 25 March 1830 vol 23 cc835-44
Earl Stanhope

said, that he had been requested to present a Petition, agreed to at a public meeting held in the county of Kent, and that he acceded to that request with the more pleasure, inasmuch as he heartily concurred in the prayer of the petition. He should not have troubled their Lordships with any observations upon the respectability of this meeting, had it not been for some remarks which had been made by a noble Marquis (Camden), whom he had much pleasure in calling his friend,—he meant the noble Lord-lieutenant of the county of Kent. His noble friend had represented it as a meeting called by a political party for the purpose of exciting opposition to the present Government. Now this would be no valid objection, even if the fact were so; but it was perfectly clear that such a party could not have prevailed upon the county to express such opinions if the state of things represented in the petition to exist in the county did not really exist. If the petitioners thought the distress to be partial, or if they thought it arose from causes not under the control of Parliament, they could not have been prevailed upon by a political party, either to sign the requisition for the meeting, or to concur in the sentiments contained in the petition. The persons who signed the requisition were of all parties and of all opinions in politics, and they came forward only from being convinced that there was a necessity to demand an immediate inquiry into the condition of the country. For his own part he had openly stated his opinions of what was requisite for the welfare of the country, and asking for nothing, wanting nothing, wishing for nothing, that Ministers could give, he should support any government that acted on principles which he thought beneficial to the country; and he should oppose any government which acted on contrary principles. So much, then, for the meeting in the county of Kent having been got up for the sake of distressing the Government. His noble friend, too, had impugned the accuracy of the statement of the petitioners, when they said that the grievous and general distress of the country demanded the immediate attention of that honourable House. His noble friend had said, that the distress was not so general, and that it was not so grievous in the county of Kent as the petitioners represented it to be; and in proof of this, his noble friend had said that farms were still generally in cultivation. His noble friend ought to have stated, at the same time, that the farms were cultivated at very considerable loss. He did not know whether it was the duty of a Lord-lieutenant to give to the Government a very flattering account of the county over which he presided; but he was sure that, in the present instance, it would be a very difficult matter; because it could not be done without concealing some facts and distorting others. He could tell his noble friend that he had been informed by one of his (the Marquis Camden's) own tenants, that he had lost 200l. by his farm last year, and consequently, though farmers did not throw up their farms, it did not! follow that they were not losing. His noble friend had said that his rents were well | paid. He congratulated his noble friend upon this: but the fact would prove no- thing, unless his noble friend could show that those rents were not paid out of the tenants' capital. A noble lord (Suffield) had suggested that evening that reduction of rents would do good: but how did the distress of the landlords arise, except from the reduction or the utter withholding of; rents? He could have no objection to any noble Lord reducing his rents as low as he pleased, but, in the name of other noble Lords, and in the name of the rest of the landlords of the country, he must protest against measures which were not only | objectionable in other respects, but which must inevitably lead to that result as a matter of necessity. There were some; parts of the country in which no reduction of rents could take place for this simple reason—namely, that there were no rents at all paid. The parts of the country to: which he alluded were those in which the poor-rates amounted to the full 20s. in the pound. The petitioners stated that the; amount of taxation was greater than the country, under existing circumstances, could bear. Upon this statement he begged to observe, that taxation had been virtually doubled since 1819; that was to say, it was necessary to sell double the produce now to pay the same amount of taxation. The petitioners went on to state, that the poor-rates had increased to so great an amount as to leave no profit either to the landlord or to the tenant. Now, upon this subject he could state, that he knew of i landed property upon which the assessment, for poor-rates had doubled within the last fourteen years. He knew one farm, consisting of 1,341 acres, which paid 994l. per annum for poor-rates. He knew another instance in which the poor-rates amounted to 2,900l. a year, while the estimated rental of the estate was only 2,500l. He was acquainted also with a farm which let only for 50l. a year, while the rates and taxes levied upon the same farm amounted to 112l. a year. He could produce many other similar instances, but he should reserve them until the debate which was about to come on respecting free trade. The petitioners went on to complain of the evils which had arisen from want of sufficient protection to agriculture, and from those measures of free trade which were incompatible with the present situation of the country,—evils which had been greatly aggravated by the alteration of the currency. The petition concluded by a prayer, so common in similar petitions at present, for a reform in Parliament, conducted on proper principles. He perfectly concurred in the prayer of the petition for Parliamentary Reform thus limited. He had always expressed his disapprobation of what was called radical reform, and he still disapproved of it; but to limited and wholesome reform he was friendly, because he conceived, and recent experience had confirmed the opinion, that the House of Commons did not express the feelings of the people. Under such circumstances of distress as were general in all counties, and which were intolerable in some, he was not surprised that the people should call for reform in Parliament; but, in an ancient and dilapidated edifice like the Constitution of this country, they must be careful lest, in making alterations, they destroy the edifice itself. This cry for reform might not be very agreeable to the Government; but he was sure that if the object of Government had been to excite the people to raise this cry, it could not have taken any more effectual means than those which it had pursued. He would not detain their Lordships any longer, because he trusted he should have other opportunities of discussing all these topics fully.

Petition read.

The Marquis Camden

said, that as his noble friend had thought proper to make a great many observations upon what he had felt it his duty to say in that House, he would tell their Lordships what he had meant to say on the occasion referred to. He had meant 40 say, that as far as his experience and means of observation would allow him to form an opinion on the subject, the distress complained of was not so great or so general as it had been represented to be by some persons in that and in the other House of Parliament. As to the County of Kent, he had said that the distress was not so great as it had been represented to be. He spoke from his own experience, and their Lordships would do him the justice to recollect that what he had said was founded upon a comparison which he had made between this and former years, the result of which comparison was, that the county was not so distressed as it had been in former years. When, too, he had spoken of a political party, he knew that political opinions on certain subjects ran high in Kent, and he knew that political opinions upon one point were often apt to influence men's conduct on others. It had been so with him, and he had no hesitation in confessing it. He had no hesitation in saying, that—it was a great many years ago, certainly—he had, with the father of his noble friend (Earl Stanhope), attended public meetings for the purpose of exciting popular feeling against a government of which he disapproved. He had meant to say nothing offensive in what had fallen from him on this subject, and he trusted that, however his noble friend and he might differ in politics, their friendship would be undisturbed. As to what his noble friend had said about the duties of a Lord-lieutenant, he appealed to the noble Duke (of Wellington) behind him, if he had been officious in communicating information to the Government.

The Duke of Wellington

. — Certainly not.

The Marquis Camden

continued.—He bad spoken as an independent Peer; and in that capacity he had thought it right to express the opinions he entertained. Again, if the county of Kent were as much distressed as it was said to be, or even more so, that could not prove that the country generally was distressed. Besides, it should be recollected that there was a peculiar culture in Kent—that of hops. The low price of that produce, and the duty upon it, might have made it very difficult for the growers to remunerate themselves. His noble friend had alluded to a tenant of his (Marquis Camden's) who had lost 200/. by his farm. He did not know who that tenant was, but he thought it not unlikely that a tenant who wished his rent to be reduced, or the day of payment deferred, would hit upon such an argument.

Earl Stanhope

, in explanation, said, he trusted his noble friend did not think he had meant to say that his noble friend's conduct had proceeded from any but the most conscientious motives. As to distressing the Government, he thought it the proper course to excite noise, and he pleaded guilty to the desire to excite noise, both in that House and out of it, when he found himself beaten by numbers, and not by arguments.

The Earl of Winchilsea

said, he felt some reluctance to intrude upon their Lord- ships after the result of the debate of the other night. He had not the vanity to suppose that any thing he could say would be of any avail, when he had seen how useless had been the powerful and eloquent appeals which noble Lords had made for their distressed fellow-countrymen, who called upon their Lordships to discharge that duty which the country had a right to demand. He should, however, feel that he was wanting in respect to the petitioners if he were silent now. In the few observations he had to make he should confine himself chiefly to some of the views which the petitioners took of the causes of their distress, and to the ultimate result of those causes. Me would not occupy the time of their Lordships in proving the existence of that unparalleled distress, of which the country complained; nor would he afflict their Lordships by detailing the heart-rending cases of misery which had come under his own observation. He would, however, briefly but boldly assert, against the opinion of the noble Marquis, whom he was proud to call his friend, that the distress which now pervaded the agricultural interest had not been exceeded in the memory of the oldest man living. He wished that noble Lords who expressed an opinion that the distress of the country was not so great as some persons imagined, had taken the trouble to inquire how rents were paid; if they had, they would find that in many instances the rents came out of the capital of the tenant, instead of coming out of the fair profits of the cultivation of the land, and that in other cases rents came out of the capital of the landlords themselves. Such was the case where pasture lands were broken up, and converted into arable lands. The noble Earl proceeded to allude to and deplore the diminution of the yeomanry of this country, who had formed the intermediate and connecting link between the landholder and the peasantry,—a class that, in the hour of trial and danger, whether arising from foreign or domestic foes, had proved our best safeguard and defence. With respect to himself, his opposition to the measures of Government was any thing rather than a factious opposition. He opposed them upon principle, because he was convinced they were injurious to the country. He had no longer any confidence in parties with whom he had been previously allied,—for him, the ties of private and political friendship had been cruelly severed. He wished that the noble Duke, who now possessed an estate in Kent, would spend some of his time there during the Easter recess, and inquire into the condition of the county; he would find the district of Romney Marsh, up the Weald of Kent, formerly celebrated for rich pasture lands, in a state of great distress. Capital was fast diminishing there, and the farms were not properly cultivated, on account of the poverty of the holders. He knew instances in which farms had been let for the next three years free from all charge in the shape of rent, on the condition that they should be properly cultivated. In many districts; the greater part of the labouring population was wholly unemployed, except during the few weeks of harvest. Let the noble Duke terminate his journey in Kent by a visit to the noble Marquis who had just addressed the House on the subject, and to the noble Karl below who had preceded him, and he would find, that the tenantry were in many cases remaining on their farms because they could not quit them without leaving their property behind, and selling it at a loss of 40, 50, or 60 per cent. He was informed by a county magistrate, such was the distress in the town of Chatham and the neighbouring district, that the magistrates were frequently employed from morning till night in devising measures for the assistance of the poor. The petitioners stated, that the contraction of the currency was one cause of their distress. He agreed with them in this. Before we ventured to contract our currency, we should have diminished the national debt. If we did not give the country a more extensive circulation, it would be impossible for us to struggle much longer with our difficulties. He was decidedly of opinion that the establishment of provincial banks, with liberty to issue notes (proper security being given), would be advantageous to the county in which he resided. Another cause of embarrassment to which the petitioners alluded was, the system of taking off prohibitory duties, and allowing articles of foreign produce to compete with the produce of native industry. If the unequal pressure of taxation under which English agriculturists suffered, as compared with those of foreign countries, could be removed, he should be an advocate for a free trade in corn, and a free admission of foreign produce; but as matters stood at present, he maintained that free trade had been attended with very mischievous effects upon the interests of this country, inasmuch as it had been the means of introducing the competition of foreign labour, at a time when our own population could not obtain sufficient employment. The petitioners stated, that if things continued as they were, they must ultimately become unable to pay the taxes and their debts; that bankruptcy would be their portion, and ruin that of the State. He very much feared that matters would become worse and worse in the course of a few months, if some remedy were not resorted to. There was another point to which the petitioners alluded,—Parliamentary Reform. He would not enter into that subject further than to say, that in his opinion the people did not possess the weight and influence to which they were justly entitled in the Commons House of Parliament, and that an unconstitutional influence was frequently exercised in the return of its Members. But he was no radical reformer, and when the proper time came, would discuss the question on constitutional grounds.

The Marquis Camden

said, in explanation, that he had spoken of the stale of things in his own neighbourhood, and represented it as improving.

The Earl of Darnley

observed, that some apology might be expected from him for not taking a part in the getting up of the petition, particularly as he was connected with the county from which it had emanated, and was known to be favourable to these expressions of public opinion. But he had not interfered because he was convinced that the distress complained of could not be relieved in consequence of any proposition of the meeting, and that the suggestions of the noble Lord (supposing him to be favourable to them) were likely enough to be counteracted. In 1822, when according to his opinion the distress was greater than at present, a county meeting was held in Kent, at which Mr. Cobbett attended and proposed an equitable adjustment. On that occasion, acting, as he thought, the part of an honest man, he had opposed the proposition, but he stood almost alone in his opposition, and it was carried by acclamation. At another county meeting in Kent, the noble Earl proposed a loyal Address, when up started an auctioneer, from Rochester, knocked down the proposition, floored the noble Earl, and his second, and bottle-holder (a noble Lord not now in his place), and upset the entire proceeding. [Laughter] Would the noble Earl say, that on this recent occasion the majority of the meeting were not in favour of an invasion of Church property? Let it be recollected that a re-solution against tithes was eventually car- ried. The grounds of his reluctance to attend the meeting were now explained. He could truly state that the distress was not so general as had been represented; and he was of opinion, that having already readied the lowest point of depression, our condition would improve. The Petition adverted to the Currency and the Cornlaws: he believed and trusted that the noble Duke at the head of the Government was determined to tamper with neither AN interference with them could only be productive of mischief. Ministers had done what they could to alleviate distress by a reduction of taxation, which, it was admitted on all hands, must be serviceable to the country. Besides, Government had pledged itself to take the earliest opportunity of effecting still further reductions. If, any man could point out better or speedier means of relief than had been brought forward, he would go hand and heart with him; but nothing more efficacious had been discovered, it should be the object of their Lordships rather to endeavour to hold out to the people consolation and hopes of better times, than to draw exaggerated pictures of distress, and say, bad as things were they would become worse. The noble Karl having observed that the meeting at which the petition was agreed on was a highly respectable one, concluded by stating that he felt as anxious as the noble Lords who preceded him to relieve the distress, but could not countenance the adoption of doubtful and hazardous remedies.

Earl Stanhope

said, with respect to the idea of the majority of the meeting being favourable to the counter-petition, he thought the majority was for the original proposition, but admitted that if so it was by no means a large majority. However, it was all matter of opinion, and the High Sheriff had decided differently. The noble Earl (Darnley) had alluded to former meetings at which he (Earl Stanhope) was not present, and stated that a proposition for an equitable adjustment was carried at one of them. He was not a friend to what was called equitable adjustment,; because he thought it could not be effected in an equitable manner. However, to that we must come at last, or adopt an issue of paper money. He did not wish to allow! bankers to make such issues without requiring from them proper security, and would rather have country bankers the distributors than the creators of paper money. He should not object, for instance, to an issue of Government paper. Noble Lords talked of the benefits of reduction of taxation; was the noble Duke prepared to reduce our expenditure and taxation to the scale of 1791? Was he prepared to reduce the debt fifty or sixty per cent and all fixed payments in the same proportion? If not, he must consent to the issue of paper money to enable the country to bear the burthen of taxation, which had been virtually doubled within the last ten years.

Lord Suffield

expressed his partial concurrence in the statements of the noble Earl behind him, who had drawn with such strong colouring a picture of the distress experienced in Kent. Many of the noble Earl's remarks would apply to the county (Norfolk) with which he was himself connected. He regretted as much as the noble Earl the diminution that had taken place in the class of yeomanry: persons of from 500l. to 1,500l. a year had felt the pressure in a very extensive degree. However, he did not think the distress attributable to any act of the noble Duke, or the Government: on the contrary, he was of opinion that it was the result of long-continued circumstances over which they did not possess any control. He should oppose the Ministers whenever he considered their measures to merit opposition; but he did not think them wrong or deserving of censure at present.

Petition to lie upon the Table.