HL Deb 23 June 1831 vol 4 cc261-7
The Earl of Winchilsea

begged leave to inquire if it was the intention of his Majesty's Government, in the course of this Session, to bring forward any plan for the purpose of affording agricultural relief, by providing for the surplus population, by home colonization or otherwise. If Government had no intention of producing any plan for the relief of the people in the agricultural districts, he gave notice that it was his intention again to lay on the Table the bill he had introduced last Session, for the purpose of compelling parishes to employ the unemployed labourer. He was convinced that some enactment of that kind was necessary, as he knew several parishes in Kent, where sixty or seventy able-bodied men were receiving weekly relief. He was certain the present state of things could not continue; and that if the people were left without employment, they would be ready again to break forth into outrages, and there would be a display of much worse feeling, and a more terrible and mischievous spirit, among the agricultural peasantry, than that which created so much alarm some months ago.

Viscount Goderich

said, that it was by no means certain that there was a surplus population throughout the country—in some parts of it there certainly was not; although in other places a great want of employment did exist; however, it was the intention of his Majesty's Government, in the course of the present Session, to propose to Parliament two bills, one of which, on the subject of emigration, he expected would prove an advantageous measure, and would most probably give great relief. With regard to any plan for home colonization that was a matter of greater difficulty, and he could not undertake to say that Government had made up their minds on the subject.

The Earl of Malmesbury

was happy something was likely to be done. He would recommend the repeal of an absurd regulation which limited to twenty acres the quantity of land a parish could rent for the employment of its poor. He recommended, too, the employment of such labourers as were out of work, at a regular and standard rate of wages, and he thought some such plan would remove part of the evil at present existing. As to emigration, that, in his opinion, would encounter insuperable difficulties in many parishes, although it might be useful in others.

Lord Suffield

considered this question most important—not inferior to the subject of Reform. Reform would be the means of effecting a great deal of good, but he was not so absurd as to suppose that Reform, though carried to the utmost extent, would at once relieve the country from all its difficulties. It had been said, that a superabundance of population did not exist in all parts of the country; but that was no reason, in his opinion, why means should not be taken to remedy the evil where it did exist. He did not believe, that the eastern part of the country, with which he was connected, was exempted from the evil; and with respect to Norfolk, he could confirm what had fallen from the noble Earl (Winchilsea). Being acquainted with these circumstances, he could assure the House that he would en- deavour to promote some measure of relief, were he not aware that Government intended to apply some other remedy besides emigration to the evil complained of. He had good reason to believe, that Government would institute inquiries, with a view to ascertain speedily to what extent it would be possible and expedient to employ the superabundant population at home. That belief made him passive on the subject, for he had every confidence that his Majesty's Government would, if possible, relieve the country from this great embarrassment.

The Marquis of Salisbury

said, that thinking it doubtful whether any measure for giving employment to the labouring classes would be brought in by Government, he should on Monday next move for the re-appointment of the Committee which sat last Session, to consider laws affecting the poor.

Viscount Melbourne

said, he felt great embarrassment in replying to the question which had been asked, whether it was the intention of Government to bring forward any measures for the alleviation of the distress of the poor classes, because if he said that Ministers had no measures for that object in contemplation, they might be accused of supineness and indifference to the wants of the poor; and if he replied that Government had some plan in view, he might excite hopes which would end in disappointment. The subject was one of great difficulty, of which no other proof need be given than the length of time during which it had been agitated, the number of reports which had been drawn up, and the difference of opinion which prevailed on the subject. Each person had his own nostrum, to which he obstinately adhered, regarding with inveterate hostility the nostrum of every one else. The House had already been informed by a noble friend of his, that a bill was to be introduced for the purpose of facilitating emigration; and he also promised to take the subject of home-colonization into consideration, without, however, expressing any opinion, favourable or unfavourable, on the matter. He could not say, that Government had any plan in view on which they placed such confidence as need make any other person, who had any measure to recommend, hesitate to do so.

The Lord Chancellor

thought their Lordships must feel the inconvenience of a practice which had of late crept into that House, and which was not permitted in the other House of Parliament—that of entering into a debate when there was no question of any kind or sort before them. He conceived, that it would not lessen their Lordships' dignity, and would certainly be infinitely more convenient, if they departed from such a practice, one consequence of which was, that the closest reasoner could not stick to the question, because there was no question whereto to stick. Whenever their Lordships indulged in these irregular debates, they got into a conversation quite as rambling and desultory as a talk round a fireside, and not half so amusing. The question into which their Lordships had entered was an extremely important one, and though he deprecated continuing the subject in the present unprofitable manner, being desirous rather to have an opportunity of delivering his sentiments on every branch of the question when it came regularly before the House, he trusted that he should not be considered as deviating from the advice which he had just presumed to offer their Lordships, if he expressed his opinion, that some attempts ought to be made to relieve the evil which had been brought under the notice of the House by the noble Earl (Winchilsea), and the sooner the better. God knew whether any good effect would result from those attempts; but they had no right to despair. He always thought it time enough to say "I can't," when he had tried and failed. Whenever a man said "I can't" before he had tried, their Lordships might safely conclude that he meant "I won't." He was decidedly of opinion that the present Session, short and busy as it might be, should not be suffered to pass, without endeavouring to apply a remedy to the evil. That remedy must be of two kinds— namely, to give relief to the excess of population over the demand for labour, which existed in some parts of the country (many noble Lords, he knew, said that it existed in all parts of the country, but it was sufficient for him that it existed in some, and might exist in all if necessary precautions were not adopted), and to afford means, under due regulations, for emigration. The latter plan, he was aware, would only afford temporary relief, and must, of necessity, be an inadequate remedy for the evil; and unless their Lordships applied the axe to the root, they would have to resort to emigration again. But he was glad to have it in his power to assure the House, that the Government, and himself individually, had taken the subject into consideration, with a view to propose a measure, not indeed to operate contemporaneously with the regulations for emigration, but somewhat after them in order of time, to make a more general provision to prevent the recurrence of the sad necessity for the country's best sons leaving her shores. This was the kind of remedy which he should prefer; but it was necessary to begin by removing the surplus population, and it would be then for Government to endeavour to prevent its accumulation again. That object was to be obtained by a revision of the Poor-laws, notwithstanding the immense and fearful difficulties which such a task imposed. It was known that so early as the years 1816 and 1817 he had applied his mind to this subject. From that time downwards he had not given up the investigation; and, at length, he believed that he saw daylight amidst the darkness which had hitherto enveloped the subject. He should not say a word as to the plan which he had decided upon; but he had taken the advice of his Majesty's Government as a body upon it; and he hoped and trusted that not many months would pass before a measure on the subject would be introduced to their Lordships, so matured, as at least to deserve their favourable consideration. He would not promise that it would be brought forward this Session, but he hoped it would not be delayed later than the next. It was intended to be preparatory to another measure for the consolidation and simplification of the existing Acts on the subject of the Poor-laws. The noble and learned Lord concluded by stating, that he thought himself called upon to make these few observations, in justice to himself and to his colleagues, to show that they were not neglectful of the subject. Emigration he considered a most inadequate remedy, unless assisted by other measures.

Lord Stourton

said, my apology to the House for transgressing its rules, after the remark which has just fallen from the noble and learned Lord, is, that any observations I have to make, of however little weight they may be to-day, would be still more worthless to-morrow. They refer to the statements of extreme and appalling distress in Ireland, and the im- minent hazard we run, that without extensive and immediate relief, wide districts will be exposed to the alarming danger of perishing under the joint and dreadful vicissitudes of famine and pestilence. So rapid is the progress of events, that it is true to say, there is death in our deliberations! Qui cito dat, bis dat, that is my maxim, that is my justification this night for transgressing the forms and rules of the House by prolonging this irregular conversation. The Speech from the Throne has informed the House of the enforcement of the Quarantine Laws, and other wise and salutary commercial regulations. But let not one other precaution be omitted—namely, that of propitiating the great Disposer of all things, the great God of mercy and of justice, by deeds of mercy to our own fellow-creatures and subjects, and let us have to say, in imploring mercy for ourselves, in beseeching of infinite goodness to avert this pestilence (of cholera) from our shore, that as we have done our utmost to arrest the progress of famine and pestilence in Ireland, so do thou, in thy mercy, Lord, avert pestilence from us. My Lords, if the statements be correct, and I have no reasons for questioning their accuracy, scenes of horror are passing in the south-western parts of Ireland, compared with which the Grecian Daughter is no longer tragedy. And now permit me to add, that the time is come when those who, from principles of political economy, may be most indisposed to afford temporary and casual relief, will find their justification in the peculiar state of Ireland, as exposed and laid down in the reports of our legislative Committees. What do these re- ports say? Why, that Ireland is in a transition state. But trust not. my Lords, to my memory; allow me to read a copy of the report, in the very words of a Committee of the other House of Parliament. One of these tells us "that the present difficulties of the situation of Ireland rather appear to be incidental to a transition from one system to another," (and that transition, so alluded to, is stated to be, from the cottier system to consolidation of farms,) "than to any which can be considered as permanent." Therefore, my Lords, I have a right to say, watch with peculiar care this transition state, and give temporary and casual relief under accidental and passing circumstances. The most inflexible rigorist for non-interference may he be satisfied; and if, in future times, when a more permanent and better system has been established, and your remedial measures now in progress or in contemplation, viz., of bog-reclaiming, emigration, redemption of wastes, and other prospective remedies, have been in operation, your present relief, however extensive, cannot be appealed to as a precedent. You may shew the bogs which you have laid down in these your present channels of charity, and say, these were applicable only to that transition-state in which Ireland was then placed; and you have no right to the same interference in your more settled and improved condition. To Ireland, in its present state, may be applied the story of a person who had fallen down exhausted in the streets of Paris. Her complaint was the wolf in the stomach! Two medical men were in attendance upon her, of whom the one said, the malady was without a remedy; the other, that he knew of an infallible cure; but that the ingredients of which it must be composed were at Constantinople. The humane by-stander exclaimed—"Then, Gentlemen, as one of you conceives this dreadful disorder to be without a remedy, and your remedy (turning to the other Doctor') is to be fetched from Constantinople, permit me in the interim to prescribe for this poor creature. My advice is, that you will give without delay a little food to this person, in order to stop the gnawings of this devouring worm—of this wolf that is now preying upon the vitals of this unfortunate person." I say the same—I approve of the remedial measures in progress to afford a more permanent and effective cure for the complaints of Ireland. But all I ask—all I prescribe is, that you will administer without a moment's delay a little food, a little meal, some potatoes to stop, at least to assuage, the cravings of this devouring wolf in the stomach, that now is preying, through wide districts, upon the very vitals of a famished people.