HL Deb 29 April 1841 vol 57 cc1248-52
Earl Fitzwilliam

said, that in rising to present some petitions against the present system of Corn-laws he was desirous of assuring his noble Friend opposite (the Lord-lieutenant of Warwick) that he did not intend to give notice of any motion on that subject. For the present he felt that such a motion would be attended with little benefit, but he would take that opportunity of stating his opinion on a matter immediately connected with that subject—the present state of the nation in a commercial and financial point of view; and he did so then because it would be his last opportunity previously to the official statement in another place of the revenue of the country, of the liabilities to which it was exposed, and of its means to meet them. It was acknowledged, he believed, on all hands that the revenue of the country was at present in a deficient and embarrassed state—a state, he would say, so deficient and embarrassed that it would require all the wisdom and talent and ingenuity of the Government—not only of this Government—he meant not his noble Friend's alone, but of any Government, to correct and set in order. The circumstances, too, in which we were placed, rendered such a state of things especially unfortunate and alarming. The greatest distress and disarrangement prevailed throughout the manufacturing interests, and a general feeling existed amongst those classes that such distress was in no small degree to be attributed to our present system of financial policy. The relation in which we stood, also, to foreign countries, rendered not the prospect more pleasing. Our connection with many foreign nations now rested on a footing which might terminate in a war between the countries. If we were to have war with America and war with other places—he knew not whether we were or not—but if we were to have such amusements, we must have increased revenue to pay for them. The present state of the import duties was one of the causes which diminished the revenue, and tended to embarrass and diminish our commercial pro perity. If their Lordships wished to keep up the revenue of the country, they must entirely alter our present system of finance, and must introduce a property tax of some sort or the other. Our commerce had greatly diminished, and our manufactures had also greatly diminished—at any rate, in that point of view in which they were of most value to the State, namely, the production of revenue. The export of our manufactured articles was one cause of serious alarm. The exportation of the rougher description of manufactured articles had much increased, whilst the exportation of those which required great delicacy of workmanship had diminished. Their Lordships must inquire into these subjects, and, if they thought that that inquiry need not extend to one particular article—to that article which maintained their rents—the food of the poor man—they were labouring under a grievous delusion and insanity. They could not have cheap tea and cheap sugar whilst they continued to have dear bread. Perhaps this was not the time to enter into the question, but its importance was his apology. The noble Earl presented a petition from the Chamber of Commerce of Edinburgh, praying for a general revision of our present -system of taxation, and likewise other petitions with a similar prayer.

The Earl of Stanhope

agreed with the noble Marquess on one point, and that point was the extreme importance of the question he had introduced. There had been, he admitted, a continued reduction of taxation, still further reduced as it had been by that memorable expedient which had been made for the convenience of all classes generally—the penny postage; but it did not necessarily follow from this simple fact that the revenue of the country had permanently decreased, or that a change in our financial system was necessary.

Lord Ashburton

, agreeing also with the noble Earl in the extreme importance of this subject, could not but express his opinion of the great inconvenience, in any legislative body, of bringing forward such subjects without notice being given, and in the presentation of petitions; but as the subject had been introduced, he felt bound to prevent the remarks of the noble Earl going abroad without any opposition or contradiction. He believed that the noble Earl was mistaken in his facts. The first position he had laid down, as far as his memory could serve him, was certainly unfounded—that the revenue of the country was a declining revenue. No notice having been given by the noble Earl, he was not prepared with those figures which would establish the point; but it certainly was his impression that the revenue had not undergone, nor was it undergoing, any permanent reduction. Of course, if taxation were diminished, and the people had been to a considerable extent relieved from those burdens which bore heavily upon them, the effect would be felt; but what he meant to say was that there was no diminution of the sources of revenue. So on this point he firmly believed that the noble Earl was mistaken. Then as to another position which he had asssumed, he much doubted its accuracy and correctness. The noble Earl had stated, that the commerce and manufactures of the country were in a state of continued and permanent decline. But from all the sources of information which were open to him, not having any local connection with the large manufacturing towns in the neighbourhood of the noble Earl's property, he believed that this was not really the case. Of course every one acquainted with the nature of commercial transactions would know that there never could be a perfect stability and firmness in the affairs of individual merchants and manufacturers. This was a state of things which the most sanguine theorist could not even hope for; and if their Lordships were induced to form their opinion of the general state of commercial affairs from a few individual isolated cases, and were persuaded to introduce fresh changes, and to be constantly altering and re-altering the system by our financial policy, they would be doing that which, above all things, would affect the commercial firmness and prosperity of the country. If they listened to the appeals so often made by certain individuals coming from manufacturing towns, containing dismal accounts of the state of our manufactures and of our commerce—accounts, perhaps, sincere, but of which, after an observation of some few particular cases, they would be for ever changing and shifting about, and it would be in vain to expect that our financial arrangements would ever reach a state of security or quiet. There were always people of this description going about, who, by their pretended liberality, gained a great many listeners and a great deal of applause. If the noble Earl rested his case at all on the report of the committee on import duties (which he should be very happy fairly to consider and discuss), it certainly was entitled to but little attention, for he could venture to say that nothing more unfair, shallow, vain, or unfounded, had ever proceeded from a committee of either House of Parliament. That some disagreement and embarrassment had existed, and to a sensible extent did exist in our financial affairs, he did not deny, but let all disagreement in the currency of America be settled; let the commerce of New York Boston, Philadelphia, and the other large commercial towns of the United States be again placed on a firm and steady footing, and the noble Earl would find that the distress which existed in the manufacturing towns about his own neighbourhood would speedily be diminished and the state of our commerce in general quickly improved. The noble Earl, he conceived, had fallen into a mistake as to the cheapness of tea and sugar under a new system of import duties; but, as he had already said, that the discussion of such subjects—important though they were—without notice, was a course the most inconvenient, he wold not trouble their Lordships with any further remarks. He had only said so much that the remarks of the noble Earl should not go before the public uncontradicted and un-upposed.

Earl Fitzwilliam

, in reply, said, that if he had adopted an inconvenient course by introducing such a subject without notice, the noble Lord had given by his own remarks an ex post facto approbation of that course, for he had not only gone with him into the facts of our present commercial embarrassment, but had also attempted to assign a reason for it—a reason which, though of course operating to some extent, was not sufficient by itself to account for all the disastrous effects which had been produced.

Petitions laid on the Table.

POOR-LAW.] Earl Stanhope

presented a great number of petitions against the New Poor-law, from places in the West Riding of Yorkshire, from Lancashire, and Cheshire, from Macclesfield, from places in Durham, and from Butterworth in Lancashire, praying for "the total repeal of the odious enactment," He would take the opportunity of handing in this great body of petitions to state, that if a bill should be sent to their Lordship's House, which he saw from the votes of the House of Commons on their Lordship's Table was now before that House, and which was called a bill for the Amendment of the Poor-law, but was in reality a bill for continuing the exorbitant and unconstitutional powers of the three Commissioners, he should certainly move, "That the bill be read a first time that day six months."