HL Deb 07 June 1841 vol 58 cc1247-54

On some petitions being presented for the repeal of the Corn-laws,

The Earl of Radnor

said, he would take that opportunity to advert to an extraordinary doctrine contained in a petition presented on Friday evening last by a noble Lord opposite (Lord Braybrooke). It was there set forth, that the agricultural labourers would rather have dear bread, and fair wages to pay for it, than cheap bread with inferior wages; and the inference to be drawn from the argument advanced on that occasion by a noble Earl (Stanhope) whom he did not then see in his place, was, that a high price of corn was actually advantageous to the labourer. Now, it was inconceivable to him how it was possible that the consumer of any article could be benefitted by having the price of that article raised. The noble Earl, to whom he had alluded, had, in support of his argument, referred to two periods, in one of which, corn being dear, the agricultural labourer was well off, and in the other, corn being cheap, great agricultural distress prevailed. In answer to that, he begged leave to point to the evidence given before a Committee of their Lordships' House in 1836, when several competent witnesses (extracts from whose evidence the noble Lord read) stated, that in 1835–36, when corn was cheap, the agricultural labourer was in a very comfortable situation. Further, to show the distress occasioned by the dear-ness of corn, and the relief derived from having corn at a cheap rate, the noble Earl referred to the annual amount of poor-rates from 1821 to 1839, from which it appeared that the Poor-rates were increased or diminished as the price of corn rose or fell. It was impossible to adduce more direct evidence of the prevalence of distress than was supplied by the increase of the Poor-rates; and the return which he held in his hand showed, that in proportion as the price of corn was raised, the amount of the Poor-rates was increased; and, on the other hand, a reduction in the amount of the Poor-rates always accompanied a decrease in the price of corn. It was, therefore, evident to him, that dear corn was disadvantageous to the labourer, and that cheap corn was advantageous to him. Again, if they looked to the crimes committed in the agricultural districts, it would be found, by reference to a paper laid before Parliament (from which the noble Earl read an extract) that the number of crimes diminished when corn was cheap, but that crimes increased when corn became dear. How, he would ask, was it possible that the labourer could be better off by purchasing corn at a dear rather than a cheap rate? Why should such a contradiction be true with reference to corn, which was not true with respect to any thing else? If, for instance, one of their Lordships wished to buy a pair of horses, would he not feel better pleased to purchase them at a cheap than at a dear rate? As to the rate of wages, it did not depend on the price of corn, but on the relative proportion of the demand and supply in the labour market. If there were but little employment, and large numbers competing for it, wages must fall; but if, on the contrary, the demand for labour was extensive, and the labourers few, wages must naturally rise. In conclusion, he would contend, that the statement, that dear corn was advantageous to the labourer was contrary to all evidence and to all experience.

Lord Braybrooke

was not so much enamoured of these incidental discussions as his noble Friend, and, therefore, he would not go at length into the subject. It was unquestionably stated in the petitions which he had presented from Essex, that the labourers were better off when corn fetched a high price than when it was sold at a low one; and in that opinion he concurred. He had for three years been chairman to a board of guardians, and he had made it his hobby to inquire into the situation and to ameliorate the condition of the agricultural labourers; and he could state from experience, that, in 1834, 1835, and 1836, when corn was cheap, a great deal of agricultural distress prevailed.

The Earl of Stradbroke

also felt convinced, that a very low price of corn did not operate beneficially for the agricultural labourer.

Lord Ashburton

did not understand how bread could be brought down to a lower price without a diminution of wages. He knew not how it was possible that any poor man, or any rich man, could be so exceedingly credulous as to suppose that the price of bread could be reduced one half in this country, and that the rate of wages should remain the same. If this could be so, what became of the argument on the part of the manufacturers, that they could not compete with other countries on account of the high rate of wages which they were obliged to pay? If wages did not fall when the price of bread was reduced, then the expectations of the manufacturers would prove to be an entire fallacy. If the argument of the noble Earl opposite was correct, then must the great mill-owners learn from him that their calculation, as to a reduction of wages, was wholly fallacious. With re- spect to the farmer, was it possible that he could continue to pay 12s. a week when he had to compete with the produce of foreign countries, where the wages of the labourer were exceedingly low? Any person of the most common understanding—any person outside the walls of a lunatic asylum—must see, that the British farmer, who paid his labourers 2s. a-day, could not compete with the foreigner, who only paid 3d. or 4d. a-day—as was proved by a document on their Lordships' Table, if the proposed alteration were carried, how was it possible for any man to say, that the cultivation of the land would still go on? Under such adverse circumstances, if the farmer wished to realize his capital, he had better go to Pomerania, Holstein, Mecklenburgh, or some other place in the north of Germany, where cultivation might be carried on at a cheap rate. If they looked at the common sense of the thing, they must see that the farmer could not go on, if the proposed plan prevailed! and it was a delusion to suppose that a high rate of wages, and a great reduction in the price of corn, could exist together.

The Earl of Radnor

would ask, how were they to compete with the low wages in Ireland? The noble Lord (Ashburton) had said, that in parts of Germany, the aveage amount of labourers' wages was 4d. a day, and that if the duty were reduced on foreign corn, this country could not compete with that. But did the noble Lord forget that 4d. a day was the average price of wages in Ireland as well? It was so stated in the Poor-law reports. It was stated, that the highest average price was 6d. a day, and that the labourers were employed but eight months of the year, which reduced the average price to 4d. The noble Earl referred to a document which he said had been circulated through the country by the Society for the Protection of Agriculture, of which society he believed the noble Lord (Ashburton) was a member. That document stated, that the Government were about to permit the introduction of foreign corn at such a low rate of duty, as to deprive the agriculturist of all protection—a statement which was not correct, and which he was surprised to find issuing from such a society.

Lord Ashburton

was understood to justify the publication of that document, in consequence of the statement which had been circulated throughout the country, in order to create an opposition to the present corn laws, and to obtain signatures to petitions for their repeal—a statement to the effect that a reduction of the duty upon foreign corn would give cheap bread to the labourer. He admitted that he did belong to the society alluded to, but let it be recollected, that it was a society which had been established, to counteract the effects of the Anti-Corn Law Society, which was exciting agitation through the country, creating the grossest abuses, and putting forth statements of the most delusive and fallacious character. He and other noblemen had reluctantly joined the society referred to by the noble Earl, but with the conviction of its necessity, and the determination to act entirely on the defensive. If agitation had not been excited and carried to such an extent upon this question, the noble Earl would never have heard of the Society for the Protection of Agriculture.

Earl Fitzwilliam

admitted, that the English labourers were better fed, and better clothed than foreign labourers, but the superiority of their condition, in his opinion, was to be attributed, not to the monopoly of the corn trade, but to the more advanced civilization of this country.

The Marquess of Salisbury

felt the inconvenience of these occasional debates, and thought that the noble Earl who introduced them, ought to bring forwar a separate motion on the subject. The object of the noble Earl was, to reduce the wages of the labourer to the lowest possible extent. If this were not his object, he could have none, for it was utterly impossible that the English grower could compete with the foreigner, except by such reduction. He was in the habit of mixing a good deal with agricultural labourers, and there was not one who had not expressed to him his desire for dear bread, and comparatively high wages.

The Earl of Harewood,

admitted that the state of the manufacturing classes in this, country was never worse than it was at present. He admitted the great distress which at present existed, and which, he was greatly afraid, would continue; but be denied that that distress was to be attributed to the existing price of corn, or had anything to do with the corn laws. He attributed that distress to a very different cause. In that part of the country where he resided, there were a great number of factories, and, indeed, every time he returned home, he perceived that fresh factories had been established. Was it possible to believe that persons who had real capital to build those factories with would embark their money in such speculations, at a time when the trade generally was in such a sinking and discouraging state? No; but the facts of the case were these, these factories were generally established upon false and fictitious capitals, the consequence of which was, the sudden breaking up of those concerns, which necessarily entailed the greatest distress upon the poor of the neighbourhood. The present state of the country was not, then, produced in consequence of corn being dear—wot on account of the inability of manufacturers to get sale for their goods, but because the trade of the country was carried on in an unnatural manner, and upon a principle of underselling each other, and because the foreign markets, instead of being stocked by a good and wholesome supply, were actually glutted with a superabundant quantity of goods from this country, a great part of which, after being sent out, was sold at a loss. He was of opinion, that if they attempted to make any alteration in the existing corn laws, they might confer great advantage upon the employers, but they would inevitably injure the labouring classes.

The Earl of Warwick

only rose to refer to the conduct of a society which had been mentioned by the noble Earl—the Anti-Corn Law League. They had been sending emissaries through the country, and writing letters to every Dissenting minister whose chapel was his own, requesting him to expose to his flock the "anti-Christian" operation of the Corn-law. He would read an extract of a letter sent by the council of the association to a Roman Catholic clergyman, in which he was invited to preach a sermon to his congregation, snowing the unjust, immoral, and anti-scriptural character of these laws. As such agitation was carried on by the association against the present laws, surely the Society for the Protection of Agriculture might be allowed by fair and legitimate means, and they used no other, to meet their attacks, and resist their opposition.

Earl Fitzwilliam

gave notice, that tomorrow se'nnight he should move a re- solution, to the effect that it was the bounden duty of Parliament to take the subject of the corn-laws into consideration early in the next Session. Preparatory to that motion, he should tomorrow move, that either some of his excellent Friends, the clerks at the table be directed, or a select committee be appointed, to enumerate the various signatures of parties who had petitioned on this subject on either side of the question.

The Marquess of Salisbury

suggested, that there should also be appended a statement of the residence and professions of those who had affixed them to their signatures.

Lord Brougham

said, that after hearing the notice given by his noble Friend, he could not help calling their Lordships' attention to the fact, that he had two years ago brought forward a motion, which, if carried, would really have been the means of throwing some light upon this subject; but which their Lordships had rejected. Amongst other fallacies which the inquiry which he then proposed would have removed was, that cheap bread would lead to low wages. This was an assertion which he had never believed; on the contrary, he stated at the time he referred to, that he was prepared to prove upon oath at their Lordships' bar, that the very contrary would be the case. Their Lordships, however, rejected his motion, and also a motion which he afterwards made for appointing a committee on the subject. In reference to those motions, he must observe, further, that at the time he brought them forward, there was no temporary excitement existing in the country, caused by peculiar distress, or high price and scarcity of food; neither was there any other cause of political excitement existing in the country, to mar the salutary effect which he sought in the inquiry he proposed. He thought it peculiarly unfortunate, therefore, that her Majesty's Government, and their Lordships had not consented, at that time, to take up the subject; because he felt certain that if they had done so, both the minds of their Lordships, and of the country, would have been convinced by the facts which would have been adduced, of the propriety of making some alteration in these laws. With respect to the agitation now set on foot on the subject, though he was glad her Majesty's Government had been induced to change their views on the subject, yet he could not help thinking that the time and circumstances under which it was now brought forward were unfortunate; and that the question would lose as much on the one hand, through those causes, as it gained on the other by the support and co-operation of her Majesty's Government. He doubly regretted, there-lore, that the question had not been taken up at the time he had proposed. The noble and learned Lord then presented petitions for the repeal of the corn-laws, from the royal burghs of Annan in council assembled; and from a place in the county of Banff; also a petition from certain inhabitants of St. James's, Westminster, agreed to at a public meeting, in favour of a fixed duty on corn. With respect to the last petition, the noble and learned Lord observed, that he thought the petitioners should have carried their prayer further, namely, for a total abolition; nevertheless, he rejoiced that the Government had brought forward the subject, and proposed even the moderate remedy of a fixed duty, which he for one, however, should accept only as the most likely means of arriving at a total repeal.

Petitions laid on the table.


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