HL Deb 10 June 1841 vol 58 cc1401-14
Lord Ashburton

having presented a petition from shipowners and others of South Shields, against the alteration of the timber duties, observed, that the financial plan of the Government was a gross delusion to say that the deficiency in the Budget could be made up by relieving the country of a large portion of the taxation upon timber, sugar, and corn. The proposition, as regarded timber, was not one for reducing the taxation upon that article, but by additional taxation to raise the sum of 700,000l. The higher taxation upon colonial timber was to be accompanied by a comparative reduction upon Baltic timber, but the whole taken together was an additional taxation, and a taxation too upon that particular kind of timber which was used in all the manufacturing districts in the country. It was colonial timber which was used upon the whole western coast of England; it was the timber which was most generally used for the dwellings of the poor, and it was the cheaper of the two. The Government, therefore, by their proposition, were about to offer to the country, not a cheaper, but a dearer timber. That they could get nothing from the proposed alteration in the sugar duties was obvious. Indeed, it had been admitted by those who had made the proposal in the other House, that a fraction of a farthing was the amount of the benefit which might result to the consumer from that proposed alteration. Now, whether his noble and learned Friend opposite (Lord Brougham) would think that for so small an advantage, if so it could be called, they ought to sacrifice that great principle for which his noble and learned Friend had so long struggled, and for which the country had so dearly paid, he did not know; but he hoped, that before the Session was closed, his noble and learned Friend would declare what his opinions were upon the subject. He was sure, that his noble and learned Friend's sagacious mind was at least convinced of this, that there could be no doubt, if the British markets were thrown open to Brazilian sugar, that the slave trade would be increased in its most horrible and disgusting form and by making it a smuggling trade they would increase all its horrors tenfold: wretched beings would then be stowed just as a coasting smuggler stowed his spirits. The blood ran cold on reading the accounts published of vessels taken in that traffic. He was surprised, that the noble Lord had allowed so long a time to elapse without expressing his indignation at the encouragement proposed to be given to slavery. With respect to corn, the measure amounted to this—that, whereas for the last three years you had imported corn largely, paying a duty of 5s. 9d. the quarter, by the alteration you would have to pay 8s. The whole of the measures proposed were of this description; there could not be a greater delusion. He would take this opportunity of adverting to the observation which fell from his noble and learned Friend the day before yesterday. The motion which he alluded to on that occasion was that made by his noble and learned Friend on the state of the trade of the country in 1817, on which the noble and learned Lord made a most able and eloquent speech on the distressed state of the country. There were many features in the circumstances of that time corresponding with the present state of the country. The noble Lord, after depicting the unparalleled intensity of the distress which prevailed at the period alluded to, and after going into a detail of the remedies which, in his opinion, ought to be applied, said that this naturally brought him to the question of the Corn-law:— I must say," said the noble Lord, "a single word on the Corn Bill, which, strictly apeaking, comes within the class of measures I am alluding to. To the opinion which I originally entertained upon that law, I still adhere. I feel now as I did then, that its first effects are injurious by cutting off a great article of foreign trade; but I look for an ample compensation for that injury in advantages of a higher nature—the insuring a regular, safe, and ultimately cheap, supply of the great necessary of life, which no change of foreign policy, no caprice of hostile Governments can impede or disturb. His noble and learned Friend, could not but admit that these expressions warranted him in affirming that the noble Lord's sentiments at that time were as diametrically opposite to those entertained by the noble and learned Lord at the present time, as could possibly be. He did not mean to reproach the noble Lord because he had changed his opinions; on the contrary, he held that in all the great questions affectting the commerce of this great country, it was more consonant with wisdom to watch the results of experience than dogmatically to persist in preconceived opinions. He therefore made it no subject of reproach to the noble Lord, that he did not in 1841 entertain his opinion of 1817. The advice he wished to give the noble Lord was, not to throw stones at his windows, or make that a reproach to him which would apply with at least equal justice to the noble and learned Lord himself.

Lord Brougham

begged to assure the noble Lord that he took his observations in very good part, but he must say, that he felt rather disappointed at finding that the noble Lord had made out so inconsiderable a discrepancy between the opinions which he had expressed twenty-six years ago, and those which he held at the present period upon the subject of the Corn-laws. First, the misrepresentation on the former evening, of what he had said upon this subject, led him to expect something of a more important and serious nature than what the noble Lord had this evening charged him with. In the first place, in order that he might set himself right upon this point, he must remind the noble Lord that on the former evening when he referred to what his opinions were twenty-six years ago, he naturally recollected that that was the period at which the great debate was taken upon the Corn-law, and he as naturally thought that the noble Lord had referred to something the noble Lord supposed he had said, upon the debate upon the Corn-law Bill. In answer to which he said, that such a circumstance was impossible, for he had not then been a Member of the House. Now, with respect to the opinions which the noble Lord had stated, were expressed by him in 1817 upon this point, he believed that such opinions were then entertained by him, and that the quotation which the noble Lord had read to the House was perfectly correct. The noble Lord, however, was candid enough to state that such a change of opinion could never be reasonably brought as a charge against any man, particularly when it was considered that it was after a period of twenty-four years' experience and reflection upon the subject that he had thought proper to change or modify his opinions; but the noble Lord had not said enough upon this subject; his candour should have led him to another observation with reference to the great changes which had taken place in the interim, and the many alterations which had since been effected in the country, to change the whole aspect of affairs, and to warrant a different opinion upon the subject. The quotation which the noble Lord had read to the House, was part of a speech which was made by him the very year after the original Corn-law Bill of 1815 had passed into a law. Was it then at all inconsistent for him at such a time to have said, "Now that you have given protection to the corn trade let it continue; don't seek to disturb it; let us have proper experience of its results; I don't consider that a repeal of such a bill would prove a remedy for the existing distress which prevails throughout the country?" Was there any inconsistency in saying, after a period of twenty-six years from that time, when he had so ample a time to see how it worked, and when he had the fullest experience of its fatal effects upon the interests of the country, "I have duly considered this question, and I have arrived at this conclusion, that the protection upon corn was no longer required, and its gradual abolition was of the most essential impor- tance to the interests of this country." But he begged to remind the noble Lord, that many other circumstances had arisen to warrant him in this change of opinion with which he had been charged, He would ask the noble Lord, were the landowners of this country, in the same position now as they were in 1817? He would ask the noble Lord, was the country in the same position now, in respect to the landowners, as they were in 1817? He thought that if the noble Lord, would but take the trouble to read a few more of the observations which he had made nearly at the same time, the noble Lord would, he would almost venture to say, find, that one of the many grounds upon which he had rested the opinions which he had held in 1817, which he subsequently held fourteen years ago, and which he had expressed at that time, upon the introduction of Mr. Canning's Corn-law Bill,—the noble Lord, he repeated, would find that one of the many grounds upon which he had stated his opinions then upon the question, was the peculiar burdens under which the landed interests of the country then lay. And what were these? The then state of the Poor-law, and the heavy burdens which then pressed upon the land for the maintenance of the poor, and on the land exclusively. Now he would ask the noble Lord, had no change taken place since that period upon this subject? He would ask, was not the burden upon the land greatly mitigated since that time, He was unwilling to enter at any length upon this subject, or to discuss any one of its branches. He was unwilling to say anything with reference to what he would call that most wise and necessary measure of the Government until, he had further experience of its results. He could not, however, avoid alluding to the reports which had gone abroad concerning it, which reports were of the roost false and erroneous character, and which were not only seized with the most malignant avidity, but circulated with an industry only matched by the greatness and grossness of the misrepresentation itself. The reports to which he had alluded were those which had represented this bill as the landlords' bill, and that it was adopted by Parliament because it was a measure that was solely intended to benefit the landlords. Now, so far from these reports having the slightest particle of truth in them, he would say, that the Poor-law Bill was introduced for the great object of improving the character and circumstances of the labouring people of this country. That was the main principle and the grand object of the measure, and it was also considered to be a bill from which great and important benefits would arise to the other classes of the community. When he had made the speech to which the noble Lord had alluded, the Poor-law was very different in its workings to what it now was. It was, at the former period, actually eating into the substance and ownership of the land of this country, and while, on the one hand, the character and the comforts of the poor suffered severely by the mal-administration of the law; on the other, the landed interest was falling before the numerous abuses with which it was accompanied. He never was so peremptory as to deny altogether protection to the landed interest. He would ask, was it no protection to the landed interest to say, that ample notice should be given of their intention to repeal the Corn-laws? Was it no protection to the landed interest to say, that the duties should not be suddenly abolished, but that they should go gradually towards abolishing those duties? Was it no protection to say, that the duties should be reduced by a gradual per centage, year after year, until they were altogether abolished? [A Noble Lord: There ought to be no such reduction.] Then, perhaps, the noble Lord opposite would advocate the repeal of all duties at once. He could not say, that he bad much hope of reaping the benefit of the noble Lord s support in his (Lord Brougham's) proposition, but he believed, that he would have in his favour the opinions of nine-tenths of the people of this country. He must say, that he thought his noble Friend (Lord Ashburton) had exaggerated the statement he (Lord Brougham) had made on Tuesday evening last, and he was astonished at the soreness with which his noble Friend appeared to feel his allusion to the noble Lord's preference to a shifting measure to one of a fixed nature. It would be enough for him to have felt annoyed at the allusion, if the noble Lord had changed his opinions from interested motives. Such not being the case, the noble Lord should not have felt so sore on his single casual remark, which he had made merely in the shape of a parenthesis. With regard to the other part of the noble Lord's observations, he should wish to know whether the noble Lord had intended to entangle him (Lord Brougham) in a discussion upon all the topics which were contained within the budget? He would not, however, be drawn into any such discussion, further than to say, that he regretted greatly being obliged to differ from some of those gentlemen, with whom he had a long time acted, and whose great knowledge of the subject, and intimate acquaintance with its details, could only be exceeded by their pure and honourable and conscientious devotion to the cause. He alluded to the question which was connected with slavery. The noble Lord had thought proper to blame him for suffering such a length of time to elapse since his return to this country before he gave any opinion upon this subject. As he had before stated, he regretted to be obliged to differ in opinion upon this subject with those for whose opinions he had always entertained the highest respect. He particularly referred to his right hon. Friend, who was a Member of the other House (Dr. Lushington). He must say he could not go the length of declaring, that they were to treat the emancipated negroes of the West Indies, differently from any other class, to the effect of giving them more protection than others. He could not agree to this proposition, even for the sake of assisting in the working out of the great experiment of negro emancipation; which measure he had no hesitation in saying, was no longer an experiment, but an event which was perfectly consummated and successful. He would repeat, that even for the sake of working out this experiment, he could not consent to make, in their favour, any exception to the general and sound policy of the country. There ought to be no fixed rule against using sugar or any other article the produce of slave-labour. In fact, we already acted on this principle with regard to cotton and other commodities; why then, should the exclusive principle apply to sugar only? He should be sorry if such an admission should have the effect of encouraging slavery, or of retarding the emancipation of foreign slaves, but nevertheless, it would not be consistent with our own policy, nor, indeed, with wise statesmanship, to exclude foreign sugar for this reason. But slavery in foreign colonies, and the slave-trade carried on by foreign colonies, were very different things. And whenever we entered into a free-trade intercourse with any country, we ought to take care, that not a hogshead of sugar, not a bale of merchandize, should enter our markets which had been raised in a colony or country, that allowed the detestable, execrable African slave trade to be still carried on; for it was well known, that not one hogshead of sugar could be imported from Brazil or Cuba, without also encouraging the Brazilian and Spanish African slave-trade. Of this he had no doubt whatever. It might be said, then, if you let in Guadaloupe, or Guiana, or East India sugar, you must let in slave sugar also, which will be imported through these entrepôts. To this his answer was, if you thought so, then you were bound to examine and provide for, so as to prevent such circumstances, before you open that trade; and you have no right to import sugar from Brazil or Cuba so long as you think that by doing so you may encourage the Spanish and Portuguese slave trade.

The Earl of Winchilsea

begged to correct some mistakes into which the noble and learned Lord had fallen respecting the New Poor-law. The fact was, the measure had raised the rates in many parts of England; or if there had been a reduction in the poor rates it was thrown on the highway rates, which now bore the support of many men that would, under the old system, be supported by the Poor-law. Now, had the bill succeeded in raising the moral character of the labourers as the noble and learned Lord had predicted? The assistant Poor-law commissioners did not trouble themselves about this; their only-care seemed to be to reduce the rates, and not to promote the improvement of the poor. That, at least, was his decided opinion, though he had supported the bill, and though he still believed it would be of great benefit, yet he should rejoice when the day came, on which the Poor-law commissioners would be removed from their authority, and when the bill would be carried out by those whom local and personal knowledge of the condition of the poor must have better qualified for that duty than persons who had no such experience. He, therefore, should certainly support any amendment that might come from the other House, to the effect that when two-thirds of a board of Guardians should agree upon the propriety of giving out-door relief, then that out-door relief might be given by the board; and he had no apprehension that in doing so they would be too lavish of the public money; but, on the contrary, he thought the boards would act with discretion and frugality. This he could say, from having attended meetings of boards where he had never seen a disposition lo be lavish. When lavish expenditure took place under the old law, it was not through kindness or false humanity, but because the guardians were under the influence of fear and intimidation. Under the present system such things would be impossible, as one man would be a check upon another. He should also support any amendment coming from the other House for the purpose of limiting the duration of the assistant commissioners or of the commissioners-in-chief.

Lord Portman

said, that the price of corn must be taken into consideration in discussing the operation of the New Poor-law. In 1837 one more pauper had received out-of-door relief than had been relieved in 1840, and in the year 1840 the relief of these paupers cost 560l. more than it had cost in 1837, and it was rather curious that the difference in the cost of the relief was precisely the difference between the price of bread in 1837 and 1840. He was certain that if the check of the Poor-law commission were removed from the west of England, it would operate injuriously to the poor. When the guardians could get rid of a poor man by eking out his wages, they would soon get back to the old system. But he agreed with the noble Earl in longing for the time when they should be able to do without the assistant-commissioners; for he must confess that their services could be very fairly dispensed with. He thought they did injury, by acting on their own various theories, instead of on one uniform principle. He should, however, be content to continue the system one year longer as it was, rather than recur to the old system. He had seen its practical good effect, and where one man, having gone into the workhouse rather than receive insufficient wages, had had his wages raised immediately.

The Earl of Winchilsea

referred to the cases of several worthy people who had never required a farthing from their parishes until after the passing of the New Poor-law, when, being overtaken by old age, they were compelled to solicit out-door relief, instead of getting which they were offered the workhouse. There were also a number of men in the district with which he was connected, who, when prevented from working by the winter, were, on asking for relief, also told, that they must come into the workhouse. Now he must think that the rigour of the new Poor-law could never have been intended to act upon such people as these. He thought the reason why greater numbers had not been compelled to solicit admission into workhouses, was, not the moral operation of the new Poor-law, but the enormous outlay that had taken place in various parts of the country in consequence of the railways. But these works would soon cease, and then great quantities of labouring men would have to fall back on their parishes; indeed, he thought, that in some parts of England, there would always be a surplus population; for this reason, he had always been a friend to emigration and colonisation, and he hoped the legislature would soon take up this subject in a proper manner.

Lord Portman

assured the noble Earl that in the district already alluded to they did that which the noble Earl desired— namely, they extended out-door relief to labourers who could not get employment. They sent up the cases of those whom they thought deserving out-door relief to the Poor-law commissioners, who then authorised the giving of it.

The Marquess of Salisbury

said, let them not, for God's sake, send away the sinews of the English peasantry and banish them. There were abundant sources of labour in this country, without sending our population to cultivate the wilds of America, or to follow the mad project of robbing the natives of New Zealand of their lands. He had always looked on the New Poor-law as solely intended to raise the moral character of the poor. He thought it had fulfilled that intention; for the best manner of raising the moral condition of the poor, was to enable them to earn large and sufficient wages; and he was confident that no scheme could have been better devised for such an object than to say, that in no case should an able-bodied man receive any assistance to his wages. He protested against an able-bodied labourer in any case receiving assistance to his wages. The moment that system was brought into operation, from that moment the poor would again be ground down, and their subsistence calculated on any scale but that of comfort, which before the establishment of the New Poor-law Bill was the case in many agricultural districts. He was anxious to see the assistant-commissioners abolished. Whenever hardship took place, he was sure it was not owing to the authorities at Somerset-house; but to the assistant-commissioners, who each held their different theories, and became in some degree partisans in the districts where they were placed. If the assistant-commissioners were done away with, they would be less frequently misled by misrepresentation, and they would have then a clearly defined responsible body.

Earl Stanhope

said, in the elaborate speech made by the noble and learned Lord (Lord Brougham) in support of the New Poor-law, some years since, the noble Lord said, if the bill were not passed, the rental of the whole of the estates, of the country would be swallowed up in the rates. Indeed the noble and learned Lord said, if the measure were not passed, it was not improbable that he might become a Westmoreland pauper. But what had been the result of the measure? He contended, that instead of a reduction there had been an enormous increase in the amount of poor's rate. He had received information from the great town of Bradford. He could not go through a long calculation upon the amount of poor-rates levied in the town of Bradford, but they had increased full fifty per cent, upon what they had been under the former system; and in other places they had increased to a still greater amount. The noble Earl (Earl Fitzwilliam) seemed to deny this fact. This, however, was admitted by the noble and learned Lord, (Lord Brougham), that whilst there had been in some places a decrease, there had been in others an increase, and that there was a considerable increase in the year 1840 above that of 1839. He rejoiced that this had been the result; for the sordid and selfish feeling which prevailed in this country, where the only deity that was worshipped was mammon, and where so little regard was entertained for the wants of the labouring classes — he rejoiced that this impression had been made at last upon the pockets of the middling classes, who had been so base as to carry out this most execrable law. If any real reduction had taken place in the amount of poor-rates, in the aggregate, let not his noble and learned Friend flatter himself with the belief that it had been effected by measuring and weighing out the scanty allowances of the poor-house, but let him reflect that it had been done by abridging the comforts of the poor. He rejoiced to know that in a short time an appeal must be made to the country, which appeal he was convinced would be responded to, and would express the sentiments of the people in a manner not to be misunderstood—in which there could be (according to a memorable expression) no mistake — in a manner, sooner or later, and at no distant period, which would compel Parliament to do justice to the people, and thus prevent that revolution which was approaching at a rapid rate. With reference to the proposed measure of a protection of 8s. the quarter on corn, that was, he must say, only a stepping-stone to the complete abrogation of the existing Corn-law. Talk of protection, it was nugatory. If the anti-Corn-law agitators meant anything, they went to a complete repeal of the Corn-laws. He wished that there should be no delusion in the country on the subject. Let there be a free-trade in all things; and then he knew what would be the opinions of the labouring classes. What gratitude would they feel for those who now determined to press on all other branches of industry, and exterminate for the benefit of foreigners the industry of our native land. Let the people know that it was intended to lower wages, and even to deprive the labourer of employment. Those who advocated the repeal of the Corn-laws might be able to procure the articles which they required from abroad; but he had every confidence in the good sense of the people of this country, and most of all in that of the labouring classes, who unfortunately, were not represented. But if they were to be assailed by the doctrines of free-trade, and if there were no other protection against that which must bring ruin and destruction upon the country, he would ask most emphatically, whether universal suffrage would not be better? For his own part, he would rather be governed by the Chartists than by the present Government. He was not a partisan of the Chartists; he had always endeavoured to restrain their mode of proceedings, and their feelings; but the Chartists were at least consistent with themselves,—they did on different occasions promulgate different opinions; their principles were consistent with each other; and though he knew that mighty evils would result from their sway, yet he knew at the same time, that the labourer would maintain his rights, which were now trampled under foot, capital only being heeded.

Lord Brougham

begged to explain. He had stated that one of the main objects of the Poor-law Bill was to provide for the comforts and to raise the condition of the labouring classes; but he also stated that it would confer great benefit on the owners and cultivators of land, and prevent the ruin to the agricultural interest that was approaching. He might be permitted to add, that he had always deemed, and had always stated, and he believed that on one occasion he had read a quotation from Sir Josiah Child in support of his opinion, that the prosperity of trade and the progress of agriculture were intimately connected.

The Earl of Wicklow

said, that the whole of this irregular debate had arisen out of explanations entered into by the noble and learned Lord in reference to quotations made from his speeches by his noble Friend (Lord Ashburton); and the noble Lord had not attempted to refute this part of the subject, but the noble and learned Lord gave reasons for having changed his opinions.

The Earl of Stradbroke

bore testimony to the beneficial operation of the Poor-law, and he gave his best thanks to those who sat in both Houses of Parliament who had been instrumental in carrying it out. He thought that the noble Earl (Stanhope) had adopted an unfair line of argument in referring to the case of the great town of Bradford, because that was purely and essentially a manufacturing town, where masses of the labouring classes were subject to the fluctuations which attended manufacturing populations, caused amongst many other things by improvements in machinery. In the year 1817 the poor-rates were more moderate, but from that period up to the year 1834, they increased to an enormous extent; and had the old law continued in force, the landed interest of this country must have passed away, by the operation of the Poor-rates.

Earl Fitzwilliam

said, that, in reference to the increase of the Poor-rates at Bradford, the noble Earl opposite (Earl Stanhope) seemed to think that the evil had been occasioned by the New Poor-law, whereas it had arisen from the great and growing distress to which he had so often, but in vain, endeavoured to draw the attention of their Lordships. Extreme distress prevailed in that part of the country, a fact which the noble Earl said he rejoiced in, as affording evidence against the Poor-law, [Earl Stanhope: No, no.] If not, then the noble Earl rejoiced at it in another way—namely, as affording a proof that the middling classes would be punished for their base worship of the only deity they worshipped, the deity of mammon. His opinion was, that the Poor-law commissioners were necessary,—he did not mean to say, that their powers should be increased; but he thought they would never be able to administer the Poor-laws effectually unless they had a permanent office established for the superintendence of the working of the act. He did not say whether it should be of the same kind as that which had been created for the purpose at Somerset-house. But if they did not choose to confer the power on the Home Secretary, they must have a permanent office or officer to superintend the working of the act, and for the purpose of taking away the power of making too great a deviation in the mode of the administration of the act in different parts of the country, because, as the noble Earl (Earl Winchilsea) had suggested, the administration could not be the same in the counties of Kent and Lincoln.

Earl Stanhope

had quoted Bradford, but that was not a solitary case of the increase of the poor-rates. The same had been the case in other places wholly unconnected with manufactures. He rejoiced at the circumstance that the middling classes, who had been the agents and instruments in executing this most execrable law, would at last be induced, if not by considerations of justice and humanity, at least from regard to selfish interests, to yield to the overwhelming opposition which was now raised to this law.