HL Deb 10 May 1841 vol 58 cc91-6
The Earl of Rosebery

rose for the purpose of moving for certain returns with a view of showing the operation of the existing Corn-laws. It had been stated by certain noble Lords that the present duty was merely for the purpose of regulation, and its operation had been contrasted, he thought, somewhat invidiously with the operation of a fixed duty. Great misapprehension appeared to exist on the subject of the operation of the present Corn-laws. It had been stated that they imposed no tax on food, while the fixed duty on corn, which had been proposed in another House, had been stigmatised as imposing a tax on the food of the people. For the purpose, therefore, of affording information on this important subject, he moved that there be laid before the House an account of the quantity of wheat and other grain entered for home consumption, from foreign countries, during the years 1838, 1839, and 1840, with the amount of duty paid thereon each year respectively.

Earl Fitzwilliam

said that he considered the returns moved for by his noble Friend were of great importance, and that they were calculated to do away with great misapprehension. Great delusions existed on the subject among both parties, but more particularly, he would say, among that which, for want of a better name, had been designated the agricultural party. If any noble Lord were then present who had been present on Friday last, he would recollect that he (Earl Fitzwilliam) had expressed his opinion that the tenants who were now paying a fair rent, as deduced from the averages of the last ten, fifteen, or twenty years, would be able fairly to pay an equal rent during the same term now commencing, under the operation of a fixed duty, as proposed in the other House of Parliament. Since that period he had endeavoured to procure facts in support of his opinion from a consideration of the averages during the period he had mentioned. He had been unable to procure the averages for the last two years; but from the year 1820 to the year 1838 the average of the averages had amounted to 56s. 4d.; and supposing during the last two years the average to amount to 70s., which he considered would turn out to be about the truth, it would make but a small addition to the amount he had mentioned. The effect produced by the existing Corn-laws was very singular, because, while during a time of distress and scarcity they raised the price of corn considerably, during a time of abundance they depressed the prices in an equal degree, thus inflicting a positive evil upon the farmer, and forcing him, during those seasons, to accept of a lower price than he would otherwise be enabled to procure. They afforded another example of the inability of human ingenuity to adapt a plan to circumstances which it was impossible for human foresight to foresee. He had said that under the proposed system the tenant would be able to pay as good a rent for the next twenty years as he had been fairly able to pay under the old law. A great portion of the lands of England were held by tenants at will, and the landlords took the time which was most favourable to them for fixing their rents; and the object of the Corn-laws was to persuade the tenants that they should have as high an average of prices as that of the period at which the rent was fixed. The law, he conceived, had been mischievous to all parties, but most particularly so as to the occupying tenant.

Lord Beaumont

hoped their Lordships would allow him to claim their attention for a few moments. He would not have ventured to address them, had he not feared that his silence might be interpreted as an acquiescence in the sentiments of the noble Earl. He was aware of the great disadvantage of discussing a question of such importance in this incidental manner, and, therefore, he would not enter into the subject at large. The noble Earl seemed to conclude, that this was a question between the great landed proprietors and the community at large; but it also affected, in a very serious manner, individuals who cultivated their own land, who lived on their own land, and who subsisted by the profits which they derived from their labour and outlay. If the present price were lowered beneath the average which the noble Earl had mentioned —nay, if it were not considerably above it, this class of persons would not be able to cultivate their land. This was especially the case with reference to poor land. Those who had brought such land into cultivation calculated on the present protection being continued to them, in order that they might receive some remuneration for their outlay. Fully relying on the good faith of the Legislature to give them due protection, they had disbursed their money. What then, would be the case with those who cultivated poor lands if the proposed alteration were effected? Why, when those persons found that the law was to be altered, and their wheat driven out of the market by foreign grain, they would be obliged to abandon their land, and many tracts, he was convinced, would speedily go out of cultivation. The agricultural population thus thrown out of employ would, of necessity, proceed to the manufacturing towns, increase the competition for employment there, and consequently effect a reduction of wages, for the alteration of the Corn-laws meant nothing else but a reduction of wages. It meant that, or it meant nothing. Even supposing that employment could be procured, it would be a very hard case on those persons who had all their lives been accustomed to agricultural pursuits. Their want of skill in their new vocation would prevent them from claiming large wages. The proposed alteration would also operate most injuriously with reference to those who had raised money by mortgage. But it was said, that such an alteration would be attended with a great extension of our manufacturing exports. But could they make laws for all the countries of Europe? Could they compel foreign states to purchase British manufactures? They might make laws for this country, but they could not foresee what duties foreign countries might lay on the importation of British manufactures; and they all knew that some countries had already imposed heavy duties on those manufactures. It could not be supposed that foreign countries, which had given encouragement to the growth of home manufactures, would allow this country to undersell them in their own markets, and thus bring' ruin on those manufacturers whose exertions they had previously fostered. Assuredly they would not adopt a system that must impoverish their population, and thus greatly embarrass their respective Governments.

Lord Ashburton

said, the noble Earl had stated that for a period of eighteen years, the average price of corn was 56s. 4d. the quarter, Now, that was just about the limit which entered the mind of those who had supported the present Corn-laws. For his own part, he never wished to see corn below 55s. or above 60s. the quarter. So far from the fluc- tuations, under the present system, being very great, it had, on the contrary, produced a very remarkable degree of steadiness of price. With respect to the noble Earl's observations about landlords and their tenants, he thought their Lordships must have made up their minds that the noble Earl was mistaken. It was desirable that every landlord should have respectable tenants; which made it absurd to suppose that any man, except in extraordinary cases, would think he could permanently derive advantage from tricking and trapping his tenants. He should not, however, trouble their Lordships with any further observations on the subject, until it came more directly under their notice.

The Earl of Radnor

concurred in what had fallen from his noble Friend below him (Earl Fitzwilliam). The Corn-laws had produced fluctuation in the price of corn, which was the article of all others the least liable to fluctuation of price in the natural order of things.

Lord Ashburton

explained. That in the course of the twenty-five years which had passed since those laws were enacted, the price had been remarkably steady, except in the two years to which he had referred.

Lord Portman

said, that when the noble Lord (Ashburton) spoke of the steadiness of price he seemed not to have looked into the returns, in which, it would be found that there had been first seven years of an ascending scale, then seven years of a descending scale. We were in the commencement of the descending scale. In the course of that period wheat had risen to 90s., and sunk below 40s. He believed that the supply of wheat grown in England was not sufficient to meet the demands of the people. There were about twenty millions of acres of arable land in this country, and the population exceeded seventeen millions, and it was reckoned that each individual consumed one quarter of wheat a year. So there was a demand for seventeen millions of quarters. Now, each acre was said to produce about three quarters and a half of wheat, and if this sum were divided by four—for the four-course system might be taken as an average— there would remain only a surplus of half a million. So a supply from foreign countries was, considering the great increase of population, in the long run of years necessary. This was a point on which the whole question, in his opinion, turned, and at the same time it was one, too, generally overlooked.

Lord Ashburton

begged entirely to disagree with the noble Lord as to the means of production in this country. From the improvements daily made in agriculture— the supply would continue to increase, and would be sufficient to meet the demands of a growing population.

The Earl of Haddington

wished to throw out a suggestion to the noble Lord (Lord Portman) as to the calculation which he had made respecting the means of supply. He had entirely excluded Scotland and Ireland—both of which countries produced more corn than they consumed, and the surplus came to this country.

The Earl of Radnor

could assure their Lordships, that Ireland was gradually decreasing in her supply of corn; and as for Scotland, she had ceased for some time to be an exporting, and had become an importing, country.

Earl Fitzwilliam

said, it appeared to him from the returns that had been laid on the Table, that in order to meet the demand for this country recourse must be had to foreign supplies. It would, of course, be in the recollection of such noble Lords as looked at the evidence given before committees on the subject of the Corn-laws, that amongst them there was an extraordinary degree of unanimity as to the price which the grower expected, and had a right to expect, under the law of 1828. They agreed that that price was 64s. In the year 1829, the price was 66s. 3d., and in the year 1831, it was 66s. 4d. But what was the present price—he did not speak strictly of the averages as published—but what was the actual price of corn fit for making bread? Why, for the last sixteen or seventeen months, it was not less than 90s. Such was the effect of the existing system, the arrangements under which prevented the bringing in of foreign corn when it was most wanted, and only gave facilities to its introduction when it was not required. Now, there was one point to which he wished that some noble Lords would apply themselves, namely, to explain how it was that the prices of grain at Rotterdam were so steady; for his part, he could only explain it by the fact that the Dutch enjoyed a free trade in corn.

The Earl of Wicklow

said, that though there had been a decrease in the export of corn from Ireland, still the export was of sufficient amount to require that it should be included in any calculation made upon the subject. However true it was that the export of corn from Ireland had decreased, the export of flour had greatly increased. Vast mills had been recently built in Ireland, and if the corn did not come to this country in one shape, it came in another. Then it was to be recollected that Canada supplied to this country a great quantity of corn, and were our colonial interests to be sacrificed for the sake of such an experiment as the proposed alteration of the Corn-laws?

Motion agreed to.