HL Deb 05 October 1841 vol 59 cc1105-14
The Earl of Radnor

said, that he had to present to their Lordships several petitions, praying that the House might address her Majesty not to prorogue Parliament until some measure should be adopted with respect to the Corn-laws. Though there were only a few petitions, they were in principle similar to those which had already been sent before the two Houses, and which had received the signatures of not less than 300,000 persons. There could be no doubt that the subject was one which had excited the most intense interest throughout the country, in which the wish was very general, that the Parliament should not separate until something had been done on this important question. He feared, however, that the Session would close without anything being done in the matter, and he was confirmed in that fear by what had fallen from the noble Duke last night, when he said, that he did not intend to bring forward any measure on the subject of the Corn-laws— so he, at least, had understood the noble Duke; and another noble Duke opposite (the Duke of Buckingham) had, since his accession to office, made a similar statement in his address to a meeting of farmers in Buckinghamshire. But he looked with more attention to the statement made last night by the noble Duke (Duke of Wellington), whom he understood to say, that he had no intention of bringing forward any measure relating to the Corn-laws. [The Duke of Wellington: The noble Lord misunderstood my remark.] He was glad to find that the noble Duke disclaimed the notion that it was not his intention to bring forward any measure on this subject. Undoubtedly, if the question of the Corn-law were to be considered, with reference to many other important subjects, such as the revenue, finance, and commerce, it would require time to enter into such consideration; and if the noble Duke meant to allude to those subjects, his demand for further time would be very reasonable, but he did not understand the noble Duke to refer to the Corn-law alone. The noble Duke could not require further time for the consideration of the Corn-law question by itself; for as many of their Lordships would recollect, the noble Duke himself had brought in the present Corn-law Act, when at the head of the Government in 1828, and had carried it through. The noble Duke could not, therefore, say, that he wanted time to consider the subject further. The noble Duke must be even more familiar with the subject now than he had been at that time. The noble Duke had stated, on a former evening, that the distress which existed in the country could not arise from the want of a sufficient supply of corn, and the noble Duke dwelt on the fact, that there had just been imported 1,700,000 quarters of foreign corn; and he might have added, that since then the harvest has been got in; but the noble Duke must be aware that great distress, and great want of a sufficient supply of food, might exist in a country in which there might, nevertheless, be a large supply of corn. Did the noble Duke recollect the famine which existed in parts of Ireland a few years ago? At that time the distress was so general, and the want of the common necessaries of life so great, that large subscriptions were raised in this country, and large supplies of food sent to those districts where the wants of the people were greatest. It did happen on that occasion, as the noble Duke might recollect, that a vessel sailing into the harbour of Cork, and laden with supplies of provisions for the distressed inhabitants in- part of it, was met by another vessel bringing to England a cargo of wheat, and and of biscuits, made from wheat. This would show that there might be large supplies of corn in the country, and there still might prevail great distress, and that was the case with England at the present moment. What would be the use of a large supply of corn in the granaries of the country if the people could not purchase it? This was a fearful state in which to leave the country at the prorogation of Parliament, without the introduction of any measure for the relief of the distress which prevailed. This was the state of things against which Parliament had received the petitions of 300,000 of the people. He had by him a letter on this subject from an individual in Manchester, who, by his own great exertions, had raised himself from the condition of an operative to a station of comparative independence, and who had, by his industry and perseverance, acquired a good education. That gentleman professed his political opinions, for he was what was called a Radical In one of the letters received from him— only that day— there was this passage,— The new Parliament will not do anything for the people, and they (.the people) will be taught this fatal lesson, that everything which they may obtain they will owe to violence, or to the fear of violence, and that nothing will be granted to argument or common sense. If Parliament should now separate, as he feared it would, without anything being Hone for the people, and that disturbances should follow, and then that some measure should be brought forward in the next Session, would not that teach the people another lesson— that everything was to be obtained by violence, and that nothing would be conceded to argument? It would 4be a repetition of the lesson taught by the Catholic Emancipation Bill. In another letter, which he had received from the same individual, he said, that now the Tories had got into office, they would endeavour to persuade the people that there was no distress but yet, while they had admitted and deplored the distress, they produced documents, the object of which was to show that there was no distress at all. Why attempt to deny that, the existence of which they deplored? With respect to that part of the question, he would call the attention of their Lordships to a letter which he had seen in a paper of that morning, written by a member of the College of Surgeons in London residing in Manchester. The writer showed that typhus fever prevailed in proportion to the existence of distress and want of sufficient food amongst the people, and he illustrated his argument by slating; the extent to which typhus fever prevailed in two periods of five years. During the first five years, which were years of manufacturing prosperity, the number of admissions to the Fever Hospital in Manchester was 2,459, and the deaths were about 12½ per cent., while in the next five years the admissions were nearly double, and the deaths 18 per cent. Let him ask whether Parlia- ment ought to separate without entering into some inquiry as to that distress of which such multitudes were complaining? Was it not matter worthy of consideration, when medical men were publishing books calling on the clergy to assist in endeavouring to find some remedy for the distress which so deeply affected the corporal and intellectual welfare of the people? Under such circumstances, it was deplorable to find the Government turning, as it were, a deaf ear to the prayers of the people, and proroguing Parliament without going into any inquiry. He would repeat, that Government were undertaking a fearful responsibility in this respect. In another part of a letter from the gentleman to whom he had referred, he said, that the Government should recollect that the greatest number of the Chartist leaders were now out of prison, and were endeavouring to persuade the people that a repeal of the Corn-laws would do them no good. [" The Duke of Richmond," Hear.] The noble Duke seemed to be of the same opinion with the Chartist leaders in this respect. Would he agree with the other doctrines of those leaders? Would he agree that all land should be brought into immediate cultivation, and should become the property of the state, the present possessors having no exclusive right to it? The writer went on to describe the alarm created in Manchester by the proceedings of the Chartists, and he added, that if Government would only do justice to the people, it would soon put an end to all those absurdities, and destroy the influence of those who lived by promulgating them. The letter from which he quoted was from a plain man, but one who well understood the subject on which he wrote. He hoped that noble Lords opposite would lay these things to heart, and that even yet the people might expect something to be done for them before the prorogation.

The Duke of Wellington

said, that the person, who, from his situation, was called upon to tender, his advice to her Majesty, should consider well before he gave that advice, and he had always done so; but he would tell the noble Earl what he would not do. He would not allow himself to be intimidated by the noble Earl, or by his friends or correspondents— Radical he thought he called them— from giving that advice which his sense of duty prompted to his Sovereign, let the consequences of giving that advice be to him what they might. It appeared to him that there was not a more wise or salutary regulation amongst their Lordships' standing orders than that which provided that reference should not be made to former debates; but when noble Lords thought proper to disregard that order, and to refer to observations made in former debates, they ought to take care and be correct as to what passed, and not to attribute words to noble Lords which they never had uttered, or put a meaning on words actually spoken which the speakers could never have intended to convey. The noble Earl had said, that he stated in last night's debate that he would not bring forward the consideration of the Corn-laws. Now, if the noble Earl had attended closely to what passed, and had remembered it accurately, he would have known, and of course would have said, that it was not he, but the noble Viscount lately at the head of the Government, who had referred to the subject, when the noble Viscount said, that if he would give notice of a motion for an alteration of the Corn-laws he would soon secure a full attendance in both Houses of Parliament. His answer to that was, "I will not announce any intention which I do not entertain in order to secure a full attendance of Members." He was sure the noble Viscount would admit the correctness of that statement, and that what he referred to was the attendance of Members in the present Session of Parliament. He was sure the noble Viscount could not mean that the notice was to be given to secure a full attendance in six months' time, or any distant period. [Lord Melbourne— "Hear, hear,] He did admit, that such a notice now would bring a full attendance in both Houses, but what he meant to convey and had slated, was, that he was not prepared at the present time to bring forward any motion for a revision of the Corn-laws. What he had said, was, that it was a measure which must be considered in all its bearings as to commerce and finance, and other important matters, with which it was connected by the late Government in direct communications from the Throne, as well as from Ministers in their places in both Houses. It was perfectly true that he had brought in the bill for establishing' the Corn-law as it now existed, and he could not now recollect whether it had met the approbation of the noble Earl, but he certainly had no recollection that it had been opposed by him; but he had, at different limes, since discussed the question, and had endeavoured to refresh his memory on the subject, by the perusal of important documents connected with the principle on which it was founded. He did possess some knowledge of the subject, but he must say that it stood in a different light now from what it did when he brought it forward twelve or thirteen years ago, and those who would consider it must look at it with deep attention, and not submit any scheme on the subject to that or the other House of Parliament which was not maturely weighed and considered, not only with reference to other questions with which it was connected by different motions made and discussed in the other House of Parliament, but also in reference to treaties between this country and other powers, and also the treaties of other powers with each other, and combined with these the general relations by which it was connected with the whole system of this country. On these grounds he fully agreed that it was a matter which should not be taken up in a hurry, but must be deliberately examined in all its bearings. The noble Earl had mixed up with this discussion some remarks on a conversation which took place a few nights before; and here again, the noble Earl took an erroneous view of what occurred. The question for the moment related to the distress which was said to exist in several parts of the country. He did not deny that distress, but the sitting or not silting of Parliament could not remedy it. He said that the people were suffering from want of employment, but such want had often existed from time to time, and he did not see how it could be remedied by Parliament. What he said on the evening referred to, was, that the distress did not arise from any want of provisions in the country. The noble Earl himself had stated that there had been lately imported into this country 1,700,000 quarters of foreign corn, and he was aware that before that importation there was in store a supply of corn amounting to 1,200,000 quarters, making in all nearly 3,000,000 quarters, besides the produce of the harvest, which was now got in. From these facts he concluded that there could be no distress arising from want of a sufficient supply of corn. There was, he regretted to say, distress existing from want of work and deficiency in wages, and other causes, into which he would not then enter; but he repeated that he did not know, and had not heard from any quarter, how Parliament could remedy such evils. They were the results of a variety of causes, which Parliament could not remove if it sat continuously from now till February next. He begged pardon for taking u so much of their Lordships' time whe there was no question before them, but after what had fallen from the noble Earl he had felt it his duty to enter into those explanations of what actually took place on the occasions to which the noble Earl referred.

Lord Kinnaird

said, there was a question before the House, which was, that the petition presented by his noble Friend (the Earl of Radnor) do lie on the Table. He was glad that the noble Duke had entered into these explanations, because they would remove an erroneous impression which had gone abroad. For his own part, he did understand the noble Duke's declaration of his intention not to introduce any measure on the subject of the Corn-laws to refer to that question generally, and not with reference merely to the present Session of Parliament. He owned, that how-ever necessary an inquiry might be into the state of the country, and the distress which prevailed in consequence of the Corn-laws, he had no hope that any such inquiry would be gone into now, or that when gone into at any time, any practical result would come from it under the present Government. They had been brought into power by the monopolists, who would soon turn them out again if they saw any indication of an intention to make any substantial change in the Corn-laws. No such change could, therefore, be expected from the present Government. This was his own impression, and he believed it was that of the country generally, and it was greatly strengthened by the declaration said to have been made by the noble Duke (Richmond) on the cross-benches, who had said, in the terms he had already quoted, that the agriculturists or monopolists who had brought in the present Government, could send them out again if they found it necessary. The Government asked for time for the consideration of the great questions connected with the subject of the Corn-laws. He believed that they required it on other grounds, for he thought that the materials of the Cabinet were of so heterogenous a nature that much time must elapse before they could be found to concur upon any one measure. Time, he thought, might also be required to get rid of some three or four Members of the present Cabinet, in order to bring it to the proper mind on certain questions. He had certainly thought that, after the speech of the noble Earl, (of Ripon), and the speech which had been extracted from the right hon. Baronet at the head of the Government, they were prepared to state to Parliament the principles on which the Government had been formed, but he was mistaken in this feeling. He, however, would like his noble Friend who had preceded him, warn the Government of the danger of any longer delay in this matter. Like his noble Friend, he also was in communication with Radicals; and from them he learned much of the great distress which prevailed, and had received communications pointing out the danger of further postponing the consideration of some means by which that distress might be relieved. In refusing such inquiry, the Government was taking on itself an awful responsibility. The noble Duke had said that he was willing to take his share of that responsibility; but let him tell the noble Duke that it was no slight share, when it involved a refusal to consider the condition of the country, thus adding insult to the sufferings of its starving people. He wished to ask the noble Duke to what length the recess would be carried, or at what time the Houses would again be called together?

The Duke of Wellington

said, that the noble Lord must, on a slight consideration, be aware that the question he had asked was one which he ought not to put, and which could not be answered. He would wish to ask, in his turn, what the noble Lord meant by the word "monopolists?"

The Duke of Richmond

said, that the noble Earl must have been after the stag-hounds when the noble Earl had heard of the speech to which the noble Earl referred. On that occasion he had stated his 'readiness to give his support to the Government of the right hon. Baronet now at its head, when an observation was made by some Gentleman present, that though Sir R. Peel and his friends were opposed to the Corn-law question as brought in by the Whigs, yet they might, when in power, turn round upon the agriculturists, as they had done on the question of Ca- tholic Emancipation, and force down their throats that very measure which they had formerly denounced. His reply to that was, that if Sir R. Peel, when in office, supported the 8s. fixed duty, he would tell him and those who supported him, that the agriculturists who had helped him into power, would have no hesitation in turning him out. In this, however, he had made use of no threat; he had merely replied to the argument of a Friend. He did not mean to assert that the Corn-laws were never on any occasion to be touched by the Legislature, but in whatever alteration might be made care should be taken that due protection should be given to agriculture, without which it could not exist. But he would say with reference to the suggested consideration of the question at this particular time, that it would be not only inconvenient, but also unproductive of any practical result.

Lord Clifford of Chudleigh

, was happy to hear from the noble Duke, that there was no fixed lime to which Parliament was to be prorogued, and therefore, that the people might entertain some hope that their distressed condition would be taken into consideration much earlier than was generally supposed. He had no fear for want of food in the country, but what he dreaded was increase of discontent, for which he saw no remedy, except a temporary coming forward on the part of the aristocracy, especially that part that had shown themselves he richest at the last elections. This country was burdened with a debt of 800,000,000l., and while it was so it would be impossible for them to frame a Corn-law such as they might and ought to frame if the debt did not exist. The very fact of the delay so strenuously insisted upon by the present Government showed that the risk of Government was one of considerable difficulty. This country had a right to expect their Lordships to come forward with that assistance which would be necessary for the sustenance of the poor during the time which her Majesty's present Government delayed their measures. While he was on his legs he begged to give notice, that early next Session be would move for the appointment of a committee to inquire whether it was not in the power of the governor of Madras to protect her Majesty's subjects according to the law as settled in 1833. That inquiry was rendered necessary, because, the noble Lord, the President of the Board of Control appeared to be as unable to understand that law, as the noble Lord was unable to understand his speeches.