HL Deb 22 June 1846 vol 87 cc763-75

rose, pursuant to notice, to move the following Resolution:— That, whatever may be the Alterations which it may be expedient permanently to make in the Laws regulating the Introduction of Foreign Corn, it is the Opinion of this House that the sudden Admission of the large Quantity of Wheat and Wheat Flour now in Bond at a very low Rate of Duty, while the Prices are moderate, and the Prospect of the approaching Harvest is promising, may be productive of great Injury and Injustice to the Cultivators of the Soil of the United Kingdom; and that some better Provision against such a Calamity should be provided than is contained in the Bill now before the House. The noble Lord said that he was not about to ask their Lordships to enter into the general question, which had been so often argued, as to the policy of the great change now in progress in our commercial laws, and also in the law relating to the duty on corn. The whole question had been deliberately discussed; and their Lordships had decided against two Amendments that had been moved, by very nearly the same majority in each case. Therefore he felt that if he were again to call on them to enter into the general subject, he would be giving them unnecessary trouble; though, at the same time, he must admit, that if he thought, by pursuing the matter further, he could change their opinions, he would spare no pains or exertion to induce them to do so. But, presuming that the Government were right in their general policy—presuming that the measure itself was right—he wished to call the attention of the House to the mode in which it was proposed to be carried into effect, to show the want of caution which was manifested in reference to the subject, and to contrast the conduct of the present Government and Parliament in this respect with the conduct of former Governments and Parliaments; he would not say upon similar occasions exactly, because upon no occasion had there ever been before their Lordships a measure of such immense importance as the one now before them. Their Lordships were aware that we had lived under a system of Corn Laws ever since the introduction of civilization into this country, and that now there was to be a total change, an entire abandonment of the system; and the question which he had to propose was, whether, since this was to be the case, some means could not be devised to prevent its immediately effecting the ruin of the great body of the agriculturists of this country? Undoubtedly they were about, in their present course of legislation, to take away the whole of protection—at least at the end of three years—he might even say at once; because the 4s. duty was hardly worth taking notice of; and this they were to do suddenly, and without any precautions that it should fall upon different classes without any immediate shock — without any immediate oscillation of prices; and this, too, contrary to the practice of Parliament in former times, and contrary to the dictates of justice and common sense. He begged the House to look at the state of the case. There was at the present moment a large quantity of foreign corn in bond, ready to be introduced into the market immediately upon the passing of this Bill. Suppose the Bill to pass that House at the end of this week, as in all probability it would do, and to receive the Royal Assent on the Monday or Tuesday following, then the whole of the vast quantity of grain would come immediately into market, to the total paralysation of that market, and to the complete stoppage of all commercial operations. There was, at present, an unprecedented amount of grain in bond: he did not know the exact quantity; but sometime ago he knew that there was something like 2,000,000 quarters of wheat. Since that time additional quantities had been pouring into the country from all quarters of the world. The outcry about the anticipated famine had induced everybody connected with the corn trade, whether in the Black Sea, the Baltic, or America, to scrape together everything in the shape of corn for the purpose of pouring it into our market. The noble Lord at the head of the Board of Trade would probably be able to tell the House the total quantity in bond at the present moment. He (Lord Ashburton) would only say, that, judging from what he saw stated in the daily papers, the quantity must be immense. He had observed, for instance, that in the week before last there had been imported into Liverpool no fewer than 56,000 barrels of flour; and that, from the 3rd to the 9th of June, fifty-one ships laden with grain of one description or another had passed the Sound on their way to the various ports in the United Kingdom; thirty-two of these being laden with wheat, five with barley, twelve with oats, and two with peas. Now, that being the state of the case, he begged their Lordships to look to the little chance there was that this immense supply would at all be wanted. Undoubtedly, if there was a bad harvest—if there was a real deficiency of corn in this country, even this quantity, large as it was, would not be more than might be required, and would not be felt in the price; but if there was a good harvest, which he hoped there would be, then this vast surplus, this load upon the market, so much beyond what was required for consumption, would certainly have a most disastrous effect upon the farmers of this country. During last year, although all other parts of Europe were suffering from want of corn, the prices here were moderate, and the supply regular and steady; and yet the whole amount of corn imported, exclusive of what came from Canada, and which came in under all circumstances, did not amount to more than 80,000 quarters. The average importation for the three preceding years was about 550,000 quarters. Undoubtedly, during some previous years there were large quantities received and wanted. In the years 1839, 1840, 1841, and 1842, the average importation was about 2,400,000; but during the six years ending 1837 it was as low as 104,000 quarters. The quantity at present in bond could not be much short of 2,500,000 quarters; and if the Government must carry out their desperate experiment, they should at least do it with a little more judgment. If we were treating this in a factious manner—as a question affecting Government merely—he would say that the greater the confusion the measure produced the better. If he wished to see the country disgusted with the experiment, he would say, "Give the Government rope enough;" and, certainly, if they did so, they would not come down to the end of the year without the whole country being convinced of the injustice and absurdity of the law. He now wished to call the attention of the House to what former Parliaments and Governments had done when dealing with much smaller quantities of corn than they had to deal with at present. Former Parliaments and Governments proceeded with great caution. On one occasion, in 1822, when an Act was passed, not to take away protection, but merely to mitigate it, so careful was Mr. Huskisson to prevent the evil consequences which would arise from a large supply of grain being suddenly thrown upon the market, that he caused it to be enacted that the importation of foreign corn should be restricted until prices reached a certain amount. On another occasion, in 1826, when there were only 400,000 quarters of wheat in bond—only one-fifth of the quantity at present in bond—so careful was the Government to prevent any violent oscillation of prices by its introduction, that they made a regulation to let one-third of it in every three months, and also securing a duty of 10s. per quarter. These were the precautions which were taken by a former Government when dealing with cases of much less importance than the one which the present Government was dealing with, without adopting any precautions whatever. Was there any difficulty in making some arrangement of the same description in this case? The Government displayed a great amount of feeling for the parties who were shippers of corn; but very little for the people in this country who would be ruined by the inundation of corn which would take place. The resolution he proposed was simply a precautionary measure. On the facts of the case it appeared, that if they let in so great a quantity of corn at once, they would be exposing the country to great and unnecessary risk; therefore he thought their Lordships would not be justified in passing a measure of this kind, regardless of the interests of the persons concerned. He was sensible of the peculiar situation in which the country stood, with one party on the point of going out, and another party ready to step in; but still he could not forbear taking that opportunity of pressing on their Lordships the paramount necessity of legislating on this occasion with prudence and justice. He had wished to go further into the question than the facts he had stated; he had not aimed at inducing their Lordships to retrace their steps—would to God he could do that!—but he wished to press on their Lordships whether they ought not to interfere so as to conduct this experiment in a better mode than that in which it was at present proposed to conduct it.


should abstain, as the noble Lord had done, from entering into the general question, and confine himself strictly to the particular proposition before their Lordships. The noble Lord's speech was dark with alarm and fruitful with prophecy; but any address more at variance with facts and more unsupported by argument it had not been his fortune to hear in that House. His noble Friend endeavoured to convince them that there was now in bond in this country, and likely to be in bond, some enormous and unheard-of amount of foreign corn. It required no great knowledge to have accurate information on this point; but his noble Friend, from not having sufficient information, had greatly exaggerated the amount in stating it at 2,500,000 quarters. By the latest returns transmitted from the Custom-house, the amount certainly did not reach, in wheat and wheat-flour together, 1,900,000 quarters; and so far from any likelihood of its being unduly increased, as far as the information of Government went, the very reverse was the case. From every quarter of the world the same accounts which reached Government during the autumn of last year relative to the expected deficiency in the then approaching harvest, which were afterwards realized by the result, were again arriving. Both this year, and last year, nature seemed to be setting her various elements in conspiracy against us. What he meant was this: it had been repeatedly asserted that there never could be a general deficiency of crops, for that the overflowing harvests of one part of Europe were sure to compensate for the bad crops of the other parts; but in this instance nature herself seemed to have put the elements into conspiracy to deprive us of supplies from all the various sources from whence we could expect to derive them. In the north of Europe there was an alarming deficiency of corn, from the superabundance of wet; in the south there was an equal or greater deficiency, from the ravages of the grub. It was notorious to all the readers of newspapers, and confirmed by the information which reached Government on all sides, that in Poland and the corn-producing countries of the north of Europe, the people were now in a state, not of want or scarcity merely, but of starvation. It was an equally notorious fact, established, if not by the newspapers, at least by the official information received by Ministers, that in the south of Europe, and in Anatolia, which produced a considerable quantity of corn, they were dying by the road sides. Therefore, if it were a point of importance to have an abundant supply of food, he was justified in repeating that nature was setting herself in array against us, to afflict us with a deficiency. The noble Lord had endeavoured to lead their Lordships to suppose that under the new law, even if matters did not go farther than they were now, there was a quantity of corn in this country which would be brought into the market such as had never been heard of before; and he had directed their attention to the three years 1843, 1844, and 1845, to show the small quantity introduced at that time. Why his noble Friend took those three years, and stopped there, he knew not, unless it were because numero Deus impare gaudet. Would the House permit him to state one or two other years immediately preceding those years? In 1844 there were 400,000 quarters; in 1843, 814,000 quarters; but whereas there were now in bond 1,900,000 quarters of wheat and wheat flour, there were admitted in four weeks of 1842, under the law which at present existed, 2,180,000 quarters, varying from 64s. to 61s. 7d. In 1841, again, there were admitted 2,017,000 quarters. So much with respect to the quantity about to be introduced, and the proportion it bore to the amount introduced in former years. But he denied that Her Majesty's Ministers were open to the imputations cast upon them by the noble Lord, or that they deserved to be blamed for any want of precaution. When his noble Friend said that Government were proceeding indiscreetly, and that something or other should be done which would let this immense amount of corn into the market gradually, he had forgotten that Government did make such an attempt, not last week or the week before, but more than a quarter of a year ago, when the quantity of corn in bond was considerably less than now. The right hon. Baronet at the head of the Government then proposed that the same rule should be applied to ensure a gradual admission of the corn as was customarily applied in the case of merchandise and of other articles in bond; their Lordships were aware that it was the invariable practice, on the passing of a resolution for making an alteration of duty in the other House of Parliament, that a Treasury Order was issued, by which goods were permitted to be taken out at the reduced duty, bond being given by the importers for the payment of the difference between the duty paid at the time of sale and the old duty, if the measure should not pass. In answer to a question put to him, his right hon. Friend the First Lord of the Treasury stated that it was his intention to apply that rule to corn as well as to other articles imported. To this declaration great exceptions were taken, and strong objections made, on constitutional as well as other grounds. His right hon. Friend, therefore, at once withdrew the proposal; and the noble Lord, the late Secretary for the Colonies, in his speech the other night gave him credit for having done so. He said, therefore, that things had taken the course which his noble Friend now blamed them for having neglected; and it was only in deference to precedent, and the manifestation of sentiment in that and the other House, that the proposal was withdrawn. He must say, therefore, that it was wholly incorrect to say that the Government had been inconsiderate with respect to the gradual working of the measure. With regard to the resolution now moved, he should endeavour to persuade their Lordships not to agree to it, because he believed it to be unjust in principle; and so far from having a beneficial effect, that it would be most injurious in its operation to those whom it was intended to benefit. His noble Friend helped them to no solution of the difficulty he presented to them; and he had a right to ask his noble Friend how he would propose to deal with this question? The resolution declared that corn in bond should not be admitted except on some other terms than at present. What were those terms to be? If they affirmed the resolution as it stood, they would attempt a most glaring act of injustice towards those who were possessors of the stock in bond. The corn now in bond would be dealt with in one way, while the corn which arrived next week would escape the resolution, and be admitted as provided by the new Bill. His noble Friend had altered the resolution, which, as it at first stood, was a mercantile monster in phraseology, for it talked of the "importation" of corn in bond. The resolution as it now stood ran, "that the sudden admission of the large amount of wheat now in bond," &c. Now, at whatever point the noble Lord would propose to introduce a check, a line of distinction would be established, and great injustice done to those on the one side as compared with those on the other. It was a matter palpable and glaring to all, that the resolution was directly in the teeth of the warehousing system. They had taken great pains to establish that system; and on the very first occasion of its coming into active operation, would they consent to inflict a discouragement on it by a measure of encouragement to the foreign dealer? This proposal would place corn in bond at a disadvantage, as compared with that lying in warehouses on the other side of the water. If the noble Lord proposed to admit no corn till the price reached 60s., which was probably what he intended, this was neither a fixed duty nor a sliding-scale, but absolute prohibition; and every Member who had ever voted to admit corn upon any terms, must vote against it, to be consistent. The resolution, as regarded those who had lately imported corn, would be an ex post facto law of the most unjust kind; for while, by the law of 1842, the holders might bring it into market at whatever price they thought fit, if it were for their interest, this resolution would interdict them till corn should reach the certain fixed price of 60s. They would therefore, if they adopted this resolution, be departing from the law of 1842, as well as from the principle of the warehousing system, and from the principles that ought to guide commercial transactions generally. There was no resemblance between the case of 1826 and the present; in that year a large quantity was admitted to meet a prospect of scarcity, admission being prohibited till the corn reached a very high price. He submitted, also, that they would not be doing a favour to those in whose favour this resolution was intended to operate. He asserted, on the authority of those who were practically acquainted with the subject, that whatever effect might be exercised by the amount of corn now in bond on the price of the article, that effect had been produced long since. To every man engaged in those transactions, it was notorious that the whole of the transactions in the corn trade, external and internal, had been carried on with reference to the stock in bond. It was said, and in his opinion with much truth, that in mercantile matters, if you desired to make a change, it should be effected at once and with as much eompleteness as possible; and he very much doubted whether the most expedient course would not be that the change in the duties on corn should be made at once; but you could not deal with those matters on their merits alone, and while it might have been more beneficial to admit the full supply at once, yet looking to the possibility of exciting fears, and a recurrence to the panic of 1842, he believed it was better to abstain from a sudden alteration, and allow the abolition of duties to come into gradual operation. He was most sincerely convinced that the very worst thing you could do for those likely to be affected by the change would be to hang up the matter in suspense; a suspension of supply was infinitely more mischievous than the admission of any supply, however abundant. To give an instance of the effects to which he alluded, he would refer to what had occurred in the silk trade. When the duties were reduced there had been general apprehensions of an over-supply; the prices consequently fell exceedingly low. But subsequently, when the supply actually had come in, the prices rose, inasmuch as all the mischief which could be done had been effected before its arrival. He had no doubt but that the same result would be produced in regard to the Corn Bill. The present resolution, if approved of by their Lordships, would inflict a great injustice on the dealers in corn, and would not only have an injurious effect on them, but would utterly fail, as he maintained, to produce that benefit to the cultivators of the soil which the noble Lord intended it should effect. All the transactions in corn which had produced the present prices, had been carried on on the understanding that this Bill would pass into a law. For these reasons—because he believed the full effect of the expected supply had been already produced—because, under the circumstances, he thought it better to admit the corn now in bond into consumption—he trusted their Lordships, looking to the injustice and probable injury to the corndealers and to other classes which might arise from the suspension of the present Bill, would not give their consent to the resolution moved by the noble Lord.


said, the noble Lord (Lord Ashburton) had represented him as saying a few nights ago that no corn would come in at all from abroad; but what he had said was, that he did not see that any great quantity could be brought in by anticipation for sale at the prices supposed. He had also stated, and now repeated, that the prospects abroad were anything but satisfactory, and that he knew of cases where corn had been purchased in this country for exportation to Holland. When addressing their Lordships the other night, he stated that the price of grain had risen 4s. and was still rising. Accordingly, he found that the Mark Lane Express of that very day said— There was, as compared with last Monday's supply, a slight increase in the quantity of wheat exhibited at Mark Lane this morning. Still the show on the Essex, Kent, and Suffolk stands was decidedly small, nor was there much fresh up from more distant counties. The millers being sadly in want of fresh wheat took off the best qualities at rather higher terms. Thus they would see that the supply was rather short.


trusted that their Lordships would not consent to the resolution, without some explanation from the noble Mover as to its practical consequences. His noble Friend opposite had already pointed out the objections to the measure; but what effect, he asked, would the success of the resolution have? Supposing it to be carried, still the Corn Importation Bill remained on their Lordships' Minutes as appointed for a third reading. Did the noble Lord think if the House adopted his resolution, that he could come down to the House and say, that having agreed to that resolution, of course they could not agree to the third reading? Or was his resolution a roundabout and indirect way of throwing over that Bill? [Lord ASHBURTON: No, no!] His noble Friend said it was not. Then, what would be the consequence of it, if their Lordships were to pass the resolution that night, and to-morrow they were to pass the Corn Bill? Why, the resolution was useless—it was worse than useless, because it intimated to the corn importers that if they did not take care, and if the noble Lord had his will, some measure would be introduced to check the introduction of corn; they therefore would not lose a moment in entering the whole quantity at their disposal for consumption; so that the noble Lord, by his resolution, would defeat the intention of procuring a gradual admission of foreign corn into this country, and produce a totally opposite effect. It was impossible, then, his noble Friend could mean to carry the resolution, and pass the Bill to-morrow; so that he was bound to assume it was an indirect way of throwing out that Bill; for, to postpone that measure indefinitely was, in effect, to throw it out. He supposed the noble Lord meant to suspend the Bill till some other measure could come up from the House of Commons, in accordance with the terms of his resolution; but he thought it would be more manly to propose an Amendment to the Bill. Either the proposal of his noble Friend was altogether useless, or it was an indirect, irregular, and most objectionable measure, calling upon that House to postpone or reject the Bill. It was impossible to escape from this dilemma. If he intended to throw the Bill overboard, let him move his Amendment on the third reading of the Bill; but after the House had in every stage of the Bill, and on three separate divisions, rejected all the Amendments which had been brought forward—when the country was calculating that this measure was about to pass at once—he hoped the noble Lord would not prevail on the House to follow him in such an indirect, unusual, irregular, and most objectionable course as that suggested by the Motion before the House, to which he trusted it was their Lordships' feeling that it was quite impossible to consent.


was certain his noble Friend had no intention to throw out the Bill indirectly, and it was just because he had no intention to do so that he had adopted his present course. If his noble Friend had taken the course suggested by the noble Earl opposite (Earl Grey) and had proposed his resolution as an Amendment on the Bill, its succes might have been ruinous to that measure; whereas the Bill would stand perfectly secure if the resolution was passed in its present shape. The noble Earl (Earl Dalhousie) had not stated fairly the manner in which his noble Friend had suggested that his resolution should be carried out. His noble Friend had referred to what was done by Mr. Huskisson as to the introduction of foreign corn under a particular measure; and though, as the noble Earl said, the cases were different, they were only different on this ground, that there was less danger when Mr. Huskisson proposed his plan, than on the present occasion. Mr. Huskisson introduced corn to meet a scarcity and high prices; but it was now proposed to introduce a large amount of corn when prices were low, and when there was no prospect of scarcity. Though the prices had been rising for the last few days, it was doubtful whether that rise was not confined to Mark Lane, and was altogether a fictitious advance in the price. The present measure would be hurtful to the producers of grain. He should like to know on the faith of what law the farmers had sown their grain, and under the existence of what law they had made their sales: was it in the belief that a large introduction of grain was to be admitted? Surely they never had contemplated such a law as the present, nor could they have contemplated it, and it would be unfair not to adopt some measure to relieve them from a sudden and unexpected pressure.


said, that while some of their Lordships entertained apprehensions that much detriment would ensue from the present Bill, and others had the conviction that it would produce great benefit to the country, he had not as yet heard any noble Lord, but his noble Friend who had so lately addressed them, who did not deprecate delay. The Motion of his noble Friend was, in effect, to produce delay to the great question before the House; and he proposed their Lordships should stop the measure until they saw what the House of Commons would do with the resolution. But the noble Lord had given them no intimation of the precise mode in which he proposed to carry his resolution into effect. He quite agreed too with his noble Friend the President of the Board of Trade, that any effect which the apprehension of a great supply would be calculated to produce, had been already occasioned by the quantity of corn in bond. It was altogether a mistake to suppose that because a certain quantity of corn was in bond, and could be brought forward on any particular day, it was therefore sure to be all brought into the market on that day; and the prices would not depend on the quantity of corn which was saleable, but on the quantity which was absolutely sold. Was the produce of the harvest, for example, all brought into the market when it was in a state of readiness for it? He believed that for the first week or two an effect would be produced on the amount and price of corn, as compared with the ordinary quantities and rates, but thought this effect would be rather attributable to the distress of the holders of corn, who would be compelled to bring it into market. However, he most earnestly trusted that whatever decision their Lordships might come to, they would not consent to any delay to the great measure before their Lordships.


considered that if it was true, as had been stated by the noble Lord, that there was in bond at the present time such a quantity of corn as would tend to lower prices too much, and also the prospect of a large harvest all over Europe, then he would say it was expedient to adopt the resolution; but if, on the contrary, there was not such a large quantity of corn in bond as would affect prices in the way stated, and if the accounts from all parts of Europe led them to anticipate that there would be no great importation of corn, then the necessity for the resolution would fall to the ground. The whole question turned on the matter of fact, and, as his opinion had been much swayed by what had fallen from the noble Earl (Earl Dalhousie), he should vote against the resolution.


replied, he had not the slightest wish to throw out the Bill, and should indeed hesitate to take any step towards throwing out that measure, seeing the state of their Lordships' mind on the matter. The proposed law would let in at once, and in a mass, a quantity of grain, which no one could say was now wanted; and, in case of good harvest, there would be added to this quantity all against which other countries shut their ports. Here was a danger against which noble Lords ought to protect their fellow subjects.

On Question, House divided — Content 47; Not-Content 70: Majority 23.

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