HL Deb 01 March 1847 vol 90 cc597-603

On Motion that this Bill be now read 2a,


said, he had no objection to granting an indemnity to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland for exceeding the powers of the law; but, on constitutional principles, he thought that in any case where such an indemnity was sought for, those in whose favour it was required should show, first, that it had been absolutely necessary to break the law; and, secondly, that it had been broken for the shortest possible time. He thought an unnecessary delay had been made in the latter respect, and that Parliament should have been summoned at an earlier period.


most entirely and most cordially approved of the responsibility assumed by the Irish Government, for which they now sought an indemnity. Mr. Labouchere and the Lord Lieutenant deserved every praise for their conduct, for an interposition more called for by the circumstances of the case had certainly never occurred. With respect to the Bill immediately before the House, he thought there were some points worthy of notice in its modes of operation. The principle of calculating works by voluntary agreement between the landlords and tenantry was of a most important character; and he thought they should promote that principle, instead of leaving it to the award of a third party, as was proposed in the Bill. He prayed their Lordships to recognize agreements of that character by the express terms of the Act; and he proposed, therefore, to give them validity, where they had been actually made bonâ fide, by means of an Amendment in the Bill. Indeed, he would be almost disposed, not only to induce, but to compel parties in Ireland to adopt that principle; and it would be found that the works would be well executed in every case where it was carried out. Another point to which he wished to call the attention of the House, was, as he apprehended, of considerable importance. Their Lordships were aware that baronies in Ireland were divided into electoral divisions. Under Mr. Labouchere's letter, any electoral division could lay out, in reproductive works, the whole of the money assessed on it for the relief of the poor by public works, and by doing so, stood entirely discharged from any contribution to the rates of any other electoral division. In the present Bill, however, there was a power reserved to the Board of Works in Ireland to alter that arrangement; and in cases where any electoral division had assumed the whole of the charge upon it, and expended it in reproductive works, the board was enabled to put upon it, in addition to that sum, the proportion of the whole baronial charge to which it would be liable if it had not done so, and to which it had not made itself subject. That was an evil which ought to be corrected; and he thought a clause should be introduced in Committee to protect the Irish landlords from the injustice he had described.


objected to the second section—the Indemnity Clause—of the Act. It went far beyond Mr. Labouchere's letter, and was so general in its terms as to indemnify the most illegal and most fraudulent acts ostensibly committed by any person under that letter. The words of the section would indemnify any person who had illegally taken away a man's property under the authority of a presentment sessions. It would be much better to amend this wide limit of indemnity.


had not observed the danger which the acuteness of his noble Friend had discovered in the Bill. As he was one of those who had taken on themselves the whole charges in their respective electoral divisions, he should be liable to the injustice complained of; and he, therefore, hoped the Government would see if the objections were well founded, and take some steps to protect him in case his noble Friend were correct in his views.


very willingly acquiesced in the measure before the House; but he could not think the conduct of Government deserved the very high encomiums bestowed on it by the noble Lord opposite (Lord Monteagle). The highest praise was to foresee and provide against a difficulty; next to that was the praise of successfully meeting it when it had arrived, and of taking every step to redeem their original omission. To the first the Government certainly had no claims, however they might be entitled to the second; for all that was done by Mr. Labouchere's letter on the 28th of October, might have been done by Parliament on the 26th of August, six weeks earlier. He wished to look to the future as well as to the past, and he entertained very deep anxiety on one point, which it would be most satisfactory to him if Her Majesty's Government would explain. It was intended, he believed, to close the relief works as soon as possible, and, relying on the means afforded by the Destitute Persons (Ireland) Bill, and upon public and private works, which were spoken of as being, or likely to be, in operation, to put an end to every work of that description within six weeks from the 10th of February. Now, the people hitherto employed on these works could earn money by their daily labour, and might purchase seed for their land if they chose to do so. There were at least 564,000 persons in Ireland who employed no labourers, but tilled their land by their own exertions. The whole of this class depended altogether, or to a very great extent, on the potato—money they had none. As long as the relief works continued, they could earn money wages; but so soon as they were stopped, they were left without any means of obtaining money wherewith to purchase seed for their land. They must receive food, but they were to give nothing in exchange for it. They would then be enabled to do that, which Government so properly desired they should do—cultivate their lands. But of what possible use or benefit would the tillage of their farms be, if they had no seed to put in them? He wished therefore to ask the Government what means there were of providing the people with grain, and what sources there were for enabling them to sow their land with wheat for the ensuing year?


thought the question asked by the noble Lord, was one of the very greatest importance. There would be no doubt great difficulties in what geologists would call "the transition state" of the people from public works to any condition of permanent employment; but the question of providing them with seed was one of far greater importance. It would be a most desirable thing if Government should not feel itself under the necessity of embarking in such a dangerous experiment as that of providing a whole people with seed; and if they could leave it, as it ought to be left, to the exertions of private individuals, and of the landowners of the country. But there was a question of still greater importance than that of the noble Earl's—a question which it would be well for their Lordships carefully and maturely to consider—and that was, whether the measures which it seemed to be the design of his noble Friend at the head of Her Majesty's Government to propose, for getting over this great calamity, were adequate to the emergency of the occasion. He begged his noble Friends in that House—he begged the Gentlemen of the other House of Parliament—to consider it. He asked the English people, and the representatives of the people, who entertained exclusively English ideas, and represented exclusively English interests, to say if the principle of economy which seemed the order of the day out of doors were well founded, and whether it was not rather a sort of prospective extravagance, and a principle which would necessarily lay the foundation for future expenditure. It was his earnest wish that the country should come to its senses on this point. He was sure they were not in their senses now, or they would act differently. They really did not understand the nature of the calamity which had fallen upon Ireland, and how it must affect them hereafter. The people of England did not comprehend the latter part of the case, because it never had been brought home to them. He thought the measures produced by Government were small measures—made indeed in the right direction, but entirely insufficient to cure the effect of this great calamity. He felt most deeply that England was taking a wrong view of the case of Ireland—that she did not understand what was going forward in that country—and that they had no proper foresight of the future calamities which would come on her if steps were not taken to remedy the present evils.


said, that the observations of the noble Lords who had preceded him, required a few words in reply. The noble and learned Lord who spoke first (Lord Brougham), with great candour and fairness, made some remarks on the general principle of indemnities, in which he (the Marquess of Lansdowne) entirely concurred; but, at the same time, had expressed some regret at the amount of delay which had taken place in summoning Parliament together, and in bringing forward this present Bill. He was perfectly ready to admit the general principle of his noble and learned Friend, that whenever any infraction of the law took place, it should be shown that it was absolutely necessary, more especially in the case of such a great infraction as the present undoubtedly was, and that it had lasted for as short a period as possible, as the shorter the time was, the less would be the objection. Under any ordinary circumstances it certainly would have been desirable and expedient to call Parliament together at the earliest possible period; but, as had been stated on former occasions, when similar objections were urged, when this question came to be considered by the Government, they conceived a very great inconvenience would arise by withdrawing from Ireland, to their seats in Parliament, a great number of the most intelligent, active, and influential persons who were engaged in mitigating the evils and confusion which the unexpected amount and extent of the calamity had created. He was fully prepared to take the responsibility of such a course; but, with respect to the objections of the noble and learned Lord opposite (Lord Brougham), he could confidently say that, when Parliament had met, not a day had been lost in stating that an indemnity would be asked from both Houses of Parliament. Ministers felt grateful for the expression of public opinion on that occasion, for no sooner was that statement made, than the utmost readiness was expressed by both branches of the Legislature to give the required indemnity. With respect to the suggestions of his noble Friend behind him (Lord Monteagle), he was ready to admit that several of them were highly important. There could be no doubt that voluntary agreements made in such a shape as rendered it evident they were sound and binding, should be considered as final. As to the question raised by the noble Lord respecting the electoral divisions, and the powers reserved by the board, he would wish to reserve it for consideration. The noble Earl (the Earl of Ellenborough) had said, that the Government were not entitled to the praise of foresight. He admitted that Government had not foreseen the extent of the calamity; but they shared this blindness as to the future with the rest of the community. No man had calculated on the amount of the calamity which had befallen Ireland, or on the extent of the scarcity which prevailed, and which was not confined to that particular part of the United Kingdom, but extended to other countries. The Government like-wise did not, he admitted, suppose that the ordinary course of labour in the country would have been interfered with to the extent to which it had been. The noble Earl stated that there would be great difficulty in procuring seed—a question which had again and again attracted the attention of the Government. He must say that all the accounts which the Government received, and he might add those accounts which reached him in his private relation, proved that it was impossible to exaggerate the importance of providing for the approaching harvest, and stimulating the exertions of the people. Though, as he had said, this subject had received the attention of the Government, the more his attention was directed to it, the more he was persuaded that it was impossible for the Government to undertake the providing seed for the whole country without interfering with the ordinary modes of supply; and the effect of the announcement that Government, even to a very limited extent, intended to provide seed, had at once the effect of raising the price, and in many quarters diminished the facility of obtaining that article. This was a question which must be left to individual proprietors; and though he could not say that they had the power of providing for the want to its fullest extent, yet he knew that a great number were actively, though quietly, engaged in providing a supply, if not adequate to the occasion, at least to such an extent as held out favourable prospects of the future harvest. The noble Earl expressed great apprehension as to the effect of immediately discontinuing the relief works. It was on that ground that Government, having some time back determined that it was expedient to discontinue those works, nevertheless tempered that resolution by affording employment to destitute persons up to the present period, to a limited extent, and by looking forward as the object of their proceedings to the discontinuance, and not the continuance of works of that description. He had hopes that, while those in great distress received relief under the present Bill, the mass of the labourers would soon be enabled to support themselves in the ordinary occupations of the country. He had stated on former occasions that he looked upon the measure authorizing advances to the landlords for the drainage and improvement of estates, as one of the most salutary and safest that could be devised. He had not the least doubt that, as the consequence of these advancements, large improvements would be undertaken; indeed he might say that at the present moment not a few of the landlords were considering how best to give effect to the intentions of the Legislature by affording the largest amount of employment. In what degree the other House might be induced to alter or extend the provisions of the measures for giving relief to Ireland, he could not state; but he must say that the disposition exhibited towards Ireland by Parliament—with the exception, perhaps, of a few individuals—had not been at all of a niggardly character. On the contrary, in Parliament and out of Parliament (he had witnessed it with a degree of pleasure which he could not express) there had been exhibited—in proportion as men's minds were satisfied as to the extent of the calamity—a strong disposition to afford every possible relief to Ireland, and to acknowledge with fairness and promptitude the great object which all parties ought to have in view under such a visitation. It was unnecessary, however, for him to remind their Lordships that the present was a question, not of money only, but of food, and that a profuse application of money, unless cautiously, and indeed slowly made, might defeat the great object in view, and by promoting a sudden and increased demand for food, aggravate existing evils.

House adjourned.