HL Deb 02 May 1850 vol 110 cc1090-102

presented a great number of petitions from various parts of the country upon the position of agricultural affairs, and said, that he thought it was due to those who had signed these numerous petitions to give notice of his intention to present them, and to request at the same time the attention of their Lordships to the subject to which these petitions referred. The first was one numerously signed from agriculturists in Elgin; and he would observe that these petitioners were men of great industry and intelligence, indeed some of the best farmers in the north of Scotland; but their case was one of peculiar hardship. The foreigner who sent his grain to this market might send it by any ship he pleased; but not so the Scotchman, who was not able to do so, because he was bound up by the navigation law. That navigation law had been repealed against the interests of our own shipowner, but it had been left in force as far as it applied to the inhabitants of Scotland. He could state to the House that the farmers knew well that with the low prices of corn at the present moment, it was impossible for them to continue the cultivation of corn; and he was in possession of cases where the farmers were partially laying down their land for grass, although they would gain little by that, as live stock was hardly remunerative. He had lately seen a newspaper, published in Northumberland, in which his noble Friend opposite (Earl Grey) resided—and in that one weekly paper there were no fewer than sixty advertisements of farmers selling off their live and dead stock. The free-trade measures had been called an experiment; but he asked were they going by their experiments to sweep away the occupiers and tenant farmers from the face of the country? He told their Lordships again that the farmers could not, by high farming or low farming, grow wheat at the prices they were now receiving. Noble Lords opposite seemed to agree with that proposition, for they had said that the present prices were not permanent, and would not continue. Well, then, if the statement were correct that they could not grow corn at these prices—that a great number of farmers were at the present moment obliged to sell their stock and leave their farms—what was the answer given to that? It was said that nothing could be done but to get men of capital to take those farms. But what was to become of those who had held those farms? What did they mean to do? Did they mean to make the farmers go abroad with the remnants of their capital, and the cotton manufacturers to come in and be the cultivators of the land of England? For himself, he would rather sell every acre of estate than allow these Manchester cotton spinners to attempt their cultivation. If the country lost the tenant farmers, good men would not be found to replace them. They had always been men loyal and true to their country, and their Lordships had no right to complain of their exertions in improving the lands that were let to them. But it was not enough to ruin the farmers—they must also be insulted by Her Majesty's Ministers in a Speech which Her Majesty was advised to deliver at the commencement of the Session. They said, "We admit there is local distress—we admit the farmers are not doing quite as well as could be wished"—and then, that being admitted, what did they do? Repealed the duty on bricks! That was no boon to the cultivator of the soil. Why, there were more bricks in one of those tall chimneys in Manchester than in all the buildings upon any farm in England. Then the farmer was made to pay the income tax. Although he might have made no profit during the last two or three years, still he was made to pay. Not so the manufacturer, who gave an account of his profits. He should like to see some of those accounts—or what he chose to call the amount of his profits; for a great deal more might be made in a factory than the millowner chose to tell of. The manufacturer only paid upon what he chose to say were his profits; but you force the farmers to pay the tax though they had-no profit. You cannot get the people of England to submit to such injustice. They will not submit to it. The longer this experiment is continued, the more ruin you will achieve, and the more would the name of Government be disliked and detested; and he was afraid the loyalty of the people lessened. Those petitions were numerously signed, and were sent from all parts of the country—from every county in England. All they asked was, protection for their produce. But they were not a selfish class of men. They wished a return to protection for all domestic industry. He thought that they were quite right. Although they were abused when they came forward against the repeal of the navigation laws, he thought them right then, and he thought that they were right now. He would recommend the farmers of England to be straightforward and persevering. He would tell them not to use violent language or violent action, but to be steady and determined, and to show the country that they were men that would persevere in a cause which they thought to be just; and when the yeomanry of the country put their shoulders to the wheel, it would not be very easy for a small body of theorists and Manchester manufacturers to turn them away from their purpose. Taxed as this country was, and taxed as it must be so long as the public creditor expects to get any portion of the revenue, it would be impossible for the English farmer to compete with the foreigner. It had been truly said that the farmers of England paid a much larger portion of taxation than the other classes of society. He thought that this injustice at all events ought to be rectified. He thought that the local taxation of the country ought to be placed on a better footing; but he would tell their Lordships fairly that, in advocating this change in the law, he wished not to be supposed to say, for one moment, that he thought a release from a small portion of taxation would be at all equivalent to the loss of that protection under which this country had risen to the highest state of prosperity. He knew of farms that were now thrown into grass, and the tenants did not intend to cultivate the land. What was to become of the land? Year by year, their measures prevented the farmers from being able to cultivate the land. The agricultural labourers would be thrown out of employment—they would be deprived of a fair day's work for a fair day's wages. If they continued to follow this course, they would have their workhouses filled, and, what was much worse, they would have recurrences of those scenes which he deeply deplored; one of which, he believed, only took place a few days since in Warwickshire. The farmers having failed in obtaining remunerating prices for their corn, attempted to reduce the wages of their labourers. The result was, the labourers met in crowds, they came to the farmers in the neighbourhood and forced the men that were willing to work at low prices to leave their horses and to join them; and it was only when the magistrates called out the rural police that the disturbances were put an end to. He was glad that the magistrates had acted so; for however he might hate their free-trade theories, he would never in that House or elsewhere recommend these aggrieved classes to proceed to acts of violence and insubordination; but at the same time he would always advise them to do their utmost to get rid of a law that entailed upon them such mischief. He had to present nearly 100 petitions from various parts of the country, and he must again say he thought it due to these petitioners that they should not be laid upon the table without such a statement as he had just made.


declined entering upon that occasion into the general discussion on the system of free trade into which his noble Friend had challenged him to enter. He would confine his observations to those which his noble Friend had made upon one subject in connection with the county of Northumberland. His noble Friend had asserted, that in one paper, published in Northumberland, there were not less than sixty advertisements respecting farms on which stock was going to be sold. His noble Friend did not seem to be aware that at this period of the year in the north of England the removal of tenants from their farms usually took place, and there were therefore generally many sales of stock taking place. From information which he had himself received from Northumberland he could state distinctly that the amount of sales now about to take place was not much more than the average amount in ordinary years. He then proceeded to read a letter from a Sussex farmer, dated the 26th of September, 1844, and published in a Sussex journal at the tune, from which it appeared that in that month and year, when the country was under a system of protection, the stock on seventy farms was advertised in one paper alone for sale, and that this number of advertisements was referred to as the best index of the lamentable condition to which the agricultural interest was then reduced. Thus, according to the argument of his noble Friend, the agricultural distress in Sussex in 1844 under a system of protection, was greater than it was at present in 1850 under a system of free trade. His noble Friend had also said that the farmers of England had been insulted by a portion of the Speech which Her Majesty's Ministers had framed at the commencement of the present Session of Parliament. Surely the noble Duke, in making that assertion, must be under some delusion, which led him to suppose that the members of the present Government were not at all interest in the prosperity of the landed interested. Now, he (Earl Grey) was quite certain that the feeling of every member of the Government was a feeling of deep anxiety for the welfare of agriculture. But it might be that that feeling was coupled with another opinion, which he, for one, had always entertained, that the real weight which hung about the neck of the British farmer was the miscalled protection by which he had been oppressed. His noble Friend had likewise asserted that the farmer was injured by the present mode of levying the income tax. His noble Friend had told their Lordships that every other trader gave in an account of his income, and that, if he showed that he had no profits, he was entitled to relief from his assessment; but not so the farmer, whose assessment was in proportion to his rent. Now, he would recall to his recollection that that was the arrangement adopted in 1842, and was agreed to by the whole party with which his noble Friend was connected. He (Earl Grey) had said at the time that the arrangement was injurious to the farmer, and had met it with the most decided opposition. He had given it as his opinion that the tax should be calculated on the profits, and not on the rent of the farmer. But that was not the opinion of the leaders of the agricultural party at that time in the House of Commons. They said that such a calculation could not easily he obtained—nay, that it was impossible—and the rule was established that the profits should be taken at a certain amount proportionate to the rent which the tenant-farmer paid. He thought that that arrangement operated greatly in Northumberland, where the farms were generally large, to the injury of the tenant. On his own property every farmer paid his income tax according to that rule; but in many parts of England where the farms were small, the farmer paid almost nothing in the shape of income tax.


was not desirous of promoting these incidental and irregular discussions on the great question of protection and the corn laws. At the same time, he was of opinion that those who had advocated the repeal of the corn laws were not entitled to complain of the course now pursued by the advocates of protection. He recollected well that the noble Lords on the Ministerial side of the House had created discussions on all occasions to promote the repeal of the corn laws; and, therefore, they should not complain that those who now advocated a return to protection were pursuing the former policy of their antagonists. He must, however, object to the form which these discussions were now assuming, and which was now daily becoming more injurious to the interests of those who commenced them. He thought that very undue weight had been attached to the expressions used by the noble President of the Council in the debate on the first night of the present Session—namely, that the system of free trade was but an experiment. Those expressions had been taken hold of, and very ponderous deductions had been drawn from them. All their Lordships were aware what an experiment was on a great question of public policy. It was extremely difficult to procure the repeal or alteration of a principle when it was adopted in an Act of Parliament. When their Lordships came to a great question of public policy which had agitated the public mind for years, and in which great progress had been constantly made in one direction, they should not he told that it was an experiment which they were entitled to watch like an experiment in a laboratory from year to year or from week to week, and to stop or reverse it according to the progress made within any short period of time. He thought that it was quite impossible so to act with this experiment of free trade; and therefore it was that he considered these discussions respecting the temporary depreciation of agricultural produce as undertaken under a mistaken impression of the condition in which we were placed at present. Noble Lords on the Opposition benches having that mistaken impression, wished to show that the present condition of agriculture was to be its permanent condition; whilst, on the other hand. Her Majesty's Ministers argued that it was only exceptional. He contended that their Lordships, as they well knew that this experiment must be tried for some time longer, at any rate, ought to look at it carefully and deliberately. He thought that they ought to consider the depreciation of agricultural produce as exceptional, and that they could not argue as to its permanent from its present price. He could not help asking the noble Lords on the Opposition benches, whether it was or was not a fact, that the price of agricultural produce in France was at this moment unusually low, and that almost the same complaints were made on the subject in France as were made by them in this country. If France was at present an exporting instead of an importing country, and if the owners and occupiers of land in France were suffering in the same manner from low prices as the owners and occupiers of land in England, it appeared to him that the present must be an unusual and exceptional state of things, in which money cheapness might go too far. He should view the present state of the country with great alarm if he did not believe it to be exceptional. If it were not exceptional but permanent, a considerable alteration must he made in the distribution of the public burdens of the country. He recollected well that Lord John Russell, in the letter which he wrote to Her Majesty shortly before the construction by Sir R. Peel of the Ministry which repealed the corn laws, said that certain concessions must be made to the landed interest; and declared that relief from some of the burdens imposed upon agriculture must be combined with that repeal. It was true that Sir R. Peel had done something to diminish those burdens, but more remained to be done. It did appear to him that some different mode should be adopted for the levying of the income tax upon both the owner and the occupier of land. The present mode was unjust to both, for it made the latter pay for profits which he did not always make, and it compelled the former to pay the tax on his whole nominal income, and made no allowance for the deduction he was obliged to make on the rents of his tenantry.


observed, that on former occasions of agricultural distress, the Government of the day had come for ward with some plan for alleviating it; but on the present occasion the numerous petitions of the agricultural classes were almost passed over without notice. He did not think it was fair or equal justice to the owners or occupiers of land that they should be called upon to compete with the untaxed foreigner, considering the heavy burdens to which they were subjected. He believed it to be utterly impossible under the present circumstances that they could compete with them in the English markets He confessed he could not concur with the noble Duke in thinking that the present state of things was exceptional, or that there was any prospect of alleviating the existing distress. Unless the supplies from abroad were diminished, this country would be inundated with foreign corn. It appeared to him that the farmers had a right to come to that House to demand a redress of their grievances and wrongs, and to ask for a repeal or remodification of some of the heavy rates and duties to which they were at present liable. Take the single article of malt, on which a heavy duty was levied, although foreign barley was allowed to come in duty free. Now, it could not be fairly said that the consumer paid that duty, inasmuch as the agriculturists and their labourers consumed a large portion of that malt themselves. He complained that there was not the slightest expression of regret on the part of the Government with regard to the existing distress; and the only reply which had been received from the Home Secretary was, that it had been laid before Her Majesty, but without one word of sympathy or consolation; it was not treating the memorials or petitions of the people in the manner they ought to be treated. The course the Government was pursuing was one not only prejudicial to the best interests of the country, but totally irreconcileable with every principle of sound policy or justice; and, in his mind, it was tantamount to a public declaration that the farmers of England, who had ever been distinguished for their loyalty and attachment to the institutions of the country, should be excluded from the benefits and protection of the British constitution. It was setting one interest against another, and was exciting feelings of injustice and animosity, which ultimately must be productive of much mischief. He had taken some pains to inquire into the matter, and he had ascertained that the distress was general in every part of the country. It appeared to him that the Government would find it difficult to bring forward any number of impartial and dispassionate men to that bar who would not be impressed with the conviction of the general, the deep, and the unmitigated agricultural depression that prevailed, and which had been brought about by the operation of their recent legislation. The noble Lord read an extract from a letter written by a Yorkshire gentleman residing in his own immediate neighbourhood, in proof of the accuracy of the statements he had made, and concluded by supporting the prayer of the petitioners.


, although unwilling to protract this incidental discussion, wished to make one or two observations on the subject before the House. He admitted that great distress prevailed among the owners and occupiers of land in this country, and no one had more reason to speak feelingly on the subject than himself. He was convinced, however, that a return to protection was impossible in this country; and he was no friend to the farmers who would excite any hope or expectations that such would be the case. The peculiar circumstances of the time led to the abandonment of the corn laws. Their repeal had averted many of the horrors which otherwise would have followed the famine in Ireland, and also had probably been the means of protecting this country from those political storms which had convulsed the other portions of Eu- rope. But whether this were so or not, the feeling of the country was so strong on the subject that any attempt to reimpose the corn duties would be attended with the most dangerous consequences. He admitted there was great agricultural distress at present; but he agreed with his noble Friend (the Duke of Argyll) that it was an exceptional case. Allusion had been made to the prices of agricultural produce in France, which were lower there than they were in this country, notwithstanding protection existed there. That country for a short time had been an exporting country of grain, and he was not aware of any previous year in which a large quantity of corn had been imported into this country from France. He had reason to know that in some parts of France during the present year, the landowners had received no rent whatever. Under such circumstances, they could have no reason to expect that there would be anything like a permanent importation of corn from that country. He had also reason to believe that the agitation for the renewal of protection had had the effect of leading to the importation of enormous quantities of corn from Prussia and other parts of the north of Europe. An impression had been excited abroad by the speeches made at public meetings and in Parliament, and by articles in the newspapers, that there was a probability of this country returning to protection. Foreigners were led to believe that the restoration of protection was at hand. [Cheers.] That might be the feeling of a few noble Lords, and of the farmers in some parts of the country; but he knew the feeling of the mercantile class was adverse to any agitation of protection. He believed, however, the feeling which had been excited abroad of the chance of protection being again adopted in this country, had led to the depression of prices, as the corn storehouses in the north of Europe were almost emptied, so that the produce might be sent in due time to this country. At the present time the price of corn at New York was higher than it was in this country; and he knew that many exporters of corn from the north of Europe had been exposed to considerable losses. He was satisfied there was no valid reason to apprehend any permanent depreciation of prices of agricultural produce. As for local burdens, he agreed that Parliament should take them into consideration with a view to their readjustment.


would have been glad to have heard any argu- ment from the noble Lords opposite to show that the present depression was exceptional. He denied that it was so. The noble Duke had stated that there was greater agricultural distress existing in France, but he certainly must take leave to doubt it. They had little hopes of exhausting the foreign supplies, for although not less than 1,800,000 quarters of corn had been imported from America in the past year, the supplies still on hand, according to the returns which he had seen, were enormous. Again, look at the state of Ireland. In every direction the farmers of that country were selling off their stock preparatory to emigrating, and others were only waiting for the result of the present year's harvest. Large tracts of laud were at this moment unoccupied, and the quantity would be considerably increased before the end of the year. It was said that a return to protection was impossible. Why, that was tantamount to saying that the English farmers would be denied justice. It was clear to him that they must return to a system of protection, or they must equalise the taxation. He thought those discussions that took place from time to time were extremely valuable, because he was satisfied that some great relief must be given to the farmers in one shape or another.


begged to differ with his noble Friend the Earl of St. Germans, when he said that free trade had prevented this country from being revolutionised. He most certainly gave the noble Lord credit for the extraordinary discovery; but he would tell the noble Lord what had prevented it—it was the good feeling of the people of England towards their free institutions, and this was a part of that constitution—that they should bring their grievances before that House and demand redress. He did not think the farmers would take the advice of his noble Friend and relative. The noble Lord said that he (the Duke of Richmond) and his Friends had recommended the people of the Continent to send their corn into that country although at a loss. Well, if he had ever said anything to induce the importers of corn to lose money, all he could say was, that he was delighted to have said it, and he should always do the best he could for that purpose. But he would certainly advise the farmers of England not to take the hints of his noble Friend on the cross benches, but to take the advice of those who had proved themselves true and right prophets in 1846, and through whom only they would ever obtain any redress. How had free trade been obtained? By the agitation of a few men of Manchester. How would protection be again restored? He believed only by the agitation of the whole people of England. The noble Duke said he had now a petition to present which was not of a political nature. It was from the chairman, vice-chairman, and guardians of the Steyning union, in the county of Sussex, complaining of distress among the landed proprietors of the union. The petitioners were required to build a new gaol and house of correction for the county at an expense of 30,000l. or 40,000l., all of which was to be paid, not by the monied men, who had been filled by free trade, but by the unfortunate farmers and landowners of the county. The petitioners said, and justly, that this gaol was not for the agriculturists alone—that it was for all classes of the community, and should be built by the money of all. Why, then, should the Government continue a system by which the farmers, ruined as they were, were to pay all the cost, while the monied men escaped? But that was not all. They had passed an Act of Parliament requiring each county to erect a lunatic asylum, and the farmers were called upon to lay out a large sum of money for that purpose also. Why should not these lunatic asylums be paid for by all parties? It could not be said that the agricultural classes alone were lunatics, although if the present course of legislation were persevered in much longer, it would make a great many lunatics. He had not much confidence in the majority of that House, or he should certainly move a resolution giving formal effect to the pledge of the noble Lord (Lord J. Russell), not that the condition of the agricultural classes would be taken into consideration, because he would not give a farthing for that, as it was only a civil way of putting one off; but that the present mode in which the income tax was levied was unsatisfactory and ought to be remedied. Now the noble Lord opposite having admitted that such was the case, as one of the responsible advisers of Her Majesty, he was bound, with his colleagues, to bring forward some measures to remedy that state of things. He was delighted that the present discussion had taken place—it was one of the great benefits of these discussions that they brought out something from the Government in the course of the debate, and in the present case he thanked his noble Friend for the admission he had made with regard to the unsatisfactory and unequal pressure of the income tax.


observed that with the present high prices of grain it was impossible to carry on cultivation in Ireland. Before long, no class of the community would suffer more from the system of free trade than the London shopkeepers; for in consequence of the altered position of landlords, the expenditure of residents was much less than previous to the removal of protection. The time was fast approaching when a return to protection would be enforced by public opinion.

After a few words from Lord VIVIAN,

Petitions ordered to lie on the table.

House adjourned till To-morrow.