§ Order of the Day for the Third Reading read.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.
§ THE DUKE OF RICHMOND
said, he wished to address a few observations to the House in consequence of the strong feeling which existed amongst the great body of farmers in the eastern division of Sussex, who had presented a petition against the Bill; and he confessed he was not at all surprised that the farmers of England should entertain great suspicion of any measure affecting them that was introduced in their Lordships' House, because they had not yet forgotten the way in which they had been treated by the House in 1846. He was not prepared to go the length of saying that it was undesirable or objectionable to collect agricultural returns; but he did contend that it 630 was premature to bring in an Act of Parliament rendering the returns compulsory. In some parts of the country returns were already made voluntarily, and if the Government had waited only a few years, in order to allow the farmers in other parts of the country to see that there was no danger of mischief being inflicted upon them, they might then have passed a Bill to enable them to collect these returns in a manner that would be acquiesced in by all parties. But, after all, he did not see what use these returns were to serve. It was proposed to spend £25,000 a year for the purpose, and he thought they would find in the end that the returns were a great deal too dear. Besides, in his opinion they were beginning at the wrong end. Before they proceeded to ascertain the quantity of land sown with a particular description of seed, and the number of cattle, sheep, and horses in the country, why did they not turn their attention to the amendment of the system of taking the averages upon corn? Everybody knew that a grosser delusion than these averages now were, never had existed and never could exist; and it was not denied by any one that the returns were not to be relied upon, and that consequently they were not of the slightest use. It was a matter of the utmost importance, not only to some landowners, but to the great body of the tenantry, that the averages should be fairly taken, because at this time the rents on a great many estates in England were based upon the average price of wheat and other cereal produce. The returns which were yearly laid on the table of the House were, he repeated, a gross delusion, inasmuch as a large portion of the corn sold in England was never included in them at all, and an enormous quantity of bad corn was never sent to market. He thought, therefore, that Parliament would have done better if it had, in the first place, employed the £25,000 a year now proposed to be expended for the purpose of rectifying the averages by securing correct returns. He also objected to the machinery which the Bill contemplated for collecting the returns, on the ground that the Poor Law guardians were appointed for a particular purpose, and that they ought not to have their attention drawn from that most important of all subjects, the relief of the necessitous poor, and have the power conferred upon them of collecting these returns from the farmers whose servants they were. Although, for the reasons stated, he protested 631 against the Bill, and especially the penalties it imposed, which were outrageous, he did not anticipate that the measure would have the bad effect which some appeared to imagine. He would not, therefore, oppose the Motion for the third reading.
believed that the apprehensions which had been entertained in some quarters in respect to the present measure were perfectly groundless. In his own neighbourhood, when he had explained to the agriculturists that there was no inquisitorial object in view and that the sole purpose of the Bill was only to collect for general use such facts as were notorious in each district, the objections previously felt to the measure were removed. There was no doubt that the returns to be made under the Bill would be very valuable both to the country and to Parliament.
§ THE EARL OF MALMESBURY
said, that one point in connexion with this subject which had created apprehension was the power given to the Board of Trade to call for returns, and he wished to know how far this power would extend, whether it would be confined to the amount of produce, or whether the amount of rent paid might be also included in the schedules?
§ LORD STANLEY OF ALDERLEY
replied that the power which the Board of Trade would have would be to increase or diminish the number of schedules in reference to the different crops and animals and did not extend to any question of rent. He was glad to find that the noble Duke did not intend to oppose the further progress of the Bill, and he believed that it would be found on experience that the farmers had no indisposition to give the required information. The noble Duke had said, that the Government would have done better to direct their efforts to improve the corn averages, and he quite agreed that it was very desirable to have some improved mode of obtaining them; but they could never have a fair and accurate test of the whole quantity of corn sold in the country unless compulsory returns were made of every transaction both in public and private. Since the Committee of last year the attention of the Government had been directed to the corn averages, which had been very imperfect, and directions had been given that the returns should be made with greater accuracy. That step had been followed with success, and the returns were more numerous and extensive during 632 the present year than formerly. The attention of the Government was still directed to the same object; but, though it was possible to get returns of all corn sold in market towns, it was not possible to obtain returns of the quantity changing hands in private. The returns afforded a fair and accurate test of the price of corn, though they did not include all the quantity sold. The subject of agricultural statistics was fully considered by their Lordships' Committee in last Session, and the evidence proved that anything like a universal return was not to be expected without the enactment of a compulsory power; but no apprehension need be entertained that the power would be exercised vexatiously. In an analogous case—the collection of the Census—a compulsory power was given; but in no single instance bad it been necessary to exercise that power; and in the present case he believed it would be hardly necessary to have recourse to the compulsory power. With regard to the penalties, it was the wish of the farmers that the magistrates should have a discretionary power to impose them, in order that they might be sure that information would be obtained from their neighbours as well as from themselves. It gave him great pleasure to find that noble Lords on both sides of the House were impressed with the importance of this subject; and he had no doubt that the farmers of this country would readily furnish as accurate data with regard to the nature and produce of their crops as the agriculturists of Scotland had done. In conclusion he would remind their Lordships of the importance of the co-operation of the gentry and landed proprietors in the work of obtaining the information they required.
§ THE DUKE OF RICHMOND
said, that if this bill became law he should of course advise the farmers to obey it, and he had no doubt they would do so to the best of their ability; but he thought that the money to be expended in endeavouring to carry it out would be entirely thrown away.
§ LORD ABINGER
said, he had not heard any statement of the benefit which was to be derived from the information sought to be obtained by means of this Bill. The farmers did not wish for it, and, although they might obtain returns of the number of acres planted in a particular manner, he could not understand how they could get information as to the produce of those acres.
§ Motion agreed to;
§ Bill read 3a accordingly, and passed, and sent to the Commons.