HL Deb 10 June 1880 vol 252 cc1592-9

, in rising to call the attention of Her Majesty's Government to the present state and condition of the Agricultural Commission, and to move for Papers, observed, that the agriculturists of this country did not object to any competition; but they said that the altered conditions under which agriculture were carried on in this country, and, happily for mankind, the great development of agriculture in other countries, had altered the balance of taxation. They contended that they had to bear a larger taxation than they had ever anticipated. With diminishing means, greater exertions were required of them. No facilities were given to them to bear the additional taxation in respect of education and other matters. They had a right to know in what condition they stood. He apprehended that the English investigation might be supposed to be concluded. At any rate, that portion of the evidence might be printed with the same facility as that which had come from Canada. With regard to Ireland, he did not know what might be expected from that country; but he thought that very little knowledge was to be obtained from it beyond that which was obtained by the Devon Commission in 1844. He must press upon Her Majesty's Government the absolute necessity of allowing as little delay as possible to occur in laying information on this subject before the country. He assured their Lordships that in consequence of the grievous seasons we had had during the last four or five years the capital of the English farmer had melted away. Heavy and light land had alike suffered. The burdens of the public taxes had pressed more heavily year after year upon the agriculturists of this country, and by aid of the information he moved for they wanted to know what their prospects were to be.

Moved, That an humble Address he presented to Her Majesty, praying that the evidence taken before the Royal Commission on Agricultural Distress may be laid before the House.—(The Lord Waveney.)


My Lords, the noble Lord opposite has moved for the production of evidence, as if it had been given be- fore an ordinary Committee of your Lordships' House. This is Commission appointed by Her Majesty; the Commission report, and then Her Majesty is graciously pleased to order the Report to be laid on the Table of both Houses of Parliament. Therefore, the Motion made by the noble Lord, that the evidence should be laid on the Table, is out of Order. The Question of the noble Lord certainly did not lead me to expect that he would have gone into the various topics on which he has dilated. The noble Lord said we have had five such seasons as were never known before, and that the capital of the tenantry has been lost during that time. But that was the very reason why this Commission was appointed, by the advice of Her Majesty's Government, during the last Session of Parliament, of which Commission I am a Member. That there has been and is a considerable depression in the trade of agriculture we all admit and all deplore, and we must all equally sympathize with the tenant farmers, whose conduct in the circumstances has been admirable. It was in view of that depression that Her Majesty was graciously pleased to appoint the Royal Commission, which is now sitting, for the purpose of ascertaining, as far as possible, its causes. The noble Lord has asked that the evidence which has already been taken by the Commission should be laid upon the Table of the House; but I doubt very much whether the noble Lord is fully aware of the nature of the evidence for the production of which he asks. We have entered upon a very large subject, it is true; but we have not yet completed our inquiries into any one of the branches of that subject. For the noble Lord, just because some 17 tenant farmers went over to Canada to make inquiries on their own account, and have drawn up some sort of report, to require that a Commission which has been appointed to consider the causes of the depression of agriculture throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland, and the greater part of Europe and America, should produce a portion of their Report is not quite consistent with what is reasonable. I do not know that the noble Lord directly objected to inquiry on the part of the Commission with regard to Ireland; but I inferred from his remarks that he thought it unnecessary, on the ground that we should find all the information that we required on the subject in the Devon Report of 1844. But surely we could not accept in 1880 that Report as furnishing all the information necessary on the subject. Great changes have occurred since that time, and the Irish Land Act has given a new character to Irish agriculture. I can assure your Lordships that the Commission is proceeding to take evidence with very great care and attention. I may add that I do not believe that many of your Lordships, or many of those out-of-doors, are at all aware of the extent of this inquiry or of its scope. All that I can say, therefore, is that it would be impossible to publish the evidence that we are taking piecemeal, although, of course, it is a matter for the consideration of the Commission itself whether they will lay certain portions of it before Parliament at the close of any particular Session. I should have said no more on this subject, if my attention had not lately been called to a speech made by the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister, which I must say was of the most insulting character, with reference to this Commission. That speech was not made at Mid Lothian, where, doubtless, the right hon. Gentleman spoke under some degree of excitement, nor at any railway stations, where the right hon. Gentleman also made numerous speeches, but it was a deliberate address made to the electors of Marylebone, no doubt with some political intention. The Royal Commission on Agriculture, of which I have the honour of being the Chairman, was the result of a Motion made in the other House of Parliament by the hon. Member for Mid Lincoln (Mr. Chaplin) in July last. In consequence of the Address then agreed to, Her Majesty the Queen was graciously pleased to issue the Royal Commission in question, and the Commissioners were selected with great care by the then Prime Minister, Lord Beacons-field, who attended to the matter personally. Among the Commissioners so selected were the noble Lord opposite, the Lord President of the Council, who was nominated on account of his hereditary connection with agriculture, his high character, and the general respect in which he is held. The right hon. Gentleman the present British Ambassador Extraordinary at Constantinople was another of those selected, and several other noble Lords and Members of the other House of Parliament were appointed on the Commission in consequence of their being practically acquainted with agriculture. In addition to those Members of both Houses a number of gentlemen who represented the tenant farmers of England, Ireland, and Scotland wore also selected in such a manner that all shades of political opinion were represented on the Commission. All these Gentlemen were so selected with the sole object of securing the assistance of those who were properly qualified to conduct the necessary investigation in order that every confidence might be felt in the Report of the Commission. It was in reference to the Royal Commission so appointed and so selected that the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister, in addressing the electors of Marylebone, thought fit to make the following observations. The right hon. Gentleman said, on the 27th of February last:— There never was a greater delusion—he was going to have said imposture—than the appointment of the Commission last year to inquire into all manner of things connected with agriculture, an inquiry which embraced within its scope whether it would he right to replace duties upon the food of the people. There never was a greater delusion. The farmer had been taken in, not only for the ninety-ninth time, but for the nine hundred and ninety-ninth time… …This Commission to inquire into the whole of the commercial system—the fruit of 30 years' legislation, was as gross a delusion as was ever practised on the minds of men. I assert that the right hon. Gentleman had no right to say that the Members of the Royal Commission, two of whom were his former Colleagues, were impostors.


The right hon. Gentleman did not apply the term impostors to the Members of the Commission.


I say that if you are knowingly parties to an imposture you become impostors yourselves.




The noble Duke may shake his head; but that is my opinion. But, let me ask, is this inquiry an imposture? I say that before the right hon. Gentleman used such language as that he should have satisfied himself as to what were the terms under which the Commission was appointed, and what was the nature of the inquiry which the Commissioners were to conduct. He might have obtained the necessary information from the noble Lord opposite, or even from The London Gazette, which set forth the object of the Commission in these terms:— Whereas, we have deemed it expedient that a Commission should issue to inquire into the depressed condition of the agricultural interest and the causes to which it is owing, whether those causes are of a permanent character, and how far they have been created or can be remedied by legislation. The right hon. Gentleman says that the Royal Commission is a delusion. Why, the only doubt that the noble Lord, who at the time it was moved for was supposed to be the Leader of the Liberal Party, entertained with reference to the inquiry it was to make, was that it did not go far enough. I know it is said that the Government now in power is a Government of retractation. Not being one of the crowned heads of Europe, of course I do not expect to receive an apology from the right hon. Gentleman; but still he must have felt himself in error by the steps he has taken since he used that language. What has happened? Why, the noble Earl the President of the Council and the right hon. Gentleman the Ambassador Extraordinary at Constantinople having resigned their positions on the' Commission, the right hon. Gentleman has advised Her Majesty to fill up the vacancies so made by appointing Lord Carlingford and Mr. Stansfeld in their places. Therefore one of two things must have happened—either the Prime Minister must have intended that Lord Carlingford and Mr. Stansfeld should take part in as gross a delusion and an imposture as was ever practised on the mind of man, or he must have altered his opinion and now believes that the Commission is a reality and not a sham. If the right hon. Gentleman had pointed out to Lord Carlingford and Mr. Stansfeld that in joining the Commission they were to become parties to an imposture, I very much doubt whether they would have become parties to the inquiry. At any rate, I now wish publicly, and in the very strongest language I can use consistently with respect for your Lordships' House, to protest in my own name and in that of my Colleagues on the Commission against the language in which the right hon. Gentleman imputes to us that we were parties either to an imposture or an imposition.


said, it would be a somewhat curious occupation for any Member of their Lordships' House to review all the speeches which were made by Mr. Gladstone. It would be a great waste of time. All the speeches of the right hon. Gentleman were made for a purpose. The one under discussion was made with a view to defeating the then existing Government; and perhaps the right hon. Gentleman was somewhat careless in what he said provided his utterances succeeded in achieving the object which he had in view. He (the Duke of Somerset) was told that the right hon. Gentleman was now a much more sober man; therefore he passed the matter over, considering it would be beneath the dignity of their Lordships' House to take further notice of those speeches. As far as the Question which had been put was concerned, he would remind their Lordships that the agricultural classes in this country were, at the present time, entitled to be regarded as manufacturers who carried on their business in circumstances of very great difficulty; and that, therefore, it was impossible to predicate the future of that industry. He hoped that Her Majesty's Government would be able to lay before Parliament, before the Report of the Royal Commission was completed, the Report upon the evidence which had been procured in America by the Gentlemen sent out to that country for the purpose of making inquiries. He believed that if the Commissioners waited until the end of their labours, and then published an enormous Blue Book, it would have much less effect than if portions were published separately.


said, he thought that the suggestions which had been thrown out as to the inquiries made in America by the Assistant Commissioners were worthy of careful attention. While it might not be advisable to lay on the Table of the House Reports of the evidence taken week by week before the Commission, there might be reasons which would make it desirable to publish the result of the inquiries in America. The noble Duke opposite (the Duke of Richmond and Gordon) had deemed it right to import a personal matter into the reply which he had given to the question on the Paper. He believed that the noble Duke had placed entirely an erroneous construction on the words which Mr. Gladstone used; and he was satisfied that the right hon. Gentleman had never intended to utter language which would be offensive to the Members of the Commission. The remarks of the Prime Minister were directed against the general principle on which the Earl of Beaconsfield had acted with reference to the Commission, believing, as he did, that the scope of the investigation was far too wide, and covered so much ground that very little practical good would be derived from it. At the time various Notices of Motion had been given in the House of Commons, and the effect of those Notices had been unduly to raise the hopes of the agricultural interest, and the meaning of the right hon. Gentleman was that if it was thought that the labours of the Commission would result in the complete realization of those hopes, the thing was a delusion. He (Earl Spencer) could not for a moment submit to the accusation that he had sat on the Commission as an impostor.


regretted that Mr. Gladstone had made such observations with respect to a Commission of which he (Lord Vernon) was a Member; and he agreed with the noble Duke (the Duke of Richmond and Gordon) as to the construction that was likely to be put upon his words. The language of the right hon. Gentleman was more like that of a young electioneering aspirant than of a statesman who had filled the Office of Prime Minister.


said, he was sorry to have heard the protest from the noble Lord who had spoken last. The greatest latitude ought to be given as to political addresses. It was perfectly clear what Mr. Gladstone meant to convey. It was this. He assumed that part of the work of the Commission was intended to be taken up with objects which did not bear on the purposes for which it was appointed. The noble Duke opposite (the Duke of Richmond and Gordon) had pushed his logic too far when he inferred from the words of the Prime Minister that every Member of the Royal Commission was an impostor and taking part in a delusion. He had heard the noble Earl the Leader of the Opposition, in a famous passage of a famous speech, describe one of the most beneficent Governments, presided over by one of the most eminent statesmen the country had ever produced, as "an organized hypocrisy;" but he could not surely be accused of having intended that the description of hypocrite should apply to every Member of that Government. As in the case of Mr. Disraeli many years ago, so in the case of Mr. Gladstone on the present occasion, the phrase was intended to apply, not to the individuals composing the Commission, but to the principle involved in the inquiry which had been instituted.