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Third Reading

Volume 218: debated on Friday 27 March 1874

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Order for Third Reading read.

said, he wished to state on his own behalf, as well as on that of several other hon. Members, that although the Bill had been allowed to pass through its previous stages without discussion, and almost without demur, yet it must not, in consequence, be supposed that they approved the course which had been taken by the Government of India. We had periods of scarcity constantly recurring in that country, and in the present instance the policy which had been adopted by the Viceroy and his councillors seemed to him to be one of a very exceptional character. They had proceeded on the principle that they should rely entirely on the ordinary laws of trade to meet a great emergency; but, for his own part, he was rather inclined to think that exceptional cases were properly met by exceptional means. There was on all sides a desire to give the Viceroy the highest credit for the energy, zeal, and self-devotion which he had manifested ever since it had become clear to him that the crisis with which he had to deal was of no ordinary kind; yet, in his opinion, he failed thoroughly to appreciate the gravity of the crisis for a considerable time, while the policy which he adopted of trusting altogether to private trade to meet the emergency was, he thought, erroneous. At the earliest moment possible the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal—one of the most able, as he was one of the most experienced servants of the Crown in India—urged upon Lord Northbrook the importance of interfering to prevent the exportation of rice from the distressed districts and from Indian ports. Afterwards, on objections being pointed out, he waived a part of his suggestion, and advocated the prohibition of exportation from the ports of Bengal. This was refused by Lord Northbrook—he was not prepared to say that it was wrongly refused—on the ground that the same beneficial objects could be effected by purchasing, either directly or indirectly, in India itself. That policy met with the approval of the Secretary of State, and it must be confessed that the first despatch of the Duke of Argyll, surrounded, as he was, by the most able men connected with India, exactly portrayed what ought to have been the policy of Government, and what would have prevented, had it been adopted at the outset, much which there was reason to regret. The despatch pointed out, what experience of Indian famines had shown, that the operations of commerce, and the ordinary processes of supply and demand, could not be relied upon in such emergencies to furnish an adequate supply of food, and that the active intervention of Government was necessary to prevent the worst consequences. Under these circumstances, the Secretary of State placed the matter unreservedly in the hands of the Viceroy, and sanctioned by anticipation whatever measures it might be thought necessary to adopt for the preservation of life. With regard to a prohibition of export, the Duke of Argyll concurred with the Viceroy in preferring other modes of action, and especially he approved Government entering the market as a purchaser. This latter course, he added, would be of a less violent character than prohibition, and would have the effect of inviting commercial enterprise. Indeed, it was obvious that if the Government had appeared in the market of Bengal, and possessed themselves of the supplies of rice which then existed in the country, the prices would necessarily have risen, there would have been a very great encouragement given to private trade, and the imports from other parts would have been very large—much larger than was the case when the famine took the proportions which it unfortunately assumed. But what was the course which Lord Northbrook took? He contented himself with buying largely in foreign ports, especially in Burmah. He did this through agents who were not declared to be buying for the purposes of the Bengal Government, and it was perfectly well known in the markets of India that largo supplies were coming which had been purchased by the Government, while, at the same time, it was equally well known in Burmah that large supplies, were leaving that country for Calcutta, and that there would, consequently, be an enormous amount of rice in the ports of Bengal. What was the result? Why, that the stocks of rice which existed in Bengal were exported by their owners because they were afraid that when the grain arrived from Burmah they would be undersold by the Government; and, similarly, there was no exportation on private account from the ports of Burmah to Bengal, because it was perfectly clear that, as the Government of India were sweeping the market of Burmah, and sending large stocks thence to Calcutta, there would be absolutely no demand at the latter place except a Government demand, and, therefore, it would be dangerous for any merchant to engage in the trade. Therefore, the course taken by the Government of India in the interest of private trade absolutely produced an export from the distressed districts and prevented an importation from foreign ports into the ports of Bengal. Now, the noble Lord the Under Secretary of State for India (Lord George Hamilton) stated the other day as a fact that the exports from Bengal were not from the distressed districts. The noble Lord the Secretary of State for India (the Marquess of Salisbury), in "another place," stated the same thing on the authority of the Viceroy. But they could not have had before them a statement submitted by the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal to the Viceroy, approved by the Viceroy, and reported home by the Viceroy, when they communicated that information to the Houses of Parliament. The Lieutenant Governor himself stated that he had been obliged to cancel an order he had given reducing by one-half the rate charged for the transport of rice on the railway; because he had found that, owing to exporters taking advantage of the diminished rate, the rice was rapidly leaving the distressed districts, where, of course, it was most wanted. There was, moreover, a declaration of the Lieutenant Governor himself that there had been a large export of rice from other districts which were distressed, and it was notorious that more than once the means of transport which had been employed in taking up Government rice to the distressed districts had brought back to Calcutta an equal quantity of rice from the very same places, with the view to its being sent abroad. The result of this export was, that no rice was left in the hands of the authorities of those districts, the organization of the means of transport became a serious difficulty, and we wore driven into the extraordinary position of having 400,000 tons of grain in hand, while at the same time it was impossible, as the Viceroy himself admitted, to send it into the distressed districts. He (Sir Seymour Fitzgerald) made these observations to the House in order that it might not be supposed, from their allowing this measure to pass without observation, and from their raising no debate as to the proceedings of the Government of India, that they approved the exceptional policy which took it for granted that the ordinary laws of commerce wore sufficient to meet an emergency like the present, or that they did not think it desirable that there should be a general discussion of the whole policy of the Government of India with reference to this famine, and of the measures which ought to be taken to prevent its recurrence in the future. He would repeat what he said the other night—namely, that there was no man in this House who was more desirous than he to give credit to Lord Northbrook for the extraordinary energy, zeal, and devotion he had shown under most difficult and arduous circumstances. At the same time, he thought the Viceroy had not appreciated so early as he might, the magnitude of the danger, and that his policy at first had been a mistaken policy, which contributed in no slight degree to magnify the evil. With reference to the Bill before the House, he would have been pleased if it had shown that Her Majesty's Government were prepared, under the very peculiar circumstances of the case, to extend their assistance to the Indian Treasury. The noble Lord the Under Secretary for India said the other night that the difference between raising money at 3¼ per cent and raising it at 4 per cent was such a trilling matter that it was not worth talking about. There being various objections to a guarantee, the noble Lord thought the sum which might be saved by means of it might well be overlooked. Probably, when the noble Lord had a longer experience at the India Office, and became acquainted with the critical condition of Indian finance, he would not say-that the sum of £75,000 a-year was a thing that he could afford to neglect. After the enormous pressure put upon the Indian Treasury and Indian credit by the sacrifices necessary to meet this famine, it would be of the deepest interest to everyone connected with India, and of the gravest importance to Parliament and to this country, to consider how the solvency of Indian finance could be properly maintained. Nothing could be more critical than the present position of Indian finance, and he would have been very glad if even so small a sum as £75,000 could have been saved to the Indian Treasury. Some words which fell from the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government a few weeks ago had given rise to a hope that the Government of this country might be induced to show an active and practical sympathy with India in her present difficulties and dangers. It was to be hoped that it would be found possible to do something of this kind. It was a matter which must, of course, be loft entirely to the Government, and it would not be becoming for a private Member to make a suggestion with regard to it. Of this, however, he was perfectly certain—that anything which could manifest, apart from private subscriptions, the sympathy of the people of this country with India—which would show by some direct official act that there was a warm and generous sympathy on the part of the Parliament of this country towards the masses of the people in India—would, on the occasion of any emergency arising, be worth to this country as much as 50 regiments.

said, he had nothing to complain of in the remarks of the right ton. Gentleman, because he understood the right hon. Gentleman entirely approved of the Despatch which the late Secretary of State wrote at the commencement of the unhappy calamity, and also that he spoke of the Governor General as he was sure they would all wish to speak of him in that House. With reference to the accusation of the right hon. Gentleman that there had been a want of foresight that the calamity would he quite as grievous as it had turned out to he, he (Mr. Grant Duff) believed that when the Motion of which the right hon. Gentleman had given Notice came under discussion it would be shown that Lord Northbrook, although he abstained from taking a rash course, nevertheless fully perceived the dimensions to which the famine was likely to grow. That he (Mr. Grant Duff) hoped to be able to make clear to the House and the country. In the mean time, he thanked the right hon. Gentleman for giving the House the hope that they should have a discussion of this subject; because he entirely agreed with him that, though it was right to allow this Bill to go through with the least possible amount of discussion, nevertheless it would be wise—and he thought for the honour of the Viceroy—that the whole matter should be thoroughly discussed before the House of Commons and in the face of Europe.

said, he had not intended to speak on this subject; but he thought it would not be right to let the remarks of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Horsham (Sir Seymour Fitzgerald) pass without notice. He could understand very well that there should be a discussion of this matter, if it were necessary to stimulate the Government to further exertions; but he thought the right hon. Gentleman admitted that the Government were prepared to use every effort to relieve the distressed districts. If a discussion was not necessary to stimulate the Government to further exertions, then he was at a loss to conceive on what ground it was necessary, expedient, or even just, to discuss this subject. The right hon. Gentleman gave full credit to the Viceroy for his exertions since—as the right hon. Gentleman was pleased to say—he became aware of the magnitude of the famine, but the right hon. Gentleman made two very distinct charges against the Viceroy, He said the Viceroy was wanting in foresight in not having anticipated the extent of the famine; and he further said the Viceroy largely contributed to the evils of the famine by taking no step to prohibit the exportation of grain. Now, the House was not in possession of sufficient information to be able to express an opinion on those matters; nor was it in possession of information sufficient to enable it to discuss the subject fairly and dispassionately. He protested against these imputations upon the Viceroy at a moment when the House could not properly debate this subject, and when the whole case which the right hon. Gentleman had made was in dispute. The Viceroy and the Government maintained that grain had not been leaving the extremely distressed districts. The right hon. Gentleman said it had, but the House had as yet no means of arriving at the facts. The right hon. Gentleman also said the Viceroy failed to meet the emergency by allowing the ordinary course of trade to continue; but his policy was this—that he did not wish to hamper or interfere with the trade, but determined to supplement it vigorously by the introduction of an enormous quantity of rice. He (Mr. Whitbread) hoped there would be a discussion when the House was in possession of all the Papers that were necessary for a discussion, but he could not think that a discussion at present of the charges which the right hon. Gentleman had made would be either just to the Viceroy, or be likely to strengthen his hands, or the hands of the Indian Government in dealing with the famine.

hoped this conversation would drop. He thought the time had not yet come for the House to enter into a discussion of that great calamity which had fallen on Bengal. They had not before them the information which had been promised, and without the Reports in full, it was not fair to the Viceroy of India to express any opinion as to his merits or demerits in respect to the measures taken by him to aid the people of the famine-struck districts. Moreover, when the time for discussion came, they would have to deal with the still larger question—how could they prevent a similar calamity in the future? It was 100 years since the great famine of 1770 carried off about one-third of the population of Bengal, and the liability to famines in Bengal had been well established. That contingency was proved by the fact that it was only a few years ago since they had a similar calamity in other districts of India. He protested against the attack made on the Viceroy of India, and hoped the present discussion would terminate as soon as possible, for when telegraphed to India, it must prove a serious disadvantage to the Government there, in the successful carrying out of the measures which it must now be admitted were energetically pushed on in order to save life. He had only to urge that the whole of the despatches, full and complete, without condensation, be laid before the House without delay.

thought it was important that an impression should not go abroad that there was any disposition on the part of the House, and especially of those interested in India, prematurely to censure the course which the Governor General took upon the question of prohibiting the export of rice. That question was evidently surrounded with the greatest difficulties. It was perfectly obvious that, if the Governor General had acted upon the advice given by the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, he might, perhaps, have escaped a great deal of responsibility. He thought there could be no question that the Governor General, in deciding as he did, was influenced by strong considerations of public duty, and until we knew what the upshot of the matter was, it was quite impossible for anyone in this country to pronounce a definite judgment whether the Governor General was right or not in the course he adopted. He deprecated anything like a premature discussion, and therefore it was only fair and reasonable that the House should abstain from pronouncing an opinion on the course pursued by the Governor General until it was in possession of information as to the results of that course. That he believed to be the general opinion of the House.

said, he saw no necessity for continuing for 10 years the power which this Bill would give of raising money out of the Indian revenues, neither could he see that it called for any gratitude on the part of the Indian people, seeing that the money was raised on Indian credit. For himself, he was in favour of its being given to India out of Imperial funds. It was admitted that the famine would be disposed of in three or four years, and he thought the duration of the power of raising money should be limited to four years from the present time. It was a dangerous power to give any Government.

thanked the House for the cordial support it had given the Government in passing the Bill through its different stages. He considered it his duty the other night to make a statement as to the measures taken by the Government of India in consequence of the famine. He did not do so in the belief that the House would agree with every detail of that statement, but because he thought it right to show the House that the Government of India were incurring exceptional expenditure, and that, it was therefore necessary to relieve the finances of India. It was a mistake of the hon. and learned Member for Stroud (Mr. Dickinson) to suppose that they were taking powers to raise money for 10 years; the period was only five years. He quite agreed in the opinion expressed that that was not the time to discuss the the measures which the Viceroy had thought it necessary to take; but he wished to correct two mistakes into which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Horsham (Sir Seymour Fitzgerald) had fallen. The statement that there were no exports of grain from the distressed districts was made, not by him (Lord George Hamilton), but by the noble Lord the Secretary of State. A certain number of exports did come, not from the most distressed districts, but mainly from the lower districts around Calcutta. The other mistake into which the right hon. Gentleman fell was assuming that he (Lord George Hamilton) made the observation that the loss of £75,000 a-year would not much matter to the finances of India. What he said was that, if we had ever to come again to the market to borrow, we should do so with depreciated credit, and the ultimate loss to India would more than counterbalance the present advantage. Time alone could show whether the measures adopted by the Viceroy were sufficient or not, and it would be presumptuous for us to attempt to anticipate the verdict.

said, the Bill was put forward as a remedial measure to meet an almost unprecedented calamity in India, and so great had been the illusion created, not only in the House, but throughout the country, on this subject, that a distinguished Prelate (the Bishop of Manchester) was reported in the public prints to have fallen into the mistake of supposing that by this Bill we were financially helping India. The truth, however, was, that we were not helping India in the slightest degree, for this was not a famine Bill but a finance Bill. Its object was to enable the distressed country to borrow in one market cheaper than it could in another. That, no doubt, was a prudent and useful act, but it ought not to be classed in the category of philanthropic proceedings. His hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Whitbread) seemed to think that because we had not yet received complete information to enable us to judge of the wisdom of the policy adopted in India, therefore we ought not to discuss the adequacy of the measure and the necessities which called it forth. He concurred in the statement that they had not yet sufficient information to enable them to form an opinion upon the wisdom of Lord Northbrook's policy. He had had the privilege of knowing Lord Northbrook for 25 years, and although he did not always happen to agree with him, he had the most implicit belief not merely in his honour, which had not been questioned, but in his devotion to the public service, and in his rare qualities of moral and intellectual fitness for his high position, and he prayed most sincerely that he would come out of the great trial which it had been his singular fate to meet, with honour and credit to himself and the name he bore. There was, however, a much more important question to consider than that of Lord Northbrook's foresight—that, indeed, was a personal question; but there was a national question which it was incumbent on Parliament to consider. Having taken India in charge by the Act of 1858, it became their duty to think for themselves. His hon. Friend had said we must wait in order that we might be able to judge by results. But could we afford to wait for results when millions of lives were at stake? Hon. Members of that House ought to endeavour to anticipate results, and to interrogate the Government with a view of ascertaining what the probability of those results might be. A suggestion had been thrown out that in a time of famine the most important benefit which could be conferred on India would be a reduction in the price of salt—a step which Edmund Burke in eloquent terms accused Warren Hastings of neglecting under like circumstances just a century age. Did the House remember that we levied £6,000,000 a-year in India by moans of the salt tax, and that we imposed an ad valorem duty of 2,600 per cent upon salt? Medical men were agreed that rice without, some such condiment as salt would certainly destroy those who ate it, and consequently if we gave the starving people rice without that article which would make it wholesome, we should simply be shirking the question of famine, and it would only amount to the difference between slow and quick destruction. Ought they not, therefore, to endeavour to stimulate the Government, by the moral weight of that House, to sock the means of additional relief in that direction? As for the present Bill, it ought to be judged simply as a finance measure, and not in any way as an act of international friendship or benevolence.

said, if he thought the passing of the measure would preclude the House from expressing an opinion whether it were wise to aid the Revenues of India by an Imperial grant, and if hon. Members had to decide between this financial measure and another, he might have hesitated in coming to the conclusion that to pass this one was the first and only duty of hon. Members. He took the opportunity of saying the other evening—and he still adhered to the opinion—that this was a right step in the right direction, as a first measure towards meeting the distress in India. In fact, it was an obligatory measure. The first duty of the Government of India was to feed the starving population; and it was not necessary, he held, for that Government to come to the House of Commons and ask for an Imperial guarantee for raising a loan when it had the means on its own credit to do what was necessary. Therefore he had no hesitation in again recording his assent to this loan of £10,000,000, though he should be very sorry indeed to think that by so doing the House would deprive itself of all opportunity of urging upon the Government at a subsequent date the necessity of any further measure of relief which the House might feel disposed to pass. Some hon. Members had drawn a parallel between the financial result of raising this money on the credit of India pur et simple, and of raising it under an Imperial guarantee, and a calculation had been made that the difference in interest would be about £75,000 per annum. With regard to that point, he thought that it was of more consequence to India to preserve her credit unimpaired for future financial operations, than to secure a present advantage for which she would have to pay heavily hereafter. Every apprehension as to the severity and intensity of the famine had been realized; and at the end of six months, or later, when the Government of India had to consider how to rehabilitate the cultivators of the soil, so that they might be in a position to cultivate their land, and to recover their status, there could be an opportunity for assistance. He did not venture to pass a judgment on the conduct of any officers occupying a high position in India. Everybody must know what a dreadful weight of responsibility pressed upon them; but there was no doubt that, so far as human judgment could guide them, none would fail in their duty.

Bill read the third time, and passed.