HC Deb 23 February 1809 vol 12 cc1044-51
The Chancellor of the Exchequer

moved the order of the day for the house going into a Committee on this Bill; but before going into the Committee, he moved that it be given, as an Instruction to the Committee, to admit a clause into the Bill, empowering his majesty to prohibit, by Proclamation, the distillation of spirits from corn in Ireland, how and when he should think fit.

Mr. Barham

said, it was far from his intention to offend any one; but it was his intention neither to give nor take assertions without proof. He then proceeded to speak on the consumption of spirits, and the beneficial effects which would result from a more general distillation from sugar. Here he gave in a variety of statements and calculations to shew the bad effects of suffering a distillation from corn to exist, to the extent it did at present. He then spoke of the necessity of manifesting a greater regard for our colonies, by opening a more extensive market for their commodities. No one could be ignorant of the low state to which they had been reduced; they had now, in some measure, recovered themselves, but unless such a measure as that he proposed was pursued, their situation would inevitably become worse than ever. Adverting to the affairs of Ireland, he strongly censured the idea of any thing like a combination being in existence; it was a libel on the generous feelings and the understandings of the people of that country. The people of Ireland, he declared, were not averse to the operation of the Bill; he therefore should move, "That an instruction be given to the Committee to extend the provisions of the Bill to Ireland."

Mr. Foster

supported the measure. He stated, that from Jan. 1808, nearly six millions of gallons of spirits had been distilled in Ireland, although not one gallon was distilled from sugar during the whole nine months of the operation of the Bill. It was solely the production of clandestine distilleries, although every exertion had been used to execute the laws, and the collectors had been most vigilant. The hon. gent, who opposed its operation being discontinued, had stated that 2,000 quarters of barley had been purchased at Lynn, at 43s. per quarter, for the purpose of importing into Ireland; but he (Mr. F.) should aver, that no man would have done so unless he was intending to distil it clandestinely in that country, for 33s. per quarter was at present at the medium price. His opinion was, that the agricultural interests of the country should never be invaded but upon the apprehension of scarcity; and he should prove that there was no such apprehension at present existing in Ireland, to call for the continuance of the former measure. He did not believe that there was a man in Ireland who wished the distillation from sugar to go on, save only those interested individuals, who had attended the meetings which were said to have taken place at Dublin, Cork, Waterford, and Limerick. In regard to the meeting at Waterford, the magistrates issued a notice for that purpose in the newspapers, but assigned no grounds for opposing the measure, as the Petition itself would shew. Every one in Ireland knew that the former bill was soon to expire, and yet no one had come to petition parliament in order to renew it. The obvious reason was, that at this moment there was an uncommon supply of grain in that country, insomuch that England had received from Ireland last year an importation of one million of barrels of oats more than ever before occurred. The continuation of the prohibition would not tend to yield any more food either for man or beast. He had a return from the officers of excise, stating the quantity of stills seized, together with their size and estimated produce, from which it appeared, that from the 10th of Jan., to the 10th of Dec. 1808, unlicensed stills had been seized capable of distilling 800,000 gallons of spirits per month, a quantity that would amount to half a million of gallons more than ever was formerly produced in Ireland within the same space of time. An idea had gone abroad in several parts of Ireland, that the clandestine stills afforded a more ready market to the farmers for their grain, which led these, kind of stills to be in general favourites with the lower orders of the people. Now, the object of the present measure was to bring the people to reason, and shew them that by encouraging the legal stills, preferably to the clandestine stills, the markets would be equally good, sure, and advantageous, and the revenues encreased. By putting the licensed stills thus in competition with the unlicensed ones, the feelings of the people would then be, which of them were most for their interest, to support. By doing away the unlicensed stills, he had no doubt it would prove a source of wealth to the people. The revenue, last year, upon malt and stills, amounted only to 120,000l. instead of one million and a half. Thus, there was nearly one-fourth of the revenue depending upon this measure, besides the destruction of the morality of the people. He believed the bill had already had a fair trial, and as it had not been found to succeed in Ireland, it ought to be discontinued.

Sir John Newport

wished that the petition from Waterford should be read, in order to convince the right hon. gent. that his statement was erroneous, as to its not assigning any reasons for the opinions of these petitioners. Never did a petition contain stronger grounds, or a greater variety of reasons. It was signed by a great number of most respectable names, He had the authority from the mayor who transmitted it to him, to state, that if it could have been allowed to lay longer for signatures, it would have received all those of any note or consequence in the town. He could assure the house, he had no knowledge of the progress of any such petition, so that it came to him totally unsolicited on his part. There were few parts of Ireland more competent to form a judgment of the quantity of grain on hand throughout the country than Waterford, as nearly one-third of the whole grain was supplied from it. The town of Clonmel was in one of the most perfect districts of Ireland, and every person there was unanimous in their opinion as to the propriety of continuing the restriction of distillery from corn. The right hon. gent. had taken very fallacious grounds in arguing that the prices of grain were low throughout Ireland, for he had made his calculation when the price of spirits was 7s. per gallon, and did not advert to the consequences arising from its being now at the price of 17s. per gallon. The fact was, that the increased price of spirits had the effect of increasing the consumption of malt in the breweries, instead of the consumption of grain in the distilleries, besides producing the best effect upon the morals of the people. When it was said that the encouragement to the legal distillation would put down illicit distillation, it was not advocated in Con-naught, and almost the whole of Ulster were formerly, as now, dealing in illicit traffic of that nature. Orders were issued to send two revenue cutters to intercept the grain and spirits so produced, and that measure was proved to have had a beneficial effect in suppressing illicit stills; but it had been of late discontinued, he knew not why.—He could not agree with t the right hon. gent., that the lower order of the people were the only class that encouraged illicit distillation; for in his opinion, the higher orders were equally participators and encouragers of that traffic, and he had heard gentlemen of respectability defend them on the same principles as had been uttered this night. He thought the higher class were much more culpable than the lower. A bounty had been given upon the higher species of stills, which made it impossible for the lower or smaller stills to be so much employed as they otherwise would have been. The only reason for this was, that the higher stills were more easily watched than the smaller ones; but it was not adverted to, that the higher description of stills required much more capital to work them, and could only be employed by wealthy inhabitants. The effect of this was that the market was taken from the door of the former, and operated as an encouragement to malt distillation. The farmers in Ireland had not the advantage of navigation to convey their grain to market, and therefore they found the small stills the most beneficial. Upon that ground, then, it was evident that one cause of complaint would be removed by taking away the bounty upon large stills, and placing them on a footing with the smaller ones; for, by that means, the incentive to illicit distillation, would be completely removed. The right hon. gent. then entered into a comparison of the prices of grain for the last 3 years, by which he shewed that they were higher at present than formerly, and therefore if it were wise to put a stop to the distillation from grain in May, it was much more necessary now. It was a serious thing to advise the distillation from grain, when there were evident grounds for apprehending a scarcity. He begged the house to pause before they adopted such a measure as that now proposed; and the more especially, as in the North of Ireland there were apprehensions of a want of employment for the flax spinners, in consequence of the dearness of flax. If any increase in the price of provisions took place at a time when there was a diminution of labour, let ministers not be surprised that discontents should remain. When there were petitions from Belfast and from Waterford, places quite distinct and unconnected with each other, and therefore no common interest nor concern between them as to this particular measure, it was evident that there was nothing operated upon their minds, but the scarcity which the people of Ireland thought likely to arise from it. —These were striking and strong facts; but there was also another which he might advert to, which was, that a very large proportion of the potatoe-pits had been opened; and in consequence of the floods, the potatoes had been found to be rotten; and he begged the house to advert to what might be the consequence, it the whole of them was found in the same state.—Besides this, he should call upon the house to consider well before they, by adopting such a measure, put. it in the power of the crown to continue or discontinue an act, putting Ireland on a footing with G. Britain, and thereby infringing the act of union.—The right hon. baronet concluded an eloquent and impressive speech, by stating, he had felt it his duty to submit these matters to their consideration, and by assuring them, that they had such weight upon his mind as would induce him to vote for the amendment proposed.

General Mathew

supported the present Bill. Clonmel, the capital of the county which he represented, no doubt was against the bill, but other 14 or 15 towns in the same county supported it.

Mr. Bagwell

did not believe potatoes had been cheaper in Ireland for many years than during the present. He must, therefore, be excused in voting against the inclinations of his constituents of Clonmel.

Mr. W. Smith

was clearly of opinion that colonial interests should at all times yield to those of the native country; but at the same time, he could not so separate the interests of the countries, as to say that England should be said to have no sufficient supply, while Ireland had. It appeared to him to be a matter of great risk to make two laws, one for one part of the country, and the other for the other.

Sir Arthur Wellesley

said lie was of opinion last year, there was not a sufficient quantity of food in Ireland for the demands on her. He was of a different opinion as to the present period; although the prices were high in Dublin, he was convinced there was more than a sufficiency to supply any demands that could be made on her.—He was well aware, if the distillers were not allowed to go on in their usual course, they would go on privately, and defraud the revenue of the country.

Mr. Marryat

said that the arguments in favour of the measure proposed were not satisfactory. As to the price of corn, its inequality could not long exist, from the proximity of the two countries. The result to the revenue would be very different from that stated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, for what was distilled in Ireland could be brought over to England, as the officers who would accept a bribe to permit illicit distillery, would take one in any other case, and Ireland would become a second Dunkirk to Guernsey and Jersey. This measure had affected the price both of grain and sugar; for since its introduction, sugar had fallen in price, and grain had advanced. He concluded, by saying he would vote in favour of the amendment.

General Tarleton

called the attention of the house to the petition he had presented, and expressed the effect the measure had had upon Lancaster. Considering the state of the continent, our military operations, the little probability of peace, the situation of the Baltic, and America, he would support the amendment.

Mr. Macnaghten

said, on account of the clause putting it in their power to prohibit the use of grain being introduced, he would vote for the measure.

Mr. Ellis

supported the amendment.

Mr. Western

objected to the bill altogether; any interference of parliament tended to increase the price of grain.

Mr. Wilberforce

said, that the knowledge of its being in the power of government to stop the distilling from corn at pleasure, would only increase their exertions in Ireland, to use the privilege while they had it.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that he should certainly not support this measure, if he imagined that Yorkshire, or any other part of the united kingdom would, by the operation of it, be deprived of any part of the supply which they would otherwise receive from Ireland. He was convinced, however, that the surplus of the corn in Ireland would otherwise be employed by the illicit distilleries to the prejudice of the revenue in the sum of 700,000l. annually.

Lord A. Hamilton

mentioned, that the western parts of Scotland would suffer materially by permitting the corn distillery in Ireland.

The house then divided on the Amendment, which was negatived, Ayes 37, Noes 40; majority for Ministers 3.—The original motion was then put and carried.

[The following report of the speech of Mr. Hibbert upon this Bill, on the 6th instant, will be found fuller than the one given at p. 374.]

Mr. Hibbert

approved of that part of the principle of the Bill which further restrained the Distillation from Grain. If the measure of last year had not yet shewn its ill effects, one might fairly conclude that to it was in no degree imputable the scarcity and dearness of grain which, since that measure, had been progressive. Upon this fact, and upon the continued uncertainty of foreign supply, rested the expediency of prolonging the disuse of grain in the distillation, and the landed interest in that house did not appear at present inclined to oppose it.—But he presumed that he was in order, when he considered as part of the principle of the proposed Bill, the exception of a large division of the empire from its operation; a matter he conceived of too primary importance to be reserved for argument in the Committee. One part of the United Kingdom could not fail to partake either of scarcity or plenty existing in the other; the prohibition therefore, if it was right at all, should be general. The right hon. gent., in giving notice of the Bill, at a late hour, and when the house after a long debate was little inclined to attend to any observation on the subject, had indeed stated as a reason for this exception of Ireland, that since the act of the last session, the use of sugar had not been extended, nor the use of grain diminished, in that country, while the revenue from spirits had almost totally failed there from the stimulus which had been given to illegal distillation. Even admitting these facts, they were not conclusive; for the experiment had not been fairly tried. In England and in Scotland the duty imposed by the late act on spirits from sugar, had been made exactly equivalent to that which in those parts respectively attached on spirits from grain. Not so in Ireland, where sugar spirits had been subjected to a duty of 8s. 3d. per gallon, the duty on corn spirits being no more than 5s. 8d.; under which disparity the legal distillation, and the legal importation, were both discouraged, while a considerable premium was held out to the contraband dealer. Evidence could be given to the house, that had the duty on sugar spirits been levelled to that on corn spirits in Ireland, the legal distiller would have worked, and the importation of spirits would have been extended, to the advantage of the revenue. He believed this provision of the late act had been matter of surprize. He trusted that, however good in general the counsel of the Chancellor of the Exchequer for Ireland, his authority on this occasion would not be followed implicitly and without examination. The sentiments of that right hon. gent. were well known. He was adverse to the whole principle of the measure. No scarcity, or dearness of grain could reconcile to him its prohibition in the distillery in any part of the empire, and it was not therefore to be wondered at, if he had been anxious to save Ireland from its operation. These were not, however, the sentiments of that house, nor of the right hon. gent. who introduced the Bill, and it would be unwise to adopt a proceeding so extraordinary and so partial, without a fair experiment under provisions and regulations that might afford the best chance for its success. The Act of Union, it was well understood, wanted revision in some of its parts for the benefit of both countries; but it was most consistent with its spirit to proceed to that work at once, and not by prohibiting the intercourse in any instance to cut the gordian knot, which a little patience and attention might unravel. The interest of the revenue was said to be at stake. The principle of the Bill had nothing to do with revenue, but into that consideration should enter how far the deficiencies complained of were or were not inevitable, and how far any accidental deficiency might be amply made good by the additional tax of 3s. per cent, on the whole of the sugar consumed within the kingdom; this tax, which attached only at certain average prices of the article, would in his decided opinion be levied upon the coming crop, if the sugar distillery was extended to Ireland, and not otherwise—He offered these observations not in opposition to the Bill, but earnestly recommending a reconsideration of the proposed limitation of its opetion, which he believed to be inconsistent, unfair and impolitic.