HC Deb 15 May 1809 vol 14 cc576-81

Mr. Foster moved the second reading of the Irish Distillery Bill.

Mr. Bernard

rose to oppose this motion. He said, that this bill went merely to amend the laws as they now existed, and to continue a principle of finance which had been proved to be ineffectual. It was under these laws, and the principle of them, of collecting the duties by what was called a system of survey, that is, by measuring the wash, low wines and spirits, that all the illicit distillation had flourished, and still continued to flourish. He said, he was borne out by the Commissioners of Inquiry in desiring that this system should be departed from, as they had recommended another system, called the licence system, under which a distiller had only to take out a licence, and pay for it according to the number of gallons of spirits which it was presumed he could make in a year, by which means the revenue was sure of being very considerable, and the distiller was left at liberty to work without the vexatious interference of the excise officers. He was of opinion, that unless small stills were allowed to work, the illicit distillation would never be put down. He referred to Mr. Croker's evidence to prove, that a small still would pay more duty comparatively with a large one; but so long as the right hon. gent. persevered in his system of giving bounties of 8l. and 10l. per cent. on the duty paid by distillers using large stills, it was impossible that a small still could work in competition with them. He said this system of encouraging large stills was very injurious to the landlord and to the farmer; it took away the market from the interior of the country; for grain, which the farmer would have if persons were admitted to work small stills; and as to the illicit trade, it was obvious, that if a large district had no vent for its grain, and no cheap supply of spirits, there always would be illicit distillers. He then said, that the right hon. gent. meant by this bill to double the fines on townlands; this was a pretty way to meet the complaints of the people of Ireland against these fines. He read from a Report of the Commissioners of Inquiry a statement shewing, that in one county the amount of fines imposed in one year was 80,000l. but that only 600l. had been able to be collected, and that the expence which it cost the public to make the seizures for which these fines were to be levied was 50,000l., so that the whole benefit of the system was, that of the excise officers, and no stop was put to illicit distillation. He, therefore, feeling that the bill did not go to attain the object which it professed to do, and which was desired by all the Irish members, namely, to admit small stills to work, would move, that it be read a second time this day three months.

Mr. J. Stewart

said, that though he agreed for the most part with what had fallen from the last speaker, he thought it better to let the bill go to a Committee.

Sir George Hill

was surprized at the motion of his hon. friend for putting off the second reading of this bill. Having been privy to many conversations between the distillers and the Chancellor of the Exchequer for Ireland, he bore testimony to the attention with which every suggestion from them was received, and was sure that the fullest consideration would be given to any amendments which honourable gentlemen might be disposed to propose in the Committee.

Mr. Parnell

said he rose to support the amendment of the hon. member who spoke last but one. He thought with him, that this bill ought to be opposed on its principle, which was to continue a system of collecting the duties on spirits, which had been proved to have failed by the Report of the Commissioners of Inquiry, and which, though amended session after session, was still ineffectual, because it was notorious to every one who knew any thing of Ireland, that illicit distillation was at this moment carried on there to a great extent. The Commissioners proved that in one year the loss of revenue was near two millions, and this loss can be attributed to no other cause than a great defect in the system pursued in attempting to collect it. They had not only, however, proved the extent of the evil, but they also proposed a remedy; this was to adopt the system of Scotland, and permitting distillers to work very small stills under a licence, the amount to be paid for which was calculated on the number of gallons which his still could work in a year. He said that this mode appeared to him to be the only one that could effectually put down the illicit distillation, because it was absurd to imagine that the exertions of the revenue officers could ever be adequate to counteract all the plans which illicit distillers have it in their power to adopt; the only way to proceed was to encourage persons to set up legal stills over the whole country, by suffering them to work with small capital, and without the vexatious oppression of the laws as they now stand in respect to regulations, and powers given to the revenue officers. For so soon as legal distillers were so established, they would be so interested in preventing illicit trade, that they alone, without the aid of the revenue officers, would soon clear the country of it. The policy of this method of proceeding had been fully established in Scotland. Before 1786, the system of collecting the duties on spirits was exactly the same as it now is in Ireland; the whole country was supplied by illicit distillation. In that year the licence system was adopted, and it is proved in the evidence given before a committee of the house, that in the first year 18,000l. was collected, whereas 18s. had never before been collected; that the legal distillers detected and punished the illegal distillers, and that the increased demand for grain soon contributed to the general improvement of the agriculture of Scotland, and changed altogether the face of the country. Under the circumstances of the Commissioners of Inquiry having recommended a specific remedy to be adopted, it appeared to him very extraordinary that the right hon. gent. should propose a measure to the house in direct contradiction to their recommendation, without shewing that it did not deserve to be attended to. For his part he thought that when parliament had appointed commissioners to enquire into the collection of the revenue of Ireland, to whom they had paid an immense sum of money as a reward for their trouble, it was the duty of the right hon. gent. either to adopt their advice, or shew why it ought not to be adopted; for it would be of no use to the public to pay these Commissioners so largely, if by no possible means the information and advice which they afforded the public was to be wholly neglected. The hon. member then said that he knew very well that the right hon. gent. was ready to say that his bill went to admit small stills of 50 gallons content to work. So it did; but what purpose would it avail to have such a power given in one clause, if in the next such regulations were laid down that would break any man who attempted to work a small still. It was absurd to hold out such a concession, for no man in his senses could for a moment conceive it possible for a small still to work, so long as the bounty of 16 per cent. was given to a person working a 1,500 gallon still; who, even without the bounty, would, in consequence of his large capital, and the large scale of his work, have great advantages over the person working a small still. He said that it was of vast importance to the Irish members, and the people of Ireland, that the decision of the house should be a correct one; because, if the system of the right hon. gent, was to be persevered in, the same deficiency of revenue was still to be calculated upon; and as this had been computed at two millions, it stood to reason that new taxes would be imposed to provide for this deficiency, whereas if a system was adopted, by which the whole duty on spirits made in Ireland could be collected, no necessity would exist for any new taxes, so far as a sum to this amount was in question. He also said, that the licence system proposed was attended with this peculiar advantage, that but few excise officers would be wanting to assist in collecting the duties; and this was a circumstance which rendered it peculiarly applicable to Ireland, because the only justification which the right hon. gent. could advance when a charge was lately made by a right hon. baronet near him against an officer, was, that every other officer of the excise had been equally culpable.—He said he thought that the hon. member who spoke immediately preceding him, had taken a wrong view of the subject, when he said that he conceived this bill might be considered in the committee so as to meet the wishes of the Irish members; in his opinion, if it even got into a committee, no such amendment could be made to it, because the alteration which was desired, went to a repeal of all the laws by which the duty on spirits was now charged, and the enactment of a new law, founded upon a new principle.—He hoped, therefore, that this opportunity would not be thrown away of getting rid of a bill, which could never provide an effectual remedy for the evil complained of.

Mr. Foster

said, it was admitted that the laws on this subject wanted amendment: he knew that they did, and it was an object that the bill should go to a committee to find out the best mode. There was not one clause in the bill contrary to the opinion of the committee; there was a clause expressly for the encouragement of small stills, and if any gentleman wished to read the clause, he would read it to him [a laugh]. The right hon. gent. then read the clause, and argued that it was one of the leading principles of the bill to license small stills. His object for introducing it was, that it would afford a market throughout the country for small farmers to sell their corn. Whether the duties were raised by survey or licence, he was sure they could never be collected without the co-operation of gentlemen and farmers, but he would make great sacrifices to public opinion, to forward the object in view. He concluded with recommending to the house to go into a Committee on the bill on Thursday next.

Sir J. Newport

said, he would allow the bill to go to a committee if it were likely to answer the object. The officers under the survey system had been guilty of great fraud, and he had complained of one who was subsequently promoted; the present bill went to the indemnification of all officers who had been guilty of collusive seizures, and he could not think the bill likely to go to a committee; it was incapable of emendation, and he wished it to be rejected altogether.

Col. Barry

said he had heard no objection but what could be answered in the Committee, and would therefore vote for its committal.

Mr. French

would wish the bill to go forward, if it were likely to have any good effect, but the principle of the bill was bad, it went to punish the innocent for the guilty. If a still were found in a parish, the landlords and the inhabitants were to pay the fine; it went to cover the acts of the officers, to afford those indemnity who, it was known, had received three fines upon one still: first they got a fine of 50l. then returned it, and again received 50l.; and thus till they obtained 150l. A Bill which could encourage such practices, such an odious Bill—ought to be scouted out of the house.

Mr. Dennis Browne

said, where private distilleries were put down, loyalty increased, and he knew it was in the power of the gentry to do so. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer gave up his penal clause, it would give life to illicit distillery and disloyalty.

Mr. Huskisson

thought the bill should be allowed to go to a Committee, in which the fines and the drawback allowed to large distilleries might be so regulated as to prevent their being injurious to the smaller ones.

Mr. Fitzgerald

was glad to hear the hon. gent. argue as he did, but thought, if he acted on his theory, he would vote against the Chancellor of the Exchequer. From the sentiment of that right hon. gent., others must have a higher opinion of his complacency than he had, to think he would give way in the committee to change the substance of the bill.

Col. Barry

said, his object in wishing the bill to go to a committee was, that its severities might be softened.

Mr. Barnard

withdrew his amendment, and the bill was then read a second time.