HC Deb 01 March 1810 vol 15 cc653-7

The House went into a Committee on the Irish distillery act.

Mr. Foster

said, he would shortly state to the Committee, the object he had in view. Every gentleman, who was acquainted with the state of Ireland, knew that the increase of illicit distillation had become prodigiously great, ever since the prohibition of the distillation from grain; indeed, he imputed the alarming increase principally to that measure, as farmers encouraged the illicit trade in order to procure a market for their produce. So greatly had this private distilling trenched upon the lawful trade, that, in 1807, the quantity of spirits distilled by the open distilleries, was six millions of gallons, and the revenue 1,230,000l. while, in the last year, it had scarcely been so much as one forth of that quantity. The inference that he drew from this was, that the vacuum, or intermediate quantity, between 1807 and 1809, was supplied by the illicit distillation. It was therefore necessary to look for remedy to a radical change in the system of Irish revenue, in so far as was connected with the distilleries. When he came into office, he found the system on which he had since acted in full force. It Was on a wise principle, and went to encourage large stills as the means of inducing parties possessed of extensive capitals to enter into the trade. However good the principle might be, it had failed in Ireland, and the illicit traffic was carried on by small stills to an almost incredible pitch. His first object, with a view to surmount this evil, would therefore be to promote the dispersion of legal small stills, all over the country. He did not mean to discourage the large stills, but merely to give an equal chance to the small ones, by discontinuing the bounties to the former. This had partly been done in 1806, and the reduction that then took place might fairly be considered, by the great distillers, as the notice to which they were entitled, after embarking in a speculation on the authority of government, to pursue, another system. His second object would be to do away the apprehension that existed in the minds of those ready to commence distillation on a limited plan, that they would be compelled to work off in a limited time. In this point, limitations similar to those which existed in Scotland would be adopted, and stills would be averaged at 150 gallons, unless their capacity exceeded that quantity. He ac- knowledged that there were some grounds for the complaints of the Irish distiller on the fluctuation of the revenue laws, and would endeavour to obviate similar complaints, in the system he now proposed to have adopted, by granting licences for three years, which would give stability to speculation, instead of for one year, as had hitherto been the practice. There was another point which was deserving of all consideration, and which he had been induced to adopt, after the most minute investigation. It was at once, to reduce the duties from their present rate, 5s. 8d. per gallon, to 2s. 6d. He was satisfied that the revenue would not suffer by this; for though in the first year there might be a risk of diminution, yet, when the illicit trade was destroyed, which he was convinced would be the tendency of this measure, the sum paid to government by the legal distiller, would much more than counterbalance the lower rate of duty. Another of his objects would be to simplify the law. Those who now entered into the distillation trade could not be expected to be men of much education. The less complicated the revenue laws were, it would be the more advantageous; he would, therefore, abolish entirely the existing distinctions and drawbacks on the quantity of malt or spirits, and simply to charge 2s. 6d. per gallon on the quantity distilled. To avoid the increased expence of collecting the revenue, he proposed to have the collectors of hearth rates and assessed taxes employed also in collecting this branch of the revenue, without the intervention of the excise. His object was to pass a law beneficial to Ireland, and he would gladly listen to suggestions from every side of the House, without thinking of party, or difference of feelings on other points. He therefore invited gentlemen to communicate to him every idea that would tend to render the measure generally useful. Revenue, though from his situation it might be thought so, was not his sole object. By the proposed system, the morals of the people also, which were so injured by those illicit stills, would be improved, and the laws, now contemned, would, by being enforced, become more respected. A dangerous class of persons would be put down. He alluded to those, who without the cognizance of, and unknown to the magistrate, kept houses for the sale of spirits, illegally distilled, under whose roofs had originated many of the evils which had lately so much distressed Ireland. With these objects in view, he moved, "That the chairman be instructed to ask leave to bring in a hill to alter and amend the laws in force respecting the distillation in Ireland."

Sir J. Newport

expressed his satisfaction at the measure proposed by the right hon. gent. and his readiness to co-operate with him as far as lay in his power, in carrying it into execution. He accorded most cordially with the proposition, which went to do what he had for the last four years pressed upon the consideration of the House.—He had ever wished to impress upon them the necessity of dispersing small stills over the country; and he had twice taken the sense of the House upon the question of withdrawing the bounties from the large stills. On one or two points of minor importance, however, he differed from the right hon. gent. He could not impute the increase of the illicit trade so much to the prohibition of distillation from grain, as it was known to exist to a very great extent before passing of that measure. Neither could he accord with the principle of survey, as necessary or beneficial to the revenue. It gave rise to frauds on the part of the trader, and corrupt connivance on the part of the excise officer. His view would be that, which, on best attention to the subject, he had ever thought the best, namely, to adopt the system of license; that was, to charge a certain duty monthly in proportion to the capacity of the still, and leave it open to the trader by his exertions to make more of it if he could. The right hon. gent. thought he had got quit of the extra expence of collecting, and the danger of frauds, &c. by taking it from the excise and entrusting it to the collectors of hearth rates and assessed taxes; but he was convinced this would never answer. Even these taxes were not too well collected now, and by adding another duty to the collectors, the revenue would suffer still more. This was the only radical point of difference between him and the right hon. gent. and this he hoped would be overcome in the Committee. The observations too of the right hon. gent. had anticipated much he bad to offer, though he would still wish certain resolutions he had previously prepared to be received, and entered on the journals, as shewing his deliberate view of this important question to a country, from which he had the honour to be sent to that House.

Mr. Foster

noticed, that the collectors of Assessed Taxes, &c. were released from that part of their duty, during the 6 winter months, when the distilleries were most employed, and would consequently be enabled to attend to them without inconvenience or loss to the revenue. He defended the system of survey, in opposition to that of license; and trusted the present measure would be unanimously supported by Irish gentlemen, which would convince the people of that country it was for their good, and that it would be fully enforced. The charge from surveys had arisen from 30s. to 3l. 6s. 9d. 18l. 54l. and up to 164l.—This was a proof how much it surpassed the license system.— The latter system was also rendered impossible by the Union, for the allowance of countervailing duties between England and Ireland, could never be carried into effect, when it could not be ascertained what was the incumbrance on the spirits of Ireland.

Mr. Beresford

wished to know if any compensation would be made to the holders of spirits, in consequence of the reduction of the duty?

Mr. Foster

said it was impossible to do so, as there would be an endless recurrence of retailer to wholesale dealer, and wholesale dealer to distiller, &c. He had also looked for precedents, and found, in the commutation of the tea tax, that no compensation had been made to the holders of tea.

Mr. Parnell

said, that he could not do otherwise than concur with the plan proposed by the right hon. gent. he having in the last session repeatedly pressed upon the House the policy of adopting the regulations which were now proposed. He must, however, make an exception in respect to the way in which the duty was to be collected, because he considered the system of survey wholly unfit for the system of distilling in very small stills. The expence to be incurred by excise officers would be immense, and persons having made capitals would be afraid to place themselves under the severe regulations attending the mode of collecting an actual survey. The license system had been tried with great success in Scotland, and though of late departed from, it was not given up until it had succeeded in putting down illicit trade. He wished to suggest a preferable mode of making an allowance to the distiller using turf, to that proposed by the right hon. gent. and that was to allow a still of a flatter shape to be worked, in place of the proposed allowance in the number of charges. This plan would be less detrimental to the revenue, and enable the distiller to work at a smaller expence in fuel; at the same time the advantage, in point of his general profit, would only be such as he ought to have, in competition with the distiller making use of coal.

Mr. Foster

rebutted the arguments on the latter point.

Mr. Hutchinson

remarked on the variation between the sentiments of the right hon. gent. (Mr. Foster,) this session and the last, and accused him of disordering the revenue, enterprise, and trade of Ireland by the vacciliations of his politics. He called on him to make up his mind fully and firmly, before he introduced a system so diametrically opposite to that which he had, only one year ago, pledged himself to support, and thereby induced many persons, on the faith of gentlemen, to embark large capitals in distilleries from large stills. He noticed in particular the house of Browne, Stein, and Co. in Limerick, which had launched into great speculations on the strength of the encouragement held out by the right hon. gent. He then went into a view of the proposed alteration, and contended that large stills were preferable to small ones.—This was proved by the system of distillation in England, where there were none but large stills, and illicit trade was unknown. It was farther corroborated by Scotland, where distillation from small stills was encouraged, and there was a very great proportion of illegal traffic carried on.—He concluded, by imputing the blame of the great degree of illicit trade in Ireland to Mr. Foster, whose system, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and with all his power, must have been bad to permit it.

Mr. D. Browne

spoke in favour of the smaller stills, which would be universally beneficial to Ireland; though they might not answer the city which the hon. gent. represented (Cork.)

The Resolution was agreed to: the House was resumed, and the Chairman of the Committee obtained leave to bring in a Bill to the effect stated by Mr. Foster.