HC Deb 16 May 1811 vol 20 cc177-81
Mr. Grattan

moved, That the Petition from the Irish Brewers, praying that the Duty of 2s. 6d. upon Spirits be restored to the former rate of 5s. 8d. per gallon, be referred to the Committee of the whole House. He read extracts from several papers, to prove the growing dissoluteness in the manners of the lower orders, in consequence of the cheapness of ardent spirits. He contended also that the tax had failed in point of revenue.

Mr. Shaw

(of Dublin) seconded the motion, he said that of the existence of the evils complained of by the Petitioners there could be no reasonable doubt, and when they considered what must be the inevitable consequences of not timely remedying those evils, and also how fatal their longer continuance must be to a trade of such weight and extent as that of the Brewers, it really appeared to him as if the present question was in effect, whether it was for the interests of Ireland that the Breweries in that country should be allowed by the legislature to exist at all? It ought surely to be a principle in the imposing of taxes, that as for as it could possibly be done, we should a oid injuring the morals of the people. Indeed, in his view of the question, he thought that morals should never be sacrificed to revenue. Since the great reduction of the duties on spirits distilled in Ireland, he believed there was no gentleman who had been for any time in that country since that period, who must not have been sensibly struck with the rapid and lamented change in the general habits and morals of the lower orders of the people. He spoke from his knowledge, when he said that that change had been felt among the lower orders of the city of Dublin, to an extent that would of itself be sufficient to awaken the attention of parliament to this very important question. And here he could not help saying, that even if the reduction of this tax had had no injurious effect upon the revenue, still we should pause before we made the vices and dissolute habits of the people a source of public revenue. But to try it upon its own ground, the right hon. gent. (Mr. Foster) said, that he reduced the duty in order to suppress illicitdistillation. (Hear! from Mr. Foster.) He put it to the candour of the right hon. gent. to say, whether it had any such effect? Did not the right hon. gent., in introducing this measure to the House, frankly avow that he made it as a mere experiment to suppress illicit distillation (Here Mr. Foster signified his assent); and had not that experiment totally failed? And after it had failed, would the right hon. gent. blindly go on in adhering to a plan which had not only failed of its professed object, but had proved equally injurious to the morals and revenue of the country? (Hear, hear.) If, however, the right hon. gent. would persist, he (Mr. Shaw) would not go along with him, believing, as he did, that by resorting to a system of equitable taxation, fairly apportioned between the two trades that deserved of that House every encouragement—he meant the brewer and the distiller, there might be raised upon both, without oppressing either, such a revenue as might fully answer the supplies of the country, without resorting to any further local taxation whatever. This, however, he might say as to the principle he had been recommending, that it had received every sanction from the right hon. the Chancellor of the Exchequer for England, who had laid it down as a great rule for imposing taxes of this kind, that the morals of the people constituted the first consideration; this he had said theday before yesterday, and he trusted it had the due impression upon the finance minister for Ireland.—With respect to the merits of the question, whether the reduction had or had not been productive of the mischiefs attributed to it, and whether it bad or had not altogether failed, were questions which be should leave to be decided by the testimony of those facts which were already authenticated upon the table of the House. The first fact, as to the failure of the experiment, was, that no stills had taken out licences in the district where illicit distillation was known to abound, and that little or no spirits had been transmitted into those districts from the licensed distilleries in the other parts of the country. The other statement went to prove the alarming increase of disease, owing to the intemperate use of ardent spirits in consequence of its cheapness. Here Mr. Shaw read the monthly reports of various Hospitals in Dublin, and other parts of Ireland, where it appeared that the increase of the numbers of sick admitted, and the number of deaths in consequence of excessive intoxication, had gone on in such a progressive state of increase, that the number of sick had doubled, and that of the deaths had trebled, within a very limited period. Upon the whole, as the reduction had not, nor in his opinion could not, do what it professed to do,—but as it had already done much to impair the revenue of Ireland, to injure the health and vitiate the morals of the Irish people, the motion for sending it to a Committee should have his cordial support.

Mr. Foster

agreed in the practice of the principle laid down by both the hon. gentlemen who preceded him. He should be ashamed to hold his office one hour for the purpose of raising a revenue at the expence of the morals of the Irish people. The hon. gentleman who spoke last had said, that the reduction was a mere experiment to put down illicit distillation. Certainly that had been its principal object—and an object in the endeavour to effect which he had all these gentlemen with him. Illicit distillation was the great evil, and the higher the duty on the spirits, the greater the premium to the illicit distiller. He had proposed a penalty on the town lands where illicit stills were found, and this mode might have at least put them down, if it had not been for that most unfortunate measure of prohibiting the distillation in Ireland. But the hon. gent. had contended that the reduction had totally failed in suppressing illicit distillation. In answer to this, he should merely read the returns of the Revenue Officers for the quarter ending December 25, 1810. The amount of seizures were as follows: 572 stills, 378 kegs, 344 worms, 5,362 utensils, 2,800 galions of spirits, and 150,000 gallons of pot-ale. He denied also that the spirits were at the present so much cheaper, as had been asserted—in 1804 the spirits were 7s. 7d. a gallon; in 1805, 6, and 7, about 7s. 8d.; in 1810, 8s. 7d.; and in 1811, 8s. 6d. a gallon. After some further remarks, he said he should not, however, object to the Committee.

Sir H. Montgomery

spoke in favour of a Committee up stairs.

Sir J. Newport

said, that nothing like false shame should ever keep him from retracting an opinion, when he was convinced it was unfounded. The reason which had induced him to vote against the fines on town lands was, that they had increased to such an extent as to produce a sort of conviction that they could not be levied. He alluded in particular to the county of Cavan. But the great question was, whether or not the low price of spirits had increased the drunkenness and immorality of the people of Ireland; and that this was the case, he would venture to say, would be unanimously declared by those gentlemen who had resided during the last year in Ireland. The drunkenness had increased to such a degree, that no workman would work more than two days in the week. A man could get completely drunk for 4d. This was destructive of all good order, and the consequence would be, that a military force would be necessary to controul the excesses. The legislature could not be tied up by the licences to distillers. The people were their first care, and the revenue the second.

Mr. W. Tailor

thought it would be impossible to raise the duty on spirits either in Ireland or in the western parts of Scotland, without injuring the revenue; and opposed the going into the Committee.

Mr. Hutchinson

said, that all the great brewers in Ireland had signed the Petition, and therefore it was not to be considered as the Petition of a few individuals, but as the representatives of the whole body. The right hon. gent. had said the prices of spirits were not greater now than in 1807; but he would ask him if the brewer retained the same situation that he then held? While the duty on spirits had been lowered from 4s. to 2s. 6d. was any compensation made to the brewer? What he blamed that right hon. gent. most for was, that, against his own judgment and experience, he had consented to the abolition of fines, and to a total change, in consequence of the distillery system. When it could be proved in the Committee that the cause of the late idleness, drunkenness and immorality, was exclusively to be ascribed to the lowering of the duty on spirits, and that its consequence was also to double the number of patients in the hospitals, and treble the number of deaths, he hoped that no member of the House would wish that this abominable system should be continued one day longer.

Mr. Grattan

asked the right hon. gent. whether he consented to a Committee.

Mr. Foster

said he had no objection to a Select Committee.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

thought it unfair to ascribe the increased immorality to the reduction of the duty on spirits, if spirits were not lower now than in 1807. It was much more natural to ascribe it to the great reduction of the price which took place on the prohibition to distil being removed. With respect to the hospitals, he had been informed that in consequence of several important improvements which had been made in them, the aversion of the people to them had been in a great measure removed, and the patients consequently increased.

Lord Castlereagh

thought that no revenue consideration ought to interfere with the morals of the people. It was certainly the prevailing opinion in Ireland, that the low duties on spirits had occasioned the late increase of drunkenness. Spirits ought to be discouraged, and malt liquor encouraged, and the people of Ireland were beginning to habituate themselves to the latter. There was a time perhaps when spirits might be more suitable to the people of Ireland than malt liquor, but now, when they were better clothed, lodged and fed, they did not require spirits to warm them.

The motion was then agreed to, and a Committee appointed.