HC Deb 13 March 1815 vol 30 cc163-73

On the motion of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the House resolved itself into a Committee of Ways and Means.

Mr. Tierney

repeated and enforced his objections to the proposition of the right hon. gentleman, to grant the ways and means before the supply was voted, conceiving such a course inconsistent with the established practice of Parliament The only supply yet voted was 24 mil- lions, winch the proposed amount of ways and means would considerably exceed. He would be glad to hear upon what ground the right hon. gentleman could justify such a course of proceeding. Under the Act brought forward by the right hon. gentleman before Christmas, which Act differed materially from any that preceded it, he observed, that the Treasury were invested with the power of issuing Exchequer-bills without limit. Indeed, according to this Act, the Treasury might issue 50 millions in Exchequer-bills in addition o the 8 millions which it was authorized o borrow from the Bank. Would the House, then, he would ask, go on in voting he ways and means proposed, without knowing the amount of Exchequer-bills issued in consequence of this extraordinary Act?

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that he perfectly agreed with the right hon. gentleman in the general parliamentary principle which he had laid down, that the ways and means should not exceed the supplies voted; and he hoped he should be able to satisfy that right hon. gentleman and the House, that on the present occasion he had not infringed upon that principle. The right hon. gentleman would himself be convinced, when he reminded him that he had omitted two or three considerable sums which had been voted by Parliament. Among these sums was one of twelve millions and a half, for the repayment of Exchequer-bills, and another of fifteen millions. It should be recollected that they had voted supplies to the amount of fifty-one millions, and the ways and means only for thirty-one millions, leaving a deficiency of twenty millions to be made good. With regard to the act empowering the Treasury to issue Exchequer-bills, he did not consider that it gave any authority to anticipate the aids which had not yet been granted by Parliament. There certainly had been an issue of Exchequer-bills, but they were not issued upon taxes which Parliament had not yet granted, but upon the aid of fifteen millions which had been voted last year.

Mr. Tierney

said, that by the plan which, the right hon. gentleman adopted, he might issue Exchequer-bills to an unlimited extent. There was the great evil, and that we were now, though in a state of peace, pursuing the same plan as during the war. He certainly thought that the whole was irregular.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

read the words of the Act, and repeated, that he did not consider the Treasury empowered by it to issue Exchequer-bills to an unlimited extent, because Parliament might afterwards grant supplies to cover them. The accounts of those Exchequer-bills which had been issued would be forthcoming when any member should choose to move for them.

Mr. Ponsonby

said, he objected to receiving the report, because the minister of finance had come down to that House, and asked for enormous supplies without condescending to state for what purposes they were required. Such a practice was perfectly new to that House. The right hon. gentleman had told them they were to have a peace establishment of nineteen millions; but he had not imparted a single tittle of information as to the items and heads of that expenditure. If the House of Commons sanctioned such a proceeding, they would at once surrender their control over the public purse and the ministers of the Crown. On that ground, therefore, he should certainly take the sense of the House upon receiving the report.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

observed, that it would be most satisfactory to every member of that House, and to no one more so than to himself, if, when they entered into the discussion of what should be the peace establishment of the country, any means could be devised for reducing it below what had been proposed. That question, however, was not now before them; and the grounds upon which the House was then called upon to agree to the report, was that the grants had already been voted by Parliament. Nor would they be at all pledged, by agreeing to the report, as to their future proceedings with respect to the proposed plan of finance. They merely provided for sums which had been already voted. When the time came for considering the various estimates for the service of the present year, he should call upon the House for its most patient and deliberate attention to the subject, and should thank any honourable gentleman who could lighten his heavy labours by shewing how the peace establishment might be made less.

Mr. Tierney

denied that the five millions of new taxes were to be considered as a part of the ordinary aids of the year. they voted for receiving the report, surely they would be recognizing the plan of the right hon. gentleman.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

contended, that the inference of the right hon. gentleman was not a correct one. By agreeing to the report, they would only agree to provide a certain sum by way of taxes; but they would not therefore agree to the taxes themselves. As to the amount of that sum, every one would feel that what was proposed to be raised by those taxes could not be regarded as unnecessary, even if the expenses of the country were cut down to what they were before the French Revolution. He really thought, indeed, that he was much more liable to objection for not bringing forward taxes to a greater extent, than for proposing what he had.

Mr. Tierney

replied, that the great object was to have the whole matter before them at once. If, for example, they knew how much would be wanted for the present year, they would then be able to say what portion should be raised by taxes, and what by loan. For himself, he really had no conception what would be the extent of supply required for the present year; and the whole subject demanded more explanation than the right ton. gentleman was yet in a condition to give them. All be wanted was, that they might not be called upon to vote in the dark; and he wished the right hon. gentleman would take the five millions, intended to be raised by the new taxes, in some other way for the present, and leave the other to future discussion, when he would be able to tell how much he required.

Mr. Ponsonby

said, he would repeat the grounds of his objection. The right hon. gentleman having stated a certain motion, and told the House that 19 millions were necessary for a peace establishment, then desired them to adopt his plan, without entering into particulars, and shewing how the money was to be applied. This mode of voting supplies at different times was what he most particularly objected to; and he protested against it as an innovation upon former practice, and altogether unconstitutional.

Sir Robert Heron

observed, that the plan, of the right hon. gentleman was in direct opposition to the interests of the nation. For what purpose were we to threaten the countries around us with a fear of war? He must protest against voting supplies to such an amount, without insisting on one resource,—he meant that of the most strict economy, which ought to pervade every department of the government. Ministers, if they consulted the tranquillity and happiness of the country, should advise the illustrious Personage who exercised the royal functions, to limit his expenditure; and should inform him how far more glorious his days would be, were he to reform his expenses to the wants of his subjects, instead of increasing the enormous and unnecessary charges of an extravagant court—[Hear, hear!]—It was not long since, that the nation had admired two illustrious Sovereigns who visited our country; and the cause of their having received so much approbation was, that they had endured the greatest privations in times of public distress. This was a conduct worthy of imitation, and he would take the liberty of recalling to the recollection of the House the words which William 3, one of the best of kings, had addressed to his Parliament. "It always gives me," said that great monarch, "the deepest concern to impose new burthens on my people; but I have never called for any which related to my personal expenses."

Mr. Bennet

observed, that ministers had not told the House a syllable as to the his situation of the country. It was not real intention at that time to make any comment on the taxes; but when they came before the House, it would be his duty to oppose them, for he objected to them all. He considered it proper to abolish situations where there was pay without services; and, indeed, to put Government itself upon short allowance.

Mr. J. P. Grant

objected to going into the committee, until the Chancellor of the Exchequer had laid before the House a distinct and comprehensive statement of the whole of our financial relations. He was at a loss to conjecture of what votes the supply which the right hon. gentleman asserted had been agreed to by the House, was made up; and expressed himself particularly unable to understand how the two sums of 15 millions and 12 millions and a half, to make good the issue of Exchequer-bills on the aids of the year 1814, were to be considered.

Lord Milton

declared himself to be in a similar difficulty, arising either from his own misapprehension of the subject, or from the mystery in which it appeared to be purposely involved. If he was right in his supposition, they were, as far as the five millions were concerned, about to vote en establishment for four years to come. He decidedly objected to voting the ways and means, before the House was circumstantially apprized of the purposes to which those ways and means were to be applied.

Mr. Bankes

declared, that if he thought the proposed voles were to cover any insidious machinations—that under the pretence of one object, the House was called upon to vote means which were to be applied to another, he would not only oppose the motion himself, but would use all the little influence which he possessed to induce the House to reject it. But this could by no possibility be the case. The sums now demanded, and much more, must be voted, to make good the supplies to which Parliament had already agreed. As to the explanation demanded of his right hon. friend, with respect to the peace establishment, it was evident that his right hon. friend only waited until he might be able to speak decidedly on the subject. Who could yet tell what might be our ultimate relations with America? Who could tell to what expense for the next twelvemonth this country might be put by the extraordinary occurrence of which we had been informed only within the last two or three days? He could assure the noble lord who had just spoken, that as far as his humble endeavours could go, they should be directed—not to cut down the peace establishment below what was necessary, but to bring it down as low as was consistent with the safety of the country; and above all, to take care that what remained of expense should be employed not in external show, but in real and solid strength. The measures proposed by his right hon. friend appeared to him to be much preferable to raising a larger loan, or to any encroachment on the Sinking. Fund. Certainly, unpopular as was the sentiment, he did conceive that a continuation of the property-tax, under some modification, would have been a still wiser plan; and he sincerely believed, that when the good sense of the country returned upon this subject, his opinion would become pretty general. Did he therefore reproach ministers for having abandoned it? By no means. The strong hostility exhibited towards the tax at the present moment, and the consideration, that its conservation would have been a kind of breach of parliamentary faith, were sufficient grounds for inducing his right hon. friend to relinquish a tax, the good qualities of which his comprehensive mind must have suffi- ciently appreciated. With respect to the future coarse of our financial regulations, one great principle was, that we ought as much as possible to make our income and our expenditure commensurate; and he really thought, although it was alarming to find the conjectural estimate of our peace establishment rated so high as 19 millions, great savings might be made out of that sum. On the present vtoe, however, all jealousy seemed to him to be superfluous. It would not tie the House down to any new system of taxation, or to any irrevocable amount of the peace establishment. Before he sat down he must, however, warn his right hon. friend and the House from being so misled as to expect that the proposed taxes would be permanently as productive as they might be in the first instance. With respect to those of excise, such as the tax on wine, they would according to repeated experience occasion frauds on the revenue, and a diminished consumption; and as to the assessed taxes, it would, after a twelvemonth, be in the power of any master of a family to reduce them in his own case, and the general result would unquestionably be a considerable diminution of their produce. This system of taxation, therefore, could not be considered, as he considered the property-tax, a sound, solid, and permanent system of taxation.

Mr. Douglas

objected to the confusion arising from the transfer of the ways and means of one year to the supply of another. He recommended to the right hon. gentleman to postpone any further proceeding on this subject until after Wednesday, as the explanations, which would then be given by a noble lord, would probably affect it materially. Certainly, if there was a time in which this country had a right to expect that she should be secured from being again engaged in continental warfare, it was the present; and we had an undoubted right to find that our representative at the Congress had so secured her. He had old prejudices enough left to entertain a horror at the thought of England's degenerating wholly into a military country. Every approach to such a state shook the foundations of our national character. He earnestly wished that the recollections of the war might be obliterated with the war itself, and that from a nation of soldiers we might become a nation of citizens, trusting to our energy and patriotism for defence against an enemy, should any sudden occasion demand it. To principles almost obsolete he was anxious that we should return. The dictatorship, with which the Administration had for so many years been properly invested, ought to cease with the necessity by which it was required. Until he heard these doctrines acquiesced in, he must withhold his assent to all motions like the present.

Mr. Whitbread

expressed his admiration of the sentiments of the hon. gentleman who had just spoken. The original and wholesome practice of the constitution was, that the ministers of the Crown should first state to Parliament the whole of the supplies which were requisite, and then obtain the ways and means of providing for those supplies. Of late years, however, the budget had been brought forward by piecemeal (a system which originated with Mr. Perceval), so that the House never could have the whole system under review at one time. He admitted that circumstances might embarrass the right hon. gentleman as to his exact estimate of the peace establishment; but an easy remedy was, to delay further proceedings at present—at least to postpone them until the expected explanations of the noble lord, by throwing a light on the determinations of Congress, should give the House an opportunity of judging of the probable results of its deliberations. He confessed he was not surprised at the eulogium which he had heard from the right hon. gentleman, and from an hon. gentleman on the floor (Mr. Bankes), on the property tax. Like all deceased personages, its vices had vanished from memory, and only its virtues remained. People were generally favourable to the dead; but it should be remembered that that tax was objectionable—not because it was a tax on property—but because it was impossible to divest its mode of collection from partiality and oppression intolerable in a free constitution. It should also be remembered that the property tax was not absolutely dead—it only slept. The right hon. gentleman had wedded it to war. It would be up again if we were again involved in hostilities. And here he could not refrain from noticing the hint which had fallen from a noble lord and from the hon. gentleman on the floor. It was evident that in estimating the peace establishment at nineteen millions, a troubled state of things was contemplated, and perhaps the recurrence of bloody wars arising out of the proceedings of the Congress. But the singular event of which we had very recently heard, might lead to a civil war in France. In such a case, he protested against the interference of this country in any way. I take this early opportunity, concluded Mr. Whitbread, to declare, as a hint has been given on the subject, that I enter my solemn protest against any interference on the part of this country in the internal affairs of France.

Mr. Philips

was proceeding to make some observations on the partial and oppressive nature of the proposed taxes, when

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

observed, that with respect to one of those taxes, to which the objections of the hon. gentlemen were probably the most strong (the tax on windows), he intended to reserve it for further consideration, and for a revision of the schedule.

Mr. Philips

then adverted to the proposed duty on cotton, and remarked on the inconsistency of the right hon. gentleman, who no longer ago than last session had declared, that in the event of peace it would be impossible for our manufacturers to go on without a drawback, and who now imposed a duty of 5d. a pound on cotton wool imported in foreign vessels, and one penny a pound on cotton wool imported in British vessels! From any advantage proposed by this inequality, a countervailing duty on the part of the Americans would no doubt deprive us. To France the measure would be highly beneficial. In all the arrangements on this subject the interest of France seemed to be consulted, rather than those of this country. The right hon. gentleman's predictions on this subject with respect to France, had been completely falsified. No duty had been imposed in that country on the importation of cotton; and the greatest protection was there afforded to the cotton manufacture, at the very moment that the right hon. gentleman was devising every possible means to bring ours to ruin. The passing of the Corn Bill in that House had already occasioned a serious alarm in the manufacturing districts of the country. Was it desirable at such a moment to propose measures the tendency of which was to increase dissatisfaction? The hon. gentleman here read extracts from a letter which he had received from a very intelligent individual, resident in the manufacturing districts, in which it was declared that the measures about to be pursued would occa- sion irretrievable ruin to our manufactures, and must compel the emigration of our manufacturers. He knew the right hon. gentleman would contend that it was in the nature of taxation to be thrown on the consumer. But that remark would be inapplicable in the present instance. With respect to the foreign trade in particular, it was impossible.

Sir John Newport

said, that his objection to the Speaker's leaving the chair was, that it went to perpetuate a system of voting the supplies of the year by piecemeal, and not giving sufficient information to the House, contrary to the old and constitutional practice. The taxes might be good or bad relatively; and that was the reason why they ought to be informed of the situation of the country. The whole demand, and every article of it, should be known before the supplies were voted. In time of war it might be different; but in peace, they should return to that wholesome principle.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

observed, that one of the resolutions was to continue all the war duties of excise, "with the exception of that on cotton imported in British shipping." The whole extent of his offending, therefore, was, that he did not propose to take off the duty on cotton imported in foreign shipping; the difference of expense on which to the manufacturer would not be above a halfpenny a pound.

Mr. Philips

repeated the statement of its being a duty of 5d. a pound.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that that was not the tax then under consideration.

Mr. Finlay

declared, that he considered the right hon. gentleman as the most formidable antagonist that the manufacturing interest of the country had ever met with. The proposed system was so ruinous, that he would give it the most determined opposition in every instance. By it the property tax would not merely be continued on the manufacturer—it would be more than doubled. A manufacturer would now have to pay near 3,000l. a year, who had probably never been liable to a property tax of more than 1,000l. As to the difference between the duty on cotton imported in British shipping and cotton imported in foreign shipping, a countervailing duty on the part of the American government would soon equalize it.

Mr. W. Fitzgerald

said, that the only duty on cotton in Ireland was a permanent duty.

Mr. Elliot

said, that in opposing the motion, he gave a vote which he was obliged to give, from the utter want of information to satisfy the House of the necessity of the taxes they were about to vote.

The House then divided: For the motion, 95; Against it, 24; Majority 71.

The House then resolved itself into the committee.