HC Deb 12 March 1818 vol 37 cc1043-55

After a great many Petitions for the Repeal of the Leather Tax had been presented to the House,

Lord Althorp

rose, pursuant to notice, for the purpose of calling the attention of the House to a most important branch of British manufacture—he meant the Leather trade. The subject having been fully before them last session, he felt it less necessary to enter much at large on the present occasion; he would therefore confine himself to the object he had immediately in view, namely, the extraordinary grievance which that trade sustained by the additional duties imposed on it, and the necessity of repealing those duties. In proposing the motion he had in view, he felt it necessary to point out to the House the comparative state of the leather trade, before and since those additional duties were imposed. In doing so, he was sure he should have the concurrence of the honourable members on the oilier side of the House. There might be some difference of opinion as to the state of depression in which the leather trade was known to be at present, compared with former periods. It might be argued, that that trade was not in a state of depression, and therefore there was no occasion to take off the additional tax. But if he showed that since the additional tax in 1812, the leather trade was depressed from the flourishing state in which it was previously, and that such depression was caused by the tax, he trusted he should have the support of every member who knew the value of that manufacture. The numerous petitions which had been presented from all parts of the country, were in themselves a proof that the additional duties were severely felt by that trade. It might be said, that people of all trades were ready to petition parliament for whatever they might consider beneficial to themselves. But he would say, in answer to that argument, that when more than one hundred petitions were presented from the different places where that trade was carried on, it evinced pretty strong evidence, that there must be some hardship felt more than those usually complained of by manufacturers. The next point to which he would call their attention was, the increased number of bankruptcies since the tax, compared with the number before its imposition. During the five years previous to the additional duties being imposed, there were forty-five bankruptcies in the leather trade, making an average of nine in each year. Whereas in the five years immediately subsequent to that period, there were 75 bankruptcies, making 15 in each year, and a surplus of 30 bankruptcies in the five years. In 1808 there were 1725 licences for the manufacturing of leather; in 1812 there were 1760; but in the course of five years after the additional tax, there was a reduction of 889 licences, which showed that the additional duty was oppressive. Within the last half year, there had been thrown out of the trade no less than 189 tanners, 338 tawers, 41 oil-dressers, and 12parchment-makers. This, indeed, appeared from the accounts on the table, which also showed that the trade had gradually declined ever since the additional tax was imposed, notwithstanding the last five years and a half included the years of the late war, when its consumption was the greatest; and showed the number of master manufacturers which had been driven out of the trade, up to January 5th, 1818; and the number of tan-yards which remained unoccupied. He stated, that those yards which were still occupied were not in full work, and that the trade had declined equal to one-seventh, instead of having increased with the population of the country, as it had always done before the imposition of the double tax. The decrease of this trade, the noble lord deduced also from the diminution of the import of foreign hides, which diminution was nearly equal to one-half the quantity imported in 1812. When the import of the raw material used in this trade had thus fallen off, it must, he thought, be inferred, that that trade itself had fallen off also. Was it possible, then, that any considerate man would put the receipt of a comparatively insignificant proportion of revenue in competition with such consequences as this additional tax produced. But the falling off in the revenue itself, arising from this tax, furnished a proof of the depression of the trade, especially since the peace of 1814. He was aware that the produce of the tax had rather advanced within the last year, but that advance was in fact the consequence of the increased quantity of leather disposed of in that year by those who were selling off their stock, in order to get out of the trade altogether. The whole produce of this tax did not exceed 200,000l.; and be it recollected, that the tax objected to was imposed in war—that it was deemed a war tax, which was to cease upon the restoration of peace. But, was the sum which he had stated such as should reconcile the House to the hazard, if not the ruin, of a great branch of our manufacture? It was calculated that not less than 71,000 persons had been already deprived of employment by the depression of this trade, in consequence of the additional tax, and that the loss thus sustained in the resources of the country, exceeded one million and a half. Surely, then, the House would accede to his motion, and not allow any temporary advance of revenue to operate against the permanent interest of trade. Of what consequence was any casual amount of revenue, if it endangered the security, or menaced the prosperity, of that trade from which all revenue was derivable. Our national wealth depended upon the stability of our trade, and he trusted that that stability would never be risked to answer any temporary financial expedient. In proposing to repeal this objectionable tax, he could not imitate the example of his hon. friend (Mr. Calcraft) upon the subject of the Salt-tax, by holding out the promise of any substitute; for, in his view it was in the power of ministers themselves to provide that which was the best substitute for taxation, namely, such a reduction of our expenditure and public establishments, as it was their duty to make. The noble lord concluded with moving, "That leave be given to bring in a Bill for the Repeal of the additional Tax upon Leather, imposed in the year 1812."

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

observed, that though the noble lord had stated two or three reasons why he thought the bill necessary, yet he did not appear to be satisfied in his own mind that it was so. If the noble lord had moved for a committee to inquire into the necessity of the bill, he would not have offered the least objection to such a measure. He was aware that the complaints made by the different petitioners should be attended to, and no member was more ready than himself to afford all possible relief to such complaints, when they came before the House in a distinct shape. He would, if the House concurred with him, move as an amendment, that a committee be appointed to inquire into the allegations contained in those petitions, and to report to the House thereupon. In the mean time, he would inform the House what was the state of the leather trade, which was said to be so depressed, and the revenue of which was said to be so unproductive. In doing so, he should be obliged to refer back to the period before the conclusion of the American war. For the four years after 1778, the average amount of the leather tax was 201,000l. In the four years before 1791, it was 215,000l.; in the four years before 1812, it was 394,000l.; and in the last two years since the peace, it was 204,000l. It appeared from those statements, that the duty did not by any means impede the consumption of leather, as it appeared, that between 1791 and 1815, there was an increase of 50,000l. a year. The noble lord said, that the leather trade was in a more impoverished state than any other, and, as an instance, mentioned the increased number of bankruptcies. But if the noble lord would inquire, he would find that fifty six of the seventy-five bankruptcies mentioned had taken place within the last two years and a half. That number deducted from the whole number, seventy-five, within the period mentioned would leave a less average than the noble lord had laid down for the five years before the tax. With respect to the number of licences, it was perhaps known that the peace of 1814 had disappointed several leather manufacturers, who reckoned on a continuation of the consumption occasioned by the war. Another ground mentioned in favour of the bill was the decrease in the importation of hides. But the noble lord should recollect, that during the war England was the great market open to the continent of South America, and that the greater part of the continent was supplied by England With the hides which came from that country. But now that peace was restored, England shared that market with other countries, and could not expect more than a share of what formerly came to her exclusively. The decrease in the importation of hides could not therefore be imputed to any operation of the additional tax. But he would show the House that the leather trade not only had increased, but was still increasing, as well in consumption as in price. In March 1817, sole leather was from 15d. to 17d. per lb.; and in March 1818, it was sold at from 18d. to 21d. per lb. There could not be a stronger proof of the flourishing state of any manufacture than an increase in its machinery. Now, before the additional duty on leather, there were but one steam engine used in the leather trade; but since that duty was imposed, there were five employed in it. If the noble lord could bring any instance where a branch of the leather trade, not liable to the additional tax, flourished beyond those others which were subject to it, it would make something for his argument. He would show the converse of that principle, He would show to the House, that a particular branch of the leather trade, not subject to the additional tax, instead of flourishing, as ought to be expected (according to the noble lord's statement), had decreased in a most serious degree! he meant the oil dressed leather. That branch of the leather trade produced 133,000l. yearly before the tax was imposed on the other branches; but since that period, and while those branches on which the additional tax was imposed had increased, the branch to which he alluded had so fallen, as not to produce more at present than from 40,000l to 50,000l. a year, a strong and convincing proof that the tax was not likely to depress the trade. Another argument used was, that the number of petitions against the tax was so great a to show clearly the extent of the grievance complained of. He did not mean to treat the petitions with neglect. He should have no objection to their being, as he before said, referred to a committee to examine into the truth of the allegations contained in them. But he wished to let the House know how it came to pass that such a number of petitions were Presented to the House against the tax on leather. He would beg leave to read part of a letter which had come into his possession, and which had been addressed as a circular to all persons connected with the leather trade. It was as follows: "It is necessary that you should send as many Petitions as possible to parliament against the additional duty on leather, before Thursday the 12th of March. Every exertion ought to be used, both by applying to members, and by every other means, as the present very favourable opportunity is not to be neglected. "Such were the means used to collect the number of petitions, which were used as an argument in support of the proposed bill. He begged the House to consider calmly what would be the result of repealing duty after duty, on the complaints of petitioners. There were at present petitions on the table praying the repeal of duties and taxes to the amount of three millions and a half, without including the English window tax, which would probably share the fate of the Irish window tax, if the latter were repealed. If the entire of the taxes were to be repealed in that way, what was to be done? The noble lord pointed out a remedy, which was, to reduce the establishments. But if they were to go on repealing one tax after another, there would be no need of reducing the establishments they would reduce themselves. The noble lord wished that such a reduction should take place in the army as would save to the country the sum of 180,000l. annually, though if the proposed deductions had taken place, and the half pay, &c. were deducted, there would not be more than 100,000l. saved. But allowing that the 180,000l. was saved, how would that cover the sum of 260,000l; which the noble lord's motion would take from the revenue He hoped what he had stated would be taken into consideration by the House, and if they doubted his statements let a committee be appointed, and he would refer the papers to that committee. If they were to continue repealing the taxes which were necessary to the country, they would in a short time have no other alternative left but disgrace and bankruptcy on the one hand or the imposition of the property tax on the other.

Mr. Curwen

said, that no one hated the property tax more than he did; yet, if he were certain of that tax being the consequence of his vote, still he would support the motion before them. He thought the chancellor of the exchequer had not at all made out the propriety of the tax on leather. He had omitted to stale, that the year before last there was a decrease on leather to the amount of 90,000l. The increase of the revenue on leather last year was occasioned by a rise which took place in leather, which caused all the hol- ders of that article to dispose of it, and not because the trade was becoming more flourishing. With respect to steam engines, the use of those machines by the leather manufacturers was owing, not to their increase of trade, but to the reduced price at which such machines were made. He would have no objection to a committee being appointed were it not that committees had been before appointed on the same subject without effect.

Mr. Benson

said, that the petitions were presented to the House, not because a circular had been sent round, but because the manufacturers of leather felt the pressure of the heavy taxes to which they were liable. He should object to a committee being appointed, as he knew that if such were to be the case, it would sit all the session without coming to a conclusion. When the additional duty was imposed it was considered as a war tax, and that it would be removed on the return of peace. But now that we were at peace the House were told that the tax was still necessary. If the tax were repealed, he was convinced the consumption would be very considerably increased, and in the end the revenue would thereby be materially increased. He would ask the right hon. gentleman, whether 170,000l. was a matter of such importance as that he should in consequence neglect the petitions of so vast a number of industrious tradesmen, whose families were reduced to want by the pressure of the present system of taxation. It had been said that the use of steam engines was a proof of the increase of the trade, but it was a fact, that these engines were used in order to save the expense of a greater number of people who would be employed if the trade were as it formerly was. He would not proceed farther into the subject at that time, as the matter was already fully before the House.

Lord Castlereagh

agreed with the hon. gentleman who had just set down, that the matter was fully before the House; but he still could not avoid saying one or two words upon it, because he conceived the principle of the present motion was one which involved consequences of very great importance. He wished it to be understood, that it was the wish of his majesty's government to afford relief to every class of the community; but he apprehended that all such petitions as those on which the present motion was founded, ought to be attended to with considerable caution; for there might, upon every subject of taxation, be such warm appeals made to the feelings of the House, as, if effectual, would soon leave the country without any revenue. The noble lord who had brought forward the present motion, was as well acquainted with the subject as any person could be supposed to be, and he could not deny that a committee to examine into the petitions would be likely to be attended with considerable effect. The result of the last committee was not such as was expected by several members. It had produced good effects by the suggestions respecting the trade which were contained in its report, and which were acknowledged by most of the persons concerned in the business. He hoped the House would pause and consider the subject seriously, before they adopted the motion. He trusted that, out of any false or mistaken feelings of humanity, they would not do an act which would tend to destroy the revenue of the country. The House should be aware, that even if the additional duty were repealed, one part of the evil complained of, the decrease of the number of manufacturers, would not be remedied; for the great capitalists in the business would still continue to overlay the small ones. It might, perhaps, be to be wished, that the different branches of our internal industry were more extended among the people; but that was a thing which could not always be accomplished. The tendency of great capital was to collect that branch of trade in which it was vested into large masses, and thereby to absorb the smaller establishments. If he was wrong in this opinion as affecting the leather trade, he erred with many who were better acquainted with the subject than he was, and this should more strongly prove the necessity of referring the whole matter to a committee.—There was only one point more on which he should advert. It was, that although there might have been a diminution of the demand for leather, yet that late returns showed the trade to be reviving. From a comparison of the quantity of leather exported for the five years before the increased duty, with that which had been exported in the same period after it, the account was entirely in favour of the latter period. For the former five years, the quantity exported was 5,603,395 pounds weight, and that in the latter years, including the year l817, it amounted to 10,710,073 pounds. This proved the increase of the trade; but if the number of the manufacturers was diminished, it was to be attributed to the cause he had before stated, the effects of great capitals being embarked in the business. As he considered that the suggestion of his right hon. friend of a select committee would be attended with good effect, he should move, as an amendment to the motion of the noble lord, to leave out from the word "that," to the end of the question, in order to add the words, "a select committee be appointed to take into consideration the petitions relating to the Duties on Leather, presented to the House during the present session, to examine the matter thereof, and report the same, together with their observations thereupon, to the House," instead thereof.

Mr. Brougham

rose to state, in a few words, the reasons why he should take the sense of the House upon the original motion. Two committees had been already appointed upon the subject of this tax, and from neither had there been any favourable result. He was convinced that the very same effect would follow from the committee if the amendment of the noble lord were carried. It was curious to observe the system upon which gentlemen on the other side proceeded when there was any matter before the House on which a great difference of opinion existed. If there was no evidence before the House,— if they were quite in the dark upon a subject, and wished to get information by means of a committee, —then ministers said, "no committee, do not inquire;" but when there was evidence before the House—when the information derived from former committees was in black and white upon their journals—then the cry was, "a committee— inquire." He saw no necessity for any inquiry in the present case. The thing was quite clear, and no additional evidence was necessary to have it understood. Upon the general question, he should only repeat what he said about six years ago, when he had the honour of a seat in the House, that it was one which interested not only the manufacturers, but the consumers of the article. It was to them that he principally looked at present, and though he would support the motion of his noble friend, even on the grounds on which he had put it, yet he gave his vote on the present occasion principally with reference to the con- sumers. This tax was one upon a common necessary of life, and he conceived its imposition highly impolitic. It was one of those arithmetical blunders' in which the appearance of immediate increase was adopted, though it led to a certain ultimate loss to the revenue. The effects of this tax were severely felt by all persons who were great employers; but as government was the greatest employer, so it fell with particular force upon them, and what they-imagined they gained in one way, they lost in another. The chancellor of the exchequer had mentioned the decline of the oiled dressed leather, which he seemed to ascribe to want of that great restorative, an additional tax. He hoped, however, that the right hon. gentleman did not intend to apply the refreshing influence of such, a tax to this part of the trade, as he thought it would do much better without.

Lord Compton

said, that this tax was one which affected every class of society. He trusted, therefore, the House would see the necessity of removing the evil which was so generally complained of. The chancellor of the exchequer had said, that the number of bankruptcies in the leather trade was not occasioned by the additional tax; but it was clear that there was a general decline in the trade, and that, from whatever cause it proceeded, was in itself an argument in favour of repeal. The argument urged by the right hon. gentleman with respect to the use of machinery, was rather against than for the tax; for if with the increase of machinery, which was generally a proof of the increase of trade, it appeared that the trade still declined, it was clear that there should be something done to relieve it. As to the decline in the oil dressed leather, it arose from a quite different cause. The oil dressed leather was principally consumed by the government, and the demand for it was necessarily diminished since the war. The observation of the right hon. gentleman with respect to the property tax should not alter the vote which he intended to give; for though his opinion of that tax was unchanged, yet he would rather see some direct tax than that species of tax which was so injurious to a very large portion of the people.

Colonel Wood

said, that he had presented some petitions on the subject be-fore the House from some of his constituents, and though he conceived that all. such petitions were entitled to great respect, yet he did not think the House ought from that respect to hurry into any measure without the most mature consideration. It was said, that there had been a great decline in the leather trade of late. That might be true; but he conceived it arose from other causes than those which were stated. It should be recollected, that the sale of the vast quantities of government stores, which were lately disposed of so much under the cost price, contributed materially to this decline. Within a short time several hundred thousand pairs of shoes, which were bought up at 6s. 6d. the pair, had been sold at 2s. the pair. That, perhaps, would account, in some measure, for the decline of the trade, which had been so much complained of. As to the property tax, it had no horrors for him; and if the repeal of the tax upon leather were to be followed by the introduction of that tax, he should most decidedly vote for it. He was decidedly of opinion, that in abolishing that tax, the House begun at the wrong end. They had removed that which pressed only upon the rich, and continued that which fell principally upon the poorer classes. The poor and working classes who had been induced to sign the petitions for the abolition of the property tax were most egregiously mistaken in what was best calculated to afford them relief. They would have been much more relieved if the tax upon leather and that upon salt had been repealed at the time instead of the income tax. But he thought the tax upon salt was one which ought to be repealed in preference to that upon leather. The salt tax pressed upon the poor classes in particular, as it was mixed up with almost every article of their consumption. He therefore thought it ought to be repealed in preference to any other.

General Gascoyne

observed, that in the former committees, there was such a division and jarring of interests on the subject of the leather trade, that no efficient result had been come to, and he was certain it would be the same, if a committee were now agreed to. From the opinions of all the petitioners it was clear, that the tax, as it now stood, was a great grievance: for it would be idle for any man to pretend to know, whether a tax pressed heavily or not, better than the individual who felt such pressure. He thought, therefore, it ought to be repealed, and he was certain, that the ingenuity of the chancellor of the exchequer could easily furnish him with another tax as a substitute.

Mr. C. Calvert

entered into a comparison of the returns of the produce of the tax for the last five years, in order to show that it had considerably fallen off. He supported the motion for the repeal, on the ground that it pressed heavily on the poorer classes, and was not calculated to increase the revenue to the amount stated.

Mr. Marryat

said, that in Sandwich, the borough which he represented, the distress occasioned by the increased duty on leather was most severely felt. In two parishes, which were only separated by a running stream, the difference of the poor-rates was remarkable. In the one, where several persons engaged in the leather trade resided, the poor-rates amounted to 20s. in the pound, in consequence of the number of persons who had been thrown out of employment by the operation of the tax: and, in the other parish it was only 12s. Both were no doubt very high, but the difference was remarkable, as it concerned the present question. From the pressure of this tax, not only on the manufacturers, but on the community at large, he wished that some substitute should be proposed for it. He thought that one might be easily found.

Mr. Lushington

admitted, that some distress did exist in the trade, but he thought it arose from other causes than those which had been stated. The conclusion of the war had caused a stagnation in the trade, but that was now nearly at an end, and though the number of persons engaged in the trade was not as great as before, yet that was not a proof that the business had declined; for notwithstanding the decrease of the numbers, the revenue had increased in a considerable degree. The leather trade was not unanimous in desiring the repeal. He had himself received a deputation from two branches of it, who had stated, that the drawback of two pence upon leather exported more than counterbalanced the additional duty of three halfpence. As the drawback would fall along with the additional duty, the export trade would suffer, and the effect would be, to put money in the pockets of the tanners. In the present state of the revenue, should one tax be repealed, another must be imposed. It appeared to him, that every consideration urged in the course of the debate showed the propriety of going into; the committee.

The gallery was then cleared for a division. Whilst strangers were excluded,

Sir T. Acland

declared, he had come down to the House with the intention of supporting the motion, but that what he had heard determined him to vote for referring the petitions to a committee.

The question being put, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the question," the House divided: Ayes, 94; Noes, 84. Lord Althorp's motion for leave to bring in a bill for the repeal of the additional tax upon leather was consequently agreed to, and lord Al-thorp and Mr. Brougham were ordered to bring in the same.