HC Deb 30 April 1819 vol 39 cc0-1516
General Hart,

in pursuance of his notice, moved, "That this House do resolve itself into a committee of the whole House upon the Laws relating to Distillation in Ireland."

Mr. Dawson

said, that the law which imposed fines upon town lands was of such an odious nature, that he was urged by a sense of public duty to exert his utmost endeavours to procure its repeal. In what he had to urge he meant to cast no reflections upon the excise board, which had shown as much lenity and forbearance as possible, but the complaints out of doors against the act had of late been loud and general. A committee was at present employed in diminishing the penalties of the Statutes its England; but in Ireland, it should seem as if they had been anxious to increase them. In Eng land, the object was, to decrease the criminals; in Ireland to increase them. In England the remission of punishment had augmented crime; but in Ireland, the uniform execution of the sentence had produced exactly a similar effect. He trusted, therefore, that this appeal to parliament against the act of 1814, which was itself a revival of a former law, would not be made in vain. That act imposed a fine of 20l. for the first, 40l. for the second, and 60l. for the third offence, upon all townlands where any article used in illicit distillation was discovered. The district of the town-lands varied from 200 to 2,000 acres, but on an average they might be taken at 1,000 acres, and if the warm of a still; or any more minute article of the kind, were found within that space, all the inhabitants were liable to the payment of the fine. Irrational and unjust as the few was, the mode in which it was carried into execution was even worse. In England, if any error were found in the commitment or in the indictment, the defendant was allowed the benefit of it; thus, if the venue were laid in a wrong county, the defendant was acquitted but in Ireland, the prosecution might be renewed, and no mistake was allowed to operate against the prosecutor. It was a maxim of English law, Nemotestis esse debet in propria causa; but in Ireland, a revenue officer, who was to obtain a considerable portion of the fine, was allowed to be a witness, and in nine cases out of ten the conviction proceeded solely upon his testimony. Illicit distilleries were usually set up in places not ascertained to belong to any parish or township, or in the suburb of a city or town; so that, if the head of a still were found in an obscure part of Dublin, the chief justice, and even the members for that capital, would be called upon to pay a portion of the fine; which was imposed, even if a cask were found, and an officer hardy enough to swear, that from the smell he believed that it had contained illegal spirits. One clause of the bill of 1814 was without parallel in the history of legislation; for it was made a retrospective measure to the year 1810, and applied even to fines suspended and annulled. Any minister who should attempt to apply such a law to smuggling on the coast of Kent, or to illicit distillation in Scotland, would not retain his seat for a month afterwards, the Feeling of indignation at such injustice would be so turbulent. The Bill of Rights declared, that excessive fines should not be imposed even upon the guilty; but what would the framers of that instrument have said to this law, which imposed excessive fines upon the innocent? It had been said, that the laws of Alfred warranted this law; that the inhabitants of tithings were made responsible for each other, and the fact undoubtedly was so, but for very different offences and in a very different state of society. The same custom bad prevailed among the Jews end the Germans; it was known amongthe savages of Africa, and indeed was itself a proof of ignorance and barbarism. To illustrate this point, he read a passage from Miller's Saxon Tithings and from Hume's England. In truth, the crimes for which the inhabitants of tithings were made answerable were mala in se; but here the law was directed merely against mala prahibita: besides, though a distiller might be an offender against a prohibitory law, those who were compelled to pay the fines were, offenders against no law at all; the act was for the safety of the guilty, and the punishment of the innocent. The mode in which the law was executed ren- dered it still more objectionable; and in order to establish this part of his argument, the hon. member begged to refer the House to several cases which proved that the inferior officers of the excise had been guilty of mal-practices and collusion. The first was that of two men of the name of Daniel, prosecuted by an officer named Hinching, and awarded to pay a fine of 40l. It afterwards turned out that the Daniels were not guilty, and application was made to the commissioners of excise to remit the fine. The officer, of course, reported against the remission, but secretly offered to take 80l. and to use his kind offices; and though this fact had come to the ears of the board, Hinching had merely been censured, but not removed. Another case was that of John Colquhoun, who had procured the suppression of six illicit stills upon town lands, and who had been cruelly beaten by some of the inhabitants; the excise officers, in gratitude for what he had done for them, seized all his cattle, and would not leave him a cow to give milk for his infant family. A third case, regarded a person named Lowry, who had taken a farm under the assurance that all fines due had been paid, yet soon afterwards had been deprived of three horses and four cows, which were collusively sold among the officers for only 3l. In the report of Mr. Terry, one of the commissioners of excise in Ireland, it was stated, that upon 10,000l. of penalties the incidental expences amounted to 20,000l. The fines could not be levied without great difficulty, and the inhabitants were frequently harassed without any advantage derived to the revenue. Whilst the law pressed heavily on the innocent, it was despised by the illicit distiller, who had grown old in the practice of his occupation. It tempted him to commit perjury, and to throw the burden of his offence on others, well knowing that if detected he had no mercy to expect from the excise. This disposition to the crime of perjury not only affected parties and witnesses, but juries also; and cases might be mentioned in which the latter had returned verdicts grounded solely on their disapprobation of the law. The cause of all this mischief was the erroneous policy upon which the law was passed, and the vain and useless attempt to overcome that characteristic of Irish peasantry, an aversion to become informers. The consequence was, that in its operation it confounded the innocent with the guilty. Mr. Terry, alluding to the extensive prevalence of illicit distillation, recommended the erection of barracks between the different military stations. It was by military force alone that the system was carried into execution. In the counties of Donegal and Derry prosecutions were often anticipated by the objects of them lodging informations against the townlands. Judge Fletcher had said, that the system of which he complained was as repugnant to the principles of justice and the common sense of mankind as it was to the general spirit of British law. It appeared to have originated in a desperate attempt to collect revenue by any means and at any sacrifice. Amongst its other evils it violated the first rule of evidence, by allowing a party interested to prove his own case; it encouraged perjury, and induced juries to find verdicts against the clearest evidence. The excise officer, seeking merely to put money into his own pocket, connived at the illicit still, and entered into stipulations; the effect of which was, that some old worn-out still was seized, and the town land prosecuted for the fine. Not only civil trespasses, but perjuries, conspiracies, and assassinations, were multiplied to a frightful degree; and in the county of Donegal nearly the whole of the business, public and private, arose from this source. This was the opinion of a learned judge, speaking from long experience, and upon mature consideration. Why the system of small stills, which was found so advantageous in Scotland, should not be equally beneficial in Ireland, surpassed his comprehension. If proper inspectors were appointed, and a severe punishment inflicted upon the illicit distiller himself the inhabitants at large would exert themselves, not to screen him from, but to bring him to, justice. If conciliatory instead of coercive measures were adopted, he had no doubt that the character drawn by sir John Davis of the Irish people would be fully realized. That writer had declared, that if protected against wrong, there was no nation on earth more attached to the principle of equal and impartial justice [Hear!]. He should conclude by seconding the motion for a committee, and by expressing his feelings that unless the right hon. the chancellor of the exchequer should apply some remedy to this enormous evil, he would be responsible in the eyes of God and man for all the consequences.

Mr. Leslie Foster

wished to call the attention of the House to a consideration of the facts in this case; and if upon a fair review of them, an alteration in the mode of collecting the revenue on spirits in Ireland should be deemed necessary, he would lend his cordial assistance to the undertaking. The question was important in every respect, and it was right that the House should be aware that in its decision depended one-fourth of the Irish revenue. In the last year the amount of this branch of it was 1,300,000l., being 239,000l. excess above the produce of the preceding year. This improvement was a great financial recommendation, although it had certainly no bearing on the moral part of the question. There was no system of regulation that could be devised under which this revenue could be collected without some cases of violence and hardship. In the course of last year 1,300 illicit stills had been destroyed, but during the prevalence in 1811, 12, and 13, of the system of small stills, which it was now proposed to renew, 6,588 private stills had been destroyed in one of those years, and scarcely any left in the country. Yet in the following year upwards of 6,000 were again destroyed, and more than 5,000 in the following. All this had been accomplished by military force, and with a much greater degree of violence than had been exercised since the change which had been effected in the law. The mischief was before so extensive, that the commercial chambers of Belfast and other towns presented petitions, stating that the regular distilleries could not be carried on, and that the morals of the people were greatly deteriorated by the dangerous practices which prevailed. These petitions were referred to a committee, which was of opinion, that the only efficacious mode of collecting the revenue was the system of fining town lands, and a bill to that effect was accordingly introduced by an hon. namesake of his, in the year 1814, and passed into a law. The vice of illicit distillation had at that time taken such fast possession of the champaign country, that the sufferings produced in eradicating it were, during the first year, of extraordinary severity. It was gratifying, however, to find, that the amount of fines had been rapidly decreasing since, in all the counties of Ireland, except Donegal and Tyrone, the mountainous nature of whose situation had always afforded peculiar opportunities for the commission of such offences. It appeared by the report of two officers, Mr. Coffley and Mr. Logie, high in that branch of the public service, that 51 stills had, however, been voluntarily surrendered in Donegal: that more might be expected; and that the town lands were generally willing to enter into securities, if the law were not to undergo any alteration. It was true that the board of excise had had the misfortune to employ a person in the first instance who had committed many unjustifiable acts in the county of Donegal; but he, together with two of his assistants, had been subsequently removed. He was sorry to say, that much perjury was certainly committed on account of the trials for illicit distillation; but at the same time he was convinced, that it would be greatly exceeded by the quantity of perjury which would be occasioned by that species of trial which it was proposed to substitute for the present. It was clear, that if perjury prevailed under the present system, it must become still more prevalent if the prosecutions were directed against the persons of offenders, and if the liberty of the individuals were at stake. Much had been said about the evils and expense occasioned by the employment of so great a military force under the present system; the House, however, ought to be informed, that under the system of 1811, 12, and 13, when the present laws were suspended and small stills were licensed, great assistance had been derived from the military. From the report of the commissioners of excise, it appeared, that during these three years, there was paid to the military and the officers of excise no less a sum than 161,000l.; while at present the average charge might be taken at 50,000l. a year; so that the House were deceived if they thought that by substituting the small still system, they would get clear of military hunting and legal prosecutions. It had been said that the principle of the present system was to punish the innocent for the guilty; but in his opinion, its general operation was to give the innocent an inducement to prevent the guilt for which they were punished; and that indeed, was the only ground on which it could be defended. Besides, the board of excise had the power of remitting fines; and he was certain that whenever the parties convicted could produce evidence that they had not connived at the illicit distillation, the fines would be remitted. But, from his own experience, limited as it was, he had reason to believe that the inhabitants of the town lands were almost always conscious of the guilt. It had been said, that the system of small stills was likely to cure this evil, and the example of Scotland had been adduced in support of that opinion. In Scotland there were 39 small stills licensed, each paying upwards of 500l., and yielding a total revenue of 20,000l. Now in Ireland there were 12 small stills, larger indeed than the Scotch, but paying 9,600l. a-piece, and producing a gross revenue of 115,200l. There certainly was something in this which he could not understand. He had a great respect for Scotland, and did not wish to cast any reflections on the manner in which the revenue was collected in that country; but he could not but observe, that the revenue derived from the Scotch stills was far less than was derived from the Irish. If the House were prepared to introduce the system of small stills into Ireland, and to renounce the revenue altogether, the consequence would be, that they would have the country filled with smugglers with licences, instead of smugglers without them.

Sir Henry Parnell

trusted it was unnecessary to say, after all the House had heard, that the present system of law was most severe, unjust, and unwise. He hoped the House would agree with him in thinking, that the time had now arrived for getting rid of that system altogether, for surely no case had been made out to justify the law. The hon. gentleman (Mr. Foster) had stated that the system of small distilleries had been tried, and failed—he (Sir H. Parnell) was satisfied that that statement was not correct— every gentleman who had attended to the subject knew that the small stills had never had a fair trial—they were impeded and discouraged in many ways; indeed it was impossible that they could have existed under the regulations that bad been made—the interests of the small proprietors were always obliged to give way to those of the proprietors of large distilleries; but, above all, they laboured under the power the commissioners had of withholding licences, instead of giving every man a fair opportunity of employing his capital and his industry in the trade. The establishment of small stills would have a powerful effect in putting down illicit distillation—the proprietors of small distilleries would find it their interest to put it down—the people would be induced to assist putting down illegal distillation, and until they assisted, it could not be put down, though the country might be covered with military force and revenue officers. As to the statement made by the hon. gentleman, to show that illegal distillation was on the decline in Ireland, he would observe, that in the first year he referred to, corn bore a very low price in Ireland, there was no market, and it resulted, as a matter of course, that the superfluous corn should find its way into illicit distillation; the third year he referred to, there happened to be a high price, and a sure market for corn, and the Irish farmer naturally exported it. The same year was one of great distress in Ireland—besides, from the wetness of the season and the consequent want of fuel, illicit distilleries were not worked by the people. These reasons would tend to explain the statement made by the hon. gentleman; it was to these local, temporary, and incidental causes that the alteration was to be traced, and not to the effects of a system which was only pregnant with public immorality, misfortune, and discontent.

Mr. Wellesley Pole

said, that in 1810, when he held the office of Irish secretary, he found the fine system in full operation. On a representation of the horrors and crimes committed under this system, and of its inutility to prevent illicit distillation, the then chancellor of the exchequer and himself investigated the subject, and they agreed to remit some of the fines, and to suspend the operation of the act. His hon. friend had said, that the small still system had been in full operation in Ireland in 1810, 1811 and 1812. The fact was, that the fine system was only suspended in 1810. His friend, the chancellor of the exchequer, who remained in office after he himself had gone out, did not encourage small stills—and in the session of 1812 he had brought in a bill, framed with the greatest care, the effect of which he hoped would be to prevent the necessity of recurring to the horrid system offices. But at the time this bill was brought in, a circumstance took place which changed the whole question; the distillation from grain was then suspended. The fine of the town lands system was only suspended, and not repealed, and the dis- tillation from grain was suspended; and it was riot possible, therefore, for the small still system to be established, when no distillation was allowed to go on. Was it fair, then, to say that this system was established in 1810, 11, and 12? The gentlemen from Ireland, not taking into consideration that all legal distillation was suspended, came to the chancellor of the exchequer by acclamation for the repeal of the system, who very properly listened to them. He did not blame the chancellor of the exchequer for acceding to their request, but he blamed the gentlemen of Ireland for allowing themselves to be run away with without experience. He had then opposed the recurrence, to the fine system, but nearly all the Irish members divided against him. Mr. Gregory, now under secretary for Ireland, who was sent down to Innishowan, reported, that the effect of the fine system was such as to beggar all description. This was after the system had been in operation many years. In 1812, the same gentleman was sent down to the very same spot and the improvement under the new system was so great as to be hardly credible. Having paid much attention to this subject, and knowing from the most respectable sources the effects of the fine system, in Ireland, no human power should induce him to give it his support. In October 1816, when Mr. Terry, deputy chairman of the commissioners of excise visited Innishowan, he found that the places where illicit distillation flourished most, were those very places which had already been fined; for the illicit distillers resorted to places which had nothing on them, every thing having been carried off. The same gentlemen who were almost unanimous in wishing the fine system in 1812, were now unanimous against it. If it was a grievance, it was a grievance of their own seeking.

Lord Mount-Charles

said, that at the recent assizes in Donnegal, there were no less than 300 town-lands fines trials; In the late presentments of the grand jury, application was made for a certain sum of money, for the enlargement of the county gaols, which had became necessary, in consequence of the numbers confined from inability to pay the fines.

Mr. V. Fitzgerald

said, that though he had been the person whose duty it was to propose the re-enactment of the law which had been bold up to censure, he hoped the House would do him the justice to believe that he was not one of those who would seek the credit of consistency for persevering in opinions, the erroneous-ness of which had been forced on their conviction. He, however, had seen no reason to change his opinion of the law. If it had been so pregnant with horror, guilt, and crime, as his right hon. friend thought, how had it happened that he had not taken earlier measures to denounce it, or that he had not accepted the invitation to take part in the deliberations of a former committee concerning it 2 He bore testimony to the sincerity of the hon. mover's intentions, but he thought it too much to suppose, that all the distress of Ireland, all the outrages and breaches of law, and even the state of the prisons, was to be attributed to this act. As to the number of persons imprisoned in Donnegal, the fact was, that these persons were not imprisoned under that part of the act which it was now proposed to repeal. As to the complaint, that the law for the encouragement of small stills was not enforced, it seemed rather misplaced, at a time when that law was enforced to a greater extent than had been proposed. The fullest committee that he ever remembered—a committee on which every member from Ireland was admitted—had concurred in recommending the present law. Was it not a strange species of logic, by which the demoralization of Ireland was imputed, not to the use of cheap spirituous liquors, and to the system which began with the breach of revenue regulations, and ended with the breach of all law, but to the act which attempted to remedy these evils; which imputed the murder of Mr. Buller, not to illicit distillation, but to his attempt to execute the law against it? The employment of a military force in the suppression of illicit distillation, had not originated with the act which it was proposed to repeal, nor was imputable to it. It was in evidence, that at the time when his right hon. friend (Mr. W. Pole) took those measures to suppress distillation, which were found ineffectual, a military force of 140 infantry and 40 cavalry was sent against the illicit distillers of the barony of Innisshowen, and successfully resisted by them. The committee of which he had spoken had declared, that it was necessary to put an end to illicit distillation, as directly subversive of the morals of the Irish people. As to the execution of the law, he knew of no case in which the government did not, act with clemency.

Mr. French

said, the diminution of illicit distillation in the two first years, after the passing of the law, was to be attributed to the dearness of corn and turf. The present year, a year of ordinary supply, was the best test of its merits. Yet in Mayo, at the last assizes, there were eighty convictions for illicit distillation; Sligo was nearly as bad, and in the county he represented, there were many. He strongly reprobated the law, and trusted the English and Scotch representatives would not suffer the Irish gentlemen to be robbed by such a law.

Mr. Peel

allowed that the law might be accompanied with much hardship; but there was a question, whether it was not a lesser evil than the system it had (with the exception of two counties) succeeded in crushing. He feared lest the House should suffer itself to be induced by its feelings to take a step, of which, on cooler reflexion, it might repent. In 1810, this law was suspended; in 1812, repealed; but, in 1813, re-enacted, with only seven dissenting voices. It was re-enacted, after an examination of several Irish members before a committee of the House, and now they were called upon to repeal it without inquiry. The House should be cautious of doing so, as they might be under the necessity of re-enacting it again with accumulated disadvantages. He did not shut his eyes to the evils of the present system, but he feared the consequences of resorting to any other, and, above all things, he feared the dangers resulting from a perpetual vacillation, which was in itself one of the greatest misfortunes that could be inflicted in a country.

Colonel Barry

said, that the system of still fines was injurious to morals, and a great hardship to an innocent population. He would admit that the law had great effect in suppressing illicit distillation, but so must any measure of unexampled cruelty. It was not his opinion, however, that it ought to be done away at once; the best course to pursue would be, the adoption of some concurrent remedial system; perhaps the lowering of the duty on spirits, and the encouragement of small stills throughout the country.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

was of opinion, that it would be wise in the House to acquiesce in the suggestion of his hon. friend who spoke last. At the same time, he was satisfied, from the official information he had received, that the system now produced an efficacious control, without any instances of individual oppression. He deprecated vacillation as injurious to the revenue, but thought that much benefit might be derived from the encouragement of licensed distilleries on a small scale. He had no objection to the motion for going into committee on the subject, and pledged himself to support whatever measure appeared the most beneficial.

Sir John Newport

thought, that of all the courses pursued by the ministers of the Crown, the present was the most extraordinary. He would ask the minister, if he came into the House with an opinion made up, and, if so, why he had altered it? He would ask him, if his opinion was originally the same as he had now-expressed, why did those with whom he acted promulgate a different opinion? In this, as in other questions of importance, was the country to witness the differences of ministers amongst themselves? Feeling that the morals of the people would be injured by a departure from the present system, he should not hesitate to say so. If he could be persuaded of the contrary, no advantages of revenue could induce him for a moment to compromise the more important question of morals. If they resolved to try the other system, he hoped that, with the encouragement of small stills, they would also give encouragement to breweries, that the people might be induced to adopt that wholesome beverage, instead of the maddening spirit to which, they were accustomed.

Lord Castlereagh

defended the chancellor of the Exchequer against the charge of inconsistency. In agreeing to the appointment of a committee, he had not pledged himself to the adoption or abandonment of any measure, but had merely assented to the propriety of referring the present system of laws to the consideration of a committee. He was satisfied that the views opened by that night's discussion, would induce many members to direct their minds to the subject, and read the information contained in the papers which were already before the House.

Mr. Bennet

animadverted, in a strain of peculiar point and animation, upon the conduct of ministers on this occasion, who had conceded to the opponents of excise pillage in Ireland, only because they felt they could not resist with effect; who had, in fact, only struck, because they knew they would be beaten. Their disposition at the outset could not be mistaken, from the tone and terms of their known adherents; and their reason for yielding afterwards was equally evident. Adverting to the speech of the chancellor of the exchequer, he protested against the language of that right hon. gentleman, who seemed to think that revenue was the first duty of a government. But such language was quite consistent with the conduct and creed of a gentleman, who was the steady patron of lotteries.

Mr. Chichester

expressed the sincere gratification he felt at the prospect which was now held out of amending the law in Ireland. He trusted, that the labours of the committee, aided by the candour and good sense of his majesty's government, would bring this question to that issue to which it must be the wish of every friend of peace and good order it should speedily arrive.

General Hart

participated in the gratification which the result of this motion was so well calculated to diffuse. On the subject of illicit distillation, all he should say was, that he had nothing so much at heart as its utter abolition; and it was because he was its greatest enemy, that he was the advocate for an alteration in the present system, which tended so much to its encouragement.

The motion was then agreed to.

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