HC Deb 18 June 1819 vol 40 cc1207-21

The order of the day having been read for going into a committee on this bill, the Chancellor of the Exchequer moved, that the Speaker should leave the chair.

The Marquis of Tavistock

could not allow the motion to be disposed of without making a few observations. Was it not a grievous reflection, that when ministers proposed to the House of Commons a tax like the income tax, which was to have its effects on the pockets of hon. members themselves—a tax, by the former repeal of which parliament relieved itself, and not the nation—was it not shameful that the House of Commons, when such a tax was again proposed, rejected it with indignation; and yet, when other taxes, operating on the poor and defenceless classes of the community, were proposed, carried them by acclamation, and nothing was heard of but the triumphant majority of ministers on the subject!—The language of the noble lord opposite when he took off the war malt duty was, that as parliament had relieved itself from the property tax, it was the duty of ministers to relieve the country by taking off the malt tax. If, therefore, it was absolutely necessary that fresh burthens should be imposed on the country, why did not ministers propose their favourite income tax?—Why, but because they were afraid of the House of Commons?—Why did they, in lieu of the income tax, select the taxes which, of all others, were calculated to operate most severely on the poor? Would ministers have dared to do this; or, if they had done it, would it have been endured by the House in the last year of the last parliament? Was it surprising that discontent and disaffection should discover themselves, when the people saw those who ought to be their representatives shelter themselves from the property tax, while they did not hesitate to tax the tea, the tobacco, and the malt of the poor? It had, however, long been his 6rm persuasion, that until the House of Commons should be fairly elected by the people, it would be useless to protest against such practices. The only remedies for them would be a shortening of the duration of parliament, and a full and equal representation of the people. If any thing had been wanting to convince him of this truth, he should have found it in the support which the new parliament had given to every measure proposed by ministers. The dissatisfaction existing at the present system was notoriously manifested during the last election, whenever the sense of the country could be heard. He did not wish to speak on this subject with any party feeling. He wished to speak with truth, which was paramount to all party feeling. The people did not exclaim so much for a change of men; but they exclaimed loudly for a change of measures. They expressed a decided hostility to great peace establishments, and to that influence which had been so fatally exercised by ministers in the last parliament. While, however, the people called for economy and retrenchment, ministers and their majorities answered by increasing the burthens of the country. In his mind, the existing system was supported by the present state of the representation—by corrupt borough influence, and by parliaments being elected for seven years. Until he could see a disposition manifested to meet the wishes of the nation by a reduction of our establishments, and by the substitution of a system of reform, retrenchment, and economy, in every department of the state, he, for one, would not consent to lay a single additional tax on the people. He would therefore move, as an amendment, to the original motion, "That the House should resolve itself into the committee on that day six months."

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

denied that the proposed taxes would fall exclusively on the lower classes. They would fall on the whole community. The fact was, they would produce very little pressure on the lower classes. The tax on malt would not have the effect of raising the price of beer. It would affect the rich, not the poor. The beer drank by the poor was manufactured by the public brewer, and the public brewer would have no occasion to make any rise in the price of his beer in consequence of the tax. The duty on spirits also, would not induce the distillers to raise their prices. Thus, of the three millions of new taxes, two millions would be levied without adding to the burthens of the poor; a circumstance almost unprecedented in the history of taxation.

Mr. C. Calvert

insisted that the tax on malt would affect the poor and not the rich. The exciseman was excluded by law from coming into private premises; and all who were in the habit of brewing for themselves, would procure the malt they might require, before the imposition of the proposed duty on the stock in hand. But, although the immediate price of beer brewed by the public brewer might not be increased by the duty, would it not, at all events, retard the diminution of the present price? The price of beer must always depend on the price of the raw material. If the right hon. gentleman laid a duty on the stock in hand of the raw material, would he not retard the cheapening of the manufactured article? The right hon. gentleman might lay duties, but was he quite sure he could collect them?

Mr. Bennet

compared the present conundrum of the right hon. gentleman on the subject of the malt duty not affecting the public, to his conundrum some years ago, that a pound and a shilling were equivalent to a guinea. On second thoughts, the right hon. gentleman might perhaps discover, that if taxation prevented the price of any article from falling, the difference between the price maintained, and the price to which it would have fallen, was so much loss to the public. The tea tax would also be felt severely by the poor, with whom tea had almost become one of the necessaries of life. The gross revenue at present derived from tea was 3,300,000l. The East India Company made 2,000,000l. annually by their monopoly of the tea trade. The people of England were thus already taxed above 5,000,000l. on this single article. There was no country in which the labouring classes enjoyed so little from their labour as in England. Under these circumstances, he thought the taxes proposed ought not to be adopted.

Mr. Grenfell

said, he should vote for the amendment, not because he thought the state of the representation corrupt, but because this was not, in his opinion, the proper moment to resort to a system of taxation.

Mr. Gooch

remonstrated against the duty on malt, which was a tax on the poverty, and not on the wealth of the country. It was a tax affecting the best interests of the country, as must ever be the case when the agricultural interest was affected. The farmers were already borne down by the competition of foreign growers, and other circumstances.

Mr. Price

objected to the whole measure—to the principle—and not to any particular tax. Ministers had, on various occasions, exhibited their indisposition to retrenchment, until forced by the House; and he would vote for the amendment, as another means of producing so desirable an effect.

Lord Ebrington

not only objected to the bill because he had a total want of confidence in the present administration, and was persuaded that any money granted to them would be improvidently expended, but because the country could not bear additional taxation.

Lord Compton

supported the tax; but if hon. gentlemen on the other side would vote for a modified property tax, he would consent to abandon not only the malt tax, but many others.

Lord A. Hamilton

had great doubts whether the new projects of the chancellor of the exchequer would produce an effective revenue. He admitted that it was very desirable to have a sinking fund; but as far as it had gone, its effect had been rather to induce ministers to increase than, diminish the expenditure. The malt-tax was peculiarly impolitic, because it encouraged the consumption of spirits, which promoted the growth of the worst vices. Government were laying on new taxes in direct contradiction to the promises they had held out of augmenting revenue and growing prosperity.

Mr. Coke

, of Norfolk, argued, that the oppression upon the landed interest by the new malt tax, would be severely felt. It was the duty of every man to oppose this attempt to arm ministers with new powers of collecting money. He was an old member of parliament, and well knew the profligate mode in which the public money was squandered. He would go the full length of asserting, that this was a corrupt House, from which no good could be expected! [Order, order!]. Ministers had nothing to do but to summon their troops, and they had a majority instantly at their command: it was in fact a joke upon the country, and the people felt it to be so from one end of the kingdom to the other. He trusted that the day was not far distant when triennial parliaments would be established; for ministers would not have dared to have proposed these taxes last year. As the time approached when members were to meet their constituents, they behaved a great deal better. In the first year they cared very little about their constituents. Reform in parliament was the only true remedy for most of the present grievances.

Lord Milton

said, that there was not one of the taxes in which the House ought to concur. At the agriculture and manufactures, at the industry and physical strength of the nation, these new taxes were levelled. Perhaps the higher orders were not in a situation to contribute more; but the new taxes were calculated to press hard upon the poor, and upon the poor only. It would be a much more effectual sinking fund to leave the 3,000,000l. in the pockets of those who would be able to apply it to beneficial purposes, and to increase it much faster than by compound interest.

Mr. Wilson

said, he had given a conscientious vote for 3,000,000l. of taxes, in order to put the country in a state to meet its difficulties, and to repel attacks, should any new enemies arise. He contended, however, that the sinking fund ought not to have been reduced below 5,000,000l., and that the consequent deficiency of 3,000,000l. ought to have been made up among the ways and means.

Mr. Alderman Waithman

repeated his protest against additional taxes, opposed as they were by the general sense of the nation. During four years of peace, no efficient attempt had been made to reduce the expenditure. He would not vote for a single new tax, until the minister had tried the experiment of retrenchment.

Mr. Lamb

said, it was admitted by almost every gentleman, that we had not a revenue more than sufficient to meet the expenditure of the country; this circumstance, added to the insufficiency of the consolidated fund to meet the charges upon it, afforded no very flattering prospect of our finances. If, however, we looked back to the history of the last century, we should find that this was not the first time in which the country had been reduced to a similar state of exhaustion. Indeed, such always had been, and always would be, the effect of long wars, especially upon the system on which we conducted them — the system of borrowing large loans, and then anticipating our future revenue. If ever we had the misfortune to be engaged in hostilities again, he trusted that this system, if not altogether abandoned, would at least meet with considerable modification; because, if it did not, it would produce evils even still more serious than those which we were now suffering, or those which we had suffered upon former occasions. The war of the succession, which occurred at the beginning of the last century, and the American war, which had occurred in a period much nearer to our own times, both left us in a situation of great embarrassment; and it therefore might be advantageous to recollect what was then done, before we determined on what we should now do. Both during the continuance and at the close of the American war, it was the opinion of Mr. Fox, and those who acted with him, engaged as they were in one of the warmest political contests which ever occurred between any of the factions into which this country had been divided, that every measure for the maintenance of public credit ought to be supported by every party in the state. That illustrious statesman had never made any opposition to any tax, except in one or two instances [Hear!]. In 1785, when 1,000,000l. was proposed for the sinking-fund by his great political rival, Mr. Fox supported the measure. In 1792, Mr. Fox had stated in the House, that it was not to the supporters of Mr. Pitt alone that credit was due for the supplies which were raised, but also to those gentlemen who took the same side in politics as he did himself. The same line of conduct which was then pursued by those distinguished individuals, he should have wished, if it had been consistent with the duty which he owed to himself and his constituents, to have pursued now. But at the same time that he looked at the similarity of the two cases, he was also bound to look at their difference. There were strong reasons why, if fresh taxes were to be imposed on the country, the present year should be the time fixed for making that necessary effort which was to arrange the finances of the country, and to place them once more upon a sure and solid foundation. When he considered the other experiments which we were at present making, and when he recollected the distress in which the country was now involved, as well in its mercantile as in its agricultural interests he could not help giving his vote in support of the amendment. The new duties were imposed en articles of general use. He by no means intended to object to the general principle on which those duties were proposed; in general, they fell as lightly and were as fairly divided as any duties could do; but when they became exorbitant, they were not only productive of great inconvenience to those on whom they fell, but also of great debasement and adulteration of the article on which they were imposed. On these grounds he should oppose the supply, even if it were requisite to raise it at the present moment. Besides, in the levying of taxes, it was requisite to consider what would be the effect of them on the popular mind: now he thought that the object of these taxes was liable to be misrepresented; nay, that they might, even if represented in their real colours, be the subject of great public odium, and that, instead of producing energy and vigour in the county, they might produce general despondency and dismay. He had heard gentlemen on the opposite side, affirm, that if a financial effort was to be made by the country, it could never be so advantageously called forth as by some tax founded on the sys-tem of a tax upon property. For his own part, he was well aware that this great resource ought to be reserved for the exigencies of war; but our extraordinary situation in peace, appeared to him such as to demand our having recourse to some such measure. A slight proportion of the property-tax would leave a sufficient resource to the country, in case we should unfortunately be called upon to engage once more in hostilities. With regard to retrenchment, if these taxes were to be voted, he should certainly advise ministers to make every reduction that could possibly be made.

Lord John Russell

said, that the real question was this; was it expedient that, in the present crisis, there should be a sinking fund of five millions? There were two ways of considering the principle of this sinking fund, one way was, that it should be made to provide a surplus above the expenditure, to be ready to meet the emergencies of any future war. || In that way he was its warmest admirer. The other way was, that of providing this Fund for the extinction of the national debt. In looking at its operation in the last sense, he must revert to the conduct of a former minister—he alluded to sir Robert Walpole, who was, he thought, the greatest authority upon any question of finance. He was the man who saved the country at the bankruptcy of the South Sea company, who raised the credit of the country, and established a rate of interest at 3 per cent. instead of the previous rate of 8 per cent. Walpole was a steady and consistent minister; his. followers could rely upon his firmness; they never found him gainsaying his plans or his projects. He established a sinking fund, which saved the country seven millions: at the peace of 1763, the saving amounted to ten millions additional; and Mr. Pitt's sinking fund reduced the debt eleven millions, making a total reduction of the debt of 28 millions. What proportion did this bear to the present enormous debt of 800 millions, and what would the rate of reduction of this amount be, assuming a peace of 45 years? He could not think, in this state of things, and with so much distress surrounding them, that, for the purpose of reducing this debt in the manner proposed, they should be called upon to lay by a sinking fund of five millions. He had also the strongest objection to the proposed taxes; that on beer would materially affect the lower classes. But not content with taxing the beer of the poor, their very tea was to have its price augmented. This ratio of taxation was, he presumed, to be carried on until that proud peasantry, "once their country's pride," were driven to live on bread and water.

Mr. Ricardo

could not agree with the hon. gentleman (Mr. Lamb) that it was desirable to follow the precedent of 1784, at the conclusion of the American war, and to re-establish what he called a sinking fund. It appeared to him that that was the very period to which those who objected to the sinking fund would direct their attention in support of their arguments. What had become of that sinking fund? Had it realized the expectations which had been held out? Were we now less in debt in consequence of its establishment? No—the contrary was the fact; the sinking fund had been converted into facilities, which enabled the minister to contract new debt. It was true we had purchased with it 200 or 300 millions of stock in the market, but had we diminished the debt by those purchases? No, because we had, at the same time, borrowed a still larger sum to enable us to make the purchases. Because, in fact, the moment our expenditure exceeded our income we had a sinking fund in name only; and that part of the taxes which had been paid to the commissioners, and called a sinking fund for the estimation of debt, had been absorbed in providing for a new debt. A sinking fund was only useful— was only what it pretended to be—when a surplus of income was strictly applied to the purposes for which it was established—the extinction of debt. No appropriation of money under the name of sinking fund ever had, and, in his opinion, ever would be constantly applied to this purpose; it would always be considered by ministers as a resource of which they might avail themselves when they were under any difficulty, in raising money by new taxes. In this way had they got rid of the last sinking fund, and the same fate would await that which they now seemed solicitous to establish. The language of the noble lord (Castlereagh) confirmed him in his opinion of the use which would eventually be made of it; for he had told it to the House; he had told them that, by creating a sinking fund we should show other countries, we would not suffer ourselves to be insulted. If the sinking fund were applied to frighten other nations by being applied to the purposes of war, it could not be applied to the payment of debt, if money was to be raised to provide for the interest of money hereafter to be borrowed for a new war, there was no utility in making the people pay taxes now, to furnish the means of a war hereafter. It would be much better to let the mono}' remain in their pockets, where it would not fail to accumulate, and not to impose new taxes until new necessities required them. He had a jealous distrust of raising money beyond immediate necessity, and placing it in the hands of ministers; not the present ministers only, but any ministers responsible to a House of Commons constituted like ours. He allowed that so long as we had, in time of war, a sum under the name of sinking fund which would exceed the peace expenditure, we had what would be a real sinking fund when the peace came. So long, for instance, as we had 10 millions called a sinking fund in time of war, while we borrowed near 20 millions merely for the temporary purpose of carrying on the war, we might in a restricted sense be said to have a sinking fund of 10 millions; for on the return of peace it would, if so applied, operate to the reduction of debt. But this was not the case in the last war; the amount of the sinking fund, instead of being really applied to the reduction of debt, had been applied to pay the interest of new debt. And, after all, the meaning was only this; that if when peace returned we could reduce our expenditure 10 millions annually below our income; we should be able annually to discharge 10 millions of debt, this surely might be done without the mysterious jargon about a fund which answered no purpose but that of delusion. As to the particular taxes, it was unnecessary for him to state his sentiments, seeing he was an enemy to taxation altogether. He could not, however, agree, that they fell on the labourers, because imposed on the objects he consumed. If, indeed, they were imposed on the luxuries of the labourer, they might in some measure diminish his comforts; but the more the articles taxed approached the nature of necessaries, the more completely would they fall on those who employed labourers. It had been said, that these taxes would fall upon the poor-rates; but that amounted to the same thing; for the poor-rates formed, in reality, a fund destined to support labour, however inconvenient it might be to pay it in that way. He perfectly concurred with the noble lord who moved the amendment, in his expressions as to the state of the representation in that House: he could not help expressing his opinion, that the people were not sufficiently represented in it. This might be some satisfaction to the hon. member for Middlesex (Mr. Mellish), who appeared to be pleased the other evening when he discovered a difference of opinion between him and his hon. friend (Mr. Grenfell), as the opinion which his hon. friend was fond of declaring on the subject of parliamentary reform, was diametrically opposite to that which he (Mr. R.) had immediately expressed.

Mr. Brougham

said, that it had been argued by a noble lord, that if we had not the taxes now proposed, we must have the property tax; that we must have taxes on the poor, or taxes on the rich; but there was another alternative, what would he think of having no taxes at all? As long as we had a clear surplus of two millions a year, it could not be said that there was an absolute necessity for the new taxes. The new taxes were imposed for the benefit of the sinking fund, for the benefit of the Stockholder. And this too, when we had besides a surplus of two millions, to the aid of which might be applied whatever we could gain by retrenchment, which would be found to amount to quite as great a sinking fund in proportion to the debt, as Mr. Pitt thought necessary to establish public credit after the American war. At the time when Mr. Pitt imposed new taxes to establish his sinking fund, the finances of the country were much more distressed than they now were; for even when two millions of new taxes were imposed in 1786, a surplus of only 900,000l. was calculated on, which only turned out in the next year to be 600,000l. Was the imposition of taxes, which, after all, produced only this miserable surplus, to be compared with the present proposition to swell the sinking fund to five millions? In opposing the present proposition, therefore, instead of going counter, they were acting in strict conformity to the precedent of Mr. Fox, who had also opposed the imposition of new taxes during the war; not only because he had opposed the war, but on account of the nature of the taxes themselves. Though he agreed with his hon. friend, that the taxes on the necessaries of life did not fall ultimately on the labourer, but on the employer of labourers, yet the taxes now proposed were highly objectionable, as falling, in the first place, upon those we should rather relieve, — the labourers; and, in the second place, on those who were still more perhaps at present to be pitied, those who employed labourers. By removing the tax from the labourer to his employer, they were only removing the difficulty one step; for by taxing the funds which employed labour, they lessened the demand for labour, and reduced its reward. On these grounds, he opposed the motion. Without mixing up with the question that of parliamentary reform, he should give the tribute of his assent to the observation of the noble marquis, that if this was the last session of a parliament, or even the first session of a three years parliament, these three millions of taxes would not have been imposed on the people.

The question being put, "That the words proposed to be left out, stand part of the question," the House divided: Ayes, 204; Noes, 90.

List of the Minority.
Althorp, visct. Leake, W.
Barham, J. F. Lamb, hon. W.
Barnett, J. Lamb, hon. G.
Becher, W. W. Lambton, J. G.
Bernal, R. Langton, W. G.
Benyon, B. Latouche, Robert
Brand, hon. T. Lemon, sir W.
Browne, D. Lyttelton, hon. W
Brougham, H. Maberly, John
Callaghan, J. Macleod, Rob.
Calcraft, John. Madocks, W. A.
Calvert, C. Martin, John
Campbell, hon. S. Milton, visc.
Clifford, capt. Merest, J. D.
Clifton, lord Mills, G.
Colborne, N. W. R. Monck, sir C.
Coke, T. Newman, R. W.
Concannon, lord Neville, hon. R.
Crompton, Sam. North, Dudley
Calvert, N. Ord, Wm.
Crawley, Sam., Palmer, C. F.
Davies, T. H. Parnell, sir H.
Douglas, hon. F.S. Philips, Geo.
Denison, W. Philips, Geo. jun.
Duncannon, visc. Phillipps, C. M.
Dundas, hon. L. Ponsonby, hon. F. C.
Dundas, Thos. Powlett, hon. W.
Ebrington, visc. Rickford, W.
Ellice, Ed. Ricardo, David
Fuston, lord Robarts, A.
Fazakerley, Nic. Robarts, W. T.
Fergusson, sir R. C. Rowley, sir W.
Fitzgerald, rt. hon. M. Russell, lord C. W.
Fitzroy, lord C. Russell, lord John
Grant, J. P. Scarlett, James
Gordon, Robt. Stuart, lord Jas.
Graham, Sandford Stewart, Wm.
Grenfell, P. Taylor, M. A.
Griffiths, J. W. Thorp, alderman
Guise, sir W. Waithman, ald.
Gurney, R. H. Wood, ald.
Harcourt, John Webb, Ed.
Hamilton, lord A. Western, C. C.
Hill, lord A. Wilson, sir R.
Honywood, W. P.
Hume, Jos. TELLERS.
Hutchinson, hon. C. H. Tavistock, marquis of
Kennedy, T. F. Bennet, hon. H. G.

The House then went into the committee; in which, Mr. Brand moved to leave out the clause which imposed a tax on the stock of malt which the dealers might have on hand, both because the circumstances of the times which had peculiarly affected these dealers would justify a departure from precedent in their favour, and because, even without taking the duty on this stock, the tax would produce 1,400,000l. the sum required. He also wished the first payment, which was required to be made in October, to be postponed.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, it would be found, on inquiry, that the greater part, if not all the malt purchased at what were called the high prices, had been sold to the brewers, and that the stock on hand had been purchased at a much cheaper rate. This would diminish the great apprehension entertained from the proposed additional tax; and, under such circumstances, he felt that he could not in justice to the public abandon it. As to the periods at which this tax was to be paid, he intended to propose, that the first payment be made on the 10th of November, at the rate of 2d. per bushel; the second payment on the 2nd of December, at the rate of 3d. per bushel; the third, on the 3rd of January, at 4d. per bushel. The last payment was to be in February and March, 1820, when the remaining 5d. per bushel was to be paid up. This arrangement would, he trusted, obviate every inconvenience to the maltsters.

Mr. Huskisson

defended the principle of the duty, and entered into several calculations, to show that the chancellor of the exchequer was correct in the estimate he had made.

Mr. Lyttelton

objected to this tax, that it was imposed on the only remaining luxury, if indeed it was not a necessary, of the poorer classes of this country. He then, adverting to the argument which had fallen from one of the highest authority on questions of political economy in this kingdom (Mr. Ricardo), namely, that a tax upon the necessaries of life did not fall heaviest on the poor; observed, that although he might be disposed to admit the truth of that principle, yet in this case, as being upon an article, the very last, as it might be said, before those necessaries, the duty did fall heaviest upon that class. How far such a tax might drive them to the use of spirits he should not now inquire, but it was a subject well worthy of consideration. The chancellor of the exchequer was on the horns of a dilemma—either he wished to raise a tax of at least 1,900,000l. on a very small class of the community, or else it was a general tax upon the people but falling most immediately on the poorer classes. Now, they had been told, that if the hon. members on his side of the House were not selfish, they would propose a property tax; to which it had been well answered, that no tax at all was necessary. If a property-tax was not proposed, it was owing to the selfishness of the majority of that House, and not to that of hon. gentlemen on that side, who, as denying the necessity of any tax whatever, of course disputed the propriety of a property-tax. If, however, they must be driven to a tax at all, he should prefer a property-tax to one exclusively affecting the poor.

Mr. Ricardo

explained. He said, that he hoped the House and his hon. friend would understand that he was not contending that the taxing of necessaries was not injurious to labourers, but that it was no more injurious to them than any other mode of taxation. In fact, all taxation had a tendency to injure the labouring classes, because it either diminished the fund employed in the maintenance of labour, or checked its accumulation. In the argument which he had used, he had supposed that it was necessary to raise a certain sum by taxes, and then the question was whether by taxing necessaries, the burthen would be particularly borne by the labouring classes. He thought not—he was of opinion that they would ultimately fall on the employers of labour, and would be only prejudicial to the labourers in the same way as most other taxes would be, inasmuch as they would diminish the fund employed in the support of labour.

After a desultory conversation, the question was put, That the clause should stand part of the bill, and carried.—The chancellor of the exchequer, in moving to fill up the blanks in the clause which followed, proposed that 3d. per bushel, in part payment of the new duty, should become due on the 10th of Nov. next; 3d. further on the 10th of Jan., 1820; 4d. on the 10th of Feb.; and the residue on the 10th of April. On its being understood that this was the clause which provided for taxing the stock in hand, a division took place: For the clause, 175; Against it, 67. On the clause imposing an additional duty of 1s. 2d. on every bushel of malt, from the 5th of July, making the whole duty per bushel 3s. 6d., a division took place: For the clause, 171; Against it, 82. On the clause imposing an additional excise duty of 4 per cent on tea being read, several members spoke against it. At length, Mr. Wilson proposed, as an amendment to the clause—" that 96 per cent be paid on all teas sold at the sale, at or under 2s. per lb.; and 100 per cent on all sold for more than 2s. per lb." The chancellor of the exchequer expressed his willingness to adopt this proposition. The clause as amended was then agreed to, and the House resumed.