HC Deb 02 March 1819 vol 39 cc769-76
Mr. E. J. Littleton

presented a petition from the merchants and manufacturers of the town of Wolverhampton, against tire Equalization of the Duty on Goals. The district to which this town belonged, contained a population of 150,000 inhabitants, who were chiefly engaged in the manufacture of hardware of a coarse description, the price of which depended in a very material degree on the price of coals. A tax of 1s. a ton on coals would add 13s. 6d. to the price of a ton of iron in Staffordshire. An hon. member had said, that a tax of 1s. per ton on coals levied at the pit's mouth all over the island, would produce a sum equal to the whole amount of duty at present raised; whereas it would require a duty of at least 2s. 6d. or 3s. per ton at the pit's mouth, in order to raise a duty equal to the present amount. But the result would be most prejudicial to the iron manufacturers. He wished to notice a statement made some nights ago by the hon. member for Bristol, respecting the present flourishing state of the iron manufactures. So far was this from being true, that these manufacturers were at present in a state of extreme distress. It was, indeed, true that the smelters of iron were at present in a state of considerable prosperity; but the manufacturers of smaller articles were considerably distressed. The manufacturers of nails in particular, after working 13 or 14 hours every day were not able to earn more than 9s. per week.

Mr. Morgan

expressed his hostility to the equalization of the tax on coals. Those on whom the impost would fall, if an alteration took place, were, at present, scarcely able to earn their subsistence, and it would be unfair to deprive them of any advantage which their local situation afforded.

Mr. Protheroe

said, the hon. member for Staffordshire accused him of having fallen into a mistake, when he observed, that his constituents were in a prosperous situation. It appeared, from what the hon. member had said, that great distress prevailed amongst some of them. He would tell the hon. member, that a great deal of that distress arose from the high price of coals, which was occasioned by the great quantity of that article exported from Staffordshire, owing to the coasting duty. In the manufacture of earthenware, and in other branches of trade, great injury was experienced from the existing system.

Sir Isaac Coffin

said, that the proposition for equalizing, as it was called, the duty on coals, would be virtually to wage war against poverty and penury. If the tax were taken off in London, it would be laid on at the pit's mouth and would thus press heavily on the poor. As to the ironmasters, they would, no doubt, take good care of themselves. The hon. gentleman who supported the equalization, would not be backward in placing an additional 2s. per ton on his iron, in order to meet the increased expense.

Sir R. Wilson

said, that this question ought not to be decided by feelings of prejudice, but by a just view of the necessity of the case. If the duty now levied were generally beneficial to the country, why ought it not to be borne by the country at large? Could the hon. member for Staffordshire justify the imposing a partial tax, on a particular part of the community, the produce of which was applied to the benefit of the country generally?

Sir James Graham

said, it had been reported, that a tax was about to be laid on coals at the mouth of the pit. He could not suppose that there was any such intention on the part of the government, and he could say for himself that he never would support such a measure.

Mr. Littleton

wished to know, if gentleman did not intend to impose the duty on coals at the pit's mouth, what was the meaning of the term equalization, which was to be found in all the petitions. Whether they meant to impose a duty on coals at the pit's mouth or not, he believed they would not be able to alter the present system. This he was convinced of, whether he looked to the spirit which was every where rising against the alteration, or to the impracticability of the thing itself. So far back as 1785, Mr. Pitt had made a similar plan of equalization, part of his budget; but, in a few days, he was obliged to give it up; for he found, that, if the manufacturers were exempted from the tax as in justice they ought to be, the modifications would be so numerous as to create great confusion and inconvenience. The hon. member for Southwark inquired, whether he would recommend a partial tax? That was a question which it was not necessary for him to answer. Of this he was sure, that an alteration of the nature intended could not be made in the existing laws, without producing a most injurious revulsion in trade. He begged also to remind the hon. member for Southwark, that though his constituents paid a considerable duty on coals, they derived many advantages from their situation which individuals in the country parts of the kingdom did not possess. Almost all the workers of coals in that part of the country which he represented were lessees, and they had recently experienced considerable hardships. Two honest and upright individuals had been obliged to throw up their leases, and the landlords were compelled to keep on working the mines at a great expense. The poor-rates also were so extravagantly high in that part of the country, that the utmost difficulty was found in their collection. Had it not been for a noble peer, whose name, from motives of delicacy, he would not mention (lord Dudley and Ward), the state of the poor would have been deplorable indeed. That humane individual had sacrificed a great portion of his income, for the purpose of keeping the poor employed; and the population thus assisted exhibited an instance of order and loyalty (industry they could not exhibit, for it was not within their reach), which was scarcely to be witnessed in any other part of England

Sir R. Wilson

conceived it to be a great hardship, that the poor of Southwork, and of London should pay 9s. 10d. duty per chaldron on their coals, while the poor in some parts of the country did not pay one farthing.

Mr. Alderman Waithman

said, there was at present no proposition before the House for laying a tax generally on coals; but, having attended several meetings in the city, assembled for the purpose of considering the propriety of carrying into effect an equalization of the duty on coals, he wished briefly to state his sentiments on the subject. At none of those meetings did he perceive a wish or feeling to heap any burthen in the shape of a tax on their fellow subjects in the country. Those who met to consult on the subject wished to be relieved from this duty altogether. He was not himself a friend to taxation, and he felt its pressure pretty severely; but he had no desire, in getting rid of it, that other persons should bear the burthen for him. They wished to protect themselves from a very serious grievance. The citizens of London paid 9s. 10d. per chaldron on coals; added to which were the expense of freightage, the profit to the merchant, and other incidental charges, all which ultimately fell on the poor consumer, as well as on the rich one; therefore, it was that the city of London prayed for an alteration. Now, if the tax were not wholly given up, it was but fair that it should be equalized. It was not fair for gentlemen who procured coals, without any duty whatever, and manufacturers who had iron, lime, and coal, ready to their hands, to complain that they would be grievously oppressed if an equalization took place. The manufacturers in London were obliged to bear up against a variety of heavy expenses, not one of which affected the manufacturer in the country. The fact was, that in London the poor could not buy coals for their necessary consumption. Subscriptions were entered into every winter, either to purchase coals to be given away to the poor gratis, or to let them have that necessary of life at a very cheap rate. The manufacturers in the country should recollect, when they opposed an alteration in the duty on coals, that the citizens of London, who suffered so much from the existing tax, were very extensive customers for their commodities. Would those individuals who owned coal mines, and who had a monopoly of the coal trade, feel well pleased if the city of London were allowed to procure coals elsewhere? He had been told that there were coals in the soil of Blackheath—[Hear, and a laugh]—and in various parts of Sussex. It mattered not whether the statement were true or not; but he would ask, whether the coal owners would be pleased, if their customers endeavoured to serve themselves from sources nearer home? On one small stream, the Wandle, in the vicinity of London, there was a greater extent of manufactures carried on, than on any other river of the same size in his majesty's dominions. The property employed in that district was considerably lessened in value, in consequence of the duty on coals; and, he believed, precisely the same observation would apply to all the manufactories in and near London. Now, he could see no good reason for protecting the country manufacturer, at the same time that no such encouragement was extended to him who carried on business in town.

Colonel Wood

hoped that the agitators of this question would make up their minds with respect to what they really wanted, before they came to parliament. If he rightly understood the hon. alderman, the citizens of London wished for a total repeal of the tax. If this were the case, those who opposed the alteration, need not trouble themselves further about the matter, the hon. alderman and the chancellor of the exchequer could settle it between them. If, however, the hon. alderman did not succeed in his object, he hoped he would not attempt to throw the burthen from his own shoulders, and place it on the blacks of others. When the question came to be debated, it would be found that the city of London had not a shadow of foundation for the complaints that were made. The citizens of London had the advantage of the cheapness of manufactures, and were not affected by those unfavourable circumstances which operated in the country. The duty on sea-borne coal was equal throughout the kingdom. It was, he believed, 6s. per chaldron. Three shillings had been laid on in the port of London, to form a fund for the building of fifty churches. What he would ask, had the people of Wales to do with this? Why, should they pay a tax on that account? There was 1s. 3d. added for the Orphans' Fund; 2s per chaldron for another charge; and 6d. per chaldron for the duke of Richmond's tax. But he would tell the corporation of London, how they could * have coals cheap. There was a large stone on the river Thames, below Staines. Now, if they would remove that stone a little down the river, as far, for instance, as Blackfriars-bridge, he would answer for it that coals would be sold in Lon-don at as cheap a rate as they were now procured in the country.

Mr. W. Littelton

thought this a very serious question. If he ever knew a period in which it would be harsh and cruel to lay an additional tax on the coal districts, it was at this time, when so much distress prevailed throughout the country. The equalization of taxes had, indeed, a great appearance of justice, but at this period of our history it was not practicable. If any new measure were to be adopted, he thought a far greater proportion should be borne by the metropolis than any other part of the kingdom. He wished to know if there was any intention on the part of ministers to make this a question of theirs. As he did not see the chancellor of the exchequer in his place, he hoped the hon. secretary of the treasury would be able to give an answer. It was essential to know whether ministers, with the knowledge which they had of the distress of the country meant to impose any new lax.

Mr. Lushington

said, he was not aware that it was the intention of ministers to propose any alteration whatever in the present duties.

Sir C. Mordaunt

said, he should not be performing his duty towards his constituents, if he did not protest against any alteration in the coal tax. The evil which this equalization, as it was called, would produce, could not be contemplated without feelings of alarm. He gave every credit to the hon. alderman, to the gallant officer, and to those who acted with them, for the purity of their intentions; but he trusted they never would be able to induce ministers to take up a question which would be most injurious to the country.

Sir M. W. Ridley

said, he would not enter into a discussion on the merits of the question, but would merely state the nature of the communication he had received from Newcastle on Tyne that day. The individuals connected with the trade, felt, as far as their own interests were concerned, that the equalization of the coal duty was very important; but they were of opinion that if such a plan were adopted, it would throw on their neigh- bours, and on the manufacturers of all England, situated near coal-mines, a most unjust and most oppressive burthen. He had received notice, that, in the course of a few days, a petition from the great body of the coal trade on the river Tyne, against such a measure would be transmitted to him. He had been attacked by a public writer, on account of his conduct at a meeting held on this subject. That writer asserted, that he had refused to agree to a tax on the coal at the pit's-mouth because he was the proprietor of a glasshouse in the north. This was a matter of very little importance to the House; but having been unjustly attacked, he deemed it necessary to repel the accusation. The fact was, he had a small fractional share in a glass house, so trifling, that if the tax were laid on at the pit's mouth, it would make scarcely any difference to him. He was hostile to the plan not from any private feeling, but because his public duty dictated to him the impropriety of sanctioning a measure which he believed would have very injurious effects.

Mr. Curwen

said, that, even in the coal counties, at a distance of twenty-five miles from the pit's-mouth, the consumer paid as much for his coals as the inhabitant of London. If this equalization took place, it would act as a most unjust and heavy impost.

Mr. Canning

took the liberty of suggesting to the House, whether the revival of this discussion on every petition that was presented, by which the regular course of business was interrupted, could be considered the best mode of bringing the question to a rational conclusion? Was it not more likely to disgust the House, and prevent them from entertaining the subject cordially, when it came before them in a regular shape? As there was no objection to laying the petition on the table, he trusted the discussion would end here.

Mr. Bennet

wished to correct a very idle and absurd idea which was entertained in the city of London, namely, that coals were to be found in the neighbourhood of Blackheath, and that a monopoly was granted to the coal owners in the north, which was still more absurd if possible. Such stories put him in mind of an unfortunate gentleman, who imagined he had discovered a coal mine near Oxford, and who, in consequence, formed a rail-way and almost excavated a canal, but after an immense expense, he was obliged to give up the speculation as a mere chimera.

Mr. Littleton

observed, that the way by which his right hon. friend could most effectually put an end to this question, was, by exerting his influence with the chancellor of the exchequer, and getting him to come down to the House with an open and manly declaration, that government had not only no intention of resorting to such a measure, but were so deeply impressed with the evils it would create, that they would oppose any attempt at an equalization of the coal tax.

Ordered to lie on the table.