HC Deb 20 May 1819 vol 40 cc593-7

The House having resolved itself into a committee on the Irish Illicit Distillation acts,

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

proposed a resolution, that leave be given to bring in a bill, "to limit the continuance of the operation of the several acts for imposing Fines upon Townlands and places in Ireland, in respect of offences relating to the unlawful distillation of Spirits, and to amend the said acts, and to provide for the more effectual prevention or suppression of such offences." He intimated that it was his intention, in the event of his obtaining leave to bring in this bill, to accompany it with several regulations, which would, he trusted, in the interim, obviate many' of the objections that had been made to the present mode of preventing illicit distillation in Ireland. It was known that in the barony of Innishowen, where illicit distillation at one time raged, it was effectually extinguished by the energy of an effective police; now his intention was, that wherever this police was established, and effectively acted upon, no townland fines should be levied, and that after the summer of the ensuing year, the effect of the measure should be reviewed. He wished, in the interim, to have a clause in force, giving any county a power to apply to the lord lieutenant to call into action, in the particular district, the townland fine system where it might be deemed necessary. He was also prepared to mitigate the operation of the existing practice, and instead of levying the fine where the head or worm of a still was found concealed, only, to levy it where the machine was found complete. Another mitigation would be, to bar the infliction of fines after three years. In the event of a county calling in the aid of the police system, it was intended that government should pay one-half of the expense, and the county the other. With respect to the encouragement of small stills, he thought such a measure could be better introduced in a separate bill. He concluded by moving, "That the chairman be instructed to ask for leave to bring in the said bill."

Sir J. Newport

did not rise on the present occasion to oppose this motion. No man was more anxious than he was to protect the innocent and punish the guilty. But he was afraid that the effect of this measure would be to divert from the resources of the country a portion of the revenue of Ireland; and when this result was known, then they would be taunted with the unproductive nature of their revenue, though in fact the defalcation was occasioned by mismanagement. Though he had strong objections to the motion, on account of what he considered would be its effect upon the revenue, yet he had a still greater and more insuperable objection to what he conceived would be its operation upon the morals of the people. The effect of the existing system had been, he thought, in a great degree, to rescue a large portion of the lower classes from the miserable condition into which they had been previously sunk by the practice of illicit distillation. He sincerely hoped his predictions, that a repeal of the existing law would renew the old evil, would not follow. He honestly and fairly thought the proposed measure a bad one, and that it would induce a recurrence of the old evil. Being of this opinion, he would certainly in a future stage oppose the bill.

Mr. Chichester

expressed his cordial satisfaction that the attention of ministers had been at length drawn to the abominable operation of the townland fine system in Ireland. He had always been of opinion, that the moment the evils and distresses which that system provoked were fully explained to the House, redress would be inevitably obtained; and the result verified his anticipation. The proposition of the right hon. gentleman was, to substitute another, and a modified measure for that which was now in such oppressive operation. He earnestly hoped the alteration would succeed, and answer every fair purpose. Whether it did or not, no consideration should induce him to countenance a continuance of the townland fine system. Independent of its notorious inefficiency, he had a fundamental objection to it, which would not be shaken if even the existing system was successful instead of being unavailing—this objection was, that it was unconstitutional and unprincipled—it broke down the barriers between the guilty and the innocent, and punished with indiscriminate severity.

Mr. Valentine Blake

urged the necessity, in whatever measures were taken, of keeping in full view the necessity of suppressing illicit distillation, which was so fruitful of evil. He did not believe the existing law to be so unjust and improper as it had been represented to be, nor did he hope for much good from the proposed measure.

Sir J. Stewart

felt himself bound to go hand in hand with the chancellor of the exchequer, in using every exertion to render his meditated measure available. Nobody doubted the necessity of suppressing illicit distillation; but the consequences of the townland fine system were dreadful, and could no longer be endured.

General Hart

said, that the operation of the existing system was so oppressive and intolerable in Ireland that no change could be for the worse. In fact, the people would have preferred the terrors of martial-law to the continuance of the townland fine system. It was, indeed, the same thing. The only difference was, that the people were oppressed by disciplined troops in a brown uniform instead of a red; and instead of having, in cases of outrage, the protection of honourable men on courts-martial, they had a court of excise, which he was sorry to say, showed no disposition to mitigate the oppression of the system, and which constituted in itself the separate offices of judge, jury, and executioner. The experiment, as it was called, of the townland fine system, was bad; it failed to produce any thing but indiscriminate oppression wherever it had been tried—look, for instance, at the county of Donegal, where armies of excisemen were let loose upon the people— their motive was their rewards, and their rewards were provided by the existing law: fraud, and chicanery, and cunning, were sure to triumph. He had for a considerable period called the attention of the House to the oppression of the existing system in Ireland; he had repeatedly moved for papers with the view of exposing its monstrous effects. His motions were either met with an unseemly refusal, or when carried, their effect re- tarded, he might almost say lost, by the dilatory manner in which the orders of the House had been obeyed. Three separate motions had been in succession made for the production of papers ordered by the House, and it was only when the terror of committal was resorted to that they were found to be forthcoming. He was glad to find the eyes and ears of ministers open to this question; and he was sure, now that they looked at the existing oppression with a serious intention of removing it, they would find the most cordial co-operation, on the part of the gentlemen of Ireland, in suppressing illicit distillation, which, besides being the bane of the morals of the people, withdrew their labours and attention from the cultivation of the soil, which pro tanto subtracted from the wealth of the country, by diminishing the rent of the landlord, and operating injuriously upon the profit of the labourer.

Mr. Hutchinson

stated, that, as the representative of a city which contained a large body of opulent distillers, whose interests were at stake, he thought, on their part, he had a right to complain of the conduct of his majesty's government on this question. They first displayed a decided hostility to this motion; they then yielded to their opponents, and without notice, or giving any reason for changing sides, took the opposite course; the consequence of which was, from its versatility, very injurious to the interests of the chief distillers of Ireland. He begged to guard himself against any idea of being supposed to countenance the means by which the townland fine system was carried into execution in Ireland. No man could suspect him of countenancing arbitrary or oppressive proceedings; but he still thought the chancellor of the exchequer, after his avowal upon the subject, had placed himself in rather a perilous alternative, in submitting to the abandonment of a system which, according to his opinion, had considerably tended to put down illicit distillation in Ireland. A great alarm prevailed respecting the intended measure for the establishment of small stills. He hoped the right hon. gentleman would not overlook the protection and consideration which was due to the existing large distilleries. He hoped that full time would be given to have this bill printed, so as to let the large distillers understand the situation in which they would be placed by the alteration.

Lord Mount Charles

strongly contended against the evils of the existing law. He did not wish to see any interest unequally operated upon, but he denied the right or the power of the larger distilleries to impose restrictions upon the operation of a measure which, he was persuaded, would have a most salutary tendency. The county of Donegal, was an example of the oppressive effect of the existing system.

Mr. French

reprobated the existing system. On the Connaught circuit the calculation was, that it annually led in that district to a thousand perjuries. He was sure that the alteration of the law would have the support of ninety-nine out of the hundred Irish members.

Mr. Hutchinson

repeated, that the measure was not likely to produce universal satisfaction. He had that day attended a most respectable meeting of Irish distillers, who were certainly at sea upon the question. They had had communications with the chancellor of the exchequer, but were by no means satisfied with the projected measure.

Sir N. Colthurst

said, that the only object, and he thought it a fair one, of the Irish distillers was, after having embarked large capitals on the faith, he might say, of parliament, to be protected against the consequences of an alteration in the chancellor of the exchequer's system.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that some of the Irish distillers had waited upon him that morning, in a state of considerable alarm; but, previously to their leaving him, they did not seem dissatisfied at his projected measure, while they certainly wished, and very naturally, for protection for themselves.

Mr. Forbes

congratulated general Hart on the perseverance he had shown, in bringing this question to what he trusted would be a successful termination.

Leave was given to bring in the bill.