HC Deb 05 April 1821 vol 5 cc42-50
Mr. Curwen

rose to bring forward his promised motion for the repeal of the tax upon Horses employed in Agriculture. Against this proposition, he felt that the same objections could not apply, which were urged upon the measure of his hon. friend the member for Essex, with regard to the repeal of the malt tax. For the tax to which his motion would refer, operated in a most unequal manner, pressing most severely upon those who had to cultivate the waste land, while it was, to a certain extent, oppressive upon all farmers, especially of the smaller class. There was, indeed, scarcely a farmer who bad not reason to complain of the operation of this tax; for what farmer could conscientiously swear that he never used any of his agricultural horses for any other purpose than farming? and if he did not so swear, the horse otherwise used was charged as a saddle-horse. There was this material difference between the malt tax, and that to which he referred, that while it was maintained, that the repeal of the former would confer no benefit on the agriculturist or the consumer, no such argument could be used in the present case, as the repeal of the agricultural horse tax would be an immediate boon to the farmers. The present tax too, was in amount much less than that of the malt tax; and therefore it could be the more easily dispensed with. This tax was, indeed, so exceptionable, that he was surprised at its original enactment. But the unequal operation of it was peculiarly to be deprecated. For instance, if a farmer had four horses, three were charged at 17s. each as agricultural horses, and the fourth was set down as a saddle horse at 20s., although such horse had never a saddle upon his back or any thing more in that shape than a whisp of straw; in addition to which 10s. 6d. was charged for a groom. Hence it appeared, that if a farmer possessed 50 acres of land, with four horses, he was subject to a tax of above 51. a-year for his horses and supposed groom. He trusted that such a case would attract the attention of the noble lord (Castlereagh), as the friend of agriculture, if the chancellor of the exchequer were even determined to be deaf to the appeal. That appeal was for the consideration due in common equity to those who had bad or inferior lands to cultivate. But another consideration was due to the farmers in the northern counties, compared to those in other districts. For instance, he had been told by his hon. friend, the member for Norfolk (Mr. Coke), that he could plough sixty days more in the year in his county than could be done in Cumberland. Did not this fact, then, entitle the farmers in the northern counties to somewhat more of attention upon the subject of taxation? But the manner in which the farmers were occasionally surcharged was peculiarly grievous. One grievance of this nature had come to his knowledge. A small farmer of 70 years of age, who, when in better circumstances, was a sportsman, was proceeding with his horse to market, having some articles for sale, but, happening to meet a party engaged in fox-hunting, he could not resist the attraction, and therefore throwing down his goods, he mounted his horse and followed the hounds. Was not this a case which ought to be excused from the penalty of using an agricultural horse for any but agricultural purposes? Yet, in this case, an informer appeared, and the poor old farmer was actually surcharged. He called upon ministers to devise some means of relieving the farmers from such oppression, and to contrive a more equal distribution of the taxes. By this remission, 2s. 6d. a week might be added to the weekly wages of every day labourer in England, and that would be an addition, which would lead to various results advantageous to the country. He was confident, that the low price of corn was not owing to an over-production, but to an under-consumption, in consequence of the comparative inability of the labouring classes to purchase. These classes could not, indeed, afford to buy as formerly, and hence consumption had fallen off, which circumstance naturally led to a fall of prices. Some gentlemen professed to think; that the distress of agriculture was in a great measure owing to the quantity of bad land in cultivation, but, if it were not for the cultivation of these lands, with all their disadvantage to the farmers, the surplus produce of all Europe, or of the world, would not be sufficient to supply the wants of this country. The produce of our bad lands generally supplied the consumption of the country for two months in the year, and that was more than had ever been imported. It had been stated, that if the import of corn were free from restriction, those who sent it would take the produce of our manufactures in return; and hence, it was argued, that our commerce and manufactures would be enriched by the unrestrained import of corn. But who were the persons by whom it was expected our manufactured goods would be taken in exchange for corn? There were now no corn-merchants on the continent—Monarchs were, at present, the only great corn-dealers abroad. The king of Sweden was, indeed, one of the first corn-merchants. And, if our ports should be at present opened, the greatest supply of corn to be looked for was from the king of Denmark, who had a vast quantity of corn in store, and who was still a greater dealer in corn than the king of Sweden. And, if the king of Denmark should send us corn, who could suppose, that his majesty would take our hardware or woollen manufactures in return? No. This monarch, like any other foreign dealer in corn, would require from us either bullion or bills in payment for his corn.—But he hoped and trusted, that our ports would never again be opened for the import of corn, and that this country would always be able to grow enough for its own consumption, instead of looking for any foreign supply. This, however, could not be the case, if the low or inferior soils were thrown out of culture. But, if those lands were thrown out of cultivation, what was to become of the people who were at present employed in labouring upon them? Were those labourers thrown out of employment, there would be no resource for them but the poor's-rate, the amount of which was already enormous.—Another subject of complaint among the farmers was, the delay which took place in judging upon surcharges. This delay was a source of great vexation and injury. For example, a farmer happened to find, that the application of a metallic spring to a cart would serve most materially to facilitate labour—to give the power, indeed, of two horses to a one-horse cart. But, as soon as the use of the spring was discovered, he was actually surcharged for a gig. But this farmer deeming it quite impossible, that he should be ultimately required to pay 6l. 12s. for the use of such an improvement, continued the use of it, and 12 months having elapsed before the judgment was pronounced, he had to pay the year's tax as well as the surcharge. It was the duty of the chancellor of the exchequer to look to a case of this nature. But, he called upon the right hon. gentleman to turn his attention to the several taxes which pressed upon the necessaries of life, and bore down the labouring classes. It would be not only a measure of benevolence, but of wisdom, to repeal all those taxes, and, in lieu thereof, to impose an income tax of 5 per cent. To such a tax no rational objection could be made; for, while it would afford great relief to the labouring classes, it would press only upon the rich, including alike the fundholder and the landholder. If such an income-tax were proposed as a substitute for the malt, the salt, and the leather taxes, with those upon soap and candles, it would, he had no doubt, be hailed as a most auspicious measure by all considerate and candid men. This tax upon income would, too, serve very amply to indemnify the treasury for the repeal of the several duties which he had mentioned. Such a substitute would have another material advantage—that it would save the country from great expense in the collection of the revenue, as well as put an end to that patronage of which he feared that government were always too tenacious. But the mode in which the taxes upon the necessaries of life were collected, had some peculiarities which must strike the House with surprise. Would it be believed that two millions of those taxes were exacted for paupers who had really nothing to pay; that one-fourth of their entire annual produce was actually paid upon the necessaries consumed by parish paupers—by those, indeed, who subsisted upon the bounty of others? But how many labourers, who could not subsist upon their present wages, and who therefore were obliged to resort to some parochial aid, were among the contributors to the payment of those taxes? If, then, those taxes were repealed, such persons could subsist upon their wages, and avoid the disgrace of applying for parochial relief. Another circumstance was this—that if the land continued to fall off in price, the paupers could not be maintained without resorting to the towns where the manufacturers and mechanics were scarcely in a state to afford any relief without injuring, if not sacrific- ing themselves. But the great object of the legislature, in every view, should be to support agriculture. The manufactories could, notoriously, produce one-third more than any market could be found for. They still, however, could go on well, if their best customers, the agriculturists, were enabled to purchase more of their commodities. The hon. member concluded with moving "That leave be given to bring in a bill to repeal so much-of the acts of the 43rd and 52nd Geo. 3, and the 2nd of his present majesty, as imposes certain duties on Agricultural Horses, and other horses employed in leading lime, coal, and other merchandize."

Sir W. W. Wynn

supported the motion, because he thought its principle unobjectionable. At the same time, he should have preferred that his hon. friend had postponed it until after the bringing up of the report of the agricultural committee.

Sir C. Burrell,

after declaring his concurrence with the principle of the motion, expressed a wish, that it had been postponed until the report of the agricultural committee were brought up. The unequal pressure of the existing tax could not be denied. For instance, where land required lime, which was particularly the case with lands of inferior quality, additional horses must be employed to carry it; for oxen, although they answered the purpose of agriculture in the field, could not carry great weights for any distance upon the roads. Under all the circumstances, he trusted his hon. friend would consent to postpone his motion.

Mr. Davenport

expressed his concurrence with the motion, but wished it to be postponed until after the agricultural committee had made its report.

Mr. Benett,

of Wilts, approved of the motion, and saw no necessity for its postponement.

Mr. Curwen

said, that if the right hon. gentleman opposite would pledge himself to meet the question at a future period, he would withdraw his motion.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, he wished to know the degree of importance which the agricultural committee would attach to the repeal of this tax. Unless they considered its repeal of great importance to the agricultural interests, he thought no benefit arising from it could equal the inconvenience which would result, in a financial point of view, from the subtraction of so large a sum as 500,000l. a year from the revenue.

Sir T. Lethbridge

was satisfied, that the country would consider the repeal of the tax as a great relief. He did not wish to undervalue the opinion of the committee up stairs; he must say that he thought it would be much better for the House to grant this small boon to the agriculturists at the present moment.

Mr. Gipps

hoped the hon. member would not press his motion, but bring it forward again after the committee should have made their report. He was convinced if ministers would put their shoulders to the wheel, that they would be able to find means of raising 500,000l. in a manner more serviceable to the country.

Mr. Ricardo

said, he should certainly give his support to the motion. He should do so on the same principle on which he had voted for repealing the last duty on malt, not because it was in itself a bad tax, or pressed with peculiar hardship on the landed interest, but with a view of compelling the observance of strict economy in the administration of government. It was his belief that the whole amount of the malt tax might be saved by measures of economy; and as he looked upon the sinking fund to be utterly useless—to be at this moment unproductive of one single good effect—he was quite disposed to abrogate every tax so long as any portion of that fund remained in existence. The hon. mover had stated, that foreign monarchs were embarking in the corn trade, that they were becoming merchants, and that the king of Sweden was importing oats into this country. Now if this were the fact, he for one should rather rejoice at it, because he should expect to make much better bargains with kings and princes than with their subjects. The hon. gentleman, however, need not be under any alarm; for if, as he represented, these trading potentates would not take back our hardware and pottery in exchange, and would receive nothing but bullion, there was a sufficient security for our continuing to grow our own corn.

Mr. Baring

expressed his regret at hearing this question argued with reference to the conflicting interests of different classes of the community. It gave him some surprise to find his hon. friend treating a great national subject in a way which, practically considered, he must pronounce extraordinary and almost absurd. He was now alluding chiefly to what fell from his hon. friend in relation to the sinking fund. At the same time he felt it his duty to observe, that those gentlemen who had given their uniform support to ministers through a long and extravagant administration, and who had enabled them to spare the country from a large amount of direct taxes by means of successive loans, did come forward with a very bad grace to propose and recommend the cheating (for it was no less) of the persons who had advanced those loans. The impression which their reasonings were calculated to produce was, to be sure, not very considerable; and he relied too much on the moral feelings of the country, to apprehend that they would ever acquire much popularity either in the House or elsewhere. With regard to the sinking fund, it might be very natural to some to treat it with contempt; but that a person of his hon. friend's ingenuity and sound principles should speak of it as utterly useless, and express a readiness to do away with every tax that contributed to support it, astonished him not a little. When his hon. friend was thus willing to surrender the last sixpence of the sinking fund, he (Mr. B.) could have wished him to amplify his argument, and to lay before the House those views under which he conceived that our financial system ought to be conducted. If his hon. friend had objected only to the mode of keeping the accounts of the sinking fund, he was perfectly ready to concur with him, for it was calculated only to puzzle and confuse. But to say that a sinking fund ought not to be maintained, was in effect to say that the country should go on borrowing, as long as fools enough could be found to lend their money, and that no security should be offered to the creditor. With respect to the repeal of the present tax, he did not think it was calculated to afford much relief to the agricultural interests; nor did he think that much more information than gentlemen already possessed upon the subject, was likely to be obtained by waiting for the report of the committee. For his own part, he had always considered the maintenance of the finances of the country an object of essential importance; and he thought the country would be better able to engage in any contest, or cope with any difficulties, with a strong finance than with a strong military or naval establishment.

Mr. Calcraft

said, he was desirous to keep up the financial credit of the coun- try as his hon. friend could possibly be; but with respect to the question of keeping up a sinking fund, it was necessary to consider how far the comforts and means of the people would enable us to do so. Such was the state of the country, and such the situation of particular classes of the community, that it was better, even with a view to keeping up the national credit, to relax a certain part of the public burthen, than to press the people to extremity. Let our army and navy establishments be reduced, and that reduction would afford the very means of keeping up the sinking fund. He did not object to the sinking fund, but to the manner in which it was employed. The sinking fund was, in fact, a hoard of money kept up at a great expense, and taken from the people at inconvenient periods, and by hard means. It was a large treasure amassed under, the name of a sinking fund, and lavished at pleasure by the government. Was that the way to save the resources of the people? The money would be much safer, he contended, in the pockets of the people, both as a security for themselves, and a resource for the state, than it was even in the hands of the commissioners for discharging the public debt. With respect to the motion, he should support it if his hon. friend pressed it to a division.

Lord Milton

feared, that the distress of the agricultural classes was not duly appreciated. It seemed to him that the best course would be, to allow his hon. friend to bring in his bill, and then to suspend its stages till they were in possession of further information.

Mr. Curwen

said, that under the circumstances, he did not deem it advisable to press his motion; but, in withdrawing it, he wished to reserve to himself the liberty of again bringing it forward, if there should be no prospect of the committee making an early report.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that nothing could be more fair than that the hon. gentleman should retain the option of reviving his motion if the report of the committee should be delayed beyond this session. His own object certainly was, to perceive what was the degree of importance attached to the tax in question by the committee. All that he had to observe at present was, that he did not see what material relief would be afforded by its repeal, and did not know what substitute could be proposed.

Mr. Bright

gave notice, that he should resist the introduction of any substitute in the event of the tax being repealed.

The motion was then withdrawn.