HC Deb 16 April 1821 vol 5 cc264-73

The order of the day being read for going into a committee on this bill, Mr. Wallace moved, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the chair."

Mr. J. P. Grant

said, that it was his intention to move as an amendment that the question should again be referred to a committee. The learned member proceeded to argue, that the duties contemplated by the bill, went to impose a tax of 600,000l. upon the country. He contended that the principle of free trade ought to be acted upon in this trade. Independent of the protection given to Canada, the present bill rendered us tributary to Russia, for 160,000l. a year, for no other reason than because we would not have the deals of Norway. He would ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer, if he refused to give up a tax like the Malt tax, pressing with the greatest severity upon the country, because the revenue must be kept up, how he could feel himself in a condition to allow a drawback to Russia of 160,000l. and to the colonies of 450,000l. a year. The learned member expressed his surprise at the report which the committee had made. He thought their determination must have been made under the existence of some miraculous mistake; for they bestowed industry enough in examining the question, and the principles upon which they ought to have acted were perfectly clear and intelligible. All that was said in vindication of the principles of the bill with respect to Canada was, that if the protecting duties were not afforded, machinery to the value of 150,000l. would be destroyed. If any losses of this kind would ensue, in God's name grant compensation. His object was to refer the subject again to the committee. He should propose that 2l. 15s. should be the duty upon Baltic timber. All deals, according to their cubical contents, should be subject to the charge of 3l. 15s. Upon American timber he should propose 15s. for the first year, and 5s. more for the second, and ten for the third year, which would be equal to the difference in freight. The learned member concluded by moving as an amendment, "That this House do resolve itself into a committee of the whole House to consider further of the duties on timber."

Mr. Wallace

said, he was glad of the opportunity of obviating a few of the objections to his proposition which had before been stated in the House, and had that night been reiterated by the hon. gentleman, who had prefaced his amendment by an outline of certain measures expedient to be adopted, but in the propriety of which he could not concur. When he had himself first brought a measure forward visibly affecting the interests of the colonies, he had naturally anticipated a great deal of opposition. As he expected, it had proceeded principally from quarters connected with those colonies; but he would candidly avow that he had not anticipated so extensive, so detailed an opposition as he had experienced. He had rather startled at the proposition which had been just insisted on by the hon. gentleman, that there was nothing in this subject which he had particularly to attend to but the interests of the British consumers. He differed greatly on this point from the hon. gentleman. He thought that he was justified in taking a much more enlarged and important range, and such a one as the magnitude of the subject seemed to him to require. As to the report of the committee on foreign trade in the other House, he was disposed to admit the general correctness of the principle there laid down, and quoted by the hon. gentleman; bat he was yet to learn that his own proposition was incompatible with that general principle. As to the various hypotheses which had been so often discussed, as arising out of this subject, a question might hereafter arise (although he sincerely hoped it never would), upon the employment of foreign bottoms in preference to English ones, on account of the cheaper freight payable to the foreigner; but surely it was not necessary for him to enter by anticipation, upon the merits of so difficult and so ungrateful a matter. And the same might be observed of an almost infinite variety of other propositions; which, although they might naturally enough present themselves in the course of the argument, he could scarcely be required to go into, unless they bore immediately upon the subject to which the attention of the House was about to be called in the committee. In the preparation of the measure which he had embodied in this bill, he had had very many interests to consult and to protect; and he could assure the House, that he had endeavoured to adjust them all upon the surest and most equitable principles. The hon. gentleman had said, that in consequence of the proposed measure, we were importing an article from Russia, at the yearly loss of 160,000l. of revenue; and that we were importing the same article from America and our colonies at a yearly loss of 450,000l. Now with respect to Russia the hon. gentleman's calculation might be right, assuming that the granting of a drawback was, pro tanto, a loss of revenue. But this remained to be demonstrated; and there were moreover many causes which might operate, supposing that no such drawback existed, to prevent either the consumer or the seller from deriving any proportionate benefit. Then, granting for a moment the assumption of the hon. gentleman, that by drawbacks on the timber exported from America and the colonies, we sustained a yearly loss of 450,000l. it did not follow that because the revenue settled so much loss, therefore 450,000l. was lost to the country; for what was the case? why, that ultimately the consumers derived the benefit of this circumstance; the effect being to make timber a cheaper article to the consumer. But the hon. gentleman had thrown out of view altogether what would be the effect of a competition which now, for the first time, the timber of certain countries would be able to sustain against the Norway timber in the market. In order to prove what might be anticipated from the future sort of competition, he would read a short statement to the House. In 1802, timber was at 5l. per load, or deducting the duty of 6s. 8d. it would be 4l. 13s. 4d. In 1820 it was 6l. the duty being 3l. 5s. left it 2l. 15s. Here then, the difference per load would be 1l. 18s. 4d. He ought to observe, that freights now were very low; and therefore that might produce a considerable share of the difference. But he would take the difference of freight as high as 18s. and then the net difference would be as 1l. 0s. 4d. The hon. gentleman said, that there were expected from those places to this country about 500,000 loads per year. Taking these at 1l. per load, the amount would be 500,000l. From this there was to be deducted the duty of 10s. per load, which on the same quantity would be 250,000l. reducing the sum to 250,000l. But against this must be set the new duty, computed at 1l. per load, and which, on the whole import, would amount to per year, 500,000l.; leaving a total of 750,000l. which gave a result of just 150,000l. per year more than the 600,000l. less by drawbacks, according to the statement of the hon. gentleman. These duties would necessarily have the effect of employing a great deal of shipping. The hon. gentleman had said that the interests of the colonies were of very little consequence in this question. For the sake of the argument, he would not dispute it; but it was evident that the immediate operation of this system of duties must be upon two interests, which would always be effected by them in a just and relative proportion. The benefit would alternate in this way, in proportion as the colonies had little, the shipping would have much; and when the shipping had little, the colonies would have much: therefore the proposition was as broad as it was long. These were the two important interests which had been, as he must conceive they always would be, considered to be mainly entitled to our attention and support. He meant to say that they were supported throughout the provisions of this bill, to the extent of those limits within which they could be justly and legitimately supported. As to the effect of the proposed provisions, if there was any distinction ascertained as between these interests, it was in favour of the colonies; because it was intended to introduce the article of the colonies to a competition in the market; and then as to the effect upon the consumer, it was obviously to make the article cheaper than he would otherwise have it. He had frequently stated his opinion upon the system of protecting duties generally. Generally speaking, he was adverse to that system, but he did not know how practically it could be done without. The present was a case of this nature; and here they would at least have the beneficial effects of moving a vast mass of British industry which otherwise would find no vent.—He must again advert to the frequency with which they had been told that they ought not to look to the ship-owner nor the grower, nor the seller, but only to the consumer, in the consideration of this question. Now, he felt that it was necessary to protect the producer or seller, as well as the consumer. The object of his proposition had been to rescue the existing system of duties from the excessive inequality and partiality with which it had appeared to bear on some classes of the community. He had found this system in full operation; and seeing too that under it certain countries had not obtained an equal share of advantage as to the circumstances under which the article of their growth entered the market with other countries; he had felt exceedingly desirous of remodelling and reconsidering the whole of these duties. His great objection to the hon. gentleman's proposition of laying the duty according to the cubical contents of the timber was this—that the effect of such a measure would be to give to one country a complete monopoly of the trade; and to work to the other a complete loss of it. In all the numerous representations which had been forwarded to him upon the subject of his bill, the parties, however much at variance with each other in their statements, opinions, and suggestions, were all wonderfully agreed as to one point—the propriety of securing this monopoly to Norway. The effect of the hon. gentleman's suggestion would be, to raise the duty on the timber of Russia to 30l. or something more; and to reduce it on that of Norway to somewhere about 14l.; so that there would be a difference in the duty imposed on the article of the two countries, of 16l. in favour of Norway. It was clear, therefore, that by the imposition of such an altered duty as that proposed, the monopoly of the trade would rest with Norway. The proposition of the hon. gentleman went to take the duty upon the sawing as well as on the cubical contents; and it was one which, in fact, went to give a protection to the saw in this country. Here then, a new system of protection was submitted to the House; a proposition to be sure, which was in admirable consistence with those principles of free trade, and the abolition of monopolies and protections, which the hon. gentleman himself had been so warmly advocating. Then, with respect to raising the duties on American timber, the hon. gentleman who had complained of that proposal must certainly labour under some error; for he would find, on looking at the evidence, that the far greater part of the witnesses who had been examined had expressed an opinion that a duty of 30s. would be by no means too much for the purposes of protection in the market; and upon the whole of their evidence, he (Mr. W.) was prepared to say that he did not think they could, consistently with a due regard for the safety of all interests concerned, impose a duty of less than 2l. per load on the Canadian timber. The House must now decide between the proposition which he had submitted, and that which the hon. gentleman desired to bring forward. They would of course elect that which should be the most conducive to the interests of the country. The House would see that it had been an object with the committee not to raise the price of American timber, nor to recommend any arrangement that should have the effect of excluding the deals of Russia. Russia was a most valuable ally, and any such arrangement as that last mentioned would appear to be adopted for the sake of the exclusion. On the other hand, he certainly was not disposed, in the present state of political science, to encourage, by means of protecting laws, any branch of this trade which was not already in active existence.

Mr. W. Smith

said, he was inclined to vote for the amendment. All persons must admit that the shipping interest was one of the most important branches of our commercial prosperity; but it might still be a question whether it was wise to encourage it by sending ships ten times as far as was necessary for particular commodities. Could it be politic, or was it rational, to send to America, for what we might obtain at a lower price, and of a better quality, from the mouth of the Elbe? In fact, this was just as absurd, as it would be to send to the East Indies for the sugar which we could get from the West. It appeared to him to be altogether a mistaken view of policy, to aim at the advancement of our colonial interests, by purchasing from the colonies articles inferior to those which might be had nearer home. The whole capital vested in saw-mills and machinery was said to be very small in this country. But why was it so? Was it not because we had thought proper to encourage the importation of deals from Russia? As to what bad been said of the consumption he must observe, that every body was in some degree a consumer of timber. By equalizing the duties on such foreign timber as we imported, we should only withdraw from Russia a preference which she had hitherto enjoyed in defiance of every principle of trade. There were Norway merchants in this country who employed as great a capital as the proprietors of saw-mills in Canada, and he could not understand what advantage was to be derived from sacrificing the former to the latter. He regretted to say, that Norway had been for a long time very hardly treated by this country.

Mr. Marryat

said, that the principles maintained by the hon. gentleman were contrary to the whole system of our commercial policy, and if adopted would prove destructive, both of our shipping interests, and our manufactures. He now alluded particularly to that principle of buying every commodity in the nearest and cheapest market. The hon. gentleman had remarked that the effect of this measure would be to make us purchase an inferior article. But the representation was not quite accurate. The purchaser was under no compulsion: he might, if he chose to go to the additional expense, buy the article for which he had a predilection; and this was pretty much the state of things in every other department of commerce. To show the nature and tendency of monopoly in trade, reference had been made to the historical fact of the Dutch burning their spices in the East Indies; and perhaps, if the whole of our commercial marine belonged to one individual or corporate body, the charge for freight might be greatly augmented by the destruction of a part of our shipping. But this was fortunately not the case; and as, if an army were on the point of being decimated, few would be found to volunteer as objects of that decimation, so in the multitude of ship-owners he doubted whether there was one willing to destroy his own vessels for the sake of enabling others to procure better freight. Much had been said with regard to the preference manifested towards Russia over Norway, but the truth was, that Norway was very much favoured by the bill. If he saw any chance of carrying an amendment in the committee, he would support the motion of the learned gentleman, for the purpose of suggesting one directly opposite to that which the learned gentleman had in view. As he did not, however, apprehend that he should succeed in the attempt, he thought it as well to abstain from making it, and that the learned gentleman had, likewise quite as good reason for despairing of success.

Mr. Ricardo

was much surprised at the course of argument adopted upon this question. Norway was said to be benefitted by the new arrangement, merely because she had before suffered a still greater injustice than it was now proposed to inflict upon her. The proposition made by his learned friend went only to place Russia and Norway, as respected the importation of their timber and deals, on the same footing; yet this had been described by the right hon. gentleman, as giving a monopoly to Norway; and it had been contended that such a regulation would cause a proportionate rise in the price of Norwegian timber. Now, a slight degree of attention must convince every one, that the higher the price of Norwegian timber rose, the more able must Russia be to compete effectually with Norway. It was contended, that the interest of the producer ought to be looked to, as well as that of the consumer, in legislative principles. But the fact was, that in attending to the interest of the consumer, protection was ac the same time extended to all other classes. The true way of encouraging production was to discover and open facilities to consumption. An hon. gentleman had observed, that timber of a superior quality might be had by those who chose to pay a higher price, and that there was therefore no compulsion on the purchaser. But it was a little too much to raise the price of the best article by means of import duties, and then tell the consumer that he was not obliged to buy the cheap and inferior one. The practical effect of these duties was to raise as much compulsion as could be introduced into commercial affairs.

Mr. Keith Douglas

thought an intermediate scale of duties might have been adopted, so as to arrange the matter more equitably between the Baltic powers. It was most desirable that a competition should be established in all branches of the timber trade. One great objection to the proposed regulation was, that it would not come into operation for near two years. In a further stage of the bill, he should propose what he imagined would prove a more equitable principle.

Sir W. De Crespigny

trusted the House would not forget how much was due to the interests of its colonial trade in any future arrangement.

Mr. Gladstone

said, that as far as he was informed, the commercial interest generally approved of, and was satisfied with, the new arrangement. He thought it extremely unfair to describe the shipowners as a class of men favoured and enriched at the expense of the community. A good deal had been said on the subject of competition between Russia and Norway, but any preference shown to the latter would operate not so much to the loss or detriment of Russia, as to the injury of our own revenue. Nine-tenths of the importations from Norway were in the shipping of that country, whilst the trade with Russia was carried on chiefly in our own. He must oppose the amendment, because he was satisfied that it would prove ineffectual.

Mr. Bennet

remarked, that the interests of the ship-owners were directly opposed to those of the public, and whilst the former were engaged in adjusting or reconciling particular interests, it was not surprising that the consumer should be entirely overlooked. A few sound principles had been embodied in this report, apparently as a foil to the bad practice which it concluded with recommending. If the latter were now adopted, and a revision should be proposed three or four years hence, after a greater portion of capital was engaged and a greater number of interests should have become dependent on it, the answer would be, that a full opportunity had been afforded for consideration, and that, although country gentlemen had neglected their duty and left the question to be decided by merchants interested in it, it was too late to unsettle what had been then established. But he would put it to the House, whether it was right at any time, and more especially at a time like the present, to tax the community to the amount of 400,000l. a year for the advantage of the ship-owner? Indeed, the money might be rather said to be sunk and lost, expended as it was in defraying the charge of long and useless voyages. Without regard to the respective claims of Russia and Norway, why should the people of England be obliged to pay more for their deals out of compliment to a band of ship-owners? It was impossible to show that the public advantage was in any way promoted by such a regulation, or by the favour shown to Russia, or by the continuance of this Gothic system of policy. Lord Bacon had observed, with regard to the law which prevailed in his time of importing no French wines except in English bottoms, that it sacrificed the consideration of profit to the consideration of power. But in the case now before them, profit was sacrificed with no other object than to enrich the ship-owners. If taxes must be raised, it was desirable to see them paid into the public treasury, and not to a few individuals for furnishing a worse commodity than might be had at a less expense. In addition to all these considerations, he must object to the proposed system, as conferring superior advantages on the canting, hypocritical, and blood-stained government of Russia.

The amendment was negatived; and the bill went through the committee.