HC Deb 14 June 1821 vol 5 cc1184-92
Mr. Curwen,

in rising to call the attention of the House to this important subject, said, that the object which he had in view was one most material to the interests of Agriculture. The tax had always been unjust in principle, and oppressive in practice. Formerly, he had felt it to be his duty to propose some substitute to supply the deficiency which the repeal of the tax in question would occasion in the revenue. But things were now in a different state. The right hon. gentleman had since had abundant opportunities of obviating the evil. Not only must the right hon. gentleman have been aware of the extent of the existing agricultural distress, but he must have well known what had passed in the committee appointed to investigate the causes of that agricultural distress which every one acknowledged to be unprecedented in extent. The result of the inquiries of that committee had. been, that although there existed a variety of opinions in it on other parts of the subject, on that of the agricultural distress, and of the necessity of affording speedy relief to that distress, the committee came to an unanimous resolution, that the distress of the country was fully proved. With such a resolution, what would be the impression on the country if it should turn out that parliament throughout the whole session had abstained from taking a single earthly step to afford the relief acknowledged to be indispensable. To the vote of that night, therefore, the country would look, that they might estimate what they might expect from parliament; for, it: Was evident, that if the report of the committee were to be made in the present session, it was too late to found any measure upon it. He put it, therefore, to the House, what answer they would make to their constituents, if they were asked why they did not adopt the proposition which he was about to submit to them? Would it be becoming in them to say, that because they found they could not give all, they therefore refused to give any thing? It was with him a matter of no doubt, that there never could be any prosperity in this country, while agriculture remained in a distressed state. The chancellor of the exchequer had, during the last two months, been repeatedly intreated to reconsider his estimates. He (My. C.) was persuaded that if the session were now to recommence, the majority would declare that those estimates ought to be reduced. Government ought not to have trusted to any committees; but, taking a view of the state of the country, should have made those retrenchments which would have enabled the House to sacrifice to the agriculturists this boon. In the course of the discussions in the committee, a resolution was agreed to, to instruct the chairman to move for the repeal of this tax; though, subsequently, it was decided not to do so until the report was made. This circumstance had occasioned the delay in his motion. He confidently anticipated that the present decision of the House would be now to begin that work which they must afterwards carry to a much greater length. It was most unjust to call on the agriculturists alone to make sacrifices; let them be made equally by all classes of the community. Was it possible that nearly one half of the whole income of the country could continue to be collected in taxes? Unless some permanent protection could be granted to the agriculturist, the only alternative was to cut down the expenses of our establishment at home and abroad, from the king to the lowest officer in the state. But had any disposition been evinced thus to relieve the burthens of the people? None whatever. It had been stated, that the tax was a trifling one: on the light soil it was not much, but on the heavy soils it amounted to 3 per cent on the rent. It was a tax the principle of which was most unjust, feeing a tax on the plough, and fell most heavily on those who were the least able to bear it; the tax not only bore heard, but exposed the farmer to endless vexations. If a farmer once crossed a horse, he was charged with a pleasure horse, and his ploughman was charged as a groom. These were vexations which ought to be corrected. To show how vexatiously the assessed taxes were levied, he instanced the case of a poor woman in the neighbourhood of Berwick, who having paid sixpence to a man to prune a favourite fruit-tree, was surcharged with an occasional gardener, and her goods were actually sold to pay the tax. Some persons thought it necessary the inferior grounds should go out of cultivation; that he expressly denied. Every acre, in the country ought to be brought into cultivation; for what was the evil which the country at present endured above any: other but want of employment? If there, were an increase of employment, an increased price of the necessaries of life would be of little moment. Cheap bread without work would at length, he was convinced, be found to be a great evil, as destructive of our manufactures as of our agriculture. The country had a right to demand some sacrifices to relieve it. This was the only remaining opportunity to effect such an object, and he called upon the House, therefore, to concur in his proposition, which was "for leave to bring in a Bill to repeal so much of the 43rd and 52nd of Geo. 3rd, as relates to the Duties on Horses and Mules employed in Agriculture only."

Mr. Gooch

said, that if ever there was an unjust and oppressive tax, it was the present. He most strongly recommended the repeal. It was a coarse but true saying, that "you could not have more of a cat than its skin;" and the agriculturists were, in fact, unable to pay the tax. If we could not increase our means, we must diminish our expenditure. He thought the hon. member for Aberdeen, by his indefatigable industry and valuable exertions, had done great service to the country.

Mr. Davenport

thought this tax the most oppressive and inexpedient that the ingenuity of man ever suggested; always excepting the tax on salt.

Mr. Coke

declared that it was quite delightful to hear on this occasion the language which was held by the gentlemen opposite. The compliment paid by the chairman of the agricultural committee to the hon. member for Aberdeen, must be highly gratifying to him. For himself, he would say that since he first came into parliament, he did not remember any gentleman to whom the country was so much indebted as to his hon. friend (Mr. Hume), whose exertions had been as important as they were unremitting.

Mr. Cripps

said, it was impossible that immediate relief could be given to the agriculturists, unless the House was prepared to enact that corn should be raised at once to a certain price. He really believed that labourers in general were much better paid when wheat was at a higher price than they were at present. The great object, however, was to keep prices as much as possible on a level, and to prevent fluctuations. The repeal of this tax would be received by the agriculturists as a boon.

Mr. Baring

said, he was one of these who had used their best endeavours to enforce retrenchment and economy upon ministers during the late grants, but un- fortunately without effect. Those extravagant grants having however been carried, be could not agree to weaken the revenue by repealing the tax in question. And here he could not help expressing his surprise that gentlemen should expect to return to their constituents with a good grace, after having supported the whole of the present burthens on the country, merely because they advocated the repeal of this solitary tax. Upon no one of all the numerous divisions which had taken place upon the reductions proposed by the hon. member for Aberdeen, were the names of the hon. member for Suffolk, or the other gentlemen who opposed this tax, to be found. Yet the whole of those gentlemen had advocated retrenchment, notwithstanding their having supported every grant, however extravagant, proposed by ministers. The first duty of the House was, to look to the expenditure of the country, and that being voted they were bound to provide for it. Convinced as he was of the distress of the agricultural classes, no man could feel more anxious to supply a remedy if a remedy could be supplied; but the impression on his mind was, that for the present the evil must remedy itself. He pointed out the necessity of keeping up a clear sinking fund, and showed the importance of preserving the public credit inviolate, that the government might be able to meet any emergency that might arise. Under all the circumstances of the case, he could not vote for the motion.

Sir W. W. Wynn

supported the motion, and urged the importance of relieving the landed interest.

Mr. Benett,

of Wiltshire, considered the tax to be an impost on the implements of labour, and most unjustand oppressive. He wondered how those could support such a tax who were in favour of cheap bread and opposed to a Corn bill. Measures must be taken for the relief of the agricultural interest: He hoped the honesty of the House would always make them anxious to keep faith with the public creditor; but there was a vulgar adage—" We cannot rob a naked man of a shirt."

Mr. W. Burrell

supported the motion, not from a feeling that it would afford relief, but because it was an unjust tax, and operated rated more severely upon the holders of bad than of good lands. He had supported? ministers during the war, for the had been said by ministersw, "Only enable us to go on with the war, and you shall be relieved when a peace is obtained." Yet, to this day, they paid the came taxes as in time of war; all but the property-tax; and that he supposed they would-soon have again. Had any reduction been made this year? He allowed that 10,000 men had been reduced; but those had been raised for putting down the riots in the manufacturing districts; and the moment the riots had ceased, they ought to have been reduced. It was impossible for things to go on as they were. The taxes had risen to an amount that would prove the utter ruin of the country. Economy was absolutely necessary of every branch of our expenditure; and they whose salaries had been increased inconsequence of the high prices, ought now to suffer a corresponding reduction.

Lord Milton

expressed his great satisfaction at the speech of the hon. gentleman who had spoken last. He would go still further, and call on the whole country to stop the career of taxation. He put it to his hon. friend the member for Taunton, whether for the sake of increasing the fictitious value of stock, the grinding taxation which encroached on the capital that formed the foundation of credit, ought to be endured? He put it to his powerful mind, whether it would not be better to leave in the pockets of the people what increased and fructified with them, than, by taking all away, to ruin them and annihilate the revenue? There were other taxes which ought at the same time to be taken off from the manufacturing interests. The noble lord here begged leave to read, in 1821, an extract from the royal speech in 1721, recommending the taking off taxes from the raw material. He agreed that agriculture was the bases but what was the value of the base, if the shaft of manufactures and the capital of commerce were destroyed? Would they bring this happy land, where manufactures and commerce had spread all the arts, refinements, and elegancies of life, and scattered over the face of the country, rich and populous cities, into the condition of agricultural Poland? Other taxes ought to be repealed as Well as the tax on horses, but especially the tax-oft foreign wool. The four million sinking fund might as well be employed in raising the price of land, as the fictitious; value of stock. If this motion should be successful he would move an instruction to the committee to receive a clause for re- pealing the tax on foreign wool. His hon. friend, by this motion, proposed a relief to the extent of 480,000l. He (Lord M.) would in addition propose relief to the extent of 180,000l.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that the present question involved not only the repeal of 500,000l. but of every tax of which a particular class of persons might complain. It was the begining and opening of a general assault on the finances of the country—an assault to be varied by every member, according to the interests of his constituents, or his own views of political economy. If such an assault were successful, no minister could support the financial system of this country. That system had been carried to an artificial height, and it could be supported only by constant care, by great sacrifices on the part of the Country, and by the firm and he would say, magnanimous resolution of parliament. This tax had been described by some hon. members to be but a drop in the bucket. Were they, then, for such an object, to encroach on the consolidated fund? Hon. gentlemen had said, that government showed no disposition to practise economy; to that charge he would say, that the estimates for the present year exhibited proofs of a reduction in the public expenditure unexampled at any former period. The House were told that by repealing certain taxes, ministers would be driven to acts of economy: he could assure gentlemen that such steps were unnecessary. The ministers of the Crown were determined to adopt every possible plan of economy, and the estimates for the next year would be as low as could possibly be consistent with the public security; further than that ministers would not go. With respect to the tax in question, it should be recollected that it was but a very inconsiderable part of the expense attending the implements and machinery of the agriculturist. It was also worthy of consideration, that the expense of the farmer, as far as regarded the maintenance of cattle, had considerably decreased. He could not agree to the repeal of the tax, and would move the previous question.

Mr. Scarlett

said, that a more unsatisfactory statement he had never heard from any minister. That the public credit ought to be supported, was a proposition which no one denied; but the question was as to the best means of supporting the public credit. Was it by keeping up m oppressive system of taxation? The right hon. gentleman said, that the farmer vas better able to bear the tax on agricultural horses, because the provendor for those horses was cheaper than formerly. Now, to put the argument in plain language, it amounted to this—that the farmer was better able to bear his burthens because his means had been diminished—because the price of his produce had considerably fallen. The right hon. gentleman had cautioned the House against interfering with the public credit. To this he would say, that the revenue of the country was directed to two objects—first, to the payment of the public creditor; secondly to meet the expenses of the enormous establishments which ministers thought fit to maintain. Would it affect the public creditor if these establishments were lessened? He contended that it would materially benefit him. The right hon. gentleman had also said, that ministers next year would still further reduce the estimates. Now, if ministers had the means of doing so, how could it injure the public credit, by repealing oppressive taxes, to make ministers practise by anticipation that system of economy which they were pledged to adopt for the next year. The best means of compelling ministers to practise economy would be to lighten taxation. By their own showing, they had a surplus of four millions; and he submitted that it would be much more beneficial to the country, instead of keeping that surplus, to repeal taxes to the amount of it, and to apply that sum to the service of the year. He hailed the return of gentlemen on the other side to a better estimation of the state of the country; he hailed their conviction as sincere, and trusted it would be lasting. He believed the difficulties felt by the agricultural interests would subside by means of the equalization of prices; but he believed that that very equalization would make it impossible to pay the present establishment. Economy was therefore the only resource: "Magnum vectigal est parsimonia"

Mr. Huskisson

said, that if all the propositions made by gentlemen opposite were acceded to, the financial system of the country would be completely broken down. He was fully aware of the difficulties under which the agricultural interest was labouring, and could he believe that the repeal of this tax would afford any material relief to the farmer, he would, notwithstanding the general objection which he felt to interfere with financial arrangements, vote in favour of the motion. Not one of the witnesses who had been examined by the committee had stated that the repeal of the tax would afford any relief to the farmer. He had looked at the petitions, 112 in number, which had been referred to that committee, and he could find but one in which the repeal of the tax was prayed for. Prior to 1815 the tax was imposed equally on all horses employed in agriculture; but his right hon. friend at that period reduced the tax from has to 2s. 6d. on all horses employed on farms under the yearly rent of 200l. The tax did not fall exclusively on the farmer; but, like all others, it equally affected the consumer, and the general capital of the Country. The observations of the noble lord seemed to involve the principle of a breach of national faith towards the creditors of the country. Did not the noble lord think it was good policy to keep faith with the public creditor, when it was possible that the government might, in the event of a new war, be again driven to apply to the capitalists of the country for money to enable them to meet the exigencies of the state? He could not imagine how hon. members who had voted for the establishment of the sinking fund, could consistently support the repeal of particular taxes without proposing any thing by way of substitute. He was satisfied that agriculture could flourish only in conjunction with commerce and manufactures; and could not agree that the country was borne down with taxation. Admitting that its pressure was severely felt, he doubted not that the country would be able to surmount all its difficulties. Its capital had been progressively increasing for many years, and it was now greater than at any former period. He did not make these observations with the view of deprecating a reduction of the expenditure; he was as anxious for such reduction as any b. member could be.

Sir C. Burrell

opposed the tax, on the ground that it was oppressive and unjust.

Mr. Maberly

thought the chancellor of the exchequer had no right to call upon the country gentlemen to support him in this tax, especially as he had broken the promise of economy which he had made to them at the time that he imposed it.

Mr. Brougham

said, that this was a tax' that fell unequally in all cases, and most unequally upon those lands which were least able to bear it. He was asked to give a substitute for it, supposing it to be repealed. This he was not bound to give; and he could assure ministers that the only substitute which they should have for it with his consent should be parsimony and economy.

The previous question being put, the House divided: Ayes, 141; Noes, 113. The main question was then put, and agreed to; and a Bill was brought in by Mr. Curwen, for the repeal of the Husbandry Horses Duties, and read a first time.