HC Deb 16 May 1822 vol 7 cc653-9
Sir T. Lethbridge

said, he had a petition to present signed by 600 respectable inhabitants of the county of Somerset. He hoped the chancellor of the exchequer would not be displeased with him for presenting the petition, as the prayer of it was rather unusual—it prayed the House to lay on additional taxes. From the tax which the petitioners proposed, which was in itself politic and beneficial, an ample fund might be supplied to make up for other taxes which might be repealed for the relief of the country. The petitioners felt for the distress of the country, and they called the attention of the House to a circumstance collateral to that distress, the number of Absentees who were gone to take up their residence in foreign parts. The greater part of these were persons of quality and fortune, not only from England but from the whole empire. The petitioners calculated that in the city of Paris alone, there resided 10,000 families of English, Irish, and Scots; that these families consisted on an average of five individuals each; and the petitioners went the length of saying, that these persons do not spend less than a guinea a day each, or 50,000l. per diem, 350,000l. a week, and 18 millions a year [laugh]. This calculation, which certainly seemed at first sight enormous, was for Paris alone; while Boulogne, Calais, Tours, Bruges, Brussels, and almost all other cities of the continent were filled with English, who were in the habit of spending large sums. In these statements the petitioners were in part borne out by the noble marquis, who, in the course of his enlightened speech of last night, had said that no one could walk in any of the large towns of the continent without imagining that the British formed a large portion of the inhabitants. The petitioners also stated, that they viewed with alarm, the practice of sending abroad youth for education, a practice prejudicial to morals, and tending to sap our holy faith. The petitioners spoke of the injury to the revenue from the absence of so many persons of fortune, and further prayed the House to impose a tax on the property or income of placemen. They hoped also that the House would prevent money being paid to pensioners, sinecurists, placemen, or public annuitants abroad, except on actual service. He thought the feeling which actuated the persons who resided abroad an extraordinary one; for though the bonus was large, he would rather live in England, on 50l. a year, subject to all the privations of such an income, than leave the country in an hour of difficulty. The bonus might be pleaded in excuse of the absentees; but it also might be pleaded in justification of the House, if they imposed a tax equal to the share of burthens which the absentees thus contrived to escape There was another great temptation to reside abroad, from the advantage gained on transferring money to the continent, which on sending 100l. to Paris, was about 25 or 26 pert cent [a laugh.] If the agricultural distress could be relieved, through the medium of a new tax of this sort, the suggestion of the petitioners might be beneficially adopted.

Mr. Ricardo

wished to set the hon. baronet right, as to the state of the exchange, which was now, he could assure him, very nearly at par; and it was impossible it could be far otherwise, because with a metallic circulation in this country and in France, the exchange could never vary more than from ½ to ¾ per cent. As to the petition, he should be sorry to see its prayer granted; because a tax on the property or income of absentees, would hold out a direct encouragement to them to take away their capital, as well as their persons. Now, we had at any rate their capital, which was useful, though not so useful as it they also stayed at home. What most surprised him was, that the hon. baronet should bring such a petition forward, at the very time that he was proposing in the agricultural committee a resolution which might make all the articles of life, and provisions in particular, attainable at the dearest rate. The hon. baronet was for high duties; the imposition of which would be the readiest means of compelling people of small fortunes to quit the kingdom. Of all the evils complained of, he (Mr. R.) was still disposed to think the corn laws the worst. He conceived that were the corn laws once got rid of, and our general policy in these subjects thoroughly revised, this would be the cheapest country in the world; and that, instead of our complaining that capital was withdrawn from us, we should find that capital would come hither from all corners of the civilized world. Indeed, such a result must be certain, if we could once reduce the national debt—a reduction, which, although by many considered to be impracticable, he considered by no means to be so. That great debt might be reduced by a fair contribution of all sorts of property—he meant, that, by the united contribution of the mercantile, the landed, and he would add, the funded interest, the national debt might be certainly got rid of. If this were done, and if the government would pursue a right course of policy as to the corn laws, England would be the cheapest country in which a man could live; and it would rise to a state of prosperity, in regard to population and riches, of which, perhaps, the imaginations of hon. gentlemen could at present form no idea. [Hear, hear.]

Mr. Denis Browne

dwelt on the evils suffered in Ireland from the absentee system. All taxes were on consumption; so that they all fell on the resident gentry, while the absentees entirely escaped. One half of the men of property of Ireland were calculated to be absentees. It was disgraceful that in a country of statesmen and philosophers, such an evil as this should exist, and that we should despair of a remedy. He was disposed to apply himself to this practical evil, and not to draw sun-beams out of cucumbers.

Mr. H. Gurney

said, he conceived the chancellor of the exchequer would have no small difficulty in assessing the tax, proposed by the petitioners on the income of absentees; though he had always thought the abolition of the property tax, and the thus throwing the weight of the whole taxation on articles of domestic consumption, was the greatest financial error committed since the peace. He entirely distrusted the statement of the petitioners, as to the enormous sums they conceived to be spent by Englishmen abroad; though they would naturally think that these millions, if spent, would be much more conveniently spent at Bath. In fact, the English abroad were, for the most part, either mere travellers, or persons living very economically; whilst, in the case of those who reduced large establishments in this country, and remained on the continent for any length of time, in most instances the chief part of their revenues went to pay off debts and incumbrances previously contracted, and took that direction at home, in which the money would be most usefully applied.—Mr. Gurney stated, that far from supporting the prayer of the petition, he was a friend to free ingress and egress to and from the kingdom [hear!]. There should, however, be no inequality in this respect. If the rich man might go abroad for convenience or amusement, surely the poor man should be allowed to go abroad for subsistence. [hear!]. He alluded to the laws against the emigration of artificers, which had recently been brought to his notice by a paragraph in a newspaper.—The hon. member read the following paragraph which appeared in the Morning Chronicle of Monday last:—"Saturday, Michael Donaghue, George Burgess, John Elliott, and Thomas Checkers, engineers, were brought, to Bow-street, charged with attempting to leave the kingdom, for the purpose of conveying a knowledge of their art to foreigners, against the statute. The prisoners, together with a man named Featherstone, were in the employment of Mr. Martineau, an engineer, in White-cross-street. Some weeks ago a man named Craven made his appearance among the workmen there, and by liberal offers seduced them from their master and engaged them to go to Paris, where he had established several manufactories. Mr. Martineau got information of it, and Featherstone was apprehended before he left London. The others were followed to Dover, and apprehended there by Bishop, one of the principal officers. Bishop had a warrant in his pocket against Craven, but he had embarked before the officer reached Dover. The prisoners were committed for want of bail."—He knew the law under which these men were proceeded against was an old one; but whatever justice there might be in proceeding against Craven, as the seducer of artificers to leave the country, it was an extraordinary hardship that the men themselves should be pun- ished for attempting to take their industry to a place where they saw the best choice of gaining a livelihood. He thought it incumbent on him to bring this case before the House, as a conversation had formerly taken place on the subject, between the hon. member for Aberdeen and the president of the board of trade, which led him to hope that this oppressive law might be repealed, and the poor man and the rich placed, as in all common sense, and common fairness they ought to be, on a footing of equal freedom. [Hear! hear!]

Mr. Dickinson

thought that his right hon. friend (Mr. D. Brown) had put this question on its right footing: he had fixed the attention of the House to the main point of the petitioners—not to those who were travelling for their health, or to the youth of this country for instruction, for they too well knew the advantages of foreign travel—but to those who had fixed themselves habitually on the continent, and whose object was, to avoid the taxes, and expend their incomes in a foreign country, thereby stimulating the commerce and the agriculture of France with that capital which ought to stimulate the commerce and agriculture of England. What would happen when his hon. friend's (Mr. Ricardo's) project of paying off the national debt was accomplished, he could not pretend to say; but this he knew, that such a payment had been a vision that had inhabited the brain of many a speculative enthusiast, from the institution of that debt up to the present hour. He also knew, from experience and history, that emigrations were dangerous to the countries from which they sprung, and advantageous where they went: Holland, within the last two centuries, was a country almost wholly made by emigrations; and the revocation of the edict of Nantes had, according to historians, furnished 50,000 emigrants, who had increased the prosperity of England, of Belgium, and of Prussia, and inflicted a blow on France from which she had not yet recovered. He doubted the practicability of a tax on emigrants, but he would put it ad verecundiam to the emigrants themselves. He remembered to have read an anecdote of a Persian ambassador at Paris, who brought with him a sod of his native earth, and his first duty in a morning was to reverence it, in order that it might remind him that every act of that day should be something done for the benefit of Persia. If our sta- tionary English emigrants had a sod, it would remind them, that every deed of theirs, while they were expending their incomes in France, would be something done to the detriment of England. In this absence of their patriotism, he would wish to press upon them one of the best maxims of antiquity: "Spartam nactuses: hanc exorna."

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

thought the hon. member for Portarlington and other members had sufficiently pointed out the objections to the tax proposed, and the impossibility of carrying their wishes into effect. Of the many modes of taxing absentees, which had been suggested to him, none appeared to him practicable. Among the many absentees from Ireland, there were not a few who resided in England, and who, consequently, did not thereby evade their share of the taxes imposed generally upon the empire. He had taken considerable pains to ascertain the proportion of taxes which might have been borne by the absentees on the continent, had they remained in England, and he found that it did not exceed 5,000l. a-year, out of a taxation of between six and seven millions. Many of these absentees had found themselves compelled to go abroad, for the sake, probably, of retrenchment, or with a view to the arrangement of their disordered affairs. With respect to those persons who went abroad for the purpose of laying down a system of economy, who were vegetating rather than living, in different parts of Europe, he believed the most effectual way to bring them home, and to keep them here, would be to make this country as comfortable as possible for them. This would be in some measure effected by the fall of prices, but there were circumstances which must always contribute to make this country a dearer place of residence, than most parts of the continent. However, in proportion as prices became more equalized with those of the continent, the temptation to reside abroad would cease. For he was persuaded that there was not an individual, who possessed the common feelings that belonged to an Englishman, who would not, if he could, prefer living in his own country to a residence on a foreign shore.

Sir I. Coffin

said, that the British officers residing abroad were driven there, not by inclination, but by poverty.

Mr. W. Smith

expressed a wish, that the chancellor of the exchequer would bring in a bill to remove the restrictions on the lower classes of mechanics, with respect to emigration. There was no law which prevented a man from carrying his capital to any country in Europe, and establishing a manufactory there; but, if one of his workmen attempted to follow him, he was liable to be sent to prison. Such a state of things had been most properly described as harsh and tyrannical. The right hon. gentleman had truly said, that the best way of inducing emigrants to return to this country would be, to make England a cheaper and more comfortable place of residence. This was not to be effected, however, by raising the price of corn, which was one of the objects of the bill now passing through the House. To suppose that the condition of the people could be materially improved by a reduction of the interest of the debt was one of the grossest delusions that had ever been practiced on the country. Reduction of taxation might afford some relief; and to that object ought the efforts of parliament to be mainly directed.

Ordered to lie on the table.