HC Deb 20 May 1822 vol 7 cc708-21

The order of the day was read for going into a committee on this bill. On the question "That the Speaker do now leave the chair,"

Mr. Wallace

said, he wished to offer to the House a few observations on the nature and object of the measure which they were about to discuss in committee, and, at the same time, to state the alterations he should propose in the committee, which he hoped would have the effect of obviating the principal objections that had been advanced against certain parts of the bill on a former evening. The measures now immediately before the House, and another, not at present under their consideration, were intended to carry into effect the propositions which he had the honour of laying before the House at the close of the last session, for the purpose of clearing, simplifying, and amending the navigation laws of this country, as well as with a view to the extending and improving our commercial intercourse with foreign nations. Bills were at that period introduced, pro forma, to give gentlemen an opportunity of weighing the subject in their minds. Since that time, various alterations were made in the measures then contemplated; and principally in giving additional simplicity to the bill immediately before them, by detaching from it, and placing in another bill, the repeal of those acts which its adoption would render unnecessary, and reducing it to a bill of enactment, with the reservation of such acts only as were not intended to be affected by it. The bill now before them, and the others to which he had alluded—to both of which he had himself directed the most vigilant attention—would, conjointly, have the effect of clearing and simplifying the existing law This was proposed to be done by repealing a great variety of acts of parliament, which passed from the reign of Edward 3rd, when the first navigation laws were promulgated, down to the period of Charles 2nd. Those acts were passed under various circumstances, and with different objects; and, as those circumstances ceased to operate, the laws which they had created, fell into disuse; so that the acts from the time of Charles 2nd were universally considered as the navigation laws of the country, the statutes which had been enacted anterior to that period having become obsolete. Observing the contradictions which those acts frequently presented, not merely to statutes of a later date, but with reference to each other, it was deemed necessary to repeal all the laws which had been introduced on this subject before the reign of Charles 2nd. Those laws might be classed under three heads; namely, those which a change of circumstances had rendered obsolete; those which militated against the provisions of the existing navigation law; and those which were no longer necessary, in consequence of subsequent and more efficacious enactments.

With respect to the expediency of rendering the law as plain and intelligible as possible, there could be no doubt. Every one must agree, that it was an object of great importance so to frame the law that it should be subject to as little question or doubt as possible. To the general principle, he believed, there was and could be no objection; but it would be matter of consideration in the committee, whether this or that particular act should be repealed, or whether the description he had given of any of those acts which it was intended to remove was a correct one. Since the present bill was laid before parliament, petitions had been presented with reference to two of those acts—one relative to the export of wool, the other to the import of woollen cloth. With respect to the first, he had merely to observe, that the whole of its provisions were consolidated under the 28th of his late majesty; consequently, the repeal of the act passed previously to the reign of Charles 2nd, could not affect any party whose interests were protected by that statute: they would remain in precisely the same situation in which they stood at present. As to the importation of woollen cloth, there were acts on the Statute book which prohibited any such traffic; but they had been, in fact, all virtually repealed since the period when a duty of 50 per cent was imposed upon such importations, which had now subsisted, and been found a complete protection, for more than 30 years. Indeed, an act was passed some years ago, in the preamble to which it was set forth, that no such prohibition was necessary. These were the only two ancient acts to the repeal of which he believed any objection had been offered. The subject had been thoroughly considered since last session; and some few ancient acts, relative to our system of navigation, but of very little importance, had been discovered, and they were included in the measure now before the House. Of the provisions of the ancient acts, two only had been preserved. The object of the one was, to retain the recognizance by statute staple, a security still in use; the other passed in the time of Edward 3rd, which gave to the fo, reigner, in every case in which his interest was concerned, the right to demand a jury, half foreigners and half Englishmen. That law was one of the concessions which were made in confirmation of the great charter, and showed the disposition to encourage foreign trade by which that prince, one of the wisest that ever swayed the British scepter, was actuated. The object of the present measure was confined to the navigation law, as it operated on our intercourse with foreign states; and in deciding on it, two questions were to be considered; first, whether it was necessary to make any alteration in the law; and next, whether the alterations which he was about to propose were wise and expedient? He was aware, that the projected alteration in the navigation law had excited great alarm amongst different classes of persons. They had been told, through the medium of resolutions, petitions, and papers published in various ways, that on an adherence to the principles on which the navigation law prosperity of the country; and that those principles could not be surrendered without the greatest danger to the welfare of the state. If by the great principles of the navigation law was meant the preservation of a due preference to British ship- ping in the trade of the country—if it was meant by those principles, that countries which had no shipping of their own should send their commodities to England in British vessel—if it was intended by those principles to protect the direct trade with our colonies, and to maintain our coasting trade and fisheries—if these points were to be secured by the principles of the navigation law, he cordially and perfectly agreed in their justice and propriety. These were principles from which he would not depart, and which, he conceived, ought to be maintained at all hazards. But, if these principles tolerated and recommended a system of severe exclusion—if they pointed at a system of prohibition—if such were to be understood as what was meant by the principles of the navigation law, then he totally disagreed from those who approved of them; and he thought that many of the laws which were enacted on those principles might be removed with great advantage to the best interests of the country [Hear!]. Those who approved of this harsh and severe system, contended that foreigners had no right to complain of the law. He knew very well, that it was in the power of every country to determine what degree of commerce it would carry on with neighbouring nations, and under what regulations or restrictions it should be done. That was the undoubted right of every, state. Whatever those restrictive laws might be, as it was optional with the foreign country to carry on trade under them, or to decline a commercial connexion with the state which imposed them; in that sense, the foreigner had no right to complain. But though he had no right to complain, he certainly had a right to retaliate. He might meet restriction by restriction—he might encounter prohibition by prohibition—he might oppose severity by severity [Hear!]. Doubtless England had a right to declare what her commerce should be; but having made that declaration—having stated how far foreign trade should extend—it was proper that the legislature should examine whether the regulations established for the purpose of maintaining and encouraging that trade were or were not wise and politic. With a view to this, it would be an object of consideration, how far the feelings of foreign nations were to be conciliated—not as foreigners, but because it was essential to the preservation of that degree of commerce which the interests of the country called upon us to maintain—a concession made on this principle was no sacrifice—it was a wise, a just regard to the national welfare; and if the benefit was not confined to this country alone, but extended itself to other states, it might be more gratifying, but was not, therefore, less consistent with British interests, or he believed with the feelings of those he was then addressing. In this country, arrived at the state in which we saw it, considering all the advantages it possessed in its marine, its manufactures, its experience, its machinery, its capital, it appeared to him most evident that the freest system of trade would be found by far the most advantageous [Hear.] If this were the fact, and if they felt severely the baneful effects of those restrictions which foreign powers opposed to our trade—restrictions which were increasing every day—if, two years ago, the manufacturing interest called out against the restrictions which parliament had imposed on foreign trade, and demanded their removal—if such restrictions were found equally injurious to those against whom they were directed, and those by whom they were inflicted—if they were inimical to the interests of this country, was it not the wisest and soundest system they could adopt to abandon those principles which had produced so much mischief, and to retrace their steps as quickly as possible? He knew that, in consequence of the artificial situation in which the country was placed, under the system which had so long prevailed, any relaxations we could make must be confined to narrow limits; but he thought it would be wise and prudent to go to the utmost verge of them, consistent with the safety and prosperity of those classes of the people whose interests they were especially bound to protect, and to do homage to those principles and that system, which while it was beneficial to others was calculated most eminently to promote the interests of the British empire—which afforded the widest range to commerce—which was the most powerful incentive to enterprize, and the surest nurse of exertion and improvement amongst mankind, on whatever soil, under whatever climate, or in whatever quarter of the globe, their destiny may have placed them. The object of the bill was, to attain this end, or at all events to mark the disposition of Great Britain to effect it.

He was aware of the respect in which the navigation laws were held, and was far from questioning the policy of them at the period and under the circumstances in which they were enacted. What was the situation of the Dutch at that period? They possessed the greatest proportion of the wealth and commerce of the world. The navy of Holland was most formidable, and the alliances which that state had formed were most dangerous to the interests and security of England. It was, therefore, a great object to pull down and weaken the rival power of Holland. It was wise, in a political point of view, to enact laws for that purpose; and whatever was necessary for maintaining any advantage that was acquired by those laws, he was ready to preserve. At that necessity, however, he would stop; because all beyond it was useless severity, calculated only to injure us by exciting in the minds of other states a desire to retaliate. England had already suffered much, in consequence of the desire which other powers felt to retaliate; and if he were not very much mistaken, she was likely to suffer a great deal more. He knew not how far the gentlemen connected with the shipping interest might agree with him, but he could assure them, that they had not their interest at heart more sincerely or more warmly than he had. He wished to protect them through the other interests of the country, but he felt no desire to protect them independently of those interests; neither did he wish to extend to them any thing that could be deemed an unnecessary protection. He would ask, what was the best and truest support of the navy, but a large, extensive, and flourishing commerce? He did not know a country in the world that had a great navy without an extensive commerce; neither did he know any state that had a flourishing commerce, without being at the same time an extensive naval power. He knew there were some cases in which navigation and commerce came in conflict; and in those cases he would prefer the interest of navigation to that of commerce. He would support navigation, because commerce evidently depended on the existence of a great naval force. In that point of view it was, that the acts of Charles 2nd were wise and politic. The legislature of that day preferred navigation to commerce, and it was right that they should do so. That system of policy had answered all the purposes for which it was Introduced the principle of which was to reduce the power and commerce of the Dutch. But that object having been effected, there was no longer any necessity for pursuing the same course. What had been the history of the commerce of Great Britain since that time? Was it marked by an inflexible and strict adherence at all times, and under all circumstances, to this system? Certainly it was not. On the contrary, the whole history of our commerce, from that period, proved that a system of relaxation from those acts was adopted. In fact, the statutes relaxing the navigation law in favour of commerce amounted in number to more than 300. Had, in consequence of those relaxations, the naval power of the country sunk?—far from it—in carrying the commerce of England to the highest pitch that the commerce of any country had ever reached, it would be found that, during then last twenty-five years, our naval power, had gone hand in band with our commercial greatness. With respect to the time, there could be none so proper as the present, when every nation was struggling for commerce and establishing her commercial regulations. What did we see but the effects of our own mistaken policy in the conduct of all around us? They might look to France, to Austria, to Holland, to Prussia, to Russia. We had been lately called on to retaliate upon Russia. Retaliate for what? For having practised the lesson and acted upon the principles our example had taught her. We had no right to complain of those measures. A wiser course was, in his opinion, to profit by what we saw, and set the example of a return to more liberal principles and a sounder system.

It now became his duty to explain the provisions of the bill, and the alterations he proposed to introduce. The bill might be divided in its application to the trade of Europe and of the other quarters of the world—to foreigners and to British subjects. He should begin by the way in which it affected the foreigner and the trade of Europe. To the first alteration proposed by the bill he anticipated no objection; it appeared to him to meet the approbation of all parties. It was, to allow foreign ships to bring goods from any port where they happened to be, provided that they belonged to the port in question. This he did not think there was any reason for fearing would generate or encourage an habitual trade. It would, however, remove a great deal of inconvenience. The expenses and other disadvantages incidental to trans-shipments would always prevent any new or irregular practice from receiving encouragement, to the prejudice of a more direct and established trade. Another relaxation to which he had to draw the attention of the House, referred to a particular part of Europe, now in close amity and alliance with us. The act of Charles 2nd, to which he had already adverted, permitted foreign goods to enter our ports either in British vessels, or in ships of that country of which they were the growth and produce. But such at that time was our dread of the rivalry of Holland, that the Dutch were debarred from the benefit of this general rule, and the importation of certain articles was forbidden from Holland and the Netherlands in any ships whatever, under the penalty of the confiscation of the ship and cargo. There was certainly no reason now why Holland should not be placed in the same situation with the rest of Europe. The same rule of policy that applied to other countries was just as applicable to her. In so expressing himself, he was, indeed, fortified by the evidence of the principal and most intelligent merchants who had been examined on this subject. There were some, undoubtedly, who entertained objections of a peculiar nature, and with regard to which he should make a few observations. They referred generally to the probable event of Holland becoming a dépôt for the Mediterranean trade, and to the danger attending our importation of large quantities of goods through this medium. The only advantage Holland could be supposed to possess arose out of the restrictions imposed by our quarantine laws which he trusted would be reconsidered. If a relaxed system was safe to Holland, it was not very easy to understand why it should be dangerous to us. They were also rendered secure by the present state of our own law. The act of the 45th of Geo. 3rd gave power to the king in council of regulating and applying the law of quarantine; and under the application of it all goods and merchandise of the Mediterranean coming through Holland would be subject to the same quarantine on reaching this country, as if brought directly from the ports of the Levant. When gentleman added to this consideration the charges upon trans shipment—the hazard of our importations taking place through the course which had been pointed out was reduced to too small a point to excite any apprehension whatsoever.

The next alteration applied to Russia, and Turkey. By the provisions of the Navigation Law, the importation of articles known by the name of enumerated articles was confined either to ships of the country of their produce or British ships, while the importation of other articles was free. This was the case in respect to the nations of Europe generally; but to this rule the countries adverted to were exceptions. From them no goods or produce could come but under that special restriction—for such exception there appears at present no ground, and it is proposed to place those states on the same footing in relation to the commerce with this country as the other nations of Europe. In doing this however, it was his intention to add to the list of those enumerated, (thereby subjecting them to the restriction applicable to such), the articles of tallow, tobacco, and thrown silk. As to the last article, he begged to remind the House that at this moment, under the 22nd of Geo. 3rd, it might be imported from Ostend, or any part of the Austrian Netherlands, and that, in fact, our manual facture was flourishing, and had grown up only under protection of the high duty to which the foreign one was subjected. This he had no intention of touching. What, then, was the ground for all the clamour that had been made, and all the representations that had been, with such indecorous importunity, pressed upon the members of the House, who were beset in the lobby in a way which he had never witnessed on any former occasion. They talked of new facilities being afforded to smuggling. He could not see where such new facilities were to be discovered. Every facility there could be found after the passing or the bill, existed now; and if they were not resorted to now, there was no reason to believe they would be so hereafter. These were the alterations he contemplated in the trade of Europe. Without endangering in any degree the interests of this country, they afforded some convenience to foreigners, and relaxed something of that severity which had long been the reproach of our commercial system. They got rid, too, of that source of confusion and embarrassment which had been found to arise from the construction and ap- plication given to the act of Charles 2nd, which, by referring to countries in that division of Europe which existed at the period of passing the law, gave different regulations for almost each respective country, and even for different parts of the same country. This by its reference to the articles to be imported gives one law for the whole, applicable equally to all times and all circumstances under which Europe can be placed.

He next adverted to the trade carried on with other quarters of the world, and stated the principal alteration affecting foreign ships, which he should propose in that branch of commerce that would probably arise out of the events which had occurred in South America. He need not dwell upon the situation in which those events had placed that country, or recall the recent declaration of Mr. Zea. The field which had been thus opened to commerce was most extensive and valuable; and it was most desirable that we should put this country, as far as the law was concerned, in a condition to reap all the advantages of it. The message of the president marked the course likely to be taken by the United States, and it was probable that they had already recognized the independent character of the new republics. He did not mean to prescribe to his majesty's government what line they should adopt with respect to the question of recognition; all he desired to do, and in this he trusted the House would concur with him, was, to put the law in such a state, that, if the recognition of these states should be deemed expedient, no impediment should remain to prevent the country from deriving the full benefit of it, in its commercial interests. He intended, therefore, to propose the introduction of clauses, which should permit a direct trade to the ships of South America with the united kingdom, in the same way, and founded on the same principles, as it had been under different acts, already extended to the United States and the Brazils.

These were all the relaxations of the existing law he had it in contemplation to offer in favour of foreign navigation. The remaining alteration applied to the British ship. It was known that the British ship in Europe could import into this country every thing from every place, with certain exceptions in respect to the Netherlands; but that in the trade with Asia, Africa, and America, it could only bring the produce of each directly from the place of its growth or manufacture. This had appeared to him an inconvenient and useless restriction, and he had tended to put the British ship into possession of the same facilities in respect to the distant quarters of the world, that it already enjoyed in respect to Europe. It had, however, been contended, that such a change might be attended with great injury to the British shipping; that it might lead to the importation of articles into the continent, in the foreign ship, which would be only transported from thence in the British ship; that hence a new course of trade would be established, by which a great and valuable part of the employment of British shipping might be put in hazard. This danger, he said, rested only on the assumed advantages, in point of cheapness, possessed by foreign navigation, which, he contended on various grounds, did not exist in any degree sufficient to counterbalance the expence and inconvenience of a circuitous voyage and trans-shipment in a foreign port. He stated his belief that these advantages were very much exaggerated, and were balanced by others possessed by British shipping. That in our trade with the north of Europe, where the advantages, of cheap construction and navigation were the greatest, more than half the tonnage employed was British. That France, Holland, and America were our principal rivals in the distant trade, and that the freights to France and Holland in the last year were higher than to England, and the Americans, from a variety of evidence, appeared to sail their ships at greater expense than we did. On these grounds, he entertained little apprehension of any material danger to the shipping interests of the United Kingdom; but he felt there were circumstances under which some hazard was to be anticipated, and had thought of providing against it by duty on all goods, the produce of Asia, Africa, and America, coming from a European port. In applying this, however, he had found great difficulties, and had therefore adopted the alteration of permitting goods to be imported into the United Kingdom, in this manner, for exportation only. In making this alteration, he did not consider himself as making any sacrifice of principle. New facilities were still given to the British ship, and it could bring every thing from any place exempt from the danger of seizure and confiscation to which it was now subject. He felt equally with those whose alarms had been excited, that the danger apprehended was to be guarded against. They had differed only in their mode of accomplishing the same object; an object much too important to the most essential interests of the country to be trifled with, and which he was as anxious as any man to put beyond all hazard. This, he trusted, by the proposition he had made, was effectually done. In conclusion, he repeated, that his first purpose was, to simplify and clear the law, and reduce that which had been to be sought through a multitude of acts, to a few simple clauses; his next, to relax the restrictions of the present law, as far as might be done with safety, and to show the disposition of this country to a more enlightened and liberal system of commercial policy than that by which it had been hitherto governed. He implored the House to consider, that the decision it came to on the present bill might have the effect of eventually establishing and securing the unquestionable benefits of such a system to the nations of the world, or fixing upon them all the evils of a contrary one, for centuries to come.—He then moved, That the Speaker should leave the chair.

Mr. Davenport

vindicated the proceedings of the deputation from the silk manufacturers. The silk trade was the only flourishing trade in the country at the present moment. He trusted that full time would be allowed to those whose interests were affected to be heard by counsel against the bill.

Sir W. De Crespigny

protested against the principle of the bill. It militated against the best interests of the country, and was equally prejudicial to British shipowners and seamen.

Sir M. W. Ridley

defended the shipping interest against the animadversions thrown out against them. It might be said that they were a body who felt anxiously alive to their own exclusive interests; but so ought all bodies of men to feel. It was their opinion, that where a competition existed an advantage should not be taken from one party which would result to the benefit of the other. But the difference of expense in navigating an English ship of 500 tons, and a foreign ship of the same burden, was upwards of 1,700 against the English ship; therefore the foreign ship ought not to be placed in the same condition with the English ship. At all events, the parties should have time to consider the subject before it passed into a law.

The House having resolved itself into the committee,

Mr. Davenport moved, that thrown silk be withdrawn from the articles enumerated in the first clause.

Mr. Bastard

hoped an opportunity would be afforded to the silk manufacturers to be heard by counsel.

Mr. T. Wilson

did not think that the measure would be productive of the good anticipated from it.

Mr. Ellice

suggested the propriety of giving time for the fullest consideration of the subject. He hoped the right hon. gentleman would give members an opportunity of discussing the subject at some future stage.

Mr. Wallace

said, he had no wish to refuse the fullest opportunity to parties concerned to defend their interests.

Mr. M. A. Taylor

would oppose the bill in every stage, and was for inserting any article by which the bill might be likely to be thrown out. If passed into a law, it would transfer the trade of England to the opposite shores.

Mr. Ricardo

considered it a happy omen that so many gentlemen were now of opinion that our system admitted of improvement. The only complaint he had against the bill was, that it did not go far enough.

Mr. Brougham

said, he recognised in this bill a portion, though a very minute portion, of the improvements in our commercial system which had often been recommended from his side of the House. A few years since, he had occasion to call their attention to the state of the manufacturers of this country, who had been then almost as much distressed as the agriculturists were now. He then alluded to the improvement of the navigation laws as a remedy, and had remarked, that they had indeed been once beneficial, but that their character had since changed. On that occasion the very person who now brought forward the present measure, had moved the passing to the order of the day. He (Mr. B.) rejoiced that in this improving age the measure which had been so treated five years ago was now brought forward under auspices which made success almost certain. As relaxation had begun on a point where it was not natural to have expected it, he had no doubt that farther relaxations would take place on those points where a liberal policy was more manifestly the interest of the merchant. He hoped that the principle of this bill would be made more effectual, by being applied to the criminal law and the system of taxation, as well as to the commercial policy of the country; and he trusted that when similar propositions should again emanate from his side of the House they would meet with more liberal treatment than they were accustomed to receive.

The amendment was withdrawn, and the clause agreed to. The other clauses were then agreed to, and the House resumed.