HC Deb 04 July 1823 vol 9 cc1434-9
Mr. C. Grant

moved the third reading of this bill.

Mr. Robertson

entreated the House to pause before they sanctioned a measure which went to the repeal of the system of navigation laws, Under which this country had been raised to the highest state of commercial and naval pre-eminence. He cited Adam Smith in support of his opinion: and expressed his regret that his arguments should be opposed, with any chance of success, by a new political economists, whose principles he considered decidedly erroneous the landed gentlemen of England ought to resist every attempt to break down that system which had done so much for the defence and glory of the empire. The science of political economy was much talked of, as something very profound and of difficult attainment; but he believed it was in the power of any ordinary mind to master the system of political economy in five or six weeks; but he was equally convinced, that the adoption of its modern principles was not calculated to make its professors either statesmen or legislators. If the navigation laws were broken down, the ruinous consequences to our naval power would be felt when perhaps they could not be retrieved, The hon. gentleman proceeded to read extracts from the evidence taken before the select committee of the House of Lords on foreign trade, and contended, that if the present laws were repealed, foreign vessels, which already possessed some advantages over our own, would obtain a preponderance that would be utterly destructive of British trade. He could not conceive it possible, that the legislature would give its consent to a bill so ruinous as the present. By the commercial measures which had been pursued of late years, and which had been acquiesced in by parliament al most without deliberation, in consequence of the confidence which they placed in some of the right hon. gentlemen near him, our foreign commerce had been diminished, within the last three years, to the extent of 150,000 tons, and 8,000 seamen—an amount equal to all our trade at that period beyond the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn. Was that nothing? When the legislature had had such sad experience of the new system, would they persevere in retrogression, until they destroyed the whole commercial greatness of the country He concluded by moving, that the bill be read a third time this day three months.

Mr. Alderman Thompson

seconded the amendment. If, however, the present subject should be again brought before parliament, and an opportunity given to the ship-owners to state their options on the measure, he would support such inquiry.

Mr. Wallace

said, that the world now pretty well understood that the interests of navigation and commerce were identified, and inseparable. The most whole some policy seemed to be not to benefit one of those great interests as the hon. gentleman seemed to ask, at the expense of the other; but so to modify the existing laws, as to make the prosperity of the first compatible with the welfare of the second. It was no argument to the contrary, that sometimes those interests might come in conflict with each, other. He conceived, that at the time when the navigation laws were first enacted, they were measures of wise and justifiable policy. In the infancy of a colonial trade, it was essentially necessary to put down a dangerous continental rival. But now, that object being answered, he doubted not that those laws ought to be remodelled and revised; and there could be no question, but that they had, in a great variety of instances been relaxed already by parliament. To the welfare of a great naval power, nothing was so vitally essential as the extension of its commerce, by all proper and sound means. It was; with such an object in view, that the measures recently introduced by his majesty's government, had been propose to parliament. Those measures, indeed, had been so unfortunate as to elicit several taunts from the hon. gentleman, at the expense of those whom he was pleased to call speculating economists. He (Mr. W.) would not stop to inquire, whether he was included in the reflection. The hon. gentleman seemed to have totally forgotten, that the measure now brought in had been rendered indispensable by the similar proceedings which other European commercial powers had adopted. Under the present system, common to the European powers in question, the only means of meeting the heavy duties which, they had imposed on our goods and shipping, or of being admitted with other nations, to participate in the benefits of their commerce, where the duties were low, was, in all possible respects, to place our duties upon a footing of perfect reciprocity with theirs. It had been urged, that foreign nations had great advantages over us, because they could build ships at a much cheaper rate than we could; but this advantage was counterbalanced by the fact, that British vessels were generally of greater capacity than they stood registered at; and, consequently, paid less duty in foreign ports. Upon an average, again, it would be found that the. Wage of British seamen were cheaper than those of foreign sailors, all charges being taken into the account. From the Lord's Report it clearly speared, that the ships of Norway, Sweden, Russia, Prussia, France, and Holland, Could not compete with English ships for cheapness of sailing. It was equally clear, on the same valuable authority, that upon all long voyages, such as those from the coasts of Africa and Asia, from India, the Brazils, and the West Indies, freights were always cheaper in English bottoms than in the ships of Holland, France, or Denmark. The hon. member had drawn a most discouraging picture of the falling-off of our shipping trade; there being, according to his calculation, a decrease within three years, of employment or hire, to the amount of 150,000 tons. What would the House say, however, to a statement, on the authenticity of which they might depend, of the comparative amount of British and foreign tonnage employed between the years 1815 and 1822; by which it appeared, that, on the aggregate of eight years, we had had the advantage of our continental neighbours by no less than 593,000 tons? Another subject of regret and complaint with the hon. gentleman was, the decrease in the number of British ships employed. With due submission, however, he (Mr. W.) thought that this diminution was of great advantage to the shipping interest; for he had reason to know, that at the commencement of the peace, there were so many British merchantmen, that this species of property became, of necessity, quite depreciated. It was impossible that the vessels could all find any thing like advantageous employment. At that period, he had heard nothing but complaints, on the score of their numbers; and he believed it to be for the general benefit, that since then, many of them had worn out, and a vast number had been sold. Now, the result of all this had been, that as the numbers had decreased, the hire had risen, so as at length to afford the owner a remunerating price. It might, however, be a satisfaction to the House to learn, that the shipping trade had increased very considerably since last year. In 1822, the number of ships employed Was l8,736; their tonnage, 2,263,000 tons. In 1823, the number of ships employed was about 20,000; their tonnage, 2,390,000 tons. So that the increase in one year was nearly 1,400 in the number of ships, and 127,000 tons in the tonnage. He hoped he had shown that the mode of equalizing our duties with those of other countries was a safe one as regarded our shipping: and if so, it must be acknowledged, that it was the least invidious, mode of preserving those advantages in bur commercial relations which we already possessed.

Mr. Rumbold

said, that, undoubtedly, the statements of the right hon. gentleman were entitled to consideration; but they Were met by counter-statements on the part of the ship-owners, and he trusted that, in a measure of such importance, the House would pause, in order that the truth might be ascertained. The shipping interest did not require protection; but they protested against an entire alteration of that system which had so long prevailed, and to which our greatness had been so much attributed. In every department, whether of building, fitting, wages, or provisions of seamen, the expense doubled or trebled that of the foreigner. When such was the statement of the ship-owners, it was not too much that the period intervening between this and the next session should be given to the consideration of the measure.

Mr. T. Wilson

opposed the bill, and complained, that the ship-owners had not been allowed an opportunity of stating their case. If that had been done, and refutation had been given to their opinions, he would have supported the bill.

Mr. Hume

supported the bill. The measure could not, he said, place the shipping interest in a worse situation than it was at present, while it promised great advantages to them and to the country generally.

Mr. Bright

was anxious that time should be given, to inquire into the merits of a question of such vital importance, and would, therefore, prefer referring it to a committee.

Mr. Ricardo,

in supporting the bill, said, it was the bounden duty of ministers to place the British, as nearly as possible, upon a footing with the foreign ship-builder.

Mr. Marryat

opposed the bill, and contended that the Navigation laws were the only sure protection of the maritime interests of this county.

Mr. Huskisson

contended, that the period had now arrived, when it would be impossible for Great Britain to continue any longer the system of restrictive duties, without inducing retaliation on the part of foreign countries; the effect of which would be most disastrous to our commercial interests. Something had been said respecting the necessity of re- pealing the existing duties upon materials employed in ship-building, respecting which, he wished to make one observation. The duty of 10l. upon timber imported from the Baltic, which, during the war, was a very light burthen, was, he admitted, now become a very grievous impost. He hoped that the prosperous condition of the country would enable the chancellor of the exchequer to repeal, or very considerably reduce, that tax next session. He begged the House to consent to the passing of the bill; which, instead of injuring, would tend to the protection of British shipping. He concluded by enforcing the necessity of giving all possible facilities to the commerce of the country, with a view not only to the increase of our wealth, but to securing the means of national defence against foreign states.

Mr. Stuart Worthy

thought that the principles which now began to work in regard to commercial regulations, must ere long be applied to those of agriculture. So many impolitic restrictions called protections being removed from the trade and shipping, it would be impossible to retain, for any considerable time, the protection given to agricultural produce. At any rate, the present enormous rate of the protecting duty on grain could not be long continued, but must be brought nearer to the standard of the European markets.

The House divided: For the motion 75. For the amendment 15. The bill was then passed.

List of the Minority.
Anson, hon. G. Thompson, alderman
Dawkins, H. Wells, J.
Ellison, C. Wilson, T.
Gordon, hon. W. Wortley, S.
Innes, I. Wood, alderman
Mundy, F. TELLERS.
Manning, W. Robertson, A.
Rumbold, C. E. Bright, H.