HC Deb 21 May 1823 vol 9 cc390-7
Mr. Sykes

said, he rose, in pursuance of a notice he had given on a subject upon which he had once before addressed the House. He was not disposed, however, to be very sorry for his disappointment on that occasion, being convinced that he now stood on more favourable ground than he did last session. At that time, the language of government was, that the condition of the community would only be rendered worse, by any attempt to relieve the distresses of the country by reducing taxation. He was now, however, happy to say, that the government asserted principles of a more pleasing sound, and more beneficial nature. In his majesty's speech from the throne, at the commencement of the present session, it was announced that a large reduction of taxes would take place; and ministers themselves had announced the fact, that the only mode in which the condition of the most suffering of all the interests in the community could be ameliorated, namely, the agriculturists, was by reducing the taxes. Parliament, therefore, had now come to the right and sound conclusion as to the means of relief. That they consisted in a remission of the taxation by which the country was oppressed, was a point that he should assume to have been generally conceded. The only remaining question, therefore, regarded the mode and objects of that reduction, and whether such reduction had yet taken place, as the country had a right to demand at the hands of parliament. He, for one, was free to acknowledge his great obligations to the government for having repealed a large proportion of the assessed taxes; but he must be allowed to say, that the relief which they had proposed to give by such repeal, had not been felt in the right place. It was not a relief directly or immediately to the agricultural interest, nor such as would diminish the expense of raising the produce of the country; for as to taking off the taxes on carriages, hunting horses, &c., in what way could that enable the industrious farmer to bring his produce to market at a cheaper rate? But, while he suggested this, he meant not to say, that the ar- rangement which had been made by government ought to be at all impeded or interfered with. He meant only to show in what respect it was not effective for one of the principal purposes to which it was intended to go; for he maintained, that no substantial relief had been yet administered to agricultural distress. It was to him a most consolatory assurance, that this country was to remain neutral amidst the present agitations of Europe. Without entering into the details of the conduct which had been pursued by ministers, he must say, that he thought they had done perfectly right in endeavouring to maintain the empire in a state of peace with foreign powers; at least until a war was rendered absolutely necessary. The great advantage of peace was, that it enabled parliament to revise the taxation of the country, and to look into its financial situation. The great mischief of our going to war, would have been, that, incumbered as the country already was, it would have been next to impossible to apply any great diligence to that investigation. Our remaining at peace, therefore, was one argument why the House should proceed to sec whether government had gone as far as possible in the way of reducing taxes. Me could not go down, for his part, to face his constituents without having previously made every exertion to induce parliament to give them relief in the only way that relief could be effectual.—He would now proceed to state, why he thought that the repeal of the duty upon tallow-candles would be, as far as it went, a relief to the country, and such as it had a right to demand. This duty was one not of very great amount; but if that was to be made the ground of an objection to remit it, he should retort upon the government, that it was but little for them to give. It was, however, a tax which, if any tax could properly be withdrawn from the general taxation of the country, ought to be repealed. The annual amount of the duty on candles in England was 375,000l. gross; and 313,000l. was the nett sum actually paid into the Exchequer. In Scotland, the gross amount of this duty was 20,000l., andd the nett, 16,500l.; and here the House would observe a very remarkable difference in the amount of duty between the returns for the two countries—that of Scotland being about l.20th of the other. The total gross duty for England and Scotland was 395,000l.; and the total nett receipt into the Exchequer, 829,500l. the total difference between the gross and nett receipts being 65,500l. In Ireland, he believed there were no candle duties whatever; but he trusted that the Irish members would be that night just to the characteristic generosity of their country, and not refuse their support to his motion, because in Ireland candles paid no duty at all. The difference between the gross and nett receipts on account of this tax, as raised in Great Britain, was very large indeed. It was a principle well understood in political economy, that where a vast difference existed between the gross and nett receipts of any branch of revenue, it must show something bad in the tax itself, or in the mode of its collection. Now, the cost of collecting the tax on tallow exceeded, he believed, that of any other branch of our excise. The whole of the excise revenue was collected in this country at about 3l. 16s. 1d. per cent; but the duty on tallow candles cost in the collection 17½ per cent, on the gross, and 20 on the nett receipts; being nearly five times more than that of any other branch of revenue. The tax was also in its application a most oppressive one to those on whom all taxes ought to be made to press with the least severity—the poorer classes. The rich had wax lights, spermaceti lights, gas lights, and other modes of illuminating their chambers, by which philosophy administered to the luxury of the age; but the poor man had only his farthing candle, or the more scanty light from his small fire. Now, he contended, that the duty on tallow-candles generally, but more particularly on that kind of candle which the poor man used, was most oppressive in its operation. There were, the House knew, two kinds of tallow candles—dip candles and moulds; but as the duty was at present arranged, it fell most heavily on the former kind, and of course on the poor by whom that light was almost entirely consumed. Another objection which he had to the tax was, that it was a tax on labour. In the winter season, a great portion of the labour of the poorer classes was performed by candle-light; and he could cite many cases where individuals, whose earnings did not exceed eighteen or twenty pence a day, were obliged to expend three-pence of that miserable pittance in the purchase of candles. Besides this, the tax was extremely vexatious in the mode of its collection. There was, he believed, no branch of business within the operation of the excise laws, in which more difficulties were thrown in the way of the manufacturer. This was obviously the less necessary, seeing that, of all species of manufacture, that of candles was, perhaps, the easiest. So much so that he had no doubt, if the duty was removed, the practice of making their own candles would be adopted by most families. Mr. Evelyn, in his Memoirs, when describing the domestic economy of the house of Beaufort, mentioned the making of candles as one. But, to return to the pressure of the act upon the manufacturers. It was complained of by them, that by certain clauses in the act, they were rendered liable to penalties of 100l. for omitting particular forms of moulds, and modes of arranging them. Now, the effect of these difficulties pressed not merely on the manufacturer, but also on the consumers generally; for in proportion to the cost, trouble, and risk of his business, would he naturally oblige the consumers to pay for the article. The hon. member here read part of a letter which he had received from a respectable manufacturer of candles, in which the writer, after pointing out many of the objections to which he had alluded, added, that some of the difficulties with which the manufacturer had to contend were too much for any tradesman to bear. The writer pointed out the great number of oaths which the manufacturer was obliged to take, and gave as an instance, that he had himself taken no fewer than thirty-three oaths since last July. In conclusion, the writer expressed his conviction, that if the duty was reduced, the consumption would increase in a very considerable degree.—It might be said, in answer to his motion for the repeal of the tax, that it was one of a very long standing—that it had already existed for a century; but this was no answer to his argument, particularly at a time like the present, when the principles of legislation were much better understood than they were formerly. It might also be asked of him, if he removed this tax, which amounted to about 340,000l., what he would propose as a substitute? To this he would answer, that he was not Chancellor of the Exchequer, and that if he pointed out the general impolicy of the tax, it was the duty of government to remove it, and provide a substitute. If, however, he were forced to name a substitute for the tax, he would say, that government were not without an abundant store, out of which they might supply the deficiency created by the repeal. He would say, that they had it in a more economical management of the public re-resources; in a greater reduction of useless places and of the large salaries attached to some which were necessary. In carrying into effect that fair and necessary system of economy, objections would, he knew, be made. He recollected the excuse that had been made for the salary of an hon. gentleman (Mr. T. Courtenay) by the right hon. secretary; he said that his hon. friend had ten children, and therefore his salary was not to be touched. Again: affection towards his royal father was made the excuse for keeping up the salary of his royal highness the duke of York: the filial attachment of the one, and the paternal affection of the other, were made the grounds of keeping up the burthens of the country. His wish was, to relieve the country from the burthen of the tax on tallow altogether. It had been suggested by his hon. friend (Mr. Curwen), that the tax might be substituted by an increase of the duties on the importation of tallow. For his own part, he did not wish to shift the burthen from the shoulders of one party to those of another. However, if the tax could not be got rid of, he would prefer the suggestion of his hon. friend, by which at least, the pressure of the tax would be rendered more equal. The hon. member concluded by moving, "That leave be given to bring in a Bill to repeal the Tax on Tallow Candles."

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, he would state, as briefly as possible, the grounds on which he thought it highly inexpedient to repeal the duty. The first was, that the revenue of the country was not at present in a condition to spare 350,000l., the amount of the tax; and he could not agree that it was a tax which pressed heavily upon the public. On the contrary he was prepared to say, that if the revenue were at present in a situation which would enable government to remit so large an amount of taxation, there were other branches of it which required to be relieved infinitely more than that under consideration. The hon. member had done justice to the government, in admitting that they had shown a disposition to relieve the public by the remission of taxation to a very considerable amount. He, however, as one member of it, did not consider himself entitled to any praise on that account, beyond what belonged to his predecessor in office. It had been his good fortune, when he came into office, to find the revenue in that situation which enabled government to effect the very considerable reductions they had made. But independently of these reductions, which already amounted to 2,300,000l., it was intended to make a further reduction on the duties upon Scotch and Irish spirits. Now, considering the large amount of revenue derived from this source, it was natural to expect that the reduction would at first, though not eventually, create some diminution, which it would be highly improper to increase, by giving up other duties to the amount proposed by the hon. member. The hon. member complained of the tax as odious and oppressive, and had ridiculed the idea of defending it on the ground that it had been imposed a century ago. He certainly did not defend it on the ground of its antiquity; hut when he found that it had existed for a century; that it had not been increased within that time; that the amount of revenue derived from it had improved yearly; and that no complaints had been made against it, he did not see, particularly as the state of the revenue could not afford it, any good reason why it should be given up—The hon. gentleman was mistaken, in supposing that the difference between the gross and the nett receipts of the tax was absorbed by the cost of its collection; for a great portion of this consisted of drawbacks on exportation, and returns of different kinds. But, even if the hon. member had been correct on this point, still he would repeat, that there were other taxes which, if the state of the revenue permitted, called much more imperatively for repeal, as being much more generally felt, and complained of. The hon. member might recollect the numerous petitions which had been presented to the House this session, complaining of the operation of the duties on coals, beer, tobacco, and other articles. All these were much more loudly complained of than the one he sought to repeal. Let him also recollect, that there was another tax of about the same amount—the remaining duty of 2s. a bushel on salt—which would expire in January 1825. Now, assuming that the country might be in a situation to give up that tax at the time mentioned, then there would be a diminution of revenue, if the tax on candles were also repealed, to the amount of 700,000l. He thought it better to let the tax remain as it stood; and it would be for the consideration of parliament, at the expiration of the salt-tax, whether it might be better to give up that or the duty on candles. Another objection which he had to making so great a diminution of the revenue, was founded on the intention of government to get rid of one mode by which they had hitherto raised a part of it—he meant the lottery [[Hear, hear.] He should propose the lottery resolutions this year for the last time [Cheers]. That intention of government could not, however, be carried into effect, if the hon. member's proposition for the repeal of the duty on candles was adopted. He fully concurred in the sentiment expressed by the hon. gentleman, respecting the necessity of making every practicable saving in the collection of the revenue, and in diminishing our other expenses in every way consistent with the efficient performance of the public service; but if by any reductions which could be made on these heads, the whole amount of the tax on candles could be saved, he thought he would do much better to apply the result to the remission of taxes which pressed much more heavily on the public. He thought it was no very strong argument in favour of the repeal, that it would induce persons to follow the example of a former duke of Beaufort, who made the manufacture of candles a part of his domestic economy. He for one had no such wish that such should be the case; and he believed that those who might try the experiment would not find their candles much cheaper for being made in their houses. For the reasons he had stated, he should negative the motion.

Mr. Curwen

said, he was opposed to the duty on candles, because he thought it pressed with great severity upon the poorer classes. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had completely blinked the question. He had talked of the relief afforded to the country from taxation; but that relief was almost confined to the richer classes. The labouring poor felt little benefit from it; but relief to those classes was of importance; for unless the labourer was relieved from some of the heavy burthens which pressed upon him, it would be absolutely necessary to increase his wages. He was glad to hear that it was the intention of government to give up the lottery; but he did not think they were entitled to any great credit on this point. If the tax on candles could not be given up, he thought that by increasing the duty on the importation of foreign tallow, and that on mould candles, the government might be able to give up that on dipped candles, which pressed with peculiar hardship on the poor.

Mr. Monck

supported the hon. mover, who, in his opinion, had made out as complete a case as had ever been submitted to the consideration of parliament.

The motion was negatived without a division.