HC Deb 12 March 1824 vol 10 cc936-43
Mr. Hobhouse

said, he rose to present a Petition from the inhabitants of the city of Westminster, on a subject of vital importance to the prosperity and eventual power of this country. These petitioners alleged, that they found from statements made in that House by the ministers of the Crown, that there remained, after meeting the wasteful expenditure of 1823, a surplus revenue of nearly seven millions. Now, the great proportion of that surplus was appropriated to that most fallacious and ruinous project the sinking fund—if fund at all was not a most improper application of the term. In place of relieving or upholding the public resources, its immediate tendency was, to depress the spirits and property of the country at large. Let it not, however, be presumed, that it operated, in any manner, to increase the public strength. That money taken out in taxes from the capital of the nation would, if left in the pockets of this industrious and enterprising people, increase in a manifold degree. These petitioners feared and they feared justly, that this unnatural and unnecessary demand on the people, instead of enabling us, in the event of war, to meet the emergency, would exhaust and leave us less prepared to contend with the difficulties of such a situation. The petitioners felt, that although five millions of surplus taxation, beyond the wants of government, was, at best, a fraction, as compared with the whole debt, yet, being annually drawn in excess from the pockets of the people, it was most oppressive. They complained, also, of the increased expense which the misgovernment of Ireland cost the British people. They stated, that from the taxation of Great Britain, nearly four millions were drawn to uphold misrule, misery, and increasing wretchedness in Ireland. Such was the actual state of a country, blessed in the nature of its soil, and possessing a population characterised for spirit and talent. The House must be convinced that the evil could not continue much longer, and that a remedy must be applied to such a monstrous grievance. His hon. friend, the member for Aberdeen, in his most able statement of last year, had fully established the fact, that giving to Ireland credit for its nett amount of revenue, which he stated at something more than 3,823,000l., there were still taken out of the pockets of the British people nearly four millions, to uphold wretchedness, misery, discontent, and suspicion, in that ill-governed country. Doubts might exist in the minds of some hon. members, as to the causes which led to such a lamentable state of things; but, he defied any Irishman to deny that, from whatever circumstances arising, the situation of Ireland was such as he had described. His own opinion was, that such a state of things was to be attributed to a long-continued system of misrule; for he held it to be impossible that if the affairs of a country were wisely administered, any such disastrous consequences should have so long continued unchecked and unreformed. Perpetual promises had been made that something should be done for Ireland; but those promises had been as perpetually broken. When earl Fitzwilliam was sent to Ireland, it was expected that much good would be effected; but, unfortunately, the recall of that nobleman took place at too early a period to allow of the Irish deriving any benefit from his government. The same ruinous system was again persevered in. Afterwards, a happy prospect presented itself in the appointment of earl Cornwallis to the lord lieutenancy; but again the expectations of the people were disappoint- ed, and the dreadful system of governing by separation was again resorted to. Coming down to our own days, did not his majesty's letter in 1821, recommending conciliation and union among all classes of the people in Ireland, afford joy and hope? Yet nothing was done, and, to the very moment at which he was speaking, nothing had been done; and it was by military force alone, by the sword alone, that the tranquillity of Ireland was maintained. The petitioners complained, that nearly four millions of the taxes of this country went to the support of misrule in Ireland. He trusted, that the necessity of reforming the administration of Ireland would be pressed on his majesty's government by every member connected both with that country and with this. No rational person could doubt for a moment, that if government would apply themselves fairly to the consideration of the state of Ireland something might be accomplished. Although any proposition for measures of improvement might in the first instance be opposed, in the end it would be acceded to. When, the first bill for diminishing the disabilities of the Irish Catholics was brought into parliament it had met with violent opposition. "That measure, however," to use the words of one of the most eloquent orators of that country, "which was almost unanimously opposed in the first instance, was almost as unanimously accepted in the last."

Mr. Robertson

expressed his utter dissent from the opinions of the petitioners, and of the hon. gentleman, respecting the sinking fund. Under what more favourable circumstances could parliament expect to commence the reduction of the national debt than those at present existing? Were they to go on interminably without making any attempt at its diminution? The sinking fund, he was persuaded, was in the highest degree beneficial to the country and was the main cause of all the commercial activity from which such advantages might justly be anticipated. Were parliament to consent to the abolition of this fund, they would show themselves utterly unworthy of the confidence of the country.

Mr. Hume

said, he could not conceive that the hon. gentleman had correctly heard the object of the petition. Whatever the hon. gentleman might think of the sinking fund, he would assert, and when the time came, if the hon. gentle- man would lend him his attention, he pledged himself to prove it, that we had not one pound of a real sinking fund. It was all a delusion throughout. But, to another part of the petition he hoped the hon. gentleman had attended, and to that he trusted he would not object. If it was, as he said it was, his wish to reduce the national debt, he surely could not object to reducing the national expenditure by which that wish could be so readily accomplished [hear]. The hon. gentleman said, "hear." Well, then, the petitioners asserted, that above three millions were annually expended upon, not the government, but the misrule of Ireland; and they prayed that no more money should be laid out for so useless a purpose. There was no country in the world so ill governed as Ireland. The hon. gentleman was acquainted with the customs of other nations—of China and Japan—but he believed that in all his researches and travels he had never met with an instance of such misgovernment as had prevailed in Ireland for the last century. Even in the Philippine Isles, which the hon. gentleman had visited, there was a more just administration of law, if the difference in the moral condition of the people was taken into account. In what way was the money spent? Not for the benefit of the people of Ireland, but for keeping up insurrection acts, and other parts of a system of coercion. He could not help expressing his regret that his hon. friend had presented this petition in the absence of all his majesty's ministers, because it appeared to him to relate to matters of such importance as to demand the serious attention of government.

Mr. John Smith

said, it was undoubtedly true, as stated in the petition, that this country paid above three millions in taxes to carry on the government of Ireland; and it was equally true, that the people of Ireland were incapable of paying that sum for themselves. It appeared to him, therefore, to be incumbent on parliament to inquire into the cause of so extraordinary a circumstance. So long as the present difference of opinion on matters of religion existed in that country, and the consequent disturbances were to be apprehended, people who had capital, which they might and which they would advantageously employ in Ireland, were deterred from making any such experiment. It was his sincere opinion, that until that House adopted measures cal- culated to settle that question, we should not only continue to pay above three millions towards the expenditure of Ireland, but should find that that important portion of the empire, instead of conducing to our strength, would materially contribute to our weakness. If they had means of employment, he was persuaded that no people living would be more disposed to industry, and from whom all the good consequences that invariably flowed from useful occupation, might more assuredly be expected, than the people of Ireland. He was persuaded, that if those circumstances could be removed, which at present prevented the transfer of commercial capital to Ireland, thousands of unfortunate wretches, who were now in a state nearly approaching to starvation, would be immediately relieved, and would soon be placed in a condition of comfort.

Sir J. Newport

said, he should be extremely sorry if any one could for a moment suppose, that the circumstance of Ireland not paying the whole expense of her government arose from any other cause than her inability to pay it. Additional taxes had frequently been imposed on the people of that country, but they had as frequently failed. Indeed, it appeared that the greater the number and amount of the taxes the less was the produce of the revenue. From the year 1807, to the year 1816, different finance ministers had imposed new taxes, amounting nominally to four millions; yet, the fact was, that at the end of that period the produce of the revenue was actually half a million less than at the beginning. It was impossible, indeed, that any fiscal measure in Ireland could be immediately productive. The state in which Ireland was, had not grown out of the occurrences of the last thirty or forty years. It was the result of centuries of misgovernment. It was impossible, therefore, that evils of such long standing could be suddenly remedied. If the present were the last words he should ever speak, he would state, that there would be no peace for Ireland—no happiness for the empire—until religious opinions were put on an equality, by doing what he had again and again and again stated must be done; namely, rendering persons of every religious persuasion in that country eligible to share in all its civil rights. He did not mean to say that any particular class should be preferred, but that all classes should be rendered eligible, and that thus the existing line of demarcation should be entirely done away with. Until that should be done, the impediments to the transfer of commercial capital from this country to Ireland, of which the hon. member for Midhurst had so well spoken, must continue to exist.

The petition was then brought up and read as follows:—

The Petition of the undersigned Inhabitants of the City and Liberty of Westminster

"Sheweth, That your petitioners have seen a statement, which they have been informed and believe was laid before your honourable House on the 12th day of February, 1824, as follows, viz.:—

"Total nett income and expenditure of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, in the year ending 5th Jan. 1824.

"Income paid into the Exchequer £ s. d.
57,672,999 8
"Expenditure 50,962,014. 17 11¼
"Leaving a surplus paid into the Exchequer over and above expenditure of 6,710,984 10

"Whence it appears, that the people have been taxed to the amount of nearly seven millions sterling more than was necessary to meet the current, and as they are satisfied, wasteful, expenditure of the year 1823.

"Your petitioners have also heard and believe, that five millions of the surplus, thus raised by taxes and imposts on the people, is intended to be paid in discharge of the public debt, to which your petitioners beg leave to object, believing as they do, that if the money were left in the pockets of the people, instead of being taken out by tax-gatherers, it would be more usefully and productively employed than in paying off debt. That paying off debt, contracted in large masses, by driblets, is merely making a show to no beneficial purpose whatever, while the people are compelled to pay the same amount of taxes whether small portions of the debt be paid or not.

"That although 5,000,000l. is a small sum in comparison with the amount of the debt, it is nevertheless a large sum for the people to pay in annual and unnecessary taxation.

"Your petitioners have seen statements which induce them to believe that the expense of governing Ireland costs about four millions sterling more than the whole revenue of Ireland produces, and consequently, that the people of Great Britain are taxed in that sum on account of Ireland. Your petitioners beg to call the attention of your honourable House to this subject, since they cannot understand why Ireland should not raise a revenue equal to the expense it occasions. Your petitioners complain, 1. That taxes are extorted from the people of Great Britain, not for the good government of Ireland, since that country appears to them to be worse governed than any other country on the face of the earth. 2. That these taxes are not applied to benefit the people of that most unfortunate country, since they are ill-used and wretched beyond the power of description. 3. That the sum extorted, by means of taxation, from the people of Great Britain, on account of Ireland, neither produces good government, nor benefits its wretched people, but is wastefully expended in places, pensions, patronage, and jobs. 4. That your petitioners feel it to be a great, a singular, and unparalleled grievance, that, in addition to their other heavy burthens, four millions sterling should be extorted from the industrious and sober people of Great Britain, for the support of the present system of mis-rule in Ireland.

"Your petitioners therefore pray, that your honourable House will take the allegations contained in this petition into your most serious consideration, and will be pleased to remit taxes equal in amount to the surplus of revenue above expenditure; and further, that your honourable House will also be pleased to remit taxes from those levied on the people of Great Britain, equal in amount to the sum paid by Great Britain on account of Ireland, over and above the amount of revenue raised in Ireland."

Mr. Hobhouse

, on moving that the petition be printed, observed, that he had had the petition three nights in his hand, but had not seen any of his majesty's ministers in the House before five o'clock, the hour by which petitions must be presented. He certainly agreed with his hon. friend, the member for Aberdeen, on the importance of the petition, relating, as it did, to the remission of taxation. Since he had made his motion, for the repeal of the window-tax, he had received numerous letters pressing the necessity of urging it. He was sorry that he had brought that motion forward at so early a period, but he had thought it his duty to do so, before the final estimates for the year were voted, and before the chancellor of the Exchequer's plan was settled. Notwithstanding the ill success of that motion, he hoped the number of petitions which were pouring in from all parts of the country, would draw the attention of the House to this subject, and have the effect of changing the determination of the right hon. gentleman. In what had been stated by the hon. member for Waterford, he entirely concurred. He would state one fact as a proof of the manner in which matters were managed in Ireland. In the Irish estimates there appeared the sum of 9,700l. for the education of the whole of the Catholic priesthood in that country, and another sum of 89,000l., or nearly ten times as much, for the maintenance of the military force. That so much greater importance should thus he attached to influencing the people of Ireland by the latter than by the former means, afforded sufficient testimony of the vicious character of the system that prevailed in that unhappy country.

The petition was ordered to be printed.