HC Deb 10 May 1824 vol 11 cc617-28
Mr. Maberly

rose, to bring forward his motion for the Repeal of the Assessed Taxes. It was his intention, he said, to deal with this subject on the largest possible scale. He should first take a view of the financial statement of the chancellor of the Exchequer, and should then lay before the House his own views of the sinking fund, and endeavour to demonstrate the absurdity of continuing it. From the view which the right hon. gentleman had taken of the revenue and expenditure of the country for the next four years, it was evident that there was no chance of a repeal of taxation to any extent until the year 1829. The right hon. gentleman had calculated, from an estimate of the revenue and expenditure for four years, that we should have a balance for that period of 4,135,999l. The right hon. gentleman had not included in this estimate the savings which would arise from the reduction of the interest of Exchequer bills from 2d. to 1½d., which would amount to about 700,000l. for the four years. The statement would then stand thus. The surplus for four years over and above the expenditure, without reference to the sinking fund, would amount to 4,135,999l. The estimate of the amount of sinking fund for four years would make a total of 21,515,832l. Now, if he added the savings arising from the reduction of the interest on Exchequer bills amounting to 700,000l. the total balance of surplus over and above expenditure for four years would be 26,351,831l. Now, the right hon. gentleman proposed to apply 5,000,000l. to the purchase of unfunded debt; the other part of the surplus was applied to the reduction of taxation—in the articles of rum, 150,000l.; coals, 100,000l.; wool, 350,000l.; silk, 462,000l.; making a total of 1,062,000l. There was also the reduction of taxes on law proceedings; but this reduction, the right hon. gentleman had stated, would not affect the financial statement which he had originally made. Subsequently, the right hon. gentleman had decided, that it would be expedient, in order to do justice to silk-dealers holding stock in hand, to repay duties to the amount of 500,000l. From this statement, it appeared that there would be an available balance, over these four years in favour of the state, amounting to 22,133,931l.; a balance which would be sufficient to relieve the public from the burthen of the taxes which he proposed to repeal. The amount of available surplus in each year would be 5,533,482/. Having laid before the House this statement of the finances of the country, he trusted he should satisfy the House, that if they would forego the sinking fund, all the taxes which pressed most heavily on the country might be repealed. It would not be necessary for him to dwell on the arguments which had been brought forward, to shew the benefits of the sinking fund, because, in point of fact, from 1792 up to 1819, there had been no sinking fund in this country. Of late years, people had grown wise enough to believe, that a sinking fund meant an ex- cess of revenue over expenditure. Now, as the public debt in 1792 amounted to upwards of 200,000,000l., and in 1819, to upwards of 800,000,000l., how could any man argue, that there had really been a sinking fund, during a period in which there had been an accumulation of 600,000,000l. of debt? If the country had increased in prosperity, that prosperity must be attributed to other causes, and not to the existence of a sinking fund during the period to which he alluded. In 1819, it was deemed expedient to put on taxes to the amount of 3,000,000l. for the purpose of keeping up a sinking fund of 5,000,000l. Since that period, the sinking fund had been operating, not indeed to that extent, but to an extent which he should presently state, up to the 5th January, 1824. The; funded debt of Great Britain and Ireland amounted, on the 5th Jan. 1819, to 791,867,313l., and the interest payable on this nominal debt, amounted to 29,355,974l. Taking this interest at 25 years purchase, at the rate of value from the price of the funds of that day, the real money debt due from the country in 1819, amounted to 733,899,350l. Since 1819, we had reduced 9,592,174l., leaving the present nominal amount of funded debt, 782,275,139l. The interest upon the debt in 1823, amounted to 27,689,882l., making a reduction of interest to the amount of 1,666,092l. since 1819. The application of the 5,000,000l. to the reduction of the debt, had effected nothing, in comparison with the progressive improvement which had taken place in the country, arising out of the increase of capital, and the industry and talents of the people. But, how stood the money value at present? It was no less than 152,176,874l. more than it was in 1819; to diminish which, the sum of 5,000,000l. annually would be like a drop of water taken from the sea. In point of fact, of what consequence was it, whether the debt amounted to 100 millions more, or 100 millions less, as far as the public was concerned? It was to the interest of the debt and the reduction of it, that the country must look for relief. Now, he happened to think, whether rightly or not, at least honestly, that by taking this sum of five millions annually out of the pockets of the people, we retarded, instead of, accelerating the period, when we might arrive at a reduction. He was perfectly aware, that five millions of money taken annually from the people, and appropriated to the reduction of the debt, would redeem five millions; but, in the present state of the funds, it would redeem no more. Now, it was absurd to suppose that the maintenance of public credit required this annual draught upon the resources of the people. If public credit was in a tottering condition, then, indeed, it might be deemed necessary; but, in the present state of things, it was entirely a matter of expediency; and the simple question was, whether it was or was not expedient to continue this mode of reducing the national debt? It was a matter of trifling importance, as far as the argument was concerned, whether this sum of money was sacred, or expended by the public. If it was spent in articles of consumption, then, of course the public would lose the most; but if they applied it to some object of re-production, then the public would be most materially benefitted. If a large portion of this sum was invested in re-productive objects, he contended, that the capital of the nation would be increased to a much greater degree by repealing those taxes than by continuing them. He did not mean to assert, that the benefits which he anticipated, would arise to-day or to-morrow; but he maintained, that there was every fair expectation, if the country continued in a state of peace, and capital should go on accumulating as it had done, we should arrive much sooner by repealing than by continuing those taxes, at the period when we should be enabled to reduce the interest of the 3 per cents. The 3 per cents amounted to 527 millions; the interest of which was 15,810,000l. If we remained at peace, there could be very little doubt that the government would be enabled, in a short time, to reduce the interest of the 3 per cents. If the interest were reduced to 2¾, a saving of 1,330,000l. would be effected; but if it were reduced to 2½, the saving would be 2,635,000l.—He thought it necessary to say a few words respecting the danger of trusting the chancellor of the Exchequer with a large surplus. In such a case, the estimates were never cut down so low as they ought to be. Every one knew, from his own experience, that, when a private individual possessed a considerable surplus of income over expenditure, he became imprudent and extravagant. Although the chancellor of the Exchequer had repealed part of the assessed taxes, he believed the expense of collection was greater now than it had formerly been. Another proof of the impropriety of trusting the chancellor of the Exchequer with a large surplus was to be found in the improvident bargain which he had made respecting the dead weight, by which the country had lost 2,000,000l. When the right hon. gentleman had stated that he wanted 900,000l. for churches, palaces, and pictures, there was a strong feeling in the House that the wants of the country had been trifled with,—He would now state to the House the taxes which he proposed to repeal. They were the house and window duties, the horse and agricultural horse-tax, the tax on carriages and carts, the tax on coachmakers' licenses, the tax on hair-powder and armorial bearings, the composition for the above, &c, amounting altogether to 3,560,000l. a year. If the House should think proper to vote for the repeal of those taxes, he could see no reason why the whole expense of collecting them, amounting to 300,000l., should not also be got rid of. If the taxes should be repealed, there could be no pretence for retaining any part of the expense of collecting them, except for retired allowances to those who had been engaged in that service. He would be the last man to propose that a servant should be turned adrift without reward, because his services were no longer required. It was not by such paltry savings as might be effected by such a proceeding that the country would be benefitted. On the contrary, he thought that men who had spent a considerable portion of their lives in the public service, should be adequately provided for, when the period of their retirement arrived. There was no chance that the chancellor of the Exchequer, if left to himself, would remit the taxes now proposed to be repealed. That, indeed, was pretty evident from what had occurred, shortly after the late repeal of a portion of the house and window duties. At that time, the commissioners of taxes sent letters to the assessors, directing them to survey the houses in the district, and telling them, that if they used their utmost diligence, and increased the amount of the returns, they would be favourably recommended to the Treasury. This proceeding had created the utmost alarm throughout the country, and representations poured in upon government on the subject from all quarters. The chancellor of the Exchequer, under those circumstances, had wisely put a stop to the proposed survey, which he declared was only thought of for the purpose of equalizing the duties. But, if there was any import in words, the object of the commissioners of taxes was to increase and not to equalize the duties. The assessed taxes must be considered as direct taxes. But, how would the House receive a proposition for the imposition of an income or property tax; which was the only fair mode of direct taxation? The House, he believed, would scarcely allow such a plan to be stated. The strong feeling which prevailed against assessed taxes was owing to the inquisitorial system by which they were collected. The whole of the machinery by which they were collected was most oppressive. In three-fourths of the cases in which penalties were incurred on account of not filling up the returns, people erred, not intentionally, but from ignorance. Poor people were frequently deterred from appealing against the decision of the collectors, on account of the loss of time which generally attended such a proceeding. It might be said, that carriages were articles of luxury, and therefore were proper objects of taxation. But, looking-glasses were quite as much articles of luxury as carriages, and yet the former did pay an annual duty, whilst the latter did not. The hon. member then alluded to Ireland, which was relieved from the assessed taxes. In Ireland, the taxation amounted to no more than 10s. per head, whilst in England it amounted to 3l. 105. per head. Nearly the whole expense of Ireland fell upon the people of England. This was to be attributed to the want of employment which prevailed in that country. He feared that if some mode of relieving the distresses of Ireland was not devised, she would become a dangerous enemy to England. The unfortunate situation of Ireland would induce her to rebel, and to place herself under the protection of any foreign power that appeared to sympathize with her sufferings. Although he proposed to repeal upwards of three millions of taxes, relief would be afforded to the country of nearly four millions. But, then, would there be an entire loss to the revenue of 3,500,000l? He thought not. It would of course lose a proportion, but he thought it would not be more than 3,000,000l.; and this would still leave the country a surplus of 2,500,000l. This repeal would produce increased consumption, and many other advantages, besides the health and comfort to the people, by the removal of the window-tax. He should now beg leave to propose, the following resolutions:—"1. That it is expedient, that from and after the 5th day of January 1825, the duties now payable on houses and windows should cease. 2. That it is expedient, that from and after the 5th day of January, 1825, the duties on servants, carriages, carts, coachmakers', licenses, horses, mules, together with all compositions for the said duties, should cease."

The first resolution being put,

Mr. Leycester

said, he was anxious to abolish a system which had converted the sturdy squire into a pliant place-hunter. He looked upon the sinking fund to be as mischievous as the restrictions upon free trade. It might be necessary for Russia, Prussia, and Austria, whose despots would soon imitate the conduct of Ferdinand of Spain, to adopt such a system; but for this country, whose resources and public credit stood so high, to persevere in its continuance was absurd and mischievous. As to the debt, there were two ways of dealing with it. One way was, to diminish the debt itself; the other, to increase the wealth of the debtor. In neither of these ways would the keeping up of a sinking fund operate. It was an artificial proceeding altogether unworthy of this country, and therefore with great satisfaction he seconded the motion.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that the hon. mover had merely agitated the same question, which had come under the consideration of the House about six weeks ago, upon a motion made by the hon. member for Westminster. Upon that occasion he had stated the reasons why he could not consent to the repeal of the assessed taxes, and nothing had since occurred to invalidate those reasons. The grounds upon which the hon. member for Westminster rested his motion were precisely similar to those which the hon. member for Abingdon had just advanced in support of his propositions. The hon. member for Westminster, however, had not been able to persuade the House to agree to his proposition, and he could see no reason why the efforts of the hon. member for Abingdon should be attended with a happier result. He was not quite accurate when he said that the motion of the hon. member was precisely the same as that which had been made by the hon. member for Westminster. The latter hon. member had proposed the repeal of the house and window duties only, but the hon. member for Abingdon wished to extend the repeal to every others article constituting the assessed taxes. If the arguments which had been used, applied with any strength against a motion which had for its object a repeal of taxation, to the amount of two millions, they must apply with greater force to one which was intended to effect a repeal of taxes to the extent of three millions and a half. The hon. member had asserted, that the sinking fund, or, more properly speaking, the excess of revenue over expenditure, had produced no diminution of debt. The hon. member had compared the amount of the debt at the present moment with its amount in 1819. That was not a fair mode of dealing with the subject. He should have gone back to 1816, when a surplus of revenue first existed. Since 1816, 25,000,000l. of funded debt had been redeemed, together with 14,500,000l of unfunded debt. This reduction had been effected by means of the surplus of revenue over expenditure, let it be called by what name, or nickname, it might. The hon. member had also alluded to the Exchequer bills which, on the first of January, 1816, were, for great Britain and Ireland, 52,082,000l. They now were 34,944,000l. Besides this, it was perfectly true that there was a considerable diminution of charge, for which they were indebted to the sinking fund. He alluded to the reduction of the interest; for though it might be thought that that was not referable to the sinking fund, yet it was impossible to say, that the sinking fund had nothing to do with that saving; for had not the sinking fund been in existence, he doubted if he would have been in the situation to have allowed of the operation taking place. The hon. member said, that by adopting his plan, it would give such an elevation to the funds that they might be enabled to reduce the interest of the 3 per cents. He (the chancellor of the Exchequer) could not say what the pleasure of parliament might be under the circumstances stated, but this he knew, that with the sinking fund they had reduced the interest of the debt 1,700,000l. There were many knowing persons who were speculating on the advance of the 3 per cents to par, and the hon. member seemed to think that a probable result of his plan. But, was the existence of the sinking fund to preclude that? On the contrary, were not the funds in that state to lead to the probability of greater reductions? He did not think the hon. member had made out a very strong case against his old friend the sinking fund. The hon. member had told the House, that they had the gloomy prospect of no further reduction of taxation for the next four years. Now, he would rather not deal in prospects either gloomy or brilliant. But he would suppose last year, when 3,200,000l. of taxes were remitted, the hon. member might have said, "Ay, this is all very well, but if you keep the sinking fund you can repeal no more taxes;" yet 3,200,000l. had been repealed, and they were now in the situation of repealing 1,250,000l. more. If the increasing prosperity of the country would do what the hon. member said it would do, he (the chancellor of the Exchequer) would find himself in the same situation as he had already been, when his conduct would be guided by the same principles as hitherto it had been. Every principle that he had laid down must lead to the conclusion—which indeed he had always expressed in the most unreserved manner—that if a tax was very high, in proportion to the value of the article, it was per se a very good thing to get rid of such tax. He hoped, therefore, the House would not be led away by the statements of the hon. member, but that they would refer to the principles on which he had already acted.—One word on the subject of the house-tax. It had been reported to him, that, in many parts of the country, the tax was unjustly and unequally levied; houses of the same size and quality—in the same street, being differently rated. This appeared to him to be the very essence of injustice, though no one was charged more than the law allowed; and he had considered that, on a re-survey, the increase in the total amount would have enabled him to have proposed a general decrease of taxation. In that view he had directed the resurvey; but when he heard that it was complained of, he gave directions that no surcharges should be made.

Mr. Hume

said, the right hon, gentleman had made some observations which had much surprised him. He had, on a former occasion, stated the reduction of debt to be 24,000,000l., but he had now advanced it to 39,000,000l. How he had arrived at that conclusion it was impossible to say. The amount of surplus from 1816 up to lost year, was only 7,000,000l., and the difference of figures must arise from the change of the denomination of the stock. During that period, also, we had been borrowing money on deferred annuities, which the right hon. gentleman had not taken into the account. He would pledge himself to prove, that the assertion of the right hon. gentleman, that there had been a reduction of 39 millions, and a corresponding reduction of interest, was entirely unfounded. The aggregate of the surplus of "the different years did not amount to so much. It was, in fact, a very small sum. The right hon. gentleman hoped that the House would not be so inconsistent as to accede to the motion; but the House had already sanctioned greater inconsistencies. They had declared, that not a shilling of taxes could be repealed, and yet the right hon. gentleman was now taking credit to himself for the amount of taxes which had been taken off. What had taken place since the motion made by the hon. member for Westminster? Since that period the table of the House had been covered with petitions, praying for the repeal of those taxes; and the House was bound to consider whether the prayer of the people could not be complied with. Taking the sinking fund, which the right hon. gentleman called the surplus fund, at three millions, he would ask, was it fit that it should be employed in paying off the three per cents at 96, 97, and 98? Could any person suppose that would be of the same utility as if it were remitted from the general burthen of taxation? If it were considered, that the assessed taxes were the impediment to the return of thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands, of persons at present residing abroad, that alone would be sufficient to induce the right hon. gentleman to repeal them. If the right hon. gentleman would extend his liberal views on commercial subjects to affairs of finance, he would find that the three millions, if left in the pockets of the people, would be productive of ten times the benefit they were of at present. The public credit stood too high to need any such bolstering up as the sinking-fund. Besides, it was a matter of great concern to be relieved from the expense of collection; exclusive of exactions, which never could be entirely prevented.

Mr. Alderman Heygate

felt it his duty to state his reasons for not voting for the motion. He disliked the assessed taxes as much as any one. He thought them bad in principle, and odious in practice. They brought the people into constant collision with the government. They harassed the country with surcharges and appeals. They maintained a whole army of assessors, surveyors, inspectors, and collectors, and, unlike the indirect taxes, they interfered with the comfort and retirement of every householder. Until they were repealed, peace could not be said to have produced its full effect. He would venture to add, that the country was more grateful to ministers for the repeal of one half of them last year, than for any other measure of their government. But the House was pledged to the maintenance of a sinking fund. So lately as 1819, they had, by a large majority, declared it to be essential to the public safety. To the sinking fund we were mainly indebted for the important reductions of the interest of the debt. To it, if honestly maintained, we might look for a reduction of the 3 per cents at no distant period. But without this, he trusted, that by the reductions just effected, the growing increase of the population and revenue, and the utmost economy in every public establishment, we might reasonably look shortly to a repeal of the most odious of the assessed taxes. This object he had always had in view, and had therefore not been friendly in general to the repeal of indirect taxation, firmly believing that every such repeal placed at a greater distance that of the assessed taxes; which were so odious to the feelings of a free and enlightened nation.

Mr. N. Calvert

said, there was a general cry in the country at present for cheap labour, cheap bread, and cheap manufactures, and he did not know how these could be cheap, unless the things which the labourer consumed were cheap. He would therefore rather seethe taxes on soap, leather, and salt reduced, which particularly pressed on the lower clases, than the assessed taxes. He therefore felt himself compelled to vote against the motion.

Lord Milton

said, he would vote for the motion upon this principle—that the only chance there was of driving ministers to a general repeal of taxes, was by voting for the repeal of every particular tax that it might be proposed so to deal with.

After a short reply from Mr. Maberly, the House divided. Ayes 78: Noes 171.

List of the Minority.
Althorp, lord Osborne, lord F. G.
Anson, hon. G. Palmer, C.
Barrett, S. M. Palmer, C. F.
Becher, W. W. Pares, T.
Bernal, R. Poyntz, W. S.
Birch, J. Portman J. B.
Bond, Proby, hon. G. L.
Blight, H. Pryse, P.
Brougham, H. Ramsay, sir A.
Calcraft, J. Rickford, W.
Calvert, C. Robarts, G. J.
Carter, J. Robinson, sir G.
Caulfield, hon. H. Rowley, sir W.
Cavendish, C. C. Russell, lord W.
Chaloner, R. Scarlett, J.
Cradock, S. Scott, J.
Davenport, D. Sefton, earl
De Crespigny, sir W. Shelley, sir J
Denison, W. J. Smith, hon. R.
Denman, T. Stanley, lord
Dundas, hon. T. Stewart, W. (Tyrone)
Folkeston, visc. Stuart, lord J.
Gordon, R. Sykes, Daniel
Grosvenor, hon. R. Talbot, R. W.
Heron, Sir R. Taylor, M. A.
Hobhouse, J. C. Townshend, lord C
Honywood, W. P. Tynte, C. K.
Hornby, E. Warre, J. A.
Howard, lord H. M. Western, C. C.
James, W. Whitbread, S. C.
Jervoise, G. P. Whitbread W. H.
Knight, R. Williams, J.
Lambton J. G. Williams, T. P.
Leycester, R. Williams, W.
Maberly, W. L. Winnington, sir T.
Marjoribanks, S. Wood, M.
Maxwell, J. Wrottesley, sir J.
Milton, visc. TELLERS
Monck, J. B. Maberly, J.
Moore, Peter Hume, J.
Newport, sir J.