HC Deb 18 May 1824 vol 11 cc776-86
General Gascoyne

, referring to certain evidence recently taken before the committee on the Hides and Skins bill, shewing, that if any, all the restrictions on the leather trade ought to be removed, asked if it would not be more expedient for the hon. member for Wareham to postpone his motion for the repeal of the Leather-Tax, at least for a few days?

Mr. Calcraft

said, he had already provided himself with as strong evidence in favour of the repeal of the Leather-tax, as could be furnished by the report of any committee. He therefore felt it his duty to forward his promised motion. His object was, to move the repeal of the whole of the duty on Leather. Should it be adopted, it was his intention to give such ample time for the change, as to render the payment of no drawback necessary; and to enable persons who might be disposed to do so, to make arrangements for combining the trades of currier and tanner. He should move "for leave to bring in a bill, to repeal the duty on Leather, from a time to be limited," meaning that time to be the 5th of July 1825. He thought this a moderate and reasonable course. He had taken up this tax because he thought that, in the whole list, there was none more defective in principle, or more injurious in application. It was defective in principle, because it interfered with the profitable application of capital, and prevented the union of trades which, for the interest of the community, ought to be combined; and, it was injurious in application, because it contributed so little to the Exchequer, and took so much from the pockets of the public. In consequence of the restrictions rendered necessary for the collection of the tax, while it yielded little more than 300,000l. to the revenue, it took from the people a sum equivalent to three times that amount. An attempt had been made before the end of the war, to increase the produce of the tax by doubling it; but the experiment had failed; for the receipt of the revenue had been lessened, and if it had been persevered in, the trade would have been ruined. By raising the tax from three-halfpence to three pence per lb., ministers had expected to obtain 600,000l. but they were completely disappointed. It was clear then, that 300,000l. was the utmost the tax would produce; and, recollecting what it cost to collect it, it seemed mere blindness to persevere in it. He could not help thinking that the present chancellor of the Exchequer, who had taken a more liberal view of financial questions than his predecessors, would admit, that he could find no ground on which to defend it. Why did this tax take so much from the pockets of the people? Because it was necessary to prevent men from combining two trades that ought to be united: the tanner could not touch the skin; he must tan it almost in the very state he bought it; and, what was the consequence of his being obliged to tan, without being able to curry? Out of 24,000,000 of lbs. tanned, not less than 6,000,000 were absolutely wasted. Who was to pay for this waste? The tanner and the currier could not be expected to pay for it, and the public must; so that, in this way, the loss to the public was 900,000l. Was this a sort of tax in which the House would persevere? The restrictions to which he referred, originated in the unenlightened times of Richard 2nd and James 1st, and for this reason, if for no other, they ought to be scouted. The tax, indeed, was not imposed until the reign of queen Anne: but the impediments to the combination of trades began much earlier.—It was impossible upon this subject, to leave out the consideration of Ireland. The revenue to be derived from the tax there, could not exceed, as he understood, 40,000l.; and for this paltry advantage, the whole island was to be placed under the ban of the Excise. In fact, it offered a premium upon the bad manufacture of one of the most important articles used by people of all classes. Whatever became of the tax here, he conjured the House not to think of subjecting Ireland to it, for so paltry a consideration as it promised. He was aware, that he should not meet with that support which the principle and the expediency of the motion deserved. The friends whom he had met since he had given his notice, had told him as an objection, that nothing made of leather would be cheaper in consequence of the repeal; "will you" said they "insure us that we shall have boots and shoes, saddles or harness cheaper, if you succeed?" He replied, certainly not; he would not promise that leather would be cheaper, but his persuasion was, that if the duty were taken off, and the restrictions on the trade removed, the commodity would, in time, fall in price, and the public thus be benefitted. But, it was to be remembered, that when the duty was lowered from 3d. to three-halfpence per pound, the restrictions were continued, and those restrictions were infinitely more costly than the tax. The chancellor of the Exchequer had relieved the silk-trade from restrictions; but had silk fallen in consequence? On the contrary, the raw material was dearer, and the manufactured article, under such circumstances, could hardly be sold cheaper. What was wanted was, to give increased expansion and impulse to the trade? and it was impossible that men who had property in the country should not be benefitted by that expansion and impulse. The increased prosperity of any branch of trade and manufacture must tend to the advantage of the rest of the community. If tanners, silk-men, or curriers, carried on a beneficial trade, the proprietors of the soil, and all other owners of property, must participate in the improvement. His belief was, that if the duty were repealed, and the restrictions upon the leather trade followed the same course, in time all articles manufactured of leather would be obtained at a lower price. It was not fair to form an opinion from what had followed the repeal of the part of the tax imposed during war, because the restrictions, which were so injurious had been continued. He would only mention one passage in the evidence of Mr. Le Fos, who had been examined in 1816, and who was deservedly looked up to by the trade. The question put to him was "State in what way the restrictions and duty operate to the disadvantage of the tanner and of the public, and in your opinion to what extent?" His answer was, "It appears to me, that if the tanner were suffered to be a currier, he would be able to reduce the substance of many hides and skins he puts into work, and prevent the extension of the tanning principle and the payment of duty on an article which I humbly conceive to be worse than nothing." The same witness went on to state, that "out of 24,000,000 of pounds of leather tanned, 6,000,000 of pounds was an entire loss to the public and to the tanner, and was equal to the whole of the revenue derived from the duty." It thus appeared, that by the operation of the existing law, the tanner was compelled to apply the tanning principle, as Mr. Le Fos called it, to 6,000,000 pounds of a commodity which was worth nothing. It had been said, that nothing was so easily obtained as a market-cross popularity, by motions for the repeal of taxes upon manufactures. It could not be asserted that, in this instance, he sought that species of popularity, and he did not care one farthing for the opinions of all the curriers and tanners in the kingdom. In point of reason and principle, on this question, he would rather be without their approbation; for, from the repeal of this tax, and of the restrictions consequent upon it, competition would be increased, and this was what the tanners dreaded. Small capitalists would be admitted into the trade: for the Excise was the protector of large capitalists, and the formidable enemy of the small traders. If his motion were adopted, the competition would be so great, that the public must receive the benefit of it, in the reduction of price. The hon. member concluded by moving for leave to bring in a bill "to repeal the duty on Leather from a time to be limited."

Mr. Curteis

seconded the motion. By the repeal of this tax less injury would be done to the revenue, and more benefit to the public, than by the relinquishment of any duty upon the Statute-book. He recommended as a substitute, that a license duty, of 50l. should be imposed upon tanners.

Mr. Leycester

said, that one objection to the tax was, that it cut up our foreign trade, for it imposed restrictions which prevented all economy in the manufacture of leather, and the preventing economy raised the price, so as to shut out the foreigner from our market. It had the effect of driving capital out of the country; an effect which was strikingly illustrated in the town with which he was connected. There were formerly three tanners in that town who had considerable business. At present, there was only one tanner with an unimproved trade; the two others had gone to America, where they were now thriving, though they would probably have starved had they remained in this country. Another objection to this tax was, that it conveyed infinitely Jess into the Exchequer than it took from the pockets of the people. Could any thing be more repugnant to sound principles of legislation? A still stronger objection to this tax was, that it pressed with peculiar hardship on those who were least able to bear it. The poor man paid a most unequal proportion of the tax on his shoes, and the farmer on harness for his horses employed in agriculture. It might be said, that though the repeal of the tax was desirable, the deficiency could not be supplied. To this he would reply, that it might be taken from the sinking fund, to the maintenance of which, he contended, the faith of parliament was not pledged. Let his majesty's government conciliate Ireland: the conciliation of that country would be instrumental to the reduction of British taxation. This, he contended, would be one of the most effectual means of mitigating the burthens of both countries.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that the hon. gentleman who seconded the motion had thrown out a bait to him, by proposing a substitute for this tax; which substitute could not be resorted to without doing quite as much prejudice in one direction as it would do good in another. The hon. gentleman had suggested a license duty on the tanner to the amount of 50l., which would produce 175,000l. This would not go more than half way towards supplying what would be lost by the repeal of the tax. To supply the whole deficiency, the license duty must be 100l., and such an enormous duty would defeat the hon. member's purpose, by excluding all the small tanners, and throwing the whole trade into the hands of the large tanners. He could not therefore consent to repeal the tax on leather, under the hope of obtaining the same amount of money in the way recommended. As little did he feel disposed to impose higher duties on foreign bark, and other foreign articles employed for the purpose of tanning. Such a measure would be contrary to the principles on which he professed to act, and extremely prejudicial to the interest of the country, though it might give an additional value to the oak woods in Sussex and other parts of the country. He could not be tempted, therefore, by the allurements held out by the hon. member for Sussex, to acquiesce in the motion. He would state briefly his objections to the motion. It had been his lot, since he held his present office, to propose to parliament a reduction of taxes to the amount of four millions and a half. It was natural to suppose that, among the various objects of taxation to which he had directed his attention, the tax on leather was one. If they had already gone to the full extent in the repeal of direct taxes, or taxes affecting the consumption and trade of the country, he had no difficulty in saying, that the tax on leather was one with which it would be very advisable to deal. He did not defend the tax. He did not know that any tax could be defended on principle; and he was sure that this was not one which could be so defended. He did not defend the principle of the restrictions; but the fact was, that the tax could not be levied at all, unless accompanied with those restrictions. He would ask, however, whether there were not in the system of taxation, a great number of other articles liable, in a greater degree, to the objection which had been urged by the hon. member; namely, that the duty was enormously high, as compared with the price and value of those articles. This was a state of things which, on every consideration, deserved the attention of parliament. A great deal had been said on the subject of the English distilleries. He had been told, that the good which had been effected by a reduction of duty, had been, in a great degree, counteracted by a corresponding evil on the borders between England and Scotland. This might be so; and he had little doubt was so. Evil must necessarily arise, where the duty on a commodity was extremely high, as compared with the value of the article, and as compared with the duty in different parts of the country. If he had 350,000l. at his disposal he should think it much more advisable to deal with this subject, than with that which had been brought forward by the hon. member. There were many other taxes, the repeal of which he thought likely to be more advantageous than that of the tax on leather. For instance, the duty on tobacco was 4s., the price of the article being about 3d.; so that the tax was about 1,600 per cent. The consequence was, that this article, of all others, gave rise to the greatest degree of smuggling. If he were to undertake to repeal any tax in the next year, he should be much more disposed to repeal the tax on tobacco, than the tax on leather. The right hon. member for Waterford (sir J. Newport) was fully aware of the extent of the mischief which arose from illicit introduction of tobacco into Ireland. The moral evil was ten thousand times greater than any inconvenience which might be sustained by the community from the restrictions imposed on the manufacture of leather, in consequence of the tax on that article.— There was another article, with respect to the tax on which the hon. member had, on more than one occasion, expressed a good deal of anxiety—he alluded to the tax on coals. Balancing this tax against the tax on leather, he thought it at least extremely doubtful, whether it ought not to have the preference, when they came to repeal either of them. He did not defend this tax as a good tax: it would be preposterous to say any such language; but he did say, that it would be most inconvenient for that House to resolve, first, that they would remit 350,000l. of taxation; and secondly,' that they would remit the tax proposed by the hon. member, when there were other branches of taxation which required to be revised, at least as much as that to which his motion referred.—The hon. member had expressed some displeasure at the extension of the restrictions to the leather trade in Ireland. He regretted that he had been under the necessity of extending the restrictions to Ireland, in consequence of the tax having been evaded in the most shameful manner, and the tanners being almost under the necessity of making a bad article. It became necessary, for the interest and credit of the leather manufacture in Ireland, that the trade should be put under the same regulations and restrictions, as were applied to it in England, as long as the tax continued. The quantity of leather manufactured in Ireland had been very much diminished, and its quality very much deteriorated; and though he regretted that he was under the necessity of applying the restrictions to Ireland, it was impossible that those restrictions could put the tanning trade on a worse footing than that on which it existed at the present moment. He did not, however, support the restrictions because he approved of them in principle, but merely because they furnished the only means by which it was practicable to levy the duty. The question between him and the hon. member opposite was, in truth, a very short one. He was not combating the objections of the hon. member to the tax, but he felt himself under the disagreeable necessity of maintaining this tax; and even if he had elbow-room to enable him to remit 350,000l. of taxation in the next year, there were other taxes to which he should be more disposed to apply himself, than the tax which it was the object of the hon. member's motion to repeal.

Lord Althorp

thought that one great object would be, to clear away all restrictions. If that course were adopted, he was persuaded that the price of leather would be greatly diminished to the consumer. It was true that the price of leather was somewhat increased after a part of the duty had been taken off, but the rise in the price was to be attributed to the continuance of the restrictions. He agreed that, in general, it was not prudent that the House should pledge itself in one session to take off a tax in another; but as the repeal of the tax on leather would produce a great change in the whole trade, it was desirable that a long notice should be given to the parties interested in it.

Sir J. Newport

entirely concurred in the necessity of the repeal of this tax, which drew from the pockets of the people a sum so much larger than it paid into the Exchequer. With reference to what had fallen from the right hon. gentleman respecting the extension to Ireland of these restrictions, he begged of him to consider what had been the progress of the leather tax in that country. Before the Union, the tax produced 51,000l.; whilst since the Union, with an immensely increasing population, and a considerable conversion of the country from pasturage to tillage, and consequently a much larger consumption of leather, the duty had diminished. And during this progressive reduction, the quality of the article had become worse and worse.

Captain Maberly

said, that he had uniformly opposed what was called the sinking fund, believing it to be most prejudicial to the interests of the country. So long, therefore, as it was permitted to stand, he should be the advocate of a reduction of taxation to its amount. But, without touching this sinking fund, there was a mode of giving relief from this tax, without diminishing the present amount of revenue; and that was, by acceding to the motion of his hon. relation, for putting the tax upon beer on malt. That transposition would just save the amount which this tax covered, without diminishing the expenditure of the government. There was a special claim for reducing this tax. All taxes upon necessaries were declared to be bad by the ablest political economists. They tended to raise the price of labour, to diminish profit, and force capital to seek employment in foreign countries. This tax offended against one of the first maxims of taxation; for it produced only 300,000l. to the state, whilst it took 900,000l. from the pockets of the people. It was said, that the trade of tanning was a monopoly, and that the tanners would put into their own pockets, as they had done before, the amount of the proposed reduction. He denied this. At all events, he had reason to believe, that, if there existed this monopoly, its scale of profit could not be what was insinuated; for, at this moment, when capital was seeking so many channels to get vent, there were numerous tan-yards unemployed. At all events, the tax was so impolitic, that he should vote for its repeal.

Sir N. Colthurst

said, he should vote for the repeal of this tax, particularly, as it was intended to extend to Ireland the restrictions which were found so injurious in England, and generally, because of the desire he felt to have the commodity as cheap as possible for the people of his own country.

Mr. Maberly

entirely coincided in the reasons urged for the repeal, and thought the tax was one manifestly injurious to the public. He was particularly anxious to have all these restrictions abolished.

Mr. John Martin

defended the sinking fund, to the maintenance of which he thought parliament stood pledged in honour. He entirely approved of the measures taken by ministers for the reduction of taxes, and could not therefore vote for the motion.

Sir J. Yorke

expressed his astonishment that the chancellor of the Exchequer should have declared that he would sooner repeal the tax on tobacco, the use of which was so unnatural and which was offensive to the stomach, lungs, and nasal organs, than the tax on so necessary an article of consumption as leather, without which nobody could move. With respect to the effect of the reduction of taxation on prices, he must confess, that in the orbit in which he moved he had never had the good fortune to find any one article of consumption a jot cheaper. He would ask any gentleman who had a son at Eton or Westminster whether he found the slightest difference in the items of a tutor's bill. He should have been disposed to vote against the motion, had it not been for the statement, that white the tax on leather brought only 300,000l. into the Exchequer, it took 900,000l. out of the pockets of the people. Under such circumstances, he felt himself called upon to support the motion.

Sir G. Robinson

supported the motion, believing the tax to be an impolitic one.

Mr. Secretary Canning

thought it somewhat hard on his right hon. friend, the chancellor of the Exchequer, that he should be called upon to show, not only that every tax which he thought it expedient to maintain was not oppressive, but that there was something in it peculiarly amiable and lovely. His right hon. friend was called upon to show, not that the con tinuance of a tax might be necessary in a financial point of view, but that it was eminently delightful that such a tax should subsist among the institutions of the country. After his right hon. friend had laid before the House his view of the finances of the country, and that view had received the sanction of parliament, it was somewhat unfair, unless the House were disposed to rescind its former decisions, to Call upon his right hon. friend to remit, in addition to all the reductions he had proposed, any tax which any honourable member might consider inconvenient or oppressive. This was the fourth or fifth motion of the kind which had been made, after the whole finances of the country had been brought under the consideration of the House. The repeal of the window-tax, the house-tax, the whole of the assessed taxes, and the tax on coals, had in this way been successively recommended to the House. His right hon. friend had candidly stated, that he did not defend this tax on principle; that he was not responsible for its imposition; and that he would be happy to propose its repeal, whenever he could do so consistently with considerations of paramount importance. He confessed that he felt some little difficulty in following the exact line of argument which had been taken by his hon. and gallant friend, who had been convinced in the course of this debate, and who intended to support the present motion, partly from his horror of tobacco, and partly from his love of cheap learning. His right hon. friend had declared, that he would rather repeal the tax on tobacco, than the tax on leather; not from any particular affection which he personally entertained for tobacco, for he was not aware that any part of his right hon. friend's person was polluted by that vegetable in the way his gallant friend had described; but because the tax on that article was greatly disproportioned to the value of the commodity, and consequently operated as a great encouragement to smuggling. His gallant friend had argued, that the tax on leather ought to be repealed, because the price of education at Eton and Westminster had not been reduced in proportion to other reductions. He did not at first comprehend the exact scope of his gallant friend's argument; but he believed he must have meant, that though all were agreed as to the expediency of diffusing education, and making it as cheap as possible—though that object had been in a great degree promoted by. committees of that House, and commissions—though the contents of books had consequently become cheaper, the binding had not been reduced in the same proportion [a laugh]. But, to speak seriously. This motion was at all events, premature; and, as such, would not, he trusted, be sanctioned by the House.

The House divided: Ayes 55; Noes 71; Majority 16.

List of the Minority.
Althorp, vis. Johnson, W. A.
Anson, sir George Langston, J. H.
Barnard, vis. Lennard, T. B.
Barret, S. M. Lethbridge, Sir T.
Becher, W. W Leycester, R.
Benyon, B. Lloyd, J. M.
Bernal, Ralph Maberly, John
Boughton, sir W. E. R. Milton, vis.
Monck, J. B.
Bright, H. Moore, Peter
Browne, D. Newport, sir J.
Cartwright, W. S. Palmer, C.
Caulfield, hon. H. Palmer, C. F.
Chaloner, R. Pares, T.
Colthurst, sir N. Pelham, J. C.
Cradock, S. Poyntz, W. S
Curteis, E. J. Proby, hon. G. L.
Davenport, D. Pryse, Pryse
Davies, T. H. Robinson, sir George
Dennison, W. S. Rickford, W.
Ellice, Edward Russell, Lord, J.
Fergusson, sir R. Taylor, M. A.
Griffith, J. W. Wells, J.
Guise, sir B. Whitbread, S. C.
Gurney, R. H. Wood, Matthew
Honywood, W. P. Wyvill, M.
Hornby, E. Yorke, sir Joseph
Hume, Joseph TELLERS.
Hutchinson, hon. C. H. Maberly, W. L.
Calcraft, John