HC Deb 22 April 1825 vol 13 cc132-7

The House having resolved itself into a committee on the Spirit Duties Acts,

The Chancellor of the Exchequer said, he had upon a former occasion explained to the House the grounds upon which he thought it expedient to place all the laws relating to distilleries in England on one identical and intelligible footing, and to do away with the inconveniences which were daily found to result, from the circumstance of different laws prevailing in different parts of the kingdom. It would not, therefore, now be necessary for him to advance any general reasoning on the subject; and he flattered himself that the House would readily concur with him in thinking, that something was necessary to be done to effect this object. It appeared to him, that no alteration would be so effectual as that which should assimilate the distillery laws of England with those of Scotland and Ireland. He would state generally the sort of regulations which he proposed to adopt for this branch of the trade and manufacture of the country. In the first place, it was necessary to impose certain restrictions on the persons carrying on this trade: he should be glad if this had not been necessary, but the large amount of the duties rendered it impossible to wave them. In Ireland and in Scotland no persons were allowed to carry on the trade of a distiller without the certificate of a justice of the peace. This regulation, which the peculiar circumstances of Scotland and Ireland rendered necessary, he did not propose to adopt in England. The qualification which he should suggest instead was, that persons carrying on the trade of distillers should inhabit and pay the rates of houses of the rent of 20l. per annum This would facilitate the collection of the duty; while, if persons who could distil in a tin kettle were permitted to do so, the excise would be cheated at every turn. The next regulation was, that all persons licensed to carry on the trade of distillers, should be resident within a quarter of a mile of a town in which there should be 500 inhabited houses, in order to secure a sufficient number of excise officers for the preservation of this branch of the revenue. With respect to the size of the stills, it had been found necessary in Ireland and in Scotland, where smuggling was extensively carried on, to use stills of small dimensions, because larger ones were ineffectual to prevent it. In England there was not the same necessity, and it was therefore his intention to reduce the size of stills from 3,000 gallons, the present rate, to 400, the dimensions at which they had formerly stood. He would now state to the committee the alterations which he intended to propose respecting the duties. The existing duty was 10s. 6d. per gallon, at 7 per cent over proof. It would, he thought, be great improvement on the present system, to adopt the rule which was observed in Ireland and Scotland; namely, to fix the duty according to the proof strength of the spirit, and that duty he proposed should be 5s. 10d. per gallon. He would shortly explain why he had fixed on that particular sum; which might otherwise appear somewhat singular. The first idea was to fix a duty of 5s. upon spirit distilled from malt, and 6s. on that distilled from grain; but, on looking into the details of the subject, he found that it would be difficult to make a distinction between the two kinds of spirit. He was therefore determined to make the duty uniform, without reference to its being distilled from malt or grain. It would be in the recollection of the House, that a bill had past last session for regulating weights and measures, which was to take effect next year. According to that bill, the standard by which measures were to be hereafter regulated was the imperial gallon, which differed from the ordinary wine measure on which the duty on spirits was at present taken. The imperial gallon might be represented by six, whilst the common wine gallon might be represented by five. If he had fixed the duty on the common wine gallon at 6s., the relation which it would have borne to the imperial gallon would have been inconvenient; as it would have left an indescribable fraction of a farthing unaccounted for. The duty of 5s. 10d. on the common wine measure, however, corresponded exactly with the duty of 7s. on the imperial gallon; and thus any intricate calculation would be avoided in the settlement of questions which might arise between the excise-officer and the dealer. The right hon. gentleman concluded by moving several resolutions to the effect which he had stated.

Sir J. Newport

expressed his satisfaction at the statement of the right hon. gentleman. Great advantages must be the result of a free intercourse. He hoped that with this measure, all the trammels that now interrupted the commerce between England and Ireland would end, and that full scope would be given to the exercise of the industry and energies of both countries. Ireland and Scotland should be considered as much a part of England, as Essex or Kent. He therefore gave his cordial approbation to measures, which equally tended to advance the interests of all parts of the united kingdom.

Mr.W. Smith

opposed the measure, and said that it would, in his opinion, contribute more to the disadvantage of England, than any measure that could have been adopted. The immorality of the thing was beyond all question; for there was no necessity to enable a man to get drunk for a shilling; he could do that easily enough already; and as to the proposition laid down by the right hon. gentleman, he considered it as fallacious, as if any one were mathematically to assert, that by adding unequals to equals the result would be equals. In the report on the Police of the Metropolis in 1817, it appeared, from the most incontestible evidence, that almost every crime of the most atrocious character, such as murder, robbery, and burglary, was committed under the influence of ardent spirits. If this were so, he would ask whether that could possibly be a measure of good tendency which went to reduce the price of spirits, as he was satisfied it would be reduced, to little more than half the present amount? But, it was said, that though the duty was to be reduced one-hall, double the quantity of spirits would not be drunk, nor would the quantity drunk by the same individuals, be increased in any very great proportion. The right lion, gentleman, however, argued very differently when he proposed the reduction of the duty upon wine. He then talked with great confidence, of the increased quantity of wine which he hoped would be drunk; and, could he suppose that the reduction of the price of spirits would have a different effect on the lower classes of the people, than the reduction of the price of wine would have on the higher classes? It was said, that the Scotch were a sober people, not withstanding the low price of spirits in Scotland. The fact was, that the poverty of the lower classes of the people in Scotland was a check upon their intemperance. Low as the price of ardent spirits was in that country, they could not afford to purchase them. He might remind the House of the reply of Dr. Johnson to a person who observed, that a man might buy a Solan goose in Scotland for two-pence. " Granted," said the doctor, " but where will he find the two-pence in Scotland?" He confessed that he apprehended serious results to the morality of the country from the reduction proposed by the right hon. gentleman. Whatever might be the effect of the measure, he had delivered his own soul. The right hon. gentleman had taken no means to encourage the brewers, and to turn the people from dram-drinking to the consumption of beer. He sincerely regretted that he should have proposed a measure, which was calculated to have so demoralizing an influence on the habits of the people.

Mr. Hume

strongly recommended the Chancellor of the Exchequer to equalise, to a greater degree than lie had proposed, the duties between England, Scotland, and Ireland, and also to reduce the duties on malt. He could not agree with the lion. member for Norwich, as to the danger to be apprehended to the morals of the country, from the adoption of this measure. He begged his h in. friend to look to Holland and France, where the price of brandy and gin was half what it was in this country. Would he find in those countries such scenes of drunkenness and crime, as he apprehended from the low price of spirits? He believed, that in the countries where the price of spirits was highest, the greatest excesses took place. And this was easily accounted for: it was the disposition of man, when he could only obtain an indulgence occasionally, to get as much of it as he could; but, if circumstances enabled him to obtain the gratification regularly, the temptation to commit an excess was removed. He was satisfied, therefore, that the reduction of the duties on spirits, so far from operating as a temptation to intemperance, would only have the effect of enabling the lower classes of the people to indulge regularly and temperately, rather than irregularly and without moderation, in the use of spirits; and the moderate use of spirits he believed to be much more salutary and beneficial than it was commonly supposed to be. Besides the countries to which he had adverted, he would mention the United States of America, where, though the price of spirits was much lower than it would be in this country after the reduction of the duty, there was no disposition to intemperance among the people. Good wages and low prices were the best security for good conduct.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, he had felt great difficulty it determining what should be the amount of reduction of duty. He admitted that it would have been very desirable to approximate still further than he had proposed towards a complete equalization of duties. He should not have feared to reduce the duty in England still lower, if he had felt himself warranted in increasing the duty in Ireland and Scotland. If he had lowered the duty still further in England, the revenue would have suffered too much, if he had not increased the duty in Scotland and Ireland; and such an increase of duty, immediately after the success of the recent experiment, would I have operated as a fresh encouragement to smuggling. As to the apprehensions of the hon. member for Norwich, that the country would be deluged with drunkenness, in consequence of the reduction of the duty on spirits, he thought that hon. member's anxiety for the morals of the country had led him to take unnecessary alarm at this measure. He did not participate in those fears; and he thought the objections of the hon. member had been satisfactorily answered by the reference which the hon. member for Aberdeen, had made to the state of countries, in which the price of spirits was much lower than it would be in this country after the reduction of the duty.

Mr. Hutchinson

supported the resolution, and trusted the right hon. gentleman would adopt tie suggestion of the hon. member for Aberdeen by reducing the duty on malt.

Captain Gordon thought the country greatly indebted to the right hon. gentleman, for a measure which was calculated to suppress illicit distillation in all parts of the empire.

The resolutions were agreed to.