HC Deb 16 February 1826 vol 14 cc439-50
Mr. Spring Rice,

after a few observations respecting the evils to which the present system of collecting Tolls and Customs in Ireland gave rise, moved for the purpose of remedying those evils, "That an humble address be presented to his majesty, praying that he would be graciously pleased to give directions that a commission should issue to inquire into the Tolls and Customs collected in Fairs, Markets, and Sea Ports in Ireland."

Mr. Goulburn

said, that the hon. gentleman was under a misapprehension as to an intention on the part of government to protect or support any abuses in the collection of the toils or customs of Ireland. On the contrary, if extensive evils did exist, and he would not deny that there were some, government would be disposed to remedy them. Indeed, he had assured the hon. gentleman, at the commencement of the session, when he was apprized of his intention to make this motion, that the subject had not escaped the notice of the Irish government, and that he was unwilling to preclude any inquiry that might lead to practical benefit. At the same time, the subject was surrounded with difficulty. There were in Ireland, as there were in this country, many markets and towns invested by royal prerogative, with a right of levying certain tolls and duties. Now, that was a right with which the legislature ought to be cautious in interfering. Wherever duties, even moderate duties, were levied, it could not be denied, that those duties operated as a tax upon the commodities of whatever town or market these commodities were brought into to be disposed of. So far they were, therefore, a restraint upon those principles of free trade which the House was so desirous to encourage. But this restraint did not operate upon those duties in Ireland alone; it operated with equal effect in this part of the united kingdom. Within half a mile of the very place in which they sat—at Covent Garden—the tolls and duties exacted there were a subject of constant altercation, between the persons who brought their commodities for sale into that market, and the duke of Bedford. The effect of these disputes were felt particularly by the lower classes of the people, who brought their commodities to market, and, as far as they went, were an obstruction to the traffic of the place. But, it did not follow that there was no redress for any evil which might arise. It was true, that a committee of the House had, on a former occasion, pointed out this subject as one for which a remedy ought to be found; and the ground of that recommendation was chiefly on account of the resistance which was offered to the payment of tolls, and the disorders to which that resistance gave rise. He could not, however, agree, that this was a sufficient ground for applying the remedy now proposed. If this resistance were confined in Ireland to the payment of tolls, then, indeed, some argument might be raised upon it; but, when it was found to prevail very generally, and when the same resistance was offered to the payment of rents and of tithes, and all other dues which parties were entitled to receive, and the same disorders were the consequence, he thought it was too much to conclude, that the law was therefore deficient. His own opinion was, that by application to the legal remedies, and by that alone, the evil could be got rid of. If gentlemen, resident in the neighbourhood of places where tolls were illegally exacted, would lend their advice and assistance to the persons aggrieved, by pointing out the mode of legally obtaining redress; and, if need were, by leading the way themselves, and making an example of some great offender, there would soon be an end of the illegalities complained of, and the existing laws would be found strong enough for all necessary purposes. The greatest facility was afforded, under the present acts, to persons who had to complain. The redress might be obtained before a single justice of the peace; and, although corporation officers were, in many instances, the parties interested in the receipt of tolls, this difficulty, too, had been provided for, as well by the imposition of a heavy pecuniary fine on justices denying redress, or refusing to act, as by an enactment, that all causes relating to corporation rights should be sued out of the jurisdiction. But, if the motion of his hon. friend were agreed to, it would afford no further information than was already on the table of the House, in the list of fees taken in all the towns in Ireland, by any other authority than that of the justices of the peace. By that return, it appeared, that there were no less than 2,000 patents granting tolls, and that in each of them the articles amounted to fifty or sixty. It was obvious, therefore, that, to investigate this subject properly, the commissioners ought to ascertain, item by item, the legality of those tolls, and to point out accurately whether they were received by the authority of prescription, of patent, or by the peculiar fitness of the thing. The annual amount of these tolls; were said to be 1,000,500l. It would be necessary to give compensation to the parties at present entitled to these tolls, and he, for one, would never consent to the government making any bargain so extensive as this must necessarily be. For this reason, as well as on account of the herculean labour which must be imposed on the commissioners without the probable result of any adequate good, he must decidedly oppose the motion. There was another ground, and not a less forcible one, on which that opposition was founded. If this motion were agreed to, the immediate consequence would be, that the people of Ireland would receive it as evidence that Parliament had decided on the general illegality of tolls, and there would not be a market or fair in which the people would not set up a general resistance, even to that part which might be admitted to be legal. He had lived long enough in that country to know how easily erroneous opinions were adopted, when they happened to suit the notions of persons who were interested in them. For these reasons, and, above all, because there was already in Ireland a disposition to lay aside the law, and to resort to extraordinary measures—he was averse to the commission. Nothing could produce a more lasting benefit to that country, than to exalt the legal tribunals in the minds of the people, and to teach them to look to them alone for protection and redress. He was not disposed to resort to spy extraordinary remedy; but, if the present law was found inefficient, he would, upon the case being made out, consent to its being remedied.

Mr. Denis Browne

remarked, that the proposed inquiry would last for ever, if they examined every man who paid toll in Ireland, as a custom was placed on all articles sold at fairs. He did not think that there was any ground of complaint, as the matter was managed very regularly, the toll-levier being obliged to furnish receipts for the tolls he took. If he was guilty of exaction, the subject might be investigated at the sessions, where the patent was rigorously examined; and there was also an appeal from the sessions to the judge in circuit. He had observed that commissions of inquiry into Irish matters were very excellent things. If there was to be one appointed on the present occasion, he was sure it would be a never-ending one. He had had forty-three years' experience, and he therefore hoped that he should be made one of the commissioners, being very sure that it would turn out to be a very good thing. The tolls of Ireland were a disease, but a cure was often worse than the disease itself. Gentlemen might judge of the expense of such a commission, when they reflected on the expenses of the witnesses who had come from Ireland to give their evidence before the committee into the state of Ireland. He had lived long enough to hear of many such commissions. He had heard when each of them had begun, but he seldom heard when they ended. They were generally very snug things. He should like to be appointed to one; and he hoped he had put in his claim in time [a laugh].

Sir H. Parell

said, it was to very little purpose that any legal remedy existed in Ireland against the exactions of the customs gatherers, as the poor could not resort to it, for obvious reasons, and the poor were the only sufferers by such exactions. He remembered an instance at Mary borough, where a double illegality had been practised; in the first place, the article taxed was exempted from toll; and in the second, the party levying the tax had no authority to do so. In Ireland, unfortunately, there was no "village Hampden" to step forward and obtain redress for the injured peasant. What was most provoking of all, however, was, that the money derived from tolls was not misapplied [a laugh]. In most other cases, the object in obtaining money improperly was to apply it improperly; but here he must acknowledge that it was honestly applied.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, that the hon. mover had not produced a single instance in which the laws, when put into operation, had failed to effect the desired remedy. If he had even done this, it would have amounted to a good ground for making some alteration in the law; but it would not amount to a reason for appointing a commission. The labours of such a commission would be infinite. Surely the hon. mover's ideas could never go to the extent of imagining, that a compensation should be given to persons for the value of the tolls which he wished to regulate or suppress. If that principle were adopted, it ought also to be applied to this country. If a commission were appointed for Ireland, it ought also to extend its labours to England; for an equal ground of investigation extended to both countries. The extent of the present proposition went to this absurd length, that this country was to be taxed for removing that evil from Ireland which was to be continued upon herself. If a commission were to be appointed for Ireland, he did not see why the inquiry ought not to be extended to the duke of Bedford's tolls in Covent-Garden. Every possible facility ought to be given to inquire into the legality of the tolls exacted, and to resist the imposition of them, if illegal. If the Statutes were defective, they might be improved; but he could not consent to supersede the ordinary operation of the law, by the appointment of a commission, the duties of which would be endless.

Sir J. Newport

said, that the present state of the law was inadequate to afford redress to those whom it was meant to protect. Who were the parties in the present question? Who were the oppressed, and what the condition of the oppressor? The toll rights were in the hands either of corporate bodies, or of rich and powerful individuals. To tell the poor of Ireland that, to obtain redress, it was necessary for them to enter into a legal contest with corporate bodies, or with wealthy individuals, was to tell them, that they had no remedy at all. The cost of contest would be ruinous to the peasant; but it would be contemptible to the other party. He knew cases in Ireland where illegal impositions were enforced upon the poor, by corporations that abandoned them when resisted by the rich. He would instance the case of general Burke, who had successfully opposed a claim which, after his resistance, continued to be imposed on the peasantry. The heavier the exaction, the less chance had the poor of successful resistance; for the richer would be the oppressor. The parties who had to determine appeals against oppression in one district, were generally the practises of similar oppression in neigh bouring districts; and it might be supposed to which side their sympathies would tend. It was the duty of government to afford to the poor a summary and cheap remedy. How lax they were in the performance of their duty, might be gathered from a statement of the practice existing upon the subject in Ireland. It was the practice for the toll-collectors of the Irish markets to stand at the entrance of the marketplace, with a huge bludgeon in one hand, and a prayer-book in the other. He imposed the oath upon the vender of the goods in a summary way; and, if he met with resistance, he took the law into his own hands, and the bludgeon became his instrument of vengeance. What could be said of a government that permitted the continuance of such practices as these? Sir John Davies had declared, very many years ago, that the people of Ireland were well disposed, and inclined to obey the laws, whenever they were equitable. But, could the peasantry of any country respect laws of the description of many of those now existing in that country?

Mr. Plunkett

wished briefly to explain to the House, the nature and degree of the resistance which he meant to offer to the hon. mover Whether that hon. gentleman's opinions of the extent of the evil, were well founded, he had great reasons to doubt. From his official situation, all complaints, if they were material, would naturally meet his ear; but the complaints which had been made that evening to the House, had previously been unknown to him. If the tolls levied in the Irish markets were, as had been stated, so excessive as to amount to 5 per cent on the articles sold, it would amount, not only to a grievous tax upon the poor, but to a most mischievous imposition on the country gentlemen, out of whose pockets this money must eventually come; and, for their own sakes, they would never tamely do it. He did not believe the statements as to the extent of the imposition; but, supposing they were true, by the hon. mover's own confession, there were documents before the House sufficiently ample for him to make out his case. Where, then, was the necessity for a commission of inquiry? The hon. mover had not made out any case for inquiry; but, if his other statements were true, he had undoubtedly made out a case for legislation. If the hon. gentleman would come forward with a measure upon the subject, he would cordially co-operate with him. More: if the evil could be removed, he was ready to take upon himself the labour of remedying it. The labours of a commission would be endless. The number of toll franchises in Ireland amounted to 2,016, and each of them involved a right to about twenty different kinds of toll. The commissioners, therefore, would have upwards of 40,000 cases to investigate. It would be the work of generations—" filii natorum, et qui nascentur ab illis." He must again express his conviction, that the charges were too general, and made on too light grounds. The people would not submit to them. Gray's Village Hampden, that with dauntless breast The little tyrant of his field withstood, would not, perhaps, strictly apply to Ireland. But, if that country was without village Hampdens, she was in no want of legal Hampdens. The latter were a description of persons who were not likely to acquiesce under the implication of any grievance, and to whom the expense of procuring redress would not form a very important objection. If the hon. mover could suggest any plan for rendering the mode of granting redress more summary, be would endeavour to carry it into effect. It was suggested, that the patents for tolls in Ireland should be purchased by the public. At the lowest estimate, the tolls in Ireland were worth 500,000l. a-year. Now parliament could not think of offering the gentlemen who held the patents less than twenty years' purchase, which would amount to the moderate sum of 10,000,000l. He thought that his right hon. friends, the chancellor of the Exchequer and the president of the Board of Trade, would turn the matter in their minds a long time, before they resolved to part with such a sum for such a purpose. Then, as to England, which would have an equal right to bring hers to market, they would take—but, he was getting beyond his depth, and would leave the calculation to his right hon. friend the chancellor of the Exchequer. He repeated, that he was willing to legislate with his hon. friend, but he objected to the inquiry. He could assure him that he had, in the course of his office, met with no cases of the kind mentioned, or he would have dealt with them as they deserved.

Mr. M. Fitzgerald

agreed, that the consideration of buying up these tolls would be stopped in limine by the immense amount of the purchase money. If the Attorney-general for Ireland were really so ignorant as he stated himself to be, of the evils complained of, it only proved that the poverty and misery of the poor Irish were so extreme, that their grievances had not reached the government. The impositions complained of, were levied in despite of the statute and common law. He had never been in any town of Ireland, in which he had not heard of numerous instances of oppression, committed in open and insolent violation of the law. He begged to deprecate the remedy proposed by his right hon. friend, who found the existing laws sufficient, and recommended recourse being had to the attorney of the hamlet. There was nothing he deprecated more than this. He would rather leave the people subject to the toll, than put them into the hands of the attorney. Too many of the evils of Ireland arose from the injudicious advice which gentlemen of that profession gave to both sides. His countrymen, much as they loved litigation, had discretion enough never to go to law with corporate bodies and toll-gatherers. The remedy at law, of which so much had been said, was not available to the people. He knew cases in which tolls were levied, contrary to law. There were laws to exempt linen from every species of toll; and the trustees of the linen board knew that in the south and west of Ireland tolls were levied on articles employed in the manufacture of linen. What was worse still, the power of levying tolls was exercised to promote frauds. It had been proved before him, as a magistrate, that a toll gatherer asserting his right to examine articles, had, under the influence of a bribe, allowed bad articles to pass, and thus assisted to impose on the public. This instance of flagrant abuse shewed how incompetent individuals must be to resist improper charges. The extent of the grievance, and the impossibility of at present obtaining a remedy, required that the law should be simplified, and that means should be devised for supplying those who were oppressed, with funds for obtaining justice by the ordinary proceedings at law. Perhaps such funds might be supplied by the grand juries; and, if suits were prosecuted on this principle, the distinction would be established between illegal and legal tolls. It was worse than idle to tell the House, that men in a more wretched situation than the paupers of England, could obtain a remedy against any oppression practised by the wealthy. He trusted, that if his hon. friend felt a conviction of the existence of abuses, that be would submit the matter to a committee. It was not at all to be wondered at that the Secretary, or his right hon. friend, the Attorney-general for Ireland, should remain ignorant of such abuses, even though they existed. So multifarious were the subjects to which their minds were necessarily directed; that he was not surprised, if such comparatively trifling matters as abuses in the Collection of tolls had not been brought under-their observation. The right hon. gentleman professsed himself quite ignorant of such abuses in Ireland. Indeed he never recollected a secretary that knew much about the Country; and, as for an Attorney-general attending to such trifles, it was not to be expected. He could not know much of the country. Indeed he never knew a great lawyer to know much of any country in the world [a laugh]. However he was greatly disposed to place reliance on the disposition of the secretary for Ireland, and his right hon. friend the Attorney-general, to have justice done to the poor. It must go a great way towards removing the abuses complained of.

Sir John Bridges

denied, that there was in Ireland one law for the rich and another for the poor. Such a statement going forth to the public uncontradicted, would do a great deal of mischief.

Sir John Newport

explained. He did not say that there was one law for the rich and another for the poor; but he had said, that when the law was so expensive that its remedies could not be obtained by the poor, it was the same as if the law had no existence. There was not one law for the rich and another for the poor; but in practice, though not in statutory regulation, the poor could not avail themselves of the law.

Mr. R. Martin

felt himself called upon to declare, that in the county which he represented, atrocious abases prevailed in the collection of tolls. It was a general subject of complaint. They were gross in the town of Tuam; but in the town of Galway itself, they were greatest of all. There never was any thing equal to the atrocity of the abuses there in the mode of collecting tolls. In proof of this statement, he might appeal to his colleague (Mr. Daly). The abuses, too, were carried on by the corporation. These abuses existed to such a degree, that the value of land was reduced 3s. or 4s. an acre, in consequence of the exorbitant exaction of tolls. He might appeal also to his colleague, that the redress of those grievances was not a very easy matter. His hon. colleague had been defendant in a suit in chancery, instituted against the corporation of the town for the levy of tolls. That suit had been in chancery for many years, so that redress was not so easy a matter as was supposed. Still he was disposed to concur in what had been said by the Attorney-general for Ireland, that there was by law, an effectual remedy against such abuses. To be sure, the law was quite open to every person. Like the London tavern, every person might enter who could pay the expense. Was the London tavern open to paupers? They must have money in their pockets, or they would have no business there. It was the same with the law. People must be able to pay for it, or they could not enjoy the luxury of litigation. If the Attorney-general for Ireland should direct the solicitor for the Crown to prosecute when such abuses took place, it would do much good; and, as he undertook to do so, it might be better to rest satisfied with this assurance, than to proceed to an inquiry, which must necessarily take up a great deal of time. He did not hesitate to say, that the exorbitant exaction of tolls in Ireland, was one of the greatest abuses that existed. In the case to which he had alluded, after a tedious suit in chancery, a decree was given in favour of those who opposed the toll, as being illegally exacted.

Mr. Daly

said, that with regard to what had fallen from the last speaker, respecting the corporation of Gafway, he was ready to give it the most decided contradiction."

Mr. Martin.

Do you?

Mr. Daly.

I do. I give it the most decided contradiction. The tolls are collected in Galway according to the strict letter of the law. The hon. gentleman says that I was defendant in a Chancery suit.

Mr. Martin.

I do say so.

The Speaker.

I trust the hon. member will not place me a second time in the disagreeable situation of calling him to order.

Mr. Martin.

I humbly and most penitentially ask pardon of you, Sir, if I am out of order. To the House I am ready to offer the most humble apology.

Mr. Daly

proceeded. It had been said that he was defendant in a suit in Chancery, in which an illegal exaction of tolls was the question to be tried. It was not true. [A cry of "Order."] He begged pardon: he meant merely to say, that the statement was not correct, without intending any thing unparliamentary. He had, indeed, been made defendant in a suit, for the purpose of putting him to expense; but upon his making affidavit that he never, directly or indirectly, received a penny of the tolls that were the subject of litigation, he was discharged by the court from any further connection with the proceedings. This was not the first or second time he had been brought before the House in a similar manner. He could stand up in his place, and defy the hon. gentleman, or the world, to say that he ever received one farthing of the public money in any way. He could have no interest in the collection of tolls in Galway. He had, at present, a suit depending in Chancery, to determine whether he 'was free of the corporation or not; but with respect to an illegal exaction of tolls, he would stake his character that there was no such thing. Tolls, no doubt, were collected; but it was done according to law. The assistant barrister of Galway was a man of the highest honour, and was incapable of deciding in a way inconsistent with justice; and the right might be tried for a few shillings. How was it, then, that complaints of this nature did not come before the sessions? He did not mean to deny that the thing was a grievance; but, as long as the law permitted it, the toll would very naturally be taken.

Mr. Martin

said, he put it to the House, whether he had charged the hon. member with receiving money. He had merely said, that illegal tolls were taken at Galway; and he said it without intending to give offence to any man. He said likewise that the tolls were improperly applied; but he did not charge the hon. member with misappropriating them.

Mr. Spring Rice then withdrew his motion, with an understanding, that a select committee would be acceded to, with limited powers, to ascertain whether any and what remedy can be applied to the existing evils, without trenching upon private rights.