HC Deb 11 March 1830 vol 23 cc172-6
Mr. Alderman Thompson

presented a Petition, signed by 1,100 persons engaged in the sale of beer, by retail, in London, praying that the House might not consent to throw open the trade in Beer. He was aware, he said, that the House was disposed to take off the restrictions on trade as much as possible, and in that, as a general principle, he cordially concurred; but he thought the House ought to pause before it took a step which might not benefit the public, but would certainly be a most serious injury to persons carrying on the trade of Licensed Victuallers. The number of persons engaged in the trade of selling beer by retail in the metropolis, meaning-only licensed victuallers, was 4,300, and the houses they occupied, at the lowest average, were worth 250l. a-piece to their owners; but which, if the trade in beer were thrown open, would not be worth any thing. There then was a loss to this body of individuals exceeding 1,000,000l. sterling without any corresponding benefit to the public. A measure involving so serious a loss to any set of men ought not to receive the sanction of the House, unless it were required by some great and paramount interest. The sale of beer had been greatly reduced of late years by the reduction of the duty on wine, spirits, and coffee; and if duty to the same amount were taken off beer, the consumption would probably be increased in proportion: but it was absurd to suppose that Government would increase the consumption by increasing competition among the sellers. The duty was so high, that all the retailer could get as his profit was Id. per pot, out of which he had to pay rent, taxes, and all other expenses; so that it was utterly impossible the public could get it cheaper by open sale unless the duty was reduced. He therefore begged to caution those hon. Members connected with the landed interest, who were willing to support the throwing open the trade in beer, under an idea that it would benefit them by an increased consumption of malt, that it would do no such thing. Nothing would effect that but a reduction of the duty on malt and beer. If the duty were removed, beer would enter fairly into competition with wine, and spirits, and tea, and the quantity consumed would probably increase. If it were said that the value he had ascribed to these houses was fictitious, he would answer, that this fictitious value was the result of our excise laws, which had been more than a century in existence, and the petitioners had embarked their property in the trade, perfectly ignorant that these laws were to be abrogated. The petitioners prayed to be heard by themselves or by counsel against the Bill, which would plunge their families in ruin.

Mr. Alderman Wood

supported the prayer of the petition, and said that it was not an over-value to fix the loss which throwing open the trade in beer would occasion to the publicans of the metropolis at 2,000,000l. His hon. colleague had understated it. There were upwards of 4,000 licensed victuallers in the metropolis, and their houses were, he thought, on an average, worth double the amount stated by the former speaker. Let the duty be first taken off malt and beer, and then, perhaps, the trade might be thrown open, but to do it at present would ruin those engaged in it, and give no benefit to the public. By the abolition of the duty, the prices would probably fall to three pence a pot, and the increased consumption would make up for the smallness of profit. At present the amount of business was so small, and the profits so little, that the publicans could hardly get a living. Already the trade had been opened to a certain extent by the establishment of houses for the sale of intermediate beer, which had inflicted a serious injury on the licensed victuallers. He supposed that Government did not intend to allow the trade to be carried on without a license, and if they did not, they would only divide a trade, that was now too small to subsist those engaged in it, among double their number. The tax on malt and beer was one of the most unjust that ever was yet devised, because the whole weight of it fell upon the poor. It really was monstrous that the poor should drink their beer at a charge of 150 or 160 percent above the absolute value, while the rich drank their claret at only twenty-five per cent beyond its first cost.

Sir J. Newport

objected to the practice of urging vested interests against any measure of this kind, intended for the public benefit. It was absurd to talk of vested interests in a trade carried on under a law which might at any time be varied for the public good. If the trade were so little profitable as was said by the hon. Alderman, those who now carried it on had no occasion to fear much competition; for few persons would be absurd enough to embark in a trade which would bring on their ruin. If there were no profit, however, why were the publicans so anxious to secure their monopoly? He was persuaded that such a measure would do a great deal of good, and if the Government persevered in its intentions, he would give them all the support in his power.

Mr. G. Dawson

said, that he was disposed to give every consideration to the prayer of the petitioners; but he thought it would be attended with great inconvenience to allow the parties to be heard by themselves or counsel before the committee then sitting to inquire into the regulations under which beer was sold. Such a course would only tend to bring before that committee very exaggerated statements, and would delay its proceeding without contributing to the discovery of truth. It was to be hoped that hon. Members would not be so far carried away by the heat of debate as to enter on a desultory, irregular discussion on the merits of a question, at a time when it could possibly be productive of no eventual good, but would content themselves with, providing' evidence that might be laid before the committee, and reserve their arguments for the proper place, where they could be fairly sifted and turned to account. The committee sitting upon the subject above stairs, he had no doubt would be disposed to pay every attention to the representations of a body so respectable as the petitioners.

Mr. F. Buxton

concurred in thinking' that all exaggerated statements ought to be avoided. He should not have said one word on the subject, had not the hon. Baronet indulged in some remarks which might better have been spared, as they were totally uncalled for. He did not intend to advance any thing in vindication of the monopoly of brewers, although a brewer himself; but he would say, that the present system of excessive taxation bore very hard upon the publican. People did not appear to be aware of the amount to which the beverage of the poor man was taxed; and nothing could so well demonstrate the grievance alluded to as a statement of the rate at which the consumers of beer paid for their humble enjoyment, compared with the tax imposed on the luxuries of the rich. Those who regaled themselves on champagne paid a duty of only twenty-seven per cent; those who drank claret paid twenty-eight per cent; those who took port paid fifty-six; but the consumers of beer were mulcted to the amount of 165 per cent. Again, gentlemen consumed malt at 20s. per quarter, while the poor man was constrained to pay 55s. A reduction of one-half had been taken off the duty on spirits, but no corresponding concession had been made in the article of beer, which was peculiarly the accompaniment of the poor man's recreation. These were evils which could be removed by the reduction of taxation only; not by the abolition of the monopoly. That would not prove any remedy whatever, unless the House at the same time abolished the duties both on malt and beer. He did not complain as a brewer, but he was convinced that many publicans, men who had embarked their whole capital in their trade, would be ruined. If the public good required any alteration of the present system, he hoped that the House would not stop short until it carried the principles of free trade into full effect throughout the whole system of our legislation. Let the brewers buy both hops and corn in foreign markets, wherever they could get them better and cheaper than in our own; and one of these articles, hops, was much cheaper abroad than at home. The case of the publicans was undoubtedly one of much hardship; they could live under the present system, or they might be able to live under a system of perfect freedom; but a system of half favouritism and half freedom would be injurious to all classes.

Mr. C. Barclay

acknowledged that that was not a proper occasion for entering on the discussion, as all parties would have an opportunity of making their sentiments known to the committee, who, he was sure, would pay due attention to their statements, and act between conflicting interests as justice might dictate. He believed that Ministers meant to act fairly by all parties, but many industrious individuals, he feared, would be overwhelmed with distress, if not with ruin, if the existing system were very considerably and suddenly altered. Why the right hon. baronet had made such an attack on the publicans he did not know, unless it were because he came from a country in which there was no beer. He assured that right hon. Gentleman, that the people whose interests he seemed to value so lightly were generally persons of great industry and economy, who from small beginnings had attained to independence.

Mr. Alderman Thompson

in moving that the Petition be referred to the committee thanked the Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. G. Dawson) for his candor on that occasion. When the House recollected the great stake the petitioners had in the inquiry, it would not be surprised that they should be anxious that their interests should receive due consideration.

Petition referred to a committee.