HC Deb 30 June 1831 vol 4 cc502-12
Mr. Sadler

presented a Petition, which he described to be most respectably, though not numerously signed, though if numbers were wanted to give weight to the allegations contained in the petition, they could soon be obtained. The petitioners were the Churchwardens, Ministers, and Overseers of the Parish of Neen Solars, together with various persons of high rank and opposite political sentiments. The petition was upon the subject of the Act lately passed for setting free the trade in Beer, and it deserved the most attentive consideration of the House. The petitioners declared, that the Act had been the cause of numerous evils—that it had encouraged tippling and late hours—that it had produced immorality and profane-ness, and that they had distinctly traced the origin of much of the late incendiaries' work to the retail beer shops now opened throughout the country. The committals for offences had been more than doubled since the Act came into operation. It was supposed the quality of the beer would have been improved by it, but the fact was otherwise. The quality of the article had been much deteriorated, and many persons who had supported the Bill were now well convinced that its effects had not been beneficial. He hoped they would come forward and avow their change of opinion. The people ought to have the best article at the lowest possible price, but this Bill had not effected that object.

Lord Althorp

said, he was prepared to admit that a great many complaints had been made as to the effect of the alterations made in the mode of licensing the beer-houses. He was ready to admit that considerable inconvenience had been felt from its operations in various parts of the country; but he begged the House to recollect, that it was more likely that any change effected in such a system would produce worse effects at the first moment of coming into operation than afterwards. Though he had been a warm supporter of the Beer Bill, he must allow, that in some respects it had been disadvantageous, which was likely to continue unless some remedy was afforded, but he was not prepared to abandon the principle of the measure, nor to revive the old system, which had been replete with great evils, the getting rid of which had been a great advantage to the public. What he meant by the principle of the measure was, that he would not consent to place again under any local authorities the choice of the places in which there should be houses for the sale of beer; but Government had in contemplation a measure, for the purpose of increasing the strictness of the Police, and giving it powers which it did not at present possess, to prevent the disorders which prevailed in the beer-houses. He thought at the time the Bill was introduced, that more precautions might have accompanied it, and he had then thrown out some suggestions of the sort; but he had not pressed his opinions, for fear of appearing to create an opposition to a measure which he really approved. He did not think, that the trial which this Bill had received was fair, or that Parliament had sufficient information before it to alter the measure; and he did not think it right to condemn the Bill on the statements now made concerning it.

Mr. John Wood

agreed with the noble Lord, that any alterations which would tend to defeat the principle of the measure should be studiously avoided. Great complaints had been made about the irregularity which had been observed in some of these houses; but, he believed, at the same time, that irregularity might be partly accounted for, by attributing it, in some measure, to the novelty of the change. A number of persons rushed into the trade when it was new, believing that they who first occupied it would be sure to make large profits; and from that circumstance, it happened that many of them lost much money, and were compelled to give up the speculation; while others resorted to practices not warranted by the law, for the purpose of covering their losses. In that way, he believed, many of the irregularities now complained of had arisen; but, from his observation, which, he assured the House, had been much directed to the subject, he did not believe that any material improprieties had taken place. On the contrary, he believed that the Bill had been a great benefit to the labouring classes, and especially in this way—that the beer-houses had prevented the custom of men assembling together on Saturday nights to receive their wages at the public-house, and spending a large portion of them there at the same time. Looking at the licensing system, and the monopoly which prevailed under it, he must assert, that the present system was of material advantage to the working classes, and he had some suspicions that those persons who were smarting under the infliction of this Bill, in the way of diminished rents, and diminished power and influence, would be found amongst those who now endeavoured to give it a bad name. One of the complaints against the beer-shops was, that they were kept open to later hours than the law allowed. That was the consequence of the favour shown in the Bill to the keepers of public-houses. The public-houses were allowed to keep open till twelve; but the beer-shops were obliged to shut up at ten. The people sitting in these beer-shops reminded the keeper that they could go to another place within a few doors of his house and sit till twelve, and they often in that manner induced him to keep open till eleven. The public-house keepers had, in some instances, sent persons to these beer-shops for the purpose of inducing the people to keep open later than the law allowed, and then to make that a subject of complaint against them. In his opinion, most of these evils would be got rid of if the hours to which the two classes of houses were allowed to keep open were assimilated.

Mr. Hunt

said, that within his recollection there had been only two measures adopted by the Legislature which were really for the benefit of the poorer classes; these were the repeal of the Salt Tax, and the Beer Bill. The effect of this Bill had been, to get rid of amonstrous injustice, under which the poor suffered, who were before obliged to pay 10s. more a barrel for the beer than the rich man paid. He hoped that such a Bill would not be abandoned by his Majesty's Ministers, for he did not believe it had produced half the disorders which were laid to its charge by interested persons, and he hoped that they would not be led away by these complaints. He trusted that Ministers would not make any alterations in the Bill, further than were proposed by his hon. Colleague (Mr. J. Wood), who had offered a suggestion that was well worthy the attention of Ministers.

Mr. Baring

said, that the last two Gentlemen who had spoken had relied upon their experience of its effects in large towns, where the Bill had essentially not worked any very material mischiefs; but in the smaller districts, in villages, in different parts of the country, it had tended to produce great evils. He was sure, that some alteration ought to be made with respect to beer-houses in the country, where the agricultural classes themselves felt, and deplored, the establishment of them in villages and bye-places. The Government should institute some inquiries as to their effects, and consider whether it would not be possible to lessen the evils, by placing the beer-houses in towns under some regulations, by which they could be established only by the consent of the respectable inhabitants, leaving the beer-drinkers the same advantages as to price and quality they at present possess. If the present system continued, the Government must look out for a recurrence of those disturbances which had happened towards the close of the preceding year.

Mr. Protheroe

cautioned the House against entertaining the notion that the late disturbances had been caused by the Beer Bill. He trusted, that the House would never recur to the old system, which conferred a -vexatious and unconstitutional power on certain individuals, who, now that they had lost it, were loud in their complaints against the system which had deprived them of it. He had given his support to the introduction of the measure, and saw no reason to regret the votes he had given, for many of those who now complained of its effects, were among those who were hostile to it in its progress through Parliament. That some evils had arisen from it, he could not doubt, for all the thirsty portion of the labouring community now congregated in these small beer-houses, instead of frequenting public-houses, and vice and criminality necessarily attend such assemblies. But, it was well known that the lower orders of the people in the southern agricultural districts, were excessively ignorant, and it would be well if the ordinary elements of education could have been communicated to them before this Bill had passed. He believed, as the Bill now operated, this class of persons were injured by its effects, although the same mischief had not arisen in towns.

Mr. Goulburn

said, that he could not agree with the hon. member for Bristol, that the measure should have been delayed until, by a system of compulsory education, the lower orders had been taught so much knowledge and information, that they would not have abused the benefits conferred on them by this Bill. He had never expected that such a change would not have been attended with some disadvantages, and if it had been possible, he certainly would have preferred, in the first instance, to have made a gradual relaxation of the restrictions on the sale of beer, instead of having introduced the measure which he had felt it his duty to propose. But the fact was, that there was no other mode of getting rid of that monopoly, which almost the whole House at the time was anxious to put an end to, than by the introduction of the measure which was now the subject of debate. He would confess, however, that the extent of the inconveniences which had been found to arise from this measure in different parts of this country, went beyond what he had anticipated; and the inconveniences which had been felt, particularly in some of the agricultural districts, had convinced him that it was absolutely necessary that a deliberate inquiry should be instituted into the effects which had followed from the measure in some of those districts, in order to apply a proper remedy to the evil. He had received several communications of unquestionable authority, not from interested persons, but from those best qualified to form a correct judgment, and his opinion was, that the evils which were complained of, were principally confined to the agricultural districts, and did not so much prevail in the manufacturing districts, on account of the greater diffusion of education amongst the manufacturing classes. For himself, he would say, that he had heard nothing which would induce him to think that it would be possible or proper to recur to the law as it previously stood; but his present impression was, that means might be adopted for repressing the evils which were complained of, without interfering with the advantages which the poor derived from the Bill. If it appeared, however, on inquiry, that the change of the law, had tended to the demoralization of the people, the Legislature was called upon to remedy the evil.

Lord Stanley

said, that all the evils which had arisen from this Bill were not confined to the agricultural districts, as seemed to be supposed. He was not connected with a portion of the country which could be termed agricultural, and yet, he believed, that from every part of the county of Lancaster, statements had been transmitted to the Secretary for the Home Department, all concurring in one unanimous opinion as to the evils which had flowed from this measure. Many of the evils which he had anticipated from it when it was originally proposed, had since ensued. He hoped that his Majesty's Government would shortly take an opportunity of reconsidering this measure, and of proposing some plan which might be calculated to retain the advantages, and to obviate the evils, which had arisen from making the beer trade free.

Mr. Warburton

trusted, that the House would not proceed to alter a measure which had as yet received but a very short trial, and with the operation of which they were unacquainted. At all events, he hoped that the House would take care, whatever change might be proposed, it would not have the effect of increasing the price of this commodity to the poor people of this country. In his opinion, many of the evils complained of, arose from the restrictions imposed by the Bill, which required parties who retailed and allowed the consumption of beer on their own premises, to take out a license. This brought them under the surveillance of the police; they were liable to have soldiers quartered on them, this prevented many respectable shop-keepers from selling beer, and he thought many advantages would arise from doing away with all these restrictions.

Mr. Paget

said, he was concerned to hear the Chancellor of the Exchequer state, that his Majesty's Government had an intention to increase the restrictions on the sale of beer. He quite concurred with his hon. friend, the member for Bridport, that the restrictions were disadvantageous. He was quite opposed to giving an increase of power either to the magistracy or the police, with regard to the sale of beer. He was decidedly of opinion, that the measure which had been introduced by the former Government, instead of going too far, as some had said, had not gone far enough, and that was the cause of the evils which had arisen from it. These were not to be so much ascribed to the characters of the persons who frequented these houses, as to the characters of the persons who kept them, who, for a small profit, were willing to put up with the liability of having soldiers quartered upon them, and of being placed under the surveillance of the police. These regulations confined the trade to the lowest description of dealers. By making the trade entirely free, farmers, and respectable shop-keepers, would sell beer, which would be a better article than that now in use, and the consumption would not be attended with the evils at present complained of.

Sir M. W. Ridley

quite differed from the hon. Member who had just spoken, with regard to extending the provisions of the present Bill. It went quite far enough, and the removal of the restrictions it imposed would only increase the evil. There was no additional license required for the consumption of beer on the premises, and it was to the facility arising from this, that the great evils in the agricultural districts were to be attributed. In those parts of the country where there had been no disturbances, he had not heard of any inconveniences having resulted from this Bill, and he thought it had not as yet had a sufficient time for trial. It was well worthy of consideration whether some regulations might not be devised for keeping better order in those houses where the sale of beer was allowed.

An Hon. Member

remarked, that when Gentlemen talked of altering the measure, they should consider, that it had been very successful in lowering the price of beer, and raising the price of barley; paradoxical as it might appear, these two things had been the result of the Bill. He trusted, therefore, the measure would get a fair trial before they decided against it.

Sir C. Burrell

declared, that the Bill had been followed by the most demoralizing effects, and that it had done the greatest possible injury to the country in general. He would repeat, that the Bill had done incalculable injury to the country; the lower orders got beer in one house, then went to another, and indulged in all sorts of improper practices. These places were not sufficiently superintended by the police in the country. Ministers ought to lower the price of malt, instead of introducing or sustaining such a Bill as this. That would enable all classes to brew their own beer, which was not so difficult a thing as might be supposed, and consume it at their own houses. The argument against the reduction of the malt duty, was the loss of revenue, but an increase, arising from the demoralizing effects of the Beer Bill, was an abominable revenue.

Mr. Portman

said, that although he had opposed the Beer Bill originally, he agreed with the hon. Baronet (Sir M. W. Ridley), that it had not yet had quite a fair trial; they ought to wait another year. He had anticipated many of the evils which flowed from it, but the alteration of the details of the whole plan required serious consideration; and the best remedy for the evils the Bill had introduced, and for others, was to repeal at once the whole of the malt duty. It might not be possible to do so in the present year, but in the next year he trusted that the subject would not escape attention.

Mr. Protheroe

said, in explanation to what had fallen from the hon. Gentleman opposite, that the Bill had had his most cordial support, and he had no wish as the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Goulburn) supposed, to delay the benefits arising from the free sale of beer, until the people were so well versed in political economy as to refrain from abusing their advantages. All he had said was, he should have wished the lower orders to have been previously instructed in reading, writing, and the common principles of education and religion. He thought it inconsistent in the right hon. Gentleman to censure his views, while he admitted the Bill had been productive of greater evils than he had anticipated when he had proposed it.

The Petition laid on the Table.

Mr. Sadler

moved, that it should be printed, and said, that the greater part of the observations he had heard did not apply to the charges he had made against the Bill, founded on this petition. All the observations made in support of the measure fell to the ground, before the great mischief done to the country by the encouragement given to tippling. The hon. member for Preston had said, that the Legislature had within his recollection passed only two laws for the benefit of the poor man—the Repeal of the Salt-tax, and this Bill. The first did not encourage drunkenness and immorality, nor was the poor man obliged to go from home to consume the article. He had never objected to a remission of taxation to the lower orders, but only to an unlimited sale of beer, by which a whole family were impoverished because a father chose to frequent these houses, instead of solacing himself at his own home with a wholesome and nutritious beverage, in which his whole family could partake. From his own knowledge he could declare, that these beer-shops had made many who were previously sober and industrious men, drunkards; and many mothers had also become tipplers. It was now no uncommon thing to see both parents in a beastly state of intoxication. He could assert, that since the passing of the Act, there had arisen a manifest difference in the character of the people generally, and that crime had greatly increased. The Malt-tax ought to have been repealed, not the beer duty; had that been done, the comforts of the lower orders would have greatly increased; for they would then have brewed and used their own beer at home, and the revenue would not have sustained a greater loss, than by the removal of the beer duty, which benefitted the upper classes, but did little or nothing for the lower orders. Their condition was, at present, such that it was the duty of the House to improve it by every means. The agricultural community, which was now suffering would have received great benefit from the repeal of the Malt-duty. He considered these subjects of such importance, that in the course of the present Session, he should endeavour to obtain the remission of the Malt-duty, and put a stop to the system of tippling, which was now carried to a great extent in these unlicensed houses. Members were not aware of the number of pot-houses opened in every village, and sufficient caution had not been used in changing a system which had prevailed for 200 years. It had always been the policy of the Legislature to check the consumption of intoxicating liquors by the lower orders, and if Ministers would inquire, they would find the Magistracy generally of one opinion concerning the Beer Bill, and that was, that it had greatly tended to the increase of crime.

An Hon. Member stated, that he had heard the number of houses opened for the sale of beer, under the operation of this Act, estimated at 45,000. He thought some evil might have resulted from this great increase of drinking shops, but time had not yet been given to ascertain the real effects of the Bill. The House ought to act with caution, for capital had been invested to a great extent in this trade, which would be completely lost by the repeal of the Bill. He had heard that many of these houses had been established by brewers, who had prepared a strong intoxicating liquor, instead of a wholesome intermediate beer, which was the cause of the great increase of crime in many districts.

Mr. Sadler

remarked, that his hon. friend had said, that if this Bill was repealed, an injury would be done to those who had invested capital in the trade, but he had forgotten that no regard had been paid to those who had vested their capital in public-houses, when this measure was introduced.

Mr. Hunt

was decidedly of opinion that the repeal of the Malt-tax would do no good to the poor man, but would benefit the higher classes. The hon. Member (Mr. Sadler) said, that by repealing this duty, the poor man would be enabled to brew his own beer, but he forgot that few poor men possessed brewing utensils. This benevolent intention, like many of the hon. Member's Utopian plans, would injure, instead of benefitting the poor man. If the Beer-tax were again imposed, the price of beer would be enhanced, and the House by sanctioning such a scheme, would drive the poor man to the gin-shop, forcing him to drink that destructive liquor, instead of wholesome beer.

Sir Charles Burrell

observed, that the hon. member for Preston was mistaken in supposing a costly apparatus necessary for brewing beer, he had heard of a poor woman who brewed excellent beer in a tea-kettle, and he was persuaded if the malt duty were repealed many poor families would brew their own beer. Not 100 of these retail beer-shops in the whole empire brewed their own beer, but the houses in general belonged to brewers who sent to them what beer they pleased. The subject was of great importance as regarded the morals of the people, and ought to have the immediate consideration of the House.

Mr. James

could say from his own experience that this Bill had done much good in the north of England: formerly the labouring classes drank large quantities of whiskey, but since beer had been reduced in price, they consumed that in preference.

Petition to be printed.