HC Deb 15 March 1831 vol 3 cc455-69
Mr. Alderman Thompson

rose for the purpose of presenting a Petition, respecting which he had given several days' notice, regarding the proposed alteration in the Timber Duties, and complaining thereof. The petition was agreed to at a public meeting, one of the most numerous and respectable he had ever attended during the five-and-twenty years he had been connected with the city of London. It consisted of the merchants of the City, and of the shipowners connected with the port of London. At the meeting, the important subject was discussed with that talent and that freedom from political feeling which was extremely gratifying, and to which many hon. Members of that House, present at the meeting, could bear testimony. It was well known that England was the only country that imported timber to any considerable extent, and that previous to the year 1809 the importations to this country came all from the Baltic. But in that year considerable difficulties began to be felt in procuring the usual supply of Baltic timber, owing to the ports of the North of Europe having fallen under French influence; the consequence was, that every possible encouragement was held out to import Canadian timber, and protection being continued by duties after the ports of the Baltic were opened, the consequence was, that the importation increased up to the year 1821. In that year a Committee of this House sat upon the subject, and recommended an alteration of the duties. The Canadian timber, at that period, paid a duty of only 2s. 6d. per ton, whilst that from the Baltic paid 3l. 10s. The Committee recommended that the duty on Baltic timber should be reduced to 55s. per ton, and that on Canadian timber should be raised to 10s.; and upon this footing the trade had been carried on ever since. In the last year, 600,000 loads of timber had been imported from Canada, whilst the exports to that colony exceeded 2,000,000l. sterling in value, while the whole trade to the countries in the Baltic from which timber was brought, did not exceed 600,000l. The particular advantages of the trade, too, were evident, from the fact that this country had never been previously in the habit of receiving from the Baltic more than 400,000 loads. In this trade, then, with Canada, a very large amount of British capital was gradually embarked, until at last there came to be engaged in it 440,000 tons of shipping, and not fewer than 22,000 seamen—little short of the number now engaged in the Royal Navy of England. This trade was exclusively carried on with British capital, and nearly 1,500,000l. had been embarked in erecting saw-mills, and other works in Canada, necessary to the preparing of timber for exportation. It was, of course, to be expected, that such a state of things as that must have great influence upon the general trade of the country; it was, therefore, obvious, that no steps ought to be taken with reference to it, unless upon the most mature and deliberate consideration. It was also worthy of observation, that a large emigration took place to the Canadas. In the period to which he referred, no fewer than 250,000 persons emigrated to Canada from the United Kingdom; and in the last year the number amounted to 30,000. It was, then, the duty of the House to look at what might be the situation of persons sent out under the sanction, and through the encouragement of the Legislature. It was well known that the winter was longer there than in our climate; and it was also known, that the emigrants were, for the most part, engaged during the winter in the business of preparing the timber for the English market. It would be, therefore, most unjust to deprive the emigrants of that which they were entitled to expect; and the Canadians long settled in the country, of advantages, for the preservation of which Great Britain was responsible. Besides that, nothing could be more impolitic than to remove the barrier which Canada presented to the advancing encroachments of the United States, which might lead to serious consequences in the event of another American war. It was said, that the proposed alteration was introduced with a view to the improvement of the Revenue, and that it would effect an improvement to the extent of 600,000l. If this were to be the case, instead of 600,000 loads, there must be an importation of 750,000 loads of timber, and Canada, he calculated, would lose, at least, an export of 350,000 loads out of the 600,000 which she now exported. There could be no expectation of an increased trade with higher duties. It was true, that the shipping interest had increased or improved in the last twelve months, but this would be a fatal blow to its prosperity. Supposing the Revenue should be increased by 600,000l, he really thought that such a sum was not worthy of consideration, as compared with the disadvantages which must result from the proposed change, such as the loss to our shipping, the injury to our colonial subjects, and the advantage to our rivals, and possibly our enemies. It was a mistake to suppose that the shipping now engaged in that trade could be turned over with facility to the coasting trade—they being for the most part vessels from 500 to 750 tons. He might be told, that the Canadian timber was the inferior article—that it was worth only 3l. 10s. a ton, while the Baltic timber was worth 5l. or 5l. 5s. But it should be recollected that there were a variety of purposes to which Canadian timber might be applied, and for which it was quite as fit as any that could be found; but in a different state of things, if the alteration of the duties should be persevered in, the people of this country would be compelled to use Baltic timber at 5l. a ton, for which Canadian at 3l. 10s. would answer fully as well. He especially intreated the House to turn its attention to the immense amount of shipping and of seamen which would be thrown out of employment by the destruction of the trade with Canada. In the Baltic trade they might rest assured that no British ships would be employed. Prussia and Norway could build vessels for about 7l. or 8l. a ton, and thus evidently become most formidable rivals in the trade of this country. The fact was, that he believed, that the eyes of Ministers were beginning, though late, to be opened, for they felt very sore on the subject, and they went the length of expressing displeasure against the Governor of a colony for merely writing a pamphlet, exposing the real state of the case. Another thing to be recollected was, that the Legislature was anxious to promote emigration to Canada; and at present, in consequence of the ships employed in the timber trade not finding cargoes to carry out, the expense of passage was not above 6l. a head, whereas it would be upwards of 20l. This would be a great check to emigration. He would only, in conclusion, say, that the Ministerial plan had created great alarm among all persons connected with the Canada trade. The hon. Member moved that the petition be brought up.

Lord Althorp

said, it was his intention to bring the question of the timber duties on on Friday next, when he should state the grounds on which the measure proceeded. It would be more convenient to take the discussion upon that occasion than at present.

Mr. Sadler

said, the House ought to be disfranchised, and would no longer deserve the name of a British House of Commons, if it ceased to attend to the interests of our ships, colonies, and commerce. He wished Ministershad consulted practical men, and men interested in the subject, before bringing forward their proposition.

Sir M. W. Ridley

would refrain from entering at length into the subject after the observation of the noble Lord. He must say, however, that he agreed with the meeting of shipowners in opposing the proposition of Ministers, the effect of which must be to destroy the Canadian timber-trade, and that part of our commercial marine embarked in it.

Mr. Attwood

said, he had lately urged on the House to relax, in favour of the present Petition, those recent regulations by which they had, in fact, very much closed their doors against the petitions of the people; and he was satisfied that the importance of the document which had thus been brought before them would be thought fully to justify its admission. That document lost none of its importance on account of the grievance the petitioners complained of having been inflicted by measures depending in Parliament, and having been heavily increased by the extraordinary manner in which these measures were suspended. If, indeed, the Bill proposed by the noble Lord were one of merely financial regulation, the postponement of its operation until October, as he had proposed, might justify the House in postponing its decision; but, if the petitioners were right, who viewed the Bill, not as a measure of revenue regulation, but as carrying with it the entire ruin of numbers amongst them, and the extinction of a part of the commerce in which they were engaged, then the suspense in which the Ministers now held them, regardless whether this ruin were to be inflicted or not, could be little alleviated by the grace of postponing its execution till October. The Ministers had now consented to bring their measure to the decision of the House on Friday next, and he should yield to those rules which obstructed debates on petitions in not then entering into any details; but even then he thought it necessary to enforce on the consideration of the House what was the real character of the measure on which they would on Friday have to decide. Previous discussions were useful, and indeed necessary to the advantageous consideration of every question involving a variety of interests, and nothing could be more inconvenient than for the House to be called on to decide on such a question after a long and desultory debate, in which were presented to its view, perhaps for the first time, many of the grounds on which its decision must rest. Such discussion was particularly necessary on this question, because, in fact, the real character it bore had never yet been brought into view. His Majesty's Ministers had presented the question to the House only in its least material features, and had kept out of view altogether the real grounds on which, he was satisfied, the House would form its decision, rejecting from consideration those motives which seemed alone to have guided the Government. How, he desired them to consider, was this measure of duties on Canadian timber brought before them? Five weeks back, in his budget, the noble Lord, the Chancellor of the Exchequer proposed to raise 750,000l. a year, but he would take 600,000l. by a tax on timber, not, as he told them, a fit subject of taxation; but why it was unfit, or why Canadian timber was less or more fit than other timber, he said nothing. In this state the noble Lord left the question, till it was taken up some days afterwards by the right hon. the Vice-president of the Board of Trade. He carried their views a stage further. This, said he, is a measure by which the Exchequer will gain 600,000l. a-year by a tax on timber; but a farther benefit will also accrue,—for the consumers of the article taxed will pay no part of that tax; they will get timber cheaper after the tax is laid on than before. And thus the question stood before the House on this showing of the Ministers. All interests were to be gainers; the Government would get 600,000l. without the people being called on to pay the money; and this the House were left to ascribe, if they pleased, to the dexterity of the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, who, aided by the science of the Vice-president of the Board of Trade, had been able to apply new rules of art to the exhausted resources of the country, and to cause money to flow into the Exchequer, which they did not drain from the pockets of the people. From this visionary prospect, the petition his hon. friend had presented, for the first time aroused them. The mystery was made evident; the money which the Exchequer was to get, and the people not to pay, was to be paid by a part of the people. The shipowners, timber-merchants, and colonists of Canada, were to be made to yield 600,000l. to the revenue by the sacrifice of their capital and commerce to Russia. That was the real state of the case, and the moment it was presented to their view, they would discard altogether the calculations and theories' of the Ministers of the Crown; they would have to consider nothing of how much the Government was to gain, or how much the consumers of timber were to gain. The agricultural interest, said the right hon. Vice-president of the Board of Trade, knew how much they would gain by his scheme, and how much they would save by having foreign timber at a cheaper rate, to build barns and outhouses with. He (Mr. Attwood) disclaimed all personal hostility to that right hon. Gentleman; be did willing justice to his talents, though he approved of few of his measures. These considerations were as nothing when it was proposed to sacrifice the interests of one part of the community to the rest. The first point was, if the sacrifice were voluntary. If not voluntary, then what was the right by which the House was called on to adopt that course? Were there no Acts of Parliament to protect this interest—no system of conduct, from which protection was to be implied; and if so, that implied faith bound the country, when the question was between a great government and one of its distant colonies, or indeed any class of the community, as strongly as though it was fortified by the letter of a thousand Acts of Parliament; and in default of both, they would have to inquire whether they could sacrifice their merchants, without a violation of that universal principle of all governments, which binds the first faith of every country to the protection of the property of its citizens. It was on grounds like these that the House must decide the question. In detail he would then discuss none of them; but even then there was one consideration he thought desirable to bring under their view. The House ought not to consider the question of protection to this timber trade, without the full recollection of the circumstances under which it was first established, and that it was to meet a great emergency, and a great necessity— it was to guard against consequences arising from the hostility of Russia—that this capital was invested, which it was now proposed to sacrifice to Russia. In 1809 it was, when the northern Powers of Europe joined those of the south, west, and east, against this country and its institutions, that the country called for the resources of our northern colonies, and our merchants invested their capital in compliance with that call. The union of Russia with the continental league struck, or was thought to strike—for he cared not whether men might now deny that danger, which was then believed, and which he now believed—a heavy blow on the resources which supplied the strength of the navy. It was to guard against that blow, to renew those resources, to reserve that right arm of power, which his hon. friend, the member for Newark, beside him eloquently said had wound round the brow of the country a wreath which could never fade—that arm which smote their enemy in every sea—that they had resorted to the aid of the Canadian colonists, and that their merchants had invested the capital which now it was proposed to sacrifice—but never, he trusted, without all these circumstances being gravely considered. Could it be believed that the nation then contracted no obli- gation of protection to this capital? Were they to believe that these emergencies were never again to arise; or was that the period when they were to blink opinion, with the state of Europe before them, in horrible convulsion and change, but establishing, in every form, whether of anarchy or despotism, one uniform evidence of hatred and hostility against the present institutions of this country? Of those facts, and of those grave considerations, his Majesty's Ministers appeared by their measures to know and to consider nothing. They thought alone of the emptiness of their Exchequer—of applying new maxims of financial and commercial reform, which they had drawn at second hand from the book of the hon. member for Queen's County (Sir H. Parnell), to an exhausted system of taxation; and were bringing their miserable supply to the Exchequer, without being sensible that they were carrying into the colonies, perhaps, the convulsions of Europe—were encountering the hazard of giving the Canadas to America, and trusting the navy to the faith or friendship of Russia. The House, he trusted, would proceed on different views; and would on Friday decide this question, as one that involved the faith and the honour of this country, as well as those principles on which must depend the security of our colonial power.

Mr. Sykes

was disposed to follow the advice of his noble friend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to abstain from entering into the discussion at the present moment. But he must take this opportunity to contradict the assertion of the hon. Member who spoke last, as to the existence of any pledge on the part of this country towards Canada, with respect to the timber trade. So far from there being any pledge on the subject, whenever a pledge was demanded, it had been refused. He thought the true way of benefitting our shipping interests was, to endeavour to extend them in every direction, by removing all unnecessary burthens; and then he was sure no country would compete with us. It was just that we should support the interests of our colonies, but not separately from, or in opposition to, our other interests. He never would endeavour to foster one interest at the expense of the whole community. But he should be able, when the discussion took place on Friday, to demonstrate that the support which we had hitherto extended to the shipping and colonial interests, had cost the country upwards of a million a-year.

Mr. Alderman Waithman

thought the shipowners had made out a strong case against the noble Lord's proposition, but that was scarcely necessary to convince him of its impropriety. From the first moment he had heard of the scheme, he disapproved of it. The Canadas took from us manufactured goods to the amount of 2,000,000l. sterling yearly, while the Baltic States took scarcely any tiling from the English market. In fact, the amount of our exports to those countries did not exceed 600,000l. and four-fifths of that was cotton twist. Yet it was now proposed to deprive Canada of the advantage of the timber trade, and transfer it to Norway.

Mr. Charles Douglas

said, that he had a Petition to present on the subject which had been agreed to at Glasgow, the prayer of which resembled that presented by the hon. Alderman. He coincided completely in the views taken by the petitioners and the Members who supported the petitions.

Mr. Schonswar

was apprehensive that the measure would create dissatisfaction, and he for one must give his cordial support to the petitioners.

Mr. Hart Davis

was also intrusted with a Petition to present against the measure, which he thought calculated to cause inconvenience and mischief, and which, on the behalf of his constituents, he meant strenuously to resist.

Mr. Shaw

said, he had been intrusted with a Petition of a like description to that presented by Mr. Alderman Thompson, from the shipowners of Dublin, who, although aware that it was not intended to extend the measure to Ireland, on account of its poverty, yet as shipowners they felt disposed to make common cause with the shipping interests of this country. The petition expressed an opinion that the plan of the Chancellor of the Exchequer would have the effect of annihilating the Canadian timber trade, and throwing out of employment all the tonnage at present engaged in it.

Mr. Ewart

agreed in principal with the noble Lord, but differed in some degree from him as to the extent to which he (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) seemed disposed to carry the measure. At present he would content himself with observing, that the tonnage connected with Liverpool, which was engaged in the Canadian trade, amounted to 130,000 tons, while that em- ployed in the Baltic trade did not exceed 18,000,—a fact sufficient in itself to show how much more important than the Baltic was the Canadian trade to the town which he represented.

Mr. Warburton

said, that the complaints which were made by the shipping interest were but reiterations of those made in 1821; while the fact was, that the timber trade with Canada since that time had increased in the proportion of eight to five. It was then said, that the trade would be ruined by the proposed alteration; in fact, it had flourished more than ever. When he remembered that the exports to Canada, amounting to 2,000,000l. were chiefly in consequence of the canals and public works that were going on there, and to pay the expenses of the government, while the value of the timber imported only amounted to 500,000l. he could not think that their timber trade was of so much importance to the country as was pretended.

Mr. George Robinson

supported the prayer of the petition, which related to the vital interests of the country. If the Government- were to proceed on the principle of allowing sugar, and corn, and timber to be brought into this country from the places where they were grown cheapest, it would soon ruin every establishment and every interest in the country. If the timber trade did take a million a year from the country, if it did cost annually that sum, that was nothing compared to the advantages which the trade afforded us. In 1829 that trade employed no less than 1,611 ships, and to build and man and equip them, employed a great deal of labour. If it could not be shown that the present rate of duties and the trade which was to be destroyed afforded great advantages to the country, by the labour it set in motion, he should be ready to give up the whole question. He was sure that it could be shown, and he was ready to meet any hon. Member on that ground. The proposed alteration would inflict a serious injury on the whole Canada trade, and as the hon. member for Bridport admitted, it would destroy the half of the shipping engaged in it. He was not so much astonished to hear the hon. Member make that admission, as to hear the noble Lord, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on the night he brought forward his Budget, calmly and plainly admit that his plan might put out of employment the half of the shipping engaged in that trade —that was just the half of 1,611 ships, and of 20,000 seamen to be put out of employment. He thought the duty of Government was to protect and preserve, but it was in this instance only destroying the best interests of the country. Where else could they find employment for so many ships and such a number of seamen, and by what other means could all the great interests which depend on the employment of ships and seamen be remunerated for the losses they would suffer? It was intended also to encourage the Northern Powers of Europe, those very Powers which in 1807 we had sent a large expedition to destroy. The present trade with Canada was altogether a British trade, under the control of the British Government, and he must protest against breaking that up to make us again exclusively dependent on Powers that had been our enemies, and might be again. He was surprised to hear the hon. member for Liverpool support the proposed measure, though he confessed he did not understand the reasons which the hon. Member gave for it. Did the hon. Member know how important the present trade was to Liverpool? In 1821 there were 218 ships connected with this trade in the port of Liverpool; and in 1831 the number had increased to 321, carrying 106,000 tons. By the altered system, the lumber trade would be destroyed,—a trade which was of the first importance in clearing and peopling the colonies. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer should be successful on Friday (and he hoped that he would not), he (Mr. Robinson) would not be content with one night's debate on the subject, because the measure, in his opinion, would strike at the security of this country as a maritime nation. He would contest and oppose the measure at every stage.

Mr. W. Whitmore

observed, that those who opposed this measure formed a class who never looked to the advantage of the people, but, by some strange sort of anomalous reasoning, believed that they should be better able to pay the National Debt by being obliged to purchase every thing at as dear a rate as possible. Now he was a friend to the opposite system. He wished to have cheap sugar, cheap corn, and cheap timber, and therefore he would import those commodities from those places where they might be most reasonably obtained. Looking to the country at large, it appeared to him, that the greatest injury was inflicted by those monoplies, which were called protections, but which ought to be considered as destructions.

Lord George Lennox

was of opinion that the proposed measure would ruin one-fifth of the shipping interest; it would strike at the prosperity of our country and excite great discontent in the colonies.

Mr. Goulburn

observed, that the petition from the city of London ought to give rise to some doubts in the mind of the noble Lord as to the policy of this measure; but, until he heard it explained more in detail he would forbear from giving any decided opinion with respect to it.

Mr. B. Hoy

said, it appeared to him that the proposition involved the violation of much vested capital, and the destruction of a most useful class of men. If it were determined to benefit the consumer, it ought not to be done at the expense of the shipping interest.

Lord Loughborough

said, that his constituents complained that this measure would occasion the total destruction of their property, because they could not find employment for the shipping which they had now engaged in the Canada trade, in any other pursuit. The Vice-president of the Board of Trade had stated, that this measure was a boon to the landed interest. But the right hon. Gentleman knew little of the landed interest of England if he believed that that interest wished to derive any exclusive benefit or advantage (and he did not think it would be an advantage) which was given at the expense of the other interests of the country.

Mr. P. Thomson

never meant to say that this was a boon to the landed interest in particular. He said that it would be a boon to the country generally.

Mr. Hume

said, that those who opposed this measure seemed to think that the prosperity of the country depended upon the employment of a certain number of ships. Now, what was the object of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in bringing forward this measure? Why, to benefit the consumer generally; and this he did too when he relieved the country from the oppressive tax upon coals. Was it not desirable that they should have better wood for building in this country than they could get from Canada? In addition to supplying the country with a better commodity at a cheaper rate than at present, it would place a considerable sum in the Exchequer, and he could not conceive that such a circumstance ought to make the Commons of England reject it. The measure would, he believed, be useful to the general community.

Lord W. Powlett

did not concur in the opinion of the hon. member for Middlesex, They had expended 6,000,000l. on Canada, and merchants had, in consequence, invested much capital there, which would be overthrown by this measure.

Sir F. Burdett

thought, that the present discussion was Unnecessary, as the question would be regularly introduced on Friday. But he could not help observing, that the reason which had just been given for continuing in the old course, was the most extraordinary he had ever heard. They were told, that because they had expended 6,000,000l. to encourage the colonists of Canada, they ought still to support a system which was injurious to the general interest of the country. He had no objections to colonies, but, like the hon. member for Middlesex, he could not approve of buying their attachment by the immense annual sacrifices which were involved in this unnatural protection. In his opinion a better system ought to be adopted, and the present system of management might with great propriety be entirely altered. Under the present state of things, we were compelled to purchase bad timber to support a certain interest. To alter that system might be very inconvenient to those who were maintained by it; but all that they could do was, to let those persons down as easy as they could. This indifferent timber was absolutely forced into the building- of ships, and of houses, and much mischief resulted from it. He would recommend that the system should be removed altogether, even if the country was called on to pay a sum of money to the shipping interest.

Mr. Keith Douglas

asked, whether the hon. members for Westminster and Bridgenorth were prepared to dissolve the connexion between the colonies and the mother country. Why the hon. member for Bridgenorth said he would procure sugar, corn, timber, &c, at as cheap a rate as he could, in any place, and the hon. Baronet seemed to participate in his sentiment. That was the policy which they would adopt. There was evidently a specious reason, at least, to suppose, that if they had their free will, they would make it part of their policy henceforth to dissolve the con- nexion with the colonies; but that was a sort of policy which he never could approve of. He was sure too, if the hon. member for Bridport looked carefully into the report of the Committee of 1821 he would find no support in that for his arguments.

Mr. S. Worthy

said, it appeared to him that the measure proposed by Government was founded on principles different from those stated by Gentlemen near him, and therefore he differed from them. There was no intention to destroy the interests either of the colonies or of the shipowners. No two interests could be more intimately connected, and if any measure were proposed that seemed likely to overturn either, he would strenuously oppose it. He thought, that in the course of the argument, much misapprehension and misconception had prevailed; and on a future occasion he would point out, and perhaps correct, those erroneous impressions. But he must say, that before the measure was distinctly submitted to the House, they were not in a proper situation to discuss it. His principal objection was to the time at which the measure was proposed. He denied that this measure would inflict injury to the extent which had been stated; but he did not mean to say that it would not, in some degree, be productive of injury; because no great change like this could be effected without causing injury. If the noble Lord had taken another opportunity for proposing this measure, he thought that he would have done better; because, just at the moment when they were opening the West-India trade to other countries, which for years had been closed to all but the North American colonies—it was hard at such a time to impose an additional duty on the commodities they sent to the English market.

Mr. Hunt

said, a petition from the City of London, for the protection of the interests of a certain class of men, had given rise to a debate of several hours. Thousands of petitions had been presented from the people, praying for relief, and in consequence the noble Lord proposed to take off a large duty on coals, which would be most useful to the community,—and to lay the tax on timber, which would fall on wealthy commercial men. He was very glad to see a tax taken from the shoulders of the poor, and laid upon those who could best afford to bear it. He was the more pleased on this occasion, because many of the influential men who now peti- tioned the House had, twenty-five years ago, employed themselves in supporting and upholding that system which placed them and the country in its present situation and compelled the Chancellor of the Exchequer to declare that he could not remove taxes from one portion of the community without placing them on another.

The Petition to be printed.