HC Deb 28 March 1831 vol 3 cc1092-102
Mr. F. Lewis

, in bringing in the Bill for regulating the taking off the Duties on Coals in the Port of London, said, that the Act which he had now to explain to the House, and to the provisions of which he begged their attention, was purely local, and applicable solely to London and its immediate vicinity. When, however, they considered the number of persons residing in the Metropolis who were interested in the Coal Trade; and when, too, they considered the extent and importance of the trade itself, and of the Shipping employed in it, he hoped he might be permitted to trespass a little on the time of the House while he attempted to explain the effect of the regulations which had prevailed in the Coal Trade, and of those which he proposed to submit to them in the Act now to be introduced. Every person who knew any thing of the price of coals, and every person whom he addressed was a consumer of them must have been struck with the difference between that price in the port of London, and any of the other great cities of the kingdom. In the port of Dublin, for instance, they would find that coals were seldom higher than from 21s. to 23s. a chaldron the duty being" about 1s. 6d., while in the port of London the ordinary descriptions of coal averaged a price of 44s. a chaldron, weighing not more than twenty-four cwt. The price of coals was, however, much too high in all the Ports which received coals in the southern parts of the kingdom, and it was the duty of the Legislature to adopt some means of remedying the evil. The great manufactures, such as those carried on at Norwich, and some other places, have been for some time abandoning that part of the country because fuel is scarce and dear, in order to find greater facilities for carrying on the business in the places where fuel is cheap; and the consequence is, that great distress is frequently felt in particular districts from the emigration of the persons connected with those manufactures. It was, he repeated, the duty of the Government to remedy the evils which the want of fuel is producing, both in the Metropolis and elsewhere, as compared with the northern counties, and at all events to take care that they did. not increase and extend, the natural difficulties of any particular situation by any legislative provisions. The House would recollect that a Committee was appointed to inquire into the nature of the Coal Trade, and the best method of remedying some of the laws which applied to it. After the most patient and laborious investigation, that Committee were unanimously of opinion, that the Act of the 47th Geo. 3rd tended much to increase the evils of the system, and that the minute regulations and restrictions which it imposed on vessels in the Coal Trade, from the moment when they arrived in the river until their cargo was delivered to the consumer, tended greatly to increase the price of the commodity, and to stop all the fair competition of the market. From the moment the ship arrives, instead of leaving the owner to dispose of his cargo to the best advantage and according to the principles which should apply to all buyers and sellers, an individual is put on board to collect the Customs' Dues of the Port of London and the Dues of the City, and at the same time to conduct the whole of the bargains between the buyer and the seller in the disposal of the cargo. To that arrangement he made his first objection, because he thought it infinitely better that the same freedom of trade which prevailed in other commodities should be extended to the traffic in coals. With respect, however, to the collection of the Customs' Duties by the Meters, he had, after much deliberation, determined to let that part of the arrangement stand, and apply himself merely to the other; but when he heard it announced that it was the intention of his Majesty's Government to abandon those duties, he at once resolved to get rid of the City ship-meters altogether, and to put an end, if possible, to all the regulations with which they were connected. In the inquiries which he felt it necessary to prosecute for that object, he was bound to say, that he had received from every person connected with the trade, from all the City authorities, and from all the officers acting under them, the fairest, the most liberal, and candid treatment, and. every assistance in their power. In no one instance, indeed, was there the slightest impediment thrown in his way in the obtaining of any information which he felt it necessary to require. Under all the circumstances of the case, and after the most anxious inquiry, the course which he proposed to adopt in the Bill, with reference to the payment of the different duties, was briefly this—that all coals should in future be sold, and all duties collected by the ton weight instead of the chaldron. The Members of the House were all well aware of the fact, that the duties which were collected under the name of the Orphans' Fund had been mortgaged to a large amount, for securing the payment of the sums necessary to the completion of London Bridge, and that it was not therefore within the power of Parliament to make much reduction in their amount. The Committee had, however, succeeded in making an arrangement with respect to the collection of that duty; they had compounded the 10d. collected from every chaldron of coals on account of that duty, for a sum of 8d. to be paid on every ton weight. With respect to the other duties—the 4d. due on every chaldron to the City, and several other sums under various denominations, it was proposed, and had been agreed to by the City, that the whole should be compromised on the payment of 4d. in the ton. This made the whole duty 1s. a ton; and by the addition of a 1d. for the market, which would make altogether 1s. 1d.., they would thus get rid of all the Dues which had hitherto been collected under so many different denominations. While he proposed this arrangement, he could not, however, avoid saying—although he did not wish to interfere with the arrangements of the Government that he thought it would be infinitely better to do away the Orphans' Fund altogether, and raise a sum in lieu of it by a certain small per centage on all the custom duties paid in the Port of London; a charge which, he thought, would be infinitely fairer than that which was now imposed solely on coals. He threw this out, however, merely as a suggestion which he thought worthy of consideration. In the Bill, he applied himself to the duty as it at present existed, and he had compounded for it by the sum already stated. With respect to the amount of coal which entered the Port of London in the different Colliers, he proposed to do away with the whole plan of measurement which at present existed: and, without substituting for it any other plan of taking the quantity by weight, to refer to the Ports from which the vessels sailed for a satisfactory account of their tonnage, which was now taken under competent officers; and, by that means, save all the expense of any establishment for the same purpose in the Metropolis. With this understanding on the extent of the tonnage of the vessel, and the quantity of coal which she would carry, he proposed to allow every vessel entering the Port of London to compound with the City for a given time for the amount of her dues. Everybody would know the tonnage of the vessel by the established registers, and the owner could then make his composition for any number of voyages or of years which he might think fit, for his benefit, and which the City might be disposed to allow; and, he was confident, from the course the trade would then fall into, that scarcely a single vessel would be engaged in the trade unless under a composition of that description. The next point, after attaining this economy in the collection of the duties was, to allow the Colliers to employ such men as they thought proper, at such wages as they could agree on for the discharge of their cargoes, and to get rid of all that class of persons called whippers, who had hitherto increased the cost of coal without adding to the facilities for obtaining it. The wages of the persons employed in the discharge of coal vessels was fixed by Act of Parliament, in the year 1807—an impolitic proceeding at any time, but most impolitic in the present case, in which the employer, although compelled to pay 16s. a week to his men, contrived, by charging them for lodging which they did not require, and for beer which they did not drink, and for various other things of that description, to pay scarcely 4s. a week in money. He need not, therefore, say that one of the provisions of his Bill, went to the repeal of the clause which compelled the payment of any stipulated sum, and left the employer to pay as low, and the employed to demand as much, as the market of labour would allow them; the owner or master of the Collier being at liberty to employ whom he pleased, and the whipper to work for whom he pleased. With reference to the discharge of the cargo itself, and its ultimate delivery to the consumer, he proposed to do away with the whole system of selling coal by measure. Who could suppose that a measure would at any time hold the same quantity of coal? Was it possible, he would ask, to put the same quantity into any measure twice over? The thing was impossible and the law absurd; but the reason why the plan of selling coal by chaldron and measure prevailed so long was this, that the city of London was entitled to a duty of 4d. on every ton weight of coal, and to 8d. on every chaldron; or, in other words, it was entitled in the one case to a duty of only 4d.. on twenty cwt. and in the other to a duty of 8d. on twenty-six cwt.—an unwise provision, which had for a long time tended to increase the abuse of the trade, and to deprive the Port of London of a supply of that kind of coal which was at once the cheapest and the best fitted for its consumption. Every one knew that the larger and the better sorts of coal were the only kind brought to London, although its various manufactures required every kind which could be supplied. At Newcastle, and in the coal districts, thousands upon thousands of small coal were burned in waste, blackening the ground, and defiling the atmosphere, and putting the proprietor of the coal mine to a great expense in purchasing a place for burning them on, because that kind of coal could not be brought to the London market, although, under a better state of circumstances, it could and would be used in preference to any other in the various furnaces, and limekilns, and brick- kilns which abound in the vicinity of the Metropolis. It was a well-known fact, however, that no coals were shipped except the large coal for the London market; and why was this? Purely because the solid coal occupied a larger space when broken, and when sold by measure, enabled the shipowner and the coal merchant and the retail dealer to make a large profit on their trade. For this purpose, coal was broken by the lightermen, broken in the ships, broken in the docks, broken on the wharfs, and broken by the retail dealer, until it reached the consumer in the smallest pieces, which he would purchase at a rate rendered still more exorbitant by the deficiency of quantity, which by this process was concealed. If, then, coal henceforward should be sold by weight, the small coal, which had hitherto been destroyed at the pit's mouth, would speedily find its way to the market, and would not only prove beneficial to the trades which require such a supply of fuel, but at the same time tend much to keep down the price of the better kinds. Under the new plan of selling coal by weight, a material improvement would be effected in the method of detecting frauds on the delivery of the article to the consumer. At the present moment when a buyer has reason to suspect that the sacks are deficient in quantity, he is obliged to send for a meter to the neighbouring wharf, and after he goes through the whole of the process required by Act of Parliament, if the coals be not deficient he has to pay the expense of the measurement, and thus he actually inflicts a penalty on himself for having gone through the pain of getting the coal re-measured. In order to remedy this evil, he proposed that every sack shou,19 be made to contain as nearly as possible two hundred weight of coal. At every considerable wharf he would have a weighing machine, and instead of the coal being tossed to and fro, with an apparent alteration of the quantity in the measure at every trial, he proposed that the cart should be weighed first, and the sacks being then thrown on, the exact quantity of coal could be ascertained with the utmost precision. Having now stated the principal provisions of the Bill, he had only to say that the persons whose interests were affected by the new arrangements would not be left without compensation. The City of London was to receive, as he had already explained, a market penny a cwt., and out of the product of this fund, which it was calculated would amount to 11,000l. the City undertook, that compensation should be given to the ship-meters, and the other persons who might suffer by the alterations. He trusted, by carrying these arrangements into full effect, to render the sale of coal as open and as free from all trammel and restrictions, as Corn in Mark-lane; and he was confident that, in doing so, he should benefit both the seller and the consumer. It was a common custom now for the person who purchased from the ships to give a larger price than he otherwise would have done, because he knew that he could charge it to his customer; but it was the bounden duty of the Legislature to take care that the trade was left open to competition, and that no provision of theirs tended to enhance the price to the purchaser. After observing that four land-meters could keep a register of the arrival of the ships and the amount of their tonnage, the right hon. Gentleman concluded by expressing an opinion that these regulations would on inquiry be found perfectly practicable; and he believed it would be also found that he proposed no alteration which was not supported by evidence before the Committee, or by the most extensive and accurate information collected from those best acquainted with the trade to which the Bill applied.

Mr. Alderman Waithman

agreed in the importance and utility of the alterations contained in the Bill; but he thought there was one fact which came to light in a recent action that ought not to be lost sight of. It appeared that the small coal sold at the pit's mouth was charged only 5s. if it was for the Irish market, and 14s. if it was for the London market. Now it occurred that a person who bought coal for Ireland happened for some reason to sell it in London, and this coming to the ears of the vendors, they brought an action against the man who sold the coal in London, and recovered the difference. When the object of the Legislature was to get rid of impositions, and set the coal trade free from combinations and restrictions, he thought a circumstance of that kind should not be lost sight of.

Mr. Alderman Thompson

approved, like his hon. colleague, of the principle of the Bill, and of the necessity of getting rid of all the grievances of the system of the coal trade; but there were several difficulties connected with the alterations, which re- quired consideration. The Orphan Dues, it should be recollected, were mortgaged for a sum of nearly one million and a half. It was necessary to take care that nothing should affect the fund thus pledged. He had doubts of the policy of getting rid of the ship-meters, because he thought there should be somebody between the buyer and the seller, and he confessed he had some misgivings with respect to the working of some of the other portions of the arrangements. Applying himself to the observations of the hon. Member with respect to Dublin, he begged him to look to the difference in the length of the voyage between London and Dublin. All the coals used in the Irish market did not come from one place. There were coals sent from Whitehaven, and from various parts of Wales, to the port of Dublin, the freight being seldom more than 6s. or 7s., while the freight of coal from Newcastle to London was 10s. or 12s.; indeed, nothing very short of 12s. would be a remuneration; so that in that respect there was a difference of 5s. a chaldron. The right hon. Gentleman contended for a free trade in coal; and he (Ald. Thomson) admitted it would be beneficial to get rid of the restrictions which were now imposed on it; but he thought it was also necessary to get rid of the combinations which raised the price 6s. or 7s. at the pit, and which could only be effected by opening new channels for the trade, and encouraging the import of coal from Yorkshire and Scotland. That was the effectual method of breaking up the combination among the present great coal-owners. It was in evidence before the Committee, that a coal ship had been actually compelled to stop three weeks at Newcastle before she could obtain a cargo, because the coal proprietor declared he had delivered his month's supply of coal, and the ship must wait till the 1st of the next month before he could deliver any more. He thought this required the attention of Government quite as much as the regulation of the port of London; and that it was the duty of Government to take some measures to break up the combination of the coal-owners.

Mr. Bell

denied, that the price of the small coal was different to those who purchased it for the Dublin or the London market. The price was, he understood, the same to both, being about 6s. 4d. or 6s. 6d. at that moment. With respect to the combination of the coal-owners, he could only say that the price of coal had fallen 7s. within a very short time at the pit's mouth; and if that combination could do any good to the coal owners, it was evident that it must be carried much further. This fall was, however, a proof of the inefficacy of any arrangements; and he believed he might add, that the city of London had not been, during a vast number of years, left for a single day without its proper supply of coal.

Mr. Alderman Thomson

explained, and referred to the action which had taken place, and which had established that the difference between the prices asked at the pit for the same coal, if to go to Ireland, or to go to London, was the difference between 5s. and 14s.

Mr. Alderman Wood

approved of the measure, and observed, that the large charge upon the public of forty meters, each at a salary of 200l., would be done away with. He could not understand the argument of those who maintained that the public would not derive benefit from the proposed reduction of 6s. in duty, any more than they did from the former reduction of 3s. The fact was, that the coal merchants in London were vieing with one another, who should pitch their coals at the lowest rate. If he were to be told that the public would receive no benefit from the remission of taxation, then he would say that it would be better to remain as we were. It would be better for Government to retain the revenue, if the reduction of it gave no relief to the public. He felt confident, however, with reference to this particular article, that the public would experience the greatest benefit from the competition which would take place among the dealers in it.

Mr. Warburton

observed, that it was peculiarly necessary to remedy one grievance of which the southern ship-owners complained—namely, that they were frequently exposed to a loss of freight in consequence of the refusal, if their ships had received the usual monthly supply at a pit, to allow them another supply until the next month.

Sir M. W. Ridley

characterised the terms in which the hon. Alderman had expressed himself, as unjust, illiberal, and unfounded; not becoming to the House, nor fair in themselves. By a reference to the evidence in the Committee on the subject, it appeared that there were five or six different kinds of coal, and that if a ship-owner changed his pit, he might at any time obtain a supply. The regulation that at each pit supplies must be afforded in turn, was necessary to carry on the business, and prevent confusion. The evidence before the Committee clearly proved that there was no limitation. There was not a single instance in which the London market had not been over-supplied with coals. If any inconveniences had resulted from the difference between small and large coal, that inconvenience would be remedied by the provision in the Bill, that coals should henceforth be sold by weight, and not by measure. As to the allegation that the coal-owners would deprive the public of the advantage that ought to arise from the remission of the duty, he pledged himself that the public should know the price of coal at the pit's mouth before the duty was taken off, and after the duty was taken off; so that if the inhabitants of London did not receive the full benefit of the remission of 6s. per chaldron, it should be seen that it was not the fault of the coal-owners. As an instance of the way in which charges were accumulated on the original cost of coals, he would mention an instance in which a friend of his, having paid a Bill of above 160l. to his coal merchant, the Bill for which he (Sir M. W. Ridley) analysed, and found that the sum paid for the coals to the coal-owner at Newcastle was 42l., and that the surplus was divided between the carrier, the London dues, and the coal merchant. The only wish which the coal-owners had upon the subject was, for fair and open competition.

Mr. Robert Gordon

did not think that there was the wished-for competition which the hon. Baronet alluded to; for at certain collieries only certain proportions of supply were provided. He should be very glad to see any regulations which would render the trade wholly open.

Lord Howick

observed, that his hon. friend forgot that there were certain imperative regulations to which all parties consented. It must be recollected that there were in Northumberland many extensive fields of coal the produce of which was not exported, because it would not pay. If, however, the owners of those fields saw other coal-owners making unreasonable profits, they would not have such a tender regard for them as to abstain from competition. On his father's estates there were many hundred acres of the best coal, only a quarter of a mile from the sea, which could not be worked.

Bill read a first time.

On the motion that it be read a second time on the 18th of April,

Mr. Alderman Thomson

could not help observing that the hon. Baronet, the member for Newcastle, had taken an unwarrantable liberty in the words which the hon. Baronet had thought proper to apply to his former observations. He would, not follow the hon. Baronet's example by the use of similar expressions. If in either action or words he had behaved himself unbecomingly to the House or unfairly, he was sure that the Speaker would have been the first to interfere and prevent his proceeding. The hon. Baronet's taunts, however, would have no effect in deterring him from making any representations which appeared to him to be just, on behalf of those who had sent him to that House, and whose rights and interests he would take every fair opportunity of advocating. He appealed to the members of the Committee on the subject, if he had said one word which was not justified by the proceedings before that Committee.

Bill ordered to be read a second time on the 18th of April.

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