HC Deb 08 March 1832 vol 10 cc1306-11
Mr. Horatio Ross

said, that he held in his hand a petition very numerously signed by merchants and shipowners of Arbroath, to which he begged to call the attention of the House. The prayer of the petition was, that the present high duty on hemp might be taken off. He was quite aware that this was a subject not very interesting to many Members of that House, but to his constituents it was one of the most vital importance; and he therefore trusted that he should be pardoned if he said a few words in support of the prayer of the petition. He felt confident that the House would agree with him in thinking that the request of the petitioners was a just and a fair one. In the first place, the population of that part of Scotland was almost entirely employed in the manufacture of goods made of hemp and flax. The exportation of these goods to foreign countries was the only export trade which they possessed, and it certainly appeared reasonable that, as they had to compete with foreigners, every indulgence ought to be granted to them, and the raw material of which they manufactured their goods brought as near as possible to the prices on the continent. The principal markets for fabrics made of hemp were St. Domingo, Spain, and North and South America; but to these markets the foreign manufacturers had the same access as our manufacturers. How, then, could it be expected that the British manufacturer could compete with the foreign, if, in addition to the expense of freight to this country, they were obliged to pay a duty of 4l. 13s. 4d. a ton, which was as near as possible, twenty per cent on the original price, whilst the foreigners had the raw material free of all duty, without any expense of carriage, and when, in addition to these advantages, they obtained labour at much less expense? He did not mean to go the length of saying that the former Government gave any decided pledge that the duty was to be taken off this year, yet he maintained, and there were many Members in that House who could bear him out in the assertion, that there was a distinct understanding that the manufacturers were to receive this relief at the period when the bounties on the exportation of linens ceased. For eighty years past this trade had been encouraged by these bounties, varying from fifteen to twenty-five per cent, and it now formed one of the most important branches of the trade of the country. In 1825, a gradual reduction of these bounties commenced, and it was settled that they were altogether to cease on the 5th of January last. In 1825 the Scotch manufacturers petitioned that the whole duty might be taken off hemp, and their petition was to a certain extent granted, as the duty was reduced from 91. 6s. 8d. to 4l. 13s. 4d. per ton, and on flax from 8s. 4d. to 1s. 8d. per ton; and it was then, as he before stated, distinctly understood that the remainder of this duty was to be taken off at the period the bounties ceased. These bounties had ceased, but the duty on hemp was still retained, He therefore thought that the petitioners would have some ground to complain that good faith was not kept with them, unless they obtained the relief they prayed for. Besides the great and principal advantage this country would derive from taking off this duty,—viz. being enabled to retain that trade which we had established at such an enormous expense,—important benefits would be conferred on many classes of the community. In the first place, the shipping interest would be very much benefited by being enabled to purchase their cordage at home, at comparatively low prices, instead of supplying themselves at foreign ports, or carrying out Russian cordage from the London bonded warehouses, to the manifest injury of the operatives and trades people of this country. In the second place, it would be a great boon to our manufacturers; for hemp and flax might be used in many instances for the same purposes; but as the duty on hemp was 4l. 13s. 4d., and that on flax only ls. 8d. per ton, manufacturers, of course, preferred the latter; but were it not for the enormous difference of the duty, they would make use of hemp in common with flax. The effect of this would be, to keep the price of both articles much steadier, and prevent those sudden fluctuations which of late years had proved very injurious to those engaged in the trade, in consequence of the supply of flax being frequently unequal to the demand. In the third place, in the preparation of hemp for the manufacture of those coarse articles for which it was generally applied, machinery was not in very general use; the consequence of this was, that a great deal of hand labour was given to poor people. In that part of Scotland with which he was more immediately connected, the women were employed in their cottages spinning hemp, and thousands gained a scanty but honest livelihood in this manner. Hon. Members were not, however, unused to hear complaints in England of the poor laws. He thanked God that in Scotland they were as yet very little known, but if by impolitic restrictions these poor people were deprived of the means of supporting themselves, what could they do but come upon the parish for relief? This, he maintained, would be the consequence of retaining this impolitic duty, because that particular branch of trade which gave employment to the poor was entirely supported by the bounties, and, now that they had ceased, it would be knocked on the head unless the duty was also relinquished. He conceived that the only apology which could be offered for refusing the prayer of the petitioners would be, that owing to the state of the revenue no tax could be relinquished at present; but, on the other hand, it must be borne in mind that we had for many years past been paying between 200,000l. and 300,000l. annually in the shape of bounties, and as these bounties had now ceased, the revenue was a gainer to that amount. He therefore did not think that the loss of revenue could be urged against the petitioners with justice, particularly as the loss would amount to such a trifling sum. At present the gross revenue derived from the duty on hemp only, amounted to 60,000l. or 70,000l., but from that was to be deducted a large sum that had been annually repaid in the shape of bounties, and also on the annual consumption of hemp in the navy and ordnance departments under Government. It was also to be remembered that the present high duty would operate as a prohibition, and that for the future very little hemp would be imported. He therefore felt confident that he was within the mark when he said that this duty would not produce more than 30,000l. or 40,000l. a year. Was, then, this trifling sum to be put in competition with the great advantages which taking it off would confer upon a great portion of our countrymen? He sincerely trusted that his Majesty's Ministers would not only grant the prayer of the petitioners, but that they would do so immediately, as every day of delay inflicted the greatest injury upon those who were interested in this branch of trade. The hon. Member concluded by saying, that the merchants were anxiously waiting for the decision of Government on the subject; and although he was the last man who would do anything to embarrass his Majesty's Ministers, yet, if they persisted in retaining this tax, he should consider it a duty which he owed his constituents to bring forward a motion upon this subject, and take the sense of the House on it.

Mr. Hallyburton

said, that he would not consume the time of the House, by entering at great length into the merits of the petition which had just been presented by his hon. friend the member for Montrose. The ground of the complaint made by the petitioners was, that the article of rough hemp continued to be subjected to a duty of 4l. 13s. 4d. per ton on importation into this country. That this impost was mainly injurious to two great interests—the shipping interest, and that of the manufacture of the coarser fabrics of linens, into which hemp ought to enter, and would enter were it not shut out by the high duty; and that so far as concerned the shipping interest, the tax was at variance with those measures of relief, which had been adopted by this and former Governments, induced the ship-owners to import manufactured articles of cordage, &c. duty free, as they were entitled to do; and in so far was a direct premium on foreign industry, to the injury of our own manufacturers. Respecting the injurious operation of the tax upon the manufacture of the coarser fabrics of linen, the great seat of which was the county of Forfar, which he had the honour to represent, he would state, that hemp ought, to enter in various proportions into those fabrics,— that it was prevented from being so introduced only by the high duty on the rough article, and that the manufacture was in consequence deteriorated, and undue advantage given to Russian and German manufacturers, when competing with ours in foreign markets. In consequence of the necessity the manufacturer was under of getting rid of the coarser parts of the rough hemp, by various manipulations, (which coarser part was technically named codilla) the finer and dressed part was reduced to one-half of the original weight, and the coarser part being importable into this country free of duty, and being actually imported in large quantities, the whole tax of 4l. 13s. 4d. was consequently borne by the half ton of dressed hemp. In other words, the manufacturer paid a duty of from 9l. to 10l. per ton on hemp which was available for his purposes; or rather the manufacturer would pay such a sum did not the duty altogether preclude the use of the article. He begged the House to bear in mind that the relief from the tax would be highly beneficial to a numerous and industrious class of persons in the county of Forfar, he meant females, who would spin the hemp in any quantities that might be given to them, and for a small rate of wages, machinery not having been yet adopted generally for the spinning of that material. He was of opinion that the Exchequer would not suffer any loss by the taking off the hemp duty, but that the Government would remain gainers upon the whole transaction, for it must be considered in combination with the withdrawing of the linen bounties, which had been in course of reduction on a graduated scale since 1825; and a positive declaration, if not a pledge, was given by the late Government that the duty of 4l. 13s. 4d. on rough hemp should be removed entirely on the cessation of the linen bounties on the 5th of January last. The bounties on the exportation of linens had amounted to the annual sum of little short of 300,000l., and from that burden the Government was now relieved by the total withdrawing of the bounties. On the other hand, the duty on rough hemp imported could not for the two last years be stated at a larger sum than 65,000l. or 70,000l. per annum of clear gain to the Exchequer, the amount of hemp imported having gradually diminished; and therefore, taking the saving to Government, on one hand, by the cessation of the bounties, and the loss of duty on the other, the relief prayed for might be given without loss of revenue, and in furtherance of sound and acknowledged principles of taxation.

Petition to lie on the table and be printed.

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