HC Deb 29 April 1833 vol 17 cc728-39
Lord Althorp

said: I am quite persuaded that every Gentleman in the House must be anxious to hear what I wish to state on the present occasion. The decision of the House on Friday being very peculiar, considering the circumstances under which it took place, has, as I stated at the time, placed Government under great embarrassment; and after taking this question into our consideration, his Majesty's Ministers have felt it desirable to bring the question again before the House, and in such a manner that the whole state of the case may be fairly brought forward, and that the House may see clearly all the consequences which must take place, in consequence of the proceeding of Friday night, and come to a decision with their eyes open. That decision may be precisely the same as that which they came to before, or it may differ from it; but there is a necessity for a clear understanding upon this subject. Sir, with this view, and believing that this will be the mode which will conduce most to this end, I now give notice, that it is my intention to move as an amendment to the motion of the hon. Baronet, the member for the City of London, to-morrow evening, this Resolution, which I will read now, in order that it may be placed on the votes of the House, that hon. Gentlemen may have the opportunity of considering the effect of it:—"That the deficiency of the Revenue which would be occasioned by a reduction of the tax on malt to 10s. a quarter, and by the repeal of the taxes on houses and windows, could only be supplied by the substitution of a general tax on property, and would occasion an extensive change in our whole financial system, which would at present be inexpedient."

Lord Althorp

then moved, that the House should resolve itself into a Committee of Supply.

Sir William Ingilby

asked the noble Lord what he intended to do respecting the vote which the House had come to last Friday night? He could assure the House, that he had not brought forward his motion with any view of embarrassing Ministers. The Resolution having been carried by a majority, the manner in which the noble Lord had taken it up had gone through the country, and the country expected that the measure would be carried into effect. He asked if it was the intention of the noble Lord to carry that Resolution into effect, or what it was the noble Lord intended to do?

Lord Althorp

said, there had been some misunderstanding respecting what he (Lord Althorp) had said on Friday night. What he did then say—at all events what he meant to say, and what he believed he did say in so many words—was, that although the question was carried by a very small majority, he would not take advantage of another division the same evening, as he might have done, after the previous division, by again dividing the House on the main question. He felt as other Gentlemen, who had been accustomed to such matters had always felt, that he might, if he thought proper, divide the House more than once, but he would not take the chance of Gentlemen coming in after the first division, in order to obtain a second division. As to what he intended to do, he should have thought the Motion of which he had just given notice would have been sufficient.

The Marquess of Chandos

rose to express his deep regret to find that there was any intention to get rid of the vote of the House of Commons, on a motion of the greatest importance to the country at large. The House could not have been taken by surprise by the hon. Baronet's (Sir William Ingilby's) Motion. They must have been prepared for it; but what he most regretted was, that there should be any attempt on the part of a Minister of the Crown in that Reformed House, from which so much was expected, to set aside the vote come to on that occasion; that Members should be told they voted improperly, and that he would give them another opportunity of correcting their mistakes. He begged leave to express his earnest and sincere hope, that when the question was again brought forward, the vote would stand as at present. For himself, he should be ashamed if he should be supposed capable of altering his vote on so important a question—a question so deeply affecting the landed interest. He would rather, indeed, throw up his seat, than, at the call of the Minister of the Crown, vote directly contrary to the vote he had previously given.

Mr. Tennyson

said, undoubtedly the noble Lord (Lord Althorp) was best qualified to give a construction to what he did say, or intended to say, on the previous occasion referred to, and although he (Mr. Tennyson) was ready to accept the explanation which had been given, yet, he must say, that it was uniformly circulated through the Press, and was the general understanding of the Members in the House, that the noble Lord would, notwithstanding the smallness of the majority, feel it to be his duty to carry the Resolution into effect ["no, no!" "yes, yes!"] Gentlemen cried "no," but he should like to know whether those who uttered those cries were present. Whilst he said this in justice to himself, he was bound also, in justice to the noble Lord to say, that he was satisfied the noble Lord did not mean so to express himself, and he was ready to abide by the explanation given by the noble Lord himself. He must say, that he did not think any question of that kind Ought, in a Reformed Parliament, to affect the stability of any Administration. The former degraded Parliaments were more the Privy Council of the Minister than the Representatives of the people, and, of course, when they differed from him on any question, he had only to resign; but at present the Ministers came down and told them what sum was wanted, and how they proposed to raise it. Parliament, if it truly represented the people, might fairly say to Ministers, and Ministers would be bound to listen to them, "we do not wish to be taxed in the particular way you propose, but would prefer another way." For his own part, he should be ashamed of himself, if being ready to vote for the Repeal of the Malt-tax, and of the House and Window-tax, he were not also ready to vote a substitute for those taxes. He could not agree with the hon. member for Middlesex, that any screwing and saving could make up six or seven millions deficiency. The utmost that could be saved from the expenditure was two or three millions. He was, therefore, for one, prepared to agree to a Property Tax. So far from thinking that this would be a grievance to the landed interest, he was certain that it would, from the general prosperity that would be diffused throughout the country, be the greatest boon that could be granted it. He rose, however, chiefly to express his regret that the Minister of the Crown intended to come down to propose the rescinding of a vote of that House. It could not be said, that due notice had not been given of the motion for the reduction of the Malt-tax, for, in addition to the notice of the hon. Baronet, the member for Lincolnshire, his hon. friend the member for Surrey had a notice upon the paper, for the same purpose, and therefore Ministers could not say, that they had been taken by surprise, or unprepared. He did not think that the course of proceeding which it was intended to recommend to Parliament in this instance was one that the House ought to adopt. If they did adopt such a course, and if they rescinded their vote, the repeal of the House and Window-tax could not take place, and thus the old system would still go on. Now, he was persuaded that the House, under such circumstances would quickly find that that system would never do; indeed, he was convinced that they must, sooner or later, come to a complete revision of the financial system of the country. They must come to a Property-tax; nothing else would satisfy the people of this country, and nothing else was calculated to place the country once more in a prosperous condition.

Mr. Robinson

said, that he had no desire to place the noble Lord in a dilemma and contradiction, but it appeared to him to be of some importance to consider how the noble Lord stood with the House, and it was a matter of great importance that it should be generally understood what the noble Lord did say at the close of Friday night. He would state the impression which was then made upon him by what the noble Lord said, and he had paid great attention to what had fallen from the noble Lord. He believed that the noble Lord's words were these—that though the majority was small, yet that he felt certainly bound to acquiesce in the passing of the Resolution, or that he should not oppose it [Cries of "No, no."] He might have been—he no doubt was—mistaken, but certainly, agreeably to what had been said by the noble Marquess, the member for Buckinghamshire, he understood the noble Lord the Chancellor of the Exchequer to express his decided intention to acquiesce in the vote of the House. He would ask the House in what situation they were likely to be placed to-morrow when the noble Lord came down and proposed his Resolution to them? He did not complain of that Resolution; he thought that it was putting the question upon the right issue. He agreed with the hon. member for Lambeth that it was very improper for hon. Members to call for great reductions of taxation—reductions that could not possibly be met by corresponding reductions in the public expenditure without supplying the means from some other source. He was glad that Ministers had taken a decided course on this occasion. It was right that the country should see what were the intentions of those Gentlemen who would vote for the reduction of one-half of the Malt-duty, and would afford the Government no means of getting out of the dilemma into which they were thus thrown: it was right that the country should understand what the House was about, and he thought that the vote of tomorrow night would go far to clear up that point. He would wish both the Government and the House to consider the situation in which they would be placed if, by any means whatever, the Resolution proposed by the noble Lord should be carried. Would it not then be said, and justly said, that a House of Commons, consisting of 300 and odd Members, came to a deliberate vote, upon due notice, for reducing a portion of the burthens of the people, and that that vote was considered a proper subject for revision? He had never been in the habit of using language in that House calculated to produce an unfavourable impression of it in the country, and he should not commence that career now, but he could not avoid stating what would be the necessary and inevitable consequences of the revision of this vote. The people would see that the House of Commons, consisting very often of not more than thirty or forty members, had passed Estimates for imposing burthens upon them to a large amount, and that in no single instance had such votes been Subjected to a revision, whereas that when a House of 300 and odd Members decided upon reducing their burthens, that vote was subjected to revision, and actually to be rescinded, if the noble Lord's Resolution should be carried, no measure that he knew of would provoke so much discussion, and when so much obloquy had been already excited, let them not, he would entreat them, add to it by doing that the effect of which would be to bring the House of Commons into disrepute with the people. In conclusion, he would invoke the House to pause well before it came to consider that discussion of which the noble Lord had given notice for tomorrow, to consider well what would be the necessary and inevitable consequence of overturning the vote of Friday night.

Sir John Wrottesley

said, that he felt it necessary, in consequence of what had fallen from the two hon. Members who had just spoken, to address a few words to the House. He considered that his noble friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer had explained precisely the terms which he had used on Friday night. He (Sir John Wrottesley) was just behind his noble friend at the time, and he understood him exactly in the way in which he had now stated his meaning to the House. He was sure that the mistake must have arisen in consequence of a misapprehension by hon. Gentlemen of the mode in which the question was put in that House—a mode which was certainly ambiguous, and liable to misapprehension. The first question put on the occasion referred to was, "that the words proposed to be left out stand part of the question." Upon that question the division took place; but after it was carried in the negative, then came the main question—"that the words 'it is the opinion of this House that the duty on malt be reduced to 10s. the quarter' be thereto added." That was a separate and distinct question, upon which his noble friend could again have divided the House. It was then that his noble friend addressed the House, and he understood him to say that after the division, he would not take advantage of any Gentleman coming into the House to oppose it again. His own attention was first called to the misapprehension as to what had fallen from his noble friend by seeing it erroneously stated the next morning in the usual channels of public information. He was not prepared to slate what would be the course which he would follow when the Motion was brought forward tomorrow; no doubt every hon. Member would deeply and seriously consider the subject. Without, however, stating what were his opinions on the subject to which that Motion referred, he must protest against the principle that because 162 Members of that House had given an opinion upon a certain subject, therefore, that the remainder of the 658 Members had no right to give an opinion upon it. There were several different stages through which the Resolution in question would have to pass before it could be laid on the Table of the House in the shape of a Bill, and before it arrived at that stage, the House would have several distinct opportunities of deciding and dividing upon it.

Mr. Matthias Attwood

had understood the noble Lord precisely as the noble Marquess the member for Buckinghamshire. He had listened attentively to the noble Lord, and, after the vote was decided, the words which fell upon his ear from the lips of the noble Lord were these; "That the vote had placed the Government in a state of considerable embarrassment; but, after the vote to which the House had come, he could not think of offering any opposition to the carrying of it into effect."["No, no."] He was ready to accept the explanation of the noble Lord, but those were the words, as he recollected them. He would make but one other observation, which was, that he trusted the Ministry would well consider the consequences of the proceeding of which they had given notice. Other Motions for rescinding the decisions of the House would be made. He, for one, was disposed, if such a principle was adopted, to move that the Resolutions come to upon his Motion a few evenings ago be rescinded, and he called upon the Government to pause before they opened so wide a door. He did not agree with the hon. member for Lambeth, that former Houses of Commons had been degraded, but what, he would ask, would be thought of the dignity and character of the present House if it should rescind its solemn decision at the command of the Minister? He was quite satisfied that the proceeding, if adopted, would lead to great changes in the proceedings of the House, and he dreaded the manner in which it was likely to be received by the country at large. He dreaded the operation of such conduct with regard to the reduction of a tax. He again called on the noble Lord to consider well the consequences to which his Motion, if adopted, would lead.

Mr. Benett

confirmed, from his own recollection, the explanation already made by Lord Althorp of the meaning and terms of his statement on Friday night.

Mr. Hall Dare

said, he had not had the good fortune to be present on Friday night, but he concurred with the hon. member for Wolverhampton, that after the decision on that night, notwithstanding the explanation of the noble Lord as to his meaning on that particular question, it would be a bad precedent if an attempt were made to rescind a vote to which the House had deliberately come. The noble Lord had called upon the House to look with their eyes open on the alternative he would present them. As an independent Member of the House, he was prepared to look at the subject with his eyes open. He was prepared to vote for a property tax, and to consider the existing taxation of the country, for he believed that a Property tax was the most equitable tax, it being but just that those who had property to protect should contribute principally to the exigences of the State. He agreed with the hon. member for Lambeth that the reduction of the Malt-tax would place Ministers under the necessity of providing some other tax in its stead. It was necessary that the revenue should be maintained, that faith should be kept with the public creditor, and that the establishments of the country should also be maintained. Looking, however, at our foreign policy, at the state of our foreign relations, at the state of the East of Europe, at our West India Colonies, and at the unfortunate state of Ireland—looking at all these interests, he thought the noble Lord could not dispense with the present amount of revenue. He was perfectly ready to vote for a Property-tax as a substitute for the Malt-tax. As to the Malt-tax, he should, if he had been present on Friday evening, have voted for the Motion of the hon. Baronet; but he should have done so with regret, as he only considered it a half measure. He, for one, was ready to reduce the whole of the Malt-tax, and substitute a Property-tax in its stead. He agreed with the hon. member for Oldham in the opinion, that if they reduced the tax 10s. the quarter, the reduction in price would only be from 60s. to 50s.; whereas if they took off the whole of the duty, it would be reduced in price to 20s. He, for one, should be perfectly prepared to vote for the alternative suggested by the noble Lord.

Mr. Baring

, as far as he was concerned, would not give encouragement to further discussion on the Malt-tax; but having been one of those who thought it fit to vote in favour of the reduction of the Malt-duty, he thought it proper to say, that the declaration of the noble Lord, as it struck him, might have been taken by hon. Gentlemen either to mean one thing or the other. He meant in what he said, and which had excited such merriment, that the noble Lord, when he declared he should abide by the resolution, meant that he either would not negative it on the question being a second time put from the Chair, or that Government would abide by it. The declaration might, without stretch, have been interpreted either way, but no Gentleman could suppose that the noble Lord meant, without consultation with his colleagues, to bind Government as to the course they would take on so important a question. The noble Lord had given his notice for to-morrow, and what the noble Lord proposed was, "would they have the repeal of the Malt-tax, and the House and Window tax, and were they prepared to take, in substitution of them, a tax on property and income"—not a tax on property alone, or income alone, but a tax on property and income? Undoubtedly that was a question most important for the country to consider, and if he had any objection to it, it was the short notice that had been given of it. He was perfectly aware that the case might be considered one of pressure, and especially as the worthy Alderman's Motion stood for to-morrow. But the question had never been fairly put to the House, and, with most unfeigned sincerity he would say, that he could not see how it could properly be discussed at so short a warning. With great reluctance should he be brought within twenty-four hours' notice, to determine a question of such conclusive importance to the future happiness and prosperity of the country. It would be most necessary to consult the opinions of their constituents and the country upon it. He was bound to say he never saw much wisdom in a commutation of taxes. He always thought that such propositions were altogether visionary, and replete with danger, mischief, and loss, especially where there were great, multifarious, and complicated interests to be taken into consideration, as was the case in this country. He complained, then, that within twenty-tour hours' notice, the House was to be brought to a division on this most important subject. In fact, bethought that the reduction of the Malt-tax, for which he voted on Friday, might have been afforded without bringing on the necessity of entertaining the question of a commutation of taxes; but even allowing that it were put to him distinctly, would he have the Malt-duty reduced and the Property-tax imposed, or the malt duty be left alone, he should certainly say, leave the Malt-duty alone, and spare him the infliction of a Property-tax.

Sir Robert Peel

said, he should follow the example of his hon. friend, and postpone giving any detailed opinion upon the great question which was to come on for discussion tomorrow night till the proper time arrived. He would observe, however, with respect to the event which had brought on the present discussion, that if he had been present on Friday night, which accident alone prevented him from being, he should have given his most decided opposition to the proposition for reducing the Malt-tax. He should have done so, not because he did not entertain a sincere desire to see that tax abated, if possible, but because he should have looked forward to the consequences of a partial abatement of that tax, and to its bearing on the question of the Corn-laws, and upon the question of the substitution of a Property-tax, which latter measure would consitute of itself a complete revolution in the financial system of the country. He, for one, would not consent to inflict an injury upon the public creditor by voting for the repeal of any one tax until he felt assured of obtaining a substitute for it. With regard to the success of establishing a Property and Income-tax in substitution of other taxes, he entertained very serious doubts. He did not mean to say, that virtually to rescind in one night a vote to which the House had come on another was a course free from evil, but he thought that a far greater evil would result from the maintenance of the doctrine that questions of such immense importance should be finally determined by a House consisting of only half the number of the whole House. He knew not for what all the regulations for the conduct of business in the House were established, with regard to the different stages which a measure must pass through, if they were not meant to guard against the House being taken by surprise. In the present case, however, he was bound to say there had been no surprise; he was of opinion, on the contrary, that hon. Members ought to have been present in the discharge of their duty. But then the regulations of the House to which he had alluded were intended, not only to guard against surprise, but also against sudden impulses, under which head he must include the decision which had formed the subject of the present discussion. The course he meant to adopt with respect to the question of the imposition of a Property-tax might probably be inferred from the opinions he had already expressed, but feeling that question to be one of immense importance, and one involving considerations of great magnitude, he should abstain until it was fairly before the House from entering into a discussion upon its merits.

Lord Althorp

said, that an hon. friend of his had objected to the shortness of the notice he had given for the Motion he intended to submit to the House; but if his hon. friend considered the situation in which the affairs of the country would be placed while the decision of such a question stood over, he was sure he would not think the notice too short. In the Resolution which he had read to the House he had distinctly stated that the imposition of a Property-tax would be at present inexpedient.

Lord Sandon

assured the noble Lord that if he had stated the considerations on Friday last which he had that night submitted to the House, a different conclusion would, no doubt, have been come to. He would take that opportunity, as a sincere friend of the present Government and an advocate for their remaining in office, of entreating them to come forward more frequently and state more at large their views on great public questions, especially as there were so many new Members in the House, who, of course, were not very well acquainted with the bearing of such questions as older Members.

Lord Ebrington

said, that the hon. Gentleman opposite could not have heard the speech of his noble friend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on the occasion to which he had alluded, or he would have found that his noble friend distinctly said that the imposition of a Property-tax was inexpedient. Although he so understood his noble friend, he yet wished that his noble friend had expressed himself with more clearness on the subject. He did not think, however, his expressions had been so ambiguous as to bear the construction which had been put upon them.

On the Question that the Speaker leave the Chair—