HC Deb 20 August 1833 vol 20 cc797-804

On the Motion, that the Sale of Beer Licences Bill be read a second time,

Mr. Warburton

said, the Bill was one which seriously affected the industrious classes of the community, and others whom hon. Members would have no opportunity of consulting upon a measure introduced at so late a period of the present Session. The Bill, it was true, came down from a Select Committee of the House, but the Report of that Committee strongly induced him to think that it was highly desirable to defer this Bill until the next Session of Parliament, for it was at complete variance in many points with the provisions contained in the Bill now under consideration, particularly as regarded the hours at which the beer-shops should be kept open, and other police regulations detailed in the report. The advanced period of the Session made it impossible that these points could be provided for in the Bill; and he was fully of opinion, that much benefit would accrue from deferring legislating on the subject until consideration could be fully given to all the alterations in the present law which the Select Committee had recommended. But he also objected to the Bill, because it would double the amount of duty, and in this way was nothing more than an indirect tax upon beer, for the produce of the increased license-duty to the revenue, he was told, would amount to 100,000l. per annum. He thought it was too much, when the Government, in communicating the details of the savings they had effected, should have taken credit for the reduction of the price of beer, and thus indirectly propose a new impost, as indisputably was the effect of this additional licence duty. He, however, waived all these topics, and was content to put his opposition on the ground that the Bill affected persons in an humble station of life, who could not be consulted at this late period of the Session on its provisions. Under all the circumstances he was distinctly of opinion, that acting upon the recommendation of the Select Committee, that the beer-shops should be put upon the same footing as to hours and police regulations, all of which it was at present impossible to carry into effect, the Bill ought to be deferred until the next Session; and he should therefore move, that the Bill be read a second time that day six months; and he did so without wishing to press the House to a division, but in the hope, that the noble Lord, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, would see the impracticability of pressing the Bill at present, and would consent to a postponement.

Mr. Spring Rice

confessed he could not answer the complaint of the hon. member for Bridport, that the Bill had been introduced at so late a period of the present Session, but any delay that had occurred in bringing in the Bill was attributable to the indisposition of his noble friend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, shortly after the Select Committee had made their Report. Admitting fully the late period at which the Bill was brought forward, he must observe, that the hon. member for Bridport had not dealt fairly with the provisions of this Bill, the objects of which were founded upon the opinion that it was better to fix a tax, even such as that which had been deprecated, than to leave the granting of licences to the loose arbitrium which prevailed at Quarter Sessions. The Bill had not been introduced on the ground or in consideration of any pecuniary result to the revenue, though he would admit, that this point could not be a matter of indifference. He also would admit, that, with respect to hours and police regulations, it was desirable that the beer-houses should be placed on the same footing as the public houses, and that a uniformity in this respect should be established. It was for the House to say what, even at this period of the Session, should be done with this Bill; but, whatever might be the fate of the measure, he was convinced, that if the Government had done nothing with the Report of the Select Committee when laid on the Table, they would have been open to obloquy; and if, again, the Government had consented to that which was recommended by many Magistrates for the regulation of the scale upon which houses should be licensed, the opposition to the measure would have been still stronger. As he had already said, whatever might be the fate of this Bill, he was unwilling that it should go forth without the explanation he had offered.

Mr. Cobbett

said, that, looking to the impossibility of passing the Bill that Session, and looking to the fact, that the noble Lord brought it forward to show that he wished to do something for the good of the public, he should say but a very few words upon the subject. The Bill was one of very great importance, as it affected millions of men, and in a very sensible way, too, since it touched upon their comforts. If the right hon. Gentleman thought that the evidence of the Report alluded to attributed the great increase of crime to the beer-shops, the right hon. Gentleman had not read the Report with the attention he (Mr. Cobbett) had read it. The evidence of that Report—excepting the evidence of one or two of the clergy and of two hired overseers—did not attribute the increase of crime to the beer-shops. There was another thing in the Report that ought not to have been published—it was a scandalous libel, and which might be made more offensive, since it could be copied with little danger. He alluded to the shameful evidence of an exciseman, which was one of the grossest libels he ever saw upon paper. The parties were named in the libel—they were two men and two women. The latter were accused of adultery, and the former were said to be partners in the crime, and their characters painted in the very worst light. He was not surprised that the prying, envious, and disappointed exciseman of a village should have given such evidence; but he was greatly astonished that the Committee should have allowed such evidence to be printed. In his opposition to the Bill he was completely disinterested. It would not affect him—it would lay no tax upon him; indeed the noble Lord could not tax him in the way of drink, unless he chose to lay a tax on cows' udders. He hoped that he should hear no more of the Bill for the present Session.

Mr. Fysche Palmer

said, that the opinions unfavourable to the present Beer Bill were not confined to the clergy alone. There were Gentlemen whom he had known for the last thirty or forty years who attributed to that Bill the increase of the crimes of sheep-stealing, poaching, and other offences. They said, that those crimes were not so frequent before the existing Beer Bill had passed into a law. If the hon. member for Oldham would look into the evidence of the Report of the Committee, he would find the names of the gentlemen he alluded to. That the present Bill made people drink somewhat more was not astonishing. By the Bill good beer was made more general; and when it was good, it did not give persons the stomach ache; and adding to that its being sold at a low price, it was not surprising, that a little more intoxication took place. However, he saw no further evils in the Bill, and he thought that a great deal that was said against its bad effects arose out of an angry feeling on the part of his fellow Magistrates. Beer-sellers could get licences without applying to the Magistrates—they could obtain them from the Excise—so that they were not so subservient to the Magistrates, and passed them without condescending to take off their hats to them. This feeling of independence and lack of courtesy was the cause of angry feelings on the part of his brother Magistrates; and he believed that the beer-shops were allowed by the Magistrates to run riot and become mischievous, in order that there might be an excuse for putting them down. If the measure before them were allowed to pass, nine-tenths of the beer-shops would be put down, because it would be impossible for them to get the six sureties required, in order to have a licence. If the six sureties were taken from all England, it would be possible to get them, but two were to be of the parish in which the beer-shop was to be opened; and he would be prepared to show in Committee, if the Bill should reach that stage, that it would be impossible to get those two sureties. The influence of any neighbouring Gentleman or nobleman would prevent it. He thought, that if the noble Lord let matters stand as they did until next year, that the small country beer-shops, which were the chief causes of crime, would die off. He should, therefore, though reluctantly, vote against the second reading of the Bill.

Mr. Tower

supported the Bill, in common with the Grand Jurors of the county with which he was connected, he conceived the effects of the existing law to be most pernicious, and he was satisfied that on sound principles of Legislation the present Bill could not he objected to, inasmuch as it would work injustice upon no individual.

Mr. Ewart

concurred with the hon. member for Bridport, that so important a Bill as that under consideration should not be pressed forward at the present advanced stage of the Session.

Colonel Williams

supported the Bill, and expressed a hope that the Government would persevere in pressing it forward during the present Session, as it would have the effect of putting down nine-tenths of the beer shops now in existence under the present law—"a consummation," in his judgment, "most devoutly to be wished." He, however, thought the Bill would not be complete without the addition he purposed proposing in the Committee, to prevent the consumption of beer upon the premises.

Lord George Bentinck

said, that the Report of the Poor-law Commissioners, which attributed the riots and outrages of the year 1830 to the beer-shops, was alone sufficient to call for some legislative interference with regard to their regulation. He trusted the noble Lord (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) would not abandon the present Bill.

Lord Hotham

bore testimony to the liberal spirit which had been manifested by the Select Committee on whose Report the Bill had been introduced, and contended, that even the evidence of the three clergymen of the Church of England referred to by the hon. member for Oldham was sufficient to justify some change in the law. If the measure was persevered in, he should give it his support, though he thought it would have been more desirable that it should have been submitted to a fuller House than was at present collected.

Lord Althorp

said, that since the passing of the Act respecting beer-shops he had not, owing to his occupation with official business, had an opportunity of acquiring practical information on the subject. He must say, however, that according to all the information which had reached him, it was plain that however the statements might be highly coloured or exaggerated in some instances, there could be no doubt that universally, in all parts of the country, the increase that had taken place in crime had been attributed to the beer-shops. Under such circumstances, the question was, whether the present system of beer-shops did not require some alteration and regulation. During the last two Sessions, though great complaints had been made with regard to the effects of the Beer Bill, he (Lord Althorp) had opposed the making any alteration in it, conceiving that it was due to it, as an experimental measure, to wait and see whether the evils which were attributed to the operation of it might not ultimately disappear. But, now that they had had the benefit of experience on the subject, and that it was found that those evils, instead of diminishing, had greatly increased, it appeared to him, that Parliament was bound to provide a remedy by adopting some measure for the better regulation of those beer-shops. He greatly regretted, that, in consequence of the late period at which the Committee that had been appointed on this subject had made their Report, the present measure of Government had been brought forward at such an advanced period of the Session, that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, should it be opposed, to carry it through in the present Session. He was anxious to state the grounds on which he thought that the principle of this measure should be now affirmed by the House. The Committee took a very correct view as to the remedy for the evil which now existed, when they proposed that the station in society of the persons to whom licenses for keeping those beer-shops were granted should be raised somewhat above its present level, but the manner in which they recommended the House to arrive at that desirable end appeared to him to be by no means a practicable one. They recommended that the amount of the rate should be made the test for granting or refusing a licence. Now, it was evident, that the same amount of rate in a country district might be much higher in proportion than a similar amount in a town district, and it was also well known, that in different parts of the country, the rates were extremely different. The mode recommended by the Committee, if adopted, would allow the Magistrates in different parts of the country to fix the rates, and the consequence would be, that, in a great number of districts, the option of licensing those houses would be left altogether in the hands of the Magistrates. He did think that the power of licensing those beer-shops was much too large, too extensive, and too important a one to be committed to the hands of the Magistrates. It was upon that principle that the late Government had introduced the Beer Bill, which he then advocated as a measure for opening the trade in beer. In the Committee which sat upon that Bill, he had endeavoured to persuade the members of it to recommend to the House some measure for regulating the power of licensing; but on finding, when the Bill came back to the House, that the Government had made up their minds that no such power of regulation should be adopted, as he wished well to the measure, he thought it better not to oppose it, or to throw any impediments in the way of its passing. The great difficulty was, to provide a good mode of regulation, that would insure the comparative respectability of the persons keeping those shops, while it would not interfere with the freedom of the trade. The test, then, that this measure proposed was, that the persons applying for licence to open those shops should give security to pay any penalties that might be imposed on them. It was conceived, that that was not a hard condition to impose upon them. With a view to raise the station of such persons, the present Bill proposed that a high amount of licence duty should be demanded from them. That might not be perhaps so advisable a mode for accomplishing that object as taking the amount of rate paid by them, but, for the reasons he had already stated, it would be absolutely impossible to fix its amount. He was persuaded that, in a great many districts, the raising the amount of the licence duty would be attended with the best effects. He was anxious to see the principle of this Bill at all events affirmed by the House on the present occasion, by its assenting to the second reading of it. He should speak hypocritically if, supposing that there was any opposition to be offered to the measure, he should say, that there was any possibility of passing it this Session, All he desired was, that the House would affirm the principle of the Bill now, in order that when regulations with regard to beer-shops should be proposed next Session, this decision of the House might be appealed to in support of them. It would be the imperative duty of Parliament to legislate on the subject next Session, and, by affirming the principle of this Bill now, the House would only decide that some alteration in the law was absolutely necessary. It was on these grounds and for these reasons that he wished the House to agree to the second reading of the Bill.

Mr. Lloyd

would recommend the postponement of the measure until next Session, there were so many objectionable provisions in it. Without wishing at all to disparage those Magistrates who had given evidence before the Committee, he could not avoid saying that their evidence exhibited a singular character of one-sidedness, and of jumping to conclusions by no means warranted by the premises. Poaching they said had increased—rick-burning had increased—crime, in short, of all kinds had increased, and the whole was attributable to the estab- lishment of beer-shops! On cross examination, indeed, those witnesses acknowledged that wages had been lowered, and that pauperism had increased, and that the poor rates had increased. So here was ample cause to account for the increase of crime without applying to the post hoc, ergo propler hoc, principle to the beer-shops for an explanation of the phenomenon. The truth was, that the witnesses, with an absurdity which they did not seem to perceive, charged all the increase of crime to the reduction that had taken place in the price of beer. Now, with regard to the alleged increase of crime, he could state that, in the county of Chester, crime had materially diminished, as was evidenced by the Assizes during the last year. He believed that the same fact had been made apparent at most of the Assizes throughout the country. Of this, at all events, he was sure—that taking into account the increase that had taken place in the population of the country, taking into account the increase of pauperism, and of general distress, there had been, comparatively speaking, a decrease in the amount of crime throughout the country. But to attribute any increase of crime that might be alleged to have taken place to beer-shops, and beer-shops alone, was, to say the least of it, a most fallacious assumption.

Bill read a second time; to be committed that day month.