HC Deb 19 June 1834 vol 24 cc551-60

Sir E. Knatchbull moved the Order of the Day for the House to resolve itself into Committee on the sale of Beer Act Amendment Bill.

The House went into Committee.

Sir Edward Knatchbull moved, as an amendment on the second clause, the following enactment:—"That from and after the commencement of this Act, it shall be lawful for the Commissioners of Excise, or other persons duly authorized to grant licenses for the sale of Beer, Ale, Porter, Cider, or Perry, under the provisions of the said recited Act, to any person applying for the same, but that such license shall not authorize the persons obtaining it to sell Beer, Ale, Porter, Cider, or Perry, to be drunk or consumed in the house or on the premises."

The original Clause was struck out, and the one proposed by Sir Edward Knatchbull put from the Chair.

Mr. Warburton

said, on a former occasion he had objected to the principle of this Bill, on the ground of the inequality of its operation. This clause provided, that licences should be granted to persons to sell beer, but prohibited the drinking of it on the premises where it was sold. In his opinion, it would be quite ineffective; and in proof of that view of the case, he would appeal to the experience of the House with reference to the effects produced by the Bill, which authorized the sale of cider to be drunk off the premises. The law was evaded in a variety of ways; greater irregularities were produced than before existed, when cider was permitted to be drunk on the premises. The immorality which was occasioned by beer being consumed on the premises would not be put an end to by the prohibition; and he was of opinion, if this immorality should exist, it was much better to screen it from the public eye. What would be the effect of the proposed clause? Why, the retailer of beer would have an understanding with some one in the neighbourhood, and beer would be taken to a distance and drunk there; thus the consumption of beer would be the same, with this difference, that it would be consumed in private and retired places, instead of being drunk in a public place, and under the eye of the public and the magistracy. No legislation could prevent this; and be should, therefore, move as an Amendment, "that so much of the clause as prohibited Beer being drunk on the premises where it was sold, be expunged."

Major Handley

admitted, that the Amendment which had been proposed by the hon. member for Kent, was a great improvement to the Bill; but as he viewed it merely as a ruse, he should support the Amendment of his hon. friend, the member for Bridport. He contended, that the same argument which was used when the Bill to authorize the sale of Beer was passed, with regard to the vested rights of those whose property was said to be affected by it, applied equally to the private rights of those numerous persons who had embarked in the beer-trade under the new law. Those rights were entitled to the consideration and protection of Parliament; and, being of opinion this clause was a gross violation of them, he should give his opposition to the clause.

Mr. Parrott

should also support the Amendment of the hon. member for Bridport. The system of licensing had always been abused, and always would be. He knew of a case, as a Magistrate, where applications had been made to the Magistrates for licenses by three persons; two of them, who were high churchmen, obtained their licenses; the third, who was a Dissenter, was refused. It ought to be left to the same open competition that existed in every other trade; but this clause would have the effect of shutting up almost all the beer-houses in the country, and, as a consequence, the sellers of porter would have an opportunity of increasing the price of porter 2d. a-pot. He was sure, that the hon. Baronet was a friend to the farmer; but another of the effects of this Bill would be, to lessen the price of barley 5s. a-quarter. The annual consumption of barley would be reduced to 500,000 qrs., and, consequently, an injury to the revenue would accrue, of 500,000l. The more he considered this Bill, the more he felt convinced it would have the most pernicious effects. He would, therefore, give it every opposition in his power.

Mr. Tennyson

said, he should give this Bill all the support in his power. The great objects of the Bill for the sale of Beer, which were to produce a free competition, and to give a cheap and wholesome beverage, had signally failed. So far from free competition being impeded by this Bill, he contended it would be increased; because it held out inducements for every person keeping a shop in a town or village, to make beer, and sell it to the labouring man the same as he sold any other article of consumption. Hon. Members had said, this Bill would be productive of great mischief; but whatever that mischief might be, he was sure it could not equal the injurious and demoralizing effects which had been produced all over the country by the operation of the Sale of Beer Act. He thanked the hon. member for Kent for having introduced such a measure, as he was convinced it would tend to cure the dreadful evils which had resulted from the present system. He knew, that he was treading upon unpopular ground; but he felt himself bound in justice and in honour, to give his opposition to a measure that had gone far to demoralize the people of this country. It was his intention to move, that for the future no more beer-houses be licensed beyond the present 33,000 already licensed. He would recommend the House to rest at the clause of the hon. member for Kent, but at the same time he thought some protection should be afforded to the 33,000 whose vested rights, as they were termed, would be affected by the Bill.

Mr. Slaney

was of opinion, the case had been overstated on both sides. The system had been heretofore a comparatively close one: it was subsequently opened: and now the country, from one end to the other, rang with complaints of the evils produced by the sudden re-action. There never was an opinion more general—even in reference to the comforts and happiness of the poorer classes themselves—than that some change in the present Beer Act was absolutely necessary. The question then was, what was that change to be? He was a member of the Parliamentary Committee which sat to investigate the operation of the sale of Beer Act; and he could safely say, that the greatest bearing of the evidence adduced on it, was decidedly favourable to an alteration in the present law as it now stood. The evidence before the Committee, also, showed, that in large towns, the operation of the Act had been highly beneficial; for it had produced the effect of lowering the second necessary of life to the working classes one-sixth, or at least one-eighth. No doubt the first operation of the Act on towns was to cause a flush of drunkenness among the people; but its permanent effect was, and would be, undoubtedly, to supersede ardent spirits, which would be a blessing to the country. But in rural districts, with a bad police and thinly inhabited, its effects were the direct contrary; association led to indulgence in the pernicious liquor, generally supplied by the monopolizing brewers, and indulgence led to debauchery and every kind of crime. He admitted it would be very unreasonable to shut up all the shops in the country districts; but if any measure could be enacted which would have the effect of taking away all the objectionable ones among them, and leaving only the respectable and well-conducted, could any one say it would not be an improvement of the system, and a service to the country? This he firmly believed the Bill of his hon. friend, the member for East Kent, would effect: for in rural districts it would be impossible for any man to get a certificate who was of a bad character, and the clause rating applicants up to 10l. a-year at least would have the effect of insuring good character. If, however, this Bill should not be found sufficiently stringent, by the next session of Parliament, when its operation should have been tried, the House would be enabled to pass a stricter measure.

Mr. Henry Handley

regretted, that the hon. member for Lambeth had altered his notice of Motion at the eleventh hour. He (Mr. Handley) was satisfied, that of the 33,000 beer-houses in the agricultural districts, very few would be swept away by the present Bill. That evils had arisen out of the law as it now stood was undeniable; and he was of opinion, that it had effected none of its contemplated objects. For instance, beer was no better and no cheaper than before it passed, and the monopoly of the great brewers was not in the slightest degree injured. When the amendment of his hon. friend the member for Lambeth should be disposed of, he (Mr. Handley) should propose another, to the effect of limiting the consumption of beer on the premises.

Mr. Fysche Palmer

said, the evidence taken before the Beer Committee, and the reports founded on it, were worth nothing at all. The evidence was really the most absurd that had ever been given before any committee, and that of some of his brother Magistrates most especially so. Every crime in the calendar was traced by them to the Beer Bill; sheep stealing was never heard of before; in fact, no vice, no demoralization was ever known in the country, according to their opinions, until the Beer Bill came into operation. He confessed, he did not think the evidence of persons who viewed the matter through such a medium, was much to be regarded by that House. The House had had some experience of what might be expected from prohibiting the consumption of beer on the premises. It was well known, that when the prohibition existed, beer was purchased at one house, and the people met at another and drank it; benches were placed even by the roadside, a plot of ground was staked round with hurdles, not more than twenty yards from the beer-shop, and there the beer was consumed. Could the consumption of beer on the premises, he asked, be attended with worse effects than these? On the contrary, he was convinced, that, under proper regulations, it would be attended with very great advantage to the lower orders. By means of this Bill, those who, on the faith of the Beer Act, had expended their little capital on beer-shops, would be utterly ruined; and thus not alone would injustice be done to them, but the country would also be injured by the additional amount of pauperism with which it would certainly be burthened. If they were to be dispossessed of their holdings, they should at least get time to dispose of their property, and convert it into money. It had been said, the beer was no better under the present system than it was under the old one. He denied the fact most positively; he frequently tasted the beer himself; and he asserted, that it was a great deal better in quality; and the reason was obvious. He would state, as a proof of this assertion, a circumstance which occurred in the county of Berks. Under the old system, it was the practice of all the great brewers, within a tract of country comprehending forty miles in width, and fifty in length, to meet once every week, to determine what the price and quality of the beer should be for the next week; and the contract which was then entered into was never known to be broken. A stranger could never get in among them; and the consequence was, that the people had to drink the worst beverage that ever was brewed. The brewers all made fortunes, because nobody else could obtain a living by the sale of beer in that district. He should, therefore, strongly oppose the present measure, because he believed it to be a great injustice to those who had embarked all their property under the belief that they would be protected by the Legislature, and because he considered many of the evils of the old system would be renewed.

Sir George Strickland

concurred, that the present Bill would be productive of great injury, and inflict gross injustice on those who had vested their capital in beer-houses, and should, therefore, give the clause his decided opposition.

Mr. Ayshford Sanford

contended, that no injury would be done to those who kept beer-houses by the operation of this clause; it did not prevent them from selling beer; it only gave permission to others to sell beer to be consumed off the premises. He thought the present Bill would remedy many of the great evils produced by the Beer Act, and should, therefore give it all the support in his power.

Mr. Heathcote

considered the proposition of the hon. member for Kent the most preferable. Its effect would be, to get rid, not so much of the Beer Bill, itself, as the evils that had been produced by its operation. That those evils had prevailed throughout the country to a most alarming extent, he apprehended no man would deny. He should therefore vote for the clause which had been substituted by the hon. Baronet the member for Kent.

Mr. Guest

said, the injurious effects produced by the Beer Bill were undoubtedly very great in the agricultural districts, but they had increased in a tenfold degree in the populous districts, and in manufacturing towns. The beer could not be worse than it was now; but it might be greatly improved. It was his intention to support the clause.

Mr. Parker

was determined to vote for the clause proposed by the hon. Baronet; but at the same time he did not feel satisfied in doing so without some provision being made for the vested rights of those whose property would be very much injured if the Bill passed into a law. They heard a great deal in that House about the vested rights of the rich man, while those of the poor man were passed by unheeded. As much respect, however, was due from that House to the one as the other, and he should propose a separate clause to the House, to secure the vested interests of those whose property would be affected if this Bill passed into a law.

Mr. Cayley

should give his support to the Amendment of the hon. member for Bridport. He could not help observing, at the same time, that vested rights were not so much mixed up with the consideration of this question as had been supposed by many hon. Members.

Mr. Robert Palmer

said, that of all the measures that had ever passed that House he believed the Beer Bill had been productive of the greatest evils. In corroboration of what he stated, he would only refer to numerous petitions he himself had presented from grand juries, magistrates, clergymen, farmers, and many labourers themselves, all in condemnation of the Bill, and praying that it might be repealed. It had been very generally supposed, that the Magistrates wished the present system to be abolished, in the hope of gaining some of the power it was said they had lost by it. He denied that such was the case. It was well known, that the duties they had to perform in licensing public-houses were of a most unpleasant character, and subjected them to great inconvenience. He would refer to the charges pronounced by the Judges to the Grand Juries in all parts of the country, to show that those learned persons attributed a great deal of the crime that had increased to such an alarming extent, to the injurious effects of the beer-houses. He was persuaded, that the greater portion of the evils produced by this measure were owing to the consumption of beer which took place upon the premises where it was sold; and until that could be proved to be a benefit to the country, he should give the clause of the hon. Baronet, prohibiting such consumption, his hearty support.

Mr. Potter

observed, that the complaints had been very loud and frequent on the demoralizing effects which had been pro- duced by the sale of beer; but he believed, that where one had been demoralized by the use of beer, ten had been demoralized by the use of ardent spirits.

Mr. Wilks

said, that notwithstanding all that had been said with regard to the injurious effects produced by the Beer Bill in agricultural districts, only sixty-seven petitions had been presented, signed by 10,240 persons, during the present Session of Parliament, while those presented for the abolition of slavery, and the redress of grievances of the Dissenters, amounted to five or six times that number. He contended, that the only object of this Bill was, to obtain for the Magistrates a restoration of that power they had lost by the Beer Bill. To show what had been the effects of the licensing system, he would only refer to what had been stated by the hon. member for Lambeth on a former occasion. A house situate in the parish of Lambeth that produced a rent of only 50l. a-year before it was licensed, was sold for 5,500l. immediately after the license was obtained. The House had been told, that the Beer Bill had been productive of a great increase of crime. It was easy to make those bold declarations, but it was difficult to support them by facts. The very reverse was the fact. In the county of Essex in the year 1831, before the Beer Bill came into operation, the number of convictions at the Sessions amounted to 368, and at the Assizes to 172. In the year 1832, which was the period when the Bill was in operation, the number of the convictions at the Sessions was 298, and at the Assizes they were only 88. This statement, therefore, showed a diminution of one-half. He appealed to facts rather than assertions; and he trusted the former would weigh with the House rather than the latter. If this clause should pass, he would propose another clause to the consideration of the House, to the effect that the two first clauses of this Bill should not operate on existing establishments, so long as the premises were occupied by the same parties.

Mr. Benett

said, he was formerly one of the supporters of the Sale of Beer Act, but he was now fully convinced of the evils it had produced in the country. He thought the proposition of the hon. Baronet would remedy many of the evils produced by the operation of that measure, and he should therefore support it.

Mr. Mark Philips

thought it desirable there should be some check on the parties who kept the beer-houses. He knew that, in some of the manufacturing districts, many of the proprietors of these houses were actually receiving parochial relief at the time they kept them. In any alteration, however, that should be effected, respect ought to be paid to the vested rights of the parties affected by it.

Mr. Briscoe

gave his support to the proposition of the hon. member for Kent, because he was of opinion, it would increase the consumption of beer, and be the means of producing a beverage of a much better quality, and at a more reasonable price.

Major Beauclerk

thought, that the greatest respect should be paid to the interests of those poor persons who had embarked all the property they possessed to obtain a livelihood by the means this Bill had held out to them.

Mr. Hume

said, as the House was legislating for poor persons, they ought to consider their wants with reference to the situation they held in society. Suppose a House of Commons composed of such persons who principally consumed the beer at these houses, the first thing they would do would be to put down club-houses, because they encouraged gambling: they would not do anything that would curtail their own enjoyments. He put it, therefore, to the House whether they would consent to deprive the poor man of the little enjoyment he obtained at the beershop after his work was concluded. He believed this clause was a great encroachment on the freedom of the poor, and therefore he should support the Amendment.

Sir J. Sebright

said, that persons of every class in the county he had the honour to represent united in reprobating the Sale of Beer Act measure. He had presented petitions from a great many of the labourers themselves, setting forth the evils it had produced, and he pledged himself to present a petition to that House that should be signed by every labouring man in one of the districts in the country, praying that the law should be immediately repealed.

Sir E. Knatchbull

briefly replied. He believed, that his plan would be the only remedy for the evils which the demoralizing measure it was intended to amend had produced throughout the whole country.

The Committee divided on Mr. Warburton's Amendment—Ayes 23; Noes 141; Majority 118.

List of the AYES.
Aglionby, H. O'Reilly, W.
Attwood, T. Palmer, C. F.
Bainbridge, E. T. Parrott, J.
Beauclerk, Major Potter, R.
Blackburne, J. Roche, D.
Codrington, Sir E. Scholefield, J.
Fielden, J. Strickland, Sir G.
Gaskell, D. Trelawney, W. L.
Godson, R. Walter, J.
Grote, G. Wilks, J.
Handley, B.
Lowther, Lord Warburton, H.

The House resumed—the Committee to sit again.

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