HC Deb 19 May 1835 vol 27 cc1236-41
Mr. Divett

, after presenting Petitions from the Licensed Victuallers of Exeter, Stockport, South Shields, and various other Places, praying for the Repeal of the Additional Duty on Spirit Licenses, observed, that he intended to move, that the Act by which that additional duty was imposed, and which he was sure the House would never have passed if they could have anticipated the extensive injury and oppression it had led to, should be taken into consideration in a Committee of the whole House. It would be in the recollection of the House, that under the 6th George 4th, cap. 81, a scale of duty was imposed on spirit-houses, commencing with houses rated under 10l., and ending with houses rated at 50l., all houses rated above that sum paying no increased duty. During the last Session, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer stated, that an additional duty might be imposed on retail spirit-dealers with advantage to the revenue; and he succeeded in persuading the House, that he should be able to raise the amount of duty to the extent of 167,000l. He believed that the noble Lord was mistaken in his calculations. He believed that the increased tax would be found to have the effect of diminishing the revenue, and of encouraging in a very great degree, the practice of smuggling. He was aware that it had been the feeling on the part of former Governments, that the licensed victuallers were a class of people from whom any amount of taxation might be exacted; but in his opinion, they were entitled to as much protection as other traders. Certain it was, however, that no class had been subject to similar taxation. He was aware that he should be met by his right hon. Friend (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) with a statement, that the amount of taxation which would be taken off by the success of his Motion, would be more than the Exchequer could bear. It so happened that a very large number of occupants of houses rented under 10l. a-year, a number not less than 38,500 in round numbers, paid for a spirit license at the rate of two guineas each, and he was sure that the continuance of the duty would throw the trade into the hands, either of the great spirit-shops, or a class of persons who would act in defiance of the law. He would read an extract from a letter which he had received a short time since from a constituent of his own who was formerly in the Excise, perfectly conversant with the circumstances connected with the trade, and on whose statement he could place the most perfect reliance, a gentleman who had given very valuable evidence before the Committee of which his hon. Friend, the Member for Dundee, was the Chairman. The hon. Member then read the extract referred to, the substance of which was, that a public-house, called the Butchers' Arms, rented at 20l. a-year, formerly paid six guineas for a spirit-license, but under the present system it was raised, on a change of occupation, to fifteen guineas, while the large houses could never be taxed at a ratio exceeding fifty per cent. He acquitted his noble Friend, the late Chancellor of the Exchequer, of any intention to oppress the trade by this alteration in the system, but he contended it had that effect. The duty fell heaviest on that class of houses where a license was taken out, not for the sake of selling a great amount of spirits, but for the purpose of occasionally accommodating a customer, by letting him have a glass of gin or rum-and-water. As to the loss to be sustained by the Exchequer, he fully believed that if they recurred to the old state of the law on this head, looking at it as a mere question of revenue, the loss would be little or nothing. The hon. Member concluded by moving, "That the House should resolve itself into a Committee of the whole House, to consider the operation of 4th and 5th William 4th, cap. 75, which increased the amount of the duty on spirit-licenses fifty per cent, and of the Statute 6th George 4th, cap. 31."

Lord Sandon

seconded the Motion. He principally objected to the present system, on account of the gross inequality with which the tax operated. He was not opposed abstractedly to a tax upon spirits. As a luxury they might fairly be taxed, provided the tax did not press unequally, and the mode of collecting it were fair and impartial. He expressed a hope, that the right hon. Gentleman (the Chancellor of the Exchequer, would be induced to remove this grievance. As the hon. Member for Exeter had gone sufficiently into the details of the Question, it would be less necessary for him to enter upon it at length, and he should therefore content himself with seconding the Motion of the hon. Member.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that it would be in the recollection of the House, that the right hon. Baronet who preceded him in the office he had the honour to hold, had estimated the probable surplus of the year to be 250,000l., and the next point to which he wished to direct their attention was, that if the proposition of his hon. Friend was adopted, no less than 150,000l., arising from the increased duty on spirit-licenses, would be lost to the revenue. Now, to that proposition, he for one was not prepared to accede. At a fit and proper time, he should be ready to examine the question of the propriety of equalizing the duty on spirit-licenses, but the present was not a suitable opportunity. The subject was, in fact, at the present moment, under the consideration of the Excise, and if he was sufficiently informed on the subject, he should not hesitate to enter upon it at once; but in the meantime he hoped the Mouse would agree with him in thinking, that there was nothing so ill-advised as to make an incomplete statement. He should endeavour to give his best attention to it, for a more difficult question, small as it was, could hardly be found. He begged therefore his hon. Friend would not press his Motion, but while he did so, and while he was prepared to state, that a scheme for equalizing the duty on spirit-licenses was under the consideration of the Government, he should be very sorry that it should go abroad, that it was the intention of Ministers, that anything more than the inequality should be removed. The Exchequer could not afford to part with 150,000l. collected from this source. By the way, he must remark, that in one respect his hon. Friend was in error, when he said that the calculation of the noble Lord (Althorp) when he laid on this tax had not been verified by the result. In no one instance did he remember, in any case a closer approach to realizing a calculation. He had stated the amount of the increased duty to be 150,000l., but the real amount for the first year was 163,000l., and the noble Lord in submitting the tax to the House had estimated the probable revenue from it at 167,000l. The tax therefore had yielded only 4,000l. less then his noble Friend's calculations. The great difficulty was to provide a substitute for that tax, and the great obstacle in the way of those who wished to commute taxation was, that they were pledged to the repeal of the tax, which they had once announced their intention to take off; but if, unfortunately, any new tax pressed heavily on any class, the next year they were asked to repeal that also. As to the Butchers' Arms, on a change of occupant the increased duty fell, not on the tenant, but the landlord. He had no more to say, but he trusted that the House would give him an opportunity of bringing forward the question under more advantageous circumstances than the present moment afforded.

Mr. Hume

said, that as the right hon. Gentleman seemed to wish to equalize the duty, he thought it would not be fair to press the Motion on the present occasion. He really thought, however, that the Bill for the increase of the duty was brought in under false pretences: the tax was not so much put on to increase the revenue, as to serve, as was supposed, the cause of morality by making spirits not so easily accessible.

Mr. Pryme

suggested the propriety of introducing a sort of scale by which a license duty might be imposed in proportion to the quantity of spirits sold or consumed by the publican. He would have the house which had sold a certain quantity during the year, to pay a certain duty. He trusted that, whatever was the plan of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, it would take away the inequality that existed. He was not contented with a diminution of the duty on spirits, because he conceived that if it could be done away with consistently with the prevention of smuggling, it would be difficult to say what duty should be laid on in its stead.

Mr. Charles Barclay

was extremely glad that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had taken up the subject, and he trusted that the right hon. Gentleman would afford relief to a most deserving class of persons. There was no class of persons taxed so heavily, in proportion to the trade they carried on, as those whose cause he was advocating; nineteen out of twenty public houses were let on long leases, and therefore all taxes affecting these houses fell on the occupiers.

Sir George Strickland

was gratified at hearing the declaration of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and he hoped that his Majesty's Ministers would come to the determination of getting rid of the present mode of levying this tax, as great excitement prevailed on the subject. The only satisfactory way of setting the question at rest was by charging for the licence in proportion to the quantity of spirits consumed.

Mr. Robinson

contended that it was not only the duty of the House to see that not more than was absolutely necessary was taken from the pockets of the people, but also that the taxes fell equally and fairly on all classes. The present duty was unequal and unfair, and therefore ought to be got rid of. The Chancellor of the Exchequer met that by saying, that he could not afford to give up any portion of the revenue. He was a perfect adept in the art of all his former predecessors in deprecating any interference on the part of this House with the peculiar duties of his office; but the right hon. Gentleman must excuse him, for observing, that if there was any one duty which they owed to their electors more than another, it was to take care that not only the taxes were not greater in amount than absolutely necessary; but that in their operation they were as equally distributed as possible. The whole of the fiscal system was founded upon a most vicious principle, viz.: not as to who are best able to pay the taxes, but in what way the Government can get the money with the greatest possible facility. But as the right hon. Gentleman had almost pledged himself, he hoped that the Member for Exeter would consent to withdraw his Motion, on the understanding that the right hon. Gentleman in some part of the Session would introduce a measure upon the subject. On the part of his constituents, he, for one, would not offer any objection, but rest perfectly satisfied with that arrangement.

Mr. Carruthers

was prepared to have voted for the motion, but after the declaration of the Chancellor of the Exchequer he did not feel called upon to do so. As a matter of justice, the present system of charging for licences, which was an innovation, should be got rid of.

Mr. Mark Phillips

supported the principle of the Motion, and trusted that relief would be afforded. At the same time as the subject was to be taken into consideration by his Majesty's Government, he would not go into the question which he was prepared to do, and to prove that the tax was most partial and most unjust.

Colonel Sibthorp

was by no means satisfied with the declaration of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as it appeared to him to be nothing more than the shadow of a promise. The present mode of charging the licence-duty was deeply injurious to the poorer classes of licensed victuallers, as well as to the innkeepers. He could not help feeling that the mode in which matters were then discussed in the House was very objectionable. They had been sitting for three months, and yet they had not done one single act to afford the least satisfaction to the country. Certainly the proceeding of reinstating their friends in office was anything but satisfactory to the country, notwithstanding any opinion Gentlemen opposite might entertain on the subject.

Mr. Hodges

wished also to bear his testimony to the general feeling that prevailed as to the unfairness of the present system.

Mr. Kelly

had not understood the right hon. Gentleman to promise to repeal the present duty on Spirit Licences either wholly or in part; he therefore hoped the hon. Member for Exeter would persevere in his Motion. This tax in some respects differed from any other. The question was not, whether they would repeal a tax which had existed for a long series of years, and which could not be got rid of without danger to the whole system of taxation; but whether they would repeal a tax which had recently been put on, and which ought never to have been imposed. This tax was not only partial in its operation, but it pressed on a class of persons already overburdened with taxation.

Mr. Divett

would, with permission of the House, withdraw his Motion, trusting to the known desire of his right hon. Friend to afford every practicable relief.

Motion withdrawn.