HC Deb 02 March 1837 vol 36 cc1189-96
Mr. Robinson

, in pursuance of the notice he had given, rose to present a petition for the repeal of the duty on marine assurances, from merchants, ship owners, underwriters, and insurance agents of London. He had, he said, also to submit a resolution upon this subject. The petition, coming, as it did, from the intelligence, respectability, and wealth of the city of London, connected with the trade, commerce, and navigation of the country, supported also by petitions from England, Ireland, and Scotland, and from all the large trading and manufacturing towns of the kingdom, he was certain would have great weight with the House. In bringing forward the motion of which he had given notice, for the gradual diminution of stamp duties upon marine policies, he had, he considered, a right to advert to the petitions presented last year upon that subject. To prove the impolicy of this tax, the discouragement it inflicted upon British insurances, and how much it tended to promote successful foreign competition, he observed that in 1810 the amount of imports and exports was 80,707,823l., upon which the stamp duty on marine policies was 414,205l.;and at present, when the imports and exports were 125,396,225l., so far from the stamp duty on marine policies being on the increase, it had dwindled down from 414,205l. to 219,000l. What was the case in Ham burgh and other cities which coped with this country in the same branch of trade? In Ham burgh, the amount paid for marine policies in 1814 was 41,791,000 marcs ban co, and in 1835 it increased to 195,233,000. In Amsterdam, the amount paid in 1810 was 36,450,000 francs, in 1835 it increased to 82,820,000. In Antwerp, the amount was 741,120l. in1821, and the increase in 1835 to 1,200,000l. There had been a great increase in other countries, while the tax was dwindling away so much in this as now to be hardly an object to the revenue. He considered that the right hon. Gentle- man, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had furnished him with an irresistible argument upon this subject, should, indeed, that right hon. Gentleman be now disposed to offer any opposition to his motion. Last year the right hon. the Chancellor of the Exchequer took credit to himself for having adopted the suggestion of the right hon. the President of the Board of Trade, when he addressed that House in the year 1830. Upon that occasion, the President of the Board of Trade commented upon the impolicy of the duty on marine insurances. He then observed that the stamp duties on marine policies amounted to 282,000/.,when the tonnage was 3,935,000l. In 1826 the stamp duties on sea policies amounted to only 219,000/., though the tonnage had increased to 5,154,000l. In consequence of this impolitic course, the insurances went away to Holland and America, where the premiums, including the duty, were less. So convinced was Lord Althorp, when Chancellor of the Exchequer, of the impolicy of this tax, that he made some reduction in it—a reduction which that noble Lord calculated would affect the revenue to the amount of 100,000/.; but which was in fact such a relief to the commercial world (slight even as it was), that the loss to the public revenue did not exceed 10,000l. He was aware that Members of the House, placed as he was, were always likely to meet with opposition from the Chancellor of the Exchequer when they brought forward resolutions similar to that he was about to submit to the House, for a Chancellor of the Exchequer disliked any Member of the House interfering with what he regarded as his peculiar functions. He was aware that there were already notices on the books for a repeal of the soap-tax, for a repeal of the window-duties, and that the noble Lord, the Member for Buckinghamshire, would attempt once more to procure a repeal of the malt-tax. He would give one short reason why the House ought to prefer a repeal of the stamp duties on marine policies. They exceeded by very little two hundred thousand pounds; and it was quite clear that if the Government and the Legislature were disposed to give up the tax, they had not the same difficulty to encounter which they had with the other taxes, the repeal of which was proposed, namely, that none of the latter could be abandoned, unless some other tax was resorted to supply their place. His resolution, he wished to observe, did not bind the House to a repeal of the stamp duty this Session, but that the House would take it into their early consideration. If the right hon. Gentleman would give no promise either to repeal or reduce this obnoxious tax, it would be his (Mr. Robinson's) duty, in connexion with those who were so much interested on the subject, to have a petition for warded, and to take the sense of that House respecting it, in order that they might ascertain how many Members of that House thought that such an obnoxious tax ought to be continued. He was not aware that it was necessary for him longer to trouble the House. He would merely state that there was another tax for which a claim had been put in, and which the Chancellor of the Exchequer might think interposed a reasonable objection to his concurring in this motion. There was a claim, and a very powerful one, on behalf of some reduction of the taxation of the policies upon fire-insurances. It was perfectly well known that the duties upon fire policies were higher nominally than those upon marine-policies. But the reason why he considered that his claim was stronger in favour of a reduction of the duty than fire-policies was, that marine-policies were chargeable, perhaps twenty times every year, by the succession of their voyages, but the duty upon fire policies was only charged once a-year, nor was it even levied again upon a dwelling-house being changed into a warehouse. This was a reason why he thought that the claim for the reduction of the duty upon fire-insurances was not so strong. He also considered that the amount arising from fire-insurances was very large, and if the Chancellor of the Exclequer were to volunteer their reduction some other my must be substituted. If the right hon. Gentleman, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, were prepared to tell the House that he was satisfied of the policy of no longer continuing this impost, and that he should he prepared to come down to the House dining the present Session with a proposition for the repeal or reduction of this tax, he should best discharge his duty by leaving the matter in the hands of that right hon. Gentleman. But if the right hon. Gentleman told the House that he was not so prepared, and gave no reason to hope for such an abolition, he should be obliged, in the dis- charge of his duty, to divide the House. He would conclude by reading the terms of his motion, which was to this effect, "That the gradual diminution of stamp duty derived from marine-policies, during several years of increasing trade, commerce and navigation, has fully demonstrated the impolicy of this tax, in the discouragement of British insurances, and the promotion of successful foreign competition, and that it is the duty of this House to take an early opportunity to repeal or reduce the same."

Sir John R. Reid

seconded the motion. He knew well all the circumstances to which the hon. Gentleman had referred, he knew the weight which ought to attach to his arguments on this subject, and he therefore seconded the motion with sincere pleasure and satisfaction. He hoped that after the circumstances detailed in the petition presented by the hon. Member, and the mode in which he had brought those circumstances before the House, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would grant the prayer of the petitioners, and offer no opposition to this motion.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, he certainly had nothing to complain of in the manner in which his hon. Friend had introduced this motion; he had stated his case shortly, and had stated briefly the arguments that pressed in favour of it. His hon. Friend told him that if he would only say that he meant to reduce this tax in the present Session he would not divide the House. Undoubtedly any other Gentleman whom he had ever yet heard in that House would likewise be indisposed to divide the House if he could obtain the whole of his objects without a division. The proposition of his hon. Friend, even on his own showing, did not go to the extent of committing the House of Commons to repeal or reduce the duty in the present year; it merely referred to some early period—it was very uncertain, and certainly did not compel the House to the repeal of the duty in the present year. But the hon. Gentleman said, that if he would only promise to repeal this tax in the present year, or, in other words, if he got more than he asked in his resolution, he would abstain from pressing the house to a division. He would at once say that he did not think that these petitioners had no claim to relief. If he said any such, thing, he should say what he certainly did not feel. He thought that the petitioners had an undoubted claim to be considered with respect to their complaints. But it was very easy for any Gentleman acquainted with the subject of marine insurance, or fire insurance, or any other tax, to make out a case against the existence of that tax. There was scarcely any tax that would stand discussion on its own merits. They were all evils in themselves, and it was scarcely possible to name a tax which could not be proved to be objection able in its nature. They were all evil, and he at once admitted that this was an evil tax. But in determining upon the repeal of taxes, he would only ask Gentlemen to consider whether it was possible to deal with the question of repeal of taxation except upon the principle of showing the inconvenience felt from one tax in comparison with the inconvenience attending the continuance of another. The House could not at present come to any decision on this subject. They were not in possession of the actual state of the finances; they were just at the close of the financial year, and the House had not yet heard what was the actual surplus of income over expenditure. They had no means of judging what disposable income would remain to be dealt with by the House; and yet the hon. Gentleman called upon the House absolutely to come to a definite decision. On a former occasion he believed the hon. Member for Manchester gave notice of a motion on the subject of the cotton duties. He took the liberty of stating on that occasion, and he would take the liberty of stating to his hon. Friend, who made this motion, that he really would not undertake to argue these taxes in detail till he had an opportunity of ascertaining what was the amount of disposable surplus, and how that amount could be best applied. His hon. Friend had himself stated, that there were on the orders of the House, notices with respect to the reduction of the duty on malt, on soap, on cottons, on tobacco, on windows, on fire insurances, and on life insurances. Now he was not disposed, on the mere statement of his hon. Friend to affirm the proposition that the reduction of the duty on marine insurances stood so pre-eminent over all other taxes that he was bound to give it the preference, and not to consider it with reference to the claims of other petitioners, but to take this question up at once, and give it the preference over all others. He would say, that his hon. Friend's motion was one which called for the serious consideration of that House: he was perfectly willing to say that it should be taken into the most serious consideration of his Majesty's Government. When the proper time arrived, he should be prepared, if he assented to the doctrine of his hon. Friend, to propose a reduction of this duly; or if he did not assent to that proposition, he would state the reasons that induced him to give the preference to reduction in some other branch of the revenue. Beyond this he would not go. He did not think that it would be just with respect to other Gentlemen who had been induced to suspend their motions until the period of the Budget. His hon. Friend knew that the period was not very remote; and that they were at the close of the financial year. He would therefore say that, in his opinion, his hon. Friend would best consult the interests of those whom he represented on this occasion if he left the matter entirely in the hands of the Government. At the same time, he was unwilling to sit down without expressing some difference of opinion from the statements that had fallen from his hon. Friend, and more especially in expressing a serious difference of opinion from a paper which had been industriously circulated and put into the hands of Members of that House. The hon. Gentleman had stated that this was a dwindling duly. Now this was not the fact. So far was it from being the fact, that when they made the reduction in 1833, thereby carrying into effect the proposition that had been received from the committee at Lloyd's, from that period it had not been a falling, but an augmenting duty. In the year ending in January, 1835, the duty was 201,000l.; in January, 1836, it was 218,000l.; and in January of the present year it amounted to 254,000l. These figures showed that the duty was not, as the hon. Gentleman said, gradually diminishing. It showed also that they might, in some instances, make reductions without any loss of revenue. The declaration of this being a falling duty he met with the simple announcement of its being an increasing one. He was unwilling to move a negative of the hon. Gentleman's proposition if he drove it to a division: he would rather move the previous question than a direct negative. But, independently of other objections, he had already stated his objection to any resolution being put on the journals of Parliament which was so vague and uncertain, and which left every individual Member to put upon it any interpretation he pleased. It did not even pledge the House to consider the subject in the present Session. He thought it would be much better, under all the circumstances, to leave the matter in the hands of the Government. He would give no pledge, except that he would consider these claims in common with the other claims, and that he would give them all their due weight. He would, however, admit that he believed the statement of his hon. Friend was correct when he stated that one effect of the present high rate of duty had undoubtedly driven to the Continent a great deal of the business. He would again repeat that he would take this subject into consideration, but he must object to these resolutions, which, even if they were good in themselves, were drawn up in so vague and indefinite a manner that they appeared to pledge the House to something, when, in reality, they pledged them to nothing. On these grounds he felt bound to oppose the motion.

Mr. Alderman Thompson

hoped, that after the statement made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, his hon. Friend would not press this motion. The right hon. Gentleman admitted that a case had been made out, and promised to take the subject into his most serious consideration between this time and the period of the financial statement. Under these circumstances, he was convinced that his hon. Friend would best consult the interest of the parties whom he represented by not pressing this question. He was as warm an advocate of the reduction of this duty as his hon. Friend; and when he entreated him to withdraw his motion, he did so, entertaining a confident expectation that, upon consideration of the case, the Chancellor of the Exchequer would feel called upon to propose either the total repeal of this duty, or a very large reduction.

Mr. Hume

, having brought forward this question ten years ago, was unwilling to allow the discussion to drop without offering a few observations. He thought that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had stated a convincing reason why this subject ought to be brought under the consideration of the House, when he admitted that a great part of the insurance business was transferred to the opposite coasts, thereby destroying a profitable branch of trade without any relief to the shipping interest. This point was of considerable importance in the consideration of this question. This tax was exceedingly injurious in its operation. Of this he was quite sure, that until Members of that House brought forward the several taxes that pressed most severely on their constituents and the different interests of the country, unless they discussed the objection that might be laid against them, and the reasons for them, they could not expect that the public would derive much relief from taxation. He thought, therefore, that the hon. Member for Worcester had done good service in calling the more immediate attention of the House and of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to this subject. It was really a sound and true principle to press home and strongly; and the more taxes the Government was asked to remit, the better was the chance of the reduction of some of them. He would advise the hon. Gentleman, after the declaration of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, not to take the sense of the House upon his motion; but if it were not brought forward by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the hon. Gentleman might at a future period fairly submit the question to the House, and take the opinion of the House upon it.

Lord Sandon

concurred in the recommendation that had been given to the hon. Member for Worcester, not to divide the House upon this motion. It was but fair to wait and see what measures would be proposed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the subject.

Mr. Robinson

would not divide the House. The strength of his case had been admitted, and he considered that what fell from the Chancellor of the Exchequer was equivalent to saying that he would bestow upon the subject his favourable consideration.

Motion withdrawn.