HC Deb 10 July 1838 vol 44 cc117-29
Lord F. Egerton

rose to call the attention of the House to the state of the law affecting the Sale of Beer. Various petitions had been presented on the subject; especially one from upwards of 6,000 inhabitants of Manchester and Salford, among whom were nearly fifty clergymen, thirty-five of whom were members of the Established Church, the churchwardens, overseers, &c., complaining of the evils which had been the result of the new law respecting the sale of beer, many remedies had been proposed for those evils; that which, after much consideration, he was disposed to recommend was, to expunge the clause which provided for the consumption of beer on the premises; and he was quite sure, that, even if there were a fuller attendance of Members, he should have a general concurrence of opinion in favour of that proposition. It was thought by some, that that part of the act had worked better in large towns, where there was a compact population more immediately under the inspection of the police, than in rural and thinly-peopled districts. He confessed, that, from the information which he had obtained upon the subject, he was not of that opinion. Of the enormous evils of the present system he had abundant proof in representations from Huddersfield, York, Portsmouth, Sheffield, Leeds, Rotherham, &c. He had received, among others, a letter from Mr. J. F. Forster, chairman at the quarter sessions at Salford, a gentleman remarkable for the liberality of his character and the capacity of his understanding, who expressed himself strongly opposed to the measure, from the experience of its pernicious consequences he had had as a magistrate. This gentleman stated, that he had been not unfavourable to the experiment at first, from a wish to supply the labouring classes with a wholesome and refreshing beverage at a cheap rate, and to extend to them every advantage which their station permitted; but he was now quite satisfied that the introduction of beer shops had been productive of consequences bad in every respect among the working classes, destructive of their habits of foresight and economy, subversive of moral feeling, and ruinous, in many instances, to their families. He was quite aware, from long experience, how difficult it was to predicate the consequences of any measure introduced into Parliament; but, on looking back to the debate on the introduction of the Beer Bill, he must say, that it appeared to him that the results of the measure had been more correctly anticipated by its opponents than was usual on such occasions. It had been maintained, that the consumption of spirits would be materially diminished by the new bill. It appeared, however, that no bill had ever been more productive of drunkenness and immorality: Under these circumstances, however late in the session, he was induced to bring the subject under the consideration of the House; partly with a view to prepare the way for some change in the law which, in his opinion, was inevitable; and, as far as he was concerned, with a view to repeal that part of it which related to the drinking of beer upon the premises. He had not the slightest intention to do anything calculated to distress the present Government. The existing law had, indeed, been introduced under the Government of those individuals in whose political opinions he concurred; although the duties of the office which he had at that time the honour to hold, prevented him from paying the attention to the subject which its importance demanded. In justice to his constituents and to others, who, on the faith of the Act of Parliament, had entered into the beer trade, and whose interest he was anxious to protect, he thought it his duty to take the earliest parliamentary opportunity of warning them that it was not probable the law would exist long. All these objects conjoined would, he hoped, be a sufficient justification to the House of the motion he was about to make. He repeated, that he had received innumerable representations of the evils which had resulted from the multiplicity of those receptacles of every kind of vice and depravity, the beer-shops. Without interfering more than was necessary with the enjoyment of the poorer classes, it was the duty of Parliament to protect them from such evils as these. He regretted, that the subject had not fallen into the hands of one more practically acquainted with the facts of the case than he was: but he would now move, that there be laid before the House copies of certain passages in the presentments of the grand juries of England and Wales, bearing reference to the state of the law affecting the sale of beer, in the years 1836, 1837, and 1838.

Mr. Ayshford Sandford

seconded the motion. He was one of those who, at the time of the introduction of the new law, anticipated the evils that would flow from it. It had been introduced in consequence of the grievances to which the licensing system had given rise. Now, although he was hostile to the existing law, he by no means wished to re-introduce the licensing system to which that law had put an end. One of the great evils of the existing system was, the creation of small beer-houses of the lowest description, kept by men without capital, and who obtained credit from the large brewers for three-fourths of their stock. As one means of obviating the evil it might be advisable to provide that no man should sell beer who was not the brewer of it.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

gave full credit to the noble Lord for the motive which had induced him to come forward with the present motion, but, at the same time, he (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) was bound to confess, that he was not yet convinced by any facts or any arguments which had been advanced, that an invasion of the principle of the law, as it now stood, would lead to such an improvement in the morals of the people as the noble Lord and those who thought with him supposed. He had always been of opinion that the measure of the right hon. Gentleman, the Member for the University of Cambridge, which destroyed the old monopoly and opened the trade in beer, was one of the wisest and most prudent acts of the Legislature that he had ever in his time seen introduced into Parliament. He believed, that the benefit conceded to the public by that measure was much greater than any loss that might have resulted in a financial point of view. He believed, too, that the relief which it afforded to a great trade from vexatious interpositions of the Excise was another very great benefit. With respect to the increase of crime, which had been so much relied on, he could not at all admit that increase to be a consequence of the Beer Act. Nor had he any more faith in the allegations which were made of a greatly increased consumption of spirituous liquors. Where were the proofs of it? Gin-shops in London were not on the increase, but quite the reverse. What would be the effect of any alteration of the present law that should put an end to the sale of beer in those houses? Would it not be to bring on again the old monopoly, and all the evils of the licensing system? He did not mean to say, that the existing law was incapable of improvement, but he wished most earnestly to deprecate any return to the old system? Therefore, though he had no objection to this return, and though he was aware that no proceedings were to be taken upon the motion during this Session, yet, differing as he did from the noble Lord as to the facts which he had stated, as well as from the arguments which he had deduced from those facts, he felt it his duty to implore the House and the public to consider well the inconvenience and evil which must result from a change of the law as it stood; to discuss dispassionately both sides of this question; to compare objection with objection; and to determine at length to legislate only upon general principles, in case, as generally happened, facts were found to agree with those general principles, which they ought to look to on this very important question; and having done this, then let them proceed to apply police regulations, not to one class only of these houses, but to all indifferently.

Mr. Pakington

expressed his gratitude to the noble Lord for having brought this subject forward. It was almost impossible to over-rate the seriously prejudicial effect which this measure had had upon the morals of the people.

Mr. Hume

could regard the object with which such motions as the present were brought forward only as meddling interferences with the comforts of the poor. He did not understand why the poor man should not be allowed to drink his pot of beer where and when he chose, and where he could get it best and cheapest, whether within the doors of a beer shop or in the street. It was melancholy to see those who were in possession of the highest luxuries so anxious to deprive the poor of every little comfort. In his opinion they did not look high enough for the evils of which they complained. He attributed much of the crime to the want of education. Ignorance was the root of the evil. The people were brought up like brute beasts. What education was given to them? There were a few charities, but the people had a right to be educated. They had as much right to education as as they had to a provision for the sustenance of the body. He begged the hon. Gentlemen opposite to inform him what education was afforded to three-fourths of the agriculturists? The noble Lord said he had received information from some one in London of the demoralization caused by the Beer Bill. Would the noble Lord state who the party was? He (Mr. Hume) knew that the licensed victuallers had been very busy in getting up an opposi- tion to the beer shops, and perhaps the noble Lord had had some communication with them. According to the returns on the table of the House, it appeared, that within a certain period during which 514 licensed victuallers had been charged by the police with offences, only 240 keepers of beer shops had been so charged. He was prepared to show, that the allegation that the morals of the people were injured by the beer-shops was quite unfounded. While they heard so much of the demoralization of the poor, no mention was made of the misconduct of other classes. Who were the parties who disgraced themselves by gross misconduct about the period of the coronation? Were they not gentlemen and noblemen? He deprecated the disposition which exhibited itself year after year to meddle with the indulgences of the poor. Nothing had for a long while pleased him more, than the declaration of the right hon. the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that if they were driven to put down the beer shops, he should consider it necessary to take into their serious consideration the propriety of establishing a free licensing system, giving every man the power of taking out a licence, subject only to certain police regulations. It would give him very great pleasure to see such a principle acted upon. He should move to-morrow fo returns which would show a very different result from that anticipated by the noble Lord. Inquiry could not fail to show how completely unfounded were the representations of hon. Gentlemen opposite on this subject. He thought some good would result from the present discussion; it would go far to counteract any effect that might have been produced by the extraordinary declaration of a noble and learned Lord in another place, that a sentence of condemnation had gone forth against the beer-shops. He should oppose, to the utmost of his power, any attempts that might be made by new legislation to interfere with the comforts of the poor.

Viscount Dungannon

said, that in his neighbourhood it was found, that most of the crime that was committed was concocted in the beer shops. He trusted the return moved for, would make out such a case as to induce her Majesty's Ministers to take the matter up. Hon. Gentlemen opposite might look with jealousy to these complaints, because of the quarter from which they came, because they proceeded from the magistrates, and from the clergy; but the families of the labourers, and farmers, and others, were amongst the complainants. So strong was his impression as to the effect of the beer shops, that he had strictly forbidden any man to set up such an establishment on his estate.

Mr. Warburton

saw no doubt, looking at the source from which the invitation to petition came, there would next Session be, as the noble Lord had said there should be, a very large number of petitions sent to Parliament against the beer shops. Ever since the act passed authorising these establishments, they had been exceedingly unpopular with the magistrates and the clergy. He thought if they had a committee to inquire respecting the conduct of the beer shops, they ought to have a committee of the labouring classess to inquire into the effect of the houses of entertainment generally. No doubt their report would be, that at clubs and such places there was much drinking of champagne and other wines, that people spent time there which they had much better spend elsewhere, that there was not a little gambling, &c. He did not deny the necessity of police regulations, but let them apply equally. The last committee appointed recommended certain regulations respecting the closing of the beer shops, but that committee said, those regulations ought also to be enforced against the licensed victualling houses. The report of the committee had remained a dead letter. So much for the impartiality which a certain party was disposed to deal out.

Mr. Darby

said, there was scarcely a respectable labourer in the country that did not set his face against the beer-shops. He denied, that the new beer-shop system was either a comfort or an advantage to the poor. On the contrary, his belief was that it tended only to demoralize the lower classes, and he, for one, felt much obliged to the noble Lord for having brought the subject forward. When they found that, instead of doing good, it only produced evil, he thought the best thing they could do would be to get rid of it altogether as a nuisance, which ought to be discontinued as speedily as possible.

Mr. Hawes

was perfectly willing to admit, that the motive which actuated the noble Lord was a good one; that the only object which the noble Lord had in view was the amelioration of both the moral and physical condition of the people. The whole case, however, as it stood at present, rested on mere allegation that crime had increased since the new beer act had come into operation. Now this was a matter which ought not to depend on individual opinion, but upon facts; and he was prepared to show from authentic documents that, so far from having increased, crime—he meant that species of crime which was said to result from the beer-shops—had materially diminished within the last three years, especially in the counties of Middlesex and Surrey, where not only the population, but wealth had increased, and the inducement to crime also. No doubt they had in these counties a better description of police than formerly, and likewise a more prompt and speedy gaol delivery; but as a commission had issued to inquire into the state of the rural police he thought they ought to wait until the report of that commission was presented to the House, before they took any step in this important matter. No doubt that report would be laid on the table of the House early next session, and then it would be time enough for them to determine as to the course they ought to pursue. The hon. Member read a calculation which had been officially made as to the state of crime during the last three or four years, and from this document it appeared that although forgery and some other crimes had increased within that period, there had been a very considerable diminution of those crimes which were said to be engendered in beer-shops. On this evidence he did not hesitate to say, that they ought to arrive at any conclusion rather than that of requiring the repeal of the act under which the beer-shops had been established. He was well aware that there were persons who sought its repeal from mercenary motives, because it deprived them of advantages which they enjoyed under the old licensing system; but at all events the present complaint came with rather a bad grace from the hon. Gentleman opposite, who resisted every effort that was made to have the people properly educated. He did not look to the repeal of the new Beer-law Act, or any other measure of the kind, for the moral improvement of the people; but he looked for it in the diffusion of knowledge, and that extension of the suffrage which would oblige the upper classes to identify their own interests with the welfare of the poorer classes of the community. He thought that before the noble Lord came forward with any measure on the subject he was bound to show, that he had made out his case, and that, in point of fact, the crime which he attributed to the beer-shops had resulted from them.

Mr. Slaney

said, it was his misfortune very often to disagree with the opinions on both sides of the House. The hon. Member for Lambeth denied, that there had been any increase of crime, but in this statement the hon. Gentleman was clearly mistaken. Crime had increased fearfully throughout the country, and it was, therefore, the duty of that House to institute inquiry as to the cause, and how the evil could be best remedied. He admitted, however, that the cure for the evil would not be obtained by a return to monopoly in the article of beer. It was to be remembered, that beer-houses were very different in towns from what they were in the country. In London, for instance, they heard the effect of beer-shops was by means of competition to reduce the price of beer to a moderate sum, while, in the country, beer-shops were established in obscure places, and were on that ground very objectionable. It was his opinion that they ought to require a criterion of some property before a beer-shop could be established. It was his opinion, that there ought to be some improvement in the mode of granting licences to beer-shops. It was plain that the increase of beer-shops had not prevented an increase in the consumption of spirits. Within twenty years the consumption of spirits had risen from 9,000,000 of gallons to that of 27,000,000 gallons. He attributed a great deal of the consumption of spirits to the negligence on the part of the police. He thought the police were on this point scandalously negligent in their duty, for any hon. Gentleman going home at two o'clock in the morning could see, that the spirit-shops were open at that hour.

Mr. M. Phillips

admitted, that there were just grounds of complaint against the new beer-shop system, and it was his intention next session to move for a committee of inquiry on the whole subject. He was prejudiced in favour of neither one party nor the other, and therefore when the facts were really ascertained he should be prepared to concur in any measure that the House might deem expedient to remedy the existing evil.

Lord Ingestrie

said, that the beer-shops in his part of the country had been productive of the worst possible consequences. They were the resort of the ill-disposed, and crimes of all kinds were concocted in them. So far from being hostile to the education of the people he had always done all in his power to promote that object; but, as he could not see what connection there was between education and the beer-shops, he must press upon the House the necessity of adopting some step, and that speedily, for getting rid of the evil, which throwing open the sale of beer indiscriminately had given rise to.

Mr. Wallace

said, that if there were no licensed victuallers he was sure there would be no complaint against beer-shops. All they were doing was this, making the beer-shops bad, by giving them a bad character. What they ought to do was to encourage men of the best character to enter into competition in this business. His opinion was, that the people in his country were much better conducted than they were in this; and yet in his country he could produce to them a village in which every other house was a public-house, and where he was quite sure the people were more sober than they were at Crockford's, or at any club-house or public-house in London.

Mr. Villiers

said, the noble Lord, the member for South Staffordshire had said, that a large portion of his constituents, and some of them must also be his (Mr. Villiers's),had given it as their opinion that every crime and every vice committed in that part of the country, was to be attributable to the beer-houses. Now, he must say, he had not received any information of that kind. He was disposed to support the proposition of the hon. Member for Manchester, (Mr. M. Phillips), that no steps should be taken this year, that the inquiry should be postponed until the next, and by that time the House could have petitions or facts upon which to proceed. No allegations had been made in this debate on which the House could place credit—nothing had been brought forward but hearsay evidence. He for one, denied, that the Beer Act had done any mischief. What was the case the very year before the bill passed? Why, the southern counties of England were all but in a state of insurrection, neither life nor property was safe, and that occurred the very year before selling beer to be consumed on the premises in these houses were allowed. He thought the measure had been productive of good and not of evil; but when the Legislature had neglected to educate the people, and had done everything to demoralise them, was it to be expected, when a restraint was removed, that at first some excess was not to be expected? The act ought to have a fair trial, and if it had been proved, as it had, that crime had diminished since its passing, why was the subject now brought forward? The Beer Act had, at least, had one good effect, it had diminished the evils arising out of the licensing system; but if the act were repealed, would not the old evils again arise? Was there not on the part of magistrates, and those who made them, a desire to invest them again with the power and influence which they had formerly so improperly enjoyed?

Sir J. Guest

said, that in his part of the country he knew the new beer-shop system was much condemned, and that an alteration of it was loudly called for, not only by the better classes, but by a great portion of the poor. In one village, that he could mention, there were at least one hundred beer-shops, and their existence had led to every species of disorder and immorality.

Mr. Brotherton

fully concurred that the subject ought to be inquired into, as exposing men to temptation was not the best mode of checking evil. There could be no doubt that the new beer-shops had led to intemperance—that intemperance led to poverty—and that poverty led to crime. He must say, that the noble Lord was entitled to the thanks of the country for the attention which he had bestowed on this important subject. He would not undertake to point out what the remedy was that they ought to apply, but still it was his opinion that, as evil existed, it should be removed with as little loss of time as possible. He had no wish to do injustice to those who had invested their property in this trade, but he, at the same time, thought that any system which occasioned intemperance on the part of the labouring poor, ought to be put an end to at all risks. He was an advocate for free trade, but where the particular article produced demoralization, he fully concurred in the propriety of imposing restrictions. It was well known that many of the beer-shops were kept by disreputable persons—that they were the resort of the ill-disposed, and that no police could by possibility keep them in proper check. This was his opinion, and therefore he should support any proposition for inquiry, with a view of ascertaining the real facts, in order that they might see what course it was expedient to take.

Mr. Aglionby

was afraid that the country would think the feelings of that House was in favour of monopoly, and against the wishes of the public at large. He did not think, that they had any evidence before them which would justify a committee of inquiry; but still he was obliged to the noble Lord for moving for returns which under any view of the case would be valuable, inasmuch as they would show whether the evils complained of existed or not. In large towns, where there was a good police, throwing open the trade in beer was attended with no danger what ever, and he doubted whether any was to be apprehended in the remote or rural districts. He thought, that it was a great advantage to the poor to be able to obtain good and wholesome beer at a cheap rate, and therefore, although he agreed that some attention should be paid to the character of the parties keeping beer-shops, he hoped that Government would not deprive the poor of this advantage.

Mr. Parrott

said, that so far from the magistrates of his part of the country finding fault with the New Beer Act, their opinion was, that it had been productive of very great benefit to the poor. For the magistrates of his part of the country he could say, that they had no wish to return back to the old licensing system, but, he was at the same time aware, that there were parties who were anxious to have the present law repealed. Instead of paying 4d. or 5d. a pot for beer, it was a great benefit to the labouring poor to be able to obtain it for 1½d. or 2d., and, therefore, even if there were some disadvantages in the present system, the advantages greatly preponderated. The only effect which restrictions could have, would be to cause a considerable defalcation in the revenue, and reduce the price of barley; and his opinion was, that it was to the interest of the country at large that there should be a free trade in both cider and beer. While, however, he supported free trade, he was prepared to support any motion for a better system of police.

Mr. Hindley

was not favourable to the beer-shop system, because it threw temp- tation in the way of the young which led to demoralization. He thought, however, that the evils complained of might be remedied by an improved police. He was opposed to the old licensing system, and certainly had no wish to return to monopoly. He agreed, however, that the subject ought to be investigated by a Committee of that House.

Returns ordered.