HC Deb 22 July 1839 vol 49 cc642-56
Mr. Gillon,

after presenting petitions from stage coach proprietors, complaining of the depressed state of their trade, moved for a committee of the whole House to take into consideration the duties affecting internal communication, with a view of submitting to that Committee a series of resolutions for the reduction of the post-horse, public carriage, and mileage duties. He regretted that a question of so much public importance should be discussed at so late a period of the Session, and with such a thin attendance of Members. But he considered it his duty, nevertheless, to avail himself of the opportunity to urge the claims of the parties who had entrusted their interests to his charge, with the view of asking the House to give effect to these claims for a modification of the taxes which pressed so heavily upon them, and be considered it important for the House to recollect that the weight of these taxes had been greatly increased by circumstances which had taken place since they had invested their capital in that particular branch of the trade. He hoped the House would also excuse him for mentioning that, in the year 1837, he had obtained a committee to inquire into the general question of internal communication, which recommended a speedy modification of these taxes to the House. He now brought the case of these parties forward, in consequence of the assurances which had been given by his right hon. Friend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that be would take the recommendation of the committee into consideration, and that he would not allow the present Session to elapse without applying a remedy. The parties whom he represented, and who complained of the present oppressive, unjust, and partial mode of taxation on the means of internal communication, were those connected with the old means of conveyance carried on through the medium of animal power. They had long been suffering in silence, and only now came forward when they found themselves opposed to other rivals, who were placed in a new and unexpected position of advantage. One class of those rivals were subjected to no tax at all, and the other to a tax of the most trivial amount. These facts formed, in his opinion, good grounds for the stage-coach proprietors and postmasters of this country for coming forward and stating their grievances to the impartial consideration of the Legislature. He did not complain of the existence of improved means of conveyance. He believed they had been productive of great benefit to the people. They afforded to the poorer classes the means of transporting their talents and capital to the best market at the cheapest price, and so as to make them available in the most expeditious manner. But great as was the competition which the proprietors of stage-coaches and pest-masters bad to contend with in the regard to, the use of steam-power and water carriage, it was quite inferior to the great system of railroad travelling, which was now coming into general operation, and extending itself through all parts of the country. He did nut complain of the use of that great modern improvement. He objected not to it, nor to the use of steam-power in water carriage. In a public sense, he was perfectly sensible of the advantages which resulted from all of them. But what he complained of was, that they were lightly taxed, while the stage-coach proprietors were subjected to the payment of very oppressive and heavy duties. It was not the facilities afforded to internal communication that he opposed, but what the parties whose interest he represented complained of was this, that while the stage-coach proprietors paid 8s. 4d. a head of duty to the Crown, calculated on the principle that his carriage carried four passengers, for each person supposed to be conveyed form London to Edinburgh, and was charged that amount, whether his carriage conveyed such passengers or not, the owners of steam-vessels paid no such duty. The duty on railroad carriages, again, was only one-eighth of a penny per mile, while that on stage-coaches was one farthing, whether the passengers were carried or not. In a commercial country like this, Government ought to render the means of conveyance from the greatest and remotest distances accessible and cheap; but by their impolitic fiscal regulations, they had, on the contrary, aggravated the disadvantages of space. It should not be forgotten that this subject had attracted the attention of the Committee on Turnpike-trusts, who had given in their report, station its importance as regarded the interests of the creditors on these trusts. The amount of debt which had been incurred by those trusts amounted to the sum of nine millions sterling, and the Government were bound not to make themselves accessory in preventing those creditors from recovering their debts. That committee had also recommended the subject to the speedy consideration of Parliament. It was of great importance that the House should secure to the public a competition among those who were engaged in furnishing means of conveyance. Suppose, that the old means of conveyance, for want of proper encouragement, were given up—which was by no means unlikely—the public would not receive the same attention and civility, as at present, form the proprietors of railroads. He thought it by no means improbable that those persons would then increase their charges, and make the most of the monopoly which they would thus enjoy; and in that case, would not the country justly reproach the House, if they should be left at the mercy of those who had embarked their money in these speculations for their own private interests, and with a view to the enriching themselves? Great as was the disparity between the duties levied on railroads and stage carriages, that disparity was still further aggravated by the system of compositions. As an instance of the working of that system, he would mention that by a contract entered into with the Government by the directors of the Greenwich Railway they had compounded on such terms as to be allowed to carry 1,200,000 persons for 400l., which, if calculated at the amount which stagecoach proprietors would have paid for the same number of persons, would have amounted to the sum of 6,250l. It might be said, that an end had been put to the compounding system. He must state, however, that it had not been universally extinguished, for he found in the report of the Arbroath and Forfar Railway Company for the present year an ostentatious statement that, by means of an arrangement with the Lords of the Treasury, they had effected a composition for 10l., for the conveyance of a large number of passengers. All these remarks hitherto applied more to the grievances of stage-coach proprietors and with equal force to post-horse duties, which would be annihilated by a continuance of the existing system. He would suppose a gentleman to travel post from Birmingham to London, with four post horses in which case the postmaster pays a duty of 1l. 8s.; but if the gentleman puts his carriage into a truck on the rail-road the proprietors would have only to pay 4s. 8d. of duty, the difference being all in favour of the stronger party. The post-horse masters paid heavy assessed taxes besides: 5l. 5s. for each four wheeled carriage they kept for hire, and 3l. 5s. for two-wheeled carriages. They were falling rapidly into a state of poverty, from heavy burdens combined with decreasing business. He would give one instance. Mr. Johnstone, of Dunstable, for three months of the year 1837, paid 172l. 16s. 3d. duties, and in the same quarter of last year, the amount had dwindled down to 31l. 17s. 6d. The House would thus readily form an accurate opinion of the great depression of business which that Gentleman had suffered. But that was not all. These parties had to pay window duties besides, and a heavy licence duty annually to the excise for permission to carry on their trade, while large floating hotels constantly plying up and down the rivers selling all manners of exciseable liquors did not pay a sixpence duty. The victuallers' licenses on the sale of exciseable articles should be repealed altogether. The stage coach and post horse duties were diminishing, notwithstanding the great increase of population and intercourse. Let them take the aggregate amount:—In 1836 they amounted to 514,089l., while last year they had diminished to 494,138l. It was true that his right hon. Friend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had given one boon to the post-horse masters by transferring the collection of the duties payable by them, from those who had farmed them, to the commissioners of excise, by which means the whole amount of duty had been brought fairly to charge in the Exchequer. But still that branch of revenue was decreasing. He would now proceed to state shortly the nature of the remedy which he would propose. It was to place all taxation as applied to railroads, post-horse duties, and stage-coaches, on a fair percentage, calculated on the gross earnings of the parties respectively; and he thought it was but right to state that that alteration was suggested by a person largely connected with railroads. The duties on railroads were unequal in operation as regarded the interests of those connected with such undertakings. On the London and Birmingham Railway the tax was about four per cent., while on the Garnkirk line, in the neighbourhood of Glasgow, it was as high as fourteen per cent. Therefore, in justice to those persons, he thought the principle he had proposed would be found extremely fair and unobjectionable. He proposed also a repeal of all the assessed taxes affecting these parties: a repeal of the licence duty on stage carriages, and of the mileage duties on stage carriages, and the duties on horses let to hire; a repeal of the 5l. 5s. duty on four-wheeled carriages, and the 3l. 5s. duty on two-wheeled carriages, and in lieu thereof a licence duty on stage carriages of 7s. 6d., about one-half of the mileage duty presently leviable on stage coaches to be substituted; a reduction of the mileage from one farthing to about one-eighth of a penny per mile, thus allowing a small advantage in favour of the stage-coach proprietors. He proposed a reduction of almost exactly two-thirds of the post-horse duties. The probable loss of revenue by these changes, supposing no increase of travelling to take place would be; on stage-coach duty 160,844l.; on post-horse duty 247,069l., to which was to be added the reduction of the duty on four-wheeled carriages 36,823l., and on coachmen and guards 3,708l., in all 448,000l. He contended, without fear of contradiction, that there was no branch of taxation involving greater injustice to the parties than that to which he had called the attention of the House As a justification for having brought forward the motion, at that late period of the Session, the hon. Member quoted the observations of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on the 21st February last, during the discussion which then took place on this subject stating that the subject deserved the attention of Parliament, as it was his intentention to bring a bill to correct some of the evils. He quoted those words, not with any view to raise angry feelings, but merely in justification of himself for having formerly withdrawn the resolutions which he had brought forward for the relief of the parties. He had been obliged, however, in consequence of an interview with the right hon. Gentleman a few weeks since, again to intimate to those parties that the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not intend to proceed this Session with any measure for their relief. His object was, to render internal communication more cheap and easily accessible to all parties. Sooner or later his right hon. Friend would be compelled to grant, not only this reduction, but a revision of the whole system of taxation. He would be compelled to take off all those taxes which, by pressing on the necessaries of life weighed so heavily on the poorer classes, and in lieu of them to have recourse to a general property tax. He would leave the subject in the hands of the House, trusting that they would deal with it in a manner just to all parties. The hon. Member concluded by moving, that the House resolve itself into a Committee of the whole House, to consider the duties on the means of internal communication.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

would endeavour, as shortly as possible, to state the reasons why the House ought not to accede to the motion of the hon. Member. And first, he must remark, that it would, no doubt, be an extreme gratification to the inhabitants of the county of Fermanagh to find the noble Lord (Lord Cole) who represented them, seconding this motion, of which one of the objects was to introduce a new tax into Ireland, by the general equalization of duties which it proposed. It was a boon, of the value of which the people of Fermanagh would no doubt be duly sensible. As to the proposition itself, he must admit, neither on the present nor on any previous occasion, did he feel surprise that an hon. Gentleman should be found anxious to bring it under the consideration of Parliament. The progress of events had made this duty press severely, even if it were equal; but it pressed still more severely from its inequality. But this was an inevitable result of improvements which had taken place. Not a single step could be taken to advance the most undeniable improvement without pressing upon some previously existing interest. In the cases of stage-coaches and post-horses there would be evils to be endured, even if there were no tax, and those evils were, of course, aggravated by the tax. His objection was not to the principle of the proposed reduction, but to the peculiar circumstances under which it was brought forward. His hon. Friend, and those who supported him, knew that they could not approach this subject without going a great deal further. His hon. Friend's argument went to an equalization of taxation. Upon his principles, he must increase the taxes on railways, introduce the assessed taxes into Ireland, and even then, the object would not be completely attained. His hon. Friend felt that himself, and at the close of his speech, knowing where his principles would carry him, called on the House to consider the whole question of the taxation of the country, with a view of relieving the industrious and working classes from the burdens under which they now suffered, by the introduction of a property tax. He would not argue that question; but it was a serious error to suppose, that such a tax would not press on the industrious classes. It would necessarily make the investment of capital less advantageous in this country than in others, and so tend to transfer to those countries the means of productive employment. Foreign capitalists were already treading on our heels. A property tax, by giving them additional advan- tages, would operate seriously to the discouragement of industry in this country. His hon. Friend, in bringing forward his proposition, was entitled to the best attention of the House, from the great pains he had taken with the subject. According to his hon. Friend's estimate, there would be a sacrifice of 440,000l. of revenue by his proposals. Without any means of supplying the deficiency, except so far as the reduction might lead to increased communication. On any line of active communication, the reduction of the duty would not in the slightest degree increase communication. On such lines as those between London and Birmingham, or Birmingham and Liverpool, it would be utterly impossible to keep up posting or mail coach travelling. The difference of time, which was so peculiarly valuable in England, would always prevent a revival of the old mode of travelling. If, then, there was no chance of increase of communication to counterbalance the reduction of the tax, could the hon. Member, or could the House, honestly make this reduction? At an early period of the Session, on the 21st February, he had, as his hon. Friend said, declared his intention of introducing a measure on those ditties. He would beg to call the attention of the postage committee, more especially, to this part of the subject. They knew, that although the report belonged to the last Session, from circumstances of which he did not complain, it was not presented or printed until subsequent to the period at which he had made that announcement. Therefore, he was not then, and could not have been, prepared to undertake that great task and great risk which he had since undertaken, namely, the reduction of the postage on letters. He, therefore, declared his intention with respect to the posting stage and coach duties, and he had then a measure in progress which would have risked some portion of the revenue, not amounting to one-half of the loss caused by the uniform penny postages in ignorance of the report of that committee. The House of Commons, however, had a right to declare which of these reductions should be made and it had most unequivocally declared in favour of postage. He was ready to make that reduction which the House had sanctioned, but not at the same time to put in jeopardy any other portion of the revenue. He was ready to do one, but not both. He had made this statement to the deputation to which his hon. Friend referred, and he did not hear form them an expression of surprise at his determination. While referring to the deputation, he would remark, that one answer which he had given had been very much misconceived. He was accused of saying that he would not propose to legislate for particular interests, and, therefore, would not undertake the consideration of the question. His argument was that the duties could not be reduced on lines where there was railroad competition without reducing them also where there was no such competition—and where, of course, there was no such title to receive relief. But to confine the reduction to particular lines would be a legislation—for particular interest to which he felt an objection. When he had proposed the reduction of postage, he was taunted by hon. Members on the other side with not having courage to resist the popular demand for it. He knew, on that occasion, that if he had resisted the reduction, he should have had the support of some of those hon. Members, but he was by no means sure that he should have had the votes of a great many who sat on the same benches. However, in opposing the reduction which was now proposed, he was making an experiment which would show how far those hon. Members would assist him in opposing the risk of a large portion of revenue without any provision for the deficiency. He knew, that in the right hon. Member for Tamworth, he should not find any disposition to fight the battle against the postage reduction by a vote on the posting duty; but he would beg to remind those who supported the postage measure, that nothing could more seriously endangers its success than the success of the present motion. He proposed to introduce a measure which, while it would not endanger the revenue, would be of some benefit to those whose interest were affected by the posting duties. But he could not, as he already said, consent to risk so large an amount of revenue as his hon. Friend's motion involved.

Sir. T. Acland

thought that the opposition to the motion of the hon. Member for Falkirk stood on very different grounds form what it would have done, if the right hon. Gentleman had not already countenanced a similar inroad upon the revenue. He was not prepared to support the mo- tion, which went too far; but he thought some reduction of the duty was due to an interest which was now exposed to great suffering. He believed that the small reduction of one half-penny per mile, with liberty to carry an additional passenger, whilst it would be a great relief to the coach-proprietors, would cause a loss to the revenue, not of 400,000l., but of less than 90,000l. After the great sacrifice of revenue that had been already made, he could not consent to a proposition that would cause an additional loss of nearly half a million. If the hon. Member for Falkirk would put his resolution in such a shape as to produce an equalization instead of a reduction of duty, he should vote with him at all hazards, as he thought it was high time to take the first step towards redressing so palpable a grievance.

Mr. Handley

was exceedingly surprised to bear what had that evening fallen from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, after the statement made by the right hon. Gentleman a few months since on this subject. The right hon. Gentleman then stated, when the subject of the reduction of the post-horse duty was introduced, that it was his intention, in the course of the present year, to introduce a bill with a view to correct many of the inconveniences that had been adverted to; and the right hon. Gentleman further stated, that the present rate of taxation was unequal and unjust, and that it interfered with the fair spirit of commercial competition. What had occurred within these few months to change the opinions of the right hon. Gentleman? The right hon. Gentleman now quoted the vote that had been come to on the penny postage question as a reason, and the sole reason, why he refused that relief which a few months ago he thought just and necessary. If the right hon. Gentleman did not reduce this tax, he ought to raise all competing modes of communication by railroads and steam-boats, to the same level. He feared they were establishing a monopoly in favour of railroads which they would one day feel, and he hoped that, at least, fair competition would be allowed to those who had been for so many years in the service of the people; and, he thought that this meritorious class of people would have just right to complain, if their claims were now put aside, contrary to the express declaration of the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself on a former occasion.

Mr. H. Hinde

said, that some relief ought to be afforded to postmasters, to enable them to continue with the slightest chance of success against the railroads. The right hon. Gentleman, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had promised to bring in a bill on this subject, and the right hon. Gentleman had shown no good reason why that intention had been abandoned. The present system was ruinous, and he should feel that he was not doing his duty to his constituents, or to the country at large, if he did not do ail in his power to produce some beneficial alteration.

Captain Pechell

said, that the right hon. Gentleman, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had endeavoured to thwart the present proposition, by reminding the House of the sacrifice of revenue that must be made to carry out the principle of a penny postage. He supported the penny postage, because he thought it was a measure that was generally called for by the country; but that was no reason why he should not also support the motion of the hon. Member for Falkirk. It was the business of that House to reduce such taxation as they thought called for, and it was the duty of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to carry out the wishes of that House, and to supply any deficiency that might thereby be created.

Sir C. Knightley

would support the proposition of the hon. Member for Falkirk. He begged to call the attention of the House to the course that was taken by Government upon two questions, namely, that of the postage of letters, and the post-horse duty. It was said, that the reduction of the postage upon letters would benefit the poor. On the contrary, he thought it would only benefit merchants and rich people. The duty upon post-horses was, on the contrary, unequal and unjust, and ruined all those engaged in the posting business. Government, however, was induced to bring forward the first measure entirely from popular clamour; while the second question, which affected a class of persons few in number, and without the power of doing much good or harm, was altogether neglected.

Mr. C. P. Villiers

said, that as far as he could understand the charge of the hon. Baronet, it was a proof of the superior wisdom of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, for it only imputed to the right hon. Gentleman that he considered anti consulted the larger interest—that he considered those who represented the great interests of the country—which he thought it wise to consider in preference to any other. The question, as it seemed to him, lay between the community at large and a particular interest. They had to choose between the postage and the post-horse duty; and the question was, which they were prepared to make a sacrifice for. It was not often, that Chancellors of the Exchequer consulted the general interests of the nation in matters of taxation. Not but that he considered the present post-horse duty unfair, but there were two modes of relieving the parties—by taking off the taxes on letting horses for hire, and repealing the taxes on the food of those horses. Some of the post-horse masters had, on deliberate calculation, found that they would be much more relieved by the repeal of the Corn-laws than by removing the tax on their business. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had, in proposing the penny postage, made a bold and noble experiment for the general good, and it was impossible to calculate the advantages which would result to society at large from that measure. One thing, he trusted, would never be done, viz., teeing the means of internal communication, than which he thought no measure could be more pernicious.

Mr. Darby

said, that there was no question, whether one of education or post-horse duty, or be it what it might, which did not afford the hon. Member for Wolverhampton an opportunity to complain of the Corn-laws. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had not, acted fairly in disregarding the promise he had made, and throwing the postmasters, who had made a strong case, overboard for the sake of the penny-postage. At the same time, he could not vote for the motion of the hon. Member on the ground which had induced him to oppose the reduction of any tax without an adequate substitute having been provided.

Mr. Hawes

could not vote for the motion of the hon. Member, in consequence of the statement made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Still, he was of opinion, that the post-horse duties might be altered, which would be a great relief to coach proprietors. The traffic on railroads was increasing, while the duties derived from post-horses and coaches were decreasing, and he had been told by the coach proprietors generally, that the next time they took out their license, they must take out the lower license. He wanted, however, to know, why landed property was not made to bear its fair share of the burden, and the hon. Baronet, the Member for Devonshire, and the hon. Baronet, the Member for Northamptonshire, who were such advocates for the remission of the duty on post-horses, ought nut to oppose any proposition to levy a tax upon the descent of landed estate.

Mr. Wakley

said, the hon. Member for Sussex had made a speech in favour of the reduction, but intended to give his vote against the proposition. The Chancellor of the Exchequer did not care how many speeches were made in favour of the motion so long as he got the votes. So long as the Ministers had the money of the people at their control, they did not care a straw what hon. Gentlemen might say. The proper way was to keep the money out of their hands. He believed that the Government had adopted the postage plan with a desire to benefit the public, and he was grateful for what they had done, but considering the length and breadth of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's organs of caution, he was surprised that he had gone so far. A proposition had been made for a property tax. He liked the proposition. But the Chancellor of the Exchequer feared, that the landlords would run away with their wealth to the continent. He should like to see a man pocket three or four thousand acres of land—he would find this rather a difficult thing to get to the continent with. A man might leave a million in landed property to a profligate son without paying one farthing of duty, yet if he had had a faithful servant, who had been with him for thirty years, and left hint 100l., that man could only receive 90l. of it, the other 10l. being taken for duty. Until the people were faithfully represented in that House, they would never get justice. He would vote for the reduction of the tax, as he would do for the reduction of every tax. He did not like to hear any hon. Members mention the subject of a substitute—that was the business of the Chancellor of the Exchequer—to find substitutes was what he was paid for. The hon. Member for Brighton had suggested a tax on railroads [Captain Pechell: No, no], or at any rate the hon. Member suggested, that there should be an equalization of the duties of post horses and railways. This would be a tax on the hon. Member's constituents, as all who travelled by the railway to Brighton would have to pay an extra charge. He was against any such tax, although he admitted, that many hundred persons had been ruined by railways, and he regretted, that there were no means of making the railroad proprietors give compensation to those persons by proceedings in a court of law. He trusted, that the House would agree to the reduction of this tux, and would levy no new tax in consequence, and above all no tax on communications, for all such taxes were most irrational and unjust.

Lord Eliot

observed, that as the Chancellor of the Exchequer had declared, that in consequence of the financial state of the country, he could only remove one of these taxes, he should prefer the removal of the duty on post-horses to the adoption of the penny postage.

Mr. Hume

hoped that his hon. Friend would not press the question to a division.

Mr. R. Palmer

said, that a few clays ago he had a communication on the subject of the post-horse duties with a very large coach proprietor, who told him, that a small reduction in the amount of the duty, and an equalisation of taxation, would enable the proprietors to go on, and that those charges would be attended with an increase of revenue. As it appeared, that there was likely to be a deficient revenue, he could not support the present resolution.

Mr. G. Palmer

said, that the effect of the continuance of the present system would be to take all the post-horses off the roads, and to close all the inns and the houses of accommodation scattered over the country. The result would then be, that people would be compelled to travel by railroads, and would be exposed to the grossest impositions, as the proprietors could charge what they pleased, as the railroads were perfect monopolies.

Mr. Easthope

said, that he could not but be surprised at the extreme incorrectness that prevailed in the minds of several hon. Members as to the existing taxes on the means of communication, as if there were no taxes on conveyance by railways. There was, however, very considerable taxation on railroads, and he knew, that a very large proportion of the capital embarked in the railroads had never paid anything to the proprietors, although it paid largely to the State. He did not quarrel with this, but when hon. Members made these observations, did they recollect, that in taxing railroads they would be taxing themselves and the rest of the community, for it would be nothing more nor less than a tax on conveyance. The hon. Member said, that the railroads were monopolies, and the proprietors might charge what they please. If this were the case, did not the hon. Gentleman see, that a tax on railroads would operate as a tax on the passengers? If a monopoly existed, the railway proprietors might increase the charge to passengers to the amount of the tax. The hon. Member for Essex also spoke as if persons were compelled to travel by railroad, whether they would or not, and as if the interest of the proprietors of railroads did not consist in consulting the convenience of the public. He wanted to know, whether any thing had arisen to induce persons to abandon travelling by coach other than general convenience? None, however, could be more interested that the railroad proprietors in reducing the taxation on stage coaches, as nothing could be more for their interests than low charges for travelling by coach, as they would bring passengers to the railroads. He could not help feeling, that the notion of setting up railroad travelling against travelling by coach was a very superficial view of the question. He was sure, that no railroad company that knew its own interest would wish for a tax on stagecoaches or any other means of conveyance.

Colonel Sibthorp

would be glad to see a clear statement of the property held in railroads by Members of that House, and how they voted. For his own part, he had always voted against railroads, and should continue to do so.

The House divided on the original question:—Ayes 109; Noes 48: Majority 61.

The House then went into a Committee of Supply on the miscellaneous estimates.

Several votes were agreed to, and the House resumed.