HC Deb 23 March 1841 vol 57 cc556-68
Mr. Scholefield

rose to move the following resolution:— That the assessment of all property, real and personal, within the United Kingdom, would be a fit and proper substitute for such of the taxes of excise and customs as press most heavily on the middle and industrious classes; and that such alteration in the mode of raising the public revenue would be calculated, in a high degree, to enhance the value of all property, particularly, by leading to the fuller developement of the copious sources of wealth in this kingdom and its vast dependencies. He contended that the present system of taxation was extremely unjust to the working classes; it pressed them to the earth and kept them there. The revenue, under the present system, was raised principally, if not altogether, from the necessaries of life, and that alone was a strong reason for introducing a different system. The present system of revenue, moreover, was extremely partial; it favoured and protected the rich at the expense of the poor. In Birmingham and other manufacturing districts, the operation of the present indirect mode of taxation was felt to press with extreme severity, and unless some alteration was introduced, it was impossible that the country could meet the demands imposed upon it. The effect of the present system was to introduce civil war between debtor and creditor, and strife of the worst description between the employer and the employed. Surely it was time that some remedy should be applied; and he, for his part, saw no remedy that was likely to correct the evils of the present system, except the introduction of a system of direct taxation upon property. He believed that the pressure upon the working classes arising from the present unequal system of taxation, was the main cause of much of the immorality and crime that unfortunately at present existed. The working classes were, at present, disaffected, and why? Because they met with no sympathy on the part of that House. So dissatisfied were the working people with that House, that they had resolved to abstain from even petitioning for the redress of grievances; and he must say, from the experience he had hitherto had of that House, the working people were right. He trusted that the House would see the propriety of instilling a different feeling into that most important body, the working classes of the people. He would content himself by moving the resolution he had already read.

Mr. Muntz

, in seconding the resolution, said, that the proposition gave the House of Commons an opportunity for showing that it had some sympathy for the distress of the people. The poorer classes in this country were taxed out of all proportion, as he believed they paid nearly two-thirds of the entire taxation of the country. It was said that taxation and representation ought to go hand in hand, but that was not the case. The people were not represented, of which be could not have a better proof than the state of the benches around him. How did the House of Commons guard the interests of the people? By making Corn-laws which limited their subsistence, and monetary laws which oppressed them still further. The consequence of this was, a state of things in which no trade bore any thing like a legitimate profit. In his opinion, the only remedy for the national distress was a property tax, and he should, therefore, support the motion of his hon. Friend.

Mr. E. Turner

regretted to see so small a House on a question of this importance. There was evidently no desire on the part of the House to divide; and, if the question came to a division, it would be evident that the lower orders of the people had not representatives in that House who had sympathy with them.

Mr. W. Williams

said, he held in his hand a return which showed the articles consumed principally by the poor and middle classes. The first items in the return to which he alluded were spirits, malt, and hops, which articles paid a tax of 13,180,000l. The next items were sugar, tea, coffee, and tobacco, which four articles paid a duty of 12,700,000l. The duties paid, too, were not according to value, but according to weight and measure, so that the coarser articles, consumed by the poorer classes, paid a much heavier duty in proportion to their value than the finer articles consumed by the rich. Proceeding to another class of items, such as butter, cheese, currants, corn, cotton, sheep's wool, candles, tallow, glass, timber, and excise licences. These duties amounted to 9,300,000l. per annum, and were also collected upon the weight and measure system. Thus there was a total taxation in these items of upwards of 85,000,000l. If he went to the consideration of the stamp duties, he found the duties on the smaller stamps much heavier in proportion than on the larger. In reference to the window duty also the burden fell more heavily on the middle class than the rich. The taxes he had enumerated amounted to 43,700,000l., whilst the total taxation was 52,000,000l. Those items of taxation more exclusively paid by the richer classes only amounted to 5,200,000l., collected principally on the articles of wine, silk, auctions, post-horse duty, and assessed taxes, excluding window duties. Now, it was his opinion that, if we wished to preserve our manufactures, it was absolutely necessary to reduce the burden of taxation on the poorer and working classes, which at present swallowed up full half their wages, and which were enhanced at least twenty-five per cent. by the profit of the wholesale and retail sellers of the taxed artioles, the taxes on which must be paid before they can be sold to the public, and consequently form a part of the cost price. Some hon. Members looked to the repeal of the Corn-laws as a source of great relief. He believed it would, afford some relief, but he thought those persons much mistaken who imagined that a repeal of the Corn-laws alone would enable the manufacturers of this country to compete with their comparatively highly taxed foreign rivals. He had no hope, that this motion would be carried yet, but he believed, that the time must soon come when the discontent of the working classes out of doors would compel the House to attend to the consideration of relieving them from the burdens under which they now groaned.

Mr. Fielden

said, that nothing could show more convincingly how this House was constituted, and the way in which the interests of the people out of doors were treated by its Members, than a comparison of the appearance of the House last night, with the state of the empty benches this evening. He however thanked his hon. Friend for bringing forward his motion, as whatever might be its fate here, it must do good in the result.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, no doubt hon. Gentlemen would be inclined to draw an unfavourable inference, from the appearance of the House this evening; but it would not be fair, he thought, to attribute the absence of Members to a dislike to enter upon the discussion of any subject practically affecting the interests of the people. He believed, that Englishmen were of a peculiarly businesslike character, and that whenever business was to be done, the Members of this House would assemble in large numbers to attend to it, but that whenever it was generally supposed, that a resolution was to be moved, which could not with any practical use, be put upon the Journals of the House, they thought it no dereliction of their duty to stay away. His hon. Friend had brought forward this motion, no doubt, with the very best intentions, and he (the Chancellor of the Exchequer), was much obliged to him for his suggestions, and would certainly take them into consideration, with the various other projects relating to finance which were continually being offered to him. But, at the same time, he did not think it would be judicious to press this resolution at the present moment; for the adoption of it, unconnected with some other definitive matters of legislative detail, would immediately throw the whole of the commercial interests of the country into commotion. When the variety and im- portance of our trading interests were considered, which under existing laws were affected by the customs and excise, the announcement of the principle advocated by the hon. Member for Birmingham, would throw the whole of those interests into commotion, until the bills were brought in to regulate those taxes and duties which respectively affected them. He thought, that before the hon. Member called upon the House to affirm a resolution such as that which he now proposed, he should have been prepared to state what taxes he would repeal, upon succeeding in establishing a property tax. For his own part, he recollected, that a property tax had already been tried some years ago; and he could not forget, that at that period no language was considered too violent in deprecation of it, and that those who were most strongly opposed to it, were those who were engaged in commercial pursuits. Ten years ago, a noble Friend of his (Mr. P. Thomson, now Lord Sydenham), brought forward a motion on the subject of a commutation of taxes; but, in recommending the adoption of a property tax, for that must be considered as the practical result of his proposal, his noble Friend also specified the taxes which he would reduce or abolish. Of the articles so specified by his noble Friend, extending to seventeen in number, by far the greater number had already been wholly or in part freed from taxation. The tax upon hemp had been repealed; that upon soap had been reduced; that upon sea-borne coals had been repealed; that upon glass had been reduced; that upon calico had been repealed; that upon sugar had not been touched; that upon tea had been reduced; that upon tobacco had not been touched; that upon foreign spirits had not been touched; but that upon foreign wines had been reduced; and the duties for sea policies, upon fire insurance, upon newspapers, and upon advertisements, had all been modified or reduced; so that out of the seventeen items of taxation set down by his noble Friend for commutation for a property-tax, there were only four which had not since been either repealed, reduced, or modified. This had been done without the adoption of a property-tax. He was afraid, however, that they were not at the present moment in a state to enable them safely to hold out the same prospects of reduction of taxes. As he had said before, however, he should certainly give his best attention to the subject mooted by his hon. Friend; and his hon. Friend having obtained what he thought was his hon. Friend's object, namely, that of bringing the subject under the attention of the House, and of her Majesty's Government in particular, he hoped he would not think it necessary to press it to a division. His hon. Friend's motion was framed in terms very proper as a matter for discussion, but hardly in that practicable form to be of any useful result on being negatived or affirmed on a division. He should, therefore, beg, as an amendment, to move, "the previous question."

Mr. Hume

was bound in candour to confess that his hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, in the way in which he had introduced this subject, had not done it that justice to which it was entitled: otherwise the Chancellor of the Exchequer could not have treated it quite so glibly as he had done. He begged to differ, however, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer as to this being a proper subject to press to a division. He had no hesitation in saying that the taxes of this country were apportioned most unequally, and consequently most unjustly. It might be very true that certain items of taxation referred to by the right hon. Gentleman had been repealed or reduced since the noble Lord's motion ten years ago in favour of a property-tax. But the broad state of the case was still the same; the same inequality in the apportionment of the public burdens still continued. The higher and wealthier classes of society did not pay above 24 percent. of the taxes, whilst the remaining 76 per cent. fell upon the middling classes and the working man. The constant effect of the present system was to exempt property from taxation, whilst, at the same time, property claimed the exclusive privilege of legislating for the rest of the community. A more nefarious or ruinous principle could not be conceived, and it was very important, in his opinion, that the subject should be brought forward, and that the House should have an opportunity of expressing its opinion upon it. By affirming the resolution of his hon. Friend, they would be establishing this essential principle, that industry ought to be relieved from taxation, and that persons of large property ought to pay in an equal, if not greater proportion than their industrious and struggling neighbours. Why, under the present system, a man might have an income of 50,000l. a-year, and yet manage in such a manner as not to pay more taxes than a man with an income of 100l. a year. Another very hard case was, that whilst every description of personal property was taxed enormously, landed property was almost wholly exempted from taxation. The Chancellor of the Exchequer ought to revise the whole system of taxation. He should press on those who could bear the burden, and not on those who were perishing in wretchedness from day to day. If his hon. Friend had read the statement with which he was prepared as to Birmingham, it would show that, during no period of the last fifty years, was present distress exceeded. Let them go to Sheffield, Manchester, and Leeds, and they would find that our most flourishing manufacturing towns were at last reached by the prevailing difficulties. Under these circumstances, it was becoming that the Government should stop an evil which was spreading so fast. The poorer classes were not only burdened by taxation, but by regulations which tended to deprive them of employment. If ever there was an opportunity afforded for revising, not only the imposts, but the internal taxation which so hampered and restricted industry, it was how presented. The Government would never move until the House passed some such resolution as the present. If they did not take the Step in time, they would, ere long, be compelled to arrest an evil arising in the lower, and fast spreading to the upper classes of society. He should affirm the resolution as condemnatory of unequal taxation, and, because unequal, unjust.

Mr. Goulburn

maintained that the proposition of the hon. Member for Birmingham was not at all such as had been represented by the hon. Member for Kilkenny. It was not a resolution declaratory of the alleged unequal pressure of taxation, but amounted simply to an assertion "that the assessment of all property real and personal would enhance the value of all property," a manifest absurdity. It was impossible to exaggerate the evils which would inevitably arise in a state of society so artificial as this from any sudden change in the whole system of taxation. If, therefore, this motion did, as he contended it did not, simply affirm that such a change would be expedient, he, for one, should refuse his sanction to a resolution which, without fixing anything for the future, would throw at present all things into a state of irretrievable confusion. He defied the hon. Member for Kilkenny to prove that under the present system the poor man was oppressed, while the rich was exempted from taxation. The question of taxation was not one to be judged of hastily, merely by the amount of money paid by one individual or another to the tax-gatherer. The best mode of imposing taxes had been a disputed point in all communities. Some persons imagined that it would be advisable to take away at once so much of the capital of the country as would be necessary to bear the necessary expenses, white others thought it more expedient to operate upon that capital when it had become diffused throughout the community, and was expended in the various commodities required for consumption by all. He certainly was in favour of the latter mode; and his firm conviction was, if by adopting a proposition like the present, they violently removed that capital which put the whole industry of the country into operation, instead of taxing it in its diffused state, not only would the greatest confusion follow, but employment would be greatly diminished, and irreparable injury sustained by all the industrious classes.

Mr. Wakley

thought the worst system of taxation was that which supported an exorbitant expenditure. But, as his hon. Friend did not propose any reduction, but only the continuance by another mode of the present amount of taxation, he was surprised that the motion did not seem agreeable rather than otherwise to the House. His hon. Friend had tacked a sentence to the end of his motion, as a kind of bait for the great landed proprietors, who, however, were not so shortsighted as he might suppose them to be. He imagined that they would think his proposition, if carried into effect, would increase their incomes; but they appeared to be incredulous upon that point. The hon. Member had said that if this resolution were carried, the people would be convinced that it was the intention of that House to benefit the industrious classes. But from what he knew of the public mind he was sure the people would not be so easily convinced of so extraordinary a fact. It would take more than the passing of such a resolution to convince the working classes and the industrious portion of the community that there was a disposition in that House to lessen their burdens. The painful experience of many years had established in their minds a deep-rooted conviction of a totally opposite fact. If the House would produce a different opinion amongst the people, they must set to work in right good earnest, and prove by deeds, not words, that there was a heartfelt desire in that Assembly to ascertain fully the cause of the sufferings of the people, and to apply a speedy and effectual remedy. The Chancellor of the Exchequer in his very good-humoured speech, when he was wheedling and toying with the hon. Member for Birmingham, and trying to woo and win him into an abandonment of his resolution, was pleased to say that he had gained his object. "I really believe," said the right hon. Gentleman, "that my hon. Friend has gained his object by bringing this resolution before the House." Now, supposing the hon. Member for Birmingham had gained his object, certainly the Chancellor of the Exchequer might say of him that he was a man of very small expectations, for he believed that no hon. Member had ever submitted any motion to that House considering the extraordinary importance and vast magnitude of the question it opened, by which so little had been gained. What had his Friend gained? Was there a single promise, or anything like a promise, that any reduction of taxation was to be made or any change whatever for the better to be attempted? Had the Chancellor of the Exchequer proposed to relieve the labouring and industrious people of this country in the slightest degree from that heavy pressure under which they now laboured? No. On the contrary, the arguments laid down were calculated to agitate the fears and excite the apprehensions of, not only the industrious classes, but people of small capital also. The Chancellor of the Exchequer considered the proposition of his hon. Friend dangerous. "Take care what you are about," said he, "lest every thing in the country be thrown into confusion and ruin, for such must be the natural result of any sudden alteration in the mode of collecting the taxes." Well, then, there was to be no speedy change. But if it could not be sudden, might it not be gradual? Why did not the right hon. Gentleman say, that at some distant day a considerable change might be made, even it he qualified the declaration of the necessity for approaching that change gradually? When the right hon. Gentleman entered on his present office, he did so with professions of good intentions and with a mind ready prepared to meet the difficulties which he anticipated were connected with the duties of the situation. But he (Mr. Wakley) feared that the right hon. Gentleman, like those who had preceded him, proved that he had got into a huge machine which moved him, and not he the machine, so that if he attempted to turn round only for a moment to resist the impetus which urged him onwards he would be crushed by the uncontrollable force behind him. But then, it was the duty of the representatives of the people in that House to come forward as a body in the discharge of their duty, and aid the right hon. Gentleman and the Government, if they manifested any desire to relieve the distresses of the people. It was utterly impossible for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, without the sanction and support of that House, as an individual, to make those changes which the state of the country absolutely required. But when he looked around and saw the state of the House after such a motion as this had been placed upon the paper, a motion which after all embraced the principle of a property-tax, he was surprised. Where were noble and testy Lords? He did not think there was a Lord in the House. He would not stop to ascertain what amount of loss the people would sustain if they never came back to it again. Yet it was a remarkable fact that there were no Lords in the House on that occasion. [Oh, yes.] He begged pardon of those noble Lords, and quite envied them on account of their honourable exception. But on a question of such magnitude, involving all the interests of the country, and particularly those of the working people, one would have supposed, even if the motion had not embodied what the great majority out of doors desired, that still noble Lords would attend to enlighten the House with some of that vast knowledge they possessed on all subjects. At all events, the leading Members of the two great influential parties in that House might fairly have been expected to attend, especially in the present day of extensive commercial embarrassments, to state their views with reference to a property-tax. But they were left with a House of fifty Members to discuss a motion of such importance. Indeed, a short time ago, there were not forty Members present—not, in fact, what was called a House. He must say, that he thought that those hon. Members who absented themselves on the present occasion treated the country with great neglect.

Colonel Sibthorp

rose amidst loud cries of "hear." The hon. Member for Fins-bury was always inveighing against the Government, but why did he sit with them? "Tell me your company, and I'll tell you who you are." There was, certainly some ground for the complaint he made of the absence of the leading Members of the Government, for the right hon. Gentleman (the Chancellor of the Exchequer), in his solitary position on the Treasury bench, seemed like an outcast sent there to do the whole business of the Government, while his colleagues were enjoying the luxurious scenes from which he was excluded. The hon. and gallant Officer declared that it was his intention to oppose the motion.

Mr. Mark Philips

would advise his hon. Friend to withdraw his resolution for the present. The state of the House had been alluded to by several Members, and he would suggest to his hon. Friend to bring it on again on some night, when circumstances would compel the attendance of those whose duty it was to be in their places when so grave a subject was under consideration. He would suggest the night appointed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the bringing in the budget. He did not wish to get rid of the subject. He had, so far back as the year 1834, placed on record his opinion, that the taxes pressed too heavily on the industry, and too lightly on the property of the country. In 1834, he had voted in favour of the motion for the repeal of the Malt Laws, though Lord Althorp had threatened, that a property tax would be the consequence if that motion became law. He had since then parted company with hon. Gentlemen on the malt question, because he found, that they sought for a repeal of the tax, exclusively with a view to the benefit of the agricultural interest. He was well aware, that a property tax would be inconvenient to those who had to pay it, but it would compel them to consider how injuriously taxation pressed on other parties. If his hon. Friend divided the House, be should vote with him; but he was anxious, that this important question should be entered on with the fullest House possible, and, therefore, advised him not to press for a division at present.

General Johnson

rose for the purpose of making a request directly opposite to that made by the hon. Member who last spoke. He hoped the hon. Member for Birmingham would divide the House. He deprecated the practice of hon. Gentlemen bringing forward motions, and thus abandoning them without a division. He would say, in reply to the right hon. Member for Cambridge, that the resolution contained a very plain principle.

Mr. Scholefield

expressed his opinion, that even the landlords would benefit by the removal of the taxes on articles of general consumption, and his determination to divide the House.

The House divided on the previous question, namely, that the question be now put;—Ayes 27; Noes 40: Majority, 13.

List of the AYES.
Barnard, E. G. Rice, E. R.
Brotherton, J. Rundle, J.
Duke, Sir J. Salwey, Colonel
Evans, Sir De L. Stewart, J.
Fielden, J. Thornely, T.
Greg, R. H. Turner, E.
Hall, Sir B, Villiers, hon. C. P.
Handley, H. Wakley, T.
Hindley, C. Walker, R.
Hume, J. Williams, W.
Johnson General Wood, B.
Leader, J. T. Yates, J. A.
Marsland, H. TELLERS.
Muskett, G. A. Muntz, G. F.
Philips, M. Scholefield, J.
List of the NOES.
Baring, rt. hon. F. T. Howard, P. H.
Bentinck, Lord G. Inglis, Sir R. H.
Broadley, H. Johnston, H.
Bruges, W. H. L. Jones, Captain
Chichester, Sir B. Lowther, J. H.
Douglas, Sir C. E. Marsland, T.
Dundas, C. W. D. Monypenny, T. G.
East, J. B. Morgan, O.
Farnham, E. B. Morris, D.
Fitzpatrick, J. W. Pakington, J. S.
Fremantle, Sir T. Pigot, rt. hon. D.
Gladstone, W. E. Richards, R.
Gordon, R. Shaw, rt. hon. F.
Goulburn, rt. hon. H. Sibthorp, Colonel
Grimston, Viscount Stuart, Lord J.
Hale, R. B. Trevor, hon. G. R.
Hodgson, R. Trotter, J.
Holmes, W. Villiers, Viscount
Hope, G. W. Wilshere, W.
Worsley, Lord Smith, V.
Wyse, T. Seymour, Lord