HC Deb 07 April 1843 vol 68 cc678-87

On the motion that the Order of the Day for going into Committee of Supply be read,—

Lord John Russell

said that, as the House was now going into committee of supply for the last time before Faster, he would take this opportunity of adverting to some questions which did not appear to have been yet decided, but on which he hoped that some information would be given to the House, either at the present time, or when the House met, immediately after the Easter recess. The House would recollect that in going through the alterations in the Customs Bill last year some articles were left subject to the same rates of duty as had previously existed, while those duties were admitted to be objectionable on account of the commercial treaties with other powers which were either then said to be in the course of negotiation, or which the government sought to procure. Of course the suspension of these questions had somewhat of the same injurious effect as the tariff had produced, so long as the discussion on that measure had continued, and it was uncertain what duties were to be imposed. It did not now appear that any of those treaties had been brought to a conclusion. The treaties which were expected to have been formed were with Portugal, Spain, France, and the Brazils. With regard to Portugal, the right hon. Gentleman (Sir R. Peel) had informed the House some time ago that the British Government had made up their minds to adhere to their last proposal, and that if this were not accepted they must then break off the negotiation. As to Spain, he did not hear that any treaty was in progress with that country. With respect to France, it was stated some time ago that confident hopes were entertained that the Government would be able to conclude a commercial treaty with that country; but it did not appear that the French government thought themselves able, either from want of power, or from want of inclination on the part of the country, to proceed to the conclusion of the treaty. As to the Brazils, he had heard no statement made in that House, but the reports which were in circulation were of an unfavourable nature. With regard to this matter, he did not ask the right hon. Gentleman to state at once in what position these negotiations were; but as the subject was one of the utmost importance, both as concerned legislation with regard to articles of foreign production, and the immediate interests of all persons concerned in trade with the countries to which he had alluded, he hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would be able to state directly after Easter whether he expected the immediate conclusion of any such treaties, or, supposing that he was not able to hold out any sanguine expectations of their conclusion, would proceed on those principles which he had laid down last year, which he considered to be just with regard to commerce, and which he conceived, failing the commercial treaties, might be adopted advantageously by Parliament, both with reference to the people of this country, and to those Powers which might be disposed favourably to receive our manufactures. It was very apparent that though some of these commercial treaties might produce direct advantages to the country entering into them, yet that the very conclusion of such treaties, by reason of a supposition that this country, so long renowned for its commerce and success in manufactures, would obtain terms unduly advantageous to itself, often produced the greatest jealousy in the country by which they were conceded. There was one other matter with respect to which, he thought, there could be no objection on the part of the right hon. Baronet to give immediate information to the House, namely, the financial statement of the year. The financial year was now concluded, and the country was to a certain extent informed of the state of the revenue; but it was desirable that the House should hear either from the right hon. Baronet or from the right hon. Chancellor of the Exchequer, what were his views of the present position of the revenue, and of the comparison of the estimated expenditure and revenue for the year. When, at the commencement of the present Session, a motion had been brought forward for a committee of the whole House to consider the distress of the country, the right hon. Baronet had said that it was hardly fair for Members on that side of the House to make such a proposition when the measures of the government had not been proposed. They had not since been asked with any impatience for the production of those measures, but, considering the quantity of business of another kind transacted—considering the votes of supply especially, which had been agreed to, and the forward state of the supply, he thought that it would not be unreasonable to require that, when the House met after Easter, the government should be prepared to state, both with respect to the finances and the commerce and trade of the country, what measures would be proposed. The only measure as yet referred to was the Canadian Corn Bill, with respect to which the noble Lord (Lord Stanley) had stated that it was his intention to ask the opinion of the House immediately after Easter. For his own part, he was ready to consider that question, and he hoped that, with respect to any other measures to be brought forward, some immediate information would be given.

Sir R. Peel

said the noble Lord and the House must feel that it would be impossible for him to eater at that moment into any statements as to the several subjects to which the noble Lord had referred. With respect to the noble Lord's question as to the time when the House might expect to have a statement of the finances of the country laid before it, he was sure the noble Lord himself would feel that there were many circumstances which had rendered it impossible to bring forward a statement of the finances of the country at an early period in the session. The state of the finances last year had rendered it necessary to lay a tax on property to the amount of 7d. in the pound, and it was expedient that accurate information as to the working of that tax and its results should be obtained by the Government before the exact state of the finances of the year could be laid before the House. That information was now, to a considerable extent, before Government, and on the part of his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer he could say, that on an early day after the Easter holydays he would be prepared to lay before the House a statement as to the finances of the country and also of the intentions of Government. With respect to the state of the negotiations for commercial treaties, the noble Lord was as fully aware as himself of the effect of long pending negotiations on matters of this kind. He need not describe the difficulties which often arise in the course of negotiations, the prejudices which exist, and the jealousies the Government have to contend with. But in addition, they were also exposed to difficulties which could hardly be anticipated, from some change taking place in a foreign government, which rendered it necessary, if not to recommence the negotiations, at least to enter into lengthened explanations. He believed, also, that he had himself sometimes been the cause of impeding the progress of these negotiations, from his desire to give information to Members of that House; and the knowledge of this getting abroad, it often alarmed persons in foreign countries, and excited the fears of the manufacturers in those countries that their interests would be affected: and this fear of danger to them Was sometimes the cause of increased difficulties. He said this, as the noble Lord stated that he did not call upon him to eater upon any explanations at present. The difficulties of negotiating commercial treaties were not confined to the negotiations with arbitrary governments; indeed, he might observe that the spread of constitutional principles and the establishment of representative governments had not increased the facilities of making these treaties—on the contrary, it had rather increased than abated the difficulties. With respect to articles of luxury, when the duties were high upon them in this country, it was very natural before we lowered the duties that we should endeavour to get some corresponding reductions in articles of our produce in those countries from whence they came. But still he did not think that it was always politic to go too far in demanding reciprocal advantages, but that we should in case of serious impediments in negotiation pursue our own policy, without any reference to that of other governments.

Mr. Labouchere

was glad to learn from the concluding observations of the right hon. Baronet that it was his intention at an early period after the holydays to let the House and the country know what progress had been made in the treaties now pending with several states, and particularly in that between this country and France. He could assure the right hon. Gentleman that it had been the earnest desire of the late Government, of which he had the honour to be a Member, to maintain amicable relations with France, though it had differed from it on some points. He could state that the offer made to that Government of reduction of duties for corresponding reductions on its part was ample and liberal, and such as if viewed in the light of a bargain would have been found more favourable to France than to this country. He, however, had no desire to regard such offer in the light of a bargain, but rather as the basis of a fair and liberal reduction of duties on both sides, which would be equally beneficial to each. France had rejected the offer made to her, but he believed more in accordance with the prejudices of the people than with the sound views and just principles of its Government, for the people could not be persuaded but that in any commercial treaty the advantage must be all on the side of England and the disadvantage on theirs. Similar prejudices on the part of the people of Portugal and other states had hitherto retarded the negotiations with their Governments, and, indeed, such were the extremes to which those prejudices were carried and such was their in- fluence on the Government that we ought to be cautious as to what negotiations we entered into on commercial questions, for if such negotiations failed, the fact of their having been entered into was found to be exceedingly mischievous. The present state of the wine trade, for instance, the negotiations respecting which had been long pending, was a strong illustration of this, and he therefore repeated that we ought to be very cautious as to what negotiations we entered into. He was glad to hear the observations of the right hon. Baronet, as they tended to remove the anxiety he felt on one point—namely, pledging the Government to any large reduction of duties with respect to the produce of any country. He confessed that from what had fallen from the right hon. Baronet in the debate on the sugar duties last year he was apprehensive that there was intended sortie exception with respect to the duties on Brazilian sugar. He was now glad to learn that it was a tariff treaty which was meant, and not a commercial treaty, and the two kinds of treaty greatly differed in their nature and object. He had apprehended that there was to be some arrangement relating to the slave-trade carried on by Brazil which was to influence the duties on Brazilian sugar. He was glad to find that there was no ground for any such apprehension.

Sir Robert Peel

had not meant to state anything, nor did he think that he had said anything, which was inconsistent with the opinions he expressed last year with regard to the negotiations with the Brazils.

Mr. Stuart Worthy

could not help adverting to the recommendations of the noble Lord, that if these commercial negotiations with foreign states failed, that it would be for the Government to take another course, and to take into consideration what changes they ought to make in our tariff, entirely with reference to our own interests. Now, if it were supposed that such a suggestion would be acted upon, he was satisfied that all commercial negotiations with foreign countries would fail. It was as much as to declare that you would give all the advantages to a foreign country without any stipulation for any return. If this was the view which the Government and Parliament were to be called upon to take, it would be a far more effectual course to legislate without reference to foreign powers. He did not say, that this was his feeling in the mat- ter, but he wished to draw the attention of his right hon, Friend at the head of the Government to the point, and to this inference. He did not think, however, that if either Prance, Portugal, or the Brazils refused to enter into ax>y negotiation for the reduction of duties on our produce, that we should make the same reduction on articles imported from those countries as we were prepared to do under other circumstances.

Sir R. Peel

observed, that it was hardly fair to discuss matters of such great importance without notice, when he had merely risen to answer a question put to him by the noble Lord. All that he said was, that when the duties were high on articles of luxury, and with respect, to which there was no danger of smuggling—for instance, on such articles as wine—that it was advisable, when it appeared possible to make a reduction of the duty on it, to see whether we could not stipulate with foreign countries from whence it came to make a corresponding reduction on our manufactures. His hon. Friend must not infer that in all cases, because corresponding advantages were not granted, that we should insist on stipulations where the continuance of extremely high duties would only inflict injuries on ourselves.

Lord J. Russell

said, he had been misunderstood by the hon. Gentleman; he had merely said, that where negotiations failed, we should take such a course with reference to duties as our own interests and sound principles demanded; but he did not apply this to all articles, for instance, as regarded articles on which the duty was very high, and smuggling very great, it would be advantageous to diminish the duty. Again, with respect to articles of luxury, it might be very fair to make the reduction of duty a matter of negotiation with foreign countries.

Mr. M. Gibson

wished to remind the hon. Gentleman, the Member for Yorkshire, that it was the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government who first laid down the principle that whether foreign countries negotiated or not with respect to import duties, that if it was advantageous to this country, to reduce its duties, it ought to make the reduction without waiting to see whether other countries would make concessions or reductions. It was on these grounds that he objected to commercial negotiations altogether, and which he believed were, generally speak- ing, complete failures. What he had risen for was to endeavour to obtain some explanation from the right hon. Gentleman on the subject of the sugar duties. It was well known, that there was a very heavy duty on that article; now he understood the right hon. Gentleman to have said, that the reduction in the sugar duties was not to be considered as dependent on commercial negotiations with the Brazils, or negotiations with respect to the slave-trade, but solely dependent on the Brazilian Government engaging to make certain laws and regulations as to the continuance of slavery in that country. He wished to ask, what steps had been taken to carry out such arrangements.

Sir R. Peel

replied, that the hon. Gentleman's fertile imagination had suggested certain statements which the hon. Gentleman supposed that he had made, when he was not aware that he had ever said anything as to any negotiations of the nature described by the hon. Gentleman, on the subject of the sugar duties. On the earliest opportunity, he would take care to make a statement to the House on the whole state of our finances, and although he was aware, that the hon. Gentleman's constituents were naturally anxious on the subject, still the hon. Gentleman must excuse him if he did not make him an exception, so as to enter on the present occasion into an explanation on the subject of the sugar duties.

Dr. Bowring

had heard the declaration of the right hon. Gentleman with much pleasure. He thought from that declaration he should be able to find out what was the tendency of the right hon. Gentleman's mind. The more he thought on the subject, the more he was satisfied that, if we wished foreign countries to modify their respective tariffs, we must sot the example, and begin with reforming our own, He was convinced that, if the House and the Government were anxious to promote the commercial interests of England, that we must take the commodities of those countries with which we had any dealings. During the course of his experience, he had uniformly found that, when a foreign country was asked to reform its tariff, it pointed out the imperfections and the vicious policy of our own. He had not the slightest doubt that if our own were formed in a wide and generous spirit, it would be followed by a reform in those of other nations. If this were done, this country would soon he relieved from its commer- cial embarrassments, and our commerce and manufactures would be extended in the greatest degree.

Mr. Hume

was not so sanguine as his hon. Friend; but he believed his hon. Friend was right in principle. He was not going to address himself immediately to the question before the House. It appeared that the House had no power in it, and therefore the conversation that had just taken place was of very little importance. He wished to address himself to the right hon. Baronet on matters relating to the taxation of the country, and in reference to what was to be expected from him when the budget should be laid on the Table of the House. He held in his hand an estimate of what the right hon. Baronet expected their situation to be in April, 1843. The right hon. Baronet had estimated that the new taxes would produce this year a revenue of 4,340,000l.; that the income-tax would produce 3,730,000l.; stamp duties in Ireland, 160,000l.; spirits in Ireland, 250,000l.; and coal, 200,000l.. Now, with the exception of the income-tax, the right hon. Baronet's estimate had failed to produce the expected result. He, (the right hon. Baronet), expressed himself strongly opposed to an excess of expenditure over income, and made strong appeals to the House to support him in his endeavours to reverse that state of things; but although the House had supported him, the right hon. Baronet's expectations had not been realised, nor would he have a surplus of income over expenditure, unless he adopted the plan of reducing the establishments. He might reduce the establishments three or four millions sterling in the course of the present year without any difficulty. The noble Lord on his (Mr. Hume's) side of the House (Lord J. Russell) had raised them 5,000,000l. since 1835, and surely the right hon. Baronet might reduce them, if not to that extent, at least 3,000,000l.. With a view to a further reduction hereafter, he submitted that the right hon. Baronet had it in his power to make, and ought to make" reductions in the army and navy, and other establishments. Even in the miscellaneous estimates, which amounted to 4,000,000l., the right hon. Baronet could make, without any difficulty, a reduction of 1,500,000l.. He wished to see the income and expenditure of the country equalised, and no further additions made to the national debt, which had been augmented for the last ten years. With reference to our commercial treaties, he must observe that nothing could be more unsatisfactory than the state in which many of them at present were; and on that ground, as well as others, he counselled the right hon. Baronet to throw open our ports to such an amount of duties as would raise the revenue and lessen expense, instead of the present complicated mode of endeavouring to raise money without adding to the Exchequer. He thought the country would be better without those treaties.

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