HC Deb 14 July 1845 vol 82 cc478-86

The House in Committee on the Coal Trade (of the Port of London) Bill.

On Clause 2,

The Earl of Lincoln

said, that in this clause he had to propose certain amendments. He need not go into a long statement of the necessity of widening the streets, not only of the city of London, but of other large towns. The evidence which had been given before a Committee of the House was conclusive on this subject, and on the necessity of providing funds for this purpose. It was particularly mentioned, that the greater part of White-chapel was badly drained, overcrowded, and that the streets, courts, and lanes admitted of no current of air. As early as 1812 there was a Report on this subject; but in 1838, a Committee was appointed, which consisted of several metropolitan Members, and they recommended the tax on coal. In the following year another Committee was appointed, with a still larger proportion of metropolitan Members, when the question was over and over again considered, and all were in favour of an increase of the existing coal tax. The coal merchants, with one single exception, gave evidence in favour of this tax. He had himself made inquiries of some of the most influential coal-masters, and they had shown, by the weekly returns of the coal market for several successive years, that as the rise was by threepences, the duty of 1d. could not be felt by the consumer. If the duty were now remitted, it would only go into the pockets of the coal merchants. The noble Lord concluded by moving, as an addition to Clause 2— In order to provide a fund for the opening of poor and densely-populated districts in the Metropolis, or for keeping open spaces in the immediate vicinity of the same, as a means of promoting the public convenience, recreation, and health.

Mr. Williams

wholly objected to the proposition of the noble Lord. He had as decided objections to a tax upon coals as he had to a tax upon bread, because, in this great metropolis, it was quite as much a necessary of life. The great bulk of the tax was paid by the poorer classes, and that was the reason why it had been so long maintained. Upwards of a million sterling had been raised from the tax within the last few years; 200,000l. had been spent upon that enormous job the Fleet Market, which had been of no use to any one. Why did they, in this case, depart from the mode of raising all other municipal taxes? Merely because the greater part of the tax was paid by the poorer classes. He had not the slightest objection to the plan of improvement proposed by the noble Lord; but why should not the cost of it be raised by a house-tax? There were thousands of people, who, residing in the vale of the Thames, would be subjected to the tax; and what possible good would their improvements in Southwark do to them?

Mr. Hume

would ask who could possibly benefit from the proposed improvements, except the owners of the property in the neighbourhood where they were carried on? and undoubtedly they were the parties who ought to bear the cost. The noble Lord had alluded to three Committees who had been in favour of the plan; but not one Coal Committee which had sat within these ten years but had made every endeavour to get the tax abolished. Even the last Committee, of which the noble Lord had been chairman, were nearly unanimous against his plan; and he did not consider it fair that he should bring it forward in the House, where he hoped to carry it, by the aid of Her Majesty's Government. He would, indeed, be sorry if the House should support the noble Lord. He would give all the opposition in his power to the further continuance of the iniquitous tax.

Mr. Masterman

was sorry that the noble Lord had determined to renew the tax. The city of London required no further aid, and the tax would expire with the year, and he thought the time had come when the poor of London should cease to pay the additional tax upon an article of such necessity as coal. He felt it to be his duty to vote against the proposition of the noble Lord.

The Earl of Lincoln

was, indeed, surprised to hear his hon. Friend oppose his proposition, and the more so at the grounds on which he rested his opposition. He had not intended to inform the House of the manner in which his proposal originated; but he felt himself compelled to do so after what had fallen from his hon. Friend. The tax was about to expire, when he was waited upon by a very influential gentleman connected with the City, who represented that the repeal of the tax would benefit no person in the world except the coal merchants. He agreed with him in that opinion, and having consulted with his right hon. Friend at the head of the Government, he adopted the scheme. He was the more astonished at what had fallen from his hon. Friend, because it was not a long while since he headed a deputation to his right hon. Friend, when a proposal was made, not for continuing that small tax, but to impose an additional duty of 1s. 6d. a ton for the sole purposes of the city of London. His right hon. Friend certainly had told his hon. Friend behind him that considering the taxes already levied in the metropolis for the sole benefit of the city of London, it would be most unfair to subject it to an additional duty for that purpose, and he declined to accede to the proposition. His hon. Friend and another hon. Gentleman connected with the city of London, the hon. Member for Preston, had attended before the Committee, and not only advocated, certainly more ably, than he (Lord Lincoln) could do, the continuance of the tax; but argued against the supposition that the remission of it would be a benefit to any but the coal merchants. He (Lord Lincoln) told his hon. Friend, that the city of London having got a million and a half for improvements, he thought it right to look to Whitechapel, Southwark, and Lambeth, in which there were poor and densely-populated districts which much required improvement, and that if the penny was to be granted at all, he should propose that it should be appropriated to the benefit of those places. And yet now, after all that had passed, his hon. Friend came and said, that under the circumstances he should oppose the tax being imposed at all.

Mr. Masterman

said, in explanation, that he had said in the Committee that if the tax was to be carried, the city of London would expect a portion of it of course.

Viscount Howick

said, that this bill would tax the consumers of coal in the valley of the Thames, in order to make improvements in which they had no interest whatever. He knew the condition of the labouring classes in that district, and he was aware that in Staines, and Datchet, and Windsor, the high price of coals was a serious evil to the working classes. When he looked to the condition of the working classes in that district, as compared with the condition of the same class in his native county, he could not avoid remarking the inferiority of the condition of the labouring classes in the valley of the Thames, and he attributed much of that to the price of fuel; he was, therefore, opposed to this tax upon coal for a purpose in which a great number of the consumers had no interest. Another objection to the tax, was its indirect operation as regarded the poor man, who in consequence of buying his coal in small quantities, would be obliged to pay twopence instead of a penny a ton as a tax. It would be highly desirable to expend a considerable outlay in improving localities densely populated; but there were sources available for that purpose infinitely preferable to this, one of which would be the levying of a house tax, or of a tax upon the ground-rents in the particular districts selected for improvement. To adopt either of these modes would enable the Government to raise a sufficient tax from the owners of property, instead of an insufficient tax from the labouring and poorer classes. The value of property in the improved districts was increased to the full amount of the tax, if not in a much greater ratio. These were his grounds for opposing this tax. It was highly objectionable as concerned the labouring classes who paid the tax throughout the valley of the Thames. He thought the Government might have commuted the whole tax; and he, for one, would not consent to the continuance of even a portion of it.

Sir R. Peel

said, that the object contemplated by his noble Friend was not the mere ornament of the metropolis, but that his proposal was simply to constitute a fund for public improvements, which could not be appropriated without the sanction of Parliament; and when his noble Friend asked the House to let him appropriate this fund, he was desirous expressly to provide by it the means of promoting the health and comfort of those districts of the metropolis where, from the crowded state of the buildings and dwelling-houses, there was the greatest liability to disease. Of late years very general attention had been called to this important subject. He (Sir R. Peel) would confine himself now to the metropolis, and to the particular parts of it, the salubrity of which it was proposed to promote; and, in so doing, he felt it his duty to call the attention of the Committee to specific facts, connected with the state of those parts of the metropolis. Dr. South-wood Smith, a gentleman of great talent and experience, had directed his attention to this subject, and had personally observed the condition of the metropolis in its several districts. He had attended for many years at the Fever Hospital, and observed: The records of the London Fever Hospital prove, unhappily, that there are certain localities in the metropolis and its vicinity which are the constant seats of fever, from which this disease is never absent, although it may be found to prevail less extensively and with less severity in some years and some seasons than in others, but still in which it is incessantly committing its ravages. The work from which the right hon. Baronet quoted then went on to state that the author's experience, during the present year, afforded a verification of the correctness of these statements. The metropolis had been visited by an epidemic, which was still raging, but which did not prevail in every part of London; nor did it prevail even in every fever district; for there were districts in this town known by that name. The author was asked why he called these districts by that name; to which the reply was, that— There are many districts in which fever is always so prevalent that the localities in question may be regarded as the ordinary seats of that disease. Farther on it was stated, that— From the commencement of January to April in the present year, we have actually received into the wards of the hospital five hundred fever patients, and during a considerable portion of that time applications for admission have been refused, at the rate of thirty or forty a day, in consequence of there being no accommodation for them. And again— In some districts there is hardly a single house in which fever has not prevailed, and in some cases hardly a single room in a house in which it was not to be found. I have observed this in particular to be the case in certain localities about Bethnal-green. Now the object of the present measure was to provide a fund for the purpose of counteracting, and, if possible, wholly removing these evils. A Committee had suggested that the best mode of so doing was to put a duty upon coal. The noble Lord suggested a tax upon property, on the property of those who would be benefited by the contemplated improvements. That certainly appeared, at first sight, both judicious and rational. Nothing, however, was more difficult, when they came practically to deal with the question, than to say precisely who were the parties so benefited. If they could tell him who were the parties who would be benefited by improvements such as contemplated in Bethnal-green and Whitechapel, and enable him to apportion properly and equitably those burdens which, on account of the benefits which would accrue to their property from improvements, they would be liable to bear, he would willingly wave the proposition now before the House, and adopt the suggestion which had been made. The improvements contemplated would be beneficial to several districts, not only in a healthful but also in a moral point of view. The Government, therefore, proposed—having no other means at present at command liable to less objection—to continue for a definite period the tax of one penny a ton upon coals, a tax which was now in existence. When it became a question, when there was a duty already existing of thirteen pence a ton, and which was to endure until the year 1862, with the exception of a penny a ton of that duty, which was about to expire, what was to be done with that small duty so about to expire; the Government proposed that the penny a ton should be continued for the same period as the other twelve-pence, in order that—the twelve-pence being applied to other purposes—the additional penny might be appropriated, not to the purposes of the Government, but for the purpose of constituting a fund from which the districts of the metropolis, called the fever districts, should be supplied with the means of necessary and permanent improvement. Looking at the parties to be benefited, looking at the evils under which these parties now suffered, at the fevers and other diseases which existed amongst them, and contrasting these sufferings with the absolute good which would arise from giving, for a certain number of years, such a sum as 11,000l. a year to form a fund for the mitigation of the evils alluded to, he could not but think that the actual practical physical good which would accrue from such an appropriation would greatly predominate over all the objections to the tax. Those were the grounds on which he gave his cordial support to the Motion of his noble Friend.

Mr. Alderman Humphery

would not have said one word, had it not been for the fallacy of the noble Lord's proposition, when he said that the poor were to be benefited by the penny tax being taken off. He would like to know if the taking off the duly would reduce the price of coals to the poor? Now, by every improvement which took place in London the poor received a positive benefit. As one instance of this, he would like the noble Lord to see the number of those employed in the manufacture of bricks, called for by the various improvements at present in progress. As to the benefit which it was said the poor would derive from the abolition of the tax of an additional penny a ton on coals, he would like to know how many poor families consumed more than one ton a year? In that case the saving to each family would be a penny a year.

Mr. Hawes

said, that all parties were agreed that this was in itself a bad tax. The right hon. Baronet said, that it was extremely difficult to suggest any other tax as a substitute for it, and as the Government were anxious that great sanatory benefits should be conferred upon certain districts, they were reduced to the necessity of continuing this tax. He, however, wished to know if the Commission had ever seriously inquired whether a substitute could or could not be found? So far as he had learnt, he believed they had not. It was worthy of remark, that upon that Commission were few persons connected with the metropolis. Nor was he ready to believe that the residents of the metropolis would not consent to the imposition of some other tax as a substitute for this, for the purpose of affording a fund by which to effect improvements. A great deal had been said about the price of coal. As far as the price was concerned, much effect might not be produced, either one way or other, by the remission of the duty. He objected to the continuance of this tax, because he believed that a little more investigation would have led to the discovery of a better source of taxation, for the purposes contemplated—a source free from the objections which were chargeable upon this tax; and which, if it pressed heavily upon individuals, would fall upon the rich and not upon the poor; whereas the coal-tax was distinctly a tax pressing upon the poor for the benefit of property, wherever its proceeds were to be expended in improvements.

Sir Charles Lemon

was understood to say, that the Committee did inquire whether a substitute could not be discovered for the present tax, but had come to the conclusion that such could not be found.

Mr. Hutt

regretted that the noble Lord (the Earl of Lincoln) had come forward as the advocate of such a measure as this. It was a proposition for laying a tax upon the poorer classes, in opposition to every principle of sound policy. He objected to the principle of the tax—not to its amount; but the question of principle had been altogether abandoned by the noble Lord. Already the amount of taxation to be paid by coal coming from the north of England was disgraceful to the legislation of the country, and the noble Lord would gain but little credit from attempting to increase it. He trusted the House would, notwithstanding the confidence which the noble Lord reposed in his majority, after the discussion which had now taken place, rally round sound principle, and defeat the Government.

The Committee divided on the Question, that the words be inserted:—Ayes 69; Noes 42: Majority 27.

Remaining clauses agreed to.

House resumed. Report to be received.