HC Deb 10 August 1846 vol 88 cc566-75

House in Committee on the Customs Duties Bill.

On the Question that— Spirits, or Strong Waters, the produce of any British Possession in America, not being sweetened Spirits, or Spirits mixed with any article, so that the degree of strength thereof cannot be exactly ascertained by such hydrometer, the gallon be 8l. 10s.


Sir, being connected with the West India interest, my ancestors and myself having held possession of that description of property for upwards of a century, in fact ever since the first colonization of those islands, I take the liberty of stating a few facts that relate to that description of property. It is well known, and I believe painfully so to all West India proprietors, that the value of their estates has of late greatly deteriorated; to such an extent as in many cases to give no return whatever, and in others to cause an expenditure greater than the profit. When the twenty millions were granted by this House for the manumission of the slaves, it was certainly a generous boon; but in many cases that vast amount was very far from being a compensation, or in any manner an equivalent for the loss incurred. Under these circumstances, it appears to me that the West India proprietors are entitled to every indulgence. It was quite evident to all who gave their attention to West Indian affairs, that when the duty on corn was doomed by the Legislature, it would be impossible much longer to keep up the monopoly of sugar. In proposing an alteration in the Sugar Duties, the Government cannot be blamed; any Government whatever that ruled this country must have done the same, and I must admit that some of the provisions made by the noble Lord at the head of the Government are a great advantage to the West Indian proprietors. I allude chiefly to the admission into the Colonies of men of colour, and also to the proposed abolition by the local legislatures of the duty on various articles imported into the colonial islands. These benefits will materially improve the condition of the proprietors of the soil, and are well-judged concessions made by the Government: at the same time I cannot but express a wish that the system of free trade, which is the leading principle in the Sugar, as well as in the Corn Importation Bill, had been extended to the admission of colonial rum on the same scale of duty as home-spirits are charged with respectively in England, Scotland, and Ireland. The duty now on the importation of rum is 9s. 4d. per gallon; that of home-made spirit is in England, 7s. 10d. per gallon; Scotland, 3s. 8d.; Ireland, 2s. 8d. Since 1802 the consumption of home-made spirit has doubled; that of rum has decreased, In Scotland, it is only one-tenth of what it used to be; in Ireland, only one-fiftieth; surely, therefore, admitting the principle of free trade, as the rum on some estates is nearly equal to the value of sugar, is it fair to give free trade in sugar, and to deny it in the article of rum, which is nearly as essential to the well-being of our Colonies as the other? Just consider, Sir, the contradiction that keeping up the duty on rum makes. You state a broad and general principle, that of free trade, in colonial produce; you say all sugar after a time shall come in on an equality; and yet you keep rum out of the market, and say—no, you shall not sell your rum to the inhabitants of England, and particularly those of Scotland and Ireland, but at the enormous differential duty, with regard to Scotland, of 5s. 8d., and in Ireland of 6s. 8d. Surely you are not in this manner keeping up the principle of free trade! The Channel Islands last year were allowed by a Bill which I hold in my hand to import into Great Britain spirit extracted from sugar under certain regulations. If this was done to them, if this boon was given them, why should you withhold from the West Indian interest the same favour? You lay down a principle of free trade in corn and sugar; you allow all sugars to enter into competition with colonial sugar; in return, allow colonial spirit to enter into competition with British spirit. In putting the heavy duty on ruin imported into Scotland and Ireland, you encourage the illicit distillation at the expense of the West Indian proprietor, and injure the health of the population by giving them a spurious and fabricated liquor in place of the genuiue rum of the Colonies.


had, in the first place, to thank the hon. Gentleman for the terms of approbation in which he spoke of the measure of the Government with regard to sugar. He regretted the painful position in which many of those connected with the West Indies were placed; and no one was more anxious, consistent with his public duty, to do all in his power to afford them relief. With regard to the question immediately before the House, he denied that the principle of protection was involved in it. The difference in the customs duty on rum and the excise duty on British spirits, whether rightly or wrongly, he would not stop to examine, was imposed for the purpose of equalizing the fiscal burdens on these articles. The British distiller formerly said that unless the duty on rum was 2s. 11d. above that on British spirits, the latter article would not come into consump- tion on equal terms. That amount of difference had since been much reduced. He did not know what amount of difference the West Indians admitted should be allowed; but they acknowledged that there were some differences in the circumstances of the case, for which allowances should be made. There were fiscal charges to which the British distiller was exposed, which did fall upon the producer of rum. It was quite clear that the excise duty on malt threw an increased amount of taxation on spirits, whatever it might be. Again, the duty was paid on rum when it was taken out of the warehouse for the purpose of consumption; but the duty was paid on British spirits, so to speak, at the worm's mouth. There were other items of a similar nature into which he would not go on that occasion, but which entitled the British distiller to say that if some duty was not put on colonial rum beyond that paid on British spirits, these articles would not come into consumption on equal terms. That these articles should be admitted upon equal terms, was asked by the West Indians; and he admitted that it was a sound principle, and this was the reason which induced him at once to propose to reduce the difference of the existing duties one-third. He had been able to go so far without difficulty, and the British distiller did not oppose this reduction; and he was prepared to go farther, if it appeared on investigation that the justice of the case required it. He could not, however, go further in assent to the proposal of the hon. Member, without a much more lengthened inquiry than could be gone into at that time of the Session. As regarded the duties on Scotch and Irish spirits, the circumstances of the case were very different. Of late years the uniform practice had been to impose the same amount of customs duties in all parts of the United Kingdom. This was not likely to be departed from as a general rule, as it would open a door to smuggling which was now closed. The hon. Gentleman said that this measure of the Government was in contravention of the principle of an Act which passed last year, as to the importation of spirits from the Channel Islands; and he quoted this as a ground for doing the same thing with regard to the West Indian Colonies. If the Government proposed to put the introduction of colonial rum on the same footing as spirits from the Channel Islands, the hon. Gentleman would have little to thank them for. The duty on the spirit from the Channel Islands, which was imposed by the Bill alluded to, had operated as a prohibition, for since that Bill had passed, not a single gallon of spirits had come from the Channel Islands into the United Kingdom; therefore, putting them on the same footing would be most injurious to the West Indians. The trade which formerly ex-existed in spirits from these islands was a fraudulent trade, and now it was put an end to. It should be recollected that the excise duty must be levied on spirits in rather a peculiar manner from other duties. Every Gentleman in that House admitted that the article spirits was one of the fittest subjects for taxation; and as long as they could collect a full revenue, there was no amount of duty which should not be paid. This was the principle, and for no other principle the rate of duties in England, Scotland, and Ireland varied. What they had to look to was the amount, and the amount of duty which would not promote illicit distillation. The amount of duty might be carried so far as to operate as a high premium and a positive encouragement to illicit distillation. In England there might be some small amount of illicit distillation; but in proportion to the quantity of spirits consumed, he had reason to believe that it was not carried to any serious extent. The duty, therefore, of 7s. 10d. a gallon would be maintained without much illicit distillation. In Scotland, many attempts had been made to raise the amount of duty on spirits, but the result had invariably been, that the amount of spirits brought to charge had fallen off. This was abundant proof, not that a less quantity of spirits was made in that country, but that a much larger amount was obtained by illicit distillation. It was hardly worth while to detain the House by going into details; but he had returns before him showing the amount of spirits which had been brought to charge in Scotland, which, it appeared, varied inversely in the amount of duty. This was still more the case in Ireland. Whenever they had raised the amount of duty on spirits in Ireland, the revenue had materially diminished. When they again reduced the duty, the quantity brought to charge had doubled and trebled, and even more than that in both those countries. They were enabled, by observing this, to see what amount of duty was sufficient to put down illicit-distillation. He admitted that nothing was more anomalous than the different state of duties in different parts of the Empire. The peculiar circumstances of Scotland and Ireland, however, were too powerful for the Legislature as regarded illicit distillation. The spirit used in Scotland and Ireland was a raw spirit, while that made in England was a compound spirit. He believed that the different tastes, as regarded spirits, of the respective countries, alone could account for this. Although there was this difference of duties, there was not much smuggling except on the borders of Scotland; and there would be an increased inducement to smuggle if this distinction was made in the duty on rum in Scotland and England. For instance, if the same spirit paid a different duty on the opposite sides of the Solway Frith, and was sold 3s. 4d. a gallon cheaper on one side than the other, it would give rise to a a most extensive system of smuggling. Again, a large extent of the western coast of England would be open to the smuggling of rum from Ireland, if the duty on that article in the former country was 7s. 10d. a gallon, and in the latter 2s. 8d. It should be recollected this was not a spirit with respect to which a different taste existed between the two countries. He did not state this as in itself a sufficient reason for not going into the subject; but he wished to press upon the House, before such a measure was adopted, that it was wise that they should go into the whole question, and carefully consider the matter, so that they should preclude as much as possible smuggling. The people of England might reasonably say that it was hard upon them that they should pay so much more duty on the same spirit than the people of Scotland. It was a remarkable fact that there had been a material diminution in the consumption in rum both in Scotland and Ireland; and this did not arise from difference of the duty on that article at different times. He found from the returns before him, on going back so far as the commencement of the century, that the quantity of rum imported into Scotland in 1800 was 239,000 gallons, at a duty of 9s. a gallon, while the duty on Scotch spirits was 3s. 10d. a gallon. Thus the duties were nearly in the same relative proportion as now. In 1843, the quantity was 48,000, while in 1845, it was only 43,000. The consumption varied in different years; but it was utterly impossible to account for the reduction in the consumption of the article by any thing in the duties. During the war a very considerable quantity of rum was imported into Scotland; but he did not see why the consumption had fallen off so much. In like manner the importation of rum into Ireland had fallen off, and varied in the most unaccountable manner. He found the return of the importation of rum into Ireland to stand as follows:—

1801 1,059,000 1824 9,000
1804 180,000 1826 27,000
1809 1,063,000 1836 27,000
1811 150,000 1842 11,000
1113 460,000 1845 13,000
1814 90,000
During the whole of this time there was comparatively little change in the duty, at any rate it was not sufficient to account for diminution in the importation of the article. The question required the most attentive consideration, and, as he said the other night, he would promise that it should receive the most serious attention of Her Majesty's Government; but it was too late at this period of the Session to enter on it.


said, that the only objection which the right hon. Gentleman seemed to entertain on the subject was the fear of smuggling. Now, it could be easily shown that there was no ground for any such apprehension. The question was, whether rum was more likely to be smuggled from Scotland than Scotch spirits. On the south side of the Solway Frith, the duty on spirits was 7s. 10d. a gallon, on the north side 3s. 8d.; now rum would be placed on the same footing as the latter, and why should it be smuggled more than whiskey? He should have thought the common sense would have shown the right hon. Gentleman that there was nothing to fear on this account. Why should the people of Scotland be deprived of the power of drinking rum on the same footing, as regarded the duty, as whiskey, and so, also, with the people of Ireland?


trusted, if they accepted this proposition, that the reduction of the duty would be only regarded as an instalment of what was due to the West Indians. In 1826, when Lord Ripon was Chancellor of the Exchequer, the distinction of the duty between West Indian rum and British distilled spirits was fixed at 1s. 6d. During the last few days, he had had several documents under his consideration, which had been brought before him when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1830. Among others was a memorial presented to him by the distillers, in which they represented the difficulties under which they were placed by the increased price of the raw material from which they distilled their spirits, namely, foreign grain. They argued, therefore, that in consequence of the higher price which they had to pay, they had a right to a differential duty. He at that time reviewed the whole subject, and after maturely considering it, he proposed to impose an additional duty of a shilling a gallon on English spirits, leaving the duty on rum the same as it was before. He satisfied himself then that he could put the additional shilling on the British article without subjecting it to an unfair competition with colonial spirits. The Session of 1830, however, terminated, and the Government of which he was a Member was removed, and consequently the arrangement which he proposed to have made with respect to the spirit duties was not carried into effect. It must be recollected, that at that time not only was foreign grain dearer than it was likely to be now, but that then the West Indies had plenty of labour; and he thought that when the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer came to consider the question in all its bearings, he would be satisfied that the West Indians were justified in regarding the present measure merely as an instalment. The only way to enable the West Indian planter to supply this country even with sugar would be to place him on a fair footing with respect to other articles. He sincerely believed, also, that the only mode by which we could hope to terminate the Slave Trade was, by diminishing the profits of those engaged in it; and no means were so certain as measures which would enable the colonists to supply not only the wants of this country, but to send a large proportion of their produce in foreign markets, there to compete with the slave-grown sugar of other nations.


expressed his conviction that the existing differential duties were grounded upon the now exploded system of protection, and that it was intended that colonial sugar should have a preference over foreign sugar, and British spirits over colonial spirits. That system, however, had been avowedly abandoned, and we must now follow out, to their full extent, the principles of free trade. The right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer had referred to the fiscal difficulties which surrounded the subject of the spirit duties, and the danger of smuggling; but the reasons which he had urged might be very potential for introducing a change into the excise laws, but none at all for treating the colonists with injustice. The right hon. Gentleman must deal boldly with the question, for as long as the anomaly of the spirit duties continued, there was no prospect of a satisfactory adjustment of the matter.


observed, that the noble Lord the Member for the city of London had, while the Chancellor of the Exchequer was addressing the House, used in an under tone the words "in justice to this country." Now he was quite ready to argue the question upon the principle of justice to this country. If the Polish corn-grower had greater facilities for raising corn, and was subject to fewer burdens than the English agriculturist, that, as the House had already determined, was not a sufficient reason why the corn of the foreigner should not compete upon equal terms with home-grown grain. Why, then, should the charges which the English distillers had to pay be taken into account? As to their "plant," as it was termed, no doubt that was expensive; but so were a farmer's farm buildings. He wished to say nothing of West Indian distresses or West Indian misfortunes. We must go on, and not look back. The causa causandi, if he might so express it, of these differential duties, was the influence of the landed interest. The differential duty on rum, as compared with the duty charged upon British spirit, was bad enough; but when it came to a duty of 3s. 8d. on Scotch spirits, and 2s. 8d. on Irish whiskey, while rum was charged 9s. 4d., the matter became too ridiculous for argument. He called upon the right hon. Gentleman to follow out the principles which had already been acted upon, and to do justice to all classes.


observed, that his hon. Friend seemed to attach great importance to what he had said, while his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer was speaking. When he used the words, "in justice to this country," all he meant to say was, that the Government ought to have a little time to consider the matter, in order to enable them to do justice to England while they did justice to the Colonies. Let it be supposed that his right hon. Friend was to admit rum into Scotland at a duty of 3s. 8d., and that it became quite easy in England to consume smuggled rum which had paid 3s. 8d. only in Scotland, while British spirits were charged with a duty of 7s. 10d. That would cause great complaints among the people of England. All he said was, that these questions required some time, and that the Government ought to take them into consideration. He did not wish to do injustice to anybody, and all he asked was, that they should have time to take everything into consideration, and to hear all parties. He must say, that his hon. Friend opposite had argued the question from the beginning with perfect fairness, and had not taken advantage of any undue prejudices on the subject.


inquired when the reduction was to take place?


As goon as the Resolution is reported.


He would offer no opposition to the Resolution.

Resolution, with other Resolutions, agreed to.

House resumed. Resolutions to be reported.