HC Deb 22 June 1848 vol 99 cc1001-12

wished to put a question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, if that right hon. Gentleman had been in his place. The Irish distillers were dissatisfied with the arrangement whish the right hon. Gentleman suggested he was disposed to make with regard to the differential duty on rum. They would be content with a moderate extent of protection, and were not desirous of retaining the present rate of differential duty; but the question they were anxious to have answered was, whether it was the determination of the Government to adhere to the sum of 4d. as the differential duty to be hereafter imposed on rum.


, in the absence of the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer, said he hoped the hon. Baronet would give notice of his question for tomorrow.


rose, and was about to resume the adjourned debate on the Sugar Duties, when


interposed, and, observing that no Cabinet Minister was present, moved the adjournment of the House. He had given previous notice to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that he should put to him this question, which it was most important should be answered before the debate on the sugar duties was proceeded with. The answer given would determine not only the votes but also the speeches of hon. Members.


thought the course taken in moving the adjournment of the House altogether unprecedented. It seemed there had been a meeting of Irish Members with reference to the differential duty on spirits, when it was resolved that a certain question should be put to the Chancellor of the Exchequer; but no public notice had been given to his right hon. Friend. [Sir L. O'BRIEN: I gave him notice at four o'clock.] At all events no public notice had been given. The Chancellor of the Exchequer could alone answer the question. He put it to the hon. Baronet and the House whether it would not be more regular and more courteous to his right hon. Friend to defer the question until the Chancellor of the Exchequer was in his place at a later period of the evening, and in the meantime to allow the debate to proceed?


, having entered the House, said: With regard to the question which has been asked, I have in the first place to observe, that it does not immediately affect the matter before the House, as to going into Committee on the sugar duties. It is part of the plan of which I stated the outline on Friday last. Some of the Members of this House, representing their constituents, have made representations to my right hon. Friend; I had some conversation with him on the subject yesterday; he then stated that he was not fully in possession of their views. I had some conversation With him again today, when he said he had this morning some further information as to the views those Gentlemen entertained, and that he had the question still under consideration. We were to have some further deliberation on the subject, and my right hon. Friend, as soon as he can inform the House, will state what are the intentions of the Government on that point. I suppose the hon. Baronet wishes, although this is not the regular time for making a detailed statement of the scheme, for the reduction of the rum duties. I am not prepared to make it now, and I do not think it would be quite fair to postpone the Committee on the sugar duties until an answer is obtained to the question put by the hon. Baronet. My right hon. Friend will be in his place shortly, and will then give his answer.


repeated that the votes of several Members would depend on the answer received; and they were unwilling that the debate should go on until they knew the whole scheme of the Government.


Certainly I am not going to make any statement with the object of altering the vote of the hon. Baronet. We mean to make the proposition we think the best calculated to promote the interests of all concerned. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Droitwich has moved an Amendment to the effect that the protection to the West Indians is not sufficient; and if he thinks that the rum duty ought to be different from what it is, he must take his own course. We shall only propose what we think best for the public.


I think that the House is placed in a very extraordinary position. It is proposed that we should go into Committee to consider a specified measure that has been proposed by the Government. [Lord J. RUSSELL: The sugar duties.] But half of that measure, intended to be a measure of relief to the West Indians, was the reduction of the duty on rum to the amount of 5d. per gallon; and now we hear, unknown to this House, something of a bargain is being transacted out of doors between one of Her Majesty's Ministers, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the Irish Members; and it is expected by the Irish Members that the Government will reduce their measure of relief offered to the West Indians, quoad rum, by 2d. a gallon. I understand that the Irish Members are prepared, if that part of the Government measure which relates to the reduction of the differential duty between rum and British spirits be withdrawn, to support Her Majesty's Ministers in their proposition respecting the sugar duties. But while the West Indian interest and those engaged in sugar planting are, as is pretty well known, not satisfied with the measure offered to them, there may be a great many independent Gentlemen not connected with the East or West Indians, on the one hand, or the distillers, on the other, who may say, "This altogether is, upon the whole, a fair compromise; we think it offers sufficient relief to the West Indians, and we will not support the Amendment of the hon. Baronet the Member for Droitwich." But they may consider that 2d. a gallon on rum may make the whole difference; and if they were aware that the measure of relief was to be cut short to the amount of 2d. a gallon on rum, they would say, "We think that this measure is not now efficient as a measure of relief to the West Indies, and we will support the Amendment of the hon. Baronet the Member for Droitwich." I cannot conceive how the House can be in a condition to consider the Amendment of the hon. Member for Droitwich until we know precisely whether the Government intend to adhere to their own measure. [The Chancellor of the Exchequer entered the House.] I see the right hon. Gentleman is now in his place. I take it for granted he has made up his mind on the subject. He appears to be the dictator of the Government in this matter; perhaps he will inform us whether they mean really to persevere with their plan?


I hope I may be allowed to explain what I said, because the noble Lord has in a strange manner so totally misapprehended me. I stated, that whatever proposition we should make should be made with a view to the public interests, and public interests alone. Then, he says, we "re making a bargain with certain Members with a view to secure their support. This is the direct contrary of what I said. I must, therefore, again repeat that, although there is of course the greatest secrecy observed with regard to measures to be brought before the House with regard to finance and trade, it is usual, after being brought forward, that the Government should hear different parties who may be affected, who have modifications and alterations to suggest; and I stated that my right hon. Friend had under consideration the statements made to him on the part of the West India body, the distillers, and others; and, as I have already stated, our decision on these points will be with a view to the public interests, not with a view to obtain the votes of any hon. Members.


When any proposal connected with either finance or trade has been submitted to this House, it is usual for the Government to receive any communications that may be made to them by parties more immediately affected by it. I yesterday received intimation from the hon. Baronet that a deputation wished to see me on the subject of the differential duty between rum and British spirits, and on another subject, namely, an allowance for waste in British spirits in warehouse; whether the duty would be taken when the spirits were taken out, instead of when they were in the warehouse? The hon. Baronet and five other Irish Members Waited on me this morning, and stated their opinion, formed on the information they had received from the Irish distillers, that the reducing the differential duty from 9d. to 4d. would be prejudicial to the Irish distillers, and, inasmuch as it would diminish the quantity of grain converted into spirits, it would be prejudicial to the Irish grower. I heard the statements they made. I stated to them that, of course, it would be my duty to submit their representations to my Colleagues; and with regard to the second point, I had it under consideration, and, if it were possible to do it safely, it should be done. They then intimated to me that the votes of Gentlemen in this House would depend on the answer I should give to the question. My answer to them was that we had proposed what we believed right; all we could say was that the most attentive consideration would be given to their statements; and when pressed for an answer I said, "I must leave each Gentleman to take the course he thinks right." I could not pretend either to receive or dictate terms. I could state to my Colleagues the representations that had been made to me; and, whatever answer I might give, the deputation should take what course they thought proper. Before the usual time for the meeting of the House, I received a note informing me of the intention of the hon. Baronet to put to me a question to-night. I came down to the House for the purpose of answering the question of my hon. Friend, that the representations made should be considered. I sat here for some time; I was here for about half an hour. The House was engaged with a railroad discussion, in which, as the House knows, it is very seldom considered to be the part of the Government to vote, either on one side or the other. Having a good deal of business to do, I went back to Downing-street, where I have been till this moment. I came down whenever I heard that public business was likely to proceed. That is the real history of what has taken place.


The right hon. Gentleman has no doubt given a simple and accurate narrative. It is said to be a matter of the greatest inconvenience, when changes are contemplated regarding trade, that Government should hold communication with the different parties interested—indeed, it is impossible to do that until Ministers have made the exposition of their scheme to this House. But Her Majesty's Government must recollect that they have had the opportunity of making their statement, and it is their fault if, after having made that general statement of their plan, they have not allowed the country a sufficient interval between the first exposition and subsequent debate, and they must take the consequences. I must assume that they did not require the opportunity of consulting Her Majesty's subjects, because they felt confidence in their plan—it was perfectly matured—it was a matter of all others they had well considered. It is not for the noble Lord to reproach my noble Friend for the observations he has made. My noble Friend made no imputation whatever on the conduct of the Government morally; but, as an administrative body, they are open to very grave imputation, for they have no right to call on the House of Commons to debate their plan while a very important part of it is wanting. He expected an answer to a question, and the right hon. Gentleman has given us a narrative. We must consider the effect which that answer will have, not only on the division, but on the debate. Gentlemen naturally wish before they give their opinion on the plan of the Government that they should be acquainted with it; but their plan is not before the House; we cannot get it; and, what is more, the Treasury bench is now full of Cabinet Ministers, but we are no wiser than we were when, in the absence of all of them, a Motion was made for the adjournment of the House.


was astonished at the declaration of the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire that his noble Friend (Lord J. Russell) had no right to resent or even to call for an explanation of the imputation which the noble Lord the Member for Lynn had cast upon the Government. Why, he (Mr. C. Buller) asserted that every Gentleman sitting upon those benches, and every one who had at heart the honour of the House, ought to resent such an unfounded imputation. The hon. Member for Buckinghamshire said that the imputation was directed against the Government as an administration, and not against its morality. But let him remind the House of what had really passed. It must be conceded that the noble Lord the Member for Lynn never minced his language for fear it might be said of him that he sinned against good taste; and the words of the noble Lord were, that the Government were making a bargain—a bargain, he must be allowed to add, of the basest kind—with the Irish Members, in order to get their votes on this question. He had the highest respect for the candour and straightforwardness of the noble Lord, widely as he differed from him in his political views; but the House would allow him to call its attention for a moment to the exceeding recklesness and unfairness of the noble Lord's charge. The statement made by the hon. Baronet the Member for Clare was, that the deputation had acquainted the Chancellor of the Exchequer with the views which they entertained, and added that some of their votes might depend upon the answer he gave to the question put to him. No answer was given, and thus it clearly appeared that no bargain was made. His noble Friend at the head of the Government stated that the Irish Members must consult their consciences on the subject, and that the Government would consult their own consciences, without reference to the convenience of a division, and then the noble Lord the Member for Lynn called this a bargain. [Lord G. BENTINCK: I wanted to know what bargain had been made.] He thought it would be better if hon. Members would attribute to one another ordinary honesty and fair dealing, and not throw out imputations with such utter recklessness and levity as had marked the speech of the noble Lord. If he were inclined to throw out imputations of unfair dealing, he might say that the noble Lord and the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire seemed inclined to catch a few votes in the most extraordinary mode that he ever recollected. The noble Lord and the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire considered that the Government had given the West Indies too little protection, and on that ground they had determined to vote against the Government plan. On a sudden they found out that some Gentlemen were disposed to vote against the plan of the Government, because they considered that the West Indies would have too much protection; and it was on account of these few stray votes that all this hubbub had been raised, and that charges had been made, which he hoped, after the satisfactory explanation that had been given, would be completely withdrawn.


wished to say that there were points raised by the deputation, the first of which related to the differential duty. On that point his answer to the deputation was, that he would lay before his Colleagues the statements which had been made, and the arguments which had been employed. The other point was the allowance for wastage, and he had said that he was favourably disposed to the consideration of that matter, but that he could not give the deputation an answer upon it, until he had communicated with the Excise.


thought it impossible that matters could remain as they were, considering the position of the Government and the House. A question had been put by the hon. Member for Clare, whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer meant to adhere to the duty on rum as originally put forth; and he had not yet received an answer. It had also been distinctly stated, that the votes of Members would depend on the answer which the right hon. Gentleman gave; and yet no answer was given to the question. His noble Friend (Lord G. Bentinck) therefore said, that if they did not answer the question, they were evidently taking time to consider which course would give most votes, and that, therefore, they were doing that which was equivalent to driving a bargain. This the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Liskeard said would be downright immorality, if it existed. He (Mr. Stuart) thought that this was rather a harsh view of the matter; but certainly it was not a state of matters creditable to the Government or to the House. They were called upon to go into a great debate on West India distress, without the Government being able to tell them whether or not they adhered to one of the remedies proposed for that distress. He would ask if ever a Government was placed in a position so discreditable, and if such a state of things was respectful to the House? He did not see that it was the duty of the House to proceed with the discussion of this important question in such circumstances, and without knowing whether Government adhered to their plan or not. He did not consider that there was any moral imputation on the Government, but believed that the position they were in proceeded altogether from their weakness.


rose with great regret to prolong this discussion, which had lasted already a great deal too long; but the statements made by the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Stuart) were so extraordinary, that he could not help saying a few words. If the doctrine laid down by the hon. and learned Gentleman was to prevail, the whole course that every Government took in the discussion of complicated measures of trade must be entirely altered. He never recollected a large measure containing changes connected with the trade of this country being brought forward without the interests affected by those changes seeking an interview with the Government; and it was highly proper and necessary that the Government should not only receive representations from those parties and hear their objections, but that it should deliberately weigh those objections, and act upon them, if they were found to be well grounded. He, therefore, thought that in the present instance the Chancellor of the Exchequer had only done that which any Chancellor of the Exchequer would think it is his duty to do in similar circumstances. Certain representations were urged upon him by Gentlemen connected with a great interest; and his answer was, that he would treat their proposals with every mark of respect—that he would lay them before his Colleagues, and in due time give an explicit answer. If such representations, and such a mode of receiving them, were to be made a pretext for delaying the progress of the measure, he did not see how any measure, if met in a similar way, could ever be brought to a determination, undoubtedly, if the Government was induced by any undue pressure upon them to depart from the main principles of any measure they brought forward, the House would do well to condemn their conduct, undoubtedly, this question of the equalisation of the duties on foreign and home-made spirits was a very important one; but to say that they could not discuss the whole subject of the sugar duties without knowing whether the duty on rum would be 4d. or 6d., was, in his estimation, perfectly absurd. Were they not to go on with the discussion of the measure merely because the Chancellor of the Exchequer had received a deputation, and in answer to their proposals had told them he would consult his Colleagues? In 1846, when the system of the sugar duties which now existed was brought forward, the Government received frequent deputations on the subject.


did not understand that any imputation was cast on the Chancellor of the Exchequer for receiving the representations of those interested in this question. He knew very well that those who had to conduct public affairs frequently after the announcement of measures in Parliament had to consider the opinions of those interested in the proposed changes, and regulate their conduct accordingly; but the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Labouchere) must observe that the question before the House was, in many respects, materially different from this. The question with which they had to deal was, how were they to afford direct relief to a suffering interest? and the Government proposed a plan of which one component part was a relaxation of the existing duties on spirits imported from the colonies, and another part was an alteration in the existing duties imposed on another article of colonial produce, namely, sugar. Now, how far that relief might be effectual or not, depended not upon the rule they might adopt with respect to one of these articles, but with respect to both. And when the right hon. Gentleman said it was of no importance to the question whether they made the duty on rum 4d. or 6d.—that it was a matter of indifference whether 50 per cent was added to or taken from the duty, surely it was not extraordinary if those whose interests were hanging in the balance should he anxious to know before they gave their opinion on the plan, whether that duty of 50 per cent was to be given or not. They all knew that in the Session before last the Government were of opinion that the protecting duty should be reduced to 6d., but that they ultimately increased it to 9d. They weighed all the arguments of the distress on the one side, and of the Excise on the other; and now, when the right hon. Gentleman told them that it might be either 4d. or 6d., really their position was such they could not confidently pronounce an opinion on the whole subject.

Motion for adjournment withdrawn.


should like to know, if the noble Lord had considered the proposition of the hon. Member for Liverpool (Mr. Cardwell), as to the introduction of a temporary Bill for continuing and for limiting the period of the present sugar duties? They had lost so much time that night, that it was scarcely possible, with any activity on the part of the Government and the House, if the proposition of the Government was to be introduced in the shape of a Bill, that it could receive the Royal Assent before the 5th of July. The noble Lord was aware that there was an immense amount of foreign sugar at this moment in bond, and as his proposal was to afford relief to the West India interest, he would see that from 30,000 to 40,000 tons of sugar brought into the market at a reduced price must materially affect any measures of relief that could be proposed.


would see after the division on the Motion of the hon. Member for Droitwich, if there were sufficient time to go through with the proposition as made; and, if not, he should then be prepared to accede to the proposal of the hon. Member for Liverpool; but not so as the matter stood at present.


feared it was not possible consistently with the rules of the House to wait until the House should have decided on the proposition now under its consideration. It was a fixed rule to take only one stage every day of a Money Bill. There were seven stages to be passed in that House. The Bill must then go to the House of Lords and afterwards obtain the Royal Assent. This debate was not expected to close to-night. Supposing it closed to-morrow night, there were seven more stages to pass in that House before they could send the Bill to the House of Lords. If the noble Lord waited the result of the discussion before deciding, he would find it out of his power to carry an unopposed Bill without a suspension of the Standing Orders altogether Unprecedented.

Subject at an end, and adjourned debate resumed.