HC Deb 26 February 1850 vol 109 cc68-78

hoped that the same unanimity which had prevailed in the House with regard to the last two measures would be extended to his Motion. Those who had been in Parliament some time knew that when there was a surplus in the Exchequer, a great number of appeals were made to the Government for relief from pressure. He had stated on the first night of the Session that he conceived some relief for the labourer was more called for than any other, and urged upon the House the necessity of adopting some measures for the amelioration of the condition of the labouring classes, and more particularly as regarded the improvement of their habitations. He had alluded to the strong desire which had been manifested by the higher classes during the last two or three years to increase the comforts and promote the health of the labouring classes. With this view also, they had established boards of health, and had directed the removal of nuisances, and had passed Acts of Parliament to promote to a very great extent the carrying out similar objects. Among other improvements they had effected, was the putting a stop to the making cellars in Liverpool, and other places, human habitations. A great number of reports from all parts of the country had been printed as to the manner in which the labouring classes were lodged. He would not trouble the House by reading extracts from these documents, for he hoped hon. Members had made themselves acquainted with these papers. Up to very lately the condition of the labouring classes had been shamefully neglected, and, above all, by the Government. It appeared from statements received from various quarters, that the expense of building cottages for the labouring classes was so much increased by the duties on timber and bricks as to operate in many instances as a positive prohibition to their erection. These duties then operated directly as a positive check on the social comfort and happiness of the labouring classes. He had recently visited several cottages, and was much struck with one in which were a man and his wife and eleven children, and they were huddled together without regard to decency or comfort. He was convinced that the great impediment to the erection of comfortable cottages for the poor was the high duties levied on timber and bricks. The consequence had been, that the proprietors or builders of these cottages had been prevented from using foreign timber. It was almost impossible to estimate the effect produced by the brick duty upon the erection of these cottages; but he had been informed that 10 per cent on the cost was about the average increase of cost. There was no one who would not regret the uncomfortable state of the homes of those classes upon which so much of the welfare and prosperity of the country depended. One effect of it might be traced in the consumption of spirituous liquors, and in the resort of those classes to public-houses, which offered those comforts and relaxations of which their dwellings were destitute. Discomfort alienated a man from his home, and it was probable there would not be such a consumption of ardent spirits by the population if the dwellings of the poor were better adapted for health and comfort. It was for reasons such as these that he had put in a word to the Government at the early part of the Session, as to whether some relief could not be given in regard to those taxes which operated counter to the general wishes and intentions of the country for the improvement of the abodes of the poor. Instead of making the poor man's abode comfortable, where he might spend his leisure hours, he was permitted to be drawn to the public-house, where he contracted habits of inebriety. It was impossible to account for the state of the country with regard to the consumption of spirituous liquors, when from 30,000,000 to 36,000,000 of gallons, diluted as it was, of ardent spirits, were consumed by the population of this country, upon any other ground than that of the working people having no comforts at home, no enjoyments at their fire-side, the most happy and comfortable situation in which they could be. They were expending a large sum of money; but of what value was it if they found that, instead of rendering the poor man comfortable, they put it out of the power of proprietors to build cottages for them, by not remitting these taxes? How few of the working classes, who received 8s. or 12s. a week, could afford to pay 50s. or 3l. for a single cottage. A cottage could not be built for less than 50l or 60l. Labour was cheap, but the taxes on building materials pressed so very hard that he would be glad to have the duty on foreign timber removed; and in mentioning it he saw that notice was given by an hon. Friend behind him to bring the question of the remission of the duty on timber forward, for in his opinion timber and bricks ought to sail in the same boat. He was met by all sides of the House with the question of how he could guard against fraud, and what security could be given that a cottage, let at a rent of 3l. in order to get a drawback, may not be lot to the next tenant at a rent of 5l. or 6l.? He confessed there were difficulties in the way, and the only way to get rid of these difficulties was by taking off the duty on bricks altogether. He, therefore, wished the House to express an opinion on that subject. The following was the amount of net receipts for the last ten years:—

Years. England. Scotland. Ireland.
1840 £504,881 £18,498 Nil
1841 431,256 11,762 Nil
1842 383,700 9,350 Nil
1843 348,177 7,104 Nil
1844 439,183 10,792 Nil
1845 545,202 16,665 Nil
1846 619,752 18,670 Nil
1847 661,815 19,514 Nil
1848 445,672 10,173 Nil
1840 444,552 11,900 Nil
£4,813,190 £134,428 Nil
The average amount of the brick duty during that period, according to the Excise return, was, for England, 481,319l. a year, and for Scotland 13,442l., while the expense of collecting it was 20 per cent. Take that 20 per cent off the price, and they conferred at once a boon upon the poor man. When they looked at houses for agricultural purposes, they would find this tax stopped every improvement that would otherwise take place. By removing the duty on bricks, the benefit would not he confined to cottages; they could scarcely tell the advantages that would accrue from it. The benefit would be such as that arising from the remission of the duty on glass. They were spending money for the comforts of the poor; but while those taxes remained, they were stopping with one hand what they bestowed with the other. He was sorry the noble Lord the Member for Bath was unable to bring forward that evening the Act for the repeal of the window tax, for the tax on windows and bricks interfered with the progress of those important improvements that tended so much to the health of the country. It was scarcely possible not to pity the poor man who came to a damp cottage, and yet the homes of the poor were neglected from day to day and month to month; and when the small quantity of fuel which they could afford in the winter months was considered, it was astonishing how they sustained themselves. Taking into account, also, the smallness of their wages—for Parliament could not interfere with wages, nothing could regulate that but supply and demand—it was a want of humanity in the higher classes that these taxes should have been allowed to remain so long. He confessed that great relief was conferred by the measure of 1842, which remitted many of the taxes upon industry, the removal of the tax upon bricks would be an important addition to that relief, and would add to the comforts which all should be desirous to confer upon the working classes. He hoped the House would express its opinion that this tax should be repealed, for the time was coming when the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer should make up his mind how to bestow the surplus. That was one of the modes. But he would go further, and say that if there were no surplus the Government ought to reduce the expenditure in order to relieve the country from those taxes which were injurious to the health, and in every way pressed upon the labouring classes.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That this House, taking into consideration the condition of the cottages of the labourers of this Kingdom, and the want of adequate accommodation for their families, is of opinion that a Drawback should in future be allowed on the Bricks and Timber employed in the construction of cottages, as a means of lessening the expense of their erection.


said, that his hon. Friend had very frankly stated what his object was in bringing this question before the House. Had he not so stated that object, it would have been difficult to collect, from the terms of the Motion itself, what his intention really was. His hon. Friend said he wished to obtain the expression of an opinion from the House in favour of a repeal of the duty on bricks, and therefore he (Mr. Labouchere) would address himself to the speech of his hon. Friend, rather than the exact terms of his Motion. The House would remember that but a short interval would elapse before his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer must state the views of the Government relative to the taxation of the country, and what questions of taxation they were prepared to entertain; and he thought they would agree with him that it would not be expedient, during that interval, to discuss any specific proposals with respect to particular taxes. On that ground alone he should be prepared to resist the Motion before the House; but even if his hon. Friend's proposal was thought expedient—if it should be the opinion of the House that the best use of the surplus would be to devote it to the repeal of the duty on bricks, he should still object to the expression of that opinion in the terms proposed by his hon. Friend. His hon. Friend, seeing the difficulties in the way of placing his proposed limit of 4l. per annum, which would obviously give rise to fraud—for how could it be certain that a man would not add a story to his cottage and make it worth 10l.?—had withdrawn those words; but the test which remained was no better. Who was to define what was the cottage of a poor man, as distinguished from a house? Many would be built under the protection of his hon. Friend's proposition, which would have little claim to the proposed exemption. He could not conceive a more dangerous test could be admitted. Moreover, if the House adopted the principle of drawbacks, they would open the door to fraud. How, when bricks were taken out for building a cottage, could the certainty be obtained that they were not applied to some other purpose? It had been of late years the policy to discourage the principle of drawbacks, but if it were applied at all, there were other classes who would prefer their claims. The gentlemen connected with the shipping interest would have a very strong claim to a drawback on the duty on timber used for the building of ships. Again, with respect to the timber employed in mines, there was a notice on the paper for a drawback upon that article when so used. His only object in mentioning these things was to point out what a large principle the House would admit if they affirmed a proposal of this kind. He must also say that he doubted the policy of encouraging the building of a very low class of houses. The House had already discussed that question on a Motion by the hon. Member for Stroud, and the general expression of opinion was, that while it was for the interests of the poor to improve their dwellings as much as possible, it was not with reference to their interests advisable to encourage the erection of a very low and inferior class of habitation. He contended, however, that even if the House should think that it was desirable to express that these duties ought to be remitted, the mode proposed by his hon. Friend was not the way they should do so. He therefore addressed himself to what his hon. Friend avowed to be his object—the repeal of the duties on bricks and timber, and he should act inconsistently with his official position if he expressed any opinion for or against the remission of those duties. Until the financial statement was made, the Government would reserve their opinion, and say nothing which could lead the public to suppose that they were in favour or against the remission or continuance of any particular tax. He hoped, therefore, the House would excuse him from arguing the expediency of repealing or keeping up this or any other tax until that time. On these grounds he should object to the House coming to any resolution upon the general question of remitting the duties upon timber and bricks before his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer had made his financial statement; whilst, with regard to this particular proposal, he held it to be quite inexpedient upon its own merits.


admired the wisdom of any Minister of the Crown who abstained from expressing an opinion upon a question like the present before the financial statement of the Government had been made: but the conduct which it might be proper for a Minister to pursue under such circumstances might by no means be wise in an independent Member of Parliament; for he well knew that as soon as the financial statement was made. Ministers could say "the case is now made up, and we cannot reopen the question." It was on this ground he ventured to offer some observations upon the tax on bricks. Notwithstanding certain speeches which had been made elsewhere, he did not believe that a majority of that House had any intention of doing injustice to the labouring classes. At the same time he was sure injustice was done to the labouring classes owing to the House not being aware of the way in which this tax operated. The hon. Gentleman opposite informed the House a few nights ago, that he would make his Motion, for repealing the duties upon timber and bricks, a national question. He (Mr. Drummond) confessed he had never heard a great national question, which this was to be, built upon so narrow a foundation. For his own part, whilst he advocated not merely a remission or drawback, but a total relief to the manufacture of bricks from the interference of the Excise, he admitted that the relief would only be partial, and that it would be confined to certain parts of the country. Where stone was plentiful, the tax on brick was not severely felt; but where stone was scarce, or difficult to be obtained, there was a natural anxiety among those who were building cottages for the occupation of the poor that bricks should be obtained for that purpose as low as possible. Many hon. Gentlemen had no idea how the tax on bricks worked in other ways. Gentlemen in the country were anxious to build cottages for the poor. They could not erect them for less than 100l. each. But if a tradesman could get hold of a piece of land he built cottages very little larger than those which cost the country gentleman 100l. each, which he let for 10l. a year, and the occupier made his rent by letting off each room to a whole family. The consequence was, that whilst one party was endeavouring to provide one cottage for one family, the other was perpetuating the evils of overcrowding. The abolition of the brick tax would enable proprietors to remedy this evil to some extent; and there was another way, too, in which it would afford immense relief. It was his certain conviction that a great change in the occupation of land must take place. It was impossible, he knew, that farmers could continue to occupy so much land as they did now. They would be obliged to give up one half, and employ all their capital in cultivating the remaining half. There must, therefore, he a great increase in the number of farm buildings. In those parts of the country where there were no building materials, naturally the expense of bricks was far greater than the Government seemed to suppose. The tax, it was said, increased the cost of bricks one-fourth, but the real and practical effect of it was to increase the price two-thirds. The benefit of a remission might be said to be small. Certainly in many parts of the country it would be as nothing; but there were other districts where it would be very great; and he was happy to find that those who approved of a remission were not met with sneers about "ulterior measures," and that in voting for a repeal of the duty on bricks they were not taken to be voting for overturning the Government. The fact was, they were voting for that which they believed would essentially promote the interests of the poor; and there they left the matter to stand upon its own merits. He should oppose the Motion of the noble Lord the Member for Bath for a repeal of the window tax, upon the ground, that before you could have windows you must have a house. On the same principle he should oppose the remission of every tax except those which pressed directly upon the poorest classes; but he would not have it thrown in his teeth that, a so doing, he wanted either to embarrass or to get rid of the Government; for he held, as he had said over and over again, that if they wanted money, they ought to raise it by taxing property.


could not help assuring the House that it was perfectly useless to attempt to improve the condition of the poorer classes by education, unless at the same time attention was given to the means of improving their habitations. In Norfolk and Suffolk the state of the houses occupied by the agricultural labourers was, really and truly, one great cause of the evils under which they suffered; for he could undertake to prove the existence of cases of whole families, comprising in some instances eighteen or twenty individuals, living in no more than two rooms. Under such circumstances classification of the sexes was impossible; and as a magistrate he could bear testimony to the evils of indiscriminate admixture. A repeal of the duty on bricks would, to a certain ex- tent, remove one of these evils by encouraging the erection of cottages; and he would press upon the consideration of the House the duty of thus placing the working classes in a position where their morals and comfort could be promoted. The labours of the clergy, and other ministers of religion, however zealous, could not be productive of any great benefit so long as their flocks were in a position, by the nature of their dwellings, unfavourable to comfort and morality. He therefore, entertained a strong conviction that it was the duty of the House to alleviate the condition of the poor in respect of their dwellings by all practical means.


approved of the views of the hon. Member for Montrose, but regretted that he should have taken an opportunity of introducing the subject, hardly calculated to do justice to the importance of the cause he had undertaken. He regretted that the hon. Gentleman should have adopted so limited and partial a view, because the question now before the House was not the whole that the working classes had a right to expect during the present Session. No question bore so strongly upon the moral and social well-being of the industrious classes as those connected with the materials for erecting their dwellings. For this reason he again regretted that the hon. Gentleman should have confined his attention to that which did not meet the case, whilst the evasions which might be the result, as pointed out by the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade showed how dangerous it was to deal with such a question partially. He hoped, then, that the hon. Member would not think that those who opposed the present Motion would not vote with him in the ulterior measures which he might expect to carry.


concurred with the view taken by the noble Lord the Member for Tyrone, because justice could not be done by the Motion. Still if it were pressed to a division, he should support it. He had risen, however, principally in consequence of some remarks from the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade from which he must dissent. The right hon. Gentleman considered it the duty of Members not to bring forward any question affecting taxation until after the Chancellor of the Exchequer had made his financial statement. This was expected to be on the 15th March. But suppose the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer was unable to bring it forward then from ill health, it must be deferred till after Easter, and, in the meantime, every Member having a Motion affecting a remission of taxation, must withdraw it. If the budget was not brought forward till the end of April or beginning of May, the Government would immediately take every night in the week except one, and on that night there was always a crowd of subjects from independent Members, so that it would be almost impossible to get a Motion on. The practical result was that the Government had entirely their own way upon the subject. When the right hon. Baronet the Member for Tamworth had a surplus, he fixed the items of taxation which should be removed or lessened, and his opinions were law. With regard to the Motion itself he did not apprehend any practical difficulty would be found in its operation. At various times and for various reasons there had been drawbacks upon timber; and, at the present moment, there was a drawback allowed upon all timber used in the construction of churches. For many years there had also been a drawback upon timber used in mines and collieries. He was not aware that the system of drawbacks in those cases gave rise to any fraud. He should give his hearty assent to the Motion.


agreed with the noble Member for Tyrone, that it would not be prudent at present to press this Motion to a division, and, looking at the state of the House, he did not think that any vote at present given would indicate the general sense of that branch of the Legislature. Not long since the hon. Member for Montrose had asked him if the present proposition would be a good agricultural Motion, and he admitted that it might be; and as the hon. Member inquired if he thought that Members on that (the Opposition) side of the House would support such a Motion, he replied that they might; and as the hon. Member for Montrose was now about to build some cottages himself, he thought such a Motion would be paving the way to make it a good speculation. As to the value of the cottages, the bricks of which he would exempt from duty, he did not see how that could be satisfactorily ascertained; and, further, he wished to know what was the definition of a cottage—how many rooms must it contain? With respect to drawbacks, the principle was not new, and he thought that the whole matter might, at a future time, be brought forward in a more general way.


supported the Motion, and hoped the time would speedily arrive when duties would be taken off all articles which entered into the consumption and occupation of the people. He contended that the removal of the brick duty would conduce to employment, and the expansion of trade and commerce.


replied: He said, he had obtained his wish—that of ascertaining the feeling of the House upon this most important question. The House had ox-pressed itself decidedly in favour of the entire repeal of the brick duty, and he should hereafter move its total repeal, in lieu of the present half measure, and expected that he should then be successful in conferring a still more general benefit on all classes of the people.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.