HC Deb 05 March 1850 vol 109 cc389-402

said, in rising to bring forward the important Motion for the House to take into consideration the duties on foreign timber, with the view of remitting the duty on all wood used in ship- building, he could not help expressing his regret at the state of the Opposition benches. When they repealed the navigation laws last year, the eloquent leader of the party opposite told them that that measure would have the effect of handing over the foreign trade of the country to foreign vessels, but he would not stop to inquire how far this anticipation had been fulfilled. In stating the facts of the case to the House, he could assure it that the question regarded shipbuilders and shipwrights, and not wood merchants. He candidly stated that he was himself a wood merchant, but he was not personally interested in this question. In 1842, previously to the right hon. Member for Tamworth bringing forward his Motion for the alteration of the timber duties, he (Mr. Mitchell) had sold certain descriptions of timber at 105s. a load, and the same timber after the reduction of the duty be had sold at 65s. Another description sold with the old duty at 55s., and at the reduced duty at 15s. The consumer, therefore, obtained the benefit of every shilling in the reduction of the duty. There was not the slightest appearance of an increase in the price of the article, but rather a tendency to a decline in the price. From these two circumstances he conceived that he was justified in saying that any reduction of prices that could be effected by the adoption of his proposition, would go to the shipbuilder. It would be in the recollection of the House that duty on all foreign ships was taken off by the measure of last year. The consequence was, that the manufactured article was admitted free of duty, and the merchant who purchased a foreign-built vessel was entitled to give it all the privileges of a British ship without the payment of any charge or duty. The following were the duties charged on foreign timber—on hewn timber 15s. the load; on sawn timber, such as planks, deals, &c., 20s.; and on masts and spars as follows—on small spars 24s., and on large spars 48s. He would now proceed to the cost of shipbuilding in this country. All ships were classed by Lloyd's surveyors. All new ships were placed in the class A 1, which was divided into a number of other classes. The first class under this head remained on it twelve years, and the lowest class of ships four years. The difference between the classes arose entirely from the material of which the ship is built. In forming the estimate of the per centage which arose from the duty on foreign timber, used in the construction of vessels, he had used the greatest care. He had referred his calculation to one of the largest shipbuilders in London, who had told him that, taking a rough view of the facts of the case, he was correct in his estimate. He had estimated the cost per ton at 2l. above the number of years the ship was entitled to be on the register. He believed that he had given rather too high an estimate, for when they went to the lower class of vessels, he did not believe that they would cost so much. As it was, as much foreign timber was used in the building of British ships as was allowed by Lloyd's surveyors. As regarded the ships in class 12 A 1, the per centage of the duty on the foreign timber, deals, &c., on the gross cost of a ship was 9–16ths per cent. The cost of a first-class ship for twelve years, he estimated at 14l. the ton; for the next class for eleven years, at 13l. a ton, and so on to the lowest class 4 A 1, which he took at 6l. per ton. The estimate of the amount of duty on the foreign timber, used in the construction of ships, he took at—

12 A 1 9–16 per cent on the gross cost.
11 A 1 per cent on the gross cost.
10 A 1 1⅜ per cent on the gross cost.
9 A 1 per cent on the gross cost.
8 A 1 per cent on the gross cost.
7 A 1 12 per cent on the gross cost.
6 A 1 13½ per cent on the gross cost.
8 A 1 15⅛ per cent on the gross cost.
4 A 1 17 per cent on the gross cost.
Therefore in the class from 9 A to 4 A, the advantage to the foreign shipbuilder over the home shipbuilder varied from 4¾ to 17 per cent. They were often told that this country was best adapted for the building of the highest class of ships, and certainly advantages existed as regarded the materials at home and from the colonies, such as oak, teak, and hard woods, from Jamaica and other places. He would place English ships in three different classes. He would take from 12 A to 9 A in the first class. All the ships in these classes were fit for long voyages, and were fit to carry on the trade between this country and the East Indies and China. This class of ships were strong and serviceable vessels, and fit for the carrying of tea, sugar, and other articles paying a high freight. In addition, they were fitted to carry out passengers of the highest class, who paid large sums for their conveyance. He alluded more particularly to the vessels of Wigram, Green, and Smith, of New- castle, which were built regardless of all expense. He admitted that the amount of duty on the foreign timber used in their construction was a mere bagatelle until they came to the lowest of this division, when they had 4¾ per centage. The second class comprised 8 A, 7 A, and 6 A. For what purpose was this class wanted? The purpose was to bring home corn from the Mediterranean and the Baltic, and, above all, cotton from the United States. The House was probably aware that two-thirds of the cotton now brought to this country from the United States came in American ships. The freights paid for the conveyance of that article would not pay in the higher class of shipping. British ships, then, in these classes, came into direct competition with the Baltic and American vessels, and it was upon this class of ships you levied heavy duties varying from 6¾ to 13½ per cent. He asked whether they would expect the shipowners to go on satisfactorily with this class of vessels if they were burdened in the way which he had described. He now came to the classes 5 A and 4 A. The duty paid for the timber used in the construction of vessels in this division was most enormous. These vessels were suited for the timber trade, and they came into competition with ships built in Canada. On what principle was the home shipbuilder taxed in this manner to allow the Canadian shipbuilder to beat him? The effect of the present arrangement was to throw the whole of the building of these vessels into the hands of foreigners. Even with regard to the higher class of ships, he was not sure that it was for the interest of this country that they should continue to build them to the same extent which they did at present. For building a ship of that class, they had at least, on the average, to go twenty miles before they could get a supply of English oak. If, then, they did not take stops to encourage the use of foreign oak, where would they get a supply of English oak, when this country most wanted it, in case of a war? He believed the young oaks in this country were encroached upon and cut down too rapidly, and before they had attained sufficient growth. Upon what principle did they proceed in saying that there should be no duty on the manufactured article, while there was such a duty levied on the raw material? There was no other case of a manufactured article coming to this country free of all charge. He repeated, he was not aware of any other manufactured article being admitted free of duty. If any one proposed to build a vessel, he had to pay a high duty on the foreign timber used in the construction of it. Was not this a gross infliction on the industry of the country? Then the question arose whether the drawback could be easily ascertained. At present there was a drawback upon all foreign timber used in the building of churches. To ascertain the amount of this, they had to go all over the country, but ships were only built in certain localities; and the quantity of foreign timber used could be easily learned. He asked a gentleman of high experience in matters of this kind his opinion on the subject; and he assured him that there would be no practical difficulty, as all the ships built in English ports were brought under the special survey of Lloyd's surveyors, who took an account of all the timber used in their construction; and they could at once tell, in every instance, the quantity and nature of foreign timber used in building a ship. The surveyor at Lloyd's was bound to examine every ship, and ascertain the quantity of foreign timber in her, but a certificate of the quantity might be had from the builder. He found that the annual tonnage of ships built in the united kingdom amounted to 140,000; and he had asked an eminent shipbuilder what, in his opinion, according to the present regulations, was the proportion of foreign timber that might be used in that tonnage; and he had assured him, that if it were estimated at a fourth part, that would be an extreme calculation. Now, taking the total number of loads of timber used in the construction of these 140,000 tons, and estimating the various duties paid upon the portion of it that was foreign wood, he found that the annual amount raised by the duty on foreign timber used in shipbuilding was only about 35,000l. He appealed, therefore, to the House whether, for the sake of so small an amount, it was worth while to continue this tax, in order that they might build more ships in Canada, when the remission of it would give contentment to a large, industrious, and deserving class of the community, which had been just exposed to the most severe competition with foreign countries—a class, moreover, which would be exposed to still further difficulties by the Mercantile Marine Bill, and by fresh regulations about to be established. Upon this latter point, however, he did not, perhaps, altogether agree with the body, for he thought the Mercantile Marine Bill a very good one; but still there were doubts and apprehensions among them concerning that measure. The Legislature told the shipping interest that they must not man their vessels with foreign seamen, and yet placed the industrious classes of shipwrights and builders as nearly as possible upon an equality with foreigners. He hoped that, for the sake of 35,000l. a year, they would not continue to inflict an injury upon one of the most valuable and useful classes of the community; and he hoped the right hon. the President of the Board of Trade would not, in his answer, quote the instance of some foreigners having bought ships built in the north of England. It had happened lately that, in consequence of depression, the prices of all materials used in the building of vessels, as cordage, cables, iron and copper, had been materially reduced; timber had fallen from 30 to 40 per cent; flax from 30 to 40 per cent; cables 20 per cent; and iron and copper in similar proportion. There never had been a time when these materials were cheaper than they had recently been. But it was not to be expected that this would continue; and if prices rose, as probably they would, a great change would take place in the state of things, as affecting the shipbuilders. But, however that might be, justice ought not to be denied to this large and industrious class; and he conceived it was but a simple act of justice to bring this question before the House.

Motion made, and Question put— That this House do resolve into a Committee, to take into consideration the Duties on Wood, with a view of remitting the Duty on all Wood used in Ship-Building.


begged to second the Motion. It was quite true, as his hon. Friend had stated, that the shipping interest was not in that depressed condition which had been predicted as the result of the repeal of the navigation laws, but it was also true that it was subjected to the most severe competition. Freights were now low, and there was every probability that they would continue so. He did not mention these facts in any spirit of complaint on the part of the shipowners whom he represented; but freights being so low, and there being that severe competition with the foreigner, he did think it was the duty of the House to consider whether it was not possible, by a measure of this kind, to do justice to the shipowner. In 1830 a petition was presented to that House by certain shipowners, praying for an alleviation of the burdens to which they were subjected in the shape of timber duties; and of that petition Mr. Huskisson, a gentleman who was always considered a great authority by hon. Gentlemen, had expressed a most favourable opinion. If the repeal of those duties, then, was considered advisable in 1830, how very much stronger was the case at present when they were exposed to the fullest possible competition with the foreigner. The duty on timber was opposed to the very first axiom of taxation; it was a duty imposed on the raw materials of a manufacture of the very greatest importance. That ships should be permitted to be imported duty free, while the raw materials were taxed, was opposed to the great principle of taxation which had been held to be just by that House. The timber duty was also a differential duty, and was in that respect opposed also to the principles of free trade. It gave a protection, so far as our colonies were concerned, and a premium to the Canadians on the construction of ships. He did think that the shipowners had a right at the present moment to press their very strong claims upon the House.


said, he did not rise for the purpose of complaining that hon. Gentlemen connected with the shipping interest should have thus early in the Session called the attention of the House to the important subject which his hon. Friend the Member for Bridport had brought forward; still less did he complain of the tone and manner in which that subject had been treated by his hon. Friend who had addressed the House, not only with his accustomed ability, but with that clearness which arose from his perfect knowledge of the subject. In the few words which he (Mr. Labouchere) was about to offer, he should not be disposed to enter into any controversy with the hon. Member upon the general principle involved in his Motion; and, in truth, he addressed the House under considerable disadvantage; for he should feel it to be a dereliction of duty if, by any observations he might make, he left any distinct impression upon the mind of any hon. Member, whether he did or did not concur in the principle laid down by his hon. Friend, that it was desirable, under all the circumstances of the case, that the Government should propose to the House this Session a remission of a certain duty which his hon. Friend described as amounting to 35,000l. It should be re- collected that they were now on the eve of the general financial statement which in a few days it would be the duty of his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to lay before the House; and he hoped the hon. Member for Bridport would not attribute his course to any insensibility to the importance of the subject if he gave him only that answer which every Minister of the Crown must of necessity make to any proposal of this kind made just prior to the financial statement. It appeared to him also that the circumstance of its being the intention of the Government to propose the budget at so early a period of the Session did give additional force to that general reason which, not only for the convenience of the Government, but for other motives of great moment, rendered it unadvisable that any Minister of the Crown should express an opinion in favour of the retention or remission of any particular duty until the time had come for the general financial statement. He hoped his hon. Friend would accept that as a reason for not agreeing with his Motion. His hon. Friend had said, and he believed truly, that in respect to the higher classes of vessels built in this country, the duties now existing were quite immaterial. Mr. Wigram, in giving his evidence before the Committee last year, said that upon first-class vessels built in the Thames he did not estimate the burden higher than 2s. 6d. per ton. He admitted, however, to his hon. Friend, that upon vessels of a smaller class the burden was more considerable. At the same time he was far from thinking that even with these duties our shipwrights could not contend successfully with those of foreign countries in building both high and low class vessels. He did not wish to go into details now; but there was no reason why, consistently with a due regard for other interests, be should not also be called upon to enter upon the subject of the remission of any other duties, and to show why they should not be removed. He, for one, should be glad to see them all removed. However, he could not accept the argument that our shipwrights could not compete with those of other countries, and he had maintained the same doctrine last year, when contending with hon. Gentlemen opposite for a repeal of the navigation laws. He held the same opinion still. There were countervailing advantages on their side which should not be left out of consideration. For example, on the article of iron alone the Prussian shipbuilder paid more duty than the English shipbuilder upon the foreign timber he used. He was not arguing that it might, or might not, he desirable to remove this duty, but simply submitting the fact to the consideration of his hon. Friend. With reference to the cheapness of constructing a particular class of vessels in Sweden, he held in his hand an extract from the annual report of Mr. Norman Pringle, our Consul at Stockholm, in the year 1842, and, as it pointed out the advantages which our vessels possessed over Swedish vessels, and that they countervailed the advantage of the latter in regard to cheap timber, he would read it to the House:— I shall take every opportunity to procure information respecting the effect which may be produced on ship-building in the ports of this district, by the alteration in the English Navigation Laws. It does not appear, as far as I can learn at present, that the interests of British ship-builders will suffer from competition here. In Stockholm, Calmar, Westerwick, and Wisby, whore oak is made use of in building particular parts of the vessel, the price per ton for the hull averages about 7l. sterling; in Gefle, Sundsvall, Elmea, Pitea, and the northern ports, where oak is unknown, and fir only employed in the construction of ships, the price is generally about 5l. sterling per ton for the hull; such vessels are models in figure, excellent sailers, but from eight to ten years is the limits of their service. I am also informed by one of the principal merchants here, and a possessor of several ships, that in building his vessels he invariably has all the cordage, sails, cables, tackling of every description from England, and that after paying 10 per cent import duty, he has superior and cheaper articles than could be procured in Stockholm. He did not give this as an argument that, if after a general review of the whole fiscal policy of the country they found themselves able to do it, a removal of this duty would not he a great advantage. He was conscious of the great benefit to be derived from encouraging the trade of shipbuilding, for it was of national importance; but at the same time he felt he was meeting the Motion of his hon. Friend in a fair spirit, when he said that, while this advantage was appreciated, let it not be over-estimated. With respect to the higher class of ships, our builders had great advantages, for they had a choice of timber such as existed in no other country in the world. But there was no dispute between his hon. Friend and himself with respect to that class of ships, for his hon. Friend had confined his observations to the construction of the lower class of vessels. Under the circumstances he would not detain the House longer, but he hoped they would consider how soon his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer would lay his financial statement before them, and would, therefore, see the propriety and prudence of not expressing any opinion upon this particular point. If they began by selecting particular duties upon which to come to a vote of this kind, without taking a view of the whole financial condition of the country—and that, too, on the eve of the financial statement—he thought they would not be discharging their public duty so fairly as by abstaining at present from entertaining this question, and he therefore hoped that his hon. Friend would not press the House for any expression of opinion on the subject.


said, it appeared to him that the principal object his right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade had in rising was to conceal, as far as possible—and very properly to conceal—what might be the intention of the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer about ten days hence. His right hon. Friend had certainly achieved his purpose. He would not say that the observations of his right hon. Friend had enabled him (Mr. Cardwell) to perform the office of a prophet; but still he had ventured to draw an inference, a sort of surmise, from the tone assumed by his right hon. Friend, that he was not unfavourable to the proposition of the hon. Member for Bridport. To the strong arguments of that hon. Member, based, as they were, not only upon policy, but upon justice, there appeared no disposition on the part of the right hon. Gentleman to dissent. With respect to timber, there were some remarkable instances of the operation of the removal of duty. A few years ago the duty on mahogany was reduced, and the quantity used in shipbuilding was greatly increased. Had they not by recent legislation exposed the shipbuilders to competition with all the world? Had they not, from 1842 to the present time, laid down the principle in commercial legislation that wherever they could they would set free the raw material, in order to afford the widest scope for industry? Having laid down that general principle in all commercial legislation, they had exposed this branch of trade to particular competition by the measure of last year. He would ask the House if there was a single instance in the tariff in which the manufactured article was admitted free of duty, and the duty maintained on the raw material from which it was manufactured? If not, was there any ground of principle, justice, or expediency for the maintenance of this particular duty? The right hon. President of the Board of Trade, however, had argued on no one of those grounds. He was not surprised at the answer of the right hon. Gentleman, for it was undoubtedly an inconvenient course to enter upon the discussion of subjects of this kind at a time when a general review of the taxation was about to be made. He should be glad, however, to believe that the surmise he had ventured to form was not altogether unfounded, and that, although the right hon. Gentleman had drawn the veil of futurity very closely round the events of next week, he (Mr. Cardwell) should be justified in drawing the inference that a tax so impolitic and unjust would not escape the notice of the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He hoped that next week they would have the pleasure of congratulating that right hon. Gentleman on his restoration to health, and his resumption of his duties in the House; and he was sure they would have to congratulate him upon having a large surplus arising from the remission of those duties which fettered industry, and thereby impoverished the Exchequer, because they shut it out from sources of revenue which increased industry would stimulate.


said, that the hon. Gentleman who spoke last had very properly observed that there was no instance on the tariff of a raw material being taxed while the manufactured article was free. The navigation laws had been repealed under great pressure and against much opposition; and he (Mr. Hume) had then pledged himself that he would, on every occasion, endeavour to remove all restriction and duties which prevented the free play of industry. He was sorry to say, that were he to draw an inference from the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade, it would be different from that formed by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Liverpool; for he should conclude that there was no intention on the part of the Government to take up this question, inasmuch as the right hon. Gentleman had distinctly stated that our shipbuilders had advantages which countervailed all the advantages possessed by the foreigner. Much had been said about the coming financial statement; but what should be the object of the financial state- ment? To bring before the House the repeal of those taxes which pressed upon the best interests of the country, and, when injury had been done to any parties, to do them justice; and Her Majesty's Government would not be in any worse condition if the House should affirm that it was an act of justice to remove this tax. This country had long maintained a competition with her ships under many disadvantages, even under the monopoly she once had; but now the monopoly was done away, Parliament was bound to do justice to the shipping interest. By giving a decided opinion upon this Motion, he thought the House would be strengthening the hands of the Government, and turn the scale of any doubt that might exist in their minds.


would very much like to know when and where all this was to stop. It was all very well for the shipbuilders, or any other interest, to come in and ask for 100,000l. [Mr. MITCHELL: Only 35,000l.] Well, whatever a certain duty on the materials they used might be; but where was it to end, and how did all this bear upon the general taxation of the country? How did the pressure of the national debt bear upon that particular interest? But in this jumble they had exposed the shipbuilders to competition with the whole world, and now they came to gnaw off that particular duty which pressed upon that particular interest. Look at the malt tax. Upon that raw material they had placed a tax of nearly 100 per cent, and if that question had now been brought before the House, the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade would doubtless have said, as he had said just before, "Don't touch it—don't discuss it, until the general financial statement has been made." But he (Mr. Henley) wanted to know if they were to go through all these several items of duties, where they were to stop. Now, that all these particular interests had been exposed to general competition, he did not see what was to be done but to take off all the particular taxes which pressed upon them; and if they were taken off one after another, what was to become of the public credit? Hon. Gentlemen connected with this particular interest thought it would be for their advantage to get a decision upon the question in a very thin House; but the shipping interest had been exposed to competition in the most perfect uncertainty whe- ther they would get the tax taken off. They ought to have made a bargain in the first instance. If the shipping interest was going on flourishing to such an extent that foreigners were fain to come here to build their ships, why was it necessary to take off the timber duties to enable them to swim? How could these two statements he reconciled? The fact was, a particular interest had been brought into a state of great peril and difficulty, so that they were obliged to press the Government to take off the taxes which most affected that interest. But they might depend upon it that other interests which had been also affected by recent measures, would make the same appeal. They had certainly a just claim for consideration, and if the present proposition were affirmed, he did not see where the House would stop. At the same time he should not express any opinion upon the subject himself, either by his voice or by his vote. He would only observe that the debate had been very instructive, and he hoped much good would be elicited out of what had been stated.


said, the interests of the great shipowners bad not, he be believed, materially suffered from the effects of recent measures; but the smaller shipowners, especially those of Yarmouth, had been severely affected. The abolition of the duties upon timber would be a great benefit to this class. He was sorry to add that much distress prevailed at the present moment in the borough he had the honour to represent, among the shipbuilding trade. Last year five vessels were built in that port, but only one upon order. The rest were all built upon speculation.


said, the hon. Member for Oxfordshire had entirely misapprehended the character of the Motion, in treating it as a particular tax upon a particular interest. The case was that of a tax upon a raw material imported into this country, which, in a manufactured state, was allowed to come in duty free. No similar case of injustice could be found. Last year he refused to vote for the repeal of the navigation laws, upon the ground that in this respect the shipowners would be exposed to an injustice. He ventured to hope that the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer would, upon his financial statement, relieve the shipping interest of one of the grossest pieces of injustice that any class had over suffered from.


observed, that the hon. Member for Bridport had only proposed the remission of the duties with regard to the timber used in shipbuilding. But he (Mr. Wyld) would remind the House that the continuance of the tax was no less a gross injustice towards the mining interest. That interest was now exposed to competition with the whole world, yet it was compelled to pay duties upon the timber it consumed. He hoped, then, that the Motion would be framed so as to include all other interests who were suffering under similar injustice to the shipping interest.


, in reply, said, that the question introduced by the hon. Member for Bodmin had nothing to do with the shipping interest. When mines and collieries could be imported into this country, and imported duty free, then the case would apply, and not before. After what had fallen from the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade, he was reluctant to divide. At the same time there was a strong feeling in all the shipping towns that great injustice had been done to them. A large body of the representatives of those towns had incurred considerable obloquy by voting for the repeal of the navigation laws; and it was only due to them to go to a division in order that they might show their constituents they were doing their duty. He must therefore divide the House.

The House divided:—Ayes 45; Noes 32: Majority 13.

List of the AYES.
Adair, H. E. Matheson, Col.
Aglionby, H. A. Moffatt, G.
Anderson, A. Morris, D.
Bass, M. T. O'Flaherty, A.
Cardwell, K. Palmer, R.
Chichester, Lord J. L. Pechell, Sir G. B.
Clay, J. Pigott, F.
Clive, H. B. Pilkington, J.
Cobden, R. Ricardo, J. L.
Cocks, T. S. Salwey, Col.
Duke, Sir J. Sandars, J.
Duncan, G. Scholefield, W.
Edwards, H. Stuart, Lord D.
Fagan, W. Thompson, Col.
Farrer, J. Thornely, T.
Forster, M. Wakley, T.
Greene, J. Walmsley, Sir J.
Headlam, T. E. Willcox, B. M.
Henry, A. Williams, J.
Heyworth, L. Williamson, Sir H.
Hume, J. Wyld, J.
Jackson, W. Mitchell, T. A.
Kershaw, J. Gibson, T. M.
List of the NOES.
Armstrong, R. B. Lewis, G. G.
Baines, rt. hon. M. T. Maule, rt. hon. F.
Baring, T. Mulgrave, Earl of
Bellew, R. M. Paget, Lord A.
Berkeley, Adm. Paget, Lord C.
Brotherton, J. Parker, J.
Elliot, hon. J. E. Raphael, A.
Evelyn, W. J. Rich, H.
Hatchell, J. Romilly, Sir J.
Hawes, B. Shell, rt. hon. R. L.
Hayter, rt. hon. W. G. Shelburne, Earl of
Hobhouse, rt. hon. Sir J. Stanford, J. F.
Howard, Lord E. Sturt, H. G.
Howard, hon. J. K. Verney, Sir H.
Howard, Sir R.
Jervis, Sir J. TELLERS.
Labouchere, rt. hon. H. Hill, Lord M.
Lascelles, hon. W. S. Grey, R. W.

Committee on Tuesday, 19th March.