HC Deb 26 April 1855 vol 137 cc1791-805

Order for Second Reading read.


said, he should not oppose the Bill at that stage, but should do so strongly in Committee, and at every subsequent stage. If it were not abandoned, he considered that it would create discontent all over the country.


said, he wished to call the attention of the House to what had fallen from the hon. Secretary to the Treasury on a former occasion, in reference to the imports of sugar from the West Indies. He admitted that there had been an increase in those imports, but the West India interest received more for the smaller quantity eight years ago than they had received for the larger quantity in the pre- sent year; the difference being, independent of the extra expense of producing a larger quantity 782,000l. That showed the depressed state of the West India interest, caused by the measures adopted by the right hon. Gentlemen on the Treasury bench, and under these circumstances it was not right to lay an increased duty on sugar, which would certainly cause a further loss to the West India interest to the amount, he should think, of 160,000l. a year at least. He wished to ask the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer why the duty on tea was to be reduced at the end of the war by the action of the present Bill, while no similar provision was made with respect to the duties on coffee and sugar, which were the produce of our colonies, for which, he thought, we ought to feel a greater regard than for the Chinese.


said, he would explain the reasons which determined the Government to make the distinction noticed by the hon. Gentleman between the duty on tea and the duties on sugar and coffee. An Act which received the assent of Parliament at the beginning of the Session suspended the further reduction of the duty on tea, but that suspension was limited in the manner expressed in the present Bill—namely, until a year after the conclusion of the war. It was therefore thought in imposing a further duty on tea, that the same rule should be applied. He had, however, hesitated to extend that rule to the duties on coffee and sugar, inasmuch as such a course might appear too much to interfere with the discretion of Parliament in afterwards dealing with those duties. But he would admit that the matter was open to reconsideration, and if, in Committee on the Bill, it should be the general desire to consider the additional duties on tea and coffee merely as war taxes, he should not be disposed to oppose the proposition.


said, that with reference to a speech of the hon. Gentleman the Secretary of the Treasury on a former evening, he must say, that the same causes which had recently rendered the cultivation of sugar profitable in the Mauritius had also operated in the West Indies. Twenty years ago, Jamaica alone produced 70,000 tons of sugar per annum; while now it only produced 22,000, and for those the net receipt per ton was only half what it was at the former period, owing to the diminution of price and the increase in the cost of cultivation. He thought, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman was hardly justified in saying that the condition of Jamaica was one of increasing prosperity. In fact, there were only two West Indian colonies which had obtained a good supply of labour which were otherwise than in a state of the greatest possible depression. Jamaica, in particular, was in a comparative state of ruin.


said, he very much regretted the absence of reciprocity in our dealings with the Chinese, for while we taxed the commodities imported from them at the rate of 180 per cent, we insisted on their taking ours at a Customs duty of only 6 per cent. He feared that the increase of the duty on tea would materially check our trade with China, and that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would not derive the additional revenue he anticipated either from the increased duty on tea or that on sugar.


said, it was a source of considerable regret to him, the selection of articles made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the imposition of additional Customs duties; he would admit, nevertheless, that the Customs duties ought to bear their fair share in the additional taxation demanded by the position of the country. Two of the articles chosen for increased taxation were the productions of our own colonies, which would therefore suffer from any decrease in their consumption. While, owing to an Act of Parliament having been passed only at the commencement of the Session, to arrest the fall of the duty on the third article—tea—those interested in the trade naturally supposed that no further alteration in the duty would take place in the course of the present year, and had sent out their orders under that impression. He thought the fair method of dealing with the Customs duties would have been to have raised the whole 10 per cent, which upon the 20,000,000l. to which these taxes amounted would have given the Chancellor of the Exchequer all the additional income he desired to raise, from this source. Luxuries would then have paid as much as necessaries, and the measure would not have been open to the objection of selecting for increased taxation only articles of general consumption; and articles which were either the produce of our own colonies, or upon which there was every reason to believe that no increased duties would be levied during this year.


said, if they placed a duty upon articles of general consumption, it was an inevitable effect that their price should be increased, and their consumption diminished. Not only so, but trade in general must be diminished. For these reasons he regarded Customs duties in general as not based on sound financial principles, and believed that we ought to raise the additional revenue required by direct, rather than indirect taxation.


said, he objected so strongly to the Bill, that, if he were supported, he should be ready to divide the House against it. The principle on which it went involved an entire reversal of Sir Robert Peel's commercial and financial policy, which had been carried out during the last ten years with such success, by the cautious and gradual substitution of direct for indirect taxation, and the removal of duties on articles of general consumption. In fiscal matters two and two did not always make four. If, by an addition to the taxation on articles of general consumption a corresponding increase could be obtained in the revenue, no great objection could be urged to such a proposal in a time of war like the present; but all experience showed that it was perfectly possible to go on increasing the taxation on articles of consumption for an indefinite period, without in the end at all benefiting the revenue; nay, it might be with a positive loss. The plan suggested by the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. T. Baring) of adding a percentage to the Customs duties had been tried, and had failed. It was on the failure of that policy that Sir Robert Peel resolved to meet the necessities of the State by the imposition of an income tax, and at the same time to reduce the Customs duties. What had been the results? Why, that while in the eleven years from 1842 to 1853 the balance of taxes repealed over taxes imposed was 6,716,000l., the revenue had actually increased by 6,891,000l. Nay, more, during that period nearly 9,000,000l. out of the 21,000,000l. raised by the Customs duties at its commencement had been repealed, and yet the revenue from this source had not suffered to the extent of more than 1,000,000l. He contended that nothing could be more impolitic than by this Bill to commence the reversal of a policy which had led to such an expansion of trade and commerce, and had so materially contributed to the prosperity of the working classes. If by this means they permanently crippled the resources of the country, it would be a poor consolation that for the first year or two of what might be a long war, they had been able to extract a slight increase of Customs duties from the pockets of the people. Besides, the moral and social effects of the adoption of Sir Robert Peel's policy were of even greater importance than its financial and commercial results. The upper classes, and those who lived by labour of head rather than of hand, had shown, by submitting to the income tax, that they were ready not only to bear their fair share of fiscal burdens, but, if necessary, even to make sacrifices in order to lighten their pressure upon the working population; and their free trade measures had done more to remove discontent among the lower classes, than all the political changes they could name. Now, he would ask, was it wise or safe, then, in the midst of a European war, and with the feeling now prevalent against the upper classes for their mismanagement, to reverse a financial policy from which the labouring population had reaped such advantage, and, before we had submitted to as heavy a property tax as our forefathers sustained in the last war, seek to extract from those who could worst afford it, 1,000,000l. or 2,000,000l. annually in the shape of increased duties on tea, coffee, and sugar. An augmentation of indirect taxation ought to be resorted to only under extreme necessity; and rather than adopt such a course there were two other alternatives, either of which would be far preferable. One was to raise the additional 1,500,000l. or 2,000,000l. that were requisite by a further increase of the income tax—an impost which, however liable to objections, pressed more lightly on the springs of industry and the resources of the country than Customs duties. No doubt there was a practical limit to the imposition of direct taxation; but as it would most probably be necessary next year, should the present state of things continue, to raise the income tax to 10 per cent—the amount levied in the last war—would it not be better to fix it at 8 or 9 per cent now, instead of embarking in a retrograde course, and one fraught with such disastrous consequences? The other alternative open to them, and the one which he should have preferred, would have been to lay on further Customs duties to procure this 1,500,000l.; let them raise the 16,000,000l. loan to 18,000,000l., or even to 20,000,000l. The country was yet in a provisional state in regard to the war, and the progress of the summer was likely to throw light on our future position; but it was to be hoped that if the war was to continue, we should not go on throwing away 30,000,000l. per annum in prosecuting land campaigns against an overwhelming military Power in its own territory. As a naval Power, we should surely apply ourselves to operations by sea, by which our present enormous military expenditure would be reduced. However that might be, in the existing uncertainty as to the probable duration of the war, it would be most injudicious to attack that great system of commercial policy which had been reared by the labours of the last ten years; and he must therefore give his negative to the second reading of this Bill to record his strong disapproval of its principle.


said, he regretted as much as the hon. Member himself the necessity of raising the duties on commodities which entered so largely into the consumption of the people as tea, coffee, and sugar. But it was not necessarily involved in the adoption of free trade that they should insist that, under all circumstances, the burden of the taxation of the country should be borne by direct taxation, and that there should be no attempt to distribute the burden equally amongst all classes, by placing a portion of it upon the country in the shape of indirect taxes. On the contrary, it was clear that, unless they did so, the pressure of the direct taxation would be intolerable. While, therefore, he trusted that the House would adhere to the policy of late years, he could not regard this Bill as in any degree inconsistent with the principle of free trade. Nor was it true, as had been asserted in the course of the debate, that this was the first occasion on which the indirect taxation of the country had been increased of late years; because only last year an additional duty was imposed on malt. With regard to the other remarks of the hon. gentleman who had just sat down, he must say that he thought Parliament would have betrayed its duty had it thrown the whole burden of the war on posterity in the shape of a loan, and not shown that we were ready to bear part of it ourselves by submitting to additional taxes while the war lasted. With respect to the proposition for increasing the income tax to 10 per cent, he (Mr. Labouchere) had a strong feeling that that tax did not press on the rich alone, but that it fell most severely on a class of persons having small incomes and but little able to bear it, and that it likewise pressed on the springs of industry, not perhaps in a very direct, but in a very perceptible manner. He did not think they ought hastily, and, without the pressure of some great emergency, at once to raise the income tax to the full practicable amount before they had endeavoured to equalise the burden of the war taxation by raising a portion of it from the indirect taxes. With respect to the budget of the Chancellor of the Exchequer he was prepared to give it a general support, believing that it was, with a single exception, based upon sound principles. He must say, however, that he entertained considerable doubts as to that part of it by which it was proposed to pledge this country to raise 1,000,000l. a year, after the resumption of peace, for the purpose of paying off the debt now proposed to be incurred. He thought that the Legislature ought not to commit itself to a pledge unless there was good reason to believe that it would be kept: but he confessed that he entertained some doubt whether, on the resumption of peace, that fate would attend the one to which he was now referring.


said, he did not intend to offer any opposition to the second reading of the Bill before the House, because the amendment which he wished to see introduced might be made in Committee. He saw no reason why sugar should be taxed in a different manner from wine, or any other article. On wine of all kinds there was a uniform duty of 1s. per gallon; but the duty imposed on high-priced sugars was different from that on low-priced sugars. He thought that the rule which obtained with respect to wine should be applied to sugar. The only reason which he could conceive why it was not applied to sugar was, that we made no wine in England, and, therefore, there was no interest sufficiently represented in that House to cause differential duties to be imposed upon the various qualities of wine; but it was otherwise in the case of sugar, for we had in England a large number of sugar refiners, whose interest it was to cause the duty upon low-priced sugars to be small, and the duties upon high-priced sugars, or those which passed through the greatest number of processes in their manufacture, to be large. Let the House consider what was the effect of these differential duties. He knew several estates in the colonies upon which large sums had been expended in the improvement of machinery. Upon one estate in the Mauritius with which he was more particularly acquainted, 30,000l. had recently been expended in machinery. But within the last year orders had been sent from England to the parties managing the estate to let a portion of the valuable machinery lie idle and rust, and to cultivate on the estate, which was capable of producing sugar white as snow, none but low-priced sugars, in order to escape the higher duty imposed upon the best article in this country. He would propose, therefore, that instead of the differential duties now laid before the House there should be a uniform duty upon sugar, and that the amount of that uniform duty should be such as would give an equal return to the Exchequer.


said, he would admit that direct taxation would be the best of all taxation if all men were equal in point of riches; but a large proportion of the people of this country were in such a struggling state, that the sight of the tax-gatherer was positively distressing to them. The House should, therefore, be slow in acceding to the principle of a large increase of direct taxation. He (Mr. Malins) approved generally of the principle of the Budget, and he was not opposed, therefore, to the moderate increase proposed on the amount of the income tax. But he would be prepared to give any large extension of that tax at a future occasion his most strenuous opposition, as he could not consent to an extension of the principle of direct taxation much further. Considering the disturbance caused to trade and commerce by the augmentation of Customs duties, and also considering that the great operation in which the country was engaged might be the means of effecting a peace, he questioned whether it would not have been the better course to have taken the loan for 20,000,000l. instead of 16,000,000l. That would give the sum, or nearly the sum, required, and produce no disturbance in the trade and commerce of the country. If the war was to be carried on for years, as it was possible it might, then there should inevitably be some compromise between direct and indirect taxation; but while there was any hope, even the faintest, of peace, he thought it would be the lesser evil of the two to raise 4,000,000l. or 5,000,000l., by way of an addition to the loan, than disturb the commercial transactions of the country, or to increase still more the income tax, which had been doubled last year. At the same time he admitted, that, in his opinion, to put an increased duty on tea, coffee, and sugar, was to proceed on a right principle, and he hoped that it would not be productive of the disturbance anticipated by commercial men in this country. Under these circumstances he gave the Budget his general support.


said, he considered that the course pursued by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in proposing an increase of the duties upon tea, coffee, and sugar, was not at variance with the principles of free trade. There was nothing protective in the duties which it was intended to increase. The amount or rate of a duty did not determine its protective quality. Duties were only protective when they were imposed on articles of foreign production at a higher rate than on similar articles of home production; thus giving a bonus to the home producer at the expense of the consumer. He admitted that, theoretically, direct taxation was to be preferred to indirect taxation; but it was impossible—at least impracticable—under the present state of things to confine themselves to direct taxation. During the last twenty years, no less than 25,000,000l. per annum had been deducted from the indirect taxation of the country, which pressed chiefly upon the humbler classes, while up to last year almost every fresh tax imposed belonged to the system of direct taxation, which was borne to a great extent by the wealthier classes of the community. It was their duty, therefore, in providing for the expenses of the war, not to confine their attention wholly to direct taxation, and so allow those classes to escape who could only be touched by indirect taxation. He, therefore, approved of the Budget, because it increased the indirect taxation of the country as well as the direct. He did not agree with the hon. Member for Wick (Mr. Laing) that the amount raised by way of loan should have been 20,000,000l. He believed there were the strongest economical, moral, and social reasons for endeavouring, to the utmost possible extent, to defray the annual expenditure by taxation rather than by loan. Let the nation feel what it was to be at war, and do not lessen the disposition to peace by diminishing the burdens of war.


said, he could not view without apprehension the beginning of a course of policy opposed to that of Sir Robert Peel in 1841, which had so effectually restored the finances of the country. This nation, high taxed as it was, had been obliged to compete with low-taxed nations in point of manufactured productions, and it never could have done so had it not been for that policy proposed by Sir Robert Peel. The manufacturers of this country were now in a very different position from that which they had occupied during the last war, for the continental manufacturers were not then able to compete with them. At the present time, however, the capital of the continent was employed in manufactures, and our manufacturers ought not to be placed at a disadvantage, as compared with their rivals. He regretted, therefore, that the 1,500,000l. increased Customs duties had not been raised by an addition to the income tax; more especially as the duties in question were imposed upon articles, tea, coffee, and sugar, where they would be felt most severely by the poorer classes.


Sir, I rise to do an act of justice to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, because it has been stated by the hon. Member for Wick (Mr. Laing), and by other hon. Members, that the House is now about to take a first step in a retrograde course; and hon. Gentlemen have described with justice the mischiefs attendant upon such a course. I am sorry to say, however, that this is not the first step in this direction, because I am the unfortunate person whose duty it was last Session to propose the first step of retrogression, and the first step in the reversal of the great work of the last twelve or fourteen years. It is quite true, as has been stated by the hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets (Sir W. Clay), that the proposed customs duties do not contain the elements of protection, and that so far as that great and capital feature is concerned, we have not reached the point at which we are compelled to encounter that very serious question. Our work has been a double one. Our first and greatest object has been to eradicate from our laws the bad principle of protection, yet, over and above that capital purpose, Parliament has gradually, cautiously, and successfully endeavoured to diminish the pressure of duties upon the great articles of consumption. Last year we took the first step to undo that policy when we laid an additional duty upon sugar and a large additional duty upon malt. These were very great evils, undoubtedly, and I am bound to say that I do not think we shall stop there, but that, on the contrary, if it is unfortunately incumbent upon the House of Commons for several successive years to add largely to the taxation of the country for the purposes of the war, we shall, rely upon it, again have to face the question of protection. Proposals will be made, and have been made to-night by the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. T. Baring) and others, which, if they were adopted, would let in the thin end of the wedge of protection. Undoubtedly, there are some duties in our tariff which partake in a limited degree of the principle of protection, but the hon. Gentleman gave my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer bad advice when, instead of selecting the articles best able to bear additional duties, such as tea, coffee, and sugar, he entirely declined to discriminate, and recommended my right hon. Friend to take the wine duty, which is already the scandal of our tariff and prohibits nine-tenths of the wine of Europe, and puts his 10 per cent upon it—when he recommends him, also, to put 10 per cent additional upon tobacco, the duty upon which is so large that with every precaution it is hardly possible to keep down smuggling—and when he recommends him also to lay 10 per cent upon timber, which must bring in again that element of protection. I am sorry to be a prophet of evil, but I am afraid, if this necessity should continue for two or three years—and if this war should last, instead of diminishing it will grow—the Government of the day, whoever may be in office, will probably find itself so hard driven and in such straits for mere money, that it may be obliged to propose to Parliament to raise money by that most extravagant of all means of raising money—the restoration of protective duties; and in some form or other, protective duties may come to be restored about the time when the last Protectionist in the country shall have died. I believe the number of gentlemen holding this opinion has enormously diminished since the minority of fifty-three voted at the end of 1852; that a multitude of those who struggled for protection would not now take it back if you were to give it to them; and that if there ever comes a time when protection in any shape is restored, it will come by a compulsion stronger than ourselves, and due to the necessities of the war. That will be a most unfortunate thing. But there are some who contend that our increased necessities ought to be met by direct taxation. Sir, that view is purely theoretical and visionary. It is not the abstract qualities and justice of a tax that enables you to raise money from direct taxation. So far as regards justice and equality, there cannot, I think, be a fairer tax than the house tax; yet the house tax is that tax the raising of which is attended with the greatest difficulty in this country, and although any man who will reason upon it would say that a house tax ought to be one of the main resources of our revenue, yet it will be found that it is the source of only a limited and insignificant extent of income. I do not believe that, as it now stands, the house tax supplies more than 1½ per cent of the whole taxation, and yet I doubt whether there is not more dissatisfaction and discontent in raising this tax than in the levying of very much larger sums in other forms. Sir, I cannot disregard these considerations. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer possesses a powerful engine in the income tax, but he must not attempt to strain it too much. I hope he will remember how much difficulty there is in the whole structure of the income tax, how very reluctant the House has been to give its sanction to the income tax in its present form at all, and how impossible it has been to find any man who would undertake the task of altering that form. Some gentlemen say they prefer indirect taxation, others prefer direct taxation, and others say, I should prefer a loan. My right hon. Friend has, unfortunately, as I conceive, provided the means of meeting all these tastes. Those who like indirect taxation have got indirect taxation; those who prefer direct taxation have got direct taxation; and those who like a loan have got a loan. And although there are some gentlemen who are vexed at the smallness of that loan, and who say that my right hon. Friend ought to have asked for a round sum of 20,000,000l., yet I will venture to remind them that he is not so very far from it, because, although my right hon. Friend only asked for 16,000,000l. in Consols and terminable annuities, yet there is a little item which has been overlooked of 3,000,000l. of Exchequer bills, which my right hon. Friend has judiciously asked for, to vote as a supply in reserve, and it would not, I think, be a venturesome prophecy to say that he will have occasion to use it, and that those who are so anxious that 20,000,000l. should be borrowed will not be very much dissatisfied if they find that the sum will amount to 19,000,000l. Sir, I feel the gravity of the steps that have been and are now taken. I feel that we ought to make every effort to diminish the pressure that bears upon the people by the augmentation of indirect taxation; but it is fair to ourselves, and to those whom we represent, that we should fairly realize this truth, that, as in several successive years we have taken off many millions of taxation without loss, so we may now be in a position in which it will be necessary to impose many millions of taxation, without any real gain. In other words, as by the process in which we have been for some years engaged, at a small loss to the revenue we have added greatly to the wealth of the country, so, by the process which we are now commencing, we may, at little gain to the revenue, be about to take much from the wealth of the country and the comforts of the people. No man surely could suppose that we could undertake a war of such gigantic dimensions without anticipating these evils, and I hope we shall not attempt to escape the necessities of the war by falling back upon the miserable expedient of trusting exclusively to loans. This House, I feel convinced, will not commit any treason to its constituents so gross as to evade the difficulty by resorting to the unlimited use of the funding system, an invention which has been a misfortune and a curse to mankind, and which although in particular countries it has been of some use and benefit, yet, when we look at the state into which it has brought the national finances of most of the States throughout the world, when we consider the permanent mortgages which it has created upon the industry of all countries, and, above all, when we consider the miserable, unjust, pernicious, and unjustifiable wars in which this expedient has enabled countries to embark, I look upon this as the source from which more misfortunes have flowed forth upon mankind than, perhaps, from any other. I thought it was only fair to my right hon. Friend to attempt to relieve him from the censure which has been thus cast on him. I think in whatever way we may attempt to deal with the difficulties of our position, the very worst course we can take is to shut our eyes and adopt expedients, which will tend to mislead the public mind, and prevent it from fully appreciating the gravity of those difficulties.


said, had the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer increased the income tax to 10 per cent it would have been unnecessary to add taxes on tea and sugar, or to raise a sum by Exchequer bills. There ought to have been a graduated income tax, taking in all classes. The working people had petitioned to be included in those classes which contributed through the income tax to defray the burdens of the war, because they had sense enough to see that, if duties were laid on tobacco and tea and sugar, they would have to pay the largest share of the amount. He was astonished to hear the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. T. Baring) have the boldness to ask Government to add 10 per cent to the duties on necessary articles of consumption. His principle of finance was to lay the burden where it could best be borne, and to make all pay in proportion to their means. He was prepared to admit the difficulties in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer was placed, and he was not disposed to offer any obstruction to the proposed measures.


said, he thought it would have been better for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the second year of the war, to have borrowed 2,000,000l. more, rather than to have disturbed the trades in tea, sugar, and other articles, which were to be subjected to higher duties. He wished to direct the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to the classification of the duties on sugar, which had been found to operate very injuriously. He believed the Bill under discussion was the great blot upon the Budget.


said, that in reference to what had been stated respecting the operation of direct and indirect taxation, he considered that direct taxation affected all classes subject to the impost equally; but that indirect taxation touched very lightly the rich, while it pressed very heavily indeed on the poorer classes. One objection to the income tax was stated to be its inequality; but it could not be compared with the inequality of the tax on sugar, tea, and coffee, Look at the proportion which the outlay on those articles formed in the expenditure of the operatives and the proportion which it formed in the expenditure of those who had large establishments! No doubt the income tax fell heavily upon persons of small incomes, but if the Customs duties were removed from articles of consumption the saving to those persons would outweigh the income tax. The right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Gladstone) had said that if the war should continue the course of events would inevitably drive us again to a system of protection. This should operate as a warning against their going any further than was absolutely necessary in a course of taxation that would lead to such a result. If there should be a necessity for increasing indirect taxation, every effort should be made to stave it off as long as possible, and if the hon. Member for Wick (Mr. Laing) divided on the question he should feel bound to support him. In taking that course he would not be actuated by any principle opposed to the most liberal grants of public money for the prosecution of the war; but he felt bound to protest against the main burden of the war being thrown upon the poorer portion of the community.


said, he should have preferred a small extension of the system of loans to a mode of taxation which was in reality sinning against the principle of sound political economy. He wished to speak as the advocate of the poorer classes, because he was convinced that in these indirect taxes they paid in greater proportion than those above them.

Bill read 2o