HC Deb 14 March 1856 vol 141 cc210-8

said, he had now to propose the Motion on this subject which had been concurred in by the Government and hon. Members opposite.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into and report to this House upon the several matters referred to the Commissioners appointed by Her Majesty to inquire into Local Charges upon Shipping in the Ports of the United Kingdom and of the Islands of Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark, and Man; and that the Report of the said Commissioners, presented to both Houses of Parliament by command of Her Majesty, be referred to the said Committee.


said, he could not allow the present Motion to be agreed to without expressing his regret that the discussion on the Bill of the right hon. Gentleman, the Vice President of the Board of Trade, had not been proceeded with, as he was sure that, had it gone on, it would have been found that the shipping interest received a full equivalent for what was paid in local dues.


said, that the conduct of the Government with reference to this question appeared to him to be very extraordinary and unbusiness-like. The Royal Commission, appointed in 1853, had sat sixteen months, and presented a voluminous Report to the House. Now he was of those who thought that the Bill of the right hon. Gentleman the Vice President of the Board of Trade, framed as it was on that Report, would have passed, if Government had persevered with it, because, as he believed, it laid down sound principles. If there was any danger to it, it was not on account of its principles, but because of Government not having fully considered it. Indeed, the opposition which it had met with was chiefly founded on legal objections, and neither the Attorney General nor the Solicitor General rose to answer them. He did not think that the Law Officers of the Crown had ever been consulted upon it, and he should like to know if a Cabinet Council had ever considered the Bill. They seemed to have left the whole matter in the hands of the right hon. Gentleman, and then when the measure was opposed, to leave him in the lurch; and now, when they proposed another Motion upon the subject, they actually adopted the words of an Amendment proposed by the Opposition. Their whole conduct in the matter was most unbusiness-like; and the whole question—one, too, of such importance that it was recommended to the House by a Speech from the Crown—had virtually passed from the conduct of Government into the hands of the Opposition.


said, that that part of the Bill which related to passing tolls had met with general acquiescence, and he wished to know if some arrangement could not be made for introducing a Bill during the present Session dealing with that part of the subject alone?


said, that no doubt the Committee would be at liberty to consider that part of the subject by itself and to report upon it separately.


said, that the conduct of the whole matter had been so arranged as to leave the public out of doors under the impression that the House had pronounced an opinion adverse to the principle which the Government propounded in the Bill. Now he contended that the House had expressed no opinion whatever upon it. He thought those who had advised the withdrawal of the measure had not shown so much confidence in its principle as they ought to have done; for he believed that if the right hon. Gentleman the Vice President of the Board of Trade had proceeded with it he would have carried it by a large majority. But he wished to understand in what position it was now, and what was the effect of the new order of reference to the Committee? How was the action of the Select Committee now, under ther terms of reference proposed by the hon. and learned Member for Stamford (Sir F. Thesiger) to be different from that which it would have been under the reference originally proposed by the Vice President of the Board of Trade? As far as he could understand the question, the powers of the Committee would be the same in either case, and if that were so, he could not see why the right hon. Member for Buckinghamshire (Mr. Disraeli) should have come forward, and announced another defeat of the enemy, when nothing had been acceded to but a mere change of words. He thought the scope of the inquiry was to be still the same, and he repudiated the assertion that there had been any defeat of the principle of the Bill. The hon. and learned Member for Stamford had ingeniously brought into the discussion a mention of the sum of £384,000 as having been paid by somebody for the Liverpool town dues. Now for what and by whom was it that that sum had been paid? Why, the City of London—not the Liverpool Corporation—paid that sum to King Charles I. for a thousand manors; and afterwards one of I those manors only was purchased by the Molyneux family, which was subsequently sold by them to the Corporation of Liverpool for £700. But the fact was that the town dues were received by the Corporation of Liverpool long before any dealings took place with the Molyneux family. They were the old port duties, no doubt arising from a grant of the port, long before that time, made to the Corporation of Liverpool. He quite agreed that the property of corporations, as well as of individuals, ought to be respected. The Bill, he maintained, contained the principle, not of confiscation, but of restoration. Its object was, since those dues were originally granted by the King to keep in repair the port of Liverpool, and in the course of time bad been applied to other purposes, now to restore them to the uses for which they were originally bestowed.


said, he thought that was a very inconvenient occasion on which to discuss the principle of a great measure. The right hon. Gentleman who had just resumed his seat said, that the principle of the Bill was restoration and not confiscation; but restoration to whom, he would ask? Was the right hon. Gentleman aware that in one corporation it was actually proposed to take away that property which had been granted 400 years ago, not merely for the repairs of the port, but for the general purposes of the town? As had been well pointed out by his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Stamford (Sir F. Thesiger), they could not import into a Bill of that kind the supposed principle of the Municipal Corporation Act, which was in reality a measure of restoration, and not confiscation. Why, even the Government acknowledged that it could not justify the measure upon such a principle, by the number of special provisions which they inserted in it. From that moment the original principle of the Bill was given up, and in place of it was substituted the determination to deal with each individual case upon its respective merits. The right hon. Gentleman (Mr. M. Gibson) likewise accused the Government of undue timidity in withdrawing the Bill. Now, he (Mr. Walpole) preferred to think that in doing so they had but observed the old proverb, that "discretion was the better part of valour." For it was plain enough that not merely was there a strong conviction against the Bill on the Opposition side of the House, but that some of the best friends of the Government felt unable to sanction it. He thought, therefore, that the Government had acted fairly and wisely in allowing the measure to be investigated by a Select Committee. He thought, also, that the Government was right in adopting the course suggested by the Amendment of the hon. and learned Member for Stamford, rather than that of the original Motion, for the latter assumed the whole question in dispute by supposing that the recommendations of the Commissioners were generally accepted, whereas the Amendment proceeded upon the notion that the Committee would have to consider how far those recommendations were justifiable.


said, he believed that the public out of doors were fully impressed with the opinion that the Bill, as it stood, ought never to receive a second reading, a conclusion in which he begged fully to participate. The opinion of the House was clearly expressed, and Her Majesty's Government were bound in deference to that opinion to withdraw the Bill upon the second night's debate. He thought the Amendment of the hon. and learned Member for Stamford was much to be preferred to the terms of the original reference; for there could be no doubt that, as regarded many of their recommendations, the Commissioners had exceeded their powers, and had simply volunteered a number of suggestions.


said, some observations had been made by the right hon. Member for the University of Cambridge (Mr. Walpole) and by the hon. Gentleman who had last addressed them, which he was unwilling to pass over in silence. They had both said that the House, although not in terms, had expressed its decided opinion against the principle of the measure. Now, if that had been the case, he did not think the Government would have been justified in proposing that a Committee upon the same subject should be appointed at all. That House had neither affirmed nor negatived the principle, as he considered; but the details of the Bill, and the principle of it, were so mingled together that it was impossible to separate them. Now, what would have been the fate of the measure if it had been persisted in, he was not curious to inquire. Whether it would have been carried or successfully resisted, he was certainly not skilled enough in the division lists of that House to offer an opinion. But he was quite ready to state that, in his opinion, there was a degree of opposition in that House offered to the Bill that quite justified the Government in taking the course they had done, so as to enable the House to investigate, not merely the details, but the principles of the Bill, which, as he had said, were so mixed together. And the Government, anxious for the success of that measure, were adopting what he considered the best course for that end, and the course which was most respectful to the House, by asking the House to examine into this question in the only satisfactory manner—by a well constituted Committee. He believed that examination would dispel many illusions and mistakes now prevalent on the subject in the House. The hon. and learned Gentleman who opposed the second reading said, why not separate the measure, and pass that part of it which relates to passing tolls, a question resting on distinct grounds? When the question was examined, it would be found that all the argument which could be urged against the rest of the Bill applied to that part also, and that the abolition of those tolls, without compensation, would quickly affect the ratepayers in the boroughs in the same way as the abolition of any of the others. He only wished to protest against the supposition that the Government, by consenting to the appointment of the Committee, had abandoned the principle of the Bill; they only asked the House to consider the principle and the details it involved. On the other hand, he did not mean to say the House had affirmed the principle; it was neither affirmed nor denied, but by referring it to a Committee they would be able to arrive at a conclusion as to the best mode of dealing with it.


said, he could assure the House that the statements of the right hon. Member for Manchester (Mr. M. Gibson) would receive a full and satisfactory answer before the Committee. He was surprised to hear the right hon. Gentleman assert there was no difference between the proposal of the Government and that of the hon. and learned Member for Stamford (Sir F. Thesiger). As the Amendment stood the Committee would not be confined to the Report of the Commissioners, but would be entitled to take evidence and enter into the consideration of the whole subject.


said, he was bound in the name of his constituents to complain of the manner in which the Government had dealt with this question. A measure founded upon the Report of a Royal Commission, which had been sitting for nearly two years, recommended in the Speech from the Throne, and introduced by a Cabinet, had been debated for one evening, and then withdrawn in the middle of the debate. It was true that during the first evening the Members who caught the eye of the Speaker were those who were opposed to the measure. The other side was scarcely touched upon; but that was not because there were no Members who were prepared to defend the measure, but because they thought it good tactics to allow their opponents to exhaust themselves before they replied. The second evening's debate would have completely altered the aspect of the question. What, he should like to know, could justify the conduct of the Government in withdrawing the measure? Not because they were defeated on a division, but because, as it appeared, they thought they were beaten in the debate. To make the matter more unaccountable, scarcely a Member of the Cabinet, and no law officer of the Crown, rose to defend the measure. It was the most extraordinary and unaccountable circumstance which he had witnessed during the whole course of his Parliamentary experience. He would not deny that hon. Gentlemen opposite had a triumph as against the Government; but he did deny that the result of the debate had been to show that the opinion of the House or of the country was, as they had inferred from the conduct of the Government, against the principle of the measure. He could speak for his own constituents; he did not believe there were two opinions in the West Riding of Yorkshire on the subject. They were supporters of the Bill; but were they, therefore, to be characterised as persons who were reckless as to the rights of property, and prepared to undermine its very foundations? Liverpool was the keystone to the arch of this iniquitous system of monopoly, injustice, and spoliation; and the case as between his constituents and the corporation of that town was pretty much the case as it affected the whole country. The cutlers and steel manufacturers of Sheffield were importers by way of Liverpool, and as much might be said of the various merchants and manufacturers in Halifax, Bradford, Leeds, and all the other great towns of Yorkshire. And Low was the produce of their industry dealt with in Liverpool? Whether their wares came into Liverpool as raw material, or passed out of it as manufactured articles, in each case a heavy tax was imposed upon them by the corporation of that town. Was ever anything more unjust, more cruel, more alien to the spirit of modern legislation? Export duties, even for the benefit of the Crown, had been long ago abolished. We no longer taxed for that purpose either the raw material or the manufactured article. The Legislature had set its face against the system years ago; but that which the Legislature would not venture to attempt, the Corporation of Liverpool was to be allowed to do unchallenged; and that, too, after whatever fashion and to whatever extent they pleased. Not only did that august body take upon themselves to tax his constituents, but they applied the taxes to purposes altogether different from those originally contemplated, and totally inconsistent with every principle of common justice. Of the £150,000 levied by this monstrous process of local taxation, not £10,000—not £5,000—was expended on such objects as could alone justify the imposition of such tolls. The money was devoted to such purposes as the widening of the streets of Liverpool. Why should not Liverpool widen its own streets? Sheffield, Bradford. Halifax, and Leeds, did so. On what principle, then, of common sense or common honesty could it be contended that they should not only widen their own streets, but those of Liverpool also? The hon. Member for that town had made no scruple of admitting that the money was spent on such works.


I did not say that all the streets were widened, but only those leading to the docks. These had to be widened to facilitate the transit of goods.


Exactly so; and the people of Sheffield have to widen their streets to accommodate their manufactures and to facilitate the operations of their commerce. Their docks were the best investments that the Corporation of Liverpool possessed, and the works connected with them should be executed at the expense of those who alone derived pecuniary profit from them. It was easy to understand why Liverpool should desire the continuance of the present system, seeing that its streets were widened and its municipal arrangements conducted so effectively at the cost of other people that there had been no necessity to levy a borough rate there, as at Manchester and elsewhere, in accordance with the requirements of the Corporation Act. But the time had arrived when such a preposterous abuse should be swept away. Every large manufacturing town in the midland counties—every farmer who obtained his raw produce by way of Liverpool—was interested in this question. The evil had attained such a magnitude as to be no longer endurable. No sooner did a new commodity, previously unknown to the tariff of the Liverpool Corporation—such, for instance, as guano—suddenly make its appearance, than that body pounced upon it, and insisted that, on every bag of it that might be imported by a gentleman or farmer in Staffordshire or Warwickshire, a tax, say of 6d., should be imposed; and they were to be told, forsooth, that gains and practices such as these were as worthy of respect as personal property, and rested on the same foundation. If this was so, all he could say was, that there was no very secure tenure for personal property in this country. But he was not there to advocate the total abolition of those taxes. All he required was, that if they were still to be levied, they should be honestly and rightfully expended, and not grossly misappropriated as at present. If they were laid out for the benefit of commerce, as was contemplated by the project of the Government, he should not have a word to say against them. With such an arrangement his constituents would be perfectly content. They had no fear that if those imposts were in the hands of the Government they would be misapplied; but they had the strongest conviction that, as long as they were under the control of the Liverpool Corporation, they would be subject to flagrant malversation. The only wonder was, that this undefined and irresponsible mode of taxation, not very unlike that which cost an English monarch his life, should find advocates in any assembly of Englishmen, and least of all in that House. In conclusion, he would only observe that, whatever might be thought by the Opposition of the manner in which the question had been dealt with by the Vice President of the Board of Trade, he (Mr. Cobden) was of opinion that that right hon. Gentleman had not argued it in a manner of which he had the least cause to be ashamed; and it was only to be regretted that the Government had not given him a more stedfast support. The right hon. Gentleman had treated the question with signal ability, placing it upon a proper footing, and presenting it in a form which rendered it easy of comprehension to the whole community; and the country would have been true to the Government if it had only been true to itself, which unfortunately it had not.


said, whatever complaints hon. Members might have to make against the Government, he thought the House had some complaints to make of the manner in which those hon. Members had acted. The right hon. Member for Manchester (Mr. M. Gibson) said he was not fortunate enough to catch the Speaker's eye when the Bill was discussed. He watched the right hon. Member, and never saw him rise on that occasion. He thought the House had adopted a fair course in adopting the Amendment of the hon. and learned Member for Stamford. He trusted the Committee would enter on the subject without any bias, and would give the subject that fair consideration which its importance deserved.


said, the people of Liverpool were only desirous that the Committee should go fairly into the subject, and deal with it in a manner that would do justice to all parties.


said, he did not think the fault lay entirely on Government, but the representatives of large towns were to blame in not rising in greater numbers when the subject was debated. He took blame to himself along with the rest. These dues were kept up, not for the purpose of keeping the channel navigable, but to build large halls, and for other municipal purposes. He hoped the Committee would not be asleep, but that they would soon make a report, in order that the matter might be shortly brought forward again.


said, the question had been argued as if it were an exclusively English question; but that was not so, because the tolls were levied on Irish produce.


said, he presented a petition in favour of the Bill, and he thought it most unjust that the hardworking cutlers of Sheffield should be taxed for the erection of St. George's Hall and other public buildings in Liverpool. When the hon. and learned Member for Stamford (Sir F. Thesiger) next had a special retainer, when he next went to St. George's Hall, let him observe the worm at the root—the tax which was levied upon the poor cutlers of Sheffield for its maintenance.

Question put, and agreed to.