HC Deb 10 August 1860 vol 160 cc1114-28

Sir, I gave notice last night that I should take an opportunity, before the House separated, and on this evening, to call the attention of the House to the position in which we stand with regard to a matter which has excited great interest during the Session—to the question of the Excise duties on paper, and the effect which the course taken upon that measure has had upon the position and privileges of the House. I cannot say that I have any very definite question to put to the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer. What I want rather is to make two or three suggestions to the Government and to the House. I have abstained, since the discussion on the Resolutions proposed by the noble Lord at the head of the Government, from taking any part in this matter, because I did not think it wise for an independent Member to submit to the House a Resolution, or to ask the House to come to any decision or division upon a Resolution, as I was sensible that unless the Government took part in such a division, and in favour of such Resolution, in all probability the division—if the House were to divide—might place the House in a worse position, with regard to this question, than it occupied after having accepted unanimously the three Resolutions which were proposed by the noble Lord. I do not know whether the noble Lord the Member for Marylebone (Lord Fermoy) is in the House, but if he had been here I should have suggested to him that he should not persevere in the proposition he has given notice of, or ask the House to divide upon it, unless, at any rate, he had the consent and support of the Government, which would enable that Resolution to be carried. I am myself so conscious of the delicacy of the position in which we are placed that I would much rather stay where we are, awkward as is the position, than do anything to make it worse, and therefore I have come forward with a view of making two or three suggestions, which, I think, if the Government and the House were willing, might still lie adopted with a view to save us from the painful and perilous predicament in which we have been placed during the Session.

Now, I think it is worth while for a moment to advert to the two parties who may be said to be damaged by the present state of things. Those persons throughout the country who are engaged in a most important trade—the manufacture of paper—have themselves suffered grievously from the transactions of this Session, and I think the House of Commons itself has suffered not less. When the Session commenced—when the Chancellor of the Exchequer introduced his Budget—his proposition was this, that the Excise duties upon paper should be entirely abolished, and the import duties on paper also abolished. Papermakers, therefore, would by that proposition have got rid of the grievance of the excise, and would have been of course deprived, for the future, of whatever advantage they had in the protection they enjoyed in an import duty over and above the amount of Excise duty. Well, what have we done? The conjoint action—it was not exactly a conjoint action of Parliament—is this, that the papermakers are left with the grievance of the excise; but they have been deprived of whatever advantage they enjoyed from what they considered to be a compensating protection. Now, I am of opinion that an excise—that the grievance of an excise—cannot well be measured in so many farthings per lb. in respect to paper, or anything else. I think it one of those tyrannies which never ought to have been established, and never should be tolerated in a free country. Men in the pursuit of their daily and honest industry should not be tracked about, interfered with, overlooked—and, I will say, damaged in a very large degree—by officers of Government, who have no natural right whatever to he upon their premises or take any part whatever in their transactions. But these paper manufacturers are in this unfortunate position at this moment. I have heard some people say, "Serve them right, for they have not shown themselves very wise during this Session." I admit they have not been very wise, but I am afraid men are very seldom wise in their own affairs, and also not willing generally to take good advice. The papermakers committed this unfortunate mistake. To maintain their protection they went into partnership with The Times newspaper. The Times was afraid of the cheap papers, and the papermakers were afraid of free trade in paper, so they clubbed their interests together. There has been nothing for many years which has been so obnoxious and so worrying—I will undertake to say—for Members of Parliament as this partnership action of The Times newspaper and the paper manufacturers. No Member could get into the House or out of the House without having them upon him, and I am told that hon. Members on this side of the House—there may have been some on the other side—have been canvassed by persons connected with the staff of The Times newspaper, even from the hon. Member for Berkshire (Mr. Walter) down through all the ranks of its editors, and I do not know-that there is anybody connected with the paper that has not been canvassing with regard to this matter. We have had, at the same time, as the House knows, in the columns of that journal, the most violent and malignant attacks on the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as if the right hon. Gentleman were about to do something contrary to the public interest in abolishing the paper excise, and in allowing foreign paper to be introduced. That, I have no doubt, is the secret of the abundant malice with which the right hon. Gentleman has been attacked during the whole of this Session by the writers in the columns of The Times. But passing all this by—and I am willing to forgive and forget it all—there remains this fact; that this large industry—these 300 or 400 firms in the United Kingdom—are at this moment suffering, or will be after the 15th of this month, from an excise which is kept on solely by the authority of the House of Lords, under circumstances most grievous, because it is admitted on all hands that the excise cannot, and will not, be fairly levied. There are exemptions which act with great injustice to persons who are not exempt, and there are certain articles which the courts in one case have decided to be paper, and in another case have de- cided not to be paper; and it is extremely difficult for the Inland Revenue officers to know whether certain articles ought to be charged with excise or not. Well, that being so, I say that these paper manufacturers have a real and solid complaint to make to Parliament on account of the position in which they are placed. The Inland Revenue Department has condemned this tax; the House of Commons has passed a Resolution—and I call the attention of the noble Lord at the head of the Government especially to this—the House of Commons passed a Resolution two years ago that this Excise duty on paper was not a fit matter from which to raise a permanent revenue. Therefore, it has been condemned in a most emphatic manner, even before this Session commenced. This Session has seen it not only condemned by the House of Commons, but a Bill has passed through all its stages in this House abolishing the excise, and on the 15th of August—some day next week—that excise was to have terminated, 'and so it would have terminated but for that which has not happened before in this country for 500 years past. But for the interference of a branch of the Legislature which has never heretofore, within historic period, done such an act as this—but for that interference, unexpected by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and hardly to be credited throughout the country, this excise would have been abolished. Now, however, instead of that, from those papermakers, after next week, will be collected about £30,000 per week, or £1,500,000 per annum in the shape of a tax for the public Exchequer—a tax which this House has not only not sanctioned, but which it has condemned emphatically, and has passed a Bill to repeal, and they will be paying it solely by the authority of a vote of the other House of Parliament. I say, then, that we ought, as the House of Commons, to take into consideration the grievous nature of the injustice which is inflicted upon this important industry, and it is partly on this account that I have risen for the purpose of asking the House if it is not worth while to consider whether a course might not he taken even now, before the Session of Parliament ends, to put an end to what I think is a monstrous injury to a most important class of manufacturers in this country.

But then conies the other and I admit a much greater evil—one in which we ought to take more interest—and that is the damage which this House has suffered by the course which this affair has taken. Now, let me appeal to hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the House, because they, from their silence, are supposed to have approved what has been done—I appeal to them as Members of this House, and as representatives, at least, of some portions of the English people—do they not feel that the House of Commons, now, within a fortnight, it may be, of the end of the Session, is in a very different position with regard to its rights and its power over the taxation of the country, from that which it occupied when the Session opened? I think it is impossible, whatever any man may say, as to the paper excise, as to the Government, or the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or the House of Lords—I think it impossible for any man to conceal from himself the fact that the House of Commons at this moment is shorn of a portion of its power, and that it has permitted itself to be hustled out of—if I may use the expression—and deprived of an authority which for 500 years past our predecessors in this House have exercised without contradiction and without control. Now, your Chancellor of the Exchequer—and hon. Gentlemen opposite have shown sometimes not a very favourable feeling towards the Chancellor of the Exchequer this Session—but your Chancellor of the Exchequer, be he the right hon. Gentleman or anybody else, is an officer now, at this moment, in a position inferior to that which he occupied at the commencement of the Session. Both the House and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have been subjected to a new authority, and an authority, I will undertake to say, which, if it be permitted to work, and be not manfully resisted, is one which will bring not only this House, but itself—before any very long period—into great difficulty, and it may be, into serious disasters. I will ask hon. Gentlemen, whether they believe that a majority of the House of Lords is likely to work well in financial questions with the majority of the House of Commons? There has been no Liberal majority in the House of Lords since the Reform Bill, or long before. There is no probability of there being such a Liberal majority. There is every probability that the majority of this House, whatever it call itself, will not be of the same political complexion as the majority of the other House of Parliament. Therefore you are establishing, in this respect, a permanent, a chronic dissension between the two Houses, which may lead to difficulties that every man in the House, I think, would wish to be avoided.

If any hon. Gentleman here thinks I am at this period calling the attention of the House to a subject which is not worthy of attention, or which is absolutely settled, I would refer them to the language of Ministers of the Crown in the last discussion, if I am not out of order in so doing. I am, indeed, afraid it is not sufficiently in order, and, therefore, I will not refer to the discussion, but will simply refer to expressions which Ministers of the Crown have used on this subject. The noble Lord at the head of the Government told us that if he thought that course, that is, the course pursued by the House of Lords, was the beginning of a new practice on these questions, he would advise the House to resist it by every constitutional and legal means in its power. But if the noble Lord were to turn back to a man to whose authority he will probably pay some respect—I mean Lord Chatham—he would see that Lord Chatham declared if you admit a principle like this, you may rely upon it that that principle will be constantly put in practice so soon as it can be supported by power. That is precisely the dread which now I have before me, that if this be permitted, so hungry is the appetite for power in all bodies of men, we shall before long have this pleaded as a precedent, and that we shall have the principle supported by power, and that unfortunate state of things which Lord Chatham hoped might never arise will arise under the Government of the noble Lord and by the permission of the Parliament in which we are now sitting. Well, the noble Lord, the Member for the City of London, who is a great authority on questions of this nature, told us that he believed no question so grave had happened in his life time; and he said on one occasion, he considered it equal to a total change in our system of government. It must be a matter of some importance that would draw from the noble Lord—from one so cautious and so experienced—words so grave as those. The Chancellor of the Exchequer evidently held the same opinion, for he said this was a gigantic and dangerous innovation.


I must remind the hon. Gentleman that it is out of order to quote words used in a previous debate during the present Session.


I thank you, Sir, for the intimation; I have no other reference to make to those speeches; and I thought I was not trespassing upon the rules of the House in bringing the evidence of Her Majesty's Ministers to bear in favour of a conclusion at which I wish the Ministers and the House to arrive. The question is what, under the circumstances, have we done? We have passed three Resolutions, very harmless, it may be; but they were introduced in a speech which was far from harmless. If in the search which we made in that Precedents Committee, we had found, within the last fifty years, three cases like this, I will undertake to say that the Committee would have been forced to admit that there were precedents of a very overwhelming description regarding the power of the Lords to deal with questions of this nature. Well, fifty or twenty years hence, if this matter remain as it now stands, there may be another Committee, there may be partisans of the policy of the Lords upon that Committee; they will light upon the Resolutions which the noble Lord has proposed and the House agreed to; but they will say, what matter these Resolutions? The Resolutions of this House or the other do not make a precedent—but the thing done, the final conclusion—where the matter rests—that is the precedent as to the action of the two Houses; and, therefore, they will look upon this as a precedent a hundred times more fatal to the powers of the House of Commons than any of those that were produced by the diligent researches of the officers of this House, and which have been laid upon the table. Now, I may be asked what would I have done in this matter. There are several things which might have been done. If the noble Lord had been a man of the spirit of Chatham, or of the spirit of Canning, in a matter of this nature, he would have come down the day after the rejection of the Paper Duty Abolition Bill, and he would have asked the House—not because the Excise duty on paper was a great question, hut because the rights of the House were something of still greater value—immediately to have suspended its Standing Orders, in order to permit him to pass a new Bill, re-affirming that which had been declared in the Bill just rejected. But the noble Lord was afraid to do this. I am told that there were great doubts whether it could be done. It was said that more money was wanted for the China war, and that you could not ask the House to do this. But after all the money was a mere bagatelle in the £70,000,000 you are voting and spending. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, I think, says it is only £700,000 up to the commencement of the next financial year, and, therefore, it is perfectly idle to say that it was worth while for the sake of that sum to put in jeopardy the rights of the House of Commons, and to resign that authority over the taxation of the country into the hands of the other House, which this House has exercised, without question, for a period of not less than five hundred years.

But there was another course, and it is still open, which the noble Lord might take, and for which he could find a most conclusive precedent if he were anxious for it. In the year 1734 there was a case in which the Government of the time wished to save the country gentlemen from the pressure of a heavier land tax, and they agreed to take not less than £1,200,000 for the service of the year out of the Sinking Fund, and apply it to purposes for which, of course, it was not originally intended. When they brought that Bill into the House it consisted only of two clauses. They moved, on going into Committee, that the Committee should be instructed to receive clauses of appropriation; and they hound up the appropriation clause of the year with those two clauses. They took £1,200,000 from the Sinking Fund and appropriated it to the service of the year, and the two matters together in one Bill went up to the House of Lords, and were passed by that House. Well, there is an appropriation Bill to be yet passed by the House of Commons this Session; and I say the House of Commons itself, if it possesses, as Mr. Canning said in 1827, a spark of spirit left in it to maintain its own privileges and rights, will avail itself of that, or of some other equally proper mode, for the purpose of restoring itself, at the end of the Session, to the independent position which it occupied when we met. But there is another mode which I would recommend to the noble Lord. He will see that I am merely offering suggestions for his consideration and for that of his Colleagues in the Cabinet. There is a mode, nearly resembling that which Mr. Canning adopted in 1827. On that occasion the House of Lords rejected, by a substantial alteration, a Bill which modified the duties leviable upon foreign corn. Immediately afterwards—I think the very next day—Mr. Canning came down to this House, and in language of a severity ex- cecding anything that has been used with regard to the Peers during the discussion of this question, asked the House of Commons to take a course to maintain their rights. But he said, as Minister, he felt that it was his duty, if possible, to prevent any collision between the two Houses; and, therefore, he asked the House not to pass exactly the measure which had just been rejected, but to pass another Bill, including its provisions, but limited to a duration of nine months. And I think he expressed a hope that Heaven in the meantime might' grant intelligence and good sense to the legislators in "another place"—so that at the end of nine months they might agree without discussion to that which the Commons had determined on. Now that was in point of fact very much like a Bill of suspension. I would suggest to the noble Lord and his Colleagues, that they might, if they thought proper, introduce into this House a Bill—and I am sure the House would sanction it—for the suspension of the collection of the Excise duties on paper until the month of March or April next, which would allow time when Parliament met again for the reintroduction and passing of a Bill abolishing the Excise duty upon paper for ever; and I think such a course as that would be judicious in every way. There is one other course which might be pursued, and that is the one which was recommended by the hon. Member for Finsbury, at the beginning of these transactions. My hon. Friend proposed a Resolution, and though it was not in a form whip' could be accepted, its intention, the House will remember, was, that steps should be taken—I presume by an address to the Crown—that Parliament should not be prorogued as usual, but adjourned till November, to allow the postponed Bill to be reconsidered by the House of Lords, and by taking up this Bill and passing it, as I believe they would do, to restore harmony between the two Houses. Now both of these two courses—that of suspension, and especially that of adjournment—would be propositions of conciliation as between the two Houses, and not propositions which might be said to bear this character that the House of Commons was endeavouring to override the House of Lords. One of these courses, I think, the Government ought to take, and I believe the House would support them. The Government had just the same fears the other night about that question of seven-eighths of a penny in the pound of Customs' duty on paper. How many weeks did they hesitate in their course respecting his questtion? Nobody knew why they hesitated, unless it was because they doubted whether they could carry their proposals, and did not like to run the risk of defeat. Why, in one night's debate, the argument being triumphantly in their favour, the good sense of the House of Commons gave them a majority which is three times the majority that the noble Lord believed he possessed when first he met Parliament. Sir, I think that if an equally direct course had been pursued with regard to the paper duty abolition, the House of Commons, disregarding the question of £600,000 or £700,000 of revenue, would have risen to the height of the occasion, and would have supported him in maintaining their privileges as representatives of the people. Now, I want to put this question to the House—Are they willing to sustain their rights, or are they willing that the year should be marked by a concession of this dangerous, and even of this ignominious character? The Government is the depositary of the rights of the House; and whatever the Government determines upon a question of this nature the House is generally disposed to follow. If hon. Members have read any foreign newspapers, whether American, French, or Belgian—the newspapers of any country where there is freedom of discussion on subjects of any kind—they will find but one opinion expressed with regard to this question—an opinion that the House of Commons have made a great mistake during this Session; that we have had a fall; that we have not risen from it; and that rights which belong to the representative assembly of a free nation have been needlessly surrendered to a power against which the House of Commons, whenever they choose to meet it, can always fairly assert their rights. As the matter stands, we have not been faithful to those who have sent us here. I believe—I never believed anything with a firmer conviction—that if the noble Lord had dissolved Parliament upon the question of privilege as connected with the Excise duty question, he would have met with a response from all the constituencies of the country, and would have gained a majority such as there has not been in Parliament for many years, to carry out his policy, and to sustain the rights and interests of the House of Commons.

I have said I should recommend, as I have recommended my noble Friend (Lord Fermoy), not to ask the House to come to a decision upon any question of this nature. I prefer to remain where we are unless we can take steps in advance, and I am so tender of the rights of the House of Commons that I know of no greater calamity that can happen to the country than that we should impair the confidence which the people should have in us, and that we should lessen our power over the great and constantly increasingly great questions which affect the finances and the taxation of the country. Now, there is such a thing as treason. It is a crime which is probably known to the law of every country. We have it in our law. It is committed generally against a Monarchy or against a State. It may have in it much that is evil, and it may have in it much that is good. Treason of that kind is a crime that may load a man with shame for ever, or it may cover him with lasting renown. But there is another kind of treason, which is treason against a people, which may be committed by a Minister of the Crown, by a consenting Cabinet, and by a compliant Legislative body; but that is a treason which is all evil, which has no good whatever in it; it covers no man or body of men with renown; but it covers them with contempt and infamy, decreed, I believe, by the just judgment of posterity. I hope and pray that when, the impartial pen of history in after times shall tell the story of our doings in this Session of the British Parliament, it may not have to say that the Prime Minister and his colleagues, and the House of Commons supporting them, let down the power of the House of Commons, and sacrificed and betrayed—as I fear we are in danger of sacrificing and betraying—those most solemn and important rights which we are bound to maintain, I undertake to say, by sanctions and engagements stronger than any which oaths can give. We are bound to maintain them by all that our forefathers have done upon this question, and by that which all those who may come after us will have a right to expect at our hands. I ask the noble Lord and the Government a question. I do not say he should answer me now—that he should rise in his place and say, "It is impossible that anything can be done, and that we have given a final opinion upon this matter." The noble Lord is not infallible, any more than any of us, but he might do much to band together those who, for the most part, have cordially supported the Government during this Session; he could do that which would be approved by the great party in the country which has sent us to this House; and I say, moreover, I believe, to the credit of hon. Gentlemen opposite, that if he would do this he would have the support of many on that side, and Parliament would unitedly rejoice that we could separate having left the same powers in the hands of the House of Commons undisputed, uncontrolled, unimpaired as it had when we began the Session.


Sir, I had hoped that the House had sufficiently discussed, and, at all events, disposed of for the present Session, a question which threatened to bring about a serious collision between the two Houses of Parliament. It is allowable, no doubt, for those who, like the hon. Gentleman, entertain very strong and extreme opinions upon this matter, to take advantage of any fair and proper opportunity for impressing those opinions upon the House, and urging that they should be carried into practical execution. But, I must say, if the hon. Gentleman entertains those strong opinions, which he has expressed to-night as to the consequences upon the character of this House, and upon the constitution of the country, which would follow from nothing more being done than that which the House, by a majority of, I believe, 400, agreed to do—it would have better become the hon. Gentleman if he had produced his opinions, and proposed his course of conduct at the time when the matter was under the consideration of the House, when the House was full, when the events were recent in the minds of hon. Members, and when, therefore, this, House was more in a condition to determine, and the country more in a condition to accept a Resolution than they can be at this moment. I think that I performed my duty to this House and the country by the course I conceived it right to recommend the House to pursue; and that opinion has, I think, been confirmed by the immense majority by which those Resolutions were sanctioned. If I had thought that measures such as those to which the hon. Gentleman has adverted as having been adopted by Ministers in former days, would have been proper for this occasion; and that it was necessary to propose them to the House, I trust I should not have required the stimulus of the hon. Gentleman's advice to point out the measures and the course which, as the responsible Minister of the Crown, I should have deemed it my duty to recommend to the House. I did not think the occasion required more than that which I proposed, and which the House adopted. I think we did sufficient to maintain the dignity and assert the privileges of this House of Parliament. But I think that, if there is one thing which is more undignified than another, more humiliating and degrading than another, either to individuals or to assemblies, it is to resort to puling lamentations, to fruitless complaints, well knowing at the time such lamentations are uttered, and such complaints are made, that no practical result can follow, except that of declaring to the whole world that, in the opinion of the speaker, an injury has been sustained for which, at the same time, he admits no remedy can be obtained. I think the hon. Gentleman would better have consulted his own character and the dignity of Parliament—he would have shown more regard for the constitution of the country, if, not choosing to make these proposals when the matter was under consideration—he had been content to let it rest upon what a numerous majority of this House deemed to be a satisfactory footing, and which I take leave to say was approved by the great bulk of the nation. The hon. Gentleman says that if we had dissolved Parliament, and appealed to the country upon this question, we should have had a large majority; but I will tell him that I am of an entirely different opinion. I am persuaded that the country would not have supported a Ministry who deemed that, under the circumstances of the case, it was a question upon which to place the issue before the electors of the country. I am not prepared for any of those courses which the hon. Gentleman has proposed. Towards the conclusion of his speech he has been pleased to tell us what, in his opinion, constitutes the crime of treason. There are those who think that men who would wish to overthrow, one by one, every component part of the institutions of the country—who, whether in Parliament or out of Parliament, in their minds conceive plans, which, if carried into execution, must come under that denomination, deserve to have that appellation applied to them. But all I take leave to say is, that when the hon. Gentleman says that the course which the Government have taken, is, in his opinion, a treason against the people which would cover that Ministry with contempt and infamy—I say I leave with confidence the question between the hon. Gentleman and myself in regard to this matter to the deliberate judgment of posterity—aye to the judgment of the present time and of all future ages—and I am not at all afraid as to which of us two will be deemed to be deserving of the epithets which he has bestowed upon me.



said, that as he had been appealed to by the hon. Member for Birmingham with regard to the Instruction he had put on the Notice Paper, he thought it only fair to state the course he meant to pursue upon the paper duty.


said, the noble Lord was entirely out of order in explaining what he intended to do in regard to a Motion of which he had given notice.


said, after the speech made by the noble Lord at the head of the Government, and the very able speech made by his hon. Friend below him (Mr. Bright), he had a right to make a few remarks. He thought, since the question had been raised in the House, and particularly since the Resolutions of the noble Lord had been carried, that the House of Commons and the other House of Parliament did not stand in a satisfactory position. Either the House of Lords had infringed the privileges of the House of Commons, or it had not. If it had not infringed the privileges of the House of Commons, the Resolutions of the noble Lord were superfluous. If the privileges of the House had been infringed, the passing of the Resolutions had not redressed the position in which they were placed; and therefore he thought it would be more expedient that they should take some further movement. The noble Lord at the head of the Government in his speech said his own opinion, and the opinion of the Government, with regard to the present position of the House, was unchanged. The noble Lord had declared his determination not to take any further steps; and therefore, if other steps were taken, they would be met with the united opposition of the Government. His hon. Friend below him (Mr. Bright) occupied a very important position in the House of Commons as regarded this question; he also occupied a very prominent position in the country with regard to many questions. The hon. Gentleman was followed by a number of Gentlemen who placed implicit confidence in him. He (Lord Fermoy) was in this position. If he pursued the course of which he had given notice, he would be opposed by Her Majesty's Government; and therefore, in order not to inconvenience hon. Members, and in deference to the advice of his hon. Friend below him, and others in whom he had confidence, he felt he had no alternative but to abandon the question during the present Session.