HC Deb 01 June 1860 vol 158 cc1873-83

said, he rose to ask Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer whether he intends, in consequence of the Bill for the abolition of the duties on paper having been rejected by the House of Lords, to remit some other tax equivalent to the amount of the paper duties? The present position of the taxpayers of this country, and of the House of Commons, was a very peculiar one with regard to the question of the Paper Duties Repeal Bill, which had just been rejected by the other House. That question involved two different features — the one financial and the other constitutional. As to the constitutional view of the case, he, for one, was prepared at the proper time to go to the utmost length in vindicating the rights and privileges of the House of Commons. The position in which the House of Commons stood before the country with reference to this question was, as he had said, a very peculiar one. The position was not owing to any act of their own, and he trusted that proper steps would be taken at the right time to vindicate their rights and privileges. He, for one, did not at all approve of the course which Her Majesty's Government had thought fit to take with reference to this question. It appeared to him that the proper line to have been adopted by the Government, when the other House rejected a Money Bill, was to have re-introduced the Bill immediately with a different name, and to tack to it Resolutions to the effect that the House of Commons were determined to vindicate their rights and privileges. Instead of doing that the Government had sheltered themselves under a Committee, which had no power to take cognizance of the financial portion of the question, and would only have a very partial power to deal with the constitutional portion. With regard to the financial part of the question —and that was the part to which his question principally referred—he thought it would be seen that the House was in a very peculiar position. The state of the case now was this—that the people of England, in consequence of the rejection of that Bill, were about to be called upon to pay £1,500,000 of taxation, to which taxation their representatives in that House had not agreed—-nay, more, £1,500,000 of taxation which the representatives of the people in that House had condemned, and had declared ought to have been repealed. He wished to ask whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer was gratified or disappointed at the present state of things? Having confidence in the sincerity of the right hon. Gentleman's convictions, he believed that he was sadly disappointed, but he thought it right to say that there were many persons throughout the country who were of opinion that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, so far from being displeased at his present position, was rather pleased that he had got more money at his disposal. He thought he was acting rightly in giving the right hon. Gentleman an opportunity of removing that impression. During the debate that took place in that House about two months ago on the question of the paper duties the right hon. Gentleman declared that if the Paper Duties Bill were rejected—[An hon. Member: In this House.] —he would come down before many days had elapsed and ask the House to repeal the war taxes upon tea and sugar. The House was then discussing the financial view of the question, and he would ask his hon. Friend who had reminded him that that promise only referred to the contingency of the rejection of the Bill by the House of Commons, what difference did it make, as regarded the financial view of the question, whether the Bill was defeated in the House of Lords or in the House of Commons r His opinion was, that Her Majesty's Government ought to have come down before two days elapsed to that House to ask them to pass a Bill for the repeal of the paper duties. But, as they had allowed time to pass away, he assumed that they were not prepared to adopt that course. If they were not prepared to adopt that course, he would ask them to consider, not only the injustice which had been done to the Commons of England by this invasion of their rights and privileges, but the injustice done to the people of England in calling upon them to pay £1,500,000 of taxation more than their representatives in that House had declared to be necessary to meet the exigencies of the State. The Chancellor of the Exchequer was in this dilemma'—he either thought that the Earl of Derby was right, and that the other House of Parliament was right in the opinion which they had pronounced upon his Budget, but then he was unworthy of the confidence of the House and the country; or he believed he was himself right, but then he was bound to give the House the earliest opportunity of adjusting the balance, and repealing an equal amount of taxation — of repealing £1,500,000 of the taxes paid by the consumers of tea and sugar, which concerned every man, woman, and child, in the country. He (Lord Fermoy) thought, at the same time, the Government were bound not to shelter themselves under the Committee which was to inquire into precedents— precedents every hon. Member could ascertain for himself in an hour—but that they should come forward boldly and manfully, and vindicate the rights and privileges of the House of Commons, The noble Lord concluded by putting the Question.


said, he was not present when the noble Lord the Member for Marylebone gave notice of his question, or he should have been spared the necessity of putting a similar question; but the noble Lord had not alluded very pointedly to the taxes which, now the paper duty was to be maintained, the country would naturally expect that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would propose to repeal. He was not going to follow the noble Lord into a discussion of the constitutional part of the question, and he did not think with him that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was bound to propose another Bill this Session for a repeal of the paper duty. But he did think that if the right hon. Gentleman were resolved to maintain the substantial accuracy of his Budget, without the paper duty, he was bound to invite the House to consider the repeal of the tea and sugar duties. He had referred to the words of the right hon. Gentleman in Hansard, and he found that the right hon. Gentleman said he should, in the event of the paper duty not being repealed, invite the House to repeal the tea and sugar duties; but from a subsequent sentence he naturally supposed that the right hon. Gentleman meant the tea or sugar duties, because he stated that it would not be so well to meddle with the tea as it would with the sugar duties. He would not discuss the expediency of remitting the tea duties; but he thought that if there were any chance of a surplus they might repeal the 1s. 3d. by gradual instalments, spread over two or three years, without any eventual loss to the country, while it would prove of immense advantage to the country. It was the more necessary to discuss t he question, considering the view in which agitators out of doors placed it before the country. Those agitators represented those whom they described as selfish aristocrats as anxious not to repeal the taxes on knowledge for the sake of saving 1d. or 2d. in the pound of income tax. It suited the interests of hon. Gentlemen who wished the paper duty repealed to keep out of sight altogether the tea and sugar duties; but the working classes, who were not entirely their tools, must see that there was diametrical opposition between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and those who were trying to agitate the repeal of the paper duty. They said it was a question between the paper duty and the income tax; but the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the discussion on the Motion of the hon. Baronet the Member for Somersetshire (Sir William Miles), distinctly stated that, in his opinion, it was a question between the paper duty and the lowering of the duties on tea and sugar; and if it were put to the working classes, he (Mr. Steuart) believed that nine out of ten would prefer the continuance of the paper duty to the continuance of the tea and sugar duties. He confessed that he should be surprised to hear that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would invite the House to consider the repeal of the tea and sugar duties. He thought it much more likely that the right hon. Gentleman would be gratified at a considerable amount of revenue being-forced upon him. He thought, however, that the time was come when the Chancellor of the Exchequer should make some declaration of opinion whether the Estimates of a few months ago were likely to be realized. Many people were of opinion that disturbing circumstances had occurred to dislocate those calculations. The Chancellor of the Exchequer was in no way to blame for those disturbing circumstances. One was now very apparent—namety, that the Chinese Government were not likely to accept the ultimatum, and that there must be a war. He should be obliged if the right hon. Gentleman would afford him information with regard to the second part of his question. The reduced duty on wines had been in operation for three months. The right hon. Gentleman stated that the loss to the revenue as compared with last year would be only about £515,000, calculating upon an increase of consumption of 85 per cent. It was stated that in the last three months the increase was only at the rate of 6 per cent; and if there were no greater increase in the remaining nine mouths, the difference between 6 and 35 per cent must en- tail a much heavier loss than £515,000. Although he did not wish to lead the House into a debate upon a financial question, they had a right to expect to hear from the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether he adhered to the estimate which he made of the amount of revenue; and, if so, whether he would carry out the pledge which he gave to the House upon the supposition that the paper duty was not repealed? He would conclude by asking Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer whether, having declared, in case of a similar contingency with regard to the Bill for the Repeal of the Paper Duty to what now has occurred, that he should take the earliest opportunity, probably within a few days, of inviting the House to repeal the War Tea and Sugar Duty, he still adheres to that intention; or what contingencies, then unforeseen, prevent such a course? Also, whether he is still of opinion, from the quantities of Wine entered since the lowering of the Duty, that consumption will increase to the extent of 35 per cent, and entail on the Revenue a loss, compared with last year, of only £515,000?


As representing to some extent colonial interests in this House, I beg to thank the hon. Member for Cambridge for bringing forward this question. Tea and sugar have much reason to complain of the inconsistency of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I am not going to quote Hansard, for I think that too much time is already occupied in the House by hon. Members elaborately proving what every one acknowledges, that in these latter days statesmen have frequent occasion to change their opinions. But in this case the old love has been thrown over with more than usual heartlessness. The breach of promise has been unusually flagrant; for not only have those interested in tea and sugar been disappointed of their just hopes, but so far from reducing the duty, the right hon. Gentleman has imposed two additional quarters per cent, one without any pretext at all, the other on the pretext of furnishing information which it can never do, and which is already furnished at the expense of the merchants. A duty so oppressive, and involving so much extra account keeping that I really believe for every shilling paid into the Exchequer, another is lost to the taxpayer in increased trouble and risk; tea therefore may well lament that the Chancellor desires to introduce wine into the cottage of the labourer instead of "the cup which cheers but not inebriates." Sugar is differently situated, for I believe its consumption will be increased, in order to render palatable the class of wines likely to be introduced under the Treaty; and this makes it still more essential that it should be purchaseable at a low price. But hero I will take higher ground, and hero I claim the concurrence of the President of the Board of Trade, and I will say that a tax of this kind is a serious tax upon knowledge. Everything which raises the price of the necessaries of life is a tax upon knowledge. When you see a country, or a portion of the community in a state of gross ignorance, you do not say, "What a tremendous tax there must be upon paper!" but you see that the material condition of the people is low, and that the necessaries of life are scarce and difficult to be procured. Juvenal does not tell us that we should not have had the imimmortal works of Virgil if tablets had been dear, or if there had been a duty on papyrus. He says, "Si tolerabile deesset hospitium caderent omnes a crinibus hydri." And this corresponds with the ordinary course of experience. When a man earns wages lie first satisfies his stomach, he then clothes his back, and if he has any surplus he spends it possibly on his brains; but unless he has that surplus, however cheap you may make knowledge, he cannot avail himself of it. Now, the tax on sugar is so onerous that it prevents its being used for many purposes for which it is essentially fitted. Any one who has been in the West Indies during harvest knows how soon lean cattle are fattened on the refuse of the boiling house. Sugar, were it cheaper, might be used as fodder, which in a season of scarcity of hay, such as this last spring, would be most valuable, and enable the farmer to keep his stock cheaper, sell them cheaper to the butcher, who would sell his meat cheaper, and so the working man would have a much larger surplus to spend on education. But it has been said that the paper duty has been condemned by the House, and how often have not the tea and sugar duties been condemned by successive Chancellors of the Exchequer, and by none more than the right hon. Gentleman himself; therefore, Sir, in the name of those who eat meat, as well as in the name of those who drink wine and tea; for the sake of education, and still more for the sake of his own consistency; I venture to express a hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to tell us that at no distant day he will materially reduce this onerous and oppressive, and except on fiscal grounds, indefensible impost.


Sir, I have no objection to offer to the criticism of the noble Lord the Member for Marylebone on the conduct of the Government with respect to the appointment of a Committee of this House, nor to the observations of the hon. Gentlemen opposite with respect to the financial proceedings of the Government or their supposed intentions, but I hope I may be permitted, without any disrespect, to be very brief; and, I am afraid also, to be negative in my reply. In what I may say in regard to their observations I must be understood, in a general sense, to make no admissions, and in fact, to offer no reply to their questions. That is the general and invariable rule with respect to the intentions of the Government in matters of taxation, and certainly the reasons which support and vindicate that rule have a double force at this peculiar juncture, when it so happens that important questions of taxation are, at any rate for the moment, inextricably mixed up with other questions if possible still more important than those of taxation—namely, the relation of the rights of the two Houses of Parliament, and the constitutional usages under which legislation is carried on in matters of taxation. The noble Lord seems to be curious about the exact state of my feelings with respect to the vote of the House of Lords. A Chancellor of the Exchequer is not usually supposed to have any feelings whatever, but, however, if I had any on this particular case, I do not think the time has yet come for declaring them. I entirely differ from the noble Lord's criticism, and I think it is the opinion of the House, without at all committing themselves as to what may be right at an ulterior stage of the question, that the Government have taken a becoming and judicious course in remitting it to a tribunal chosen by the House itself to make a careful collection of the facts bearing upon the case, in order that the House may have the fullest information before making up its mind on the subject. With that apology, which I hope will not be taken to be disrespectful, I must say that I am afraid it is not practicable for me to give any promise either as to the remission or non-remission of any particular tax whatever on the present occasion. The hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Steuart) is quite right in saying that on the second reading of the Bill I did state that it was the intention of the Government, if that proposal were not accepted by the House of Commons to submit to the judgement of the House a proposal for the repeal either of the tea or sugar duties; but I beg to observe that the contingency I then contemplated has not happened, and, consequently, the situation being totally different, the case in which that question might fairly be pressed upon mo has not arrived. As regards that great subject to which the noble Lord chiefly adverted, reserving to myself the right to enter into a discussion of it, if necessary, at the proper time, I am quite content to leave the question where it was left the day before the recess by the declarations of my noble Friend at the head of the Government, and the more detailed declarations of my noble Friend the Member for London. The hon. Gentleman opposite wishes to know whether I still adhere to the opinion I expressed, that the consumption of wine would increase to the amount of 35 per cent, and that the loss to the revenue would not be greater than £515,000 in the first year of the change. It has alway been my opinion—and I believe I have expressed it in this House—that it would be impossible to form any trustworthy judgment on the effect of the reduction of the wine duties until the Wine Licences Bill had passed and had come into operation. It will be not less than two or three months before that Bill comes into practical operation, and I should not feel justified, therefore, in giving now any more confident opinions about the ultimate issue of that great experiment than I gave when I submitted my financial statement to the House. But this I may say, that so far as our present experience goes the results are quite satisfactory, and I have no reason to deviate from the Estimate which was naturally conjectural, but which, such as it was, I ventured to submit to the House.


Sir, I have listened with pleasure to the observations of the hon. Gentlemen opposite, inasmuch as they have exhibited great affection for the working classes, particularly with reference to the reduction of the duties upon tea and sugar; and, in all they have said as to desirableness of reducing those duties, I am disposed to agree. But I discovered from their observations that either they have not read the debate which took place in the other House of Parliament, or they entirely differ from their Friends there who took part in that debate. Of course I am aware that the Earl of Derby did not know at all that the hon. Member for Somersetshire (Sir W. Miles) had ever discussed the paper duty in connection with the income tax in this House; and if he was so entirely ignorant of what his Friends were doing here, it is not unfair to assume that his Friends hero do not know anything of what he was doing there. Now, if the hon. Gentlemen opposite had observed the debate, they would have discovered—what everybody, I presume, who knows anything of that debate must have discovered—that it was not a question then whether the paper duty was a good or a bad duty, or whether it was a better or a worse duty than the duty upon tea and sugar; but they would have learned that the whole ground of the case is this—that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by the House of Commons, has not provided adequately for the Ways and Means for the service of the year. That was the argument used in the other House of Parliament—and upon that argument almost entirely was based the policy which was adopted of rejecting that Bill. If that be so—and I am not about to discuss whether that argument was rightly founded or not—it clearly is not very reasonable to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer to introduce some other Bill which shall remit an equal amount of I duty—which Bill, I presume, could not become law, upon the new theory of the Constitution, without the consent of the other House of Parliament; and if there be any validity in the argument for the rejection of the Paper Duty Bill—namely, that the House of Commons had not sufficiently provided for the Ways and Means for the year—then clearly that House, upon the same argument, would not only be justified, but would be compelled to reject any new Bill that should be sent up, instead of the Paper Duty Repeal Bill. Therefore, I presume that the House would not expect the Chancellor of the Exchequer to take that course; and I am only surprised that any hon. Member in this House should have imagined such a course was possible. Besides we must take into consideration that although the sugar and tea duties are mentioned in what was called the "Budget speech," yet that now we have got new masters with respect to the question of taxation, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will have to consider much more minutely, and take far more circumstances into his view than heretofore, when he is deliberating what taxes he shall propose to remit, and what taxes he shall propose to impose. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Steuart) looking in this direction, took the liberty of making some reference to what he calls agitation out of doors. Hon. Gentlemen opposite have not themselves been altogether free in past times from the charge of endeavouring to get up agitations on questions which they deemed of importance to their peculiar interests. But they had always this extreme difficulty in their way, that the causes they advocated, the measures they propounded, the principles upon which they acted, the course they recommended, all have been precisely of that nature that the great bulk of the population of this country utterly disapproved of them, and would not in any way assist them in the promotion of their objects. With regard to this very matter, surely the hon. Gentleman does not wish that a great question like this—one so great that the noble Lord the Member for the City of London thinks there has scarcely been one so grave and important during the period of his political life—that a question so grave shall not be discussed by a people of a free country. Does the hon. Gentleman presume—does he dare to say, or is he so afraid of his own case as to say, that if any hon. Member of this House takes the liberty before any audience of fairly and openly discussing this question, whatever his opinions may be upon it, he is not doing service to the people of this country in enabling them to judge of the facts of this case and the principles upon which the House of Commons may be called upon to act. I should not have been dissatisfied at seeing the House fake some more expeditious mode than that proposed with reference to this matter. But I am bound to admit, looking to the past proceedings of the House, and so far as I have been able to examine or learn of them, that the course which the Government have taken is that which has heretofore been followed in similar cases. A Committee has been appointed. That Committee has already sat, and its sittings will be continued next week. Evidence will be taken in a few days, and the whole matter, so far as it can be discovered, will be laid before the House, and I have great confidence that during that time the question will be more discussed in the country, and more reflected upon in the House. If it should happen that the Committee should report that the course taken by the House of Lords has infringed upon the just, recognized, and constitutional rights of the House of Commons, I confess I should feel ashamed of being a Member of this House if I thought that a large majority of the Members of it would not take such steps as may appear right for the purpose of resisting any such infringement of their privileges and their rights. I do not think that we could commit a greater treason to every branch of the Legislature, to the Crown, to the Commons, and to the House of Lords itself, than to permit a matter of this kind to be passed over as if it were of no importance, and I think the posterity I of the existing generation of Englishmen Would have reason to look back—with contempt, I will say—upon the Parliament of 1860, if it did not thoroughly sift this question to the bottom, and act in accordance with the principles of the constitution in the defence of those right and liberties, if we find that they have been in any degree assailed.