HC Deb 16 June 1876 vol 229 cc1976-89

Sir, according to the Notice I have given, I beg to call the attention of the House to the Taxation at present levied in Malta; and to move the following Resolution:— That, in the opinion of this House, it is inexpedient in policy and mischievous as an example to other Nations on the shores of the Mediterranean, to continue to levy ten shillings a quarter on wheat imported into the island of Malta, and other high Duties of a protective character on grain and cattle. My attention was first called to this subject when in Rome last year, and when I was discussing the question of our new Commercial Tariff with Italy. From an Italian point of view, the Maltese Tariff appeared altogether inconsistent with English professions of Free Trade principles, and was calculated to do harm as an example, particularly when the Italians were called upon by England to adopt a policy so different. By a Return laid before the House of Commons in August, 1875, it appears that the main feature of the Maltese Tariff is a tax of 10s. per salma (7¾ bushels) on wheat, and similar duties of a protective character on other grain. There is likewise a tax of 10s. per head on imported cattle, and a considerable duty on light wines and on oil. Fully one half of the revenue, or abont £85,000, is raised on corn, wine, and oil; in fact, on the necessaries of the people. It appears to me to be an entirely false principle, especially in the case of Malta, which is so densely populated. After reading this Return, I put a Question to the hon. Gentleman the Under Secretary for the Colonies; and his Answer appeared to me so unsatisfactory that I placed the present Notice on the Paper. I was not, however, prepared for the larger question, which involves the whole system of the English government of Malta. The hon. Gentleman spoke of Malta being a fortress, and drew a parallel between it and Gibraltar. I wish he could have carried out that parallel and told me that Malta was a free port like Gibraltar. Had such been the case, it is probable that I should not have put down my Motion. It is true, doubtless, that Valetta is a great fortress, but the islands of Malta and Gozo cover an area of 115 square miles (according to an authority now recognized in this House, Whitaker's Almanack), whilst Gibraltar is a great rock covering only 1¾square miles. The Maltese population is 150,000, whilst Gibraltar contains only 25,000, including the garrison. Malta and Gozo produce a considerable quantity of grain, on which a protective duty of more than 20 per cent is levied in favour of the Maltese landowner. To show the anomaly of the Maltese Tariff, I am told that in the spring of 1875, 10,000 tons of new potatoes were sent to the London market, which so completely cleared the market in Malta that the inhabitants and garrison were obliged to draw their supplies, on which a considerable import duty was levied, from foreign countries. In reference to the Maltese Tariff, it must be remembered that it was enacted when England was Protectionist, in the year 1837, nine years before the repeal of the Corn Laws. Protectionist England was clearly responsible for what was done, as Malta had no representative institutions whatever at that time. It is not probable that Free Trade England, after 1846, would even have sanctioned such a Tariff. Malta has been in the possession of England since 1800–76 years; and it had previously enjoyed a certain amount of representation. But it was not until 1849 that England gave it any sort of representation. In 1849, a Council was formed to assist the Governor, who acts as President, consisting of 18 Members, 10 official and 8 elected, the official Members being bound to vote with the Governor. That is the present system; and practically the Governor has the power to do what he chooses. I am not going to urge a full and fair representation of the people such as in England. It may not be suited to the present condition of Malta. Malta, as a fortress, is of first-rate importance to England, and military necessities must be the first consideration. But I hold that every liberty consistent with these necessities should be conceded to the people; and if the Government must, to some extent, be despotic, that despotism should be enlightened and worthy of England. Such a heresy and anomaly as a bread tax should not be continued, and the initiative of some other alternative tax must rest with the Government, who can, if they choose, having all the power, levy a tax on property and income, and make Malta a free port like Gibraltar. There can be no reason why municipal rights and self-government in local matters should not be conceded. From information which I have received from Malta, I find that it is desired to have a civilian instead of, or in addition to, a military Governor. On this point I express no opinion; but I hope that every reasonable wish of the inhabitants will meet with a favourable consideration. I am told by some in England that the Maltese are disloyal to the British Government. If this be so, which I trust it is not, there must be some grievous fault on our side. A wise and enlightened policy on the part of England should bind the interests and inclinations of 150,000 Maltese to us; and that wisdom and enlightenment the Maltese have a right to claim at our hands. I am fully aware that it maybe said this is a small question to bring before the House of Commons. But I firmly believe that the association of the name of England with a policy of retrogression on the subject of Free Trade never can be of small importance. In conclusion, I beg to move the Resolution of which I have given Notice.


Sir, in rising to second the Motion of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Mr. Potter), which I do with great pleasure, I must also express some regret that his Resolution had not been of a broader character, because it appears to me that, though my hon. Friend has decidedly hit upon a blot, still the iniquitous bread tax which he denounces is only one of the symptoms of a deeper disease in the administration of Malta, the real cause of the evil being a Government entirely despotic and irresponsible to the people governed. We have held the island since 1800, previous to which there was a Consiglio Popolare, which ensured some approach to popular government, but under our rule that entirely vanished, till in 1849, under Letters Patent, a Council was instituted consisting of 18 Members, of whom the Military Governor, along with other 9, are official, and 8 are elected, and in this way the official element at any time swamps the elective. But even the elected Members are only the representatives of a very narrow constituency, as I believe the franchise is equivalent to an £8 ownership or a £40 occupancy, and there are only about 2,300 electors in a population of 150,000. The natural result of this state of matters is bad government. The military and official elements everywhere override the civilian, the people are treated with disrespect or indifference, and even the native nobility, dating from as old as the Norman Conquest, is nowhere. I propose to give a few illustrations of the bad government of which I have spoken. The bread tax, of which the hon. Member for Rochdale has just spoken, is one of them. He has told us that it was imposed in 1837; but he omitted to tell us that, in its imposition, there was a stipulation that it should be used only "for purposes of unquestionable public utility." Now, it appears that this has been interpreted to mean utility to the town of Valetta only, and the money that is raised generally, is expended locally, in decorating Valetta and making it a healthy and pleasant place of residence for the garrison and the officials. I am informed that about £60,000 has been spent on an opera house, about £40,000 on a cemetery, the corridors of the Governor's palace have been lately paved with costly marble, half the cost of an extension of the harbour for the British fleet—some £100,000—and £6,000 a-year for lighting the streets of Valetta, while the smaller towns are not allowed the cost of a paraffin lamp. There are no municipalities and no local authorities, so that outside Valetta local government is entirely neglected. There is no attempt to check mendicity, and the schools are neglected. There is one good point about the schools—they are cheap, the fees are almost nominal, but unfortunately along with that the education is bad. Out of 28,000 children of school age—five to fifteen—only 7,400 are at school, and, even after our rule of three quarters of a century, there is little provision for teaching our language. Only in the higher schools is it required, and at the primary schools only about 800 children are subjected to even a pretence of learning it. Yet another instance of misrule. Lord Cardwell, on the 19th September, 1864, sent a despatch instructing the local government that "no money Vote was to be passed against the opinion of the elected members." But that despatch has just been set at nought in the most flagrant manner. It seems the Chief Secretary wanted his salary raised from £1,000 to £1,300; so having got the consent of Lord Cardwell, he moved it in the Council on the 23rd February last; and notwithstanding that every one of the elected members opposed it—the whole 8 voting against it—the official members carried the increase by a majority of 1, that one being actually the vote of the Chief Secretary himself. It seems to me that open corruption could not go much further than this; and when such an act can be done openly and unblushingly, what may not be suspected of more secret acts? It is even alleged that justice can hardly be had, if that justice happens to be invoked against an official. Sir Adrian Dingli, the Crown Advocate, has held his office for 23 years, during which he has appointed all the Judges and heads of Departments, and has concentrated in his own hands pretty much the whole power in the island. With so long a tenure of office it could hardly be otherwise, and to a certain extent this is the case with the permanent officials in our Departments at home. The Governor having only a five years' term of office, knows and can do little. If there is an appeal to the Governor, he refers it to the Crown Advocate. If there is an appeal to the Chief Secretary, he also refers it to the Crown Advocate. If the appeal be to the Secretary of State at home, the Crown Advocate writes the despatch that accompanies the appeal; and if the appeal be to the Law Courts, again the Crown Advocate appears and defends the Government—that is himself—before Judges who have been appointed by himself. Now I do not say that wrong is actually done under all that; there maybe no wrong done—but the circumstances indicate a system under which wrong is possible, and therefore suspicion is warranted. I believe that Malta, if well governed, would be a very flourishing place. I understand its imports from England come to near £1,000,000 sterling annually, those from other countries only a tenth of that. I understand that about 4,500 steamers touch there annually, and I do not doubt that if the suggestion of my hon. Friend, for making Malta a free port, were adopted, it would soon become a great entrepôt of trade. At present its revenue, as regards the amount, is in a satisfactory state. It appears to be about £170,000, while the expenditure for the coming year is estimated at about £160,000, leaving a surplus of £10,000, besides which there is a sum of about £9,000 invested in Consols, derived from some former land sales and held to meet any pressing emergency. Malta pays the whole of the military Governor's salary of £5,000 a-year, and besides that I believe it keeps up a regiment of fencibles. When a few days ago I asked the Under Secretary for the Colonies, if Government had considered the policy of appointing a civilian Governor, and would do so on the expiry of the present appointment in June, 1877, he said—"No, they would not change, because Malta must be considered as a great fortress, where we keep British troops." But, Sir, that fortress and those troops are not kept there for Maltese purposes, but for national ones; and I question the fairness to Malta of having a highly-paid military Governor and making Malta pay his whole salary. In my opinion the Governorship ought to be divided, both salary and duties. Let there be a military Governor to look after national interests and paid for by us, and also a civilian Governor to look after Maltese administration and paid for by Malta. Were that done, the interests of the people would be looked after as they are not at present, and a great deal of the improper expenditure would be saved. Besides that there ought to be local rating for purely local purposes in Valetta as elsewhere, and if these changes were not enough to get quit of the bread tax, there should be a change to direct taxation, exactly as we, in 1846, adopted the income tax in order to abolish the Corn Laws, the best thing Great Britain ever did for her own prosperity. My hon. Friend has pointed out the iniquity of the Maltese bread tax; it amounts to a farthing on every pound of bread; and, as the poor are the great consumers of bread, it falls with the greatest hardship on the poor. A man's consumption of bread does not increase as his wealth increases, but rather the contrary, and on no principle of justice can such a tax be defended. Even the Crown Advocate of Malta, in defending his Financial Statement the other day, was obliged to admit that it was "a very ugly tax," though, in some measure, he tried to justify it on the old exploded fallacy that wages were regulated by the price of food, and therefore that dear bread assured higher wages. It would be insulting the common sense of the House of Commons even to argue against that fallacy, and, in truth, the only ground on which the tax can be in any way justified is the difficulty of arranging for a substitute. That difficulty might, I think, be overcome under a better form of government, that is with the military and civil rule separated, the constitution of the Council changed, and an enlarged constituency to give that civil rule a more truly representative character. But as Government seem to have decided against present change, there is another proposal which I would urge upon them, and it is one that, in many other matters, they have shown great readiness to adopt. Let them send out a Royal Commission to inquire into the civil administration of Malta; and I feel confident that the result of that inquiry will show the necessity of some such changes as I have pointed out.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in the opinion of this House, it is inexpedient in policy, and mischievous as an example to other Nations on the shores of the Mediterranean, to continue to levy ten shillings a quarter on wheat imported into the island of Malta, and other high Duties of a protective character on grain and cattle,"—(Mr. Potter,) —instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


said, he had passed many years of his life in the Mediterranean and at Malta, and would remind the House that Malta voluntarily undertook to pay the expenses of the Government, which he thought very moderate. The corn tax was no doubt, as it had been called, a very "ugly" tax, and one that it was impossible to defend; but in a small community like Malta it was exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to raise revenue by direct taxation, which would cause greater discontent among the population than the present system, bad as that might be. When he was Chief Secretary at Corfu, under the late Sir Henry Storks, they were anxious to reform the system of taxation in the Ionian Islands, and appointed a Commission to investigate the matter; but it was found to be perfectly impossible to raise anything by direct taxation. Therefore, with every desire to see a better system of finance in Malta, he knew how difficult it would be to have there anything but a system of indirect taxation, especially as a great part of the inhabitants of Malta were a seafaring population. He felt certain that if the hon. Member for Glasgow were to go to Malta, and examine for himself into the local conditions of Malta, he would see how difficult it was to have anything but that existing system of taxation. As to the present system of government in Malta, it was that recommended by the late Sir George Cornewall Lewis, who was one of the Commissioners sent out to inquire into the subject, and the Maltese were quite satisfied with our rule. With regard to the increase of the salary paid to the Chief Secretary of the Governor, that increase did not involve any addition to the taxes paid by the people of Malta. The Chief Secretary for several years received £1,000 a-year. This year the Governor thought it right to increase his salary. The Governor had a private secretary, who received£300 a-year. The Governor gave up the private secretary and added £300 to the salary of the Chief Secretary.


, in contradiction of a statement that the people of Malta were disloyal, said they were thoroughly loyal. Although, no doubt, there was a small revolutionary party, they were of no importance, and they only served to bring into more prominent relief the feelings of the majority of the population. He trusted that the time would come when the financial condition of the island would render it possible to deal with the question raised by the Motion, but he did not see what the present Government could do with it. It was a question which would be debated much more appropriately in the Council of Malta than in Parliament. The present Constitution of Malta was thoroughly unsatisfactory. Much might have been done for ameliorating the state of the population had not military concerns engrossed the attention of the Government of Malta. In the Council of Malta there were eight persons who represented the people of Malta, and there were nine persons who held official positions in the island under the Government, and who were bound to vote as the Governor chose. Moreover, the Governor himself had a vote. Therefore the Executive Government could carry everything their own way, and the Constitution was a mere mockery and delusion. This condition of affairs had caused great discontent. Those who represented the population ought surely to have a majority, even if it was only a majority of one, and he trusted that something would be done to satisfy the people of Malta that those who represented them should have a due preponderance on all matters relating to taxation in the island and to the expenditure of money. With regard to the increase of the Chief Secretary's salary, he observed that the salary of the Judge, who was a very able man, was only £600 a-year, and the salary of the Queen's Advocate was £600 a-year. The Chief Secretary had the highest salary in the island, except the Governor. The people of Malta had a right to derive some benefit from the abolition of the office of private secretary. The private secretary was disposed of, he (Sir George Bowyer) assumed, because his services were not required. The elected members of the Council who represented the taxpayers ought to have had an opportunity of deciding on that matter. On a recent occasion, the nobility of Malta had met with anything but proper treatment, and he thought they ought to look with favour on the people of Malta, and that their complaints should be listened to with respect, the more so as they were under a military, and not a civil administration. It should be remembered that the Maltese aristocracy was very ancient.


said, that no apology was necessary, for he (Mr. Lowther) should be the last person to call in question the propriety of his hon. Friend opposite (Mr. Potter) bringing this subject under their attention. But although his hon. Friend had brought forward the subject of which he had given Notice and confined himself to it, other hon. Gentlemen had, very naturally perhaps, taken the opportunity of travelling very far beyond the terms of the Notice originally given. His hon. Friend having stated that the revenues of Malta were derived almost exclusively from indirect sources, it would probably be convenient to the House to point out briefly what the facts were. The population of Malta was set down roughly at about 150,000. The estimated expenditure for the past year was £160,000. Of that sum £40,000 was revenue derived from the rent of land; and that was an item which in no way fell on the bulk of the population, as it was paid by the occupiers. Upwards of £6,000 was derived from interest of Consols and other Stock, and £1,200 from reimbursements from the Imperial Funds. His hon. Friend would thus see that out of £160,000 required for this expenditure, about £48,000 was met from sources to which the bulk of the population in no way contributed. That left about £113,000 to be made up by general taxation. Of that amount some £52,000 was derived from sources to which his hon. Friend had more especially referred—the tax upon wheat, barley, and other grain. His hon. Friend would therefore see that the items of revenue against which he had directed his attacks formed a very considerable element of income, being two-fifths of the entire revenue of the colony. There were other items to which he had referred—namely, £3,500 for the import duty on cattle, and some £200 from a duty on horses and mules. He had shown the House that the sum of £55,000 odd was derived from those sources which were more particularly attacked in the Resolution. How did his hon. Friend propose to meet the deficiency which he would create? His hon. Friend might have followed a distinguished example offered to him not long ago, when a large remission of taxation was proposed, and no substitute sketched out. His hon. Friend had declined to follow the example, though he had adopted a course which certainly was not inspired from the source to which he just alluded. His hon. Friend suggested the imposition of an Income Tax. He confessed he was rather astonished to find his hon. Friend in 1876 advocating the imposition of a tax which his political Friends had so frequently denounced. Another source of revenue suggested as an alternative by the hon. Gentleman who seconded the Motion (Mr. Anderson) was the transfer from Imperial sources to local rates of a considerable item of expenditure incurred in the town of Valetta. The hon. Member for Rochdale was a zealous apostle of Free Trade, and they were all indebted to him for a valuable addition to their library. But he would point out to his hon. Friend that there would be some incongruity in English public men propounding the doctrine of Free Trade as a cardinal principle applicable in all conceivable circumstances and cases. There might be some incongruity, for instance, in advocating that doctrine on the shores of the Mediterranean, while a few miles distant a different system was upheld under British rule. He therefore thought his hon. Friend might easily convince himself that Free Trade, though advantageous in certain cases, would not be so in exceptional ones. The English Government presided over many communities who were by no means of one mind on this subject. His hon. Friend proposed that the Government should take advantage of the majority it possessed in the Council to overrule the elected element, His hon. Friend, however, must be perfectly well aware that the Natives of Malta were by no means well versed in the doctrines of political economy. He would express no opinion on the subject; Her Majesty's Government were not called upon to do so. But if it was the duty of the Government to constitute themselves the champions of Free Trade, and force it on every community over the destiny of which they were called to preside, what reception, he would ask, would such a policy be likely to meet with in Canada or Melbourne, for example. The hon. Member for Glasgow, in seconding the Amendment, had suggested that a civil as well as a military Governor should be appointed for Malta. He might, however, remind the House that Malta was not only a colony of some importance, but that it was also an important fortress, and the question, therefore, would be how far the appointment of a dual government would conduce to the military efficiency of the fortress. The subject the hon. Member for Glasgow would doubtless himself admit to be one of some difficulty, which Her Majesty's Government would be justified in considering before arriving at a decision with regard to it. Looking at the subject abstractedly, he confessed that he could see no objection to the appointment of a civil Governor, provided such an appointment would be consistent with the military efficiency of the fortress; but it was the opinion of competent authorities that the retention of the present system was more likely to maintain that efficiency than the scheme of the hon. Member for Glasgow would be if it were carried into effect. Some 30 years ago a gentleman whose name was not unknown to many hon. Members (Mr. More O'Ferrall) was appointed Civil Governor of Malta, but that result of that appointment was not in favour of a repetition of the experiment. The hon. Member for Glasgow objected that the cost of the Governor was thrown upon the population of Malta, and suggested that the salaries of both should be defrayed out of the Imperial revenues; but he (Mr. Lowther) should have thought the Estimates were already sufficiently high, and he was therefore surprised at the suggestion of the hon. Member.


observed, that he did not intend that the Governors should receive £5,000 a-year each, but that the Military Governor should receive £3,000, and the Civil Governor £2,000 a-year.


doubted whether, under those circumstances, the hon. Member would find the efficiency of either improved, and was afraid that the dual government would in the end prove far more expensive than the present system. At all events, it would certainly require great consideration on the part of Her Majesty's Government before it could be adopted. Men of great experience were opposed to such a system. The experiment had been tried in another colony some years ago, and had failed, and Sir George Cornewall Lewis expressed an opinion decidedly hostile to such an experiment. The hon. Member was wrong when he termed the government of Malta an enlightened despotism. On the contrary, the wishes of the inhabitants were most carefully considered by Her Majesty's Government, whenever they were not inconsistent with the efficiency of the fortress. It had been said that the tax was an exceptional hardship upon the working classes; but in his opinion it pressed very lightly upon the general community, while the imposition of any substitute for it would inevitably lead to great discontent. In his opinion, it would be most unwise to attempt to interfere with the fiscal arrangements which had commended themselves to the general approval of the Council.


said, he did not think that the hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Lowther) had been very successful in his reply to the hon. Member for Rochdale. The story about such taxes pressing lightly was the familiar one which had always been urged in favour of this form of taxation, and he could not entertain the opinion that the officials of the Colonial Office, and one of the ability of the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Lowther) himself, could not devise a substitute for the taxes of which the hon. Member for Rochdale complained. He did not think that any fair parallel could be drawn between Malta and Canada, because in the former there was no popular representation.


said, he was of opinion that the duties referred to were not imposed for the purpose of Protection, but were mere fiscal regulations for revenue purposes. The House had at present no satisfactory information with regard to the taxation of Malta; and he thought that those who proposed a change in the existing system ought to show how the change was to be effected. With regard to the question of imposition of income tax on the Maltese, he considered that was the very last means that should be resorted to, and until he heard of some better scheme of taxation than that which at present existed he could not vote for the Motion of his hon. Friend.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 130; Noes 84: Majority 46.