HL Deb 23 June 1831 vol 4 cc258-61
The Bishop of Bath

and Wells presented a Petition from the Clergy and other Inhabitants of his Diocese, praying for the Repeal of the Beer Bill. The petition was signed by every clergyman in the Diocese, and stated, that pauperism had much increased since the passing of the Act. The right rev. Pre- late warmly supported the prayer of the petition; and maintained, that the Bill had had a most demoralizing effect on the people. Every third or fourth house in some of the country towns was become a beer-shop; and the greatest excesses were, in consequence, committed. In Somersetshire the pernicious effects of this Bill were too palpable. He called on the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, who professed himself to be so friendly to the improvement of the people, to assist in putting an end to a system by which the people were vitiated. He called on the noble Earl at the head of his Majesty's Government, who was so anxious for Reform, by the repeal of the Bill in question to effect a reform of the most desirable character. With respect to the description of Reform for which the noble Earl himself was so zealous an advocate, he (the Bishop of Bath and Wells) was bound conscientiously to declare, that he could not give it his assent. At the same time he must assert, that not one of their Lordships was more ready to respect and promote the liberties of the people than he was.

The Earl of Malmesbury

was glad to hear such opinions fall from the right rev. Prelate, which, he was sure, would have much weight with their Lordships. He had been by no means favourable to the Bill against which the right rev. Prelate had just presented a petition. At the same time, to repeal a law after it had passed, was a very different thing from opposing its adoption. He was quite aware, that the law had been productive of many evils; but were there not ways in which the number of those evils might be diminished? What he suggested was in no hostility whatever towards the people. On the contrary, he was influenced by a wish for their comfort, and that comfort could not be better consulted than by an improvement of their moral habits. The scenes of debauchery which occasionally took place in the beer-houses were of the grossest description. Would it not, therefore, be advantageous to give the Magistrates some control over those houses? He wished that the poor man should carry his beer home to his family, instead of exhausting his means and health in these houses of excess, and entering into scenes of the lowest debauchery. Instances had even occurred in which parties had drawn out their earnings from the savings' banks to indulge in these excesses. The Act had not the same bad results in large towns as in agricultural districts, which made him suppose, that the Legislature would be likely to view it in too favourable a light. He hoped his Majesty's Government would see if, by giving the Magistrates a control over these houses, or by some other legislative provision, the evils which the Bill had occasioned might not be corrected.

Viscount Melbourne

willingly admitted, that the noble Earl had never shown any hostility to the people. His anxiety to improve their morals was itself a proof of the interest which he took in their welfare. He perfectly concurred also in the noble Earl's statement, that there was a great difference between objecting to a bill before it was passed, and repealing it after it had been passed. He likewise agreed with the noble Earl, that it might be practicable to add some police regulations to the Bill, which would have the effect of diminishing the evils complained of. The matter should, undoubtedly, be considered by his Majesty's Government. He should certainly say, that the opinion of the country generally was, that the effects of the Bill had been pernicious. They were, however, unequally so. The evils were not so much felt in towns. That increased the difficulty of legislating upon the subject; as one law was required for the country, and another for the town. He must say, however, that he thought the declaration in the petition, of the very sudden and extensive change which the Bill had produced in the morals of the people, was in a great measure fancy and exaggeration. He did not know how it would be possible to give the Magistrates a greater power over the beer-houses without an absolute return to the licensing system; but some police regulations seemed to he necessary, and the subject should receive the immediate attention of Government.

The Earl of Malmesbury, in explanation, observed, that he by no means wished to return to the licensing system.

Lord Teynham

recommended, as the best means of remedying the evils complained of, the abolition of the hop and malt duties, which would enable the people to brew their beer at home.

The Marquis of Salisbury

did not think the Bill had been attended with that great demoralization which had been represented, although it had been injurious in many cases. The houses licensed under the Act, however, were falling into the hands of brewers, which he apprehended would go far to decrease the evils complained of.

Lord King

observed, that the different effects in the towns and the country was attributable to this circumstance—namely, that in large towns the Poor-laws were inoperative, and the poorer classes knew if they spent all their money in beer they would have no relief, and must suffer; whereas in the country, the poor man knew that if he spent any extra money which he might make at harvest time, instead of laying it by for less profitable seasons, he should not suffer, is he should have parochial relief. Though he should be sorry to see the Act repealed, he thought it might be amended.

The Bishop of Bath and Wells

expressed his thanks to the noble Secretary of State for the Home Department, for having promised to turn his immediate attention to this important subject, and he trusted to meet with the cordial co-operation of the noble and learned Lord.

The Lord Chancellor

observed, that no pains had been wanting on his part to inquire into the subject before the Bill was passed. He agreed with the noble Earl, who had said, that it was one thing to object to the passing of the Bill, and another, the Bill having passed, to propose its repeal. He hoped that in the introduction of any superintending or controlling power, nothing would be done to alter the great principle of the measure, or tend to restore the licensing system.