HL Deb 22 June 1843 vol 70 cc192-202
Lord Monteagle

rose to call their Lordship's attention to certain resolutions, of which he had given notice, upon the subject of the Irish Spirits Duties, but before he proceeded to address their Lordships on the subject of his mo- tion, he could not but refer to a notice given in the House of Commons, for the repeal of the act of the last Session, which he had the gratification of thinking would save their Lordships some trouble, by greatly limiting the remarks which he should have to make. The present subject was one to which he had already very frequently drawn the attention of their Lordships; and when he did so last Session, he was supported powerfully by a noble Earl opposite, (the Earl of Wicklow). He made no apology for the present motion, because he was assured that all practical men must feel assured, after last year's experience, of the vast importance of the subject. In the present Session he had on three occasions brought the subject before the House as a great practical grievance, well deserving of their Lordships' consideration and requiring an instant remedy. He had not received much support on those occasions; on the contrary, his statements were controverted, still he was glad to think that the documents he moved for had brought home conviction to the minds of the Government proving that their measure of last year, imposing an increased duty on Irish spirits, was one which could neither be defended nor be adhered to. He did not mean to cast any blame upon Ministers: on the contrary, he thought they were deserving of praise for the manliness with which they had avowed their error; and by such a course they did themselves much more credit than they would have done, by blindly adhering to a most mistaken measure, after they had themselves become convinced of its inexpediency. But if he had been rightly informed, the measure intended by Government was incomplete, and he, therefore, feared would not be successful. When he had formerly addressed their Lordships on this subject, those who had done him the honour of attending to his arguments, would bear in mind that he had always stated, not only that the increased duty imposed by the present Government was wrong, but that the increase made in 1840 by the Government with which he himself had been connected was wrong likewise, though not to the same degree; for Mr. Baring raised the duty from 2s. 4d. to 2d. 8d., whilst the present Government raised it to 3s. 8d. Her Majesty's Government now proposed to repeal the duty of 1s., which they had themselves imposed; but they ought to go farther, and repeal also the duty of 4d. imposed 1840; he did not imagine that they would allow themselves to be prevented, by any feeling of delicacy towards their political opponents, from doing what they believed to be for the interest of the public. Unless the duty imposed in 1840 was repealed, and the duty reduced to 2s. 4d., there was not any certainty that the object of putting down illicit distillation would not be attained; this he would prove, both on authority and experience; and if he succeeded in this, he hoped her Majesty's Ministers would not fall into the error of passing an incomplete and ineffectual measure. They had discovered, and now admitted, that in one important particular the budget of last year was wrong. The Treasury had lost 7,000l. a year, where they had anticipated a gain of 250.0000l.; and he hoped that, in retracing their steps, they would do it so as to remove the evil effectually. There was no limit to the duty which ought to be imposed upon spirits, except the amount which they were able to collect. They ought to approach the smuggling point as nearly as they could, and obtain from spirits as large a revenue as it was possible to collect; and when be urged upon Government a reduction of the existing duty, lie did so specially on the ground that the high duty acted as an encouragement to illicit distillation, and failed in producing revenue. The evidence on the subject was complete. It was evidence collected from individuals of weight and consideration, extending from the year 1822 down to the present time. In the year 1822 officers of the excise of the greatest experience, and of the highest character, and he referred especially to the evidence of Messrs. Coffee, Crotty, and Logic, distinctly stated that they could not collect a rate of duty as high as that which the Government still proposed to continue upon spirits. The report of the commissioners of inquiry recommended a large reduction, and they stated, that the increase of even sixpence in 1826 had had the effect of greatly increasing smuggling in Ireland. Similar testimony was given by individuals in the other House of Parliament who were thoroughly conversant with the subject. In the year 1830, when it was proposed to add 1s. to the duty on Irish spirits. Sir John Newport, who was well acquainted with the operation of that duty, warned the Government that the proposed increase would immediately revive illicit distillation, and with it all the disorders and disturbances which a few years be- fore, it bad been found so difficult to quell. In 1834, the same position was taken up by Earl Spencer, who in that year proposed to reduce the duty upon spirits to 2s. 4d. a gallon, which was the amount at which he now entreated their Lordships to fix it. Under that reduction the largest amount of revenue that had ever been collected from this source was paid into the Exchequer. He alluded to this fact, because many noble Lords might suppose that he only wished to relieve Ireland from a certain amount of taxation. No such thing. His object was to have that duty imposed which would produce the greatest amount of revenue. In addition to the evidence to which he had already referred, lie had the testimony of one witness of unquestionable authority, namely, the present Chancellor of time Exchequer, and in his name, and upon his authority, he entreated the Government to hesitate before they continued a duty which would neutralize the effect of the alteration they proposed. In 1840, when Mr. Baring proposed to increase the duty, the present Chancellor of the Exchequer gave it as)is opinion that an additional duty would lead to a loss of revenue, and stated that his experience on the subject had led him to the conviction that in proportion as they decreased the spirit duty, the revenue would be augmented, and that the effect of increasing the duty had been to diminish the consumption, and, consequently, the revenue. In giving this opinion the present Chancellor of the Exchequer referred to the experience, furnished by his measure of 1830. He had now given them the evidence of their own Chancellor of the Exchequer, and of two predecessors in office, and upon this evidence he would entreat the Government to reconsider their plan, and not to stop half-way, but at once to adopt a measure that would really prove effectual; namely, to reduce the duty to the amount at which it stood in 1834. It was now admitted that illicit distillation had increased to a fearful extent, that the gaols had been filled as the result of the present system, that the increase of crime had been contemporaneous with the increase of duty, and that a reduction was the only remedy that could be effectual. The question of the increase of duty, and that of the increase of crime, were inseparably connected, and he trusted their Lordships would not hear it again contended that the increase in illicit distillation had been only the result of the low price of grain. No doubt the low price of grain tended in some measure to encourage illicit distillation, but to prove that the increased duty which it was now proposed to leave in force was enough to cause increased smuggling, he need only refer to what had taken place after the imposition of an increased duty in 1840. The increase took place all over the empire; it was the same in amount, namely, 4d. in England, Scotland, and Ireland; and though that might appear to their Lordships a small sum, yet, when it was considered, that 4d. amounted to above 20 per cent. upon the whole amount of the antecedent duty, and to 25 per cent. upon the value of the articles, their Lordships would feel that it was not so trivial as it first appeared. But as this fixed sum of 4d. bore a much smaller proportion to the high duties in England, and to the duties in Scotland, than to those in Ireland, the loss of revenue was just in proportion with this ratio. The change which had been carried into effect in Ireland reduced the consumption of spirits five millions of gallons, nearly one half of the whole amount consumed. He was perfectly persuaded that if the Government knew the extent to which illicit distillation was carried on, it would not require a second appeal on his part to induce them to repeal even their additional duty. The mischief done was infinitely greater than lie could have anticipated when he last addressed their Lordships. It might he supposed by some whom he addressed, that a distillery required a large outlay of capital; but, the fact was, a still could be purchased for 3l., or the use of a still might be hired for each operation for 2s. 6d. Besides, it should be borne in mind that the farmer, by selling barley to the illicit distiller, could realize double its ordinary market price. If the distiller was detected, he was frequently only fined in a mitigated penalty; if not detected, then he realised enormous profits. There was another evil resulting from the practice of illicit distillation, and that was this—the higher classes connived at the violation of the law. It had been stated in debate, that a clergyman of the Established Church, himself largely engaged in illicit distillation, had actually made an importation of spring guns and man traps, in order to keep out the guager from his grounds. He had examined into the truth of this extraordinary statement, for he was unwilling it should rest on an allegation made in debate. He made inquiries, and he found there existed such an official re- port from the collector of Derry, respecting the rev. Lucius Carey. He imported man traps, avowedly to catch any revenue officer that might attempt to come into his grounds. There is another circumstance relative to that Gentleman, stated in the same report. He was summoned to attend an excise trial, at Derry, against one of his own tenants, and on that occasion he publicly addressed the barrister for the prosecution: "You know a revenue oath is of no consequence; you will find I can be of no service to you." Then, turning to the smugglers, you were in great numbers in court, he said, with the hook in his hand, "Now, boys, you will see how 1 will switch them for you." [Lord Glengall: Was this a beneficed clergyman?] Yes, and he had been deprived of his benefice for misconduct. [The Lord Chancellor: When was this?] It was referred to in the report of 1816ߝ17. It was quite true, that this was a long time ago; but it showed the system. However, he came to the testimony of a gentleman known to the noble Earl, he meant Mr. Brown, of the term of Stein and Brown—a Scotch gentleman, who had invested a large capital in a distillery in Ireland. In his examination in 1822, he said that the best customers of the smuggler were the magistrates, the officers of the army, and the dignitaries of the Church. Another testimony was that of a gentleman engaged in a distillery in the county of Donegal, from 1822. He said, the practice was daily gaining ground in consequence of the use by the gentry of illicit whiskey at their private tables. Mr. Alexander Stewart, the Member of Parliament for the county, was examined in 1816, and was thus questioned:ߞ Would the gentlemen of Donegal drink Parliament whisky? I really am of opinion that they would drink Parliament whiskey if they could not get better.—Do you not think the example of magistrates consuming spirits, made by persons whom it is their duty to send to prison, is mischievous to the country? A magistrate would have a great many to send to prison. I think it is very immaterial, the quantity they use is so small.—Do you not believe it frequently occurs? Numbers of times. There are a number of private gentlemen who do so for want of better. That was the extent of the morality of the magistrates of the county of Donegal in 1816. But it was a matter of notoriety that notions of propriety on this head were not very strict at either side of the channel. for it was said that illicit, whiskey found way to the table of the head of the magic- tracy of Ireland, Lord Manners in this country, and even to the table of royalty itself. He did not mean to say, that evils to this extent existed at present, for be knew that a better principle had sprung up amongst all classes; but he warned the Government against sanctioning the continuance of a system which held out the temptation to landlords of adding to their rents by increasing through distillation the profits of their tenants. He entreated their Lordships not to rest satisfied with any half measure, but to take bold and effective steps for the abolition of a system, which all the experiments that had been tried proved to be most demoralizing, and most danger-our to the public peace. Distillation was now carried on to a great extent: farmers had learned to dispose of their produce to the best advantage, and a bold measure was requisite for its suppression. He had obtained the following information from a highly respectable source:ߞ The facts which came to my knowledge during my recent visit to Ireland, regarding the increase of illicit distillation, and which I promised this morning to communicate to you are as follows The spread of this most demoralizing practice is, I have great reason to believe, much more general than is commonly supposed, even by those who are aware of its great increase. I speak of the counties of Derry, Tyrone, and Donegal, in which there was little or no distillation previous to the recent alteration of the spirit duties. Yet, to such an extent does it prevail at the present moment, that a resident gentleman, well conversant with that part of the country, assured me that there were at least a dozen stills at work within a circuit of two or three miles of his own house, and that he would take me to two within a gunshot of his door. This is in a part of the country with which T am well acquainted, and where I never heard of such proceedings before the period already referred to. 2. The cause of this alarming spread of illegal distillation I believe to be twofold: the increased duty on spirits, and the present low price of grain. The former cause is indicated by the fact, that the illicit practices commenced immediately subsequent to the imposition of the duty, and before the depression in the corn market took place, as well as by the recognition of the peasantry indicated by the name of Peel's whiskey, which they bestow on the illicit spirit. The second is, I think, proved by the fact that it is no longer the wretched cottiers and semi-paupers who carry on the trade as formerly, but the more substantial and respectable class of farmers. They do not appear openly in the matter, but they furnish the materials, receive the produce, and pay the mitigated fine when detected. This one of the worst features in the hole case, and there is a general apathy even among the higher classes, which prevents them from taking active measures for discovery, however zealous they may be in all cases which are actually brought under their notice, and which renders it impossible to suppress the vice by any means other than the repeal of the duty. I hope the proper remedy will be applied, without loss of time, for every hour's delay will render it more difficult to extirpate the practice even by repeal of the duty. The taste of the peasants, who had been accustomed for many years to the flavour of the large still whiskey, is coming rapidly round to the milder flavour of the illicit spirit, and the preference once formed, will continue the practice of distillation for some time at least, even in spite of low duties. They had an Arms Bill before the other House of Parliament, and one of the clauses placed every smith's forge in Ireland tinder licence. But an illicit still was a much more dangerous place of meeting than any forge, and crime more frequently originated there. He should give the testimony of a most respectable clergyman, the rev. Edward Chichester who witnessed with his own eyes the horrors he described:— The Irish system seemed to have been formed to perpetuate smuggling and anarchy. It has culled the evils both of savage and civilised life, and rejected all the advantages which they contain. The calamities of civilised war are in general inferior to those produced by the Irish distillery laws; and I doubt whether any nation of modern Europe, not being in a state of actual revolution, can furnish instances of legal cruelty commensurate to those I have represented. But it was said such scenes had passed away. He held, however, in his hand, an account of a seizure of a still which had been made only a few weeks ago: On Monday, the 13th instant, Mr. Fitzgerald, officer of excise, stationed at Ballymoney, with six other officers, proceeded, on information, to a certain house close to the village of Dunloy, in a district of country commonly called Killymorris, in this county, and, immediately on their arrival, seized a still at work. The instant they did so horns were sounded, and the neighbourhood, which is populous, at once became in a ferment; all manner of exciting signals were instantly given, which seemed to be perfectly understood and readily complied with; the people immediately commenced assembling to the spot where the seizure was made. The officers, calculating on what must ensue, hastened with the still and its appendages off the premises, lodging it on a car for removal to Ballymoney, they having partially destroyed other utensils used in the process of distillation. They had only moved a short distance forward when a general rush was made to deprive them of the seizure; the people, men and women, being armed with stones, pressing on the officers, from whom they rescued the still, the most cumbersome part of the seizure. This, however, did not satisfy the aggressors, who continued in the pursuit of the officers, for the purpose of recovering the head and worm of the still; this they fortunately did not effect, chiefly, we understand, owing to the speed at which the officers drove off; and so closely were these servants of the Crown pursued by the assailants, that notwithstanding their horses having been put to full speed, they could barely keep pistol-shot in advance of their pursuers, for a considerable distance along the road, till at length these misguided and infatuated creatures were obliged to abandon their lawless designs, and thus, happily, a conflict was averted, the result of which it is impossible to foresee. Here, again, is described a perfect system of organization for violating the law; here we find violent attacks made against those who were discharging their duty—attacks which frequently ended in bloodshed. He feared if the Government did not go back to the principles acted on by Lord Spencer and Mr. Robinson, the sacrifice they were now prepared to make would be found inadequate to meet the existing evils. He had to apologise for delaying the House so long, but his object was to put the Government in possession of facts before the Chancellor of the Exchequer made his statement, in hopes that an effectual change should proceed from the Government itself, rather than be forced on them as the effect of an hostile division. He wished the Government to consult those who were the most experienced and best qualified to guide them; he wished thorn to refer to the declarations of their own Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1840. Last year the one shilling duty had been defended as free from all objection, but experience Income to the aid of his argument and disproved such confident predictions. So would experience disprove the too sanguine expectations entertained as to the new change. He maintained that the present Treasury should repeal the measure passed by the late Government. If they swallowed the camel of their own blunder, they should not strain at the gnat of their predecessors. He was prepared to prove that the reduction of the duty had, in the time of Lord Liverpool and Lord Spencer, increased revenue and diminished crime. He warned the Government, then, against stopping short in the full measure of relief which the public had a right to demand. He should not press his resolutions, because that would have an ungracious appearance, but should be quite satisfied with their being retained on the journals for the consideration of the Government and of Parliament.

The Duke of Wellington

As the noble Lord had not pressed his resolutions, it would be unnecessary to follow him through his statement. The noble Lord must feel that all parties must have the same interest in this questionߞthat was, to realise the largest amount of revenue and to diminish smuggling and crime to the greatest possible degree. He was sure the House and the Government must be much obliged to the noble Lord for the pains he had taken to convince their Lordships and the Government of the best mode of dealing with this question; and of course his suggestions would receive all the attention that was due to a person of such high authority. He should offer a remark on the delay which had taken place in bringing the question forward in another place, where, however, notice had been given of another motion on the subject. The fact was, his right hon. Friend whose duty it was to bring this question under discussion, met with a severe misfortune some time ago, and on the first day on which it was possible to enter into the consideration of public business, or to communicate with others, he decided on the proposition of which he had last night given notice. That was the reason of the delay and no other. He told the noble Lord some time ago that some change in the present law might be expected. He was very sorry that ally delay had taken place; but he did not think that any great inconvenience was suffered by the noble Lord, as lie was thoroughly master of the whole subject. He should not enter into a description of the measure to be proposed by his right hon. Friend, as all details would be more properly stated by him in another place. He could only say that the recommendations of the noble Lord would receive full consideration.

Lord Monteagle

hoped that, as the noble Duke had been so obliging as to refer to him as an authority, his recommendation would be adopted. The only test of its utility he should take was the revenue accounts for the last twenty years. He hoped lie should not be considered as complaining of any delay which resulted from the heavy calamity which had fallen upon his right hon. Friendߞa man who had, of course, political opponents, but no enemies. No one sympathised more truly than he did for the Chancellor of the Exchequer's affliction. lie had watched the progress of the individual whose loss they must all lament, and he could say, from his own knowledge of the high character of his mind, and from his extraordinary acquirements, and above all from his exalted principles that his death was a loss to his country as well as to his family. He said so much, not because his praise was worth anything, but because lie was anxious that it should not be supposed that he attributed any blame to his right hon. Friend, whose character he had always respected, and for whose family sorrows he felt the deepest and most unfeigned sympathy.

Subject at all end.

Their Lordships adjourned.

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