HL Deb 05 May 1845 vol 80 cc145-57
The Earl of Dalhousie

moved that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on the Auction Duties Repeal Bill.

The Duke of Richmond

objected to the Bill, because it had not been called for by the country at all, and would move that it be committed that day six months. Under the present auction duties, the tenant farmer had an exemption; and while the Table of the House was crowded with petitions for relief to the agricultural interest, the Government was repealing the few Acts that exempted the farmers from this operation. He objected to the Bill, because the amount derived from the auction duties, if they were not repealed, might be very beneficially applied to the relief of the agricultural interests of the country. The noble Lord the President of the Board of Control had asked him what could be done for the agricultural interest: if the noble Lord had asked the question of the farmers of the country, many of them would say, "Give us an entire repeal of the malt tax." But if they asked for that the Government said, "How can we make up for so large a deficiency?" If, again, the farmers asked to be relieved of a portion of the county rate, it was said what would be the use of 200,000l. or 300,000l. spread over all the counties of the kingdom? Thus, in one case, they were told they asked too much; and in the other, that what they asked would be of no use at all. He did not ask for any favour for the agriculturists from Her Majesty's Ministers, for he knew such a demand would be in vain. They wanted justice to be done them. On what principle was the landed interest of the country required to pay for the apprehension of every prisoner, for his maintenance in prison, and for one half of all the expenses of all the prosecutions at the sessions and assizes? The Government paid half the expenses of the assizes and the sessions; but why should the counties pay anything towards the assizes? The county had had nothing to do with the assizes, and had no control whatever of this expenditure. The land was very properly made to support a clergyman in every parish; but, why was it forced also to support a chaplain in every workhouse and gaol? Why should the expense be thrown exclusively on the land? The land had also to bear the whole expense of maintaining the wives and children of those confined in prison, and of men transported; but if a criminal who had any property was transported, whom did that property go to? It did not go towards the county rate, but to the Crown. When recognizances were estreated, they also went to the Crown. Was it fair that one should bear all the loss, and the other take all the profit? There was not a Session that did not throw some additional expense on the land, because the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not care how much the county rates were burdened. If the Government were prepared to pay half the county rates, and a fair per centage of the poor rates out of the Consolidated Fund, they would act fairly towards the agriculturists, by giving them a just participation in the advantages which they were so ready to give to other interests. Now, in his opinion, the Government ought to give this amount of 300,000l. for the purpose of relieving the agriculturists from the very great pressure of the present county rates, and he should therefore oppose this Bill. He was much pleased that a Motion similar to the one with which he intended to conclude, had been made in the other House when this Bill was before them, as it afforded an opportunity of ascertaining who were disposed to vote for measures and not for men; but it was opposed on the ground that it would appear to infer a want of confidence in the Government. But he could say for himself that, if a vote of want of confidence in the Government were proposed, in consequence of their agricultural policy, he would have been prepared to vote for it; for he thought Her Majesty's Ministers were bound to come forward and show that they looked upon the agricultural interest as one of the most important interests of the country. It would be a better and a more just proposition towards the agricultural interest, if the Chancellor of the Exchequer offered to pay a portion of the poor rates of the country, and carried such a proposal into effect. They would not see, as they now did, new tariffs introduced every year, the effect of which was to throw out of work hundreds of industrious labourers, who were thus obliged to resort to the workhouse for support. He did not think that this Bill was an indication of the true policy which ought to be pursued with respect to the agricultural interest, and he would, therefore, move that the Bill be committed that day six months.

The Earl of Dalhousie

said, the noble Duke had raised a question of great magnitude. The noble Duke's first objection to the Bill was, that under the former Act tenant farmers enjoyed an exemption from certain duties, and that the repeal of the Act would place them in a different position. It was true that under the former Act the tenant farmers were exempted from the duty on sales made on their farms; but the exemption was not peculiar to them; they had it in common with almost every branch of business in which property was disposed of at all. The Returns showed that there were exemptions on sales of every description to an extent he was almost afraid to mention. He denied that the farmers had any peculiar exemption under the former duties, nor did he think they had a right to complain of a relief from the payment altogether, because others had got an exemption they formerly enjoyed. The noble Duke said the Government was throwing away 200,000l. or 300,000l. needlessly—that no one had called for it; but when it had been represented to Parliament by a Commission that had been appointed to inquire into the subject, that a tax was "unjust, oppressive, and impolitic," he thought it could hardly be said that, in repealing it, they were throwing that amount away needlessly. Their Lordships should recollect that there were other considerations connected with a tax, besides the exclusively pecuniary consideration. Parliament itself had practically pronounced its condemnation of this tax in the exemptions it had year after year been compelled to grant. It was notorious that the tax was a demoralizing one; it led to the grossest perjury and temptations to fraud of every description. It pressed exclusively on the poor, but by the rich it was made a convenience; the poor were compelled to sell, for they had no means of evading it; but the rich merely made it a handle to ascertain the value of a property which was afterwards sold by private contract; thus throwing the whole tax upon the poor man, who was really compelled to sell. In addition to this, it was unproductive; out of the 45,000,000l. of property annually transferred, only 8,000,000l. paid the tax. His noble Friend had addressed reproaches to the Government for the manner in which, as he conceived, they had treated the agricultural interest. He should not retort on his noble Friend, as he was anxious that no bitterness of feeling should be engendered between the proposers of the present measure and those who generally acted with the Government; but he should endeavour to prove that the reproaches cast on the Government were not borne out by facts. His noble Friend had said, that from the first the tendency of these tariffs was injurious to the agricultural interest, and that they operated to cast the labourers on the workhouse. It was easy to make these assertions; but he defied his noble Friend to place his hand on any articles which were productive of such an effect either in the measures of 1842 or 1844, or in those which he now submitted to their Lordships' consideration. He would look to the Canada Corn Bill, which had been complained of as affecting the agricultural interest injuriously, and he would show that it could not have done any injury to the agriculture of this country. The amount of corn which came in last year under the Canada Corn Bill was 226,000 quarters, which was so small a quantity in reference to the general consumption of the country, that it could not have any important effect. He stated, when the Canada Corn Bill was before them, that it could not possibly produce those injurious effects on agriculture in this country which were stated as likely to arise from it; and all subsequent experience had borne out his anticipations. He had shown, two years ago, that both as regarded the fraudulent introduction of American corn under that Bill, and the price at which it could be sold in Canada, there was no reason to apprehend any danger; and what he then stated had been since fully borne out. Then the law, which permitted the importation of live stock from foreign countries had been pointed to as another measure which was injurious to the agricultural interest; but what were the quantities of cattle that had been imported since the passing of the Act? In 1843, there were imported of oxen and cattle, 1,482 head, and that number had increased in 1844 to 4,865, which was so small a number that it could have no perceptible effect on the agricultural interest of this country, as he would show, by stating to their Lordships the average annual consumption of meat, as far as it could be ascertained, in London alone. The annual average consumption in London, taking into account the animals killed in town, and the meat sent from Scotland and other parts of the country, but not including importations coastwise and by railway, which could not be correctly ascertained, was 234,268,000lbs; and against that they had imported into the three kingdoms in 1844, under the Act which permitted the importation of foreign cattle, 4,865 head, or an average quantity of 3,800,000lbs. Now what he would ask was, how could it be supposed that such an importation as 3,000,000lbs. was capable of producing a visible effect on the markets of this country, when in one town alone in one of the three kingdoms, the annual ascertained consumption of meat was 234,268,000lbs.? Now, having shown that the agriculturists could not have suffered from those acts, he would ask, had they not received any advantage from the measures which the present Government had introduced? Was there no advantage given to landed proprietors by the reduction of duty on foreign timber in 1842, when it was altered from 55s. to 25s.? Were there no charges which fell upon the landed proprietors, such as building and repairing, in which timber was an important item? He would maintain that the reduction in the duty on timber was a very great advantage to the landed proprietors. Then there was the reduction in the price of coffee, which was a great advantage to the agricultural labourer—

The Duke of Richmond

indicated his dissent.

The Earl of Dalhousie

could not agree with that extraordinary view of the noble Duke, for he looked upon the reduction of the price of coffee as a measure which was calculated to do great benefit to the agricultural labourers as well as to all other classes of operatives. The duty had been reduced from 16d. to 8d., and then from 8d. to 6d., and that on Colonial coffee to 4d. He next came to sugar; and the noble Duke would admit that surely the agricultural labourers were consumers of sugar, and that the reduction which was made in this article by the Government measure formed a large proportion of the outlay of the labourer. Then, with regard to cotton; did not that enter largely into the consumption of the agricultural labourers? The use of fustians and corduroys was daily spreading, and the reduction of the duty on cotton would be felt by the agricultural labourers. He therefore thought that his noble Friend was not borne out by the facts of the case when he stated that the agricultural classes had received no benefit from the measures of the Government. Another article to which he might allude was glass.

The Duke of Richmond

We do not grow glass, and we do grow timber.

The Earl of Dalhousie

They were not then discussing the question of protection, but whether the agricultural interest had derived any benefit from the recent commercial measures; and he must beg to say, that whatever the Duke's joke might be, this was the sober fact, that relief to the extent of 200,000l. or 300,000l. had been given to the landed interest; but it was not as a pecuniary advantage alone that the reduction of the glass duty was to be regarded, but with reference to the improvement in the moral and social condition of the agricultural labourers which it was calculated to effect. It was unquestionably true that the Tariff of the present year contained a great number of articles; one main object of it was to remove all duties on raw materials; but, if the agricultural interest objected that they had failed to carry out the principle—if they wished it applied to other articles, then the Government must have touched corn and other matters—to which, he thought, the noble Duke would have had some objection. As to the particular measure now before their Lordships, the Government had no option; they were bound at the first opportunity, as far as they could, to relieve the community from a tax both impolitic and unjust. If the House should go into Committee on these measures, he felt satisfied that he could make good to their Lordships, on each of the articles, as he trusted he had done upon the aggregate of them, that the agricultural interest had not been neg- lected; and that least of all in their present proposal was the Government liable to the imputation of injuring the agricultural interest, and throwing the agricultural labourers into the workhouse.

The Earl of Malmesbury

said, that though he might incur the risk of being charged with a want of sense, he should dare to differ from the noble Earl who had just sat down. As to the propriety of reducing the auction duties, the first question was, whether in the present distressed state of the agricultural interest, they could not have given it some assistance, and remitted some taxes that would have conferred relief upon that interest?—whether they could not have meted their bounty with a more just hand, by remitting some of the burdens under which the agriculturists were now groaning? The noble Earl, as was his duty, had defended the Government from the charge of any unjust treatment of the agricultural interest; but he begged to carry back the recollection of the noble Earl for a year or two. How had the Government begun their reign? Not, certainly, by neglecting the agricultural interest, but by interfering with them too much; they did "touch" them, to use the noble Earl's own expression, and the agricultural interest was still feeling the effects of that interference. He alluded to the alteration of the Corn Laws. Then came the Income Tax; and, in order to make that odious measure palatable, the Government used the argument that various articles of consumption would be rendered so much cheaper by the Tariff, that people would save the three percent. taken by the Income Tax. Upon whom, then, did the difference fall? Why, upon the farmers and agricultural interest generally. That was the first step which the Government took; what was the second? A heavy blow also to the agricultural interest; he meant the remission of the timber duties. The noble Earl had talked of that measure as if timber were not the produce of this country: did not the noble Earl know that in a bad year, when the seasons were unfavourable, the landed proprietor might redeem his loss by a fall of timber? And as to repairs, why, wretched and poor indeed must that estate be which was obliged to go abroad for timber for repairs. He ventured to press again upon their Lordships the reflection that, if the Government could afford 100,000l., they had no necessity to resort to an obscure and insignificant tax for remission—but that there were several ways in which they might have relieved a class of persons now greatly depressed.

Lord Monteagle

said, that if the noble Duke on the cross bench divided the House, he should be compelled to divide with him, though on very different grounds from those which he had stated. He admitted, however, at the outset, that the Government might make out a very good case against the auction duty; and against what tax could not a strong case be made? All taxes were evils, all were burdens on one class or another; but a novel and most ingenious reason was suggested for repealing the auction duties. No one complained of them, we are informed. Surely the absence of complaint against the auction duties seemed to him to afford a ground for preferring for reduction some other taxes, against which the complaint was loud and general. Besides which, according to one test, and that an unerring one, this tax would not appear to be very oppressive; because it was a duty which had been annually increasing, and the augmentation of revenue amounted to some 50,000l. in ten years. He objected, therefore, to the selection of this tax for revision, and especially to the sacrifice of 300,000l. of revenue, when the public had only a surplus of 100,000l.; and that surplus produced, not by the permanent revenue of the country, but by taking into account a temporary tax—a tax most odious and burdensome in its nature, and one which hitherto had been reserved for periods of great exigency and of war. Further, he could show their Lordships that it was now proposed to sacrifice this amount of revenue at a time when that trifling and supposed surplus of 100,000l. had vanished, and when the arguments on which the calculation of that surplus was founded had been contradicted by the result. One of the financial measures of the year had already proved an entire failure, speaking of it as a matter of finance. It had been anticipated by the Government, that on the higher classes of sugar, they would receive an additional duty of 2s. 4d. upon 75,000 tons; but a Paper on their Lordships' Table showed that, so far was this from being true, that nearly the whole of the sugars brought in had been imported at the lower rates of duty. The Government therefore, would lose the difference between the one rate and the other; and whereas they had calculated upon 163,000 cwt. of the higher class, they had got only 228,300 cwt. at the lower duty. So far as objecting to the repeal of the auction duties, he agreed with his noble Friend on the cross bench, but he agreed with him no further; he differed from him altogether in thinking that the agricultural interest had any cause of complaint. He should be prepared to go through the Tariff with his noble Friend, and to meet him on any of the articles on which his noble Friend could point out that a reduction of duty had been injurious to the agricultural interest. Under the new Corn Law, for instance, to which the noble Duke objected, there had been greater steadiness of price than had been known for many years. Opposing that Bill, as he had done, on the grounds of the vice of the sliding scale on which it rested, he had always admitted that it was a great improvement on the old law; and so it had proved. It benefited the farmer as a consumer by the reduction in price, and it benefited him also as a producer by the steadiness in price which it had occasioned. As to the importation of foreign cattle, not only had the English farmer sustained no injury, but he had derived a positive benefit by being relieved from the clamour and odium occasioned by the existence of a law prohibiting that importation. He did not quite agree with the Government as to the Canada Corn Bill; he thought that they underrated their own measure. It was true that the measure conferred but little benefit as yet; but it was to be recollected that during the period since its enactment prices had been very low, and it was not possible that the full benefit of such a measure could be felt all at once. He believed that much more corn would hereafter be produced and imported; and he regarded that measure in the light in which it had been presented by the Minister who had taken charge of the Bill (Lord Stanley), who, in introducing it, had said—"Whilst you have a population increasing 1,000 a day, you must look forward to an increased supply of food from abroad; and you cannot remain as you are." But even in the furthest development of that measure, he did not believe that it would be productive of the least loss to the agricultural interest. To hear the discussions in that House, any one would suppose that the agricultural interest were producers of all things, and consumers of nothing; and as to the complaints that were made, he ventured to state that, looking back to the whole course of legislation for the last ten or twelve years, no fair representation made on their behalf had been neglected. What had caused the repeal of the salt duty? The influence of that article upon agriculture. What had caused the repeal of the leather tax? Why, he recollected the arguments used in the House of Commons on that subject, as to the great weight of leather used in the shoes of agricultural labourers, in harness and other things; in fact, every Government had looked anxiously and carefully into all their burdens. Having relieved them of the taxes bearing heavily upon agricultural horses, upon the insurance on farm-buildings and stock, Parliament was at length actually driven at last to small measures of relief: he recollected well the sneers which met the proposal to remove the duty on taxed carts and on shepherds' dogs. But, seriously, he begged to ask the noble Duke whether the agriculturists had not an infinitely greater interest in the well-being of the trade and commerce of the country, than in any amount of protection which the Legislature could give? Let them compare the market for agricultural produce, when the manufacturing districts were in a state of prosperity, with that same market when they were in distress; and the difference would show them how intimately the two interests were bound up together. As to the malt tax, which had been mentioned, the agriculturists had no just cause of complaint in this respect. Even assuming that the burden of the malt tax fell rather on the farmers than the consumers, in no one branch of taxation had relief been given to so great an extent as in that of malt. The repeal of the beer tax amounted to a relief of 35s. a quarter on barley; to this should be added the war tax on malt, repealed in 1816, amounting to 8s. per quarter. Altogether, the taxes repealed in this respect amounted to 43s. per quarter on barley. The present duty being 20s. 8d., might be taken as 57 per cent. on the average price, while on port wine the duty amounted to 85s. per cent.; on English gins, to 333s. per cent.; on rum, to 407s. per cent.; on brandy, to 627s. per cent.; and on Geneva, to 930s. per cent. So much for the peculiar burden on the land of malt, compared with the burdens of other taxes falling on the community at large! Before he sat down, he wished to call the attention of their Lordships and the Government to a point of constitutional importance. When the Income Tax was imposed in 1842, it was justified as being for the purpose of meeting a great emergency, a pressing emergency, a crisis; it was under those circumstances, that Her Majesty nobly and most patriotically waved her Royal prerogative, and offered to subject herself to her proportion of the tax—a thing which had never before been done by any of our Sovereigns, even in time of war. But in continuing the Property Tax, at present, no pressing emergency was alleged: it was continued for the purpose of enabling the Treasury to make experiments in taxation; the circumstances under which Her Majesty's offer was made, and was accepted, no longer existed. As he (Lord Monteagle) was the Minister who was charged with preparing the Civil List at the commencement of Her Majesty's reign, he was peculiarly acquainted with the economical principles on which it was framed; and he therefore felt that the income of the Sovereign ought not to be diminished. The pressing necessity being removed by the statement of which the imposition of this burden was defended, there was every reason why the Sovereign should not continue to be taxed in this manner. It was not consistent with the principle of the Constitution that the Sovereign should be subjected to taxation, and to this principle it was important that we should revert without delay.

The Earl of Winchilsea

differed from the noble Duke. He thought that the gross frauds which were practised with respect to the auction duty justified the measure. Parties selling estates escaped the tax, putting them up to sale in order merely to ascertain their value, and selling them privately. Her Majesty's Ministers had, therefore, done right in proposing to repeal this tax. He would, however, support the noble Duke in any proposition to remove those taxes which pressed upon the land, which should be borne equally by all classes. He believed the agriculturists had derived benefit from the repeal of many of the duties. With regard to the import of live cattle, he did not think the agriculturists would suffer, but they would from the import of salted provisions. As to the Canada Corn Bill, he believed it would prove ultimately most prejudicial to the agricultural interest of this country. He agreed with the noble Lord (Monteagle) that all classes were bound together, and interested in the general prosperity of the country.

Lord Stanley

said, he would only call their Lordships' attention to a few facts, in order to relieve the apprehension of the noble Earl as to the increase in the import of salted provisions. In 1843, the quantity of salted pork imported was 1,600 cwt.; in 1844, it was only 1,096 cwt. Of salted beef, the quantity imported in 1843 was 3,040 cwt.; in 1844, it was 989 cwt. Of bacon, the quantity in 1843 was 2,006 cwt.; in 1844, it was only 28 cwt. This was a ground upon which danger was apprehended to the agricultural interest, and it showed how unfounded were the apprehensions entertained upon the subject.

Lord Beaumont

considered that the changeableness of Her Majesty's Government not only deranged agricultural operations, but interfered in some degree with commercial improvement. If they would pursue one principle, they would do less injury. The importation of live cattle operated to the injury of the breeders of cattle in this country. When they were brought up from the north to Leeds, for instance, the market was found to be overstocked with foreign cattle, and they were driven back. He agreed with the noble Lord (Lord Monteagle), that since the Canada Corn Bill there had not been much fluctuation in prices; but that was because the prices had been invariably low, and he did not think that it was a boon to the agriculturists to have invariably low prices. He wished to Heaven that the Government would come forward and proclaim, as he had no doubt they would do in the end, that they threw overboard the principle of protection, and no longer mislead those persons who hung upon a vain hope, in order that farmers might look about them and see whether they could not adopt some other mode of life. The agriculturists were pressed by a burden of local taxation amounting to 12,000,000l. annually, and amongst their burdens he reckoned the malt tax. He should vote with the noble Duke.

The Marquess of Narmanby

said, as his noble Friend was about to take the sense of the House, and as he (Lord Normanby) should vote against him, he wished to guard himself against being mixed up with the other subjects which had been introduced. He protested against the whole system on which the Budget had been framed. He objected not to reduction of duties, but to making the Income Tax perpetual for that object.

Their Lordships then divided upon the Amendment:—Ayes 15; Noes 33: Majority 18.

House in Committee. Bill reported without amendment.

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