EXCISE DUTIES BILL
18 June 1819
The Chancellor of the Exchequer moved that the House should go into a committee on this bill [to raise three millions to be applied to the sinking fund by new taxes on malt, tobacco, tea, etc.; cp. above, p. 20]. The Marquis of Tavistock moved as an amendment, that consideration be postponed six months: it was shameful, he said, that the House of Commons, having relieved their own pockets by repealing the property tax, should now proceed to tax the poor; the only remedy for such practices was a reform of Parliament. The Chancellor of the Exchequer ‘denied that the new taxes would fall exclusively on the lower classes.’ Mr. Grenfell supported the amendment, ‘not because he thought the state of the representation corrupt, but because this was not, in his opinion, the proper moment to resort to a system of taxation.’ After several other members had spoken,
Mr. Ricardo could not agree with the hon. gentleman (Mr. Lamb) that it was desirable to follow the precedent of 1784, at the conclusion of the American war, and to reestablish what he called a sinking fund. It appeared to him that that was the very period to which those who objected to the sinking fund would direct their attention in support of their arguments. What had become of that sinking fund? Had it realized the expectations which had been held out? Were we now less in debt in consequence of its establishment? No—the contrary was the fact; the sinking fund had been converted into facilities, which enabled the minister to contract new debt. It was true we had purchased with it 200 or 300 millions of stock in the market, but had we diminished the debt by those purchases? No, because we had, at the same time, borrowed a still larger sum to enable us to make the purchases. Because, in fact, the moment our expenditure exceeded our income we had a sinking fund in name only; and that part of the taxes which had been paid to the commissioners, and called a sinking fund for the extinction of debt, had been absorbed in providing for a new debt. A sinking fund was only useful—was only what it pretended to be—when a surplus of income was strictly applied to the purposes for which it was established—the extinction of debt. No appropriation of money under the name of sinking fund ever had, and, in his opinion, ever would be constantly applied to this purpose; it would always be considered by ministers as a resource of which they might avail themselves when they were under any difficulty, in raising money by new taxes. In this way had they got rid of the last sinking fund, and the same fate would await that which they now seemed solicitous to establish. The language of the noble lord (Castlereagh) confirmed him in his opinion of the use which would eventually be made of it; for he had told it to the House; he had told them that, by creating a sinking fund we should show other countries, we would not suffer ourselves to be insulted. If the sinking fund were applied to frighten other nations by being applied to the purposes of war, it could not be applied to the payment of debt, if money was to be raised to provide for the interest of money hereafter to be borrowed for a new war, there was no utility in making the people pay taxes now, to furnish the means of a war hereafter. It would be much better to let the money remain in their pockets, where it would not fail to accumulate, and not to impose new taxes until new necessities required them. He had a jealous distrust of raising money beyond immediate necessity, and placing it in the hands of ministers; not the present ministers only, but any ministers responsible to a House of Commons constituted like ours. He allowed that so long as we had, in time of war, a sum under the name of sinking fund which would exceed the peace expenditure, we had what would be a real sinking fund when the peace came. So long, for instance, as we had 10 millions called a sinking fund in time of war, while we borrowed near 20 millions merely for the temporary purpose of carrying on the war, we might in a restricted sense be said to have a sinking fund of 10 millions; for on the return of peace it would, if so applied, operate to the reduction of debt. But this was not the case in the last war; the amount of the sinking fund, instead of being really applied to the reduction of debt, had been applied to pay the interest of new debt. And, after all, the meaning was only this; that if when peace returned we could reduce our expenditure 10 millions annually below our income, we should be able annually to discharge 10 millions of debt; this surely might be done without the mysterious jargon about a fund which answered no purpose but that of delusion. As to the particular taxes, it was unnecessary for him to state his sentiments, seeing he was an enemy to taxation altogether. He could not, however, agree, that they fell on the labourer, because imposed on the objects he consumed. If, indeed, they were imposed on the luxuries of the labourer, they might in some measure diminish his comforts; but the more the articles taxed approached the nature of necessaries, the more completely would they fall on those who employed labourers. It had been said, that these taxes would fall upon the poor-rates; but that amounted to the same thing; for the poor-rates formed, in reality, a fund destined to support labour, however inconvenient it might be to pay it in that way. He perfectly concurred with the noble lord who moved the amendment, in his expressions as to the state of the representation in that House: he could not help expressing his opinion, that the people were not sufficiently represented in it. This might be some satisfaction to the hon. member for Middlesex (Mr. Mellish), who appeared to be pleased the other evening when he discovered a difference of opinion between him and his hon. friend (Mr. Grenfell), as the opinion which his hon. friend was fond of declaring on the subject of parliamentary reform, was diametrically opposite to that which he (Mr. R.) had immediately expressed.
The House having gone into the committee, Mr. Lyttelton objected to the tax on malt, ‘that it was imposed on the only remaining luxury, if indeed it was not a necessary, of the poorer classes of this country. He then, adverting to the argument which had fallen from one of the highest authority on questions of political economy in this kingdom (Mr. Ricardo), namely, that a tax upon the necessaries of life did not fall heaviest on the poor; observed, that although he might be disposed to admit the truth of that principle, yet in this case, as being upon an article, the very last, as it might be said, before those necessaries, the duty did fall heaviest upon that class.’
Mr. Ricardo explained. He said, that he hoped the House and his hon. friend would understand that he was not contending that the taxing of necessaries was not injurious to labourers, but that it was no more injurious to them than any other mode of taxation. In fact, all taxation had a tendency to injure the labouring classes, because it either diminished the fund employed in the maintenance of labour, or checked its accumulation. In the argument which he had used, he had supposed that it was necessary to raise a certain sum by taxes, and then the question was whether by taxing necessaries, the burthen would be particularly borne by the labouring classes. He thought not—he was of opinion that they would ultimately fall on the employers of labour, and would be only prejudicial to the labourers in the same way as most other taxes would be, inasmuch as they would diminish the fund employed in the support of labour.
On 28 June the bill was passed.
[The session closed on 13 July 1819.]