HC Deb 18 March 1834 vol 22 cc360-81
Mr. Robinson

, who resumed the Debate on the Tea-duties, said, the subject contained in the Petitions was one of such great importance to the country as to justify a deviation from the usual course adopted by the House to avoid discussion on petitions. He begged to say, that he dissented from the inferences in both of the petitions. With regard to that from Hull, he would dispose of it without comment, because it was only signed by one person; but the petition from the City of London was of a very different character, and, in every respect, deserving of consideration, not only as regarded the respectability of those who had signed it, but also on account of the reasons which had been urged by the hon. member for London (Mr. Crawford) in support of its prayer. The petitioners prayed that, instead of the scale of duties which had been fixed upon tea by the Bill of last year, there should be one uniform rate of duty upon all sorts of tea. A great deal had been said as to the possibility of collecting the duties; and if that had been the only question, he should not have deemed it worthy of many observations; but it was a question affecting the consumers of tea, who were, in fact, the great mass of the community. If the House looked at all articles of consumption upon which duties were levied, it would be found, that not one, excepting, perhaps, sugar, was in such general use as tea; they should, therefore, look at the subject as one involving the interest of the consumers. When his Majesty's Government last year brought in the Bill to levy three rates of duty on tea, they consulted persons of eminence in the tea trade as to the best means of carrying such a proposition into effect, and, therefore, it was stated, rather prematurely by the right hon. member for Tamworth (Sir Robert Peel) that the plan was impracticable. He believed, that before the Government had decided upon adopting the present scale of duties, they had received information from persons connected with the tea trade from Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow, and Hull, and after a very careful inquiry into the subject, which was one of very considerable difficulty, they had come to the conclusion, that the plan was practicable; and as its object was, to afford to the lower classes a good beverage at a moderate rate of duty, they had proposed the present scale of duties to the House, and the House had adopted it. He admitted, that it was introduced at a late period of the Session, and might, therefore, justly be considered as open to further discussion. Before saying anything on the arguments in favour of an equalized scale of duties, he must remark, that there was some fatality in all the fiscal regulations of this country, which by some untoward accident led the House to levy a greater proportion of taxation upon the lower than upon the upper classes. He did not charge the House with a design to do that; on the contrary, he thought that a great deal of the present inequality of taxation arose from accidental circumstances. Would any Gentleman deny, that a rated scale of duties, charging a higher duty upon the superior qualities of tea, was an act of justice? and would it be fair, that there should be a single rate of duty upon the finest and the coarsest qualities of tea? Unless it could be proved, that the collection of the revenue under the present Act was impracticable, he should not approve of one rate of duties for all teas. At the same time, he admitted, that there was great difficulty in distinguishing between the fine boheas and the coarse congous, which was a reason for equalizing the duties upon those teas. He had no objection to have a mean taken between the present scale of duties upon congou and the proposed duty upon bohea, so that this difficulty might be avoided; but, he would propose, not that the duty on bohea should be raised, but that the duty on cougon should be lowered, say, for instance, to 1s. 9d., and that a higher rate of duty should be charged upon the other teas. Let the House see what was done by the Government, and what was proposed to be done by the petitioners. The Government, seeing that it was not possible to collect an ad valorem duty upon tea after the exclusive sale had been taken out of the hands of the East-India Company, had recourse to a scale of duty, and fixed upon something like the relative value of tea. By the Government proposal, bohea paid a duty of nearly 200 per cent, whilst the fine teas did not pay more than 75 per cent on the price. This was manifestly unjust to the lower classes who principally consumed the low-price teas, adding to the existing inequality and injustice of taxation, and he would never consent to allow any addition to this injustice; on the contrary, they ought to go back to a rate of taxation proportionate to the price. It would be a manifest act of injustice to equalize the duty on all tea, and the adoption of such a course ought not to be tolerated by the House unless it could be shown, that it was impossible to collect the present proposed duties. He could not consent to have the duty on the finer descriptions of tea lowered to the rate of duties on tea of an inferior description. In stating this, he begged the House to understand, that he did not contend in favour of the scale of duties proposed by his Majesty's Government, but in favour of the principle of a scale of duties such as that proposed by the Act of Parliament, namely, that there should be low duties on the low-priced teas. If the duties were equalized on congou and bohea, all the difficulties would be removed. He believed, that the importers of tea were men beyond the reach of temptation, and would never be found guilty of defrauding the revenue. Be that as it might, it was the duty of the Government to guard the revenue. He considered that the present rate of duties should be tried, and, if applied to the quarter's sale of the East-India House, it would be seen whether it was practicable to collect the duties proposed by his Majesty's Government. In his opinion the effect of equalizing the duty on tea would be to deprive the poor consumer of tea of the benefits of an open trade to China, and would confer advantage only upon the higher classes, who would get the high-priced teas at a much cheaper rate. He, therefore, trusted that his Majesty's Ministers would well consider the subject before they altered the course which they had intimated their intention to adopt. He should have no objection to the appointment of a Committee to ascertain whether the proposed scale of duties was objectionable in its proportions, for, in his opinion, the present rate of duties on the inferior teas ought not to be more than 1s. The consumption of this country amounted to 31,000,000 lbs.; that was, about 1½lb. to every individual annually. It was, therefore, a matter of great importance; and he earnestly hoped, that Government would take pains to constitute a fair scale of duties.

Mr. Lyall

must assert with his hon. colleague (Mr. Crawford), that there would he some difficulty in relation to the duties on congou and bohea teas. He had inquired particularly at the India House, of those persons under whose management the teas had been placed, and they uniformly concurred in opinion, that the rated duties would lead to fraud and confusion, more especially from the difficulty of discriminating between the lowest quality of teas rated at the high duty, and the best quality of those rated at the low duty—between ordinary congous and best bohea—the former being rated at 2s. 2d. per lb., and the latter at 1s. 6d. It appeared from the sales at the India House, that the tea dealers did not estimate this difference in quality at more than 1½d. or 2d. per lb.; that being the difference of price at which they were sold under the present ad valorem duty. One singular effect, in consequence of the application of the proposed rated duties, would take place at the next sales of tea at the India House, when those duties would first come into operation. The public would then witness the extraordinary anomaly in commercial affairs of the better quality of the same article being sold simultaneously at a lower price than the inferior quality. This must be the case, as would be obvious to every tea dealer's clerk who understood the simplest rules of arithmetic. By the mode of classification which had long prevailed at the India House, and hitherto never questioned by the trade, the upset prices of bohea at the Company's next sale would be 1s. 5d., and of congou 1s. 7d.; addling to this the rated duties, it would be the interest of the buyer to give the highest price for the inferior tea, because there would be only 2d. per lb. difference in the quality; but there would be 8d. per lb. difference in the duty. He believed that great frauds would result, from the proposed system. He found, that in the year 1832, the amount of bohea tea sold, paying a duty of 1s. 6d., was 6,500,000 lbs.; but the whole amount of teas sold was above 32,000,000 lbs. Therefore, it would be seen a very small quantity of the whole consumption consisted of bohea. Out of the whole, about 24,000,000 lbs. paid a duty of 2s. 2d., i. e. about three-fourths of the whole; so that the revenue derived but little from the teas which paid a duty of 1s. 6d. In his opinion, however, if the proposed scale were persisted in, almost all teas would soon pay duty as boheas. He thought, too, that it would be very unjust to the East-India Company, as they had, at present, a stock of 70,000,000 lbs. in their hands. If the ad valorem duty was not suffered to exist until that stock was exhausted, it was plain that an alteration would produce a diminution in price, which would occasion a considerable loss upon the whole quantity.

Mr. Hawes

had taken some pains to inform himself on the proportional qualities of tea sold in the retail and wholesale line; the result was, that he thought the consumption of congou tea exceeded the consumption of the cheap teas. The annual importation of teas was nearly 33,000,000 lbs., of which 21,000,000 lbs. were congou; so that two-thirds of the revenue were yielded by the latter. He found, that in Birmingham and in Manchester one chest of bohea was consumed, while there were nine of congou; in Plymouth and Devonport, the ratio was one chest of bohea to fourteen of congou. That information he had not from one but from many tea-dealers. He would direct the attention of the members for Ireland to the fact, that one chest of bohea was only imported into that kingdom for seven of congou. In America, the scale of duties was varied, while in France it was fixed; in the former country the highest duty was 1s.; and the consequence was, the increased importation of bad teas. Some time past, a ship laden with tea was sent back from France to America because of the too inferior quality of the article. He would call the attention of the House to what had occurred in the year 1830, on the Sugar-duties, as it might apply to the present subject. Great objection had been taken by Members who sat on that side of the House, to the mode in which the quality of sugar was ascertained, yet they took a better mode then than they did with respect to tea. Now, they only judged of it by the opinion of an inspector; but the sugar was estimated by its value in the open market. The hon. Member had shown, that the great consumption of tea was in congou, and he was satisfied the Ministers must give up their present plan, by which that. description of tea was so heavily taxed.

Mr. Hume

considered, that every article admitted into the kingdom, if taxed at all, should be subjected to an ad valorem duty. If the suggestion now made was adopted, the Government would act most unwisely. If a man desired to consume an inferior article, that was no reason why he should be obliged to pay the same duty as for a superior article. The hon. member for Southwark had very fairly stated, that congou was the great article of consumption, and that the great bulk of the duty would kill upon it. That was a reason why the scale should be revised; but not why it should be done away. The price of tea could not be ascertained merely by the quantity of each description sold. The hon. member for London had stated, that the difference of price between bohea and congou was from 2d. to 2½d. per lb. Let the House look to the price these teas had borne in the United States for a period of ten years. From the year 1820 to 1829, they were the same price within a penny. In America, too, the differential duties had existed for a period of forty years, and no difficulty had been found in the mode of collection. In the United States, there had been no less than five different rates of duty; and if they had found it necessary to remodel those duties, some change would have taken place, but that had not been the case. The system had been found to work extremely well there, and he considered, therefore, that teas should pay a duty in proportion to their value; but that the scale should be revised. When the right hon. Gentleman opposite brought in the Bill last year, he (Mr. Hume) then said, he doubted the correctness of the scale of duties; but the Bill passed too rapidly through the House to be properly considered. He, however, contended, that the principle was right; and one which the Government ought to try. He would fix the scale according to the prime cost in China, because, when the trade was thrown open, the prices here would be regulated by those in China. It was true, that there might be some difficulty; but it could be got over by the same means as were adopted by the East-India Company, as well as in America and other countries. He knew it was impossible to prevent frauds altogether; but after the experience of forty years in America, by men who were very anxious upon every occasion to evade duties, he was confident the plan was practicable. He hoped, therefore, that the scale of duties would again be considered, either by the Government, or by a Committee; but that, at all events, the principle would he persevered in. With regard to what took place abroad, the House could scarcely be guided by it. It was true, that in France there was one uniform rate of duty, and tea worth 3s. a pound paid no more duty than that worth 6d. In the Netherlands, there were only two discriminating duties. They imported bohea, congou, and souchong, and the only duties were 1¼d. on black, and 2¼d. on green. The object of evasion was there so trifling, that it was not worth while resorting to it. He wished to see the principle adopted in this case extended to all articles of consumption, in order that the people should only pay duties in proportion to the quality and value of those articles.

Sir George Staunton

said, that having been so long connected with the tea-trade, he could not allow this opportunity to pass without making some observations. He regretted, that it had been thought necessary to abandon the plan of ad valorem duties, as he thought it the most fair mode of assessing the duty, with perfect equality, in proportion to the qualities of the teas. But it having been found necessary to abandon this plan, he conceived, that there was no intermediate step whatever between this and the plan of a uniform scale of duties. The only argument that had been adduced in favour of a rated duty was the example of America; but there the duty was very small, in fact insignificant, and could not be compared to the large duties levied in this country; and there was no temptation for smuggling in America. He must also observe, that the chief consumption in America was of green tea, which admitted of some distinction; but, in the black teas, which were chiefly consumed in this country, no such distinctions existed. He was afraid, they were misled by the terms by which black teas were generally known in this country. They were called congous, bohea, and souchong; but these names were not given them by the Chinese, who merely described their teas as inferior, middling, and superior. All the black teas imported into this country, with a very small exception, were produced from the same plant, and in the same part of China, in what was called the bohea district. The term "bohea" was formerly given in this country to all descriptions of black tea, as might be seen on reference to one of the numbers of the Spectator, where it was spoken of as of the highest quality of black tea. The literal meaning of the term "congou" in the Chinese was "prepared or manufactured," and the meaning of "souchong" was "selected." Therefore, in fact, there was no possibility of separating these kinds of tea into three distinct classes. There was no article of consumption more liable to adulteration than tea; and he need not point out to the House, that the people of China were perfect adepts at practising frauds of this description. An experiment of the capacity of the brokers of this country in distinguishing teas was mentioned yesterday. He did not rely upon this experiment, when he had himself seen so many instances in China, of persons of great knowledge of teas deceived by the people of that country. Looking, at the difficulty of collecting the revenue, and also the still greater difficulty of distinguishing teas, he could not conceive any mode more safe and satisfactory than an equalized and uniform scale of duties.

Mr. Grote

said, this question was evidently one of fact only, for throughout all the debate, the speakers had agreed in principle. From inquiries which he had made among persons connected with the trade, he had found, that there was a great proportion of congou sent from London to Ireland and Scotland, where scarcely any bohea at all was consumed. The proportion was something like twenty to one. It also appeared, that not only did the lower classes consume a great deal of congou, but of twankay also, and the better sort of teas. The quantity, indeed, of the latter was very nearly equal to, if not greater than that of the former. It appeared to him, that the opinion of persons engaged in the trade ought to be regarded; and he saw no reason why any information which they furnished should be mistrusted. The honest trader could have no object in view, but to prevent that fraudulent system which was expected to result from the proposed scale of duties. In China, there would not be the least difficulty in procuring a fraudulent kind of bohea; and he was informed, that in anticipation of the new scale, commissions were actually sent out to China of that kind. Another great evil was this, that if once the fraudulent practice was to get a footing, it would be difficult to eradicate it. The great difficulty was, to distinguish bohea from congou. With respect to the appointment of inspectors, an indulgent one might draw the whole trade of tea to a certain part of the country, while a rigorous one would drive it away. This would greatly inconvenience not only his Majesty's Government, but all those who were disposed to act fairly and honestly. In the alteration of the present mode of levying the ditties on tea, no scale ought to be acted upon which could not be shown, not only to be thoroughly practicable, but better than the present scale. As the scale proposed by his Majesty's Ministers would not have the beneficial effects contemplated, the appointment of a Committee was probably the best mode of arriving at a sound judgment upon the subject.

Mr. Buckingham

said: When the Tea Duties Act of the last Session was passing through the House of Commons, I was one of the first among its Members who ventured to predict, that the scale by which these duties were to be levied, would be found unjust and impracticable. The opinion was then, I know, disregarded; but the discussion of yesterday and to-day, springing out of the petitions that have been presented, prove too clearly that it would have been well for his Majesty's Ministers, if they had then given attention to that opinion. On that occasion, I remember well, that the right hon. the Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Spring Rice), assumed great credit to the Government, for having, on changing the mode of levying the duties from an ad valorem to a fixed rate, paid such attention to the interests of the humbler classes, as to reduce the duty on tea, by that change, from ninety-six to eighty per cent. I undertook to show, however, that directly the reverse of this would happen, and that, instead of any decrease, the change would absolutely produce a large increase of duty, as compared with price; and so accurate was this calculation, as opposed to that of the right hon. the Secretary to the Treasury, that we have now the admission of the petitioners, as well as of the speakers on both sides of the House, that the new scale of Tea-duties, while it will reduce the rate of duty on the higher-priced teas, or those consumed by the most wealthy, from 100 to seventy-five per cent ad valorem, and lighten the tax to the rich by twenty-five per cent, will actually increase the duty on the lower-priced teas, or those consumed only by the poorer classes, from ninety-six to 200 per cent. ad valorem; far exceeding, therefore, in the difference between the two extremes, any thing I had ventured to predict, though that prediction, moderate as it was, was disregarded because of its supposed extravagance. The Ministers and the country must now see their error; and fortunately it is not yet too late to retrieve it. Hitherto, the duty has been ninety-six per cent on the selling price of the coarser teas, and 100 per cent on the selling price of the finer teas; and the place of sale being exclusively confined to the India House, in London, the collection has been extremely easy. It is now intended to change this simple ad valorem duty into a rated one, and to place a tax of a certain amount per pound, instead of determining that tax as hereto-fore by the value. The new duty is to be 1s. 6d. per pound on all bohea teas, 2s. 2d. per pound on all Congou teas, and 3s. per pound on all teas of the finer kinds, not included in these two classes. The defence set up for this classification is, that it is founded on the principle of an ad-valorem duty, and puts the higher tax on the more costly article, for the sake of lightening the burthen to the poor. This defence is, however, not merely fallacious, but absolutely false, as directly the reverse is produced by the new system. For instance, the price of the coarser kind of bohea being, at such of the continental ports as enjoy a free trade in that article, 9d. per pound, and the duty affixed to it by the new scale 1s. 6d., the rate of duty is just 200 per cent on the value. On the other hand, the most costly of the finer teas being at the free trade price of 4s. per pound, and the duty affixed to it by the new scale being 3s., the rate of duty is only seventy-five per cent on the value, thus placing heavier burthens on the poor, who are too heavily laden already, and at the same time lightening the burthen to the rich, who are the best able to bear it. One most powerful objection, then, to such a classification of ditties as this, is its positive injustice; to which might, perhaps, be added another, namely, the cruelty and impolicy of taxing any article of food at all; and tea, by the universality or its consumption, has become as much a necessary of life as almost any other article, save bread alone, and the privation of it would be felt in an extreme degree by all classes. It is admitted as a maxim of sound policy, that men should contribute to the support of the State in proportion to their respective means of wealth, as the fairest and most unexceptionable standard. But it is mortifying to observe, that when any tax is about to be taken off, or new one about to be put on, this principle is violated in the most flagrant manner. The House-tax, and the Duties on Tea, are both cases in point. The former, if fairly and equitably assessed, as a certain per-centage on the actual cost or value of the House, comes the nearest to a Property-tax of almost any that could be devised; for it may be admitted as a general rule, that as men increase in wealth, they enlarge and adorn their dwellings: and the difference is extreme between the humblest cottage of the peasant, which might be built for 10l., and the lordly mansions of the nobility, which could not be built and completed for less than one hundred thousand times as much as the humble dwelling of the peasant. That tax, however, one of the fairest and most just, if apportioned according to actual cost and value, is to be taken off, and the rich will be chiefly relieved by it; while the new duties on tea are to be so shaped as to produce three millions and a-half, or four millions of annual revenue, the chief burthens of which will fall most heavily on the poor. The poor man, who has 50l. a-year, consumes, we will suppose, a pound of tea per month; and, in so doing, he pays 18s. in the year as his share of the four millions of taxes raised on tea. The noble peer, with an income of 50,000l. a-year, will not consume more than two pounds of tea per month; and, in so doing, he will contribute 72s. in the year, as his share of the same tax raised on tea. Surely, every one must see, that if the principle of taxing men in proportion to their means of wealth, were strictly adhered to, the noble Lord, with his income of 50,000l. a-year, ought to pay duty on one thousand times as much tea per annum, as his poorer neighbour, at 50l. a-year; for then, and then only, would their respective contributions to the Exchequer be in exact relation to their power of payment: and whether the mechanic of 50l. a-year could spare 18s. or a peer of 50,000l. a-year, spare 72s. with the least inconvenience, as their respective contributions to the State, it would not be difficult to judge; nor, if there be truth in figures, and arithmetic is not wholly a delusion, can these propositions be denied or refuted. In addition, however, to these theoretical objections to the new scale of duties on tea, there is this great practical objection, that all men conversant with the subject, declare it absolutely impossible to determine the difference between the better sorts of bohea, and the inferior sorts of congou, which approach each other so nearly as to baffle the skill of the most experienced, to separate the one from the other. Who does not see, then, in an instant, that this difficulty and uncertainty will open the door to all manner of frauds?—that the temptation to enter congous as boheas, for the sake of avoiding the higher duty, will be irresistible; fortified, as the committer of the fraud will be, with the conviction that he cannot be detected, and that if he keeps his counsel, his dishonesty can never be exposed? This would be the case, even now; but a year or two hence, when the skilful and ingenious Chinese will have been apprized of the advantages of preparing the several kinds of teas, on purpose to deceive the inspectors here, all the teas imported for general consumption will be brought to England under the lower class denominations, for the sake of profiting by the lower duty; and dishonesty in dealing, and frauds upon the revenue, will thus be engendered and encouraged by our own imprudent legislation. If we add to this, the consideration, that the importation of tea is no longer to be confined to the port of London, that each outport will have to be provided with its own inspector, with whom alone will rest, without appeal, the decision of which is congou, and which is bohca;—if we consider, that on the cargo of a large ship, in which, for many reasons, it will be for some time advantageous to import the tea, a difference of the duty between bohea and congou would amount to 10,000l., all of which might be saved by the mere decision of the inspector, on so uncertain a standard as shade of colour—peculiarity of flavour—or even still more capricious tests of taste,—it must be admited, that greater temptations to fraud can hardly be conceived. This scale of the Government is clearly impracticable, and must be abandoned. Let us see, however, what remedy the merchants of the city of London propose. They recommend the abandonment of the highest and the lowest duty; and the retention of the middle one only, of 2s. 2d. on the pound, for every description of tea, so as to form one uniform rate of charge on all. This, no doubt, has simplicity in its favour, and as far as the saving of trouble, and preventing fraud can recommend it, it is deserving of attention. But surely the House of Commons will never countenance any thing so unjust, as that the tea for the poor man's family, the original cost of which is 9d. per lb., shall be taxed at three times its value, or 300 per cent., by the duty of 2s, 2d.; while the tea for the rich man's family, the original cost of which is 7s. per lb., shall be taxed at only one-third its value, or 33 per cent. by the same duty of 2s. 2d. If it sanctions such a scale as this, it will belie all its professions of a regard to the interests of the poor; it will contradict all its admiration of the true theory of taxation, that the contributions made to the revenue should be in proportion to the means of those who contribute; and it will bring down upon it the deserved condemnation of the country. The only public objects we should have in view in the contemplated change should be, to secure the full amount of the revenue which we may think fit to derive from this source, from all diminution by fraud; to make the duty proportioned to the value of the article on which it is imposed; and to offer no temptation either to the smuggler or to the dishonest dealer. To combine these objects, then, I will venture to suggest a plan, which differs both from that of the Government, and that of the London merchants, confident that, upon examination, it will be found to combine all the advantages of both, while it will possess the defects of neither. It is this;—"1. That the importation of tea from China should be confined to those ports only which will undertake to provide bonded warehouses for its reception; and where-ever the population is considerable, and the ships numerous, the means of erecting such warehouses can be easily obtained.—2. That at such ports all teas imported should be landed and lodged in these bonded warehouses only.—3. That periodical sales of such teas as the importers choose to draw from the bonded warehouses should be made by public auction once a month, on some fixed day, under the superintendance of the Customs, mid the duty being ad valorem, whether fifty, or seventy-five, or one hundred per cent. on the actual price produced at the sale, would be payable by the purchaser at the time of his withdrawing his teas from the warehouse." This is a mode by which all uncertainty as to classes and qualities would be obviated; by which all temptation to fraud would be shut out, nay, rendered impossible; and by which, at the same time, these two vast advantages would be united;—that the revenue would be collected with the greatest certainty and the least expence; and each description of tea bearing an ad-valorem duty according to its price, the consumers of the costly tea woo Id pay the heavy duty, the drinkers of the middle qualities would pay the moderate impost, and the purchasers of the cheapest tea would be most lightly taxed of all. As to the practicability of its working well, we have the experience of upwards of a century in its favour; this being the manner in which the duties on tea have been collected during that space of time—with constant commendation of its simplicity, certainty, and economy. There is one consideration of this great question, however, which has been wholly overlooked, both by the Government and the House of Commons, though it is, perhaps, the most important of all. It is that of seeking how we could augment the consumption of tea beyond its present quantity. Now, what is the actual state of the case? At the present moment, the consumption of England, Scotland, and Ireland, is thirty-three millions of pounds weight, and as the popu- lation of the three countries is estimated at twenty-five millions of persons, this makes an average consumption of about one pound and a-quarter of tea per head per annum. Every one must admit this to be a miserable pittance, compared with what would be consumed, were it not that the high price, and the high duty, combine to make it so dear, that even the most respectable families are niggardly and parsimonious in the careful doling out of tea, though profuse in every thing else because of its high price, while thousands are debarred the use of it at all because it is beyond their means of purchase. If, then, by a reduction of the ad-valorem duty from 100 to 75 or 50 per cent, the consumption could be doubled in quantity, as well as augmented in the better qualities at the same time—and there are really no persons who would not drink either more, or better tea, if the price were greatly reduced—what would be the effect? Undoubtedly this, that twice the number of British ships would be employed in importing the tea from China, a change which would give more relief to our shipping interests than any other single measure that could be named; and that for every additional cargo of tea imported from China, an additional cargo of British manufactures would go out to be consumed among the millions of that country, instead of the opium cultivated under the monopoly of the India Company, and the silver drained from the revenues of Bengal, which have hitherto been the materials with which the teas have been paid for at Canton. Our manufacturers would therefore receive as great an advantage from the augmented consumption of tea, by the demand for their productions in exchange as the shipping interest would be benefitted by the increased employment of their tonnage for its conveyance; and, therefore, in every point of view in which it can be regarded, this end is worthy the attention of his Majesty's Ministers. With these views, Sir, I beg to urge upon their attention the propriety of relinquishing their own cumbrous and impracticable plan, and at the same time of rejecting the more simple, but still more unjust plan, proposed to them by the city of London; and either themselves to reconsider the subject, with a view to some revision emanating from their own hands, or if that be difficult or disagreeable, to confide the new arrangement to a Select Committee of competent persons, before whom the details may be discussed, and some general measure founded thereon, which shall give satisfaction to the country, and combine all the advantages of simplicity, practicability, and, above all, of fairness and justice to every class engaged either in the importation, sale, or consumption, of this wholesome and agreeable article of almost universal use.

Mr. Poulett Thomson

thought it was not quite fair to discuss the subject of Tea-duties on the presentation of a petition, but as so many Gentlemen had thought fit to do so, he must say something on the subject. The hon. Member who had just sat down, had suggested a plan which he could assure that hon. Gentleman was not a novelty, for it had been maturely considered by the Government. The hon. Member had a perfect right to consider his intended plan, and other hon. Members had a perfect right to consider and propose their plans; but he thought the House ought, in looking at the subject, specially to consider the principle on which the particular plan was grounded which had been proposed by his Majesty's Government, and which had been brought under the consideration of the House by the petition of his hon. friend. It was with reference to that, that he should advert to the three schemes which had been alluded to, namely, of one single duty, of two or three different rates, and of ad valorem duties, and he would show how they bore upon the present plan. The principle upon which the Government acted was not to lose any revenue by the alterations which they proposed, and, therefore, it became necessary to consider not only how to give the consumer tea at the cheapest rate, but also how to avoid any loss to the revenue. He stated that, because it might account for some of the faults which hon. Members had found with the proposed scale. But the Government having to start upon that principle—not to abandon any revenue—were obliged to fix upon such a scale as would give the same amount of revenue they at present received. In the discussion of the subject, that should not be lost sight of; and it would be found incompatible with the proposed scheme of the hon. member for Sheffield, and with the scheme of the single unvarying duty. The hon. Member for Middlesex had stated that the measure was adopted in a hurry. The fact, however, was, the subject had re- ceived very great consideration from his Majesty's Government. The hon. member for the City of London had said, that the subject ought to have been settled after communication with practical men. He could assure the House, that there had been many such communications. There had been deputations from the outports—gentlemen extensively engaged in the trade in London—deputations from, tea-brokers again and again; and the three plans, the ad valorem duty, the rated duties, and the fixed duty, had been all considered; and the result of the whole was, that it was deemed most advisable to fix the scale adopted by the Government. It appeared that a great change had taken place in the opinions of some Gentlemen who had given advice to the Government on that occasion, although, he thought, that those hon. Gentlemen had no greater information now than then. When it was said, that the Government had not given sufficient attention to their recommendations, it would be found, on the contrary, that they had received too much attention. The revenue would be much more easily collected, and it would have been much more agreeable to the Government, to have a fixed duty to collect than a rated duty. But what were the grounds upon which the Government had selected the rated duty? Their object was to give the consumer of the lowest quality of tea that tea at the cheapest rate which was consistent with the revenue. No man would deny, that taking a lower duty on the lowest qualities had been adopted to enable the poorer classes to procure bohea at a lower price. But what were the arguments opposed to the Government plan? It had been said, that they had made a mistake, that the lower classes did not consume the lower qualities of tea, but that the lower qualities of tea were consumed by the higher classes. [Cries of "No, no."] Well, then, he would ask, who consumed it? Was he to be told that no one consumed it? The House had been told by the hon. member for London, that the lower classes did not consume bohea. The hon. member for Lambeth had made a statement to show that, from the quantities of different teas which were sent to the various manufacturing towns, what he called the lower classes did not, in fact, consume that kind of tea. But what had been the state of the importation of bohea? The House were told, that the taste of the lower classes was on congou, and, therefore, that by giving bohea at a cheaper rate, they forced on the public a new taste. Now, he found, from the returns of the quantities and prices of teas sold by the East-India Company in each year during their late charter, beginning 1814–15, that the quantity of bohea sold the first year was 397,000 lbs., and of congou 21,000,000 lbs. He was aware that, in that year, the quantity of congou was unusually large, and, therefore, he would infer nothing from the sales that year. In 1815–16, there were sold of bohea, 839,000 lbs., and, of congou, 17,000,000 lbs. In the course of fifteen, sixteen, or seventeen years, the quantity of bohea that was sold had risen from 500,000 lbs. to 6,500,000 lbs. while the quantity of congou had only risen, 1,000,000 lbs. or 2,000,000 lbs. That was a fact; and a sufficient answer to those who asserted that bohea was not according to the taste of the lower classes, for, it was notorious, that the consumption of tea had greatly increased among the lower classes, while it had not much increased among the higher classes, and there was no question but the largest proportion of their increased consumption was bohea. Was it not evident, indeed, that the poorer classes would use the cheapest tea? That teas might be mixed in London, and were mixed, he had no doubt, and that might account for the small quantity of nominal bohea, and the large quantity of nominal congou which were sent away from London. But, when mixed, there would be a difference in the duty of 8d. per lb. on such of the bohea as was mixed, and thus the price of the whole would be lowered; or, on the other hand, it would operate to do away with the practice, and, either way, the public would be benefited. The hon. member for London had stated the difficulty of distinguishing the quality of one tea from that of another, and that, by making so great a difference as 8d. per pound in the duty, it would be found more advantageous to import bohea at even a higher price than congou. He was aware, that when an attempt was made to have two duties on any one article, just at that point where the qualities approached nearly, and were not so easily definable as to prevent mistakes altogether, there must always be a great difficulty; but that only applied to that particular point where the qualities run one into the other, and did not do so to the great bulk of either one or the other articles. He would state a case which was very curious, but precisely similar to the present. The House knew, that there was to be a duty upon manufactured silk; and it had been thought exceedingly difficult to tell what was plain and what was figured silk. It was almost impossible to tell; and yet there was a duty upon the one of 11s., and on the other of 15s. How, then, was it decided? Did the Custom-house Officers find a great difficulty? None at all. They had the assistance of the parties in the trade, and next they had the value of the article to serve them as a guide to show under what description of quality the silks came. So also it would be with tea. There might be some difficulty with regard to the very finest bohea and the very inferior congou, but, in other respects, there would be no considerable difficulty in deciding. What evidence had the Government before them? They were told, that it was impossible to decide; that tricks of all kinds were played in China; that Chinese ingenuity would be exercised to enable the importer to defraud the revenue; and that no man was capable of deciding upon the different kinds of tea. Why, what was the case? Forty-four different samples of tea were submitted to testers in this country during the examination on the subject, and, with the single exception of one bad hit that was made, the qualities had been exactly defined in the other forty-three instances. The hon. member for South Hampshire said, the Chinese made no distinction of black teas. He (Mr. Poulett Thomson) was aware of this; but what did their practice signify for the purpose of describing them here?

Mr. Crawford

said, he regretted the right. hon. Gentleman had not been present yesterday. As he had not, he begged leave to draw the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to the catalogue of sale of the East India Company at the last quarterly sale, in which they had classed bohea and congou tea under one head. He put it to the right hon. Gentleman to explain how this circumstance could be reconciled under the action of the new scale of duties?

Mr. Poulett Thomson

He was not aware that the hon. Member would have presented his petition at the morning sitting, as some petitions had been set down for the evening. The hon. Member said, in the catalogue, great quantities of tea were put down as bohea, which the East India Company stated to be congou. All the hon. Member could infer from that fact was, that it was difficult to distinguish some qualities of tea; and that it could not be easy to discriminate between fine bohea teas and low congou. He could say, however, on the authority of the brokers and other parties most experienced to whom the Government had applied, it was found to be perfectly easy to distinguish qualities. Since this matter had come under discussion, the most experienced officers of the revenue had been consulted, and they declared their firm conviction, that there would be no difficulty in collecting the duties under the new system. It was easy to imagine difficulties; but as one of those officers said, "There never was a new system tried without the anticipation of great difficulties, which disappeared as soon as the plan was put into execution." He, indeed, would be a bold man, who contended, that any system would work well before it was tried; all he contended for was, that this was an experiment worthy of trial. It would afford an opportunity of giving the consumer the chance of paying much less for his tea than he would if the object of the petition was attained, without any diminution of revenue. What had occurred in America? The duties in America an hon. Member had said were trifling. Why, they were, the lowest sixty-four per cent, and the highest, 150 per cent. The revenue arising from the consumption of bohea was 300,000 dollars; and that from the other qualities, 1,600,000 dollars. This showed that, in America, they had the power of discovering frauds, and of preventing them from being carried on to any great extent. He must confess, that he felt no small surprise to hear hon. Gentlemen making comparisons between the present measure and that proposed some time ago relative to the sugar duties, because the only reason against any discrimination of duty on sugars was the drawback. He wished to impress upon the House, though it might be hereafter advisable to change the scale of duties,—he did not deny that—that it was advisable to wait till they had the benefit of experience to guide them; and he entreated hon. Members always to recollect that the revenue must be kept up to its present amount.

Sir Robert Peel

observed, that the House had been told, that it would be 600,000l. more than it was last year.

Mr. Poulett Thomson

said, that that probably would be the case in the present year, because the East-India Company would be obliged to sell their stock of teas; but what the duty would be in another year it was impossible to foretell. He would say to those Gentlemen who were inclined to adopt the principles of his Majesty's Government, but who, at the same time, wished a change in the scale, "Wait till the experiment has been tried; and if it does not succeed, then bring your Amendment forward."

Mr. Goulburn

never heard a measure defended on weaker grounds than the present. A false step might do much injury to the revenue; a spurious article might be introduced, and, therefore, the House ought to pause before it rushed rashly to any precipitate change. He could show that bohea tea was the article consumed by the poor. Formerly the bohea tea was so bad that it was not used; but, in subsequent years, it improved so much, that it was substituted for, and often preferred to, congou. Respecting the fraud that would extend to the country whence the tea came, as well as the country into which it was imported, it was a notorious fact, that bohea tea came to the country in congou packages, and it would be difficult to detect the imposition. How was it possible in outports, with so many difficulties to embarrass the judgment of the officer, to fix a certain standard by which to ascertain whether fraud was intended, or that the previous custom of shipping inferior tea in congou packages was merely continued? He (Mr. Goulburn) was an advocate for lowering the duties on tea, but he was against encouraging the introduction of an inferior article amongst the poor.

Mr. Walker

said, for many years the duties on tea in America were divided into five classes, varying from twelve to fifty cents. He wished to know, whether those duties were abolished in consequence of fraud: and he thought it desirable to have some information on the subject before adopting a scale of rated duties here.

Lord Sandon

said, he was against the present plan of Ministers. In Liverpool, and elsewhere, it was thought better to return to the former system of ad valorem duties.

Mr. Charles Grant

could not admit, that the subject was new to the merchants of Liverpool, because free trade had been for years an universal topic. As to periodical sales in outports, recommended by the hon. member for Sheffield, it was found to be impracticable.

Sir Robert Peel

adverted to a letter, dated March, 1824, stating, the undersigned merchants considered the samples tried to be not a fair, judgment of the question at issue between the Government and the trade; the taste of the teas resembled each other so much, that they could not distinguish the difference.

The Petitions were laid on the Table.

Back to
Forward to