HC Deb 30 May 1839 vol 47 cc1132-9
Mr. Cresswell

said, it was his duty to call the attention of the House to a petition of Liverpool merchants, and to move for papers relating to the duties paid on exported manufactured woollen goods to the United States. This question which for a tong series of years had been urged upon the attention of the Government of the country, was no party question. It was not brought forward in favour of any particular party. The House would at once admit, that it was no party question when he stated, that the first name among the petitioners was that of the Mayor of Liverpool, who signed it in the month of October last, when the noble Lord the Secretary of State for the Home Department honoured that town with his presence. Mr. Rathbone was not one of his (Mr. Creswell's) supporters, and probably never would be. He believed if he went through the list he should find in the names a large portion of his political, but he trusted not one personal, enemy. The petition which was presented to the House oh the 15th of February last, stated that in the year 1815 a reciprocal liberty of conscience was established between England and the United States of North America, by which it was agreed that all goods exported from or imported into either country should not pay a higher duty than goods exported into any other foreign country. At that time, the duty was 1 per cent. on woollen goods, and it would appear from the petition that vet y considerable sums of money had been received by the customs for the duties on those goods. The treaty had been since recognized by several acts of Parliament. Subsequently, the duty was reduced to 10s. per cent. on all such goods exported to Portugal and other foreign countries, and this continued until the year 1817, when the export duties thus collected in infraction of the terms of the treaty were discontinued, and promptly refunded to the parties who had paid the same. In 1819 an act was passed with rather a long schedule, which provided, that woollen goods alight be exported to China free of duty altogether. This remained for a considerable time unknown to those who were in the habit of exporting woollen goods to the United States. It was discovered in 1825 by an agent of some London merchants, who applied to the Board of Customs, and claimed, that British manufactured woollens should be exported to the United States duty free, in conformity with the terms of the convention, but they refused to afford any relief at that time. It was afterwards arranged that the shipments should be made on the deposit of the amount of duty claimed, pending the decision of the Government. While this important question remained undecided treaties of reciprocity were concluded between Great Britain and the States of Rio de la Plata and Colombia, the same to the very letter as the former treaty with the United States. In October, 1838, the Treasury issued an order to the Board of Customs to discontinue the exaction of those duties, and to return the sums which had been received contrary to the stipulations of the treaties. Then there was a distinct admission on the part of the Government that they had been in error in exacting these duties, because if not, they were in error in paying them back and discontinuing the exaction. Therefore, he had a right to assume, that up to this period, then, these monies had been unlawfully exacted; but was the money to be returned? If so, he presumed no doubt could be entertained that it ought to be returned to the parties who had paid it. This order from the Treasury he should have supposed would have satisfied the Board of Customs. Not so, however, for the order embraced—but without specifying other countries besides—the United States, which ought to be exempted from these duties, and the Board of Customs took advantage of that fact, and said, that although the order was expired with regard to goods shipped to the United States, still as other countries affected by it were not specified, it was uncertain in parts of its terms, and therefore they (the Board of Customs) would not act on that part of the order even which was specific, At length, upon another petition, an order was obtained from the Treasury, in April, 1830, notifying that the countries intended to be affected by the previous order were Buenos Ayres; Mexico, Colombia, Sweden, and the United States, and on the 7th of May, 1830, the Board of Customs issued their order for the discontinuance of the duties on all future shipments. Still, with regard to repayments the parties were met with great difficulties. The money was not returned, though it had been paid in deposit, and the Board of Customs suggested to the Treasury an excuse and reason for not returning it. They said, that the statute 6 Geo. 4th, c. 107, acted as a statute of limitations (as they were pleased to call it) with respect to duties which, though paid improperly, had not been claimed within three years of the time of such payment. Now, how that statute could be made to have a retrospective operation, he (Mr. Cresswell) was at a loss to conjecture. Against this proposition the petitioners remonstrated, and said, that from 1836 downwards they had been claiming those deposits. In order to jus- tify that limitation, the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite (the Solicitor-general) must say, that this statute had a retrospective effect. The petition, however, set out the opinions which they had taken from two high legal authorities; one a right hon. Gentleman, who usually sat on the Ministerial side of the House (Sir S. Lushington), stating that this statute could have no such operation. He, therefore, contended, that the Customs were bound to return the duties paid from the period of the first deposit. But then it had been said to these parties, that they were not entitled to have the money returned, because the mere proof that they had paid the money was no proof that the money was theirs, or that they were entitled to receive it. Now, was that at all consistent with the order of 1830, which was, that they should be returned the money simply on proof that they were the parties who paid it. Now, it was impossible for any person to say that this was a fair mode of dealing with parties who had no opportunity of litigating the question, but who had been compelled to submit to the exaction when their goods were shipped. The Customs called on the shipping agents here to get a legal warrant of power of attorney from the consignees abroad, as a voucher for their authority to receive these monies. What was this but telling those merchants who were petitioners, "Why if you get the money, you would not apply it to your constituents, but put it into your own pockets." Now he could not believe that these merchants, many of whom were not his political friends—he could not believe that Mr. Rathbone, the ex-mayor of Liverpool, would keep to himself the monies of any other person; nor could he believe it of any who had signed this petition, friend or not. He was sure the right hon. Gentleman opposite would not cast such a slur upon the character of the Liverpool merchants, or of the British merchants generally, as to urge such a suggestion. On the whole, he trusted the House would see that both in justice and in equity these petitioners were entitled to have the monies back, monies which had been exacted without right, and received, as he had already stated, on deposit. The petition referred to documents which he desired to have laid on the table of the House, when it would be seen whether they contradicted or confirmed the statement made by the petitioners. They were satisfied of the truth of that statement; they courted and they challenged inquiry. He, however, hoped that the House would not hesitate now to pronounce an opinion, that the order obtained from the Government in 1830 ought to be carried into effect. At present he would, however, in point of form, move for a return of the amount of duties paid on the export of manufactured woollen goods to the United States of America since the year 1815, copies of the several petitions and memorials on the subject of such duties presented to the Lords of the Treasury, the Board of Trade, and the Board of Customs, and for copies of the several minutes and orders made by their Lordships or the said boards, respecting such petitions and memorials.

Mr. Poulett Thomson

said, he should have great pleasure in producing the papers for which the hon. and learned Gentleman had moved, but he must protest against the recommendation the hon. and learned Gentleman had expressed in the concluding part of his speech, in the hope that the House would now express an opinion on this subject. Against such a course, without the production and consideration of the papers moved for, he (Mr. Thomson) must enter his protest; and he sincerely hoped the House would not enter into a discussion of the matter until those documents were all before it. He would give the hon. and learned Gentleman his papers, and when they were in the hands of Members, it would be seen that a more profligate case of demand had never been submitted to Parliament. It was, however, impossible for him (Mr. P. Thomson) to allow such a statement as that which had been made to go forth uncontradicted, or without stating what was the real nature of the case. The real nature of the case was, that under the East India charters that company was allowed to ship woollens to China exempt from the duty of half per cent. levied on woollens sent out to all other countries. About the year 1826 certain parties found this out for the first time, and said that China was a foreign country to which the woollens sent out did not pay duty, and therefore all other countries which were on an equally favourable footing were entitled, under the treaties alluded to, to exemption from the payment of the duty he had stated. The case was represented to the Treasury and the Board of Trade in 1826, but it was not until 1830 that a decision was given, and by that decision the duties were ordered no longer to be levied. He was not about to defend his own regulations or those of the Government to which he belonged, for the regulation and the decision were those of the Government of the Duke of Wellington in 1830.

The Treasury minute was dated November 3d, 1830, which was before the Duke of Wellington left office. Thinking that order right, he (Mr. P. Thomson) had felt himself justified in maintaining and confirming it. Now, what was the real gravamen complained of on this occasion? The real complaint consisted in a regulation which was adopted under that minute of November, 1830, and which was simply to the effect, that before the money should be paid back to the parties, they should prove that they were the parties entitled to it. He would read it. It was the second resolution, as follows:—"That the return should only be made to the actual owners or proprietors of the goods at the time of shipment, or to the shipper or consigner of the goods, on behalf of the owner or proprietor abroad, and on the production of a power of attorney, or other legal authority." Therefore, the Government had offered to pay back the monies to the parties who really proved themselves to be entitled to them. The hon. and learned Gentleman said, the money ought to be returned to those who paid it, but surely that would not be just to the parties actually entitled to it. When these papers were laid before the House, he would meet any motion which might be made on the subject. It would be his duty to resist any ulterior proceedings which the hon. and learned Gentleman might bring forward with regard to this question. But the papers, when produced, would speak for themselves.

Viscount Sandon

said, that any delay which had taken place ought to be in fairness attributed to the right hon. Gentleman himself. The right hon. Gentleman appeared to rest his case on the imputations he had thrown upon those who claimed this money; but when he looked at the list of the names of those Gentlemen and considered the high character they bore, he considered, that he had a right to say, that no such imputations ought to be allowed to weigh against the concession of their claim. Every possible obstacle had from the first been thrown in their way, and the resolution which had been come to by the Treasury itself was now brought against the claim they set up. If the right hon. Gentleman would allow a defendant to be named, and permit the case to be brought fairly before a Court of law, he had no doubt whatever, that the question could be by that means decided in a manner satisfactory to the parties interested. The question was not so much as to the amount of the money claimed as it was as to the justice of the case, neither was it in any way a political question on one side or the other. It was a question of justice, and that House assuredly would not refuse to entertain it. He sincerely trusted the House would not follow the insidious advice—for he could only call it by that name—of the right hon. Gentleman, viz., refuse to express an opinion upon the case in the present stage of the proceedings.

Mr. Hutt

had no hesitation whatever in pronouncing his opinion; that these proceedings were altogether unjustifiable; and it was of little moment under what Government the regulations were adopted. If, however, the right hon. Gentleman would fairly carry out his principle of awarding the compensation to these parties upon adequate proof of their claims, he (Mr. Hutt) would not object to such an arrangement, but he must be satisfied, that the principle would be fairly applied. At the same time he would state his belief, that nothing in these countries required a more special reform than the Board of Customs.

Mr. Thornley

considered, that instead of this being a trumpery case upon the part of the claimants for compensation, the case upon the part of those who resisted the payment was trumpery indeed. He considered the conduct both of the Treasury and the Commissioners of Customs in this matter to have been most unfair.

Mr. Cresswell

replied, that the right hon. Gentleman had not disputed a single fact which he had brought forward, neither had the Solicitor-general, who sat by him, risen to dispute the accuracy of any of the arguments he had made use of as to the law of the case. The right hon. Gentleman had called this a trumpery case; but if it was in reality so trumpery a case, how easy it was to get rid of it by paying the money. He also said, that these Gentlemen should not have the money unless they should previously prove, that they were the persons entitled to it; but the right hon. Gentleman seemed to forget, that he was himself all the time keeping possession of money to which he was not entitled. The right hon. Gentleman also said, that these claims might have been brought up; thereby insinuating that they had been brought up. But how did the right hon. Gentleman know, that any such thing had taken place? Had he made any inquiry as to whether such were the fact or not? It seemed to him, that the right hon. Gentleman had made no answer whatever to the arguments he had advanced; on the contrary, all he had said tended the more to convince him more than ever, that the conduct which the right hon. Gentleman defended was, that of a retention of power without right. He was willing, however, to abstain from further observations upon the subject, until the papers should be upon the Table of the House.

The papers were ordered.