HC Deb 22 May 1840 vol 54 cc513-8
The Chancellor of' the Exchequer

having moved the order of the day for the second reading of the Customs, &c, Duties' Bill,

Mr. Herries

said, he would take that opportunity of addressing some observations to the House on a subject to which he had before called the attention of hon. Members in moving for certain papers which had since been laid upon the table. The subject was intimately connected with the bill the second reading of which had just been moved by the right hon. Gentleman, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and he felt that it would be most convenient to avail himself of that opportunity for offering the remarks which he had to make for the consideration of the House. Before he sat down, he hoped he should be able to satisfy the House and the Government, that there had been on this subject a great mistake committed, and great injustice done, and that no time ought to be lost in affording a remedy. The papers for which he had moved were printed under the title of "Rough Rice," and he could assure the House, that they would be found well worthy of the most attentive consideration. The subject to which he wished to call attention involved three most important points. In the first place, the interests of our anti-slavery establishments on the western coast of Africa were deeply involved in this question. In the second place, a number of British merchants who had been for two years clamouring at the doors of the Treasury for the repayment of duties which had been unjustly exacted from them, were seriously interested in this matter; and in the third place, the character of that House and of the country was, to a certain extent, involved by the protracted delay which had taken place in fulfilling the engagements contained in the treaties into which we had entered with the United States. The facts of the case were simply these:—In 1833 a general act of customs was passed, in which a duty was imposed on rough rice imported into this country. That duty was fixed at 20s. a quarter on rice imported from all foreign states, and at Id. on rice imported from British possessions. Between that period and the time when the first alterations were made in the statute, many merchants connected with the western coast of Africa had imported rice from that part of the world on which the lower rate of duty was charged. It was imported in its rough state, and mills were erected to prepare it for home consumption, as the merchants considered that the produce of our anti-slavery establishments would be generally encouraged. In their endeavours to draw rice from those establishments, an impediment arose from a difficulty as to the import of the term "British possessions." All the rice imported was not produced within the pale, which was of a very limited extent; and in regard to what was produced beyond the pale, a question was raised whether it could be admitted at the lower duty of 1d. In consequence of this difficulty, the merchants applied to the Treasury, and solicited the Government to pass an act declaring the reduced duty to apply to all rice the produce of any plantation on the western coast of Africa, imported from a British settlement. An act was accordingly passed in 1835, by which an alteration was made in the original statute. The act of 1835 was thus worded—"Rough rice or paddy, the produce of the west coast of Africa, and imported from some British possession." This provision answered all the purposes of the merchants. It gave a decided advantage to the British possessions over America and other quarters. It was also to be borne in mind that a great quantity of the best rice consumed in this country was brought from Carolina. Thus a system greatly in favour of our own growers was established. But the next year, without any interposition on their part, they found an Act of Parliament introduced in the absence of any notice, in which the system was materially altered, and the whole effect of the change which had been so satisfactorily made in their favour was destroyed by these words introduced into the new act —" Rice rough and in the husk, imported from the west coast of Africa." By these words it was decided that the importation might take place from every part of the coast. The body of merchants remonstrated with her Majesty's Ministers, but without effect. They memorialized the Lords of the Treasury, through Mr. G. F. Young, requesting that the bonus of diminished duty might be limited to the British settlements on the west coast of Africa. But the new arrangement was proceeded with, notwithstanding this remonstrance. A similar change was made in the article of beeswax. The Treasury persisted in making the alteration, and the consequence was, that since that period the importation of rough rice had been made from America. A memorial had been sent to the Lords of the Treasury, and the answer was unsatisfactory. A second memorial was sent in about six months since, and most respectfully worded, but to this memorial no answer had been received. An application was made to the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the subject, and here was the answer under his own hand, and very laconic it was: — "It appears that no answer has been returned by the Treasury to this communication." Now in his opinion, if they could not answer the arguments of the memorialists, they should have done them justice; and if they could, why not answer the memorial? For two years the merchants had been able to procure no satisfactory reply to their repeated applications. Several of the parties, finding that they were likely to meet with no redress from England, applied to the American minister. He communicated with the Secretary of State, who, three months afterwards, applied to Lord Palmerston, whose answer was, that The papers had been send to the Lords of the Treasury, and that their Lordships informed him that they were referred to the law officers of the Crown for their opinion. It was now perfectly clear that there was not the slightest chance of these parties obtaining that justice which was unquestionably due to them. This was no trivial matter; it had cost these parties 20,000l. The character of the country was at stake. The present arrangement rendered it impossible for our settlements on the west coast of Africa to compete with America; and this was at a time when the slightest suspicion of shrinking from the maintenance of our international rights ought to be avoided. On these grounds he hoped that his having called the notice of the House and of her Majesty's Government to this subject would be sufficient to produce a remedy for these grievances. If he should not get a satisfactory explanation now from the right hon. Gentleman, lie should on a future occasion take a more formal step in order to procure it.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

was understood to complain of the great inconvenience which would ensue from raising a discussion on this case, on the application of interested parties, whilst negotiations were pending on it between the government of America and the British Government. He could not pretend to say what representations had been made by the memorialists to the late President of the Board of Trade, who was now in Canada; but, as far as the Treasury was concerned, he could declare that no such representations as the right hon. Gentleman had intimated had been made to any officer of that department. To the question which had been raised by the right hon. Gentlemen opposite, he should not give any reply, for it was a question for the American Government to raise, which had not pressed it. The great object, when the slave trade was abolished, had been to protect and encourage the produce of the western coast of Africa, in order to allure the natives from their sanguinary feuds to habits of peace, order, and civilization. The rice might not be grown in our settlements but if it were imported from the neighbouring districts into our settlements, and thence into England, it was liable to the lower duty only. He trusted, that the case would not be pressed in a tone which would compel the Legislature to go back to our former prohibition, and which would prevent the small boon that had been given to these unfortunate Africans from being continued to them. The American government had certainly made a representation to our Government upon the subject, and some conversation between himself and the American minister had taken place, but the American government had not pressed the matter.

Mr. Herries

complained that no answer had been given to some of his objections, which might have been answered without inconvenience to the public service. The mere declaration that "we would persist in our determination" was not a sufficient answer to the memorialists. They ought to be informed of the grounds on which that determination was founded.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

admitted that no argumentative answer had been given to them, and further, he admitted, that that argumentative answer had been advisedly refused. He did not conceive it to be consistent with his duty to argue the construction of a public treaty with individual parties, however influential or respectable they might be.

Sir R. Peel

would give no opinion on the justice of this claim, for he had not examined it. He wished, however to call the attention of the House to one point. The right lion. Gentleman opposite seemed to consider that it rested with the United States whether they would wave their claim under the treaty in favour of their own subjects or not. Was that a construction which a merchant was justified in raising under a public treaty? The act said, that rice imported from the western coast of Africa should be liable to the less duty. Now, if a British merchant invested his capital in the United States, and imported rice in American vessels from the western coast of Africa, the question was, whether he was not entitled to the advantage of the treaty, even though the American government should consent to wave its claim under that treaty?

Mr. Labouchere

said, that looking at the strict letter of the treaty, we should be perfectly justified in that view of the ease on which Government had proceeded in the present instance; but a question might, perhaps, arise under other circumstances, whether we had not taken an indirect mode of violating the spirit of the treaty, which would render it a matter of fair and just complaint against us by the foreign state. He had never heard any speech with greater surprise than that of the right hon. Member for Harwich, knowing, as he did, the right hon. Gentleman's extensive knowledge of the subject and long official experience. The question, lie conceived, lay in a nutshell. It was simply this, whether it were in the power of this country, consistently with existing reciprocity treaties, to give an advantage, not to the produce of a particular country, but to articles shipped at a particular port. If they looked to what had been the practice long recognised and concurred in by all the commercial countries with which we had treaties, it would be found that this principle was constantly acted on to a great extent without complaint from this House, or from any other quarter. It was well known that foreign timber was taken to ports of our own colonies, for the purpose of being shipped to this country as colonial timber. So also the great proportion of the potash imported from Canadian harbours, he believed, came originally from the United States. It was well understood that the lowering of the duty on African rice was not meant as a commercial or political measure, but as a step towards the civilization of central Africa, by opening the way to a more extended intercourse with that continent. No doubt it was possible to suppose that the practice to which he had alluded might be abused, but he could not think that this was a case in which that was to be apprehended. He must say that he thought the view taken by the right hon. Gentleman opposite was totally in contradiction to all the principles of our foreign policy, as well as to the circumstances of the present case.

Mr. Goulburn

said, the question was, were we at liberty, under existing treaties with the United States, to give to the produce of the empire of Morocco, with which we had no particular connexion, an advantage denied to the commerce of the United States.

Subject dropped.