HC Deb 21 April 1846 vol 85 cc790-2

I rise, Sir, in accordance with the notice which I have given, to ask the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government for an explanation of the false return which has been made to the Order of this House. That return is one moved for by me of the prices of Memel and Canada timber. I made the Motion for this return in the last week of January, or quite in the beginning of February. This false return, when it was produced was dated from the "Landing Surveyor's Office, 13th Feb.;" but it was not presented to this House until the 1st of April. My object in moving for it was to throw light upon the debate upon the timber duties, which was then coming on. Now this return, when it was produced, gave the following as the prices of Memel timber. It was in different years:—

1840 from £8 0 0 to £8 5 0
1841 from 7 15 0 to 8 0 0
1842 from 7 15 0 to 8 0 0
per load duty paid. The duty was then 55s. So the average of three years, according to the return was 8l. 1s. 8d. In 1842 the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government introduced a change in the duties of the timber trade. He reduced the duty by 25s. in 1842; and he made a further reduction of 5s. in 1843. The return goes on to state that the prices varied in
1844 from £5 5 0 to £5 10 0
1845 from 5 5 0 to 5 10 0
1846 from 5 12 0 to 5 17 6
making the average for the last three years 5l. 12s. 6d. This result was intended to show the House and the country that the consumer gained by the reduction of the duty by 30s., not only the whole amount of the duty, but had actually gained 19s. 2d. in addition; that the consumer had actually gained 49s. 2d. per load. Now, I believe the fact to be, that so far from that being true, if the return had been accurate it would have been found that the prices in 1840 to 1842 were as follows. I believe they were in—
1840 about £5 10 0
1841 about 5 5 0
1842 about 5 5 0
averaging about 5l. 6s. 8d., with a duty of 55s. per load paid; whilst in the last three years, when the duty was reduced from 55s. to 25s., if the return had been accurate, it would have been found that the prices were in—
1844 about £4 5 0
1845 about 4 5 0
1846 about 4 12 6
making an average, during the three years, of about 4l. 7s. 6d. So that the consumer for the three years, since the reduction, compared with the three years prior to the reduction, instead of gaining 49s. 2d., has gained but 19s. 2d., putting 10s. 10d. into the pockets of the Baltic grower; and, as compared with 1842, not putting 42s. 6d. into the pockets of the English consumer, but putting into his pockets 12s. 6d. out of the 30s. reduced duty. I think it an important matter that the House should be able to rely upon the truth and honesty of these statistics laid before it by the Board of Trade, upon which our legislation depends. This is a serious question for the House, and for the country; and it was my first intention to have moved that the subordinate officers should be summoned to the bar, and called upon to explain the instructions they received, and the cause of the error, or of the fraud that had been imposed upon the House. It may be well for Gentlemen connected with commercial constituencies to see these false returns, and, knowing them to be false, to treat the matter with indifference; and it is the duty of all the Members of this House to know the nature and extent of the commerce of the ports and boroughs we represent. But this paper circulates not only through this House, but through the country, and the people are deceived by such mis-statements as these. We have seen leading articles, written by learned editors of newspapers, proving, by these figures, the great advantage of reduced duties. So I thought it no more than my duty to call upon the right hon. Gentleman to explain to the House how it came that this false return has been laid upon the Table—this return, which, so far as I can make out, consists merely of the multiplication of the duty paid. It seems merely to add 55s. a load to the price, as regards the first three years, and 25s. a load to the price as regards the last three. And you must remember that this return laid for seven weeks, according to its own date, upon the table of the Board of Trade. The return was made to the Board of Trade upon the 13th of February, and it was laid upon the Table of this House on the 1st of April—as if that were the most appropriate day for the presentation of this return.


I do not think I should be justified in entering into any argument on the subject of the timber duties; but I will confine myself to the facts of the case with reference to the error in the return. My attention was called to it yesterday, when I was told that an error existed in the return. Although this return was presented by Her Majesty's Ministers to the House, yet, from the number of similar documents which they present it would be impossible for them to be responsible for the accuracy of these returns. That responsibility rests with the department by whom the return is made. No doubt it is of great importance that returns made to this House should be accurate; and, on understanding that an error existed, I made immediate inquiries. I directed that if it were found an error had been made, another document should be prepared and laid upon the Table of the House as soon as possible. There is an error in the return adverted to by the noble Lord. I desired that it should be corrected, and an accurate return made: and I believe that accurate return will be laid upon the Table tomorrow. The mistake originated with the Board of Customs, and I desired to know how it had occurred. I hold in my hand the letter of the officer by whom the return was certified; and perhaps the best course I can take is to read it:—

"April 21.

"Sir—In answer to your requisition, calling on me to state in what department the error in the return of the values on Memel and Canadian timber arose, I have to regret to state that it was in the landing surveyor's department. The nature of the mistake is, that the prices were necessarily taken from the Prices Current, which are not official Customs' documents, but a mercantile list, in which some of the values quoted include the duties, whilst others do not. The heading of the space containing the values, viz., 'value in bond,' led to the error; it applied only to the upper half of the column, not to that part in which these prices were entered; and this distinction was not observed. I have to express my regret at this error; and to remain, Sir, your most obedient servant, "M. STURT.

"E. Cardwell, Esq."

There has been an error, and I think I have shown the House that I have taken every means to be accurate, and that the officer alone is responsible for the error which has occurred.