HC Deb 13 August 1846 vol 88 cc678-84

On the Motion that the House resolve itself into Committee on the British Possessions Bill,


said, he wished to call the attention of the House to the principle which was involved in the Bill before them. Hitherto the trade of our Colonics had been always regulated by the British Parliament; but in this Bill there was a departure from that principle. Before the House passed such a Bill, they ought to know why the usual course of proceeding was departed from. According to the present mode of proceeding there was an uniform rate of duty passed on all articles coming from foreign countries. Not only had the British Parliament hitherto retained the right of which he had spoken; but it also retained the right of appointing the places where foreign ships should trade with them—that was, it appointed certain ports for that purpose, which were called free ports. This Bill proposed, instead of having the duty imposed by a British Act of Parliament, to give to certain Colonics the power of imposing a duty on foreign goods coming from foreign countries. This was, as he conceived, a very inconvenient course. No one, after what had passed that Session, could refuse to admit the necessity of lowering the duties in those Colonies; but the question for the House was, whether that was to be done by the provisions of a British Act of Parliament extending to all the Colonics; or whether the Colonies should have a discretionary power to do so in their colonial assemblies with the consent of the Crown, and superseding the authority of a British Act of Parliament; or whether in giving them that power they would act wisely in regard to the future regulations of their colonial system? In his own opinion, many inconveniences would arise from the course now proposed to be adopted. They wished to give relief to these Colonies; but he did not think they would effect the desired remedy as well by the proposed Bill as they could by a British Act of Parliament. For instance, the Government here might decide that the Colonial Assembly had not taken that view of the subject which was for their own advantage and for the benefit of the Empire at large, while the Colonial Assembly might take another view of the matter, and there would be by this no power to alter their determination. All that the Crown could do was to say yes or no to the decision of the colonial legislature. Thus, then, he inferred there did exist some necessity for further consideration of this subject; for great delay—not only delay in the imposition of those duties, but delay in sending back measures to the Colonics, and of having the colonial legislatures to reconsider the determination at which they had originally arrived — would certainly arise, and thus the relief which they desired to afford the Colonics must be delayed for a very long period. Let them suppose that a colonial legislature proposed one duty on goods from America, and another duty on goods from other places, they would soon find themselves involved in dissensions with foreign countries, and that too under the most disadvantageous circumstances. The Foreign Office must be placed in the very embarrassing position of being obliged to defend different duties imposed by different Colonics on the goods of the same foreign country. And how were they to avoid it? He was sure they ought to have kept in their own hands all that related to the intercourse of the Colonies with foreign countries. He was convinced the course they were about to pursue would be the means of deferring that relief which the Colonies required, and which they, he believed, intended should be immediate; and he was also afraid that it would involve them in serious discussions with foreign countries with respect to colonial trade, and even with the Colonies themselves. This, he did say, was a point to which the attention of the House should be directed. They were here called upon to give up the great imperial principle that the trade of the Colonies ought to be regulated by the Legislature of the mother country. If they passed this, the Colonics might have a claim as to the retention of the jurisdiction of this country on other matters, when once we had abandoned this. The House would find, in deciding on this question, that it was closely connected with our navigation laws. The Colonies might hereafter make a claim that these laws should not be dealt with by the British Parliament alone, but that they should also be enacted by the colonial legislatures. He feared the time might come when the colonial assemblies would lay claim to the right of interfering with our navigation laws, and of not allowing these laws to act in a manner which they conceived to be injurious to their interests. They might find it difficult to make distinctions as to the duties to be imposed, and the ships which brought articles on which duties were to be imposed. The House, as he thought, was entitled to an explanation from Government, why it was they departed from the course which had been hitherto adopted—a departure which would, he feared, he attended by great inconvenience hereafter.


could assure the right hon. Gentleman, that he was not insensible to the inconvenience that might result from the operation of the Bill before the House; but the right hon. Gentleman must bear in mind the circumstances under which the Bill was introduced. He believed it might be better on the whole to regulate the trade of the Colonics in the same way as it had been done before; but it was impossible to have any communication with the Colonies with a view to the alteration of the import duties; and thus they would have been depriving them of a portion of their revenues without any notice being given them, taking away those ways and means on which they had a right to calculate, without preparing them for it by any intimation. It was thought better, therefore, to leave this matter in their own hands, especially as the Queen's consent was necessary to the carrying of any Acts which they might pass. There could not, however, be the least doubt that it would be desirable in all cases that the regulations of those duties should lie with the Colonies themselves. There were at the same time many obnoxious regulations affecting the trade of one Colony with another which ought to be abandoned. They had differential duties among themselves which were highly objectionable. Nothing, for example, could be more inconvenient than that the Colony of New South Wales should have differential duties on articles of produce between that Colony and Van Diemen's Land. It might be desirable in the course of the next Session to introduce a Bill to put matters of this kind on a sound and proper footing, though he did not think it was possible to do so during the present Session. In the mean time the Colonies ought, without delay, to be relieved from the import duties to which they were exposed. They should not be exposed to protection against them, while protection in their favour was taken away. He thought, in reference to any inconvenience that might arise from the present course, that it would be in the power of this country to take care that no undue consequences should spring from it.


said, he objected to this Bill because it was not a temporary measure, but a measure to enable the Colonies to impose duties which would last permanently. He did say that the House ought not to part with the important power which the Imperial Legislature was supposed to possess; and he thought the British Parliament could certainly make better regulations on these subjects than small local legislatures.


observed, that the present was a very instructive discussion. They had here the principal mover in the cause of free trade, whose principles had been carried by the aid of those hon. Gentlemen opposite, expressing very great alarm about the navigation laws. He believed the right hon. Gentleman was quite right in that alarm—those laws were in imminent danger. The Colonies might not think it right to employ British shipping, when they could have foreign shipping to carry their goods; and if this Bill passed, they would be very likely to impose a countervailing duty on British shipping, and to send home their sugars and other articles in Russian ships. It was, in his opinion, of great importance to this country that the House should not give up its control over the acts of the colonial legislatures.


said, that there might arise under this Bill certain regulations between the Colonies with respect to trade which would become of a permanent character. Those regulations might assume a permanent form, and come at length to assume the character of vested interests, not that the colonial body could hope for much consideration under the present system. Still, in his opinion, they would be giving up a great advantage if they allowed their Colonies to deal with foreign countries, as if each were a separate State, and that too without the knowledge of or taking into consideration its relations with other Colonies attached to the British Crown.


wished that the noble Lord at the head of Her Majesty's Government would consider how far the Bill before the House interfered with the rules laid down as to the regulation of our Colonies. The principle of legislation in the Imperial Parliament, as to the Colonies, ought to be uniform. He objected to see the power of that House interfered with by any other authority. He wished them to observe that various custom-house officers whose services might be dispensed with, were now kept up by means of the various Colonial Acts. There was no less than 575,000l. levied under the heads of those duties at present. That money was all spent in the Colonies; and in addition to it, this country had to pay 24,000l. to support the establishment necessary to impose such duties. Thus the whole of this large sum of money went to the Colonies. He really wished the noble Lord would postpone the Bill until Monday next, in order that he (Lord John Russell) might look to the evidence taken by the Committee on Colonial Expenditure, in reference to this subject.


The hon. Member for Montrose seemed to differ from the hon. Member for Kendal. The hon. Member for Kendal said it would be very inconvenient to have legislative power in the hands of different colonial legislatures; while the hon. Member for Montrose wished to have that power given to the Colonies. He wished to describe what he conceived to be the state of the law to which the hon. Member had adverted, if it were attempted to make one colonial possession contribute to the expenses of the mother country—to contribute to our army, navy, and fortifications, by duties to be levied on the Colonies. It was that which led to the resistance of the United States of America; and Parliament, in consequence, passed an Act after that event, by which it declared that all duties which might be levied in future in the Colonies, should be applied, not to any purposes of the mother country, but to the purposes of the Colonies themselves. That was as he understood it, and the observations of his right hon. Friend. The question next occurred, whether, having given up that right, Parliament should interfere with respect to the trade of the Colonies. He differed very much from the hon. Member for Kendal, who said we ought not to allow any considerable power to the Colonies to regulate their trade with respect to their own washes; while the right hon. Member for Cambridge thought the House ought, as hitherto, to regulate those matters by an Imperial Act. With respect to that subject, he should feel very great difficulty in legislating that Session. The Parliament had adopted a general principle, that they should not enact differential duties, that they should not impose duties on foreign productions more than on colonial productions, nor on colonial more than on home productions; but, in doing so, they were not altogether consistent, inasmuch as they did, for the sake of revenue, make certain alterations in duties on various articles. The hon. Member for Kendal ably and warmly, as he usually did, supported the proposition that there should be a duty of 15s. charged on foreign timber, instead of the existing of 25s. That approached a protective duty in favour of home-grown timber over foreign-grown timber, and in favour of colonial timber also. Again, with respect to silk. The House imposed an ad valorem duty of 15l. per cent on the productions of the manufactures of foreign countries. He thought they were perfectly right in doing so. He quite agreed with the hon. Member for Kendal as regarded the timber duties, and he agreed with the House in the Resolution they had come to respecting the silk duty; but he thought that having taken the liberty of establishing free trade as a general principle, and of making certain exemptions in the application of this principle for the sake of revenue, we ought to treat our Colonies as we would wish to be treated ourselves — that we should, in the first place, not keep up any protective duty which the Colonics may think unnecessary and injurious; and that we should not, on the other hand, deprive them of those duties which they may think necessary to keep up for the purposes of their revenue. He had before him a list of the articles the duties on which it was proposed to allow the Colonies to repeal or retain; and here he might observe that the whole power which they gave the Colonies was to repeal duties already existing; they did not give them any power of enacting differential duties, or of imposing duties on British goods which they did not at present possess. Here were the articles to which he had alluded:—Glass manufactures, silk, and spermaceti, 15 per cent; cotton manufactures, linen manufactures, woollen manufactures, leather, 7 per cent; oil and gums, 15 per cent; articles not enumerated, 4 per cent. Now, he had stated in reply to the right hon. Baronet the Member for Tamworth, that with respect to the duty on provisions, there would be no difficulty in taking it away altogether. At the same time, he did not feel that it was a question of any urgency; for by all accounts there was plenty of provisions in the Indian Colonies. But as to the other duties, he avowed that if the House had now to reconsider or to re-enact their old established protective duties, he thought much difficulty would be found to exist in certain cases. He might say—"Here is a protective duty on British goods; do not retain it, take it away." But the Legislature of the Colonies might say, "True, this is a kind of protective duty; but it adds to our revenue; and we cannot allow it to be removed." Not knowing the sentiments of the Colonics on those matters, he, therefore, thought it fair to give those Colonies the power of dealing with these duties as they thought fit, with a reservation to the Crown of a controlling power, by which means a multiplicity of duties would be avoided, while it was also in the power of the Government at home, through the Colonial Secretary, to direct the Governor of the Colony to explain to the Colonial Assembly what were the views and principles of that Government. He thought, as regarded the present occasion, that the best way was to give our Colonies as much power as possible—to treat them as ourselves; and if there were any uniform system of duties, to let it be established by the Colonics. But he did not say, as the hon. Member for Kendal did, that all our Colonies were ignorant of the principles of trade, and that, therefore, we ought not to let these foolish notions as to their own interests have any influence over us; and he was willing, in general, to allow the Colonial Government to manage their own affairs, under these general regulations of trade on which Her Majesty's Government wished them to proceed.

House went into Committee. Bill passed through Committee.

House resumed. Bill to be read a third time.

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