HC Deb 12 February 1852 vol 119 cc468-75

moved the appointment of the Select Committee on Customs.


thought there was already sufficient evidence to satisfy the Government that there ought to be some change in this department, and therefore he did not see the necessity for the appointment of the Committee. Three years ago a Commission was appointed, including officials and Lords of the Treasury, and they reported that the Commissioners and officers of Customs had been guilty of neglect of duty, and had shown their in-competency in the issue of orders which it was impossible for officers under them to carry out. The Customs presented such a scene of mismanagement that frauds had to an unknown extent taken place, in which officers of the Customs of high rank had been concerned. There was overwhelming and, if possible, stronger evidence before the Committee appointed last Session of the total in-competency of the Board. The blame rested, he believed, more with the mode in which the Board was constituted, than with the individuals of which it was composed; though when they looked at the appointments to that Board—not in reference to the present Board more than to any former Board—it did appear the Commissioners—of which there were nine—were not appointed for their competency to discharge the duties of the office, but merely to fill places; and he had heard it often described as a sort of refuge for the destitute. The cases of the St. Katherine and London Docks further showed that the Board of Customs ought not any longer to be entrusted with the management of that important department; and he was surprised that the noble Lord at the head of Her Majesty's Government, having seen the Report of that case—having seen the Report of the Commission, and having heard the statements which had been made before him by the leading merchants of the city of London and of Liverpool, showing the total inefficiency of the present system for the collection of revenue, did not propose any change. With regard to the proceedings of the Board of Customs against the St. Katherine's and London Docks, to which he (Mr. W. Williams) had alluded, the Customs—without any justification, without any evidence save that picked up, in the first instance, from discarded servants, and afterwards obtained from upwards of sixty of the dock servants, who were paid for giving evidence, sent a body of their officers through all the warehouses, containing 12,000,000l. or 14,000,000l. of property, threw everything into confusion, made seizures of packages to the value of 20,000l., and issued 120 informations against these docks for defrauding the revenue. Every means were taken by the dock companies to bring on a speedy trial. The Board of Customs threw impediments in the way. At last one case was brought to trial, and after occupying eleven days, and costing the dock company 10,000l.—he supposed the costs to the public on the other side would be as much—the jury found there had been only irregularity, without any intention to commit fraud, on two packages of the value of 6l. Every means were then taken by the dock companies to go to trial on the other informations; but after numerous delays, the Custom-house Board came forward and offered to compromise these charges of fraud to the amount of 20,000l. for 5l., and which, owing to other influence, was eventually compromised for 100l. in each of the cases. Having charged the docks with having committed these gross frauds, and having offered to compromise them for 5l., the Board of Customs had been guilty either of great calumny and oppression, or of participating in compounding for frauds on the public of a most serious amount. In either case they were unfit to manage a department through which 22,000,000l. sterling of duties, 65,000,000l. sterling of imports, and 71,000,000l. sterling of exports, passed through last year. But if such was their conduct to the principals, their conduct to the servants of the dock was much worse. He learnt from a petition which he had presented, that servants of the company who had for thirty-six years, twenty-eight years, twenty years, and other periods respectively occupied situations of trust, and borne irreproachable characters, were arrested like common felons, and taken, not before a magistrate, to ascertain whether their detention was just or not, but to the Central Criminal Court, and some were absolutely committed to gaol, because they were not prepared with bail on the instant. These men demanded a trial. The trial was first put off, and when the time fixed arrived, was removed to another court, to the incurring a great expense for their defence, and at last these men were set at liberty, the whole charge was abandoned, and the amount of robbery charged turned out to be the sweepings of the warehouses, of the value of 4l., and, supposing duty to be payable, only of the value of 27s. For a year and a half these men were kept with the charge hanging over them, and put to the expense of some hundreds of pounds. After these circumstances were known, could Her Majesty's Government hesitate in making an instant change in the Customs, or did they really think these men were fit to have the management of this, the most important, department in a commercial country? During the last year the public newspapers were teeming with complaints of the unjustifiable conduct of the Custom-house officers in the examination of passengers' luggage. He himself came from Ostend, and had to wait two hours and a half to get his portmanteau, and his was the first examined from amongst the baggage of 170 passengers, who were detained he knew not how long in a dirty filthy room. He wrote to the Lords of the Treasury, and it became perfectly evident that those most important gentlemen thought him guilty of great presumption in complaining, for he had to send four letters before he could get an answer to the most ordinary question, and the whole tone of conduct was such as would not be expected towards any Member of that House. He knew not why those gentlemen were so important, unless it be that they were receiving a vast deal of money, more than they had either the ability or industry to deserve. He did hope this Committee would not be granted by Her Majesty's Government for the purpose of delay. The noble Lord at the head of the Government had received a very large number of the most important merchants of London, and they had represented to him the perfect inefficiency, the endless inconveniences, and the harassing impediments to the commerce of the country inflicted by the present system. After such evidence he had hoped the noble Lord would have taken up the question, and effected a thorough reform; and unless he placed at the head of that department a Member of this House and a Member of the Cabinet, it would never be found satis- factory to the merchants, or efficient in the collection of revenue. He did not so much object to the Committee; but he certainly thought overwhelming evidence already existed of the necessity of an entire change in the present system of management of the Board of Customs.


said, he was perfectly ready to assent to the appointment of the Committee, with the view that it might be able to point out such alterations in the laws or regulations of the Customs as might be useful to the commerce of the country, and be conducive to the public service. After listening to the representation of the deputations to which the hon. Member had referred, and considering a very long and elaborate report from the Board of Customs, he had been ready to appoint a Commission on the subject. The hon. Gentleman (Mr. Mitchell), however, preferred a Committee of that House; and now, after he (Lord John Russell) had complied with the preference of the hon. Gentleman, he was told by the hon. Member for Lambeth that this was done for the purpose of delay. [Mr. Williams: I said I hoped it was not done for the purpose of delay.] He had no doubt that the very able Gentlemen who were to be nominated members of the Committee would apply themselves to the consideration of those reforms that might be usefully made. With regard to the proposition of the hon. Gentleman, that the Board of Customs should be abolished, and that one Commissioner should be appointed who should have a seat in that House and be a Member of the Cabinet, he did not think it would be an advisable change; and, if he did adopt it, he was afraid he should be told that he had done it for the sake of patronage. He must also say, with regard to the present Chairman at the Board of Customs, Sir Thomas Fremantle, that the right hon. Gentleman was no political friend of his, because in that House the right hon. Gentleman was generally entirely opposed to him in political sentiments, and was placed by the late Sir Robert Peel in the very high and responsible situation which he now held; but he believed that a man of greater honour or of more attentive industry in the performance of his duties could not be found. With regard to some of the legal questions that had arisen, the hon. Gentleman had considered himself hound to take legal opinions, which opinions could not have been well founded; but he (Lord J. Russell) thought there was nothing to induce that House or the Government to withdraw their confidence from a most meritorious public servant.


did not believe there was a man connected with the trade of this country, whether in England, Scotland, or Ireland, who had not fully made up his mind that the Board of Customs ought long ago to have been remodelled. This was not a question of politics; every class of the mercantile community had already expressed their condemnation of the present system, and he could only regret that Her Majesty's Government, with such a mass of evidence before them, should still hesitate upon the subject. He also had long known Sir Thomas Fremantle, and had been opposed to him for years in that House. He could also bear his testimony that he had always considered him to act like a gentleman in all his proceedings there. But his observations were directed against Sir Thomas Fremantle, not in his personal character, but as the head of a Board which had made itself notorious for causing delay in the transmission of all sorts of goods, whether exports or imports. Indeed, he had lived long enough to say, that he now began to doubt all Boards; he was for one or more responsible individuals in every department. Since, however, Her Majesty's Government wished to have the opinion of the Committee, he trusted that the Committee would go into the whole question, and particularly that they would review the whole proceedings respecting the late compromise with the Dock Companies which he considered discreditable to both parties, and which he believed had been come to in order to prevent this Committee from offering any opinion upon the conduct of the Board. But he trusted the Committee would go into the whole question, and see who was in fault, whether the Dock Companies had been guilty of fraud, or whether the Board of Customs had acted ignorantly or maliciously in bringing against them a criminal charge. The noble Lord at the head of the Government had given the Committee a fair challenge, and he trusted the Committee would accept it, and inquire not only into what was fact, but with regard to the future remodelling of the Board, and whether any reductions could be made in its staff, for he regretted to say, that though the late Sir Robert Peel had reduced or abolished between 600 and 700 articles of customs, yet no reduction whatever had taken place in the number of officers.


said, he did not think it was desirable that they should, in the Motion now before them, enter into all the points which had been raised by the hon. Member for Lambeth (Mr. W. Williams), or the hon. Member for Montrose (Mr. Hume); but at the very severe censure that had been passed on the Board of Customs, he felt he could not remain wholly silent. He did altogether question the statement that the Board had thrown any difficulty in the way of the progress of the trials which had been alluded to, or that they had placed any impediment in the way of the trade of this country. The present Board was at least as liberal as any which preceded it. It had originated many improvements, and it was not right to say that it had thrown impediments in the way of justice. It was the duty of the Board to see that the statutes relating to the Customs were faithfully acted up to. They had to see that the law as to the Customs' duties was carried into effect, and, being responsible to the Crown for the collection of 22,000,000l. of revenue, a very great responsibility devolved upon them. Last year they came into contact with two great and powerful companies, and having taken legal advice, they were told by the law officers of the Crown that they would not be doing their duty properly if they did net institute legal proceedings against them. With respect to the compromise which the hon. Member for Montrose said was effected, in order to prevent inquiry, and to screen the conduct of the Commissioners of Customs, it so happened that the proposal for the compromise did not originate with the Commissioners, but with the London Dock Company. That compromise, too, was by no means an unprecedented occurrence; for, some twenty years ago, a dispute having arisen between the Customs and the Dock Company, it was settled in the same way, and by the payment of a small fine. He was not aware at that time that any censure was passed upon the Board of Customs for making that compromise. As the hon. Member for Bridport (Mr. Mitchell) had named him a Member of the Committee, he could promise the House that he would support the utmost facility being given to the reception of evidence, or suggestions as to the way in which the law ought to be administered, or as to any changes in the law itself; and he sincerely hoped the reappointment of this Committee would be the means of showing that the greatest misapprehension prevailed as to the alleged maladministrations of the Board of Customs.


said, that hon. Members on the Government benches had fallen into one or two slight inaccuracies. The noble Lord the Member for the city of London, had said, that if any mistake had been committed by the Board of Customs, it had been under the direction of its legal adviser; but the evidence went to show that, although in every step they had legal advice, the Board and its Chairman had exercised their own discretion as to the manner in which they should carry out the law. He (Mr. Mitchell) therefore protested against the assumption that if there were any blame, it was attributable merely to a lawyer's mistake, and not the Commissioners of Customs themselves. Sir Thomas Fremantle admitted over and over again to the Committee that he had acted upon his own discretion. Another statement, that made by the hon. Member for Herefordshire (Mr. C. Lewis), might be technically right, but it was substantially wrong. The hon. Gentleman said, that the proposal for a compromise came first from the Dock Company. The first letter of the correspondence which eventually led to a compromise might be written by the Dock Company; but if the hon. Gentleman would inquire, he would find that Sir Thomas Fremantle, when he went down to the docks with a foreign gentleman, condescended to ask Mr. Cattley, the chairman of the Company, whom he had charged with smuggling, to go over the docks with them, saying that they should no doubt be as good friends as ever when all this was blown over; and he would find, too, that the officers of the Customs repeatedly intimated that the Commissioners were quite ready to accept proposals for a compromise. That was not in evidence, but he felt bound to mention it, inasmuch as the statement of the hon. Member for Herefordshire, that the Dock Company made the original proposal for a compromise was also not in evidence. He would express no opinion whatever on this subject; but as far as in him lay, he would, if the Committee were reappointed, do his duty in respect to the inquiry.

Committee nominated.

The Motion was agreed to, and the following Members were nominated as the Committee:—Mr. Mitchell, Mr. Corne-wall Lewis, Mr. Goulburn, Mr. Gladstone, Sir John Yarde Buller, Sir George Clerk, Mr. William Brown, Mr. Alderman Thompson, Mr. Forster, Mr. M'Gregor, Mr. Archibald Hastie, Mr. Alderman Humphery, Mr. Moody, Mr. Anderson, and Mr. Ten-nent.