HC Deb 04 March 1856 vol 140 cc1851-4

said, he was induced to ask for a Select Committee of inquiry in respect to the payment of a very large amount of duty upon tea under the following circumstances. On the 20th of April last—in the evening of which day the Chancellor of the Exchequer brought forward his Budget—between the hours of two and a quarter past three no less than £50,000 duty had been paid upon teas by three parties in London and four parties in Liverpool. The result was, that very heavy labour was suddenly thrown upon the clerks in the Custom House, and various remarks made the next day as to the cause of this extraordinary proceeding. In consequence of a communication made to him by certain persons in the trade, he had moved last Session for certain returns upon the subject, but those returns were produced at so late a period of the Session that he had no opportunity of calling attention to them. He, however, considered that the character of the public service was involved in the matter, as it was generally supposed that the information of the intentions of the right hon. Gentleman on the evening of the 20th of April, in respect to those duties, had been improperly conveyed to several parties extensively engaged in the tea trade. He, therefore, felt it his duty at the earliest moment of the present Session to place his notice upon the paper of the House. The returns for which he had moved were for the amount of duties paid upon teas during the fourteen corresponding days in 1853, 1854, and 1855. In 1853 the duty stood at 2s.d. per pound; in 1854 it was reduced to 1s. 6d.; in 1855 it was 1s. 6d., with the law in its favour for its further reduction to 1s. In March, however, the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer gave notice of a Bill to arrest the decline of the duty, and to keep it at 1s. 6d. On the 8th of April that Bill passed. The trade generally considered that it was fair under the circumstances to stop the further decline of the duty, and they were under the impression that there would be no more interference in the duties during that year. But on the 20th of April, the Chancellor of the Exchequer propounded his Budget, by which he added 3d. per pound additional to the duty upon tea. In 1853 the total amount of duties paid during the fourteen corresponding days in April was £58,351, being, on an average, £4,062 for each day. In 1854, during the eleven corresponding days, the amount of duty paid was £136,074, giving a daily average of £12,098. In 1855, during the eleven days, including the 19th of April, the amount paid was £148,301, giving a daily average of about £13,000 paid each day. In referring to the returns of three houses in London who paid those duties, he found that during the eleven days of April, 1855, their payment did not exceed £2,786, yet the duty paid by the same houses between the hour of half-past two and a quarter past three o'clock, on the 20th day of April, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced his Budget, was £24,787. It was supposed that the information was communicated at the same time to Liverpool, for he found that one house there, whose daily average of duty paid for the eleven days to which he had referred was from £291 to £300, upon the 20th of April paid no less than £10,000, and some hundreds. Three other houses in Liverpool availed them- selves of the same information, and paid duties on the same day to a similar enormous amount. In London the sum of £43,000 was paid by three houses. Under these circumstances the character of the revenue department of the Treasury was to a certain extent at stake, because if the merchants had received any information as to the Chancellor of the Exchequer's intention, it must have been communicated by some person or persons in that department. For the sake of the character of those parties, he hoped the inquiry asked for would be granted.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the circumstances attending the payment of the very large amount of Duties paid I upon Teas, on the 20th day of April, 1855, by certain parties trading in the ports of London and Liverpool, and thereby evading the increased Duties proposed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Budget the same evening, in order to ascertain whether such parties were enabled to do so in consequence of previous information, communicated by some persons connected with the Revenue Department of the Treasury, and thus obtaining an undue advantage over others engaged; in the same trade, and depriving the Revenue of the increased Duty.


said, the course taken by the hon. Gentleman was, as far as his Parliamentary experience went, quite unprecedented. At the end of last April he had proposed an increase of the duty upon tea as well as upon certain other articles, particularly sugar and spirits. It was well known at the time that numerous dealers in spirits and in sugar, and a few dealers in tea, anticipating the increase, had taken out of bond large quantities of those articles. Operations of this kind with respect to spirits were so extensive that he submitted to the House a Resolution, charging the increased duty upon spirits in the hands of the dealers as well as of the distillers; but, as the Resolution was not supported by precedents, he was obliged to abandon it. Numerous dealers took spirits out of bond during the week or two preceding the imposition of the increased duty, and twenty or thirty houses also took out large quantities of sugar in anticipation of the increase. He believed that only two houses anticipated the increase in the tea duty, but no doubt the hon. Gentleman had correctly stated the operations which had taken place. They were, of course, alluded to in the newspapers at the time, and shortly afterwards the hon. Gentleman moved for a return, which, he believed, was present- ed in May or June. [Mr. MACARTNEY: Not till the 6th of August.] Well, there was time between the 6th of August and the end of the Session to call the attention of the House to the subject, the facts being notorious. [Mr. MACARTNEY: I put a notice on the paper.] But what had the hon. Gentleman done? At the end of the Session he placed upon the books of the House a notice of a Motion which imputed serious blame and breach of confidence—what must be called, in fact, pecuniary dishonesty—to the department of the Treasury; and that notice remained, attracting attention during the whole of the recess, the persons against whom these grave accusations had been brought having no opportunity of defending themselves. He had fully expected to hear that the hon. Gentleman was in possession of some distinct and specific evidence to support the serious charge he had brought against a department of the Government; but the hon. Gentleman merely stated facts which were well known to the public, and which had been made the subject of comment in the newspapers last Session. If the hon. Gentleman would bring forward anything beyond bare suspicion, beyond the mere juxtaposition of dates and quantities, if he would refer to the evidence of any credible person in support of his charge, he (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) would not oppose the Motion, but would give every facility in his power to an investigation. But he protested against the course of throwing out imputations against departments of the Government calculated to bring them into discredit, upon mere suspicion, and unsupported by the slightest distinct and specific evidence.


in answer to the right hon. Gentleman's charge that he had repeatedly put off this Motion, explained that he had embraced the earliest opportunity offered to him for bringing the subject under the notice of the House. As to the alleged absence of evidence in support of his Motion, surely the simple fact that the transactions to which he had referred took place between two and half-past three o'clock on the day that the new duty was declared furnished a sufficient ground for an inquiry into the circumstances. But he should be wanting in proper respect for the House, if when he saw such an array of Members ready to vote with the Government, he troubled it to go through the formality of dividing.