HC Deb 15 June 1866 vol 184 cc476-85

said, he rose to call attention to the present effect of the Differential Duties on Sugar. He had no desire to enter into a long argument upon this much vexed question, and he might state that he had no personal interest, either through himself or through his constituency, in the production of sugar. For many years, however, he had been well conversant with the operations carried on in the sugar producing manufactories in one of the largest of our colonies. With regard to the present differential duties on sugar he thought they produced an injurious effect, and that they were capable of considerable improvement. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, when concluding a debate upon the subject in the last Parliament, admitted as much, and it was certain that we should not have a better class of refined sugar introduced into this country until some alteration was made. The system of classifying the duties on sugar had failed. In 1854 the number of classes into which sugar was divided was raised from three to four, and that had a prejudicial effect upon the higher classes of the commodity, and that prejudicial effect was afterwards increased by the subse- quent raising of the classes from four to five. One effect of the differential duties had been the introduction, to a large extent, of beetroot sugar, and he was speaking within limits when he said that within the last year 80,000 tons of beetroot sugar were introduced into this country. He thought that effect could hardly have been contemplated when the differential duties were imposed. The sugar planters were now placed in this difficulty—formerly they were obliged to lower the value of their sugar to meet the differential or classification duties, but now the planters of Jamaica and Barbadoes had been called upon to raise the quality of their sugar to meet the new competition which arose from the introduction of beetroot sugar. This question had been treated here, too, much as a refiners' question. The colonist did not wish to refine, and the difficulty of his position was increased by the fact that, while he must produce good sugar, he must take care not to make it too good for England. He did that sometimes, when the sun was bright and the season favourable, and then he had to give the unpleasant order that the sugar should be mixed with colouring matter—namely, good agricultural mould—in order to make it admissible into England. This was to be traced to the fact that there was once an able and excellent man, a Member of that House, who was indoctrinated with the refiner's idea, and in this case, as in others— The evil that men do lives after them. A machine had been lately introduced by which sugar could be highly refined; only five or six revolutions of this machine could be allowed for sugar intended for the English market; but the most highly-refined sugar was sent to Bombay, Australia, and France, and other countries, but it was never seen in England, except at exhibitions. This was the injury resulting from the well-intentioned classification or differential duties. In England, when we purchased wheat, barley, or malt we were anxious that that which was purchased should be equal to sample; but in importing sugar the fear was lest the sugar delivered should be better than the sample. The effect of that had been to shut the higher classes of sugar out of the English market. There had lately been invented an ingenious machine called a "concretes," which was intended to make something that should not be sugar at all. The "concrete," however, was to be adapted to the uses of the manufacturer; it was expected that it would come in at the lowest duty, if not at the same duty as molasses; and it would probably cause great trouble to the Custom House officers. The question in the colonies was whether the old machinery should be laid aside and the "concretes" used; and it would certainly be a retrograde step for the colonists to begin the manufacture of "concrete" under the artificial stimulus supplied by the present classification of the sugar duties. It was to be hoped that in a short time the principles of free trade would prevail. He did not expect that any immediate action would be taken upon the subject; but he trusted that during the recess, or early next Session, the subject would be considered by the Government with a view to a modification of the present duties, if not to the establishment of a uniform duty.


said, he was more and more satisfied by investigation that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in altering the duties, bad made a great mistake. It was a monstrous thing that the people of this country, who were the largest consumers of sugar in the world, should be compelled by law to consume sugar of the worst quality; but that was the fact, although it was one scarcely to be credited. A I very small portion of what was consumed in this country was really sugar; it was something which had been re-made by the sugar refiners of this country. He entreated the Chancellor of the Exchequer, during the recess, seriously to examine the question, satisfied that he would come to the conclusion it was absolutely necessary that the law should be altered, so as to place this country upon a similar footing to that of every other country in the world, and enable its people by law to consume real instead of manufactured sugar.


said, that he was very far indeed from complaining that his hon. Friend had brought forward a subject which had not been discussed for two years; but, as he had truly stated, it involved a number of separate questions of great importance and great difficulty. Indeed, in closing his speech, he had passed cursorily by one point which might be said to involve a still unsettled controversy—as to whether, in the event of our adopting a uniform duty upon sugar, we could combine therewith a permission to refine in bond. Without entering into the subject fully, he would say that there was another view besides that which had been stated with clearness and force. He (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) did not at all feel that he individually had had the important share attributed to him in the establishment of any principle with respect to our sugar duties. He had concurred in what had been done, but he had not been a principal agent in urging upon the House and the country the adoption of any system. In point of fact, the present system in principle rested, he thought, mainly upon the results of the investigations of a Committee of that House which sat in 1861 and 1862. A distinction must be drawn between a question of principle and a question of fact. The question of principle was this—ought you to have one rate of duty for all descriptions of sugar, or ought you to have a rate of duty which should be according to the value of the article upon which it was imposed? Even if the views which his hon. Friend entertained were adopted, they could not expect that sugar would be imported in a perfectly pure state. The question was, whether there should be uniform duty for all the various degrees in the manufacture of that article, or whether the duties should vary in proportion to the quality of the sugar. Now, ever since the trade in sugar was opened in this country, the judgment of Parliament had been that the fairest system upon the whole was to have a varying scale of duties, each of them adapted to the capacity of the article imported for producing a pure sugar. That had been the principle upon which our duties had been founded. [Mr. J. B. SMITH: The law is not founded upon that principle.] He said that the question how far our scale of duties attained this end, and was properly adjusted to the different qualities of sugar, was perfectly distinct from the question whether there ought to be a scale at all. He was not going to argue this point; but when it was said that good sugar could not be imported into this country, and that the manufacturer abroad was obliged to spoil his sugar in order to get it into England, the charge simply meant this:—While in England there was a scale of duties supposed to be adapted to the various qualities of sugar, in other countries a uniform duty existed; and doubtless, therefore, the relative inducement to send to the British and the foreign market differed widely. Some sugars might be more profitably sent here, on account of the low rate of duty applica- ble to them. But it did not therefore follow that our system was in principle an unjust, and the foreign system a just one. It might be said that the foreign system treated the lower quality sugars with extreme severity, and that was the reason, and not the scale of duties existing here, which brought them to the English market. It was a petitio principii to say that because it paid better to send certain qualities of sugar to Belgium or elsewhere, therefore the English scale of duties was a wrong one. However, with regard to the question of fact, a great deal must be conceded to the view taken by the hon. Member. No doubt, in 1864, when the sugar duties were last re-cast, the relative rates of duty were all favourable in England to the lower qualities of sugars. In that year, and about the time we were altering the application of our principle, a communication came from the French Government to the Government of England representing that, without interfering at all with the liberty of each State to levy from sugar for fiscal purposes whatever amount of tax it might think fit, it was very desirable to remove every artificial inducement by which sugar was led to one country rather than another, and that it would be also most desirable to combine with the system regulating imports a reconsideration of the bounties upon exports, so that with regard to exports from countries where refining has taken place, there would be a perfect freedom of trade in the absence of these peculiar inducements. Her Majesty's Government could not but perceive that that would be a beneficial arrangement—beneficial alike to the importers, the refiners, and the consumers. They, therefore, entered very freely and cheerfully into the views of the French Government. A Conference was accordingly assembled, comprising representatives of England, France, Belgium, and Holland. The deliberations were confined to these four countries; but, practically, they included the great mass of the importations into Europe. Those international representatives instituted an investigation into the whole subject, and they considered that certain things ought to be done at once in their respective countries, with respect to a modification either of duty or drawback. The provisional arrangements thus suggested were all of a character tending to equal trade. Her Majesty's Government, therefore, cheerfully concurred in them, and promised to submit to Parliament the measures which were necessary to give effect to the views of those international representatives at that stage. Corresponding steps were taken in other countries, and the first proposals of the Conference were thus attained. But the solution of the principal question required a longer time. The members of the Conference examined the scale of duty subsisting in England, and likewise considered with great care, on the part of their respective countries, the question whether the duty upon sugar ought to be uniform, or whether it ought to be adapted to the varying qualities of sugar. And they came to a conclusion which he understood to be as follows:—that they thought the English system right in principle, but thought the practical application of it bad. They concluded that our system was not opposed, but, on the contrary, conformable to and required by the true principles of free trade that sugar should be taxed on entry into their respective countries as nearly as possible in proportion to their capacity for yielding a pure article. But then came the question of the scale which should be applied. They said that that question could not be solved except by instituting a very elaborate series of experiments. They, therefore, had to obtain the sanction of their respective Governments to the institution of these experiments; they had to choose a place for making them, to hire buildings, and, in fact, with a view to the solution of this problem, to start a kind of little sugar refinery. The prosecution of those labours necessarily required a very considerable time; but he imagined that the experiments must at present be reaching their completion. When they were completed the result would be reported to the several Governments. And it would then be proposed, as the condition of an international arrangement, that, whatever amount of duty the respective Governments might think fit to levy—because upon this subject it would not be right to enter into even a conditional arrangement—the adjustment of that duty would be such as to be conformable to the different qualities and values of sugar. It was remarkable that the result of the inquiry should be, as he understood, the conversion of the representatives of France and the representatives of one of the other two countries taking part in the Conference, to the principle upon which our sugar duty was raised. He was not informed of the actual result of the experiments, but the result anticipated was that probably a more contracted range would be recommended for the scale of duty. When the result was communicated to Her Majesty's Government it would then be their duty to consider whether they were able to recommend to Parliament the adoption of the scale proposed; and early next Session the question would be raised and Parliament would be informed of what had been done. There could be no doubt, he apprehended, that Her Majesty's Government were right in entering into this joint Conference, because to destroy the barriers which now interposed between different countries in this way was a matter of great importance. He could only say that Her Majesty's Government would approach the question with perfect freedom from prejudice; if they had been wrong they would, to the best of their judgment, correct the error; and when all the facts were made known, they would be laid before the Rouse of Commons, in the hope that such an arrangement might be come to as would be most conformable to the principles of free trade as commonly understood among us. Up to the present moment, as he had said, the inquiry had been favourable to the principle of the English system even among those who could not be suspected of partiality. And it was worthy of notice that all the advocates of a uniform duty shrunk from a rigid application of their own principle, because while they would have a uniform rate upon everything below a certain standard, they were for another rate of duty upon refined sugar. Now this test was purely arbitrary, for every sugar was more or less refined, and no sugar was perfectly refined; and therefore even according to the plan acquiesced in by the advocates of a uniform duty, you had a rate varying with the perfection or imperfection of the refining process which these respective sugars had undergone. The question was thus considerably complicated, but it was one which, he thought, was susceptible of a fair settlement by the Government and the House of Commons.


I merely wish to say one or two words after hearing the speech of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I recollect the speech that he made when this question was under discussion before, and when the new scale was offered to the House. At that time I could not but wonder at the ability and ingenuity of the speaker who could pursue this question through so many different channels and make it almost plain to the House. But the conclusion I have come to is this, that probably it would be better if the House were to look to some not distant day when we could get rid of this duty altogether. I suppose the sum raised by it is now between £4,000,000 and £5,000,000 sterling, and the right hon. Gentleman has told us that the revenue of the country increases in ordinary years by an amount not falling far short of £2,000,000. He has also told us in past times that our expenditure is gigantic, that it is intolerable, and, I think, discreditable. I have not gone through half the adjectives which the right hon. Gentleman has used to denounce our excessive expenditure. He proposes, further, to begin a process of paying off the National Debt. Now, I should be content with regard to the National Debt if the House would be rather more careful not to increase it—for if it does not increase, then, with our prosperity, our increase of population, and great increase of wealth, we shall be better able to bear the burden of the National Debt than heretofore. Well, if the revenue increases £2,000,000 a year, the expenditure could be very easily reduced for several years by £1,000,000 or £2,000,000. I think it was the noble Lord the Member for King's Lynn (Lord Stanley) who, in a speech to his constituents not long ago, intimated that the expenditure of the country might very easily be brought down to £60,000,000 a year. If the course I point out were taken, it is quite clear that the sugar duty, which now brings in from £4,000,000 to £5,000,000 a year, might be reduced at the rate of £1,000,000 annually until it was disposed of. There is no duty levied upon the people which is so seriously felt, and which is so burdensome to them as this duty. It is an article of first-rate importance, especially for the living and rearing of children; and we know how necessary and beneficial it is to the poorer class of people when there is a good summer and fruit is plentiful, for by its aid they are enabled to supply their cottages with an abundance of a luxury which to them is of the first importance. I do not go into a discussion of the uniform as against the sliding scale. Years ago I spoke in favour of a uniform duty, and on this occasion I merely rose to point out that if the House were so desirous to deal with this question, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer is in a particularly good mood for conciliating us all—by reducing £1,000,000 a year we might soon get rid of this duty altogether. If this were done, in all parts of the United Kingdom there would be a sense of grati- tude to the House that it had economized the expenditure and given a relief in taxation which would be felt in every family in the country.


did not care to go into the question whether our expenditure could be very much reduced; but even if that were the case, there would possibly be found a rival claimant for relief which might prevent the sugar duties from being wholly repealed—an article, too, which contained a very large quantity of saccharine matter, and though perhaps not so useful for feeding children, it was considered very useful for the nutriment of those in more advanced life. There was, no doubt, a good deal in what the hon. Gentleman said with regard to a uniform duty, and the only way in which the difficulties connected with the subject could be overcome, or the complaints which however unreasonable were sure to arise terminated was by making the duty so small that it would not be worth while to keep up the scale, as would be the case if the duty were reduced to ½d. per lb. With such a duty he believed the enormous consumption which would ensue would in a very short time recoup the revenue for the loss sustained. The hon. Member for Stockport hoped they should have another Committee. He wished the hon. Member had been on the last Committee, as he himself had been, which sat during a whole Session, and at which more than 6,000 questions were put. On that occasion the Secretary for the Colonies and other Members of the Committee who went into the inquiry, fully persuaded that a uniform duty was the only one which commended itself to common sense, were converted to the contrary opinion before the close of the investigation, and voted in favour of a classified scale. But "uniform duty" and "classified scale" was a question rather of words than of fact. The late Mr. Wilson, when asked why they put different duties on different kinds of sugar, replied, "We do nothing of the kind. We charge pure sugar at the same rate wherever we can find it." There were two sorts of buyers of sugar—the refiners and the grocers. The refiners were like Custom House officers—all they cared about was how much pure sugar was contained in the sample. They did not trouble themselves at all about the look of it except as an indication of this. But the grocer selected what was pleasing to the eye as well as what contained a large proportion of actually pure sugar. In the Mauritius and other places they tried to make their sugar look so well that the grocer would give for what was pleasing to the eye more than the refiner would give, who regarded only the presence of the pure sugar; and if in consequence of some defect in the manufacture they lost the grocers' market altogether, they were obliged to fall back upon the refiner, and then they did not get the price which they expected. He would give an illustration which his hon. Friend, who was a good horseman, would very well understand. Some people bred cart horses, and others thoroughbreds. If those who bred the latter missed attaining a certain degree of excellence, they got what was perfectly worthless as a thoroughbred, and what was much less valuable than a lower bred horse. His interest was exactly the same as that of his hon. Friend, it was that of the colonial proprietor and not that of the refiner. He held it was the interest of the colonies to send home that article which would pay them best, and that was generally an imperfectly finished article. He did not believe that the colonies could ever compete with the refiners. The Returns moved for the other day showed the effect of the system as regarded consumption. He said last year that the enormous consumption of 36 lb. per head showed that the duties had not had the effect of excluding sugar. Within the last two years the consumption had been raised to nearly 40 lb. per head, and there was no other country in the world which showed half that consumption. The proof of the pudding was in the eating, and so this enormous consumption showed the working of the present scale of duties, and that it was not probable they interfered prejudicially with the growth, manufacture, or import of this valuable commodity.


was understood to say that if the refining could be carried on in bond, the sugar could be sold ld. a pound cheaper.

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