HC Deb 26 July 1869 vol 198 cc697-706

said, he rose to call attention to the necessity for greater accuracy in the Statistical Returns for Trade and Navigation issued by the Board of Trade. His object was not to cast blame on individuals, but to improve the system. The purpose for which the Board of Trade Returns were compiled was to guide the commercial policy of the country, and to give information to those engaged in commercial transactions, and they ought, therefore, to be at least moderately accurate and speedy in their publication. It was because they were neither the one nor the other, but productive of positive mischief, that he desired to bring the matter under the notice of the House. He would first take the imports; and he would at once state that if the accuracy of his Returns were disputed he was prepared to give his authorities, and, if necessary, the names of the ships by which the articles were imported. The first article to which he would refer was that of rice. By the Board of Trade Returns for the month of January, 1868, the import was stated at 24,000cwt., while the quantity actually imported was 295,000cwt. In 1869 the Board of Trade gave the amount imported at 63,000cwt., while the actual import was 318,000cwt. He took these quantities from Messrs. Jackson and Till's circular. The next article to which he would refer was jute. In the months of January and February, 1868, the amount reported by the Board of Trade was 41,000cwt., while the actual quantity imported, according to Messrs. Barber's circular, was 248, 000cwt. In 1869, the Board of Trade gave 260,000 cwt., while the actual imports were 390,000cwt. He would now turn to an article of more interest connected with our home production—wool. It was essentially important, as far as possible, that accuracy should be observed in these Returns with reference to the interests of home producers and buyers. The wool imported from the East Indies in January, 1869, was stated by the Board of Trade to be 137,000 1b., whereas the actual import was 1,100,0001b. In February the import was stated by the Board of Trade at 1,500,000 1b., while the actual import was 800,0001b.; and in March the Board of Trade stated the import at 294,0001b., whereas the actual import was 641,0001b. Then, if he took Australian wool, which was a larger item of import, he found the quarterly returns gave this result—In the first quarter of 1868 the Board of Trade gave the import at 11,000,0001b., while the quantity actually imported was 36,000,0001b. In the second quarter the Board of Trade gave the import at 49,000,000lb., while the quantity imported was 78,000,000lb. In the third quarter the Board of Trade gave the import at 74,000,000 1b., while the actual import was only 37,000,0001b.; and in the fourth quarter the Board of Trade gave the import at 20,000,000lb., while the actual import was only 7,000,0001b., according to the authority of Messrs. Bowes Brothers, the well-known woolbrokers of Liverpool. To show the practical effect of these Returns, he would refer to the circular of Messrs. Simes and Co., wool-brokers, dated June 18. These gentlemen, relying on the Government Returns, gave the official tables of imports of Australian wool for four months ending on the 30th of April, 1869, at 52,000,000 1b., as against 24,000,0001b. in 1868, being an increase of 116 per cent, while the actual import was 77,000,000lb. in 1869 against 62,000,0001b. in 1868, during the same period, or only 25 per cent more. Now The Times of the 6th of May, referring to these Returns, said— The imports of Australian wool into the United Kingdom have made a great advance this year, having amounted to the 31st of March to 34,000,0001b. as compared with 11,000,0001b. in the corresponding three months of 1868. No wonder the brokers added—" The market was depressed, and a reduction of Id.? to Id. per pound was submitted to." Here we have the foreign shipper and importer deceived, but the buyer is misled, and every producer of homegrown wool through the kingdom bases the value of his staple on imports which only exist in fancy. Glancing for a moment at cotton, the Board of Trade now issued two Returns—one, the Trade and Navigation Returns, the other under the Cotton Statistics Act. And what did he find? The import was 2,870,0001b. by the former, and 3,248,000lb. by the latter, or a difference of 378,000 lbs., more than one-fourth of the entire stock of the article held in this country; and this discrepancy between two official statements issued by the same Department! So much for the raw material. He would now touch on the manufactured article, and would compare the value of silk goods imported into the United Kingdom from France with the French Returns of silk goods exported from France into the United Kingdom during the three years 1865 to 1867 inclusive. The Board of Trade Returns gave the value of silk goods imported into the United Kingdom, during the three years 1865 to 1867 inclusive, at £21,355,000, while, by the French official Returns, £39,625,000, or nearly double, was given as the value of silk goods exported to the United Kingdom for the same period. The English Returns, however, did not include transhipment importations, which the French did. On the other hand, it was only fair to state that the French statistics were generally very accurate. Now, we hear much controversy about the working of the French Treaty; it is at this moment agitating the mind of the manufacturing interests of this country, and he would ask how was it possible to arrive at any satisfactory conclusion on such unreliable Returns as these? The Coventry Chamber of Commerce, writing recently to the Chamber of Commerce of Liverpool, made this remark— The Coventry Chamber of Commerce having reason to doubt the accuracy of the Board of Trade Returns of imports of foreign ribands, has made special inquiry into the matter, and find that the Returns are altogether unreliable. The Coventry Chamber of Commerce has reason to believe that the inaccuracy which has been found in the riband Returns exists also to a greater or less extent in the Returns of other imports not now subject to duty. So much for the import tables. He had taken out but a few of the bulky articles, and he gave the House the result. Had time permitted him to have gone further, he had no doubt in every case the same inaccuracy would appear. He would now refer to exports, and he regretted that he could not deal so specifically with them as he could wish, owing to the unlimited character of the sources, and the difficulty of checking them without immense labour. He would therefore deal broadly with them. The Times of the 29th of June, in reviewing the last Returns, said— The Board of Trade Returns for the past month again entirely fail to harmonize with the current complaints of commercial stagnation. The declared value of our exportation shows an increase of £1,646,505, which is equal to an increase of 11 per cent on the total of the corresponding month of last year, and 2½ per cent on that of May, 1867. Of this augmentation nearly half arises from the cotton trade, and nearly half from the iron trade. Unless, therefore, the Manchester manufacturers are steadily shipping at a loss, the adverse accounts from that city must be deceptive, or the figures of these statistical Returns are not to be relied upon. Now, all who were sufficiently conversant with the state of trade in the manufacturing districts must be aware that the doubts thrown on the accuracy of these figures afforded the proper solution of the matter, and that so far from shippers sending their goods to raise money, they were carrying on a most cautious trade. Probably at no recent period had there been a smaller trade in exports of manufactured goods than during the last six months, and it was preposterous to talk of increased exportation. There was a general feeling that the exports of this country were greatly exaggerated to a very large extent, especially in cotton goods. Those who had studied the subject believed that there had been an exaggeration of something like £20,000,000 in a single year. If he was rightly informed, the Board of Trade had at this moment the figures which support this statement under its consideration. The weight of cotton manufactured goods which must be sent out of the country, if the yearly values were correct, exceeded the total quantity of the raw material imported, leaving nothing for home consumption. It was, however, the system on which the exports were compiled to which he desired now to call attention. By the Trade and Navigation Returns it appeared that 113,000,000 yards of cotton goods were imported into Bombay in 1867, while the actual quantity was 316,000,000 yards, or a deficiency of no leas than 203,000,000 yards. Again, taking the first five months of this year, the Trade Returns gave 48,000,000 yards, while the actual shipment was 90,000,000 yards. The export of cotton cloth to Egypt in 1868 was put down at 223,000,000 yards, while the actual exports to that country were, according to the Liverpool Customs Returns, only 92.000,000 yards. He was so much puzzled by this discrepancy that he asked the two greatest shippers in the trade—Mr. Samuel Mendel and Messrs. John Pender & Co., for an explanation. The latter firm said— The important difference between the figures of the Board of Trade and our own arises from the circumstance that the former enters goods shipped via overland through Egypt as for that country, although the goods are intended for India. This makes it impossible to arrive at a correct estimate of the exports to Egypt and India respectively from the Board of Trade Returns, the former country being credited for a large importation of British goods which merely pass through on their way to India. Mr. Mendel wrote on this point— For some three years I have not made use of the Board of Trade Returns, as I found them of little value for my purposes, it being necessary for me to keep up my figures of exports day by day as nearly as possible; and the Board of Trade Returns being issued about three weeks alter the end of each month, they are practically useless in respect of affording early information. For Bombay you will observe my statement of exports shows them to be much in excess of those set down in the Returns by the Board of Trade— say, 43,672,798 yards more. I can only explain this large difference by supposing that all the overland exports to Bombay being indirect are set down as shipments to Egypt, as the actual exports overland will nearly make up the large difference. In this instance, therefore, the Board of Trade Returns are calculated to mislead. It was clear that parties interested must keep these Returns for themselves, and that the Returns of the Board of Trade were worse than useless. Another cause which diminished the utility of these Returns was the absence of anything like uniformity of weight and measure in stating the imports. Ashes were given in cwts., bones in tons, bristles in pounds, indigo in cwts., zinc in tons, and tin in cwts. The exports, on the contrary, were always rendered in yards and pounds. There should be but one standard, and perhaps the cental, or l00lbs weight, would be the best unit to adopt. Another point which struck him was that, while the monthly Returns of the Board of Trade were inaccurate, the yearly Returns were more or less accurate, which at all events showed that the Department could do much to do away with what he was complaining of; but as the annual Returns did not appear for ten or eleven months after the close of the year, they were for all practical purposes useless to the trading community, and only valuable to the Legislature in guiding the commercial policy of the country. The monthly Returns ought to be issued almost immediately after the expiration of the month, and there would be no difficulty in so doing. The cost of these Returns was not less than £50,000 a year, and sooner or later the question would arise whether the results were at all commensurate with the expenditure. The Board of Trade were mere compilers of these Returns, and the Customs, who really supplied them, had great difficulties to contend with in consequence of the loose and inaccurate statements made to them in regard to values by the clerks of the majority of the shippers. If a Return were made immediately on the arrival of a ship of the number of packages on board of about twenty or thirty leading articles, taken from the ship's manifest, as is done daily by the compilers of the bill of entry, the trade would soon convert the packages into quantities and measurements, and such a Return could be published two or three days after the close of the month, if not weekly, in the public newspapers, as is now done with the article of cotton. If the Returns wore made at all, there ought to be in each of the great ports an officer whose sole duty should be to look after them. His own belief was that the monthly Returns might very judiciously be abolished altogether, as all purposes of reference could be satisfied by the quarterly Returns or the annual Returns. They were far too complicated, far too minute, and, in his opinion, never could be collated with the accuracy and the promptitude which alone could make these Returns worth perusal. He had made these remarks in no spirit of fault-finding, but because he wished to assist the Board of Trade in any attempts they might make during the Recess to render these Returns more useful to the trade and commerce of the country.


said, that the subject had engaged the attention of the Board of Trade within the last few weeks, in consequence of complaints of the inaccuracy of the Returns, and especially of the monthly Returns. The Treasury, consequently, at the instance of the Board of Trade, directed an inquiry to be made, which was now going on, into the mode pursued by the Statistical Department of the Customs, by which the Returns were made. The Board of Trade did little more than edit these Returns and advise occasionally as to the particular articles to be included. The hon. Gentleman would not expect him to follow him into the various instances and items he had cited; but he must not be taken to assent to his figures or his method of comparison, because many of the complaints mixed up two things which were not the same. It was admitted that the annual accounts of the Board of Trade were in the main correct, and that the inaccuracy was principally in the monthly Returns. Last year a Bill was passed on the subject of agricultural statistics. One great reason for the apparent disparity in the Returns lay in the fact that the quantities of corn were frequently given, not according to the actual arrivals, but according to the final entries made by the importers some six weeks later. For the purposes of comparison, the difference in these two heads, taken in conjunction with the interval that elapsed, must obviously be productive of considerable difficulty. As to the importations of cotton, again; the Returns were compiled from the ship's manifest upon arrival, but the manifest did not give the actual weights; it merely gave the number of the bales which were then averaged according to the country from which they came. In comparing the Returns issued from the Customs with the Trade and Navigation Returns issued by the Board of Trade the most extraordinary variations presented themselves month by month; yet, if the aggregate Returns were compared, they would be found to correspond very closely. Thus, in the month of October, the Board of Trade Returns, as contrasted with the authorized Cotton Statistics, showed a divergence in the total quantities of over 300,000 cwt.; in the month of December of nearly 600,000 cwt.; and so on month after month; but taking an aggregate of eight months, and comparing the results of both systems at the ex- piration of that period, the difference in the total quantities was found to be only 68,000 cwt. or an error of less than 1 per cent. The House would probably ask why the method of calculation adopted in the case of cotton should not be generally applied? It was found, however, that although the method of obtaining information from the ship's manifest worked well in the case of certain bulky articles, it was not equally applicable to a variety of other matters, as to which the public equally desired information. The choice, therefore, lay in that case between sacrificing some convenience and advantage to the public, and incurring considerable expense in supplementing the existing Returns by other means of information. The hon. Member for Liverpool (Mr. Graves) had also dealt with the exportation of of manufactured articles; on that point, he was himself unable to go minutely into figures, and would admit that grounds for inquiry into the accuracy of the Returns might exist, for the Department had no very reliable source of information, except the merchants themselves, who, whether through negligence or from any other motive, did not always give true and accurate returns of the goods which they exported. At the same time, these errors were apt to correct themselves; for though, if the Returns were taken in single months, they were not perhaps as reliable as could be wished for, when taken over a series of months or compared with corresponding periods, they gave a reasonably fair idea of the progress of trade. Hence, though the Returns might not be of much use to merchants in guiding their operations for commercial purposes, they did give, for Imperial purposes, a tolerably accurate view of the trade of the country. This would be apparent on comparing our returns of exports and imports with those which were collected in France. Here, where he had expected to find the greatest discrepancy, there seemed to be a tolerably close parallel between the aggregate figures, though, in many of the subdivisions there were discrepancies of an extraordinary character. In 1864, the aggregate exports of British and foreign produce to France were, according to the British Returns, of the value of £24,000,000. The French accounts made the total £27,000,000. In 1865, the English accounts represented the total exports as £25,000,000; the French made them £28,000,000. In 1866, by the English accounts the exports were £27,000,000; and by the French accounts £30,000,000. The House therefore would perceive that as regarded exports from this country the rival figures did, to a great extent, afford materials for a satisfactory comparison. But, on looking at the imports into this country, and comparing them with the exports from France to this country, as given in the French Returns, there was a difference which he was altogether unable to account for. In 1864, the total imports as given in the English Returns, including imports for transhipment, were £29,000,000, while the French Returns made them no less than £46,000,000. In 1865, according to the English Returns they were £35,000,000, but according to the French £52,000,000; and in 1866 they were £40,000,000 according to the English Returns, but £60,000,000 according to the French. For these discrepancies he was, at present, wholly unable to account; but this would be one of the points which would form the subject of very careful investigation, and it must not be too hastily assumed that our own figures were erroneous. In the inquiry which would be instituted, and which he hoped would result in the attainment of greater accuracy in our published Returns, he should be glad to have the assistance of his hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, and of any other hon. Members who might feel interested in this matter.


said, he had taken some trouble in investigating the Board of Trade Returns himself, and had not been able to reconcile the discrepancies. It was certainly not creditable to this country that such a system should continue, and he hoped that means would be found to remedy the defects. Whatever inaccuracies, however, there were in the monthly Returns, he believed that the ultimate results were not so inaccurate. The country ought to be able to rely implicitly on the Government Returns, and these accordingly ought to be based upon facts and not on more imaginary conjectures.


said, the thanks of the country were due to the hon. Member for Liverpool (Mr. Graves) for having brought forward the true state of the case in relation to these Returns. As far as trade was concerned they were totally valueless. What merchants really wanted to know was not the stock of cotton which was in the market last Friday, but what stock would be there on Friday next. Now that we were suffering as an industrial population in the North of England any fallacious statement would have a most prejudicial effect and would lead to misapprehension. No blame attached to the Board of Trade, but every week there were announcements in The Times, which were copied into all the other newspapers, respecting the enormous quantities of American cotton which were being sent to this country and to other parts from America. When people saw those accounts, which were never contradicted, they wondered how it was that the price of cotton could be 13d. a pound. The hon. Gentleman had admitted that the Returns of the Board of Trade were not useful to the commercial public, however convenient they might be for the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer.


said, the yearly statistics of the Board of Trade, which were substantially accurate, were of great use as marking our national commercial progress; but he trusted that steps would be taken to have a prompt publication of the quantities indicated in ships' manifests, for otherwise the statistics would be useless for trade purposes.