HC Deb 25 February 1870 vol 199 cc861-8

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer.)


said, he did not rise for the purpose of opposing the Bill, but to make one or two remarks with regard to some of the clauses with a view to their amendment before the next stage. For the chief part, it was a Consolidation Bill; but the principal portion in which there was any change was that in which the office of the Master of the Mint was conferred upon the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the time being. He was not aware that there was any objection to that proposal; but he did not suppose it was intended that the Chancellor of the Exchequer should be the "Worker" as well as the Master and Warden of the Mint. He did not understand that the right hon. Gentleman himself intended to "work" the Mint. It would therefore be better if that expression were taken out of the Bill. In the patents under which the Master of the Mint was appointed there had hitherto been a condition inserted providing that he should give a security of £2,000 for the discharge of his duties. He did not see that the right hon. Gentleman had provided that any security was in future to be exacted from the Chancellor of the Exchequer; but the right hon. Gentleman possibly might have thought that, as no salary would be attached to the office, no security ought to be insisted upon. Again, by the 9th clause, it was provided— Where, after the date in that behalf fixed by a proclamation under this Act, any person or body brings to the Mint any silver bullion, such bullion shall be assayed and coined, and delivered out to such person, at the rate of 62s. for every 5,760 grains Imperial weight, or 373.24195 grams metric weight, of silver bullion of standard fineness so brought, in whatever denomination the same is coined. By the law as it at present stood the bullion was to be assayed and coined at the rate of 66s. for every pound troy, a seigniorage of 4s. being exacted by the Mint. He presumed that the present rate was to be continued, and, if so, there was some obscurity in the wording of the clause. The fifth paragraph of the 12th clause provided that it shall be lawful for Her Majesty, with the advice of Her Privy Council, from time to time proclamation— To direct that any coin of mixed metal shall be current and be of a legal tender for the payment of any amount not exceeding the amount specified in the proclamation, and not exceeding £2. The amount of £2 rather tended to point at silver coinage, for that was the amount for which silver coinage was a legal tender; but by "mixed metal," silver coinage could hardly be meant, and it would be well to define the term in the interpretation clause so as to make it exclude silver coinage. With regard to the sixth paragraph, which provided— That coins coined in any foreign country shall be current, and be a legal tender, at such rates, up to such amounts, and in such portion of Her Majesty's dominions as may be specified in the proclamation,— It might occasionally be necessary to make foreign coins a legal tender in some of our colonies, but such a course had never yet been deemed requisite in this country, and if anything of the kind were done it should be done not by proclamation, but by Act of Parliament. He would ask whether it was intended under this clause to make foreign coins at an early date legal tender in this country, and, if not, he would suggest the substitution of "British dominions" for "Her Majesty's dominions," as the former term was explained in the interpretation clause to relate to the colonies.


said, that the 8th clause, in stating that silver coins would be received, and an equal amount given in exchange, could scarcely intend to imply that the same number of new silver coins would be exchanged for old ones irrespective of weight. He would therefore suggest the employment of the words "equal in weight," instead of "equal in amount." The word "shall" in the second section of Clause 7, which would render it compulsory upon every person taking coins not of the legal weight to break them, might, he thought, with advantage be altered to "may."


That is the law at present.


said, that Clause 7, no doubt, was in perfect conformity with the law as it now stood, but it would be desirable that the law should be more clearly defined. Under the clause in the Bill, if a person were to give a light sovereign at a railway station the clerk would be bound to cut and deface it, or if he himself were to lose a bet to his right hon. Friend, and were to pay him with a light sovereign—which he certainly should do if he could—his right hon. Friend would be bound to deface it, or failing to do so, would be liable to be indicted for a misdemeanour, and possibly brought before two justices to be dealt with at their discretion. The law upon this point affected bankers, and others who were in the habit of receiving large sums of money, very seriously. There could be no doubt that the state of the gold coinage was most unsatisfactory, and it was perfectly well known that in large banking establishments, where it was impossible to guard against the taking of light coins over the counter, serious losses were yearly experienced. In the case of the Bank of England alone the loss suffered from this cause was between £4,000 and £5,000 a year. They, perhaps, were exceptionally placed in this matter; but the way in which other banking establishments were, to some extent, enabled to protect themselves was that they were fortunate in possessing customers who had to pay large sums in wages every week, and by this means it happened that much of the light coin was passed again into circulation. There could be no doubt that this clause in the Bill raised the whole question of light coin. It was a serious question, and he remembered that in 1843, when it was last under consideration, great discontent was occasioned. But it was one which, sooner or later, his right hon. Friend would be compelled to face. The point in the Bill, however, which would chiefly need consideration was the 12th clause, referring to the regulations by proclamation. The third head in that clause would enable Her Majesty, with the advice of the Privy Council, to determine the current weight of any coin, not being less than the weight (if any) specified in the first Schedule to the Act; whereas the 3rd clause provided that all coins made at the Mint of the denominations mentioned in the first Schedule should be of the weight and fineness specified in that Schedule, and that the standard pieces of coin should be made accordingly. There was hero a contradiction in the terms of the Bill which, if not removed, would lead to considerable misapprehension. Again, the terms used in the 6th head of Clause 12, in reference to coins coined in any foreign country, gave rise to the impression that it was intended to legalize the introduction of particular coins into this country. At least, the necessary power for that purpose was reserved. If any such intention was entertained, it ought to be stated frankly to the House; and he begged, therefore, to ask his right hon. Friend directly whether it was intended to introduce the new 25-franc piece? [The CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER: Certainly not.] He was glad to receive that assurance. But the suggestion that foreign coins might be put in circulation in this country was not a mere surmise, for in 1797, when, during the war, there was a great scarcity of silver coin in this country, between 2,300,000 and 2,400,000 Spanish dollar coins were rendered current after receiving the stamp of the Mint, which consisted in having the head of the Sovereign imprinted on the neck of the Spanish Sovereign. Those dollars were made current at the rate of 4s. 9d., and supplied a great want at the time. He concurred fully in the object of the Bill, so far as it referred to not filling up the vacancy caused by the death of Mr. Graham, and to the consolidation of the laws on the coinage. On the whole, the Bill seemed to realize the object which the right hon. Gentleman had announced his wish to attain when he obtained leave for its introduction.


said, that those who, like himself, were engaged in the transmission of coin from one hand to another, looked with some anxiety upon the terms of the 7th clause. It was most desirable that bankers and the public should know exactly to what penalties the Bill would render them liable. It was a thing to be lamented that so much light coin was in circulation; but in the ordinary mercantile and business transactions of life it was impossible to subject coins to such an exact scrutiny as the Bill seemed to contemplate.


Sir, if the object of this Bill were to draw up a new code of regulations for the Mint, there are many things in it which I should desire to alter. The object, however, was simply to gather together and to present to Parliament in a single Act the whole of the law, as it stands with relation to coinage, a thing which has never been done before. This Bill has been compiled from a variety of sources—Orders in Council, Mint Indentures, and Proclamations as well as Acts of Parliament—and embodies a great amount of financial lore which previously was simply inaccessible. The object I had in view was to gather all these together, so that the House and the public might have, for the first time, a view of what the law relating to the Mint really is. The 7th section, at which hon. Gentlemen have expressed alarm, I do not press at all; I should not have made it a misdemeanour not to deface light coin. It appears in the Bill because it is the law; but I have never heard of any one being so charged. We may do one of two things with regard to it; we may either leave it out altogether, or we may retain the clause, and insert in it some small penalty to be recovered before justices that shall be a reality. As to light coin, I have no wish to prejudge that question at all. I very much doubt, at the same time, whether any law that may be enacted will induce people to refuse money which they think they can pass again, or to disoblige customers by breaking up their money before their faces. I am very much, obliged to hon. Gentlemen for the care with which they have read this Bill, and for the valuable criticisms which they have offered. Of these I shall endeavour to avail myself as far as possible, and with that object I propose to commit the Bill on Monday—not for the purpose of going on with it then, but of introducing such Amendments as I hope will enable it to pass with the least amount of trouble. As to the word "worker," the right hon. Gentleman is perfectly correct in his criticism; it is the old style of the office, but there is no reason why it should longer be retained. That officer was really one who worked as a contractor for the Government. Then, as to the security, I left that out, partly for the reason which the right hon. Gentleman suggests—in the spirit of the Latin proverb, qui non sentit commodum non debet sentire et onus—but chiefly because the transactions are upon such a scale that if any defalcation at all were to take place it would probably be upon so enormous a scale that any security which could with reason be asked—I do not say from myself merely, but from any public officer—must be altogether insignificant by comparison. I therefore did not think it worth while to put in a clause upon the subject. Clause 8 was very properly included by the draftsman; but, practically. I believe the coin is brought to us by the Bank of England, who get new shillings for old ones. That clause, however, is also one which may be included in the reconsideration which we shall give to the clauses generally. It is quite necessary that the standard of value being gold, coin should be protected by the strictest safeguards, and there has been a disposition to apply the same rule to silver; but silver is not a standard, it is only a token. The reason, therefore, for regulating the right to obtain a certain num- ber of sovereigns according to the exact amount of gold delivered does not apply to silver. For that reason I should propose to leave out that part of the clause relating to the coinage of silver bullion—"It shall be assayed and coined at the rate of 62s.," that is, we give 62s. and keep 4s. for ourselves. The clause has always been a dead letter, and it had better be omitted. It is better to leave the Mint free in regard to silver, to act without any clause in the Act of Parliament. Then with regard to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Governor of the Bank (Mr. Crawford), as to increasing the current weight of the coin, all these powers seem very large, but they are powers which Her Majesty already possesses. She has very large prerogatives in the matter of money, and if they were not recited in the Bill it might be supposed that we were anxious to impose restrictions upon them. But the object of this particular clause is, as was proposed by the International Congress which recently sat at Paris, that the amount of alloy should be altered in the coin from 11–12ths to 9–10ths, the amount of gold remaining exactly the same. That would increase the bulk of the coin, and if in future it should be thought necessary to alter our coin in that respect—as the International Congress thought would be very desirable—we should then have power to alter the size though not the value of the coin. That is the explanation I have to offer of that part of the Bill. Then, as to another point, the Queen has now, I apprehend by prerogative, a power to introduce into any of her dominions any coin she pleases. That right has frequently been acted upon in the Colonies. There is nothing more curious than the history of the colonial coinage. In New South Wales it consisted of a dollar and a dump, or a piece of silver punched out of the dollar. The dollar circulated for so much, and the dump for so much less. That was at first the whole coinage of New South Wales. The House need not be jealous of this power. It could only be exercised by proclamation of the Privy Council. These provisions were put ill the Bill, not from any value attached to them, but because they were part of the existing law, and I felt I should not have beer justified in announcing a Bill for consolidating the Law relating to the Coinage had I excluded these matters. I am not aware that I have omitted anything calling for explanation; if any hon. Member wishes further explanation, I shall be happy to give it. One thing I have myself observed in the Bill which I wish to alter. The Treasury has certain powers of controlling the Mint and the Pyx, and the Master of the Mint being represented by the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the time being, that would seem as if the Chancellor of the Exchequer was to act as a check upon I himself. I therefore propose to transfer the powers under Clause 14 to the Privy Council, to act by Orders in Council. There are several minor alterations which I intend to make in the Bill which I need not now explain. I propose, if the House will permit me, to go into Committee on Monday pro formâ, when I shall name a day as soon as possible to go on with the Bill, as considerable; inconvenience may arise from keeping-matters as they at present are. Only the other day an application was made to have a quantity of gold bullion coined. I stated that this could not legally be done while the question as to the Master of the Mint remained unsettled, and the reply I received was a threat that an action should be commenced against me

Motion agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for Monday next.