HC Deb 15 May 1884 vol 288 cc460-73

said, he rose to call attention to the following Motion, which he was unable to move by the Forms of the House:— That, in view of the Report of the Select Committee on Hall Marking of Gold and Silver Wares (1879), which, inter alia, recommended that 'the Duty upon Silver Plato, Customs and Excise, be abolished as soon as the state of the Revenue may admit,' and with special reference to the facts and circumstances disclosed in Parliamentary Paper No. 347, East India, Gold and Silver Plate (1884), this House is of opinion that the Duties upon Gold and Silver Plate, and the system of compulsory Hall-marking, should be abolished forthwith. He thought he was perfectly justified in characterizing the laws and regulations which related to the trade in the precious metals as barbarous, and as affecting the trade and industry in a very injurious manner. They were especially injurious in stifling a trade which was now largely increasing in rival countries. They also had the effect of stunting the artistic design of this country, and of imposing a grievous and unjust burden on our Indian Dependency. He looked in vain for any compensating advantages arising out of the enactments relating to Hall-marking. It was, of course, alleged that they protected the purchaser and gave a guarantee of quality. If so, there would perhaps be some excuse for them; but he thought he could show the House that they failed in doing anything of the sort. It was some six centuries ago since those restrictions were first imposed. They belonged, in fact, to an era in the history of our commerce when restrictions and regulations were placed not only upon the quality, but also upon the price of nearly every article; but we had outgrown all these restrictions, except in the case of gold and silver. The public was, no doubt, compelled, in regard to the quality of every commodity it purchased, to take such precautions to safeguard itself as might be necessary; but, as he had said, these laws were no safeguard. Our Colonies, America, and other countries had got rid of enactments of this sort, as it had been found that they were no longer necessary in the interest of commerce. In this country the trade in the precious metals was languishing under the influence of these laws, while in America the trade was rapidly increasing; and, what was a still more serious consideration, our best workmen were going there because their abilities could find no scope in this country. It was not possible, for want of time, to go into these laws in any detail; but he might state that they imposed, generally speaking, the following conditions:— That all gold and silver, with the exception of certain articles manufactured in the United Kingdom, should be assayed and stamped, the cost of the stamp being 17s. an ounce for gold and 1s. 6d. an ounce for silver. There were five legal standards for gold—namely, 22, 18, 15, 12, and 9 carats, and for silver two—namely, 10 ozs. 12 dwts., and 11 ozs. 2 dwts. If manufactured articles were found not to be up to the legal standard, it was allowable to the authorities to break them up. As a matter of practice, silver goods were sent in a rough state to be Hallmarked, and then taken back to be manufactured. The next question was, what was the advantage accruing to the Revenue from all this tremendous machinery? It was but a trifling amount, and he was sure the Chancellor of the Exchequer would hardly assure the House that it was worth retaining at the cost and burden it imposed upon the country. The duty was gradually but surely effecting the extinction of the silver trade from England, though it might be said that the decline was to some extent due to the large increase in electro-plated articles. That might be so; but he could not think it was wholly accounted for in that way. In a rich country like this they might expect that the trade in articles of luxury would increase instead of diminishing. Besides, the extension, of the electro-plate trade in America had not produced a diminution in the silver industry, which, on the contrary, was rapidly increasing there. The Americans now produced articles of exquisite beauty which put to shame the silver productions of this country. As to the guarantee to the buyer, he knew it was commonly supposed that in buying Hall-marked silver the purchaser obtained a valuable security for the quality of the article. But that was not the case as a matter of fact. Imitations were made with very great skill, and with so much ingenuity as almost to defy the detection of competent experts. If that were so, surely the last vestige of argument in favour of these laws disappeared. He now came to a branch of the question of the greatest importance—namely, its relation to the trade of India and the people of that country. The injustice done to the extensive artistic silver manufacture of that country was most grievous. The rupee was the most easily available, and in many cases the only form of silver in India for manufacturing purposes, and because the rupee was below our English silver standard, we practically refused to receive the silver productions of that country. When Indian silver articles were presented at our Custom-houses, if not up to the required standard of Goldsmiths' Hall, the articles were liable to be smashed up, and this right was sometimes exercised. At best the articles were refused admission, and had to be re-exported. This was a crying injustice. We had made India drop its duties on imported cotton goods from this country, and we ought to take steps to give them a free market for their silver goods. Although he did not think the two questions were quite on the same footing, he maintained that our treatment of their productions was extremely shabby, and he thought we ought to take steps at the earliest possible moment to remedy the injustice. The revenue derivable from this source was really very small. The duty paid in 1853 was on 837,000 ounces of silver, and in 1883 on 644,000 ounces. The amount of duty now paid was only about £80,000; and he dared to say that if the Chancellor of the Exchequer agreed to this Motion, it would not be difficult to find some means by which the loss of that sum could be made up. He was aware of the difficulty in regard to the drawback; but surely the resources of our financiers could furnish, a remedy. He believed the way had lately been made easier, because he had been informed that for a sum of £100,000, or possibly less, the trade would be glad to make an arrangement with the Treasury by which the allotment of that sum might be spread over existing claims during a limited time, and thus the whole question of drawbacks be disposed of for a trifling sum. It was absurd to say that an important industry should be extinguished because a certain number of gentlemen interested in the trade would not allow the duty to be removed on account of their claims. He would rather ignore those claims altogether. All the authorities on the subject were on his side. Every sound economist was heartily in favour of abolishing the duty at the earliest possible moment. He was glad to say that both Lord Kimberley and the Under Secretary for India were not only heartily in favour of his Motion, but would, if official reasons did not prevent, give him a good word in Parliament in support of it. Certain correspondence had recently taken place in which the Under Secretary urged the Treasury to take early steps for the abolition of the duty on Indian silver. He was sure it would be gratifying to the Under Secretary and to all who took an intelligent interest in the subject, and above all to their fellow-subjects in India, if the Chancellor of the Exchequer would to-night hold out some hopes of dealing favourably with the subject. He did not desire to prevent purchasers who wanted to have goods Hall-marked as a guarantee from getting them so stamped, but he objected to the Hall-mark being made compulsory. By the maintenance of this system they were inflicting a serious injustice on the trade, and perpetuating an economic heresy which was discreditable to a country professing Free Trade principles.


said, he wished to bring a little friendly pressure to bear upon the Chancellor of the Exchequer with regard to this subject. He believed that it was admitted on all hands that this tax ought to be abolished. The Government themselves had, in three successive years, proposed to abolish it. The only reason that it existed appeared to be the difficulty of dealing with the question of drawback. If, as the hon. Gentleman stated, £100,000 could settle this matter, the Chancellor of the Exchequer would, he thought, be delighted to settle it on those terms. But whether that sum would or would not be sufficient, he thought that if sufficient pressure in that House was only brought to bear on the Government they would find some way of getting rid of the drawback. It was most important to encourage as far as possible such manufactures as now existed in the country, and it was greatly to the advantage of the people of India that every stimulus should be given to all the manufacturing industries which now existed. In India there was a remarkable industry in the manufacture of Indian silver articles, and it was highly desirable that the trade should receive as much encouragement as possible. No doubt, if it were not for the Hall-mark an enormous trade might be done in this country of the silver articles manufactured in India. He would ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether a special law could not be passed for the assay of Indian silver articles, so as to prevent the shameful incident mentioned by the hon. Member for Manchester with respect to the articles bought in this country made of rupee silver, and which were smashed up and destroyed? That was a matter which might be dealt with without the abolition of the duty, and without the Chancellor of the Exchequer incurring any fiscal loss whatever. He hoped hon. Members of the House would press upon the Chancellor of the Exchequer the extreme importance of this matter, especially from the Indian point of view, and that they would not have to wait long before justice was done to India.


, who had the following Motion on the Paper, which he was precluded by the Forms of the House from moving:— That, considering the unexampled liberality of the Government of India in freeing the produce and manufactures of the United Kingdom landed on the extensive coasts of India, from all Import Duties, whereby the Home trade and industries have been largely benefited; also, looking at the assurances, and promises given, during the last three Budgets that all Silver Plate manufactured in India would he admitted into the United Kingdom, it is now expedient that, all Silver Plate manufactured within the Indian territories should he admitted into the United Kingdom, without any liability to either Customs or Excise duties; and in so resolving, this House desire to record their wish to show respect to the claims and representations so strongly urged by the Government in India, and by the Indian Government at Home, to act justly and fairly in regard to the admission into England of Indian Silver manufactures, said, the House was indebted to the hon. Member for Manchester for having brought forward a question of very great importance to India. When he recollected that for two years India had removed all import duties, and that goods to the value of £35,000,000 had been freed from duty, he had said enough to show the importance of the sacrifice which India had made. He thought the example which India had set in this matter was one which put England to shame, especially when they considered that this country had taken pride in hitherto being foremost in advancing the principles of Free Trade. He wished, however, to do justice to the Prime Minister and to the present Chancellor of the Exchequer. In 1881–2 the present Prime Minister in his Budget Speech strongly advocated the abolition of the duties on silver brought to this country, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his Budget Speech of 1883 had also advocated the same course. The objections which had been raised by both right hon. Gentlemen were on account of the large sum which it would be necessary to pay with respect to the drawback. The Prime Minister had stated that the drawback would amount to £160,000 or probably more; and the Chancellor of the Exchequer had stated that a sum ranging between £120,000 and £200,000 might be the sum demanded. But he desired to point out that they were not now fighting for the abolition of the duty, because it had been admitted that this relief should be given, but only in regard to the amount of drawback which it was necessary to pay. By a comparison of figures he could show that this would not be so large as had been paid in the case of other duties which had been repealed, such, for instance, as the duties on glass, bricks and tiles, soap, and paper. In the case of soap there had been no drawback at all, and in the case of other articles the drawback paid had amounted to but a fraction of the annual duty upon each of this class of goods. He thought that £120,000 would cover all the claims that would be made on account of drawback. In the case of a country which had been so liberal in admitting English manufactured goods free of import duty, he thought he was justified in making an urgent appeal on behalf of a similar favour being extended to Indian manufactured silver articles. The important point was that probably in the history of the world they had never had such an example as that which had been set by India; and they had also had the Government in India and successive Secretaries of State for India all strongly appealing to the Treasury to abolish the duties on silver plate—a measure which would be but a fair and just return for the great benefits conferred on the industries of the United Kingdom by the repeal of the import duties on our produce and manufactures entering India. The justice of that demand had been over and over again admitted, and if the Chancellor of the Exchequer meant to do any good in the matter it was to be hoped that he would now speak out plainly. It would be unworthy of a Liberal Government which had hitherto professed Free Trade principles not to deal fairly and justly by India on that subject.


said, that at present the question of the withdrawal of licences was not before the House; but, no doubt, before long that would be asked for from, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In the meantime, it was only the abolition of the duty that was asked for. The hon. and gallant General (Sir George Balfour) suggested that the Chancellor of the Exchequer should give £120,000 to settle the drawback. He objected entirely to the Chancellor of the Exchequer giving any such sum. He did not think it was justified in any way. That the duty operated most injuriously upon the trade has been shown by the hon. Member for Manchester (Mr. Slagg). It was a diminishing trade. One American house, he was told, made as much as the whole British trade did. That in itself was a fact that could not be accounted for very easily on any other ground than the prejudicial effect of the duties. The American house to which he referred not only did this enormous trade, but it came over here and took away all our best workmen, and our trade was starved in workmanship as well as in other ways by the Americans getting ahead of us so much. In his opinion there should be no drawback, for several reasons. Since 1881, when it was first proposed to take off the duty, the making trade had been starved. Naturally the makers would not go on manufacturing anything they had not absolute orders for. They would not go on making for stock. Even the public would not buy anything more than they greatly wanted to buy; and, accordingly, even if the amount of duty-paid stocks on hand in 1881 was very large, the amount on hand now must be a very great deal smaller than it was then. That was one reason why no drawback should be paid. But there was another reason, which was much more conclusive. It was this. The duty was 1s. 6d. per oz., but from that there was the rebate of 3d. per oz.

Notice taken, that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members being found present,


said, that at the time when the unsuccessful interruption took place, he was explaining that there was a rebate from the duty of 1s. 6d. of 3d. per oz., on the ground that the plate was sent into the Hall in an unfinished state, and that there was a certain loss of weight in finishing. The result of that rebate was that the makers contrived to send in their plate so nearly finished, that there was much less loss in finishing than the amount of the rebate they received. He was told that on plain goods, such as spoons and forks, the makers could actually make a profit of 2d. out of the rebate of 3d., and that in one case a large manufacturer made a profit of £1,000 a-year out of the rebate. Of course, the manufacturer asked if the duty was done away with where was he to get this £1,000 of profit? But he did not think that was a ground for refusing the abolition of the duty. It was, however, a very good ground for refusing the drawback, because they could say to these gentlemen —"You have been making an unfair profit out of the Government tax, and if you add that up you will probably find that the last half-dozen years of it comes to nearly, if not quite, as much as any amount yon could fairly claim for drawback on unsold goods at the present day." Apart from that, there could be no doubt that the sudden expansion of the trade immediately on the abolition of the duty would in a very short time recoup the makers for any loss by not getting drawback. That the trade would take a sudden bound he had not the slightest doubt. The mere fact of the trade being emancipated would tend to give it a new start. The House was, he thought, bound to consider India in that matter; and he entirely agreed in the appeal which the hon. and gallant Member (Sir George Balfour) had made on behalf of that great Dependency; but he did not think it would be necessary merely for that end to abolish compulsory Hall-marking, though in the case of India it would be necessary to give thorn a special Hall-marking suitable to the rupee silver, because that was the quality in which the bulk of their manufacture was made. It was only reasonable that the public should continue to have, while they wanted it, such guarantee of the genuineness of the goods which they bought as Hall-marking gave; but it should be voluntary, not compulsory. There was practically no Hallmarking of gold now except wedding-rings and snuff-boxes, and not much of it in the case of snuff-boxes, except, perhaps, the presentation snuff-boxes to the hon. and learned Member for Bridport (Mr. Warton) for blocking Bills in that House. But he did not think the Chancellor of the Exchequer made much revenue out of them. As to wedding-rings, they were constantly sold at prices which did not admit of paying the duty; and it was probable that many of them came from abroad fictitiously Hallmarked. He had not advocated greatly the abolition of the duty, because he considered the Chancellor of the Exchequer was already committed to that, and as to the drawback he did not think, as he had shown, that the circumstances of the trade warranted it. The drawback having been the sole difficulty in the way of abolishing the duty, he thought the Chancellor of the Exchequer should throw that question overboard altogether—should simply abolish the duty, and tell the makers of silver plate that they must make the best of it.


said, that it seemed to him a remarkable thing that all the speeches which had been made on the subject were appeals for justice to India, regardless that it involved injustice to Clerkenwell and the silver manufacturers of this country. He did not attribute the falling off in the trade to the operation of the duty, but rather to the altered taste of the public and to the circumstances of the time. People moved about now more than they used to do, and for that reason were more unwilling to have the risk and trouble involved in having a large amount of silver in their houses, which would have to be sent to their bankers every time they moved. They had been told of the debt which England owed to India; but he could not see how that justified a proposal that India should be repaid by the silver plate manufacturers of London and other places in this country who owed nothing to India. He thought that such a proposal was wanting in common honesty. If the duty were repealed, the English manufacturers would still have to pay their licence duties, and he claimed justice for those who had paid their money on the face of the present law. All through the debate the English manufacturers had been lost sight of. He was not asking for any protection, but he asked that there should not be spoliation. If the duty was to be taken off, the plain, simple, honest, straightforward way was to pay back the duty that had been received for articles still remaining unsold. As to the question of the American manufacturers, the real reason of their being able to do such a large amount of business was the existence of considerable protective duties.


said, they had been told that the trade in gold and silver plate was declining, and that that decline was due to these duties. He was not at all sure that it was due to the duties; he thought that there were other causes. Under the present duties trade had increased for a considerable period, until the time when electro-plating came into use. Another reason which affected the trade was the change in taste which had taken place. But, whatever the cause, the Government had more than once expressed a desire of getting rid of these duties, which undoubtedly operated to the prejudice of trade between India and this country. He might say that the Government desired to abolish the duties as soon as possible; but it was not an easy matter when the amount to be taken away was considered. There was also the great difficulty of the drawback, and he was afraid, although supported by stronger reasons than had been advanced by his hon. Friend (Mr. Anderson), it would not be easy to say they would not allow it. They had always, when abolishing duties, allowed drawbacks to some extent on stocks held on hand. They could scarcely say to a man who had a quantity of plate on which he had paid 1s. 3d. per oz. was fairly treated if they said to him he had a profit out of the 3d. of rebate, and that he must place that against the 1s. 3d. when the duty was abolished. He would reply, and justly, that whatever advantage he might have derived from the rebate was an incident in his past trade, and had been taken into account in the competition regulating the profits of the trade, and could not now be reckoned against loss on abolition of duties. The question must stand over, for the present at least. He would, however, recommend his hon. Friend the Member for Manchester not to treat the question as one to be disregarded or to be dealt with in the way suggested by the hon. Member for Glasgow, and to see if he could not come to some understanding with the big dealers in gold and silver plate as to the terms on which their claims for drawback could reasonably be met. With reference to the Hall-marking of Indian plate, the hon. and learned Member for Chatham (Mr. Gorst) had spoken of the law as it stood up to a recent date. The breaking up of plate falling behind the standard was happily not now necessary. That barbarous rule had been abolished, and the Government were not unwilling to consider whether something more could be done for India. It was said that a great deal of Indian work was so delicate and fragile that the application of the Hall-mark was likely to interfere with the design of such work. That was a matter worthy of consideration, because they might decline to enforce the application of the Hall-mark without taking away the liability to pay Customs duty. Should a proposal of that kind be made by the hon. Member for Manchester, he did not think the Government would have any difficulty in acceding to it. The suggestion to have a separate Hall-marking for plate of an inferior standard was a matter which had been considered by a Select Committee, and they decided against it. In conclusion, he must again assure his hon. Friend the Member for Manchester that the temper of the Government with respect to his proposals was as friendly as ever, and they would not be deterred from carrying out the policy of which they had more than once approved; but if they could see a way to the removal of the practical difficulty of the money charge involved in an allowance for drawback and also the loss of revenue, they would be as ready in the future as in the past to consider the abolition of these duties.


desired to say a very few words, because the subject was one of great interest to his constituents. There had been some very strange speeches—one from the right hon. Gentleman who represented the City of London, which reminded him very much of the gentleman who suddenly discovered he had been speaking prose all his life; and there had been a speech from the Secretary to the Treasury, which meant everything and nothing—a sort of speech to which he had been used for many years; and when he considered that it was five years since the Committee sat, and when he remembered that they worked hard and reported unanimously in favour of the change now proposed, he could not help regretting that nothing had been done. If a Committee was to sit and Report unanimously and nothing was to be done upon that Report, he could not see any use in the appointment of a Committee. There had been speeches about protection and about honest dealing, which he liked as much as onyone; but he did not find that when a duty of 25 to 30 per cent was suddenly taken off, even with the Crown duties, on other articles of commerce, there was any idea of compensation or drawback being allowed. It was always the trade like that represented by the City Alderman which was to be indemnified for what they would or might have lost. Really, the matter was becoming very serious. It was easy for the Secretary to the Treasury to pass it over, saying when he had money he would do something; but meantime the trade was going. He had heard with pity the reason assigned for the increase of American manufactures—the heavy duties put upon the import of such goods. They had a duty and they would keep it too; but it was not merely in America that we were superseded, it was in Australia, in New Zealand, in India, and everywhere where our goods used to be exported to or from this country. The next reason why in the last 25 years there had been such a great increase in American manufacture was that by degrees they had learned to manufacture everything. Under their system of Protection, they were now taking our best workmen away from our silver trade to the United States to supply our Colonies with goods we used to make ourselves. He did not think many hon. Members were aware of the enormous amount of the tax. It amounted to 1s. 6d. on 4s. 2d. Why, scarcely a tax in the United States or France equalled that. Taking the Indian point of view, we had bullied India like a stepmother into withdrawing her duty on cotton goods. We said—"Take the 5 per cent off cotton goods and we shall see what you shall see." And what had we seen? We taxed them 1,000 per cent on salt, and we still continued the 40 per cent on silver imports. He was very much obliged for the kind speeches and goodwill of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but he wanted more; he wanted to stop the decline of a trade, and to put an end to the anomaly that with Free Trade we had the heaviest internal trade tax in the world. He had no wish to abolish Hall-marking. The recommendation of the Committee was a sensible one—to abolish compulsory Hall-marking, leaving the marking "for those who liked to adopt it." He sincerely hoped that when the Chancellor of the Exchequer had the means of doing so, he would make use of his funds in the direction advocated.


said, he had, as probably others had done, considered this matter in the view of his own convenience. He had personally no interest in maintaining the tax upon plate. Then with regard to the Hail-marking, which was not quite so easy a matter, he would be quite content with the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Birmingham (Mr. Muntz), that the public would be very well treated if they had the option to purchase plate with or without the Hall-mark. In such case, however, a very severe penalty should be inflicted upon anyone who fabricated the Hall-mark. India had been most prominently mentioned in the discussion. That was a country in which, no doubt, this country had more interest than any other, and India objected to the present system, both on the ground that it hindered the importation of plate manufatured in India, and also on the ground of the inconvenience occasioned by the Hall-marking of plate of the very fine workmanship produced in that country. He had the very warmest sympathy for India, more especially so because he thought that all the parts of the Empire ought, as far as possible, to be treated as one. Finally, there was the position of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to be considered. He had three difficulties to contend with. There was the question of the Hall-mark, the question whether he could afford to part with the tax, and also the question: of the drawback. With regard to the portion of the trade which advocated this change, he believed it to be by no means suing in formâ pauperis, and, therefore, there were no grounds for the change on that score. After all, this was a matter which, in his opinion, was not to be settled by a discussion in the House at large, but by the calm and quiet consideration of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the officials of his Department; and if the right hon. Gentleman could arrive at any decision which would be to the advantage of the public in this country and in India, he would have his warmest sympathy. He trusted that this question would, either next year or the year after, be completely and satisfactorily dealt with.