Nothing in this Act contained shall be deemed to affect any right of action which would exist if this Act had not been passed against the said Commissioners, or against persons tendering evidence as aforesaid, on the part of any person interested as owner or agent in the manufacture, sale, transmission, or receipt of the said goods in respect of the prohibition or detention thereof, in case such goods were not in fact made or produced in any foreign prison, gaol, house of correction, or penitentiary.
§ If any legitimate importer had a consignment of goods, mistakenly supposed to be made in a foreign prison, improperly detained, it was right that he should receive compensation for the damage thus inflicted upon him. These goods were brought in by importers who made contracts with wholesale dealers for their immediate execution, and if the goods were mistakenly supposed to be made in a foreign prison and detained, the wholesale dealers lost the benefit of their contract by the cancelling of the date. There was no safer way to prevent that mischief than to give a right of action to the man who had suffered damage. A discharged clerk, or a person likely to commit a trade libel, might give the Commissioners information that a particular consignment consisted of goods made in foreign gaols. If the Bill had enacted that the Commissioners should only act on evidence given on oath, there would be some protection given to the importer, but according to the scheme of the Bill the Commissioners were not obliged to act on what in legal parlance was called evidence; they might 62 act on information given to them. Should then the damage be borne by the person who was not responsible for the mistake, or by those persons who were responsible—by the Commissioners, or by those upon whose information they had acted? The Bill should be safeguarded in some such way as he suggested.
Clause Read the First time.
§ THE SOLICITOR GENERAL
hoped the Committee would not accept the clause. If adopted, the words would be in part unnecessary and in part mischievous. The proposed clause dealt with two classes of persons, those who had tendered evidence before the Commissioners and with the Commissioners themselves. As to the first class the clause was superflous. It was rightly assumed that it was necessary to confer such a right of action, but there was not a word in the Bill which would take away that right of action; and as to the right of action against the Commissioners, this part of the clause would be mischievous in its operation. There was no doubt that if a case could be imagined in which the Commissioners of Customs, abusing their position, maliciously stopped goods which they knew were not prison-made goods, they would be liable; but was it to be tolerated that the Commissioners, acting honestly, and arriving to the best of their judgment at a right conclusion, should be exposed to an action? If the clause was accepted it would open the door to a flood of dishonest actions against the Commissioners.
§ MR. ROBSON
, with all respect for the opinion of the Solicitor General, ventured to say that under the existing law if any person went to the Commissioners of Customs all induced them to stop goods, whether by information or request, and it turned out that the goods were wrongfully or mistakenly stopped, both that person and the Commissioners were 63 trespassers, and were subject to right of action.
§ MR. LOUGH
would not follow the interesting, but rather technical, discussion. It was evident that there was great difference of opinion on the point, and it was another illustration of the difficulty of the Bill. His hon. and learned Friend at any rate meant to make it possible, if this Bill passed, that there should be some right of action against the person who tendered false or even mistaken evidence. The argument as to what the law is at present was not entirely relevant. But what would be the state of the case when the Bill was passed? In every trade there were rivals, and would not strong inducements be given to a rival trader to come forward and stop goods under this Act. He thought the Debate had shown that; and if the words of his hon. and learned Friend's Amendment were faulty, he was willing to correct them and to make them such as would give a right of action. The Solicitor General had not, in his opinion, completely covered the argument with regard to the persons who tendered evidence. But the other point was of so much greater importance that he hoped the Committee would address themselves to it seriously. The Solicitor General had said that if they passed the clause it would bring a flood of actions against the Commissioners. He would answer that by saying that if they passed this Bill they would be bringing a flood of actions against honest tradesmen and merchants. ["Oh!"] Let them see how it would work. The importer of goods had no knowledge of their origin. He bought them of a respectable merchant at Amsterdam, Berlin, or elsewhere. Could he trace the goods to their origin? He had never been accustomed to do so. He only knew the name of the foreigner from whom he bought; he sent his order in all honesty and simplicity; he was under contract to deliver on a certain day; and then came the opportunity of his trade rival, who said, "If I can stop this man from delivering these goods, I myself may make £1,000 by it." They were distinctly encouraging these malicious actions. ["Hear, hear!] He would ask someone opposite who was in favour of the Bill to deal with this point. They were throwing on the importer the entirely new duty of knowing whether or 64 not the goods he bought from the foreigner were prison-made; and how was he to answer this demand? He heard from the Commissioners of Customs that A or B had tendered evidence that the goods consigned to him were made in a foreign prison. He was astounded. He was under contract to deliver in two or three days; he could not fulfil his contract; and while the Commissioners were considering the case the other man got the order, delivered his goods, and made his money. ["Hear, hear!"] So that, as he had said, the Bill would make it possible to bring a flood of actions against perfectly honest men; and his hon. and learned Friend demanded some protection for them. Why should the Solicitor General he so tender with the Commissioners? If they made a mistake, had they not a longer purse than the private tradesman? Who was to protect the private tradesman if he was badly treated under this new law which they were passing for the first time in England? He had not the long purse of the Government at his back—the Commissioners had. He held that it was perfectly reasonable, as his hon. and learned Friend suggested, that if they took these drastic powers the Government should take the full responsibility for their proper use. ["Hear, hear!"] The Government wanted to give cheap satisfaction to their own side. Let them take the full responsibility. If the Measure was for the good of the country, and the Commissioners wronged a man in carrying it out, the country must, recompense him for the wrong done. They had not had a satisfactory answer on either of the two points raised. The proposed clause was a perfectly reasonable one because the Bill created a new state of things altogether, and they ought not to do that without seeing that the perfectly honest trader was protected. ["Hear, hear!"]
§ *MR J. SAMUEL
regretted very much that the Government had decided not to accept the Amendment of the hon. Member for South Shields. He was afraid they were acting on the principle that if they refused all Amendments they would save the Report stage of the Bill. But in the interest of the trade of the country, and for the protection of traders, some such Amendment as this should be inserted. When the Committee, earlier in 65 the evening, were discussing the Amendment dealing with the question of the evidence to be tendered to the Commissioners of Customs, with a view to stopping the importation of these goods, some hon. Members had in mind such protection as this clause would afford. Its importance could not be overlooked. The Solicitor General disputed the statement of the hon. Member for South Shields, and into that dispute he did not propose to enter, but when tile Bill became law persons coals read tile Act as meaning that by evidence tendered to the Commissioners they could stop the importation of foreign prison - made goods. But the evidence might be false or true, and there should be a clause in the Bill, not a reference to the Act of 1876 or any other Act, pointing out to any person tendering evidence that he would be liable to an action at law if he gave false evidence against any trader. The keen competition in the brush trade, the mat trade, and other trades, created a great deal of jealousy, and the probability would be that a large number of traders who imported goods from abroad would be liable to have evidence given against them that they were importing articles wholly or partially made in prisons, and such evidence might prevent the goods being sent out to them. He cited a case in point. The whole of this agitation against prison-made goods being imported into this country—it was astounding to find it was so—was based on the action not of an Englishman, but of Mr. Pollit, an American who represented a carpet-sweeping brush manufactory in America, and he became jealous of the importation of carpet-sweeping brushes from Germany. He did not know if the President of the Board of Trade had read die report? (Mr. RITCHIE: "Yes!") Then the right hon. Gentleman would boar him out in tile statement that Mr. Pollit was the first to start the agitation in this country. He was then sent to Germany by the proprietor of The Hardwareman newspaper, and he collected evidence he could not sustain before the Committee. If some such clause as this was not found in the Bill there might be fifty more Mr. Pollits in this country jealous of their own goods who might give evidence against importations into this country, and they might harass and ruin certain branches of 66 trade. He did not wish to go into the question whether the Bill would have any effect at all; but this he would say, after close attention to the evidence given before the Merchandise Marks Acts Committee—the Report and evidence of that Committee would startle the House when it became known—that the evidence showed that the interference with trade by the delay and opening of packages, preventing the quick transit of goods from the port of landing was doing great injury to the import business; and this Bill would put it into the power of any man whoever he might be to give false evidence against a trader who might be the importer of a perfectly genuine article, and tins evidence would prevent the goods reaching the trader within thee expected period. It was therefore essential that some such clause as this should be inserted for the purpose of checking the reckless giving of evidence.
§ MR. SOUTTAR
had a strong impression that something in this direction should be inserted in the Bill, and that if a clause of the kind was not introduced, the Bill would be the means of much injustice and oppression to traders. Let hon. Members bear in mind the extreme difficulty of finding out whether imported goods were prison-made or not. As a matter of fact, evidence given before the Committee showed that little of prison Manufactures were imported. Brushes and other articles were largely made in labour colonies by tramps, and these it imports would not be affected by the Measure. It was impossible for prison-made goods to compete with free labour, the idea was the subject of ridicule. But the difficulty was that prison-made goods could not be detected; it was impossible for a Man to know that any part of the goods he imported was prison made. Contracts were made by manufacturers for the product of prison labour; he knew of such an instance in Munich where a manufacturer, having a factory of his own, contracted also to take prison goods, and these went into his general store and no distinction was made or could be discerned in his sales, and many of the articles were sent to this country. It was impossible for honest traders in this country to tell if they had prison-made goods, and this was brought out clearly in the Report of the Committee when they said it would be hard for the honest 67 dealer but an easy thing for the dishonest trader who cared not which certificate he signed. It would be easy for dishonest persons to get honest traders into trouble. If no check of this kind was found in the Bill the result would be great injury to the trading community.
§ MR. BUXTON
understood, speaking as a layman and without going into technicalities, that under the present law and if this Bill had no existence there would be right of action on the part of any man whose goods were delayed upon insufficient cause, and the President of the Board of Trade had not given any good reason why this clause should not be inserted. It was obvious that if there was malicious and wilful detention of goods an action would lie, but there should he some protection for the innocent trader against the loss he would suffer from delay in the transit of goods through the bonâ fide action of the Commissioners taken upon allegations subsequently proved groundless.
§ MR. BURNS
desired to ask the President of the Board of Trade what would happen under these circumstances. Suppose in Austria the Government set a number of convicts to the work of felling forest trees, and the timber, the raw product of this prison labour, was sold to a manufacturer who by free labour converted this raw material into Austrian bent-wood furniture. The timber could not be marked, it would be absolutely unrecognisable, and after the furniture was finished it might be sent to England. Suppose then a rival furniture dealer found out or suspected that in the initial stage of manufacture this Austrian bent wood furniture was partly made by prison labour and went to the Commissioners of Customs with his information, what would the Commissiners do? Would they attempt to trace a rocking-chair, finished and sent to London, through its various stages back to the prisoners who felled the timber perhaps five or six years before the passing of the Act, because the wood would have to be seasoned before using? What would a Commissioner do? Would he proceed on such evidence? If he did, would there not be injustice done to the man on whose goods an embargo would be placed by the action of a designing rival in business, who would be able to work 68 off his own furniture derived from a similar source, but against which no similar complaint had been lodged? Unless such a clause as this was inserted there would be found cases arising in the east-end of London in which such means as he had indicated would bedelibe-rately adopted, a man promoting the sale of his own goods by bogus statements against the goods of his rival. Trade suffered quite enough from restrictions now imposed, but he did not know that it had yet been made a crime for a man to sell a chair made from timber felled by convicts; better employment than oakum picking.
§ MR. RITCHIE
quite agreed with the hon. Gentleman that it would be unwise to ask the House of Commons to assent to a Bill having that effect. But the Bill would have no such effect. He had yet to know that an Austrian forest was a prison, gaol, house of correction, or penitentiary. [" Hear, hear ! "]
§ MR. BURNS
was sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but how would he describe a breakwater in England made by convicts but as made by prison labour? He could not differentiate between the work of men making furniture inside a prison and men felling the timber for the furniture outside the prison.
§ MR. RITCHIE
said it was not the question what the hon. Member differentiated, but what the Bill laid down. It was perfectly clear that the words in the Bill would not include an Austrian forest, and if chairs were made by free labour, and not in a prison or penitentiary, it would be immaterial where the timber was grown or cut down. This Amendment had been argued on the assumption that the Commissioners of Customs would do more than they ought to do; that they would be extremely eager to put the Act in force, and would strain all their powers to bring in cases not suggested by the Act. His opinion was that if the Commissioners of Customs did make a mistake, it would be in the other direction. He believed they would require a very considerable amount of evidence, that they would thoroughly sift the evidence, and be completely convinced of its bona fides before they acted. ["Hear, hear!"] If he had a fear with regard to the operation of the Act, it was not that the Commissioners would require too little 69 evidence, but that they would require too much. evidence. [Cheers.]
§ MR. BURNS
said he would put another case to the right hon. Gentleman. [Cries of "Oh, oh!"] He was not in the habit of pressing the right hon. Gentleman unfairly, and he hoped he never would be. It was customary in Germany for the raw product to be roughed out in a prison, and for the article to be partially made by tramps in a labour colony and finished in a free factory. Supposing the article Came here, would it be scheduled as coming within this Act, and, if so, why?
§ MR. RITCHIE
remarked that, of course, such an article would conic under the Act. The hon. Gentleman had mentioned two processes in the course of the manufacture, both of which processes were carried on in a gaol. Under such circumstances it would be the duty of the Commissioners of Customs to stop the article.
§ *MR. WEIR (Ross and Cromarty)
was sorry the President of the Board of Trade had wandered away from the gaol to the forest—[laughter]—but he wished to bring the. right hon. Gentleman back again to the gaol—[renewed laughter]—so that he might know what went on within its four walls. Supposing parts of cheap locks—[cries of "Oh, oh !"]—yes, l-o-c-k-s—[laughter]—were made in a gaol in Germany and sent out to a manufacturer, who supplied the rest of the parts. How was the right hon. Gentleman going to fix upon the parts made in the gaol? The right hon. Gentleman wandered away from the forest—
*THE CHAIRMAN OF WAYS AND MEANS
The hon. Gentleman himself is wandering away from the question—[much laughter]. His illustration is, I think, very indirectly connected with the new clause. ["Hear, hear!"]
*THE CHAIRMAN OF WAYS AND MEANS
Order, order! That does not arise upon this Amendment. ["Hear, hear!"]
§ MR. J. CALDWELL (Lanark, Mid)
remarked that a novel power was to be given to the Commissioners of Customs, inasmuch as those officials were to have 70 power to take evidence and to come to a judgment, which was practically to have the effect of a judgment of a Court. The evidence might be given privately, and there was no provision in the Bill under which the witnesses might be put on oath and the traders concerned protected by means of the administering of an oath. Furthermore there was no provision for the person whose goods were in dispute, ascertaining the grounds of the sentence of the Commissioners. Again, the goods might be required for the fulfilment of a contract, and yet there was no provision that in the event of the Commissioners being found to be in the wrong the trader should be protected against any breach of contract.
Question put, "That the Clause be. Read a Second time."
The Committee divided:—Ayes, 56; Noes, 136.—(Division List, No. 293.)