§ Considered in Committee.
§ [The CHAIRMAN of WAYS and MEANS, Mr. J. W. LOWTHER in the Chair.]
§ [Progress, New Clauses, 13th July.]
§ MR. JAMES CALDWELL (Lanark, Mid)
moved the following new clause, which stood on the Paper in t he name of Mr. HARRISON (Plymouth):—
§ COMMENCEMENT OF ACT.
§ This Act shall not come into force until the thirty-first day of March one thousand eight hundred and ninety-eight.
§ He said that this Amendment was suggested by the reply the Attorney General made to a new clause which he moved in Committee. He pointed out that a person might be under contract to provide new goods from abroad, and as the contractor might not be able to produce evidence that these goods were not made in foreign prisons, the officials of the Customs House would prohibit their importation. The answer of the Attorney General was that the importer of goods from abroad could protect him self by a clause in the contract. It was obvious that the importer must have the opportunity of putting that clause into the contract. The Bill would come into operation the moment it was passed, within the next few weeks, and as contracts were made on the faith of the existing law it was right that the contractors should have a reasonable opportunity of putting this new clause into their contract. Besides, the importer of goods from abroad should have time to discover whether or not the goods were made in foreign prisons. He was bound to have evidence for the Custom House officials that the goods were riot made in prisons, and proper time should be given him to obtain that information.
§ THE PRESIDENT OF THE BOARD OF TRADE (Mr. RITCHIE,) Croydon
said that hon. Gentlemen Opposite regarded the Bill as an evil. They 577 thought there was no reason why English workmen should be protected from the competition of foreign prison-made goods. They thought the importation of foreign prison-made goods was an advantage, and they gladly opened their arms to that importation. Members on the Government side of the House regarded the Bill from a totally different standpoint. They considered that the importation of these goods was an evil, that it was an unfair competition with our people, and, holding that opinion, the Government could not possibly assent to a Motion which would postpone action under the Bill for nine months, when in the meantime the home markets would be flooded with prison-made goods. He did not believe there would be any of the disadvantages to contractors winch the hon. Gentleman seemed to apprehend. If a contractor could not get his goods from free labour abroad he would he able to get all he wanted in this country. This was no new matter. Every one had had full and fair warning that a Bill of this kind would be introduced.
MR.T.LOUGH (Islington, W.)
When does the Bill come into operation?
§ MR. LOUGH
said that surely some notice ought to be given to the importer. If nine months was too long, then let it be six months. The louse had been told that regulations would be laid down by the Commissioners of Customs, and the trades concerned ought to have an opportunity of becoming familiar with them before the Bill came into operation. Goods introduced for personal use, and not for sale, were not to he stopped; yet that might be most unfair to British labour; as, for instance, if a miller were to order 2,000 sacks for his own use.
§ MR. G. W. WOLFF (Belfast, E.)
said that as to goods in transit, the Government had declined to amend the Bill until the Report of the Committee on the Merchandise Marks Act had been received. That Report could not be completed before the Bill came into operation, if there were to be no delay, and then amendment would be impossible.
§ MR. RITCHIE
said that he had made it quite clear that whether the Report of the Committee was or was not read an Amendment would be introduced to deal with the ease of goods in transit.
§ SIR EDWARD GOURLEY (Sunderland)
asked whether the Bill applied to goods made in the prisons of Indian native States.
§ MR. RITCHIE
said that the Indian Government had been communicated with, and they offered no objection to the Bill provided that carpets made in Indian prisons might be introduced if they were not for sale.
§ MR. J. CALDWELL
said that he was not arguing in favour of the admission of prison-made goods, but in favour of the bonâ fide importer, who, although possessing the clearest evidence that his goods were not prison-made, might not be able to collect it in the time available.
§ MR. RITCHIE
said that it was not the importer who had to prove that his goods were not made in prison, but it was for others to prove that they were.
§ MR. CALDWELL
said that the right hon. Gentleman had not read his Bill. The Commissioners were to "have evidence." A hint would be given to the Commissioners that certain goods were prison-made, and the importer would then be required to prove the opposite. If a drastic Measure of tins kind were to be adopted the Government ought to allow notice to the importers.
§ MR. J. H. DALZIEL (Kirkcaldy Burghs)
said that it was perfectly clear from the Debate that the President of the Board of Trade had made up his mind to pass this Bill without any Amendment, however reasonable and well-supported such Amendment might be. The right hon. Gentleman said that if Amendment were necessary, he would bring in an amending Bill as soon as possible.
§ MR. RITCHIE
I never said anything about an amending Bill. The language of the Bill has to be extremely guarded, and therefore. I preferred to introduce the Amendment in another place.
§ MR. DALZIEL
said that that was not so satisfactory as words: agreed to across the floor of the House. The right hon. Gentleman had said that everyone knew of and expected this Bill. But if traders had made arrangements according to the pledges made by irresponsible candidates at the last General Election, a good many of them would have been disappointed. It was usual for a Bill to take effect on the 1st January after it passed, and it was a new precedent to provide that the Bill should come into operation at once. 579 Contracts were made for six or nine months, and many contracts made under the existing law would not have time to run out before the Bill came into operation. The right hon. Gentleman had said that he expected the chief information about the importation of prison-made goods from our representatives abroad. How could they get that information in the time available?
§ MR. SYDNEY BUXTON (Tower Hamlets, Poplar)
declared that the only conclusion which could be drawn from the Government's refusal to accept the Amendment was that they either believed the Bill would practically be a dead letter, or they wanted, by refusing to make any alteration, to avoid the Report stage. He believed it was unprecedented, except in the case of a financial Bill, where obviously the Act ought to come into force immediately the Queen's Assent was given, to make a Measure operative at once. A Finance Act was different, because if an interval were allowed, the goods on which taxation was to be levied would be imported during the interval in order to escape the new duty. ["Hear, hear!" from Sir H. VINCENT.] Ho understood the cheer of the hon. Member, but it was idle to suppose that a large amount of prison-manufactured goods would be introduced between the time the Bill was passed and its coming into force. Germany could not produce a larger amount of those goods than under present conditions, so that the delay would not encourage importers to bring in an extra amount of those goods.
Motion made, and Question put, "That the Clause be read a Second time."
The Committee divided: —Ayes, 87; Noes, 182.—(Division List, No. 309.)
§ RIGHT OF APPEAL.
Where the Commissioners of Customs have detained goods under this Act, the importer of such goods may apply to the County Court of the district wherein the goods have been detained in a summary manner, according to rules to be made under the County Courts Act 1888 to determine whether the goods so detained by the Commissioners are proved to have been made or produced wholly or in part in any foreign prison, gaol, house of correction,
or penitentiary, and the judgment of the Court m such question shall be final and binding on the Commissioners of Customs.
If the Government were unable to adopt this Amendment here, he hoped that they would see the necessity of adopting the clause when the Bill reached another place, because it seemed to be fashionable now to reject Amendments in the House of Commons in order to give the House of Lords an opportunity to do a little work. It would not do to assume that this Bill would be a dead letter, and inoperative as soon as it passed. The House was bound to assume that everything would be done to see that the law was obeyed, and that the provisions of the Act were carried into force. It would thus be the duty of the Commissioners to take all precautions to prevent the importation of foreign prison-made goods. They would have to inquire minutely into every question of this kind and give a decision. The attention of the Commissioners might be called to a consignment of goods which was alleged on behalf of the Custom House authorities to be made in some foreign prison. Immediately the Commissioners would hold an inquiry and take evidence; but the Bill did not say what kind of inquiry should be held, or what kind of evidence should be taken. They were not bound by any rules of law with regard to the evidence they took. Thereafter they decided the question, but there was no appeal. The Commissioners had unfettered discretion in the matter, and the importer had no means of protecting himself. It was not fair to say that an importer could protect him self by means of a contract, because questions of law would arise as to where the contract was made, and whether the exporter was to be sued in a foreign country or here. The new clause would facilitate this matter and give protection to bonâ fide goods.
§ Clause read the First time.
§ THE SOLICITOR GENERAL (Sir ROBERT FINLAY, Inverness Burghs)
thought that the hon. and learned Member must have expected to find that his clause was inconsistent with the Bill, and that there was not very much chance of its being accepted. According to the 581 scope of the Bill, the Commissioners would decide on certain materials which would satisfy any business man as to whether the goods had or had not come from a foreign prison. It was not proposed that the proceedings before the Commissioners should be fettered by the legal and technical rules of evidence. No sensible man, in the conduct of his affairs, would conduct them by the legal rules of evidence; if he did, he would soon become acquainted with the Bankruptcy Court—before many years were over. The Commissioners could satisfy themselves by letters and documents and other evidence as to whether the goods came from a foreign prison. It was proposed, however, by this clause to give from the decision of the Commissioners an appeal to a Court of Law, and that the burden should lie on the Commissioners to establish in a Court of Law, according to legal rules of evidence, that the goods had been made in a foreign prison. This would create a state of affairs totally inconsistent with the enactment in the Bill, while the clause would tend very much to hamper the action of the Commissioners.
§ MR. CALDWELL
said that the Solicitor General must have misapprehended the constitutional question involved in the new clause. The hon. and learned Gentleman seemed to think that in this country people ought to be satisfied with the decision of the Commissioners given on evidence brought to their notice in the most informal way, and that a citizen should not have an appeal to a Court of Law in order to protect his rights. No man was bound to take the absolute decision of a Government Department which deprived him of his legal rights as a citizen. For the first time the Government were introducing a novel principle and interfering with a constitutional right.
§ MR. COURTENAY WARNER (Stafford, Lichfield)
thought that the answer of the Solicitor General afforded the strongest reason in favour of the new clause. They had tried to get some guarantee that the evidence on which the Commissioners would act would be sound and trustworthy, and not a mere letter from a rival competitor. They did not care two straws as to how much prison-made goods were stopped; they wanted to see them stopped; but they did object 582 to the checking of trade in trying to do this. Their desire was to prevent the Custom House authorities from acting without fair consideration and on the mere assertion of some one. If they were going to allow the Solicitor General's suggestion that a Custom House officer was to act on a letter, there could be no doubt that grave injustice would be clone to lots of people who were perfectly innocent of attempting to import prison-made goods, or to do anything but carry on his trade in the most legitimate manner possible. The Solicitor General's remarks proved how serious were the proposals of the Government, and how much needed this proposed clause was. ["Hear, hear!"] He therefore hoped the Motion would be pressed to a division.
§ MR. DALZIEL
said his hon. Friend, in the presentation of an important argument, had gone a little too far in his assertion that hon. Members on that side of the House were in favour of the principle of the Bill. ["Hear, hear!"] That was an opinion expressed in a moment of enthusiasm [laughter, and "Hear, hear!"]—which was hardly justified. It seemed to him that the Solicitor General had laid down a peculiar doctrine when, speaking as one of the heads of the English Bar, he told them that goods might be forfeited and contracts upset, and that everything might be done, not on the mere contents of a letter, but on what he termed evidence unfettered by legal rules. It was certainly a strange doctrine that a man's goods might be forfeited and that no opportunity should be given him to explain that they were not made wholly or in part in a foreign prison, and therefore not liable to forfeiture. He urged that the proposed new clause was a very reasonable one, and ought to be accepted. Surely the right hon. Gentleman would recognise that it was possible for a mistaken decision to he given by a Commissioner. It might be given on incomplete evidence supplied by our representatives abroad, which might be supplied at a moment when there was no opportunity for the real proprietor of the goods to give information. But when once the decision had been given, there was to be no appeal, and the goods were to be forfeited beyond recovery. That seemed to him to be a very harsh proceeding. There was to be no appeal even in the case of delay, before 583 the goods were actually forfeited, the owner could not appeal to any summary Court to get them set free; and it might be the case that the contract for delivery could not be completed and the contractor found himself cast in heavy damages simply because of a mistake on the part of the Acting Commissioner. Therefore the proposal of his hon. Friend was a most reasonable one, and he hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would alter his mind even now, though he was afraid there was not much hope. He trusted, however, that he would consider the argument which had been advanced, and give effect to them by an Amendment in another place. If only in recognition of the efforts the Oppositon had made to improve the character of the Bill—[laughter]—and to assist the right hon. Gentleman in passing what he, at all events, regarded as an important Measure—[laughter]—he ought to give them some small compensation and thus show, after all, that he realised the value of their assistance. [Laughter.]
Motion made, and Question put, "That the Clause be Read a Second time."
The Committee divided:—Ayes, 100; Noes, 189. (Division List, No. 310.)
Bill reported, without Amendment; to be Read the Third time To-morrow.