HL Deb 02 August 1853 vol 129 cc1141-53

, pursuant to notice, presented a Petition from the Merchants and Planters and other Inhabitants of the Island of Ceylon, complaining of the injustice of the present Treasury Minute, which allows chicory to be mixed with coffee, and praying for repeal of the duty on coffee; and at the same time he wished to call the attention of Her Majesty's Government to the effect of the Treasury Minute of 1853 upon the trade, as well as with reference to the interests of the public at large. The noble Viscount said, he felt it to be his duty to bring forward the case of the petitioners, the petition being entrusted to him by many persons with whom he was well acquainted, and to call attention to the operation of the Treasury Minute, not only as it affected the trade of London and this country, but also as affecting the revenue of the State, and the prosperity of the Colonies, especially of the Island of Ceylon. The Treasury Minute of the late Government and that of the present should be compared on this matter. By the former the use of chicory was not prevented, but the grocer was allowed to have it on his premises only when it was labelled as such. The Minute of the present Government, on the contrary, sanctioned the grocer in selling chicory, provided he put on his coffee papers labels that chicory was mixed with it. Immediately on the present Government coming into office, it was rumoured that the Treasury Minute of the late Government on the sale of chicory and coffee would be altered, and he (Viscount Torrington) had called the attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the injury which the alteration would inflict upon the public; but though the Chancellor of the Exchequer had certainly listened to him with great courtesy, he showed that he had made up his mind upon an ex parte statement, which he found was not to be shaken by his representations on the subject. He was bound to say, however, that the two reasons adduced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the alteration, appeared to him to be extremely inconclusive—the one being that chicory was expensive to cultivate, and the other that it would not be drunk except it was mixed with coffee. All the respectable merchants in the trade were adverse to the Minute, which they alleged was issued solely upon the misrepresentations of interested parties, who were now making large fortunes by the mixture of chicory with coffee; charging, as they did, 1s. per lb. for what did not cost them more than 3d. or 4d. It was found, upon analysis of several samples of this mixture, that the most respectable tradesmen put 25 per cent of chicory into the coffee; while others put 40 per cent, 75 per cent, and even 90 per cent of chicory in the mixture. Their Lordships knew that chicory was, in fact, nothing but the root of the common dandelion, and that it possessed, therefore, all the properties of that drug, some of which were extremely deleterious to health; but nevertheless it appeared that Her Majesty's Government thought right to sanction its sale as an article of food. If, however, they were determined to permit its mixture with coffee, in his (Viscount Torrington's) opinion, they should establish strictly the quantity to be mixed, and make all above that quantity illegal. The statement of the petitioners was, the parties who sell the mixture had realised 1,200,000l. by the Minute of the Government; and it should be remembered that time chicory so sold was consumed chiefly by the poorer classes of the country. On the publication of the Minute of Lord Derby's Government, a large increase had taken place in the consumption of coffee; while since the alteration it had sensibly declined. By the returns since made, there was a falling-oft of 68,000 lb. since June, 1852; while, as compared with June, 1851, it amounted to 700,000 lb. There was no article of food of which the consumption had not increased, with the exception of coffee; the consumption of coffee had decreased since the issue of the existing Minute, and was de- creasing still more. This fact was deserving of serious attention. The traders of London complained of the loss they sustained through the operation of the existing Minute. They said it was not fairly carried out, and it was the feeling in the City that the Secretary of the Treasury was disinclined to prosecute parties infringing the law, and that the Chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue seemed to share in that disinclination. There was one special case, that of John Cassell, who had never been prosecuted, and who had, it was alleged, obtained a second licence under the name of another person for the sale of this mixture. The trade wished for a Parliamentary inquiry into the matter, and would not be satisfied until a Committee was appointed for that purpose. Upon application being made to the noble Earl at the head of the Government, he said he was willing to receive a deputation upon the subject; but that his mind was made up, and that whatever evidence might be adduced could have no effect in altering the determination of Her Majesty's Government. The result was that a paper was drawn up in the form of a memorial to the Treasury, and a copy of it transmitted to the noble Earl, as well as to every Member of Parliament; and to two extracts from that paper, which were very important, he (Viscount Torrington) now begged to call their Lordships' attention. The memorialists stated— We beg to impress upon your Lordship that this sort of competition is not free trade, and that to call it so is calculated to bring free trade into disrepute, especially in the colonies and amongst foreigners. By free trade is understood liberty of market to all producers under the same duties and upon equal terms. This, the colonial and foreign coffee growers have a right to expect from England, and do not receive. The next point to which he would direct their Lordships' attention was the question of risk on the part of the dealer. In reference to this the memoralists said— The fraudulent dealers are perfectly well aware that the great majority of persons will put up with any imposition rather than waste time in punishing those who have cheated them; and, therefore they do not scruple to run a risk, the ordinary profits upon which are sufficient to cover the loss of occasional detection. And it is worthy of your Lordship's consideration, that all the poorer classes of customers, and nearly the whole of the working classes, have practically no redress. They generally, especially in the suburbs and country towns have a running account with the grocer, which places them completely in his power; he may sell them a mixture unlabelled in defiance of the law, or a legally labelled mixture for pure coffee, and at the price of coffee. We beg, therefore, respectfully, but very earnestly, to enforce upon your Lordship's attention, the fact, that the existing Minute does not protect the public, nor prevent the dishonest trader from an undue advantage over his honest competitors. Nor does the Minute, nor can any possible system of regulation, which sanctions the mixture, prevent the most gross fraud. The mixture may contain scarcely a grain of coffee. Of thirty-four separate purchases accurately tested, three consisted almost entirely of chicory; twenty-two were one-half chicory; six were one-third chicory. It will scarcely be contended that the Government can be justified in sanctioning this competition in fraud, and it is not pretended that any regulation can determine the proportions of the mixture. There may be a mere grain of coffee to give the name, or a sixth, a fourth, a half, or two-thirds, according to the cupidity and conscience of the mixers. The Government are perfectly satisfied with the evidence in favour of the mixture, although probably your Lordship will agree with us, that how much chicory or how little coffee there may be in the mixture is not a matter of indifference either to the purchaser, the coffee grower, or the revenue. Another most important matter for consideration was, that nobody seemed to understand the existing Minute. The Chancellor of the Exchequer and Mr. James Wilson in the House of Commons, and Mr. John Wood, the Chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue, had all given different answers to inquiries addressed to them respecting it. On the 17th of March last, Mr. Archibald Hastie put the following question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer:— If it is to be clearly understood, under the terms of the late Treasury Minute, relating to the sale of coffee and chicory, that it will be considered a breach of the law to sell coffee without any label of description, except in a pure and unmixed state; and that if coffee so sold without being labelled shall prove to be mixed with chicory, or, whether labelled or not, shall prove to be mixed with any other extraneous substance, the party selling it will be liable to prosecution; and, if in case of information being laid of a breach of the law, the proper authorities will prosecute the offenders? To this Mr. Gladstone replied in distinct terms— That it is a breach of the law to sell coffee without any label description, except in a pure and unmixed state; that if coffee so sold, without being labelled, shall prove to be mixed with chicory the party will be prosecuted; or whether labelled or not, if it prove to be mixed with any extraneous substance, the party selling it will be liable to prosecution; and that in event of information being laid of a breach of the law, the authorities will prosecute the offenders."—[3 Hansard, cxxv. 313] That announcement was perfectly satisfactory. But a few days afterwards the Chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue wrote to Mr. Burton, in direct contradiction to this, in the following terms:— Inland Revenue Office, April 27, 1853. Sir—In answer to your letter inquiring whether a mixture of chicory and coffee labelled according to Excise regulations, but vended and paid for as coffee, renders the vendor liable to penalties— I have to acquaint you that the label being according to Excise regulations, is sufficient notice to the purchaser that the article is a mixture; and therefore the Board would not prosecute in such a case.—I am, Sir, your obedient servant, THOMAS DOBSON, Assistant Secretary. Now that answer, their Lordships would observe, was exactly contrary to the reply of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, given in the House of Commons but a few days before. Ou the 9th of May, Lord Claud Hamilton asked the Secretary to the Treasury— Whether a mixture of chicory and coffee, labelled according to the Excise regulations, but sold and paid for as coffee, rendered the vendor liable to penalties? To this question Mr. Wilson answered— That he could not understand how it was possible, under the Treasury Order, that such a case as that alluded to by the noble Lord had occurred. Why, it was daily occurring in every part of England. Under that Order, coffee and chicory mixed together must be sold in packets, labelled clearly and distinctly as 'coffee and chicory mixture.' If the mixture were sold without that label, it was clearly illegal; but if the packet were provided with it, it was legal. In Birmingham, the other day some of these prosecutions were instituted and carried out to convictions; but at Portsmouth the magistrates had refused to convict. Such were the conflicting views entertained as to the effect of the Minute. He thought he had now stated to the House sufficient reason for asking the noble Earl at the head of Her Majesty's Government to give them some information as to the question, what was the state of the law with regard to prosecutions of this nature. At present, the people all over England were unable to purchase pure coffee. They got nothing but coffee and chicory mixed; and he wished to know, therefore, if it was intended to carry out the measure vigorously and effectively, and if any hope was to be held out to the colonial interest, that possibly in the next Session of Parliament a Committee would be appointed to look into the matter, and, once for all, decide a question which had been, and always would be, a source of much irritation until it was finally settled?


said, he should be happy to see the end of the great chicory question, for it had occupied the attention of Parliament a long time, and had been a subject of great diversity of opinion. He must say, the noble Viscount, n the statement which he had made, had been guilty of very great inaccuracies in many respects. In the first place, the alteration that had been made by the Treasury Minute to which he referred, was rendered necessary by the inconvenience, hardship, and difficulty which the common people of this country had suffered in using coffee as directed by the Minute of the late Government. The noble Lord said—and this was the first time he (the Earl of Aberdeen) had heard the statement—that chicory was an injurious substance. Why, half the coffee in Europe was chicory, especially in the south of Europe; and he would venture to say that in the south of France there was twice the quantity of chicory used that there was of coffee. Be that as it might, it was anything, but a deleterious substance—on the contrary, it was greatly preferred by the mass of coffee-drinkers. Their Lordships night prefer pure coffee; but the great mass of the consumers of this beverage preferred the mixture. How were their Lordships to enable the people to mix it? Not as was attempted by the Minute of the late Government, which made separate packets necessary, for coffee when ground remained a powder, and chicory became a solid cake, which it was impossible for the party to mix himself. It consequently became necessary to grind them together, in order that the mixture might exist. There was another reason—that of expense—for when a poor man came to buy an ounce of chicory and an ounce of coffee, the making a packet of each added greatly to the probable expense of furnishing the articles. It was therefore infinitely preferred by the great mass of the common people that this article should be sold mixed with the coffee. The regulation under which it was permitted to be sold prescribed a distinct label placed on the packet, indicating that it was a mixture of coffee and chicory; and the noble Viscount pretended to doubt that a penalty was incurred if the mixture was sold without that label. But no such doubt could possibly exist on that point. There could be no question that if the mixture was not possessed of that label, the vendor of it was liable to a penalty. The noble Viscount had also gone on in the most unwarrantable manner to insinuate that the officers—highly re- spectable as they were—had all neglected their duty, and had been guilty of a sort of complicity of fraud. He (the Earl of Aberdeen) thought that was a most unwarrantable assertion; and to prove how unwarrantable it was, he would only read to their Lordships a return of the prosecutions under the very provision which the noble Viscount pretended to doubt was efficacious. There were upwards of 130,000 persons licensed to deal in coffee in this country, and each of them had been served with a copy of the last general order. The officers of the Board had made 2,527 special visits for the examination of samples, which had been analysed at a laboratory, on which 470 prosecutions had been instituted; and there had not been a single prosecution without a conviction. He thought their Lordships would admit that that return at least showed that there had been considerable activity shown in carrying out the provisions of this Treasury Minute; and he could only say that those accusations or insinuations against the proper conduct of those officers were purely calumnious. The noble Lord had mentioned the name of a particular dealer, John Cassell, who he supposed was especially favoured by the authorities in having a licence to sell coffee without the prescribed label. Now he (the Earl of Aberdeen) learnt from the very best authority—namely, from the heads of that department—that the coffee of that man had been repeatedly analysed, and had been found to be pure. The noble Viscount also stated that the amount of coffee entered for home consumption had diminished since the publication of this Minute. He (the Earl of Aberdeen) had in his hand a return of the quantities of coffee entered for home consumption in the three months ending the 5th July, 1853, as compared with those of the preceding year; and he found that in 1852 the quantity was 8,000,000 odd lbs., whilst in 1853 it was 8,977,000 lbs., showing an increase of very nearly a million pounds. Now, the fact was, that this was a substance which, up to the Minute of the late Government, he believed had been used without any restriction whatever. He thought, from 1840 down to the year before last, it had been left to the consumers to please themselves in the use of this mixture; there had been no restriction on it; it had not been considered as anything in the nature of adulteration, because the matter which had been mixed with coffee was not, as the noble Lord had stated, an injurious substance. It was rather salutary, he (the Earl of Aberdeen) thought; but be that as it might, it was left open to the public to decide, and to the dealers to do as they thought fit. But the restriction made last year had been found inconvenient to execute, by increasing the trouble and expense in packing the mixture in the way which was necessary. The Chancellor of the Exchequer inquired most deliberately and extensively before he issued the present Minute; and his right hon. Friend had only been guided by a desire to consult the public convenience in this matter, and particularly that of the lower orders. He (the Earl of Aberdeen) would only say that he was convinced that the great body of the consumers in this country of the lower orders had every reason to be satisfied with the Minute at present in existence.


said, that as yet no sufficient reason had been given why the Minute of the late Government was superseded. He confessed he was rather astonished at the cause of the change which the noble Earl had explained to their Lordships. For if he rightly understood the noble Earl, he said that unless the two substances—coffee and chicory—were mixed, the chicory would not last long—


Chicory became caked if it were packed in a separate paper.


could only see in that fact an illustration of the partiality for "coalition" and "fusion" which was so characteristic of the Government of the noble Earl. Exactly the same excess might be made by the wine merchant for mixing sherry and brandy. The only object which the late Government had in view in issuing the Treasury Minute which which had been superseded, was to prevent imposition being practised un the classes who could not help themselves by the adulteration of coffee with some of the best chemists in London, they chicory. If the noble Earl would consult would tell him that the extent to which adulteration was carried on in every substance that was sold in the market, of which we ate and drank, was positively frightful; and that the only comfort we had was the reflection, that in nine cases out of ten the adulterations were not actually deleterious. But as to getting any simple substance in its naturally pure state, that was altogether out of the ques- tion. He thought that the noble Earl had been rather hard upon the. Minute of the late Government; but he (the Earl of Malmesbury) begged to say that that Minute was greatly preferred by the public consumers to that of the noble Earl.


said, that the reasoning of the noble Earl at the head of the Government amounted to this—that where the discharge of the functions of the Government was inconvenient, they were to be abdicated, thereby giving a direct encouragement to the unfair trader. He admitted, however, that the present Minute was a great improvement upon the state of things which existed before Lord Derby's Government came into office. The Treasury Minute of the late Government had been issued in November last, and the present Government only thought fit to wait until February before that arrangement was rescinded. It appeared to him that the Government in a case of this kind was bound in some degree to exercise its powers to prevent unfair trading; and it seemed very strange that successive Governments had neglected to effect that object. The Minute issued by the late Ministry was one calculated in many respects to do justice to all parties. He entirely concurred in the object aimed at by the noble Viscount. As far as this Session was concerned, any inquiry was impossible; but next Session he thought this would be a very fair subject for investigation


thought the noble Viscount had made out a very strong case, and that nothing had fallen from the noble Earl (the Earl of Aberdeen) which upset that case. In entering the shop of a dealer, a purchaser had a right to the article he wanted, and the article for which he asked. If the label showed the proportion in which chicory was mixed with coffee—whether the ratio of chicory was 25 or 99 per cent—then the consumer would know exactly what he was purchasing; he would ask for the proportion which suited his own inclination, and expect to pay a price accordingly. At present, however, he got none of this information on entering a shop; he certainly bought coffee labelled "Coffee mixed with chicory," but he had no idea of the quantity of coffee or the quantity of chicory he got. As to the difficulty which consumers were said to experience in mixing the two articles, he had met in the memorial to which allusion had been made, what seemed a complete answer to this, The memorialists said— The assertions as to the inconvenience to consumers from being left to mix the chicory with coffee as their own taste may direct, and the advantage, according to the Economist, of permitting the dealer to make the mixture in grinding, is, we submit to your Lordship, upon the very face of it, absurd. Intimate admixture might be important if the powder were to be eaten; but as, instead of eating the powder, people drink an infusion of it, your Lordships cannot doubt that the boiling water, when the coffee and chicory are stirred about in it, will act upon both in precisely the same way, whether they be mixed together, or put into the water separately. That appeared a very simple and plain answer to the assertion in question; and, if boiling water had the same effect on both chicory and coffee, the whole argument of the noble Earl fell to the ground. The Minute of the present Government bad been productive of benefit to the fraudulent dealer, but of injury to the consumer; the proportions of the mixture sold appeared to be frequently two-thirds of chicory to one-third of coffee; while the price was as if the amount of coffee were greater than the chicory in the mixture. Under the former Minute, when the articles were sold separately and unmixed, no such result could possibly arise. He hoped that next year "the great chicory question" would be put an end to, which would be a consummation devoutly to be wished, and that some plan would be devised which would be just to the consumer, not inconvenient to the fair dealer, and which might satisfy at the same time the growers of coffee.


had not been struck with the chemical argument which had been cited by the noble Lord as to the effect of boiling water upon the two substances of chicory and coffee, because any one who had dabbled in chemistry, even so far as the chemistry of the teapot was concerned, would know that the effect of boiling water would vary according to the fineness of the article. He believed that it was practically for the convenience of the lower classes of consumers that the two articles, instead of being left to them to mix, should be mixed together for them.


thought that there must be some strong reason why the Government submitted to a loss of revenue in permitting chicory, on which there was no duty, to be sold as coffee, on which there was a duty. There might be something in the circumstance that chicory by itself was liable to cake; but whether the fact was so or not ought to be ascertained and that was an additional reason for inquiry. He thought the Treasury Minute was calculated to lead to frauds on the public. The label on the mixture was no guard against fraud in respect to the proportions in the mixture. He hoped either that there would be a return to the Treasury Minute of the last Government, or that the Government would institute an inquiry next year.


said, he must express his regret that the noble Viscount, in bringing forward the question, should have made a very unwarrantable and unjust charge against public servants who were not present to defend themselves.


explained. He distinctly guarded himself against its being supposed that he made any charge against the gentlemen in question, but he said he knew there was a feeling abroad that they had not done their duty, though he would make no charge against them, as they were not in the House. It was supposed by persons out of doors that these officers were hostile to the Minute.


was glad he hat elicited the explanation, but appealed to their Lordships if they had not supposed the noble Lord made a charge against the officers? He could speak from experience, having been the official superior of these gentlemen, and he could say that the business of the Excise was fairly, frankly, and impartially administered. He did not agree with the noble Lord that chicory was a deleterious article; but, still, he thought there was no reason why it should be used to coffee. It did not matter whether the article used in adulteration was deleterious or not; in either case it was a fraud on the public. Water, for instance, was not a deleterious article; but would any one say that it was not a fraud on the public to mix it with milk and sell it to them? He did not hold the noble Lord responsible for all the London milk that was mixed with water; but he held him responsible for adulterations of coffee with chicory. Whenever an article which did not pay duty was substituted for an article which paid duty, the revenue was injured in proportion to the amount of that substitution. In the present case it became a very serious question. The prosperity of the labouring classes had arrived at a point that was unexampled in this country—higher and better than ever it had been at any antecedent period; therefore, as stated by his noble Friend, an increased consumption of coffee might be shown; but at the same time circumstances might have occurred which had prevented that increase from being still greater. It was said that the introduction of chicory promoted the consumption of coffee, and if that were true, he would admit that it should undoubtedly have great weight; but the persons most interested in the consumption were the coffee growers, because if this practice had the effect of raising the consumption of coffee, the coffee growers were the persons who would be most benefited by it, and they ought to have them beseeching their Lordships' House for the consumption of chicory; but they, on the contrary, were the persons who were loudest in their complaints against the practice, and therefore it was not very likely that the use of coffee would be increased by mixture with chicory. When you came to drive out of the market ninety-nine parts of coffee out of a hundred, and sell instead of it an article with the lascia passare of the name of coffee which did not pay the duty the coffee would have paid, the revenue was so far injured and placed in peril. There would be 130,000 persons under surveillance, and the proof of fraud would be dependent on difficult analysis, and a variety of other circumstances; whereas, under the old Minute, there was only a simple fact to be investigated. He would suggest to the noble Earl to consider the expediency of subjecting the question to an inquiry upstairs. It could not take any great time, and it would give great satisfaction to all the parties concerned. If it were found that what was sought for was impracticable, the noble Earl would stand justified before the public, and the House would be saved the trouble of further discussion on the question.


said, the change was not satisfactory to the people of this country who preferred buying an article the nature of which they knew, to one of which they were ignorant. The discontent that prevailed would be increased by the belief that the persons interested in the chicory trade had some peculiar influence in carrying their objects, and that this article alone seemed to have especial privileges attached to it. No Government had attempted to alter the law respecting coffee, but it was suspended. The law was of the most stringent character, and not only was no dealer allowed to mix any article with coffee, but he was not allowed to keep anything resembling coffee in his shop: but now notwithstanding the law, the dealer was not only allowed to sell chicory, but was allowed to sell it mixed up with coffee, provided only that he put a label on the package, stating that it was adulterated. This was as great a violation of the law as could well be. What was the inference? It was the only preparation similar to coffee dealers were allowed to sell, and therefore there was an impression that there was some influence at work in favour of chicory which exercised a power over the authorities. He knew that feeling was universal throughout the country. The question was one, he was satisfied, which ought to be inquired into, with a view to alter the law as to the sale of coffee, and the mixture of other articles with it. It was most objectionable, when there was a law applying a certain penalty to a certain act, that it should be year after year got rid of by a Treasury Minute. They should have the question with respect to the law discussed and settled, so that the law and the order of the Government should be synonymous, instead of being opposed to each other.

Petition ordered to lie on the table.

House adjourned to Thursday next.