HL Deb 26 May 1884 vol 288 cc1283-7

said, he rose to ask, Whether the Secretary of (State for the Colonies had arrived at a decision with regard to the questions relative to the West Indian sugars, submitted to him by a deputation from the West India Committee on 4th of April last? The total amount of sugar imported from the West Indies had fallen off since 1878 by nearly one-third, while side by side with this there was a large increase in the consumption of sugar. It was perfectly clear, therefore, that while the West Indies exported less, the United Kingdom imported more. On the Continent, on the other hand, the production of beet sugar had, since 1878, greatly increased. The result was that the West Indies were in danger of being completely shut out of the market. The United States were importing large quantities of beet sugar, and they had agreed to Treaties with Mexico and the the Sandwich Islands, by virtue of which sugar would probably be introduced in very large quantities. In that direction, again, the West Indies were likely to be very badly off, and their trade to be placed in a position of very great difficulty. The Petition of the West India Committee submitted three questions to the noble Earl—Whether Her Majesty's Government would be prepared to promote an International Conference with a view to the abolition of bounties; secondly, whether they would do all in their power to procure a Favoured Nation Clause from the United States; and whether they would encourage the West Indies to conclude an arrangement of a reciprocal character with the United States. They had no power of themselves to make such tariffs, and it could only be done subject to the control of the Imperial Government. He was afraid a West Indian Conference would have very little chance indeed, because it was hardly likely that any argument that could be used with foreign, nations would induce them to abolish the bounty system. The Favoured Nation Clause, he believed, would be a reasonable proposal. The West Indian Colonies had had so much trouble and difficulty that they deserved the favourable consideration of the Government. The noble Earl concluded by asking the Question of which he had given Notice.


My Lords, it is not a difficult or disagreeable task to answer the Questions which have been put by my noble Friend, because in his statement of fact to which I have listened there is nothing from which I can dissent. It is quite true that there has been a very considerable falling off in the importation of sugar from the West Indies coincident with the very large increase in the general consumption in this country; and although that is partly balanced by the increased exportation from the West Indies to other countries, there is no doubt that the sugar-growing interest in the West Indies is in a state of depression. That does not imply a corresponding depression in all industries, because the Native population are developing various others, some of them with considerable success; but the planting interest is still by far the most important. I am afraid that the history of that interest during the last 50 years would show that its condition in that time has been much more frequently disastrous than prosperous; and I do not at all dispute the noble Lord's proposition that the condition of the planting industry is such that we are bound to do anything which may reasonably be in our power to remove the difficulties under which it labours. Now, the noble Earl referred to three questions that were raised by the deputation which called upon me at the Colonial Office and to which I gave a reply. The first question is that of bounties given by Foreign Governments to exporters of sugar from their country; the second is that of extending the most-favoured nation treatment by the United States to the West Indian Colonies as regards their production of sugar; and the third is the question whether special arrangements of a reciprocal character shall be made between the West Indies and the United States. Upon none of these points have I anything material to add to what I stated to the deputation. As to the bounties, I do not see any more now than I did then any prospect of inducing Foreign Governments to depart from the system which they have adopted. They are not likely to yield to any representation from us. They are within their rights, and it would be impossible, consistently with present ideas, either to give bounties ourselves or to impose differential duties on goods which have received bounty in their own country. We could not tell them that they should alter their system because it injured the trade of the West Indies, for, if we did, I anticipate they would reply that they found it benefited their own trade, and that was what most concerned them. The only question is whether we can take any steps to make it to the interests of those countries to abandon the system? I do not think that in this country the idea of granting corresponding bounties prevails to any great extent, or that it is likely to prevail. A system of bounties is, undoubtedly, faulty in principle, and not likely to be acceptable to the English taxpayers. No doubt, we might impose countervailing duties upon the goods corning from the countries where bounties prevail; but there, again, we should be acting contrary to all modern practice; and apart from that question, with regard to which a great deal may be said, the attempt to return to differential duties would lead to many complications and difficulties, and hold out such opportunities for fraud that the disadvantages arising would be far greater than the benefits. As to the system of foreign bounties, I am not going to defend it in principle; I think it indefensible; but, taking the English nation as a whole, it is not to us an absolutely unmixed evil. In effect, France and Germany are giving some hundred thousands yearly to provide England with sugar at an exceptionally low rate. Frenchmen and Germans may have much reason to complain; they are taxed that we may buy cheaply; but to the English consumer it is a gain. Sugar is an article of universal consumption, and the price of it affects the poor more than any other class. It may be asked, further, are the present low prices likely to last? I do not think that the present state of things is likely very long to continue. There is overproduction of sugar just now, and exceptionally low prices follow as a natural consequence; but if all our beliefs in these matters are not delusions, overproduction will remedy itself, prices will return to their normal level, and the superiority of cane sugar over beetroot will show itself. We may hope, therefore, that our sugar manufacturing industry will hold its own, notwithstanding the disadvantage of bounty. As to the practical step of calling an International Conference to deal with this question, I told the deputation that I would consider the matter. I have considered it, and consulted my noble Friend at the Foreign Office, who came to the conclusion, in which I entirely agreed, that, at any rate, at the present time it would be useless to call a Conference for the purpose. I am bound to add that I do not believe that there is any chance of Foreign Powers agreeing to a Conference with a view to abolish bounties. If it were possible, this Government would readily join; but it does not seem possible now. The next proposal of the deputation was to obtain the most favoured-nation treatment from the United States for the West Indian Colonies. The matter has often been discussed before, and we have not hitherto succeeded in attaining that object; but we hold the case to be a strong one, since we give the most favoured-nation treatment to the United States. I have been in communication with the Foreign Office on the subject, and a despatch has gone, or is going, out to Washington upon it. It is better, if possible, to obtain what we want in that way rather than by separate negotiations between the West Indies and the United States, because these might involve giving to a Foreign Power advantages in regard to the trade of a British Colony which the Mother Country and the other Colonies do not enjoy, which is a contingency not to be overlooked, and certainly not to be desired. But I do not ignore the fact that the natural market for West Indian produce lies rather in America than in Europe, and I am not disposed to veto any special arrangement which might have the effect of increasing that traffic if it did not seem likely to inflict practical injury on our trade here. The first thing to do will be to endeavour to obtain the most favoured-nation treatment from the United States with the West Indian Colonies, and then, if that negotiation fails, we shall have to consider some other and more special arrangement, if any of a satisfactory character can be come to.