HL Deb 15 March 1888 vol 323 cc1256-62

, in rising to call attention to the working of the Merchandize Marks Act; and to ask What steps have been or are being taken to render the Act effectual in India, the Colonies, and foreign countries? said, he had been led to call attention to this subject because he had been engaged for upwards of a year as Chairman of a Committee sitting at the Board of Trade to inquire into the working of the Trade Marks and Patents Act, and a good deal of information upon the cognate subject of the Merchandize Marks Act had come before him. He did not intend to cast the slightest doubt upon the wisdom or expediency of passing that measure. He thought that some such measure had become absolutely necessary. Acts which in the first instance must undoubtedly have been consciously fraudulent, had come in some cases to be almost usages of trade; and it was very difficult, if not impossible, for anyone, without at least an extraordinary amount of moral fibre, to set himself against the prevailing practice. Marks were put upon manufactured goods which were neither more nor less than false in intention and necessarily deceptive. The evil was a growing one, therefore he did not for a moment doubt that it was both wise and necessary in the interests of honest trade and honest traders to put a stop, as far as possible, to so prejudicial a state of things. There was no doubt that dishonest traders acting in this way injured trade generally. Marks on goods which had won a reputation in particular markets were put on articles of an inferior character, and, for a time, a profit was made by underselling the bonâ fide manufacturer, who was sometimes either driven out of the market, or compelled to abandon the mark under which the reputation of his goods had been achieved. So far as the Act had affected these merchants and traders, he believed that its operation had been, upon the whole, extremely beneficial, and, without the necessity of resorting to prosecutions, it had largely checked a practice to which it was desired to put an end. But it had a wider scope than that. While, on the one hand, there were British merchants and manufacturers who adopted questionable practices, they in turn, and, indeed, British merchants and manufacturers generally, suffered from the use of fraudulent marks by foreign manufacturers. Foreign goods of an inferior description were passed off as British goods, and thus injured the sale of British goods and the credit of British manufacturers and merchants. This was a very serious evil, and it was one object of the Act to check the practice as far as possible. Of course, as far as the United Kingdom was concerned, it was possible to make the Act effective by the exercise of vigilance on the part of the Customs authorities, and foreign manufacturers' goods coming into the country had been dealt with to a considerable extent under the Act. But it was obvious that the utmost care ought to be taken not to stop any goods which really ought not to be stopped, because by stopping such goods discredit would be brought on the working of the Act and real damage would be done. There was need of what he might call extra care and precaution in this matter. One case had been brought to his attention where it was alleged that goods ordered by a merchant in Russia from an American manufacturer were not allowed to be landed in this country for the purpose of being trans-shipped to Russia because they wore stamped "Stamford Co.," and the mark might be misunderstood for Stamford in Lincolnshire. Our shipping trade might be seriously injured by such action as this. There were other ways of sending goods to Russia than by British steamers and through this country. It was much easier to divert trade than to recall it, and, therefore, it was necessary that great precautions should be taken in the working of the Act. But it was not so much by the importation of such, goods into this country that British manufacturers had suffered, as by their importation into India, our Australian Colonies, and foreign countries in the East. What had been the effect up to the present time with, regard to this aspect of the question? The Act passed last summer had not come into operation until the 1st of January, 1888. Down to the present time no law had been passed in India which, enabled any of these falsely-marked goods to be stopped at the Indian ports. What had happened? Goods which came to this country for trans-shipment to India had been stopped, but these goods were now sent from foreign ports in foreign ships, and got just as readily into India; and the British merchant and manufacturer suffered just as much as formerly, while the British ship-owner was injured. Their Lordships would see, therefore, that unless steps were taken to prevent these goods from being imported into India, and were taken speedily, there was likely to be serious damage to the shipping interest of this country, He thought that our merchants and manufacturers had a right to insist that, while they were brought under these strict regulations, the foreign shipowner should not be allowed to introduce into India goods that could only be injurious to the Indian consumer and which were a serious disadvantage to the English merchant and manufacturer. In the interests of India there could not be any reason for the slightest delay in passing legislation to give the authorities at the Indian ports power to stop falsely-marked goods. He therefore ventured to put it before their Lordships as a most urgent matter that at the earliest possible date stops should be taken to enable these authorities to do so. He believed that commercial people in India were strongly in favour of such a step, the Bombay Chamber of Commerce having petitioned in favour of it. With regard to the Colonies, there were, no doubt, greater difficulties; they had representative Governments, and their Parliamentary procedure necessarily created a good deal of difficulty which did not exist in the case of India. The remarks, however, which he had made with regard to India applied also to the Colonies; unless steps were taken to enforce this law in the ports of Australia, a serious injury would result to our manufacturing interest which it ought not to be called upon to suffer. There could be no countervailing advantage to the Australians in having these goods introduced into their country. There might be some difficulty as to their adopting the whole of the Merchandize Marks Act, but without waiting for the complete measure they might be asked to pass the few clauses enabling them to deal with those falsely-marked goods which came from Europe to their ports. That ought not to be a matter of serious difficulty, and would meet the case referred to. Now, he turned to the case of China and Japan. He was told that the matter was somewhat serious there also, and that there were certain German houses, not by any means scrupulous in their dealings, who sent out quantities of goods, some of very good quality, which were stamped as German goods, and some of very inferior quality, which were marked as English goods. The consequence was that not merely did these goods undersell British goods in these markets, but also gave them, as far as they could, a bad reputation in the market, by flooding it with inferior goods. That, of course, was a very serious matter, and one which ought, as far as possible, to be dealt with. Nobody could doubt that during the last few years the strain of competition had become more severe than in former times, although from all he had heard he was not disposed to take the gloomy view which had been taken by some. He believed that we were holding our own as well as could possibly be expected, in spite of competition. Nevertheless, it must be agreed that we could not afford to endure any addition to the difficulty which it was possible to remove and alleviate, if anything could be done to put a stop to such a state of matters as that to which he had referred. It could not be to the interest of China and Japan that they should have their markets flooded with goods which pretended to be something which they were not. Therefore, as far as they were concerned, there could not be any motive for opposition, although, of course, those who were guilty of these practices would wish, to continue them. He could not help thinking that as the evil was so serious, and the matter was one in which these countries had no other interest than our own, some steps should be taken, whether by International arrangement or otherwise, to put a stop to the existing state of affairs, no was sure that the import- ance of the matter would be recognized by all.


said, he entirely agreed with what had fallen from the noble and learned Lord, and thought it extremely important, in the interests of our manufacturers, that these fraudulent practices should be put a stop to as early as possible. A letter on the subject was received at the India Office in June last from the Board of Trade, suggesting legislation. That letter was forwarded to the Government of India, by whom the matter was already being considered, together with copies of the Bill which had been passed in this country. Not having hoard what was being done, he had recently sent another despatch to India, and on the 29th of February asked by telegram for a reply. The answer received was that the subject was still under consideration, and a reply would be sent as soon as possible. The matter, therefore, had not been lost sight of. He was aware that there were certain difficulties in the way. In 1879 a Bill had been brought forward by the Viceroy for the purpose of providing for the registration of trade marks. This was done in consequence of the representations of the Chamber of Commerce of Bombay and other mercantile associations. That measure had been referred to a Select Committee, but was withdrawn at the desire of the mercantile bodies. If the answer which he received from India was not satisfactory, he would call attention to the points to which the noble and learned Lord had referred, and probably there would not be much difficulty in passing a law to meet the necessities of the case.


said, he desired to express his entire concurrence in the observations of the noble and learned Lord. He might add that, so far as the Colonies were concerned, the question of merchandize marks was very fully discussed at the Colonial Conference, and he thought that, without exception, all the representatives and delegates from the Colonies were in favour of legislation, something of the kind which now existed in this country. He had sent out a circular at once after that Act had passed to all the Colonies. An Act dealing with the question had been passed by one Colony only—namely, St. Helena—where the question was not very likely to occur. Bills had been introduced by five Colonies—namely, British Guiana, Cyprus, Gibraltar, the Gold Coast, and the Straits Settlements; nine Colonies had promised that such legislation would be introduced; and 19, including Canada, Newfoundland, New South Wales, Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, and Trinidad, had not sent any answer. He had, therefore, sent out a reminding circular, pressing upon them the importance of such legislation. He was afraid that none of the Australian Parliaments were now sitting; but he would take care that all due pressure should be put upon the Colonial Parliaments to pass legislation on the subject.


said, he wished to make a few remarks with regard to the action of the Customs in the matter. The Act in question was extremely difficult to administer. The Customs officers had thrown upon them a very invidious and critical duty in examining the goods coming from abroad and seeing whether the marks upon them contravened the provisions of the Act or not. In the earlier stage there was far from being any feeling on the part of the commercial classes that the Customs exercised any undue rigour. Though the Customs pointed out all the difficulties they had to contend with, the pressure put upon them by the merchants and traders was extreme to make the enforcement of the Act as strict as possible. There was a case in which a large consignment of goods was stopped. The head office of the firm was in London, the depot in Antwerp, and the manufactory in South America, and though it was claimed that the goods showed the origin required by the Act, it was held that that was not clear, because it was merely stated that the manufactory was in South America and the depòt at Antwerp. There were many cases of that kind, and he believed that, on the whole, the Customs officers had done their duty with great impartiality and ability. As the Act became better known, he was sure it would realize the desires of the trading classes; but if it were to be thoroughly successful it must be stringently applied.


said, he had listened with great curiosity to the speech of the noble and learned Lord opposite in order to discover by what machinery he would act in the ports of other countries. He did not know by what authority he would be able to apply to foreign countries to put the machinery of the Act in force. It was not a question of negotiations or of any number of Conventions or Treaties; but what was wanted was the zeal of the Executive acting on the Custom House officers and forcing them to exercise that rigid supervision which alone would satisfy the provisions of the Act. He would invite the noble and learned Lord to exercise his imagination, and suppose that we were to ask China to do what was proposed, and that China was to ask reciprocity of us, what would be the condition of our Custom House officers trying to read the inscription, and to discover whether the consignment of tea came from a particular tea garden? Of course, any practical means of giving effect to what the noble and learned Lord desired to accomplish, the Government would be glad to adopt; but he did not hear anything in the speech of the noble and learned Lord which would load him to suppose that there was any available machinery at the disposal of the Foreign Office for effecting the object which he had in view.


said, that his observations applied more to the false marks upon goods alleged to have been sent from this country The marks upon English and German goods wore as well known in China and Japan as in this country, and the Custom House officers would be perfectly competent to see whether they were false or not. He thought the several Governments might be brought to agree to take measures to put a stop to false marks.