HL Deb 23 March 1888 vol 324 cc157-61

, in rising to ask Her Majesty's Government, Whether they will not introduce some measure to prevent the fraudulent practice of selling foreign imported meat as home produce, a practice which inflicts serious injury on the agricultural interest and on all producers and consumers in the United Kingdom? said, he had received so many communications on this subject from all parts of the country that he was convinced that it was regarded as one of very great importance to the agricultural interest. The noble Marquess at the head of the Government had recently stated that there was no chance of any reversion to Protection. He was very glad that the noble Marquess had made that distinct announcement; but if there was no chance of Protection, it was all the more incumbent on the Government to see that justice, at any rate, was done to the agricultural interest. The Prime Minister had the other day expressed the desire of Her Majesty's Government to do all they could to ameliorate the condition of the agricultural interest,; and one step in that direction was taken by this House when, a few days ago, it carried the Amendment of the noble Earl (the Earl of Jersey) upon the Railway and Canal Traffic Bill, and struck a blow against the preference given in railway rates to foreign produce. When, some years ago, foreign meat was first imported from Canada and the United States the meat was openly sold as such, the public were informed of what they were buying; and got it at extremely cheap prices—at 4½d. or 5d. a-pound, and frequently it was sold at shops specially opened for the sale of such imported meat. But now the foreign meat was sold with home meat, and no distinction was made between the two. Instead of the poorer classes getting the imported meat at 4d. or 5d. or 6d. a-pound they paid 8d. or 9d., the money taken from the price of the home meat being added on to the price of the foreign meat. Unfortunately, there was nothing in the law to prevent this. He was informed that a quantity of horse flesh was also sold in this way. A remedy for this state of things which he suggested was very simple, and could be effected by the insertion of two clauses into the Adulteration Act of 1875. One clause should provide that every person selling foreign meat should take out a licence; and the second clause should impose severe penalties on any person who sold foreign meat without having over his shop a board stating that the shopkeeper was licensed to sell foreign meat. This would have the effect of putting purchasers on their guard against having foreign meat palmed off upon them as home meat, and at the high prices of home meat. It would be the greatest boon not only to agriculturists, but to consumers throughout the Kingdom. It might be said that this was a side-wind of Protection. It was Protection, but protection of the poorer classes rather than of the agriculturists in the first place. It was a strange fact that if the question was put to a butcher whether or not he sold foreign meat he always said he did not, yet immense quantities of foreign meat were being annually imported. Last year the amount of foreign meat brought into London was double what it was in the preceding year. What became of this foreign meat if it was not sold by the butchers? Were the Government willing to allow this practice of deception to continue? Parliament had shown itself alive to the importance of matters of this kind by passing the Adulteration Act, the Margarine Act, and the Merchandize Marks Act. It interfered to prevent the sale of margarine under the name of butter, although margarine was as good as butter. But no one could deny that foreign meat after the miles it had to travel by land and sea was, when it reached this country, inferior in quality to home meat. He hoped that Her Majesty's Government would not hesitate to step in and interfere to stop the deception now practised, and if they did so they would confer a boon on both agriculturists and the poorer classes.


said, the noble Lord probably did not anticipate a satisfactory reply to his Question, for the point he had raised was part of a much larger subject. Trade frauds should be dealt with more severely. There was no country in Europe in which trade frauds were so prevalent as in England, and they would never be stopped until some personal disgrace was inflicted upon the men who habitually defrauded the public in the way that was now frequently done. In France the law was much more severe, and the Penal Code provided that persons found guilty of trade frauds might be punished not merely with penalties but by imprisonment, extending from 15 days to three months. The consequence was that those offences were much fewer in France than here. He should like the Government to lay a Return on the Table of the convictions obtained in this country merely for the adulteration of milk. The penalties that had been inflicted were much too small to deter offenders. In France a man could be fined and sent to prison for 15 days, and the Court could order the publication of placards announcing the sentence imposed.


said, he thought that the proposal of the noble Lord would cause great inconvenience. The most respectable butchers bought and sold good foreign meat with advantage to themselves and to their customers. If they were compelled to take out a licence and proclaim themselves buyers of foreign meat they would, he feared, he prejudiced. Foreign meat was sometimes better than English meat, and farmers themselves often sold it. What would really do good would be to encourage farmers to take advantage in greater numbers of the retail trade. Four or five farmers by associating together could carry on the trade of butcher with much profit to themselves. He was afraid the proposal of the noble Lord would be prejudicial to the traders, and in no way beneficial to the buyer.


said, he was surprised that the noble Lord who had introduced this subject should have appeared to complain of an absence of sympathy in the Government for the agricultural interest, he should have thought that the reference to agriculture in the Speech from the Throne and the observations which had recently fallen from the noble Marquess at the head of the Government ought to have impressed everybody with the fact that there was no ground for any such complaint. The interest taken by the Government in subjects affecting agriculture had been shown by the passing of the Margarine Act, the introduction of the Railway and Canal Traffic Bill, and the proposal made in "another place" for the relief of local taxation. With reference to the particular question brought forward by the noble Lord, he should like to ask him whether those who complained of not getting English meat when they wanted it, really asked the butchers to give them English and not foreign meat. His advice to buyers was, in the words of the advertisements, "When you ask for it see that you get it." The noble Lord wished the Government to introduce a measure for preventing the fraudulent practice of selling foreign moat as home produce, but if the practice was a fraudulent one he presumed it could be reached by the law as it stood. The Merchandize Marks Act laid down that any one who applied any false trade description to any goods should be held guilty of an offence. Then the 6th section of the Act of 1875 relating to the sale of food and drugs, enacted that "no person shall sell an article of food which is not of the nature and quality asked for." There were also Acts of Parliament under which people could be punished for obtaining money under false pretences. Until the noble Lord and those whom he represented had tried whether the object which they had in view could not be attained by the operation of some of those laws the Government could hardly be asked to introduce fresh legislation. The Return asked for by the noble Lord opposite he would be happy to consider; but he did not himself think that it would be desirable to impose heavy penalties and imprisonment for offences such as the noble Lord had referred to. There were cases in which the infringement of an Act might almost be thought laudable; for instance, when a man mixed a little water with the gin which he sold.


said, that the 6th section of the Sale of Food and Dougs Act could not serve the purpose of the noble Lord (Lord Lamington), because it was clearly directed solely against adulteration.


asked whether it was to be understood that the sale of foreign as English meat was punishable under Clause 6 of the Adulteration of Food and Drugs Act?


said, that he wished carefully to avoid expressing any legal opinion upon this subject. All that he would say was that, until the noble Lord's friends should have tried unavailingly prosecution under the existing law, there could be no good ground for asking the Government to initiate legislation.