HL Deb 07 August 1893 vol 15 cc1404-15

called attention to the existing obstacles to the importation of manufactured silver from Her Majesty's Indian territories. He reminded the House that an Act was passed by the Legislative Council of India on the 26th June last, under instructions from Her Majesty's Government, which closed the Indian Mints to the free coinage of silver. He was not going to enter into the merits of that important matter, and only wished to point out the great hardship which the measure had inflicted upon the holders of uncoined silver in India. On June 25 any man in India who owed his neighbour 50 rupees, and had raw silver of the weight of 50 rupees, could at once, at a small charge, change his raw silver into rupees, and pay his debt. On June 27, after the Act was passed, a holder of raw silver of the weight of 50 rupees could not get 50 rupees for it, but only the price which it would fetch in the market. That hardship was fully pointed out in the very able Report of the Committee, presided over by the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack; but the amount of uncoined silver in the hands of the people of India was not estimated; and, therefore, the amount of the loss could not be judged from the information contained in the Report. Mr. A. J. Balfour, in a very able address which he delivered a few days ago in the City of London, estimated the amount at from £130,000,000 to £200,000,000 sterling. He did not know upon what data that estimate was made; but it was a fact that there was a very large amount of uncoined silver in the hands of the people of India. It had been the custom in India to regard rupees and uncoined silver in the shape of ornaments of different kinds as being freely interchangeable. If anyone wanted a piece of silver plate made he simply gave so many rupees by weight to the workman, who, on completing the article, was paid something for his work. In the same way the Indian cultivator, if short of rupees for paying his taxes to the Government, took silver ornaments in the possession of himself and family to the village banker, who at once gave him, at a very slight charge, rupees in exchange. The practice of the humbler classes, therefore, had been to keep their savings in silver ornaments, which they could exchange for rupees when necessary. So much had that been the case that at the time of the cotton famine in England, when immense quantities of silver were exported from this country to Bombay in exchange for Indian cotton, the cultivators went about for some time with silver wheels to their carts. That would show that the mass of silver in the hands of the people of India must be very great. The present depreciation in the value of that silver could be calculated with fair accuracy. In The Times of that day he read that the value of the rupee in the markets of India was now Is., whereas before the step which the Government had recently taken the value was 1s. 3d. Thus the silver in a rupee, which was now worth only the 20th part of a gold sovereign, was, a short time ago, worth a 16th part—a loss of one-fifth, or 20 per cent. The loss caused by this change to the natives of India as holders of silver must, therefore, be very great, and he was by no means sure that there would not be a greater loss still; for when silver was no longer to be the standard of value in India, and could not be coined in the Indian Mints, it was difficult to place limits on the extent of its depreciation as a marketable commodity. This loss having been occasioned by the action of the Indian Legislature under instructions from Her Majesty's Government, it was the obvious duty of the Government to take care that they did nothing to obstruct other uses of silver, so that the loss inflicted upon holders might be mitigated as much as possible. He would not dilate upon the measure, but would assume that it was right, and that, in the public interests, the change had to be made. Our legislation in this country had been, and still was, most elaborately obstructive of free trade in silver. Up to a few years ago the trade was weighted by an Excise Duty of 40 per cent, upon the value of silver articles made in this country, and an Import Duty purporting to be of the same amount; but it had been proved that, in consequence of a system of rebate allowed to the English manufacturers, the Import Duty upon Indian silver gave considerable protection to the English manufacturers. A long correspondence took place between the Indian Government, successive Secretaries of State for India, and the English Treasury upon the subject; the extreme hardship was pointed out and was not denied, as had been the case also with regard to the Home Charges of the Army, but nothing was done until in 1890 the Government of the noble Marquess opposite removed the duties upon silver plate; and Mr. Goschen, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer, intending apparently to remove any obstacle that remained in respect of the importation of silver plate, suggested to the Government of India that a system of hall-marking should be introduced in India, and that goods marked there and imported into this country should not be assayed and marked here; so that there might be a free import of Indian silver goods. The Government of India, however, held that a system of hall-marking silver plate in India was impracticable on account of the distances that the small manufacturers would have to send their goods to be marked. Neither was there a necessity for it in India, where everybody was an adept in detecting the value of silver. The matter, therefore, stood as it was before; and although the duties had been repealed, our system of hall-marking prevented any considerable trade in silver articles between India and England. The standard of purity of silver, entitling it to be hallmarked, was in this country 925–1,000ths of silver to 25–l,000ths of alloy. The standard of the Indian rupee, which had governed the manufacture of silver in India, was 916–1,000ths of pure silver to 34–1,000ths of alloy, there being, therefore, a difference of 9–1,000ths of alloy only between the standards of purity in the two countries. Nevertheless, silver plate conforming to the Indian standard and manufactured in India could not be hall-marked in this country; and until a few years ago, if it was sent here to be hall-marked, it was actually smashed to pieces and then sent back to India. One celebrated case had occurred whore some fine silver articles imported into this country by Messrs. Orr, of Madras, were destroyed in that barbarous manner. An alteration, however, had been made in that system; and he believed that now an Indian manufacturer who should send over silver that was not up to the standard for hallmarking would be graciously allowed to ship it back again to India in the state in which it came, but he would not be allowed to sell it. There was a measure on the Statute Book passed with the object of permitting the importation into England of certain articles of silver ware of high quality and providing for their exemption from hall-marking; but the restrictions surrounding the privilege were such that manufacturers and merchants availed themselves of it to a very small extent only. Those who had inspected the long array of presents given to the Duke and Duchess of York might have observed that there were only one or two articles of line Indian silver ware amongst the whole number. He had consulted a gentleman in the City of London, Mr. Carlton Wood, upon the matter, and had been informed that the sections of the Revenue Act of 1884 were not taken advantage of for the very conclusive reason that the exemption from hall-marking was placed entirely in the discretion of the Commissioners of Customs in determining whether the article was or was not a work of a certain kind of Oriental pattern; and also because it was impossible to prove after the articles changed hands that they were identical with those passed by the Customs Commissioners. Evidently no trade could be carried on upon such a basis. Silver articles for private use, and not for sale, were allowed to be imported without being hallmarked; but they were accompanied by a notice from the Revenue Department that the plate had been passed by the Customs without assay upon an assurance to that effect, and that if sold without being assayed and hall-marked a penalty would be incurred of £50, and forfeiture of the goods. That was for small articles sent by post. A more elaborate declara- tion was required in the case of goods consigned to agents in this country. The Customs Regulations were absolutely prohibitive of any trade from India in silver plate. But there was an additional reason against the present system, and that was the practice of testing silver plate before it was hall-marked. Scrapings were taken of every separate portion of a piece of plate, all of which were assayed. If it was found to be up to the standard the piece was marked and sent back to the manufacturer. But it was obviously necessary, under those circumstances, to send the plate to be marked in an unfinished state. Otherwise it could not go under this process without damage. Thus anyone would see in a moment that a system of that sort was absolutely prohibitive to the importation of any foreign plate, for the foreign manufacturer could not send his goods to be hall-marked in an unfinished state. Surely it would not be altogether difficult to find a remedy for this grievous injustice to the Indian silver trade? If the standard of purity were slightly lowered, that difficulty might be got over; and if a less barbarous process of testing were adopted, that would get rid of the further difficulty he had mentioned. England was the most restrictive and obstructive of all nations of the world in respect to the silver trade. There was no other nation of Europe which did not mark silver-plate of a lower standard than 925–1,000ths, going down as low even as 800, and taking different standards of purity, and in the case of plate for export no standard at all was required. There were very strong reasons for thinking that the whole system of compulsory hall-marking ought to be done away with, and that any marking should be voluntary. Two nations competed with England in the silver trade—namely, Germany and the United States of America, and in neither was there any system of compulsory hall-marking. In the United States there was not oven any Government Department authorised to put a stamp on silver showing the degree of purity. One of the largest firms of silver merchants in the world—Messrs. Tiffany—put their own mark upon their silver plate, and that was accepted as a guarantee of its quality by the trade. No doubt some representa- tives of the silver trade in this country objected to any alteration in the system; but he thought he had given a pretty good reason for their objections, and that was that it practically gave them a monopoly in the silver manufacture in this country. There were some members of the trade, however, such as Mr. E. Watherston, who had steadily advocated the abolition of hall-marking for many years, as it absolutely prohibited the export of silver plate from the country, and it was obvious that such a system handicapped English manufacturers very seriously in the markets of the world. Moreover, the reason for hall-marking had ceased to exist. It was first introduced in the 28th year of Edward I., and the reason given in the Preamble of the Act of Parliament was "so that none should work worse silver than money." At that time silver was the coinage of the realm, and that Act was passed in order to prevent base silver being put about the country. Of course, silver was now no longer the coin of the realms, but simply a token. The Prime Minister was a strong monometallist; but his orthodoxy should not lead him so far as to persecute silver. All that was wanted was that silver, though it could not be put on an equality with gold as a standard value, might have a chance. Silver had been reduced 100 per cent, in value within their Lordships' own recollection, and a great opening would be found for it if these restrictions were removed. It seemed to him to be a sound economical policy to remove them. Another point was that no unfortunate shopkeeper could sell silver beyond a very small quantity without taking out a licence. The largest firm of stick manufacturers had stated that three-fourths of their customers had given up keeping silver-mounted goods rather than risk a prosecution. He hoped he had shown that in this matter the natives of India had a real grievance, and that there was a great deal to be said in favour of getting rid of the system of compulsory hall-marking. It was only simple justice that every obstacle in the way of the use of silver in the manufactures and commerce of India should be without delay entirely removed. The noble Earl concluded by moving for a copy of the Resolution of the Government of India of November, 1890, on the subject of hall-marking silver.

Moved, "That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty for copy of a Resolution of the Government of India of the 5th of November 1890, on the subject of the introduction of a system of hall-marking of silver plate into India."—(The Earl of Northbrook.)


My Lords, my noble Friend, before he entered upon the immediate matter of his Motion, made some remarks about the recent change in the Indian Currency Laws. I do not think so very important a question can be conveniently discussed on such a Motion as that before the House. But I should not like to pass one or two of my noble Friend's observations entirely without notice. All he said with regard to the natives of India being prevented from taking their uncoined silver to the Mint and getting it coined into rupees was perfectly true; but I am not aware that there is any ground for my noble Friend's statement that the rupee has fallen in value in India.


It was in The Times of to-day.


I do not know what may have been in The Times; but the purchasing power of the rupee, which is the point, has not been effected by the change in the currency. The power of the rupee in India to purchase gold is unaffected. I am told that the present price of gold purchased in India is 1s. 3½d. as represented by the rupee. The exchangeable value of the rupee as a coin in India cannot be lowered by what has taken place. It is the question of the uncoined silver on which my noble Friend's argument is based; and I agree that as the uncoined silver now in the hands of the natives of India can no longer be made available as coin, and is, therefore, only worth the actual gold juice of silver for which it can be sold, it is highly desirable that all obstacles to the free use of silver in other ways should be removed. My noble Friend has explained with great clearness the question of hall-marking; but it is a matter, I am told, of extreme difficulty, and my noble Friend is, I apprehend, perfectly aware that the trade in this country is very strongly against the abolition of the system of hall-marking. If that were not so, a very simple change might be made which would get rid of the whole difficulty—namely, that Parliament should enact that in future all hall-marking should be voluntary and not compulsory. I should myself shrink from expressing any decided opinion on so abstruse a question; but I have never been able to see any good or sound argument why voluntary hall-marking should not be substituted for the present system. If there is not to be a system of voluntary hall-marking, then the following difficulties occur: In the first place, as my noble Friend has pointed out, the system of hall-marking in this country acts prohibitively on the Indian importers, for the reason that if we enforce the process of scraping and re-stamping a manufactured article, it must be re-finished before it is sold. It cannot go back to India to be re-finished, and, therefore, it is impracticable to send manufactured silver to this country. In this way a direct disability is placed on foreign silver, whether from India or elsewhere, and it acts as a direct protection of the home-made article. Various remedies have been suggested, and rejected by the trade and by the Committee which sat upon the whole subject in 1879. The course proposed by the late Government was that the Government of India should institute a system of hall-marking in India; and Lord Cross sent out a Despatch in that sense in 1890, which I shall be perfectly ready to lay on the Table in accordance with my noble Friend's Motion. At that time the Government of India sent a Circular to the different Governments and Mercantile and other Bodies, asking for elaborate information on the whole subject, and they have not yet replied to the Despatch. It is known, however, that very considerable objections are raised to the system of hall-marking in India. It is said that it would be impossible to establish a sufficient number of centres for hall-marking without great hardship to the traders; and other arguments are urged. I am not sure that the Government of India have decidedly made up their minds that no system of hall-marking can be instituted there; and if eventually some voluntary system be found practicable it will be recommended by the Government of India. They have also to inform the Government at home, if they think such a system practicable, what should be the standard of fineness adopted. Another suggestion with regard to the Indian complaint is that the system of assaying by touch should be adopted; it prevails, I am told, in France.


In France only in small articles; in Austria generally.


But I am told that manufacturers here take a very strong objection to that system, though, as I am unacquainted with the merits of it, I am quite unable to determine whether these objections are well founded or not. Speaking for myself, I very strongly concur in the general views expressed by my noble Friend. The system that prevails in this country with regard to silver is directly contrary to the principles of Free Trade which we all profess, and I do not believe it can be beneficial to the trade at home. That trade has until lately been in a most languishing condition, and the exportation to foreign countries has been almost nil. That has been simply the consequence of the monopoly. It is always found that wherever there is a monopoly there is stagnation, want of invention, and want of energy and enterprise. Let me contrast that with the system in the United States. In the United States the only system of marking is by individual manufacturers. You may say that is an unsatisfactory system; but what has been the result? The result is that the Americans have pushed their trade all over the world, and their silver plate is highly esteemed; whereas ours, with all its hall-marking, has not succeeded in pushing its way. I do not sec what we particularly gain by this if, after all the care we take, our silver does not find a market, while the silver of other countries does. What advantage have we gained? Then my noble Friend touched upon another point which seems to me wholly inexplicable. But, of course, unless one is acquainted with the arcana of trades, one cannot understand the reasons which prevail against certain proposals. I cannot understand why, on the face of it, we should not have various standards of silver in this country when they prevail in all other countries in the world. The experience of all other countries shows that it is extremely convenient to have various degrees of fineness of silver; and it might naturally be supposed that it would be convenient for us to follow in the same direction. There are as many as five standards in gold. It may be said that as the manufacture of gold plate in this country is exceedingly small no inconvenience arises. I can only say that, so far as my Department is concerned, our whole desire is to obtain access to this country for Indian silver. Although the Silver Duty has been withdrawn, mainly because of the pressure for the admission of Indian silver, the trade in Indian silver is in precisely the same condition as before—namely, that it cannot find its way into the markets of this country. It is a most unsatisfactory condition of things that the intentions of Parliament should be entirely defeated because of a technical difficulty with regard to hall-marking. I agree that, as raw silver can no longer be made into rupees, the reasons are far stronger now than before why, both in the interests of the trade in silver and in the interests of the Indian producers, we should remove all obstacles to the export of Indian silver. I have no objection to the Motion of my noble Friend.


My Lords, I do not rise in any spirit hostile to the object which my noble Friend (the Earl of Northbrook) has in view; but although it would be out of place on the present occasion to enter on any discussion of the Report of the Gold and Silver Commission, to which I was a party, the observations of the noble Earl render it desirable that I should say a word or two. The noble Earl stated that, according to The Times to-day, the rupee is only worth 1s.


The criticism made upon that by my noble Friend the Secretary of State for India was quite correct. I apprehend the statement in The Times comes from the ordinary talk in India with regard to the rupee, and that it simply means that the weight of silver in a rupee is worth Is., and not that as coined it represented that value; but it is obvious that the rupee coin is not the question we have to do with.


I have no doubt that is the meaning of the passage to which the noble Earl referred. Of course, the intrinsic value of the rupee is only about Is., having regard to the market price; but it would not be correct to say that the rupee is worth only 1s. in India or even outside India, because it can be disposed of for considerably more than 1s. In the same sense, no doubt, it would be quite true to say that the shilling is not quite worth 1s., or that the 5 franc-piece is not worth 5 francs. Of course, in each case that would refer to the intrinsic value of the silver in the coin. The question of the market price of silver is, no doubt, a very important one. As regards silver coined in the shape of the rupee, no mischievous effect has been produced by the closing of the Mints; the question is only as to the effect upon uncoined silver. Upon that, as upon all other subjects which we had to deal with, it was extremely difficult to get at the facts. The conclusion at which the Commission arrived was that it was extremely improbable there were any large quantities of hoarded uncoined silver in India, and that the hoards such as existed were not in the shape of uncoined silver, but mostly in the form of rupees, except so far as silver ornaments could be referred to as being a board. This conclusion was confirmed by the fact that for a considerable number of years past the amount of silver coined into rupees in India has equalled the amount of silver which has found its way into India. Silver ornaments may be called hoards in India, though I question whether it is a strictly accurate expression. No doubt, in times of stress and difficulty, such as the occasion of the Madras famine, considerable quantities of silver ornaments found their way into the Mints, just as in times of trouble and poverty in this country large numbers of ornaments are sold or pledged for the purpose of raising money; but it would not be correct to speak of those ornaments as hoards, although it might be that some proportion of those ornaments were really obtained for the purpose of hoarding them as a monetary reserve. So far as silver in the shape of ornaments is concerned, it has undoubtedly suffered depreciation owing to the fall in value; and, as is pointed out in the Re- port, if occasions of difficulty, such as famine, should arise in future, it would not be possible to obtain the same amount by disposing of those ornaments as it was before the fall in silver took place. I am not going to enter now into any controversy on that subject; but I thought it as well, as statements have been made with regard to the very large amount of uncoined silver in India, to say that the best conclusion we could arrive at was that, apart from ornaments, there were not very considerable hoards of silver there, and that as to ornaments only a portion of them could be spoken of as hoards, though some of them might on occasion become available to meet exigencies and necessities.

Motion agreed to.