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Catalan Cork, House of Commons (28 FEB 1860)

The issue of Catalan cork was debated in the House of Commons on 28 February 1860. 
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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That 'Corks, ready made, and squared for rounding, after the 31st March, 1862,' stand part of the proposed Resolution."


said, he rose to propose that the article of cork should be omitted from the Resolutions. He did so in the interest of the cork-cutters of England, who were a small but an important branch of the skilled industry of the country. Those hon. Gentlemen who deprecated interference with the Treaty on the ground that it might give offence to France need be under no alarm in the present instance, as there was nothing in his Amendment which could interfere with the interests of that country. France could not produce sufficient cork-wood for her own consumption, and therefore why it should have been introduced into the Treaty he did not know. In 1842 he had advocated the cause of the cork-cutters in this country, whoso interests were nearly destroyed by the reduction of duty at that time. There was this peculiarity in their case, that they relied entirely on the material which came from Spain and part of Portugal. The people of Catalonia, where the best corks were produced, from the moment the duty was abolished, had petitioned their Government not to allow the exportation of the raw material, and the Government consented to their request. The supply, which was not of equally good quality, was then derived from Andalusia and Portugal; but it was well known that since the present Treaty had been published the people of Andalusia in like manner were about to petition against the exportation of the raw material. If the Spanish Government consented to that petition, no raw material could come in here, and these men would be ruined. But if the English Government would secure them a supply of the raw material from Spain, they were ready to compete with any part of the world. Under the new tariff Spanish wines could be imported at the lowest duty. The least they could expect, then, from Spain was that its Government would allow this raw material to be exported. In addition to the duty, a penny was to be levied on every package; this would fall very unequally on the raw and manufactured article. By the duty and the tax together the raw material would be taxed 8s. 4d. per cent, and the manufactured article only 6½d. per cent. The trade could not stand against that. As he had said, they did not object to free trade, provided they could obtain a supply of the raw material; but unless that could be done ​ they would be ruined as well as many other industries, such as floor-cloth, shoe-sole makers, life boats, and other interests, into whose operations the cork manufacture entered. He should move that the words "Corks ready made and squared for rounding" be struck out of the Resolution.
said, he hoped the Committee would consider the question in a spirit of fairness, and without any desire on the part of hon. Members to twit one another with their departure from the principle of free trade. Some time ago he had felt it his duty to deal with the question before the Committee; and the consequence was that a deputation of cork-cutters had waited upon him for the purpose of stating to him their views of the proposed abolition of the duty. He could add that they had discussed the subject with great fairness and intelligence. The fact was that they did not object to free trade; they only asked for free trade. They were ready to compete upon equal terms with the foreign manufacturer; but those terms, they contended, would be denied to them if corks were allowed to be freely imported into this country while the raw material of which they were made was not allowed to be exported from the district in which it was grown in the greatest perfection. That was not free trade, it was protection to the foreigner. The right hon. Gentleman said that there had been an increase in the trade since the reduction of the duty in 1842; but he (Sir F. Baring) would explain to the Committee what it was that had really taken place. In 1842 there was a considerable reduction of the duty upon manufactured corks. Immediately afterwards the Spanish Government prohibited the exportation of the cork wood from Catalonia, where the best material was grown. The result was that the manufacture of best corks in England had ceased. It was true that the manufacture had since that time largely increased in this country, but it was confined to the production of the coarser descriptions of the article. Spain still allowed the coarser material to be exported, and the cork-cutters here, by their industry, had been able to keep up and increase their trade. But he would ask was the present proposal fair—was it common justice to our own people? Was it fair that the manufacturer abroad should have a monopoly of the best kinds of the raw material, and that he should then be allowed to import the manufactured article into the English market free of every duty? The Chancellor of the Exchequer said that they might feel assured the noble Lord the Secretary for Foreign Affairs would use his best exertions to get rid of the prohibition of the export of cork wood from Catalonia. He (Sir F. Baring) supposed that some exertions were used when the prohibitory duty was imposed, but, so far from their having any effect, he believed the Spanish manufacturers were pressing upon the Spanish Government to extend the prohibition to the coarser material.


said, the proposal they were going to vote upon was whether they should put a high duty on manufactured cork coming, not from Catalonia, but from where it might. Again, he could not see that if the duty were kept on manufactured corks from Catalonia, it would not afford that benefit to the cork manufacturers which the hon. Member for Finsbury was anxious to afford.


said, that the right hon. Gentleman had raised an important constitutional question. Were the Committee at liberty to make alterations and amendments in the tariff; and, if, so, were those alterations fatal to the Treaty? He had asked the right hon. Gentleman a few days ago whether the House of Commons was to have the power of altering the Treaty, but could get no answer to his question. He repeated the question a day or two afterwards in another shape, and then the Chancellor of the Exchequer refused to answer it, because, he said, if he did he could not reply to the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Disraeli), although that was incorrect. The Chancellor of the Exchequer now asked whether the Committee were about to prevent the Government from fulfilling the conditions of the Treaty? It therefore came to this, that all these discussions were perfectly useless. The people of England had now been told by the Chanceller of the Exchequer that the Resolutions and decisions of the British Parliament must be subservient to the French Treaty. Now, he maintained that the French Treaty should and ought to be subservient to the British Parliament, and with that view he had moved his Amendment. He said they were about to do an injury to industrious traders by taking off the protective duty, without giving them the raw material by which they carried on their trade. The right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade told the Committee the prohibition of the exportation of cork wood was the work of Catalonia; but who was responsible for that prohibition? The Government of Spain, and it was that Government he wanted to bring to book. Persuasion, they had been told, would be tried by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, but he had more confidence in a vote of that House than in the persuasion of the noble Lord. If the House agreed to his Amendment, France, which had no corks to send us, would induce Spain to let England have the raw material.
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