HC Deb 19 February 1819 vol 39 cc528-41
Lord Castlereagh

said, that although the notice which he had given comprehended the arrangements which had lately been entered into with respect to the Slave trade, as well as to the Claims of British Subjects on the French government, the motion with which he should conclude related only to one branch of the papers on the table. As he thought he had collected from gentlemen opposite, that they were not ready to enter into the discussion of the other branch of the motion of which he gave notice, and as he was always happy to oblige the right hon. gentleman (Mr. Tierney) whenever he could with convenience to the public service, he should not now say one word on any subject but that of the British claims, unless he was called on by the House. If any information should be wished for by any hon. member respecting any of the measures connected with the papers on the table, he should be happy to give it to him. He intended now merely to ask for leave to bring in a bill, with a view to carry into complete execution the engagements entered into with the French government for the indemnification of British subjects having claims on that government.—The noble lord then proceeded to state the circumstances which led to the recent convention with France with respect to those claims. In 1815, the French government undertook to liquidate the claims of British subjects on them, at a time when there was not so great a charge on the funds of that country. A capital sum of between 50 and 60 millions of French livres had been paid by the French government into the hands of the commissioners appointed by the respective governments, towards the liquidation of these claims. The commissioners appointed to examine and settle the claims had liquidated them to a considerable extent, and made considerable payments, between the time of their appointment and April 1818. The French government had agreed to place three millions and a half of livres of rentes, equal to about 70 millions of capital, at the disposal of the commissioners, to be applied by them in liquidation of the claims; and, as he had already stated, between 50 and 60 millions had been paid over by that government to the commissioners, to be applied by them towards the liquidation of those claims of which they approved. The commissioners had, in the discharge of their duty, examined and decided on a number of claims; but there were, in April last, a considerable number of unexamined claims. He did not allude particularly to British claims alone, but to the claims of subjects of all the other powers of Europe. It was calculated that it would require, to meet these claims, from 30 to 40 millions sterling. This sum would have been necessary to meet what were considered to be well established claims; but it was evident that, supposing the commissioners to proceed with the utmost diligence, they could not get through these claims before the lapse of a very long period. It was impossible to say how many years might elapse before they could examine into the claims of the subjects of all the different powers of Europe. If they were to form a judgment of the time that would be taken in going through all of them, by the time which had been occupied in those which they had already examined, it was evident that several years must elapse before they could get through the examination of the British claims. Under these circumstances it had appeared to the British government, as well as to other governments, acting as guardians of their own subjects, that it would be of extreme importance to the interests of all parties, as well as for the general interest of Europe, if this interminable liquidation, which was going on at Paris, were transferred to the different governments; and that a sum were paid them at once in full of all demands on France, to be distributed by each, government among the claimants who were its own subjects. It was wished to settle the open account which would be going on several years before winding up the transactions between the allied governments and France, and to obtain a definite sum at once, not only for the claims of the different governments, but also for those of private creditors. The House must be aware, that there could not well be a more complicated question than that which was then trying between the French government and the different claims, as these claims rested on principles so very different from each other. The affair was, however, brought to a conclusion sooner than could reasonably have been expected; and he had not heard of one objection against the arrangement, either from any of the governments or any of the private parties. He was, at the same time, bound to state, that it would have been difficult to have brought these complicated questions so soon to a settlement, had not an individual, in whom all Europe reposed the utmost confidence (the duke of Wellington), undertaken the settlement of the business. That individual did take the complete transaction out of the hands of the different governments; he was invited by the French government and the others to mediate between the French government and the different claimants on it, and to adjust the conflicting interests. After making himself master of this intricate subject, and examining into the nature of the claims, and judging of the probable amount to which they would extend, after undergoing the necessary purification, he pronounced an opinion in the business, agreeably to which the French government and their claimants came to a general settlement. It was settled that the French government should pay a sum of from 12 to 15 millions sterling, in addition to the 700 millions of livres which it had to discharge to the; different governments. It was thought that it was much better to settle this complicated affair at once, than to endanger the repose of Europe by leaving it open. A specific sum was therefore agreed on to be given by France to each government, for the purpose of being applied in extinction of the claims of its own subjects on France; so that instead of any litigation between the government of France and the subjects of different countries, the whole might be an affair of arrangement between each government and its own subjects. In execution of this principle we had two separate conventions. One of them was a convention with respect to the claims of British subjects arising out of the treaty of commerce in 1786, the treaty of Amiens, and the stipulations of the treaty of 1814. There was another, which we had in common with other powers, with respect to the claims of individuals in those countries, which had formerly belonged to or been in the possession of France. In this way, the inhabitants of St. Lucie, the Mauritius, and the Ionian islands, had come under the protection of this country. He had stated that three millions and a half of rentes, equal to 70 millions of capital, were to be transferred to the commissioners by the French government, as a deposit that should be reinforced when necessary for meeting any demands that should be examined and established. Between 50 and 60 millions of these 70 millions had been applied in liquidation of settled claims. This was the result of the matter, when the business came to be the subject of negotiation. The result of the negotiation was, that the French government should reinforce this sum of 70 millions of capital with three millions and a half of rentes in addition, making in all a capital of 140 millions, rather more than six millions sterling, to be paid by the French government, in satisfaction of all the claims of British creditors.—He now came forward to parliament, calling upon it to enable government to make the distribution of this sum. It was fair to put all the British claimants on an equal footing. But, from the compromise which had taken place, this sum might not go to the full extent of the claims; and therefore the remaining claimants might not ultimately be on an equal footing with those who had had their claims settled. However, as the object of the negotiation was, to arrive at as much as could be got, and as no more could be got, it was proper to secure to the remaining claimants an equality of payment. The sum received would be distributed on the principle followed with respect to the sum received for the American loyalists, and the Carnatic creditors. By the provisions of the bill, as rapidly as the claims were examined and settled, a dividend would be paid to the parties on their claims, and, on the final adjustment, the remaining sum would be divided equally among them.—He had two observations to make on the subject of those claims. In 1815, the House had approved of a sacrifice, on the part of the public, of their claims on the French government, for the sake of their private claims. It was covenanted in the convention of 1815, that so soon as the French government liquidated the claims of British creditors, they should be released from any claims this government might have on them on this account, respecting the maintenance of prisoners of war between the two countries, on which there was a presumable balance due to this country. In this convention, the claims of the government were sacrificed to those private claims, because it was felt, that the subject of prisoners was one which was mixed up with so many different principles, that it was one of most difficult adjustment. It was questionable, whether the Hanoverians, and other foreign soldiers in our pay, were to be considered as British troops, a subject which it would have been extremely difficult to adjudge. The British claims on France for prisoners of war was so immense, and the account of the transaction so involved by the difficulty of determining whether the subjects of different nations who fought in the cause of France, and were captured by us, were to be considered as French prisoners, that it was thought better to adopt one uniform principle for settling the point in dispute, than to enter into the details of particular cases. The principle of the treaty of 1814 was therefore adopted, which accepted as an indemnity for the sums due by the French government to the government of this country, the payment of debts due by the French government to the subjects of Great Britain. In this manner, about 6,000,000l. sterling had been secured to British private claimants, which they would not otherwise have obtained from the French government; for, with regard to the success of those individuals in prosecuting their claims on a foreign government which had disallowed them without the aid or countenance of their own, there could be little doubt. Now, when he was on this subject, he could not let the opportunity slip, without endeavouring to impress on the minds of the House the difference between the circumstances of those whose claims this convention was intended to satisfy, and those who now should voluntarily embark their money in foreign funds: and the different conduct which the government would feel itself compelled to observe, if that property should be endangered. He was bound to warn the public, that the present relief was granted to the claimants on the French government, because they had incurred their losses on the faith of conventions between the two nations; and that no similar support would be afforded to those who voluntarily lent their money to a foreign government at their own risk, and with their own views of profit. In this latter case, persons ought to know that they had he other security for repayment than the good faith and ability of the country to which they made the loan; and that this government would neither stake its credit, or endanger its tranquillity, for the purpose of procuring them indemnity should they find that they hazarded their property on an insufficient guarantee. They should only look to the honesty and solvency of the state that borrowed, and not to the power or to the generosity of their own country for their expected returns. The claims now liquidated by the commissioners, and proposed to be settled by the bill which he proposed to introduce, depended for their validity on the articles of the treaty of Commerce with France, made in 1786. That treaty stipulated the interposition of the British government for debts due by the French government to the subjects of this country. In 1793 a great mass of British property was confiscated by the then government of France, which property, of course, was covered by the convention of 1786. At the peace of Amiens, in 1802, the principle of the original treaty was confirmed. Thus, the foundation of the claim was laid in the treaty of 1786, and consolidated by that of 1802. At the peace of Paris in 1814, the same principle was recognized, as it was thought but just to countenance those by national interference, who risked their property on the national faith. The details of the settlement had proceeded but a small way at the return of Buonaparte, in 1815, though the principle had been admitted the year before. On the second restoration of the Bourbons, the subject was again resumed, and the settlement of the claims put into such a train, that in April, 1818, the commissioners were enabled to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion, and to present the present result. We had thus obtained for the subjects of this country an adjudication of certain definite claims, in lieu of uncertain inde- finite demands of this government on that of France. The noble lord concluded by moving "That leave be given to bring in a bill to enable certain Commissioners fully to carry into effect several Conventions for liquidating claims of British subjects and others, against the government of France."

Mr. Ticrney

gave credit to the noble lord for his exertions in bringing this business to so satisfactory a conclusion. Nobody could have conducted himself with more zeal and ability than the noble lord had done. It was owing to the judicious mode adopted of settling these claims, that each individual interested, instead of having to deal with the French government, had to apply to British authority. With regard to any interest he (Mr. T.) had in this transaction, he was perfectly satisfied; but there was a certain class of claimants who did not stand in the same favourable situation, and whose case therefore, he wished to be considered. He alluded to those who had not given in notice of their claims in time to be examined, and who were, therefore, precluded from the benefits of the convention. If he were asked, whether he thought that these individuals had a legal title to redress, he would say no: but he would recommend their case to a favourable consideration, provided any surplus remained after defraying liquidated claims. He knew one case of this description which involved great hardship. A claim had been ordered by a creditor of this country to be made within the specified time, but, through gross neglect or forgetfulness, the agent had not presented it. It would be cruel, therefore, that this individual should suffer the loss of a just right, from the carelessness of another in advancing his demand. He begged, therefore, to know if the noble lord would allow the application of any surplus for the relief of cases like this. There was another subject connected with the conventions on the table, on which he wished to put a question. By these conventions we had instalments of contributions for five years, while our troops had only continued in France three; and he wished to know how the sum thus placed in the hands of government was disposed of.

Lord Castlereagh

said, he went along with the right hon. gentleman in thinking, that if there should be any surplus, those claimants to whom he had alluded should be added to the others, and that a reversionary interest should be secured to them. With respect to the latter question, he would state how the matter stood. The House were aware that only three years were completed of the period of the occupation. It would be doing injustice to the French government were he not to state, that if it had not come forward with the utmost fairness and candour, it would not have been possible to have settled so many complicated questions with the French government as necessarily arose between it and the allies, on the withdrawing of the armies from France. The House were aware of the alteration of the arrangement which had taken place. It was agreed to pay in nine months the whole sums which, by the treaty, would have become due in two years. In consideration of accelerating the payment of these sums, an allowance of discount was made for prompt payment. On consulting with that intelligent person, Mr. Baring, the period of nine months was agreed on, and an arrangement to that effect was entered into with the French government. But very soon after, from the effect produced in the money market by this arrangement, a modification of it was found necessary. AH the governments felt a common interest in the transaction, and the arrangements had been adopted by common consent. The treaty of November fixed the nine months for the payment of the contributions;—the arrangement of December prolonged that term to two years and three months; but at the end of the two years the allied governments were to put the securities in circulation, so that the term of the payment was brought to the end of the five years during which the occupation of France was originally to have continued. As the allied governments had agreed to relax the period of payment, the French government had cheerfully agreed to pay interest at the rate of 5 per cent; so that, while the French government had been accommodated, no sacrifice of value had been made. The application of the sum to which this country would be entitled, had been already often discussed. That sum, it had been already stated, would be found adequate to cover the extraordinary expenses of the army of occupation (over and above the sum allowed for its maintenance by the French government), and also to pay to the government of the Ne- therlands two millions, to which they were entitled by a convention. With respect to the payment of the contributions in question, the sums which had become due had been made good.

Mr. Tierney

said, he understood perfectly well the explanation of the noble lord. Of the sums to be paid to this country by France, and now in the course of payment, two millions were to be applied, not to the purposes of this country, but to build for tificationsintheNetherlands. So that when France granted what was called an indemnity to this country, it was in effect an indemnity to Holland. He thanked the noble lord for being thus explicit; he did not wish to prolong the conversation, but it would be for him to consider whether he should submit any proposition to the House on the subject.

Lord Castlereagh

expressed his surprise at the shortness of the right hon. gentleman's memory, as this was by no means the first time that the convention between the Netherlands and this country had been brought under the view of the House. If the right hon. gentleman would turn to the treaties laid before the House in 1815, he would find the convention with the Netherlands, which he had alluded to; and he would find also that the sum was not paid to the Netherlands without an equivalent, as very considerable colonial cessions had been made to us by that kingdom. The government of the Netherlands had also engaged to expend a sum equal to that which we had ceded, in strengthening the fortresses of its frontier. It had then also been explained, that the contribution paid by France, would defray not only this charge, but also the additional expenses of the army of occupation, which arose from this circumstance, that the sums allowed for the maintenance of the army of occupation, was calculated on the standard of the expense of a German army. The expense of a British army being much greater, the sum allowed for the maintenance of it became deficient, and that deficiency was to be supplied out of the contribution. The right hon. gentleman at the time had contended, that the occupation of France, even taking into account the contribution, would be a loss to this country; and now after three years he complained that the indemnity was not a source of gain.

Mr. Tierney

said, he had formerly contended, that if the occupation of France had continued daring the five years, the indemnity, as it was called, would have been barely sufficient for the support of the army. But as to the payment to be made out of this indemnity to the Netherlands, he had been ignorant of it till a question was put on the subject by Mr. Warre in the last parliament, when indeed the noble lord had told them what he had now repeated; on which he (Mr. T.) had remarked, that the colonies for which we were to pay two millions were the dearest colonies that had ever been purchased.

Lord Castlereagk

re-asserted, that the payment to be made to the Netherlands was distinctly pointed out in the treaty which had been three years ago approved of by parliament.

Mr. Philips

called the attention of the noble lord to the case of those individuals whose claims, by the treachery or neglect of their French agents, had not been sent in to the commissioners at Paris. He trusted they would not be precluded from obtaining justice.

Mr. W. Smith

said, that great credit was due to those who had displayed so much skill and industry in obtaining justice for the claimants on the French government. He agreed in the principle which had been laid down by the noble lord, that the House should be anxious not to form a precedent which might induce persons to vest money in foreign funds, in the hope, that in the event of war, their claims would be protected by this country. But there was another set of claims to which the same general principle was not applicable. He meant those of a commercial nature. The two cases were entirely different—in the one, the individuals vesting their money in the foreign funds, were engaged in transactions which were solely advantageous to themselves; in the other, the individuals, while consulting their own interest, were pursuing what was acknowledged to be the general interest of the community. He thought it also an unquestionable duty of the government to protect the interest of any individuals, or body of individuals, who had sacrificed themselves in its defence. In this situation the American loyalists stood, who, he had always been of opinion, should not be neglected.

Mr. Huskisson

said, he had been applied to by several of those commercial claimants who had been alluded to, and whose interests he thought had not been so well protected by the treaty as those of the tundholders, who were less entitled to protection. According to the terms of the treaty, it was necessary for those individuals, whose property had been sequestered in France in 1793 to prove, not only that their property had been so sequestered, but that it had been carried to the profit account of the French government; and secondly, that it had been so seized because the owners were British subjects. In the case of the fundholders this was easy of proof, but the commercial claimants were in very different circum stances. The acts of violence by which they suffered were various. Sometimes French merchants had been called upon to deliver up the property of British subjects to be exchanged for assignats, which, in the progress of depreciation, had become of no value. In other instances, the merchants who had British property had paid these depreciated assignats into the treasury in liquidation of the claims of the British subjects. Again as to the motives—it was difficult to prove, in that time of confusion, what were the motives which caused the seizure of any particular parcel of property. In some instances, commercial houses which held British property were put on the list of emigrants—a familiar mode of spoliation during what was emphatically called the reign of terror; the whole of that property thus becoming the property of the republic. Yet should it be said in such an instance that the claimant could have no redress, unless his property was seized expressly on the ground that it was the property of a British subject? It was evident, from the cases which he had enumerated, how many of the claims of those commercial claimants who were, on the principles which had been laid down, best entitled to consideration, would be defeated. He hoped his noble friend would take these cases into consideration, and at least, if the claimants were excluded by the strict letter of the treaty, yet if there was any surplus after the distribution, that they should be remembered. It so happened, that it would have been better for these individuals if there had been no treaty, and they had been left to prosecute their claims against their creditors in the ordinary way.

Sir J. Newport

stated that cases of hardship such as had been described by the right hon. gentleman had also come to his knowledge. In instances in which the property of British merchants had been given in to the French government under pain of death, and exchanged for assignats, while the maximum law was in force, the commissioners had decided, that the transaction by which the British merchant was stripped of his fortune, was to be considered as a contract. The merchants thus plundered, had, it was to be remembered, relied on the faith of the former treaty, which stipulated, that, in case of war, merchants should have a space of time allowed them to withdraw or dispose of their property.

Sir T. Baring

hoped the money which was to be received from France would be not only fairly, but economically applied. He said this, because, in the case of the claims on America, the money received was allowed to lie for a long time idle in the Bank. He wished to know also how the commissioners were to be paid. The commissioners on the American claims received a salary of 1,50l. a year, but such a mode of payment formed an inducement for them to protract the business.

Lord Castlereagh

said, that the sum was now in French rentes, the interest of which was accumulating, and care would be taken, as any portion was transferred to this country, that it should be vested in securities bearing interest. As to the commissioners, they would be paid out of the fund itself, as the claimants had readily consented to set apart one or two per cent to defray the expenses of the commission. With respect to the case mentioned by his right hon. friend, he had to observe, that the distribution of the money paid under the convention, was to be decided by the terms of that convention; the proper course for parliament to pursue was, to constitute a judicature, to which the business might be committed. The parliament itself, he thought, would act unwisely, to usurp the business of adjudication, as there were no places less fit for the decision on particular claims than the Houses of Parliament. That duty, he had no doubt, would be well performed by the commission, which it was to be observed, though well provided with legal ability, had never acted in difficult cases, without the advice of the law officers of the Crown. As to the cases of the commercial claimants, he allowed there was a difficulty, and it was one in which the public, as well as the claimants were interested. Not only had we claims on the French, but French subjects had claims on this country. During the war we had also sequestered the property of French subjects, not into the treasury, but in the hands of their agents, and a question had arisen whether the loss to the foreigners, in the case of the bankruptcy of the agents, should be made good by the government. The losses sustained by British subjects had often arisen, not from the direct violence, but from the incidental consequences of the measures of the French government; the sequestration which had taken place in 1793, had been repealed in 1794 or 5; and at that time the French debtors had paid the property of the British creditors into court (if he might so express it) in depreciated assignats. It became a question, how far the French government was answerable, not only for the direct, but the collateral consequences of its acts, on the dealings between its subjects and foreigners. These and other difficulties, he thought, would be most properly left to the judicature appointed to act under the convention.

Sir J. Newport

explained, that the case he had alluded to was that of British subjects resident in France.

Sir Robert Wilson

observed, that when the noble lord had laid the late treaties on the table, he had stated, that it was not his intention to bring them under the special consideration of the House; but that he was ready to afford every information respecting them. He should avail himself of this offer to put a short question, not with the design of renewing discussions as to a retrospective course of policy from which it was known he had always so strongly dissented, but with the object of removing the apprehensions which existed in this country, that notwithstanding we had withdrawn our army from the continent, we retained a political connexion of an unconstitutional nature; and of proving to the world that we were no longer disposed to invade those rights in others, which in our own case we should defend against all the world. In the declaration of the five Powers, dated Aix-la Chapelle, 15 Nov. 1818, were these words—" The object of this union is as simple as it is great and salutary. It does not tend to any new political combinations, to any change in the relations sanctioned by existing treaties. Calm and consistent in its proceedings, it has no other object than the maintenance of peace. "If the period had ended here, it would have been intelligible; but it went on to say—" And the guarantee of those transactions on which the peace was founded and consolidated." He wished to know what were the transactions here guaranteed?

Lord Castlereagh

replied, that the transactions were simply those treaties which had been approved and ratified by parliament—there were no others.

Sir R. Wilson, in explanation, observed that he was happy to receive such information; and confiding in the noble lord's assurance, he congratulated the House and the country on no obligations being contracted at variance with the laws of nations and the principles of the constitution.

The bill was ordered to be brought in.

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