HC Deb 25 July 1831 vol 5 cc275-9
Mr. Spring

Rice moved, that there be granted a sum of 112,195l., to defray the charges of our Foreign Consuls abroad; and also of the Superannuation Allowances to retired British Consuls for the present year.

Mr. George Robinson

wished to take the opportunity of making a few remarks on the merits of the former and the present system of appointing and paying our Foreign Consuls. Formerly the Consuls were mostly resident merchants at certain ports, and were paid by fees, which were in some instances, he admitted, improperly and arbitrarily demanded, to the manifest injury and dissatisfaction of our merchants trading thither. These situations had now for some years been filled by persons, expressly sent out for this purpose, at large salaries, to obviate the inconvenience of these enormous fees being occasionally exacted from our merchants and captains on arriving at these ports. The salaries of all these persons were much too large, and though the vote this year was less than last, he hoped it would be further reduced; and finally, that the old system of paying Consuls by fees would be re-adopted. These people could not now be got rid of, because the country must grant them a large retiring allowance. It was one of the worst evils of our present system, that plans were devised and carried into execution at a great expense, were found not to answer, and then the persons who had to execute them became a great burthen on the public. Another evil had arisen from that which had been intended to heal the evils complained of— namely, that the naming of those Consuls became often a too-expensive species of job. What was the use of Consuls-general? They were generally ignorant of mercantile affairs, and were only known by enormous salaries and large retiring allowances. What had we to do with Consuls-general at Washington, at Paris, and Madrid, all being far distant, the latter several hundred miles, from the sea? Those sent to South America were far too well paid for the labour attached to their office. Yet he could find some excuse for their salaries, for they had to perform the functions of Ambassadors as well as Consuls. At the same time, the whole establishment was on much too magnificent a scale, and required revision. In most cases, the American Consuls were an overmatch for ours, where the interests of British trade were concerned, and yet they did not cost the tenth of the sum. He believed, however, that the present Government was well inclined to make reductions, and he was glad to see, that the Consul at Lisbon had now a salary of 600l. instead of 1,200l. a-year. He wished particularly to inquire, why the Consul at Madrid had not had his salary reduced to the same amount.

Viscount Palmerston

observed, that having been but a short time in office, he could at present give little more explanation on this subject, than that the present Government was doing all in its power to moderate the expense to the public in this respect. He was at present engaged with the Vice-President of the Board of Trade, in attempting some improvements, which, he hoped, he should be able to submit next Session to the House. He begged also to remark, that there was this year a reduction of 9,000l. in the estimate, and that a greater reduction had preceded it in the last year. The saving to the public might either be effected by reducing the number of the appointments, which would be the most directly felt, or by appointing the payments of the Consuls' salary to be made for the most part by fees, at the several ports at which they were stationed. He had the pleasure to acquaint the hon. Member, that arrangements had been made for discontinuing altogether the appointment of a Consul-general at Washington.

Mr. R. Gordon

contended, that great savings might be effected in this department. This was not a new question, and ought not to come upon the noble Lord with surprise, for it had been discussed year after year in the Committees of Supply, and it appeared to be the general impression, that the whole of the consular system required revision. He had often complained of the enormous salaries given to Consuls-general. The noble Lord had been in office nine months, and he thought the department might be reformed in nine days.

Viscount Palmerston

said, that doubtless his hon. friend, with his talents and promptness, might do what appeared to him so easy, with regard to the administration of the public business. For his own part, however, and with his own more limited capacity, he was unable to proceed at his hon. friend's rate of velocity.

Mr. Robert Gordon

had no wish to provide the noble Lord with any scheme of improvement, he would rather refer him to the First Lord of the Admiralty. That right hon. Gentleman had a plan ready cut and dried. He told the noble Lord, that he must attend to the matter, and if he did not devise a better system, the House of Commons would. The money was now voted annually.

Mr. Alderman Thompson

said, he was aware of the noble Lord's desire to diminish the expenditure, and at the same time to promote the commercial interests, and he relied fully that some measure would be devised by next Session to relieve the public from some part of the expense. He saw not the least use in keeping Consuls-general at Paris, Madrid, and Washington. Consuls, where actually wanted, should be paid by moderate salaries, and fees in proportion to the services they rendered to merchants.

Mr. Spring Rice

said, that great caution and deliberation would be necessary, in making any change in the present regulations. It should be recollected, that this system had not been originated by his Majesty's Government, but had been forced upon it by the House of Commons. There was already a reduction in the vote, and great care must be taken in making a total alteration in a measure recommended by that House.

Sir M. W. Ridley

said, that the present system had been recommended to the House by a Select Committee on the foreign trade. The merchants were now convinced, that a moderate and well-re- gulated system of fees was the best mode of paying Consuls.

Mr. Keith Douglas

observed, that persons had been appointed to those situations who were not the most competent to fill them. When Consuls were paid by fees, they were generally merchants; but since the alteration, persons have held these situations for the sake of the salaries, which were sufficient to maintain those officers in a suitable manner. A judicious system of fees would secure the proper discharge of the duties, and merchants who were better adapted for the situations than any other class of men, would be always found where they were required, and would discharge the duties with satisfaction to all parties.

Mr. George Robinson

said, that if the present system were to be continued, in preference to the old one, it was certain that it must, at least, undergo considerable revision. The reduction this year did not amount to more than 3,500l. The Consuls-general at Paris and Madrid ought to be abolished. In South America, it was true, that the Consuls-general performed the duties of Ambassadors; but in the Brazils we had an Ambassador, as well as a Consul-general at Rio, with a salary of 2,500l. a-year. There was also a Consul at Maranham, with 1,000l. a-year-another at Pernambuco, and a third at Bahia, with the same salaries. Again, we had a resident at Buenos Ayres, with a large salary, and a Consul-general with 2,500l. a-year. The expenditure of the country for a series of years had been most lavish. We had Consuls in various parts of France, which were only visited by yachts. He did not wish to return precisely to the old system, but thought an improved plan might easily be devised, by which we might save 50,000l. a-year, and provide a much more efficient body of Consuls than we now possessed.

Sir John Newport

was of opinion, that a combination of salary and fees, properly regulated, would be the most desirable plan. But if the House were determined to revert to the old system, the change ought not to be adopted without great consideration.

An Hon. Member

said, the merchants generally wished to adopt a mixed system of payment, partly by fees, partly by salaries. Persons had been appointed, under the present regulations, who were ignorant of the duties of the office.

Sir George Rose

thought, that if a scale of fees were established in every port, enforced by the authorities, the complaints would cease. Large fees had been charged for the most trifling services, which had led to the abolition of fees, and he agreed with other hon. Gentlemen in being convinced that Consuls ought to be paid partly by fees, having at the same time small fixed salaries.

Mr. Warburton

conceived, that it would be well to reduce the salaries to about 300l., as it would then be worth the while of merchants on the spot to accept those appointments, in addition to the profits of their business. If the salaries were large, they would be an object of patronage at the Treasury, and lead to the appointment of inefficient persons.

Mr. Robert Gordon

said, Government had declared they had adopted the present system in compliance with the wishes of the House, but that was twelve years ago, and ought not to prevent them from now making desirable changes. He hoped to see a more satisfactory statement next year.

Viscount Palmerston

admitted a change to be desirable, but the conversation of that evening would show, that great difference of opinion existed, both as to the extent it ought to go, and the mode in which it should be effected. The opinions were quite as various as the speakers, and that might satisfy his hon. friend, the member for Cricklade, that the subject was not so easily regulated as he supposed.

Vote agreed to.