HC Deb 26 June 1834 vol 24 cc883-91
Mr. Hesketh Fleetwood

rose to submit to the House a Motion, of which he had a considerable time ago given notice, the object of which was, the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into the duties, modes of appointment, amount of remuneration, and all other matters relating to British consuls resident in foreign states, with a view to rendering their services more conducive to the interests of commerce. He had reason to believe that the appointment of the Committee for which he intended to move, would not be opposed by the noble Lord opposite (the Secretary for Foreign Affairs) except with reference to time, and on that point he imagined there would be between them but little difference of opinion, for he should not stickle for a few months more or less. If he should succeed in inducing his Majesty's Government really and sincerely to take the matter up, the object he had in view would be to a great extent accomplished; it was material, however, that hon. Members should, in the meanwhile, turn their attention to the subject, for it was one of great commercial importance. He had at the present moment in his possession, various letters and communications from commercial men, complaining of the inefficiency of our consular system, and in his opinion that inefficiency was so clearly made out, that it would be wasting the time of the House were he to urge it upon the attention of hon. Members by means of any observations of his own—his wish would rather be, to refer them to the documents then in his hand, to some of which he should call their attention before he sat down. The inefficiency, or at least a persuasion of the inefficiency of our consular system, prevailed almost universally, and whether that opinion was well or ill founded, it became the duty of Parliament to institute on the subject a searching and impartial inquiry. Before he proceeded further, he could not help calling the attention of the House to a few facts which came within his own observation during a recent tour on the continent—facts which demonstrated the inefficiency of those officers even when placed the nearest to our own shores; the inference from which was obvious, that at a greater distance they must be still less serviceable. He held it to be indisputable, that if there was one duty more than another, which consuls were called upon to discharge, it was that of watching the commercial treaties of all countries, and making their provisions and operations known to their own Government. The few notes which he made illustrative of that part of the subject, he should read to the House, and ask hon. Members what they thought of a department which permitted matters of so much importance to be thus neglected:—" The duty on English iron has been doubled about 1827 in the French ports. It was sixteen francs on the 2241b. English, it is now 32 francs; and the ten per cent duty or duties make 38½. Swedish iron is admitted into France upon much more advantageous terms. Let it be observed that, in all commercial intercourse with France, every duty has ten per cent added. During the Polignac administration goods from British India were prohibited in Calais, and, I understand, in every French port; certainly so, if they came in British vessels. At present they are, I am informed, to a great extent smuggled through Ostend, particularly tea. It is a well known fact that tea and India handkerchiefs are both to be had good at Dover. I believe the fact to be, that much tea is landed at Calais for the express purpose of being smuggled into England. Nothing can be more evident than that an improved system as to consular management would put these matters upon a better footing. In the article of coal, the duty is sixteen sous per 100 kilogrammes, or 224 lbs. English, more than is paid by the Belgians, and slate is in a similar situation. The duty on English slate is treble that on Belgian." He regretted to state, that the truly and strictly commercial character of a consul was wholly left out of view; it seemed to be regarded altogether as an office for which any person was competent—no matter what might be his education, no matter what his previous pursuits. Were it not invidious, he might mention the names of several individuals, especially in remote stations, who were any thing but qualified for the situations to which they had been appointed—he would not say by the present Government, for he brought no charge against the noble Lord—his objection was to the system—a system which he desired to see undergo many improvements, and, amongst the rest, a transfer of the appointment and superintendence of consuls from the Foreign-office to the Board of Trade. He need scarcely suggest to the House, that the last-mentioned office was filled, or ought to be filled, by a Minister specially chosen for his acquaintance with those matters to which the attention of consuls should be more particularly directed, therefore it was to him they should look up as their head. The hon. Member then proceeded to show from Mr. Chitty's work on commercial law that the duties of consuls were strictly commercial. He also referred to the report made in March, 1833, by Mr. Livingston, the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, we believe in the United States. He was of opinion that consuls should be remunerated by adequate salaries; that they should be prevented from engaging in trade; that the possible advantages which their official situation gave them as merchants caused them to be suspected as public functionaries; and that, on the whole, nothing could be worse than the system of the United States, which was very little different from that of England. There was not a country in Europe, he believed, that did not use their consuls abroad as agents for supplying statistical information. A statistical inquiry, he entertained no doubt would soon be established in this country; indeed, a commencement had already been made by the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade, and one of the purposes for which he particularly desired a Committee was, to inquire and report how far our consuls could be made available for such a purpose, as well as for the other objects to which his Motion referred connected with early commercial information. As a curious illustration of the ignorance in which consuls permitted official persons in this country to remain, he would instance the fact that, of the censuses made in the various countries of Europe, not one was to be found in England. The only foreign census that he knew of was that of the United Sates, which was in the library of that House. A recent writer, of some celebrity, had placed that part of the subject in a very striking point of view in the following passage:—"Consuls resident in foreign countries might and ought to be made instrumental in the collection of statistical and other information with respect to them. But this very important branch of the peculiar duty of a consul has been most strangely neglected by the Government of England. The returns of the prices of foreign corn, and the different duties and regulations affecting it, made within the last half-dozen years, comprise almost all the information of a generally useful kind that has ever been obtained by the British consuls, at least it is about all that has been made public. We do hope that effectual measures will be taken for remedying this defect, and that it will be made imperative upon our consuls regularly to send home detailed accounts, embodying all the authentic information attainable with respect to commercial affairs, such as the quantities and prices of the goods imported into, and exported from, the places where they reside, the qualities which principally recommend them, the duties and regulations by which they are affected, the improvements that take place in the arts, the changes in the laws as to trade, and whatever, in short, may tend to enlighten the public as to the conditions of such places. The preparation of these reports for publication, and of queries for transmission to the consuls ought to be one of the most important duties of the Board of Trade." In every possible view which he could take of the question, he found it impossible to avoid saying, that the consular department ought to be placed upon a new footing, and most especially ought to be taken out of the hands of the Foreign Secretary, who was frequently leader in the House as in the cases of Mr. Fox, Lord Castlereagh, and Mr. Canning, and who were however in a great degree disabled from adequately performing any other duties. There was no one—and this he said without any particular disparagement of the noble Lord opposite—who paid the strictest attention to our foreign concerns, who would not readily admit it to be that branch of the public service of which we had the least reason to be proud, for it had grown into a proverb, that British diplomacy lost every thing which British valour won. Must they not, therefore, desire rather to diminish than to increase the duties and responsibilities of that department, which, before it could become the fit conductor of consular matters, must be made much more of a trading concern than at present? After giving full credit to the noble Lord opposite for the reductions effected by him, and the spirit of economy under which he acted, the hon. Member proceeded to observe, that some objection might possibly be taken to what he proposed, on the ground that foreign states would consider what he proposed as little less than a system of espionnage, for a similar attempt on the part of the French had been so treated in this country in the year 1803; but he could assure the House, from his own observation, that no such prejudices now prevailed on the Continent. Some very remarkable instances to the contrary within his knowledge existed both in Prussia and France, on matters much more jealously guarded than commercial concerns—namely, military fortifications. With these brief observations he should leave the Motion to be dealt with as the House thought fit, or rather as the noble Lord might think fit to meet it, just suggesting for a moment the leading topics to which the attention of a Committee, if appointed, would of necessity be directed. They would classify the ports to which consuls of different descriptions might be sent; they would consider the expediency of limiting the appointments to British subjects, of prohibiting their trading whilst consuls, of transferring the appointment to the Board of Trade of the salaries, fees, and retiring allowances of consuls, the supply of statistical information, the suitable education of future consuls, and the various other matters connected with that branch of the public service to which a Committee when once appointed, might see it fitting to direct their inquiries. Whatever mode of remunerating consuls it might be deemed advisable to adopt, whether it should be considered right to permit or prohibit consuls from engaging in commerce, he thought that individuals possessing practical knowledge ought to be attached to the consulate establishments, in the character of secretaries; and from this class, in his opinion should the future consuls be selected. He had received several communications on the subject of the Motion which he intended to make; but as he was unwilling to weary the House by reading them, he should content himself with quoting a short passage from a letter which had been sent him from Liverpool. The hon. Member here read the following extract:—"In compliance with your request, we have submitted this document to several mer- cantile gentlemen with whom we are acquainted, who all highly approve of the proposed Motion, and consider that a Parliamentary inquiry would be very desirable as also the establishment of the different points suggested by you." The hon. Member after stating that he should be satisfied to leave the subject in the hands of the Government, provided an assurance was given that it would be inquired into, concluded by moving, that a Select Committee be appointed "to inquire into the duties, qualifications, modes of appointment, expenses, responsibilities, and all matters relating to the character and condition of his Majesty's consuls resident in foreign States, with a view to rendering those functionaries more efficient in advancing the strictly commercial interests of British subjects, in securing the due protection of their persons and property abroad, in collecting and furnishing information connected with trade and otherwise, in preserving old and opening new channels of commercial intercourse."

Viscount Palmerston

said, that he certainly must admit, that the subject to which the attention of the House had been directed by the hon. Gentleman was one of vast importance and of universal interest; because unquestionably the inquiry into the details of that establishment, which was instituted to protect and direct our commerce in foreign countries, was a matter of serious consideration for this commercial country. He felt bound to do justice to the candid and straightforward manner in which the hon. Gentleman had brought forward his Motion. He had done this in a way which did great credit to his industry and fairness. Nevertheless, he must object to the proposition for the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into this question at the present period of the Session, looking to the fact, that the number of Committees already sitting was so great, that, when fresh Committees were appointed on the Motion of hon. Members, the hon. Members proposed, in many cases, declared they could not attend them. The period of the Session also was such, that the hon. Gentleman might not be able to pursue his inquiry to such a result as might be satisfactory to the House or to the country. Another reason, too, which he must urge against the Motion proposed was, that he thought those who held, that the Consular Establishment should be submitted to the consideration of a Select Committee, would see, that the person at the head of the department, from whence these appointments emanated, should be enabled to give every attention to the subject. On some points, however, he was not prepared to submit the information he possessed and his opinions upon it to the Committee. For example, in respect to the Consuls in parts of the Levant, he had not yet been able to settle what should be the extent of our establishment there. Next Session of Parliament he should not oppose a Motion having for its object to refer the estimates for the Consuls, and the whole Consular Establishment to a Select Committee. All our other great establishments were subjected to the ordeal of a Committee, and he saw no reason why this should not be so too. He thought, indeed, that great mistakes and misunderstandings existed, on the part of the public, in regard to this establishment, and he should be glad to state the reasons which made it impossible to lay down any distinct line or scale as to the remuneration of parties according to the extent of labour required. The hon. Member who had brought forward this Motion seemed to think, (and, indeed, he assumed it as a matter of notoriety) that this establishment was inefficient; but, against such a proposition he (Lord Palmerston) must protest. So far from this being the case, he was perfectly convinced, that, upon inquiry, it would be found to be efficient, calculated to secure those objects for which it was constituted, and that the individuals comprising the establishment were able and diligent public servants. The hon. Member had, he believed, adverted to the amount of duty levied on iron in France; and he appeared astonished that, on the restoration of peace with that power, those duties had not been remodelled. Now, it had been thought better, on the restoration of peace, not to make a commercial treaty; and the fault (if any) did not rest with the Consuls—nor with our diplomatists or treaties—but from the circumstance that it was thought better at the time, that each country should regulate its own tariff Again, though it might appear to be the intention, in some cases, to confer benefit, by treaties of commerce, yet, if one nation should seem to have gained advantages by such treaties over another nation, he was sure that, in the long run, the injury done to the prosperity of that other nation would recoil upon the nation having the advantage in the first instance. No one country could continue to enjoy benefits to the injury of another with which it had commercial relations. To prevent, by such means, other nations from getting rich, was morely preventing them from having some superfluities to exchange with us. It was impoverishing our own customer and our own employer. The hon. Member seemed to think, that the Consuls should be placed under the Board of Trade, rather than under the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs; but he (Lord Palmerston) thought he could convince the hon. Gentleman that such an arrangement would not be advantageous to the country. Consuls were not to be regarded as simply commercial agents, because their office frequently partook of a diplomatic character. They must, of necessity, be placed under the control or direction of the Minister or Ambassador to the country to which they might be sent. It was acknowledged, that no man could serve two masters; and it was, therefore, impossible, that a Consul should be under the divided control of the Ambassador and the Board of Trade, without causing a jarring, or division of responsibility. Nothing was better in the public business than unity of service and of responsibility. However, although the Consul was not under the Board of Trade, he could assure the hon. Gentleman, that any statistical or commercial information which the Board of Trade might desire, was obtained as directly and as effectively by the intervention of the Foreign-office, as it would be by direct commands from that Board. When they entered into the inquiry, the hon. Gentlemen would be surprised at the extent of statistical information which was obtained from our Consuls, who were obliged to make periodical Returns, besides furnishing every information which the Secretary of State might require. On many occasions, he had obtained information from them, at the request of Members of that House, for the furtherance of inquiries before Committees; and he obtained important and extensive information from them. As to the description of persons who were best fitted for the appointment of Consuls, much difference of opinion existed upon the question as to whether they should or should not be purely commercial men; but he thought it necessary, that the person at the head of the foreign affairs should select persons according to the nature of the place to which a Consul might be required. In some places a Consul was regarded more as a political character; whilst, in others, the office was one of a commercial nature. In some instances it was necessary to allow the Consul to trade on his own account; whilst, in other places, it would be inconsistent to do so. In the one case it might be right, that the Consul should have an interest in trading; whilst, in the other, it would not, and, therefore, it would be better to give a party, in such instance, a higher salary. There were other considerations which determined the salaries; such, for example, as the expense of living at different places. The hon. Gentleman held, that we lost, by all our treaties, more than we gained by war; but he must deny that assertion; and he would only repeat, that it was a mistaken policy to attempt to over-reach our neighbours by commercial bargains, and that the better plan was to trade with other nations on fair terms. He trusted, that the hon. Gentleman would be satisfied with the assurance, that if, in the ensuing Session, the hon. Gentleman would move for the appointment of a Committee, he would willingly support such a Motion, or he would himself bring the question forward.

Motion withdrawn.