HC Deb 16 May 1834 vol 23 cc1135-9

On the Question, that the House resolve itself into a Committee of Supply,

Mr. Parker

rose to submit the Motion of which he had given notice on the subject of the claims of certain British subjects on Denmark. An embargo was laid on all ships in British ports in 1807, and, among them, there were Danish vessels to the number of 320. This embargo was continued till after the bombardment of Copenhagen. The ships were afterwards adjudged prizes of war, and were sold; and the proceeds, to the amount of 1,200,000l., were received by Government as Droits of Admiralty. Soon after this, a decree was passed confiscating all British property in Denmark, and directing, that all Danish subjects indebted to British subjects should pay the amount of those debts into the Exchequer at Copenhagen. It was for compensation for the losses sustained by the British merchants in that way that he now, at this distance of time, applied. A committee of British merchants had been appointed to urge the case of the claimants, and some correspondence had taken place between them and the Treasury. He did not say, that any direct promise of compensation was made, but certainly hopes were held out, that the case of the claimants would be duly considered. The subject was put off till after the peace, and the claimants waited till 1814. In the treaty of Vienna, a clause was introduced, that all property which had been sequestered but not confiscated, should be restored; but the property of the British merchants having debts due to them from those of Denmark, was confiscated by the decree of the king of Denmark to which he had referred. The debts were paid into the Danish Exchequer; and such was the depreciation of the currency that the Danish merchants got an acquittal of their debts on payment of two per cent on their actual amount into the Danish Exchequer—a fact, which could scarcely be credited, if it did not rest on unquestionable authority. This was a practice almost unheard of amongst civilized states; and that it was not considered legal was proved by the fact, that when an action was subsequently brought in the Court of King's Bench by a British against a Danish merchant, for the amount of a debt due to him from the latter, the Danish merchant pleaded that he had already got an acquittal from the debt by a payment into the Danish Exchequer; Lord Ellenborough would not admit the plea, and held, that the whole thing was illegal, as against international law. Now, having shown that the British Government had got ample funds by the sale of the Danish ships to satisfy all the claims of British merchants, he was bound to show, that the British claimants had not committed any laches, as the lawyers called it—that they had not abandoned their claim. He would show, that they had not. In the year 1817, Lord Bexley, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, came down to the House with the King's assent to a petition for compensation; but when he was asked when he would proceed upon it, he replied, that he could not proceed upon it immediately. Some negotiations then took place upon the subject, and Mr. Canning thought that he could do something for the petitioners. Mr. Shilleto had afterwards made exertions, but without success, to obtain compensation for the petitioners. Subsequently, Sir James Mackintosh had been intrusted with the task of laying the case of the petitioners before the House. On every opportunity, therefore, the claimants had enforced their rights; and if hon. Gentlemen would only read the excellent speech which that great and good man then made, they would see how difficult it would be for them, if they regarded the principles of justice, to resist making some compensation to the petitioners. Expensive as such a proposition might appear to be, the conviction of its justice had even extorted an assent to it from that great economist, the hon. member for Middlesex; for the hon. Member had distinctly declared his opinion to be this—that if there was no other way of making compensation to the petitioners, the House was itself bound to pay the money. He was sure, that if the House would only consent to investigate the case of the petitioners, it would be not only able, but also willing, to give them that compensation to which a committee, if a committee were appointed, should deem them entitled, on a fair consideration of all the circumstances under which their property had been confiscated. The hon. Member concluded, by moving, that a Select Committee be appointed to examine into the claims of certain British subjects to compensation for the book-debts due to them from Danish subjects confiscated by the Danish Government in 1807, and to report their opinion thereon to the House.

Sir John Rae Reid

seconded the Motion, having been intrusted by parties with a petition on the subject, whose claims amounted to not less than 60,000l.

Lord Althorp

said, that he did not intend to dispute the facts which the hon. Member had stated in his speech; all that he intended to do was, to show that it was not the duty of his Majesty's Government to agree to the proposition which the hon. Member had brought forward. He fully admitted, that, at the treaty of Kiel, due attention had not been paid to the just claims of these petitioners for compensation; and that, as the Crown had obtained large Droits of Admiralty by the very act which had led to the confiscation of the property of these petitioners, it was out of those Droits that they ought to have been compensated. It ought, however, to be recollected, that since the accession of his present Majesty, the Droits of Admiralty had been applied in a different way from that in which they were applied in 1814; and the claim of the petitioners was not now on the Droits of Admiralty as against the Crown, but on the people of England, who had not received the benefit of a farthing from those Droits. Looking at the question in this point of view, and seeing that none of the many Administrations to whom this application had been made, had acceded to it, and considering that the money to liquidate these claims was not now forthcoming, he could not consent, upon his own responsibility, to tax the people of England for the object which the hon. Member had at present in view. It was for the House to decide, whether it would or would not adopt the proposition of the hon. Member. He felt the hardship to which the claimants were exposed; he admitted the justice of their claims; but he could not, on that account, as a Minister of the Crown, consent to charge upon the people of England a claim for which they were in no respect liable.

Mr. O'Connell

said, it was clear, that British subjects had been robbed by the government of a foreign country, because our Government had plundered its subjects. He considered it, therefore, the duty of the Government to see that these sufferers should obtain compensation. He should, therefore, support the Motion.

Lord Morpeth

was glad to perceive, that his noble friend (Lord Althorp) admitted the justice of the claims; and there was, therefore, in his opinion, no alternative. The House was bound to grant a Committee.

Lord Sandon

was of the same opinion as the noble Lord (Morpeth). He had known an opulent man reduced to beggary by this unjust confiscation.

Sir George Strickland

had several constituents interested in the question, and he, therefore, would support the Motion.

Mr. Warburton

thought it very wrong to leave British subjects, whose claims ought to have been protected, without any compensation for a loss which they had sustained, owing to an act of our own Government, which had enabled the Crown to appropriate to itself, as Droits of Admiralty, a sum of money amounting to more than ten times the value of that property which the Danish Government had confiscated.

Lord Althorp

said, that after such an unanimous expression of the feelings of the House, it would be inconsistent with his duty to let it waste more of the public time in the discussion of this subject. The Government would be ready to take measures for the payment of the sums claimed as due to these petitioners. He suggested to the hon. Member, therefore, the propriety of withdrawing his Motion for a Committee, in order to allow the Government to consider what it ought to do. He had always felt it impossible to resist the justice of the claims of the petitioners, and he had great satisfaction in acceding to the suggestions of the hon. Gentlemen opposite.

Mr. Parker withdrew his Motion.

On the Question being again put, that the House resolve itself into a Committee of Supply,