HC Deb 11 March 1835 vol 26 cc839-46
Mr. Robinson

rose to present a Petition from certain Maritime Officers of the East India Company, who were excluded from the compensation granted by the Act 3 and 4 of William IV., cap. 85. He begged to call the attention of the House to the Act passed last Session, which was commonly called the East India Act. In it there was introduced a clause enabling the East India Company to grant Compensations to Officers for the loss they sustained by the cessation of the trading privileges of the Company. The Act did not determine the precise rule by which compensation was to be granted, but it left it in the power of the East India Company to deal as they thought proper with their own servants in matters of compensation. But while Parliament gave to the East India Company the power of apportioning the compensation which was to be given to the individuals engaged in their service, it reserved to itself the right of revising, and, if necessary, reconsidering, any scale of remuneration which the Board of Directors might make, which he thought must be apparent to every one who read the seventh section of the East India Company's Act, passed in the last Session. After reciting the nature of this compensation, the Clause went on to say, "Provided always that no such compensation, superannuation, or allowance whatsoever shall be granted until two months after the particulars of such compensation, superannuation, or allowance shall have been laid before the two Houses of Parliament." Such was the language of the Act, and he would therefore ask every hon. Member who listened to him whether any scale the Directors, even with the sanction of the Board of Control, might think fit to make, could be considered as final and conclusive? If it were, what was the object in providing that it should be laid before Parliament, or could any man doubt that such a provision as the one to which he had alluded was inserted for the express purpose of enabling that House to see that justice was done to the parties entitled to the benefit of the law? Under the Clause to which he had referred it was, in his opinion, clear that Parliament had the power of sending this scale back to the Directors for revision and reconsideration, and this being also the impression of the Gentlemen from whom the petition proceeded, they had, when refused redress elsewhere, determined on having their case brought before that House. From the statement of the petition it appeared that the East India Company had formed a most unjust and arbitrary rule with respect to the manner in which they awarded compensation to the Officers of their Maritime service. They drew a line of demarcation by which every Officer who had been on shore, no matter from what cause, prior to the 28th of August, 1828, and had not been afloat subsequently, was altogether excluded from receiving any compensation under this Act, but by what authority such an arbitrary line was drawn he was wholly at a loss to conjecture.—This rule, however, had inflicted great hardship on a number of highly meritorious individuals, and from what he knew of them he must say that their exclusion was alike injurious to the feelings of honourable men and unjust as far as principle was concerned. Before such a rule could be applied it should be shown that these individuals had actually quitted the service; but if an Officer had not quitted the service surely it was going a little too far to say, that because he had not been afloat within the time specified, he was, therefore, to be deprived of his right to compensation, and that too, although his remaining on shore was no fault of his own, but arose out of circumstances over which he could have no control? for instance, in health, the loss of his ship, or a preference given to another Officer. Now he did not think that there was any person in that House who would be prepared to defend such a rale as this. The rule he was prepared to assert was a bad one, and he would lay it down as a proposition that the non-employment for five years of men who had devoted their lives to the service of the Company never could have been intended by the Legislature to operate in such a way as to exclude them from that fair compensation to which they were entitled. He found on looking over the minutes of the proceedings of the Board of Directors that a much wider space was originally intended to be taken as the criterion for awarding compensation. It was originally proposed, that if an Officer had not been afloat for ten years prior to the passing of the Act, he ought to be excluded from receiving compensation; and had that course been taken, he verily believed that not one of those petitioners would have been passed over. It was neither his duty nor inclination to complain either of the East India Directors or the Board of Control; but it was his province to show that the gentlemen whom this arbitrary rule had excluded, had as strong, if not in many instances much stronger, claims to compensation than a great many of the Officers who had been included in the arrangement. He was fully satisfied, from what he knew and had heard of the services of the meritorious individuals, on whose behalf he appeared, that they were entitled to the relief which they now sought at the hands of that House; but, although such was his conviction, he hardly knew what course to pursue in order to obtain for them redress. He might, perhaps, be at liberty to move that the scale should be sent back to the Directors for revision, or that the matter should be referred to a Committee of that House; but, before he took any step upon the subject he wished to have the opinion of more experienced persons than himself; and the discussion which was likely to ensue on the present occasion would, he anticipated, furnish him with all the information in this respect which he required. All he now proposed doing was, to have the petition placed upon the Table of that House; but unless he heard some suggestion from an hon. and learned Gentleman opposite, who was officially connected with the Board of Control, from which he could infer that there was no indisposition on the part of that Board to entertain the case of these petitioners, he certainly should feel it his duty to bring the subject forward in another shape on some future day. By the rule to which he had alluded no less than 100 officers were excluded from all hope of compensation, although many of them had spent fifty years in the service. Most, if not all of them, had participated in those brilliant exploits which had rendered the navy of the Company second only to the naval service of the mother country; and, therefore, these petitioners had strong claims upon the Company, both on public and commercial grounds. It was clearly the object of Parliament that such services should be rewarded as they deserved to be, and the East India Directors were not warranted in adopting a rule that amounted almost to a denial of justice. He could cite many instances in which persons, less deserving, had been declared entitled to compensation; but he would not, because he felt assured that there was every inclination on the part of that House to see that justice was done to these parties. It might, however, be said that Parliament had no power to interfere with the decision of the Board of Control; but if that were so, why was the clause that no scale should be finally adopted until it had been laid for a given time upon the Table of that House introduced into the Act? The right of that House to interfere was incontrovertible, and he could not see why the claims of the maritime servants of the Company should not be as strong as those of the civil and military servants, when the maritime service was coeval with the Company itself. All these petitioners, it should be borne in mind, had entered the service in early life, and had pursued it for many years as their profession; and, that being the case, had they not a right to say, that any rule was unjust which went to deprive one-fifth of the whole number of the officers employed in the Company's navy of any remuneration for the loss of their profession? Without intending anything like disparagement, he must say, that the merits of the officers who were thus left unprovided for, were, at all events, equal to those of their more fortunate brethren; and by the great measure consummated last year, it could not have been intended that mere youngsters should receive compensation, while men who had served for a period of fifty years were denied it. But he would not believe that the House would give its sanction to such a proceeding. He could assure hon. Members that it was not until those Gentlemen had exhausted all other means of obtaining redress that they determined on seeking relief of that House. It was impossible that the rule to which he had referred could be final; and this, he thought, might be inferred from a letter which Lord Ellenborough, the President of the Board of Control, had lately written to the pe- titioners, in reply to an application which they had made to him. In that letter the noble Lord said, that the plan or scale of compensation which had been adopted appeared to him to be as binding as the law itself, and that no power but that of Parliament could alter or modify it. That was, in fact, an admission that Parliament had such a power, in which opinion he (Mr. Robinson) entirely concurred. Indeed, the matter was incapable of a doubt. The petitioners, he could assure the House, were not actuated by any feelings of jealousy against their more fortunate brother officers. They utterly disclaimed anything of the kind; and all they asked for was to have justice done to them without wishing in any way to prejudice any other party. He hoped their claims would receive the favourable attention of that House; and, as there was no limit to the sum out of which the compensation was to come, he could see no reason why these petitioners should not now be included in the arrangement. It was thought originally that a million of money would be required to cover the engagements of the Company with their servants; but, as less than half that amount had been found sufficient for the purpose of awarding them the necessary compensation, there would be no occasion to disturb the present scale, even if these petitioners were included in it, as the addition would not exceed from 100,000l. to 120,000l. He trusted that the Board of Control would reconsider this matter; but if they did not, all he could say was, that he should take an early opportunity of bringing the subject forward again. He should then probably move to have it referred to a Select Committee to say, whether the rule established by the Directors was conformable, or at variance, with the spirit of the Act. The hon. Gentleman then read the prayer of the petition, and moved for leave to bring it up.

Mr. Cayley

supported the petition, and said, that if the petitioners were really entitled to compensation, they ought to receive it, especially if their services were long and meritorious.

Mr. Praed

admitted, that the question deserved serious attention, and that the petitioners were highly meritorious individuals. The hon. Member was mistaken if he supposed that the India Board had had any share in fixing or sanctioning the rule laid clown by the Directors of the East India Company; he was mistaken, also, in representing that a wider line bad once been contemplated by that body; on the contrary, the proposition was once entertained by them, that no officer should receive compensation who had not been on board within the last three years and a half. The fact was, that compensation had been granted by the Act, not for past services, but for prospective losses, on the supposition that the claimants would have continued employed, but for the passing of the Act. Past services he hoped had been duly remunerated by the pay the officers had received while performing those services. It ought to be recollected, also, that the officers of ships chartered by the East-India Company were not selected by that body, but by the owners, so that, under no circumstances, could they have any just right to compensation. The case of the civil servants of the Company was widely different, as they were entitled to retired allowances after a certain period. He trusted that the distinguished abilities of the petitioners would render the loss of which they spoke less serious than they anticipated.

Mr. Clay

would instance a case of severe grievance under the present regulation. A very deserving and highly-meritorious officer, who had served for nineteen years in the maritime service of the Company, happened to be for the last six years out of employment; and, in consequence of the late regulation, by the mere accident of losing one year in the period so arbitrarily provided, he, together with a large family, had been deprived of all allowance, notwithstanding his long previous servitude.

Mr. Hume

begged to direct the attention of the right hon. Baronet (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) to the situation in which the house was placed. The Question was whether the House, in the discretionary power which the House had granted to the Board of Directors to make compensation to persons claiming for injury done to them by the Act of last Session, had reserved to itself a power to alter or rescind the regulations made by the Board? The Question was an important one, and he thought ought to be allowed to stand over until that day week, when the House would be better prepared to take it up.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

regretted that the discussion had been pro- tracted so long in the absence of the late President of the Board of Control, and of the hon. and learned Member for Kirkcudbright (Mr. Cutlar Fergusson), who, in all probability, could have stated to the House the principles on which the Board of Directors had acted in awarding the compensations, while the late President of the Board of Control would have been enabled to explain the ground on which he was induced to confirm the order. He could also have stated the precise object of the words to which reference had been made. He confessed he did not know what was the object of laying on the Table the award of the Court of Directors, and afterwards inserting those words in the Act, if it had been intended to reserve to Parliament the power of reviving and revising all these questions. He certainly thought that Parliament had intrusted to the Court of Directors and Board of Control the joint authority of making this arrangement, and, in his opinion, it ought to be a very strong case indeed, to induce Parliament to set their judgment aside, and admit new claims to compensation. Hon. Members of that House very often laid down the strictest principles of economy, but when private claims were to be considered, they at once set aside their own opinions, and thus gave the country some ground for supposing, that when party questions were agitated, they were extremely anxious to enforce economy, but merely for the purpose of annoying or prejudicing the Government. Every Gentleman had admitted that private applications had been made to him on this subject. He was quite satisfied that no body in existence was so liberal as the House of Commons when there was no party question at stake. Why, there was scarcely a case which the late Government had decided on, which he had not been called upon to review since he entered office. It had been represented to him again and again, "Here is an act of injustice; now is the opportunity, set it right." The principle on which he had acted was this—"The decision was given by a competent authority. I do not believe they intended to do injustice; there must be an end to litigation on these points; and the time of the public departments would be wholly and entirely consumed in revising the acts of their predecessors, if the presumption were not to be adopted that justice has been done." He had refused, in every case, to re-open claims to compensation which had been settled by the late Government; and, on the same ground, he would advise the House—having given the Court of Directors and the Board of Control authority to award these compensations—to presume that they had acted honestly, and not (without a very strong case) to discourage the public departments in their attempts to enforce economy, by opposing their proceedings, and showing them that they had not acted in accordance with the sense of the House of Commons, if they had adhered to the strictest principles of economy.

Mr. Robinson

would not disturb the awards of the Directors, except in cases where sufficient ground was given for so doing. He did not wish to trespass on the patience of the House. He had given notice of his intention to the late President of the Board of Control, and also to the hon. and learned Member for Kirkcudbright, who concurred with him in thinking that the cases were open for the consideration of Parliament.

Mr. O'Connell

insisted that the distinction drawn with regard to the compensation was both arbitrary and capricious. The Directors' reading of the words, "now, or heretofore," in the Act was curious indeed. This wording they, by a monstrous construction, made to signify "since the 1st of August, 1828." There was no reason whatsoever for this arbitrary selection.

Petition to be laid on the Table.

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