HC Deb 04 December 1837 vol 39 cc537-50
Mr. Warburton

said, that many Members who had been instructed by their constituents to attend to this question were about to leave London, it was therefore impossible for him to postpone it. Let the House look to the enormity of the sufferings of those whose interest he now undertook to advocate. He did not feel that he was justified in putting off the question. In order that no objection might be made in any subsequent period of the debate, he would read the terms of the motion with which he intended to conclude. He did so, because he understood from his hon. Friend, the Secretary of the Treasury, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer intended to object to the form of his motion. His motion would be That an humble address be presented to her Majesty, praying her Majesty to be graciously pleased to give directions to the Commissioners to whom it was referred, to examine the claims of certain British subjects for losses sustained on account of book debts, and other property confiscated by the Government of Denmark in the year 1807, that they shall examine the claims for losses sustained on account of seizures by the said Government in the said year, and for the subsequent confiscation of merchants' stores, and which claims, or evidence by which they are supported, may not have been delivered into the said Commissioners before the 12th of February, 1835, and that the said Commissioners shall report on such claims to the Lords' Commissioners of her Majesty's Treasury.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

had no objection to the form in which the hon. Member meant to bring forward the present motion, but he would tell his hon. Friend the mode in which he intended to meet it, namely, by calling for the production of all the minutes of the Commissioners and of the established rules under which the money had been distributed by them; and when the House was in possession of these minutes, and knew what had been done, it would be able to say whether it acquiesced in it or not. If they discussed the question at that time, he had no objection to the form of the motion if it were meant to be restricted to the application of the money which had been already voted; but if it were intended to include any application for a new grant, then he undoubtedly did object.

Mr. Warburton

The motion did not include any application for a fresh grant.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, under such circumstances, had not the least objection to offer on the mere matter of form.

Mr. Warburton

did not intend to imply that he might not require a vote after the report of the Commissioners had been made, for when the Danish Commissioners had made their report, it would be referred to the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury to deal with as they might think proper. He felt compelled to bring the matter forward, either by a motion for papers, or for a Committee of inquiry, or by a reference back to the Danish Commissioners, because, in consequence of the directions of the Treasury, they had been prevented from going into several of those claims; and as the original commission was still in existence, he thought it best to refer the subject back to the Commissioners, who had already investigated a portion of those claims, and had only been precluded from entering into the whole in consequence of the limitation put upon their powers by the Treasury. As there were many new Members in that House— indeed, they had been told the other night that there was the large number of 150 who had not been in the previous Parliament—he would briefly narrate the grounds on which he rested the claims of the merchants whose petition had been so lately presented. In the month of August, 1807, England sent a secret expedition to Copenhagen. The town was bombarded; we seized the Danish fleet and naval stores. His Majesty's cruisers were ordered to scour the seas for Danish vessels; many prizes were brought into our ports and merchantmen were seized. The whole value of the property thus taken amounting to l,397,000l. As a matter of course the Danish Government made reprisals, and on the 7th September issued orders for the confiscation of all vessels and cargoes afloat, of all merchandise on shore, and of all book debts, from British to Danish subjects. The hon. Member for Sheffield in the year 1834, presented a petition to the House in which the claims of the British subjects whose property had been thus confiscated were plainly set forth, and the plain statement of the facts made such an impression on the House and the Treasury that Lord Althorpe, who was at that time Chancellor of the Exchequer, said, that it was impossible to resist the claim, and that if the hon. Member would withdraw his motion for a Committee, the Treasury would make a satisfactory arrangement. This referred to the sufferers for losses by the confiscation of the book debts; and in the July of the same year the Government referred their investigation to the Commissioners, and a notice was issued by them requiring parties who had suffered losses to deliver in the particulars of their claims within three months. It was contended that the claims for merchandise seized were in precisely the same situation as those for book debts. The Commissioners reported the doubt upon this point for the opinion of the law officers of the Crown, and four days within the expiration of the first three months another notice was issued stating that the Government would not only entertain claims for the book debts already claimed, but also granted a further three months for the delivery of other claims for book debts or other property. By the Parliamentary returns of 1835 it appeared that the Treasury intended by the words "other claims" to extend the term for merchandise on shore; but at the end of the notice there was a paragraph in which it was stated that this extension was not. to be treated as an admission of the right to compensation till the question had been mentioned in Parliament. By this proceeding, however, the sufferers by the confiscation of the book debts were allowed an additional three months, making together six months, but the sufferers by the loss of merchandise on shore had only the three months granted by the last notice. Yet by the admission of the Government, and by the vote of a sum of money by Parliament, the claimants for merchandise had participated in the second vote of 78,000l. allowed to the sufferers; and all he would ask of the House was, that the owners of the confiscated merchandise should be placed in the same situation as were the losers by book debts. Why, having admitted them to send in their claims on the sum granted as an indemnity, were they not to be allowed the same terms as the other claimants? Why were they not to have all the advantages of the six months, especially when they considered the greater difficulty of collecting evidence to substantiate the claims for merchandise than there was in proving the loss of book debts? The Danish Government ordered all the book debts to be paid into the public treasury, and a correct register was kept, from which all the necessary evidence was easily supplied; but the direct contrary was the case with respect to the other class of claims. The merchandise was scattered very widely in Altona, Holstein, and Norway, and it was confiscated not only in warehouses, but also in transitu, and there was, therefore, very great difficulty in collecting the elements of claim. Why did they not at least extend the same facilities to claims for merchandise as to the other subject of indemnity? These were the arguments of the petitioners whose case he then re-presented to the House. But was there no precedent for entertaining those claims, and, instead of shortening the period in which they were to be made, ought it not to have been extended? He applauded the Government for the limitation of time in the first instance, because he knew full well how easily papers might be discovered and bad claims made if great time had been allowed; but when they discovered that great injustice had accrued from the course adopted, were they within a reasonable period to act over rigorously? This was the history of the case; he would not enter upon the question of the justice or injustice of the war, but the works of all writers on the law of nations had held that parties situated like these claimants were entitled to relief from this nation, This case was clearly within the doctrine; the seizure of the Danish ships entitled the Government of that country to retaliate, and confiscate the British ships and cargoes afloat and the merchandise of Englishmen. The seizure by England took place before any declaration of war; England was bombarding Copenhagen and fighting against a friendly ally, in order, as it was said, to save the fleet of Denmark from the French; and though the idea of self-preservation might justify the attack, yet it did not take away the right of the British subjects to compensation. The declaration of war was on the 4th November; the seizure by the English Government was in August; and the confiscation by Denmark was on the 7th September. The inter-national law was clear. If an injury were done by one nation to another, the nation injured might seize upon the property of the other, whether it belonged to the state or to the private citizens of the country perpetuating the injury. Vatel laid down this doctrine, and added that compensation ought to be awarded by the state to those subjects on whom the reprisals fell. This he laid down as the general rule for injuries received, whether there was or was not property seized by the other nation; and so if no money had been received from the seizure of Danish property, and if no fund had arisen from it, England was bound to in- demnify her citizens for their losses. In the years 1807 and 1808 claims were put in by the sufferers; and what was done with the Danish property seized? It was not treated as droits of the Admiralty. Mr. Perceval then Chancellor of the Exchequer, had stated in that House that the produce of this property was paid into the public treasury, and that this had been done because several merchants had sent in claims for compensation on account of the losses which they had sustained by reason of the extraordinary circumstances under which the war was commenced. Such were the claims of the parties under the law of reprisals. They had put in their claims at the earliest period; the Chancellor of the Exchequer of that day had stated that the produce was not treated as droits of the Admiralty in consequence of that claim; and would that House allow the lapse of time which had taken place to be pleaded against and defeat the parties who were entitled to the indemnity? But another ground might be taken under which to rest these claims. Under the then existing treaties between Denmark and England, if war broke out between the contracting parties, six months' notice was to be given to the citizens of each country to remove themselves and their property. Denmark seized the British book debts and merchandise in direct violation of this stipulation in the treaty. Did this country call upon Denmark to account for this breach? He did not know why this had not been done; but perhaps the circumstances under which the enemy had been laid prostrate, and considering that England had taken the brightest jewel from the crown of Denmark—that she had been despoiled of Norway, England was prevented through very shame from demanding redress; or it might not be convenient to seek reparation, because the whole amount of British property confiscated did not amount to more than 500,000l., whilst, including what was taken at Copenhagen, England did not seize less than three millions from Denmark. But if the Danish government were not called to account, were the sufferers to be, therefore, despoiled of their property without compensation? Why were they not protected by the government? He had only repeated the facts and recapitulated the arguments which had been adduced on former occasions, but he had done so that all the present Members of that House might fully understand the true state of the case. He begged to call the attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to one circumstance. All the evidence of the class of cases to which his motion referred was already collected by the parties, and if time were only given them—two or three days was all he would ask—to put in their claims, he would be contented. But it might be inquired whether that was all—(the right hon. Gentleman need not be alarmed lest he should be going to demand a further sum)—all he required was, that the claims of all those persons whose demands were already prepared might be received, or that some measure might be taken to ensure justice to them. The justice of their claims was admitted; and surely the neglect of the claimants in not sending in their demands ought not to operate so seriously against them. He would ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider the motion, and he waited to know any reason which could be given why one class of claimants should be relieved while the demands of another class received no attention.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

regretted that the hon. Member who had just resumed his seat had not granted him the indulgence which he had requested, for he feared that not having had an opportunity of inspecting the various documents on the subject, his explanation to the House might not be so full, so clear, or so satisfactory as hon. Members had a right to expect. The case was certainly not a new one, and the House would not consider that it was a party question at all, and if he argued against the motion of the hon. Member for Bridport, he should do so as being connected with the Treasury, and on account of his duty to resist any claims on the public purse which he might not consider to be well-founded. He was a mere individual Member of that House, and whether its Members chose to vote 150,000l. for the Danish claims, was a question solely for their consideration, and one in which he, otherwise than as a Member of the Government, was not interested. It was a question relating to the property of British subjects, and it was for the House to consider whether such a case had been made out as would entitle them to make a demand upon the public funds. The hon. Member had drawn rather largely upon the supposition that there were very few Members who were acquainted with the subject and he had taken care to explain to them the nature of the Copenhagen expedition, together with the law of nations and the other points affecting it. But upon those points there was no issue. The hon. Member had dwelt on the circumstances attending the expedition, and had shown that there were some which inflicted great wrongs on some individuals; but, as in all such cases, the injury fell on the wrong-doers. He had proved the deed to be atrocious, no doubt; but what that had to do with the real question, he should take the liberty of inquiring. Now, if there were any young Members in the House, he would put them in possession of two facts which the hon. Member had almost put out of sight. At two different times there had been votes of the House of Commons for the benefit of the claimants; the one for 113,000l., and the other 78,000l., making in all 191,000l. It was true that these were not for the same persons; but they were in satisfaction of the results of wrongs committed. If any claimants had been told before these votes were passed that a vote for 200,000l. would be granted by the House to meet their demands—demands which, from the year 1807 to the year 1835 had been in abeyance—there was not one who would not have been too glad, too grateful, to have closed with the proposition; but now, having obtained that, they turned round and made a new demand, after one of a precisely similar description had already been discussed. Every party who had a claim was actively employed in bringing it forward from 1807 to 1834, and in 1834, for the first time, they were entertained by the Government, for Lord Stanley said that he was willing to look into them. In that state he had found them, the inquiry still going on. He took the opinion of the law officers of the Crown on the claims which were made, as to whether the Acts on which they proceeded were done against the law of nations, and he was told that the two first, the book-debts, and the property on shore, had been confiscated contrary to the law of nations, and that if the nation allowed its subjects to suffer a wrong, and did not procure a remedy for it, it was in justice liable to satisfy, from its own funds, the injured parties. It was on that ground that he put the grants to Parliament, and on that ground that they were voted. Now, what would be the fair and legitimate construction to be put on the argument of the hon. Mover? That six months were given to the claimants of book-debts, and that three months only having been given to those who required satisfaction for goods seized on shore, to send in their claims, the time for the latter should be doubled. But this was not so, the motion was to extend the time to all classes of claimants, not only those who had already been allowed only three months, nor to those who had had six months, but to those who had had, from the year 1834 to 1837, to prepare the evidence of their demands. He repeated that this was no party question, nor was it one in which he was not bound to act; for otherwise he might have easily got rid of the whole affair, of the motion of the hon. Member, and of the great mass of correspondence which took place on the subject, by saying, "Let it be looked to by the Committee." He was bound to act in his capacity, however; and he would say that more than the amount already voted would be claimed if this motion were to be allowed by the House, and of this fact the hon. Member was aware. [Mr. Warburton: Indeed I am not.] The hon. Member said that all the parties were ready to prove their claims, and he therefore had the means of knowing the amount, but yet he would not wait until he could ascertain what it was. Was it meant that the House should vote an address to the Crown, and that there should be no given sum named, and that the House could not afterwards be bound in honour to vote the sum necessary to meet the claims? It was admitted by the hon. Member that false claims might be got up, that claims might be fabricated, if any long time were given for them to be made, and yet he now came forward with such a suggestion as that contained in his motion. If the House of Commons chose to go into these claims, and accede to them, it might, but it would be their act and not his. This case did not apply to Danish claims alone; there were other claims, French claims, and would it not be equally proper that they should be opened, and quite as just that a petition should be presented to the House with respect to them to-morrow? He could only, on sitting down, warn the House of the great inconvenience, of the great peril, which the course suggested would entail upon them. It was not the case of 1834—then there was a distinction drawn and laid down; but the House was now called upon to give their sanction, not to claims the amount of which was specified, but to undefined claims on the subject of which they knew nothing. On this ground it was, that he felt bound to oppose this motion, and he had again to express to the House his regret for the imperfect manner in which he had stated the case, but he repeated that he felt it to be his duty not to consent to an undefined liability being admitted.

Mr. O'Connell

said, that he thought the deficiency of the right hon. Gentleman did not consist in his being unprepared on the subject, but in the matter which had fallen from him. The facts of the case were clear enough. There had been three kinds of property confiscated, namely book-debts, goods on shore, and goods afloat; in the opinion of the law officers of the Crown the seizure of the two first-named species of property was in violation of the law of nations, while those which were afloat did not come within the same description. There were thus two classes of property, for one of which the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer admitted the parties should be indemnified by the Government. The sum which was seized by England was not paid over to the parties whose goods had been taken by Denmark, and who were entitled to the protection of the British nation, in order to obtain redress. So the parties stood until 1834, when their claims were first recognised. Some of them were admitted, and how were the others forfeited? By some delay only, which was brought forward against those who urged them. Thus the British nation, from 1807 to 1834, improperly resisted the claims: they were postponed by the default of the Government; and was it not a very small objection, to say the least of it, now to turn round and say, "We, who represent the British Government, have been guilty of a laches in not attending to your claims until 1834; but you have also been guilty of a laches in not bringing it forward until now, and therefore you have lost your remedy." The notice was first confined to the book debts; it was a notice that the parties might come in, and if they could prove their claims within three months, that they might obtain compensation. Now, was it likely that the claimants would incur the expense of sending messengers to Denmark, and exert themselves in other ways to establish their claims at a considerable cost, under circumstances which made their success a mere speculation? No man in his senses would do so. And what was the consequence? They were turned round on and told that though they had a right, still, because it had slept for twenty-four years, no other delay having occurred than that for which they were not accountable, they should be excluded forever from establishing their rights. Was that the way in which a British House of Commons would deal with the claimants? Some said that the amount claimed was great, others that it was small. If it was great, he was terrified by the amount of the injustice they were inflicting. That was just the reason why the claim ought to be allowed. A country like this should shrink from permitting a great injustice to be suffered by its subjects. Economy was a good thing, but justice was better. It was well to see the public purse taken care of, but not at the expense of the just claims of individuals. He would say that no case had been made out for refusing to allow these people to come before the Commissioners and prove their claims.

Mr. Maclean

felt, that, if he refused the claims of these parties, he should be doing an act of injustice. What was the matter of fact? There were certain individuals proving that, by no act of their own, having sustained a severe loss, they had been excluded, by a Treasury minute, from the benefit intended to be conferred on them by a solemn resolution of the House of Commons; for he did not find that it was the intention of the House that the benefit or been should be conferred on those claimants alone who had lost their book-debts, but that it should be extended to goods that were confiscated on shore. What was the course taken by the Treasury? They gave notice that proof as to the book-debts alone should be received for the space of three months. Subsequently the notice was extended to cases of loss of goods on shore; but the time given was three months only, which rendered it impossible in many cases that the proof could be obtained in time. Suppose any of the parties had gone to the East or West Indies? and he knew of such cases. It would have taken a month or five weeks to carry the notice that the Treasury had conceded so far as to admit the proof's, and it would have taken live or six weeks to return with the proofs. The right hon. Gentleman, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, warned them that if they embarked in that inquiry without knowing the amount which might be claimed, they might be launching on a sea of troubles, which they would find it exceedingly difficult to get well over. He would ask, what was the amount compared with the justice of the case? Whatever the amount, they were pledged by the vote of 1834 that the money should be paid. Lord Althorp then said, "He begged to state that measures should be taken to pay such of the claims as might be found to be just." That engagement was not confined to book debts. The noble Lord began, as did the right hon. Gentleman opposite, by warning the House; but in this case, he said, he felt it to be impossible to resist the justice of the claims. He said his principle was, that if a subject of her Majesty was injured by an act done by a foreign power, contrary to the law of nations, it was the duty of the Government, by war or by negotiation, to obtain redress; but if not, at least to indemnify the party. Did these individuals ask that taxes should be imposed to indemnify them? Certainly not. In this case 1,200,000l. had been confiscated for the very purpose of their indemnification. That sum became droits of the Admiralty, it was true; but these claimants had a lien on it. Out of the 1,200,000l. received by this country to satisfy these claims, not more than 200,000l. had been paid. He was as anxious as the right hon. the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the public interests should be protected, but he thought that they were never better protected than by acceding to the claims of British subjects for justice.

Mr. Babies

inferred, from the tone in which the right hon. the Chancellor of the Exchequer had spoken, that he did not mean seriously to oppose these claims. If in the year 1834 it was right that these claims should be granted, the claimants ought not to be satisfied now with the mere payment of their debts, inasmuch as the amount of their debts would be doubled if they received common interest on them for the period the payment had been delayed, viz.: thirty years. Surely, then, these parties were entitled to great indulgence. To allow only three months to collect proofs of claims which had slept for so long a period was not, in his opinion, a sufficient time. He hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would not put the House to the necessity of dividing on this motion; but that, with the generosity of disposition which belonged to him, he would acquiesce in it;

Mr. Wilberforce

said, it was not his intention to occupy much of the time of the House, but he trusted that as a new Member some indulgence would be extended to him when he stated that he rose on the present occasion at the earnest request of his constituents, who begged the House to give effect to the declaration which had been made by Lord Althorp, in his place as Chancellor of the Exchequer, when speaking of the justice of these claims. If it were long since this debt was incurred, the greater the injustice of further deferring it. If the amount claimed was large, the greater was the right which he appeared to advocate. The question was one of principle, and the principle had been settled, and he did not think that the House would yield to the argument of the right hon. the Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he stated that they might find the amount more than they expected, and that the claimants might be glad to compound—to compound with the failing credit of a country like this, and to have taken originally the 200,000l., abandoning all further demand. If he understood rightly, no less than 1,400,000l., derived from the confiscation of Danish property, had gone to swell the droits of the Admiralty, and why a portion of this sum should not be made available for the liquidation of the just claims of the parties now before the House he could not understand. He could not see the distinction between goods seized in the ports and goods seized on land. In conclusion, he earnestly entreated the House to render the claimants justice.

Mr. Warburton

replied, that the sum which the claimants had received, did not amount to more than 3s. in the pound of the sum that had been paid into the public treasury. The right hon. the Chancellor of the Exchequer asked, would they now let the claimants in after a year had elapsed, though only three months were allowed? but the answer to this was, that at the end of the three months the door was closed. All the parties asked, was a single week to prove their case. He understood that the whole of the evidence was here. As regarded the amount, Lord Althorp did not seek to limit it; he stated that he would grant all that was just. What he required of the House was, that they would do in this case what they did in the case of the admission of the book debts.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, no one individual of the House having sustained him in the effort he had made to resist these claims (and a very painful and disagreeable duty he could assure the House he had found it), he felt that he had no alternative but to propose to the hon. Gentleman, that he should leave the matter in his hands, and he would bring the question before the House after the cases had been investigated. He took the liberty of saying, however, that this must be considered as the proposition of the House, and not his. He objected to it on principle, and if he thought he was likely to be supported in his opposition to it, he would resist it still; but the debate having been proceeded with exclusively on the part of the claimants, no one individual, on either side of the House, this being a matter in which party considerations did not enter, having supported him in the view he had taken, he felt that he should be conforming to what appeared to be the desire of the House, in directing an examination to be instituted, and in engaging to bring the subject hereafter under the consideration of the House. He must again express his hope, that the House would not throw on him any of the responsibility of pursuing this course.

Mr. Warburton

said, as in the case of Mr. Palmer's motion, the matter was left in the hands of Lord Althorp, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, so he now committed the case to the hands of his right hon. Friend.

Motion agreed to.