HC Deb 22 March 1837 vol 37 cc702-7
Mr. Robinson

, in moving the second reading of the East India Maritime Officers' Bill, said that all members both of the last and present Board of Control, had agreed in the Report, which stated that by the rule of the Directors of the East-India Company, certain officers had been excluded from the list who were entitled to compensation. When the negotiation had taken place between his Majesty's Government and the East India Company for the purpose of putting an end to the privileges of that body for the benefit of the public at large, an express agreement had been entered into by the Company with the Government on behalf of those officers, which was subsequently sanctioned by Parliament, to the effect that in putting an end to the trading privileges of the East India Company care should be taken that the claims of these officers should not be prejudiced on that account. Now, he would remind the House that there was no doubt whatever as to the nature of the clause of the Act of Parliament on this subject. In the 3d and 4th of William the 4th, c. 4, sec. 7, it was expressly provided that the claims of these officers should be considered without regard to their time of service, or the time they had quitted service; but merely upon the point of their interest having or not having, been affected by the discontinuance of the East India Company's trade. He defied any man to contradict him in saying that that was the obvious meaning of the Act; and surely neither the East India Company nor the Board of Control had any right to put a limit on an Act of Parliament which was not contained in the enactment itself. He charged the East India Company Directors with a tenacious adherence to a rule by which those officers had been excluded from the list, contrary to the meaning of the Act of Parliament, and also of an unwillingness on their part to consider the claims of those gentlemen. That was a grave charge, and although not amounting to one of absolute injustice, yet to those officers the effect was precisely the same whether they had been intentionally treated with injustice, or treated so by an obstinate and tenacious adherence to an improper construction of the Act of Parliament. On the 16th of December, 1834, the Court of Proprietors of the East India Company had unanimously agreed that those officers were justly entitled to compensation. The Court of Directors, however, prescribed a rule of time, which he maintained they had no right to do under the Act of Parliament, and the admission of which, it had been pointed out to them, would exclude several meritorious officers who were entitled to compensation. He had, notwithstanding, understood that the Court of Directors and the Board of Control were willing to consider the cases of any officers who had been excluded under this rule of time upon their special merits; but upon being called on to do so, they refused, and had up to this moment deprived those officers of any opportunity of establishing their claims, even upon special grounds. Now, until his opinion was changed by a vote of that House, he would not believe that a British Parliament would sanction so unjust a proceeding. He would ask the President of the Board of Control, upon what ground was it, after the Report which had been made and unanimously agreed to that those officers were to be excluded by this rule of time from ever having their claims considered upon their merits? When Lord Glenelg was under examination before the Committee, he (Mr. Robinson) had asked him if he believed it to be in the power of the Court of Directors of the East India Company, with the consent of the Board of Control, to consider upon equitable grounds the claims of the officers who had been excluded, and his Lordship answered that such was his opinion. Upon his Lordship being asked if he intended to exclude the consideration of all special cases, he said, "I do not say I intend to exclude all special cases. It is my opinion that special cases ought to be considered." He was also asked, "if any officers who have been excluded from compensation, by the rule of time could make out clearly that their interests had been affected by the discontinuance of the Company's trade, it would still be your Lordship's opinion that it was in the power of the Company to compensate them?" to which his Lordship replied, "You have expressed precisely my opinion." Now he (Mr. Robinson) had shown that the Court of Directors had expressed a desire that these officers should be compensated, and that a Committee of the House of Commons, in consequence of a petition from those officers, complaining that they had been excluded, had decided that they were justly entitled to compensation, and he had thought that upon a further application to the East India Company and Board of Control, they would have, under these circumstances, been disposed to consider the claims of those officers upon their merits; but, strange to say, although these officers had again applied, with the Report of the Committee in their hands, they received from the Company the same answer as before—namely, that they did not come within the rule of time, and that, therefore, their case could not be considered. What right had the East India Company to put a limit to the Act of Parliament which it did not contain—for he again asserted that there was no limit of time in the Act? The Act gave to all those parties an equitable claim if they could make out their case, and more than that, they or he did not demand. No power on earth could or ought to exclude any of those officers from compensation, who, taking upon themselves the onus probandi, could establish their right to that compensation. But when this Act had passed, the Board of Directors and Board of Control prescribed a rule by which, forsooth, the Act of Parliament was to be evaded, and by which, no matter how strong the merits of the claims put forward, they were excluded from even being considered. If he were to go into an examination of the manner in which the East-India Company had dealt with these meritorious officers, he could show that they had been most miserably and unfairly treated. He could show that compensation had been given to others whose claims were much inferior to those whose case he now urged upon the attention of the House. A certain rule of time had been adopted with reference to the claims for compensation. This rule of time was fixed in August, 1828, and in its operation was most unjust and oppressive. The House would best understand this if he stated a case that had occurred. A maritime officer, in the service of the East-India Company, quitted his ship in July, 1828; not voluntarily but owing to the ship to which he belonged being paid off and disposed of by the act and directions of the Board of Directors. This officer frequently applied for new employment; he was refused it, and it was held that he did not come within the rule of time, and therefore was not entitled to compensation. The other was the case of an officer who had made a fortune in the service of the East-India Company, and who quitted that service with the intention of returning no more to it in the month of September, 1828, and it was held that this officer came within the rule of time, and was entitled to compensation. Such was the injustice which was worked by this rule of time. No less than 150 officers had applied to the East-India Company to have their cases considered on their respective merits, and this number and the labour of the investigation of each, had doubtless alarmed the Court of Directors. Still he maintained that they were bound in justice to proceed with the inquiries as prayed, and all he (Mr. Robinson) now asked by this Bill, was to compel them to do so, and in point of fact, to enforce the provisions of their own measure. The Bill he sought to carry through established no new principle; it only asked the House to enforce the provisions of its own statute—to declare that the East-India Company, in the rules they had made with reference to the awarding compensation to these maritime officers, had been guilty of an error in judgment—an error which had been productive of gross injustice to a most deserving and meritorious class of men. The Bill did not compel the payment of a single shilling, but went to compel an investigation of claims according to the views embodied in the Report of the Select Committee of last Session, in direct contravention of which both the Court of Directors and the Board of Control had proceeded. They had endeavoured to avoid coming before Parliament, but all their remonstrances had failed, and they were now compelled reluctantly to make this appeal. Let it not be forgotten that the East-India Company had got great benefits by the last statute, which secured to themselves valuable dividends for a long period of time, and that they had been lavish in the compensation awarded to their civil and military servants and officers. Could it then be justified, that when the trading privileges of the East-India Company were superseded, any portion of men having valid claims, should be left to complain of the gross injustice done to them, not in consequence of any act of their own, but resulting from the acts and orders of the Court of Directors? Neither could it be said that there was any want of funds, out of which to award this compensation, for the East-India Company themselves made a return of their own estimate, amounting to 1,224,000l., as necessary for that purpose. On all these grounds he trusted that the right hon. Baronet now at the head of the Board of Control would, on reflection, feel that he had been a party to an ill-advised arrangement, which had had the effect of perpetrating gross injustice, and that being so convinced, he would not adhere from any feelings of false pride to the decision to which he had formerly come, and which experience now showed to be erroneous. He therefore entreated the right hon. Baronet and the House, on the grounds of common justice, to allow this Bill to be read a second time. The hon. Member concluded by moving that the Bill be now read a second time.

Sir J. C. Hobhouse

, in spite of the appeal made by the hon. Member for Worcester to his sense of justice, felt himself imperatively compelled—to oppose the second reading of this Bill, and he could not help thinking that he should be able to convince those hon. Members who had listened to the appeal of the hon. Member for Worcester, that it would be extremely unjust to the East-India Company to pass this measure. In the onset be must state that he had been no party to the arrangements from which those complaints now arose; those arrangements had been perfected long before he came to the office of President of the Board of Control. When, however, it was determined that the maritime officers of the East-India Company should receive compensation, it was quite clear that such compensation must be granted and award- ed in one of two methods—either that all cases should be considered separately, with reference to their individual merits, or that if not considered separately some definite rule to apply to them should be laid down. The rig-lit hon. Baronet was here interrupted by

An hon. Member observing, that forty Members were not present.

House counted out.