HC Deb 20 March 1851 vol 115 cc221-31

, in bringing forward the Motion of which he had given notice, said he would in the first place recall the attention of the House to what had passed on this subject in the month of May last. In May, last year, when the estimates of the Foreign Office were before the House, he called attention to this subject, and he complained that the high price put upon passports by the Foreign Office, of two guineas and a half, amounted almost to a prohibition. The noble Lord the Foreign Secretary did not admit the practical grievance of which he (Lord Mahon) complained, nor did the noble Lord hold out any hopes of any alteration; but several other Gentlemen, especially the hon. Member for Bath, and the hon. Member for Montrose, had joined in the complaint. He (Lord Mahon) seeing then that the feeling of the House was against the existing system, had said that he felt disposed to bring forward the question in the present year. In pursuance of that pledge he gave notice of his Motion on the 18th February. He had no reason then to think that the subject had occupied the attention of the noble Lord the Secretary for Foreign Affairs. But he had been glad to find the contrary. On the 20th of February, two days after his notice, there appeared an order in the Gazette, by which the price of passports was diminished to 7s. 6d. He said last year that he imputed no blame at all to the noble Lord the Foreign Secretary, and now he would go further and express his thanks to the noble Lord for the great improvement which he had effected by the change. He tendered to the noble Lord his thanks. But precisely because it was no party question—precisely because he did not bring it forward as a subject of imputation—for that very reason he thought he might invite the noble Lord, and invite the House, to consider, with him, whether the present system was not still a great anomaly. The passports issued at the Foreign Office were diminished to 7s. 6d. in price; but, as formerly, passports were delivered by several foreign missions free of charge. Observe how completely this system tended to defeat its own ends. The foreign missions here in London gave passports gratuitously. The system worked thus: If a person wished to go to Constantinople or Madrid, without incurring the expenditure of 7s. 6d. for a Foreign Office passport, he could obtain from the French mission, or almost any other foreign mission, a passport to Paris. Once at Paris, he could go to the Marquess of Normanby, and obtain a passport for Madrid or Constantinople, free of charge. Upon any journey that led the traveller through a capital city, such as Paris, or Brussels, or Frankfort, where passports were given gratuitously, facilities for eluding the arrangement were constant. He therefore would ask the House whether it would not be a better regulation to equalise the charge, to diminish it to 2s. 6d. or 3s. in London, but impose the same charge on passports given by the Marquess of Normanby, or the Ministers at Brussels, or at Frankfort, and thus encourage a greater number of English travellers to carry with them a passport from their own authorities? Now, when he urged that point last year, he did not think that the facilities of evasion were denied; but what was stated in answer was, that the Foreign Office would be incumbered by a great number of applications, and public business would be interrupted. But surely the House would be inclined to think that that objection applied to the diminished sum now imposed. If the alteration worked at all, its effect would be to create a great number of additional applications, and therefore, at all events, he thought it would be a point well deserving attention, to establish a passport office in some central situation, under the authority of the noble Lord, but separated from the office where the public business of the foreign department was conducted. By that means the objection would be met; and surely if the noble Lord resisted that suggestion, it would be tantamount to saying that the alteration had failed, or would fail, of its object. He (Lord Mahon) maintained that the system as it now stood was not merely inconvenient in practice, but anomalous in principle. There was no dispute as to the happiness this country enjoyed, free from any passport system of its own. There was no dispute as to the wish that other countries followed our example in that respect; and really he thought the case of Don Carlos might have served as a lesson to foreign States as to the absolute inutility of passports, since Don Carlos had found it possible to obtain a passport en regle, and by means of that passport to pass through the whole country of France, and to arrive in the Basque provinces and commence civil war. They had heard some time ago that the President of the French Republic was convinced of the inconvenience and inutility of the passport system, but they had not heard of his giving practical effect to those views. If then the system was continued by foreign States, we ought to consider how it could be worked with the least inconvenience to ourselves. It seemed to him they might adopt one of two courses. They might say to other countries, "We object to passports; we do not require them ourselves: if you require passports from our subjects, you must supply them, we will have nothing to do with them;" or they might say, "Though we object to passports, as you require them we will give them upon our own authority as a safeguard to our own subjects." Either of those systems would be intelligible; either might be defended; but it was absurd to adopt a combination of both; to give passports ourselves, and not disavow the practice of obtaining passports from a foreign mission in London—to charge for passports issued by the Foreign Office in London, and to issue passports gratuitously by any of the English missions in foreign countries. It was also well deserving of consideration, in discussing the reduction of the price of passports to a uniform rate, whether, in case of a British subject travelling under a passport issued by a foreign mission in London, which was encouraged by the present system—whether that alone would sufficiently protect him from injury or insult. What was the practical position of a man travelling with a French or Belgian passport? It was all very well whilst things went on smoothly, and the moment there was any difficulty he complained loudly of disrespect; but it was disrespect, not to a man travelling under a passport from his own authorities, but one issued by a foreign Power. In point of principle, then, the present system was utterly indefensible. If Englishmen could obtain their passports from British authorities only, they would be in a better position in all respects than according to the present practice; for if they experienced injury or insult, having passports from the noble Lord, or from some of his delegates abroad, they could, with more effect, appeal to him for protection. He might notice here, that considering the thousands and tens of thousands of English travellers, he felt quite assured that the change which he suggested could not be otherwise than acceptable to foreign Governments, as relieving them from a burdensome duty, which they had no interest in continuing—the duty of granting passports gratuitously to the subjects of the British Crown. According then to the views which he took of the subject, he should suggest that the money charge should amount only to such a sum as would be sufficient to defray the expense of clerks and offices, and that change, he thought, would place the department upon a clear and satisfactory footing. The general considerations which he had now endeavoured to urge, derived great force from some changes which had lately taken place in the regulations respecting passports through the Austrian and Prussian dominions. It was impossible any one could take up a newspaper without seeing well-attested cases of abuse, inconvenience, and wrong, which the noble Lord the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, with the best intentions, could not redress, because the great evil, detention, must be suffered before those cases could be made known. He (Lord Mahon) had received a letter from the West Riding of Yorkshire, which pointed out considerable practical inconvenience whenever a merchant at Hull might wish to leave the Humber for some Prussian port. It would be necessary for him to send to London to the noble Lord for a passport, and to get some banker or other person of standing to vouch for his respectability. Despatch was the soul of commerce, and as delay and detention of that kind might be very injurious to British merchants, he would suggest whether it might not be possible to send blank passports to some local authority, to places like Hull or Boston, to be issued to parties on the responsibility of that local authority, and to avoid the inconvenience which the new regulations of Prussia inflicted. Another point to which he would allude, was the practice which sometimes prevailed of giving English passports to foreigners. He thought that was a very objectionable practice. If a British passport to a foreigner were treated with slight, there would be no redress, because the person bearing it would not be a British subject. He had been told by the Earl of Aberdeen, that during the whole time he held the seals of the Foreign Office, he I gave only one single Foreign Office pass port to a foreigner, and that was under very special circumstances which he detailed to him, but which he need not repeat. He (Lord Mahon) did not accuse the noble Lord of any abuse of powers in that respect; but he would not say as much for all his agents. In one case especially, the issue by Mr. Freeborn, our Consul at Rome, of several hundreds of passports to foreigners, did seem to him a great abuse of that practice. They should remember the state of the Continent, the position which Mr. Freeborn occupied at Rome—and when it was recollected that as recent events have shown, we were very jealous of any interference by the Pope, it was reasonable that our public officers should not interfere in anything connected with the government of the Roman States. He hoped, then, that the noble Lord would seriously consider the subject now brought under the notice of the House, with a view to effect such changes as could be advantageously introduced. He had now alluded to the inconveniences of the present system, and to the remedies for them. It remained to state to the House upon what grounds he had adopted the particular words of the Address. He might have proposed a Select Committee; but, as none of the facts were disputed, such a Committee would only have taken up the time of its Members and of the witnesses unsatisfactorily. He had preferred to follow the precedent in the Address to the Crown upon the Sunday delivery of letters last year. This was, he thought, the most courteous and conciliatory course towards the noble Lord at the head of the Foreign Office. It enabled the House to express its opinion in favour of some further improvement, and it enabled the noble Lord to take counsel upon the best measures to be adopted. In no quarter was there any desire to impute blame to the noble Lord. For himself, he begged to thank him for the steps he had already taken, and he hoped to see him prove his good disposition in this cause by his readiness to carry out further improvements.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that She will be graciously pleased to cause an inquiry to be made whether improvements might not be effected in the system of granting Passports to Her Majesty's subjects travelling in Foreign States.


I am sure, Sir, for my part, that I ought to bear testimony to the very temperate and useful manner in which the noble Lord has brought this question under the attention of the House. There is one point in which I entirely agree with him—that it would be most desirable if foreign Governments would abolish entirely the system of passports, which is practically attended with great vexation to the innocent traveller, and which does not afford protection to the Governments against the passing from one part of the Continent to the other of persons whom the Governments wish to examine and stop. The noble Lord has stated one instance of the inutility of passports, in the departure of Don Carlos from England to Spain. But there might have been reasons in that case which gave some peculiar facilities to that person. But there was another still stronger proof in the case of the Duchess de Berri, who travelled from Marseilles to Bordeaux. The French authorities had an interest in stopping her, yet she travelled with a passport, en régle, and without any molestation whatever. The system of passports, then, does not accomplish the purposes for which it is established; but, nevertheless, there it is, and we must deal with it as we can. The noble Lord last year drew attention to this subject; and, whatever I said at that time upon the proposal he then made, I can assure him that what he said was duly considered by me. Events too occurred, in the autumn of last year, which caused my attention to be directed to those regulations which were established in Austria and Prussia, and which imposed additional difficulties in the way of British travellers who were not provided with British passports. It was during the autumn that I proposed to the Treasury that a considerable reduction should be made in the charge for passports issued from the Foreign Office, and I asked their consent to the expenses necessary for such an establishment as might be required to provide for the increased number of passports which might be demanded when the charge was so diminished. Having obtained the sanction of the Treasury, I issued the order to which the noble Lord has referred. At the same time, I am prepared to state that the arrangement now made, is merely an experimental one, and is by no means adopted as a final one. And if in the working of that system it should appear that a further diminution of the expenses of passports, or greater facilities of delivering them, and if that equality which he has alluded to between the charge of passports in England and abroad should be desirable, I will duly consider all these points; and if, as is very likely to be the case, greater facilities can be given to British subjects travelling in foreign countries, I shall be most happy to afford them. But my noble Friend, if he will allow me to call him so, has stated an objection to what he conceives to be an established practice of granting passports to foreigners. My noble Friend says that the Earl of Aberdeen informed him that, to the best of his recollection, he had only granted one passport to a foreigner. Now, as far as my own recollection goes, that noble Earl has granted one more passport to foreigners than I have; for, so far as I am aware, I have not granted any passport to a foreigner from the Foreign Office. The established rule which I have ever observed is to grant passports only to British subjects. As a proof of the strictness with which this rule is observed, I may mention that some inconvenience has been experienced in the case of foreigners who have taken out letters of naturalisation in this country, because my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department has, within the last few months, in granting letters of naturalisation, limited the privileges of British subjects which these letters confer to the dominions of the Crown. And there is an especial clause that a foreign-born subject obtaining these letters of naturalisation should not acquire the character of a British subject out of and. beyond the dominions of the Crown. In pursuance of that rule, foreigners so naturalised do not receive passports from the Foreign Office. My noble Friend has mentioned one instance of a departure from the practice. I should say that the rule is equally binding upon our foreign Ministers and Consuls abroad; but my noble Friend has stated that Mr. Freeborn, our Consul at Rome, did not grant one, or three, or any small number of passports to foreigners, but, I believe, 500 at one time. Now, when that came to my knowledge, I was very much surprised, and I called upon Mr. Freeborn for an explanation. It appeared that these passports were granted at a time when the French troops had taken possession of the city of Rome. There was a large number of foreigners—2,000 or 3,000, I believe—who had been engaged in the defence of the city, who had no means of existence after the city had been taken, and whose presence was considered by the French and Roman authorities as likely to be attended with inconvenience and disturbance to the public peace. The British Consul, with the knowledge of those authorities, and with the view of contributing to the tranquillity of the city, gave, as did also other foreign Consuls then at Rome, a great number of passports to these persons, in order to enable them to leave Rome peaceably, and without any danger to the public tranquillity. I was perfectly satisfied with the explanation of Mr. Freeborn, and I entirely approved of what he had done; but this was a case peculiarly exceptional, and it did not establish the rule, which is as the noble Lord thinks it ought to be. The observance of that rule of not granting passports to foreigners abroad, seems also to require some restriction here, and that passports should not be granted to every one who may apply at the Foreign Office; because, if we gave passports indiscriminately, and without proper inquiry, we should give passports to foreigners, to whom it may not be desirable to give the protection of British subjects when they are travelling abroad. But my noble Friend is mistaken in supposing that there is so much virtue in a British passport, and such want of virtue in a foreign passport—that with the British passport there is abundant protection, and without it there is none. A passport proves the mere fact that the person who carries it is a British subject; but the noble Lord well knows that persons landing in France and proceeding to Paris have their passports taken from them and sent to Paris. They receive in exchange a French passport, and their own is not given back to them until they leave Paris. But that does not the less secure protection to a British, subject during the whole period of his journey abroad. I assure the House that I do not deem it to be the less my duty to afford protection to a British subject who may stand in need of it because he happens to be travelling under a foreign, and not under a British passport. A passport is a bonâ fide indication of the nationality of the bearer; but a British subject, proving himself to be such, is equally entitled to the protection of his country in any difficulty in which he may find himself placed, whatever his passport may be. But the Austrian and the Prussian Governments having imposed great restrictions, and having opposed very great difficulties to the travelling of British subjects in their dominions unless they had passports signed by a British Minister, and countersigned by the Austrian and Prussian authorities, I deemed it my duty to give greater facilities for procuring Foreign Office passports. I assure my noble Friend that it is my intention to consider the present arrangement as only experimental, and to see, if no inconvenience or difficulty arises from these additional facilities, whether it may not be possible still further to extend them. As to an address to the Crown for inquiry, the matter is so simple that it does not require such inquiry. That it should be taken into consideration by a Committee, is applying a great power to a small matter. To appoint a Select Committee, indeed, to sit upon this subject, would be very much like that instrument worked by four horses to slice cucumbers. I think that the precedent of the address from this House upon the Post Office Sunday delivery is not altogether a very happy one; for, if I remember rightly, in that case the House agreed to one address, and afterwards adopted another of a very opposite character. But that question was a very complicated one, and involved inquiry into what arrangements might be made in every post-office in the country. But this question is one that really requires no other inquiry or consideration than that which the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs is able to afford it, in conjunction with the Treasury and with one of the chief clerks of his department. Every attention shall be paid to the subject; and, as I have said, if I find, as I most likely shall find, that I can adopt most of the suggestions that have been thrown out, I assure my noble Friend that I shall not be the less disposed to adopt them because they come from him and from the other side of the House; and that I shall be very happy to give faci- cilities to the pursuits of British travellers abroad. I trust that my noble Friend will withdraw his Motion, and that he will be satisfied with the assurance I now give him.


had applied for a passport for a gentleman who was a Greek by birth, but had been for many years in Manchester, was concerned in extensive business there, and was settled there for life. This gentleman was going abroad, and on application for a passport, under the regulation of last year, which did not prevent the noble Lord the Foreign Secretary from giving a passport, the passport was refused. He (Mr. Bright) could understand the refusal of passports to persons of whom the noble Lord knew nothing—those foreigners who could not get passports perhaps elsewhere, and came here for them, that they might be enabled to pass through the Continent under their protection. But if a foreigner were a settled naturalised British subject, whose character was unimpeachable, and who intended to spend his life in this country, it would be a proper exercise of discretion on the part of the noble Lord to give to such a person a passport, the same as if he were a British-born subject. He (Mr. Bright), however, did not understand that the passport gave the holder of it any claim for the interference of the noble Lord, in case he should do anything to bring himself into trouble in a foreign State. He would not ask for this Greek gentleman or any British subject the interference of the noble Lord under such circumstances, but he thought that he should have the same kind of passport, and be treated with the same kind of liberality as other British subjects. He (Mr. Bright) had mentioned this, because in Manchester there were a large number of foreigners—fifty families of Greeks, and probably as many more of other nations. Many of them were the very best of the population of Manchester, the most highly respected, having the largest businesses, and were settled there for life. He only asked, that as they were settled there, and as their presence was beneficial to the country, they should be similarly treated with other subjects.


supported the views expressed by the hon. Member for Manchester, and was aware of some cases of hardship which had occurred through the refusal of the American authorities to grant passports to foreigners. He was very glad to hear from the noble Lord the Foreign Secretary, that the present system was merely provisional. The Austrian and Prussian authorities had surreptitiously forced their passport system on us.


commended the cautious manner in which the noble Lord the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs had exercised the discretionary power entrusted to him in the matter. With regard to the Greek, whose case had been referred to by the hon. Member for Manchester, he (Mr. Urquhart) conceived that a foreigner on returning from this to his native country was not entitled to the immunity from the obligations imposed on him by his native State which a British passport conferred. The allegiance which a foreigner owed to the Sovereign of this country while here, did not relieve him from the allegiance due to the sovereign of his native State when he returned there.


explained that the Greek gentleman, whose case he had mentioned, was settled in Manchester, and had a wife and family there, and was merely going abroad for the purposes of trade.


said, that the noble Lord at the head of Foreign Affairs having declared that the present arrangement for issuing passports at the Foreign Office was only temporary and provisional, and that he would attend to the subject, and endeavour still further to improve the present system, he thought he should be making an ill return to the spirit in which the noble Lord had met the Motion if he called upon the House to come to a division.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.