HC Deb 07 August 1854 vol 135 cc1386-93

Order for Third Reading read.

Bill read 3o.

On the Question that the Bill do pass,


said, he would be as brief as possible at that late period of the Session with the observations he felt it his duty to make. He wished, however, to state his reasons for dissenting from the present measure, as regarded one of the propositions it embodied, although he entirely approved of the object the House had in view. The Bill appeared to have three objects:—First, to prevent British subjects from subscribing to any Russian loan, and thereby enabling the Russian Government the more easily to wage war against this country; secondly, to prevent them from becoming the purchasers of any newly-created Russian stock; and thirdly, to prevent them from acquiring, with some few specific exceptions, any such stock under any circumstances whatever. He entirely approved of the first and second objects, and the only objection he had to the Bill so far was, that it appeared to be altogether unnecessary and superfluous. Every one would admit the policy of preventing any persons in this country from becoming subscribers to any Russian loan that might be proposed, as it would be both improper and disloyal to aid with the money of this country a nation with which they were at war. That being the great and important object to be attained by the Bill, it was very remarkable that the Bill had been so framed—although it had undergone the revision of his hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General—that it was entirely without the language necessary to give effect to that intention. There were no words in the Bill which would prevent any one subscribing for any new loan proposed by the Russian Government. The holding of stock and the participation or non-participation in it were interdicted, but the prohibition of subscription to a loan was not provided for at all. The Bill said that no British subject should acquire or become interested in or possessed of any stock or stocks. He was surprised that it did not suggest itself to his hon. and learned Friend that a person might subscribe to the amount of millions and then part with his interest in the scrip before anything was introduced in the money market in the shape of stock. He had prepared a clause to meet this defect in the Bill, which provided that "any person who should wilfully or knowingly subscribe to or purchase or take in exchange any loan, stock, fund, scrip, &c., should be guilty of a misdemeanor," and this, he thought, would meet the views of the House better than the clause at present in the Bill. Undoubtedly to prevent any parties in this country subscribing to a loan was a very important consideration, because suppose the Emperor of Russia was about to raise a loan, say of 5,000,000l. sterling, he would have to pay, probably 10 or 12 per cent more for it than he would do if the market of Great Britain were open to him, and he could find subscribers among the people of this country. Indeed, he doubted very much whether the Emperor would be able to raise a loan at all except under very disadvantageous circumstances. He had no wish to divide the House upon this stage of the Bill, because he approved generally of the object of the measure; but he did hope that the Amendment he had suggested would be introduced into the Bill. With regard to the second part of the measure, he quite agreed that it was desirable to prevent any of the subjects of Great Britain, or any one over whom the Legislature had control, from becoming purchasers of newly-created Russian stock; but for reasons which he should state hereafter be thought that the Bill ought not to proceed further than that. It seemed to him that the committee of the Stock Exchange had already done all that they could do by the resolutions they had issued regarding Russian stock. They had prevented the Russian stock or funds being quoted in their list, and all the House of Commons could do by their legislation would do no more. Although a loan might be raised, and although the stock might be purchased, if by an express stipulation they prohibited its purchase or sale in the British market, it would be less valuable than stock of a like nature by reason of the purchase and sale being prohibited. The amount of the depreciation might easily be estimated—there were the three per cents of Spain, and another Spanish stock, which were not permitted to be quoted on the Stock Exchange. The three per cents of Spain were now at 38, and the three per cent Imperial Debt, which was prohibited in this country, and was not quoted on the Stock Exchange, was 34. For these reasons, he objected to any further provision in the Bill, and he proposed to introduce a proviso to the effect that this Act should not extend to any subscription or purchase made in any foreign country by any commercial house or firm trading and having a place of business in any foreign country, and wherein one or more British subjects and one or more aliens were partners or jointly interested. He would take the case of a house in Frankfort, having one or more partners in London. He thought they might trust to the patriotism and honourable and just feeling of the partners in this country that they would not do so; but in the case he had suggested, great injustice would be done to the partners in a foreign house who might think fit to purchase against the will of the British partner. He had prepared an Amendment, therefore, to meet such a case as that. But now with regard to the next question, of acquiring an interest in the stock by other means. He hoped the House, by agreeing to the Amendment he now proposed to introduce in the clause would render his proviso unnecessary. Suppose a mercantile house in this country to be the creditors of some foreign firm to the amount of 20,000l.,and the foreign firm were under the necessity of lodging security in the hands of the British house, and had no other security to lodge of a substantial nature but newly-created Russian stock. As the Bill now stood, they would make it a criminal offence for the British house to receive that stock as security for a bonâ fide debt; while they would do no harm whatever to the Emperor of Russia. Prevent him, if they could, from obtaining a loan; keep the price down, if they could, by preventing the purchase of stock in the English market; but if he had once succeeded in obtaining a loan, or if he had created and issued new stock, and that stock passed from hand to hand, circulating in all the markets of Europe, what harm would they do to the Emperor of Russia by preventing a British mercantile house from receiving a portion of the stock as collateral security for a bonâ fide debt, which they might lose if they were not permitted to take that description of stock? If the Amendments which he suggested were introduced in the Bill, every objection would be disposed of, because the effect would be this: they would prohibit the subscribing to a loan, and they would prohibit the purchase of stock, but they would leave British merchants to become possessed of stock once in the market, in any way, in the course of commercial operations.

Clause— That, during the continuance of hostilities between Her Majesty and the Emperor of Russia, any person who shall wilfully or knowingly subscribe to or for, or purchase or take in exchange, any Loan, Stocks, Funds, Scrip, Bonds, or Debentures, which, since the 29th day of March, 1854, have or bath been, or which, during the continuance of hostilities as aforesaid, shall be negotiated, created, entered into, or secured by or in the name of the Government of Russia, or any person or persons on its behalf, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and in Scotland of an offence punishable with fine and imprisonment; and the Central Criminal Court shall have jurisdiction to try any offence against this Act, committed elsewhere than in the United Kingdom, and the indictment may be framed, and the venue laid, as if such offence had been committed in the county of Middlesex: Provided always, that this Act shall not extend to any subscription or purchase effected or made in any foreign country by any commercial house or firm trading and having a place of business in any foreign country, and wherein one or more British subjects, and one or more aliens, are partners, or jointly interested.

Brought up, and read 1o.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the said Clause be now read a second time."


said, the hon. and learned Gentleman had expressed surprise that the Bill, as it was worded, was not levelled at direct subscriptions to the Emperor of Russia. Now, the law already provided that the direct advance of money to an enemy would be an offence of high treason, and he did not think it would be at all suitable to the temper and disposition of the House to have that law so entirely altered as it would be by condoning that offence, and making it only a misdemeanor. This was the reason why the Bill, as altered by him, did not extend to subscriptions or loans. His hon. and learned Friend had failed to observe that by his Amendment he left the second clause of the Bill remaining, so that there would be this contradictory effect—that his hon. and learned Friend first of all reduced the offence of subscribing money directly down to simple misdemeanor, and then the next clause provided that nothing contained in the Bill should have the effect of reducing the offence from high treason to misdemeanor. The one clause, therefore, would stultify the other. With regard to the clause itself, his hon. and learned Friend proposed to permit a wilful and knowing subscription to a loan for the Emperor of Russia, provided it were made in any foreign house, although in that foreign house there might be one or more British subjects as partners. Now, the effect of this would be to cast a perfect air of ridicule upon the whole of this piece of attempted legislation. The result of such an Amendment would be, that any persons in England desiring to participate in loans to the Emperor of Russia would have nothing in the world to do but to send over to some foreign firm and say, "We will become partners pro hâc vice in the business of the loan." In this way an infinitesimal share in the loan in question might be given to the foreign house, reserving all the important part of the transaction for the benefit of British subjects; and such a transaction, though a palpable evasion of the Act, would, under the proposed clause, be perfectly legal and liable to no punishment. Now (if the House were to legislate at all upon this subject—as to the propriety of which he said nothing)—undoubtedly the Bill should be so expressed as not to be rendered ridiculous by its own wording, and so as not to open, nay, even to point out, the very door by which an offender might escape from the operation of the Act. The result of his hon. and learned Friend's Amendment would be to dilute and reduce down to a state of utter weakness the wine which the Committee had already mixed, the colour and strength of which should at least be retained, and not watered down in the way proposed by his hon. and learned Friend. With regard to the proviso suggested, although he was by no means enamoured of the Bill, or of the language of the Bill, he thought it more accurately worded than his hon. and learned Friend would make it, and he should, therefore, oppose the Amendment.


said, he had not been pre- sent upon former stages of the Bill, and was anxious, therefore, to say a few words respecting it. No doubt, the intentions with which the Bill had been brought forward were good. If by any piece of legislation they could cripple the Emperor of Russia, and prevent him from obtaining the means of carrying on a war opposed both to justice and to reason, he would entirely approve of such a measure. But he doubted whether they could effect this object in any such way as was now proposed. He thought, too, that what they were attempting to do with regard to one country they should apply to all. For this reason, he should be very sorry to see such a piece of legislation as this carried out, because it might appear an act of revenge, as well as one which would not effect anything. It was clear from the speech of the hon. and learned Solicitor General that the proposition of the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite (Sir F. Kelly), instead of amending the Bill, would dilute it and render it of much less value. He would suggest, however, to the noble Lord (Lord John Russell), who, he thought, had rather hastily taken the measure out of the hands of his noble Friend (Lord D. Stuart), whether, under all the circumstances, it would not be better to drop the Bill for the present. He certainly thought the House would do well not to proceed further with the Bill.


said, the gist of the arguments against this measure was, that it would interfere with the transactions of trade and commerce. Now there was not the slightest doubt that it would do so; and he quite admitted that this was an evil; but the object it was desired to frustrate NI, as an evil still greater. To carry out the views of the opponents of this Bill, they should propose the abolition of the law of high treason as to this matter, and leave it perfectly open to any one who chose to lend money or give whatever other aid he pleased to the enemy. It had been triumphantly asked, "What do you want with such a measure as this? Why, the committee of the Stock Exchange have settled the matter for you. That patriotic and magnanimous body have prohibited the negotiation of any new Russian loan or shares of loan upon the Stock Exchange, and the thing is thus done to your hands." The fact, however, was, that the Stock Exchange Committee had done nothing of the sort, so there was an end of that argument. Another argument which had been much urged was, that no respectable or well-principled person would have anything to do with any loans to Russia while she was at war with this country, and that, therefore, this Bill was needless. The argument would sound very well if everybody concerned with loan transactions was respectable and well principled, but it was very far from clear that such was the case, and laws were required precisely for those who were not respectable and well principled. It must certainly be admitted that no Bill had ever been so abused as this Bill had been, but that abuse had not prevented it being passed through three stages by majorities of three to one, and he trusted that its final stage would be sanctioned by a majority equally decided.


said, he had a very great respect for the noble Lord, who was the grandfather of the Bill; but he believed that it was a measure that would be entirely useless. He certainly did not approve of the alterations proposed by the hon. and learned Gentleman (Sir F. Kelly). He objected to the principle of the measure, and he hoped the credit of the House would not be damaged by passing such a Bill. With regard to the Stock Exchange, it was not their business to interfere with international law. What they had done was to pass a rule for the benefit of their own subscribers. The rule made by the committee of the Stock Exchange was that they would not sanction or take cognisance of any bargains, in loans, bonds, stock, or other securities, issued by foreign Governments, that had not paid their dividends on former loans.


said, according to the argument that they should principally regard the advantages to trade and commerce, it would seem very hard that any one lending money to the Russian Government should be deemed guilty of high treason. No doubt it would be favourable to persons in this country to lend money to the Emperor of Russia, yet by law that was high treason. Those who regarded simply the advantage of trade and commerce, might as well say that was very cruel, and ought to be altered. At all events, he did not think it would be advisable to adopt the Amendment of the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for East Suffolk. The hon. and learned Gentleman had proposed to lower the crime of subscribing to the Russian loan during the continuance of the war, which was one of high treason according to the present law, to one of misdemeanor, and he had also proposed a proviso, by which the Act was not to apply to any subscriptions or purchase made in any foreign country by any commercial house having its establishment in such foreign country, nor to any British subject who might be a partner in such commercial house. It seemed to him that this would open an obvious door of evasion; because under it a person would be able to subscribe to a loan, or to purchase stock, through the medium of a foreign firm in which he might be a partner, and to supply the chief part of the capital from this country, escaping, nevertheless, the penalties imposed by this Bill. It was said that it was very hard that a person should be liable to penalties for transactions in a foreign country by a firm of which he might be a member, but which he might not be able to control. A person, however, might be a partner in a foreign firm which might think it a good speculation to fit out a privateer, furnished by the fund of a firm; and it might be said in that case, as it had been said in this, that it would be very hard to make him liable for proceedings which his interest in the firm might not be sufficient to enable him to prevent. Nevertheless, if he were a British subject, he would no doubt be liable to penalties for being engaged in sending out a privateer against Her Majesty and against British commerce. He thought that with respect to this Bill, although it might not effect any great advantage, the principle was good, and he hoped the House would consent to pass it.

Question, "That the said Clause be now read a second time," put, and negatived.

The second Amendment of the hon. and learned Gentlemen was also negatived.

Motion made, and Question put, "That the Bill do pass."

The House divided:—Ayes 51; Noes 13: Majority 38.

Bill passed.

The House adjourned at Seven o'clock.