HC Deb 22 February 1861 vol 161 cc814-21

said, that he wished, before the noble Lord rose to reply, to say a few words upon a subject to which the attention of many hon. Members of that House must have been directed. A statement had recently appeared in the public press, that in consequence of the lamentable quarrels which had arisen between the State of South Carolina and the United States, the British Consul at Charleston had been informed that the Custom House functionaries of that port were no longer acting for the Federal Union, but for the State of South Carolina. That intimation was given by gentlemen professing to act on behalf of the Convention of South Carolina. The House would observe that such a notification placed the owners and captains of British vessels in a position of considerable difficulty, inasmuch as the Federal Revenue Laws of the United States imposed stringent penalties upon the non-observance of their regulations. He was not surprised, therefore, to hear that Her Majesty's Minister at Washington had thought it necessary to ask the American Government whether they would hold British shipowners liable for non-compliance, or would indemnify them for any losses arising from compliance with the regulations of the Federal Government. The British trade with Charleston and the other southern ports of the Union was vast and important, and he felt sure the noble Lord would wish to keep all interested in the trade informed as to their actual position. He (Mr. Forster) therefore wished to ask whether there was any objection to lay on the table a copy of the correspondence which had passed between Lord Lyons and Mr. Black the Foreign Minister of the United States? He was not about to enter into the question whether diplomacy should in general be secret or not, but he would say that to attempt to carry out a secret diplomacy with the United States would be unwise because it would be impracticable. If the documents which passed between the two countries were not published on this side the Atlantic, they would be ferreted out by the writers for the press on the other; and, therefore, it would be wise, by publishing them, on our part to correct any erroneous impressions that might have arisen. He should be the last man in the House to desire that this country should interfere in the lamentable dissensions that had broken out between our friends and kinsfolk in the United States. They could not, however, forget that the quarrel had arisen out of the question of slavery, and that we had contracted special obligations with the United States Government, and, therefore, with each State of the Union for the suppression of the African slave trade. He believed that our withdrawal from or relinquishment of those obligations would be as injurious to our interests, rightly viewed, as it would be disgraceful to our honour, and destructive to the cause of humanity. He had the firm conviction that such was the opinion of the country, and it was because he had that firm conviction, and also because he had full confidence both in the noble Lord the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and the noble Lord at the head of the Government, that he was very anxious that they should take counsel with the country in any eventuality which might arise out of the lamentable differences which had arisen in America. He begged, therefore, most humbly and earnestly, that any correspondence which might have passed might be laid on the table.


said, that in reference to the subject of the reform of the consular service, he thought it his duty as Chairman of the Committee to which his hon. and learned Friend had alluded, to state that it was not his impression that any encouragement was given by the Committee to the proposal of levying a tonnage duty upon British shipping for consular purposes. Certainly it was not his own opinion that such a duty ought to he levied. At the same time he would remark that the habit which was growing up of appointing official Sub-Committees for the purpose of reviewing, criticizing, and overruling Resolutions which had been come to by Committees of that House after serious deliberation, was very disrespectful to the House in general, and was likely to be very detrimental not only to the authority of that House, but to the public service.


said, he had not intended to say a single word upon this question, but as a Member of the Committee to which reference had been made, he could not allow the remarks of the hon. Member for Pontefract to pass without notice. The hon. Member said that the appointing official sub-Committees to overrule the recommendations of Committees of that House was highly disrespectful to the House, and at the same time detrimental to the public service, and he was sorry to hear that that observation was cheered by several hon. Members. Surely if there was one subject to which more than another it was the duty of the executive Government to attend, it was the organization of the public service; and when the hon. Gentleman said that Sub-committees were appointed to overrule the recommendations of that House, he begged to tell him that the object of the Subcommittee appointed by the Earl of Malmesbury, of which he (Mr. FitzGerald) was a Member, was not to overrule, nor did they, in a single instance, overrule the recommendations of the Committee of that House. On the contrary, the object of that Sub-Committee was to give effect to those recommendations. It was true that the imposition of a tonnage duty upon ships formed no part of the recommendations of the Committee of that House. No opinion was expressed upon that subject, and it was because there was a matter which was brought before the Committee upon most important evidence, upon which no opinion was offered—it was upon that ground principally that the matter was referred to the Sub-Committee of which he was a Member, and which, after the most careful consideration, and communication with public bodies and others, recommended the plan which was contained in its Report. As for the appointment of such a Sub-Committee being disrespectful to the House, not only did he think that was not the case, but he should consider any Government wanting in its duty which did not give to recommendations from Committees of the House their early and most serious consideration.


Sir, I quite agree with the hon. Gentleman who has last spoken, that it is the duty of the Executive Government to consider proposals that may be made by a Committee of this House with regard to the branches of the executive service of the State. Indeed, I do not see very well how the Executive Government could carry into effect the recommendations of a Committee without going into those recommendations in detail, and seeing whether they can be made to harmonize with the public service. The Committee certainly was a very important one, and their Report is of great value. Several of the recommendations which they made ought always to be kept in view by the Executive Government, and carried into effect from time to time. It is, however, impossible for the Executive Government, with a due regard to their duty, to carry out suggestions which would impose a considerable charge on the public revenue, and thereby increase the Estimates presented to this House without entering minutely into the subject. Accordingly we find that the Earl of Malmesbury, very soon after the Committee made their Report, took their recommendations into consideration, and stated to the Treasury that in conformity with the opinions there expressed he had framed a scheme by which the position of many of the consuls would be improved. It was perfectly true that there were many consuls in important places whose salaries were insufficient; but even the moderate increase contemplated by the Earl of Malmesbury would have entailed an increase of £12,000 a year on the Estimates; and he very properly thought it his duty to work out the propositions in detail rather than ask for such a large additional sum. After the Earl of Derby retired from the Government I asked every Gentleman in office to consider the matter, and I requested my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade to preside over the official Committee, which considered the views that were explained to them by other official persons belonging to the Treasury and the Foreign Office, and especially by my noble Friend Lord Wodehouse, the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs. One of the recommendations of the Committee—that consuls in the Levant should be British subjects—I think is most valuable, and I have endeavoured to carry it into effect. Another suggestion — that the consuls should not trade—if taken in its absolute terms would lead to the imposition of considerable burdens on the country. I admit that in a port where a large British trade exists the objections urged in the Committee to which the hon. Gentleman alluded have their weight. There is an advantage given to one merchant over others, and it is injudicious that one of them should have the power of taking fees and taxing British commerce. But there are other places where there is very little commerce, where merchants of great respectability are residing, and where, if you were to give £500, £600, or £700 to one man on condition that he should not trade, you would find that you were paying a salary disproportioned to the duty to be performed; while on the other hand, if you only offered £150 or £200 a year you would not get men of character to accept the office. But again, you do find men in trade, merchants of the highest respectability, and moving in the leading society of the place, who will readily undertake the duties at a salary of £150 a year in addition to their ordinary business. Such was the case at Rotterdam. The consulship became vacant, and a gentleman who was engaged in trade was recommended to me, and by appointing him it was not necessary to impose a heavy charge on the public revenue. The Committee to which I allude recommended that consulships should be divided into four classes: — First, consuls who should never be allowed to trade; secondly, consuls allowed to trade or not, according to circumstances; thirdly, consulships which should always be held by traders; and lastly, consulships which should be abolished when vacancies occurred. I have acted on these recommendations, and both when the Earl of Malmesbury was in office and during my own tenure many consuls have been appointed to superior offices or employed in the diplomatic service. One of the best recommendations, as I think, of that Committee was that consuls—who, as a rule, are a most valuable body of public servants—should not be without the encouragement given by promotion, and should sometimes be employed in diplomatic duties. Among those who a very short time ago were filling consular offices are—Mr. Colquhoun, consular agent in Egypt; Mr. Wood, diplomatic agent at Tunis; Sir Charles White, Minister at Mexico; Mr. Longworth, diplomatic agent in Servia; Mr. Green, diplomatic agent in Wallacbia; Mr. Churchill, diplomatic agent in Moldavia; Mr. Alcock, diplomatic agent in Japan; Colonel Neil, Secretary of Legation in China; and Mr. Mathew, Secretary and Chargé ďAffaires at Mexico. These appointments, some of which were made by the Earl of Malmesbury, and some by myself, show at least that there is no unwillingness in the Foreign Department to give promotion to members of the consular service and to recognize its value. Since the Report of the Committee in 1858 a variety of changes have been made. Seventy-one offices of consul have been improved since July, 1858. When I say improved, I mean that in many of these cases salaries have been given instead of fees; an addition has been made to the salary, and the fees have been transferred to the Treasury. That I think is the right principle; though it very often happens that it cannot be acted on while the same consul continues at the post, but when a change of officials takes place the alteration can then be made with advantage. Twenty-one consulships have been abolished since that date as useless, and seven have been placed von a reduced footing. The increase of salaries given amounts to £13,457, but against that is to be set off the decrease by abolitions, £5,600, and by reductions, £3,400—making altogether £9,000, and thereby reducing the net increase to £4,457. I own that it appeared to me better to make these changes from time to time, and to adopt them in the several localities as consulships became vacant than to sanction any large and immediate increase. By this course, the amount has only been swollen by £4.000, instead of the "£12,000 which it would have taken to carry out the suggestions of the Committee. Another recommendation made by the Committee, to which the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Digby Seymour) seems to attach great importance, and which has been much considered at the Foreign Office, is the proposal to have consular students. But when the matter came to be canvassed, it was thought that it would be only placing young men of undoubted ability in a position where they might be for a long time without any chance of promotion; and, as the arrangement, while productive of discontent to them, would, at the same time, considerably increase the charges on the public, it was thought more discreet not to adopt that part of the recommendation. But, on the other hand, in addition to the cases that I mentioned of consuls raised to the diplomatic service, many others have been removed to more desirable positions, and, having performed their duties exceedingly well, have received the proper reward. At the same time, it is impossible to lay down any absolute rule even on this branch of the question, inasmuch as when an appointment falls vacant—and we have consulships in all parts of the world—a case may arise in which you require some peculiar aptitude or some previous knowledge of the country, in order to. render the official at that particular point an efficient public servant. I may instance a case in relation to which a deputation came to me the other day, and, as to which I have received memorials from various towns and chambers of commerce. I allude to the proposal to have a consul at Abeokuta. They stated that the cultivation of cotton had increased in that neighbourhood, and that there was reason to believe a trade would spring up. As I see opposite the hon. Member for Warwickshire (Mr. Spooner), who was in the chair at one of the meetings held to promote that object, I will say that I think the deputation had great reason for what they asserted. I stated to a number of those gentlemen that it was the intention of her Majesty's Government to appoint a consul at Abeokuta. I must endeavour to find a man of experience, and one who will be useful in promoting the interests of British trade, for I do not think it would be advisable to send a person there who had no knowledge of the country, however deserving the particular individual might be of consular promotion. I think I have stated generally the points on which the Committee have reported, and upon which they have founded their recommendations. Upon the whole, we have endeavoured rather to meet the spirit of those recommendations, than to follow them exactly and servilely. I am opinion that the Report of the Committee is likely to make a great improvement in the consular service. It has already led in several places to the abolition of trading by consuls, and in various other places to an increase of salary, which was much wanted. I have stated that it is our desire, as far as possible, not to increase the public expenditure; but, at the same time, to introduce improvements into the consular and other branches of the public service. If the Government had only to consider efficiency, we might at once make great improvements; but these would be effected at a very considerable charge to the public, and hon. Gentlemen are aware that the miscellaneous expenditure has increased considerably of late years.

As to the correspondence asked for by the hon. Member for Bradford (Mr. Forster), I shall be most willing to produce it, and I expect to be able to lay it upon the table on Monday next. I think it is highly honourable to the consul at the place, lie was placed in considerable difficulty, not being able to acknowledge the new Government that sprang up; but, at the same time, he did not neglect the interests of British shipping.