HC Deb 30 May 1864 vol 175 cc804-8

said, in reference to Mr. Solicitor General's statement in the Court of Exchequer on Thursday last, that the case of "The Attorney General v. Laird and Others," relating to the seizure of the Confederate Rams, had been arranged, he would beg to ask Mr. Attorney General, Whether the arrangement alluded to involved the purchase of those Vessels; and, if so, whether only at their fair value, or at some higher price; whether the inducement to the Crown to make such arrangement was a doubt as to the construction and application of the provisions of the Foreign Enlistment Act, with regard to equipping and arming Vessels; whether it was part of the terms of arrangement that the alleged misdemeanour under the seventh section of the Foreign Enlistment Act should be condoned by the Crown, and that no claim for compensation for the seizure should be made by the Defendants; and whether any legislation will be proposed in order to obviate in future the doubts and difficulties attending the construction and enforcing of the Foreign Enlistment Act, and thus prevent the arrangement of the recent case operating as a premium to Ship Builders to speculate on building Vessels of War for belligerents?


In answer to the Question of the hon. Gentlemen, it will be necessary for me to make a short statement to the House. The House is probably aware that in the month of September last — some time before the seizure of these vessels—the Government applied to certain persons representing themselves to be the owners of these ships, expressing their willingness, if they were really in the hands of bonâ fide owners, to treat for the purchase of them. At that time the overture so made by the Government was entirely ineffectual, and the seizure afterwards took place. No overture of any kind was subsequently made by the Government; but, on the other hand, an offer was made to the Government some time ago, offering the ships in question to the Government at a price named, which in the opinion of the Government did not represent their fair value, but was, in fact, much above their value. That overture was simply and absolutely declined, and no further communications were made having any tendency to lead to an arrangement. The same party—and I may mention his name — M. Bravay — afterwards renewed the application in an other form. He stated that as the sum formerly demanded had been deemed extravagant, he was desirous of knowing whether there were any pecuniary terms which the Government, on their part, would be willing to offer by means of which the matter might be brought to an end, it being understood that no admission was to be asked from the one party to the effect that a violation of the law had been committed, or from the other in the contrary sense. Upon that the Admiralty, by the assistance they were able to command, ascertained what in their opinion would be the fair value of the vessels. They named that value, stating that they were prepared, for the reasons assigned, to put an end to the matter on the terms of paying the fair value of the vessels, but not on the terms of paying any other or greater price. That value was very much less than the sum first asked, and very much less than the parties stated they would be able to obtain from other purchasers if they had the command of the vessels. They, however, closed with the offer made by the Government, and on that footing the arrangement was made. The hon. Gentleman further asks whether the inducement to the Crown to make such arrangement was a doubt as to the construction and application of the provisions of the Foreign Enlistment Act with regard to the equipping and arming of vessels. In answer to that question I may say, that the House is perfectly well able to judge what the doubts are which appertain to the subject; but I may, in reference to this particular case, add, that doubts as to the construction of the Act in regard to it had no considerable place in the motives which influenced the Crown to enter into the arrangement to which I have referred. The motives of the advisers of the Crown were rather these — when the question before the Courts was one of fact as well as of law, it would not have been in accordance with the experience of those acquainted with the uncertainty attending the administration of justice to assume with a too absolute confidence that the verdict, however strong the Crown might feel in the goodness of its case, would necessarily be in its favour — more particularly in a matter in which, to say the least of it, political feeling might exercise some influence on the result. The Crown could not, therefore, take it for granted that they would, as a matter of course, be successful. But I am, at the same time, bound to say that it was not any doubt in the mind of the Law Officers of the Crown that they had a good case on which they might hope to succeed, which induced them on their side to enter into this arrangement. Besides the advantage of securing those public objects for which, and not for the sake of inflicting any loss or forfeiture upon individuals, the seizures had been made, these considerations operated on the minds of the advisers of the Crown. In the first place, there certainly had been prevailing considerable uncertainty in the public mind as to the extent to which a subject might go in the way of building or equipping ships for belligerents without infringing the law. It was well known that, before these seizures took place, opinions had been given by which individuals might have been eneouraged to believe that they were safe in acting on a view of the law, contrary to that on which the Government might be advised to act. Consequently, there were some grounds for believing it to be possible that British subjects in this country had, or might have, offended against the law under a bonâ fide impression that they were not doing so. Then the advisers of the Crown had the case of the Pampero in Scotland in view, in which they had recently made arrangements upon the same — as I venture to think it—liberal principle. They had allowed the ship to remain in the hands of the owners, not insisting upon the forfeiture, but upon the terms that security should be given against its belligerent employment. In this particular case, the ships are good ships, which it is worth the while of the nation to possess at their fair and legitimate value. At the same time, it was felt that the possession of the ships by the nation would be more complete and satisfactory Security against their employment for belligerent purposes than any other engagement into which it was possible for the parties concerned to be asked to enter. Under these circumstances, the Crown, not caring to make money out of the transaction, or to inflict pecuniary loss on the individuals concerned, its Law Advisers thought they were at liberty to deal with the defendants in this as they had done in the other case. Of course, the House will understand that these defendants throughout insisted, and still insist, that they were guilty of no violation of the law, and no arrangement was made with them which entitles any one to say that they have admitted themselves to be guilty of any such violation. With regard to the next question, my answer is, that no such condonation as that which it indicates was part of the terms of the arrangement. The Crown was not prosecuting for a misdemeanour; it was only proceeding against the ships. As regards the question of the claim for compensation for the seizure, I can only say that it is quite impossible that any such claim can be made, consistently with the footing on which the arrangement has proceeded. I may add, in reply to the last question, that I hope it will not be found necessary to propose any new legislation on the subject. The Government confidently trust that all parties will profit by what has taken place, and that there may be no occasion for further legislation or prosecutions. But, undoubtedly, the Government are as much prepared and determined as ever to maintain the law as they have understood, and as they still understand it to be, if any future infraction of it should be attempted. They do not, I may further observe, think that this arrangement will operate as a premium to shipbuilders to speculate in building vessels of war for belligerents; because the parties to the arrangement have represented, and the Government have- no reason to doubt the bona fides of that representation, that if the ships were entirely under their own control, they would be able to bring them to a more profitable market, and to obtain for them a larger price than the Government have consented to give.


said, he wished to know how payment for the purchase of the vessels in question was to be provided, and whether a supplementary Estimate for the purpose would be laid on the table?


If the hon. Gentleman asks the question to-morrow, I will answer it.


What is the price of the ships?


The price, as they stand, was fixed by the valuer for the Admiralty at £195,000; and for their completion in all respects a further sum of £25,000 will be required.


What was the price originally asked?




said, he hoped the Government would place all the Correspondence before the House before any Vote was asked for.

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