HC Deb 30 April 1875 vol 223 cc1916-27

, in rising to move— That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into and report upon the allegations of the Petition from the President and Members of the Irish College at Paris, presented on the 4th day of August last, and also those of the Petition from the Roman Catholic Prelates of Ireland, presented on the 23rd day of March, said, these two Petitions prayed for reparation for property confiscated by the French Directory in 1793, and they founded their claim under the Treaty made between the French Government after the Restoration and the English Government, by which a sum of money was transferred to English Commissioners to compensate British subjects whose property had been confiscated. They also prayed for the appointment of a Committee similar to that appointed in the Baron de Bode's case to investigate the whole matter. He knew the subject was one of considerable complication; but he believed he should be able to make the facts known to the House in the few remarks he should have to make; and further, that the appointment of this Committee would be a right and good action. The Irish College in Paris was founded at a time when there was a difficulty in educating Roman Catholic clergymen in Ireland. It was founded entirely by British money—or rather, he ought to say, Irish money. It was always in the hands of Irishmen, subjects of the King of England; always under their management exclusively. Neither the French Government nor the French Episcopacy ever received any control over it. He would not trouble the House with the early history of the College, but would come at once to the year 1789, when a decree was adopted by the National Assembly which confiscated all ecclesiastical property in France to national purposes, and under that decree the French Government attempted to take possession of the property of the Irish College. Lord Gower, however, then the English ambassador at Paris, was instructed to interfere, and the result was the National Assembly appointed a Committee to inquire, and the Committee reported that the property was British property, and it was accordingly restored to the College. Immediately afterwards a decree of the National Assembly was passed exempting the professors and officers of the Irish College from taking the oath required from French ecclesiastics. By the joint action of the two Governments the College was then declared to be a British establishment in the sense of being under the protection of the King of England. Unfortunately, however, the property was afterwards confiscated on the very ground that saved it in 1789, for in 1793, the French Convention passed a decree by which all the property of British subjects was sequestered, and the property of the College seized beyond all question as the property of British subjects. The College was for a time shut, but in the beginning of the century, under the First Consul, it was re-established. Its property, however, was not restored, for it had been sold as part of the confiscated property, and with crippled means the College had ever since subsisted in Paris as a British establishment. After the Restoration, the French King endeavoured to interfere with it, but there was a very interesting account in the "Annual Register" of 1815 of Archbishop Murray applying to the French Government, who had taken possession of the College, and pointing out that it was not a French but a British establishment. Accordingly the French president was removed and an Irish priest appointed as administrator of the College. In 1814, after the first Restoration, by the treaty of peace between the two countries, France undertook to indemnify British subjects who had suffered by the confiscation of 1793, and the Government inscribed on their book a sum of money equal to 3,500,000 francs of Rente for the purpose of meeting the claims to be made. The money, however, was not paid, for before the treaty was carried into effect Napoleon's return interrupted everything; but on the 20th of November, 1815, another treaty was signed between England and France, by which the French Government renewed its obligation to compensate British subjects whose property had been seized, and special provision was made for that purpose in a Convention attached to the treaty. Under that Convention a mixed Commission was appointed to investigate the claims, and he believed it would be established before the Committee—it was positively stated by the authorities of the College on information received from the French Go- vernment —that the Mixed Commission declared the claim of the College to be legitimate, and they inscribed it on a register which they were bound to keep to the extent of £67,000. He thought it right to say, however, that he had not been able, with such research as it was in his power to make, courteously assisted as he had been at the Foreign Office, to lay his hands on documents which would prove the fact, although there was no doubt of their having existed. If the Mixed Commission reported in favour of the claim he could not understand why it was not paid in 1818. In that year it became the object of the French and English Governments to get rid of the military occupation of France, and a further sum producing a dividend of 3,000,000 francs a-year was put down as the amount which would discharge in full all claims made by British subjects. It was not clear what was to become of the surplus, if any, but it was clear that all the claims were to be settled before the English Government appropriated it. That was the view, no doubt, of the English Government at the time, because in 1819 an Act was passed appointing an English Commission to deal with these claims, fixing the time the claims were to be made, and authorizing the Treasury to appropriate the balance as they might think desirable. The College originally claimed £103,000, and as he had said, £67,000 was set apart for it, but the money was not paid. The first step taken was not to apply to the English Commissioners for payment, but to the French Government, who had already handed the money over to the Commissioners. The French Government refused to pay. That Government said— No, your claim was before a mixed Commission. It was proved, and we handed over a sum of money to meet all the claims made to purely English Commission. At that time Lord Stuart de Rothesay was British Ambassador at Paris, and he strongly urged the claim upon Mr. Canning, and he (Mr. Butt) believed that if Mr. Canning had lived, the claim would have been satisfied. The case came before the Privy Council, and the ground upon which it was rejected by the Privy Council would be found, in a Parliamentary Paper, as stated by Sir John Leach as Master of the Rolls in 1830, when it was held that the claimants could not be held to come within the meaning of the words "British subjects." The Petitioners, however, alleged, amongst other things, the property in question was clearly the property of British subjects. It must be admitted that the Petitioners came before the House under the difficulty that their claim was an old one, but what he submitted was that if their claim was a just one, no lapse of time could bar it. The first proposition was that the lump sum was transferred by the French Government to the English Government, and the latter, as trustees, were to pay every legitimate payment. They had no right to apply any of the money to their own purposes, and it could not be held that the lapse of time was a bar to a national trust. The Petitioners made several further allegations. They said this property was beyond all doubt property of British subjects; that their establishments were always kept distinct as Irish establishments, and that this property was confiscated as the property of British subjects. They then said there was now in the hands of the English Treasury a sum of money to some extent applicable to them. [The CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER: A very small sum.] However small it was, he should be content if the right hon. Gentleman would give it to him, with interest, from the time he got it. He thought he could prove, however, if the Committee were granted, that at least £26,000 was still available for the purpose. Those were the allegations of the Petitioners. They were told that the case of the Baron de Bode was of a similar character, and that the Privy Council had decided against his claim. But in Baron de Bode's case the property was not confiscated but forfeited, and it therefore formed no parallel. Lord Lyndhurst brought the case before the House of Lords in 1852, on a Petition similar to, though not so strong, as the Petition now before the House, and he, too, asked for the appointment of a Committee, which was unanimously acceeded to. Some of the observations made by the noble Lords on that occasion applied also to the present case. It was admitted by Lord Lyndhurst that there had been a long lapse of time, but he said it would be disgraceful to Government to avail themselves of it. Lord Truro used strong language, which he (Mr. Butt) did not see the occasion for. He said the Act of 1819 was a wicked Act—probably meaning that it was wicked to allow the Treasury to appropriate any of the money, whilst there remained a claimant unsatisfied. Lord Derby acceeded to the Motion, a Committee of the House of Lords sat, and they reported in favour of the claim to the House of Lords. There was a case which formed an exact precedent to the Motion, and he thought it would only be justice if the facts contained in the present Petition were true to appoint the Committee prayed for. No one would deny that the property confiscated was that of British subjects, for it was by reason of their being British subjects that the property was confiscated. He also thought his hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General would agree with him when he said that a lapse of time was no bar to a legal claim, and that no justification could on that ground be given for withholding the payment of a just demand, if that demand were founded on truth and justice. The last allegation in the Petition was that there were funds in the hands of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. [The CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER dissented.] The right hon. Gentleman, by shaking his head, seemed to think that that was not so, but if it was not then it ought to be so. At all events it was not a very singular fact that an annual income derived from the French funds and amounting to 6,500,000 francs was handed over to the English Commissioners in 1818. The French funds were sold, the dividends received, and yet no account was ever given to Parliament of the application of that money until 1871, but in the meantime a great deal of it had been disposed of. The Treasury drew out of it £250,000, partly in order to pay the Duke of York's debts and partly to rebuild York House. It was true the money was repaid when the attention of the Committee of the House of Commons was called to the matter, but it was repaid only after a remission had been made of one-half of the interest. In 1871 an account of the application of the fund was for the first time rendered to Parliament. That account showed a balance of £310 0s. 11d. Some of the items, however, required explanation. For instance, the sum of £23,000 was said to be paid to a claimant by the Commissioners out of the proceeds of the property, which was sequestered in 1798. A note to the Return stated that the particulars had been given in a Paper presented to Parliament in 1836. To pay £23,000 for wrongs inflicted by the British Government upon a French subject out of a fund entrusted to them by the French Government for the giving of compensation for wrongs inflicted upon British subjects by the French Government was certainly a strange proceeding. While the claim of the Irish College at Paris existed, the British Government had no right to apply the money entrusted to them by the French Government in any other way than in satisfying that claim. Why should different justice be dealt out in this case from that dealt out in the case of the Baron de Bode. Ultimately the case of the Baron de Bode broke down. This case, he hoped, would not break down, but if it did, inquiry into it by a Select Committee of the House would show that justice had been done. He wished to know whether there was any answer to the case he had made. The only answer he believed that could be given was the lapse of time, but to rely upon such a quibble as that would be unworthy of a great nation. This was never a settled account. He had beyond all doubt falsified it in one particular, and he thought he had shown reason for falsifying it in another. He contended it had been practically conceded that the claim was one which ought, at all events, to be investigated. There was a primâ facia case made out for redress and the proper way to pave the way for that redress was to appoint a Committee. The hon. and learned Gentleman concluded by moving his Amendment.

Amendment proposed,

To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "a Select Committee he appointed to inquire into and report upon the allegations of the Petition from the President and Members of the Irish College at Paris, presented on the 4th day of August last, and also those contained in the Petition from the Roman Catholic Prelates of Ireland, presented on the 5th day of this instant April,"—(Mr. Butt,)

—instead thereof.


said, he would frankly admit that he was utterly unable to cope, either in point of eloquence or legal knowledge, with the hon. and learned Gentleman. But he must also say that the case which the hon. and learned Gentleman had presented to the House was very far indeed from satisfying his mind that there was any occasion for the appointment of a Select Committee on the question. Without going into all the questions that the hon. and learned Gentleman had raised, he thought he was right in saying that the foundation of this case was simply this—that in the course of the French Revolution, and especially in the troubled year 1793, and the years immediately following it, considerable injuries were inflicted by persons who obtained power in Paris and in France upon British subjects, and great losses were sustained by British subjects, and that amongst the sufferers were to be found the Body known as the Irish College. After the Peace in 1814, conventions and treaties were made between the French and English Governments, and those treaties contained stipulations for making compensation on the part of the French Government to English subjects who had sustained loss. The mode in which that was done appeared to be this—that the French Government appeared to pay over a certain sum or to create in rentes a certain annual sum that should be equal to a certain capital sum which it was supposed would be sufficient to make good the losses sustained by British subjects, and British subjects who had claims were called upon to come forward and make their claims. Those claims were to be investigated and to be made good out of the monies so provided by the French Government. The sum originally deemed to be sufficient was equal to 70,000,000 francs. It was found that that sum was not enough, and it was increased by a further sum of 60,000,000 francs. That sum was given by the French Government in order to compensate those English sufferers who could prove their claims. It was contemplated that the claims would be paid in full, if the gross amount given proved sufficient for the purpose; and, in case of its falling short, a proportionately smaller sum was to be awarded. By 59 Geo. III., passed in 1819, certain Commissioners of Liquidation and Arbitration were appointed to investigate the claims, and other Commissioners—called Commissioners of Deposit—were appointed to administer the fund which was placed in their hands. The same Act provided that in case the decision of the Commissioners failed to give satisfaction, there should be an appeal to the Privy Council. This certainly seemed to him to have been a very efficient machinery for obtaining fair examination and equitable decision as to any claims that might be made. It having been arranged that, in case the fund provided was not sufficient to meet the claims in full a reduced amount was to be paid, it was further provided that, in case there was a surplus, it should be disposed of in such way as the Commissioners of the Treasury for the time being might direct. This being the machinery provided, what was the course of this case of the Irish College? The representatives of the College put in a claim for indemnity, and that claim was heard, like a great many others, by the Commissioners of Liquidation, and they decided against it. No doubt, the Mixed Commission had thought it a proper claim for investigation; but when it had been examined the decision was against it. Then the representatives of the College, not being satisfied with the award of the Commissioners appealed to the Privy Council, and the appeal was heard in 1832. No doubt, the claimants had not then the advantage of the advocacy of the hon. and learned Gentleman, who was then distinguishing himself at Trinity College, Dublin; but they had the assistance of gentlemen of eminence to lay their ease before the Privy Council. The judgment of the Council was delivered by the Master of the Polls, and it turned to a certain extent upon Lord Gifford's judgment in the Douay case, and it was held that they were precluded by the Douay case from any further consideration of the subject. It would be presumptuous in him (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) to criticize that judgment; but this was clear, that there was at that time a certain function performed, and there was no reason to suppose that there was anything wrong in the case, but, on the contrary, that it had been fairly tried and decided on. It was impossible that they could be continually re-opening cases of this sort which had been decided 40 years ago. It was true that in the Baron de Bode's case Parliament did consent to appoint a Committee to look into the matter. They all knew that after extreme perseverance the Baron de Bode succeeded in obtaining one or two hearings, which were more or less formal; but after all they resulted in the same thing, that was in setting up and confirming the decision of the tribunal that was originally engaged in deciding the case. So far as the precedent went, then, it was against rather than in favour of the proposal now made by the hon. and learned Gentleman. He wished to say that the decisions of the Privy Council upon these appeals were not mere matters of form, because in 16 or 17 cases they reversed the awards of the Commissioners, and in some 15 or 16 cases they confirmed the awards. Moreover, if the Government should consent to the appointment of a Committee to look into the case of the Irish College, what could they say should the Marquess of Lansdowne or the parties in any other unsuccessful case ask for a Committee? The hon. and learned Gentleman referred to Lord Truro having called the Act of 1819 a wicked Act, because it barred the claims after the lapse of a certain time; but what happened under it? After the claims which had been sent in in time had been examined there remained a surplus, and the Treasury thereupon relaxed the rule as to the time for sending in notice of claim. In consequence of that, a number of claims of which notice had not been sent in in time were examined into, and in satisfying these claims the surplus was disposed of. The whole of the surplus was adjudicated to one person and another; and, although there ultimately remained £903 in the Exchequer, yet there were claims against it which amounted to rather more than £1,200, so that if all these claims should be brought forward there would be a deficiency. If the Government were to give money to the representatives of the Irish College, why should they not also give money to every other claimant who had not made out his claim? The hon. and learned Gentleman had grossly exaggerated the surplus, and said that there was interest which was unpaid upon the Duke of York's advance; but it seemed, from a Paper which he (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) held in his hand, that the money, and also the interest, had been repaid. It was now too late to reopen this case by asking for a Select Committee. If they yielded to the claims of the Representatives of the College, he did not see how they could resist the claims of individuals; but the great objection to the Motion was that it sought to constitute the House of Commons as a Court of Appeal from the more competent tribunal, the Privy Council, which had already given judgment in the matter. He hoped the House would not support the Amendment.


said, every argument used by the right hon. Gentleman (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) might have been applied to the case of the Baron de Bode, and yet Parliament did consent to that case being re-considered. His contention, however, was that this case was quite different from all the other cases which came before the Commissioners, and one, therefore, deserving of consideration. Those Commissioners made no formal award, because they assumed that the Irish College stood on the same footing as the College of Douay, whereas the one was totally different from the other. For that reason, he thought the ease should be reheard.


asked if it was really the intention of the hon. and learned Member for Limerick to appeal to the House against the decision given 40 years ago by the highest tribunals of the country, and which had been also confirmed and solemnly decided by the Privy Council? If that was allowed, the time of the House would be continually occupied with discussions of this kind, greatly to the obstruction of Public Business. It had been urged that the Privy Council, in deciding the case of the Irish College, had considered themselves bound by the previous decision in the Douay College case, and that the circumstances of the two cases were different; but it would be found upon examination that the reasons for an adverse decision were that the College, if British, was an establishment contrary to the law of England, and if French, no claim could be made. However, the real question now was whether, after this lapse of time—or, indeed, after any lapse of time—that House should become a Court of Appeal against the decisions of the highest tribunals. This case was unlike that of the Baron de Bode, who, apart from any treaty, pressed his claim on the British Government


, interposing, said, it appeared from documents in his possession, that the Baron de Bode's Petition of Right was founded merely on the Convention of 1815, on the ground that the British Government had funds to pay him, and that he could not get them except under the Act of 1819.


said, that was so as regarded his Petition of Right; but the Baron de Bode failed in those proceedings, and it was afterwards, as an outsider, not having the benefit of a treaty, that a Committee was obtained in his favour in the House of Lords. He was quite ready to admit that time could not bar a claim of this kind in the case of a trust in which wrong had been done, but then it must be shown that there had been error in the accounts. In this case no such error had been shown, and, neither on principle nor on the precedent cited by his hon. and learned Friend, was there any reason for this House constituting itself into a Court of Appeal to rehear the case of the Irish College at Paris.


said, he hoped the House would consider for a moment the origin of the College, which was established in France for the education of Irish Roman Catholic youths, to be sent to Ireland as priests after they had been educated and trained. It was always a French College, but called an Irish College, because those educated in it were intended for the Irish Mission. It was established not by Irish funds, but by French funds. The claim was, however, set up because certain inhabitants of Ireland contributed to the establishment; but he thought that the College was subsidized by the French Government previous to the Revolution, and therefore the Commissioners held it to be French property. He added that historical recollection in order to strengthen the hands of Her Majesty's Government in resisting a claim which had been rejected by the tribunals of this country after repeated trials.


said, he wished to correct the hon. Member for North Warwickshire. It was a fact, that owing to the Penal Laws, which prevented the establishment of a College in Ireland for the education of priests to serve on the Irish Mission, it was found absolutely necessary that the students should receive their education abroad; and it was also a matter of fact and history that the funds which established the College in Paris were furnished mainly by British subjects. The French Government never gave a subsidy to the College, but only an official recognition, as a Catholic Government recognizing a Catholic establishment. He considered the case had been made out by the hon. and learned Member for Limerick, and it was one which was eminently entitled to the consideration of this House.

Question put, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."

The House divided:—Ayes 116; Noes 54: Majority 62.

Main Question proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."