HC Deb 06 April 1877 vol 233 cc731-4

in rising to call attention to the organization of the Commercial Department of the Foreign Office, said, he believed that the heads of that Office were fully impressed with the importance of the duties of the department which related to commerce, and he could testify that it was impossible to have any transactions with the gentlemen who were connected with that department without feeling grateful for the readiness and courtesy with which those who had business with them were invariably met; but it was precisely because there was that impression of the importance of the duties which required to be discharged, and that readiness to meet what were believed to be the requirements of the public service, that he regretted to find there was no intention apparently of giving additional strength to the department in question. It seemed to be supposed in official quarters that nothing was required beyond what at present existed; but that was not the impression of the Mercantile Bodies of the country. Year after year at the annual meetings of the Associated Chambers of Commerce motions had been brought forward, the object of which was to improve that portion of our public service to which he referred; and although he did not agree with the proposal which had been received with the greatest amount of favour by those Bodies—namely, the appointment of a Minister of Commerce, he entirely shared in the feeling that a want existed which ought to be supplied. So far back as 1864 a Select Committee of the House, known as Mr. Forster's Committee, had been appointed on the subject; at that time the relations of this country with foreign States were in the hands jointly of the Board of Trade and the Foreign Office. Questions appeared to have been handed backwards and forwards between those Departments in a manner which occasioned great loss of time, which was in various ways prejudicial to the commercial interests of the country, and which culminated in 1864 in the neglect of a question which arose upon the commercial relations of England and Belgium. A number of changes had been made since then. One was effected in 1866, when the Commercial and Consular departments of the Foreign Office were amalgamated; but the Commercial department of the Board of Trade continued to exist. In 1872 that department of the Board of Trade was abolished; and he thought it was generally understood at that time that steps would be taken of such a nature as to constitute what he might call a true department of Trade at the Foreign Office. A further change, he believed, had since occurred; but the net result of all the alterations had been that in the opinion of the commercial Bodies of the country the department was not yet in a satisfactory condition. He gave instances showing that official information on important subjects was not obtained at the Foreign Office until many weeks and even months after it had appeared in the newspapers; and occasionally there was also delay experienced in the publication of those interesting Reports which were received from our various Consuls abroad. He referred to cases in connection with the imposition of duties on goods in Russia and Austria, more particularly in the iron trade, in one of which the Foreign Office did not appear to be in possession of information until five months after it could have been obtained. [Mr. BOURKE inquired what particular instance the hon. Member referred to.] He referred to an inquiry as to the duties which under the most favoured nation clause were leviable by Austria on machinery. He imputed no blame to the heads of the Foreign Office; but it seemed to him that there was a want of force within the department itself to deal with those questions, and that if it had been more fully and adequately organized he had no doubt they would have dealt with these and other matters with greater promptitude. It was not possible for a private Member of the House to say what the constitution of the department should be; it was the business of the Foreign Office so to constitute itself that each department should be fully capable of meeting the requirements of that portion of the business which was entrusted to it. When the question of the admission of gentlemen to the Foreign Office Diplomatic Service was discussed in the House a short time since, the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Bourke) pointed to the great facilities which existed in the Office for mutual interchange, and exemplified this by referring to the ease with which gentlemen had been withdrawn from their duties to accompany Lord Salisbury on his recent diplomatic mission. It occurred to him (Mr. B. Samuelson) at the time, that that remark did not apply to the commercial department. He wished to ask the Under Secretary if it were true that a gentleman who was actively engaged in the business of the Commercial department had been appointed a Commissioner to negotiate the Treaty of Commerce with France, and that he would be accompanied by Sir Louis Mallet. A more judicious selection could not be made; but would the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs assure the House that the places of the gentlemen to be sent from the department could be as well and as readily supplied from the general staff as the places of those gentlemen who had been taken from the Foreign Office to accompany Lord Salisbury to Constantinople? It should be remembered that France was not the only country with which we were likely to be in negotiation at this time for a Commercial Treaty. A new Treaty must be made with Italy, and our Commercial Treaty with Austria, signed on the basis of the most favoured nation clause, was only of short duration. With these three countries we had a commerce amounting to nearly £100,000,000 sterling, and there should be no want of strength in a department having charge of matters of so much importance. He thought he need say no more in order to point out how important it was to have a properly organized department to deal with transactions of that kind. These were matters which could not be delayed, for he believed that loss had already accrued to this country with regard to the neglect of the renewal of the Treaty with Austria. As he was unable to conclude with a Motion, he would only say that if he had raised the question, it was not because he accused the Foreign Office of any breach of duty. There was only a want of strength in that department which required to be supplied. If he were asked what remedy he should like to have applied to the existing state of things, he would reply that it was much more important that an Under Secretary should be appointed for the department in question than that a new legal Under Secretary should have been appointed at the Foreign Office. He would be glad to hear that something was being done to increase the working power of the department, and he trusted that the Under Secretary would be able to give the House some satisfactory assurances on the subject.


said, that it was the duty of each Member of the House to do all he possibly could in order to preserve and extend that commerce which had made this country what it was in the eyes of the world. It had been said that the commerce of England had attained to the highest point which it was destined to reach; but he hoped and believed that that would not be found to be the case. At any rate, we should certainly take care not to allow ourselves to fall behind our neighbours. The feeling of the commercial community was that the Foreign Office gave a little more attention to politics and diplomacy than to commerce. That might be a wrong impression, but it was an impression which existed; and if the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs could disabuse the public mind of that idea he would render a distinct service. Commerce was the life-blood of the country, and certain he was that the House would not refuse to strengthen this department of the Foreign Office in any way which the Government might think necessary.