HC Deb 20 March 1885 vol 296 cc58-62

I wish to ask the First Lord of the Treasury what will be the course of Business next week; and also whether he is now able to state when he will proceed to the discussion of the Financial Arrangement for Egypt?


We propose to proceed on Monday and on the following days, Tuesday and Wednesday, with the Seats Bill. We have thought that, on the whole, that would probably be the course most convenient to the House. With regard to the question of the Egyptian Agreement, I have considered the matter, and have had an opportunity of consulting my Colleagues upon it; and I have to say that if this were a matter simply between the Government and the House of Commons, or between the Government and the Opposition, our duty and desire would be to comply with every request that was made, because I have more than once expressed my sense of the great forbearance of the House and of the Opposition in accepting what, after all, were but dilatory answers, when we could not expedite the matter as we could have desired. But, unfortunately, I am not in that position, but am obliged to say that we shall feel ourselves compelled to ask a definite judgment of the House. There are various stages when the House may reopen a subject of that kind. But we must ask a definite judgment of the House before the Easter Recess. The state of the case stands thus. We are able either to ask for that judgment on Thursday next, or, if three days are thought too short a period for the examination of the Papers, we should be compelled to ask for it on Monday week. In the latter case, we shall have to take two preliminary stages on Thursday and Friday next, and not to take the definite vote until the Monday immediately before the Recess, with the intention if the discussion should go beyond Monday, of asking the House to continue it in lieu, I am afraid, of commencing the Easter Recess. Although it has not happened within recent memory, there are cases when the House has sat in Passion Week till Thursday. Having made this declaration with reluctance, but after full consideration, I must point out to the House how the case stands. Practically it is a question between taking the first stage of the Bill, say, on Thursday, and a definite decision not later than the Monday following, and putting that decision off until April 13. It may seem that, in ordinary circumstances, it would be a very unhandsome proceeding to make a difficulty about such a delay, but the difficulties in this case are of the severest and most practical kind. In the first place, I have ascertained, beyond all doubt, that the proceedings of other Legislatures will depend upon the definitive vote in the House of Commons, and that no arrangements will be made until that vote has been come to. That is a very serious fact in itself; and any considerable postponement of the consideration of the question by the House of Commons would not only insure additional delay in other countries, but might have an undesirable result in producing a disagreeable effect upon the public mind in those countries. But what I have to look to especially is the state of things in Egypt. It has been frequently remarked that, during the last Session of Parliament, we represented, from time to time, the urgency of the financial condition of Egypt as being even then extreme. That was no exaggeration, it was extreme; and what has since happened is, first of all, that a large sum has been obtained by the diversion of the Sinking Fund; and, secondly, that another considerable sum has been obtained by the withholding of payments which were due to the Exchequer of this country. In that way Egyptian finance has been able to limp along, and there has been no absolute scandal or mischief, though there has been a great deal of hardship in consequence of the great prolongation of the period during which people entitled to indemnities have been kept out of their money. But now those expedients are quite exhausted, and very early in April, I am in a position to say, unless the judgment of this House has been given, which I have no doubt will produce quite a sufficient degree of confidence to enable arrangements of a temporary kind to be made, that there will accrue demands of a high character, which there will not be the means of meeting. These are the circumstances in which the Government have arrived at the conclusion which they think to be fair, and so strongly has the condition of persons entitled to indemnities been felt that it is arranged in the Agreement that payments to them shall rank as the first charge. They will be taken preferentially in order of time, so far as circumstances may permit. The right hon. Gentleman, I am sure, will see that I have not announced this conclusion of the Government upon any light or trivial grounds; and I hope he will be disposed to consider—though, of course, he can exercise a free choice—the question whether the vote of the House shall be asked for on Thursday next or on the Monday following.


Everything which the right hon. Gentleman has now said seems to me to greatly strengthen the case for delay—for allowing a sufficient time in which to consider this most important question. What the right hon. Gentleman has told us shows that not only the action of this country, but that the action of other countries also, depends largely upon the nature of the first vote to be given in this House. Though he says there will be other stages of the Bill, it is perfectly obvious from the manner in which he referred to the first vote that the result of that would be of the first importance.


I referred to the vote that is understood to be the first substantive vote, not necessarily to the first vote.


Quite so. I do not stick at words. What I mean is that I understand from the Prime Minister that the first vote of a substantial character that is given in this House will have great influence in determining the action of other countries as well as of Egypt. I also recognize the very great importance of the decision to which we shall come. That being so, I cannot be satisfied with the statement of the right hon. Gentleman, or with the offer which he makes. I regret extremely that there should be any inconvenient delay in connection with this matter; but if there should be, it will not be the fault of the House of Commons. The right hon. Gentleman himself bears testimony that we have been studiously careful not to worry the Government about this matter. We were prevented from discussing it in the summer, and we have never been able to go thoroughly into it. I, therefore, trust that the right hon. Gentleman will see, on reconsideration, that it is all important that in a matter of this character we should have more time given us. I will repeat my Question on Monday in the hope of getting a better answer.


I am bound to say that the belief of the Government is that if the Papers are produced on Monday, hon. Gentlemen will by the Monday following have had sufficient time to make themselves acquainted with them. In view of the prospect of what can be called nothing less than financial confusion in Egypt the Government think the course which I have sketched to be imperative, and that the question is practically closed.


I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether, when he speaks of the inconvenience of postponing the consideration of this question and of the necessity of its being settled before Easter, he has not omitted to take this fact into consideration—that the sanction of Parliament has yet to be obtained, and that it is quite possible that that sanction may be refused altogether?


That is the reason why we wish to take the discussion before Easter. We want to ascertain as soon as possible whether the assent of Parliament will be given, or not.


I wish to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer a Question, of which I have given him private Notice—that is, whether the statement that he made on Wednesday that the proposed international guarantee does not involve international interference with the affairs of Egypt rests on any statement made or assented to by the Great Powers, because nothing upon the subject appears in the Papers; secondly, I wish to ask whether the Papers which are to be circulated next week will contain an explanation of that reservation on the part of Russia, to which he also referred, as to which there is nothing in the Papers circulated this morning; and, thirdly, whether the Papers will contain the Report of Lord Northbrook?


I have only received a minute or two ago across the Table the Questions which the right hon. Gentleman has asked. The third Question has been already answered by my noble Friend the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs. As to the other Questions, I should be glad if the right hon. Gentleman would be so good as to ask them again on Monday with Notice after he has read the Papers.


Are we to understand that we are to get Lord North-brook's Report in full, or only an expurgated edition of it?


It is not my business to give an answer in explanation of my noble Friend's answer as to Papers which are Foreign Office Papers, as I have nothing to do with them; but if the hon. Gentleman will be good enough to wait till Monday, he will see that the answer given by my noble Friend is confirmed by the Papers.