HC Deb 18 June 1895 vol 34 cc1384-95

Order read for resuming adjourned Debate on Main Question [14th June], "That the Bill be now read 2°"

Question again proposed.

Debate resumed.

MR. R. W. HANBURY (Preston)

said, the Government knew that this Bill had to pass through both Houses and receive the Royal Assent by July 1, and yet it was only introduced on June 10, and was placed so late on the Order Paper that it could not receive sufficient consideration. This was a Bill of international importance, raising questions affecting two important foreign countries with which we were brought into direct relations. He thought they were entitled to more information in regard to the attitude of Canada towards this question. The conditions were not the same now as they were two years ago, for the agreement with Russia actually ended on December 21, 1893; and they were now asked to extend the Bill for another two years. He had gathered from the statement of the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs that he himself was in considerable doubt whether a fresh agreement had been made or not. The Government had actually thought it worth while to bring American relations within the purview of this Bill; they were dealing with Russia on the one hand, in the 180th meridian of longitude, and with America on the other hand. The argument that, after all, they were merely carrying on an expiring Bill for another two years would not apply, because the circumstances were altered. With regard to the United States our seamen had received friendly treatment, treatment very different from that which they had received from Russia. When the vessels of our seamen had been seized by the Americans they had been taken to a recognised port, where a public hearing was given to the cases, and the cases decided according to the rules of evidence in open court. But the Russians acted very differently. He might refer to a notorious case in which two British vessels were seized by a Russian man-of-war, not in Russian territorial waters, but on the high seas, the British flag hauled down, and the crews treated under circumstances of great insult. The fact of the British flag being hauled down was mentioned in despatches and in evidence given before the Commission. The crews of the vessels were not taken before an ordinary court, or before an arbitrator—that would have been only the act of a friendly Power; but they were taken before a Russian Commission, the names of the president or members of which were not known. It was practically an anonymous Commission. With regard to a large number of vessels which were seized and taken before this Commission, the cases had been dismissed altogether in the face of the evidence. But even a Commission of this kind decided in two cases of vessels seized—those of the Ariel and another vessel—that compensation should be paid. Had the British Government obtained that compensation? Had any attempt been made to get it? It was ridiculous in face of those facts to ask the House to pass the Bill without further information. It was a very serious thing to give away, as he thought they were doing by his Bill, the rights of British seamen on the high seas. Another point on which he wished for information was whether the agreement with Russia had been renewed or not; also whether the United States Government had made any similar agreement with Russia in regard to those Russian waters. If the United States had made no such agreement—if the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs could not satisfy the House on those points, British seamen would be placed in a very peculiar and unfair position with regard to sealing in those Russian waters, because in that case our seamen might be excluded, while the American seamen would be free to carry on their operations. But even if the Americans had made such an agreement—and they had no evidence of the fact—he was tolerably sure that Japan had not done so, and, therefore, the Japanese, who were now become a naval power, would have opportunities of sealing in those seas which would be denied to British seamen. This was a point also which ought to be cleared up. Another point for serious consideration was the relation of Canada to this matter. What evidence had they to show whether any, and what, objections had been raised by Canada, which was deeply interested in this question? They knew that Canada raised objections before the Act of 1893 was passed, and that she had since raised objections to its renewal. But they had not been furnished with any Papers on the subject. Did the Under Secretary for the Colonies stand by Canada in this matter? Had Canada been fairly heard on the question? Not a single dispatch had been laid on the Table of the House relating to the Bill. All they had heard on this point was a remark from the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs which he regarded as somewhat suspicious—that Canada had raised certain objections, but that those objections had been met as far as possible. But the House had a right to more information than this. It had a right to know what those objections were, and how far the Under Secretary was justified in saying they had been met. There was one other point to which he wished to direct attention. As far as he knew, the Bill was one which need only deal with the question of sealing in Russian waters—that was to say in waters to the west of the 180th meridian of longitude; but the Bill took a larger scope, and dealt with other waters to the east which were not Russian waters. There was no necessity to deal with those waters, because they were already dealt with by the permanent Act. Surely, therefore, a Bill of this kind ought not to be rushed through the House, and seeing that the Government had now the whole time of the House, they ought to have given fair time and opportunity for its examination and discussion. To sum up, then, what he wished to know was, in the first place, whether there had been a renewed agreement with Russia; and, if so, whether that agreement would be laid on the Table before this Bill was passed; whether other States, and especially America, had entered into a similar agreement; and, above all, whether Canada had remonstrated in regard to this Bill to the same extent, and in the same way, as she remonstrated in regard to the Bill of 1893, and how far those objections had been fairly met as they ought to have been.


said that, in so far as there were any changes in this Bill, it might be different from the Bill of 1893, but those changes had been made to meet objections raised by the Canadian Government. He presumed, therefore, that the hon. Member for Preston would not object to those changes. With that exception, the Bill was not a new Bill, and did not raise new questions. He would endeavour to answer the points to which the hon. Member for Preston had attached importance. In the first place, he asked whether the agreement with Russia had been renewed. Yes, the agreement had been renewed. He had stated so before, and the terms of that agreement were the same as in 1893, and had been renewed till further notice. It was renewed at the end of 1893, so that the late Bill did not outrun that agreement. Then the hon. Member asked whether any similar agreement had been entered into by the United States. Well, Russia had made such an agreement with the United States, and it was on the understanding that the Russian Government should obtain the consent of the Government of the United States to the application of similar restrictions in regard to the sealing questions that the agreement of 1893 was renewed. With regard to other countries, the question of their sealing vessels had not arisen, and in a case of this kind they must deal with the situation as it arose. Of course, if a fleet of sealing vessels belonging to the nations came into these waters, other and similar agreements would have to be made, or the whole question would be re-opened. That was how the matter really stood. He ought to say a word as to the difference between the seizures by Russia of British vessels before there was any agreement, and seizures by the United States before there was any arbitration. The contention of the Russians was that they seized those vessels either because they or their boats had been fishing within the three-mile limit. They only claimed, as regarded territorial waters, within the three-mile limit, and the conflict between Her Majesty's Government and the Russian Government as to the merits of these seizures was as to the facts and not as to the rights.


asked whether it was not a fact that the Russian Government, in 1893, distinctly maintained their right to go on seizing vessels outside the territorial limit, on the high seas.


said, he had not the Paper before him.


Here it is.


said, that that was not the view of the Russian Government at the time. He asked the House to bear in mind the issue raised, not by this Bill, but by the opposition to the Bill. What was the history of this sealing question? On the one side of the Pacific there was the question raised by the United States; the arbitration proposed and agreed to, and the award given, with certain restrictions laid down under that award. On the other side, they had no arbitration or award, but Her Majesty's Government had made an agreement with the Russian Government to place certain restrictions on the sealing on that side of the Pacific Ocean. The restrictions under that agreement were much less stringent than those in force on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. If difficulties were placed in the way of this Bill passing, Her Majesty's Government would be placed in the position of not being able to carry out their agreement with the Russian Government; and, if placed in that position, a very serious question would be re-opened on the western side of the Pacific, as it was, at one time, on the eastern side of the Pacific. The House could not say that the Government would be reasonable in taking up a position that no restrictions were required outside the territorial limits; and the question then was whether the restrictions proposed by this agreement were reasonable. It was not a question of principle, because the principle had been decided by the history of the case. The restrictions in the agreement with Russia were, he asserted, reasonable, and were much less stringent than those applied on the other side of the Pacific Ocean under the award It was, therefore, desirable that the agreement with Russia should not be disturbed, and that Her Majesty's Government should be in a position to leave this question as to the western side of the Pacific in a position which, he asserted, could not be regarded as an unsatisfactory one in the interests of the Canadian sealers.

CAPTAIN BETHELL (York, E.R., Holderness)

said, that there was no desire on the Opposition side of the House to prevent this Bill from passing. While recognising that these agreements were entered into in order that the seals might be protected, he thought that an agreement with a foreign country giving the right of search over our vessels was one which this country was bound to view with anxiety. He was sure that the Foreign Office, after the difficulties of two years ago, would view with much solicitude any action taken by the Russian Government under this Bill. But if occurrences like those of two years ago should take place, he thought it was a pity that there was no power to suspend the operation of this Bill; for those occurrences were a scandal to this country. The hon. Baronet had pointed to the fact that this Bill was not so stringent as a similar Bill with regard to the Behring Sea. This might be accounted for by the fact that the fisheries on that side were not on so large a scale as in the Behring Sea. Japan had considerable interests, and the hon. Baronet should have taken care that the like arrangement should have been entered into between Russia and Japan as, he stated, had been entered into between Russia and the United States. The hon. Baronet forgot to answer why the Government had included the Behring Sea in the present Bill. Was it, he asked, necessary to include the high seas generally north of the 42nd parallel?


said that there was no mystery about it. The Government only wanted to make as little change as possible from the previous Act, and there was a clause to show that the Bill would not be in derogation of the Behring Sea Award.


thought that the mode adopted was rather a roundabout way of getting at their object. He did not share his hon. Friend's views on the Canadian question. Upon the whole, although he thought that some of the smaller provisions of the Bill were objectionable, they ought, he considered, to pass. He, however, pressed on Her Majesty's Government that they should certainly watch with great anxiety any captures that might be made by a foreign Government of vessels belonging to our Empire, especially in view of the way in which our seamen were treated two years ago. He hoped that the Foreign Office would let all men know that we did not intend to permit proceedings like those to take place again.

ADMIRAL FIELD (Sussex, Eastbourne)

said, that he would like to have an assurance from the Government that in Clause 3, Sub-section 4, where it was laid down that powers were to be given to naval officers of a foreign state to search ships of the nations mentioned in the Bill, similar powers would be conceded to our officers. He wanted an assurance from Her Majesty's Government that the orders which were given to naval officers of the three countries concerned should be identical in their scope and operation. We could trust our own naval officers in respect of the powers given to them, and Her Majesty's Government ought to insist that similar powers, and no more, should be granted to the naval officers of Russia and the United States.

Bill read 2°.

MR. GIBSON BOWLES moved: "That the Bill be referred to a Select Committee." It seemed to him to be most essentially a Bill which required specific attention and information from the Foreign Office. As to the general principles of the Bill, he need say nothing, except to remind the House of the great importance of the action proposed to be taken under the Bill—namely, the placing in the hands of the Government of a foreign state the power to deprive British subjects of their employment on the high seas. It was most important that a specific documentary answer should be given to the questions put by the hon. Member for Preston. They had been told that the present agreement was the same as the agreement made in 1893. But it was declared specifically that that agreement was essentially provisional, and it expired in December 1893. It was, therefore, impossible that the present agreement could be the same as that agreement. They were entitled to inquire into the terms of the new agreement. Again, a Select Committee ought to inquire into the objections which had been made by Canada. If the Government had given the House the terms of the agreement, the terms in which the complaint of Canada was formulated, and the terms of the answer to that complaint, the Bill might have been allowed to go forward in the ordinary way. The work of the Select Committee need not be long. If the Foreign and Colonial Offices furnished the information that was in their possession, as they should do, with readiness and completeness, the work of the Committee could be concluded in a couple of days, and if the Committee were convinced that a good case was made out, he was quite sure there would be no difficulty in passing the Bill through the House. Meantime they were in the position of being asked to pass a Bill in order to carry out an agreement of which they knew nothing. The House would be placing itself in a false position, if, in these circumstances, it allowed the Bill to go through. In the American case there was the most full and complete investigation, made first in the American Courts, and afterwards before the Arbitrator in Paris. In the present instance there had been no corresponding investigation, and therefore he submitted that this was especially a case for a Select Committee.


seconded the Motion. He admitted that the course proposed was unusual, but their main justification was that the conduct of the Government itself with regard to the Bill had been unusual. Not merely had the Bill been hurried through the House when a large amount of compensation which the Russian Government admitted to be due, had not been paid, but there was an utter absence of any official information. There were at least three classes of documents which ought to be laid on the Table before they proceeded further with the Bill. The first was the Russian agreement, and he would be very much surprised if it turned out to be the same as the agreement which lapsed in 1893. Then there was the agreement between Russia and the United States; and there was the correspondence between the Colonial Office and Canada. These documents were in the possession of the Government, and, in the ordinary course, ought to have been presented before the Bill was introduced. The Government had had abundant time, and he should not think it was treating the House with proper respect, to ask them to pass a Bill of this kind without first laying the complete correspondence on the Table. If the Government would promise to give these Papers the present Motion would not be pressed.


thought the Government should agree to this Motion. A great deal of obscurity hung around many different points in the Bill, and the very least they could ask was that a Select Committee should inquire into them. There was the question how far Canada approved or disapproved of the Bill. The hon. Member for King's Lynn had asserted that the Canadian people had protested against the Bill very seriously. The Under Secretary had not attempted to make any reply to that assertion. Then there was the question, whether the Bill was not far too wide in its scope. He could quite understand that some agreement was necessary with reference to a part of the Behring Sea. But why they should hand over the whole of the Pacific Ocean from the 42nd degree of latitude to the North Pole, and allow Russian officers to have the absolute right to control British ships and tyrannise over British seamen he could not understand.


I must call the hon. Member's attention to the fact that he is not entitled to discuss the Bill.


said, he was referring to an obscure point which might be cleared up by a Select Committee. Then he understood that other nations were allowed to do what they liked in these regions, while by the Bill England was specially penalised. Why should special penalties be placed upon English ships which were not placed upon Japanese ships? That was another point that ought to go before a Select Committee.


said, he sympathised very strongly with the request made by his hon. Friend. At the same time, he trusted the Government would be able to give some assurance which would prevent the necessity of that particular method being adopted of getting the information which they required. The Bill itself was not one that ought to be discussed by a Select Committee. He took some part with the present Lord Chief Justice in framing the Bill of 1893, and he knew it would be a serious thing if there were any question of unwillingness on the part of this country to carry out an arrangement which, so far as Russia was concerned, had not worked unsatisfactorily. They were, however, justified in pressing for assurances that, before the Committee Stage of the Bill was taken, the documents in the possession of the Government would be produced, and that a reasonable and proper time should be given for the discussion of the Bill in Committee. The Under Secretary would agree that they had not pressed him unduly for documents in this matter. There were two questions involved on which the House was entitled to have documents produced—one was the Russian and the other was the American question. There could be no valid reason for the non-production of the Russian papers; at any rate the Under Secretary must be in a position to give some of the Russian documents, so as to afford the House some explanation of the position of affairs which was being properly asked for. He differed from his hon. Friend with reference to the attitude of Russia. His recollection was that while Russia reserved certain rights, she never put forward as a matter of right any extravagant claims such as were put forward by America. The House, all the same, was entitled to know what was the claim of Russia, and whether or not she acquiesced in the law laid down by the Tribunal of Paris. Another point referred to the Russian seas. They had been told that, with regard to two cases at least, the papers were still under discussion, and that the Government intended to press the claims on the lines originally adopted. His recollection was that Russia never claimed to seize vessels on the high seas except in cases of pursuit, and where there was evidence that the vessels had been within the three-mile limit; and whether or not there was satisfactory evidence that a vessel or crew had been within the prohibited distance was a matter which of course required to be proved. This, however, was no reason why the House should not be put in full possession of the information as to what was the real condition of affairs in the negotiation with regard to the seas, so far as Russia was concerned They were also entitled to ask that, so far as the Government could give the information, it should be laid before the House with regard to what was going on between Great Britain and America, and especially what was the attitude of the United States from the point of view of respect or otherwise for the Award of Paris. He pressed for these papers because the Canadian objections applied to both. He attached very great importance to this question. He had, as far as he could, after consultation, avoided pressing the Government on the matter; and he was satisfied that there was a strong feeling springing up in Canada that the Canadian claims were not being respected at the present time. He was certain that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be the first person to wish to dispel that feeling if he could possibly do so. He further asked the right hon. Gentleman to consider whether a proper opportunity should not be afforded to discuss the Bill after the presentation of the documents he had referred to. There was not the slightest desire on the part of any hon. Member on his own side of the House to defeat the Bill; but, inasmuch as they were continuing a Bill which restricted the rights of British sailors on the high seas, the legislative provisions ought to be the considered acts of the House of Commons, and not the mere expression of the will of any Minister, however able or however highly placed. He hoped that his hon. Friend would not press his Motion. They all desired to see that whatever was done should be done in the interests of peace; and it was therefore extremely important that the Government should take the House into its confidence in considering the difficulty met with, and the remedy which the Government proposed.


The hon. and learned Member speaks with great authority on this question, being fully acquainted with its details. I have no hesitation in saying that my hon. Friends the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs and the Under Secretary for the Colonies will consider what further Papers they can lay before the House. The hon. Gentleman knows that only a selection of the Papers can be laid before the House, but every measure will be taken to expedite their preparation. He is also aware of the necessity for passing this Bill, and I am sure that no one will be disposed to delay or to obstruct a measure designed to promote the interests of peace. The Government have every desire to give such information as they can, and, in these circumstances, I hope the Motion of the hon. Member will not be pressed. I am also quite sure that the opportunity for discussion will not be abused, and proper time for that purpose will be given by the Government.

Amendment by leave withdrawn.

Main question put, and agreed to. Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for To-morrow.