That it is expedient to authorise the issue, out of the Consolidated Fund, of sums not exceeding £863,000, and, for the purpose of providing money for such issue, the borrowing, by of terminable annuities charged on and paid out of the moneys annually provided by Parliament for Foreign and Colonial Services, and, if those money are insufficient, out of the Consolidated Fund, of a sum not exceeding £820,000, for making payments to the Royal Niger Company, in consideration of the transfer to the Crown of the administrative powers of the said company, together with their treaty and other rights and property, and for meeting expenditure rendered necessary by such transfer."—(Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer.)
§ Resolution read a second time.
§ MR. T. P. O'CONNOR (Liverpool, Scotland)
I must express my utter inability to understand the manner in which this Bill and this proposal are being rushed through the House. Yesterday evening we raised a short discussion on the question, and asked that the I louse should be supplied with Papers. The Chancellor of the Exchequer was kind enough to give a verbal statement of the case, which was very lucid and very clear, but which left us without ally documentary evidence whatever on the matter. I ventured to suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that he should postpone the further consideration of the Resolution until the Papers were before the House. Well, the right hon. Gentleman met the suggestion, which also came from several other hon. Members, with a statement that "Papers relating to the subject would 1502 be laid on the Table to-night"—meaning last night. When the right hon. Gentleman made that statement I myself and other hon. Members immediately got up and suggested that that was an additional reason why the Resolution should be postponed till to-day. When I made the suggestion I could not contemplate what has really occurred; for the right hon. Gentleman, not satisfied with bringing this Resolution before the Committee yesterday without Papers, now asks that the Resolution should be reported, not only without Papers, but in the face of his own definite promise that we should have the Papers. The Papers may be somewhere in the House, but I have gone to the Vote Office, and can find no trace of them there; and I have gone to the Table, and can find no trace of them there. It is quite possible that the right hon. Gentleman may not have been able to obtain the Papers—I do not blame him for that—but if he found himself unable to carry out his undertaking to the House, I think the right hon. Gentleman was called upon to postpone the Report of this Resolution until he was able to redeem his promise, and to lay the Papers before the House. I say that this is rushing a most important transaction through the House. Now, it is not my fault that I have to raise this question at this very unreasonable hour. The matter might have been elucidated yesterday, in the course of another hour's discussion; but the right hon. Gentleman, either from a certain perverseness of disposition or irritability of nerves, would not allow us to have that discussion, and, therefore, we are compelled to raise it at this inconvenient hour. The assumption of the government of thirty-five to forty millions of people is a scheme of the gravest and most momentous importance, and I do not see how any rational or impartial man can deny the proposition which is at the basis of our attitude and action in regard to this proposal. It is an assumption of responsibility, serious and grave enough to demand the most deliberate judgment of the House. How can it be said that we have deliberate action, when on two important stages the House is left absolutely without documentary evidence as to this proposal? I am compelled to form the best judgment I Call on the statement of the right hon. Gentleman as reported in the newspapers, and I must say that 1503 the statement is one calculated to excite very strange, if not sombre, reflection. Here let it be understood that I am not at all prejudging the question; I am not declaring against the policy of the Government in assuming the government of these territories from the hands of the Niger Company. I must say, indeed, that the policy of the Government in dethroning the administrative action of the company is more than justified, and does not come a moment too soon. The right hon. Gentleman passed a fine eulogium on the Chartered Company, but that eulogium was in strange contrast with some of the statements in the speech he himself made. What did he say of this Company? He said that it had assumed certain rights and imposed certain duties which were subjects of controversy with certain countries, especially with France. Although the right hon. Gentleman held that the Company was legally justified in imposing these duties, yet it was violating in spirit the Treaty of Berlin. What was the result? I wish the House to mark this. The result of the imposition of these duties, and the international illegality of which the right hon. Gentleman himself admitted the Chartered Company was guilty, was that it brought this country and France to the verge of a terrible and disastrous war.
§ MR. T. P. O'CONNOR
The right hon. Gentleman shaken his head; but I shall quote his own words:If the Niger Company had been allowed a free hand in its relations with the French, there would have been most grave danger of misunderstanding, and perhaps even of conflict, which might have led to a great and terrible war.I am within the recollection of the House that if I did not give his exact words I rightly interpreted his words as meaning, that if the Chattered Company had not been held in cheek by the Imperial authority, it would have brought this country into a great and terrible war. I have a second observation to make on that statement. I say quite candidly, that it is to a large extent a justification of the step which the Imperial Government is taking as a necessary means of escape from a most perilous position. 1504 My second observation is, that this company is actually to be rewarded for having brought two great nations to the verge of what the right hon. Gentleman very properly called a great and terrible war, by what the right hon. Gentleman acknowledges to have been an abuse of its powers.
§ MR. T. P. O'CONNOR
From The Times newspaper:Although I believe they (meaning the duties) were found to be within the legal rights conferred on the company by its charter, they did infringe the spirit of the Act of Berlin, in respect of the navigation of the Niger.Is not that a statement by the right hon. Gentleman himself that the Chartered Company did abuse its rights, and bring this country into conflict with France? So much in regard to the general question of the charter. I hope the House understands that my objection to the action of the right hon. Gentleman is mainly upon the manner in which he is dealing with so great and important a question. I say at once that I have had very little opportunity—the right hon. Gentleman has not supplied the House with the opportunity—of examining the details of this transaction. It is a transaction that seems to me to require a great deal of consideration; but, roughly, it amounts to this: The Niger Company had two branches of business—the one trading, the other administrative. The trading was profitable and the administrative branch was unprofitable. The proposal of the right hon. Gentleman is this, that this country should leave to the Niger Company the trading branch, which is profitable, and take over the administrative branch, which is a losing concern. I put it to any man of business, if any capitalist came to him and said, "Here is a business with two departments, one losing and one profitable; take yon the losing part of the concern. That is my first criticism. I do not deny 1505 that everyone is entitled to drive as hard a bargain as he can. Well, I will slate my objections to this bargain. In the first place, the right hon. Gentleman is paying £150,000 for what he calls dislocation of business.
§ MR. T. P. O'CONNOR
What does the right hon. Gentleman mean by the dislocation of business? That requires explanation. Then he talks about land rights, and mineral rights. I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman had been writing a prospectus for the City. "Those rights are of considerable extent, particularly in the Empire of Sokoto and Gando, and they exist under special treaties. It is reported that there are silver, till, antimony, and other metals in those regions; and of course there is always the hope of gold." That is a most extraordinary statement for the right hon. Gentleman to make. In that spirit of genial optimism which hitherto, I thought, was confined to company promote asking for the money of confiding people, he says that "there is always a hope of gold," and on that hope the right hon. Gentleman asked us to take the first steps towards voting this vast sum of money to the company. Well, there are several other transactions with this company which I have not been able to grasp. The right hon. Gentleman said that the company raised £250,000 on the customs duties, and that that sum is to be paid off by the Government. But, as I understand the reports of the company, it got back that £250,000 from the public at 5 per cent. interest. I find from the "Stock Exchange Year Book" that the council of the company reported that the £250,000 was a sum expended by the company, and that the Government had given its formal assent to the levying of duties in excess of those required for administrative purposes in order to pay this off. I find also that of this £250,000 £133,000 was set aside in August, 1889, as a distribution at 30 per cent. to the proprietors, and that the balance of £116,000 was retained by the company, This I interpret to mean that the £250,000 already. Then I find that the large sum of £115,000 is to be paid for 1506 steamers, jetties, warehouses, machinery, and plant; and £300,000 for what the right hon. Gentleman calls unexhausted improvements. These are not small things. The transaction itself is a very great transaction, and the assumption of this extraordinary amount of responsibility is a great transaction. For all these reasons I complain most strongly of the hurry with which the right hon. Gentleman is pushing the Bill through the House. In order to mark my sense of these proceedings, I beg to move that the sum of £820,000 be reduced by £200,000.
In line 6, to leave out '£820,000,' and insert £620,000."—(Mr. T. P. O'Connor.)
Question proposed, "That £820,000 stand part of the Resolution."
§ * SIR HICKS-BEACH
The hon. Gentleman complained last night in the most bitter language of my having failed to give the House any information on the subject of the Resolution which I moved. It now appeal's that the hon. Member was not in the House when I happened to deliver that speech.
§ * SIR M. HICKS-BEACH
And that he was entirely ignorant of all I said on the matter. He has now had the opportunity of referring to the newspapers, and has discovered that I explained to the House, as fully as I could, the whole circumstances of the case and the proposals of the Government in regard to the Niger company. I refer to this because it is evident that the hon. Member has now acquainted himself, to some extent, with the facts of the case, and therefore has been able to discuss the statement I made. But even so, the hon. Member is a little premature, for really the speech he has delivered was a speech not appropriate to the Report on the Resolution, which is almost invariably a formal stage, but to the Second Reading of the Bill. When the Second Reading of the Bill comes on he will be in possession of the papers which I have promised, and will be far better able to obtain them. That is the case; but why? I found in the 1507 course of the discussion that hon. Members desired to obtain certain papers which I had not supposed would be asked for, and therefore I delayed the issue of the papers which I had prepared for a day or so, in order that all the papers which hon. Members wanted should be in their possession. I never suggested for a moment that the papers would be in their possession before the Report on the Resolution. What I said was that they would be in their possession a sufficient length of time before the Second Reading of the Bill was proposed. I trust hon. Members wi!1 not feel it necessary to continue this discussion to-night. I do not at all blame the hon. Member for rising. He has made his speech now, and has expressed his opinion, and I trust that in a few days the House will be in possession of the Bill, and of the Papers, and will be far better able to form a judgment on the whole case than now.
§ MR. DILLON (Mayo, E.)
The discussion of yesterday, and so far as it has gone to-night, must have brought home to the mind of the right hon. Gentleman the conviction that he has set about this task in a wrong fashion. It is a very large question, and I hold that in bringing forward a motion like this, which undoubtedly commits the House not only to the principle of the Bill, but substantially to the amount of compensation to be given to the company, the House ought to have had in its hands a fair and full statement of the facts, and of the affairs of the company, and of the alleged profits and assets on which the House is to be asked to provide these funds. I know that the right hon. Gentleman made, in some respects, a very clear statement, but I defy any hon. Member to take in to his mind adequately it complicated statement of figures such as that made by the right hon. Gentleman yesterday; and even if it were possible, for the purposes of discussion, to remember and to take notes, it very soon became apparent, in the course of the discussion, that there were many facts wanting, and a vast deal of information which is absolutely essential to be had before we arrive at a decision as to the amount of money to be paid—particularly in reference to this question of stock. One of the propositions to which the House has been asked to agree is to take 1508 over a debt of £250,000 five per cent. inscribed stock, and in order to deal with that debt, we are to raise a sum of £300,000 and pay it off at a premium of 20 per cent. This debt was raised by the company in 1888, and, so far as I can understand from the only sources of information at our disposal, it was divided into two parts. The money obtained by the company was not spent in administration, but was allowed to be used by the company in the way of re-imbursement of alleged payments that had been made in previous years. £133,000 was distributed at the rate of 30 per cent. to all the shareholders, and £116,000 was retained in the hands of the company, which they have to this day. And now, as part of the payment, this country is to take over the whole of the debt of £250,000, thus leaving; the proceeds in the hands of the shareholders of the company. I find from the "Stock Exchange Year Book" that the latest price of this stock is 100. But I would like very much to see the quotation of this stock next week, the moment it is known that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is going to take over the 5 per cent. stock on the security of the credit of this country, and that it is to be redeemed immediately at 120. I need not say that that stock will jump up immediately. We ought to have some information as to who are the gentlemen who get the additional advantage of the rise of this stock in the market. I also maintain that some information ought to be given as to whether any effort was made to get hold of this stock, which was selling at par, before this resolution was introduced. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said just now, when he alluded to the sum of £300,000 for unexhausted improvements, that that sum did not include, as I understood him, either the lands on the banks of the Niger or the alleged mineral rights. As I read his speech, I took it that these unexhausted improvements did include the lands and a number of alleged mineral rights. If that sum does not include the land and minerals, I should like to know what the unexhausted improvements are; for all the improvements visible to the naked eye, and which are purchased for a large sum by the Government, are the jetties, warehouses, machinery, and plant. And these are to be purchased at a valuation. Who made the valuation is another 1509 question. What are the unexhausted improvements
§ SIR M. HICKS-BEACH
The unexhausted improvements are, the moneys expended by the company out of trade profits in developing the territory and in administrative work, and applied, beyond the sums raised through customs duties which it was allowed to raise, for the purposes of administration—the benefit of which, owing to the revocation of the charter, it will never be able to receive.
§ MR. DILLON
We know what is going to be done, but why is the company, which in 1888 got a sum of £250,000 to cover these obligations, to get another sum?
§ * SIR M. HICKS-BEACH
The money was expended by the company in acquiring treaties and other rights and privileges.
§ MR. DILLON
That I quite under-stand, but we must examine the profits of the company. They have distributed a bonus of 30 per cent. to the shareholders. In addition to that there are trade profits, and they hold £116,000 in their hands. for the last six years they have paid 6 per cent. and 7½ per cent. in the last two years. Their stock in the market, in spite of the alleged losses, stands at nearly 100 per cent premium. Now we are told that they are to be recouped for losses incurred by transferring sums from their trading profits to administrative expenses. The whole capital of the company is about £500,000 including debentures, and they are to get a sum of £300,000 altogether apart front trade profits, which will enable them to distribute 70 per cent. as a bonus to the shareholders. I believe that they would be able to return to their shareholders nearly the whole of their paid-up capital, and go on paying a good percentage on their capital as if it were still paid up. It seems to me that the price to be paid the company is enormous.
§ * SIR M. HICKS-BEACH
The hon. Gentleman entirely forgets that by this change the company will lose that trade monopoly which has enabled them to make these large trading profits, and which they will not be able to make in future.
§ MR. DILLON
I say that the statements of the Chancellor of the Exchequer require to be proved. I noticed that in the newspapers this morning there is the very greatest possible doubt in the public mind of this country as to this transaction, and there is a great body of opinion that the Niger Company after this transaction is over will have as good a trading business as formerly. They have got a long start of possible competitors, and it is perfectly possible that after having made many losses they will be in a stronger position than ever for trading purposes. I think it must be generally felt that it would have been better to have had a full Debate on the Resolution with the Papers before the House, and certainly the attempt to rush the early stages of the Bill will not have the effect of shortening the discussion.
§ MR. DALZIEL
The right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made a statement just now that in future the arrangement carried out with the company would materially affect their trading profits. I wonder if the right hon. Gentleman has read the circular issued this morning to the shareholders, in which it is stated that the revocation of the charter would not affect the legal position of the company, and that in expectation of the present proposal careful precautions had been taken that the contracts and the corporate existence of the company should depend, not on the charter, but on their earlier registration as a company under the Limited Liability Act. Contracts have been made right up to date which will give them a certain monopoly for years to come. They have a monopoly on the Niger at this moment, and their monopoly is going to continue. There is one other point which I regard as of great importance. It is reported to-day that this company, in view of the proposals of the Government, have been steadily and persistently buying up certain lands which the Government is not taking over, and which will give them practically as big a monopoly as ever.
§ * SIR M. HICKS-BEACH
I have made inquiries as to that statement front Sir George Goldie, and he indignantly denies that there is the slightest truth in it.
§ MR. DALZIEL
No one is mow glad to hear that statement than I am. I can 1511 only regret that right hon. Gentleman was not in a position to deny the report yesterday, because it was stated on the authority of correspondence from men on the spot. We must take Sir George Goldie's statement, of course. But we have practically no reliable evidence as to the basis on which the valuations have been made; nor have we the balance-sheets of the company. It seems to me that before this proposal goes much further we should have the balance-sheets of the company, especially when it is said that it is a losing concern. It is said that there are mineral rights which are to be transferred to the Government. These mineral rights have been in existence for many years, and it is not likely that the Niger Company would hand them over if they were worth anything. Besides, the company are to get 50 per cent. of all we make out of these mineral rights for a long term of years, while we are to take all the risks. That is a very good deal for the company.
§ * MR. WEIR (Ross and Cromarty)
The Stock Exchange is said to be a very good political barometer. The right hon. Gentleman, if he consults the lists, will find that the Niger Company's shares, instead of falling, have gone up front £10 to £17 and £18, which is double their value. And I cannot but think that they will continue to go up when there is such a splendid prospect before the shareholders in view of the payment of this £865,000 which the Government is going 1512 to make. Besides, the company have entered into a long lease which will secure a monopoly for many years to come. I should like to know what evidence there is that there are really valuable mineral rights in the territory.
§ MR. T. P. O'CONNOR
The right hon. Gentleman has made the amende, and I will withdraw the motion I have made.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer and Mr. Brodrick.