HC Deb 22 June 1915 vol 72 cc1113-23

(1) The power of His Majesty under Section one of the Exportation of Arms Act, 1900, as amended by the Customs (Exportation Restriction) Act, 1914, by Proclamation to prohibit the exportation of articles to any country or place named in the Proclamation shall, during the continuance of the present War, include the power to prohibit the exportation of any article to any such country or place unless consigned to such person or persons as may be authorised by or under the Proclamation to receive such article.

(2) If any article to which any such Proclamation applies is delivered to any consignee other than an authorised consignee the vessel in which it was exported shall for the purposes of the Acts relating to the Customs be deemed to have been used in the conveyance of prohibited goods.


I beg to move, in Sub-section (2), to leave out the word "consignee" ["delivered to any consignee"], and to insert instead thereof the word "person."

I think that this Amendment will decidedly strengthen the Bill. The Clause states that, "if any article to which any such Proclamation applies is delivered to any consignee other than an authorised consignee" certain results shall follow. I think that that is a loophole by which fraud may be committed, because an article may be delivered to some person who is not a consignee. Under this Bill there can be no consignee, except an authorised consignee. What seems to me possible is that by collusion the captain of a vessel might deliver some article to a person who was not the consignee. If the shipowner delivers the goods to any person other than the authorised consignee he will be liable to a penalty under my Amendment, and it will be no defence to raise the technical point that the person to whom the goods were delivered was not a consignee.


The Amendment on the face of it appears to strengthen the Bill, but I do not think it will be wise to accept it, because the word "consignee" has a particular meaning. It means a person to whom goods are consigned by the shipper. In this case, as the Clause now stands, the Sub-section inflicts a penalty on any shipowner who delivers goods to any consignee, other than an authorise consignee. That means, or who accepts goods from a shipper to a consignee except from a shipper to a consignee as authorised by this Act. If you put in the word "person" you get a different meaning. You might render a shipowner liable in respect to the delivery of goods to some person subsequently to their arrival at their destination. I think the draughtsman had that point in mind, and on the whole it will be wiser to retain the word "consignee."


I should like to ask whether, after all, something on the line of my hon. Friend's Amendment might not be acceptable. It is commonly known to everybody in trade that a bill of lading issued, as this would be, with the further document of a licence to trade, might be endorsed and the goods dealt with while in course of transit. In that case the original consignee would be able to get rid of his liability. The person named in the bill of lading is undoubtedly the consignee, but the person who takes the goods out of the ship, having bought them from the consignee, may not be covered by the terms of this proposal. I am a little dubious on the point; perhaps my hon. Friend can enlighten me.


My hon. Friend has just dealt with a difficult point. Every ship has two sets of papers—the Customs papers and the commercial papers. The bill of lading is the commercial paper, which does not go to the Customs at all. It is the Customs papers which will be dealt with in this case, and no consignment will be allowed to pass except the Customs papers contain the certificate that will be required. My hon. Friend suggests that it might be possible to have a bill of lading which did not agree with the Customs paper, and under which the articles might be delivered to a different consignee. That is really the reason why this Sub-section was introduced, to make the shipowner responsible for seeing that the bill of lading really coincides with the Customs paper, and that the delivery actually takes place to the person to whom the Customs paper applies The point has been most carefully considered, but I do not think it would be wise to give full details of the methods by which we hope to prevent any evasion of this provision. The Sub-section has been drafted with great care to deal with the very point raised by my hon. Friend, who evidently understands the trade.

Question, "That the word proposed to be left out stand part of the Clause," put, and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.


I wish to ask the Government whether they could not give us a stronger assurance in regard to the matter which I raised just now. The hon. Gentleman was good enough to say that I might anticipate with some confidence the appointment of a Committee shortly. He will remember that, when we had these matters up before, his leader on the other side of the House did not express much confidence in committees. At this stage, ten months after the outbreak of war, when the Government themselves the other day admitted that we were supplying our enemies—that is urged as a reason for passing this Bill—we cannot get anything more than an assurance that a Committee is about to be set up! That is entirely unsatisfactory, and it is very disappointing to me, as one of the first efforts of the new Coalition Government. I hope the Noble Lord the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs will be able to say something which will not disappoint us entirely on this matter. I hope also that the Leader of the Opposition, whom I see in his place, will give us his very valuable support. In any case I hope the Government will treat this matter with much more seriousness than they have done up to the present.


My right hon. Friend is under a complete misapprehension if he thinks that the Government do not treat this question of cotton with the utmost possible seriousness. When he reflected on the suggestion that a Committee should be appointed, I think he rather misapprehended what my hon. Friend meant. The Committee which it is proposed to appoint is a purely executive Committee. It is a Committee, not to consider the question of cotton at all, but merely to carry out the measures which are being adopted to prevent trading with the enemy altogther in reference to cotton, just the same as the Coal Committee deals with the special question of coal going to Germany. There is no dispute, so far as I know, as to what our object should be. Our object is to prevent cotton from reaching the hands of Germans. We are all agreed about that. The other thing that we are anxious to do is to protect the legitimate rights of neutrals. It would ill become this country, after the history of the last ten months, to do anything which was unfair or unjust to neutral nations. That is an important matter for us to consider. The question really is, How can both these objects be achieved? Two proposals have been made. One which has been made and pressed very strongly by a number of people inside and outside this House is that cotton should be declared absolute contraband. The other proposal is the one adopted by the Government and embodied in their Order in Council of the 11th March, the effect of which is to prohibit all trade with Germany.

I think there is a little misapprehension about the effect of the declaration of cotton as contraband. If you declare cotton to be contraband, that does not give you a right to arrest cotton going anywhere; it only gives you a right to arrest cotton if you have a real reason to suppose it is going to the enemy. For a long time now it has been established that until the ultimate destination is manifested you can arrest contraband at any part of its voyage—that is to say, if you find cotton going to a neutral country, and have reason to suppose that it is afterwards to be transferred to an enemy country, you can take it on its way to the neutral country. That is equally true of a blockade or of the Order in Council. Any article which there is reasonable ground to believe is really going to an enemy destination can be arrested on the seas and brought in, even though its immediate destination may be that of a neutral country.

There is no distinction—I want to make that as clear as I can—in the procedure and method of arrest, whether you declare the article contraband or whether you deal with it as the Government have dealt with it, by means of an Order in Council forbidding trading with the enemy. To declare cotton contraband would make no difference in your right and power to stop cotton on the seas or in any other way if it is going to a neutral country. The real difficulty arises in finding out what is the ultimate destination of the goods, whether they are contraband or the trade is carried on under the Order in Council. The same difficulty arises in both cases. That is the difficulty the Government have to face, and it is a very considerable difficulty. Obviously it would not be right to arrest cotton, or anything else, which was going to be dealt with and consumed in a neutral country. That would be wrong. It would cause great difficulty to this country, would be unfair to neutrals, and in itself indefensible from any point of view.

The real thing is to devise some test. That is not a simple matter. My right hon. Friend has pointed out one criterion that would apply; that is that a larger quantity than usual of a particular article is being imported into a neutral country. My right hon. Friend will see immediately that that is not quite conclusive, because the neutral consumer might justly say that to some extent he is cut off altogether from the countries with which he used to deal in time of peace. The neutral country may say, Our imports have necessarily been bigger than they would have been in time of peace. I do not wish to go further—I have no authority to go further—than to say that the matter is treated with the utmost seriousness by the Government. They believe that their system, when properly and effectively applied, as they have reason to think it is being now, will prevent the import of cotton into the enemy country; and they do not believe that the declaration of cotton as contraband in this respect would be of any assistance, taking all the circumstances of the case into consideration. They are determined to carry out what is the object of all parties in this House—to put the utmost pressure on our enemy, by commercial, as well as by strictly military measures, in order to bring the War to the earliest possible conclusion.


We are obliged to the Noble Lord for his very interesting exposition as to the meaning of "contraband," but the right hon. Gentleman opposite who put the question to him did not want to know the exact meaning and effect of the word "contraband." What the right hon. Gentleman wanted to know was whether the Government did or did not mean to do certain things. My Noble Friend opposite will agree that on many occasions, in company with some of us on this side of the House, he has objected to the appointment of a Committee. What I understand the right hon. Gentleman opposite to suggest, and what I am perfectly well prepared to do, is, if the Government have made up their minds, to leave the whole question in their hands. If they have not made up their minds as to what they are going to do on this question, I hope they will do so quickly. Let them appoint one man to do the work. If they appoint a Committee the Members will discuss the matter, the Chairman will speak, and then the Committee will adjourn to consider what will be done.


Is the hon. Baronet speaking from the experience of his own Committee?


Mine is the exception that proves the rule, but I think many matters would be better carried out by a single man than by a Committee.


The real danger is concerned with the consignee. The danger, let me assure hon. Members, in these Scandinavian countries is with the merchant and the dealer who buy the goods. Notwithstanding all the affidavits they make, they know you cannot get at them. Stop authorising any goods to be sent to the merchant who deals in these goods. Ask him who is the purchaser. If it is a corporation or any other consumer, let that consumer be the consignee in the bill of lading.


The Noble Lord has made an interesting speech, but I agree for once with the hon. Baronet above the Gangway (Sir F. Banbury) in thinking that what the House wants to know is what is the policy of the Government? That is the real question. It is-common knowledge that more cotton goes to Germany than ought to go there. It is common knowledge, too, that more cotton goes to neutral countries than used to go before the War. I submit to the Noble Lord and to the right hon. Gentleman on his right (Captain Pretyman) that the real policy of the Government should be this: to find out how much cotton went to Germany from particular neutral countries, for the twelve months before the War; or to find out, if you like, how much cotton went into the neutral countries, leaving Germany alone. Let it be so much. There may be, and there probably was, cotton going into Germany from other countries. Give a liberal allowance in respect of cotton from all directions going into neutral countries. Let that be the standard and let us stick to it. Add 10 per cent., if you like, to the amount I have suggested, and let that be the quantity the Government will allow to go to any particular neutral country. The moment that quantity is reached let the Government stop all cotton going. Do not let them put their trust in any consignee. You may have a consignee guarantee by this, that, or the other person, but you do not know what becomes of the cotton after it goes into the neutral country. Nobody can tell. I would like the Government to say clearly, once the pre-war limit is reached, "That is the standard, and that standard must not be exceeded during the twelve months of the War." If they arrive at some policy like that I really think that the House of Commons and the country generally will have much more confidence. I do not understand quite what is meant by an Executive Committee. An Executive Committee, as I understand it, has to carry out the decisions of somebody else. Who is that somebody else? Is it the Cabinet or the Government as a whole?




Very well, if it is the decision of the Government as a whole, I am bound to say that I am more than ever with the hon. Baronet. Why do we want an Executive Committee?


When I referred to the Executive Committee I was merely dealing with the War Trade Department as a whole. We have three Committees acting merely for the granting of licences. There are three because you cannot concentrate in one individual all the experience required to enable the Committee's functions to be performed in deciding whether licences should or should not be granted. The Committee I referred to is shortly to be appointed to deal merely with the question of issuing licences, and to deal with the applications on their merits.


The right hon. Gentleman says there is some difficulty in concentrating wisdom in one man than in many, but it might be easier to dissipate the wisdom of one man in many. What, however, I want to say is this: let us have some principle. The Government ought, I submit, to come to a decision and say, as regards this or that netral country, we know how much cotton you received before the War, we shall allow so much for the first twelve months of the War. Let the Government stick to such a decision and allow no certificate or exemption to alter it. Nothing short of that will be satisfactory to the House or to the country.


I desire to thank the Noble Lord for the statement he has been good enough to make. I cannot pretend that I am satisfied with the length to which he went. I recognise that obviously this must be a Cabinet matter, and possibly he has not had an opportunity of putting the matter before the Cabinet. But I do hope he will use his influence at the Foreign Office, and bring it to bear upon the Government to deal with this most vital matter. The facts are not in dispute. We have for ten months been supplying the essential things for making ammunition by the enemy. Without our assistance, the whole war, I believe, would have been in a different position to-day. After ten months of war it is not too early to ask that we should have a decision from the new Government as to what their policy is in regard to cotton. I fully understand what the Committee intends to do. Like the other Committees, it is to consider the individual applications for getting cotton. The Committee will consider and give a decision upon the consignee, but they have no further dealing with the cotton. I pointed this out before. In my opinion this importation ought to be absolutely prohibited—and that is the whole point!


made some remarks inaudible in the Reporters' Gallery.


I did not say prohibited to all neutral countries, but prohibited to Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands.




Altogether, and I will tell the right hon. Gentleman why. Take two of the months of last year before the War, March and August. There were 9,917 centals went into Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands. For the corresponding two months of this year the number was 273,427. Who is responsible for that? That is my point. The question is that these countries are getting thirty times more cotton to-day, with our approval, than they were before the War. I do hope that something is going to be done definitely and completely with regard to this matter. It is much too serious, I think, to delay any longer. I do hope that at a very early date the Government will acknowledge what I am sure is the sense of the House in this matter, and what I am certain is the feeling of the country outside, that this has been allowed to drift far too long. There is too much at stake. The case is complete and unanswerable, and it should be dealt with vigorously and at once.


The suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman opposite seems to me to amount to this, that we ought to say to neutral countries, "You only took so much cotton before the War, and now we will interfere with your trade by saying you shall not take any more now." I understand the suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kirkcaldy is that we should say to those countries, "You shall have none." It would be a very beneficial thing for this country if we could do that, but it seems to wander away from anything that could be done by the Bill now before us. If the representative of the Foreign Office can persuade foreign countries to facilitate the ascertainment of the quantity they really want for their own purposes, and to forbid any more to be imported, it would be a good thing, but I fear it is not possible to adopt the rather high-handed, although very desirable, suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kirkcaldy.


I cannot help feeling that the hon. Baronet has put his finger on what is very dangerous counsel. This matter does not refer to cotton only. Powers are taken by this measure not merely to include things we now know are helpful to our enemies in their prosecution of the War against us, but the Bill takes power, as I understand it, to add to our present known list any articles which may hereafter appear to make for their greater efficiency as a fighting power. If, therefore, those powers are taken, it leads me to admit the wisdom of the Government in asking that a Committee shall be established to carry this out, and that it shall not be left, in spite of the wish of the hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury), in one person's hands—not even his own, able as they are. If it were one article, there might be some thing in the argument; but, seeing you may have a hundred different articles, with the considerations arising out of the infinite complexity of the various means by which they may be used, transferred, handled and all the rest of it, to put the organisation of the whole of that matter into one hand, or even two hands, seems to me to be counselling the Government to go in the direction of a certain break down. On the whole, I think, with the safeguards in the Bill we can safely leave the matter to the provisions laid down by the Government. We cannot afford at this time of day to start on a line which will bring us into violent opposition with, and rouse the anger of, the large neutral countries to which reference has been made. America alone is enormously interested in one of the articles spoken of to-day, and I have no doubt, if we were able to know what has passed in the counsels of the Government within the last ten months, during which the right hon. Baronet the Member for Kirkcaldy has been, as he said, a voice crying in the wilderness—


I never said that.


That has been the right hon. Baronet's constant complaint. We may depend upon it the Government has seen the difficulty and appreciated it, but have not for obvious reasons, been able to disclose it. Having gone so far, I wish them God speed with it.


I have listened with pleasure to the speech of the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down. I venture, to think he is right. The urgency of this question is undoubted. There is no one in the House or country who is not anxious to stop the exportation of cotton to Germany if that object can be accomplished without creating greater harm, perhaps, in other ways. Our position is this: We have now got a Government composed of Members of all sides of the House of Commons. They have before them all the information in the world that can be obtained upon this question. We have not. Are we to be guided by their deliberate decision, or are we to be guided by the advice of men, many of whom are not in possession of all the information that is necessary for forming a deliberate judgment on this question? That, I think, is the position in which we are placed at this moment. The right hon. Gentleman appealed to me just now to express an opinion. My deliberate opinion is that in the position in which we find ourselves placed, our best and our wisest course, and, I believe, our duty, is to trust in the decision, that has been come to by His Majesty's Government.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill reported without Amendment; read the third time, and passed.