HC Deb 07 May 1928 vol 217 cc25-8

asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies whether he is now in a position to make any statement in regard to the claim made against His Majesty's Government by the Basle Mission Trading Company and in the matter of the Commonwealth Trust, Limited?


For the convenience of the House and with Mr. Speaker's permission, I propose to make a statement on this subject at the end of Questions.

At end of Questions:


Can the right hon. Gentleman now make his statetment?


The Government nave for some time past given very careful consideration to the claim of the Basle Mission Trading Company, a Swiss concern, in respect of the sequestration of its properties and assets in the Gold Coast and in India during the War. These had been handed over without pay-merit to a British organisation, the Commonwealth Trust, the only compensation offered to the Swiss Company being part of the confiscated cash to the amount of £120,000, representing the original value of its shares, this action being based on the ground that the Basle Mission Trading Company was in the nature of a trust for philanthropic purposes and that the shareholders' case would be met if their actual capital was restored, and the rest of their assets devoted to similar purposes by another body. While not prepared to admit that their action in sequestrating the assets of the company was not justified by the circumstances of the time, the Government came to the conclusion that the compensation offered did not meet the equities of the case, and invited the representatives of the Basle Mission Trading Company to come over last year in order to see if an agreed settlement could not be arrived at.

I am glad to say that, as far as the Gold Coast is concerned, a settlement has now been arrived at on the basis of the reinstatement of the company into their properties, the repayment of the original share capital with accrued interest, and the further payment, from Colonial funds, of a lump sum of £250,000, this last in respect of the remaining cash and other liquid assets sequestrated and estimated by the company at £376,000 without allowing anything for interest or goodwill.

In negotiating for a settlement the Government attached the greatest importance to the maintenance of the philanthropic character of the trading company, which was the basis of our action in handing it over, impressed with a definite trust, to the Commonwealth Trust. The representatives of the company made it clear that they were not in fact a trust, and that the limitation on profits which they had set themselves was one which under their constitution could be, and in fact had been from time to time, altered by the shareholders. Eventually, however, they gave an undertaking that they will not deal in liquor or firearms, and that in the future, as in the past, they will adhere to their established practice of devoting a substantial portion of their distributable profits to missionary and other philanthropic purposes in all parts of the world, including the British Empire, through the medium of trustees, and that in the application of such proportion full regard will be paid to the needs of the Gold Coast Colony on a scale not less than has been followed in the past. This formal undertaking, which is an integral part of the agreement, will, I think, remove any objections which may have been felt to the reinstatement of the Basle Mission Trading Company into the properties and position from which they had been temporarily displaced. Throughout the difficult negotiations the directors of the company stated their case most reasonably and showed a genuine desire to assist, and I can say that, as far as the Colonial Office and the Government of the Gold Coast are concerned, the renewal of their old association with the Colony will be regarded with good will.

In order to reinstate the Basle Mission Trading Society into their properties it was necessary that the Commonwealth Trust should vacate them. The latter company were, of course, in no way responsible for the situation which had arisen, and if restitution of the properties to the Swiss company had resulted in the winding up and liquidation of the Commonwealth Trust, the Government would have felt bound to provide such amount as would have repaid, with arrears of interest, the capital of £50,000 odd contributed by the British shareholders, as well as pay such compensation as might be reasonable to deal with the considerable British staff, largely of ex-service men, who would have been displaced. Happily it has been found possible for the directors of the Commonwealth Trust to see their way, with the help of a payment of £55,000, to find alternative accommodation and continue their business, a decision which has since been confirmed by their shareholders. This solution is not only a reasonable one from the point of view of the Government, but it will prevent the 10 years' work of the Commonwealth Trust from being wasted, and will, I hope, enable it to earn such profits in future as will result in substantial benefactions to missionary and educational work in the Gold Coast.


With regard to the amount of profits to be diverted to charitable purposes, who is to decide what is a substantial proportion of profit; will it be possible to insert a more definite amount?


That point was naturally considered in the negotiations. As the company are not a trust, and have never been bound to any fixed figure, it would be impossible to secure their agreement to such a fixed figure, but I have every confidence that the undertaking which they have given will be honoured both in the spirit and in the letter. If it were obviously violated, the Government of the Gold Coast would have the means of dealing with the matter.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

Will the Treasury have to find any money in connection with this settlement?




In view of the many questions which have been asked in regard to the Trust in recent times, and the difficulty there has been to ascertain what money was passed over for charit- able funds, can the right hon. Gentleman say why no definite percentage is fixed at this time for this particular company to pay over to charitable funds?


I thought that made the position clear. The position is this, that we sequestered the property of a Swiss trading company which was under no trustee obligation to give its surpluses to philanthropic purposes. It has, however, as a matter of fact, consistently given its profits above a certain percentage, which I admit has varied from time to time, to those purposes, and, on being reinstated, it has definitely undertaken to do the same in future. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Trust is impressed with a definite trust, and is enabled to go on, and will pay all excess over 5 per cent. profit to missionary and other educational and philanthropic purposes in the Gold Coast.

Viscountess ASTOR

Will it be possible to ask the Basle concern to pay all over 5 per cent. profit?


That was one of the things which we raised in the negotiations, but they were not prepared to agree to any definite sum.