HC Deb 07 June 1935 vol 302 cc2266-76

3.29 p.m.


I would ask the House to leave the consideration of dangers from the air, and to be good enough to give me its indulgence for a few minutes to put before it what I consider to be a very serious injustice which has been suffered by one of my constituents, a Mr. Bucknall, by reason of the fact that the British Government have hitherto avoided the discharge of a debt of honour contracted with him by one of His Majesty's representatives abroad at a time of emergency, by pleading certain legal technicalities in avoidance. My constituent, Mr. Bucknall, had for many years prior to the War been a resident in Petrograd, where he carried on a large business as a dealer in precious stones. He was a gentleman of the highest reputation, well known to a series of British ambassadors and to the embassy staffs, as well as to leading citizens throughout Petrograd. When war broke out, his three sons at once joined the British Army, while his three daughters joined the Russian Red Cross and served during the War as sisters of mercy with the Russian army. Some Members of the House may have read that very wonderful book, "One Woman's Story," which was written by one of Mr. Bucknall's daughters, who served during the War and married a Russian doctor.

After the outbreak of the revolution in the Autumn of 1917, as the House knows, a very serious state of affairs arose in Russia, and in February, 1918, Sir George Buchanan, the British Ambassador, left the British Embassy in Petrograd for England, leaving the Embassy in charge of the British consul, Mr. A. W. Woodhouse. Early in April, 1918, Mr. Woodhouse told Mr. Bucknall that it was very risky for him to have large quantities of jewels connected with his business in his office, and suggested to him that it would be safer for him to deposit these jewels in one of the safes at the British Embassy. This offer Mr. Bucknall accepted and jewels to the value of some £57,000, and about £700 in cash, were placed in the Embassy in a bag stamped with the consul's name, "A. W. Woodhouse," with full particulars of the contents listed, and this bag was placed in one of the Embassy safes.

About July, 1918, Mr. Woodhouse found that he was getting short of money, as he was practically cut off from England, and large sums of money were then required at short notice for payments in connection with the Embassy, and he then asked Mr. Bucknall whether he would sell some of the jewels which were deposited at the Embassy and give him, Mr. Woodhouse, the cash obtained by that sale. Mr. Bucknall made some attempt to sell them, but, owing to the depreciation of the rouble at that time, he found it impossible, and he so informed Mr. Woodhouse. Mr. Woodhouse then asked Mr. Bucknall whether he would allow him to make use of the jewels themselves for the purposes of the British Government to meet some of the payments which they were expecting shortly to have to make. As I said before, hon. Members will remember that the rouble was then practically valueless and that a general form of currency in Russia at that time was silver and gold and jewels. To this request Mr. Bucknall agreed, and from that time he considered that his bag of jewels, which he had lent to Mr. Woodhouse, originally deposited for safe keeping but subsequently, at the Consul's request lent to him for the purposes of the British Government, were in every way at the disposal of the British Government. That this was also the opinion of Mr. Woodhouse is clear from a letter which he wrote to Mr. Bucknall on 26th November of last year, just after I had raised Mr. Bucknall's case by a question in the House of Commons. As the accuracy of my statement as to Mr. Bucknall's property was questioned in the House, immediately after questions were over on the 26th November, I asked Mr. Bucknall, who was in the Lobby, whether he would kindly show my statement to Mr. Woodhouse, who was then in England, and ask him whether or not it was consistent with the facts. This is the letter, dated the same day, 26th November, which Mr. Woodhouse, the British Consul at the time referred to, wrote to Mr. Bucknall. The House will forgive me reading it, because it is of vital importance and is first hand information: Dear Mr. Bucknall, Referring to Sir William Davison's questions to the Foreign Secretary in the House of Commons to-day, when he stated that at my request as British Consul in charge of the Embassy at Petrograd in 1918, you had placed at the disposal of the British Government the jewels at the Embassy which you had deposited with me for safe keeping, I have pleasure in again confirming the accuracy of Sir William Davison's statement — and this is the important part— I considered, from the moment when you had agreed to my request, that all your property deposited at the Embassy in a bag endorsed with my name as British Consul was the property for the time being of the British Government, and could be used at any time for such purposes as we, i.e., the Naval and Military officials and myself, thought necessary. Owing to the impossibility at that time of getting money from England, I intended to make use of your jewels to provide us with funds for certain emergent purposes which were then in our minds. The fact that your property had not actually been so utilised when the Embassy was raided and your property was stolen should not, I consider, make any difference to you, seeing that the use of the property was then in the hands of myself and my colleague. I may add that I am personally aware that had you not placed your property at our disposal you could have sent it out of Russia through diplomatic channels, as you did actually send other jewels belonging to yourself and your wife. With regard to the last paragraph, Mr. Bucknall did send out of the country other jewels he had at the time belonging to himself and wife, through diplomatic channels to England and they were safely delivered there. The House will remember that on the 31st August, 1918, the Embassy at Petrograd was raided by officials of the Soviet Government. Captain Cromie, the Naval Attaché, was shot on the staircase of the Embassy, the gold and silver plate belonging to the Embassy was removed, and the bag stamped with the name of the British Consul, Mr. A. W. Woodhouse, containing Mr. Bucknall's jewels was slit open and left in the Embassy, all the contents, the jewels and cash, being taken from it. Part of the Embassy plate, which was seen some time afterwards by one of the British officials on the table at an official banquet which was given to him and others at Petrograd, was subsequently returned. He saw the British plate with the British Royal arms upon it and that was restored, but the rest of the plate, of the value of some £12,000, has not yet been returned nor has any compensation respecting it been paid in spite of repeated demands from the British Government. The property has still not been restored nor has any of Mr. Bucknall's jewels or cash. The House may recall that I have on many occasions raised this question in the House, the most recent occasions being the 18th March last, the 13th May, and the 3rd June. So far no reply has been received to the numerous representations made by the British Government to the Soviet authorities in this matter.

To return to the case of Mr. Bucknall. The House may wonder what is the reason for the long delay in bringing Mr. Bucknall's case before it. The reason is that at the request of the Foreign Office Mr. Bucknall had registered his claim with the Foreign Claims Department against the Russian Government, and never imagined that the British Government would not demand full compensation from the Russian Soviet authorities for all the property stolen from the Embassy, including his jewels and cash, before the Soviet Government were recognised by the British Government. It was not until March, 1926, that Mr. Bucknall realised that the British Government were not going to demand compensation, and he then claimed that if the British Government were not going to obtain compensation for him he must look to the British Government itself to make good the loss of his jewels, which had been lent to His Majesty's representative at Moscow. This loan to the British Government is clearly admitted and stated by Mr. Woodhouse in his letter. Mr. Bucknall failed to get satisfaction, and he applied to the then Home Secretary, Sir W. Joynson-Hicks, to be allowed to bring a Petition of Right before the courts. Sir W. Joynson-Hicks consulted the then Attorney-General, the right hon. Member for Fareham (Sir T. Inskip) who is the Attorney-General to-day and they granted him permission to bring a petition of right.

There was a change of government and the new Attorney-General (Sir William Jowitt) looked into the facts of the case again. It must be remembered that at that time Mr. Bucknall had got all his witnesses, his case was going to come before a British jury in the. High Courts, it was ready for submission. Then there was this change of Government, and the new Attorney-General said that Mr. Bucknall had not got the proper formal fiat from the Attorney-General. Technically that was so. Although he had had the authority of the Home Secretary to bring his Petition of Right and although that authority had been given after consultation with the Attorney-General, he had omitted to get what is known as the fiat of the Attorney-General in addition. It was a technicality which was necessary. That point was taken by the then Attorney-General, who also took a second point, that Mr. Bucknall's claim could not be proceeded with as it was out of time owing to the provisions of the Indemnity Act, 1920, and he applied to the Court that Mr. Bucknall's case should not be heard before a jury but that it should go to a Judge on these two points of law only.

The court eventually held, after a long argument, that if the Crown pleaded the technical plea and the Indemnity Act, Mr. Bucknall could not proceed with his case before the jury, though what the Court of Appeal actually thought of the plea made by the Attorney-General can be gathered by one sentence in Lord Justice Scrutton's judgment. Referring to the action of the Attorney-General in prosecuting the appeal, he said: Possibly the Attorney-General takes the action he has done in order to put in a. somewhat more rosy light the general result of the proceedings. He does not seem very happy with regard to the view which the public might take with regard to the consent of the Attorney-General. In this way Mr. Bucknall was prevented from submitting his case and calling all the evidence he had ready before a jury of his fellow countrymen. There the matter stands. I cannot help thinking that Lord Justice Scrutton's surmise as to what the opinion of the British public with regard to the British Government pleading these two technical matters would be will be shared by the House of Commons. When I pressed the Foreign Office on this matter some time ago, Mr. Bucknall being one of my constituents, their somewhat evasive reply was that, even if Mr. Bucknall had lent his property to Mr. Woodhouse on behalf of the British Government, it had net actually been made use of when the robbery took place, and therefore the Government were not liable. I ventured to say, in reply to that, that if I were to see the Foreign Secretary in the Lobby here, and he told me that he was going to Geneva, and had left his watch at home, and therefore might be late at his appointments, and I said, "I will lend you my watch so that you will not be late for your appointments," and it was then found that the meeting had been postponed for ten days, and he locked my watch in his study drawer and it was burgled, and be said "I was not able to use your watch for the purpose for which you lent it to me, and therefore I am not liable, and you must try to catch the burglar"—that seems to be a fair parallel to the submission of the Foreign Office with regard to my constituent's case.

I have given a skeleton of the case. As I have said, there is no doubt whatever as to what the Court of Appeal thought of these technical submissions. I have much fuller quotations than those I have given which bear it out. I only say, in conclusion, that if the Government no longer rely on this technicality, it is necessary for them to allege that both Mr. Bucknall and Mr. Woodhouse, although men of untarnished reputation, have deliberately conspired together to attempt to obtain money by false pretences and by deliberate falsehood from the British Government—a suggestion so monstrous that I only mention it to dismiss it as incredible. Mr. Bucknall's Petition of Right, which I hold in my hand, is headed with these words: George R.I. Let right be done. This is the request which I submit to-day to the House of Commons. I trust that the last act of the present Government will be a legacy to their successors to see that "right be done" to my constituent, Mr. Bucknall.

3.46 p.m.


I can only speak again by leave of the House. I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government at all times are anxious that right should be done. In this case the question involved, which has been discussed from time immemorial is, what is right. I should like to recall to the House certain matters in this claim, now very long-standing, with reference to events which took place 18 years ago. On the 15th April, 1918, Mr. Bucknall, a British merchant in Petrograd, deposited some jewellery with Mr. Woodhouse, then His Majesty's Consul in that city. He deposited that property for safe custody in the Embassy safe in view of the disturbed conditions, a very natural thing to do. In July of the same year, Mr. Bucknall made a verbal arrangement with Mr. Woodhouse that he should try to sell such of the jewellery as he could and hand over to Mr. Woodhouse for Government use, any money realised over and above what he himself needed, as the ordinary channels for the transfer of money were blocked by the conditions that existed. This arrangement, however, never actually materialised as he found it impossible to raise more money than he himself required for current expenses.

Eventually, in November, 1918, the Embassy in Petrograd was raided by Bolshevik agents and property in the Embassy, including Mr. Bucknall's jewellery, was stolen. On the 18th December, 1918, Mr. Bucknall put in a formal statement for the value of the jewellery estimated, I think, at some £50,000, declaring merely that he had deposited it with the consent and approval of his Britannic Majesty's Consul at Petrograd for safe keeping in the safe of the Chancellery at his Britannic Majesty's Embassy. This claim was filed as one of the numerous British private claims against the Soviet Government, which that Government has so far refused to honour. In this respect this claim is one of a very large number totalling very large sums. In 1926, eight years after the filing of this claim, Mr. Bucknall presented to the Foreign Office a claim not against the Russian Government but against His Majesty's Government, alleging that the arrangement with Mr. Woodhouse implied that the jewellery had been lent to His Majesty's Government. He was then informed that His Majesty's Government could not admit responsibility for any loss that he had suffered any more than they could have done in any other circumstances where a similar practice had been followed. But in 1929 a Petition of Right was presented on his behalf. The whole case was then carefully reviewed by the Law Officers of the Crown, who came to the conclusion that it had no merit. The Petition of Right failed both in the Court of First Instance, and later in the Court of Appeal.


On the technical point.


I do not think that my hon. Friend disputes the accuracy of my statement. In 1931 Mr. Bucknall made an application to the then Attorney-General for an ex gratia payment in compensa-for his loss. The case was again carefully reviewed and Mr. Bucknall was informed that after this fresh consideration no payment could properly be made to him out of public funds. As my hon. Friend has stated, Mr. Bucknall has returned to the charge by putting forward in the course of correspondence with the Foreign Office two contentions, which I ask the House to note found no place in the original claim or complaints which were made 17 years ago. Seventeen years after the original claim these two new contentions are put in as follows: (1) That Mr. Bucknall could and would have sent his property out of Russia, but that there was an agreement with Mr. Woodhouse that the property should be handed over for Government use; (2) That at a date subsequent to this verbal arrangement with Mr. Woodhouse that the proceeds of the sale of the jewellery might, if necessary, be used for Government purposes, a further arrangement was made by which the jewels themselves were transferred to Mr. Woodhouse to be used as currency in kind.

Those are the two new contentions after 17 years had elapsed. The first assertion is based upon a letter from Mr. Woodhouse which my hon. Friend has quoted. It contains this statement: I am personally aware that had you not placed your property at our disposal you could have sent it out of Russia through diplomatic channels, as you actually did send other jewels belonging to yourself and your wife. In this connection I should remark that what Mr. Woodhouse thinks about the responsibility of the Government is quite beside the point so far as the responsibility of the Government itself is concerned. But this statement, if it means that the jewels would have been sent away, which I presume is what my hon. Friend means, is quite inconsistent with Mr. Bucknall's original formal statement of claim, which I quoted to the House a few moments ago and which related entirely to the deposit of the jewellery with the consent and approval of His Britannic Majesty's Consul at Petrograd for safe keeping in the safe of the Chancellery of the Embassy. And it is also inconsistent with Mr. Woodhouse's statement in his letter, of 9th March.

I put it to the House that there is in fact no evidence to show that Mr. Bucknall, who certainly had no intention of taking the jewels out of Russia when he originally deposited them for safe custody, afterwards changed his mind and would have attempted to smuggle them out of Russia but for the arrangement with Mr. Woodhouse. He never before made any such assertion, which I claim is inconsistent with his own previous statements and his own original claim upon the Russian and not upon the British Government. The alleged attempt to use the jewels as currency is also unsupported by evidence. Even if there were such an agreement it was of a conditional nature, as an agreement to utilise the proceeds of the sale of the jewellery, and it was never carried out. No money and no jewellery was, in fact, ever lent to Mr. Woodhouse for official purposes. The jewellery remained in the Embassy safe as Mr. Bucknall's property, in a bag of which he retained the key throughout, and for such property it would be quite impossible for His Majesty's Government to assume responsibility at any time, anywhere. The Government's responsibility has never been involved in this case. The Law Officers have upheld that decision, and though I fully understand my hon. Friend's anxiety that we should make a departure in this case, I think the House will appreciate, after all these years and after the full account I have given, that it would be quite impossible for us to do so if we are to maintain the position which, in justice and equity, we have done in all similar cases of this kind throughout history.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Six Minutes before Four o'clock, until Monday, 17th June, pursuant to the Resolution of the House this day.