HL Deb 27 June 1862 vol 167 cc1124-31

rose to call the attention of the House to a correspondence between the Board of Admiralty and the Treasury, &c., on the subject of Prize Money claimed by the army and navy for the capture of Kertch, &c. The noble Earl said, the circumstances of the capture were described in the original despatch of Sir Edmund Lyons, from which it appeared that a number of British ships and an equal number of French arrived before Kertch on the Queen's birthday, and landed a body of troops, while some light steamers aided them in their operations. The enemy, taken by surprise, blew up his fortifications, mounting fifty guns.] The expedition returned, after having succeeded in destroying three steamers and some heavily-armed vessels, besides large stores of provisions. By that operation the control of the Sea of Azof was obtained. Besides the property destroyed, other property was captured, including seventeen thousand tons of coal, and fifty guns, which latter were used before Sebastopol. The coals were worth a considerable sum, and they were used for the service of the fleet. In addition there were captured smelting works, a steam factory, a corn-mill, anchors, machinery, and metals of various kinds. The steam machinery was taken to Gibraltar by the advice of Sir John Hay, then a captain in the fleet, and it was still in use there. He was told that it was a common observation for soldiers and sailors to make when passing the dockyard, "That is what we have been robbed of." The Act of Parliament regulating the distribution of prize-money provided for a case of this nature. The officers, upon arriving in England, made their claims, but not until after considerable delay, which had been, occasioned by no fault of theirs. They were told that a grant of public money would be given, equal in value to the property taken; and that if such grant were not made, they could establish their rights in a Prize Court. The Correspondence to which he wished to direct their Lordships' attention showed that the reason why the officers had not succeeded in their claims was, that there was a difference of opinion between the Admiralty and the Treasury upon the subject. As the noble Duke at the head of the Admiralty was present, and as the President of the Council would, no doubt, defend the Treasury, their Lordships would be informed of the reasons which could be urged on either side. It was right to say that the Admiralty had done its best to induce the Treasury to grant a sum of money, and the conduct of the noble Duke had been thoroughly loyal towards the service. The opinion of the Admiralty was stated in a letter from Mr. Romaine, dated October 19th, 1861— My Lords consider that according to the custom of the service the captors are entitled to a grant of money for their services. The Treasury replied that they did not see that there were any grounds for a grant of public money; but that it was in the power of the captors, with the consent of the Admiralty, to go into court to make good their claim. The Admiralty, although in doubt whether, after such a length of time, the court would entertain the application, gave their sanction to it. Subsequently, however, the Queen's Advocate gave his opinion that it would be very inexpedient for the Government to interfere in the matter at all. Thus these gallant men were placed in a situation most repugnant to a sense of justice. He presumed, that as the amount of the claim was about equal to the estimated surplus in the Exchequer at the end of the financial year, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was afraid to grant the money, lest there should not be a shilling left. Matters were, anyhow, in a very unsatisfactory state, but some expression of opinion on the part of their Lordships might induce the Government to do that which would relieve the Admiralty from the dishonour which accrued from our officers and men being—to use a popular phrase— 'choused' out of their rights. He would therefore moveThat there be laid before this House, Copy of Correspondence between the Board of Admiralty and the Treasury Board and the Queen's Proctor, on the Subject of Prize Money claimed by the Army and Navy for the Capture of Kertch and Yenikale.


said, that he did not hear anything of this claim until about six years after the affair at Kertch—that was, he first heard of it in the summer of 1861, whilst the capture of Kertch occurred in 1855—and could not find that any previous application on the subject had been made to the Admiralty. Such being the ease, he was of opinion that there had been some neglect on the part of the captors; but when he looked into the matter, bearing in mind the Queen's Proclamation and the Act of Parliament, it seemed to him that they were fairly entitled to the prize. The Proclamation of the 1st July, 1854, declared that it was the intention of Her Majesty to assign the benefit of all prizes taken during the war to the captors, and the Act of Parliament, passed in the same year, gave effect to that announcement. It therefore appeared to him that the military and naval force employed in this operation was entitled to prize in some shape or other. The Queen's Advocate, whom he consulted on the subject, pointed out the great difficulties which would be created by allowing the captors to go into a Prize Court after such a lapse of time, as it would give rise to a great many other claims, and as the question might be complicated by claims which might he raised on the part of the French and Turkish Governments. Concurring in this opinion, he therefore thought it would be the best way to apply to the Treasury to make a grant of money in lieu of the prize. He represented the case as strongly as he could to the Treasury. But they took a different view of the subject—they did not think that there were sufficient grounds to justify them in proposing a grant in lieu of prize. He was not able to ascertain what were exactly the grounds of that decision. As it took place in November, 1861, it could not have been owing to that financial pressure at which his noble Friend hinted. It was due, no doubt, partly to that spirit of economy which it is the duty of the Treasury to enforce. As he had at his option only two courses, and not those three of which they sometimes heard, he resolved to allow the captors to take the matter before the Prize Court, so that any claim on the part of the captors might be fairly tried. Before doing so, however, he again communicated with the Treasury; but their reply was not very decided, and he therefore thought proceedings might go on such as he had indicated. After a short time the Queen's Proctor wrote to him, protesting against this step, stating that it would be a serious embarrassment to the Government to proceed with the matter. He had made some inquiries, and he believed the agents had put the value at the highest; but, without regard to the amount, he thought that in principle the officers had a right to have their claims fairly considered. He thought that the mode in which the Admiralty tried to meet their claims was fair, and he regretted that the course first proposed by the Admiralty had not been adopted. After the strong letter from the Treasury the Admiralty could not allow the matter to go into a Prize Court, a course to which there were, no doubt, many objections, and he imagined that the captors must now endeavour to induce the Government to reconsider the question, and propose a Vote out of the public funds.


said, he felt obliged to say that the case of these captors was extremely hard. They had been bandied about from department to department until they were dropped on the ground, and no helping hand was stretched out to lift them up again. There could be no dispute as to the rights of these persons, because those rights were founded upon an Act of Parliament, which was as plain as any language could be, and which declared that their title should accrue after final adjudication of articles seized as lawful prize to Her Majesty in the Court of Admiralty. These coals, stores, and other articles were taken possession of by Her Majesty's Government, and appropriated to the public service, and all the difficulty which had arisen since was owing to no previous condemnation having been made. The captors naturally supposed that the Government would compensate them by a grant of money equivalent to the value of the prize, and they therefore did not move for condemnation, and they did not bring their claim before the Admiralty until 1861. When the question was first stirred, the Queen's Proctor recommended no proceedings for adjudication, but a grant of money from the Government, because the stores had been used for the public service. The noble Duke (the Duke of Somerset) took a very just and fair view of the case; but having no power to give a grant of money, entered into correspondence with the Treasury, in which, with all respect to the noble Duke, the Admiralty did not get the better of the Treasury. The correspondence commenced on the 19th of October, 1861, when the Admiralty asked whether it was expedient to allow the captors to proceed to adjudication of these articles as prize, or whether the Treasury would grant such a sum as to them might seem fit? The Treasury replied that there did not seem to be sufficient grounds for interference to prevent proceedings in the Court of Admiralty. On the 14th of November the Admiralty asked whether the Treasury meant to express an opinion that proceedings for condemnation should be allowed to go forward. The Treasury, in answer, repeated almost word for word the previous letter, and expressed an opinion that there were not sufficient grounds to prevent the captors taking any proceedings which might be open to them. The Queen's Proctor then applied to the Admiralty to know whether he was to proceed to adjudication. The Admiralty sent the letter to the Treasury on the 27th of December, 1861, and on the 11th of March, 1862, the Treasury wrote that it was a question peculiarly for the decision of the Board of Admiralty. The Admiralty then gave authority to the Queen's Proctor to proceed; but, unfortunately, a formidable letter from the Queen's Advocate to the noble Duke, of the 29th of March, induced the noble Duke to alter the course which he originally intended to pursue. In a letter addressed to the Treasury on the 31st of March, 1862, the Admiralty said that, the applications for a grant of money having been refused, they did not consider themselves justified in withholding from the captors permission to take proceedings in a Prize Court; to which, on the 4th of April, the Treasury replied that the circumstance of their Lordships having refused such a grant did not warrant the proceedings commenced by the Queen's Proctor, and that the responsibility of allowing those proceedings to continue must rest with the Admiralty. The Board of Admiralty, however, were afraid of encountering this responsibility, and accordingly on the 10th of April they wrote to the Treasury, and said that before revoking the authority given to the Queen's Proctor, they would be glad to know whether the captors were to be informed that no grant would be made, and no proceedings allowed in the Admiralty Court. To this an answer was made that the Treasury felt that they ought not to be called on to decide upon an alternative course; that if the Admiralty had submitted the grant of a specific sum to the captors, it would have been the duty of the Treasury to consider and decide upon the proposal, but that they were not to be required to decide upon the adoption of one of two courses. Upon this he could not help thinking that the noble Duke had departed from the line of conduct which his own sense of justice had previously induced him to take. On receiving this last letter from the Treasury, the Admiralty declared that it had been decided that after so great a lapse of time no grant of public money could be recommended to Parliament, and further that on the ground of the capture having been a joint one by the army and navy, and having been made in conjunction with the French army and navy, they did not consider it expedient to allow steps to be taken in the Court of Admiralty with a view to condemnation. Now, adequate provision was made in the Act of Parliament for cases where there was a joint expedition of the army and navy, and where our forces were engaged with those of our allies; and therefore no possible difficulty could exist upon this score. The noble Duke had faithfully, zealously, and sincerely endeavoured to obtain from the Treasury that to which he thought the captors were fairly entitled—namely, the grant of a sum of money; but when he found there was no hope of obtaining justice from the Treasury, he must have known that the only other mode by which they could make good their claims was by an adjudication of prize in the Admiralty Court, because until adjudication the property in the prize was not vested in the captors. Therefore, in declaring that he would not allow the Queen's Proctor to proceed for condemnation, he shut both doors against the captors, and deprived them of that which was their unquestionable right. In his opinion the captors had a very strong claim, and he thought they had been very hardly used.


said, that nothing was so dangerous as to break faith with a body of men like our soldiers and sailors, and in this case they appeared to have been juggled out of prize money to which they were well entitled.


said, that considering the importance of the subject, it ought not to pass without some further explanation. This was the first occasion on which the fact had been brought before Parliament that those who were responsible for carrying on the Government of the country were divided upon a question of extreme importance; that they were not prepared to come to an agreement upon it; and that, leaving the matter unsettled, they were ready to consent to the production of a hostile correspondence between two great Departments, which correspond- ence showed that one Department thought Her Majesty's naval and military forces had been exposed to great injustice, while the other seemed to have determined that such injustice should not be redressed. Nothing of the same kind had ever taken place before, and he, for one, was utterly at a loss to understand how the Government could have permitted such a correspondence as that which had been quoted to night to be laid on the table of the other House, and how they could reconcile it to themselves not to come, as a Government, to a decision one way or the other upon so important a question.


said, this question had never been before the Cabinet at all. He was therefore not prepared to go into the merits of the case; but he must say, that as a general rule, especially at a time when there was a loud cry for economy from all sides, it was not much to be regretted that the Treasury should show a disposition not easily to admit claims which, after all, the persons who were most interested had refrained from making for a period of six years. The matter had not been made a Government question; but he expected to be able, when the noble Earl brought forward a more important Motion than the present, to state the course which the Government would pursue.


said, he was quite sure, whatever might be the feeling in that or in the other House of Parliament—whatever desire they might have for the observance of economy—and he was one of those who were deeply interested in the principle of the strictest economy—he felt quite certain that no one thought that that economy ought to be practised at the expense of justice and good faith. Here was the Board of Admiralty admitting in the most distinct manner that the present claim was one under the faith of an Act of Parliament and the Queen's Proclamation; that it was not a matter merely of right or favour, but of the strictest justice. Nevertheless, owing to the difference which had arisen between the Treasury and the Admiralty, it was rendered impossible for an important class of persons to obtain the compensation to which they were entitled by a grant from Parliament, or to be permitted to establish their legal rights in a court of law. The difference in question had already been productive of grievous injustice, and, if continued much longer, it could not fail to excite great dissatisfaction in the army and navy. He was astonished to hear that this question had never been submitted to the consideration of the Cabinet. It was not a theoretical question; it was one with which the Government ought to deal in its executive capacity; and when a difference arose between two members of the Government, a Cabinet was of no use at all if not as a final court of appeal, In the present instance grievous wrong had been done, and yet no Member of the Government had thought it worth his while to submit the question, upon which there was such a broad and important difference between the Admiralty and the Treasury, to the supreme authority of the Cabinet. A more discreditable mode of conducting public business it would be difficult to imagine, and he sincerely regretted that no satisfactory explanation had been offered to their Lordships on the part of the Government.

Motion agreed to.