HL Deb 17 February 1891 vol 350 cc817-22

in rising to ask the Secretary of State for the Colonies when it is proposed to lay upon the Table of the House Papers relating to the fishery question in Newfoundland, said: I must apologise to your Lordships for intruding so much upon the golden silence which generally pervades this House, but I think this matter (which I will allude to very briefly) is of some importance. I will not for a moment go into the general question, more than a century old, of the difficulties with regard to French fishery rights in Newfoundland, and I will not touch upon the fascinating theme of the modus vivendi, or even indulge in a few remarks upon interesting questions in Natural History as to whether lobsters are fish or birds or wild beasts, or anything of that kind. Your Lordships will be aware that in Parliament, and I think throughout the country generally, or at any rate among those Members of Parliament and other individuals in the country who are aware of the existence of our Colonies, there has been considerable interest excited of late by accounts of a somewhat sensational character which have appeared in the newspapers. A great deal of excitement appears lately to have been raised in the Island of Newfoundland on the subject. I have seen extracts from the local papers, and from Canadian papers, stating, for instance, that it was proposed by Her Majesty's Government to cede absolutely to France a large portion of territory, a considerable peninsula in the Island of Newfoundland; and according to the newspapers the legislature in Newfoundland has quite recently passed Resolutions strongly condemning the whole action of Her Majesty's Government in refusing assent to a Bill to make operative certain provisions entered into by Newfoundland and the United States with the consent of Her Majesty's Government, and which were satisfying to Newfoundland. Those are matters important of themselves, and with which obviously great principles of local self-government and freedom are connected; and I think it would be well that some definite information upon the subject should be given—that Parliament and the nation should be put in the way of obtaining some information upon these points. If the noble Lord who represents the colonies can give information on these points, I shall be very glad. If on the other hand he considers it inadvisable, pending the production of Papers, to give information to the House, I can only say that I hope the correspondence upon this subject will be laid upon the Table of this House as soon as may be convenient. I would only add that in asking the question I wish to be clearly understood in saying that I should be the last man in the world to ask for any information the statement of which would be in the slightest degree premature, or that could in any way add the slightest difficulty to the very complicated matters, which have arisen out of this Newfoundland Fisheries question. If the Papers can be laid on the Table without any detriment to the public interest I trust that Her Majesty's Government will take the present opportunity of doing so.


My Lords, I am not surprised at the noble Earl's bringing this question before your Lordships. There can be no doubt of the importance of it. I think it hardly necessary to refute the rumours to which the noble Earl alluded with respect to Her Majesty's Government proposing cession of any part of the colony to France. I may inform him, in reply to his question, that Papers on the general questions affecting Newfoundland are in preparation, and will be laid on the Table, I hope, in a few days, in continuation of the Paper which was presented in June last with respect to these questions. I think the number was C, 6,044. As to the other point, the draft Convention between Newfoundland and the United States, I may also inform the noble Earl that we are preparing Papers to be laid before Parliament. But perhaps your Lordships will allow me to state that considerable misapprehension has arisen in Newfoundland as to the exact position of Her Majesty's Government with respect to that Convention, and that the misapprehension which prevails accounts for the Resolutions which I dare say your Lordships have seen in the newspapers, couched in very strong language and condemning Her Majesty's Government for having broken solemn engagements and obligations to sanction the convention. Let me say that there can be no breach of any solemn engagement or obligation, inasmuch as no such engagement or obligation has been entered into by Her Majesty's Government. I will explain to your Lordships how this misapprehension has arisen. There is no objection in principle to a separate negotiation between a foreign Power and an individual colony with the sanction of Her Majesty's Government. It may be quite possible in some cases to be able to secure to the colony the advantages, which it desires, by an arrangement without interfering prejudicially with the interests of other parts of the Empire which are not parties to that arrangement. But the mere fact of consent being given by Her Majesty's Government for the time being to a colony to negotiate a separate arrangement is always subject to a well-understood and well-recognised principle, condition, and reservation, that when draft terms have been settled between the Representative of the colony and a foreign State, then Her Majesty's Government must consider those terms, and see how far they affect other interests, British or Colonial—that is to say, the leave given to negotiate does not carry with it an obligation or an engagement to sanction the arrangement when made. Now, it was subject to this well-understood condition that Her Majesty's Government, at the request of the Newfoundland Government, readily assented to Mr. Bond, who was one of the colonial delegates here, and who is also one of the Government of Newfoundland, going to Washington. The visit was unofficial. Mr. Bond had no instructions from Her Majesty's Government, but it was made for the purpose of communicating with Her Majesty's Minister at Washington to see what terms and what arrangement could be entered into which would be acceptable to the United States as well as to the colony. Certain terms were agreed upon and drafted, and then, as I have pointed out, it became the duty of Her Majesty's Government to consider those terms, and to see how far, if at all, they conflicted with the interests of other British colonies. Accordingly, the Government communicated with Canada, and the Dominion Government very strongly protested against that Convention being concluded. I will not now dwell upon the nature of that protest, or on the reasons which the Dominion Government advanced, because they will be found in the Papers which we shall very soon present to Parliament. But Her Majesty's Government, after full consideration, have arrived at the decision that the Convention, as to the feasibility of which Mr. Bond was permitted to consult informally with Her Majesty's Minister at Washington, cannot at the present time be concluded. In arriving at this decision Her Majesty's Government have broken no engagement or obligation; and I trust I have satisfied your Lordships on this point, and made it clear that it is a misapprehension as to the position of Her Majesty's Government that has brought down these very strong Resolutions of the Newfoundland Legislature condemning Her Majesty's Government.


I should like to ask the noble Lord the Secretary for the Colonies whether the Correspondence with regard to this Convention is to be included in the Papers to be laid before us, because it would, of course, be very wrong and indeed impossible to form a judgment upon the matter without knowing precisely what form the negotiations took. I quite comprehend the position laid down by the noble Lord—namely, that all these agreements must be subject to the sanction and approval of Her Majesty's Government. At the same time, I am sure the noble Lord will agree with me that in order to prevent friction in negotiations which must always be very delicate in their nature, it is desirable to ascertain as far as possible beforehand, whether it is likely that the Convention which may be proposed is one which could be sanctioned. Of course points may arise afterwards which could not be anticipated or considered at first, but in these cases there is always very great danger of the colony, if they find that Government ultimately disapproves of what has been done, being very dissatisfied, and saying that it ought to be assented to. I quite agree with the principle which the noble Lord lays down, that Government could not beforehand pledge itself to accept any terms which may be arrived at in such circumstances; but I am sure the noble Lord will be of my opinion that it is necessary to avoid friction as far as possible. I entirely abstain from offering any opinion upon what has taken place except to regret that the Legislature of Newfoundland should have felt offended at what has occurred, but I shall be quite prepared to find that the noble Lord has done everything in the matter. My object in rising really was to ask the noble Lord whether those Papers can be included in those which will be presented to your Lordships.


I am afraid I did not quite make myself understood. I answered the Question put that the Papers on the general subject will be presented, and then also that the Papers relating to this Convention for which the noble Earl asks will be presented in a separate Paper. I fully recognise the importance of the remarks he has made, and I regret that there should have been any friction in this instance between ourselves and the colony, but I deny that we were in the wrong.

House adjourned at twenty minutes past Five o'clock, to Thursday next, a quarter past Ten o'clock.