HL Deb 05 July 1922 vol 51 cc252-8

LORD PARMOOR rose to call attention to a claim made to the Department for the administration of Austrian property by a lady who has acquired Czecho-Slovak nationality; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, my Question draws attention to a case of what appears to me to be a particular hardship. I have supplied to the representatives of the Government and the Board of Trade the information which induces me to bring the matter before your Lordships, so that I can deal with the facts shortly as I know that they have all the information which I have myself. I hope that, having that information, they will be able to offer some prospect of a remedy in this case.

Before I come to this special instance I should like to refer to the general question in connection with the Interim Report of Lord Justice Younger's Committee, and that not for the sake of raising any matter of controversy; indeed, for the purpose of avoiding it. My aim is to show that in the operation of Article 297 of the Peace Treaty (the Article with which we are dealing in this case) admittedly great hardships do arise. I should like to quote a passage in the Report which puts what I want to say in a very convenient form:— The result— that is, the result of the conditions as they are— reflected in the recent discussion in the House of Lords—has been a growing suspicion and dislike of these clauses in their actual operation, accentuated by the fact, which now seems certain, that in the final result they will operate with the greatest degree of harshness in the cases in which it would be either the desire or to the interest of this country that they should not operate at all. I think that when I have stated the facts of the present case your Lordships will see that this is an instance where the present provision operates "with the greatest degree of harshness" when "it would be either the desire or to the interest" of all fair-minded people that the particular Article should not operate at all.

As this is a matter connected with Austria there is one further quotation I should like to make. The Report states generally that the Article of the Treaty has not been so effective as to make forthcoming the compensation which the Government of enemy nationals has agreed to make them, and it points out subsequently that in the only case where there has been any compensation—namely, in the case of Germany—it has been quite fractional in amount. Then, Lord Justice Younger goes on to make this statement about Austria, which is important having regard to the present case: That this should have been the Austrian experience might perhaps have been anticipated. The Austrian Government has probably never been in a position to make immediate or any compensation to anybody. That means, at any rate in the case of Austrian nationals who have been deprived of their property, that it really has been what we call confiscation. I do not rely particularly on the terms because any question of obtaining a remedy as against the Austrian Government is wholly impossible. That, of course, is due to the bankrupt condition of Austria and the Austrian Government.

The Report also says (and this includes the German case, which is better to a certain extent than the Austrian) That only a fraction of the total amount credited on the account of any national is received by him is not doubtful. That is to say, in the best cases, in the cases which act most fairly, there is only a fraction of the total amount credited, and in all other cases there is an absolute total loss. Perhaps it is no wonder that the Committee say— This state of things, although this country is in no way directly responsible for it, is highly injurious to its international financial reputation. One understands that. When one is dealing with matters of this kind one really looks to what has been done, rather than to the hopes held out, or to the paper safeguards, which, indeed, have been found to be of no value at all.

That being how the matter operates, particularly as regards an Austrian subject, I will proceed to read a letter written to me. I will leave out names except that of the actual claimant, because it is better to do so in cases of this sort. The writer says:— Some time ago it was stated by someone who called on me"— and I am sure this authority is entitled to all respect— that an old governess, who had been for many years in a family, named Fräulein Antonie Kurz, held 50 United Steel common shares, dated December 13, 1906, which represented practically the total savings of her lifetime. I may explain that the Question I am now asking arises in connection with the claim of this old governess no these fifty shares.

Then, my informant says— From the papers which have been forwarded to me and which I enclose for your information it seems clear that the request of Fräulein Kurz for the return of these steel shares, which were sequestrated, was refused on the ground that her application was not received in time, and could, therefore, not be considered. I shall have to trouble your Lordships later on the question of the terms of the Treaty, because I think the reference in the letter is to an Article which does not affect the present case at all. That may be a matter of misunderstanding. The letter goes on— It is unnecessary to point out that it was not likely that an old governess would receive information as to the time within which her application for restitution of the property should be sent in, and it is certainly exceedingly hard that an old lady who, moreover, appears to be of Czechoslovak nationality"— that is, the nationality of a friendly alien— should be deprived of her only means of support on account of an error of this kind. Therefore, the only allegation was that she had not made her claim in time, and I think the answer made in this letter is very just, for a poor elderly governess somewhere in Central Europe is not likely to hear much of rules and regulations of this character.

The next letter I want to call attention to is one referring to her claim. Her claim, made by an agent in her behalf in this country, included certificates of her nationality that she was a Czecho-Slovak and a statement of account as regards the actual shares which she was claiming. That, of course, was merely a document identifying the shares and saying when she purchased them. This is the last letter and it was written from the Department for the Administration of Austrian Property:— With reference to your letter dated 23rd ultimo addressed to the Public Trustee, which has been passed to this Department for reply, I am directed by the Administrator of Austrian Property to inform you that if, as is understood to be the case, Miss Kurz was formerly of Austrian nationality under the Treaty of St. Germain-en-Laye, her application is now out of date and cannot be considered. I will mention in passing that she did not make her claim for nationality under the Treaty. She thought that, so far as her nationality was concerned, it was dependent on the two certificates which she produced and which had not been questioned.

The letter continues— All such applications should have been submitted within six months of the publication of the Treaty, in accordance with Article 249 (b), and as no notification within the prescribed time on Miss Kurz's behalf can be traced in this Department, it appears that the securities to which you refer must remain at the disposal of the Administrator. May I pause there to summarise the position. A poor governess, of friendly alien nationality, and dependent on this very small sum—that is the position—makes her claim. I do not think there is any term in the Treaty which in any way makes it possible for this country to take the property of a friendly alien of Czecho-Slovakian nationality, nor is that alleged. The only allegation is that the application was made out of time. That is very natural; but it does not give us any claim, as I understand it, to take for any purpose whatever the property of a friendly alien. I cannot understand how a principle of that kind can be maintained.

The head of the Department concerned refers to Article 249 (b) of the Austrian Treaty, which certainly has no application to this case, and, perhaps, I may tell your Lordships why I say that. I do not say it for any controversial purpose, because I hope that the Government will meet a claim of this kind in a friendly spirit. Still, the matter stands in this way, that if, under Article 70 of the St. Germain Treaty or under one of certain later Articles, of which those from 72 to 76 are the most important, you wish to make a claim as regards your nationality—that is to say, you claim to be a Czecho-Slovak, whereas in old days all Czecho-Slovaks were nationals of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy—you should make it within a given time. There is no order that you should, but it says that if you make it within a given time you will not be considered as an Austrian national. In other words, if within the time mentioned in the Treaty you make it clear, you cannot for any purpose after that be considered as an Austrian national. That is the whole purpose of the Article; but it does not say, on the other hand, that a Czecho-Slovak lady is in any way to be prejudiced in that her property may be taken under a misapprehension, if you like to call it so. There is nothing in that Article which says that unless the claim is made within a certain time Czecho-Slovak property can be taken under the Treaty. That is a very important matter, and is also in accordance with good sense and justice.

As I said, I do not want to be controversial, and I think that the Department has made a mistake. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Gorell, who has had the matter in hand and knows the circumstances, will be able to give such an answer that harshness and injustice shall not be done in a case of this kind, and I am sure there is ample opportunity and ample power for the Government to allow this poor lady to have her small savings. I beg to ask the Question which stands in my name, and to move for Papers.


My Lords, I must thank the noble and learned Lord for having given the Government very exact particulars of the claim to which he has drawn attention. From the Question on the Paper it was a little bit difficult to follow what he had in mind, but he has been good enough to inform the Department responsible, so that I am able to give him an answer which I hope he will consider satisfactory. The noble and learned Lord began his speech by a more general reference to the question of ex-enemy property. He will forgive me if, after the several debates we have had in your Lordships' House, I do not follow him into his remarks on Article 297 of the Treaty, which is not really in question in this particular case. With reference to his more general remarks, I can only emphasise that, throughout, the Government has expressed itself anxious to mitigate in every possible way, in so far as it could do so without interfering with the rights of British nationals, the hardships to which the noble and learned Lord drew attention and the anomalies which have been pointed out in Lord Justice Younger's Report.

This particular case seems to arise, under Article 249 (b) of the Treaty with Austria. The noble and learned Lord pointed out that it was quite possible that a mistake had arisen. I need not go into that in any great detail for reasons which I can give in a moment, but under that Article it is laid down that any one who shows, within six months of July 16, 1920, that he has acquired the nationality of an Allied or Associated Power will not have his property subjected to the Articles which the noble Lord has described as confiscating Articles. It is true that it does not say that those who do not show that come under the limitations of time. At the same time, I think most of your Lordships will agree that there must be some limitation of time in order to enable this process of a clearing house system to be conducted at all. And I must remind your Lordships that, owing to the delay in the ratification of the Treaty, the time specified—namely, July 16, 1920—was extended, and the close time, so to speak, did not begin until the beginning of 1921. Further, I should say that the Government, recognising that it might be difficult for people, especially those resident abroad, to fill in all the particulars within that given time, have relaxed their requirements and have not insisted that full proof of nationality should be made within that time, but only that the application should be lodged together with particulars of the property.

In this particular case, the lady referred to by the noble Lord applied in September, 1921—that is to say, seven months after the time specified—for the release of fifty United Steel common shares, on the ground that she had acquired Czecho-Slovakian nationality. It is true that in the first instance, as the noble and learned Lord informed your Lordships, she received the answer that her application was too late. It might have been possible to go into the argument that, as she was a Czecho-slovak, at no time was her property subject and, therefore, the provision could not have applied to her. But I do not think it is necessary to go into that because, in view of the further details with which the noble Lord has supplied the Government, a decision has been reached, and the Administrator of Austrian property will release the property in question provided that the lady will produce evidence, first, identifying the shares as her own property, and, secondly, proving that she has acquired Czecho-Slovakian nationality. I rather understood from the noble and learned Lord that she had already produced evidence in both particulars, in which case the whole matter will, I hope, be cleared up satisfactorily.


My Lords, I am very much obliged to the noble Lord for the answer he has given. I am sure that the evidence of those two factors can be supplied, and I need hardly say that I ask leave to withdraw my Motion, having regard to the answer the noble Lord has given.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.