HL Deb 22 June 1922 vol 50 cc1126-40

LORD HARRIS had given Notice to ask His Majesty's Government—

  1. 1. Whether the grounds on which Sir Joseph Benjamin Robinson of Wynberg was recommended to His Majesty for the grant of a Peerage were National and Imperial services in connection with his chairmanship of the Robinson South African Banking Company, Limited;
  2. 2. Whether that company was liquidated in 1905; and, if so,
  3. 3. What were the services rendered to the Nation and the Empire by that company and by Sir Joseph Robinson up to or since that date?

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I can assure your Lordships that it was only after very much hesitation, and after consultation with several noble Lords of long experience in this House, that I made up my mind to place on the Paper the Question which stands in my name. I am well aware that in another place questions of this character have been ruled out of order. Your Lordships have never delegated your powers as regards keeping order, and it is in the power of any noble Lord, before I proceed further, to move that I be not heard. If that Motion is carried if shall bow to it, as I am sure all your Lordships would, with great respect, but with great regret that I had misconstrued your Lordships' feelings in a matter of this kind.

I recognise, of course, that these Questions are extraordinary and unusual; but the circumstances connected with this particular case are so extraordinary that I conscientiously felt it my duty to bring the matter before your Lordships and the public. Some of your Lordships will remember, no doubt, that in 1917 the subject of the recommendations for honours was discussed at great length on two, if not three, occasions. On the last occasion, which was in October, 1917, this House adopted certain Resolutions which were accepted by His Majesty's Government. The noble Marquess, Lord Curzon, was then leading the House, and I think it can be justly inferred from the expressions he used that he accepted these Resolutions on behalf of the Prime Minister. The first Resolution provides—there were certain exceptions as regards the Royal Family and others— That a definite public statement of the reasons for which the honour has been recommended to the Crown shall accompany the recommendation of the grant. That is the Resolution with which I am concerned to-day.

There was a second Resolution passed in these terms— That the Prime Minister before recommending any person for any such honour or dignity should satisfy himself that no payment or expectation of payment to any Party or political fund is directly or indirectly associated with the grant or promise of such honour or dignity. With that second Resolution I am not concerning myself to-night. I accept without hesitation the view that in recommending any one to the Sovereign the Prime Minister unquestionably satisfies himself that the provisions of that second Resolution have been complied with.

The first Resolution provides that a definite description shall be given of the ground on which the honour is granted, and in the debate a somewhat discursive conversation took place as to where such declaration was to be made. In the course of the debate Lord Curzon indicated, I think pretty clearly, that the proper place to look for it was the London Gazette, and therefore I have referred to the Gazette. I find, under the beading "Peerages": Sir Joseph Robinson, Chairman of the Robinson South African Banking Corporation. Then there comes a full stop, and following that is: National and Imperial services. As my Question indicates, the Robinson South African Banking Corporation was liquidated in 1905. I submit to your Lordships that laymen reading that Gazette could come to no other conclusion than that the fact of Sir Joseph Robinson being Chairman of the South African Banking Corporation had to do with his recommendation for a Peerage. But there is no such institution. Surely, that is an in- correct description, and Lord Curzon undertook, on behalf of the Prime Minister, that the description should be a correct description. It seems to me to be inevitable that the Prime Minister has not been correctly advised, and that, of course, this incorrect advice has been passed on to the Sovereign.


Hear, hear.


There is this additional perplexity. In 1908, Mr. Robinson, as he then was, was made a baronet. That was three years after the liquidation of the bank, perhaps not such a very long time, but one would come to the conclusion that whatever services Mr. Robinson had rendered as chairman of the Bank, and whether those services were national and Imperial, had been recognised by the grant of a baronetcy in 1908. But evidently they were not sufficiently so, or Sir Joseph Robinson, as he became in 1908, has rendered national service to the nation and the Empire between that date and this. I think I can honestly say that no one who knows Sir Joseph Robinson either in the Cape or in this country knows what those services are. I ask my noble friend that they should be described. That was the undertaking on behalf of the Prime Minister—that a definite description should be given of what those services were.

I am very loath, because it is really very disagreeable to me, to enter into any personal question in this matter, and until a few days ago I was only going to deal with the general view to which I have kept up to this moment. But certain information then came to me, and I again consulted my friends, and they assured me that I had no right to keep it back. It is, as a matter of fact, public property, and, therefore, I have the less disinclination to refer to it. During last year, and perhaps preceding last year, Sir Joseph Robinson was concerned in certain cases in the Courts in South Africa. The allegation I believe is contained in the judgment of the High Court. In 1906 Robinson was the chairman of the Randfontein Estates Company, in which capacity he dictated and controlled the policy and operations of the undertaking. There were other directors, but these—and these words are in the judgment—"were completely under his thumb."

In the year mentioned it became Robinson's duty to acquire for the company the freehold of certain mining properties. His method of performing this duty was to purchase the freehold for himself, and then to re-sell it to the company at an enormously higher price. He concealed from the shareholders the fact that he had made this illicit profit by means of a certain company promotion which the. Court described as a "device to camouflage the transaction."

In 1915 S. B. Joel purchased from Robinson all the latter's interests in the Randfontein Estates and thereafter discovered what bad transpired in 1906. Thereupon the Randfontein Estates sued Robinson. Under judgment by the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of South Africa, Robinson has been condemned to pay a sum, including costs, of over £500,000. In giving judgment the Chief Justice declared that—and here I quote the words of the Chief Justice—"It is wholly inconsistent with the obligation of good faith." I would emphasise to your Lordships the words "inconsistent with the obligation of good faith." Surely, if that means anything, it means faithless. The Chief Justice's words are: It is wholly inconsistent with the obligation of good faith that the defendant should have made for himself these profits by the method which the evidence discloses. The method is the one I have already read to your Lordships—"A device to camouflage the transaction." These are facts, and surely these facts were not before the Prime Minister when he recommended Sir Joseph Robinson for distinction at His Majesty's hands. Surely the Prime Minister must have been misled, and consequently His Majesty was misled.


Hear, hear.


I think I had better state here that in consequence of that judgment Robinson has been described in the public Press in this country as a fraudulent trustee. I should have thought that anyone would prefer to clear his name of such an imputation before taking those steps which are necessary to obtain introduction to your Lordships' House. Robinson petitioned the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council for leave to appeal. His petition was considered in November, 1921, and was dismissed. The Judicial Committee found that Robinson had failed to show any prima facie reason why the judgments of the South African Courts should he upset. Therefore, the judgment of the Chief Justice of the Union, which I have read to your Lordships, stands.

I should think my noble friend below me (the Earl of Crawford) will not criticise me for bringing these facts forward publicly, because it will give him an opportunity, if he can, of putting matters straight, if I have given an incorrect description of what I am told are the facts. There is another point of view from which to look at this matter. We, as a House, are as entitled as is the public to a correct description—a a correct and definite description—of the grounds upon which a Peerage is granted, and I submit to your Lordships, from what I have read to you, that the description that has been given in the Gazette, and therefore to your Lordships, is incorrect. We have every right to be proud of our order and jealous of the dignity and reputation of this House. Therefore, in bringing this matter before your Lordships, I hope I have not offended against your feelings in the matter.


My Lords, you will understand that it is a very distasteful thing for any member of this House to have to deal with a personal question like this, and I am sure you will believe me when I say that I have no personal feeling in regard to the matter at all. But as it has been raised, and as I have had eight years intimate connection with South Africa, of which Sir Joseph Robinson is a citizen, I feel that I cannot altogether be silent on the present occasion. I am confident that in what I say I am voicing the unanimous feelings of the people of the Union of South Africa. I am not going to deal with the question of the good name or prestige of the House of Lords, nor, indeed, to emphasise what I feel strongly, and what every noble Lord feels, that the reasons for the creation of Peerages ought to be always capable of being openly stated. There ought not to be any private services rewarded or personal influences brought to bear.

I propose to deal solely with the question from the point of view of the relations of the Union of South Africa with the Imperial Government. It cannot be disputed that this matter is one primarily and mainly affecting the Union of South Africa. Sir Joseph Robinson was born there; he lived practically the whole of his life there; all his interests, financial and otherwise, are wrapped up in South Africa; and, therefore, the matter is one which seriously affects South Africa itself. The noble Lord has given the three reasons stated in the London Gazette as to why this Peerage has been conferred on him. The first was his connection with the bank, as to which I have nothing to add to what Lord Harris has said except that it appears as though the Peerage had been conferred first and that some one was told to look up Who's Who. The other two reasons are that he has performed home and Imperial services, which means, of course, that these services must have been of considerable weight and character in order to entitle him to the Peerage.

As far as Imperial services are concerned those services must have been rendered in connection with South Africa. So far as I know Sir Joseph Robinson has no connection with any other Dominion. The question is: What have been the services which justify the grant of a Peerage to Sir Joseph Robinson? It may be true that thirty or forty years ago he was a prominent person in South Africa; what is called a pioneer, a magnate. No doubt, he had some prominence in the country then. His main activities were in gold and diamonds. That is a long time ago, and as far as those services are concerned he was rewarded by his baronetcy in 1908.

The question is: What has he done since? I have for the last eight years had first-hand knowledge of what has been going on in South Africa, and I am in a position to express an opinion with regard to the activities of Sir Joseph Robinson. When I saw this grant, this appointment, in the Press I confess I was astonished. I searched my memory in vain to find any legitimate reason why this Peerage had been conferred. The war, after all, was a touchstone of public and Imperial services. It gave an opportunity, grasped by many thousands in this country and in the Dominions, of doing real Imperial or local service. But since 1914, when I went out to South Africa, I have never heard Sir Joseph Robinson's name connected with any public service, either by itself or in co-operation with others, and as far as I know—and I am in a position to know—he showed no marked liberality to the various war funds which were inaugurated for the assistance of the dependants of soldiers and sailors.

I think you will agree that, apart from any question raised on legal matters—I put that aside; it is an additional reason against the Peerage—the real test of whether the Peerage, the honour, is justified, is I will not say the universal but the general agreement of the community amongst whom the recipient has lived and moved and had his being. Judged by that test this creation entirely fails. I will undertake to say that no one of any repute in South Africa recommended that this Peerage should be granted. I will undertake to say that no single person in the Union, white or black, considered that either by his services or by his record he deserved this honour. When it was announced in the Press, so far as I can learn, it was received with universal astonishment and mystification; I will not use a stronger or uglier word. At all events, there is no support for the allegation that he has rendered public services as stated in the notification.

The noble Lord has shown that one of the reasons given, that in connection with the bank, was not the fact, to put it mildly. I hope I have shown that so far as Imperial services are concerned the statement is not in accordance with the facts. There still remains his home services. I have no knowledge on that matter. They have not come to my notice, but I think, considering my connection with South Africa, that I should have heard something about them if they had been of any great character. Let us hope they were rendered and that Sir Joseph Robinson is one of those who "Do good by stealth, and blush to find it fame." I think, with Lord Harris, that we are entitled, especially after the Resolution passed in 1917, to a categorical answer as to the actual grounds on which this honour was conferred. That was a very salutary change in 1917, but it would be useless, and worse than useless, if the reasons given are inaccurate and untrue. That is calculated to deceive the public; it is hardly playing the game; my noble friend would say it was "not cricket"; and we are entitled, I think, to have explained to us the actual reasons why this grant was made.

If noble Lords will bear with me only two or three minutes more, I want to put to them another aspect of this matter. I take a very serious objection to the method under which this Peerage has been conferred. It touches not only the prestige of the House of Lords, and, as my noble friend showed, the honour of those who conferred the grant, but it raises, in my opinion, very grave issues between the Dominion and the Home Governments. Sir Joseph Robinson was born and bred in South Africa, was a South African in every sense of the term, and no one can deny that such Imperial services as he may have rendered have been rendered in South Africa. It has, of late years, at all events, been fully recognised that, when it conies to a question of honours for a citizen of a Dominion, they should, in the first place, be recommended by the Prime Minister of that Dominion to the Prime Minister or other Ministers here for their consideration. The Prime Minister and other Ministers here are not, of course, bound to accept the suggestion of the Prime Minister of the Dominion. On the other hand, no citizen of a Dominion who has performed the services for which he is to be rewarded in the Dominion ever, nowadays, appears in the Honours List except at the initial suggestion of the Prime Minister of that Dominion.

Indeed, I would go further, and say that it was my experience, at least, in South Africa that, if the Home Government here desired to recommend a particular person for public services rendered, over here or otherwise, but not in the Dominion itself, they in the first place consulted confidentially the Prime Minister of the Dominion, to know if he had any objection to that proposal. That would appear to be only common courtesy and ordinary expediency in the relations between the Dominion and the Home Governments. What was the case here? We have it on the authority of the Prime Minister of the Union, in reply to the Question whether he had been consulted, directly or indirectly, in regard to this honour. He said the answer was in the negative. He denied, therefore, that he had in any way been consulted, directly or indirectly, in regard to this Peerage. I can only congratulate Sir Joseph on that fact, because my own impression is that, if there had been any consultation with South Africa, he would not have got his Peerage. I venture to say that both the reasons given and the method adopted are a slight to the Dominion in question, and a flouting of public opinion in that Dominion, very harmful to the trustful and cordial relations which we desire to exist between the Prime Minister of the Dominion and the Prime Minister, whoever he may be, representing the British Government over here, and deplorable also from the point of view of depreciating the Dominion honours, which we all desire to keep on a very high level indeed.

I have now finished a very distasteful task, and I add only one word which, I think, emphasises the position at the present moment. So far in the history of the Union, one Peerage, and one alone, has been given to a South African, Sir Henry de Villiers. Sir Henry was one of the ablest men in a country which has produced many able men. He had done notable public services. His reputation was the highest possible. When he was created I am quite sure that there was no one of any race, or colour, or politics but felt that he deserved the honour, and that it was a compliment to South Africa. The second Peer is Sir Joseph Robinson. I will finish my speech there.


My Lords, I am reluctant to enter upon a discussion of the latter part of Lord Buxton's speech, as to the constitutional issue involved with a Dominion, and as to the problem of how far a Dominion Minister will be entitled, in effect, to veto the recommendations made to the Crown by Ministers here. That, as I say, raises a very intricate, though, no doubt, a very important, problem, and it is one about which I should be reluctant to address your Lordships without having had an opportunity of examining with care the statement made by the noble Earl. With regard to the Questions on the Paper, I am afraid that, if the notice in the Gazette, as my noble friend has indicated, gave the impression that this gentleman was recommended to the King in consequence of being chairman of this Robinson South African Banking Company, the description so given was clearly misleading. In fact, as Lord Harris indicates, and so far as the information at my disposal goes, the bank was liquidated in 1905. I at first read the collocation of Questions as indicating that the bank was liquidated under singular circumstances, but I find that it was liquidated owing to the serious hindrance of trade and the depression consequent upon the Boer War. The liquidation did, in point of fact, take place in 1905, and the bank returned to the shareholders the full amount of their capital in cash.

My noble friend behind me was good enough to tell me this afternoon about the quotation he made from a judgment of the High Court in South Africa about the Randfontein Estates Company. I know nothing about the circumstances of that case. I do not know if there were qualifications or reservations in the judgment, of which a certain portion has been read to us, still less can I tell your Lordships if it is claimed that a different complexion could be put upon the quotation given. As to the third Question, the services rendered to the nation and the Empire by Sir Joseph Robinson, as Lord Buxton reminded your Lordships, Sir Joseph Robinson was born ill South Africa, where he has spent his whole life, and where he has devoted his energies to developing that part of the Empire. He was, as Lord Buxton said, a pioneer in industries which have subsequently extended very largely through South Africa. Lord Buxton indicated that he rendered no services of value to the State.


I did not say in the old days. Thirty or forty years ago I think he may have, but he was rewarded for that.


He certainly rendered valuable services to the Government, both during and after the war, in South Africa.


Which war?


The South African war. I believe that at the request of the home Government he approached President Kruger, and did his best to bring about an understanding, and his influence has persistently been directed towards the removal of racial prejudice and bitterness. He has occupied a public position in South Africa. He was a member of the Cape Assembly when the Cape was a Crown Colony, and was later elected one of the representatives for Kimberley in the South African Parliament. South African statesmen, whatever Lord Buxton indicates, have expressed their appreciation of the services which he has rendered to that country.




My Lords, I want first of all to correct a misapprehension on the part of my noble friend, Lord Crawford, with regard to something that Lord Buxton said. I am sure that Lord Buxton did not say that the Dominion Prime Minister ought to have a veto over the grant of an honour by His Majesty here on the recommendation of the Imperial Prime Minister. What he did say was that the Prime Minister in England ought never to make a recommendation with respect to a British subject domiciled in the Dominions, without first consulting the Dominion Prime Minister. That is a wholly different proposition.

Allusion has been made in this debate to the debates which I had the honour of initiating several years ago, and which ended in the acceptance by your Lordships' House of those Resolutions of which Lord Harris made mention to-night. I tried very hard on those occasions to get you to go further. I showed you how very grave a scandal this was, in connection with a certain class of honour, and I proposed to you a remedy. That remedy did not commend itself to your Lordships, but I still think that it is the only cure for the condition of affairs with which we find ourselves confronted. Your Lordships, however, did adopt the Resolutions which Lord Harris has mentioned, and the Government did promise that they would always insert in the Gazette the exact reasons why an honour was recommended to His Majesty, and also engaged that the Prime Minister would satisfy himself, always, that there had never been any promise or suggestion of pecuniary consideration, past or future, in respect of an honour.

I do not think this House, or the country, can conceal from themselves that since I initiated those debates the evil has become much greater. It amounts now to nothing less than a public scandal of the first magnitude, and, curiously enough, while Parliament and the Press in the Dominions are alive to this scandal, and resent the Dominions being dragged into it, I must say that Parliament and the Press here have been cynically indifferent to what has been going on. It is not an exaggeration to say that immense sums of money continue to flow into the coffers of the political Party in power at the moment. The whole world knows that. It is the subject of general discussion in society, in the clubs, wherever you meet men. It is a matter of general notoriety, and yet there is not a single Minister who has any knowledge of a single transaction. It is quite true that they have not. They could go into a court of justice to-morrow and swear, perfectly truthfully, that they know nothing about it.

Hitherto, there has been no personal corruption in connection with these honours—when money has been taken it has been taken for the benefit of a political Party, be it Conservative, or Liberal, or Coalition—but I do not believe that these immense sums can continue to pass it complete secrecy, with no publicity, no responsibility, and personal corruption not ensue. I think there is a real danger, not of the corruption of Ministers, but of corruption on the part of those who, unknown and in the dark, do this dirty work for the Ministry, and I think it is altogether unconstitutional. I put this question for consideration. Is it really consistent with our Constitution that there should be great sums of money at the disposal of any Ministry, without any control from Parliament?

Your Lordships having permitted me those general remarks, I turn now to the particular case with which we are dealing to-day. My noble friend, Lord Crawford, who has, of course, no personal responsibility in this matter whatever, and who knows no more about it than I do, has had put into his hand such a record of services as those who are really responsible for what has taken place can trump up for the occasion. Lord Buxton has quoted what General Smuts said about his responsibility for the recommendation of this honour. Let me also quote what General Smuts said about the qualifications of Sir Joseph Robinson for this honour. He was asked whether he was prepared to state the services which justified such an elevation, and his reply was in the negative. General Smuts was not prepared, in the Cape Parliament, to state what those services were. There are ample means of ascertaining.

Lord Buxton has told your Lordships his experiences. I will tell you mine. I was responsible for South Africa for five years. Never in my humble efforts to serve the Empire was I conscious that the influence of Sir Joseph Robinson was on my side. I go further, and I say that when I went to South Africa he was known everywhere as a pro-Boer. When I went to South Africa, three years after the war, so far as my information went, his sympathies had never been with this country. But there are two other noble Lords in this House who can speak—Lord Milner and Lord Gladstone. Between us we cover more than twenty years of South African history. Why do not the Government produce a testimonial from Lord Milner or one from Lord Gladstone? Is public opinion going to be satisfied with this dossier from an unknown source, when four High Commissioners and Governors-General in succession, and the Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, are quite unable to state the national and Imperial services for which this honour has been granted?

And then there is the question of this lawsuit. I have in my hand a copy of the judgment. Lord Harris has given no incorrect account of it. It is a long document: the judgment of the Chief Justice occupies nearly fifty pages. I will read another extract: The scheme devised did not conceal, and could not have concealed, from any one interested the fact that one half of the freehold had been acquired by the Robinson group, but it did conceal the fact that it had been acquired from the defendant, and it gave no inkling of the profit he had made. The explanation now given may satisfy the defendant, looking back upon this long past transaction, but I cannot accept it. To me it is clear that the trust was created to hide his part in the Waterval deal and the resulting profit. No doubt the freehold was most valuable, and I assume that its acquisition, even at the price which the defendant fixed, was beneficial to the plaintiff, but in the process of benefiting the company he was making £210,000 for himself, and that was a fact which it was necessary to conceal. Upon the evidence before us that seems the true inwardness of the arrangement. What a wonderful Constitution we live under! One day Peerages are conferred on Lord Balfour, or Lord Haig, or Lord Beatty—men who have rendered absolutely transcendent services to the nation and the Empire. And the next day, or within a short time afterwards, Peerages are conferred upon individuals about whom nothing is known except their exceeding wealth, whose services are unknown altogether to their fellow countrymen, and one or two of whom, at least, have been the subject of severe criticism before a public tribunal.

And who really is responsible? Who really knows why these Peerages were conferred? Nobody here knows; nobody in the country knows. The real responsibility for these recommendations to His Majesty rests with an individual wholly irresponsible, and wholly unknown to any of us. The Prime Minister, I suppose, knows; nobody else knows. The Prime Minister has taken his recommendation from somebody he trusted—I think a little too carelessly. And that person is so cynical that he has taken no trouble to dress up the gazetted reasons with any approach to accuracy or plausibility.

It is not only a wonderful Constitution under which such honours could be granted on the recommendation of a wholly unknown person, but we must also reflect on what nice considerations of delicacy he has shown for the reputation of your Lordships' House. Not only is your Lordships' House, under the present system, laid open to the condition of affairs which I have attempted to describe, but His Majesty evidently receives a recommendation based on inaccurate and imperfect information. Surely this amounts to something not unlike a farce ! If the public, if the Press and Parliament, sit down under this without any further protest or effort to clean this Augean stable, is it wonderful that foreigners accuse us of being hypocritical? But the question to-day is, What do the Government propose to do now that they have been given information, which I do not for one moment believe was in the possession of my noble friend—nor do I expect it was in the possession even of the Prime Minister?


My Lords, I feel strongly that this matter cannot be allowed to rest precisely where it is, after what has fallen from the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and from other speakers. As the noble Earl truly said, the noble Earl opposite gave a purely perfunctory reply provided for him, without attempting to argue the question at any length, although a number of very important issues were raised on this grave matter, both by the noble Lord opposite, and by other noble Lords who followed him. There are, I think, besides the noble Earl opposite, five other. Cabinet Ministers who sit in this House, and I feel it would be altogether improper, in view of the interest that this Question has aroused among your Lordships, even at this late hour to let it drop now.

The noble Earl behind me in his concluding sentences spoke of the hardship inflicted upon your Lordships' House by such proceedings as those which were described. I am almost more disposed to ascribe them to the somewhat new-found zeal of His Majesty's Government for the reform of your Lordships' House, it being obviously desirable to show how much this Chamber stands in need of reformation. But I do not want to pursue the subject, now, and holding, as I do, that it ought to be pursued further, I beg to move the adjournment of the debate.

Moved, That the debate be now adjourned.—(The Marquess of Crewe.)


I shall not oppose that.

On Question, Motion agreed to, and debate adjourned accordingly.