HL Deb 18 May 1922 vol 50 cc556-62

My Lords, I beg to ask the Question of which I have given Notice—namely, whether His Majesty's Government have taken any, and if so, what steps to carry into effect the Resolution of this House passed on April 6 last, requiring further limited exemptions of the property of people of enemy nationality from the confiscation provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. I do so not as an excuse for re-opening the previous debate to which I refer; but for the purpose of ascertaining whether anything has been done to carry out the Resolution then agreed to by this House. It was carried by a substantial majority, in a House which, if it was not large in numbers, was very representative in its constitution.

In case any noble Lords here to-day were not present then perhaps I had better read the Resolution. It was in these terms— That the terms of the Peace Treaties appropriating the private property of enemy subjects shall not apply to sums of £5,000 or less where the owner is either born of British parents or had been resident in this country continuously for twenty-five years before 4th August, 1914. This matter really does not brook delay. If your Lordships still hold—as I have no reason to doubt you do—the opinion that the terms of the Peace Treaty confiscate the property of alien enemies, are unfair and unjust in their incidence and have produced conditions of hardship and cruelty that were never contemplated at the time the Treaty was passed, and that had they been contemplated the provisions never would have been agreed to, it is plain that this matter ought not to be allowed to pass without notice, and we are entitled to know what the Government intends to do in order to carry out the Resolution.

As I have said, I. do not intend to reopen the old discussion, but since this matter was previously before the House a number of cases have been brought to my notice upon which I cannot speak with the same personal knowledge that I was able to use with regard to the three matters I definitely placed before your Lordships' attention on the last occasion. Two of them, I think, I ought to mention, if only for the purpose of letting your Lordships know exactly how this matter is operating. It seems to me impossible, once people have heard of these cases, to support any longer the continuance of the Order under which they arise. One case is that of a man who came to this country in middle life, some thirty or forty years ago, and established the potash industry here. His object in coming was to introduce to the farmers of this country a knowledge of potash as a means of fertilising, and he did this through the agency of agricultural colleges and lectures in Scotland with marked success. After a lapse of thirty years he had built up a substantial business in this potash industry. No person can suggest that the work this man did here was otherwise than of the highest benefit to the country. It entered into competition with nothing that we did. It introduced into this country something of the greatest value to our agriculture, and the Scottish Chambers of Agriculture have on more than one occasion expressed their appreciation of his work.

In July, 1914, he was stricken with paralysis and was ordered to Nauheim for a cure. He had been in this country all these years as a British subject except that he had never taken the trouble to get naturalised, and when war broke out he was unable to return from Nauheim. His business which represented something like £30,000 in value was confiscated, and the whole of his investments—which he put into British property in the belief that he had British protection—have been taken away. This man is now left with no right whatever here except to get payment from a Committee to the extent of £200, and the right to claim recompense from the German. Government who are under no obligation to recompense on any scale and who regard this man with undisguised aversion because for thirty years he had left Germany and carried on business here.

I will give one other case—that of a musician who lived in this country for some thirty years, teaching and performing in public. He had a wife and one daughter. When the war broke out he was, of course, quite unable to earn any more money here, and he returned to Germany, having effected in this country some time before a life policy for £1,000. He died in Germany. His wife, a woman of refined tastes, who is now sixty-eight years of age, is earning her living in Germany by charing. The girl, who is a very delicate girl, was trained here as a typist and shorthand writer. She can get no occupation in Germany because of the ineffaceable odium that attaches to a woman horn in this country, bred in this country, and to all intents and purposes an Englishwoman, with only a technical claim to German nationality. The £1,000 insurance has been taken away, and these people are left on the edge of starvation. I do not believe that the woman used the language of exaggeration when, writing to me, she said: "There seems to as to be nothing before us but suicide." The reason why I say that I do not believe that to be the language of exaggeration is that I know that such has been the last and terrible resort to which people in Germany have been driven under similar conditions.

The horrible evil of the war falls with pitiless severity alike upon those who deserved it and upon those who were innocent. I know that, and I know that it is impossible to prevent it. But at least we need not cause it. What we have done has been deliberately to cause this suffering to fall upon innocent people. On the last occasion reference was made to what other nations had done. The whole of that argument leaves me entirely unmoved. This country is not in the habit of accepting from other countries precedents as to the way in which it should conduct itself, nor of following the example that other nations set. I care not whether other nations have confiscated property or have not. What I say is that to think that this country has done things which have caused such suffering as I have mentioned is a thing which robs a man of his rest; he cannot keep on patiently believing that the country of which he has always been proud has committed actions which can never stand in the judgment of posterity.


My Lords, this Question, as I think the noble and learned Lord will admit, has been placed on the Order Paper at rather short notice. It was not until yesterday that I had any idea that he was proposing to raise this matter again to-day. When I became acquainted of the fact I asked the noble and learned Lord whether it would be convenient for him to postpone his Question until after the middle of next week, for the reason which I will give in a moment. That was not convenient to the noble and learned Lord, and, of course, I make no complaint; but he will forgive me if I do not answer him at great length, and do not attempt to traverse ground which was covered, not entirely but largely, in the debate of April 6 last.

Before I deal with the actual answer to the noble and learned Lord's question, I think I ought to say that, though the noble and learned Lord has spoken without any degree of bitterness more than he feels the question warrants, at the same time the actual wording of his Question is cast in rather a polemical tone. I cannot admit the word "confiscation" It is one that has aroused a great deal of controversy, but at the same time I feel bound to remind your Lordships that the ex-enemy countries undertook to compensate their nationals in respect of property which was taken by the British Government in order that the British Government aright repay the losses of our nationals. Having said so much, I think one may acknowledge that, after the discussion which took place here on April 6, it would be impossible for any Government Department entirely to ignore the opinion then expressed and the evidence of hardship produced. Had the noble and learned Lord been able to delay putting his Question, I might have been, later, in a position to give him something in the nature of a definite reply, and, even as it is, I hope that I may say something which will afford him at least some grounds of satisfaction.

At the time, when the previous discussion took place, the Chairman of the Committee to which constant reference has been made, Lord Justice Younger, had already been asked by the President of the Board of Trade (though I myself was not aware of it) to render a Report on the whole position. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Newton, who said that he knew as a fact, and he was going to say so, even if it were an indiscretion, that Lord Justice Younger and the other members of his Committee were in favour of the principle of the Motion moved on April 6 by the noble and learned Lord opposite. I am not in a position to commit a similar indiscretion, if indiscretion it be, but at any rate Lord Justice Younger and his Committee have now. had an opportunity of making their point of view officially known to the President of the Board of Trade. Whether or not they may be found to be in favour of the precise principle covered by the Motion of the noble and learned Lord may transpire, but at any rate it is obvious that the Motion which was discussed by your Lordships covered two classes of persons only, and it was felt that, owing to the undoubted uneasiness aroused in the minds of many persons as to the effects of these provisions of the Treaty, it was right that that Committee should report upon the whole position.

That Report was received by the President of the Board of Trade on Friday last, and it conies up for discussion at the Board of Trade Council on Tuesday next. No final decision—indeed, no decision at all— has yet been taken upon it. It was impossible to take action upon the Motion carried in your Lordships' House until that Report had been received, and fully considered. The Report takes into consideration all the facts, together with the strong feeling shown by your Lordships, and includes them in its general review of the whole situation. It is impossible for me to-day, therefore, to give any definite answer, or indeed any definite promise, but I hope that what I have said has been enough to show that the Government are not unsympathetic to the points of view that have been put forward, and that they realise something of the hard cases. After this Report of Lord Justice Younger has been fully considered I hope that it may be possible to give something more definite in the way of satisfaction of the noble and learned Lord's contention.


Will this Report be made public?


I am not in a position to give a definite answer as to that, but I think there is reasonable probability that it will be.


My Lords, as one who has taken some interest in this Question, perhaps I may be allowed to express the opinion that the statement now made is much more satisfactory than those which have been given previously. I have always had a strong suspicion that the Government, as a Government, is really not in favour of this procedure in principle. I have a lurking conviction that the excessive and narrow-minded severity pointed out by my noble and learned friend opposite, is due not so much to the Government itself as to some hide-bound Department, or some hide-bound official, who is unable to realise (if I am not using too strong words) the iniquity and harshness of this procedure. I gather considerable encouragement from what has fallen from the noble Lord this afternoon, and I think I may add that so far from deprecating any Question on the part of the noble and learned Lord opposite, it is obvious to me that the Motion which he brought forward the other day has had very considerable effect. I hope he will not be daunted by any suggestion of keeping quiet in the future, because I am convinced that the only means of getting this particular Department to act in accordance with our wishes is to bring Parliamentary pressure to bear upon it.


I am grateful to the noble Lord for his kindly answer and for his promise of help; but I should like to ask him what this Council of the Board of Trade is and whether people are at liberty to appear before it. May I appear before it?


It may perhaps be a rather high term to use, but in most Government Departments, and certainly in the one in which I primarily have responsibility, there is such a Council. I imagine that it is not a public council, and although, no doubt, the views of the noble and learned Lord will be fully considered and will be welcomed, I cannot promise that he will be asked to appear before the Council.


Will the noble Lord appear before it? I have confidence in him, and all I desire is to know that when the Council meets there is somebody who will really put the other side of the case before them.


Although I have had the honour of replying for the Board of Trade I do not happen to be connected with that Department. I will, however, undertake personally to put before the President of the Board of Trade all the points of view that have been raised in this House.

House adjourned at a quarter before seven o'clock.