HL Deb 19 June 1923 vol 54 cc545-51

My Lords, I beg to ask His Majesty's Government if it is now convenient to publish a full statement of the financial relations between Great Britain and Southern Ireland. I have placed this Question on the Paper in order to ascertain whether the noble Duke, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, is now in a position to carry out the promise he made to me on May 10 last when I brought before your Lordships' House the question of the financial relations between this country and the Irish Free State. Upon that occasion I ventured to point out that neither while the legislation which separated Southern Ireland from this country was going through the House nor since the signing of the Treaty, now a year and a half ago, has any statement of any kind whatsoever been made to your Lordships explaining the nature of the financial relations between the Free State and Great Britain.

I pointed out then that great questions arose as between the citizens of the Free State and this country in reference to taxation and also by reason of the setting up of Customs barriers and things of that kind which the Free State have thought it right to do as part of their fiscal policy. I also pointed out that large sums were received during the first year after the Treaty by the Free State for Excise and Customs, and particularly in respect of Excise, which were really paid by the British consumer on this side of the water. I refer to such things as intoxicating liquor, in respect of which the Excise was collected by the Free State. The goods were imported into this country, where, of course, the British consumer really paid the Tax. There were also large quantities of goods and much property handed over by the British Government to the Free State Government, and so far as I know there has never been published any account of any sort or description showing how we stand in relation to these questions.

Another matter, very germane to what I am going to say in a moment, is this. Sums of money, I understand, were handed over in accordance with arrangements made to enable the Free State Government to pay claims for property that had been damaged during the time that the Government were attempting to assert the law with the help of Government troops. Whether or not that is so I am not certain. I can only speak from such information as I see in the newspapers. But that there was a considerable account between the two countries is plain from the fact that it was stated in the House of Commons that at the end of the last financial year the Free State was indebted to this country in respect of financial transactions of that year to the amount of something like £3,000,000. I think the figure was given as something less by the President of the Free State when he was going through his Budget in the Free State Parliament. Your Lordships will see, therefore, that there are large transactions to be gone into.

When I brought these matters before your Lordships' House my noble friend, his Grace the Duke of Devonshire, who, being Colonial Secretary, had charge of these matters, said: My right hon. friend (the Chancellor of the Exchequer), in responding to similar Questions in another place, stated that he is quite prepared to consider the preparation of such a Return"— That was the Return I asked for of a statement of the financial relations between Great Britain and the Free State of Southern Ireland, showing the effect of recent legislation on the Revenues of both countries, and adjustments that had to be made between them. The noble Duke's statement to me on the former occasion continues— although he was not able to do it at the moment. I shall certainly bear in mind what has fallen from the noble and learned Lord, and, after consultation with him, I hope we may be able to issue some statement which will clear up the points which are rightly exercising your Lordships. That was on May 10, and so far as I am concerned I have heard nothing about the matter since.

It is daily becoming more and more essential that these matters should be cleared up, and that the House and the country should be informed how we stand, particularly so having regard to the fact that every day the Free State Government, by virtue of the powers you have given to them, are really confiscating the property of loyal subjects of the Crown ill that country, and are absolutely and entirely refusing to carry out the decrees of the Courts (which were your Courts) made before the time of the Treaty. They are claiming to set those decrees at nought by legislation, which, I am sorry to say, the present Government have sanctioned. They are also preparing at the present moment to pass an Act which practically means confiscation of the land remaining in the hands of Irish landlords. It is not open confiscation, because the Government profess to give something, which is to be paid in Irish bonds. And it does that after the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced a deficit in a country of three millions of people of something like £29,000,000 on one year's working. We have a right to know how the account stands between the two countries in relation to these matters.

It is also germane to the subject to know the way in which the Irish Free State are treating your subjects in relation to debts incurred while Great Britain was governing the country. Your Lordships, I think, have little idea of the hardships of people who relied upon the decrees that were obtained under British rule. We have brought this matter before the Government on very many occasions, and I am afraid I have to be just as blunt to one Government as to another, because I am not a politician. So far as I can see no progress whatever has been made in the settlement of these matters, and the result is that people are plunged into anxieties, hardships and almost starvation, beyond anything that could have been conceived under British rule.

I saw reported in the newspapers an interesting discussion in the House of Commons at Question time yesterday. This Question was put by a Liberal ex-Minister, Mr. Macpherson, to the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies. He asked whether, except in Southern Ireland, the Under-Secretary could give any precedent for what is happening there of one Government being allowed to set aside and set at nought the decrees that were obtained under the British Government? The Under-Secretary for the Colonies replied that he had never heard of any precedent for such a thing. But that is what is going on there. I received this morning a letter from a lady for whose truthfulness I can vouch, because I have known her since I was about five years old. She asks this— Is there any way I can proceed, or anyone I can apply to, to have a decree awarded to me for compensation in 1920 brought under the list of defended cases? It was a sum of £1,500 that she was granted. She brought her case before the Courts which this country had set up there. In the first place it came before a County Court Judge and was defended. She was awarded £1,500. The ratepayers who objected took the matter on appeal to a Judge of the High Court at the Assizes, and that Judge confirmed the decree.

Then she says this, which shows the pathos of the case:— My solicitor at the time informed me that I could rely positively on getting this money, and on the security of this I borrowed £200 and received my board and residence since 1920 on the promise of payment when I got this £1,500. Imagine her anxiety. This lady is a widow, an elderly widow, and she has been living from hand to mouth for the last three years on the faith of being paid something which was awarded her by two British Courts. When she asks for it from this country she is told that it is a matter for the Irish Free State Government. When she applies to the Free State Government, as she says in her letter:— I have been informed that my claim for compensation comes under the list of undefended ones and the assessors of the Shaw Commission have reduced or intend to reduce the amount of my award to £500. If this was the amount awarded to me in the first instance, it would have been different, and I should not then have been placed in the deplorable position I find myself in to-day. I can scarcely think it possible that the English Government would allow its courts and judges to be so dishonoured as to have their decrees ignored like this, and so unjust as to allow their loyal subjects to suffer such hardships in order to satisfy the rebels. I want to ask the Government whether they will undertake not to hand over any more money to the Irish Free State Government in any circumstances until the Irish Free State Government honour the decrees of the Courts which existed when the British Government was in power.

Surely we have the right to urge that, whenever they are asked for favours or the transfer of money, the Government should have nothing to do with the Irish Free State in these matters until they see that our own people are righted as regards interests that accrued when the British Government administered Southern Ireland. That is all I ask But I think the time has come when we ought to be fully informed of the whole details of the financial position as between this country and Southern Ireland. We shall then be better able to judge as to whether a proper use has been made of such money as has been advanced and to have the rights of our own subjects in Southern Ireland more clearly defined and respected.


My Lords, I much regret that I am unable categorically to promise when a statement will be made embodying the information asked for by my noble and learned friend. In the House of Commons a few days ago the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, in reply to a Question, said: I will have a statement prepared as soon as possible, but it will be some time before figures as regards the collection and distribution of Revenue for the year which has closed can be ascertained. I can only add that the Government are committed clearly and categorically to the publication of that Return. It will take some time to prepare, but as soon as possible I will see that it is in the possession of your Lordships.

The noble and learned Lord alluded to other points, which I know are pressing with very great hardship on a number of innocent and severely afflicted people. I can assure your Lordships that the Government are exercising every influence they can towards getting a reasonable, prompt and satisfactory solution of these claim". In a debate raised at the end of November last year I categorically stated in this House that we as a Government consider ourselves hound and committed by a statement made by the late Colonial Secretary, Mr. Winston Churchill, in a letter dated, I think, July 25, 1922. To that statement I am prepared to adhere. I know we must give reasonable opportunities to the Free State Government to carry out their obligations. I have no reason to doubt their good faith. We ail know—it must be evident—that they are suffering from the conditions which have prevailed in that country for the past two years; they must be in a position of considerable difficulty. They have informed us that they have hopes of paying arrears, under what was known as the Shaw Commission, to the end of May by the end of this month, and then be able to make payments within a month of the awards being made. I can only repeat that we are bound by the statements made by our predecessors. We are doing everything that lies in our power to expedite these payments, and I trust that by steadily adhering to that policy we shall be able to obtain a satisfactory solution.


With your Lordships' permission I should like to ask the noble Duke one question. The lady, whose letter I have quoted, asks me to whom she can apply for payment of the compensation awarded her by two British Courts in 1920. Will the noble Duke tell me to whom she is to apply for payment? She has applied to the Irish Free State Government, and she has also applied over here, and got negative answers in both cases. Is there anybody to whom she can apply who will go into this case?


I cannot answer the question myself, but I can give my noble and learned friend a personal undertaking to look into it and see whether I can get a more satisfactory reply.


My Lords, this Return will necessarily take some time, and the matter is so vital that I should like to ask whether the noble Duke can hold out any hope that we shall be able to discuss it before the House adjourns for the Autumn Recess.


My noble friend knows that this is more a Treasury matter than a question for the Colonial Office, but every effort I can personally make shall be made to get the Return prepared in order that your Lordships may be able to discuss the matter before the adjournment.