HL Deb 28 June 1923 vol 54 cc701-14

LORD CARSON rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether it was part of the arrangement made by the late Government at the time of entering into the Treaty (or shortly afterwards) for the creation of a Free State in Ireland that all remedies for enforcing decrees for compensation for malicious injuries recovered in the established Courts under British authority before the Treaty should be barred and repealed; and whether they were so barred and repealed with the consent of the said Government; and whether there is any precedent to be found for setting aside judgments lawfully obtained and preventing British subjects from enforcing them; and whether the present Government will undertake to pay the amounts of such decrees which have been so nullified by the act of the late Government under political exigencies.

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, I have put this Question on the Paper, I frankly admit, because of a document which was sent to me from Ireland last week. I have no reason to doubt its genuineness, as it really explains a good deal of what I have myself said from time to time in this House. This document purports to be an arrangement between the Free State and the late Government—which, of course, binds the present Government. I venture to think that it embodies the most tyrannical and the most unprecedented provision as regards British subjects that you will find in any arrangement ever entered into between the British Government and even any foreign State, affecting the interests and security of those who are loyal to the King. I hope I shall get a specific answer upon the two Questions that I have put down:—(1) as to whether this is a genuine document, and (2) what are the precedents for it. I think your Lordships, before I have finished, will see how serious this matter is, and to what serious consequences it has led.

That your Lordships may understand it, I must try to bring your minds back to the condition of Ireland in 1920 and the earlier part of 1921. At that time rebellion was rampant in Ireland. There were daily crimes against life and property, and those who were satisfied with the British Government and desired the British Government to remain there were encouraged by the Executive of the day in every way to assert their position, thereby encouraging the active hostility of all those who were then, to use their own phrase, waging war against this country. So grave became the question of the destruction of property and of life that in 1921 the late Government passed an Act giving additional remedies to those who were able to obtain decrees for compensation under what are known as the Malicious Injuries Acts. A number of people then had the courage—at the risk of their lives, I should think, in every case—to proceed in the ordinary Courts of the land under the British Government to assert their title to compensation for damage either to their purse or their property. The assertion of one's rights under those circumstances may seem a small thing, but I am of opinion that no man in Ireland at that time ventured to assert his rights, even under the laws of this Parliament, without danger of immediate assassination or further injury to his property. Indeed, there were many cases in which those who were trying to assert their rights were wounded and, in some cases, assassinated. However, they obtained decrees in the legally constituted tribunals of the land.

Then the so-called truce was made in December, 1921. Your Lordships would have expected that in that truce there would be some provision for securing the person and the property and, above all things, the decrees which these people had obtained in the circumstances which I have tried briefly to depict to your Lordships. But there was not a word about it in the Treaty. Time went on, and then, apparently, a tribunal was set up in Ireland which proceeded to deal with these claims and with the decrees of the Courts of this country—for they were the Courts of this country—and proceeded as if the decree of a Court under British law had no validity or power whatsoever. I am bound to say, in order to do justice, that I thought that was the arbitrary action of the Irish Free State Government. It never occurred to me that in handing over their loyal subjects to a newly-created State, any British Government would say to that newly-created State: "You are at liberty entirely to disregard the decrees which were made by the Courts before you took over the Government."

The document in my possession, if [...] is genuine—and that is the substance of the Question which I have placed upon the Paper—professes to be an arrangement between the British Government and the Irish Free State. It contains, amongst other very interesting clauses which at some future time we may have to discuss, this provision— That all proceedings including pending proceedings and proceedings for the enforcement of decrees already given under the enactments relating to compensation for criminal injuries be barred, and that a Resolution in this sense be passed and promulgated by the Provisional Government "— and mark this !— to be followed by legislation in the British Parliament. Now, I venture to assert that you may examine the whole history of this country in relation either to its Colonies or its-subjects in any foreign State without finding anything, I will not say in the nature of a precedent but anything approaching the nature of a precedent for stating, after all these people have gone through and when at the risk of their lives, they have taken advantage of the Courts which you had set up, that: "We agree that these decrees shall be set at naught, that all remedies be barred, and that if it should become necessary we will bring forward legislation in the British Parliament." I say that such a provision as that, if it is genuine, is not only a disgrace to this country, but it goes to the very foundation of the value of the Courts, the value of the proceedings in them, and of the decrees obtained as the result of those proceedings.

I do not think it is necessary on that matter to do more than mention this agreement to your Lordships. I hope the whole of it will be published. Let us know the worst! Let us have no more of these mysterious answers which are given from time to time, which give us no information, and which always suggest that there are difficulties in the way of the Government which the Government are unable to overcome. Let us know the whole of it. A short time ago I asked a Question in your Lordships' House, and I intend to put it down again, as to the financial relations between the two countries. In the document which I hold in my hand, if it is a genuine document, I can see the real reason why the Government have never given the information for which I have asked. However, that is enough for the moment.

But what is happening under that provision? The Free State Government are proceeding to get rid of these decrees. I receive from sixty to seventy complaints about it every week, and I have selected two or three that have come to hand since I placed this Question on the Paper in order to show your Lordships something of what is going on. I take, first of all, the case of a man whose property was raided and whose stock-in-trade was stolen. He went into the ordinary Court and made a claim for compensation for malicious injury. I claimed the sum, he says— of £3,500 for damage and loss of property, and I was awarded the sum of £2,000 by the Recorder of Cork, who is a very well-known, upright and painstaking Judge. Subsequently, a Commission was appointed, called the Shaw Commission"— I do not know why it is still called the Shaw Commission; I rather resent my noble and learned colleague being mixed up with it— who went through each claim"— now, just listen to this; this is in substitution for the Courts !— in a solicitor's office without a chairman and reduced the awards to ridiculous amounts. My award of £2,000 was reduced to £77. That gives you an idea of the way in which you can say that you are paying-claims while at the same time you are wiping them out. Fortunately, in anything connected with my country there is always some slight cause for amusement. This man who sent me these particulars sends me a copy of the proceedings and of the award that was made, and I find that his claim for malicious injuries was reduced from £3,500 to £77. They had the grace to give him a few shillings interest upon the £77 awarded, but they deducted Income Tax to the amount of 7s. 8d.

There is one other case that I should like to quote. It has reference to a place that I knew. I do not know anything about it in recent years, as it was purchased after the time at which I used to go to that part of the country in which it is situated. The gentleman who owned it sends me particulars about his house, a magnificent castle, well known in Ireland. It is of no use to mention names. That castle was burnt to the ground. He applied for compensation. The Recorder of the county heard the case, which was defended. The Recorder reserved judgment, and subsequently put the case in his list for the June Sessions, 1921, when he asked that additional evidence should be furnished as to the general letting value of the place as distinct from the replacement value. The case was fully gone into, and judgment was again reserved. The Recorder himself was quite familiar with the castle and its surroundings, but he procured an independent report from his own court valuer. The gentleman says in his letter: The Recorder admitted to my surveyor that the replacement value was approximately £15,000, but at this time he felt bound by the decision of the Court of Appeal to refuse replacement value, and so he fixed the value of the place at £4,850. But he never got paid even that. The Shaw Commission came down and the £4,850 was reduced to £1,500, although the Recorder had said that it would take £15,000 to replace the building. Your Lordships, or some of you, may call these legal proceedings. I call it sheer robbery. But that is nothing new in Ireland. This is done under express agreement with the British Government. That is the point, and that is why I bring the matter before your Lordships to-day.

Here is another letter that I got this morning. It will show your Lordships what people are going through, and how they are being met in regard to their claims:— I am the widow of my much lamented husband, a sergeant of the Royal Irish Constabulary, who was cruelly murdered last March twelve months. I was awarded £3,000 compensation, £1,500 for myself and £1,500 for my children. It has not been paid. Having no home and no friends I am living in lodgings, going from one district to the other owing to the insults, which I have borne bravely for the sake of my poor husband. He had 29½ years' faithful and honest service. The English Government came to my rescue, and since then they have fed me and my children. When he died I was left, I may say, on the streets. I had no home, and how I pulled through remains a mystery. I was a walking ghost, but God brought me safely through. I suffered great hardship. I was called to Dublin six weeks ago with solicitors and witnesses before a Commission. Since then I have not heard anything further. My pension even has not been settled. That is the pension she is entitled to as the widow of a murdered policeman. She concludes her letter: I beg of you, my Lord, to help me to get away from here and look after my case. I beg to be forgiven for the trouble I am giving you. I put it to His Majesty's Government that such a state of affairs as that ought not to be allowed to exist.

That money ought to be paid to this poor woman for the, murder of her husband. Ought not the British Government to pay it, and then look to the Free State Government, or whoever else may be responsible, and negotiate with them? Why do you leave this poor widow helpless and starving in a country like this to tackle matters of this kind? They are hostile to her in every place to which she goes, and she is only able to bear up for the sake of the man who had given 29½ years' service to his country. The way this matter is dealt with brings the greatest discredit upon this country, and involves the greatest hardship upon these poor people in Ireland. Officialdom has no heart. It never had, and I suppose it never will have.

I will give one other case, which is the last with which I will trouble your Lordships. It shows the impossibility of making any progress in the direction of getting a settlement of these matters. I have a letter from a merchant in Southern Ireland. It is dated June 22, 1923, and states: In 1920 the Royal Irish Constabulary took possession of my whole stock of arms and ammunition "— He is a man in business, and at that time it was necessary in order to prevent arms and ammunition being taken by the rebels that the British Government should take possession of them. The letter says: The Royal Irish Constabulary took possession of my whole stock of arms and ammunition amounting to £160 12s., and for the past year I have been trying to get paid for them. I have several times applied to the Colonial Office, Irish Branch, London, They refer me back to Dublin, and when I write to Dublin they refer me to London, and that has continued for a year. I had to sell my business here at half price. I am going; out to New Zealand, and I want the money to pay the passages for my wife and self and six children. I may remind your Lordships that under the decision of the Government, because Southern Ireland is now no longer part of Great Britain, it has been held that the Overseas Settlement Act does not apply to Southern Ireland, and therefore these people are debarred from the rights they would otherwise have had in getting assisted passages. This merchant also says in his letter: This is only one small item of hundreds of pounds I have lost during the past seven years which I will never get, and I therefore earnestly pray that you will assist me, as here in the West we have none to help us. All we can do is to clear out. He sends me two recent letters which are really too good an example of officialdom not to quote to the House.

He wrote in May to the Colonial Office, Irish Branch, and he received the following letter in reply: In reply to your letter of the 12th instant I am directed by the Secretary of State to inform you that he cannot entertain a claim for compensation in respect of property handed over by you to the Crown Forces until you have approached the Minister of Defence, Dublin, with a view to secure the return thereof. Then he wrote to the Minister of Defence, Dublin, and this is the answer he got from a Government Office in Dublin, called the Chief Lands Officer, Ireland: With reference to your letter of the 5th instant addressed to the Irish Office for claims against the British Crown Forces, 5a, College Street, Dublin, will you kindly communicate with the Secretary of State. Colonial Office, Irish Branch, Old Queen Street, S.W.I, to whom your letter has been forwarded. He writes to one office and they tell him he must write to Dublin. He writes to Dublin and the people there send his letter on to London and communicate with him to the effect that he must begin again at the Colonial Office.

I have given up attacking in any way the Irish Free State Government. It is not my object to-day to attack that Government. The Irish Free State must get its chance, much as one may dislike it, The more I see the more I think the difficulties have arisen from haste and want of prevision. But would it not be well, even to help the Free State, that there should be a real grip taken of the situation over there as regards our own people? Is it not high time to get out of the way all this bitterness, this humiliation, this cruelty and anxiety, amongst these people, who were your own supporters? Would it not help the Free State itself? It would enormously improve the feeling amongst numbers at home who have to come in contact with these poor people. Do not think that because they are hopeless and helpless, with no political influence or votes, there are not many in this country of all grades of politics who think they ought to be fairly, liberally and decently dealt with. I have said it so often that I am ashamed to repeat it, but you ought not, in a great change of this kind, a revolution, to run it on the cheap. You ought to have the money at once and the staff at once to deal with such cases and put an end to this suffering by those who are not in the least responsible for the conditions which now exist.


My Lords, before the noble Duke replies on behalf of the Government, I should like to say something on what the noble and learned Lord has just said. He bases the whole of his argument on a document. I am a Senator in Ireland, and I should like to know what that document is. I do not know whether it is going to be published, but I think it is only fair that those who are trying to carry on in most difficult circumstances in that country should know exactly what that document is. You base the whole of your argument on that document. Perhaps there are some people who belonged to the former Government who may be able to tell us, but I cannot stand up in the Senate and say anything about your speech unless I know what, that document is. You say that there is not a word in the Treaty with regard to these decrees. That is quite right, and I do not see how there could have been. The Treaty was finished about 1 o'clock in the morning in circumstances that were perfectly terrible. I have been through it all. I have been through every bit of it since 1916. You also say that the Free State Government is getting rid of these decrees. The Free State Government has nothing to do with them, absolutely nothing. The Shaw Commission was appointed by the British Government. There was one representative of the Irish Government on it, but if the Shaw Commission has reduced the decrees given by English Judges, that is not the fault of the Irish Government. You also said that you were not—


I do not want to interrupt the noble Earl but he has, at least four times, addressed the noble and learned Lord directly. I must remind him that it is usual to address the House.


I beg your Lordships' pardon. The noble and learned Lord said he was not attacking the Irish Free State but his statement that the Irish Free State Government was getting rid of these decrees may, I think, be construed as an attack.


The noble Earl has not apprehended what I did say. He is wrong in saying that the Irish Free State has nothing to say to the tribunal. It is set up jointly between them and the British Government. When I said I was not attacking the Free State I specifically stated that what I was complaining of was that the British Government should have handed over this power to the Irish Free State—a power which the Irish Free State have a perfect right to exercise, having got it.


I repeat, the Shaw Commission was appointed by the British Government. There was only one member of the Irish Free State on it, and if that Commission was appointed by the British Government then the British Government is responsible for it. The whole argument of the noble and learned Lord was based on a document of which this House knows nothing and of which people in Ireland know nothing. I hope it will be published so that we shall know exactly where we are in relation to the late Government and also in relation to the present Government.


My Lords, before I proceed to answer categorically the Questions on the Paper I should like to assure the noble and learned Lord that if he will bring specific cases to my personal notice I will do my best to investigate and attend to them. On a previous occasion he made reference to a certain case. I admit that I am still making further inquiries, but so far as I have gone I have been able to ascertain that the case which he specifically mentioned, where an award of £1,500 made by a county court was subsequently reduced by the assessors to £500, was that of a police barrack which had been destroyed, and which had been let for an annual sum of £25. I must honestly say that I think an award of £500 for a police barrack in Ireland—and many of your Lordships know the value of those buildings—is almost sufficient, as it produces, and was intended by the assessors to produce, an income which, arising from gilt-edged securities, would be similar to that which was obtained when the building was let. I merely give that as an instance that it is necessary, before I can make any sweeping statement, that these cases, which I know are very often cases of very genuine hardship, should receive careful and full investigation.

I turn to the Questions on the Paper. It is evident, and my noble and learned friend, I think, emphasised the fact, that the class of cases with which he is dealing is that of what are generally known as pre-truce eases. In January, 1922, an agreement was drawn up between the British Government and the Provisional Government and embodied in a Paper which, I think, is the Paper to which my noble and learned friend has already referred. It is entitled "Heads of Working Arrangements for implementing the Treaty." In another place, on Monday last, my hon. friend the Parliamentary Secretary promised that this Paper should be laid before Parliament, and I trust that early next week it will be in your Lordships' hands. This Paper is an agreed Memorandum as to the steps necessary to be taken in order to implement the Treaty. Among other matters referred to was the establishment of what was known as the Shaw Commission, but I hope I can relieve my noble and learned friend's anxiety on that point by telling him that the Commission is now known as the Wood-Kenton Commission.

The Commission was established under that agreement, and with your Lordships' permission I will read the exact words of the document. It was agreed— that all proceedings (including pending proceedings and proceedings for enforcement of decrees already given) under the enactments relating to compensation for criminal injuries be barred, and that a resolution in this sense be passed and promulgated by the Provisional Government, to be followed by legislation in the British Parliament. I hope that I have categorically answered the first two parts of the Question on the Paper.

In the third part of the Question I am asked whether there is any precedent to be found for such an enactment. So far as I know there is no exact precedent, but I think that in this connection I am justified in referring to the Law and Procedure (Emergency Provision) (Ireland) Act, 1916, and the Indemnity Act, 1920. I do not speak with legal authority, but I am advised that in both those Acts provisions were inserted of a character somewhat analogous to that to which I have referred.


Would the noble Duke tell us what are the terms of those Acts which are analogous? If it is not convenient now I do not mind, but I should like very much to know what parts are said to be analogous, for I know of no case in 1916 where decrees were abolished


If I may have an opportunity of inquiring, I shall be very glad to furnish that, information. The last part of the Question asks the Government whether the present Government will undertake to pay the amount of such decrees which have been so nullified by the act of the late Government under political exigencies. I gather that the suggestion of my noble and learned friend's Question is that the British Government should pay those decrees whether they have been before the Wood-Benton Commission or not, whether they are reasonable or not, and it is further suggested that it is inequitable that the decrees of the county court, in whatever circumstances they may have been issued, should be liable to revision. On several occasions in your Lordships' House I have given an assurance on behalf of the Government that we intend to adhere to the undertaking given by my predecessor and contained in his letter of July 26, 1922. But I cannot hold out any hope of suggesting to the Government that they should give the under taking proposed by my noble and learned friend.

In this respect I think that I ought to refer your Lordships to the debate which took place on February 24, 1922, in another place. In the course of that debate the decision to establish the Commission now known as the Wood-Benton Commission was first announced to Parliament, and on reading through that debate carefully I find that not only did the then Government announce the decision as being the only proper and equitable arrangement in the circumstances but all Parties, including many of those Members who are generally associated with my noble and learned friend, accepted it as such. In the course of that debate Mr. Churchill stated: A Commission will be established—the existing processes of the Courts will be barred in both countries. … This Commission. … will have power to review awards already given in undefended cases. Where an award has been given in cases of personal injuries we accept it, but where an award has been given in a case of damage to property, where the case has been undefended, that will be subject to review by the Commission, in older to deal with the very extortionate claims which had been made in some cases on purely ex parte evidence. Mr. Churchill went on to say that this power of review has been accorded by mutual consent between the two Governments, because it is well known that in some of the cases the awards made on ex parte statements were greatly in excess of the loss which had actually been sustained, and neither the British nor the Irish Government intend to lend themselves to the artificial inflation of these claims for damages. I understand that no objection was raised, except through one well-known and distinguished Member of the House of Commons, during that debate. The arrangement was perfectly well-known to all the interested parties, and it was published in the terms of reference to the Commission, presented to Parliament in May, 1922. So far as I am aware no objection has been taken to the procedure there laid down and subsequently-placed before Parliament in the White Paper, till the provisions were embodied in legislation passed by the Irish Free State.

I am aware that the late Government fully intended to bring legislation before the British Parliament to put this into effect. However, as your Lordships are well aware, several unexpected events occurred in the autumn of last year, and it was impossible for the then Government to find an opportunity of bringing forward legislation. Owing to the Parliamentary situation of the moment there was not time for the new Government to bring forward the necessary legislation which had been undertaken by their predecessors, before December 6. I am advised that under the legislation which came into operation on December 6 it is no longer possible for the British Parliament to deal with this subject, and, accordingly, the legislation was passed by the Irish Parliament. Apart altogether from the legal and technical aspect of this question. I venture to say there is hardly anyone who would not be prepared, to-day, to take an award under the Wood-Renton Commission with a view to obtaining eventually—I hope we are making such progress that I may venture to use the word "promptly"—some, and I trust adequate, compensation. The idea of proceeding under the old system, and obtaining a decree for whatever the amount may be from the county courts would, I think, not be willingly accepted by those who have a prospect of obtaining a decree under the Wood-Renton Commission. I can assure your Lordships that I am most anxious that these specific cases should be brought to my individual attention, and that we shall continue to do everything which we can to see that the unfortunate victims of these outrages receive prompt and adequate compensation.


My Lords, with your permission I should like to say one word. In my opinion the statement of the noble Duke is profoundly disappointing. Like many other statements which have been made, it expresses a great deal of sympathy, but announces that they will do nothing. I must say that nothing could have given me more surprise than that the present Government, which I believe calls itself a Conservative Government, should treat in a light-hearted way, as the noble Duke has done, the setting aside of decrees given by British Courts at the time when the British Government was in Ireland. I think it is fair to tell these people boldly and openly that what the noble Duke has said means nothing and means no relief. I have met a few Russian refugees over here, and the one thing I found about them was that they wiped out the past and looked forward to trying to live as best they could in the future. It is far better that you should not pretend to these people in Ireland that you are going to do something for them, when you are going to do nothing, and that they should try to bear the wrongs and outrages which have been perpetrated upon them in the name of English law as best they can. I am not at all sure that if Mr. Churchill had been at the Colonial Office, having regard to his previous assistance, these people would not have had better terms.