HL Deb 22 February 1928 vol 70 cc221-8

VISCOUNT TEMPLETOWN had given Notice to move to resolve, That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the matters so many years in dispute between His Majesty's Government and the Basle Trading Company.


My Lords, with reference to the Motion which stands as the first Order on the Paper to-day, I desire to ask the Leader of the House, the Marquess of Salisbury, whether, having regard to the position in which the question stands, he has any statement which he is willing to make before the discussion is entered upon.


My Lords, in reply to my noble friend I shall be extremely careful, in answering a question of this kind, not to deal with the merits of the case, which would be entirely out of order, but I think in the public interest it is my duty to make an appeal to my noble friend Lord Temple-town and the House. May I say in the first instance that I am quite aware that he has great reason to complain of the delay in this matter. Although I cannot pretend that I can defend in all respects those who are responsible for the delay—I make that full admission to him—I do not want him or your Lordships to carry away the impression that. I am not aware of the position in which he stands and the apology which is due to him for the delay. But when I come to consider whether we shall be wise to enter upon this discussion I desire to make a very short statement to your Lordships.

I am not going into the merits of the case beyond saying that it is a very complicated matter. I am able to make a statement on behalf of the Government and, so far as the Colonial Office is concerned, I am able to say on behalf of my right hon. friend the Secretary of State that negotiations took place throughout last summer and autumn on the basis of (a), a restoration of the share capital of the company plus interest; (b), restitution of their properties; (c), some additional compensation. We were not able to arrive at a settlement of (c)—that is the additional compensation—but are willing to continue the negotiations. So far as the Indian aspect of the question is concerned the matter is complicated by the regard which must be paid to the authority of the Indian Legislature, but in respect of both matters I would put it to your Lordships that those who are called upon to negotiate with a foreign company on behalf of His Majesty's Government will find their difficulties seriously increased by the discussion of Lord Templetown's Motion, and I would suggest to him not to proceed with it to-day. Your Lordships may say: "What is this death-bed repentance—this last moment appeal?" My noble friend Lord Temple-town is aware that, not many hours ago, but still some hours, I was in communication with him and did my best privately in the direction which I am now urging your Lordships. I will only say broadly and generally that the complications of modern government are so immense and the burden of work is so great upon the heads of Departments that delay which would be certainly very culpable in other circumstances may be looked upon with less severity when those difficulties are contemplated. I can only make this appeal in the matter. I have no control, of course, and I leave it in your Lordships' hands.


My Lords, may I ask permission to put a further question before the noble Lord, Lord Templetown, makes his statement. I have taken some interest in this matter and I should like to put a question to the noble Marquess with regard to the third item of his statement. The first two items appear to be thoroughly satisfactory, but as to the third item, is there any prospect of His Majesty's Government and the Swiss Government or the parties concerned being able to arrive at an agreement without reference to some kind of an arbitration, or have they in contempla tion the submission of such a matter to arbitration? The third point in the noble Marquess's statement seemed to be a little inconclusive as to what was likely to be done.


My Lords, I have come down to the House this afternoon intending to take part in this debate. I have made myself acquainted as well as I could with the circumstances which underlay the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Templetown. After what has been said by the noble Marquess I should certainly not in any circumstances say a word, but I should like to add a request, in accordance with that of the noble Marquess, to postpone this question because, having some little knowledge of the delicacy and difficulty of negotiations and realising as I do how much better it is that the thing should be carried through by negotiation than as a result of acute and often acrid argument, I do think that the interests of the persons concerned would be best met if the noble Marquess's suggestion were carried out. Perhaps the noble Marquess will not mind if I add, in conclusion, that I welcome any form of repentance on the part of the Government, even if it be on their death-bed.


My Lords, may I add a hope that the noble Lord, Lord Templetown, will accept the suggestion that has been made. I am in the same position as my noble and learned friend who spoke last. I looked carefully in order to ascertain what the facts of the matter are with a view, if necessary, of intervening in the debate, but I sincerely hope, after what has been said by the noble Marquess and by the noble Earl the Secretary of State for India, that Lord Templetown will assent to the postponement of his Motion.


My Lords, with the permission of the House may I be allowed to say a few words on the Indian aspects of this matter? No one knows better than the noble Lord that we are no longer completely masters in dealing with a subject matter of this kind in our own household. It is the fact that I am at this moment, and have been for some time past, in correspondence with the Viceroy upon this matter. I think I would do more harm than good if I put the matter higher than this, that I am sure the development of the situation in India and the conclusion ultimately reached must be very greatly affected by the agreement which has been announced to-day by the Leader of the House in relation to those claims which principally affect the Colonial Office. I cannot help thinking that the holding of a detailed debate to-day upon this Motion and, still more, the examination of these topics before a Committee at the time when the national case may require to be put before a neutral Committee, would not be helpful either to the difficult negotiations with which I am charged in India or to the ultimate presentation of this case, if it becomes necessary to present it. I need not add a word to what Lord Salisbury has said as to our realisation that there has been a very great delay in this matter and not always an avoidable delay. I think I could assure your Lordships that this period of delay will not be unduly protracted and that we have a very reasonable hope of being able to make a complete statement of the matter to your Lordships within a period not too remote in time.


My Lords, I also had come down, like my noble and learned friend Lord Buckmaster, wishing to say something about this extraordinary case. My noble friend the Leader of the House has appealed to us saying how very hard worked the Departments of the Government are. Therefore, instead of saying that this delay has been most discreditable to the Government, I would say that it has been most discreditable to this country. I am overjoyed to hear that the Government are really at last going to approach this matter with the object of a speedy settlement. If they cannot do that, surely, as my noble friend the Secretary of State for India suggested, I think, a neutral tribunal is the right method of settlement. I thought the Hague Tribunal existed for the purpose of settling this kind of thing, but if the Government can deal with it even now at the last moment, by all means let them do so. But, if not, for goodness sake, remove this discredit from England and let it go to a neutral tribunal.


My Lords, I want to make myself quite plain. I did not of course announce—I was not authorised in any way to announce—that this matter would go be-for a neutral tribunal, because evidently, if you are engaged in negotiations which you hope it will be possible to carry to a successful conclusion, you do not think of ultimate tribunals. What I meant to convey, and what I think I did in fact only say, was that if we by a Select Committee of your Lordship's House were to approach any conclusion, and this matter eventually came before a Tribunal perhaps less friendly, the matter might to that extent appear to be prejudged. For that reason, I hope that the matter may be dealt with on the lines which the noble Marquess has suggested.


My Lords, I have certainly listened with great interest to the speeches, so far as I have been able to hear them, made by various noble Lords. I wish to say, first of all, that my position is that I want to see the name of England cleared of this scandal which has been going on for ten years. When it is proposed once more to postpone the matter, I think it shows what a very weak defence the Government must have. I cannot conceive that if they had a strong defence, they would wish to put it off for an hour. Reference has been made to the first point in this memorandum—restoration of their share capital plus interest. Their share capital of £120,000 and interest was offered to the Basle Trading Company ten years ago, but there was a condition attached to it which no sane man could have accepted. It was that they should give up all claim to the balance of the property, which was somewhere about a million. That meant that they would have to admit themselves to be traitors to the country and to abandon claim to the balance of property which has been taken illegally. There was a question raised, I know, as to whether there was legal liability or not, but what I want to put to the House is that an agreement was made in May, 1916.

I will read one paragraph of it. I will not trouble your Lordships with the whole of it. The agreement says:— In order to ensure that the entire direction and control of the society's business is situated in the United Kingdom and that the persons responsible for its management are in and subject to the laws of the United Kingdom and to the control of the British Government the society will have, immediately for that purpose a United Kingdom office with Messrs. J. P. Werner and Company as managers thereof and from that office Messrs. J. P. Werner and Company shall conduct the a whole business on behalf of the society, and they shall have the material for keeping and keep proper accounts to show the results of the whole business and such accounts shall at all times be liable to inspection by His Majesty's Government, Messrs. J. P. Werner and Company to be given notice forthwith of the arrangement now come to and instructed accordingly. That was a definite agreement made in 1916 between the British Government and the Basle Trading Co. In 1918 what happened? The Government seized the property of the Basle Trading Co. Either they did that in violation of that agreement, or—I hesitate to put it so—they must have scrapped the agreement.


I am sure your Lordships will understand the difficulty in which I am placed by the noble Viscount. I do not complain of the noble Viscount, because he is placed in a difficult position, too, but he is now entering into the merits of the case which, except that your Lordships are so very considerate, would not be strictly in order until the matter is reached on the Order Paper. I am hoping that my noble friend, in view of what has been said in different quarters of the House, will be generous in the matter and not press the question, as he undoubtedly has the right to do. I do not deny for a moment his absolute right, but I do hope that my noble friend will accede to the suggestion that has been made.


I do not want to be out of order and I am going to do my level best to act in the spirit of the remarks made by the noble Marquess, but the trouble in my mind is that you say you are going on negotiating. Negotiations have been going on for years. Where is the finality? If the noble Marquess can give me any idea as to a date for finality—


My noble friend the Secretary of State for India is directly responsible for one of the most difficult parts of the matter, and he has told your Lordships the matter will be proceeded with with despatch. What more can be said than that?


I was not referring to the part of the matter that concerns the Secretary of State for India. I was thinking of the whole property. We say the Government have taken this thing from us and we are entitled to its return. We are only asking to be given back what belongs to us. Under heading (a) of this memorandum there occur the words: "restoration of their share capital plus interest" and it goes on to refer to "some additional compensation." May I ask what "some additional compensation" means?


The noble Lord and his friends have always contended that return of share capital plus interest would not be sufficient and they make a further claim. This third heading is intended to cover what ought to be the balance. How much it ought to be is a matter that is in negotiation.


My Lords, may I say, in view of the expression of feeling on both sides of the House, that I think it would be very much to the advantage of the noble Viscount if he accepted the suggestion which has been made. I feel quite sure, if he will allow me to say so, that he would find himself in the end better satisfied if he postponed this matter. I say that with more confidence because that was not my opinion until I came into the House and heard what was said by the noble Marquess. I am sure, after what he has said and after what the Secretary of State for India has said, that the noble Viscount has everything to gain by postponing discussion of the question. I venture to make this suggestion, with which I think the noble Marquess the Leader of the House will readily agree, that if at some subsequent stage in the Session the noble Viscount should wish to raise the matter again, the noble Marquess would give him every possible facility to raise the question on a day convenient to him. If it became necessary to adjust the business of the House, I am sure the noble Marquess would do everything in his power to see that the noble Viscount on the Cross Benches had the opportunity to bring the matter forward at a moment convenient to himself.


I most readily give that assurance, most readily.


All I have to say is that I had intended to raise this matter and take a Division because I thought the differences left between the Government and the Basle Trading Company were now so small that it was best to get rid of them as soon as we could by arbitration rather than fail to arrive at an agreement by negotiation, which has happened so often. In view, however, of what the noble Marquess has said and the undertaking that he has now given and of the observations of my noble friends in the House, I am willing to put off this Motion for a Select Committee to a day not named and to leave it to the noble Marquess to suggest a date some time during the Session when it may be discussed again.


If the noble Viscount will approach me again a little later we can arrange it between ourselves.


Very well. I will postpone the matter then.