§ VISCOUNT TEMPLETOWN rose to ask whether His Majesty's Government are now prepared to make a statement as to the settlement with the Basle Trading Company; and to draw the attention of His Majesty's Government to certain statements recently made in the report of the Commonwealth Trust Company and published in the advertisement columns of The Times of March 29 last, and to move for Papers.
The noble Viscount said: My Lords, perhaps, before the noble Lord replies, I may be permitted to interpolate a few words on my own account with respect to this statement. I will, in the first place, read to your Lordships an extract from the advertisement columns of The Times, to which I am going to refer during the few minutes for which I shall occupy your Lordships' attention. It is as follows:—
We know that Herr Preiswerk-Imhoff has a spokesman in Parliament, Lord Templetown. Now a member of Parliament who champions a foreign financial interest should be called upon to state the exact nature of his previous connection with its promoters. And this is especially so in the case of a Peer, who, if he fails to do so in the House of Lords, cannot be called to account in any constituency. For his own sake, and also for the sake of that branch of our Legislature to which he belongs, Lord Templetown should be given an opportunity of explaining under cross-examination
the history of his previous relations with Herr Preiswerk-Imhoff. Frankly we do not know what those relations were, but the point we wish to establish is this. When a member of Parliament uses his position as such to press demands of foreign claimants (in this case estimated at over £1,000,000) which can only be met by taxation of His Majesty's subjects, it is for him to explain in advance his previous relations with the claimants. And if he has failed it is for the House to which he belongs to institute inquiry.
This veiled and malicious innuendo, thus conveyed, which would appear to be directed inferentially, if not actually, against other members of your Lordships' House, I treat with the contempt it merits, but the reply to the direct question which I make—and it is simple—is that I had no previous connection, relations or communications with either the Basle Trading Company or its president, Mr. Preiswerk-Imhoff.
§ My connection with the whole affair arose from the fact that the gentleman entrusted by the Basle Mission Trading Company with the task of urging on His Majesty's Government their claims for justice, Mr. Palliser, was an old friend of mine and he appealed to me, among others, to assist him in his mission, just five years ago, and that was the first time I had ever heard of the Basle Mission Trading Company. Some few weeks later I met, for the first time, its president, Mr. Preiswerk-Imhoff who, I may say, impressed me very favourably. He handed me certain documents—namely, the "joint opinion" of Sir John Simon, the French official order, the offer of £120,000, and the agreement. When at great length I had studied the whole history of the case, substantiated as it was by many other documents, I came to the definite conclusion that the retention by the British Government of the company's property reflected on the British name for justice and fair play, and I decided to assist in every way I could to obtain justice for a grieviously-wronged concern. My first step in that direction was a communication dated April 28, 1923, to His Grace the Duke of Devonshire, at that time Secretary of State for the Colonieś, and he re-opened the case.
I will quote again here a paragraph from The Times advertisement in order that I may reply to it. It is as follows:—
When a member of Parliament uses his position as such to press demands of foreign
claimants (in this case estimated at over £1,000,000) which can only be met by taxation of His Majesty's subjects, it is for him to explain in advance his previous relations with the claimants.
How the restitution of property wrongly seized to its lawful owners is equivalent to the taxation of British subjects is difficult to follow. The grain of truth, if any, in such a view as to the present case is unfortunately due to the fact that the concern to whom the British Government confided these properties had during its existence lost some hundreds of thousands of pounds of the properties entrusted to it; but it is again the innuendo against members of this House, including of course myself, that I must leave to your Lordships' appreciation.
§ LORD OLIVIER
My Lords, I think it would be for the convenience of the House, as I have suggested to the noble Lord who will reply, that I should take this opportunity of moving the Motion standing in my name in order that the statement of the Government may deal both with the points raised by Lord Templetown and by my own Motion. My Notice is in these terms:—To call attention to certain statements reflecting on the administration of the Colonial Office, reported in The Times newspaper of the 29th of March last to have been made at a meeting of the shareholders of the Commonwealth Trust, Limited, by Mr. Lionel Curtis, formerly employed in the Dominions Office; also to an accusation of untruthfulness made against the same Office in a statement published by the directors of the Commonwealth Trust; to inquire whether His Majesty's Government acquiesce in these representations; also to call attention to representations made by Mr. Curtis that members of this House are accustomed to act on behalf of a gentleman believed by him to be the agent of the Chairman of the Basle Trading Company; and to move for Papers.It is very difficult, in addressing this House, to speak quite freely with regard to the statements or accusations made by a private gentleman who is not in a position to answer in the same place, and anything I may have to say respecting the statements made, both about my noble friend and about myself, by Mr. Lionel Curtis, I shall make in the columns of the Press, and shall abstain from making them in this House.
But, for the purposes of this debate, we must take Mr. Lionel Curtis at his own valuation, which he has very frankly 1036 set forth in the statement he made at the Commonwealth Trust meeting. He said:—The Chairman has explained to you my own personal position in this matter. I was one of the original directors of the Trust"—he is therefore well informed of the premisses—but ceased to act in 1921, and presently resigned when I undertook to act as adviser on Irish affairs in the Colonial Office. On leaving the Colonial Office in 1924 I declined an invitation to rejoin the board. When the invitation was renewed last year, I felt bound to accept it in view of my special knowledge of circumstances from which the present difficulties arise. While I was employed in the Colonial Office from 1921 to 1924, it was in that branch which is now distinguished as a special Department under the name of the Dominions Office. I had nothing whatever to do with the Department now known as the Colonial Office, which handles the affairs of the Crown Colonies, for the simple reason that Irish affairs had less to do with Crown Colonies than with any other branch of the administration. I had much to do with the Foreign Office, the Home Office, the Treasury, and, indeed, most other Departments, and formed the opinion that the English Civil Service is the finest instrument of government ever devised by the wit of man.…I read these things in order that your Lordships may know that he is a man who speaks with authority. He reminds me of a gentleman whom we used to know at Oxford, Mr. Stephen Spring-Rice, of whom it used to be said that there were few matters on which his advice was not sought by His Majesty's Government, and none on which it was not offered.
He went on to say:—I find it difficult to conceive men abler or more devoted to the public service than the colleagues with whom I worked in the Dominions Department. I shall always be grateful for the helpful kindness of these skilled professionals to an amateur like myself. What most impressed me was their absolute loyalty to a political decision when once it was made.I want to call attention to that phrase, because it is part of his charge that a decision was disloyally departed from. He continued:—In fairness to all concerned, I must make it clear at the outset that the office with which we are now in conflict had little or no connection with the office in which I worked, except that it obeyed the same chiefs. As I had to attend a Conference in July on the other side of the world"—1037 Mr. Curtis being in universal demand—I was unable to look into the affairs of the Trust till September last. I then asked the secretary to collect every document in the records bearing on these troubles since the Trust was initiated in 1918. Having read these papers I informed the board that I could find nothing which could not be disclosed to their advantage at a public inquiry.…I will now describe to you the impression left on my mind by a study of those papers, as to the cause which has vitiated the relations of the Colonial Office with the Trust in the period under review.…The Colonial Office has failed to grasp that work like this can be done in a spirit of public service, and that men so working are not easily coerced by the kind of threats which might perhaps reduce people trading for their own profit to silence and docility.That is to say, the Colonial Office are apparently accused of having tried to coerce Mr. Curtis and his friends by threats.
Further, he says:—In 1918 it was laid down by the Government in the most absolute manner that the Basle Mission was never again to be tolerated in British Territory.The question, apparently, was being re-opened then. It was re-opened by the Duke of Devonshire himself. The original decision to sequestrate the property was re-opened on the ground that it was a mistaken decision, and the imputation against the members of the Colonial Office of disloyalty to a previous decision in re-opening that, is the most absurd comment I have ever heard on the permanent public service in my life. It is the bounden and first duty of a public officer, if he finds out that certain facts were unknown to the Government when a previous decision was taken, to bring them to the attention of his chiefs, and to advise them if they are well-founded to bring the matter before the Government for re-consideration. To go back on a previous decision when evidence is put before them that a mistake had been made, as they have now acknowledged, in confiscating the properties, was a perfectly proper action on the part of the Colonial Office. I hope that the noble Lord opposite (Lord Lovat) is prepared to exonerate the Colonial Office from any kind of disloyalty in seeking to re-open the question which had been erroneously decided.
Further, with regard to the capacity of the Colonial Office, Mr. Lionel Curtis says that on October 13 Sir George Craik 1038 and he met the Acting Secretary of State for the Colonies and some of his advisers, and the proceedings at this interview confirmed certain impressions left on his mind after reading the papers. He continued:—At this meeting the exposition of the Departmental view was left in the main to junior officers, who had presumably drafted the letters under discussion. We found ourselves confronted by the legal arguments and financial claims which Herr Preiswerk-Imhoff had advanced in 1919, and these arguments and claims seemed now to be accepted without reserve.I hope they were; it would be to the credit of the intelligence of the Government if they were.No attempt appeared to have been made to check his assertions.I should like to know whether the Colonial Office actually made no attempt to check his assertions. Mr. Curtis went on:—We felt that the whole matter had drifted into a corner of the Department where Mr. Walter Long's over-ruling decision had neither been forgotten nor forgiven.Mr. Curtis further said:—I realise the gravity of what I am saying, but beg you to remember that I have asked to be allowed to say it only where I could be cross-examined in a court of inquiry, with all the correspondence of the last ten years open before it. The interview confirmed the impression given by the papers that delicate negotiations with a powerful foreign interest had been left in hands not competent to handle them, under no effective Ministerial control.These are the charges which Mr. Curtis, with his immense official experience, makes against the Colonial Office.
He proceeded to say:—The words used by Lord Salisbury and Lord Birkenhead in the Lords and the subsequent action of the Government in taking the matter out of the hands of the Department show that this view is now shared by the Cabinet.Did the Cabinet share that view? The Cabinet have, as a matter of fact, endorsed the view which Lord Templetown and others have been trying to get the Government to accept against the resistance of some person or persons in the Colonial Office. Is it the persons who were resisting the action of Lord Templetown, who were condemned by the words of Lord Birkenhead and Lord Salisbury in the Lords? What is the interpretation? What did Lord Salisbury and Lord 1039 Birkenhead intend by those words which Mr. Lionel Curtis says were a condemnation of the Colonial Office? We are entitled, I think, to an explanation of these extraordinary cross-currents of policy and these imputations against the Government of saying one thing at one time and another thing at another.
The next thing to which I wish to call your Lordships' attention is a statement made and issued by the Commonwealth Trust and headed "An untrue letter." This letter was referred to and discussed in The Times, and it arises out of this paragraph:—During these discussions two disturbing incidents occurred. On July 20, 1927, in a debate in the House of Lords, Lord Templetown said that the Government had offered to return the property in West Africa to the Basle Trading Company. Next day the board called the attention of the Colonial Office to this statement, adding that—'this offer was not referred to by the Under-Secretary of State in his speech, and my board cannot believe that it was correctly reported by the speaker referred to, seeing that these properties now belong to this company, without whose consent His Majesty's Government is not entitled to dispose of them.'To this the Colonial Office replied, on August 18, very urbanely I think, that—the Secretary of State for the Colonies takes no responsibility for statements made in the course of the debate on the 20th of July by Viscount Templetown or Earl Buxton.The memorandum goes on to say:—Later, however, it appeared from Lord Salisbury's statement in the House of Lords on behalf of the Government on February 22, 1928, that the offer in question had in fact been made before the date of the Colonial Office letter of August 18,"—which is said to be an untrue letter.
Letters appeared in The Times from men of high position in the commercial world, saying that the Government was accused of an untrue statement and that there ought to be a public inquiry. What is the untrue statement? The Department, with methods of evasion with which we are all familiar, perhaps did not intend to answer that question precisely: and meant that, although Lord Templetown might have made the statement, the Colonial Office accepted no responsibility for it and that the time was not ripe for them to make a statement. Nevertheless, when the statement is made by the noble Marquess the Leader of the House at a very 1040 opportune time and in very clear and explicit language, and at a time when it was certainly demanded that a statement should be made, this is the comment which the Fellow of All Souls makes upon it. He says:—It is only a few weeks since Lord Templetown was asking for inquiry and arbitration. But all this was changed when Lord Salisbury blurted out on February 22 that the Government had offered to return the properties in addition to the value of the shares.…These gentlemen are very hard to please. When the Government are not quite prepared to make a statement and say that they will not take responsibility for statements that have been made, they are charged with making an untrue statement. When the time comes and the noble Marquess, with the clearness which always characterises his statements, makes a perfectly clear and proper statement about the matter, he is accused of blurting.
That is the kind of comment on the proceedings of your Lordships' House which I do not think is seemly. The only interpretation of the charge of untruthfulness can be this, that as a matter of fact the Government were responsible for Lord Templetown's statement and had so informed him. That is the only logical meaning which in my mind it can have. I presume the editor of a journal must know the meaning of language and that is the only sense in which the statement referred to can be called untrue—namely, that the Government had the responsibility for it. I should like it cleared up as to whether or not the Government had the responsibility or whether the charge is baseless.
Further, I wish to call attention to the representations made by Mr. Lionel Curtis that members of this House are accustomed to act on behalf of a gentleman believed by him to be the agent of the Chairman of the Basle Trading Company. That statement is made quite precisely in a paragraph of the Report from which Lord Templetown has already quoted. It says this:—And now I turn to Herr Preiswerk-Imhoff's activities in the House of Commons and in the British Press. In this case the agent through whom we believe he has worked was a member of Parliament, but is so no longer, one who, from the nature of his public employment, has exceptional knowledge of how to conduct a campaign in Parliament and the Press.…1041 That means Mr. J. H. Harris, the Secretary of the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society, of which my friend Mr. Charles Roberts is Chairman, while I am a member of the Committee. Mr. Harris also happens to be one of the original promoters of the Commonwealth Trust. I myself was an original subscriber to that Trust. My holding is now in the hands of a member of my family and so I am kept in touch with what is going on. Later on he said:—The persons other than Lord Templetown who championed Herr Preiswerk-Imhoff's claim in Parliament were mostly members through whom Mr. Harris was accustomed to act in movements backed by the Aborigines Protection Society, Lord Olivier, Lord Buxton, Lord Buckmaster, Lord Parmoor, Lord Beauchamp.…I did not know that Mr. Harris was accustomed to act through Lord Beauchamp.
I myself am not accustomed to be dictated to by Mr. Harris. When I intend bringing a matter to the attention of your Lordships dealing with the matters as to which the Anti-Slavery Society can give me information, I go to Mr. Harris and get from him a good deal of information. But I can assure your Lordships that the impulse for anything that I do in your Lordships' House is my own. I only wanted to refer to that because on the face of it the statement is an absurd one. Lord Templetown has pointed out how absurd it is in his case and I desire to point out how absurd it is in my own case. It seems to reflect upon the Anti-Slavery Society the charge of having occupied itself with things with which it had no concern whatever. So far as the Anti-Slavery Society is concerned I want to deny—and I have Mr. Charles Roberts's letter here equally denying—that the society as a whole has ever concerned itself in this matter. It was not their business and they have not moved in it. Mr. Harris, their secretary, did not move in it in any degree as a member of the society, but as a shareholder in the Commonwealth Trust and as a private gentleman having his own opinion. I think that is all I need say upon that point, but I wished to place on record the repudiation by Mr. Charles Roberts that he has, in any suggestion regarding this matter, acted on behalf of Mr. Preiswerk-Imhoff or at the instigation of Mr. J. H. Harris.
One final question I desire to ask is this: Who is going to pay for this business? 1042 We have been told that a settlement has been made; and I congratulate His Majesty's Government on having made a settlement. So far as the settlement has been made public there is nothing in it that calls, so far as I can see, for hostile criticism at all. I understand that the Government have made a settlement under terms which, so far as they have been financial, have been arbitrated by gentlemen whom we all highly respect. They have also made a settlement, I understand, with the Commonwealth Trust on payment of a sum to be paid by the Government which, we are informed, is £55,000. There are two cases. First of all there is the case of the Basle Trading Company. I want to know if the noble Lord can tell us what is the financial settlement made with the Basle Trading Co. When the Commonwealth Trust took over the assets of the Basle Trading Co. they had surplus assets amounting to £505,000. The Commonwealth Trust has now surplus assets of £143,000, showing a diminution of assets of £362,000. Some of that, no doubt, is trading loss, which would have been incurred in any case and which I suppose could not equitably be reclaimed by the Basle Trading Co. But are they or are they not to have any consideration whatever for their surplus of assets which at that time amounted to £505,000? If they are, who is going to pay?
The same question applies in the case of the settlement with the Commonwealth Trust. That Trust was endowed by His Majesty's Government with all the properties of the Basle Trading Co. At one time it was suggested that the settlement with the Commonwealth Trust was that they should be paid out the £50,000 which they had subscribed for the shares and that the whole of the properties should be handed over to the Basle Trading Co. Instead of that I understand the Government are going to retain all the business and hand over the premises and compensate the Commonwealth Trust by paying them £55,000, more or less. Payment of that sum would involve in any case a payment out of the Exchequer or out of the funds of the Gold Coast. So far as the Commonwealth Trust is concerned, I think the shareholders have had an enormous fund given to them and they are now to have an extra bonus of £55,000 given to them for their business which, they say, is a 1043 paying concern, a business which pays the not unhandsome dividend of 5 per cent. free of Income Tax, guaranteed, as it appears, by the Government, who are prepared to come to their assistance on every possible occasion. I suggest it should be made a trustee stock. It is an extraordinary transaction.
On what pretext is this done? It is done upon the pretext that it is for the benefit of the natives that the Commonwealth Trust should continue its beneficent operations. Ever since the Commonwealth Trust took up the matter the natives of the Gold Coast have not had a penny piece of benefit from the Commonwealth Trust. It is on the faith of the fact that the natives are to have some benefit that the Government are going to endow the Commonwealth Trust with a gift of £55,000, besides paying compensation to the Basle Trading Company for the property they took away from that company. When has such philanthropic work ever been done by a Government on this principle in the history of the world? If you want to provide education for the natives of the Gold Coast, if you want to assist missions, is this the way you should do it? Is that the way—endowing a company by paying for the assets of another company and giving them £55,000 besides new premises? Was such a thing ever done in this country? Talk about State Socialism, I would very much rather take over the whole education of the natives of Cape Colony and the Gold Coast than I would give a fund or an endowment to a commercial company, in order that they might make profits out of which they can provide for the education of the natives. It is a shocking principle.
Finally, I would ask the noble Lord if he will tell us what is the total amount involved and who is to pay? Is the British Parliament going to pay? I should be very much interested to hear the comments in another place if a proposal is made to pay £300,000—I presume the bill will come to that—to carry out this proposal solely for the benefit of a company to enable it to provide some kind of education for the natives of the Gold Coast out of their profits when they exceed 6½ per cent. on the capital. That is an extraordinary transaction and I should like to hear the comments in another place upon it. I should like to 1044 hear also the comments made in the Gold Coast Legislature when you submit a proposal to them to carry out such an extraordinary policy at their expense. All who have had experience of Colonial history can apprehend the trouble you will have out there if you carry out this transaction, which was engineered in Downing Street, carried out at Downing Street and imposed on the Colony by the Secretary of State. You say in effect: "Because we made a mistake in doing this we shall impose the cost on the Colony and you will have to pay."
My noble friend Lord Chalmers will remember the case in Jamaica when action was taken on behalf of His Majesty's Government by a Governor of Jamaica, who confiscated a ship under the provisions of the Foreign Enlistment Act. The Treasury said: "This is the act of the Governor; it is not the act of the Government; but as an act of grace we will pay half for what the Governor has done on behalf of the British Government." Nevertheless there was a small revolution in the Island of Jamaica. All the elected members of the Council resigned and the trouble was such that the provisions of the Constitution had to be modified in order to placate public opinion. You may have something of that kind in the Gold Coast. The only further point I have to mention is this. I do not think it is a point which will need much pressing. I will move that the Papers consist of the correspondence between His Majesty's Government and the representatives of the Basle Trading Company or the Swiss Government on their behalf. We in this House and the public generally are entitled to know something of the extraordinary history of this business that has dragged on wearily for the unprecedented period of about ten years. I beg to move.
§ EARL BUXTON
My Lords, it may be convenient if I say the few words that I desire to say, before the noble Lord speaks on behalf of the Government. I should like to associate myself fully with the observations made by the noble Lords, Lord Templetown and Lord Olivier, in regard to the attacks made on the integrity of members of both Houses. I think it is very unfortunate that this trouble should have been allowed to continue for so long a time. The directors made an accusation without any evidence 1045 whatever to support it, and I think it is quite sufficient for this purpose that the two noble Lords who have spoken before me have repudiated that attack and the insinuation that they were in any way actuated by improper motives in moving in this matter. I am sure they have done so only as a public duty and in the public interest, with a view of obtaining justice for both sides. I am glad my noble friend Lord Olivier also drew attention to the attacks which have been made on civil servants in the directors' report. The permanent officials of the Civil Service and the Colonial Office have been attacked in various ways and they are said to have been overridden by their chief on one occasion. It is said that these matters got into the hands of junior officers and so on, and these civil servants are practically accused of behaving badly in regard to that public service.
I consider it is very regrettable that such an attack should be made on our civil servants. I have had the honour of serving in three great public administrative Departments and I can say with absolute sincerity that all our civil servants do their duty loyally to their chiefs and never in these matters introduce personal feeling. They are loyal in every sense of the word to those above them. To say it is the junior officers in a Department who are responsible for the kind of position that has arisen is, of course, absurd. The only person who can be held responsible in any public Department is the head of that Department. There are, of course, differences of opinion when a question is before a Department, but when a decision is come to it is not the civil servant who is held responsible for that decision: it is the head of the Department. To suggest anything to the contrary seems to me to be diametrically opposed to our system of State administration so far as civil servants are concerned.
I rise to congratulate the Government on having at long last arrived at a solution of this question which has now covered seven or eight years, and the only comment I would make regarding the Colonial Office is that they certainly have been dilatory in this matter. However, they have now arrived at the conclusion that the original sequestration was wrong, although at the time in perfectly good faith it was believed to be perfectly legal. They are now proposing 1046 to hand back the land and buildings to the original proprietors of it, the Basle Trading Company. I regret only that the affair has given a bad impression and certainly did not improve the relations between Great Britain and Switzerland. I would like to convey my congratulations to Lord Templetown for his Job-like patience, and the persistence with which he has pursued this matter for the last seven years. I hope he will feel at the end of it that he has got a Rachael and not a Leah as the result of his seven years waiting.
There are two interests concerned in connection with this matter, the interest of the Basle Trading Co. and the interest of the Commonwealth Trust, which have come somewhat into conflict, and I really rise for the purpose of asking my noble friend who represents the Colonial Office to give us in his reply a little further information with regard to the position than is contained in the letter from the Colonial Office and in the answer of the Secretary of State in the House of Commons the other day. I understand the Basle Trading Co. will have handed to them the houses and land of which they were dispossessed when the property was sequestrated, and in addition to that they will get back their £120,000 capital, with arrears of dividend, amounting to something like £40,000. Besides that they will receive a sum of £250,000 in respect of liquid assets the value of which it is difficult to estimate, and for which I understand they themselves would naturally have been anxious to get a larger sum.
It is a very great relief to me to note what the Secretary of State said the other day with regard to the future of the Basle Trading Company, because in the first instance it seemed the whole of the money, the land and the buildings taken were to be handed back to them without any conditions at all, although originally there was to be only 5 per cent. paid on capital and the whole of any surplus trading profit was to go to the benefit of the natives, so that the trading spirit should be absolutely prohibited. It did appear in the first announcement made as if the whole of the capital and the liquid assets and the arrears of interest on capital were to go back to the Basle Trading Company 1047 without any conditions of that sort. They were to have handed to them property of far greater value than that of which they were dispossessed, although when they were dispossessed of the property only 5 per cent. was to be paid on the capital of £120,000, and the rest must go to the benefit of the Mission station and the natives. However, that, I understand from the Secretary of State, is not true, and he has agreed with the Basle Trading Company—I will not say he has made it a condition, because I think they rather object to that word—that they shall carry out the general principle on which they previously worked—namely, that they will limit their interest and that any surplus will continue to go to the natives. That, I think, is very satisfactory.
Then we have the other party, that is, the Commonwealth Trust, and I do not quite agree with my noble friend Lord Olivier in what he said in regard to them. He seems to think the Government ought not to treat them liberally and generously. I think he forgets that after all—
§ LORD OLIVIER
No, I did not say that. I think they have been treated quite fairly and rightly. What I said was objectionable was to finance a public company in order to provide education for the natives.
§ EARL BUXTON
The Commonwealth Company, after all, came in at a very difficult moment. The property had been sequestrated and put up to public auction. They came forward with great patriotism to meet a national difficulty. They were actuated by no possible sense of profit, because their dividend was limited to 5 per cent. Therefore I think that on the basis of that, when it comes to dealing with the present position, they should be treated with considerable generosity. There were two alternatives really, and I think the Government have come to a wise decision to let them go on. I have had my attention called by the Commonwealth Trust to a statement I made that they had lost a considerable sum of money by their trading operations. I was told that that was so, but I did not give them credit for having more or less met their deficits during recent years. I make that allowance now with pleasure. As I understand it, the proposal is that they are to be paid their capital of 1048 £55,000, and that they are to be paid for stores which are valued at between £200,000 and £300,000. They are to trade in the same way as before—namely, that profits above 5 per cent. should go to the benefit of the natives. These are very large sums, and as these are the matters on which I want a little more information, I should like the noble Lord who will reply for the Government to see if the figures I am giving are correct. I have only been able to take them from what appeared in the Press. As regards the Basle Trading Company, they are to receive £120,000, and they are to receive arrears of interest which roughly work out at £40,000, that is £160,000. In addition they are to receive £250,000 in lieu of various liquid assets. They will receive £410,000.
THE PARLIAMENTARY UNDERSECRETARY OF STATE FOR DOMINION AFFAIRS (LORD LOVAT)
The £120,000 has already been paid. I will give the figures later.
§ EARL BUXTON
I am not asking for the figures now. I am only asking that the noble Lord shall say whether they are correct.
§ EARL BUXTON
I am not speaking of whether it has been paid before, but of the total they are to get at the end. The £120,000 is included in the £410,000. The Commonwealth Trust, I understand, receives £55,000 capital, and they are left with stores and so on to the amount of between £200,000 and £300,000. The whole sum, including the £120,000, will amount to about £700,000. What I want to know is, how is that money, whatever it may be, going to be paid? The Secretary of State has already said that £250,000 of liquid assets is to come from the Colonial Office, but who is to meet the capital of the Commonwealth Trust and the £200,000 or £300,000 worth of stores left in their possession? These facts do not appear from the particulars that we have before us in the Press. I should like to know if that balance also is to be paid by the Colony or whether it is to come from the Exchequer. I think it is very improbable that it is coming from the Exchequer.
I should also like to know—and this is my main question—how far, before this 1049 agreement was come to, the Governor of the Gold Coast, the traders, the natives and other representative people were consulted in regard to the matter, and whether the affair is so far in train that, supposing the Legislative Council object to it on behalf of the inhabitants of the Gold Coast, their objection will affect this bargain, and what will then be the position. I do urge that, in any case, it is highly important, for the reasons given by my noble friend on the Front Opposition Bench, that the Colony should be fully consulted in this matter before they are absolutely committed to the payment of £250,000, or whatever the sum may be. I would ask whether the Legislative Council will have an opportunity of considering the matter. The people of the Colony will be very much affected by this transaction, and notably the traders, because they will have to pay the money both to the Basle Trading Company and to the Commonwealth Trust and they will be saddled with two rival traders whom they will be subsidising out of their own pockets. That is a point that ought to be considered.
I would ask whether the Colony has been consulted, whether it will be consulted and whether the Legislative Council will have an opportunity of considering the matter without official pressure being brought on the official members, so that they may judge it on its merits apart from any instructions from this country. I assure the Government that I raise these points in no hostile spirit. I congratulate the Government on having come to a settlement, but we have a very small amount of information and these questions are germane to the conclusions to which the Government have come. I put them in an entirely friendly spirit.
§ LORD CARSON
My Lords, I would ask your Lordships to grant me your indulgence while I say a few words, although I can assure the House that I have no personal interest whatever in the Commonwealth Trust or in the Basle Mission, or in those who are trying to get back their properties from the British Government, at great expense, so far as I can see, to the inhabitants of the Gold Coast. I do not know how far your Lordships have been told fully what this whole question is about. You need to 1050 know the first principles concerned in it before you can see the action of the Government in its true proportion. I am interested in this matter only because I happen to know certain members of the Commonwealth Trust, who are all patriotic men who have given their time without any consideration whatever to a duty which was thrust upon them by the public policy of the Government of the day.
When I hear an attack upon Mr. Lionel Curtis in the terms used here to-day, when he is treated with contempt by my noble friend Lord Templetown and with jocular observations by the noble Lord opposite, I can only say that, whilst I have disagreed with Mr. Curtis in almost everything that he has ever done in relation to politics and especially to relation to Ireland, in regard to the action that he took over the so-called Treaty with that country, and in relation to other matters in which he was employed by the Government with regard to Ireland, nevertheless I will say for Mr. Curtis that I never met, a more single-minded man, a man who, whatever he does, does it with a more real sense of absolute patriotism and devotion to his country, and who is more incapable of doing or saying anything without in the fullest degree considering whether what he is doing is right. He has been employed by the Government, I understand, in the Dominion Office. I remember when he was employed in the Irish Office, where I thoroughly hated him, but that does not prevent me from appreciating that he is one of those men who is always trying, in accordance with his ideals, with which I do not agree, to do good in any of the public concerns in which he is interested.
What was the origin of all this? I think your Lordships will see in a few moments that the whole of this difficulty and the saddling of this payment on the Gold Coast arose through the utter incompetence of the Colonial Office. Like Mr. Curtis, I like to be perfectly frank in what I have to say. I will show you what happened. Nine years ago there was a mission at the Gold Coast called, I think, the Basle Mission. In addition to that there was the Basle Mission Trading Company. The mission was a purely philanthropic concern. They were there for the purpose of philanthropic work amongst the natives and, after pay 1051 ing a small dividend upon the money subscribed, they devoted the rest of their funds to the benefit of the people of the Gold Coast. I believe some money was also devoted to certain work in India. The first thing to remember is that the Basle Mission Trading Company, which has been treated by the Colonial Office as if it were purely a trading company, was not so. In the Basle Mission Trading Company the Basle Mission held a large proportion of shares—if I am right it was one-fifth—and they were bound to get dividends which were applied to patriotic purposes. In addition, the mission had the right at any time to buy out the shareholders in the Basle Mission Trading Company, so that the whole assets of the company might be devoted to bettering the condition of the natives of the Gold Coast.
In 1918 the British Government—I have not seen their papers or their reasons—decided that this foreign company, acting in their territory, was hostile to this country, and they thought that it would be better to take its affairs out of its hands and put them under their own guidance. They took away, under certain conditions into which I need not enter, the assets of the Basle Mission and the Basle Mission Trading Company, and they formed a company in this country under a Gold Coast Ordinance. This was the Commonwealth Welfare and Education Trust, and they asked a number of men, whose names are well known to everyone, to undertake the task of carrying out this mission for the benefit of the natives. Amongst others was the gentleman who has been so severely handled to-day, Mr. Lionel Curtis, and there was a board, and they went on trading there for the benefit of the natives, having subscribed some £50,000 or £60,000 of their own money. This went on from 1918 up to 1924. It is quite true that they did not trade with profit. Trade was bad everywhere, and there is no doubt they felt the effects of bad trade, just as it was felt in other places.
For some reason or other, in 1924—the reason has never been given—the Colonial Office said: We have changed our old policy and are going to give up all the old assets (which had now reached over £1,000,000) to the Basle Mission Trading Company—apparently without any terms, or without any trust, because 1052 the Basle Mission Trading Company had no trust, whereas the Commonwealth Trust was exclusively for philanthropic purposes, and is so to-day. The excuse which they made for taking the assets away at that time—and it is really worth while following out the mentality of the Colonial Office—was this. They suddenly said: Now, you gentlemen turn out—I ought to mention that the Secretary of State was himself a party to the articles constituting the Commonwealth Trust—and then they said:—The reason why it is desired to take the properties in question back from the Commonwealth Trust is that the assets seem to be disappearing"—I do not think they meant that the Trust was making away with the assets—and there also seems to be no prospect of philanthropic purposes benefiting from the arrangement, which was the object for which the property was given over to the Trust.…The reason why it is proposed to transfer the property back to the Basle Mission Trading Co. is that it is the only organisation which seems likely to carry on the property successfully and also subject to the condition that no spirits should be sold at the depots.There is nothing there about any trust. It is purely as a trading company.
Your Lordships will notice that in that letter they do not say a word about the Basle Trading Company, or any injustice to them. It was not put upon that ground, but solely on the ground of the losses which the Commonwealth Trust has sustained. Trade, however, revived, and with the revival of trade the position of the Commonwealth Trust improved, and there was a great prospect of philanthropic purposes benefiting. Then the Colonial Office altered their position, and in September, 1925, wrote this:—The Secretary of State does not desire to call in question the management of the affairs of the Trust in any way, but has come to the conclusion that, for reasons of State, into which it is hardly necessary to enter, it will be desirable that the Trust shall cease to operate in the Gold Coast, and that the former properties of the Basle Mission Trading Society, now held by the Trust, shall be returned to the local board of trustees constituted under the Gold Coast Ordinance, No. 40, of 1918.…This proposal, it will be observed, leaves the Trust's Indian business in its present position.From that day to this, in spite of repeated demands by the Commonwealth Trust—which had been taken up by these gentlemen of eminence solely at the request of 1053 the Government—not one particle of information has been given to them as to why this was desired to be done.
What is more, they knew that this trading company was getting back this million pounds of assets, which had been accumulated, not for philanthropic purposes, but in order that it might be used for ordinary trading purposes—that it was diverting these assets from the very purpose for which the Commonwealth Trust had been formed, the Secretary of State himself being a party to the formation. It is all very well to say that great public Departments can do these things. True it is, the Colonial Office say, we formed you in 1918, and you took over this for us: it was very good of you, but we now tell you to turn out and hand over these assets. I do not wonder that under those conditions there was some heat on the board of the Commonwealth Trust. I have no doubt that some heated things were said—so far as I am concerned I need not say that I am not throwing any doubt upon the perfect honesty of my noble friend in this matter—but when business is managed in that kind of way it is utterly impossible that there should not be some heated statements. After all, all that the Trust had ever asked is that they should be informed of the true state of affairs.
Then what happened? In July, 1927, there was a debate in this House, and my noble friend Lord Templetown said that the Government had "offered to return the property in West Africa" to the Basle Trading Company. Thereupon the Commonwealth Trust wrote and asked: What do you mean by this? We have not been told anything about this lately. They added thatthis offer was not referred to by the Under-Secretary of State in his speech, and my Board cannot believe that it was correctly reported by the speakers referred to, seeing that these properties now belong to this company, without whose consent His Majesty's Government is not entitled to dispose of them.That was in July, 1927, and I ask noble Lords' attention to what was said in reply to that. On August 18, 1927, the Colonial Office replied:—The Secretary of State for the Colonies takes no responsibility for statements made in the course of the debate on the 20th of July by Viscount Templetown or Earl Buxton.1054 Yet all the time that the Colonial Office were making that statement to the Colonial Trust, they were really, behind their backs, negotiating to hand over these very assets while disputing the statements of noble Lords who were making allegations which turned out to be perfectly true. I suppose that that is what is called diplomacy, but it does not lead to anything but friction. The Commonwealth Trust went on doing the work, and then the board were suddenly told that the whole thing must be handed over. The board said, in effect: "At all events let us be sure that you are handing it over, not to private individuals, but to somebody who will carry out the philanthropic trust for which this money was originally got together, and has been accumulated by us." No such undertaking was given, and no such undertaking is given now, because I have here the statement made by the Secretary of State for the Dominions in the House of Commons two days ago.
He gives an account of the arrangement come to, and the most remarkable thing is that the whole of these assets are being handed back to this Trading Company, and all the Government have is a promise that they will apply a certain percentage—which they do not even mention—to philanthropic purposes. That is all the undertaking that is given. How is it to be enforced on a foreign company? The one struggle of Mr. Lionel Curtis and of the Commonwealth Trust was to see that if the undertaking were taken out of their hands, it would go for philanthropic purposes. I see that when Mr. Amery was asked in another place about having some conditions binding on the company, he said:—As the company are not a trust, and have never been bound to any fixed figure, it would be impossible to secure their agreement to such a fixed figure, but I have every confidence that the undertaking which they have given will be honoured both in the spirit and in the letter.He was asked if they would agree to any fixed percentage, so that it would not be entirely nugatory, and he said that [...] a matter he could not get them to carry out. That is where the matter stands. But in the meantime the Commonwealth Trust at all events gained this by their persistent action, that they have not been wiped out, they are to be handed 1055 over in the settlement a certain sum of money, and certain concessions which will enable them to go on doing their philanthropic work. So much was gained entirely by the persistence of Mr. Lionel Curtis and his board. Therefore, before you censure him here, let us at all events look at the realities of the situation. You cannot deal with companies set up for these purposes by your own Government without creating considerable feeling.
There is one other thing which was referred to by the noble Earl opposite, and which I think requires a good deal of consideration. Who is to pay for all this? You are going to hand over a lot of money to the Basle Mission Trading Company; you are going to try to put the Commonwealth Trust upon their feet—who is going to pay for all this? Will the unfortunate inhabitants pay? I do not know how rich or how poor they are—they live on the Gold Coast, so I suppose there is a certain amount of wealth there. Are they to pay for all these changes of policy, and for all this dispute, which need never have arisen? If that is so, I think it is a very poor result of negotiations continuing over long years. So far as the Commonwealth Trust and Mr. Lionel Curtis are concerned, they deeply regret that the noble Viscount, Lord Templetown, has not persisted in the Motion he had on the Paper the other day, when he demanded an Inquiry into the whole matter. They have asked for that over and over again. They have written saying they would support it. They have demanded it, I believe they demand it now, and nothing would be more helpful to clear up a transaction of this kind than to have the whole thing gone into from beginning to end. I would ask the Government even now whether it is not possible to grant this Inquiry, or to lay all the Papers connected with the negotiations, and then it will be seen whether the claims put forward on behalf of the Commonwealth Trust were not only well founded but strictly in accordance with the trust which this Government have put upon them.
I would like to draw the attention of the noble and learned Lord to the fact that he has rather misunderstood what I said about the gentleman referred to. I want to make 1056 it quite clear that I did not say I had any contempt for Mr. Lionel Curtis. The words I used were these:—The veiled and malicious innuendo thus conveyed would appear to be directed inferentially, if not actually, against other members of your Lordships' House.It is the innuendo against other members of your Lordships' House that I treat with contempt.
§ LORD CARSON
I have already said that so far as I was concerned I did not associate myself with that language, but I tried to explain the condition under which language of that kind was used, and I think I showed that it was a case in which, through the action of the Government, a good deal of feeling was aroused. I am sure my noble friend does not imagine for a moment that I suggested it as regards him; he would be the last man in the world against whom I should say a word.
Here is a copy of the correspondence I had with the Colonial Office for four years—the last year is not in print—and I would defy anybody to find a single word that I ever said against the Commonwealth Trust, or against their claim for justice. I have asked for justice for the Basle Mission Trading Company, and therefore I was perfectly willing to yield it to the Commonwealth Trust.
§ LORD MESTON
My Lords, after the settlement announced by the Secretary of State in another place a few evenings ago, one might have hoped that this controversy would be allowed to come to a natural end, but, inasmuch as the two Motions on the Paper this evening have revived matters which go right to the root of the original scheme, I must ask your Lordships' indulgence to lay before you another aspect of the case—a view which is held by a body which hitherto has taken no part in the public controversy—I refer to the trustees. We are not the directors of the company, we have no pecuniary or personal interest whatsoever in the company, and very little to do with its administration. We are a body of eleven or twelve men on whom has been imposed the duty—and there is no duty on us except this—of seeing that the surplus profits of the Trading Company are duly and properly employed for the well-being and the ad 1057 vancement of the inhabitants of the areas in which the Trading Company operates. The trustees, as I have said, have no pecuniary or personal interest whatsoever in the business and no part in its administration. They naturally satisfy themselves, and they have satisfied themselves by meetings with the directors, that the business is being so conducted as not to imperil the prospect of reasonable profits being made available for the purposes of the Trust.
They are, if I may say so, reasonably respectable and responsible persons. They include, besides myself, another member of your Lordships' House, who holds high judicial office and feels himself debarred thereby from taking part in this discussion, Lord Blanesburgh. They include a member of His Majesty's Government, Sir Arthur Steel-Maitland, the eminent head of a great college in Oxford, Sir Michael Sadler, and a number of representatives of missionary organisations and the like, whose names command very general respect. They include also, no doubt for the purpose of a link between the trusteeship and the administration, certain directors of the company. The trustees, as I have said, have hitherto taken no part whatever in the public discussion. We have no desire whatever to attack the discretion of His Majesty's Government. We have no wish to re-open the settlement that has been arrived at. We have nothing but appreciation for the courtesy we received from His Majesty's Secretary of State when we personally approached him informally. It is just possible, I think, that had we been taken into the confidence of His Majesty's Government at an earlier stage we might have been of some service in enabling them to get out of what was obviously a very embarrassing situation. If we regret that we were not called in earlier it is not because of any sense of wounded dignity, but simply from a feeling of disappointment that we have not been able to render service.
As trustees we were, with the full concurrence of His Majesty's Government at the time, definitely invested with certain duties relating to the well-being of the residents in India and on the Gold Coast. Let me say at once that I will not say a word about the Indian part of the question, because I have sufficient confidence 1058 in the Government of India and in the Indian Legislature to feel sure that they will not fall into, shall I say, the same mistakes as have befallen the Colonial Office. Speaking as a trustee I will confine myself, therefore, entirely to the Gold Coast side of the question. The Trust had certain duties towards the inhabitants of the Gold Coast Colony and I think we appreciated fully the responsibility of discharging those duties. That involved at least a maintenance of the arrangements which His Majesty's Government had made for the administration of this property during, or immediately after, the War. That arrangement, as the noble Lord who spoke last has reminded your Lordships, made it compulsorily for the surplus profits, after the payment of an extremely moderate dividend on the shares, to be utilised under the direction of the trustees for the educational and other advantages of the people of the Colony.
It was with considerable surprise that we learned from the public Press that His Majesty's Government were engaged in negotiations which would completely destroy the trust which had been imposed upon us. It was with still greater surprise that, again indirectly, we learned that the negotiations contemplated at least the possibility of the property which produced the Trust funds being transferred to foreign owners, with no assurance whatsoever that the surplus profits would continue to be employed for the well-being of the people of the Colony. I do not know that even the arrangement which has now been described effectively guarantees any diversion to local interests of the profits which the foreign company may succeed in obtaining. His Majesty's Secretary of State expressed the hope that the newcomers would not be forgetful of certain offers, or pledges as he called them, that had been made; but I do not gather that these offers or pledges are in any sense part of a contract which is binding upon the new owners or are enforceable either in this country or in the Gold Coast Colony.
Do not let us forget that the past history of the negotiations and the records of the Swiss Trading Company have made it perfectly clear that the new owners, who expressed sentiments of benevolence and even of piety, have determined to reserve to themselves 1059 entire discretion as to the utilisation of their funds. No such discretion rested upon us, and we could not view without great alarm the fundamental change which was apparently in contemplation. This was the position. A trading company of foreign origin and ownership had been established in a British Colony and had been impressed with a Trust which required that the surplus profits should be utilised for the welfare of the inhabitants of the Colony. We were told that for reasons of State that company had been confiscated by the British Government during the War, and that the property had been handed over to a British Company which remained impressed with the same trust. Relying on that, the British Company in all good faith administered the property and we the trustees in all good faith exercised our vigilance in seeing that the purposes of the trust were capable of being fulfilled.
Then suddenly, or at least without any consultation with the trustees, the public were made aware that His Majesty's Government were engaged in negotiations to restore the property to the original foreign company. To what extent those negotiations were necessary is a question between the Government, presumably, and its Law Officers, and in what terms the restoration should be made is a question between the Government and its own conscience. But that the restoration should be made in such a way as to destroy the Trust and thereby to remove the special opportunities which it afforded of helping the inhabitants of the Colony, was a matter in which public opinion would naturally and properly have some voice. Am I going too far in suggesting that public opinion might never have been informed about the position and that the destruction of the Trust might have been carried through without comment or protest, had it not been for the action of certain of the directors of the British company?
I can understand that noble Lords take exception to certain words that were used in the course of the presentation of the case by the directors. It is true that the language they used was strong and that their action was vigorous. But let us ask ourselves this question: Had their language not been strong, leaving apart individual expressions which we do 1060 not support if they were made, and had their action not been vigorous where should we have been to-day? Would His Majesty's Government have been fully awakened to the gravity of the situation, would the Trust have been preserved in any shape or form, would the indigenes of the Colony have retained the benefits which His Majesty's Government had originally intended to preserve for them if that vigorous action had not been taken? I appreciate, as we all do, the remarks that fell from the noble Viscount, Lord Templetown, when he opened this discussion and I quite understand his resentment at the suggestion that he should be regarded as the representative of a foreign company. But is that altogether the fault of those who used that term? Looking back on the actual words used by the noble Lord in this House on February 22, he said:—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.In the Courts of Law one is familiar with the practice by which advocates use the words "we" and "us" without reference to themselves personally but in reference to their clients. I do not think we are quite so familiar with that convention in your Lordships' House and when a noble Lord says: "We say the Government have" and "We are entitled" to something, then the natural presumption is that he is talking about himself and others who are associated with him. I would, however, ask noble Lords who are aggrieved at the course this controversy has taken, two questions. When they undertook the championship of the company, when they presented the case, did they know that the company in question was in fact demanding to be put in a position where it would no longer be bound to let its surplus profits go to the welfare of the natives?
The noble Lord refers to me. I am afraid I do not hear very well, but I will answer. I do not think he would wish me to reopen this case and if I go into all the details of what has been said in this House this afternoon nothing short of reopening the whole case could possibly deal with the situation. I have not the smallest intention of doing that, but I will say this, that everything I knew about the 1061 Basle Trading Company and Mr. Preiswerk-Imhoff or anything else was all communicated in writing to the Colonial Office. Beyond saying that I do not propose to go into it further.
§ LORD OLIVIER
When you have taken away a man's property unjustly you are not entitled to make stipulations as to the terms on which you will return it.
§ LORD MESTON
I do not think the last answer relevant to my question, but I am prepared to leave the matter as it now stands in your Lordships' hands. I would only like to say that the trustees have never had any public opportunity of expressing their point of view. They are certainly not anxious now to take any acute part in the controversy, which they would gladly see expire. They have never had an opportunity of pointing out how grave an injustice, or at all events how unmerited a hardship, to the people of a British Colony was very near being perpetrated. They have endeavoured recently to put their case before the Colonial Office, and I would ask the noble Lord opposite (Lord Lovat) whether it is possible when publishing Papers to allow the letters of the trustees and the replies to the trustees to be included among any collection of Papers which he is good enough to issue.
§ VISCOUNT ASTOR
My Lords, before the noble Lord replies, perhaps I might be allowed to put one or two supplementary questions. I should like also to associate myself with what has been said by the last two speakers in defence of a gentleman who has been attacked here to-day and who cannot speak for himself. I would also say about Mr. Lionel Curtis and his fellow directors that all who know him and who know them know absolutely that in everything which they do and have done they have been disinterested, selfless, unselfish, patriotic and, I may say, courageous. I am not surprised that the noble Lord opposite should have been annoyed by some of the things which have been said. I do not propose to go into that. I think it would be a pity to revive anything like that, but I am sure, in view of the leading part which he has played very frequently in championing the interests of the natives in our Colonies and Dominions, he will probably later on, when this controversy belongs to the past and not to the present, be 1062 glad that the intervention of Mr. Curtis and the other directors has done something now to safeguard and protect the interests of the natives which would, in fact, not have been done if the transfer had been made in February, as was then proposed by the Government.
I do not propose to go into the legal question as to the ownership and the transfer of property, nor do I think it would be advisable to deal with all the various arguments and charges which have been made at different times, but in view of one of the observations which has been made to-day I think it is only fair to Mr. Curtis to say that he has not charged any member of either House of Parliament with being under the undue influence of outside persons. As I understand it, the real charge which he has made is contained in this sentence which will be found in a letter published in The Times over his name:—the transferring of properties now held in trust for native welfare to the uncontrolled disposal of certain traders.As I understand it, the reason that he has taken the prominent and, I think, by no means unsuccessful part in this controversy is that he did want something to be done, which was not proposed in February, to safeguard the interests of the natives, and I feel certain that many of your Lordships, who may perhaps at the present moment be feeling displeased with some of the things he has said, will later on be glad that the transfer has been made under different conditions and on different terms than were contemplated and proposed in February. I understand that in February the Government proposed to abolish the Commonwealth Trust and to return the whole of the property to the Basle Trading Company. I am not raising the legal aspect as to whether or not that was the right thing to do as regards the property. What I do say is that as the result of reconsideration, of further negotiations and further effort and discussion, different terms have now been agreed upon and the interest of the natives in the future will be protected and looked after in a way which was not then contemplated.
The Secretary of State for the Dominions, speaking the day before yesterday in another place, dealt briefly with the terms of the settlement and rejoiced and claimed credit for the fact that 1063 the ten years' work of the Commonwealth Trust would not be wasted. He hoped, and His Majesty's Government hoped, that they would be enabled to earn profits in the future which would result in substantial benefactions to missionary and educational work in the Gold Coast. He claimed it as a merit that they would not have been able to do that had the transfer taken place in February. He also claimed credit—but let me use his own words—Eventually, however, they [the Basle Trading Company] gave an undertaking that they will not deal in liquor or firearms, and that, 'in the future, as in the past, they will adhere to their established practice of devoting a substantial portion of their distributable profits to missionary and other philanthropic purposes in all parts of the world, including the British Empire.…'Lastly—there is only one other quotation I should like to make—the right hon. gentleman said that in negotiating for a settlement the Government attached the greatest importance to the maintenance of the philanthropic character of the Trading Company. If that is the case—I am speaking so that the noble Lord should be able to deal with the misgivings felt by many people outside—they have now been able to obtain terms and conditions which would not have been granted to them, and which I understand they were not even asking for, in February. However much exception may be taken to the charges or statements made outside by Mr. Curtis, I think it is very largely due to his intervention and activity that there has been this modification.
There are many questions I shall have to answer, but I may perhaps answer this point in one word. The solution which has now been arrived at was put before the Government, as I shall tell your Lordships later, as early as the summer of last year, and was by the Government at that time passed on in the course of negotiations to the Basle Trading Company.
§ VISCOUNT ASTOR
What the noble Lord has just said makes me wonder more than ever why it was that His Majesty's Government did not ask the trustees and the directors of the Basle Trading Company to meet them and have a conference with them. They may have seen individual directors, but, as I understand it, they did not ask the directors and trustees to meet them. They did not 1064 explain to them the legal difficulties. One of the reasons that I put forward the statement I did was that Mr. Preiswerk-Imhoff never challenged the point made by Mr. Curtis, that it was proposed to transfer the property from the Trust to the Trading Company without guaranteeing that the interests of the natives would be safeguarded. I think it was Lord Carson who said just now that he hoped that even now an Inquiry would be held, and I cannot help thinking that in view of the great misunderstandings which have arisen, in view of the public discussions and the interest taken in the matter, that even now it might be desirable to have a full Inquiry. I understand that when this matter was debated in your Lordships' House in February, the Commonwealth Trust then asked that your Lordships' House should be informed that they desired an Inquiry.
May I put two matters to the noble Lord before he replies? The Secretary of State for the Dominions dealt with two points. One was the distribution of profits, and the other was the restriction on the sale of intoxicants. Let me take the last point first. Does this restriction apply to the sale of intoxicants to natives only, or to persons of mixed descent as well? As I understand it, the Commonwealth Trust have not sold liquor to any one. Does this same restriction apply to the Basle Trading Company under the agreement? As regards the distribution of profits, reference has been made in your Lordships' House to-day to the fact that £55,000, roughly, is to be given to the Commonwealth Trust, and that a somewhat larger sum, some £400,000, or it may be a little more, I did not catch the exact total, is to be given to the Basle Trading Company. As I understand it, the whole of the profits over five per cent. which will be made by the Commonwealth Trust will be used for the advantage of the natives on the Gold Coast. That money will be distributed by British trustees in the future.
But as regards the Basle Trading Company the matter is entirely vague. There is no guarantee that any specific proportion or percentage of the profits they make will be distributed on the Gold Coast. There is a vague undertaking that some of the profits may be distributed within the British Empire or without it. I hope that the noble Lord will be able to-day to give us some in 1065 formation and satisfy many people who are interested in the Commonwealth Trust and in the welfare of the natives on the Gold Coast, that there is a definite guarantee that a definite proportion of the profits made by the Basle Trading Company, money which is to be provided from the Gold Coast or by ourselves, will be used for the advantage of the natives. If they are able to do that, and whether they are able to do it or not, I am sure that all who have the interest of the natives at heart will feel grateful for the intervention of the directors of the Trust in a very difficult task, and that when the heat of the present moment is past we shall probably all be glad of what I think is a successful intervention on their part.
THE LORD BISHOP OF SOUTHWARK
My Lords, I will not detain your Lordships more than three minutes. I do not propose to discuss the political aspects of the question, though I hope a settlement has been reached which will prove workable. Still less do I propose to discuss the speech made by Mr. Lionel Curtis to which so many references have been made. I cannot help feeling that that speech has been given an undue amount of importance. What I am most anxious to say is that I hope that your Lordships' House will not allow the really valuable and patriotic work of the Commonwealth Trust to be obscured or forgotten in view of the recent controversy which has arisen in connection with it. I knew nothing whatever about the Trust until a few months ago, but all those who know of its work—and I have made myself familiar with it—will recognise that the Trust was formed at a time of great difficulty in 1918 to carry on work of undoubted public utility to the natives, which was in danger of complete abolition. Since that time, in face of very great difficulties, this work has been carried on with real benefit to the native population. I hope the noble Lord who will reply to this debate will be able to tell us that the Government appreciate the public-spirited action which was taken by those who formed this Trust and that they will see that opportunity is given for continuance of its work.
My Lords, I am sure you will agree with me that I have a somewhat difficult task to fufil, as I have not only to answer a very large number 1066 of questions, but I have also to deal with a great many statements of fact, which have been made and contradicted across the House. I think, perhaps, the simplest way to deal with the matter, if your Lordships will allow me, will be to run through in the first place the statement of the settlement which has been made, and to answer the questions raised by Lord Templetown. I can then correct, if I may, certain figures stated by Earl Buxton, and this may give your Lordships a more exact appreciation of how the matter stands to-day.
The settlement that has been reached with the Basle Trading Society is that the lands and buildings formerly held by them on the Gold Coast will be returned plus the sum of £250,000. The £120,000 to which Lord Buxton has referred is money that has already been returned and which was lying at interest here, and therefore there is no question of any further interest being paid. That money has been lying in the bank for them and was paid something like a year ago. Accordingly the sum at issue that will have to be found is £250,000 plus £55,000, making £305,000 in all. This settlement with the Basle Trading Society is, I think, a fair settlement on both sides. I thank your Lordships have seen what the Secretary of State said in another place on the subject of the Basle Mission having met His Majesty's Government over the matter, and I think that, if you turn back to the correspondence that has passed and the statements that have been made here, you will see that the sum is very much less than the figure that was at one time discussed and does not represent the claims made either at simple or compound interest.
Perhaps I had better finish first with the Trading Society. The society has given a formal pledge that it will continue to devote its surplus profits to missionary and philanthropic purposes. It must be remembered that with changes of the constitution of that society—and there were several—it was not a trust in its latter stages. Perhaps I had better refer to what the Secretary of State said in another place, in a passage which I noticed that Lord Carson did not read when he read the right hon. gentleman's reply to a question by Mr. Garro-Jones. He said:—As the company are not a trust, and have never been bound to any fixed figure, 1067 it would be impossible to secure their agreement to such a fixed figure, but I have every confidence that the undertaking which they have given will be honoured both in the spirit and in the letter. If it were obviously violated, the Government of the Gold Coast would have the means of dealing with the matter.I turn to the settlement with the Commonwealth Trust. The Trust is to receive a sum of £55,000 and is to retain the stores that they have in the country at the present time. The £55,000 is given so that they will have money with which to acquire other premises and to carry on the work they have been attempting to do up to date. We hope that with better trading conditions there will be better results to the natives and in the propagation of the work that they have every wish to put through. As I am dealing with this body, perhaps I had better answer the question raised by Lord Olivier as to whether they should be paid any sum at all. Surely this can be answered by going back to the original agreement, which was made in 1918. You have a body that came forward at a time when traders might have taken up the assets of the Basle Trading Company and have sold liquor, ammunition and gunpowder to the natives, and who, for a very low rate of remuneration, carried on its work. It is true that they lost very considerable sums in so doing but, having given them these assets and got them to put in £55,000, you surely could not turn round and say that you would take away their profits and their assets because you found that you had to give the Basle Trading Company that which belonged to them. You would have had to compensate them for their capital and possibly for the interest on their capital, and certainly something would have had to be done for the employees, a considerable number of whom are ex-Service men. Looking at it simply from the point of view of pounds, shillings and pence, the £55,000 that will have to be paid is certainly less than might have been expected.
§ LORD OLIVIER
Since the noble Lord says that I raised this question, I should like to say I never raised any question that it was proper that they should be paid something.
I beg the noble Lord's pardon. As to the question of who pays this amount, the total will be £305,000, 1068 and it is argued in the first place that the benefit of these two trading societies will be for the natives of the Gold Coast. It is argued, further, that the decision arrived at in 1918 was one in arriving at which the Gold Coast had a considerable share, and that it is right that the Gold Coast, since the money is to be spent there, should foot the bill. Lord Buxton raised a point as to whether the Legislature had been consulted in the matter. I can only inform the noble Earl that the Gold Coast Government has been informed of the decision of His Majesty's Government and that the matter will be brought before the Legislature in the usual way.
In regard to the point raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, I would inform him that in the agreement with the Basle Trading Society the prohibition against the sale of liquor has been made for natives only. I think that on reflection the noble Viscount, however much devoted he may be to the cause of temperance, will see that it would be almost impossible to ask a man what is his exact mixture of white blood before you could serve him with liquor across the counter. All noble Lords who travel in South Africa or South America will know how extremely difficult it is to draw a colour line, and I think the definition of native is the only one which could possibly be considered practical. As to the question of distribution of profits I think that point has already been answered by the Secretary of State in another place. I am glad to have the opportunity of dealing with one or two of the questions of criticism which were raised by Lord Olivier, and as to which he asked me to say what foundation they had in fact. As to the statements made by Mr. Lionel Curtis about individuals, one must, of course, leave the individuals to deal with them, and may I congratulate Lord Templetown upon the very full and final way in which he has dealt with the aspersions on his own character, and in a sense on the character of members of this House.
The Colonial Office may be thought to have been slow in answering some of the criticisms which have been made. I think we have been wise in not answering them before. In the first place, when you have such excellent fighters, both in debate and in the papers, a good many 1069 of the accusations which are levelled at the Colonial Office are answered by the contending parties in their attacks upon each other. The second point, and one which is even more important, is that the more statements are made by individuals who have not the advantage of possessing the records of the Government Departments, the more easy it is to get hold of inaccuracies and compare them with the actual facts. Public Departments suffer under a considerable number of disabilities. They are generally overworked, they are unable to answer questions, they have, before decisions are made, to consult a considerable number of other Departments; but their one strong point is that a steady record of work goes on from day to day. Whether the individual is important, or whether he is of less note, notes are taken of interviews and there is a complete record of correspondence, and when criticisms are finally levelled it is not difficult, in the majority of cases, to answer charges, because you have the actual cold facts recorded.
The criticisms which have been levelled at the Colonial Office—and I noted with no surprise that the noble Lord, Lord Carson, joined in them—referred in the first place to what I may call the criticism of August 18, to what was called "An untrue letter." It was stated in the circular of the Commonwealth Trust that the letter written to the Commonwealth Trust, saying that the Secretary of State took no responsibility for the views expressed by certain noble Lords, was untrue. The expressions were used by Lord Templetown and Earl Buxton, and were to the effect that the Government had recognised the moral obligation to the Basle Trading Company and offered to return the property in West Africa. I need hardly say that no communication was ever made to Lord Buxton or Lord Templetown on the subject. Negotiations were undoubtedly in progress at the time, but (this is the amusing point) the negotiations had just got to a stage when an actual offer made by Sir George Craik one day was put before the Basle Mission on the following day, and that suggestion is very nearly the same one which is now the basis of the agreement which has been arrived at. It is surely straining the truth to say, as Lord Carson has said, that you may call this diplomacy but we call it acting behind someone 1070 else's back. This was the actual suggestion made by a director of the Commonwealth Trust himself, which in the ordinary course of negotiations had been passed on to the other side.
Again, when Mr. Curtis talks about Lord Salisbury "blurting out" the truth here, I think it is hardly a term which we should apply to Lord Salisbury. I have heard him on a great many occasions—I am very sorry that a slight indisposition prevents him from being here to-day—but I think the term "blurting out" is not exactly a phrase which one would apply to his usual kindly method of expression. I pass from this criticism, which I submit has nothing in it, to the second criticism made against the Colonial Office, and it is a criticism made in The Times and which describes the methods used at the Colonial Office as byzantine. It is a reference made to the statement "for reasons of state." Here again it is indeed fortunate, as I will show, that them is a complete record of everything which happens in a Government Office. In the second volume of the records of this matter the actual phrase "for reasons of state" is mentioned by Mr. Maclennan, a director, and appears in the minutes of the meeting held on October 28, 1924. Mr. Maclennan gave it as his opinion that if the Government announced that, for reasons of state, it was desirable that the Commonwealth Trust should relinquish the Gold Coast properties, the directors would not oppose. This is the origin of the phrase of which, according to several speakers to-day, it was quite impossible for any of the directors or trustees to find out the meaning.
I can only say that if they had had correspondence amongst themselves they should have had no difficulty in finding out this matter because, in addition to the members who sat in Lord Arnold's room, there were Sir George Craik, and Messrs. Jackson, Holt, Maclennan, Cookson, and Dove, who were, I believe, all directors or members of the Commonwealth Trust present at that meeting. Now that an arrangement has been come to it is quite obvious what those reasons of state were. This was a very difficult question, which involved two Government Departments, which involved action turning on questions which were very debatable as to the extent to which 1071 the Swiss association was really German, as to what they had done during the War, and as to the statements made by Sir Hugh Clifford and other eminent people about their actual operations, and it was not a matter which at that time, when the world was settling down to peace, we wished to bring to arbitration.
A second point that was even more cogent was the point that the other body which had taken their place, the Commonwealth Trust, had up to date not paid a penny to the natives for the prosecution of the work as the Basle Company had done. In fact, if one turns back to the figures which I have here it will be found that while they made a profit of £6,000 in the first year after they took over, in the second year they made a loss of £191,000, the next year a loss of £91,000 and the next year a loss of £54,000, and, as you see by the letter here and by their report of December 4, 1923, they were in a position in which they did not see how their losses were to be made good. Five months later they were still not in very strenuous opposition to being taken over. I call these very excellent reasons of state, which were fully explained. Do not let me be led away into any expression of opinion that the Commonwealth Trust was not well managed. On that I do not express an opinion one way or the other, but I wish to make the point, which has been lost sight of by a good many speakers, that the action of the Commonwealth Trust was not one of continuous success. But through their misfortune they struck very bad times. I will give them the credit of saying that they did the best they could, but the fact remains that the distributions of surplus assets for carrying out the work of education among the indigent native peasantry, and the other work for which the eminent trustees had been appointed, had not been possible.
But, to return to the question of this "byzantine" method of the Dominions Office, from which I have strayed for the moment, there is still something further which I must add. On September 25, 1925, Sir George, then Mr., Craik had an interview, and the whole of the reasons were further explained once again. That is nine months later, and in a communication which was made by the Commonwealth Trust on October 2, in answer to the letter of September 9, 1072 to which Lord Carson and others have referred, there seemed to be no difficulty in understanding what "reasons of state" meant. That is a controversial matter which has arisen at a later date. The point I wish to make is that "reasons of state" was a term used originally by one of their own directors, sitting with other directors, and that, as far as any record goes at the Dominions Office, there is no evidence of Mr. Lionel Curtis having asked at any time for an exact definition of what the term meant.
The third criticism is one which I think has been dealt with fully by Lord Olivier, and that is that delicate negotiations with powerful foreign interests had been left in hands not competent to handle them under effective Ministerial control. Lord Buxton, I think, also made that point. It is unknown at any Government office that any question of negotiation can in any way approach finality, exceping through the head of the Department, or the acting head of the Department. I have spent two or three weeks in reading the Papers, and I cannot trace any negotiations except the mere first talks on the subject, at which a Minister was not present. At the meeting on October 13, 1927, from which Mr. Curtis drew his conclusions, I see that there were present not only Mr. Ormsby-Gore, who was then Acting Secretary of State, but the Permanent Under-Secretary, the Assistant Secretary, and a legal adviser. I think that, apart from putting down a red baize carpet, that was almost a full dress reception for any one at the Dominions Office. Many equally notable people have gone there without having anything like so much attention paid to them. It has nothing to do with my side of the Office, but I can assure your Lordships that I think there are very few people, even on the Dominions side of the Office, who are more fully cognisant of and take more interest in the Basle affair—an interest perhaps greater than that to which its importance really entitled it. I do not, however, wish to be led away into criticism of what I think was not a fair speech made by Mr. Curtis on this occasion. I am second to no one in my appreciation of the admirable work he has attempted to do for the Empire, and for his single-mindedness. I would join in every word that has been said by my noble friend 1073 behind me, but if an attack on a Department is made it is only fair that a reply should be given with equal directness.
There have been some minor criticisms which I need hardly bother your Lordships with. It is stated that a letter of October 21, 1927, was merely acknowledged, and not replied to, but that letter was answered on November 1, after a delay of only a few days. Considering the time it takes for letters to go to those who have to see them, as your Lordships know, before a reply can be made, that is not at all a long time for a Government Department to take in answering a letter. The Department replied on November 1, that the Board would no doubt appreciate that some time would necessarily be involved in making the necessary Departments conversant with the present position of the matter, and that until that had been achieved no object could be met by holding the proposed discussion. That was a suggestion that the Commonwealth Board should co-operate with a view to arriving at some settlement. In regard to that Mr. Ormsby-Gore stated that he shared the view of the Commonwealth Trust that it was most desirable to arrive at a definite and early conclusion in the matter. But, at that time, it was not only the Gold Coast that was concerned. There was also a question of securing the view of the India Office and of the Indian Government, and those were matters which any one with any experience of Departmental affairs would know were not arrived at in a day or even in a week. I do not think it can be said that it was fair to say that that was merely an acknowledgment of the letter and not really an attempt to help matters forward.
The next criticism I have is personal to myself. The criticism was made that notice was given that Sir George Craik wanted a statement read in a debate, that the board wished for a public inquiry. I take any blame there is absolutely on my own shoulders. I arrived here expecting that my noble friend Lord Templetown would make one of his usual onslaughts on the Government, which I should have been the unfortunate person to answer. But I found on arrival here that it was a question which was dealt with by the noble Marquess the Leader of the House and by the Leaders of the 1074 Labour Party and the Liberal Party. With only one exception, I think, no other Front Bench member took any part in that discussion and the debate was adjourned. I was prepared to make, and should most certainly have made, the statement which Sir George Craik, who is a great persona] friend of mine, wished me to make; only, when the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, who I believe was associated with the movement, stated that he hoped a joint inquiry would be made, I thought the matter had already been presented and I did not think it was necessary to say anything more. Might I point out that if a humble Under-Secretary takes part in a discussion in which the great and good on the Front Benches also speak, it is highly probable that in the majority of the newspapers his remarks will not be noticed at all. If Sir George Craik had so much anxiety that there should be publicity it would have been much easier for him to write a five-line letter to The Times the next morning, and he would have received far more publicity than would have been the case had I read a five-line statement and sat down. May I take this opportunity of saying that had I had an opportunity of speaking I should certainly have done so.
The next and final criticism which has been made against the Colonial Office is in regard to delay. Here I would rather like to take the attack into the enemy's camp. I would submit that the present Government is the only Government which has done anything at all in settling this matter. This matter began about 1919 as a Foreign Office matter, and remained so until about 1921, during the time of the Coalition. It then had about two years' rest. Then Lord Templetown came on the scene, whether heavily subsidised or not by foreign parties I do not know. During the whole of the Labour Government the result, by the books, is practically nil. It was only when Mr. Amery, the present Secretary of State, came into power in 1924 that something was really done. And while I admit that it is a serious matter that it should take four years to settle such a question as this, I think it is only fair to recall to your Lordships that the matter was always approached, certainly in this House, from the point of view that it was the great country of Great Britain oppressing the poor little country of 1075 Switzerland rather than that it was the unfortunate Gold Coast having to find the money for a comparatively affluent body of commercialists who, from their own origin, were by way of aiding a country which would have to produce the money to compensate them.
Then again, in 1924, and even at the later date, there was still a certain war bias and a great deal was made in a great many debates, possibly correctly, possibly incorrectly, about the actions of various officials and missionaries. It must be remembered also that it was not a simple question of a single Department dealing with the two bodies, the Basle Mission and the Commonwealth Trust. It was a question of both the India Office and the Colonial Office dealing with those two bodies. Arrangements of that sort, as everyone knows, are particularly difficult to put through. I cannot say that one can state absolutely that the Government was entirely without blame in the matter, but I think that every effort that reasonably could be made was made to come to a conclusion. I think that even my noble friend Lord Temple-town will admit that originally the demands were remarkably high, and we, at the Colonial Office, felt bound to defend the position of the Crown Colony which would have to pay them. I do not say that they were any higher than those who made them thought was just. There the matter remained. The correspondence was great and I think the industry was very great. It is unfortunate that an agreement was not come to sooner; but I think that those concerned did everything they really could to put this matter through.
I would only like to say in conclusion that I do hope the House will now consider this matter as ended in the best way which, in the circumstances, it could be. It has given very great concern to all those who have had to deal with it. To regard in their proper bearing all the interests concerned has been a very difficult matter, and I think the settlement which has been made will gain the object that is in view, which is the advancement of the interests of the natives in the Gold Coast.
My Lords, I should like to say one or two words with reference to the speech of the noble Lord who has just sat down. He said I should 1076 agree that in the old days the demands of the Basle Trading Company were very high. Incidentally the question originally was rather one of a big nation pressing upon a little nation in the interests of the natives. When I took this matter up, what did I say the Basle people wanted? I said they wanted to be given back that which was taken from them. The figures were to be arrived at from the figures in the books of the Custodian of Alien Property. That is what they asked for. I do not wish to endorse the idea that the figures were necessarily big. As regards the question of the natives, and the drink question and the subsidies which have been given to the natives, may I remind your Lordships that for sixty years before the existence of the Commonwealth Trust the Basle Trading Company did voluntarily what the Government now ask the Trust to undertake to do. To my certain knowledge—and I have especial reasons for knowing it—they undertook to devote their net profits to the natives. I do not want to reopen this question. I wish only to make those remarks upon those two matters and, as I have already said, I leave the question in your Lordships' hands.
§ LORD OLIVIER
My Lords, I am sure your Lordships will have heard with great pleasure and appreciation the statement that has been made by the noble Lord on the Benches opposite (Lord Lovat). Indeed so persuasive was he, and so gratifying was it to me as an old Colonial Office man to hear the testimonial that he gave to that Department, that he has almost made me forget that we still have reason to complain of the dilatory manner in which this matter has been dealt with. There is another point I think I might take up. The noble Lord confirmed my disbelief in the view that matters were irregularly handled in the Colonial Office and subordinates were disloyal to their chief. That is one of the points that I specially raised. In those circumstances I have nothing more to say except to congratulate the Government on having come to a satisfactory decision, a decision which appears to have satisfied the Basle Trading Company and the Commonwealth Trust jointly.
Lord Meston seemed to attempt to repeat some questions in the curious attitude of mind which Mr. Lionel Curtis 1077 has been showing, and tried to cross-question me as to whether certain people knew this or that. We, of course, knew perfectly well, as the noble Lord, Lord Lovat, has said, that we could not make it a stipulation that the thing should not be given back to them unless under a trust: but if you take away a man's property you have to give it back to him or compensate him. The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, and others, as the noble Lord, Lord Lovat, has pointed out, rather over-estimated the enormous amount of philanthropic work that has been done for the natives of the Gold Coast by this Trust. As one interested in the shares of the Trust, I can only hope that their prospects for the future are as good as Mr. Amery expected and that, after they have paid the five years' arrears of dividends, which are now due, the natives will begin to receive some small driblet in return for their payment of so many thousands of pounds. I agree with Lord Lovat that Papers would not 1078 much further enlighten the public and I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.