§ 2. "That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £40,000, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1939, for the salaries and expenses of the Department of His Majesty's Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs."
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."
§ 8.35 p.m.
§ Mr. Wedgwood Benn
I should like to take the opportunity on this Vote to raise a matter on which I have asked questions of the right hon. Gentleman on several occasions. I refer to two ships belonging to Messrs. Billmeir, the" "Stangrove" 1011 and the Stangate. They are small ships without wireless. I will deal with the "Stangate" first. I understand the position was that the "Stangate" went to Valencia and was there caught by a Franco ship outside the three mile limit, and taken in convoy by the Franco ship to Palma. The Foreign Office was informed that this ship was on the high seas under the control of the Franco ship, but no action was taken, and the ship is in Palma to-day. That is a serious thing. I know the view taken by His Majesty's Government with regard to British ships entering Spanish ports, but it is a serious thing for any ship to claim the right to proceed on the high seas in charge of a British ship which has been captured in this way.
As regards the "Stangrove," the case is somewhat different, and I would ask the right hon. Gentleman if he would be so kind as to correct me at once if I make an error in my facts, because I have no opportunity of reply and I am very anxious that the facts should be clearly stated and established. Therefore, if he does not contradict or challenge what I say, I must assume that my facts are accurate. This ship, the "Stangrove," was captured by the Franco warship "Dato" when she was out of territorial waters on the Spanish coast. On the 5th February she was taken by a Franco ship when she was five or six miles from the coast. I should be glad if the right hon. Gentleman would indicate whether he admits that this ship was taken when she was more than three miles from the Spanish coast, in fact five or six miles from the coast. I do not know whether he can do that now, but if so, I should like him to do so, because it would be very awkward if afterwards he says that that is a matter of challenge. I might say that his answers to me on this matter have not been satisfactory. We have the testimony of the captain of the ship, Captain Richards, and the first engineer and the first mate. I have seen the engineer and the first mate, and I have asked them questions. All the three men concurred in stating that the ship was five or six miles from the coast. The right hon. Gentleman stated that the captain had said that the ship was five miles from the coast but that this was denied by the captain of the Franco ship. Does he 1012 accept the view of the three British officers or the view put forward by the captain of the Franco ship? I should be glad to have an answer.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Butler)
I adhere to the statement given in my original reply, that the master of the "Stangrove" maintained that his position at the time of the seizure was on the high seas, while on the other side it was claimed that the ship was in Spanish territorial waters, In either case, His Majesty's Government cannot but regard the seizure as illegal. That is the position that His Majesty's Government hold.
§ Mr. Butler
That is a most unfair statement. I have said that we accept the word of the master of the "Stangrove" that he was outside territorial waters, and I have said that we regard the capture as illegal. Surely, that is as far as I can go.
§ Mr. Benn
I offer the right hon. Gentleman my apology. I misunderstood what he said, and I thank him for his assurance. This ship was, then, outside territorial waters. Therefore, it is absolutely clear that the capture was piracy. What happened then? She was taken to Barcelona with her master, her officers and crew. When she arrived at Barcelona the captain and officers were not allowed to have any communication with their homes or with the owners of the vessel. The two officers of whom I have spoken, together with four or five seamen, were taken as hostages on a Franco armed merchantman, called the "Mar Negro," and from the 5th to 12th February they were taken around the Mediterranean as hostages, presumably for the good behaviour of the men who were left on the "Stangrove." On 12th February they arrived at Palma, where they found their sister ship, the "Stangate." At Palma the authorities came on board the "Stangrove" and took away one of the men, a Spaniard. What has happened to him we do not know, but the men of the "Stangrove" believe that he was taken ashore and shot. I would ask the right 1013 hon. Gentleman whether he has made any inquiries about the fate of this man, and also whether he admits the right of any authority, whether they are insurgent or otherwise, to come aboard British territory, in the form of a British ship, and take away a man as a prisoner.
What happened to the two officers and the four seamen on the armed merchantman? They tell me that their food was very poor. For four days they were not allowed on deck at all but had to stay below. At first they had six cups and six plates and afterwards three cups and three plates, and they had to share them out as best they could. After three days they were allowed to come up and take the air. For the whole 12 days they were held as hostages in that Spanish ship. In the meantime, the "Stangrove" had reached Palma, having been taken direct from Barcelona. She arrived on 7th February, and was visited at once by the British Consul, and again on the next day, the 8th. On one of those occasions the Consul took possession of the papers and records of the ship. The master asked him if he would communicate with the owners of the ship and with Mrs. Richards, the wife and now the widow of the captain, but I am informed that the Consul said that he could not do so, as he had no power save to communicate the facts to the Foreign Office. So far as I know no communication was sent to Mrs. Richards of the fate of her husband until some 10 days or a fortnight later.
This Consul after his two visits made no further visit to the ship, as far as I know, before she was lost. From the 8th to the 23rd, on which date she was wrecked, he did not, as far as I know, pay any further visit. He left it to somebody else to see that these men, who were kept under armed guard in this Spanish ship, were properly fed. Had it not been for the naval officers from His Majesty's Ship "Hotspur" and other British vessels in the neighbourhood, the fresh meat required for the health of these prisoners would not have been provided. What is the name of this Consul who left British seamen captive in a foreign ship and refused to communicate messages to their families? Let us have his name so that we may know it. If the facts I have stated are accurate, and I believe them to be so, because I have taken every step to ensure their accuracy, and have cross- 1014 examined the parties concerned, it is a shameful thing that British seamen should be left on board a ship of that character without any means of communicating with their relatives or with the owners. I am not particularly interested in the owners, but I am interested in the status of British ships and in the fate of British seamen.
On the 23rd a storm rose. About half-past five, so the engineer told me, a Spanish officer told Captain Richards to raise steam. At 7 o'clock he tried to raise steam because a written order had come, but before 9 o'clock the ship was on the rocks. The men were rescued by the breeches buoy, in which British naval officers played some part. The old captain refused to leave his ship. It was said by a court of inquiry that the captain hazarded his ship in not having steam up when bad weather was approaching. I think that is a most shameful thing to say. This old captain had been in harbour from the 7th to the 23rd. It was only a small ship, and he had kept steam up till the 18th, according to the statement I have had; and on the 18th he drew his fires because he had only 28 tons of coal left, and there was no other coal available—Franco saw to that. Two hours before, the particular wind which I understand makes Palma Harbour very difficult, arose. He found that one anchor was going so he put down another, but it was fruitless for the ship was blown on to the rocks and is now a wreck.
The captain was a man of singular character. He was 68 years of age. When he was first bombed he ordered his officers and men to leave the ship and he remained on board in charge in order that he alonéshould run the risk. When the bombing was over the other men, who were acting under orders, returned to the ship and were then captured. When the ship dragged in Palma Harbour he ordered his men and officers to leave and he remained on board. He said to Mr. Evans, the first mate, "No, I shall stand by my ship." The next day when they went aboard they found this old gentleman battered and floating in the water in the saloon. No naval chaplain came to his funeral; he was buried by the good will of a Roman Catholic priest. If these facts are correct there is something for the Government to answer. I contend that the Spaniards, who kept this man a prisoner and put him in a position which led in the end to his death, are guilty of a 1015 crime. I also say that the authorities in Palma, who knew that this captain and the two officers and other British seamen were prisoners in a British ship in the harbour and did not see that they were liberated, declined, as I believe, to make any communications with their families, were guilty of a grave dereliction of duty. I also say that the Government which allows such things to occur should meet with the disapproval of this House.
I do not propose to divide the House. I am raising this matter first to clear it up, and if I am wrong I shall be glad to be told. I am raising it for the honour and reputation of this old man, whom I have never seen—Captain Richards. I am raising it also to draw attention to the fact that if the Government wishes Britain to be respected in the world she must not allow her ships to be treated in this way. To-day everything turns on prestige. What did Dr. Goebbels say before the Prime Minister made his speech? He said, "Not a word from the Democratic Powers." That was before the Prime Minister's speech. If you are going to allow British ships to be treated like this, illegally arrested, as the right hon. Gentleman himself admits, if you are going to allow British seamen to be made prisoners, hostages, and not allow the "Hotspur" to tell this wretched little armed merchantman to let them go, you cannot expect to maintain the prestige of Great Britain in the world. Finally, I say that it is men like Captain Richards who have built up the reputation of our merchant navy, and it is unwise to treat them in this way because you may never know when you may need their services again.
§ 8.51 p.m.
§ Wing-Commander James
I came into the House without the slightest intention of intervening in the Debate, but really I cannot allow some of the things which the right hon. Gentleman has said to pass without comment. He says that he is interested in the status of British shipping. So are we all; and we can all combine to deplore the tragedy which overtook Captain Richards in Palma Harbour. But he also said that we should not endure insults like those which we have endured in this unfortunate affair. Without going into the merits of this particular case, which I am not arguing at all, I consider that the whole question 1016 of these British ships does want ventilating. It is not as if it was a genuine trading concern being molested on the high seas. This line of shipping belongs to a gentleman, who himself, running no risks but sitting in London and making a large profit out of the Spanish war, exposes British ships, British seamen, and the British flag to insult and outrage.
Mr. J. J. Davidson
Is the hon. and gallant Member aware that his last statement has been made before and that the shipowners engaged in this trade made direct representations to the Prime Minister and placed before him definite proof and evidence that there was no undue profit-making in this shipping line; and that the Prime Minister admitted the facts by keeping silent?
§ Mr. R. J. Taylor
Is it not a fact that the owner of the ship is a British subject? Why single him out?
§ Wing-Commander James
I dare say that these so-called British traders have made protests, but consider the facts in regard to these ships. On 28th February last I put a question on the status of these ships, and the answer was that up to that date 99 vessels flying the British flag had been more or less seriously damaged in Spanish waters, that of these 99 vessels only 27 belonged to the same British owners before the outbreak of the Civil War, and that 20 had come on to the British register and under the Flag, after the outbreak of the Civil War. We know that it is desirable that shipping should come under our flag, but when this is used, as in the present case, as a mere cloak for blockade running under the protection of the British flag— for there is a blockade, whether one likes it or not—I think it is deplorable that it should be allowed to go on, as It has done, being a source of friction between ourselves and the Spanish Government. After all, in the last War, we blockaded Germany, and rightly so. There is a war on in Spain, and if the unfortunate seamen are sent there by profiteering owners, who in many cases are no more than nominees of the late Republican Government, and thereby embitter our relations with the Spanish Government, I think it is deplorable.
§ 8.56 p.m.
I should not have intervened in this Debate had it not been for the entirely unprecedented and un-British 1017 nature of the methods employed by the hon. and gallant Member for Welling-borough (Wing-Commander James) in dealing with this question. Is the hon. and gallant Member aware that British shipping has always maintained its rights, in the face of the greatest opposition of foreign countries, in carrying out its legitimate trade?
Is the hon. and gallant Member further aware that his own Government, Prime Minister, and Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs have agreed that those British ships were engaged in legitimate trade? Therefore, is it the hon. and gallant Gentleman's contention that whenever a dispute arises in some foreign country, British shipping firms, registered by the British Government and under the control of the President of the Board of Trade, should say, "There is danger now in those waters; we may be attacked by a foreign Power." Is it the hon. and gallant Gentleman's contention that those British captains and sailors should say, "We have something to be afraid of, we may be bombarded, and we cannot depend upon the great British Navy to defend us; so we will give up this trade and allow Britain to lose one of her most valuable trade routes"?
§ Wing-Commander James
My contention is that an entirely new situation has arisen in this civil war. I recognise that in the existing state of the law the British Government cannot act differently. But when the war is over, it will be necessary, in case such a situation should arise again, to have some means of discriminating between legitimate and regular traders and people who come under the British flag solely for the purpose of getting our protection.
If the hon. and gallant Gentleman desires at some future date to alter international law, all the powers and regulations and Standing Orders of the House are at his disposal—at least, if he can bring about a conversion of opinion, particularly among the Members of his own Front Bench. But we are at present dealing with international law as it exists. Those shipping firms were acting strictly in accordance with international law—as was admitted by the Government—in carrying out legitimate trading. They were doing so subject to the power of the Non-intervention Committee and subject 1018 to its rights to place officers on board and to inspect the cargoes. They were not carrying munitions to the Spanish people, but carrying out the merciful task of taking to them foodstuffs, ambulance requirements, and coal. I visited one of those British ships. I attended the funeral of seven British sailors at Tarragona— seven of the hon. and gallant Gentleman's countrymen—who were bombed by Spanish aeroplanes because of the lack of protection by the British Navy while they were undertaking their regular trade in accordance with international law. I was assured by the Under-Secretary of State— I have no doubt that, as an ex-British officer and a British gentleman, he is very proud of the fact that he so assured me —in answer to a question, that all the British sailors who were killed in Spain would be buried properly with the Union Jack around them.
In the case with which we are dealing now, the hon. and gallant Gentleman cannot ride off by saying that at some future time the legitimacy of this shipping trade will have to be considered because there is a civil war going on in that country. The British Mercantile Marine is, always has been, and I hope always will be, the backbone of the British Navy. The men of the British Mercantile Marine set an example to Britain in gaining and capturing trade routes and keeping them. With regard to this very deplorable episode—the death of this captain—I say that the Government have no right to adopt an attitude of nonchalance and inactivity in face of the facts that were stated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton (Mr. Benn). Considering that this British captain was carrying on his legitimate trade, doing his duty and bringing succour to people who were oppressed, we have a right to have a complete explanation from the Government as to what they intend to do with Governments which treat British officers and sailors in this manner.
§ 9.2 p.m.
§ Mr. Mander
The hon. and gallant Member for Wellingborough (Wing-Commander James) used a phrase which I find it a little difficult to understand. He seemed very much to resent it that these British ships going to Spain were engaged in making profits. He seemed to be very annoyed with these profiteering ships. Do I understand that if they had been 1019 socialised ships, belonging to a State service and not working for profit, it would have been more agreeable to him? Otherwise, his words have no meaning. I think the matter with which we are now dealing was very much brought to the minds of hon. Members just before Christmas when they saw in the Palace of Westminster, a film entitled "Britain Expects," showing the actual events which had taken place during the bombing of these ships. One particular part, which on political grounds the film censor cut out—for there is a political censorship —showed a picture of the Prime Minister and stated, "Mr. Chamberlain is the first Prime Minister to refuse to allow the British Navy to protect British ships." That was cut out by the political censorship. There is one question which I put on the Committee stage of these Supplementary Estimates, and at that time the right hon. Gentleman the Undersecretary of State was not in a position to answer it. I repeat the question now. "Can the right hon. Gentleman say when the expenses of the Non-intervention Committee are coming to an end? Obviously, there is no point in existing circumstances, in going on with it, and consideration must have been given by the Government, and by other Governments, to the question of closing down the whole scandalous affair. There is no excuse for continuing it. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will be able to give a specific answer to that question.
§ 9.4 p.m.
§ Lieut.-Commander Fletcher
I wish to raise a matter connected with the grant to Reuters, but before doing so, I should like to refer briefly to the item concerning passport officers. I feel that the information we have had in the House has shown that these passport officers must at present be working very long hours in circumstances of exceptional difficulty. I believe they deserve well of their country, for there must be very many wretched people to-day who believe that this country does stand for decency and humanity because of the courtesy and consideration -which overworked passport control officers show them in their trying time of distress and anxiety. I am not quite sure what are the conditions of engagement, employment, and discharge of these passport 1020 control officers. I am not sure whether they are on any establishment list, although, personally, I very much dislike the idea of any civil servants doing long and arduous work and apparently not being on any establishment list. If it is felt that these officers are acting particularly well and that they deserve well of the country, then I think one tribute which might be paid to their work would be to review the conditions of their employment in order to see whether any alteration in them deserves consideration.
I am very glad to see the hon. Member for Sunderland (Mr. Storey) in his place, because I did not know that this Vote was to be taken and was unable to give him noticed that I proposed to refer to a matter in which he is interested. I looked round the House for him but could not find him. I wish to say at the outset that I am making no attack upon the business principles and intergrity of Reuters. When this matter was raised on the Committee stage I believe something was said about partiality on the part of Reuters in the presentation of foreign news. May I say that I myself have no evidence whatsoever upon that score and I do not on that account associate myself with anything that was said of that nature. To me, the important matter is.the adequate supply of impartial news to the Empire and to the world and how far this subsidy has helped to that end. I think it is a question of value for money. It is freely said that, thanks to the giving of such subsidies as this, Reuters enjoys a privileged position and special treatment which render it difficult for other British news agencies to compete and that the state of affairs of which this subsidy is an illustration hinders the improvement of news services to Empire papers.
I should like to ask specifically for a reassurance on a point which has been raised in connection with this subsidy in South African, Indian and Australian papers. When entering into this arrangement, did the Government obtain from Reuters a guarantee that they would not cut down their normal wordage by cable and substitute for it the messages from Rugby sent, partly at the expense of the British taxpayer? There is another point. Did the messages in respect of which we are asked to sanction this grant of £6,000, contain any criticism of Government foreign policy at the time of the crisis or were they confined to speeches and 1021 comments favourable to the Government? I also wish to ask whether any Australian papers declined to take the Reuters services paid for by this subsidy. In fact, did any Dominion paper publish these services, and, if so, how much of them? The payment of subsidies to Reuters gives them a privileged, monopoly position which is resented and which apparently does not ensure adequate news reports. If I may take the instance of a recent Debate in this House on the dissemination of news, I understand that the "Singapore Free Press" was not entirely satisfied with the adequacy of the Reuter report. I have the Reuter report of that Debate here and it states:Mr. Dower declared that Britain started with a very great advantage in the possession of the only universal news agency in the world with direct contacts with all the principal agencies the world over. For three-quarters of a century the independence, integrity and accuracy of the Reuter services assured its ready acceptance and thereby British prestige was maintained and a better knowledge and understanding of British aims was fostered.The Reuter report then quoted from my own speech and simply said that I said "that at present it was impossible to broadcast too much straight news. There must be a certain preference for cable services as opposed to wireless services and that it was no use replying to subsidised propaganda with more subsidised propaganda." The "Singapore Free Press" telegraphed home to point out that "the only news they had received from London consisted of flattering references in the Debate to the usual channels of news to the Straits Settlements and that very little reference was made to the speech of Lieutenant-Commander Fletcher in which he referred particularly to the discontent here with the present news services from London."
The "Singapore Free Press" gave exceptional prominence to the amplification which was received in response to that telegram and they spoke of "the artificial news famine" in Singapore and stated that I had read extracts from the "Straits Times" which referred to Reuter's monopoly in Malaya. It went on:The Reuter report of the Debate as cabled did not refer to these comments. The 'Free Press' secured the following report from the British United Press in response to a cabled request.It then gave an instance of how these Christians love one another: 1022The Reuter version of this part of the Debate consisted mainly of flattering references to the Reuter services, with a casual mention of the B.B.C. The B.B.C. news bulletin consisted mainly of flattering references to the B.B.C. with no references to Renter.At any rate it is clear that the Reuter account of the Debate did not contain any reference to criticisms of Reuter and that fact ought to be considered in the light of another passage from the "Singapore Free Press" which states:Reuter is the only full cable or wireless service at present available to Malayan newspapers.The "only service" but it does not give the news. The "Straits Times" has commented on that and says:So ar as this country is concerned it is only the protection of the Reuter monopoly which has prevented Malaya receiving a far more extensive service of British news than it receives at present. for nearly five years now the 'Straits Times' has been striving to get into the country a second British news service, not with the idea of excluding Reuter but in the hope of stimulating that agency to greater effort by the introduction of competition. The service which we have sought to bring here is thoroughly reliable, absolutely independent and of world-wide repute, but, the most astonishingly numerous and formidable obstacles have been encountered. The remedy for shortage of British news is not a grant of concessions to Reuter which would strengthen still further the position of that organisation as a monopoly in certain parts of the Empire but by facilitating the transmission of all British news and shaking off that false impression that Reuter is the only reliable British news agency.The same point of view is reflected in the "Singapore Free Press" of 18th February which says:Singapore newspapers contain possibly the smallest wordage of foreign telegrams of any newspapers published in towns of equal importance. The 'Free Press' has made repeated efforts to secure additional news services for Malaya. For many years Reuter have held virtually a monopoly in foreign news distribution in this country, a state of affairs which is bad for the newspapers, bad for the readers and just as bad for the agency itself. The impression is given that Reuter is an official news agency, having Government backing. The attitude of the authorities to the introduction of another news service into Malaya would suggest that even Government officials sometimes regard Reuter as the only British news agency.The same point of view is reflected from another great Dominion—India. Reuter deny that they have any monopoly in India, or elsewhere for that matter. I do not know if it still exists but I under- 1023 stand that there was a clause in Reuter's contracts with Indian newspapers, whereby papers taking the service of any other agency could not have what is known as Reuter's "A" service. Officially, no doubt, the Government know nothing about this. I understand, also, that Reuter owns the Associated Press of India, which is the chief internal news-gathering organisation in India. India may be another illustration of the view that the services of Reuter to the Empire are possibly more appreciated in London than they are at the receiving points. I quote an opinion from a competent observer who has been travelling in India:There is considerable agitation in India against the Reuter monopoly, made possible by Government assistance of long standing. Both British and Indian owned newspapers are anxious for stimulating competition.Proceedings in the Assembly in India indicate that Reuter receives a subscription fee of some £4,000 a year for circulating information to Government agents, and that in addition they are paid to send to England supplementary messages such as the official text of the Viceroy's speeches. This might be termed an inverted subsidy, because one might ask whether such messages to Government agents are necessary.
Another situation has arisen in South America out of this subsidy. I understand that in South America, where the United States news agencies have a dominant position, those news agencies are exploiting the fact that Reuter have been receiving a Government subsidy and are encouraging South American papers to think of Reuter in the same terms as they think of Havas and the Deutsches Nachrichtenbuero. It is very unfortunate that this idea should get about, because subsidised news is always suspect, and the United States news agencies are taking advantage of the fact, apparently, to discredit Reuter on the ground that they receive this subsidy from the Government. One object of paying Reuter to distribute more news via Rugby was to get the British viewpoint better represented in South America, but in the result South American papers may be rather chary of the Reuter news, and the position of the United States news agencies in South America may be strengthened instead of the position of Reuter.
1024 I do not wish to advocate any measure as being of advantage to any particular news agency, but I ask the Government to examine all these facts with a fresh eye. The matter is one which should be approached from the sole aspect of fair and equal treatment of all British news agencies and the quashing of all arrangements which impede the most ample and cheapest circulation of British news. I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether, on consideration of all the facts—and I hope we may hear the other side put forward — this subsidy to Reuter did indeed produce a news service which was published by the Dominions and received with pleasure by them, and whether it has indeed assisted in the dissemination of British news in the Empire and the world, as was its ostensible object.
§ 9.19 p.m.
§ Mr. Noel-Baker
I have risen primarily to support what has been said by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Lieut.-Commander Fletcher) on the subject of the subsidy to Reuters, but I am moved by the remarks of the hon. and gallant Member for Welling-borough (Wing-Commander James) to say something about the questions raised concerning the "Stangrove" and the "Stangate." I hope that the Undersecretary will not be diverted from the main point by the observations made by the hon. and gallant Member for Welling-borough. I would indeed go so far as to say, if he will forgive me for putting it in this way, that his intervention was thoroughly unBritish. Mr. Billmeir, whom he attacked, is a British subject. He served in the last War. He went to the front at the age of 17. He had a distinguished war record. Now the hon. and gallant Member comes and implies that for personal profit he is sending other men into danger and taking no risks himself. The sailors whom Mr. Billmeir has sent have wanted to go. I have heard them making speeches on many platforms asking the British Government to give the food that they might take it in to the starving people. He talked about the trade being not legitimate. Every one of those ships has carried a non-intervention officer, which in itself is the absolute guarantee of the legitimacy of the trade. The British taxpayer is paying money for these non-intervention officers who are guaranteeing the legitimacy of the trade.
1025 What is illegitimate about this business is the blockade which the hon. and gallant Member supports, a blockade by a new method, which one would have thought an airman would be the very last to condone—air blockade, one of the greatest mortal dangers to Britain, being carried out over a long period of time by General Franco, and the hon. and gallant Member comes here and asks the Undersecretary not to take any notice of what is said about these cases on the ground that Mr. Billmeir is trying to make profits for himself in illegitimate trade. The hon. and gallant Member also raised the point, which he made a year ago, about many of these ships not having been British when the war began. He was answered a year ago in a very ample answer by the Secretary to the Department of Overseas Trade, who said that it was absolutely vital that we should keep our shipping laws, as they were in order that we should have as much shipping as possible under the British flag when war began. I hope that the Under-Secretary will now stick to the point of view which the Secretary to the Department of Overseas Trade upheld a year ago, will stand for British interests, will reject the so-called distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate trade in Spain, and will recognise that the hon. and gallant Member for Wellingborough has wanted in every way to do things which are fatal to British interests and has done so because he wants to help General Franco.
I turn to the question of the subsidy to Reuter. It is a very small sum of money, but it is a very big principle which is at stake. Democracy is now being attacked in many ways, and the Prime Minister told us at Birmingham that we may soon have to shed our blood in its defence. Democracy is governed by opinion. Opinion is formed in many ways—by Debate in Parliament, by free association in political organisations, and nowadays by the wireless—but everybody recognises that incomparably the most important factor in formulating the opinion which is the lifeblood of democracy is a free Press. In many countries of the world the Press is very far from free. In some countries it is totally under Government control. In some countries it is so venal that it is purchased by vested interests or even by foreign Governments. In some countries it is subject to the influence of advertisers 1026 —I should like to think it was never subject to the influence of advertisers in this country. In some countries it is manipulated by Government subsidies. In some it is under the influence of Government guidance.
This was the method first adopted by Bismarck in the days when Europe used to talk about "Bismarck's reptile Press." I wonder what that Europe would have thought of our national Presses to-day? Every one of these methods is open to great objection. They are all wrong in principle, but none is more wrong in principle, more open to objection from the point of view of the good working of democracy, than that of the Government subsidy. This £6,000— after all, a trifling sum to Reuter in view of their annual turnover—is, as my hon. and gallant Friend said, doing harm to all British agencies throughout the world by leading foreigners to believe that we are exercising an influence over our Press and that our Press agencies are, as some foreign agencies are, organs of the Government. I am even told that in South America Nazi agents have made a photo stat of this Vote and are putting it about to show that our Press is as corrupt as is that of other countries. I hope the Under-Secretary and the Government will listen to the plea that has been made and will consider the facts that have been brought forward and will re-examine the proposal that they have made.
§ 9.26 p.m.
§ Mr. Storey
I may perhaps be allowed to say a few words in response to what my hon. and gallant Friend has said. I should like to express my appreciation of the attitude that he has adopted. I realise that he is not doing it with any idea of attacking Reuter but rather with the idea that he wants to see the British viewpoint properly distributed throughout the world. I do not know that I can answer all the questions that he has raised, but I will try to deal with one or two. He asked particularly about the distribution of this service in Australia. It is true that there has been difficulty about the distribution of this wireless service in Australia, and, in fact, the newspapers there were not able to take it during the crisis of last autumn. The newspapers want the service, but I understand that there are technical reasons which so far have prevented the Commonwealth Gov- 1027 ernment granting the necessary licence. I believe that steps are being taken and we hope that shortly the licence will be granted and the service will be available.
The hon. and gallant Gentleman then raised the question of Malaya. There is very keen newspaper competition in Malaya. One group of newspapers is entirely satisfied with Reuter's service, but another wants an alternative service. To say that there is any news famine is quite untrue. The hon. and gallant Gentleman quoted from some papers. Perhaps I may quote from another. The "Malaya Tribune," in an article on 18th February, said:The 'Singapore Free Press 'headed the report with the words' Artificial News Famine in Malaya' and declared that there was a great need for an alternative service. If the heading means that there is a famine of artificial news, it is an excellent thing which everyone will applaud. If the meaning is that an artificial famine in news has been created, we most strongly refute the suggestion. So far from being a famine, there is a glut of news. Reuter's service, which 18 months ago was 27,000 words a month, has been increased to nearly 100,000 words. As to the quality of the service received from Reuter there is every reason for satisfaction. The agency, with its correspondents in every part of the globe has unrivalled facilities for securing information, and it despatches it with the utmost speed. The fairness of the news supplied is unquestioned. The 'Free Press' makes the statement that 'Reuter is the only full cable and wireless service at present available to Malayan newspapers.' We entirely fail to understand this. Any service is available if a newspaper is prepared to pay for it and for the cost of cabling. If the statement had been that Reuter is the only full cable and wireless service at present available to Malayan newspapers at such a reasonable rate, that would have been more to the point.That, I think, is the point. There is a service which Reuter can supply at a reasonable rate because of its vast organisation, which enables it to distribute its service at a cost which other agencies cannot compete with. If it was not for that organisation, they would not be able to compete, as they have done successfully, with heavily subsidised news services put out by foreign news agencies. There is, after all, no other British news agency organised to supply such a Service. Foreign agencies cannot supply at a reasonable cost. I assume that my hon. and gallant Friend does not suggest that we should give these facilities to any foreign news agency.
1028 The hon. and gallant Gentleman also raised the question of South America. I agree with him that it is a very serious consideration if the acceptance of this assistance is going to enable anyone to say that Reuter is a Government controlled service. It was a matter to which Reuter gave very serious consideration whether by entering into this arrangement, by which they would increase their wordage in this service, they would lay themselves open to the charge of being Government controlled. The only condition that Reuter have to fulfil in order to receive such assistance is as to the amount of news that they distribute and how they distribute it. They would prefer not to accept any assistance whatever if there was any Government interference in the collection or selection of the news. With that complete independence in the collection and selection of the news, no one can say that it is a Government controlled service. Reuter do not want a subsidy It is only because they realise the vast importance to this country that British news and world news should be presented to the newspapers of the world as seen through British eyes, arid not through foreign eyes, that they are prepared to take this assistance in their distribution.
Other Governments are pouring huge sums into building up these wireless news services. They are heavily subsidised. They distribute news to other countries at a fraction of the cost that Reuter can, and it goes without saying that where a newspaper, say, in Japan, can get news at a fraction of the cost that it has to pay for Reuter, it is inclined to take it. But if that news is news of Britain as seen through either French or German eyes, it is not the kind of news that we want distributed. We want news of British and world affairs as seen through British eyes. It is only if Reuter can meet that competition and put out a sufficient service at a reasonable rate to enable newspapers to take it that we can get that news distributed. Therefore, I hope the House will agree to this measure of assistance. I repeat that it must only be on this basis, that the Government do not interfere in any way whatever with the collection or selection of the news and that the only obligation that Reuter undertake is as to the amount of news that they put out and where they distribute it.
§ Lieut.-Commander Fletcher
I understood the hon. Member to say that there is no possible alternative British news service to Reuter in Malaya. I have extracts from two Malay papers. The "Straits Times" says that for nearly five years it has been striving to give the country a second British news service, and the "Singapore Free Press" says it has made repeated efforts to secure additional news services. Is it the case that these papers have tried to do something which in fact it is not possible to do and that there is no alternative?
§ Mr. Storey
I think I can best answer the hon. and gallant Member's question by asking him a question which I asked him once before. What is the alternative service that they wish to take? I know of no other British service than can supply them.
§ 9.35 p.m.
§ Mr. Remer
I would not have intervened if I had not only recently returned from the Island of Jamaica. When I was there I was alarmed to find that there was no sort or kind of really British news available for the people of the island. When I made inquiries from the leading newspaper proprietor, he informed me that he was not allowed to publish in his paper the Empire news which is broadcast every night by the British Broadcasting Corporation. That news came to me 4,000 miles across the Atlantic on board steamer on the way home. It came through quite clearly; it was very good and in no way prejudiced. In Kingston, Jamaica, they were not allowed, for some reason or other, to use that news. The type of news they were getting was the most deplorable, cheap-jack, Yankee news, which is no good to British interests and not the kind of news which anybody on the other side of the House would tolerate for a moment. I have been told since I arrived back that there is some Act of Parliament which prevents this news being published in the newspapers, even in British Colonies like Jamaica. If my right hon. Friend would look into that matter, he would be doing a great service to British interests, not only in that island, but throughout the West Indies.
§ 9.37 p.m.
§ Mr. Butler
I will first deal with the shipping questions raised by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Gorton 1030 (Mr. Benn). I would like to assure the hon. Member for Maryhill (Mr. J. J. Davidson) that the Government have no intention of adopting a nonchalant attitude towards shipping questions. The best proof of that is in the action taken in these cases. In introducing the case of the "Stangrove" I would remind the House that it was the action of the Government which, although, I agree, after some regrettable delay, secured the release of the ship. It was particularly unfortunate that, although orders were issued in Burgos, through the action of the Government, for the release of the ship, a storm arose and the ship was blown upon the rocks. The right hon. Gentleman raised a question first about the "Stangate." On the first occasion upon which the "Stangate" was apprehended by the forces of the Burgos Government, it was released, thanks to the immediate intervention of His Majesty's Ship "Intrepid." The reason for that was that the "Stangate" was on the high seas, and, although it had no wireless, another steamship acquainted the British Navy, and immediate and successful action was taken. The circumstances of the next occasion when the "Stangate" was apprehended I described in answer to a question this afternoon. It was then within territorial waters, and I said:His Majesty's Government do not propose to object in cases where the Spanish Government, after prohibiting the entry of ships into certain portions of its territory, prevent, by appropriate measures taken in territorial waters the entry of ships into the closed ports.
§ Mr. Butler
As I understand, she was apprehended within territorial waters, and that is why the Government have adopted this attitude towards the case. The right hon. Gentleman asked why, after that had taken place, the "Stangate" was not taken from her escort on the high seas. The reason was that when the "Stangate" was taken she was within territorial waters and that was the basis of the capture. There has been some criticism of the delay In the case of the "Stangrove." It is to be noticed that 1031 the "Stangrove" had not got wireless. If she had had it, it might have been possible for her to communicate with the Navy and for her release to have been effected in the same way as the "Stan-gate" was released on the first occasion. Unfortunately, there were no ships in the vicinity, and the result was that she was captured. I accept as in general correct the statement of the case which was made by the right hon. Gentleman. His main criticism was with regard to communications from the ship's captain to his home. The right hon. Gentleman said he did not mind about the owners. I have made inquiries from the Consul and the naval authorities in Palma, and I am informed that nothing was given to them with a definite destination or address upon it which they did not send. Therefore, I cannot hold them guilty for not having made any communication.
§ Mr. Benn
These men were prisoners in their ship. They were visited on the 7th and 8th by the Consul. The captain is dead now, but it is said by his fellow officers that he wished messages to be sent to his wife. His wife never received any messages, although they were given to the Consul. I cannot understand why that Consul allowed these men to remain prisoners for a fortnight without making any communication, either to the owners or to the captain's wife.
§ Mr. Butler
I have said that, according to our information, the authorities were not given any such communications to forward. In regard to what the right hon. Gentleman has said about His Majesty's Consul, I should like to say that he has a long record of valuable service in looking after British interests, and that no man has been more hard worked or has done better service. I am informed that His Majesty's Consul at Palma was in touch with the crew the whole time and that the crew was visited, not only by the Consul after the date which the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned, but by the naval officers who kept closely in touch with the crew. No one will regret more deeply than we do that this gallant officer's wife should not have received the message that was her due. I can only imagine that there must have been some misunderstanding. It was certainly not due to any dereliction of duty on the part of our authorities. I should like to pay a tribute to the bravery 1032 of the captain of the "Stangrove." His action was in the best traditions of naval sea captains. I would draw the attention of the House to the report of the court of inquiry, which said that:After the ship struck, the conduct of the master, officers, and crew was beyond reproach, and that the master exhibited courage and leadership in arranging for the rescue of his company, and remaining on board himself until all were safe. We feel that his action in remaining on board was perhaps unnecessary, but it was his considered opinion at the time that this course was not fraught with exceptional danger.That illustrates that the master stuck to his ship. He exhibited qualities of leadership and I accept what the right hon. Gentleman has said about his previous conduct in a previous experience. To proceed with the case as presented by the right hon. Gentleman: He raised the question of the difficulty that the master and the ship's company had in raising steam. I would refer again to the report of the court of inquiry. That was that this ship began to drag its anchor at about 7.20 p.m.
The right hon. Gentleman in his statement said that before 9 o'clock at night she was on the rocks. There was great difficulty in raising steam. The reasons for it are given as follows by the court of inquiry: '' This failure was due to the fact that fires had been extinguished on 7th February by order of the master and although steam had been again raised on Saturday, 18th, for auxiliary purposes, it had been extinguished that same day with the master's consent. On 23rd February, therefore, the engineers were faced with the problem of raising steam in emergency with a 44-years-old Scottish boiler and coal and it was obviously impossible to produce any pressure under a period of at least eight to 10 hours. "Then we have to examine whether it would have been wiser perhaps to raise steam earlier. This is the finding of the local court. Remember the ship went on to the rocks at 9 p.m. and that it would have taken some eight to 10 hours to raise steam from this old Scottish boiler. The report reports:The weather conditions at about noon and during the afternoon of the 23rd February were threatening. The state of the barometer and the general weather conditions should have made it clear to experienced seamen that bad weather was approaching. It seems clear to us that the master was warned of this probability during the afternoon by at least three people, the chief officer, Mr. Evans; the 1033 non-intervention officer, Monsieur de Graaf; and the Spanish officer of the Guard-Falange Naval, Don Raphael Forteza. The temporary drop in the strength of the wind between 2 and 3 o'clock and a general lack of faith in his barometer seemed to have lulled the master into a false sense of security, with the result that he took no precautions whatever for the safety of his ship until after 7 p.m., when he had received an urgent message from the Spanish naval base, and conditions of sea and wind were already dangerous.The House will see that in fact the inquiry did go carefully into this point and, while paying a tribute to those in charge of the vessel, does find that if steam had been raised earlier—and there was coal on board to do so—it might have saved this unfortunate vessel from its fate. So much for the case of the "Stangrove" I repeat that it is a case which I and His Majesty's Government most deeply regret. I will conclude this subject by saying that it was thanks to the action taken that the orders were issued, unfortunately too late, to secure the release of this vessel. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, East (Mr. Mander) raised a question about the Non-intervention Committee's expenses. These expenses are not yet ended, but I am speaking now, some time after the Committee stage, when I find I said that the expenses were being reduced. I can now say that it is probable in the future and I expect the near future, that the expenses will be drastically curtailed. I cannot go any further to-night for it is a matter which concerns several foreign Governments with which we are in touch.
A question was also raised about the Passport Control Officers. At this time of crisis the work done by those officers is really remarkable. At Question Time to-day I said that we were considering increasing the staff at Prague, as we had to do at Vienna, owing to recent events. As to whether these officers are on the established list, I am informed that they are unestablished.
The hon. and gallant Member for Nuneaton (Lieut-Commander Fletcher) raised the whole question of the subsidy to Reuter. I am unable at the moment to answer the specific questions of the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Remer) and I am not sure that they arise on this Vote, but I will look into them and send him a reply. The hon. Member for Sunderland (Mr. Storey) replied, I think, in the main to the Debate on this question and, if I may say so, did so very ably. On the 1034 question of the internal management of Reuters I do not think I can add anything to what he said, but there are one or two other points which were raised in the Debate. The assistance to Reuters, as I informed the House in the Debate on the Committee stage, was done in a period of emergency and is a purely emergency arrangement. The assistance took the form of putting an extra wordage at their disposal to enable Reuters to increase the amount of their output from the General Post Office wireless stations. The aim of the assistance was to secure the publication of more British news. I think that this was secured chiefly, as a result of this subsidy, in foreign countries rather than in the Dominions.
No guarantee was given by Reuters or asked for about their cable services and I have no reason to suppose these were in fact diminished. As to the contents of the Reuter services, a, point which was raised by the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Noel-Baker) and referred to by the hon. Member for Sunderland, these were left entirely free and the whole object was to raise the amount of the British news services at a time of emergency. The hon. and gallant Member referred to his trouble in not securing a better Press in Malaya and I only hope that Reuter will take the advantage of this Debate to report the whole of the hon. and gallant Member's speech. I am sure it woud be well worth while. At any rate, I believe the only thing in common between the B.B.C. and Reuter was that they both made a reference to him, so that he does at least form a link between the two great competitors. This grant was not given to Reuter in the belief that there are no British agencies but Reuter, but for reasons, to which the hon. Member for Sunderland referred, that Reuter provided the most convenient channel for achieving a certain objective.
When the House reflects that the idea was that this comparatively small sum, compared to what foreign nations subscribe, was to increase the amount of daily output from 1,000 to 3,000 words, and reflects that many of the American news agencies put out something like 20,000 words a day, it will be realised that although there is an important principle at stake, the extent of the problem is not as broad as the House might imagine. I should like in conclusion to say that the Government will give careful 1035 consideration to the points that have been raised and, if I may say so, some of the points which have been made by hon. Members in the Debate will be extremely useful to the Government. I am sure we shall have great interest in studying them. I have replied to the main points raised in the Debate on the Report Stage of these Estimates and I trust that the House will be ready to come to a decision.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."
§ 9.55 p.m.
§ Mr. Noel-Baker
I do not want to detain the House, I only want to ask again of the Noble Lord a question I put in Committee. Have any decisions yet been made as regards bringing the new categories of refugees within the scope of the Inter-Governmental Committee on Refugees or the League of Nations High Commission? In Committee I urged upon him that the Spanish refugees ought now to be put under the auspices of the High Commissioner of the League, who is also the new director of the Evian Committee.
Since we had that Debate we have now had a new category of refugees, those who have come from Czecho-Slovakia. There will be a large number of the leaders of Czecho-Slovakia who will now come as refugees from their own country to a foreign land. We all hope that their absence from their native country will be very short. The point is that they will be refugees and will need help and support. I venture to urge once more on the Government that it is a matter of urgent public importance to our own country and to the world that this refugee problem, which is continually extending in new countries, should be dealt with as a single problem and through the organisation which has been set up.
§ 9.57 p.m.
The Paymaster-General (Earl Winter-ton)
I regret that the answer which I am going to give the hon. Gentleman will not wholly meet the point which he has just raised. Perhaps I may take that last point first. I understand that he would like to see one organisation covering the 1036 whole question of refugees. So far as the Evian Committee is concerned we have, as I explained on the Committee stage of the Supplementary Estimates, the closest working arrangement with the League of Nations. It is impossible, for the reasons which I then gave, for us to go further than we have done for the simple reason that it is not possible for the United States to be a member State, although they are a most important member of the Evian Committee. His Majesty's Government have taken the view that the help of the United States and of the people there— the Government have the people behind them—towards the assistance of the involuntary migrants from Germany is of such great importance that every effort should be made to meet their point of view.
None of the member States on the Evian Committee has ever doubted the value of that committee as a separate entity, but what we have done, as was explained in the Press communique which was issued after the last meeting, has been to try to increase the relationship or the co-ordination with the League of Nations by appointing a very distinguished former civil servant, Sir Herbert Emerson, who is League High Commissioner, to be also the director of our committee. I can assure the hon. Gentleman, whose interest in this subject we all acknowledge, that I am quite convinces that the present arrangements in relation to involuntary migrants from Germany is the most efficient. That is in regard to the general organisation. I appeal to the House not to press me further on the point of this rather delicate question of the attitude of the United States towards the League of Nations.
§ Mr. Noel-Baker
I do not at all want to renew the argument that we had in Committee about the United States joining the League of Nations organisation. The Noble Lord knows that the United States takes the very closest part in the work and did at one time pay subscriptions and take a closer interest than any member except ourselves. On the whole it is very satisfactory, and I hope there will be a very much closer link, especially in view of the extension of the work of the Committee to new categories of refugees. I hope that whenever there is an extension of the refugee problem the principle will be followed that it will be 1037 Sir Herbert Emerson who in one capacity or another has charge of the matter.
§ Earl Winterton
I can answer that question. I have consulted my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, who is responsible for activities relating to the League of Nations. I am not responsible in regard to these activities but for the Evian Committee. I can give the assurance that Sir Herbert Emerson either in his capacity as League Commissioner or as the director of the Evian Committee will do all that he can to further the interest of all refugees. I must further tell the House that as soon as I heard of the calamitous happenings in Central Europe last week I called a conference of the various Departments concerned and Sir Herbert Emerson and discussed what steps should be taken by which those affected by the events might be assisted, whether they came within our category or not. We got into immediate touch with Prague and everything possible is being done to get these unfortunate people out of the area. I should be disingenuous, however, if I said that at this moment we have been able to achieve very much.
§ Mr. Batey
It seems that the refugees from Central Europe are in a different position from those who came from Spain. It has been suggested to me that most of them are likely to belong to the professional classes, and that those refugees that are being assisted by public, money do not belong to the working classes. Are the working classes given the same chances of coming into this country as refugees as are the professional classes?
§ Earl Winterton
I am not quite sure whether the hon. Gentleman has interrupted me or not or whether I must ask to be allowed to speak again, but my answer is that no sort of differentiation is made between these involuntary migrants as we describe them. Whatever their religion, political views, position or class the same treatment is accorded to all because we feel that they are all in an equally bad position.
§ Mr. Godfrey Nicholson
As one who is intimately connected with several of the organisations dealing with refugees, I rise merely to say that a very large section of opinion in this country is exceedingly interested in the question of refugees. We appreciate very much indeed what the 1038 Noble Lord is doing and we hope that he will have the full support of His Majesty's Government in everything that he undertakes.
§ Mr. Benn
Do we understand that we must now address questions to the Noble Lord relating to refugees both internal and external in Czecho-Slovakia, and that he will be able to tell us, for instance, how many of them have succeeded in escaping and what is being done with the remainder? Our first thought is to assist the escape of those unhappy people who wish to leave Czecho-Slovakia, and then there is the question of fully investigating and getting the full facts of the financial transactions so far as we know them.
§ Earl Winterton
By leave of the House I would reply that it would be better if questions were put to my right hon. Friend, if they are purely Foreign Office questions. My Noble Friend or my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary invariably consults me before replying to questions concerning the Evian Committee and its activities.