§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. E. Wakefield.]
§ 10.0 p.m.
§ Mr. William Teeling (Brighton, Pavilion)
Many people outside the House, and especially on the Riviera, will be wondering why we are discussing this question of the closing of the Consulate-General at Nice about a fortnight after its closing. Therefore, I hope I may be allowed to give some of the reasons. One, as you will know, Mr. Speaker, is the procedure for obtaining an Adjournment. It is always a matter for you to choose what you think the most important subjects, and you having decided that mine was not suitable other than to go into the bag for balloting, it was finally drawn the other day, and I managed to obtain the Motion for the Adjournment tonight.
It was only about the second week in November that the decision was finally reached that the Nice Consulate should be closed and the public on the Riviera were told about it. They immediately got together and, I believe on 19th November, sent a report to the Foreign Office of what they felt about the situation, with a petition from about a thousand people, whose signatures were obtained even in that short time. It was sent to the Embassy in Paris and also to London. Then and then only were some of us in this House approached.
If hon. Members will consider the dates on which the Secretary of State or one of the junior Ministers has been answering Questions addressed to the Secretary of State they will see that there was no possibility of getting Oral Answers but only Written Answers until the last two weeks. During the last part of December and all the first part and middle of January the House was in Recess. Moreover, at that time there was the question of Suez claiming attention, and it was really impossible to get the minds of the real powers that be at the Foreign Office working on this matter. I myself felt justified only in the last fortnight in asking the Secretary of State to give the time to discuss this matter with me personally.
1037 It may be asked why I have taken up this matter. The reason, very briefly, is this. Immediately after the war, as a Member of Parliament for a seaside resort in this country and as Hon. Secretary to the Tourist and Holiday Resorts Committee in the House, I was very much mixed up with the business of trying to get our sea-front towns back into their old, pre-war position and of making possible for their functioning again. Therefore, people on the Riviera asked me if I would go out to Monte-Carlo, Cannes and Nice and to other Riviera centres and tell them how the Government were dealing with the general situation of the holiday resorts and with restoring them to their pre-war state. I found between 8,000 and 10,000 Britishers resident out there at the time, with next to no contact with England other than that through the Foreign Office.
Most hon. Members will know, from experience in handling constituency matters, that unless there is a Member of Parliament nagging at Ministers it is very seldom that anything very much is likely to be done; and that these people of whom I am speaking could not hope for very much to be done through the Consul, who in turn has to communicate with the Ambassador, who in turn has to communicate with the Foreign Office, unless some Member of Parliament at home were nagging at the Foreign Office. They asked me if I would occasionally help with the solution of some local problems of the local Britishers, and I said that I would, and this debate is one of the results. Hence I have been out to Nice to discuss this matter. I was there just before Christmas and again just before the end of the Christmas Recess.
I shall take the less vital problems first and work up to the more vital ones, but that does not mean that in many ways these lesser ones are not just as human and just as worrying for those British residents on the Riviera. There are between 8,000 and 10,000 of them, although officially only about 3,000 are registered, but when the crisis came in 1940 it was found that about 5,000 or 6,000 not registered included people like Maltese, Gibraltarians, Cypriots and various other Colonials for whom, let us not forget, the British Government are responsible.
1038 They feel great resentment at the number of Socialists who attack them on the lines that they are exiles, refugees, as it were—people who have left this country. It is a noticeable fact indeed that there is not one solitary soul on the Socialist benches here tonight to listen to this debate. In actual fact, large numbers of these people are invalids, people who for health reasons have to live there. Others are there for business reasons. Quite a number are refugees from the old days, ex-governesses, servants and so on, who stayed there, hoping that in some way they might be able to make a living. Until the Socialists devalued the £ after the war, they were able to carry on. Now they find themselves in a very pitiable condition, and a great deal of welfare work has to be done by the Consulate to help them.
There are many others who bitterly resent this criticism that they do nothing for their country. I have been at pains to get rough figures of the actual Income Tax paid in this country by large numbers of people on the Riviera. There is one lady who pays more than £17,000 in Income Tax in this country, which completely covers the total amount that is said to be the cost of the whole of the Consulate at Nice. It is worked out that, out of 2,000 registered British residents there, a dozen pay more than £5,000 a year, 100 pay more than £1,000 and about 1,000 pay sums between £500 and £1,000. In other words, about £700,000 a year is paid in this country in Income Tax by people living there.
I should like to ask the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs what is the Government's attitude towards Britishers who are living abroad for one reason or another. What is the Government's attitude towards the payment of Income Tax in this country? When we pay our Income Tax here we expect to get a quid pro quo in this country, but what quid pro quo will these people have? Will they have protection? Will they have consular support?
Many of the payments of dividends which they receive require the witnessing of their signatures before a Consul. The Consulate-General is being closed down. I am informed that it will mean that 8,000 to 10,000 Britishers will have to go to Marseilles for consular service, at a 1039 minimum cost of 3,000 francs second-class return from the Riviera. It will mean a five-hour journey by the fastest train, which means that they must bear the cost of spending at least one night in Marseilles plus the cost of food.
The distance from the furthest large British colony in Monte Carlo and Menton is over 200 miles. According to reports sent to the Foreign Office by the heads of the British community on the Riviera, the spending of £5 to go to Marseilles will be impossible for more than half the population. They cannot afford to do it. We are told that people come to Nice from Marseilles, but I will go into that question in a few moments.
I have dealt only with the 8,000 to 10,000 people who are resident on the Riviera; but there is a tremendous increase in these days in travel abroad. Between 2,000 and 3,000 people travel to the Riviera to spend part of the winter there, and about 8,000 to 10,000 go there during the summer months on holiday. Most of them are poorer people who go on motor-cycles or by various forms of tourism. Some take their own small cars. It is a fairly good bet that the vast majority do not speak a word of French.
I have a report from insurance people in Nice that they find that there is an average of four to five accidents per day during the summer which they have to investigate. Some of these people, who cannot speak French, get arrested and a number are prosecuted. Almost all of them have to go to the Consulate to try to get money to get home after their cars have been smashed or some other accident has occurred. How is that problem to be dealt with? They cannot afford, in addition, to go 200 miles further on to Marseilles. Will someone come from Marseilles? Who will telephone to Marseilles? What will be done about that practical aspect of that situation.
Then there is the case of the rather richer people who happen to die on the Riviera, some of whom may die during the summer. They specify in their wills that they want to be buried at home. Until recently it was only legal to send them home in a coffin if the consul of the country was present in person at its sealing. Now that is no longer essential, but it is still considered necessary by the undertakers, because they do not want to 1040 get involved in any question of smuggling. As a result, the managers of the hotels there say that in the summer months it will be impossible, because of the heat, to keep the bodies until somebody chooses to come over to Nice from Marseilles.
Then I come to the question of yachts. I am not talking of Lady Docker or similar people, but anybody who visits the Riviera knows of the endless small yachts belonging mostly to ex-naval officers which they let out and out of which they make quite bit of money. There again, I am told, the cost involved will be very worrying to them, and if they can avoid it they will not put into the Riviera ports if they have to go all the way to Marseilles for any legal matter to be dealt with.
I am told in a communication which I have here that those yachts—… carry a truly 'floating population' of some 1,500 to 2,000 persons. The owners hold Admiralty 'ensign' warrants and are therefore subject to the regulations made by the Board of Trade under the Merchant Shipping Acts. These regulations, as in the case of merchant vessels, deal with a variety of matters, such as the signing on and discharge of hands, deaths, accidents, indiscipline on board, offences committed ashore, etc. In all such cases it is required that the master, as well as any other persons concerned, must attend personally at the Consulate. Should the Consulate at Nice be closed very few owners or masters would take the risk of visiting any of the harbours along this coast.That is one matter but, most serious of all, is the business question. Here I have it related by the man who took over the Consulate when the Consul-General went away in 1940. He tells us that from the business point of view he would like to say, with regard to insurance:The Onassis and Niarchos administrative interests are centralised in Monte Carlo. Their fleets are covered by the British Insurance Market and this necessitates them availing themselves of the services of the British Consulate at Nice. If they are compelled to face the inconvenience and loss of time of for instance, referring to Marseilles, they will seek for better service. American and German interests are doing their utmost to supplant the British insurance brokers and the above factor would give them their opportunity. Even if the cover would reach the British market by way of re-insurance, the loss to British economy of brokerage commission would be very heavy indeed and out of all proportion to the saving on the cost of consular representation.That is from a very wise and intelligent Britisher whom the Consul-General there asked me to contact on this subject. Even more serious is the letter which was sent 1041 to the Foreign Office by the Onassis group representative, a copy of which I have received. Now, Mr. Speaker, as you are probably aware, the Onassis, the Niarchos and the Embiricos groups—all these big shipping interests are developing themselves in Monte Carlo. They are making it a centre in the same way that Panama was used previously. It is a question of millions of money. This letter states:In the future, however, it will mean that an executive will have to lose a whole day at least travelling to Marseilles unless the consular representative from Marseilles happens to be in this vicinity at the particular time when the consular services are required.Then the letter continues—this is most important and ominous—We foresee in the future a substantial increase in our needs for consular services …"—everybody out there admits that there is tremendous development in this shipping industry—the obtention of which will be considerably complicated by the closing of the Nice Consulate. We could, of course, simplify matters by transferring the placing of our insurances to New York, for example, so that only United States consular services would be required and which are readily available in Nice, if we find in future that it is impracticable to deal with matters through Marseilles. We should, however, be reluctant to take this step in view of our long association with British underwriters and our insurance brokers, all of whom would lose a substantial dollar income as a result.This figure for the Onassis group alone is considered to be about two million dollars a year.
Now I turn to the question of what is to be the saving. I know that the argument is that because we are trying to save £100 million this year by means of general economy, a certain sum has to be saved in respect of Foreign Office expenditure. With the advent of the cut in defence expenditure and the possible cut in local government expenditure, one may think that, as a result of the change in the last few weeks, these details concerning the Foreign Office may not be as vital as they were previously considered to be.
I would point out that the total claimed to be saved is about £17,000. Against that must be put about £2,000 which can be got back again from fees, which leaves £15,000. Then we have the figure of £4,000, representing money advanced to people who are hard up and have to be 1042 sent home. That brings the total to £11,000.
With regard to the amount which would have to be paid out in the present year, I wish to complain a little about an Answer which I got from the Foreign Office in January, for the statement and figures given were inaccurate. I was told that the appointments of eleven unestablished, locally-engaged members of the staff are being terminated, that seven of them have been employed in the Consulate-General for ten to fifteen years and four for two to eight years. I was told that unestablished locally-engaged staff are not entitled to pensions but that terminal gratuities will be paid to the eleven members and that this will amount in total to about £3,580, and that Her Majesty's Consul-General, who joined the Service in 1926, having reached the retiring age, is retiring on pension.
That figure has been worked out on the basis of paying each of these people—they have been in the service of Britain for many years—the vast sum of a fortnight's gratuity for every year of service. The French Government, by law, insists upon one month per year of service. Yet in France we are trying to hedge over that and to pay only a fortnight's gratuity for a year's service—half what is paid in France. There is one lady who has been there 23 years. Two of the staff have been there sixteen years. In other words, far from the payment totalling £3,500, it is more likely that by the time the legal battle has been fought it will be about £7,000, if not £9,000, which does not leave much economy for this year. Also, it is the firm belief of everybody on the Riviera that soon we shall have to have somebody back there again.
I should like now to refer to the Consul-General himself. He is a man with an extremely good record. Before he even joined the Consular Service he wrote a good book about the Navy, in which he served in the First World War. The book was so good that it was used by the Navy as an official publication. Later he had a brilliant career and was the Consul-General in Munich up to the beginning of the war, and served as the Consul-General in other places, notably Oporto, afterwards. Now, for the sake of economy, he is being kicked out at the age of 57 rather than remaining until he is 60. He was warned that the Answer to which 1043 I have referred was going to be given to the House, and far from saying that he was retiring, he asked that it might be said that he was being retired. Unfortunately, the Minister of State did not see fit to do that.
So far as one can ascertain, the Ambassador in Paris was left by the Foreign Office to make up his own mind about what to do in France. He decided that, rather than cut down a little on all departments, he would get rid of the Consulates at Nice, Nantes and Rouen. For some reason, the Consulates at Nantes and Rouen are not being closed for another three months, but the Consulate at Nice has been closed now. The Consul-General there gets £6,600 a year in salary and expenses. The others, of course, get much lesser sums. If the position was to be as it was in the old days, with just an ordinary consul or vice-consul, we could cut those figures from £17,000 to £7,000 or £8,000. The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs has already received these figures. That would not be too much.
With this vast development in Monaco, and 22 nations at present represented in Nice and Monaco, we are the only Western European nation which is not. Now Germany is opening up. A representative from Marseilles just cannot get there enough. The Consul-General in Marseilles on 29th January—two days before the closure—said that he could not state how often anybody could go from Marseilles. How on earth are people in Monte Carlo, Nice and Cannes to know when anybody is coming? There are no newspapers in English to tell them. Add the expense that if someone from Marseilles goes to Nice for two days a week, he must book rooms for the occasion, and that will cost money. When the Fleet comes into Villefranche, he will have to entertain and that will cost a large sum. Can anything be done to develop a vice-consulate in Monte Carlo or Cannes, voluntary or paid? It would help a little.
§ 10.21 p.m.
§ The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Ian Harvey)
I should like at once to say how grateful I am to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Teeling) for giving me such detailed notice of what he 1044 was going to say. I hope that that has enabled me to deal in detail with the points which he has raised. I think that the House will recognise the magnanimity with which the hon. Member for Britain's Riviera has spoken on behalf of the Riviera elsewhere. Perhaps I may say, at the beginning, that throughout my hon. Friend's speech I was reminded of the observation of Sir Anthony Eden, that everyone is in favour of general economy and particular expenditure.
I want to say at once that at the Foreign Office we very much appreciate that by this arrangement, which we regret having to make, but which we make for reasons of economy, the circumstances which will now apply will not be as satisfactory and will be less convenient than the circumstances which have applied in the past. My hon. Friend must realise that this decision has been made with very great care on balancing the claims of the whole Foreign Service. He must also realise that this consulate is being closed down together with 21 others.
I want, very briefly and swiftly, to deal with the points which he has made, the first being the damage to the insurance business. We have realised the problem here, but we are led to believe from the advice given to us that in fact this business can be conducted from Marseilles quite as efficiently, provided that the facilities exist at Marseilles, and we have every reason to believe that they do. We understand, incidentally, that the insurance business amounts very largely to a bundle of affidavits about once a fortnight and we think that that can be handled from Marseilles without great difficulty.
I very much appreciate my hon. Friend's concern for the British community in Nice. I say at once that there is no feeling against its members in any way. We sympathise with them very much and we do not regard them as refugees, tax dodgers, or anything of the sort. We realise that to have a consul-general in their midst increases the prestige of the community and we regret that we have had to take this action which we thought necessary.
I take the point which my hon. Friend made about visits which will be made from Marseilles. We will make quite certain that the Consul-General at Marseilles looks carefully at the arrangements 1045 he is to make for dealing with his new commitments. We very much appreciate that people must know when they have to go and where they have to go to see him, and it is essential that he should make all those who rely upon him for services aware of how they can get them from him.
My hon. Friend dealt with the somewhat difficult business of the coffins and their sealing up. I have made a note of what he said about the undertakers and we will see whether we can come to an amicable agreement with them. I am grateful to him for making clear to me that it is the undertakers who require the attendance of the Consul and not the law. The points he made regarding tourists' losses and accidents are applicable in other places, and in the general balance of considerations which we have had to make that has been taken into account. We appreciate and regret any inconvenience which may occur, but it is something which had to be taken into general account when making economies which, after all, is our object.
I have taken careful note, and will see that my colleagues take note, of my hon. Friend's observations about the effect of these economies. I would merely say that my hon. Friend is basing his mathematics on the principle of one year. Although we accept the view that the 1046 fortunes of this country will be improved, I do not think that in any such improvement this will rank very high as a priority. We must not consider this as a one-year proposition.
We made this decision after a careful analysis of the position. It came down to the fact that it was either Nice or Marseilles. My hon. Friend referred to the fact that this arrangement makes a longer journey for those in the area than anywhere else. But had we closed Marseilles, it would have been longer for other people, so that argument cancels itself out. The duties carried out by the Consulate General at Nice are limited compared with those at Marseilles. There is more shipping and more commercial work at Marseilles. Had I time, I could give my hon. Friend comparative details and, I think, convince him that from the commercial and maritime point of view, Marseilles, under the circumstances, is more important to us.
It is our anxiety to see that those who live in this area are not unduly penalised by any arrangement which may be made. We shall see how this arrangement works out, and if we can improve it in any way we shall be only too ready to listen to any proposition which may be put.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Ten o'clock.