§ Mr. R. McNEILL
(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he can make any statement with regard to the abandonment of the right of search at sea in connection with the Dutch convoy sailing to the East Indies?
§ Colonel WEDGWOOD
On a point of Order. May I ask if a Member puts a question on the Paper, and advantage is taken by another Member of putting down a Special Notice question in order to get an answer beforehand, whether that is the correct procedure? If people put questions on the Paper in the ordinary course of events, are other Members entitled to come up with Special Notice questions in order to get in before them?
§ Mr. KING
As this is a question which has repeatedly arisen, and as those who put down questions are naturally interested in the replies, are we to suppose that if we give notice of a question for two days ahead it is quite in order, and is consonant with the traditions and amenities of this House, for other Members to come in before with Private Notice questions? And if such practice is 172 carried out and we call attention to it before the Private Notice questions are put, will you, Sir, in future refuse to allow them?
May I ask, Sir, whether your attention has been called to the fact that on page 7 of the Order Book of the House of Commons, question No. 62, put by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Colonel Wedgwood), asks practically the same question as has been put from behind by Private Notice, and whether it would be in order, therefore, to accept a Private Notice question when there is one on the Order Paper already?
§ Mr. McNEILL
On the point of Order, Sir. May I say that I myself have put down two questions on this subject, which appear on the Notice Paper for to-morrow? I was quite unaware of the fact that any other hon. Member had put down the same thing, and I was intending to ask these two questions when an intimation was conveyed to me from the Foreign Office that as this was an important matter they would prefer that I should put the question, if I would, in a more general form, and on that intimation I asked leave to put it as a Private Notice question.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
I think, speaking generally, it would be a discourteous act if an hon. Member saw a question was down in the name of another hon. Member for a future day that he should ask the same question as an urgent question. That, as a general rule. As to to-day, I was not aware, as I had not yet studied the Order Paper for to-morrow, that these questions stood in the name of the hon. and gallant Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Colonel Wedgwood), and also in the name of the hon. Member for St. Augustine's (Mr. R. McNeill). If the House does not wish to have the answer till to-morrow, of course it need not, but as the matter seemed to me to be a pressing one, and this convoy is about to sail, it seemed to me to be desirable to clear the matter up now.
May I say that, so far as I am concerned, I have no desire to delay the answer, but I thought it necessary to ask your ruling on a point which arises frequently?
§ Colonel WEDGWOOD
Perhaps we may have an explanation from the Foreign Office as to why the hon. Member for St. Augustine's was selected?
§ Lord R. CECIL
I was not aware that my hon. and gallant Friend had a question on the Paper, but had I known that he was anxious to ask a question, I would as soon have asked him as my hon. Friend opposite to put the question. I did think it was very desirable that this matter should be cleared up as early as possible, and I quite admit I was anxious to make a statement on the subject today. I can assure my hon. and gallant Friend there is nothing discourteous to him.
I will endeavour to give the fullest information in my power, but my hon. Friend and the House will, I am sure, realise that there are certain aspects of this question which it is impossible to discuss in public. In the first place, let me say that His Majesty's Government recognise to the full the vital importance to this country of the maintenance of the right of visit and search, and they are satisfied that nothing that has occurred in connection with the Dutch Convoy can be regarded as either an abandonment or a modification of that right. Papers will be laid to-morrow, which will give a detailed account of exactly what has happened, and I need not therefore now trouble the House with more than a very brief outline.
On the 16th April, it was announced in Holland that the Netherlands Government intended to send a convoy of Government passengers and goods to the Netherlands East Indies, and the Netherlands Government were immediately informed that His Majesty's Government did not recognise the right of convoy, and that they would exercise the right of visit and search of any merchant vessels in it. On 31st May an official statement was published in Holland which contained the following sentences:It is not intended to institute under protection of warships commercial intercourse which, without such protection, would not be permitted by the belligerents according to their views of commercial liberty of neutrals. No mail will be carried. It is obvious that convoy commandants would not tolerate any examination of the convoyed ships. According to usage, he will, on meeting belligerent warships, permit perusal of cargo documents in his custody by commander at latter's request. In fact, those documents will be communicated to Powers concerned before departure from Netherlands.His Majesty's Government thereupon sent a Note to the Netherlands Government reiterating in the most formal manner that the right of visit and search 174 could not be abandoned. At the same time, His Majesty's Government were ready to agree that, provided the same security against any evasion of the blockade was secured by other means, they would, as a special act of courtesy to the Netherlands Government, in view of the exceptional circumstances of this ease, permit the convoy to pass through the Naval Patrol without arrest. The conditions were as follow:
These conditions were accepted. It is obvious that they in fact give us considerably more than could be obtained by the older methods of visit and search. In particular, the passengers are confined to Netherlands Government officials and their families. There is a formal Government guarantee that no goods carried are of enemy origin. Only Government goods destined for the colonial authorities or forces are to be carried, and no mails, correspondence or other printed matter is to be included.
- (a) A detailed list of all passengers sailing in the convoy to be furnished to His Majesty's Government, none but Netherlands Government officials and their families being allowed to proceed;
- (b) Full particulars of the cargo on board any merchant vessel sailing in the convoy to be supplied in the same way as is now done by the Netherlands Oversea Trust in respect of ships under their control.
- (c) The Netherlands Government to give a formal guarantee that no goods shipped in the convoy are either wholly or in part of enemy origin.
- (d) The ships sailing under the Netherlands naval flag, including the converted liner—[this is one of the ships in the convoy]—not to carry any civilian passengers, nor any goods or articles other than warlike stores destined for the colonial authorities or forces, of which complete lists should be furnished.
- (e) No mails, correspondence, private papers, printed matter, or parcels to be carried by any ship in the convoy (except official despatches of the Netherlands Government).
- (f) The convoy not to sail until the above stipulated particulars and undertakings have been furnished and have been found satisfactory by the British authorities.
175 Perhaps I may be allowed to explain that, from a very early period in the War, it has been found impossible to exercise the right of search on the high seas, as it used to be exercised in previous wars. The much larger size of cargo vessels, the increasing complications of modern commerce, the special difficulties of having to carry out the blockade through neutral countries, would have made any examination on the high seas of ships' documents quite insufficient for our purposes. Besides that, the submarine warfare makes it impossible for ships to be kept hanging about in mid-ocean without great danger, not only to the ship under examination, but to the warship which is conducting the examination. At first we adopted the practice of sending the ship into a British port for examination, but this was found to be exceedingly burdensome, not only to the neutral ship, but to the naval forces, since it involved putting an armed guard on each ship. Latterly, therefore, in many cases the shipping documents have been examined in London before the ship starts, in the light of the full information available to the British authorities, and if nothing suspicious is found, a certificate to that effect is given which passes the ship through the Naval Patrol. It is this form of exercising the right of search that has been in substance adopted in the case of the Dutch convoy.
Finally, I should add that we have received an explicit assurance from the Netherlands Government that there was no intention to raise the so-called "right of convoy" by this particular transaction. Indeed, the acceptance of the conditions imposed by His Majesty's Government preclude any idea of that kind. I should add that the Netherlands Government have been informed that this act of courtesy on the part of His Majesty's Government must be regarded as altogether exceptional and one which should not form a precedent for any future action.
May I ask whether any assurance was given by the Netherlands Government that the German Government is to grant immunity from submarine attack to this convoy?
§ Lord R. CECIL
No, Sir; that is entirely a matter between the Netherlands Government and the German Government.
§ Sir E. CARSON
Could the Noble Lord say briefly what the exceptional circumstances in this case are?
§ Lord R. CECIL
I should like very much to be allowed to say in full what the exceptional circumstances are. I am afraid I cannot. They are connected with the very special international relations, and I am sure my right hon. Friend would not wish to press me.
§ Sir H. COWAN
Would the Noble Lord say whether the American Government and the French Government have come to a similar understanding with the Dutch Government with regard to this particular convoy?
§ Lord R. CECIL
I do not know that they have. Perhaps I may remind my hon. Friend that the views of the Foreign Governments have not been in accordance with our views as to convoys up to this time.
§ Mr. McNEILL
Arising out of that part of my Noble Friend's answer in which he said Papers would be laid To-morrow, is it the intention to give the House an opportunity of discussing the whole question?
§ Lord R. CECIL
That is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, but I imagine if my hon. Friend or anyone else wishes to discuss it, there will be no objection on the part of the Foreign Office.