HC Deb 17 December 1919 vol 123 cc512-25
Lieut.-Colonel A. MURRAY

I desire to give the hon. and gallant Gentleman in charge of the Overseas Trade Department an opportunity for making a brief review of the Department over which he presides with such ability and distinction. The Department, if properly organised, developed, and conducted, is one of the most important Departments of the Government. It must be our object individually and collectively to develop our export trade. This country lives on its export trade, and in so far as the Department of Overseas Trade can help to develop our export trade it is good for the country at large. Earlier in the year a Debate took place upon the reforms in the Diplomatic and Consular Services, into which Debate the Department of Overseas Trade largely entered. Since that time the Committee presided over by Lord Cave has issued its Report, and various recommendations are contained in that Report with respect particularly to the Department of Overseas Trade. May I draw the attention of the House to some of the recommendations of the Report, and put to the hon. and gallant Gentleman certain questions relating thereto? One of the first recommendations of the Report is that the parts of the scheme put forward by the hon. Baronet the Member for Erdington (Sir A. Steel-Maitland) with regard to development of the Consular Service, including the creation of new posts, training, pay, and allowances, should be brought into operation as early as possible.

I should be glad if the hon. and gallant Gentleman, in his reply, could tell us exactly what the position is with regard to those particular recommendations. The Committee approved the proposal contained in the same Report for "periodical interchange between the staffs of the Department at home and the Consular and Commercial Diplomatic Services abroad." That recommendation, to my mind, is one of the most important recommendations of the Report. Anyone who has seen the work of our Embassies and Legations abroad knows how important it is that there should be an interchange between those Missions abroad and the Department at home, in order that the officers in both sections should be up-to-date in their training and their knowledge. Then the Committee go on to say that they considered the proposal that there should be attached to the British Missions in foreign countries permanent Labour Attachés responsible to the Minister of Labour, but working under the Ambassador or Minister. The Committee have not seen their way to adopt that Report. I suggest that the Government should reconsider their position in that matter. I have in my mind an Embassy which deputed a member of its staff to draw up reports on the labour situation in the country to which the Ambassador was accredited. The member of the staff drew up very efficient reports, and they were referred to the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office. So far as those retorts went, they were very good, and every credit was due to the member of the staff who drew them up. But they did not supply the real information that was necessary. They were drawn up hurriedly by a member of the Embassy staff who had no real knowledge of labour conditions in that country, and had there been a Labour Attaché at the Embassy in question, those reports would have been very much more interesting and very much better from the point of view of the Foreign Office.

Now we come to the really vital part of the Cave Committee's Report, and that is the relations between the Department of Overseas Trade and the Foreign Office and the Board of Trade, and the House, I feel sure, will be glad to see the President of the Board of Trade here to-night, and is indebted to him for coming here. It was suggested in evidence that the Department of Overseas Trade should be transferred to, and become a Department of, the Foreign Office. The Committee, however, were unable to approve this suggestion. One of the reasons they gave was: It appears to us that the Foreign Office is not properly organised for this purpose. I do not think that is a very good reason at all. It may be that the Foreign Office is not properly organised for the purpose at the present moment, but it does not follow that the Foreign Office could not be properly organised for that purpose. I think that is a weak reason, if indeed it be a reason at all. In the Minority Report attached to the Majority Report, Mr. Dudley Docker says: I consider that the system of dual control of the Department of Overseas Trade is at the root of the trouble. Any such system of dual control must be eradicated. I hope the hon. and gallant Gentleman will be able to tell us exactly how this dual control is working at the present moment. I think I am correct in saying that our experience, so far as it goes, of dual control in the past, has not been satisfactory either from the point of view of the Department of Overseas Trade or from that of either of the offices concerned. I should like again to press the Government on the point of the evidence that was given before the Cave Committee. The Government have never given any satisfactory reason why the evidence given before the Cave Committee cannot be laid before this House. Mr. Dudley Docker in his Minority Report said: After hearing the strong evidence put before us by the representatives of the Consular Service and the commercial world, I have come to the conclusion that the only remedy I can recommend is the adoption of the principle that the Foreign Office must be responsible for establishing the lines upon which our foreign commercial policy should be framed. I do think—and I know other Members of the House share my view—that the House is entitled to see that evidence. How can the House decide on such a Report as this without having seen the evidence upon which the Report is based? I hope the hon. and gallant Gentleman will be able to tell us that he will reconsider this question, and publish the evidence on which the Report is based. May I ask the hon. and gallant Gentleman what is the exact measure of the link that now operates on the one hand between the Department of Overseas Trade and the Foreign Office, and, on the other hand, between the Department of Overseas Trade and the Board of Trade? What is the nature of that link and how is it developing? Is this dual control shifting more to the side of the Foreign Office or to the side of the Board of Trade? Is the Foreign Office the real factor in the situation, or is the Board of Trade more and more obtaining control? Those are very vital questions to anyone who holds that it is desirable that the policy of the Foreign Office should be commercialised, as it could be if the Department of Overseas Trade were entirely divorced from the Board of Trade, except with the link necessary for providing information, and were brought more directly under the control of the Foreign Office. One of the recommendations of the Report was that Matters can never be placed upon a satisfactory footing until the Department of Overseas Trade is housed in close contact, and, indeed, under the same roof, with the Foreign Office and the Board of Trade. I should like to ask the hon. and gallant Gentleman what is the position now with regard to the housing of the Department? Is it intended to release the various offices, in which, as I understand, sections of the Overseas Trade Department are now distributed, and is it intended to bring the Department of Overseas Trade under one roof and that the roof of the Foreign Office? May I further ask him what it is proposed to do, or what has been done, in respect of the War Trade Intelligence Department? The Committee recognised that the greater part of the work at present being performed by the War Trade Intelligence Department should be transferred to the Department of Overseas Trade. Perhaps the hon. and gallant Gentleman will let us know how that particular question is developing?

May I say this in conclusion? The Committee, whilst acquiescing in the control of the Department of Overseas Trade by the Foreign Office arid the Board of Trade, says that it thinks it desirable that the Consular and Commercial Departments of the Foreign Office should be transferred to the Department of Overseas Trade. May I ask the hon and gallant Baronet whether that transfer has been completed, whether the Consular and Commercial Departments of the Foreign Office have, in fact, been transferred to the Department of Overseas Trade, and if, if that be so, what exactly has been the nature of the transfer? Are there any Foreign Office officials connected with the old Consular Department? Have they also been transferred to the Department of Overseas Trade? What is the nature of the transfer? The Report also says, We consider it desirable to urge that the Foreign Office shall take care that it is impressed upon His Majesty's Ministers and Consuls abroad that the Department of Overseas Trade is in fact a part of the Foreign Office and that they must look to it for instructions and guidance in commercial questions. In my mind that supports and confirms the view which I venture to submit to the House, that the joint control of the Department of Overseas 'Trade by the Board of Trade and the Foreign Office should be removed, and that the Department of Overseas Trade should be in effect part of the Foreign Office alone. The Report makes this recommendation, that the Consular and Commercial Diplomatic Services abroad should look for instructions and guidance in commercial questions to the Foreign Office, and if they are to do so that does, to my mind, emphasise the necessity of commercialising the Foreign Office, which can only be done if the Department of Overseas Trade is brought into intimate connection, apart from any activities of the Board of Trade. This is the first opportunity we have had of drawing attention to this Report, and of asking for a review from the hon. and gallant Gentleman who represents the Department of Overseas Trade of his activities, and of the progress that his Department is making. I hope in his reply that he will be able to answer some of the questions I have put to him, and that he will be able to hold out to the House some hope that the joint control which; it is true, was not condemned by the Majority Report, although if we had seen the evidence we might be able to confute even the Majority Report, but which cannot, I feel sure, be in the interest either of the Foreign Office or the Board of Trade, or in the interest of the trade of this country generally.

8.0 P.M.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir HAMAR GREENWOOD (Secretary of the Department of Overseas Trace—Devciopment and Intelligence)

I appreciate the very kind references that my hon. and gallant Friend opposite, who has just 8.0 P.M. sat down, has made to myself. I shall endeavour, as briefly as possible, to answer the questions he has raised. I hope he will forgive me if I do not make any long speech in review, because I do not think this would be a suitable occasion for such a speech. The feeling between the Overseas Department and the President of the Board of Trade on the one side, and the Foreign Office on the other, is exemplified to-night by the fact that the President himself is here on the Front Bench, and also my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Harmsworth) to support me in dealing with these questions. In reference to Lord Cave's Report, which, being adopted by the Cabinet, is now the governing Report under which the Department of Overseas Trade works, I may say that the recommendations in that Report have been in the main carried out. In reference to the new posts, with training and pay allowances—as regards the pay and allowances there are certain outstanding points between the Department of Overseas Trade and the Treasury—the total number of new posts, set out in what h known as the Steel-Maitland scheme, has not been made. Primarily this is on the ground of expense, but, secondarily, on the ground that it is considered better not to create all these posts at one time, but to submit. a new post as the occasion arises, and the trade needs in any particular part of the world demand. As to the exchange, between this country and abroad, I can assure my hon. and gallant Friend that the Consuls, Commercial and Diplomatic officers, and Trade Commissioners who operate in our Empire, as he knows, regularly visit the Home country, as regularly visit mercantile and industrial concerns, and also serve, when possible, for a period in the Department of Overseas Trade itself, so that they may keep in the closest touch with the modern developments of industry and also with the personnel of the Department under which they serve.

The question of Labour Attachés is one for the Minister of Labour. It has not been considered necessary to add to the number of Attachés specifically those who can be called Labour Attachés. One ground for this, and it is a paramount ground in these Departments, is the expense. In the second place, it would be adding to the Commercial Consuls, Councillors and Secretaries, formerly known as Attachés, to carry out duties they ought to do, duties to be carried out by Labour Attachés specifically sent out to these different posts. I can hold out no hope to my hon. and gallant Friend that we will add to the Military and Naval Attachés, to the Commercial Councillors and Secretaries, a fourth body of men known as Labour Attachés.

As to the relations between the Foreign Office, the Board of Trade and my own Department, I have dealt with that. As I said, I think the presence of the three Ministers of this House, interested, and vitally interested, in this Department is symbolic of the union that exists in the interests of our overseas trade.

Lieut.-Colonel MURRAY

I quite understand the friendly relations between my hon. and gallant Friend and his confrères. My point was—what is the organisation, what are its details?


I will come to that. In order that the present good feeling among the persons concerned may be continued, in respect to the machinery of the Department we have set up in the Department of Overseas Trade a Committee on which a representative of the Foreign Office and a representative of the Board of Trade sit with myself week by week to dispose of matters which concern us. The President of the Board of Trade has also established a council over which he presides. The council meets twice a Week at the Board of Trade Myself and Sir W. Clark, the Comptroller-General of the Department of Overseas Trade, are members of it. I can assure my hon. and gallant Friend and the House that during the time I have had the honour to be connected with this Department I have not had the slightest friction with either the Foreign Office or the Board of Trade, and in spite of the presumed impossibility of working under what is called the dual control system—I think there is more in the word than in the essence of the matter—I am very pleased to be able to assure the House that I have experienced no difficulty whatever in continuing amicable relationships in our joint working to further the interests of oar trade at home and overseas.

As to housing, in July last the Department of Overseas Trade was housed in seven different places. We are now in four. We hope within a month to be housed in two, namely, the block of buildings known as Queen Anne's Block, or Great Queen Street, with one other office in Basinghall Street, which will be for examples and catalogues and an inquiry office for the City. It is impossible for the Department of Overseas Trade to be under the roof of the Foreign Office, because there is no building which can house both. We are as near to the Foreign Office and Board of Trade as we can possibly be. We are united in spirit, and, physically, we are as close as possible. As to the War Trade Intelligence Department, that Department, which was engaged in war purposes, in peace time is absorbed in the Department of Overseas Trade. The records of that Department, which are very valuable, are now in my Department. The transfer in the Consular Services, according to and following the Cave Report, took place on 20th November, and the whole of the Consular Service, Consuls, Commercial and Diplomatic, is now under the Secretary of the Overseas Department, subject, of course, always to the final decision of the Noble Lord the Secretary for Foreign Affairs.

Lieut.-Colonel MURRAY

In regard to appointments?


In regard to everything. The transfer which took place was complete. The staff of the Foreign Office have transferred to the Department of Overseas Trade, but still remain at the Foreign Office, because we have not yet got room for them in the present buildings that were used for the Department for years. I should just like to sum up, and say that so far as the Department of Overseas Trade is concerned we are ready to perform the functions which have been allocated to us—Consuls, Diplomatic officers, and Trade Commissioners. The Consuls have all been chosen for former enemy countries, and they leave this country at once for their respective places abroad when peace is signed. I must say, going with some prejudice against the Consular system, and having heard reckless statements in this House in days gone by—not in this Parliament—I am convinced that we have in our Consular, Commercial, and Diplomatic officers —may I say it with all respect?—in our Diplomatic officers as well, a body of gentlemen that, man for man, are superior to any other Consuls or any other service in the world. In many cases they are much underpaid compared with other Services. They have done their share in recent times. There was not a single case in which they failed to perform the onerous duties frequently put upon them. I would draw the attention of the House to this fact, that by reason of the increased cost of living in some of the countries, and for other reasons, many of our Consular officers have been compelled to give up their homes and live in two or three rooms. This is not an advantage to British trade, because if an officer is not able to uphold the position which he would like to adorn, the fact is reflected in his failure to do what he would like in carrying out his duty as a Consular or Diplomatic agent. This is a matter for the House of Commons. I should like to see the House so interested in it that these officers abroad would be more adequately remunerated.

Lieut.-Colonel MURRAY

Perhaps the Government will initiate it?


It is in the power of any hon. or right hon. Member to initiate discussion in this House, and so assist the Government in doing what they would naturally like to do if they felt they had behind them the majority of this honourable House. From all parts of the world it is clear from the evidence that the efforts of the British Empire in the War, and our paramount wish to secure the seas and make them safe for the world, has put our race higher in the esteem and respect, of all people than it ever stood before. These men who sleep in different parts of the world are the great reason for that prestige. It was their sacrifice and valour that raised our prestige, reinforced our credit, and made it possible for us to keep in the van of trade. and, as I think, of civilisation now as before.


I did not know this question was to be raised until about half an hour ago. There are two points with which I thought it very likely the hon. and gallant. Gentleman in charge of this Department would deal, and about which I hoped he would have given us information. I think it would be to the advantage of the House if it be possible for the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs to tell us. The Minister in charge of this Department has told us that certain questions are outstanding with the Treasury. I should like to ask whether one of those questions is the question of the pay for commercial councillors and secretaries? The hon. and gallant Gentleman has spoken in very feeling terms of the extent to which many Consuls abroad are still underpaid. I quite agree that under present circumstances Consuls abroad in many cases are still underpaid in view of the burdens upon them. Few of the people of this country adequately realise the devotion with which these gentlemen have performed their duties in view of the extremely straitened conditions in which they have been asked to act. I understand the pay of the Consuls has already been raised in accordance with the scales of the scheme which was brought before the Cabinet and was approved by them. What is of equal importance with the case of the Consuls is that of the Commercial Councillors and secretaries. They act, as it were, as the headquarters staff of our representatives abroad, while the Consuls represent the local command. In the scheme which I know was brought before the Cabinet, and which in this respect has received the approval of Lord Cave's Committee, rich in its turn was accepted by the Cabinet, is a recommendation that the pay of the commercial councillors and secretaries should be raised in accordance with the proposals. Here we have this extraordinary situation, as I understand it: the pay of the councillors, the local staff so to speak, has already been raised in accordance with the proposals. Even so, says the hon. Baronet in charge of the Department, in many cases they are still too low. I hardly agree with him that it is for any private Member in this House to propose that they should be raised. There is, of course, quite clearly the Parliamentary rule that no private Member can propose increases of pay, but still we have it on his statement that, at present, the pay of Consuls, although it has been raised, is still too low. But how about that of the Commercial Councillors and the Secretaries? As things stand, or at any rate, as far as I understood, as they stood a little while ago, their pay and their allowances—which are almost equally important—have never been raised at all. I would ask whether that is still the case; is that still one of the outstanding points? I would venture with certainty to say that it is absolutely necessary that their pay should be raised.

We all of us recognise the need for economy in the country at this moment, but everyone, of course, is naturally anxious for efficiency in his own Department, even if it means increased expenditure, and, therefore, he is not very likely to see the need for economy in his own Department so much as in those over which others preside. In this particular case it would really be far better, for the whole commercial interests of the country, that, if economy is so necessary, there should perhaps be fewer posts; but, at any rate, the salaries should be raised to a tolerably adequate figure in the case of those posts which are sanctioned, and adequate allowances should be given for carrying on the work. It is no good trying to get a good man, and setting him down to do important work, when he is starved, not only in his own personal salary, but in all the equipment necessary for the purpose of his work. Perhaps the Under-Secretary to the Foreign Office can tell us if these salaries have really now been raised or, if not, when we may expect a decision on the subject. If need be let the posts be fewer, but, at any rate, let the salaries be adequate, and let adequate allowances be given for office staff and equipment. That is one of the points Which was emphasised by Lord Cave's Committee and which is accepted by the Government. These scales are intimately bound up with the scales for Consuls which have been already sanctioned. We can never expect the service of the country abroad to be properly attended to until we have men so equipped that they are free from a grinding personal anxiety as to how they are going to live day by day, and until they have such a staff that they shall not themselves have to be like razors used for chopping wood in order to try and get the work of the country done.

Another point to which I would draw attention hinges on the question of dual control. I know that the general opinion in this House has been that dual control is a thing which is impossible. I think it is only fair, if I may say so, to the hon. Baronet (Sir H. Greenwood) to say openly that I think dual control is really quite possible, and can be made to act perfectly well, and with greater efficiency, in a difficult matter like this, than any other form of control. But that is on one condition only, which I am glad to hear from the hon. Baronet is being fulfilled. It is that the two Departments work together with real trust and cordiality, and that neither of them seeks to encroach upon the proper sphere of the other. That was the difficulty in times past, and, if it has been put straight, I see no reason why dual control should not operate in the future; but, unless that condition is observed, it will lead to general inefficiency. With that in view, I should like to put a further ques- tion. We know the difficulties about public buildings at the moment. There is a great call upon all work in connection with building, for the houses which are necessary throughout the country, and the question of further Government Departments may have to stand in abeyance; but is it really accepted that this Department shall ultimately be under the same roof as the Foreign Office? Is the principle accepted? Its carrying out may be postponed for the moment; but is it ultimately an ideal on which the Government have decided, and which they are going to carry out when the circumstances allow? I hesitate to take up the time of the House by putting too much emphasis on this, but if only the evidence before Lord Cave's Committee could be published the proof would be clear to everyone. 1 cannot myself understand why there should be any reluctance to publish that evidence, and I am sure that if it could be published the need would be shown for bringing the office primarily under the same roof as the Foreign Office; and, secondarily, under the Board of Trade. Foreign policy and foreign trade are so closely joined together that, while you may separate them in this matter or in the other, taking it all in all they are so intertwined that they cannot be separated right through the whole gamut of the subjects which have to he dealt with. Therefore, it is really necessary that those public officials who deal with these matters from the diplomatic point of view in the Foreign Office should be able to be in intimate personal daily contact with those other officials who deal with the commercial side in. the Department of Overseas Trade. It is better to send minutes from Queen Anne's Gate Buildings to the Foreign Office than to send them a distance of two or three miles; but if the foreign policy of the country is really to be commercial, which is what the business community hope for, the commercial spirit must permeate the diplomatic side of the Foreign Office, as well as the strictly commercialised side in the Department of Overseas Trade I venture to say that that cannot be done unless the officials of the two Departments are able to be day by day in personal contact, and to discuss together subjects of joint interest. I hope I shall not be considered unduly pressing if I ask whether that recommendation in Lord Cave's Report, which, I understand, must be postponed at present owing to stress of cir- cumstances, is decided upon and approved by the Cabinet, and whether we may understand that it will be carried into effect as soon as practicable. When all is said and done, buildings are made for men, and not men for buildings.


I think this is a real, live Department with a great future before it, and I would press very strongly on the Minister the necessity for strengthening the staff of the office here. It is a young Department, and it has a great future, but its work is, I am sure, very greatly handicapped by tie fact that it has to carry on now with an inadequate staff who are most inadequately paid. We know that at the present time economy is above all things necessary. But it is very false economy in any way to starve a Department which, if it be established at all, should be worked to its fullest possible extent. The more opportunity this Department has of bringing the traders into contact with the importer, of bringing the importer in the foreign country into contact with the trader and manufacturer here, the better will it, be for our trade, but it will be quite impossible for this Department to carry on and do its proper work with the staff now available. I wish to press that point very strongly on the hon. Gentleman in charge at the present moment.

I am very much in sympathy with the last speaker in what he said about the pay and allowances of Commercial Attachés. It is most important that these officials should be well paid, and also that they should have someone under them who too is well paid. If their work is to be adequately performed it must involve a. good deal of travelling up and down the country in which they are employed—that is, if they are to be in the position of good intelligence officers—and it is necessary that they should have someone left behind who is responsible and can carry on in their absence. With regard to joint control, it seems to me that the case made out by the majority of the Commissioners for dual control is a strong one. With reference to the suggestion made by the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire (Lieut.-Colonel Murray) that the Department should be entirely with the Foreign Office, I admit the full strength of the argument put forward by the last speaker as to the close connection between foreign trade and foreign policy. But it would never do to cut the Department entirely adrift from the Board of Trade, because you would then have one Department supplying information with regard to the trade in the Dominions and another with regard to foreign trade. That is a complete division which would involve great practical inconvenience. Therefore, looking at it impartially, and admitting the strong desire in the commercial world for a close connection with the Foreign Office, one is inclined to think that this compromise, which would enable harmonious working between the two Departments, is really the best way out of the difficulty. I would strongly impress that view on those in charge of the Department that if it is to be given a chance to secure the greatest possibilities for our trade, by bringing commercial intelligence from foreign countries and advising our people and our manufacturers of their opportunity for doing trade, it is not good policy to starve such a Department either in regard to the staff here or abroad. There must he additions to the staff if the Department is to carry on its full and proper work.

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