§ Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order of the House of 22nd October, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."
§ Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY
I rise to draw attention to the question of certain British officers and soldiers who, through no fault of their own, are prisoners of war in Moscow. The number, perhaps, is not large. There are twenty-three officers and seventy-seven other ranks of the Navy, Army, and Royal Air Force. Although the number is not large, their relatives are naturally in a state of anxiety about them, and if it is possible to have these men exchanged, the country and this House will agree that any steps to that end which can be taken should be taken. I put some questions to the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs upon this matter before the House rose for the Recess, and he answered me, as lie always does, with very great courtesy, and gave me what information he possessed. On both occasions, when I inquired what steps were being taken, he told me that steps were being taken, and, when I interrogated him as to the channels used for the negotiations, he re plied, "By wireless telegraphy." On the second occasion I put a supplementary question as to whether he could not consider seeking the good offices of the Esthonian Government or the Roumanian Government which had been in negotiation with the Soviet Govern- 627 meat at Moscow in order that some direct channel should be used instead of relying upon wireless. My hon. Friend said that he would take that suggestion into consideration. Now, in reply to my question to-day, I am informed that negotiations are still taking place by wireless and that the Danish Government are taking certain steps to arrange a conference in Denmark, provided that the Soviet Government consent to certain conditions. I have a. suspicion that these conditions will be made irksome or impossible, and will be used to make further delay in this matter. I have good grounds for these reasons. I have had the privilege of speaking to a gentleman whom the lion. Gentleman knows all about, Mr. W. T. Goode, the head of a large college in London, who returned from Moscow three weeks ago. He informs me, first of all, that our men and officers are, on the whole, well treated. They are suffering privations in the way of food like the whole population of Moscow, but they are allowed considerable liberty. He saw officers playing tennis in one of the city squares. He informs me, as I have also gathered from other sources which I am quite prepared to give to the House, and gathered quite openly from such people as Mr. Goode, that the Soviet Government have been prepared, and are indeed anxious, to exchange these officers and men for the Russians that we have in our hands, and that their messages to that effect have been ignored. They have not been answered. There seems to be some reason for this, which, I think, should be explained to the House and to the country. There has been a continual coming and going, as the Prime Minister stated in the spring when speaking on the Russian situation, between this country and Paris and America and the territories under the Soviets in Russia. Could not some further steps have been taken to carry out this work of humanity of exchanging these prisoners? I said just now that my informants have said that these men are not harshly treated. Under the circumstances they are well treated and in good health, but naturally they want to get home and, equally naturally, their relatives in this country are in a considerable state of anxiety of mind about them. Now, I have two explanations for the delay. I will not suggest that there is any 628 bureaucratic obstruction, as it is usually known, in the Foreign Office, because I do not think that any official of the Foreign Office would be so callous as to allow mere matters of form to interfere with any work of humanity. But I think there has been a standing on their dignity on the part of the Foreign Office or certain officials against entering into negotiations with the Commissaries of the Soviet Government. They were prepared to negotiate through Lord Newton with the German Government for the exchange of our prisoners with Germany, but they cannot bring themselves to negotiate direct with these Commissaries because that might be twisted as meaning in law the recognition of them.
I cannot follow the argument myself, I am afraid that behind their minds there is that reason. Secondly, it has been stated to me again and again by people coming back from Russia — Englishmen and Americans whose names I am quite prepared to give to the House—that these Men are well treated, and that they may give accounts of the conditions in Russia which do not altogether coincide with the pictures of Russia under Soviet rule which the democracies in England, France, and elsewhere are led to believe exists. If that is the case, I hope we shall have an explanation. All I can say is that it is unfair to these men, to their relatives, and to the British public, and altogether shows a callousness that even five years of war do not excuse.
§ The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for FOREIGN AFFAIRS (Mr. Coca Harmsworth)
Do I understand my hon. and gallant Friend to suggest that one of the reasons for the delay in getting these men released is that the Government or anybody else is afraid of the glowing accounts that might be given of Bolshevism in Russia?
§ Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY
My hon. Friend rather overstates what I said. I said I was afraid that there is the wish not to get the truth from Russia which our prisoners would give. We have had cases of that when other people came from. Russia, and attempts were made to silence them by keeping them under arrest and so on. But it has been put to me that on the face of it there is a primá facie case that the Government are not anxious—or, rather, that certain members of the Government 629 are not anxious—that these men should come back too soon, because their report might not coincide with what we are told from other sources. I do not think that they would give glowing accounts of what is going on in Russia, but they might not give accounts of that general world desolation which we are told in Government propaganda exists in Russia. I would like an assurance on this point, which has been put to me, and it seems, on the face of it, possible. I would like my hon. Friend to assure us that he has nothing to do with it. Perhaps he will explain why only the wireless has been used, why the good offices of the Roumanian and other Governments have not been used, and why, when Mr. Dukes, Mr. King, Mr. Goode, and others have been going backwards and forwards, their offices arc not sought? The interests of everyone concerned in the matter should be cleared up, and we should have an assurance that no question of diplomatic dignity or inconvenience of negotiation is interfering with the getting back of these men, with different accounts from those we usually hear of what is prevailing in Russia, and restoring them to their relatives as soon as possible.
§ Mr. HARMSWORTH
I am in a position to give my hon. and gallant Friend the two assurances lie asks for. I do not know from where he has been deriving his information, but the suggestion that the delay in securing release of our prisoners in Russia is due to any timidity on the part of His Majesty's Government., or any member of it—that these prisoners might give, let me say, a better account of Bolshevist rule than that which we arc accustomed to hear—I can assure him is without any foundation whatever. So much is it without any foundation that although I have paid a very great deal of attention to this matter the whole of this year, I never heard the suggestion made before in any other quarter. As to the Government or the Foreign Office standing on its dignity, I can give him an assurance in that regard also. There has been no standing on dignity. Communications by wireless have been constantly taking place between my Noble Friend, then acting Secretary and now Secretary of State, ever since the time when we ceased to have a Red Cross representative in Russia and there has been no delay of any kind or description on the part of the Foreign Office in replying to any communications 630 which have been sent to us by the Soviet Government. Perhaps I might give the facts of the case. There are about 100 prisoners of war in the hands of the Bolshevists, and as far as our information goes there are also about seventeen civilian prisoners. There is a certain number of British subjects of which the figure is not exactly known, who are in Russia, in -Moscow, and elsewhere, but are not in prison. At the beginning of this year we had in Russia Colonel Parker, an officer of the Red Cross, and he was instrumental in securing the exchange of eighteen British officers and men for two Russian naval officers. Towards the end of May the Soviet Government desired Colonel Parker to leave the country and he did so. A little later the Danish Red Cross, who have also been instrumental in assisting His Majesty's Government in connection with prisoners, left Russia. So that, when we had no longer any kind of representative in Russia, it was necessary to have recourse to the only means of communication at our disposal, namely, wireless telegraphy. In July the Soviet Government made a proposal to His Majesty's Government that a meeting should take place. I think their original suggestion was that the meeting should take place in this country.
§ Mr. HARMSWORTH
My recollection is that the first proposal was that the meeting should take place in this country. That suggestion was not found convenient. Proposals were then made that the meeting should take place in Denmark. The Danish Government agreed, but they made certain stipulations. To some of these stipulations the Bolshevist Government took exception on the score that they were derogatory. Further negotiations ensued, and I am glad to be able to state that it seems as if this meeting would now successfully take place; and I should like myself, if I may do so, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, to put on record our sense of deep obligation to the Danish Government for their good offices in this very difficult matter. I hope that. within a very short time from now two small Commissions, one representing His Majesty's Government, and the other representing the Soviet Government, will be in Denmark; and I hope, further, that the basis of 631 negotiations will be the exchange of all prisoners of war in the hands of either party.
§ Mr. HARMSWORTH
We have nearly 150. I should add that His Majesty's Government are very willing to facilitate the return of all Russian civilians to Russia who may desire to go back. As the House will be aware from the answer given today, we have sought to secure the welfare and comfort of our prisoners in Russia by making strenuous representations to the Soviet Government. If the news which the hon. and gallant Gentleman has given us is correct I am exceedingly glad to hear it, and I should add that we have a British friend in Moscow, the Rev. Mr. North, a British chaplain who is doing everything in his power for the welfare of our prisoners. I do not think it would he advantageous to go at any greater length into this matter, or, if I may suggest to the House, to engage in any lengthy debate upon it. It is an exceedingly difficult question, and the only object we all have is to secure as early as possible the return of our prisoners. It is quite conceivable that an awkward or unfortunate expression, or an angular turn in this Debate, might serve as a destruction of the object we have in view. I assure the hon. and gallant Gentleman and the House that this matter has been considered by the Foreign Office and by the Government from every point of view throughout this year, throughout the earlier part of the Session, throughout the Recess, 632 and at all times with the sole object of securing the earliest possible return of our prisoners. Of course, innumerable representations are made to us by the friends and relatives of those who were in Russia. They come to us at the Foreign Office, and we could not possibly be unaware of the anxiety of the families of the prisoners in regard to their relatives in Russia. I can only say that in my judgment, and I have had much to do with this matter, that everything that could be done has been done by His Majesty's Government, and I can assure the House that we have not spared any effort, and will not spare any effort, until we secure the return of everyone of these men to their homes. I would add that if the hon and gallant Gentleman or any other hon. Member of this House will suggest any better or more expeditious means which we can adopt, I shall give any such suggestions the fullest consideration.
§ Colonel WEDGWOOD
Could the hon. Gentleman say where the Bolshevists we have got are: being kept and whether they are being treated with the greatest possible consideration, as they are not prisoners of war?
§ Mr. HARMSWORTH
I cannot answer that question on the spur of the moment, but I can assure the hon. and gallant Gentleman that they are being treated with that humane consideration which British people always show to prisoners of war.
Question put, and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at Fourteen minutes after Eleven o'clock.