HC Deb 23 March 1920 vol 127 cc369-78

Considered in Committee.

[Sir E. CORNWALL in the Chair.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That it is expedient to authorise the granting of credits and the undertaking of insurances for the purpose of re-establishing overseas trade and the payment, out of moneys provided by Parliament, of any sums required for granting credits for such purpose up to an amount not exceeding at any one time £26,000,000 and of any expenses incurred by the Board of Trade in connection with the granting of such credits and the undertaking of insurances so far as those expenses are not defrayed out of sums received by the Board by way of commission in respect of credits or by way of premiums in respect of insurances."—[Mr. Baldwin.]


Can we have some explanation as to what these credits mean before we vote?


There is a White Paper in the Vote Office with a full explanation. As the information has been asked for I am only too pleased to give it. The Department concerned is the Board of Trade. As the Committee knows, there is great difficulty in re-establishing trade relations with a great many parts of Europe, because it is quite impossible in many parts of Europe—South Russia has been an instance in the last few months—for cash payments to be made for any goods delivered. Unless some system is adopted by which credits can be given to the traders in those countries, it is impossible for our manufacturers to do any business with them. The matter is far too large for the bankers to undertake and the Government has to come to the rescue. The Bill that will be introduced, though it hardly rests with me to give the details, will make provision for a self-supporting scheme and to pay the expenses in connection with the running, of the scheme. It is not anticipated that in the long run any money will be lost. This is merely granting an extension of credit, but it is only fair to remember that if owing to unforeseen circumstances through the prolongation of disturbed conditions in those countries in may be possible that there will be an ultimate charge on the Exchequer. That is a subject that may be argued and discussed when the Bill is before the House.

Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY

This is a very interesting little sum of money we are asked to vote of £26,000,000. Let me remind hon. Members of the history of this matter. Last year there appeared on the Order Paper for months a Bill entitled Oversea Trade Credit and Insurance. I asked for a copy of it in the Vote Office, but they had not got it, and now, nearly a year afterwards, there is still no copy of the Bill in the Vote Office. The hon. Member for Erdington (Sir A. Steel-Maitland) was at that time the representative of the Government and the Department of Overseas Trade but has since resigned. I do not think that has had anything to do with the delay. This sum of £26,000,000, like many of the Government promises, is eventually to be recovered. We have heard that story before, and in many cases small Government expenditure has grown into a very large amount and we have had rosy promises—as in the case of public company promoters—which do not always come to pass, and are often the cause of loss to the unfortunate taxpayer. I am afraid this is going to be very much a case of that sort. I represent a big commercial community, the business part of a great city, and when I see a proposal to subsidise the export trade to the tune of £26,000,000 I am naturally much interested. At one time a considerable area of territory in the South of Russia was nominally under the rule of the White Russians, our Allies, and the idea then, as enunciated by the Minister for War, in one of his famous perorations, was that it was necessary to bolster up trade and send common articles of household use into this vast area, and that this was not a commercial proposition, and therefore the British taxpayer should foot the Bill. This was the beginning of this scheme of bolstering up the export trade by subsidy. This White Paper is, I suppose, about a year old, although 1920 is the date at the bottom, but that could easily be altered. We are still told it is necessary to supply this money because of the trade conditions in the South and East of Russia. Since this wonderful scheme germinated in the minds of the Minister for War and his faithful henchmen in the Government the position in South-East Russia has changed, and the large fruitful area in the Ukraine which was dominated by our ally, General Denikin, of evil memory, Knight-Commander of the Most Noble Order of the Bath, as I am reminded by an hon. Member, is now under a Soviet Government. We are asked to vote £26,000,000 to subsidise trade with the South and East of Russia, but the only South and East of Russia to-day is under the Government of either the Soviet Republic of Moscow or the Soviet Republic of the Ukraine, and therefore this money is to subsidise trade with Soviet Russia. I really think that, anxious as I am to see trade started with Russia, and indeed with all parts of the world, it is asking a great deal at this late date, in the extraordinary turmoil we have seen in Russia in the last few months, to vote £26,000,000 to subsidise trade with Soviet Russia.

If you want trade with Soviet Russia, it is not necessary for the British taxpayer to provide a penny-piece of his hard-earned money, and I would remind hon. Members who may treat this matter lightly that we have not got this money. This £26,000,000 is to be lent to traders, and we shall have to borrow it at 6 per cent., but my hon. Friend has not told us what percentage the traders are to pay for it. If we want trade with South-East Russia, what we want to do is to make peace with South-East Russia, to make it quite clear that our cruisers in the Black Sea are not going to hold up or search ships going to and from Odessa and other ports in South-East Russia, and we have to make it clear that Russian men-of-war manned by partisans of General Denikin, unattached officers and crews, are not going also to interfere. I happen to know a little about this subject. The constituency I represent used to do a very considerable and lucrative trade with Russia, and the average merchant in my constituency, whatever his political colours, wants to see that trade re-established. We have got to guarantee that our men-of-war will not hamper, annoy, hinder, or arrest our merchant ships who are trading with Southern Russia, and that the partisan war ships, the Corsairs, who owe allegiance to General Denikin, do not also interfere.

The people of Russia, we all know, are longing for the articles of common use with which we can well supply them, and they have certain raw materials which eventually they will be able to supply to us in exchange. But to do that you do not want to vote £26,000,000, which we are asked to vote with very little explanation from the hon. Gentleman. The original scheme, I understand, was to subsidise merchants who wished to trade with Northern Russia, the Baltic provinces, and Poland. The same thing applies. Trade will flow again when we cease stirring up civil war and civil strife in those countries as we have been doing. At the present moment Poland, a rich country with great potentialities, is of no use as a market to the British merchant for either buying or selling. There is nothing doing, for the simple reason that we are egging the Poles on to keep up a great army and to indulge in aggressive tactics. That sort of thing could be stopped in an hour. [Interruption.]


Will the hon. and gallant Gentleman please address the Chair?

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

I apologise. I meant no discourtesy to you. This general unrest and aggressive action on the part of Poland could be stopped in an hour by a word from the Supreme Council, and the Supreme Council should take that step. They ought not to come to us, representing the British side of the Supreme Council, nor ought the hon. Member to offer the few words of inadequate explanation that he has done in the unexplained absence of the President of the Board of Trade, and ask for £26,000,000 to bolster up, to cover up, and to camouflage their shocking, miserable blunders in Europe during recent months. The export trade is not on a sound basis. We have temporary markets abroad in South Africa and the Far East that will keep our pantries going for the next few weeks or months, but in time we are bound to feel the loss of the great European markets for our exports and imports, of the rich, industrial, busy countries in Europe that in the past have always bought from us and sold to us; unless they do it again we cannot recover those markets by voting a sum of money such as is now proposed. We cannot lend the money because we have not got it. The way we can do what is desired is to have a sound and peaceful foreign policy. It is no good the Minister for War terming those who disagree with his policy Bolsheviks, as he has called me. That is not argument. I am putting forward an alternative. It is the alternative we are going to carry out when we are in power. It will commend itself to the British people. I wonder at the effrontery—I say this without any disrespect to the hon. Gentleman who represents the Treasury of the Government after 18 months of doing their best to destroy our ancient markets in Europe, come here and ask, with only a sentence of explanation for this money. They ask us to vote this money—it is a noxious drug—to keep the machinery of trade going after their class failures. I shall certainly vote against it, and I hope I shall be supported by those who have kept their heads during the last 18 months. The Government's great failure has been in their European policy. This is to be a plaster to cover up festering sores, to bolster up the export trade. But we shall never get the export trade on a satisfactory basis until we get peace, and we will never get peace until the Government's policy is peaceful. I hope that this matter will be brought forward again later with a proper explanation by the President of the Board of Trade, supported, if necessary, by the Leader of the House, and the Prime Minister. This is not the time to ask us to vote this sum of money. The action is unprecedented. I regret that the Government have seen their way, at this junction, to offer this affront to the House of Commons.


I join the hon. and gallant Member in opposing the Vote and the passing of this Resolution at this time of night, and following the short and by no means informative explanation of the Financial Secretary, and seeing this is an attempt to subsidise the export trade and to guarantee in at least one part of Europe that the private traders of this country who seek to ply their trade there shall do so. We know perfectly well from recent statements that there is absolutely no occasion to guarantee, by means of a subsidy or an advance, any trader who desires to trade in Russia to-day. The Soviet Republic of Russia has made this Government, the Government of France, and all the Allies several very decent offers of peace. One at least has been submitted within the past three days to the French Government, carrying with it their promise to pay not only the interest upon the capital presently to be invested in Russia, but also the interest upon all the loans to the old Government under the Czar's régime. This shows their desire to enter into commercial relations with the outside world. Some nights ago we had a speech from the Prime Minister pointing out the wonderful resources of Russia and the wonderful demands that Russia can make for trade with this country. They want railways, locomotives, and goods of every description that we can manufacture and have manufactured and exported abroad in the past. They want all these things in order to restore their country as a productive part of the world. They are not allowed to develop their country owing to the attitude taken up by the Allies, and I consider it is going behind the feeling of the country to ask us to vote £26,000,000, which the Finanical Secretary to the Treasury has told us the banks cannot advance, and which the Government must advance. Where are the Government going to get this money? They must get it from the banks. They are asking the banks to advance the money to them, and they will pay the interest to the banks from the interest which they in turn receive from those to whom they advance it.

I suggest, if the Government have £26,000,000 to spare, that they can spend it very easily upon very many desired reforms in this country There, are a thousand and one things to be done to bring back this country to its pre-War prosperity, and, if the Government have the money to spare, they should develop this country and not advance it to individuals who are going into these foreign countries risking, not their capital, but our capital. It is possible that they may not be able to repay the money, and consequently we must have some form of insurance in order to recoup ourselves from possible losses through any trouble that may break out in South-East Russia or in any other portion of the world in which they invest any part of this £26,000,000. I suggest that this Resolution be withdrawn, and that the Government do not press it until we get a much more extended explanation of the real intentions that underlie the voting of this £26,000,000. We want to know the purposes for which the whole of this money is required, and it should not be voted merely on the unsatisfactory statement made by the Financial Secretary. In a speech of five minutes or less the Financial Secretary gave us the reasons for carrying this Resolution, but that is not the way financial business used to be conducted here. Far more satisfactory explanations have been given in the past, and money was not voted away in this reckless fashion. Such proposals have always been suitably explained to the House, but I expect that those who now occupy the Treasury Bench will rely upon their majority to crowd into the Lobby to vote away, without any knowledge of this subject, £26,000,000, which must be backed up, not by the banks, but by that which governs even the credit upon which they rely, namely, the productive energy of the working men and women of this country. I suggest that the Government should withdraw this Resolution and not press it forward at this time of the evening.


While opposing this Resolution, I take a rather different point of view from the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down. The question, so far as I see it, is that the Government come down to the House late and ask us to vote £26,000,000 without giving the details for which the Committee have a right to ask, as to what they propose to do with this money. I do not take the view that it is unsound to finance overseas trade, because I think that policy is perfectly sound. I gather from the hon. Member's remarks that he considers it is sound to expend one's capital, but not to invest it. I submit that this £26,000,000 is going to be invested in overseas trade to enhance the commercial stability of this country generally, and that principle is sound. The ambassadors of the commerce of this country are going to be given this sum to develop trade throughout the world, but I think this House has a right to have a few more particulars as to how this money is to be expended, to whom it is to be given, and under what conditions it is to be given. Is it to be given to all applicants, or, if not, are certain favoured firms to be subsidised? If they are to be subsidised, then what particular type of commerce is to receive the subsidy? The Government have not only been subsidising, but they have been actually participating with share and debenture holders in various commercial undertakings in this country. It is perhaps natural for a Government which enjoys such a lobby as this has. I do not know if I am well advised in saying it enjoys the lobby, because confidence in such an overwhelming majority often tends to the downfall of a Government more than anything else, because it gets over-confident, and these things destroy the confidence of the country in it. After all, that often is the crucial test of all its administrative power. There is that tendency to treat this House, especially when it is in Committee—I am afraid I am disturbing a number of conversations, and I hope I am not imposing any discomfort on those hon. Members—


Perhaps the hon. Member will speak to the Resolution.


I will try to apply myself as carefully as I can to the Resolution. This is a proposal to Vote £26,000,000 in a blind-alley Vote to the Government to administer in any way they see fit for oversea commerce. There may be a difference of opinion as to what industry it is advisable to develop or subsidise. I suggest that the Government must not take it for granted, because they have the support of a substantial majority in the Lobby, that therefore hon. Members do not appreciate their responsibility to watch the general interests not only of their constituents, but also of the country. That is why I am opposing this Resolution. Not that I do not wish to see the Government get this £26,000,000, provided I am satisfied that they intend to use it for the general welfare of overseas trade. Surely, if we as an island are going to be content with undertaking each other's washing as a means of commercial prosperity, it will not be long before we run a very poor second to Portugal. We are two rather insignificant islands on the Western Coast of Europe, and it is only by the development of our overseas trade and commerce that we can possibly hope to exist as a nation. If the hon. Member suggests that the capital of the country should be expended in developing its comforts and amenities without regard to the development of its overseas commerce that is, I suggest, taking a somewhat narrow point of view. It is not right for the Government to say, "We want £26,000,000. We have only to put the whips on, and the sooner you dry up the sooner you will go home." That is not governing in a constitutional way—


If I may venture to intervene I will put the suggestion that we are very anxious to get the financial resolution on the Insurance Bill tonight, and if the Committee will give us that before 11 o'clock we shall be very glad to withdraw this. We regard the National Health Insurance Resolution as one of considerable urgency. There is not so much urgency attaching to this Resolution now before the Committee.


As my sympathies are wholeheartedly with the Insurance Bill, and not so wholeheartedly with this one, may I be allowed, under the promise given by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, to resume my seat and allow the other business to proceed.


We are quite willing to fall in with the suggestion of the hon. Gentleman.

Motion made, and Question, "That the Chairman do report Progress, and ask leave to sit again," put, and agreed to.—[Mr. Baldwin.]

Committee report Progress; to sit again to-morrow.