HC Deb 30 May 1922 vol 154 cc2016-26

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding £290,000, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1923, for the cost of certain Miscellaneous War Services.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

I daresay the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs will make a short statement about this, and I hope he will deal with one or two points which I will put to him. I hope he will be able to tell us that this is really the final demand that he will put on the overburdened taxpayer for the maintenance of Russian refugees. We have had so many of these Estimates that I am almost ashamed to make another speech on them, but I must on this occasion ask my hon. Friend if he can make any comment on the letter which appeared in the "Times" on the 9th March, following the last Debate, over the name of the hon. Member for Camlachie (Sir H. Mackinder). I do not see him here, although I gave him notice, but, I am afraid, not very long notice, that I was going to raise this question. On the last occasion we were asked to vote sums of money to these Russian refugees, my hon. Friend opposite, acting, I am sure, in good faith, told us that the hon. Member for Camlachie, while acting as High Commissioner in Southern Russia, got into obligations and gave certain promises about the maintenance of these White counter revolutionaries and White officers, the troops and their wives and families, and the Committee, of course, was bound to accept it, and, I repeat, I am sure my hon. Friend made that statement in perfectly good faith. Two days later a long letter appeared from the hon. Member for Camlachie in the "Times" of the 9th March. It gives a very interesting account of the difficulties with which he was faced. I must say he was in an awkward position, and I do not wish to criticise him in the least. My criticisms all along have been directed against the Government policy which led the hon. Member for Camlachie to be in this terrible position, with the unfortunate dupes who looked to him for succour. I will read the last paragraph of the letter: I see that it was suggested last night that my guarantee extended to Denikin's officers as well as their families. Obviously that was the last thing I had in mind, since my object was to keep these men at their posts, not to offer them passages over the sea. It will be noticed also that I gave no undertaking that these families, and still less these officers, should be maintained indefinitely at British cost, though no doubt it was implied that something would be done for them temporarily. I may say that I have regarded myself as having been for the time an executive officer of the Government, and I should not now have spoken but for the course of last night's discussion. I quite respect the reasons for the hon. Gentleman's non-intervention in the, last Debate, although I think, after that letter, the Committee would have liked to have heard his views. However, there is the statement of the hon. Member for Camlachie, and it controverts, it travesties, the defence put forward by the Foreign Office for coming to the British taxpayer again for these large sums of money for these Russian refugees. Secondly, I would like my hon. Friend to say whether any further negotiations were opened up at Genoa with the Russian representatives there as to some sort of amnesty to allow these men to go home. I have made this suggestion again and again to my hon. Friend, and he has always said that they would explore the possibilities. I know he will give his best endeavours, because I am sure he would like to be rid of this obligation as much as I or any other hon. Member of this House. Did any of the Foreign Office representatives at Genoa raise this question' Because it seems to me we are only really transferring the burden of maintaining these unfortunate refugees from ourselves to the League of Nations, and that means that we will still have to pay one-half of the cost which the Council of the League of Nations must incur. I think that if no negotiations were opened up at Genoa, an opportunity was allowed to lapse. If that be the case, I do suggest that the matter should be opened up at the Hague. The hon. Member who represents the Overseas Trade Department, and who, I understand, rides two horses, one the Foreign Office and the other the Board of Trade, on one occasion speaking for the Foreign Office and on another for the Board of Trade, should be invited to see what can be done in this matter. I do not want to take another opportunity of expressing my detestation of the whole of the policy represented in this unfortunate Vote, for it is a very unfortunate Vote. That policy has been checked late in the day, but do let us be warned not to make any further mistake in trying to upset by force Governments of which we do not approve in other countries. The House will hear more about that to-morrow with regard to another part of the world. I hope. my hon. Friend will be able to answer these questions, and will appreciate the fact that I and other hon. Members deny ourselves any further comment on the matter, on which we feel very deeply.


I think I can best deal with the second item in the Supplementary Estimate by way of reply to my hon. and gallant Friend. I should like, however, to make this preliminary observation, that of the sum of money which the Foreign Office is asking this Committee to grant this evening, a very small portion only is what you might call new money. The total sum asked for in the Estimate is £290,000, of which, however, all but £75,000 has already been voted by this Committee, and it is only because the sums in question were not expended in the late financial year, that, in accordance with our practice, I am obliged to come to the Committee again to re-sanction these payments. My hon. and gallant Friend referred to the part taken by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Camlachie (Sir H. Mackinder) in connection with this very vexed and troublesome question of the Deniken refugees. I read the letter of the hon. Member for Camlachie in the newspaper, and I certainly think there has been a misunderstanding between him and the Office I represent. I do not know, personally, that it is anywhere on record, whatever may have been the intention of the hon. Member for Camlachie, that amongst this miscellaneous throng of refugees, the officers were not to be taken in charge and succoured by His Majesty's Government. However, I could, of course, look into that question and ascertain what our actual information in the Foreign Office is.

My hon. and gallant Friend quoted a passage from the letter of the hon. Member for Camlachie in which he says that he gave no guarantee that the exiles would be maintained indefinitely. I am, of course, prepared to accept without any reserve whatever, any statement made by the hon. Member for Camlachie, but whether that be so or not, the Committee will observe that when the Government takes charge of a large number—originally, I think, some 10,000—helpless and destitute persons, and, for the purpose of safety, removes them to Egypt, to Cyprus and to other places within His Majesty's Dominions, whether you have given a pledge or not, you are bound to look after those people until they can be accommodated and placed out elsewhere. That has been our great difficulty. My hon. and gallant Friend knows this because he has followed this question with great interest. We have been at our wit's ends what to do with these people. We could not say to the Egyptian Government, "There you have a certain number of Russian subjects: we are now going to do nothing more for them, let them loose in Egypt." The Committee, I think, will agree that whatever pledge was given—and I am not aware that any formal pledge exists—it was our bounden duty and obligation to take care of these people, not to treat them luxuriously certainly, but to take care of them until we had disposed of them satisfactorily, and so relieved ourselves of our obligations.

My hon. and gallant Friend says that what we are doing is really to transfer the cost and the burden from ourselves to the League of Nations. In point of fact what we are doing is by arrangement with the League of Nations. We are paying into the coffers of the League, or will do so if we are granted this Estimate, the sum of £150,000, together with a further sum of £20,000 to defray the cost of the refugees during the past month, and £45,000 to defray the cost of their transportation from the places where they are now to those destinations which we trust the League of Nations will be able to find for them. The League of Nations has undertaken this obligation, and the Committee will, I think, agree that we are under a great debt of gratitude to the League of Nations for taking this matter in hand. We can well be grateful to the League for its benevolent offices in this connection for we were confronted with a problem difficult of solution. What the League is doing for the Deniken refugees is a small matter compared with their magnificant achievements in the repatriation of prisoners of war under Dr. Nansen's auspices. I wish these results were better known—universally known. The League has higher duties even than these to discharge, but amongst its lesser activitives, if I may, by comparison, so describe them, I can imagine none more beneficent or more worthy than the repatriation of prisoners of war and captives and the finding of suitable homes in other communities for those who have been exiled by war. My hon. and gallant Friend refers to the method he suggested of solving this problem of Russian refugees—that is, to invite the Soviet Government to grant an amnesty to all these refugees. I wish he had let me know he was going to raise that question. My memory is not perfectly clear on the subject. So far as I remember, all the Soviet Government would consider doing was to send a Commission into the various coun- tries where Russian refugees were to be found and to select here and there very sparingly such few refugees as they would accept back into Russia. That is my recollection. I have a further recollection that at a later stage of the proceedings the Soviet Government said that they would have nothing at all to do with the matter. I speak with some reserve, for it is a considerable time since I looked into the question. Now a word or two about two other things on the Estimate.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

May I repeat the question I put a while ago as to whether this matter was raised at Genoa or will it be raised at The Hague?


I can only suppose the question was not raised at Genoa, but I could not answer that definitely without consulting with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, or with one of the Departmental Officers who were associated with it, for I have not yet read the whole of the discussion at Genoa. I should think, from what we know now of the Agenda for The Hague, that this subject will not form part of the discussions there. I take the last item. £10,000 for refugees at Constantinople. I think that the Committee are well aware that for a long time matters at Constantinople have been in a state of considerable confusion and trouble. There has been a very large number of Russian refugees in that city, not followers of General Deniken but of General Wrangel. These refugees were on the verge of starvation, and were a source of unhappiness to themselves, and of danger in a sufficiently precarious situation. They were a source of serious-embarrassment to the High Commission in that city. This question was raised at the last meeting of the Council of the League, and the Council were informed that a sum of approximately of £30,000 would be placed at their disposal to enable the League to deal with these unfortunate people and to pay for their transportation to Bulgaria and to other countries. Colonel Proctor and Mr. Childs are the officials in this matter, and they are working under Dr. Nansen's auspices. The Council of the League were promised, through the British representative, that the Government would defray the cost of transport- ing these people up to a sum not exceeding £10,000.

Then I come to a very familiar old question, that of the South Persian Rifles. I trust that these observations of mine will form positively my last appearance as a suppliant in this matter. The South Persian Rifles have been disbanded. The sum has already been voted by the House. This present sum of £65,000 is part of a larger figure, and only needs now to be revoted. I should like to take this opportunity of bearing testimony to the remarkable tact and skill with which the very difficult operation of disbanding the force was conducted by Colonel W. H. K. Fraser, D.S.O., M.C., and the officers under his command. Before the force was disbanded there was some amount of apprehension that trouble might ensue in Southern Persia caused by the dispersion of a large number of trained and possibly armed men deprived of their occupation in a country of great disturbances. I am glad to say owing to the skill and care with which the operation was conducted by Colonel Fraser and his officers and by that sense and spirit of discipline that they had in course of training these men imbued them with that the whole of the operation was carried out without any trouble. It was a very fine performance. Out of a force of 5,000 only 20 deserted carrying their arms and equipment with them. All the rest of them dispersed to their villages and homes without the slightest trouble to the British authorities in South Persia, and I think that is a very fine performance. I think I have now dealt with all the salient points raised on this Estimate, and I shall be very grateful to the Committee if they will give me the first stage to-night. I am sorry there are no prospects of getting the second stage before the Adjournment, because I think it is very important that we should discharge our obligations to the League of Nations at the earliest possible moment.


I do not think the Committee will look upon all the explanations given by the hon. Gentleman as being entirely satisfactory. I will not repeat the arguments which I have put forward in regard to this Estimate for the last three years, but as the hon. Gentleman has stated that this is probably the last occasion on which he will ask for this Estimate, I want to ask a few questions. I think we ought to have some further information about the mission of the hon. Member for Camlachie (Sir H. Mackinder). I want to know if he was given any instructions by the Foreign Office? What Department did he represent? This seems to me to be an example of the hole-and-corner manner in which Foreign Office business has been carried out. Instead of sending out a representative of the Government in the ordinary way, a private Member of this House is picked off the back benches and sent off on a very important Mission, in which lie commits the country to an expenditure of hundreds of thousands of pounds. I think we ought to know more about this point before we pass this Estimate.

There is also the important question of the refugees in Egypt and Cyprus. The hon. Gentleman did not tell us what rates of subsistence these refugees are receiving. In Egypt I am told that a man with a wife and three children is getting what is equal to about four guineas a week, and in Cyprus a man with similar responsibilities is getting £3 15s. I would like hon. Members to compare that rate of allowance with the unemployed pay given in this country. An unemployed man here in a similar position with a wife and three children gets £1 3s. per week compared with £4 6s. in Egypt; and although an unemployed Russian with a wife and three children gets £4 6s. every week continuously, the unemployed working man here gets £1 3s. every 13 weeks, and then there is an interval of 13 weeks until he becomes entitled to benefit again. I think this is a most iniquitous proposal, and one which ought to be carefully reviewed now. If the British taxpayer has got to keep the unemployed of other countries as well as his own we should at least see that those who are unemployed in other countries are not paid at a higher rate than that paid to the unemployed in this country.

I wish to make this further observation. A plea has been put forward from these benches that it only takes 15s. to save the life of a person in South Russia. I think if we are to pay money to support foreign people we should at least spend our money in saving life rather than in paying £4 6s. a week to these refugees. Who has decided that the amount should be £4 6s. a week? Why cannot these people be put on Army rations, for surely 2s. a day ought to be enough. At any rate, £4 Os. per week is extravagant in this connection. Further, I should like to know who is administering this relief and what local organisation is doing it? Does the £4 Os. include the cost of administering and getting out these rations? All this business, to my mind, is very unsavoury indeed. In fact, the whole of the Russian policy of the Government has been extraordinarily unsavoury. This has been shown to be the case all the more by the book which has been written by Sir Paul Dukes, which has added another black record to the policy of the Government in Russia, and which is described as one of consummate fraud and utter corruption.


I understand that dealing with the Russian refugees has been taken over now by the League of Nations, and that they are doing the work very well indeed. I should like to draw a moral from that, and it is that the Government should have regard to the scriptural saying that he who is faithful in little is faithful in much. Anything which has been undertaken by the League of Nations, however small, has been done very well, and I should like to impress upon the Government that their policy in this connection should he extended to big international affairs, and that not only little things but much bigger affairs should be handed over to the League of Nations, and they would do things far better than the Conferences we have had from time to time. That is the scriptural moral I wish to draw. I would like to ask, where are the great economists tonight? They are here when we deal with what are called doles to working men. If it is immoral to pay unemployment doles to men in this country, surely it is also immoral to make these payments to Russian refugees. Even the hon. Member for Mossley (Mr. A. Hopkinson) is not here to protest against this Vote. I would like those economists to come here and apply the same principle to foreign countries as they do to our own country.


I sympathise with a great deal of what has been said by hon. Members behind me, as to the past policy of the Government with regard to these refugees—a policy which I do not think indeed anyone defends at all. It has been a deplorable policy. We were rushed into the liability to maintain I forget. how many thousands of Russian refugees, and we did it in a very extravagant way, and under conditions which really promised no hope at all of finality. At the same time it is right to say that the Government apparently are trying to bring this matter to an end. Of course, we accept the statement of my hon. Friend that that is their intention, and I think with that statement there will be great satisfaction on the part of everyone in this country. The Government are going to hand the matter over, I believe, to the League of Nations, who are to make permanent provision for these people, and we hope there will be no further recurring cost. I was glad to hear what my hon. Friend said about the work of the League in this matter. Having some knowledge of that work I heartily agree with. my hon. Friend. It is one of the most remarkable bits of work of the kind ever undertaken, and it is all the more remarkable because it was carried out at rather less than the original estimate of cost. I have nothing further to say except to express my gratification—if it be really true—that we have seen the last of the South Persian Rifles. That has been a very melancholy episode. I never had much sympathy with that force. We were told on very good authority that the disbandment of these Rifles was going to be a most ticklish job, and likely to produce the most terrific results. We were warned that, although we were driven to this terrible step by our financial position, it would be a very serious matter. Now we are told it was carried through without the slightest difficulty and disorder. It is an example of what frequently happens, I am afraid, that those who become identified with a policy regard the withdrawal from that policy with undue suspicion and fear.


May I press for an answer to my question?


I do not know that I can give any further information. The hon. Gentleman spoke of the expense of maintaining the refugees in Cyprus and Egypt. I quite agree with him that the expenses in these cases were on an unduly high scale and far above the average individual cost of the refugees who were taken over by the Serbian Government. But many months have elapsed since I called attention myself to the disparity in the charges. All is now over and we have ceased to be responsible for the maintenance of these refugees. Then the hon. Gentleman spoke of the danger of sending out on Government missions private Members of the House. He referred especially to the work undertaken by the hon. Member for the Camlachie Division {Sir H. J. Mackinder) who rendered very great service to the Government. The hon. Member for Camlachie went out to South Russia as High Commissioner, and, of course, it would have been impossible for him to receive instructions on every detail of policy that might arise.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolution to be reported To-morrow;

Committee to sit again To-morrow.