HC Deb 14 July 1924 vol 176 cc172-9

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding £640,178, be granted to His Majesty to complete the sum necessary to defray she Charge which will come in course of payment luring the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1925, for the Expenses in connection with His Majesty's Embassies, Missions and Consular Establishments Abroad, and other Expenditure chargeable to the Consular Vote, including a Gift to the Imperial University at Tokyo. Relief of Refugees in the Near East and certain special Grants."—[Note: £550,000 has been voted on account.]


I beg to move, "That Item O [Office expenses and Fee allowances] be reduced by £100."

I do so in order to have an opportunity of calling attention to the need of more efficient organisation of our Consular services. This is a very sudden departure from the Debate which has just taken place, but the Committee will realise that if this country is to maintain its com- petitive power against countries abroad, its Consular and commercial services ought to be of the highest quality During the past couple of years, in company with certain of my hon. colleagues in this House, I have had the opportunity of seeing something of the Consular administration in almost every country in Europe, and I say at once that it is the worst possible kind of economy to reduce to the level almost of inefficiency the provision made by Parliament for the maintenance of the Consular service. Hon. Members will recall that, before the War, the expansion of German commercial influence throughout the world was very largely due to the vigorous organisation of the German consular service. The German consular agent in practically every part of the world became a sort of official commercial traveller for the products of Germany. He took an active part in promoting German interests in trade; he considered the requirements of the particular locality in which he was placed, having regard to what Germany could produce for that particular market. He looked after the establishment of German financial influence in his particular area, and was, indeed, not the least important of the great multitude of agents employed by Germany for the development of her immense economic importance in the world.

I am afraid that in this country we have not appreciated the value of the consular service in the same way as it has been understood and valued by other countries. Let me point out, as an instance, that in the Estimates of the current financial year, the total provision for expenses for the whole consular service of Bulgaria is only £276. I am not referring to the salaries of the two Vice-Consuls; I am speaking of the expenses appropriated to these two offices. In a country like Bulgaria, with its great potentialities, with every possibility of and desire for the development of trade with Great Britain, as our past experience of Bulgarian trade has always been satisfactory, all the provision that the Government is making for looking after the trade interests of Great Britain and the overseas Dominions in that important new country which has arisen out of the War is a provision for expenses to the tune of £276 a year. It is almost laughable that the Government should be a party to the provision of so miserable a sum. On the other hand, take Czechslovakia. I had an opportunity, with my hon. Friend the Member for West Lewisham (Sir P. Dawson), of being twice in Czechslovakia during the last 18 months. We found everywhere the most intensified effort being made on the part of countries competing with ourselves, to get control of the markets of Czechslovakia. We found there the French, the Italians, the Swiss and the universal American bagman. What are we doing to keep our manufacturing community in contact with this part of the world? We are spending in that very live country, which has an intensive industrial organisation of its own, the sum of £2,790. I say to the Committee and to the public outside that if we are really serious in our efforts to keep British manufacturers on anything like the same level of efficiency as other countries, thus maintaining the standard of employment for our people at home, we must take a step forward by increasing the efficiency of our consular service.

Take the case of a country like Esthonia. Esthonia is one of the new nations which has arisen since the War, but it has preserved its traditions through 700 years of bondage. In spite of all the ravages which devastated that country in the wars between Russia and Sweden, in spite of the aggressions of the Baltic barons and a series of attacks extending over many years, that little country has preserved its national sentiment and its industrial vitality. Qualities of that kind should make a strong appeal to hon. Gentlemen opposite, and they may be interested to know that the total sum provided in consular expenses to enable British commerce and industry to be adequately represented in Esthonia is £411. Why, a commercial traveller going to a city like Reval representing a respectable British firm, would be allowed as pocket money more than the great. British Government allows to its consular representative to enable him to discharge his duties effectively and efficiently there. Then take the case of a country like Finland which in the matter of consular administration is one of the jokes of our consular service. We have there a number of vice-consuls established at various centres, and they receive no salaries, but the amounts allowed to these gentlemen for the discharge of their functions as representatives of British interests are remarkable. One gentleman enjoys the happiness of receiving £45 a year; another £25; another £9; another £8; another £7, and another £5. It may be said that these small contributions are for specific purposes, such as postage, but is it proper in these communities, if we are really serious in helping our manufacturers to sell our goods, that we should employ local residents in an honorary capacity at centres of distribution and pay them miserable pittances of this kind? Would it not be better to employ a competent and energetic man to promote the sale of our products instead of leaving us at the mercy of every competitor who conies to those parts prepared to spend generously of his nation's money in selling his nation's goods?

Just recently everybody noted with satisfaction the loan to Hungary, and this country was the principal factor in having that loan satisfactorily negotiated. The total amount provided as expenses for our Consular Services in Hungary is £457. The total amount paid in salary to our Vice-Consul there is £850 a year. Having given our prestige to the flotation of this Joan, which everybody agrees is necessary for the development of that interesting country, a country which offers tremendous possibilities, is it not ridiculous that we should have our trade representation in that part of the world conducted at the expense of a few hundreds a year? Why cannot the Under-Secretary realise the importance of having highly trained, really competent, commercial representatives in a country of that sort We are lending £8,000,000 to Hungary, and we hope that a considerable amount of that money will be spent on the purchase of materials here, yet we have not a trade representative there, except a Consul-General, who gets no salary at all, and a Vice-Consul getting £850 a year. In Latvia we have a Consul-General at Riga, who receives a salary of £1,350 a year, and he gets £770 as expenses to look after the whole of the interests of the British in that country. When I was at Riga, I found that man struggling against the greatest difficulty in trying, at his own expense, to entertain visitors and to keep in o touch with representative people, doing all he could to attend agricultural and industrial shows, and yet he could not get a farthing more than the miserable sum allotted by the British Government to enable him to carry on this work. That parsimonious policy of limiting the opportunities of our agents abroad to spend money so that British manufactures may be sold is stupid and foolish.

The present Government are not the only sinners in this matter at all, because the preceding Governments have been as great sinners, and we on this side of the House who are interested in commerce and industry have often appealed to my right hon. Friend on the Front Bench to do something in this matter. Look at the condition of our Consuls in South America and at the miserable amount that we are spending on our Consular services there. You have the Pan-American organisation at Washington, using every opportunity to extend the influence of American commercial prestige in every Republic in South America, and all this time we are doing practically nothing. Our staffs are efficient. I believe that our Consular servants, on the whole, are the finest body of men in the world, but what can they do when their hands are tied and they are without the necessary financial support? All this cry of economy in the public services, when it is a matter of giving the necessary financial support behind the Consular service, is a most stupid policy, and we ought to be no parties to cutting clown such a service as this.

If I take a further country which I have had an opportunity of seeing, namely, Poland, I find that our total expenditure there—we have two Consuls, one at Warsaw and another at Posen—is about £900 on salaries. Here is Poland, a great new country, with vast opportunities for trade, and we are spending only this small sum on our Consular service there. In the City of Warsaw there are as fine spinning mills as we have in this country, and here are these great centres of trade overrun by French commercial travellers, are? Germans, Italians and Swiss, and what is the Government trade organisation there doing? I am sure that this Committee would loyally support the Under-Secretary if he were to put forward a really live and vigorous policy in relation to the strength of our Consular services. Take a country like Jugo-Slavia, which the hon. Member for West Lewisham (Sir P. Dawson) and myself visited the other day. Jugo-Slavia is a congeries of nations which belonged to the old Austrian Empire, combined with the old Serbia, and, believe me, the wealth of that new Empire, because it really is an Empire, consisting of a series of old Austrian kingdoms, Dalmatia, Montenegro, Herzegovina, Bosnia, Croatia, Slavonia, is enormous. These make up a new empire of profound economic consequence to Europe, with immensemarkets and great natural resources. What are our Government doing to extend trade there? The Vice-Consul at Belgrade is given to spend on the development of British trade in the current financial year £400. In a city like Belgrade, the capital of a new Empire, where British interests at every moment crop up, how can he meet the deputations, attend the various functions, do things which are necessary and which anybody with anything to do with commercial interest understands, when he is limited to spending a miserable £400 a year. The whole thing is a penny wise and a pound foolish, policy. The Vice-Consul at Ragusa is a remarkable example of what a capable man can do for British trade. On his own initiative he is getting in touch with various agricultural and other interests, and doing much to advance trade. He has made arrangements with the railways by which preference rates are given to the coast, All that has been done by a comparatively unpaid man who receives a few pounds a year for his services. He has been the standard-bearer of British trade for years. There is no better example in Europe of what a well-trained man can do. If the trade of this country is to be developed we must have a continuous and well organised chain of communications abroad. However we may differ with regard to fiscal policy in this country. I do not think there can be any difference about maintaining our trade in foreign markets, To-day you have Czechslovakia getting almost complete control of the markets in that part of the world. I appeal to the Under-Secretary that he will make representations, bring his influence to bear and take into consideration the re-organisation of our Consular services. It is a magnificent machine if it only gets financial support. So lone as they are cribbed, cabinet and confined within the limits of a few pounds a year for their personal expenditure, it is impossible to get anything like successful results hope the Under-Secretary will see his way to make the Consular policy one which will reflect on our trade the same as German Consular policy reflected on German trade before the War. I do not want to quote Germany as an example of business organisation, but they did show us how to organise foreign markets The quality of our goads always held their own, but they were crippled by the commercial organisation employed against them. I beg to move the reduction of the Vote by £100, in order that the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs may offer some expression of opinion on the points I have raised.


I do not think there is anyone in this House better qualified to talk on this subject than the hon. Gentleman who has just spoken. He speaks from personal knowledge of the various countries, and one is not quite certain as to which country he may be in at a particular moment. I remember on one occasion when I rather gathered he was in Esthonia I found him asking supplementary questions in this House. His knowledge is, therefore, really first hand. But we have a Treasury and a House of Commons, and I am not at all sure that my hon. Friend would get the support of hon. Members around him if he proposed that we should put another £100,000 on the Estimate for Consular Services.

I certainly will bear in mind what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I will do my best to convey his representations to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, who realises the enormous importance, not only of having good agents in as many centres as possible, but agents who are well paid and can perform efficiently their duties. I take it my hon. Friend is well satisfied with those who are acting already, and that his desire is rather to give them encouraging support and an increase of salary.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir J. NALL

I want to put a question to the Under-Secretary—

It being Eleven of the Clock, the Chairman left the Chair to make his Report to the House.

Resolution to be reported To-morrow.

Committee report Progress; to sit again To-morrow.

Back to