HC Deb 15 March 1932 vol 263 cc187-91

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the importation of goods made by foreign forced labour. It is the fate of hon. Members who have been for some time in this House to find how difficult it is to catch those two most elusive elements—the eye of the Speaker and the ear of the House. I have suffered as a victim in this pursuit for many years, and I therefore welcome the opportunity of the Ten Minutes Rule under which a Member may ask leave to bring in a Private Bill and speak for a matter of 10 minutes only after Question time. The Bill which I wish to ask leave to bring in is to prohibit the importation of goods made by foreign forced labour. I do not wish to approach the issue in a controversial spirit. It seems to be a question, not merely of politics nor of state craft, but of ethics, as well as of economics, and also a question of honour as well as of trade. I should like to bring in the Bill and see it carried and voted for by every Member of the House. Briefly the position is that at the moment goods are being imported from Russia at debauched prices for four major reasons. First of all, the Russian State itself is the trader unlike any other State in the world, secondly, the Russian State has expropriated property in Russia and is therefore free of any capital commitments, thirdly, the laws against sweating in Russia are very indifferent and lastly the Russian State is allowed to use political prisoners in order to make its goods and to carry them. Therefore you have four exclusive causes operating for cheapness in goods coming from Russia which do not operate in any way in England or in any country under the Union Jack. I may be told at the outset that I am not correct when I say that goods are made by forced labour in Russia. On the last occasion upon which this issue was discussed in this House Mr. Taylor, who was then a Member of the House, got up and categorically denied that fact. I am not required to-day to prove it, for in an admirable book since produced by the Noble Lady the Member for Perth and Kinross (Duchess of Atholl), on page 173, will be found Mr. Stalin's own speech at the Economic Conference, delivered in June of last year, in which he says that: He could offer very little hope of relief for the worker, and admits that the peasant can no longer be recruited voluntarily for industry. Therefore, I am not required to prove my case in that respect. I would, however, point out that none of the causes referred to operate in England. We have not in this country expropriated property. [Interruption.] The hon. Member must wait until he has a chance of doing so. We have not any form of convict labour except in our prisons, and we look upon convict labour so badly there, that we do not allow the goods made by convicts in our prisons to come into competition with goods made outside. Lastly, we have in this country laws against sweating. It may be that our laws against sweating are insufficient and that a lot may have to be done in that respect. I would say to the hon. Member who laughed when I mentioned sweating, that he and those who sit with him on the Labour benches are the chief champions, according to themselves, of anti-sweating laws, and are always telling us that trade unions will have nothing to do with sweating. Moreover, they are always claiming for themselves the privilege of caring most for the worker and desiring to make conditions better than they are. I would ask them, therefore, to remember those professions and put them into operation to-day by voting against the sweating of Russian labourers.

Why are the Government treating Russia better than England? Why should British traders be penalised in order to allow in goods which are not only stolen but sweated out of the life's blood of poor prisoners and convicts? Our fight for freedom is a great and traditional one. We entered the Great War mainly to win what we all believed was a fight for liberty. For generations we have fought slavery. It was voices in this House of Commons that sounded the death knell of slavery years before the United States of America put a stop to it. It was our citizens, 300,000 of them, over 100 years ago, who went without sugar three years rather than buy sugar grown under slave conditions in the West Indies. Who were those people who refused to buy sugar grown under slave conditions? We would call them Socialists to-day.

I would invite the Socialists to remember that fact, and I would ask every Socialist whether he can accommodate his conscience to not voting for this Bill. It is an odd fact that there is, so far as I know, no Socialist voice raised at any time against the introduction of these tainted goods into this country, and yet the Labour party is loudest in its professions of great international ideals. Moreover, Socialists are always preaching the solidarity of the workers of the world. I would like them to remember that fact to-day and to ask themselves whether they like Russian peasants to go starving in order that Englishmen may be full. I would like them to look into their own hearts and see whether or not they can go on pepetuating conditions which are a traffic in human flesh and blood.

I shall be expected before I sit down to offer a remedy. I may be told that it is impossible for our Government to place an embargo upon these Russian goods. I am aware that it is very difficult for the present Government to withdraw recognition from Russia, but there are two ways in which His Majesty's Government could act. They are faced with a Government, the Soviet Government, which preaches the brotherhood of man with bombs, bullets and imprisonments. I would suggest two courses. I would invite His Majesty's Government to ask the League of Nations to take action in Russia. I ask them to invite the League of Nations, which likes to interfere in the affairs of other countries, to interfere in Russia. They interfered in the case of Liberia, where there is slavery. Liberia is a member of the League of Nations, it is true, whereas Russia is not, but I would point out that America, which the League of Nations first approached, is not a member of the League of Nations. If the League of Nations could take action in respect of a small country like Liberia, why should they not take action in respect of Russia? Why should they not send a commission to investigate on the spot? If there is nothing wrong in labour conditions in Russia, why should the Soviet Government object to a commission of investigation? Lastly, I would suggest that the House should carry this Bill and refuse any longer to sell our birthright as freemen for a mess of Bolshevist pottage.


I am not quite sure whether I ought to trespass on the time of the House, but the hon. and gallant Member has made so many statements about a friendly Power— —


The rule is that one speech should be in favour of the introduction of the Bill and one against it. We cannot have a Debate on the subject.


The difficulty is that the speech that has just been made is one—


On a point of Order. Is the right hon. Gentleman opposing the Bill or not?


That is not a point of Order.


I wanted, if you, Mr. Speaker, and the House would allow me, to say—[HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] Then I shall take another opportunity.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Commander Locker-Lampson.