HC Deb 02 February 1938 vol 331 cc213-6
14. Mr. David Grenfell

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he has any information to give the House as to the position of affairs in Spain?

Mr. Eden

In spite of unfavourable weather conditions, offensive operations on a large scale began shortly before Christmas in the Province of Teruel and have not yet been suspended. In recent weeks raids by insurgent bombing aeroplanes have greatly increased in intensity and have inevitably led to retaliatory action. His Majesty's Government view with profound concern this intensification of aerial bombardment, which has resulted in considerable loss of life and the infliction of cruel injuries among the civil population, and they are urgently considering what steps they can take to bring about some alleviation of these sufferings. I need hardly add that they would at all times be ready to join in any international endeavour to this end.

In the meanwhile I think the House would like to have some information with regard to the negotiations which have lately been taking place with a view to the exchange on a large scale of prisoners and other persons detained by one or other side. After the collapse of the resistance of the Spanish Government forces in North West Spain in October last, the Spanish Ambassador inquired whether His Majesty's Government would be prepared to approach the Insurgent authorities with a view to concluding an agreement whereby such elements of the civil population in the Northern area as desired to leave would be exchanged for certain categories of prisoners and other persons detained by the Spanish Government. The Ambassador was informed that, if he obtained definite proposals on this subject from his Government, His Majesty's Government would be glad to communicate them to the Insurgent authorities and to urge the latter to give them favourable consideration. This was done.

Towards the end of November the Insurgent authorities replied by submitting counter-proposals for a general exchange of prisoners and hostages, to include military and political prisoners, refugees in the foreign missions and other persons not under arrest but merely detained, and suggested the appointment of a British arbitrator for the purpose of preparing and carrying out the exchanges. These counter-proposals were in their turn submitted to the Spanish Ambassador, who replied on 13th January that they were agreeable in principle to his Government, provided that the exchanges applied to the whole of Spain and not merely to the northern area, and that they were carried out on the basis of strict reciprocity. The British Agent at Salamanca has accordingly now been instructed to obtain confirmation from the Insurgent authorities that the proposals for a general exchange set out in their Note and in the Spanish Government's reply thereto are acceptable as a basis for further negotiation, in which case His Majesty's Government would at once proceed to appoint an arbitrator for this purpose.

At the same time long and difficult negotiations have been taking place for the exchange of 200 Basque prisoners for an equivalent number of persons held prisoner by the Spanish Government. The exchange of the first batch of 41 was carried out on 20th January, thanks to the untiring efforts of His Majesty's representatives at Barcelona and Hendaye and to the International Red Cross delegate at Barcelona, under whose auspices the negotiations have been carried out.

Mr. Grenfell

While thanking the right hon. Gentleman for the very full information he has given to the House on various matters, may I ask him whether in the declaration that His Majesty's Government would welcome co-operation with other countries to bring about the cessation of bombing of towns and of the innocent people in them, it would not be appropriate to intimate to the Non-intervention Committee, an international body already in existence, that there is strong ground to assume that these attacks have been caused by nations signatory to the Pact of Non-intervention; and whether that is not a base on which to begin in this matter? Has he found that these wanton attacks on innocent people are due to nations who have pledged themselves not to intervene, and should not special notice be taken of it?

Mr. Eden

I have had all aspects of this question under consideration, and on reflection I think that in the first instance I would prefer to take the first step in another way, which obviously I would rather not indicate to the House at the moment until I see the result of these endeavours. Should they not be successful, my mind is not closed to other methods of approach.

Mr. Mander

Can my right hon. Friend give any information with regard to the additional 50,000 Italian troops which are said to be ready to proceed to Spain? Does he propose to initiate any international action to prevent their arriving?

Mr. Eden

My hon. Friend will see from his own question that it is impossible for me to have information about 50,000 troops in Italy said to be going to Spain.

Mr. Mander

In view of the fact that that it is in all sections of the Press, do the British Government, with all their sources of information, know nothing about it?

Mr. Eden

I have no information which would substantiate the suggestion that numbers of troops are in Italy ready to go to Spain. In the circumstances the House will recognise that in any event that is hardly a subject on which I could pronounce.

Mr. Mander

Will the Foreign Secretary make inquiries?

Sir Arthur Salter

Could the right hon. Gentleman say, in connection with the exchange of prisoners, whether it is possible to take any precautions regarding the military prisoners to prevent their becoming combatants again? Otherwise, the result might merely be the prolongation of the war without any reduction of human suffering?

Mr. Eden

I am obliged to my hon. Friend. There are plenty of difficulties in this matter and I would prefer, if I might, to deal with them confidentially, and not publicly.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir Thomas Moore

Does not the incident quoted by my right hon. Friend clearly show the value and advantages of having a British agent in Nationalist Spain?

Mr. Noel-Baker

Will the right hon. Gentleman give instructions to British diplomatic and consular agents in Italy to make reports concerning any troop movements which have a bearing on this matter?

Mr. Eden

Our diplomatic and consular agents everywhere have, as the hon. Gentleman must know, instructions as to what they are to report in the ordinary course of their duties.

Mr. Kirkwood

If it is the case that there are 50,000 troops in Italy ready to. go to Spain, what action are the Government prepared to take to prevent them from getting there?

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