HC Deb 01 June 1938 vol 336 cc2196-202

Motion made, and Question proposed,

"That this House do now adjourn." — [Captain Margesson.]

11.10 p.m.

Wing-Commander James

In accordance with the notice which I gave at Question Time on Tuesday of last week I desire to raise certain questions relating to ships flying the British flag and trading in the Western Mediterranean, be- cause I think that certain facts relating to this traffic should be more widely known than they are at present. I am not seeking for a moment to call in question the Government's policy of non-intervention; that does not arise at all. In the second place, I am not suggesting for a moment that the letter of the law is not being complied with throughout; while, thirdly, I am not suggesting that any blame attaches to any particular person, body of persons or government. What I am suggesting, and shall seek to show, is that the law in its present state is in a pretty considerable tangle, and that that tangle is leading to certain rather peculiar conditions. Time does not permit me to discuss the law, but any hon. Member who wishes to get a very good résumé of the law will find it in a very interesting article in the "Law Quarterly "for October, 1937, in which the whole case is very clearly expressed. Particularly would I refer to page 498, sub-paragraphs (d) and (e).

My submission is that shipping under the British flag trading in the Western Mediterranean falls generally into three categories at the present time. There are, first, the old, legitimate established firms, a few of whom are still trading with ports on the East Coast of Spain. There are not many left, but there are some, and let me in fairness say at once that the steamship "Greatend," which was sunk last week, belonged to the New-biggin Steamship Company of Newcastle, an old firm of first-class reputation, which is typical of the first category. Secondly, there are the pure adventurers, who trade for money and who, tempted by the very high profits, are prepared to take a chance—a spirit for which we all have some sneaking regard. They are taking risks, and they know it. The third category, with which I desire to deal specifically and in detail, is what I should describe as the perfectly legal, but at the same time perfectly bogus, companies, for the most part mushroom concerns, who are in some cases merely nominees of the Republican Government trading under the British flag. Again I say that, of course, they are completely within the law. There is one thing which all these three categories of ships have in common; they are all taking a risk, and they are all going into ports which are perfectly well-known military ob- jectives. If any hon. Member cares to inform himself on these points, let him ask any officer or other rank of the Navy who has been on the Spanish patrol, who will be found to have a very active appreciation of the sheep and the goats.

I am coming to the third category of so-called British ships. I would first refer to questions which I asked in the House, and the answers to them. The first question was to the President of the Board of Trade, and it was to ask how many ships flying the British flag had been engaged in trading to ports on the east coast of Spain during the last 12 months and how many of them had acquired British nationality since the outbreak of the Spanish civil war. The answer was that some 140 British ships had been engaged in such trade, and that 27 of them had acquired British nationality since the outbreak of the civil war. That is true, but it does not quite give the whole picture. Some of the other ships beyond the 27 have been sold by former British companies trading there to these mushroom concerns. The second question was as to how many ships belonged to the Stanhope Shipping Company before the start of the civil war, and how many belong to it now, and the answer was that the Stanhope Shipping Company owned two ships before the civil war and now own 19. Unfortunately, since I put that question, one ship of this company has been placed under arrest. The case is, therefore, sub judice and I am deprived of the arguments which I intended to use about it. I think it would not be improper, however, to observe that the captain of the arrested ship is a person who, prior to the arrest—and this is why I refer to it— sent a telegram to the Prime Minister complaining that legitimate British trade had been interfered with. The last question I asked was about the concern called the Mid-Atlantic Shipping Company, when it was formed, who the directors were, and what was their nationality. The answer was that the company was incorporated under the Companies Act on 21st July, 1937, and the directors were: Jose Ignacio Aldana, Spanish; E. L. Burbidge, British; and Marino de Gamboa, American. This last information was a great surprise to his former Spanish friends, as he had long lived in Bilbao, and been regarded as Spanish there. However, it seems that he was born in the Philippines.

Let me briefly refer to a company I have selected from my researches, the Westcliff Shipping Company. It is British-owned. It purchased a ship called the "Thorpehall," which hon. Members know was recently sunk. This company was formed to carry on business as ship-owners, ship-brokers, managers and so on. The directors are: Basil Pandelis, Greek ship broker, St. Mary Axe; Gordon Till, British; John Catopodis, Greek, ship's captain, Ithaca, Greece. There are 1,000 £1 shares, allotted as follows: Basil Pandelis, 499 shares, John Catopodis, 499 shares, Gordon Till, 2 shares. Incidentally, the name of the ship was changed to "Thorpehall "—from "Bazan "—a more British-sounding name, registered at the port of London. Having regard to the fact that this British ship was sunk a few days ago, it might be well to point out the distribution of the shares. Then there is a very interesting British company—the Mid-Atlantic Shipping Company.

Mr. Grenfell

Does not the hon. and gallant Gentleman agree that the sailors on the "Thorpehall "were murdered?

Wing-Commander James

I have only a minute left. I will deal with the company. It is registered as of 70–80, Gracechurch Street, E.C., having been registered on 21st July, 1937. It has 300 shares of £10 each and, therefore, a capital of £3,000. It owns one ship, the "English Tanker "; it was called something else before, the "Oilfield." The shareholders are Jose Ignacio Aldana, with 100 £10 shares, and his address is Hotel Terminus, St. Lazare, Paris—he is described as a lawyer—and our old friend Mr. Marino de Gamboa from the United States of America, with 100 £10 shares. and E. L. Burbidge, British, also with 100 £10 shares. The managing director is Mr. Marino de Gamboa.

There is an interesting financial transaction behind this company. Having purchased the "English Tanker "on 18th August last, the shipping company registered its title on 20th August. On 28th August they took out a mortgage for £72,500 and the mortgagees were the Compania Arrendatoria del Monopolies de Petroleos Socieded Anonima with its principal place of business at Conde de Trenor, 5, Valencia, Spain. I am reminded of my boyhood days before the War when I had more time to read that interesting and important publication the "Racing Calendar "—I may be forgiven for referring to it upon Derby Day—and in the column of the annual registration of racing colours I read that Mr. Moses Abrahams registered his colours for the year as: Union Jack; Navy blue sleeves and cap." The interesting financial transactions behind this old British company did not stop here. By a decree of the Republic of Spain, numbered 114 and published on 24th April, 1938, in the official Government publication, the Government commandeered 26 vessels of what is known as the Sota Company, registered in ports not under their control. A very striking thing happened. On 22nd August, by a decree, No. 119 of 29th April, the Republican Government delegated to the Mid-Atlantic Shipping Company all the functions, powers, and authority necessary for the management of the fleet referred to in the previous Order, and they added this paragraph: The Mid-Atlantic Shipping Company will at all times in accordance with and subject to orders from the General Director of the Merchant Marine Company "— I have to leave the Minister five minutes to comment on what I am saying, and I regret that I am not able to give way to the hon. Member opposite. I have but a very short time in which to give a few facts; I have not the time to touch upon the tragic matter of the crews. Had I had longer, I should have been glad to take hon. Members opposite through a long catalogue of researches at Somerset House. [Interruption.] I am only too delighted to hear that an hon. Gentleman opposite is going to seek an opportunity to raise this matter again at an early date, when I hope we shall be able to discuss it longer and go into the personnel of these ships.

11.25 p.m.

Mr. R. S. Hudson (Secretary, Overseas Trade Department)

We are indebted to the hon. and gallant Member for the very clear statement of the certain amount of information that he has been able to collect at Somerset House. But I confess that when I listened to him, I was unable to make out what conclusion he drew from those facts. The only conclusion that could be drawn from them was that in some way or other it was wrong for companies owned by foreigners and domiciled in this country to own ships under the British flag, and that if their ships trading with foreign ports got into trouble it was wrong that they should have the protection of His Majesty's Government and His Majesty's Navy.

It has always been the practice of this country to allow, and, indeed, to encourage the foreign ownership of British ships provided it was done in accordance with the law and through companies having their principal place of business in this country or some other part of His Majesty's Dominions. The whole history of this country in successive wars, and especially in the last War, has showed the enormous advantage to this country of having a large mercantile navy which in time of trouble and national emergency could be requisitioned under our control rather than under the control of some other country. I hope that no change in the policy which has been ours for centuries, and under which our mercantile navy has grown to its present proportions, will be made.

The hon. and gallant Member seemed to think there was something wrong in these ships trading with the Spanish Government ports. As long as they do not infringe the law and as long as they do not carry prohibited goods, they are fully entitled to trade with ports in Northern Spain or in Southern Spain. They are fully entitled to trade with both sides. The hon. and gallant Member suggested that in some cases British companies had given up trading with both sides and now only traded with one side, but I think the answer to that is that the companies have done that because they thought one side was going to win, and because owing to restrictions placed by that side— against which, incidentally, we have protested—those companies were unable to send their ships into the ports of the other. But that is not an argument for abandoning our right to trade with both sides provided the ships carry out the provisions of British law.

The hon. and gallant Member also made a passing reference to the number of men employed on controlled ships by foreign companies. Our information is that for the last eight years the proportion of foreigners employed on British ships has enormously decreased, to the manifest advantage of British sailors and British officers. He referred to the question of the crews. Because British ships are owned by foreigners it does not necessarily mean less employment for British officers and seamen who go on foreign voyages.

It being Half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.