HC Deb 14 February 1939 vol 343 cc1661-71

Order for Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."—[Captain Wallace.]

8.40 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Henderson

I think we should take this opportunity of making one or two comments upon the Bill. In the course of the previous Debates upon the Bill a good deal has been said with regard to the agreement which was signed at Munich and of which this Bill is a direct result. It is true that that agreement may have staved off a conflict, but no one will deny that it was at a terrible price—at any rate a terrible price for Czecho-Slovakia. That country, in-habited by a courageous people, to-day finds itself reduced to both economic and political dependence upon its powerful neighbour, Germany. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton (Mr. Benn) has described its situation as being one of vassalage. Whether one agrees with that term or not, I think one must agree that Czecho-Slovakia has at any rate been brought within the German political orbit, and that its freedom of political and economic action has been very much restricted.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Dennis Herbert)

I do not want to interrupt the hon. Member too soon or unnecessarily, but I must remind him that he must confine himself on Third Reading to what is in the Bill.

Mr. Henderson

I am merely stating this by way of illustrating the fact that this Bill was made necessary by reason of what took place at Munich. The object of the Bill is to provide a measure of assistance to Czecho-Slovakia as a consequence of the agreement at Munich. To-day this financial assistance has become of vital importance to Czecho-Slovakia because of the problems with which that country finds itself confronted. We know that at the present time there are probably 700,000 Czechs, on the other side of the border, who are now living in Greater Germany, and there has been created a problem which regard to the right to opt. It was dealt with in Committee the other night, and I should like to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

That is not dealt with in the Bill.

Mr. Henderson

Do I understand that it is not possible to discuss to-night the question of the optants?

Mr. Benn

On that point of Order. Has it not been repeatedly said by the Government and is it not the case that the monetary provision in this Bill is for the service of the said optants?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

That may be. As long as the hon. Member confines himself strictly to what is in the Bill he will be in order, but I was inclined to think that he was going a little beyond that. Discussion of such questions as were raised by the Amendment moved by the right hon. Gentleman yesterday would not be in order on the Third Reading.

Mr. Henderson

Is it not a fact that we are entitled to ask the Chancellor to give the House what information he has with regard to the number of optants who may be affected by the financial provisions authorised by the Bill?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Member may put that question and then perhaps he had better try to go on—or stop soon after, rather than be stopped by the Chair.

Mr. Henderson

I hope that the Chancellor will be able to give the House to-night the information that was asked for last night during the Committee stage, with regard to the present situation of these unfortunate people who have been denied the right to opt. In conclusion, I would ask the Chancellor, if I am in order, to realise that the problem with which the Bill seeks to deal is only part of one which is of vital importance to other countries as well as to Czecho-Slovakia. On this side of the House we support the Bill not only because we believe it will be of some assistance to that gallant little nation struggling against terrible odds to maintain its independence, both political and economic, but because we realise that there are other nations, such as Hungary, Roumania and Yugoslavia, who may well be placed in almost similar conditions in the future, and that only by our country interesting itself in the affairs of the Danubian Basin, of which Czecho-Slovakia forms a part, may we be able to bring about that measure of appeasement in Central and Eastern Europe which the Prime Minister has said it is his policy to carry through.

8.48 p.m.

Mr. Edmund Harvey

I do not want to cover any of the ground which has been covered by the hon. Member for Kingswinford (Mr. A. Henderson), but I hope that the Chancellor when he replies may be able to give us some reassurance on the very important and grave question of the optants. I hope he will also give some assurance as to the speeding up of the process by which this money will be utilised for the benefit of refugees now in Czecho-Slovakia. I think that the whole House is at one in gratitude that this measure of help is being rendered to people who are in such distress. There is no difference in any quarter that this help should be given as speedily as possible; but the Government are perhaps not fully aware of the urgency of the need of the people who are in camps at the present time in Czecho-Slovakia, and that steps ought to be taken at once to see that this money is made available without delay for their benefit.

I saw a letter to-day written from Prague on Sunday of this week, describing the conditions of thousands of those unfortunate people, who are barely existing, the need is so great. Many, or it may be all, of them are the very people for whom the money provided under the Bill is intended, and something should be done through the representative of the Government in Prague to speed up the help for these people while they are in Czecho-Slovakia. I beg the Chancellor of the Exchequer to use his influence to see that the regulations of the Home Office in regard to the admission into this country of refugees who come under the Bill, and who will be going into Canada and elsewhere, should be made easy. It is extremely difficult for them to get the necessary visas, and the delays seem interminable to some of those poor people who are waiting in conditions of semi-starvation, physical need and mental distress. I hope that the Government can implement this financial help and secure that it shall be speedily supplied to the sufferers.

I hope also that the Government will do their best to see that the regulations which at present hinder transmigrants from coming to this country on their way to the Dominions and elsewhere are revised in the interests of these refugees. They will give twice, because they will be giving quickly. I hope that the Chancellor may be able to reassure the House upon the effectiveness of the help that the Bill is intended to give.

8.51 p.m.

Major Mills

The Bill authorises a sum of £4,000,000 to be given by this country to Czecho-Slovakia. I want to raise a constitutional point in connection with that matter, although I am not an authority on constitutional questions. The point has been put to me by an eminent King's Counsel, eminent, although he is no longer in practice at the Bar, and I feel that it ought to be mentioned in this House. It was not mentioned on the Second Reading. He tells me that it is a constitutional maxim well-established that every Member of the House is bound to speak and vote with due regard to what he believes to be the real interests of the Kingdom of Great Britain and its subjects—

Mr. Ellis Smith

Hear, hear. Time you did—

Major Mills

—and not to vote on such subjects unless he is satisfied that it is for the benefit of the Kingdom. In the Second Reading Debate every speaker, from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the right hon. Member for Gorton (Mr. Benn), made it clear that they were supporting the Bill from sentimental reasons and out of sympathy with the Czecho-Slovakians, desiring to do everything they could to help them. They had not considered whether the burden was to enure for the benefit of the people of this Kingdom or not, the people who have to pay the taxes. I do not know whether there is any precedent for a loan of this nature. The Czechs may be helped by it to become our trade competitors. When we enter into trade agreements we may expect to get benefits in proportion to what we give. This is different.

Of course it is true that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries this country did give subsidies to foreign countries to fight its battles, against France particularly, as well as sending troops itself, but in that case the payments were of course, justified because there was a direct British interest, that of the maintenance of the balance of power. There is also in the minds of all of us another parallel, namely the gift of £100,000 to the refugees from Spain. I do not want it to be thought that I am opposing this gift; I think it should be given if we are able to do so; but I would like to have some assurance from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, so that I may feel that the constitutional point, if it exists, has been met, and that we can vote for the Bill with an easy conscience.

8.56 p.m.

Mr. Mander

I am somewhat astonished by the argument put forward by the hon. and gallant Member for the New Forest and Christchurch (Major Mills). I have always thought that the argument of the Government for what I regard as the disgraceful betrayal of last September was that by it they were doing something which was of immense benefit to the whole population of this country, and, above all, to the people of London, who otherwise were going to be bombed. That was the whole argument—that Czecho-Slovakia was to be sacrificed to save us. Is it really decent to come along now and grudge Czecho-Slovakia this little bit of help, so petty in comparison with all that she has lost? I think that the hon. and gallant Member can vote with quite an easy conscience for this Measure tonight, and I am sure the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be able to give him reasons—no doubt different from those which I have given, or at any rate differently phrased—which will make him feel perfectly happy and comfortable. I must say, however, that I listened to him with very considerable astonishment. This was only a very much post-dated cheque for a very small portion of what was really owing.

There will, of course, be available for the benefit of refugees in Czecho-Slovakia a very much larger sum than is available for refugees in any other part of the world, and I think that one value of that will be that a precedent will have been set. No doubt circumstances will differ, but we are helping Czecho-Slovakia on a very large scale, and lessons are going to be learned from the experience which will be very useful in dealing with other refugee problems that arise. As my hon. Friend the Member for the English Universities (Mr. Harvey) said just now, it is not enough merely to provide the money for emigrating these refugees. They have to have somewhere to go, and it has not been possible up to date to find many places in the world where they can go. It will not be possible for this money which we are proposing to vote to-night to be expended unless at the same time the Government take the necessary steps for providing places to which the refugees can go.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer seemed to me the other day, in dealing with this Bill—I forget on which stage, but I think it was the Financial Resolution—to work himself up almost into a state of ecstasy over the meritorious course we were taking. He seemed to think that we were doing something really large and fine in giving this money at all. I hope, however, that none of us will think that that is the case. Do not let us imagine that we are doing anything to be proud of. Let us forget about the whole thing from that point of view as quickly as possible. There is no honour to be got out of it by anyone concerned, whatever view they may take of the transaction last September. I hope that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be able to give us some information about the point which was put to him concerning the optants. It is not clear what exactly the Bill means in that regard—whether it is that the money is actually available under the Bill for those persons and whether the Germans will not allow it to be so expended, or whether there is some possibility that it is not only so available, but may in fact in some cases be so expended. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to give us some assurance that that is the case.

9.1 p.m.

Mr. Benn

If the Chancellor of the Exchequer does not propose to speak, I should like to ask one or two questions. I thought that they might have been answered in the course of his speech, and that it might be possible to save the time of the House. Apparently he does not propose to speak, and I am not surprised, because this Bill refers to one of the most tragic and shameful episodes in our recent history. Questions were asked yesterday with regard to the optants, and the relevance of that is that this money is voted for the optants. We learned yesterday that the largest and most desperately situated section of the optants, namely, the Germans and non-Nazi Germans, are not eligible at all. This was brought about under the control of a Commission on which we had our own representative, and was done by an agreement. [Interruption.] Perhaps the Chancellor of the Exchequer, if he does not want to speak, will at any rate not attempt to interfere with me by suggesting that what I am saying is out of order. That is a matter for the Chair. I think that on this occasion, when we are dealing with a serious subject, he might perhaps abandon that attitude.

As regards the optants, we know for a fact that the German optants are not going to benefit at all. That is a shameful thing. These men, who took our word, are not going to benefit, and they are for the concentration camp. As regards Czech optants, under the agreement between the Germans and the Czechs there is a chance that people of Czech race may be able to opt. We were told twice, once by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and once by the Under-Secretary, that so earnest was the Chancellor of the Exchequer about this that he was making special inquiries. I should like him to tell us what the result of those inquiries has been.

Another point is that under this Bill we are to have a quarterly account from the Czech Government of the way in which this money has been used. A great deal of it has been at the disposal of the Czech Government for more than a quarter up to the present date. It was placed at their disposal immediately, on a note of hand, so to speak. The hon. and gallant Member opposite who raised a constitutional point about the subsidies to foreign armies in Pitt's wars in the eighteenth century will be interested to know that it was given by a note of hand, by a private arrangement between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Bank of England. He need not have been distressed by what his friend the King's Counsel told him. He was not asked whether he agreed; all that was done behind the scenes, and is being ratified by this Bill under an arrangement which cannot be upset even by the House of Commons, because it appears to be out of order to move an Amendment to that effect.

I would ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer, therefore, to tell us whether he has received any report from the Czech Government. They have had £10,000,000 since some time in October, and many people are afraid that some of that money will not be spent for the benefit of Czech refugees, but for the general purposes of the State, which is undoubtedly, as my hon. Friend has said, in economic subjection to Germany. We should like to know what this report is, if such a report has been received; or, if no such report has been received, perhaps the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be good enough to tell us when he expects such a report.

9.4 p.m.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Sir John Simon)

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the New Forest and Christchurch (Major Mills) raised a point which, he explained, gave him some concern, and I would like in two or three sentences to deal with that point first. It had been pointed out to him by a friend that he was advised that some constitutional issue would be involved if the House of Commons were to pass this Bill to-night, a course of which, I think, my hon. and gallant Friend is personally disposed to approve. The suggestion, I understand, is that there will be something improper from the constitutional point of view in the House providing money by way of gift for the benefit of people who are not British subjects. I do not think there is anything in that constitutional point at all. Certainly, it is a process which we have adopted many times in our history. My hon. and gallant Friend was good enough to drop me a note stating that he was concerned about this, and I have found a couple of instances in recent times. In 1937, on the Civil Estimates, there was a grant in aid of the expenses of settlement of Assyrians from Iraq, and a sum of money was provided and voted—not a loan at all, but as a pure gift from public funds in order to help the settlement of these unfortunate people, the Assyrians. The Iraq Government also contributed. That is exactly the same kind of point, even to the extent that there was a second Government which made a contribution as well as ourselves.

Here is another case. In 1922, there was a grant for famine relief in Russia. In that case, it was stores which were at the disposal of the Government which were handed over for the relief of those suffering from famine in Russia, but it cannot make any difference, from the constitutional point of view, whether you hand over stores bought and paid for by the British taxpayers, or money. I certainly would subscribe, and the whole House would subscribe, to the doctrine that any Member giving any vote in this House ought to vote only in accordance with what he conceives to be the public interest of the people of this country. Any difficulty there might be depends on the view one takes as to what is the public interest. I think it is, in the widest and best sense, in the interests of this country to do what we can to get the Czecho-Slovak State placed on a sound economic basis, and more particularly to help them to deal with the problem of refugees. I think the House as a whole would be of the same feeling.

Then I was asked whether I could give any information to show what progress is being made in dealing with the problem. I have here one or two figures to which I think the House might like to listen. As the House knows, Mr. Stopford has been appointed for the express purpose of attending to this matter on the spot in Prague. He was in Prague at an earlier stage for another purpose, and he has now returned there. I have a message from him which I will give the House now: Dr. Pospisil and officials of the Ministry of Finance and the Refugee Institutions —that being the institutions specially created by the Czecho-Slovak Government for the refugees— have seen me and have authorised me to send you a message to say that a scheme for the disposal of the loan is being prepared by them. They have invited me to give them any help I can in the matter. He gives me express authority from the authorities there to inform the House of Commons to that extent. I think that is an indication that they really are going to make these plans as quickly as possible.

Then I was asked as to the numbers of the refugees to be dealt with. I cannot give any precise information, but it is believed that the total number of refugees in Czecho-Slovakia which that Government may have to deal with, one way or another, amounts to something like 186,000. It is believed that refugees of the Czech race amount to 150,000. By far the greater number of those undoubtedly will remain in the country. People of the Czech race naturally, for the most part, wish to settle there, and that is, of course, the purpose of the £8,000,000 loan to which I have referred. There are believed to be about 19,000 altogether of German race. Of those, it is believed that about 6,000 originally came from Germany to the area now ceded, and have now moved on again. The other 13,000 of German race moved in from the ceded area, but did not necessarily come originally from the Reich. The figure for Jews is given as 15,000, and of Hungarians as 2,000.

These figures are not necessarily exact, but they give the House some idea of the nature of the problem. I saw Mr. Stopford and asked him to send me, if he could, some figures to give the House, and this is the message I have received from him. The number who have already left Czecho-Slovakia is about 5,500. As hon. Members who have taken an interest in the subject know, there are quite a number of others—I cannot give any estimate of the figure—who are ready to leave but have not been able to do so, because they were not able to produce in the countries to which they wanted to go that minimum sum of money which is insisted on before persons are admitted. Of this money that we are providing, £4,000,000 would be in sterling, so that it would enable money for this purpose to be very promptly produced.

I have not desired at any stage of the Bill to claim more credit for this Bill than the House generally is entitled to. I think it is a mistake of some of us who feel deeply, and, indeed, who speak strongly, to minimise and belittle the character of this effort. It is, in fact, substantial. No other country, so far as I know, apart from France, has made such an effort as this, and I believe the effort is made not because the Government have a majority in the House but because it is the view of the House that it should be made. I can well understand the anxieties and the distresses to which hon. Members in different parts of the House have given vent, but I do not think that, on the Third Reading of this Bill, where, I understand, I have to deal with what the Bill contains and provides, I am in the least called upon to go over again the matters which we discussed on the Amendment which was moved on the Committee stage. I do not propose to do that, but I ask the House to give this Bill the Third Reading, as has been the case in the other stages of the Bill without any dissenting voice. I think that whatever may be the opinions of hon. Members, all will agree in this, that we do most sincerely hope that this Bill will bring a great deal of relief.

Question, "That the Bill be now read the Third time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.