HC Deb 23 February 1939 vol 344 cc605-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £14,400, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1939, for the salaries and expenses of the Department of His Majesty's Secretary of State for the Colonies.

4.7 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Malcolm MacDonald)

This Estimate is on account of the expenses incurred, and to be incurred, in connection with the conferences on Palestine which are now being held in London. Later in the afternoon I shall have to present a much heavier bill to the Committee. That bill is in connection with the cost of our efforts to restore law and order in Palestine. Compared with it, this sum of £14,400 is very modest. It is the cost of the attempt to get peace in Palestine by a negotiated agreement between the various parties concerned. We have been delighted to welcome to London representatives of the Jewish Agency, representatives of the Arabs of Palestine and representatives of a number of neighbouring countries. They are at present co-operating with us in our work. This sum of money is required for the accommodation of the delegates while they are in London, and for certain other expenses. We have had to engage an extra typing staff and extra messengers, we have had to put in extra telephonic installations in St. James's Palace, and we anticipate that the total sum required in connection with the conferences will be this figure of £14,400.

The discussions are now taking place in perfect surroundings. As the Committee are aware, His Majesty the King has graciously lent St. James's Palace for the purpose, and if historic and stately rooms can do anything to put peace into men's hearts and make them agree, these discussions should be a conspicuous success. But we have an exceedingly difficult task. We are in the midst of the discussions now. We have not reached a stage when I can report anything to the House. I will refrain from making any comment on the discussions, because I should not like to risk saying in public anything which might prejudice a chance of their ending successfully. I think the delegates have a difficult task. They also have a great responsibility and a very great opportunity. If in co-operation they can bring peace in Palestine by agreement, they will not only be doing something which is in the best interests of Arabs and Jews alike in Palestine, but they will also be doing something to earn the gratitude of many millions of people in all parts of the earth who are anxious that strife should come to an end in a land which is Holy for Moslems and Jews and Christians alike. I hope the Committee will play its part in helping us by voting this modest sum of money.

4.10 p.m.

Mr. Attlee

I do not propose to speak at any length on this Vote, nor indeed on the Vote that follows, dealing with Palestine. We are all deeply concerned that the Conference which is now going on should be a success. We realise the enormous issues involved and the complexity of these questions. I am glad that the Secretary of State stressed the responsibility of those who are taking part in the Conference. I suggest that that responsibility is not only for the future of Palestine or the future of the Arab lands, but may concern the future of the world, because if at this time we can get a peaceable settlement between these conflicting races we may set an example that will be followed in the rest of the world. In those circumstances I think it would be a mistake if we discussed at all either the issues raised over the question of the future of Palestine, or even matters arising out of the Palestine administration. Whether the Conference succeeds or breaks down, we shall in due course have an opportunity in this House to discuss the future constitutional arrangements in Palestine. We shall have a chance of reviewing the administration later on the Estimates of the Secretary of State, and as far as I am concerned I shall recommend my friends to abstain from any close examination of these problems to-day for fear of saying anything that might prejudice the success of the Conference.

4.14 p.m.

Sir Percy Harris

I would like thoroughly to endorse the very wise remarks of the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition. I believe that he expressed the general feeling of the Committee. We all, in various parts of the House, have very strong feelings on this great and important issue, but this is not the moment to express them. All of us wish well to the proceedings that are going on at this very hour in this vital Conference. A grave responsibility rests on the Government who, after all, have to guide these proceedings, and it would be a very unwise thing, right in the middle of these very delicate and vital discussions, for us to have a debate. That does not suggest that in due course, when we have a report, we shall not have perfect freedom to criticise, or as I hope to praise and rejoice at the conclusions. We pray that the work that has been going on in the last 20 years shall not be prejudiced, but on the contrary shall be brought to some successful conclusion.

4.15 p.m.

Mr. Maxton

I desire to associate myself with the remarks that have been made, with this proviso, that in normal circumstances, when conferences are taking place in London, I should not accept that as a reason why the House of Commons should be silent on the issues that are being discussed; nor do I think that the only thing that the House of Commons could possibly say on such issues would be such as would be injurious to the success of the discussions. I can conceive of the House of Commons being helpful sometimes in circumstances such as these. My main reason for associating myself with the remarks that have been made is that the general public in this country, including ourselves, are completely ignorant of what is taking place in that Conference, and it would be folly on our part to attempt to discuss proceedings of which we arc completely ignorant.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £14,400, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment curing the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1939, for the salaries and expenses of the Department of His Majesty's Secretary of State for the Colonies.