HC Deb 06 March 1939 vol 344 cc1834-45

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £18,700, 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 expenditure in respect of public buildings overseas.

7.55 p.m.

Sir P. Sassoon

This Vote makes provision for the maintenance and furnishing of all Embassies and Legation buildings, for the accommodation for High Commissioners in the Dominions, and certain Consular buildings. The sums required are to supplement the provision which was made in the main Estimates for the purchase of sites for new Embassies in Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. Parliamentary authority is also required for the purchase of a site for a new Embassy in Warsaw. The necessity for including this in the Supplementary Vote is due to the fact that a suitable site is at present in the market. Against the £30,500 to be spent on new works there is a set-off in the expected saving of £4,500 which is under the maintenance sub-head. The amount required is still further decreased by the increase in appropriations-in-aid resulting from the sale of the Vienna Legation. With this explanation I ask the Committee to let me have the Vote.

7.56 p.m.

Mr. Benn

The present Embassy in Warsaw is not, I believe, the property of the Government. It is a very beautiful house, but it is rented, and it has to be relinquished, I suppose, on account of the end of the tenancy. I understand that the Estimate for the new building is £100,000, of which sum only £4,000 is being asked for at present. As regards the appropriation-in-aid from the sale of the old Legation in Vienna, am I right in supposing that we are getting only £9,000 for that very handsome building? I suppose it was our property—I do not know whether it was freehold or leasehold. It is a very handsome building, and I am surprised to find that only £9,150 was realised by its sale.

7.57 p.m.

Sir P. Sassoon

The right hon. Gentleman is quite right in what he said about Warsaw. At present the Embassy is housed in a very beautiful palace, but it is not in a very good locality—an extremely noisy one and one which is likely to become more commercial. We could not possibly continue the lease, because I believe that the owner wishes, at the end of our tenancy, to develop the site commercially, and so we are obliged to look out for another site. We think we have found a very suitable site, and as there is no actual building available for our purpose we shall have to build. With regard to the former Legation in Vienna, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it was a very fine building, and that the sum which we have secured for it appears to be very small; indeed, it is very small from our point of view. Unfortunately, there is at the present day very little demand for large houses in Vienna, and we thought that the best thing to do was to sell it when we had an opportunity, which had not been presented to us before. The National Socialist Flying Corps offered us 250,000 marks, and we were only allowed to take this money out of the country at the registered mark rate, so that it came to only £9,000. On consideration we thought it was the best thing to do. There was no particular reason for leaving the money there. Although I am very much with the right hon. Gentleman in regretting that we have not been able to get more money for the Legation, I do not see what else we could have done.

Mr. Benn

Did we get it in free currency or blocked marks?

Sir P. Sassoon

It was in registered marks.

Mr. Benn

It was in registered marks, which are 22 or 24 to the £. Here, again, we see how interesting it is to study the Estimates. We find that a building which, if it had been in London, would have been worth, I should think, £50,000, because it is a magnificent building, has been sold to an agency of the Nazi organisation, and we are graciously permitted to take£9,000 in registered marks out of the country in return for it. I should not be allowed to deal with the general foreign policy of the Government upon this Vote, but it is interesting to see how from time to time we come upon little vestiges of the wreckage that has been caused by it. This is only a matter of selling for £9,000 a building which might well be worth anything from £50,000 to £100,000, and it is another instance of the success of the policy for which the right hon. Gentlemen on the Treasury Bench are responsible.

7.59 p.m.

Mr. Ede

I beg to move, to reduce the Vote by £100.

I am doubtful whether the Committee ought to pass this Vote without registering a protest against the last item, which concerns the sale of the old Legation premises in Vienna. If my right hon. Friend was anything like accurate in his estimate of the value of the property— and I should hesitate to think that his estimate was very far out, from what I have heard of the Legation—it is remarkable that we should merely have the explanation that the property has been handed over to some National Socialist Flying Corps for some sum of money and that all we are to be allowed to take out of this enlarged Germany is the sum of £9,150. Did the Government get any advice whether it would have been better to wait for a time to see whether the property would fetch more when Austria was under happier conditions? Everyone knows that property in this country has varied in value in different parts of the country. An hon. Friend of mine told me in the Lobby how he had stood out for £1,650 for a house against the advice of his estate agent, who said that he would not be likely to get more than £1,500 because the house was on the East Coast. My friend managed to get the extra £150. Was advice taken whether this was the best financial bargain that the Government could make in this matter?

Is this a recognition that we shall never want an Embassy in Vienna again? Some of us hope that there may yet be an independent Austria in Europe, but is this an indication that the Government do not share that hope? This place was notoriously one of the great ambassadorial houses of the British Government in what was one of the most magnificent capitals of Europe. We are asked to believe that the building is now worth no more than £9,150. I rather gathered that if we had not taken that price things might have been worse and we might not have got as much for the house. Was it a free sale? Was there any competition for the building? Was this the only offer that we had? If that Corps was after it, was anybody else allowed to make a better offer? Would it have been safe for anybody else to make a better offer after it was known that the National Socialist Flying Corps wanted the building for £9,150? Would it have been safe for anybody to say they were willing to give £10,000 for the building in order to make a refuge for Jews in some happier state? Could the Government expect anything like that to happen? I suggest that a reply should be given to these questions.

8.4 p.m.

Mr. Harvey

I hope that the First Commissioner of Works will give some further explanation to the Committee on this important point and particularly will assure the Committee that it was necessary at this early stage to part with such a very valuable and historic building for such a small figure. I do not know whether the purchase is complete; possibly it is not yet complete; if so, surely it will be possible to retain this important and valuable building in British ownership in order to make temporary use of it. It would be very useful to the Consul-General in Vienna in connection with the granting of visas for those who have to leave the country. Surely it would be possible to find a useful service for the building for some time to come. It would be better that the building should be made use of as an institute of British culture rather than that the Government should accept a paltry sum, which in no way corresponds to the value of the building, for an exceedingly valuable possession which at some future date might be put to better use. I hope that the First Commissioner of Works has some explanation to give in regard to the alternatives to this sale of the Embassy building, and will be able to say whether the sale can be reconsidered.

8.7 p.m.

Mr. Tinker

I would ask the First Commissioner of Works the cost of this building to the country. What did we pay for it? What would it have fetched in the open market? What has this country lost? Something is wrong when we have to accept a price which is small in comparison with the cost, and we ought to make a protest, in case things like this happen again. In some cases we might have to make the best of a bad bargain, but rather than give a thing away, such as appears to have been the case, we should say that if we cannot get fair value for it we shall hang on to it as long as we can. The price stated appears much too small for the sale of a mansion. I hope that the First Commissioner of Works will tell us something of the circumstances. Were we forced into this sale or was it a voluntary arrangement? We ought to voice our protest by a vote that things are going on in this way. We are entitled to a much better explanation.

8.8 p.m.

Commander Bower

Like a great many other Members of the Committee I am very well acquainted with this building, and it seems nothing short of an outrage that a building of this value should be sacrificed like this. I cannot see anything in the national, political or economic situation in the world to-day to justify the transaction. Are the Government so absolutely satisfied that the present position in Austria will continue for ever that they throw away this very valuable asset? I hope that we shall be told its cost in the way of rates and taxes if we were to retain it, at any rate until the European situation has settled down.

The Chairman (Sir Dennis Herbert)

I apologise to the Committee but I am in ignorance of what has been going on. It seems to me that there has been a good deal of discussion of policy relating to the appropriation-in-aid, but I must point out that on questions of appropriation-in-aid policy cannot be discussed.

Mr. Benn

I assume that on a question of appropriation-in-aid we are in order in asking whether the appropriation was sufficient, and the conditions in which this particular property had been disposed of.

The Chairman

That is rather a different case. It seems to me that the three hon. Members whom I have heard since I came into the Chamber have been discussing the question whether it ought to have been sold or retained. That is a question of policy.

Commander Bower

I appreciate that the Debate has perhaps ranged a little wide. I have no desire to enlarge on questions of policy, but I want to repeat that the feeling is not confined to the benches opposite, that this transaction is extremely doubtful. We do not feel satisfied that it is justified in any way, and a great many Members on this side of the Committee will want some explanation—and a rather full explanation—why this extraordinary sacrifice is being made.

8.11 p.m.

Mr. David Adams

First as to the item: Oslo Legation: Additional accommodation for Chancery. I recently had the privilege of visiting this building and I should like to say how courteously and competently the officials there were able to deal with a business transaction in which I was interested. Are we to understand that the new trade push has necessitated this item? There is the question of the purchase of a site and the erection of an Embassy at Rio de Janeiro. We had an Embassy at Rio previously, and no item appears to be shown for the sale of the previous building. Perhaps some information will be afforded on this point.

In regard to the sale about which so much has been said, it may be that the Committee is unduly concerning itself and that this may be part of the policy of appeasement. I shall not discuss whether that policy is right or otherwise, because we are not permitted to do so, but the probability is that if the First Commissioner told us exactly what was in the mind of the Government we should find that this was just a little more of the consequence of appeasement in that part of Europe with which the House is so fully acquainted. Perhaps we ought to consider ourselves extremely fortunate that we got anything at all for those old Legation premises.

8.13 p.m.

Sir P. Sassoon

I am sure that the Committee will realise that the actual value of a house is difficult to assess unless you take it in relation with the general circumstances. I should have thought it obvious that the value of palaces and big houses in Vienna must be much less than when that city was the capital of a sovereign State. What was the alternative to selling this house? The alternative was to hang on to it, perhaps for a long period of years, paying rates.

Mr. Benn

On what assessment? At what was the building assessed?

Sir P. Sassoon

We should also be paying for the care and maintenance of the building. If we had sold the property to a private individual, it is very likely, in view of the circumstances in Vienna to-day, that we should not have been able to get any money out at all. We are not in a position to dictate to the rulers of Vienna to-day, and it was for us to consider whether it was more advantageous to incur a loss—a very big loss, of course—and get a certain sum of money definitely out of the country, or to keep this large building going and pay rates and taxes on it. Weighing all these considerations, we came to the conclusion that, taking it all in all, what we did, although it may seem to have involved a very heavy loss, was the best that we could do in the circumstances.

8.16 p.m.

Mr. Dingle Foot

It seems to me that the right hon. Gentleman has not treated the Committee with proper respect. He has entirely failed to answer the questions put to him by hon. Members above the Gangway. One of those questions, to which an answer was very necessary, was how much the building originally cost; and another question, put by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Gorton (Mr. Benn), was as to the value at which the building was assessed. The Minister has not attempted to answer any of these very pertinent questions. He has not told us whether the Government accepted the offer as soon as it was made, whether any counter proposals were made on behalf of his Department, whether they simply accepted the offer of £9,000 odd at once, or whether they said that it was less than the building was worth and asked a higher price. We have not had any account of the history of the negotiations. The right hon. Gentleman went on to say that we are not in a position to dictate to the rulers in Vienna to-day, but no one ever suggested that we were. It very rarely happens that the seller of property is in a position to dictate to the buyer, but that is no reason why he should dispose of his property for considerably less than its real value. It is interesting to observe that the Minister either cannot or will not tell us what that real value is.

8.18 p.m.

Mr. G. Griffiths

I was very much astonished by the statement of the Minister. He asks: What could we do?

Sir P. Sassoon

What I said was that the German Government wanted the building, and it was very unlikely that any private individual would purchase it, while, if he had, it was unlikely that we should be able to get the money out of the country.

Mr. Griffiths

The Minister has told us that the German Government wanted this house, but he has never told us what its value was. His officials under the Gallery must know what its value is, and we want to know the figure.

Sir P. Sassoon

The value of a house, I suppose, is what you can get for it. If the hon. Member wants to know what it originally cost, I can tell him that it cost£39,000, including the building and the furniture. But that was in very different days, unfortunately, from those in which we are now.

Commander Bower

At what date was it built?

Sir P. Sassoon

In 1873.

Mr. Lyons

Can my right hon. Friend say what it is worth to-day?

Mr. Griffiths

The hon. and learned Member has only just come in, but some of us have been here throughout the whole discussion. The building is sold, and we have got the money. We are told that it was worth £39,000, and now we have sold it for something like £9,000.

Sir P. Sassoon

That was the original cost.

Mr. Griffiths

Since 1873 the value might be expected to have gone up, but it has gone down. Our point is that, because the German Government wanted the house, the Minister leads us to believe that we have been obliged to let them have it, and to give it them at a throw-out price of £9,000. He says that, if we did not get that, he is not sure whether we should have got anything at all if it had been sold to somebody else—that if we had sold it for, say, £40,000, we could not have got the money out. This is the Government of business heads, that has been telling us that we do not know how to govern. The Government itself is not governing; Hitler is governing its policy. We are given to understand that he wants this building for the National Socialist Flying Corps, and no doubt—I am sorry the hon. Member for Blackpool (Mr. R. Robinson) is not here at the moment— they are going to practise how they can fly over to Blackpool a little later on. The explanation of the Minister is a lame one, and we shall go into the Lobby as a protest against the unbusinesslike conduct of the Government in, not selling the building in question, but throwing it away to someone else. It seems that we can do anything for the foreigner, but when it comes to our own folks there is nothing for them.

Question put, "That a sum, not exceeding £18,600, be granted for the said Service."

The Committee divided: Ayes, 85; Noes, 131.

Division No. 52.] AYES. [8.23 p.m.
Alexander, Rt. Hon. A. V. (H'lsbr.) Griffith, F. Kingsley (M'ddl'sbro, W.) Noel-Baker, P. J.
Ammon, C. G. Griffiths, G. A. (Hemsworth) Oliver, G. H.
Anderson, F. (Whitehaven) Hall, G. H. (Aberdare) Owen, Major G.
Attlee, Rt. Hon. C. R. Hardie, Agnes Parker, J.
Barr, J. Harvey, T. E. (Eng. Univ's.) Pearson, A.
Batey, J. Hayday, A. Pethick-Lawrence, Rt. Hon. F. W.
Benn, Rt. Hon. W. W. Henderson, A. (Kingswinford) Ridley, G.
Benson, G. Henderson, J. (Ardwick) Robinson, W. A. (St. Helens)
Bevan, A. Hicks, E. G. Sanders, W. S.
Cluse, W. S. Hills, A. (Pontefract) Seely, Sir H. M.
Cove, W. G. Jenkins, A. (Pontypool) Silkin, L.
Daggar, G. John, W. Simpson, F. B.
Dalton, H. Johnston, Rt. Hon. T. Smith, E. (Stoke)
Davies, R. J. (Westhoughton) Jones, A. C. (Shipley) Smith, T. (Normanton)
Davies, S. O. (Merthyr) Jones, Sir H. Haydn (Merioneth) Sorensen, R. W.
Dunn, E. (Rother Valley) Kirby, B. V. Stewart, W. J (H'ght'n-le-Sp'ng)
Ede, J. C. Lansbury, Rt. Hon. G. Summerskill, Dr. Edith
Edwards, Sir C. (Bedwtllty) Lawson, J. J. Taylor, R. J. (Morpeth)
Evans, D. O. (Cardigan) Leslie, J. R. Tinker, J. J.
Evans, E. (Univ. of Wales) Logan, D. G. Viant, S. P.
Fletcher, Lt.-Comdr. R. T. H. Lunn, W. Walkden, A. G.
Foot, D. M. Macdonald, G. (Ince) Watson, W. McL.
Gardner, B. W. Maclean, N. Whiteley, W. (Blaydon)
Garro Jones, G. M. Marshall, F. Williams, E. J. (Ogmore)
George, Major G. Lloyd (Pembroke) Mathers, G. Wilson, C. H. (Atterdiffe)
George, Megan Lloyd (Anglesey) Messer, F. Woods, G. S. (Finsbury)
Green, W. H. (Deptford) Morrison, Rt. Hon. H. (Hackney, S.) Young, Sir R. (Newton)
Greenwood, Rt. Hon. A. Morrison, R. C. (Tottenham, N.)
Grenfell, D. R. Nathan, Colonel H. L. TELLERS FOR THE AYES.
Mr. Adamson and Mr. Chorlton.
Adams, S. V. T. (Leeds, W.) Hope, Captain Hon. A. O. J. Romer, J. R.
Agnew, Lieut.-Comdr, P. G. Hopkinson, A. Rickards, G. W. (Skipton)
Allen, Col. J. Sandeman (B'knhead) Horsbrugh, Florence Rosbotham, Sir T.
Aske, Sir R. W. Hudson, Capt. A. U. M. (Hack., N.) Ross, Major Sir R. D. (Londonderry)
Baldwin-Webb, Col. J. Hume, Sir G. H. Ross Taylor, W. (Woodbridge)
Balfour, G. (Hampstead) Hunloke, H. P. Royds, Admiral Sir P. M. R.
Bernays, B. H. Hunter, T. Ruggles-Brise, Colonel Sir E. A.
Boyce, H. Leslie Jones, Sir G. W. H. (S'k N'w'gt'n) Salt, E. W.
Bull, B B. Jones, L. (Swansea W.) Sanderson, Sir F. B.
Burghley, Lord Keeling, E. H. Sassoon, Rt. Hon. Sir P.
Butcher, H. W. Kerr, J. Graham (Scottish Univs.) Smiles, Lieut.-Colonel Sir W. D.
Cazalet, Thelma. (Islington, E.) Lamb, Sir J. Q. Smithers, Sir W.
Channon, H. Law, R. K. (Hull, S.W.) Somervell, Rt. Hon. Sir Donald
Chapman, A. (Ruthergten) Leech, Sir J. W. Somerville, A. A. (Windsor)
Clarke, Colonel R. S. (E. Grinstead) Lennox-Boyd, A. T. L. Southby, Commander Sir A. R. J.
Clarry, Sir Reginald Levy, T. Spens, W. P.
Cobb, Captain E. C. (Preston) Lewis, O. Strauss, H. G. (Norwich)
Colville, Rt. Hon. John Liddall, W. S. Strickland, Captain W. F.
Conant, Captain R. J. E. Lindsay, K. M. Sluart, Hon. J. (Moray and Nairn)
Cooper, Rt. Hn. T. M. (E'nburgh, W.) Little, Sir E. Graham. Sueter, Rear-Admiral Sir M. F.
Courlauld, Major J. S. Llewellin, Colonel J. J. Sutcliffe, H.
Craven-Ellis, W. Locker-Lampion, Comdr. O. S. Tasker, Sir R. I.
Cross, R. H. Lyons, A. M. Tate, Mavis C.
Davidson, Viscountess MacAndrew, Colonel Sir C. G. Thorneycroft, G. E. P.
Davies, C. (Montgomery) McKis, J. H. Turton, R. H.
Denman, Hon. R. D. Margesson, Capt. Rt. Hon. H. D. R. Wakefield, W. W.
Donner, P. W. Markham, S. F. Walker-Smith, Sir J.
Dorman-Smith, Col. Rt. Hon. Sir R. H. Mayhew, Lt.-Col. J. Wallace, Capt. Rt. Hon. Euan
Edmondson, Major Sir J. Medlicott, F. Ward, Lieut-Col. Sir A. L. (Hull)
Elliot. Rt. Hon. W. E. Mills, Major J. D. (New Forest) Ward, Irene M. B. (Wallsend)
Elliston, Capt. G. S. Moore, Lieut.-Col. Sir T. C. R. Waterhouse. Captain C.
Fleming, E. L. Morris-Jones, Sir Henry Wayland, Sir W. A.
Furness, S. N. Morrison, Rt. Hon. W. S. (Cirenaester) Wedderburn, H. J. S.
Grant-Ferris, R. Muirhead, Lt.-Col. A. J. Whiteley, Major J. P. (Buckingham)
Gridley, Sir A. B. Munro, P. Wilson, Lt.-Col. Sir A. T. (Hitchin)
Grimston, R. V. O'Connor, Sir Terence J. Windsor-Clive, Lieut.-Colonel G.
Guest, Lieut.-Colonel H. (Drake) O'Neill, Rt. Hon. Sir Hugh Wise, A. R.
Guest, Maj. Hon. O. (C'mb'rw'll, N.W.) Petherick, M. Womersley, Sir W. J.
Hambro, A. V. Raikes, H. V. A. M. Wright, Wing-Commander J. A. C.
Hammersley, S. S. Ramsbotham, H. York, C.
Hannah, I. C. Rathbone, J. R. (Bodmin) Young, A. S. L. (Partick)
Harbord, A. Rawson, Sir Cooper
Harvey, Sir G. Rayner, Major R. H. TELLERS FOR THE NOES.
Hely-Hutchinson, M, R. Reed, A. C. (Exeter) Major Harvie Watt and Major
Holdsworth, H. Reid, W. Allan (Derby) Herbert.

Original Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding, £18,700, 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 expenditure in respect of public buildings overseas.