HC Deb 26 September 1939 vol 351 cc1233-9

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Captain Margesson.]

3.55 p.m.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Chamberlain)

My first task to-day is to give a report to the House of the second meeting of the Supreme War Council which was held on 22nd September, this time in England. The meeting was attended by M Daladier, M. Dautry, General Gamelin and Admiral Darlan for France and by Lord Halifax, Lord Chatfield and myself for Great Britain. It was a great pleasure to us to be able to welcome M, Daladier and his colleagues to our shores. The Council met in the morning and again in the afternoon. I am glad to be able to inform the House that we found ourselves in complete agreement with the French representatives on the course to be followed to meet developments which had taken place since our last meeting on 12th September and to give effect to the Allied plans. Agreement was also reached on the procedure for co-ordinating and perfecting the arrangements to be made by the two Governments on the question of munitions and supplies.

Since my last statement on 20th September the effects of the action of the Soviet Government on the position in Poland have become clearer. The Soviet forces have everywhere rapidly advanced and on 23rd September a German-Soviet communiqué was published in Moscow, according to which the German and Soviet Governments had established a demarcation line between the German and Soviet armies running roughly North and South from East Prussia through Warsaw to the junction of the Hungarian and Slovak frontiers. It will be noticed that this line brings the Soviet forces up to the suburbs of Warsaw and leaves the greater part of Galicia and of the Polish oil wells in Soviet control. The communiqués recently issued by the Red Army do not, however, suggest that the Soviet troops have as yet occupied all the territory allotted to them under this arrangement, which amounts to more than half the total area of the Polish Republic. In these circumstances, the Polish armies, taken in rear as well as in front, have naturally been unable to maintain their ground. The Polish people have not, however, given up the struggle and the whole world is deeply moved by the magnificent heroism of the defenders of Warsaw and the Hel peninsula, who are still holding out against the surrounding German forces in spite of ruthless and continuous bombardment.

In my statement on 20th September, I made a brief reference to the problems with which the Rumanian Government had been confronted by the passage of Polish troops and civilians into Rumanian territory. His Majesty's Government were watching with sympathy the efforts of the Rumanian Government to meet these problems, when they learnt of the cowardly assassination of M. Calinescu, the Rumanian President of the Council, on 21st September. His Majesty's Minister at Bucharest was at once instructed to convey to the Rumanian Government an expression of the horror of His Majesty's Government and of the British people at this outrage and their sincere and heartfelt condolence in the great loss which Rumania had thereby suffered.

On the Western front, the French have continued to make progress in certain localities and have succeeded, notwithstanding increasingly energetic German reaction, in maintaining all their gains intact.

In the air, the normal work of reconnaissance and anti-submarine patrol in co-operation with the Royal Navy, has been continued. The House will have heard with interest and pride of the rescue of the master and crew of the "Kensington Court" by two Royal Air Force flying boats and will, I am sure, desire to join with me in congratulating the officers and men concerned upon their enterprise and skill.

Many attacks have again been made on enemy submarines. The great developments in the endurance, speed and reliability of aircraft since the last war have enabled them to play a most important part in the work of defeating the submarines. The value of the employment of aircraft for this purpose is not limited to reconnaissance reports or to the attacks carried out, but consists also in the fact that the continuous air patrols make it far more dangerous for hostile submarines to come to the surface. The work of the Coastal Command patrols has thus proved of the utmost assistance to the Royal Navy in combating the submarine menace.

I do not propose to say anything to-day about the war at sea as my right hon. Friend the First Lord will make a full statement on this subject, after I sit down.

In the Dominions, the preparations of His Majesty's Governments continue with gathering momentum. Dominion naval vessels are co-operating with our own. Dominion army units are being trained for service as circumstances may demand. Dominion air strength is being made ready for use overseas.

Nor should I forget to mention another most important contribution which is being made. As the result of close cooperation, supplies of finished munitions, raw materials and foodstuffs from the Dominions are being made available, in ever increasing volume for the common cause.

In the previous reports which I have made to the House I have dealt fully with the Civil Defence Services and there is little which it is necessary for me to say on this subject to-day. I would only emphasise again that nothing must be done either by way of relaxing our restrictions or reducing the scale of our preparations which is likely to make us less capable of meeting the air menace by which we are constantly threatened.

I have endeavoured in what I have said so far to give to the House, as I have done on previous occasions, a brief resume of events abroad and on the various fronts and of the activities of our fighting and defence services. I think, however, that it may be of interest to the House and to the country if I make my main theme to-day the development of some of the vast undertakings, vital to the winning of the war, now being entered upon on the Home Front, and the repercussions of these undertakings upon the national life.

Let me begin with a short account of the work of the Ministry of Economic Warfare. This Department will perform, broadly speaking, the functions which were carried out in the last war by the Ministry of Blockade, but, whereas this last Ministry was not set up until 1916, the Ministry of Economic Warfare has been under organisation for the past two years, and the complete staff necessary to run it was selected many months ago. The general object of the Ministry is to disorganise Germany's economic structure to such an extent as to make it impossible for her to carry on the war. For every man in the front line you must have many behind the lines, engaged in the production and servicing of the weapons of war, and, if Britain can prevent Germany from importing the raw materials essential for the functioning of her war industries, the result will be effectively to cripple her power to prolong hostilities.

A word of warning against over-optimism is necessary. Germany already possesses stocks of varying size of the raw materials which she requires to import, and quick results cannot, therefore, be expected from the Ministry of Economic Warfare. But our command of the sea means that from the day war broke out Germany was cut off from many of her sources of supply, and the figures for the first three weeks of war show that we have seized about 256,000 tons of goods as to which there was evidence that they were contraband consigned to Germany. These include some 62,000 tons of petroleum products, 65,000 tons of iron ore and 37,000 tons of manganese ore.

German propaganda has meanwhile been active in alleging that our contraband control will have no effect on Germany, as she is self-sufficient, but will, on the other hand, completely strangle neutral trade. I do not know which of these statements is further from the truth. The fact is that we made it plain from the beginning of the war that we were anxious to take account of the bona fide trading needs of neutral countries and that His Majesty's Government would gladly consider any suggestions which neutral Governments might put forward for this purpose. Friendly discussions are now taking place with a number of Governments and His Majesty's Government hope in certain cases to come to arrangements with them which will still further simplify the procedure of contraband control. Facts speak for themselves and neutral opinion will, I am sure, make its own comparison between our clearly declared policy on the one hand and on the other the thinly veiled menaces of Germany towards neutrals, menaces which in the past few days have been translated into action by the sinking of three neutral ships under circumstances constituting a clear breach of international law.

Much play is made in German propaganda of the inclusion of foodstuffs in the category of conditional contraband and it is represented that we are thereby conducting an illegal and inhumane blockade. But in this respect a naval blockade is in no way different from a land siege and no one has ever suggested that a besieging commander should allow free rations to a besieged town. In any case the German Government should be the last to make such an accusation at a time when their submarines are attacking all shipping coming to these islands with a complete and callous disregard of humanity and of the rules of submarine warfare to which they had solemnly agreed.

In its effects upon the life of the nation the great change that is now taking place in the scope and purpose of industry is all-important. Practically the whole force of our industry has now to be concentrated, directly or indirectly, on war needs, and the size and difficulty of some of the problems involved in this changeover were made apparent in the Debate last week on the work of the Ministry of Supply. If this great task is to be carried through successfully the co-operation of the workpeople themselves is the first essential, and I take this opportunity of declaring that the Government are ready and anxious to take any steps that may be necessary to secure their good will.

As my right hon. Friend the Minister of Supply said in the course of the recent Debate: There is no single factor of greater importance than that representatives of organised labour should approve the general framework of the expansion scheme." — [OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st September, 1939; col. 1101, Vol. 351.] Later in the Debate, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply indicated that it was proposed to set up Area Advisory Committees consisting not only of business men in the areas but representative of labour working in the areas and he stated further that if representative working people will come in and help us on these Committees, they will do so on a complete equality. "— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st September, 1939; col. 1169, Vol. 351.] It is not always easy, however sincere may be the intention, to formulate a satisfactory scheme at the commencement of the operation of a Department of such a wide scope as that of the Ministry of Supply: but given a desire to achieve the same object, it should not be difficult to adjust the scheme in a manner to secure that willing co-operation of all parties to industry which we so much desire. We shall be very glad to consider any proposals made to us to this end and I feel sure that it will be recognised that in suggesting that the problems of labour as such should in general be dealt with by the Ministry of Labour, it was not intended to exclude other methods of associating labour with supply problems.

The full organisation of the country's resources requires more than machinery for the regulation of working conditions and of employment, and it is the view of the Government that the support of both employers' and workers' organisations is essential if this country is to put forth its maximum effort. The hon. Members for Barrow (Sir J. Walker-Smith) and East Woolwich (Mr. Hicks) have been associated together in a method of co-operation between Government Departments, employers' organisations and trade unions in the form of a Joint Consultative Committee which has played a great part in ensuring the smooth operation of the enormous building programme which has for so long been in progress. The course which has been followed in this case will probably be desirable in others, and, as was shown in the Debate on the Ministry of Supply Bill, and by discussions that have taken place since, it is the policy of the Government to provide all proper means by which this co-operation can be made effective.

In the great engineering industry, which occupies so important a place in our national effort, we have been much encouraged by the initiative shown by the responsible authorities in that industry in preparing for an expansion of the labour supply. The trade unions, which have agreed under proper safeguards to relax their normal conditions, have saved us from the difficulties which confronted us in the last war and have made a contribution for which the whole country is grateful. There is, in fact, no country in which the Government is assured of more organised assistance than that at our disposal. Discussions are taking place which will, I hope, wiuthin the next few days lead to a conference between the Minister of Labour and the representatives of the British Employers' Confederation and the Trades Union Congress which may have most important results. It will, I hope, begin the construction of a joint machine for the regular discussion of common problems.

Finally, I wish to say a word to the House and through the House to the country about our general attitude to the war. No one can doubt that, in modern warfare, it is upon the determination, courage, and endurance of ordinary men and women that victory ultimately depends. No one familiar with conditions in this country can have any doubt as to where we stand in these respects. Never have our people been more united or more determined. They are resolved — and the simple fact cannot be too often stressed — to rid themselves once for all of the perpetual threat of German aggression of which Poland is only the latest instance. We and France entered the war to rid ourselves and the world of that menace, and our peoples are united as they have never been united before in their resolve to achieve that purpose.