HC Deb 06 August 1940 vol 363 cc17-23
35. Mr. Ammon

asked the Under-Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs whether the recent announcement that all ships leaving these shores for the United States of America would carry children evacuees from this country is to be taken as part of the official scheme recently submitted to Parliament, and what proportion of the children are to be drawn from State-aided schools?

The Under-Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs (Mr. Shakespeare)

I am not sure to what announcement the hon. Members refers, but up to the present time no children have been sent to the United States of America under the Children's Overseas Reception Scheme. I would, however, ask the hon. Member to await the statement which is being made to-day by my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal.

Mr. Ammon

Is it the case that so far only children of the well-to-do have been evacuated, and if it was possible to send them, why was it not possible to make arrangements for some of the others?

Mr. Shakespeare

No doubt that point will be covered by my right hon. Friend.

Mr. James Griffiths

Will the Minister bear in mind that there will be considerable feeling in the country, particularly in areas where there is bombing and where there are no shelters for the children, if well-to-do children are allowed to leave the country?

Mr. Mander

Is it not true that several hundred British children sailed on the "Washington" the other day?

Sir H. Williams

What proportion of the children have opted to go to Canada and the United States, respectively?

Mr. Shakespeare

To give an estimate only, I should say that the parents of well over 50,000 children have opted for Canada and well over 20,000 children for the United States of America.

Mr. Stokes

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there is great indignation in the country at the number of children of Cabinet Ministers who have left the country?

Major Sir Jocelyn Lucas

Would the Government be prepared to support voluntary schemes?

36. Mr. Lindsay

asked the Under-Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs how many applications he has received for children to go overseas from grant-aided and from other schools, respectively; how many offers he has received from the Dominions and from the United States of America; and how many children have already departed outside the official scheme?

Mr. Shakespeare

I am unable to give exact figures, but it is estimated that applications have so far been received in respect of about 158,000 children from grant-aided schools and 16,000 children from other schools. In addition it is estimated that some 25,000 children are covered by Scottish applications. The first offers received from His Majesty's Governments in the Dominions were to take 20,000 children, but it has been made clear that this figure could be greatly increased. No final statement has yet been received of the numbers of children for whom there are direct offers of support in the United States of America, but according to a statement issued on 14th July a number of children under 16 years, only depending on shipping facilities and private assurances of support, will be admitted to the United States on visitors' visas for two years; this period can subsequently be extended on condition that they return at the end of hostilities. The number of British children aged 5 to 15 years who left ports in the United Kingdom in June, 1940, for the Dominions and the United States of America were 1,572 and 306 respectively; of these 1,454 and 298 respectively had their normal residence in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Lindsay

Would it be true to say that there were roughly 200,000 children trying to go, whereas there were 20,000 offers from the Dominions?

Mr. Shakespeare

That is so.

Mr. R. Gibson

What proportion of the 25,000 applications from Scotland were from local authority schools and what proportion from others?

Mr. Stephen

Did the Minister say that the children on those ships had naval protection?

Mr. Shakespeare

That point will be covered by my right hon. Friend.

At the end of Questions—

The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. Attlee)

The House has already been made aware of the extremely generous offers for the reception and maintenance of British children during the war that have been made from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Union of South Africa, and also from the United States of America. These offers were already sufficient to account for a very substantial number of children, and I have no doubt that they by no means indicate the limit of the hospitality which might ultimately be made available overseas.

As regards the response in this country, the number of children for whom applications were made exceeded the number for whom hospitality had been offered. The Government would have no difficulty in providing the shipping required for the children thus offered hospitality, as sufficient tonnage could be made available. On the other hand, the Government feel strongly the responsibility that rests upon them to see that any children who go overseas under the Government scheme should have such naval protection as would reasonably ensure the safety of their passage during the voyage. The fate of the "Arandora Star" shows that even a fast passenger vessel cannot always rely for safety on her speed if she is unescorted.

Unfortunately, a radical change in the situation since application, were first invited has occurred as a result of the loss of the services of a large part of the French Fleet. In present circumstances it is essential to concentrate our whole naval forces on the task of meeting the overriding demands of national security. It is this consideration alone which has forced the Government reluctantly to the conclusion that they must postpone the operation of the scheme for the transference of children overseas until the situation at sea enables them to provide naval escort for the ships employed for this purpose.

Similarly, the Government feel that there must be a postponement of the special arrangements which they were prepared to make in cases where schools here had planned to transfer pupils to schools in Canada.

Ordinary fast passenger vessels are not escorted, and if children are carried on such vessels outside any Government Scheme the responsibility for any risks on the voyage would not be on the Government. In any case, the number of such children must be limited, since I am bound to repeat that the imperative necessity of conserving our dollar resources to meet other essential demands makes it impossible to allow the remittance of funds in any form for the purpose of their maintenance in Canada and the United States of America.

The Government realise that the postponement of their scheme, although inevitable, is bound to cause great disappointment among parents here, and also amongst those who in the Dominions have so wholeheartedly co-operated in making preparations for the reception and maintenance of the children. I desire to assure them that we keenly appreciate their generosity and deeply regret the inconvenience which the postponement of our scheme is bound to cause them.

To those also in the United States of America who have spared no effort to find a home for British children, I would like to express on behalf of His Majesty's Government our warmest thanks. I hope that our scheme is only temporarily suspended and that we may yet be able to take advantage of that warm-hearted hospitality so spontaneously and readily offered.

Mr. Ammon

May I ask the Lord Privy Seal whether he is right in saying that the United States, in inviting a number of children over there, made any stipulation that the children were to come from State-aided schools or from the well-to-do; and whether those children who have recently been received went out on ships that were unescorted—those children of members of the Cabinet and others?

Mr. Attlee

In regard to the first question, the United States desired a balanced number of children, that is to say, children representing all classes. With regard to the children who have been evacuated otherwise in the past, they have gone on unescorted vessels.

Mr. Ammon

Was there any balance? Did any children from State-aided schools go quite recently?

Mr. Attlee

No, Sir, because the scheme had not started.

Mr. Ammon

Then does it not mean that the scheme was merely camouflage to get out the well-to-do?

Mr. Attlee

No, Sir, on the contrary, the scheme would have provided for a much bigger proportion of children from the State-aided schools, but it has had to he held up for the reasons which I have given.

Mr. J. Griffiths

Does the Lord Privy Seal realise that there is great resentment in my own part of the country, where children without shelter have gone through all that has taken place in the last few days, when people read in the Press that children of responsible public men who were recently appealed to by the Prime Minister to show an example have taken their children away from the danger while leaving the poor children here?

Mr. Mander

Were not the possibilities as to the French Fleet perfectly well known two or three weeks ago when the scheme was first brought forward, and is it not very regrettable that it was brought forward at all in such circumstances?

Mr. Attlee

I do not think that the circumstances were known.

Mr. Lunn

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it is commonly held in the country that, now you have some thousands of rich people's children away overseas, there are to be no opportunities whatsoever for children from the elementary schools?

Mr. Attlee

No, Sir, my hon. Friend is mistaken. The whole purpose of the Government's scheme was that there should be a proper proportion of children from the elementary schools. It is obvious from the scheme. There would be a certain number of children going, in future, in convoyed ships, and some 3,000 or 4,000 of those children would have been going from grant-aided schools and schools under various private schemes put up by authorities in England and by bodies in the United States and Canada. It is hoped to resume those whenever possible and whenever the military situation will allow. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] The Government are not prepared to take the responsibility of sending out children without proper protection.

Mr. Maxton

Does the reply of the right hon. Gentleman, which specifically mentioned Canada and the United States, include Australia, the Union of South Africa and New Zealand?

Mr. Attlee

My statement referred to all the Dominions, and if by any chance I said Canada, I intended to say the Dominions as a whole.

Mr. Lindsay

In view of the facts which have just been stated, is it not clear that the scheme was not thought out from the beginning, that the position in regard to dollars was perfectly well known three or four weeks ago, and that the children who have just gone out must have come from richer homes, because the fares have had to be paid?

Mr. Granville

In view of the fact that some of these children left in neutral ships and in the American ship "Washington," is it the intention of the Government to give permits for children to leave in the future in neutral or in American ships?

Hon. Members


Mr. Attlee

I have answered. If hon. Members had kept quiet, they would have heard it. The answer is that I must have notice of that Question.

Mr. Wilfrid Roberts

Would it not rectify the situation now if a cheap fare were instituted, so that parents of whatever means would be able to take advantage of it, if they liked to do so, with the limited space which is available upon cross-Atlantic steamers?

Mr. J. Griffiths

Do the Government approve, and the Foreign Office give, permits to children of wealthy people in public positions to leave this country, at a time when this scheme is being dropped?

Mr. Attlee

It is not a question for me. The point is that, hitherto, where parents were prepared to take the risk, they could send the children on unescorted ships. It is hoped there will be a certain number of children under this scheme, in a few cases, where it is possible to provide for their being properly convoyed—a limited number. To that extent the scheme will be going forward, and there will be given some opportunity, though not very much, for children from grant-aided schools. The present scheme must be postponed until it is safer.

Sir Percy Harris

Will the right hon. Gentleman give an opportunity for discussing the situation, which is causing much concern, and requires full explanation?

Mr. Attlee

Certainly, Sir.

Mr. J. Griffiths

On a point of Order. I beg to give notice that, in view of the public interest in it, I will raise this matter on the Adjournment.