HC Deb 14 February 1945 vol 408 cc226-33
Mr. Law

I am glad of an opportunity of making a statement to the House on the economic and supply position in the liberated countries of North-Western Europe.

Sir Richard Acland

On a point of Order. May I ask under what procedure we are getting this statement? It was evident at Question Time that the facts are highly controversial, and if this is an answer to a Question Members will not have the right to put their views. Is this to be followed by a Debate?

Mr. Speaker

A Question has been asked and the Minister is perfectly entitled to answer it. When that Question was answered earlier several hon. Members wanted to put supplementaries, and they were then asked to await a statement by the Government which would be made after Questions.

Mr. Law

First of all, I will give the House as faithful a picture as I can of conditions in those countries, according to the best information in the possession of the Government. Then I will give some account of the procedures which have been adopted for dealing with these conditions. And finally, if the House will bear with me for so long, I will explain how we are seeking to solve the very formidable problems with which we and our Allies are faced.

The House will understand that conditions vary very greatly not only as between country and country but also as between different areas in the same country. A shattered bridge, for example, may isolate completely a district, and there will be conditions of acute hardship in that district. Lack of transport creates almost insoluble difficulties in particular regions: again there is inevitably very great hardship. That does not mean, however, that there is a serious overall shortage of food, or that the problem would be solved, or even eased, merely by pumping quantities of foodstuffs into ports which are already strained to capacity.

France is producing as much foodstuffs as she did during the enemy occupation, and great quantities of food formerly taken by the German army are now available to the French people. The principal difficulty in France, therefore, is one of distribution and, in the main, of transport.

In Belgium local production, together with S.H.A.E.F.'s imports, which are rapidly being increased as the produce of last harvest becomes exhausted, would be sufficient, in our view, with proper distribution, to attain the present target of 2,000 calories per head per day which has been set. But I cannot conceal from the House that, in our view, the collection and distribution of foodstuffs in Belgium have not been satisfactorily organised.

In the liberated areas of Holland our difficulties have inevitably been increased by the fact that they are still the scene of active military operations, I am glad to say that increased supplies are coming in, and that the situation is rapidly improving. But I would be misleading the House if I did not point out that, so far as Holland is concerned, the most formidable problem will arise only when the areas at present in the occupation of the enemy have been liberated.

I have tried to give the House an objective picture of the conditions as they exist to-day. Now let me turn to the procedures which have been developed to deal with those conditions. First of all, let me say that there is a good deal of misunderstanding about the role which U.N.R.R.A. can play in these matters. U.N.R.R.A. has been criticised in a way which suggests that it has responsibilities for supplying France, say, or Belgium which it has been unable to discharge. That criticism is entirely unjust. By the terms of its constitution U.N.R.R.A. cannot intervene in any country unless it is asked to do so by the Government concerned. Both the French Provisional Government and the Belgian Government have preferred to take on this responsibility for themselves, in so far as it has not been, of necessity, a military responsibility. That does not mean that other governments—who are unable to finance the relief of their civil populations—will not wish to hand over this responsibility to U.N.R.R.A., or that U.N.R.R.A. will not have work to do that will tax its capacity to the utmost.

I have seen it stated that this problem of the needs of liberated Europe has come suddenly upon the Government with a shock of surprise. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was in 1941 that His Majesty's Government took the initiative in summoning a conference at St. James's Palace to consider these very problems. And for two years past the Anglo-American authorities have been working out concrete plans which have become increasingly effective. It was the essence of these plans that there should be two periods—a military period, when the areas liberated would still be in the immediate war zone, and a civilian period when the fighting had ceased, or at least had passed out of the area concerned. It was accepted—and I do not think that it can be disputed—that during the first period the import of supplies for the civilian populations could only be carried out successfully by the military authorities.

Of course there are limits to what our armies can do. The first objective of an army is to wage war. The energies of the Allied armies in the field of supplies have been inevitably confined, therefore, to first-aid. Our armies have been concerned with the importation of such essentials as food, medical supplies, soap, clothing and fuel, and transport, agricultural supplies and first-aid repairs for public utilities in so far as they could be made available. Even so far as food was concerned, there had to be a limitation and the target was fixed, as I have stated, at 2,000 calories per head per day from all sources. And it was decided that internal distribution was to be the responsibility of the national Governments and authorities concerned to the maximum extent possible. I should add that all these military arrangements have been on a combined basis, regardless of whether operations have been carried out by British, American or Canadian troops.

The long-term task of rehabilitating the national economy, and of distributing food in excess of the standard set for the military period, belongs, however, to the second stage which I have described—to the civilian period. This is a problem by no means confined to food supplies: it involves re-starting the whole economic life of the countries concerned. It is at this point that the national Governments themselves must begin to take over. The French Provisional Government and the Belgian Government have already formulated their import programmes for the first six months of this year, and the competent authorities of His Majesty's Government and the United States Government have been instructed to facilitate procurement against these programmes so that supplies will be ready for shipment as shipping can be made available. The Allied Government have, of course, decided for themselves in these programmes what supplies are most essential. Preliminary steps towards the compilation of a Netherlands Government import programme have already been taken, and a Committee representing S.H.A.E.F., the Royal Netherlands Government, His Majesty's Government and the United States Government is already considering a national import programme for the Netherlands.

The civilian import programmes of the French Provisional Government and the Belgian Government were formulated by the turn of last year, but 1945 brought with it a considerable shipping problem. I cannot describe that problem in detail but in broad terms it became apparent that developments in the war situation had made it extremely difficult to provide shipping to meet this additional demand. With the approval of my colleagues I accordingly visited Washington and over a period of some weeks exchanged views with representatives of the United States Government. I need hardly say that they appreciate as fully as we do the vital importance which from every point of view attaches to this matter of provisioning the liberated Allied countries in the wake of the battle. We were able to allocate at once certain shipping during the first quarter of this year for the carriage of supplies under the French and Belgian programmes within the limits of available port capacity and subject to overriding considerations of military necessity. We also made an analysis of this very complex problem which should prove of considerable value to the Governments concerned in regulating the future allocation of our shipping resources.

I have already indicated that internal transport is one of the main problems that we have to solve. Let me tell the House something of what is being done in this field. Since D Day, 7,500 lorries have been sent to the S.H.A.E.F. area, that is, France, Belgium and liberated Holland, for civil purposes. The reconditioning of ex-Army lorries is already under way. The present production is 100 a week and is expected to rise to 350 a week by the end of March. The ultimate target is 750 a week. We hope to provide more new lorries as well. We are concerting with the French authorities measures to speed up locomotive repairs in France; such assistance will take the form of supplies of raw materials, components, machinery, etc. We have despatched a representative to Paris to discuss wagon repairs and, when his report is received, we shall be in a position to know what materials, components and tools are needed to increase the rate of repairs. He has already made an interim report which is under immediate examination. The French are informing us of their needs for machine tools and hand tools, and we hope to be able to meet the bulk of their requirements. We are making available reserves of material for railway and highway bridges, which were held here against air-raid damage. S.H.A.E.F. are making tugs available to the French so that barges can be more extensively used. Many other similar forms of assistance are contemplated or in hand and, while it would be idle to hold out hopes that much can be provided from production in this country, the total effect of this is by no means negligible. I would add that we have already sent to the Continent several hundred locomotives for the use of S.H.A.E.F. and are sending a further 200 in the near future. This should relieve the strain on the French railways. It will certainly increase the strain on our own which are already overloaded.

There is also the question of restoring the local administrative systems for the collection and distribution of available supplies. In all the countries so far liberated, these systems have suffered severely, and this is in some cases the main reason why the target standard has not been reached. While we are doing our best to help, this is ultimately a matter for the Governments concerned and I cannot too strongly emphasise the importance of keeping their administrative machinery up to the mark and tackling this problem with the greatest energy.

If I may sum up, I would say this. The economic situation in liberated Europe is certainly grave. Much remains to be done, and it will require the unremitting efforts of the United Kingdom and United States Governments, as well as of the Governments of Liberated Europe, to solve the problems which face us. We have to remember, too, that the requirements of the liberated areas are in direct competition with urgent military demands. Nevertheless, I am confident that the problem will be solved. I am confident that our European Allies understand that we and the United States Government are doing everything in our power, and that they understand that our main objective, theirs as well as ours, must be to bring the war in Europe to an end at the earliest possible moment.

Mr. Pethick-Lawrence

The House is very much indebted to the Minister of State for his very full statement. Naturally, there are a number of points on which the House will desire further elucidation and will perhaps have certain views to express on the matter, which, as the right hon. Gentleman himself realises, is exceedingly important. It is second only to the prosecution of the war and must exercise the mind not only of His Majesty's Government but of all Members of this House. I therefore rise to ask him this question: whether, after a certain number of questions have been put, he will be able to assure us that there will be an opportunity, in the early future, of having time to discuss this at greater length than would be possible to allow this morning.

Earl Winterton

May I ask if my right hon. Friend will have regard to the request which has been made on this bench, in view of the terrible actualities and potentialities of the situation, and the far graver impression that he has given to-day than that conveyed by the very brusque reply which I received last week? Will he set the earliest possible date for the House to have a Debate on the whole question?

Mr. Law

That is hardly a matter for me.

Mr. Graham White

May I ask whether, in the very impressive summary which my right hon. Friend has given of the situation in Europe, regard has been had to the increased burdens and difficulties which will arise when the 10,000,000 workers and deportees in Germany will require assistance? Bearing in mind the gravity of the situation, which may well have political and even military implications, will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that, if financial arrangements only of a purely technical character are involved, the assistance of U.N.R.R.A. for the delivery of emergency supplies will not be hindered?

Mr. Law

With regard to the first point, about the increasing scope of the problems, that point is certainly being borne in mind. With regard to the second, my hon. Friend will have seen reports in the Press of a meeting of the European Committee of U.N.R.R.A. at which, as I understand it, this point was raised. I hope that no financial considerations should stand in the way of U.N.R.R.A. making such emergency contributions as it can.

Mr. Pethick-Lawrence

In view of the right hon. Gentleman's answer to me, perhaps I might now put my question to the Deputy Prime Minister. Will he give consideration to my request for the House to be able to discuss this matter at greater length than we can do at Question Time?

Mr. Attlee

I was about to rise to reply to the point put by the right hon. Gentleman and the Noble Lord. I think the House will want to have the opportunity of discussing this matter. They will want a little time before that, for this is a long and carefully balanced statement, and I think some time will be needed. I will take an opportunity of consulting as to what and when would be the most convenient occasion for a Debate.

Mr. Shinwell

There is a point arising out of the right hon. Gentleman's very well-considered statement. It seems to indicate that the responsibility largely rests on the civil administration in France and Belgium, but it seems also to indicate that that administration was not perhaps so well tightened or well organised as it might be. If that is the case, I wish to ask whether, in any way, the Anglo-American Governments are associated with the civil administration in France and Belgium, probably with their consent in order to arrange more efficiently the organisation for the purposes indicated.

Mr. Law

I think perhaps that I did not make myself clear in my original statement. I did say in that statement that we were not satisfied with the efforts that have been made up to now by the Belgian authorities in Belgium, but I hope that will be rectified. So far as the French Government are concerned, I think I should in fairness say that they have done what I think is a most remarkable job already in re-equipping their railways and making the best use of whatever materials they have.

Mr. Shinwell

Are the British and American Governments associated with them?

Mr. Law

Only, as I have said, in giving them such counsel as we think necessary.

Mr. Speaker

I would suggest that if we Debate the matter now, when there is to be an opportunity later of discussing it, it will really not get us anywhere, and I do not think any useful purpose is served by going on now to a Debate by question and answer.