HC Deb 11 March 1948 vol 448 cc1529-41

Motion made and Question proposed: That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £1,310,000, 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, 1948, for the expenses in connection with His Majesty's Embassies, Missions and Consular Establishments Abroad; certain special grants and payments, including grants in aid; and sundry other services."—[Mr. McNeil.]

8.48 p.m.

The Minister of State (Mr. McNeil)

The Committee will not expect me, in presenting this Vote, even summarily to deal with all the Subheads. I propose, therefore, if it is convenient to the Committee, to refer to the three largest items on the Vote. These are the £500,000 for the care of British interests in territories formerly under enemy control; £364,000 for the assistance to Polish refugees; and a sum just short of £1 million covered by the Subheads from A to E.7, and, for orderly consideration, Subhead I should be included. The £500,000 at Subhead Q is just as simple as the Explanatory Memorandum suggests. Previous to the entry into the last war of the United States, they, of course, took care of our interests in enemy-occupied territories. They were succeeded by the Swiss who, like the Americans—and let me take this opportunity of saying it again—took the greatest pains in carrying out the work and in sending very complete accounts of their expenses. This sum of £500,000 is, in fact, a late addition to the expenditure of almost £13 million incurred in the discharge of these tasks during the war. It represents arrears of charges, as I understand it, mainly in France, in the Far East, in Greece and in Italy for the relief of British subjects in distress owing to enemy action. Such details as may be needed, I will endeavour to give, but it is a fairly straightforward proposition.

Turning to Subhead P, that is "Assistance to Polish Refugees," I should remind the Committee, as I told the House recently, that following large movements of these combatant Poles to Great Britain, there were left in Italy some 5,000 men who had fought for us. They were in this unusual and distinctive category mainly because they had contracted marriages in Italy and we thought not only that it was undesirable to bring them, with their comrades to this country, but we entertained the hope that they might be fitted into the Italian economy. However, as the Committee probably knows, unemployment in Italy and the difficulty in restoring normal social stability there, has made this impossible, and this sum of £364,000 represents substantially the cost of chartering two ships to take these Polish soldiers, to whom we had obligations which we could not or would not seek to evade, to their new homes. Part of the sum represents costs incurred by the International Refugee Organisation because, although these Polish soldiers were not eligible for I.R.O. treatment, the I.R.O. consented to act as our agents and, of course, have put in their account. Perhaps I might point out that the cost of transport is much greater than the I.R.O. cost, which represents £50,000, and the balance of some £314,000 represents the cost of transporting these men to their new homes. I am glad, therefore, to be able to tell the Committee that this will not be a recurring cost. The bulk of these men are being transported to the Argentine, and I hope that only a few scattered groups, who will still be taken care of, will remain after 22nd March.

Now may I say a word or two about Items A to E and I, which, as I have said, total over £1 million? They represent sums necessary for the salaries and the allowances of the various branches of the Foreign Service. A part of these costs is due to the fact that we have continued to recruit people to these various sections of our Service in an effort to bring it up to the provided establishment. The Committee will remember that I recently gave some figures on this subject, but, in addition, we found it necessary to revise the system of allowances to take care of the increased costs, the changes in the exchange rate and, of course, the increase in rents which has taken place in all those countries where there is an inflated or semi-inflated currency.

Various Members of the Committee, on both sides, have from time to time shown a most proper interest in the allowance scales for the Foreign Service. I think the Committee would like me to tell them that the inspectors who have been reviewing this whole subject will, I hope, have entirely completed their work this year. I hope that in that time they will have visited all posts and examined all grades inside the Service. Their job is to see that the Service has such allowances as will enable its members to discharge their job in an efficient and seemly fashion. When these new allowances are fixed, they will also have attached an automatic changing system, so that the men or women will immediately get the increase which it is agreed is due to them. We hope that this will prevent a hardship to which many Members of the Service were previously subjected, that when an increase was agreed upon it might be months and months before it overtook the man or the woman entitled to it.

I shall be glad to try to answer any additional points which may be made. I have attempted to deal with the three largest items, although not necessarily the most important. For example, the Subhead for the I.R.O. is one which concerns all sides of this Committee, but the sums with which I have dealt are the three largest, and for this reason I have made allusion to them. In the other cases I think that the various Subheads are probably covered by the Explanatory Memoranda.

8.58 p.m.

Mr. William Teeling (Brighton)

In the short time at our disposal, the right hon. Gentleman has covered much of what was possible on the present Supplementary Vote; but I would like to ask him just a few more questions on the subject of the increased allowances to different members of the Consular and Diplomatic Service and also on the question of rents. I hope that by mentioning my own travelling experiences, which are probably those of many other hon. Members, in the last few months, I shall not get ministers or consuls or anybody else into trouble. We kept our eyes open in travelling between the different legations and consulates and sometimes could not help seeing cases of considerable hardship. I would be inclined to say that, of all the Government Departments, perhaps the Foreign Office is the Cinderella with regard to the way its staff, and especially junior members abroad, have been looked after in recent years. It may well be that, through being abroad, these people develop a very great affection and patriotic loyalty for their country and, as a result, will not complain. In addition, they probably feel, erroneously perhaps, as a result of what they read in the newspapers about our present conditions, that things are far worse at home. The fact remains that they do suffer, and suffer considerably.

The right hon. Gentleman has referred to the visits of the inspectors which are now going on. I am alarmed to think that the result of their tour will not be known until probably the end of this year. What exactly is to happen to these people in the meantime? The right hon. Member referred to the fact that things are made up to them, but in the two or three recent years in which I have been wandering about I have noticed that it has taken a long time for sums of money to be made up. These people have no capital of their own, and cannot always carry on.

In France, even before the change in the value of the franc, the official value in relation to the £ was certainly not such as could be got in the open market, or as regards prices of most living commodities, rents of houses and Hats and so on. For a time in France they were allowed to use certain official-priced hotels and hostels, but now, to avoid expense to the Treasury, that is cut down, and they have to go into flats and use the ordinary shops and restaurants. They have to do a certain amount of entertaining, and have to be with the people of the country in order that they should know what the French people are feeling. It is a long time before the money is made up and before these people get back on to the level they enjoyed before the franc began to go down. Many find themselves behind, but I believe it true that when the value of the franc goes down 20 per cent. the English grant will be increased to these people. I hope something will be done about this matter on these lines.

In other countries, for instance, South America, conditions are very often worse. In one embassy there was actually a strike of the staff because of appalling conditions in view of the pay they were receiving I wish to know what is being done in regard to medical assistance there, which is appallingly expensive. An hon. Member of this House told me that he fell ill on a recent visit to South America, and his hospital and doctor's bills amounted nearly to £1,000. How can an ordinary typist, or lower grade member of the staff, pay such sums? These things are often forgotten by the Foreign Office in London. Not only ought the inspectors to report on conditions, but something should be done about them immediately.

There is the question of consuls, who have frequently to entertain visitors. I know of one case where an ambassador has granted something to help the consuls entertaining people passing through, but the Foreign Office makes no payment for that. In Tokyo the majority of the embassy's staff are living in a large house five miles outside the town, on quite small pay, and are given practically no American dollars with which they could go about meeting American friends. Yet their job, outside office work, is mainly to contact people and to do the usual embassy job. They are sent out from the different ministries to advance British interests and generally to do embassy work.

How can they do that, if they cannot meet the people? If it is said that they can meet them at the embassy, or the British hotel, it should be remembered that they would then have to entertain the guests they invite with food and drink and their salaries are not sufficient for them to do so. If they were enabled to go to the ordinary places where Americans go, and mix with them without entertaining them and had a few extra dollars to spend, I am certain they would bring back more in value and usefulness to this country than the actual expenditure in foreign currencies. In fact, I believe that if we sent out to these different embassies fewer people than those who are all receiving small salaries and pay, and if those fewer people were given higher pay, salaries and allowances, they would be in a better position to deliver the goods which we particularly want.

I turn to the Far Eastern Broadcasting Service. Can the right hon. Gentleman say a word or two about what is meant by that item. This service is working at Singapore and is likely to carry on for the next year or two. The sum asked for does not seem a very big one with which to run a full broadcasting service. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman whether a full-time service is given in that part of the Far East, or whether it is something which is more limited. It is important in South China, Siam, and other parts of that area that they should have an excellent service which is run by the Foreign Office, and not by the B.B.C. I would also like to know how far the service works in co-operation with the B.B C. and if the Foreign Office and the B.B.C. are working together with regard to the appointments of staff and officials who are engaged in broadcasting to those areas? There is, for example, the case of a recent appointment of a Siamese to broadcast to Siam from the B.B.C. in preference to a choice being made from a large number of British people whose names were put forward, one of whom, I understand, was quite strongly backed by the Foreign Office. Does that show that these two Departments are working together in that very important work, and is it worth while paying this sum of money if we cannot get the two Departments to agree to work together?

Lastly, I turn to— Advances on account of superannuation due to British subjects formerly employed in China. That, to a minor extent, also refers to what the right hon. Gentleman said about the paying back of moneys in connection with people who were interned during the war. I believe that a sum of £120,000 as advances to the men who were working for the Shanghai Municipal Council is scarcely enough when it is realised what actually happened there. Well over 200 people were employed by the Shanghai Municipal Corporation, and our embassy and His Majesty's Government asked them to remain at their posts in 1939. They were told, practically directed to stay on, although they wanted to come back and join the United Kingdom Forces. They were all caught and interned in Shanghai when Japan invaded, and they spent the whole of the rest of the war in internment.

In 1943 we made a special treaty with China whereby all the Concessions, special privileges, the International Settlement, etc., were handed back to China, together with all the assets belonging to them, without a single thing being done to protect the interests of those wretched men then in prison, who had rights to superannuation, pension, pay, etc. Nothing was done except to say that it would be left to China to make these payments. It is because of that that the right hon. Gentleman is today asking for money in order to advance to these wretched people, who have nothing, bit by bit what they hope the Government will eventually receive back from the Chinese.

Some of them have by now, through being given this capital sum bit by bit, run out or are about to run out of funds. No work has been found for many of them in this country, although it was promised. The right hon. Gentleman ought to ask for the full sum required to pay them off entirely, which would be about £3,000,000. I know that the answer will be that we are at present in negotiation with the Chinese over this matter, and that if the course I have suggested were taken, the Chinese might say, "Why should we worry any more about it?" The Chinese are losing face by not keeping to their promise to compensate these men. They are gradually showing that they will not meet a promise made during wartime. This money will have to be paid by the Chinese to the British Government, and the Government are quite capable, when a loan is being made, of seeing that something is taken back in respect of the sum they have advanced to these people. In the meantime, if we leave these wretched men, many of whom are at the end of their resources, they will be incapable of starting up again without a capital sum and they cannot wait indefinitely while the Government deals with China. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to reconsider this matter and to see if it is not possible to grant these men the full sum due in advance, while the Government fights its own battle with the Chinese Government, and thus reward those people who did everything that was asked of them by the British Government during the war and suffered as a result.

9.11 p.m.

Mr. Follick (Loughborough)

I agree with a great many things which have been said by the hon. Member for Brighton (Mr. Teeling), and I should like to follow on the same lines. In the first place, I also have made one or two journeys abroad in the last 12 months, and especially in the Caribbean. I find there that a great many of the temporary diplomatic secretaries do not know whether they are going to be established or not, or whether they are only to remain there until younger people come along to take their places. Some of them are really first-class people doing first-class jobs, but they are very anxious about their future, because many of them are getting on in age and think they ought to know definitely whether they are to be established or not.

My second point is one which I was specially asked to bring forward, and it is the question of diplomats' widows' pensions. In certain circumstances, these pensions are granted, but, in other circumstances, the pension ceases with the death of the diplomat. That was all very well years ago, when a diplomatic career was a career for very wealthy people, but, today, a great many of our ministers and ambassadors are coming into the diplomatic career from the Consular Service and they are not very well off. They are very worried about what may happen to their widows, after their deaths.

There is also the question of the shifting of currency. In certain parts of the Caribbean, currency has gone all hay-wire. I am speaking of what is happening in Venezuela, where the value of money is now quite out of proportion to what it used to be, so that the payment which our people get there is not sufficient to satisfy their needs. I was told that our Embassy in Caracas had great difficulty in keeping their local people working for it, because they received much higher wages outside, which made it very difficult for them to get any new staff at all. Even the regular people attached to the Embassy have great difficulty in making ends meet on the money which they are paid at present.

Then there is the case of the Consul-General in Curacao, who comes from an old consular family. I believe his father was Consul-General in the Canaries, and he tells me that he cannot go on in the way he has been doing because his money does not last out. He is not able to have any proper assistance in the consulate, so he has to do a lot of work himself which ought to be done by a junior assistant, with the result that through overwork his own job is not being done properly. He is not only the Consul in Curacao, but for Aruba and Dutch Guiana as well. He has three places to look after, without having the money to enable him to do so. He told me that unless something is done about it he would have to give the job up and go into ordinary commercial practice. Many of these people speak perfect Spanish—they speak Spanish as well as they speak English—and it would be a loss to us if many of them, for want of establishment or proper means, are lost to the Foreign Service or to the embassy. I ask the Minister to understand the difficulties caused by this lack of adequate means, and whether some extra provision could not be made so as to make life a little easier for these people and to guarantee their future.

9.17 p.m.

Mr. Mott-Radclyffe (Windsor)

There were a number of points I wished to raise on these Supplementary Estimates, but I am afraid that if I am to give the right hon. Gentleman reasonable time to reply I must restrict myself to two. The first question concerns Supplementary Estimates for medical attendance. I do not understand why this comes under the heading of Consular Establishments only. The Minister of State knows perfectly well that a very difficult situation is beginning to arise in certain countries behind the iron curtain in respect of medical attendance to those members of the Foreign Service who fall ill. A large number of doctors in these countries have been thrown out of their practices for non-adherence to the Communist point of view and those who are left, are becoming increasingly unwilling to go to the house of a British official, in the event of illness, for fear of being victimised for having contact with foreigners.

The situation is in any event, aggravated, in the first place, by the shortage of drugs and medical supplies in those countries, and, secondly, by the withdrawal of the Allied Control Commissions. So long as the Allied Control Commission operated, there was in nearly every case a medical officer to look after British Service personnel, who was equally prepared to attend the wives and children and the non-military personnel on the diplomatic staff. My own view is that the Government cannot escape the responsibility, in these circumstances, for making adequate provision for the members of the foreign service, and their families, in the event of illness. I believe that in the bigger missions, in those countries where the political atmosphere is thoroughly unfavourable, we ought seriously to consider whether or not a resident medical officer should be appointed with an adequate supply of medical drugs and stores imported through diplomatic channels. That is the first question I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of State.

The only other point I have time to raise is about pay and allowances, to which reference has already been made. The Minister referred to the tour of inspection of ports overseas which is now taking place. What is the time lag between a decision that the rates of pay and allowances are to be increased in a particular case, and the date on which those new rates come into force? This has a particular bearing on the clerical grades, because the smooth running of an embassy abroad depends just as much on a happy, contented, well-paid staff of cipher officers, typists, and so on, as it does on the experience capacity and political acumen of the head of the Mission. In no single instance is it more important than with the security officers and the security guards.

The Committee will be aware that before the war certain leakages occurred in certain British embassies abroad. In nearly every case those leakages were attributable to chancellory servants of foreign nationality who were bribed by the secret police of the countries concerned. The new system—and, in my view, the right one—is to appoint ex-Service men of good record to be responsible for the security of confidential documents. That system is by no means watertight, however, if the pay and allowances of those ex-Service men in charge of confidential documents are not sufficient to enable them to make both ends meet, and to have their wives and families with them. If their pay and allowances are insufficient they are subject to all the temptations to supplement their incomes from very undesirable sources, for very undesirable purposes from the security point of view. I should like the Minister of State to assure the Committee, when he is referring to the pay and allowances of these clerical grades, that he has not overlooked this aspect.

Those are the two main points I wish to make. In conclusion I can only say—and I am sure I shall have the Committee with me—that a healthy, well-paid, properly administered and contended Foreign Service is no less essential to the discharge of our world wide obligations as a great Power, than is the maintenance of strong and adequate Defence Forces.

9.22 p.m.

Mr. McNeil

I am most apologetic for being instrumental in cutting out anyone from the Debate, but I feel I have an obligation to reply to the points that have been made already. Some of them can be grouped quite easily together. The hon. Member for Brighton (Mr. Teeling) pressed me very severely on the question of allowances, and I sympathise with the point which his colleague the hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. Mott-Radclyffe) made in pointing to the lag which sometimes occurs between the making of decisions and their implementation. Roughly, the position is that after the visit of the inspector charged with reviewing the level of allowances, the allowances are reviewed at six-monthly intervals; or, as the hon. Gentleman said, when there is an increase of 20 per cent. inside that period, then the revision would be automatic: the people concerned would not have to wait for the expiry of six months. I have myself encountered this difficulty about rents. It is perfectly true that in the assessment rents are included, but, where it is appropriate, a special allowance in certain areas is made for these.

Mr. Mott-Radclyffe

Do I understand that if the rise in the cost of living is more than 20 per cent. the adjustment in the allowance is automatic?

Mr. McNeil

Yes, although I am not sure whether the phrase is "more than 20 per cent." I am rather inclined to think that the phrase is "when the variation reaches 20 per cent." We are talking of a difference of only one per cent. Then the revision is automatic. But even where there is no variation of 20 per cent. the allowance is reviewed at the end of each six months after the inspector has made his report.

The hon. Member for Windsor put another question to me about how long elapses between the visit of the inspector and the announcement of the award. I regret that I cannot give him a firm and precise answer. Naturally, I have been concerned about this, too, and I would say that it seems to work out at between three and four weeks from the inspector tabling his suggested scale to Treasury authority being given to that scale. Where there is any distinct lag, it has been made retrospective. I feel that the hon. Member may be quite accurate in saying that in certain clerical grades there have been unfortunate delays, because, of course, in the great efforts which we tried to make following the war we first tackled the grades in which the biggest anomalies appear; but, as I indicated earlier, we hope to have covered all grades and all posts during this current year. If hon. Members in any part of the Committee can help me, as they frequently have done, by drawing attention to particular anomalies, I shall be glad to look into them.

We have been most alert to the danger to which the hon. Member for Windsor properly drew my attention in regard to security guards. We have attempted to cover these guards as fast as inspectors have been available; but even where inspectors have not reached the posts to consider a guard, heads of missions have been instructed to make their recommendations about the scale of pay and allowances for security guards, because it makes nonsense of the whole business if an elaborate security system is employed, while the guards are paid so little that they are immediately tempted.

I choose one other point, to which both hon. Members referred, namely, the medical allowances. These medical allowances became operative in January, 1947, and the arrangement is that two-thirds of the costs are provided from public funds. This is provisional, and extends to the whole service, but it will have to be revised in some detail when the National Health Service scheme becomes operative. This does apply, and meets a point which has been made, because the savage and crippling costs for medical attention had to be carried previously by members of the service. A very important aspect—and I am obliged to hon. Members for raising it—is the question of medical services in countries in Eastern Europe. We have done a good deal. In Moscow, we are quite well provided for, in conjunction with the other Commonwealth stations; in Poland, we have an Anglo-American project; in Yugoslavia, we are discussing the employment of doctors the whole time; and while the position is not satisfactory in either Roumania or Bulgaria, we have made some provision in regard to drugs, but I assure hon. Members that we are pursuing that point.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved: That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £1,310,000, 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, 1948, for the expenses in connection with His Majesty's Embassies, Missions and Consular Establishments Abroad; certain special grants and payments, including grants in aid; and sundry other services.

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