HC Deb 21 October 1949 vol 468 cc968-80

3.27 p.m.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)

I am very glad of this opportunity to seek to clear up the unsatisfactory position in which the question of the franking of British overseas mail with a certain slogan was left at Question Time on Wednesday last. I am very grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food for arranging to be present at what I am afraid is inconveniently short notice, and I appreciate her courtesy in that respect. Perhaps I ought to say, as the matter arises out of a considerable number of questions directed at the Minister, that the right hon. Gentleman was good enough to inform me he is not able to be present for perfectly valid reasons.

The facts of the matter are not, up to a point, disputed. During the month of August, a substantial section of the postal mail despatched from this country bore, beside the cancellation of the stamp, the words: "Britain says 'Thank you for food gifts.'" When that matter was drawn to my attention I put down a Question to the Postmaster-General, but the right hon. Gentleman, with perhaps understandable celerity, transferred it to the Ministry of Food, who I understand accept full responsibility for this matter.

I desire, in trying to get this matter cleared up, to restrict the criticisms I propose to make to the comparatively limited compass of the question of the sending of letters so franked to a limited number of countries. I do not propose to widen the Debate by discussing the question whether the stamping of slogans on this sort of mail in general is a good or a bad thing. For myself, I think it is largely a matter of taste, and that it is a slightly undignified procedure. I do not propose to level any serious criticism on the use of this method insofar as mail directed to the British Empire or the United States is concerned. I think there is no hon. Member who does not immensely appreciate the assistance that these countries have given to us in this matter or that any expression of thanks, however ineptly done, should not itself in that direction be a matter of criticism., But the matter does become a little more important when such mail is directed not only to the Empire or the United States, or other generous overseas friends, but to countries with which we were not so long ago at war, to countries which themselves suffered heavily during the war and to countries from which it would be ludicrous to expect any degree of assistance to be afforded us.

It is certainly the case that since I raised this matter I have had a number of instances drawn to my attention of the unfavourable reaction of our own people, who actually reside in these countries. I do not propose to enter into very serious argument with the right hon. Lady whether the description "begging" is appropriately attached to this selection. I think it is a matter of interpretation whether the ostentatious putting of a printed slogan, "Britain says 'Thank you for food gifts'" on letters does or does not constitute a request for further gifts.

I am myself inclined to the view expressed at Question Time on Wednesday by the hon. Member for West Woolwich (Mr. Berry), that gratitude has sometimes been interpreted as a lively sense of favours to come. I should be glad if the right hon. Lady will explain whether, in her view, this slogan merely amounted to an austere and abstract expression of thanks for events past, or whether the initiative of her Department in requesting the Post Office so to stamp the mail was connected with the hope that the flow of these gifts would continue. When the Minister himself said on Wednesday: I cannot agree that to say 'Thank you' for something is to beg for something." [OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th October, 1949; Vol. 468, c. 577.] I do not think that that quite squared with the facts, and we shall, therefore, be glad to hear the right hon. Lady on the matter.

I hope the right hon. Lady will also deal with one or two points with which, for one reason or another, her right hon. Friend was not able to deal on Wednesday. First, I should like to know whether, when her Department made their request to the Post Office, they made an inquiry whether it was technically possible to discriminate as to the countries to which this slogan should be sent. Did her Department say to the Post Office, "We want the slogans sent to the following countries only?" Did they inquire whether it was possible to discriminate, or ask the Post Office to send this slogan all over the world? Although the Minister was asked by several Members on both sides of the House to answer this precise question, he was not able to do so on Wednesday.

I should like to know whether this procedure is still being used. I have not come across any instance later than August, but there is, naturally, a time lag in these matters coming to notice and no doubt the right hon. Lady knows whether a process is still continuing. If, as I believe to be the case, it has now stopped I would very much welcome an assurance that it will not be resumed, at any rate so far as mail to Germany and Italy in particular are concerned. One is entitled to ask what are the intentions of her Department for the future?

That is the real substance of the matter, and it is not one of party importance. Indeed, from my recollection of Question time on Wednesday the harshest epithet about these proceedings fell not from the lips of any of my hon. Friends, but from the hon. Lady the Member for Epping (Mrs. Manning). If the right hon. Lady the Parliamentary Secretary had been present on that occasion she would undoubtedly have formed the conclusion that it was the general feeling of the House of Commons that the sending of mail of this sort, certainly to Italy and Germany, was inappropriate and an unsuitable action on the part of any British Government.

I do not want unduly to labour the matter, because we are all very conscious of the fact that there are infinitely graver matters at the back of our minds at this moment. On the other hand, it is not right to allow something which affects the dignity of this country abroad to go unchallenged. I think it is very difficult to dispute that the sending of a slogan of this sort to countries with whom we were at war only five years ago, to countries which have been in receipt of aid from us, as Germany and Italy have, and to countries, particularly Germany and Italy, which have received large payments of aid from the United States, is quite inappropriate to the standing and position of this country in the world.

Hon. Members will agree that for all our troubles and difficulties we are still a great Power with a great responsibility in the world, and to see our country, even though in a trifling thing, appearing to demean itself in the eyes of those with whom recently we were at war and over whom we were victorious, seems to be a wrong thing to do. This House is entitled not only to say that that was a wrong thing to do, but, far more important, to obtain from the Ministers responsible a firm assurance that it shall not occur again.

3.38 p.m.

Mr. Beverley Baxter (Wood Green)

I feel I have a special reason for, speaking on this subject. I was in Canada during the last seven or eight weeks, and I was able to judge the pyschological effect of this scheme of stamping parcels and envelopes. I will try, like my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), not to stir up any party controversy, but it must be apparent to all sides of the House that at the present moment Great Britain presents to the world a spectacle bordering in some cases upon the mendicant. If one goes to the United States one hears those words. That does not mean that the people are not generous, but they are beginning to look upon us as a country lining up in the queue for benefits either of money, credits or food parcels. I am sure that the right hon. Lady does not want that any more than the rest of us.

In Canada I was frequently asked: Have the British people still need for food parcels? I gave to that question the more or less stereotyped reply. I said that the people at home were not starving. They got enough to eat but it was very dull and if a parcel were sent they were grateful for the variety of food that it brought. I also stated that there was an emotional side to it, inasmuch as the British people felt that neither they nor their sacrifices were being forgotten. That is a different thing. Having made that reply, I was then asked in Vancouver to open a new C.A.R.E. depot for sending British parcels here. To my embarrassment I was asked personally to send a parcel in my name to the Minister of Food—

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Why not to the right hon. Lady?

Mr. Baxter

I apologise, but it was their parcel. I said that if they would allow me to send one also to my right hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Eden), I would do it—after all, I have to face my party. I received a charming letter from my right hon. Friend in acknowledgment, saying the parcel was excellent. I am still awaiting one from the Minister of Food but I understand that he received the parcel.

All that shows that the kindliness towards this country is as great as ever, but we do not want sympathy and we do not want charity. I cannot think of any responsible Minister passing that stamp on an envelope of a letter going anywhere in the world although I would just as soon have it go to Germany as to Canada or Australia. After all, when these parcels are sent, they are sent either to individuals who acknowledge them themselves, or they are sent to societies who acknowledge them, or they are sent to members of boroughs in towns and cities who acknowledge them. Therefore the stamping of those words is not an acknowledgment. It can only mean, "please send us some more." That is unworthy of this country and it will do far more harm than good. I am quite sure that when the right hon. Lady replies she will tell us that this will never happen again. It was a psychological blunder, it was unworthy of this country, and I do hope that is the news she has to tell us.

3.42 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Dr. Edith Summerskill)

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mr. Baxter) has intervened in this Debate because I believe that to see this matter in proper perspective one cannot limit the argument, which I propose to adduce, to Italy and Germany and the countries to which the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) said he would confine himself. It is important that the House should appreciate in the first place the spirit which prompted these gifts.

The hon. Member for Wood Green has suggested that we must not ask for charity, and he is quite right. We are a proud country and we showed to the people of the world during the war that we were conscious of the pride which would not allow the Germans to over-run us. I am anxious that the House should appreciate fully how people representing other countries felt when they despatched these gifts. May I first quote from a speech made by the High Commissioner for New Zealand in which he said: Our gifts come to you not in any way as charity but as an expression of the admiration our country has for the valour and endurance of Britain, and a small repayment of your hospitality to the New Zealand soldiers during the war. Now I said that most of these gifts have been spontaneous tributes to the people of this country for bearing the brunt of the war, and then again that message which I have read out has prompted us to use every means in our power of expressing our thanks.

May I remind the House of the gifts that have already reached us? From the British Commonwealth and the Colonies we have received 51 million parcels and from the United States of America 15 million, other countries have sent us 3,500,000 parcels, including parcels from Italy—containing mostly cheese and dried fruits—bulk gifts from the Argentine, Chile and Palestine, and, again, a bulk gift from Italy. The total of all the gifts received is over £60 million.

No doubt the House will recall that we have been exhorted on many occasions from the other side to say "Thank you" more often. The hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Amory) in a supplementary question this year said: Will the right hon. Gentleman"— that is my right hon. Friend— seek an opportunity of making even better known among the people of this country the extent of these very generous gifts, and also an opportunity of conveying to the Dominions and other donors the very grateful thanks of this House."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st February, 1949; Vol. 461, c. 1570.]

Mr. Baxter

Hear, hear.

Dr. Summerskill

The hon. Gentlemen who have spoken about this are confusing gratitude with obsequiousness. Gratitude is commendable; obsequiousness is detestable. We have tried to express our gratitude in a dignified manner. I believe that when the House hears the explanation of our use of this postmark it will agree that on reflection it was perhaps the best means of getting into the homes of the people. Although the hon. Member for Wood Green said that when an individual had a parcel the donor receive an acknowledgment and therefore the matter was ended, and he asked why it was necessary to go any further, he was wrong. I am not exaggerating when I say that my Department receives thousands of letters from people who have sent parcels but have received no acknowledgment: we have been very concerned about this.

Before I came out I asked my secretary to give me the latest letter she had received on this subject. It came only last week. I did not go to any trouble to pick out special letters to impress the House. I merely asked for the latest letter. This one is from Mrs. Dusting, of Erval Place, Preston, Melbourne, and it is a long letter in which she describes certain gifts she has sent to people. She says: I had one letter from Mrs. Fish whose little girl got bed socks. She was thrilled because she got them on Christmas morning. It is astonishing how few acknowledge things. She goes on: One poor old lady I read about in Scotland, 92 years and bedridden, fancied apple-pie. Well, she got it, for I sent her a tin of apples, flour, sugar, dripping, everything to make it and other things friends gave me. She was so pleased they told the 'People's Journal'— that is a Scottish paper— but she did not tell me. This was not a wealthy woman. She had gone to great effort to send these things to this Scottish woman, but she had had no acknowledgment from her. The letter also says: I discovered that she is also blind, poor old dear. So now she has had three parcels. This goes on the whole time. The House must realise that very old people, such as old-age pensioners, are not accustomed to writing to countries thousands of miles away. They receive these gifts and are very grateful for them, but they do not always acknowledge them.

We have done everything possible to thank distinguished visitors to this country for the gifts that have been sent. Hon. Members will know that we have a gift centre at Lowndes Square which we invite representatives of countries who have sent us gifts to visit so that we can thank them properly. Nevertheless, we discovered as a result of these letters that although we thanked distinguished visitors, who went back to their own countries and embodied our thanks in their speeches, we were not getting into people's homes. In fact, one or two Ministers in different Dominions—I am prepared to tell the two hon. Gentlemen opposite in confidence who they were—have written to us saying that there are cases of this kind where apparently acknowledgments were not being received, and that they did not understand it, and wondered if some scheme could be devised.

Therefore, the group of people in my Department concerned with this matter thought that if they could stamp letters with this slogan it would reach the homes of the people. This was done in August. I want hon. Gentlemen to know that it was in August and that it was limited to August purposely so that our gratitude would not be interpreted as "a lively sense of favours to come."

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

It has stopped now?

Dr. Summerskill

Certainly. It has not only stopped but, for all the reasons the two hon. Gentlemen have mentioned, it was limited to one month only so that people would not be likely to receive two letters with the same franking. That was the whole purpose. We did not wish it to be interpreted as a charitable appeal for a little more. We felt that this should be simply one message, which might cover a month, to the people who would never have an opportunity of visiting this country, who might never read the speeches of distinguished visitors to this country, but who would then know that their gifts have reached this country and have been appreciated.

Mr. Baxter

Was the franking done throughout the whole month? Were the letters going overseas stamped every day during that month?

Dr. Summerskill

Yes. I have been asked why this method was also used for countries which were enemy countries—where probably this could not be understood. We went to the General Post Office and asked that letters should be franked with the slogan only when they were addressed to the countries of the Commonwealth and the Colonies and the United States from which we have received the greatest number of gifts. We were told that technically that was impossible because the letters are first stamped and then sorted. It would be a complete reversal of the machine for them to send letters with this franking to only a certain number of countries.

Mr. E. P. Smith (Ashford)

Can the right hon. Lady say whether letters going to Soviet Russia were also stamped?

Dr. Summerskill

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I asked that one, too. I think that the number that went there was very limited. I want hon. Gentlemen opposite to see this matter in its proper perspective. The letters were franked in English and I cannot believe that many people in Soviet Russia would have understood the franking, nor would many people in Italy or Germany. When hon. Gentlemen opposite receive a letter from Italy which is franked with a slogan are they always in a position to translate it accurately?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Before the right hon. Lady passes from that point might I ask whether the slogan was stamped on all mail to all overseas countries during the month of August?

Dr. Summerskill

Yes, because otherwise we could not have sent the message to the English-speaking countries. As the franking was in English we felt that the people who would read and appreciate it would be the people in the English-speaking countries. Of all the letters that were sent, .02 per cent. were destined for Italy. Hon. Members must look at this question in a practical way. One has to weigh up the good done by the postmark against the possible harm which might be caused. A large number of people overseas have been pleased by it. There is evidence that the postmark has been welcomed. I asked for the latest letter that we have received in the Department. It was from a member of the Department of Main Roads, Sydney, New South Wales. The writer said: I notice, 'Britain says thank you for food gifts' postmark is now in use at last. Well done. Here is a responsible man, and that was his reaction. I believe that he would react just as hon. Gentlemen and I would react to something—if it was undignified, if we were demanding charity, if it was a sign of Britain's decadence. He did not. He recognised that we were trying to do our best to say "thank you" to people who are showing generosity and kindness to us in our difficulties. Therefore, I ask the House to agree with me that, perhaps, after careful reflection, this action of my Department has done more good than harm.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The right hon. Lady has dealt most courteously with all the points I raised, with one exception. I did ask her for an assurance that this would not be repeated. Can she give me that assurance?

Dr. Summerskill

I thought it was made clear when I said that this was only for one month. We decided that the period should not be extended, for the reasons advanced here this afternoon, and we have no intention of repeating it.

Mr. Baxter

It was, in fact, a "once and for all"?

3.56 p.m.

Mr. William Shepherd (Bucklow)

I am sure the House is grateful for the explanation which has been given by the right hon. Lady, but it does disclose a rather serious state of affairs which has not really been remedied by the action taken. The House and country will be concerned that suitable acknowledgment is not being sent to those generous people overseas who send us gift parcels, and what the right hon. Lady did not tell us was what steps had been taken to try to get the people in this country who had received gift parcels to send proper acknowledgments. However ingenious the franking might be, it was not a personal acknowledgment from the person who received the gift, and I think that the ingenuity of her Department might be better exercised in trying to secure a higher percentage of direct acknowledgments from those who receive the gifts. I hope she will go into that question to see if we cannot get more people to write, because that is the proper way of dealing with this position.

I am glad to have the right hon. Lady's assurance that this is not going to be repeated, because, however well-intentioned it may have been, I am sure that she would agree that the other day the whole sense of the House was against her, justifiably or not. I hope something will be done by her Department—perhaps this Debate will do something in that direction—to stimulate the consciences of those who receive those gifts in order that our generous friends overseas may receive the acknowledgment which they deserve.

Mr. Baxter

Since the idea had some purpose, and I can see the reason for it now, might not the Department apply its mind to the stamping of incoming parcels with some reference to the fact that the sender would be glad of an acknowledgment? Would not that be possible?

Dr. Summerskill

It is not always so very easy, and the hon. Gentleman represents a constituency which includes harassed mothers win large families and old age pensioners, who I am sure will appreciate some of the considerations I have mentioned. When I was in Australia in 1944, the people of Melbourne had very generously sent a large number of woollies to this country, and many of them attached their names and addresses, with a little message for the recipient. These woollies often went to women with large families. Later on, when I asked for the number of acknowledgments, I found they were not very large.

It is difficult for a harassed mother to sit down and write a letter when she is exhausted at the end of the day. I know that we would all say that she ought to do it, because she has received the present, but it is a little difficult to persuade them to do these things. We do everything we can in our Department and we bring people to the centre at Lowndes Square where we show them what is being done. It is also reported in their local newspaper, so that they have the opportunity of knowing what is expected of them. For me to promise here that I would bring any pressure to bear on these people would be quite wrong.

It being Four o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

4.0 p.m.

Mr. E. P. Smith (Ashford)

I think that the House generally must be satisfied with what the right hon. Lady has said. I personally have seen something of this gift contribution in my own village, and there is not the slightest doubt about the extreme gratitude of the recipients of these gifts. I think it should go out from this House that there is that tremendous gratitude. At the same time, however, it is perfectly true to say that old farm workers and old age pensioners are often unable or too shy to write and express their gratitude. I feel that it might have been a very good thing—and, if it occurs again, might be a very good thing in the future—if local bodies—as local as possible—had written to donors of gifts thanking them on behalf of the recipients in general terms. I think that would be a happier way of dealing with the matter than by the system of franking letters with thanks which, unfortunately, have to go to people who very often we have no occasion at all to thank. Therefore, I make that suggestion to the right hon. Lady with a view to seeing whether it might meet the difficulty in some way.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Two Minutes past Four o'Clock.