HC Deb 15 May 1950 vol 475 cc857-9
70. Mr. Donner

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs how many persons are now employed by the British Council in countries under Soviet influence; what is the total cost of outlay by the British Council in such countries; and whether, in view of all the existing circumstances, it is now proposed to discontinue these services.

Mr. Ernest Davies

The British staff of the British Council in Eastern European countries under Soviet influence totals 24. The total cost of operation within these countries is £86,319. It is not proposed to discontinue these services so long as it is possible to continue them.

Mr. Donner

Has not the time come to recognise the futility of maintaining these services at some cost to ourselves in view of the conditions under which the employees of the British Council are forced to work?

Mr. Haire

Has my hon. Friend noted the recent decision of the Czechoslovak Government to close down the British Council and the British Information Service in Czechoslovakia, and will he say what His Majesty's Government contemplate doing in reply?

Mr. Davies

Yes, Sir, but if I reply I must give all the facts, and, therefore, I apologise for the length of the reply.

His Majesty's Government have received from the Czechoslovak Government, through His Majesty's Ambassador in Prague, a request to close down the offices of the British Council and British Information Service in Czechoslovakia on the ground that these bodies have taken part in espionage and subversive activities. The Czechoslovak Government have also stated that they no longer consider themselves bound by the Anglo-Czechoslovak Cultural Convention of 1947.

My right hon. Friend has today addressed a note to the Czechoslovak Ambassador in London in which he expresses the regret of His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom that the Czechoslovak Government should have sought by unilateral action to bring the Convention to an end, despite the fact that it was concluded for an initial period of five years.

This action, together with the baseless accusations directed against the personnel of the British Council and the British Information Service are, of course, a transparent pretext on the part of the Czechoslovak Government for carrying a stage further its aim of shutting off the Czechoslovak people from all knowledge of the free world and depriving them of their intellectual independence.

We cannot admit the validity of the Czechoslovak Government's attempt to bring the Convention to an end in this unilateral manner, but we naturally have no alternative but to comply with the request of the Czechoslovak Government that the offices of the British Council and the British Information Service be closed down. As a measure of retaliation we have required that the Czechoslovak Institute in London should be closed down forthwith and that the Czechoslovak Embassy cease its information work.

Captain Crookshank

On a point of Order. Whereas the reply was most interesting, may I ask, Mr. Speaker, whether it is a new practice that in reply to a supplementary question we should have an obviously prepared answer of about three pages long? Are we to understand that is to be the normal practice in future, because if so, it deprives hon. Members who have Questions on the Order Paper of the chance to reach them?

Mr. Speaker

Of course, I did not know how long the answer was going to be. I was told that if that supplementary was asked, it would be answered at the same time. It was in Order, and therefore, why should I not call it as a supplementary? Of course, I agree with the right hon. and gallant Gentleman that one does not want to use up Question Time by long answers if it can be avoided.

Mr. Haire

Regarding that supplementary answer, will my hon. Friend say whether he contemplates taking any further steps, such as augmenting the B.B.C. Czechoslovak service, in order to take the place of the British Council?

Mr. G. Thomas

Further to that point of Order. May I ask, Mr. Speaker, if you will advise us how we can arrange for our supplementary questions to receive these long replies?

Mr. Speaker

I do not mind telling the hon. Gentleman. The matter was put to me in this way—"Supposing No. 70 is not reached, may we have a Private Notice Question?" I thought that, if No. 70 was reached, we might have a supplementary question instead.

Mr. Donner

Is not the answer to the supplementary question an argument for closing down the British Council?

Captain Waterhouse

In future, Mr. Speaker, may we have supplementary questions by Private Notice?

Mr. Speaker

Certainly not. I take great care to avoid as many Private Notice Questions as possible. If they are short, I would rather have supplementary questions instead.