HC Deb 13 December 1954 vol 535 cc1388-92

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:

108. Mr. FELL

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether his attention has been called to the 7th Report from the Select Committee on Estimates; and what action he proposes to take.

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Sir Anthony Eden)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to answer Question No. 108.

I have read this Report, to which I will in due course be issuing a Departmental reply. I wish, however, to take this opportunity to correct certain misleading impressions to which the publication of this Report has given rise.

The total expenditure on the Foreign Service at home and abroad, including expenditure incurred on behalf of the Foreign Office by the Ministry of Works and other Departments, is not £200 million but just under £20 million.

It is inaccurate to suggest that the number of Foreign Office officials serving abroad in a representative capacity—to which this Report draws special attention—has increased by almost 7 per cent. in the last year. The number has, in fact, decreased by nearly 7 per cent. The figure of 311 given for the estimated United Kingdom-based staff at Bonn at the time of ratification is not comparable with the figures for staff at other embassies, since it includes many officers concerned with the residual functions of the Occupation. The Foreign Office United Kingdom-based staff in Germany is now about 1/15th of what it was five years ago and is decreasing month by month.

In consultation with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and my hon. Friend the Minister of Works, I am having an immediate examination made of the practicability of the recommendations made by the Select Committee, and I will inform the House of the results as soon as possible.

Mr. Fell

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the House will be grateful to him for coming so quickly and giving us his assurances? In view of the fact that Recommendation No. 4 under "Summary of Recommendations" is made by the Committee, would my right hon. Friend consider consulting the Leader of the House on the possibility of an early debate on this subject?

Sir A. Eden

That is another question, which is not, and is not thought to be, for the Foreign Office. I do not think that it would be right for me to go into matters concerning these committees who travel abroad, because that is a consti- tutional question. The broad fact remains that, over the last two years, the Estimates of the Foreign Office have been down by £80,000, despite the sum of over £300,000 for new services, all of which I think the House would endorse, such as the opening of our Embassy in Teheran—which is surely welcome to everyone the increase of our staff at Pekin—which I am sure is also welcome—and, finally, the increased services which are needed in the Persian Gulf.

Mr. Yates

While appreciating that the Minister will submit a statement to the House in regard to the £200 million, I suggest that it is not misleading, so far as the Report is concerned, because it is tied up with the importance of this House exercising an effective check over Government expenditure overseas. In view of the fact that the Chairman of the Committee, together with myself, submitted to the Leader of the House that the figure was clearly mounting beyond £200 million as a reason for an examination abroad, if we have been considering only £8 million of expenditure and can put forward these criticisms, what could we not do on £200 million? Will not the Government agree to a debate on the matter in this House?

Sir A. Eden

I only wish to point out to the House that in this Report, which deals with Foreign Services costs, it was perhaps not very happy to refer to a total of £200 million, which is not the cost of the foreign services at all but the cost of the Army, Colonial, Air Force and other services overseas.

Mr. Snow

With regard to the presumed accurate level of expenditure in our foreign services, is it not a fact that hon. Members who travel abroad, irrespective of party, are somewhat concerned at the high level of entertainment at our embassies? Is it not a fact that the all-too-frequent cocktail parties are just one long round of meeting the same people?

Sir A. Eden

If the hon. Gentleman dislikes attending international cocktail parties, he cannot hate it more than I do, I assure him. I suspect that in the experience of almost every one of Her Majesty's Ambassadors overseas nobody would do such a thing for pleasure. May I remind the hon. Gentleman that although the scale of entertainment is no doubt something which ought to be watched and carefully considered and examined, this Report did say that it was not in a position to determine whether the amount was either inadequate or extravagant? In view of that fact, I think it is rather a pity that the Chairman should have referred to the entertainment as "simply fantastic." If the writer of the Report could not tell what it was, I do not see how he could have applied the epithet that it was fantastic.

Mr. Gaitskell

While appreciating the statement made by the right hon. Gentleman, which corrects certain misleading impressions given by certain newspapers, may I ask if he does not agree that, in the light of this Report, it is highly desirable that we should debate the subject at the earliest possible moment, in order that the various points made in the Select Committee's Report can be discussed and answered, if there is an answer?

Sir A. Eden

I am sure that the House would, in justice, wish to have the Departmental reply. I have told the House that as soon as we can get it—land it will be prepared as rapidly as we can do it in conjunction with other Departments concerned—then, if the House desires so to do, the matter can be raised through the usual channels.

Captain Waterhouse

In order to avoid further confusion in this already too confused matter, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he did not say that the Chairman—and I happen to be the Chairman—of this Committee used this word "fantastic"? Is my right hon. Friend aware that it was not used by me at all?

Sir A. Eden

I beg pardon of my right hon. and gallant Friend. I should have said "Chairman of the sub-committee."

Mr. Speaker

This matter can be properly debated on Supply quite easily. The Report of the Select Committee will then be before the Committee. We cannot carry on a debate now.

Mr. Yates

On a point of order. After all, the Foreign Secretary has referred to a statement which I made. Am I not to be allowed to inform the Foreign Secretary that all I said was to repeat the words of the chief Treasury witness, which the right hon. Gentleman will find in Question 2,150. that the number of guests that they do entertain, on the present method of doing things abroad, is quite fantastic?

Sir A. Eden

It is perfectly possible to have opinions on the scale of the entertainment.

Several Hon. Members


Sir A. Eden

I have nothing to with draw, nothing whatever. I quoted accurately what the Chairman said. If he now says, "I was quoting from the evidence," the responsibility is still his.

Mr. Hoy

On a point of order. The Public Accounts Committee were informed in regard to this Report, and it might be advisable for the right hon. Gentleman to reply to the criticism contained in the Report of the Public Accounts Committee with regard to the cost of building foreign embassies abroad, to which we took exception.

Mr. Speaker

That is not a point of order. This matter is relevant to a debate in Committee of Supply.