HL Deb 07 May 1924 vol 57 cc313-9

My Lords, I desire to ask His Majesty's Government whether, in view of the settlement of Bulgarian Reparations and of the costs of the Armies of Occupation, any reconstruction on a more economical basis of the International Commissions at Sofia has been effected. The question of Allied Commissions in ex-enemy countries is one to which I have called attention on various occasions already, and I hope that some statistician (Mr. Sidney Webb, for choice) will some day calculate the amount of money which has been spent upon useless and extravagant Commissions—money which would otherwise have been diverted into the pockets of ourselves and our Allies. As an instance of the useless extravagance which is perpetrated by these Commissions, I may mention the fact that nearly three years ago I was in Berlin and was informed by a prominent member of one of these Commissions that their work was practically terminated then, whereas, according to the "Hats-off-to-France" Press, their work has not been begun.

In the case of Bulgaria, immediately on the conclusion of hostilities the usual horde of Missions descended upon that country—Frontier Commissions, Reparation Commissions, and Control Commissions—accompanied by typists and other satellites, drawing much larger salaries than the Bulgarian Prime Minister, and there they have remained ever since. These various Commissions have been battening upon the bankrupt Bulgarians for several years. One can understand that it may be necessary to keep these Commissions in existence in Germany, because the Germans do not show any alacrity to pay the Reparations, but the case of Bulgaria is different. The Reparations payable by Bulgaria were fixed at the fantastic figure of £90,000,000, but as the result of negotiations it was reduced to £23,000,000. That took place more than a year ago. One would have supposed that, the amount having been settled, the work of the Commission would have terminated and that it would have broken up and come away, but, far from that being the case, it was then discovered that prolonged negotiations had to be entered upon with reference to the cost of the Armies of Occupation in Bulgaria, and I understand that the Bulgarians have been called upon to pay another million in connection with those costs. That has now been settled, but, so far as I know, these Commissions still remain in existence.

When I last called attention to this subject, and more particularly to the question of these Allied Commissions in Bulgaria, I instanced the case of the head of the British section in Sofia, who, I said, was drawing a higher salary than our Minister there, and I added that I was surprised that he should find himself able to adopt a course of this nature. I am glad to take this opportunity of making amends to this particular gentleman. I have since discovered that, much to his credit, our representative, Sir Elliot Colvin, was very anxious to be withdrawn a long time ago, and I believe it is the case that he has set an example of economy and moderation to his Allied colleagues which might well be imitated. Nevertheless, so far as I know, our Commission still remains there, and I suppose Sir Elliot Colvin is still there. It seems to me. and I suppose it must seem to anybody who has ever been in that part of the world, or in an ex-enemy country, that it is time that this sort of thing came to an end, and I hope His Majesty's Government will be able to announce this afternoon that at all events our Mission is going to be withdrawn, because I am quite convinced that nothing will be done until we take the lead. It is unfortunately perfectly true—although I may be abused for saying it—that if we are to wait for action on the part of our Allies we shall remain very indefinitely. Therefore I hope to have a satisfactory assurance from His Majesty's Government that there will be an early termination of the British Mission in Bulgaria.


My Lords, I will reply to the Question of the noble Lord. It is a matter which really comes under the Treasury more than under the Foreign Office because it is a question of expenditure. I will, therefore, deal with it, instead of my noble and learned friend, Lord Parmoor. As the noble Lord has indicated, this is by no means the first time that the noble Lord has raised questions in your Lordships' House about the Inter-Allied Commission at Sofia. He has initiated debates on this subject on previous occasions in 1922 and 1923. I will briefly recall to your Lordships' minds the history of these matters. In doing so, I venture to think I shall provide good justification for what has happened up to the present, and I can also make an announcement about the future which will, I hope, be satisfactory to the noble Lord, although it may not go quite as far as he desires.

It will be recollected that the Inter-Allied Commission went to Sofia early in 1921 with the task of fixing the method of settlement of the Reparation liabilities of Bulgaria under the Treaty of Neuilly. The Commission's task was no light one. Its labours proved to be a lengthy business, and great credit for overcoming difficulties must be given to the Delegates on the Commission whose energy and persistence were rewarded with an agreed settlement of the Reparation question in March. 1923. To reach a settlement by agreement is the ideal policy; it is no use grumbling that some time is taken up in argument. The result will abundantly repay any time so spent. Further and equally difficult negotiations were needed on the subsidiary question of recovering the costs of the Allied Armies of Occupation in Bulgaria. A settlement of this question also was reached by mutual agreement—on the 28th March last—and is ready for formal approval by the Allied Governments concerned.

In all these transactions His Majesty's Government are happy to think that the British Delegate, Sir Elliot Colvin, played a conspicuous part, having great influence with his colleagues and with successive Bulgarian Governments. It will thus be seen that the Sofia Commission has produced results and accomplished the most difficult part of its task. Its labours are, of course, not over. There remain some matters for decision in connection with the Bulgarian share of the Ottoman Debt and other matters raised by the Peace Treaty. There must also be some Allied organisation to supervise the working of the new agreements.

Now I will come to the question of finance. The total establishment expenditure of the Commission at Sofia has been:—1921, £47,302; 1922, £41,169; 1923, £36,600. These are the totals for all the Allied countries. In considering these figures it must be borne in mind that political considerations absolutely necessitated the division of the Commission into three national Delegations. That is not the most economical form of organisation, but no other was practical. The progressive reduction in expenditure shows that although constantly engaged in delicate negotiations the Delegates did keep an eye on administrative economy.

As regards the future, the Commission, by achieving the Reparation and cost of occupation settlements, have finished the most difficult part of their task, and it is possible to consider what the normal organisation should be henceforth. His Majesty's Government have come to the conclusion that it should be feasible to keep expenditure within £16.000 a year, and they have recommended this strongly to the Ambassadors' Conference. Their view-is that the main staff of the Commission, apart from the Delegates, should be on international lines (as, for example. in the League of Nations) and this plan will effect large, economies. The Government consider that expenditure on this scale should prove sufficient, though not more than sufficient, and they trust that the proposal will commend itself to the other Governments concerned, who are at one with them in desiring to effect all possible economies. It would, however, be very harmful to reduce expenses to a point at which the Commission loses prestige and is no longer composed of officers of real standing, capable of exercising independent judgment and whose opinions carry real weight with the Allied and with the Bulgarian Governments.

Before I resume my seat I will take this opportunity of announcing that Sir Elliot Colvin, who has been the British Delegate on the inter-Allied Commission in Bulgaria since the Commission was first set up, has informed the Government of his desire to resign his post at the end of the present month, now that the chief tasks of the Commission have been completed. His Majesty's Government feel that the country is greatly indebted to Sir Elliot Colvin for the conspicuous ability with which he has performed the tasks incumbent on him as British Delegate on the Commission. He has succeeded at all times in working in complete harmony with his French and Italian colleagues, and has successfully maintained friendly relations with the Bulgarian Government, in spite of the delicacy of the negotiations in which he took a leading part.

It is perhaps somewhat of a paradox that the Delegates of the Commission entrusted with the administration of the Reparation clauses of the Treaty should have come to be regarded as the sincere friends of the country by whom Reparations are being paid. Such, however, is the case. The fact is that the Commission as a whole has always borne in mind the fact that the financial and economic prosperity of Bulgaria is an essential condition of the discharge of her obligations. In short, the task laid upon the inter-Allied Commission has called for both firmness and tact in no small degree, and the admirable combination of these qualities which Sir Elliot Colvin has displayed has contributed in a large measure to the success achieved by the Commission.


My Lords, I do not know whether the Government could add one more fact to the information which they have given to the House—namely, how long they contemplate that this Commission is to go on. As I understood what the noble Lord has just said, it is to cost £16,000 a year, which, of course, has really to be paid by Bulgaria, and is taken out of the money available for Reparations and for all other purposes which Bulgaria has to find. That £16,000 a year is the British Government's proposal; I do not understand that the Allied Governments have accepted that, and I do not quite gather how long the payment of that money is to go on—I presume until the whole of the Reparation debt has been paid by Bulgaria. I do not carry in my mind exactly what date has been fixed for that, but, since the amount is £23,000,000, and other expenses which still have to be estimated, and also the £1,000,000 "for the Army of Occupation, I am afraid it is likely to be some considerable time.

May I very respectfully impress upon the Government the immense importance of getting rid of these relics of the War Commissions as soon as possible? I am sure that, there are many members of the Government who will warmly sympathise with that idea. It is not only a question of whether they are doing useful work. I am sure that all that the noble Lord has said about the services of Sir Elliot Colvin is fully deserved, and every member of the House will desire to join in the tribute which he has paid to him. But that is not quite the point. The point is that these Commissions, of which the Ambassadors' Conference in Paris is the chief—and is, I think, the most pernicious—have existed ever since the war. As far as I understand the noble Lord, they are likely to exist for many, many years more, and that is not a satisfactory state of things if we desire the final pacification of Europe.


My Lords, it is true that the Government have not been able to state through my noble friend how long this Commission is to go on. It is impossible now to fix an exact date, but I think I can say that the Government cordially agree with what the noble Viscount has said, that the sooner you can get rid of these War Commissions the better.


My Lords, I am not at all sure that the noble Lord who answered this Question was a very suitable person for the purpose. The noble Lord has very grandiose ideas upon finance, and not very long ago he spoke of a sum of £3,500,000 as a "niggardly contribution." It is quite natural that, in the circumstances, the pettifogging economies which I have suggested did not make much appeal to him. The one thing that is clear to me, as apparently it is to the noble Viscount, Lord Cecil of Chelwood, is that these Commissions are going on. According to the view of Lord Arnold, you must not reduce their salaries because it will diminish their prestige. It may possibly diminish their prestige, but it is not likely to diminish their popularity. I have passed a certain amount of time in ex-enemy countries since the war, and my own experience is that in all these cases it is the opinion of everybody who has any knowledge of the circumstances that the kind of work which is now performed by a Commission of this kind could perfectly well be performed by one or two secretaries attached to the existing Legation. If the noble Lord could give me some assurance that that would be done, if I were a Bulgarian I should feel considerably more hopeful as to the future. But it seems to me that there is a prospect of these gentlemen remaining at reduced salaries indefinitely.