HL Deb 28 February 1939 vol 111 cc998-1004

Order of the Day for the Third Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(The Earl of Plymouth.)


My Lords, I understood from the Order Paper that it was hoped to have a Royal Commission round about half-past six, but as your Lordships know, that is always a pious hope, and obviously whoever put the time down was optimistic about the interest your Lordships took in the measures on the Order Paper. This Bill, which we now have a last opportunity of examining, raises matters of the very greatest importance, and I make no apology whatsoever for asking your Lordships' attention to two aspects of it for a brief period. On the Second Reading my noble friend Lord Snell and other noble Lords referred to the broad aspects of the Bill, and I propose now to deal with two matters which perhaps might be called detail, but which, as I say, raise matters of great importance.

First of all may I ask the noble Earl, Lord Plymouth, if he can inform us what is the position with regard to the guarantee of the frontiers of Czecho-Slovakia? If in this Bill we are invited to vote this immense sum of money—it is a very large sum of money, especially in these times—we are entitled to know what has happened to that pledge, given at the time of the Munich Conference and the other meetings that preceded the Munich Agreement, to guarantee the frontiers of Czecho-Slovakia. I have raised this matter on other occasions in your Lordships' House. I have always been referred to a pledge given by the then Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence, Sir Thomas Inskip, now Secretary of State for the Dominions, about our moral responsibility, but that is as far as it seems to have gone. It is important that we should know exactly what the position there is, if the noble Earl is in a position to inform your Lordships.

The second observation I would make is the following. I am speaking, I know, for the whole of my Party and for my noble friends in saying we are torn between two considerations. There is, firstly, the desire to help the unfortunate refugees from Czecho-Slovakia, for whom we cannot escape responsibility—indeed their miseries are largely attributable to the actions of His Majesty's present advisers. On the other hand, while we are filled with that feeling of compassion and desire to help, we realise only too clearly that there is a danger that this money—the money of the lieges of this country—will be of indirect assistance to German aggression. I will specify what I mean by referring to a statement made by the noble Earl on the Second Reading. If I may quote from the OFFICIAL REPORT, the noble Earl dealt with the £8,000,000 for the internal reconstruction of Czecho-Slovakia, and he went on to say: and, on the other hand, the provision of £4,000,000 plus the approximate equivalent in French francs of another £4,000,000, for the emigration of refugees. A little later on in his speech the noble Earl said: Since expenditure on maintenance alone could not hope to solve the problem, we have agreed that one of the primary methods of relief should be the provision of productive employment through public works—primarily the construction of essential new communications. I should add that the Czecho-Slovak Government have given us an assurance that no part of these funds will be used in building roads with a military object. The information which reaches me is quite different. I have reason to believe that the Czecho-Slovak Government are being compelled by pressure from Germany to spend a sum of about £210,000 from their own funds on the military motor road which is being constructed between Breslau and Vienna across Czecho-Slovak territory. Your Lordships are aware that that road will have extraterritorial immunity. It will be German property, in other words, and I understand that Czech workmen employed on it will be under the military discipline of Germany while on the road and in its neighbourhood. Two hundred and ten thousand pounds is to be contributed by Czecho-Slovakia to this road of primarily military importance. More than that, I understand it is now intended to build a road from east to west. At the time this great project of a road through Czecho-Slovakia was first mentioned, the object of which is clear to all your Lordships—it is simply to allow of German aggression against Rumania through Ruthenia—it was announced that the German Government would bear the whole cost. I understand now that the Czecho-Slovak Government are being coerced or have been coerced into spending £3,200,000 as a contribution to this east-to-west road. If that is the case, it means that the money we are sending to Czecho-Slovakia is being used to build a strategic road for Germany. I cannot allow this Bill to pass without giving the noble Earl an opportunity of commenting on these allegations, either denying them or, if he cannot deny them, giving your Lordships some comfort in the matter and assuring us that the British Government are taking steps to prevent any such pressure being forced on the Czecho-Slovak State.

I would also like to ask the noble Earl if it is not a fact that there is still an agitation being worked up amongst German-speaking Czechs inside the territories remaining to the Czecho-Slovak State—the truncated State you have left to the Government of Prague. I wish to ask whether German-speaking Czechs there are being stirred up to further agitation and unrest and, if so, whether we are taking any steps, diplomatic or other, to protest. Our complaint is that after Munich—we have dealt with the Munich question, your Lordships have voted on that, and I do not wish to reopen it—the Czecho-Slovak State, as far as this country is concerned, was left entirely to its own devices. It was left to make what arrangements it could with its rapacious neighbours. It has since been entirely at the mercy of Germany, and any attempt to ease its lot or support it morally or materially has not been feasible on the part of His Majesty's Government. We are asked to implement this promise to make this very heavy loan to Czecho-Slovakia. Sorry as we are for the Czechs, and exercised as we are about the fate of the unfortunate refugees, I think these questions require some attention. I therefore invite the noble Earl, if he can, to give us some comfort with regard to these matters.

The other matter is a very terrible business indeed. If my information is correct—and it appears to have been admitted by the Government spokesman in another place—there has been a breach of the undertaking with regard to the refugees themselves. We were told at the time of the Munich Agreement that those persons who were living in the territories ceded to Germany who wished to leave them had the right of option to do so. That is what your Lordships were led to understand, and it was one of the matters we were told about as offering some small comfort. Anyway, these unfortunate people were to be allowed to leave if they wished and to go to the new Czech State. I understand—and I believe the Government admit this is the case—that that undertaking given to the British Prime Minister has been broken and that only citizens of Jewish, Czech or Slovak race have been allowed this option. Citizens of Czecho-Slovakia of Germanic race, so called, have not been allowed this right. They have been retained in the ceded territories and not allowed to go to the other part remaining under the Prague Government.

In many cases they have, I understand, suffered cruel persecution for their political opinions. That is contrary to the undertakings given and the promises made, and before we part with this Bill, voting this large sum of money for the relief of these unfortunate victims of Anglo-French policy at that time, we should be allowed to make some protest. Particularly I would ask the noble Earl—he is aware I am going to raise this point—whether His Majesty's Government are quite helpless in this matter of the so-called Germanic Czechs, and whether we cannot do something to allow these unfortunate people to build up a new life for themselves elsewhere. Earlier we apparently were unable to give diplomatic support to Czecho-Slovakia where only our honour was involved. Well, when this Bill passes our money will be involved. Will that make a better appeal to His Majesty's Government? Are we prepared to give support to this unfortunate nation and to preserve them from further pressure and injustices?


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for having given me notice of some of the questions he raised during the course of his speech. He said that, having dealt with matters of broad policy on the Second Reading discussion, he would now deal with details. I confess he seems to me to have ranged over a very wide field in regard to Czecho-Slovak matters and he has done so with his usual vehemence. Let me apply myself to the actual points he raised. He first of all raised the question of the guarantee for the frontiers of Czecho-Slovakia. I am afraid I am not able to give him any new information on that matter. The question is still under discussion with the Governments of those countries who are concerned but no definite arrangement or decision has yet been reached.

The next point he raised was in connection with the use that is going to be made of the £8,000,000 loan, and he expressed fears and suspicions that that money might be used for purposes which were of no real advantage to the Czecho-Slovak nation itself but would rather be to the advantage of Germany. I do not really know what sources of information the noble Lord has in regard to these matters, and I can tell him that I know nothing whatsoever of the so-called coercion which he says is being employed by Germany in regard to these matters. I can only state the actual facts as I am aware of them, and that I will now proceed to do. The position in regard to this matter I explained fully during the Second Reading debate and I am afraid I have not very much to add to what I said then, but perhaps I can make our position in regard to the matter somewhat clearer. The situation is that, although the whole of the £8,000,000 guaranteed loan is to be spent ultimately for the benefit of refugees, we have agreed that these funds may be applied temporarily for any urgent requirements of national reconstruction, provided that the whole of the amounts so applied for purposes other than the requirements of refugees shall be replaced by the Czecho-Slovak Treasury as and when required for expenditure in connection with the relief and settlement of refugees in Czecho-Slovakia as at present constituted. That is fundamental.

It has also been agreed that one of the primary methods of relief of refugees will be the provision of productive employment through public works, and the Czecho-Slovak Government have informed us that, in speaking of public works, they have primarily in mind the construction of certain roads which are of vital importance to them in the new economic development of their country. At the same time they have given a definite assurance that no part of these funds will be spent on constructing roads with a military object. I should like to add that we have no information as to precisely what roads it is intended to construct with the aid of the money supplied by the guaranteed loan, but we have no reason whatsoever to suppose that the Czecho-Slovak Government wish to evade their undertaking about military roads. The point I wish to bring to the attention of your Lordships is that the allocation of the funds is one of the many points to be settled later by the Czecho-Slovak authorities in consultation with the British liaison officer in Prague who is in close and constant touch with those responsible for spending the money on the Czech side. Moreover, the provision in Annex II of the Exchange of Letters (to which I have referred already) that the Czecho-Slovak Government are to submit a detailed statement of the expenditure actually incurred out of the loan at the end of each quarter, I think quite obviously provides an adequate safeguard, if any is needed, that the money is being properly spent.


Before the noble Earl proceeds to the next point might I justify my own question? I understand these figures of road expenditure are in the recently published Czech Budget issued since the Second Reading of the Bill.


That may be so, but I do not think it affects my argument.


There is some basis for it at any rate.


I do not doubt that. The third point which the noble Lord raised is the question of option, and he suggested that the withholding from persons of German race resident in the Sudeten territories of the right to opt for Czech nationality is inconsistent with the provisions of Article 7 of the Munich Agreement which the noble Lord maintained was intended to confer the right to option on all inhabitants of those territories irrespective of their race. I feel that this point does require some further explanation. Article 7 of the Munich Agreement reads as follows: There will be a right of option into and out of the transferred territories the option to be exercised within six months from the date of this Agreement. A German-Czcho-Slovak Commission shall determine the details of the option, consider ways of facilitating the transfer of population and settle questions of principle arising out of the said transfer. It does not contain any definition of the persons who were to enjoy the right of option, and the elaboration of the general principle laid down at Munich was left to the two countries directly concerned—Germany and Czecho-Slovakia.

This is not to say that once the Munich Agreement had been signed, His Majesty's Government entirely disinterested themselves from the execution of the provisions concerning optants. On the contrary, they were anxious to see the right of option granted without discrimination and on as wide a basis as possible; and before the conclusion of the Optants' Agreement they took care to indicate both in Berlin and Prague the importance which they attached to this point. The German and Czecho-Slovak Governments were, however, under no obligation to accept the views of His Majesty's Government; and although regret may be felt at the restrictions which were placed upon the right of option, His Majesty's Government consider that the two Governments concerned were fully entitled to determine the details of the Agreement in whatever manner seemed to them most suitable. In addition to that I can assure the House that there is no justification for the belief that the Czecho-Slovak Government were obliged to accept these restrictions. On the contrary, I understand that they were never anxious to see the right of option extended to persons of German race in the ceded territories. If only for economic reasons, they have all along wished to keep the number of optants as low as possible, since they realised the difficulty of establishing any further considerable volume of persons within their frontiers; and it is understandable that they should consider first the claims of persons of their own race. With this explanation I hope your Lordships will now be prepared to give a Third Reading to the Bill.

On Question, Bill read 3a, and passed.