HL Deb 21 November 1939 vol 114 cc1865-70

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn.

Moved, That the House do now adjourn.—(Earl Stanhope.)


My Lords, I understand that this is a proper opportunity for me to draw attention to a matter which has stood in my name on your Lordships' Order Paper for some weeks past—the question of the freedom of Germany to export in neutral bottoms. When I originally put this question down, it was for a particular day, but I learnt that in the opinion of His Majesty's Government the time was hardly opportune for a discussion and so I postponed it and put it down under the heading of "No day named." As this Session is now drawing to a close, I would like to mention this matter briefly, especially as I see the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, the Minister without Portfolio, on the Front Bench, and I am sure we are all very glad to welcome him there, I think for the first time, although we have all had the advantage of his advice on matters of defence before he took his place on that Bench.

The matter to which I wish to draw attention is the breaches of International Law by Germany. This country has throughout strictly observed the principles of the Declaration of Paris under which a neutral flag covers any goods save for contraband of war. Germany has taken advantage of this franchise to expand her trade in many directions. She is sending machinery and electrical appliances to Southern and Central America. They are there transformed into local products, and the proceeds sold in the United States for dollars. In the same way her exports are pouring in neutral bottoms through the Suez Canal, and they are being sold in larger quantities than ever before in the Dutch East Indian markets—such products as dyestuffs and hardware and so forth. Now the guilders and the dollars which are earned by this trade are being used by Germany to finance vital purchases of war materials—iron ore and animal fats from Scandinavia, copper and oils and wheat from the Balkans and from beyond her Eastern frontier. Meanwhile, she has pursued a course of murder and piracy, sinking ships without warning, contrary to the law of nations and contrary to the special provisions on the subject of the Treaty of Washington. In spite of the advantage which her exports enjoy in neutral ships, she has interfered with our exports in exactly parallel circumstances.

It is well known from the Press that about forty neutral ships have been sunk by German submarines and German mines. I have no statistics of how far those ships have included neutrals going from British to neutral ports with British exports—where, therefore, under the Treaty of Paris, no questions of stoppage owing to contraband could arise. But I do know by chance of certain cases where those ships have been sunk without warning, where British exports in neutral bottoms have been destroyed between British and Scandinavian ports, and I would suggest that reprisals are now justified, not in the same shape as the German method of savage sinking, but by the impounding of goods of German ownership and origin.

There has been a new factor, which encourages me to raise this matter, in the sinking of the "Simon Bolivar" and the sowing of mines by submarines which appears now to be taking place, contrary to the provisions of a third international agreement, The Hague Convention. Neither the Declaration of Paris, nor the Treaty of Washington, nor The Hague Convention, was framed for one-sided application, and I suggest that the cup of Germany's crimes is overkill. During the last war there was a month's delay between the declaration of submarine blockade by Germany and British reprisals. In contrast, in this case, three months have elapsed during which Germany has pursued methods of mass murder by bombing the civil population of Poland, and piracy on the ocean by sinking the "Athenia" and other ships. I trust that the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, may be able to give us some assurance that these crimes will not pass without retribution and that the Government may soon see their way to take appropriate action.

3.51 p.m.


My Lords, on a point noble Lord replies, this question is on the Notice of Motion Paper, with no day named: To call attention to German export trade carried on in ships of neutral Powers; and to move for Papers. I submit that it is quite irregular, on the Motion for the adjournment of the House, to anticipate a Motion that is already on the Paper and which, technically, may not be brought before your Lordships' House without a day being notified under Standing Order XXI. It is a very important subject upon which, I believe, many noble, Lords would like to address your Lordships. No notice has been given, and we are taken, therefore, at very great disadvantage. I think the rule of the House, which is very clearly stated in Standing Order XXI, has been overstrained.

3.52 p.m.


My Lords, I should be the last to wish to infringe the rules of your Lordships' House. I did take any steps which were open to me to ascertain whether it was in accordance with the practice of your Lordships' House to raise a matter on the adjournment, and I was told there was no limitation on the subjects which might be so dealt with. I raised it primarily to get advice as to whether, seeing the Motion would automatically lapse, I had better put it down again, and I can only say that if it is contrary to the rules of order, then I have transgressed them quite inadvertently.

3.53 p.m.


My Lords, I can only say it is unusual for a question to be raised on the Motion for the adjournment of this House, although I believe it is common in another place. It is open to noble Lords to put a Private Notice question, but then the usual thing is to put it without any speech. In this way the Government are enabled to make statements in this House which may, perhaps, correspond with statements which are being made in another place, and so enable your Lordships to hear simultaneously any statement of Government policy which has been decided upon since the House last met.

3.54 p.m.


My Lords, I have no doubt whatever that my noble friend Lord Crawford, on the point of order, is quite correct, but your Lordships are generally very liberal in your interpretation of the rules of order when it is clear that the House wishes an exception to be made. Of course, if His Majesty's Government, represented by the Leader of the House, entered a protest, and said they were not prepared to make any statement at all, that I suppose would be an end of the matter. No one would wish the slightest breach of order in the teeth of the wishes of the Government, but if it be true that the Government are prepared to make a statement, it would be a disappointment to some noble Lords if that statement were not heard. That has to do with the anticipation of a Motion already on the Paper. As regards the actual taking advantage of the Motion for the adjournment, I do not doubt that upon that my noble friend who sits beside me (Lord Moyne) was well within his rights. On the Motion for the adjourn- ment it would be quite possible to raise any question. Of course, if my noble friend Lord Crawford insists on his point of order, there is nothing more to be done. The anticipation is out of order, and it can only be done by leave of the House. In this case, if the Government do not object, I trust your Lordships would like to hear what they have to say.

3.56 p.m.


My Lords, before I come to the substance of the issue that has been raised, I must thank my noble friend for the kindly and over-flattering words in which he referred to my first appearance to speak from this Bench. I shall not endeavour to follow the noble Lord in all the issues which he raised in asking this question, particularly in view of what has been said on the point of order. The best way in which I can supply an answer to the noble Lord's question is to read to the House a copy of the reply which the Prime Minister has just made to a question in another place. The Prime Minister was asked, in view of the fact that the laying of mines, such as that which sank the "Simon Bolivar" during the last week-end, in trade routes, and without warning, is contrary to International Law, whether His Majesty's Government propose to take any action thereupon.

The Prime Minister's answer is as follows:

"The House will be aware that during the last three days upwards of ten ships, six of which were neutrals, were sunk, with very serious loss of life, by German mines. The Hague Convention to which Germany is a party, and which she announced her intention of observing as recently as 17th September last, provides that when anchored mines are used every possible precaution must be taken for the security of peaceful navigation. This is the very essence of the Convention, as the mine cannot discriminate between warship and merchant ship, or between belligerent and neutral. The Convention particularly requires that the danger zone must be notified as soon as military exigencies permit, once the mines cease to be under observation by those who laid them. If unanchored mines are used, they must become harmless one hour at most after those who laid them have lost control over them.

"None of these provisions has been observed by the German Government in laying the mines which occasioned the losses I have mentioned, and this fresh outrage is only the culmination of a series of violations of agreements to which Germany had set her hand. I need only recall the sinking of the 'Athenia' with the loss of 112 lives and the subsequent destruction of British, Allied, and neutral vessels by mine, torpedo, or gunfire. These attacks have been made, often without warning and, to an increasing extent, with a complete disregard of the rules laid down in the Submarine Protocol to which Germany subscribed or of the most elementary dictates of humanity.

"His Majesty's Government are not prepared to allow these methods of conducting warfare to continue without retaliation. I may remind the House that in the last war, as a measure of justified reprisal for submarine attacks on merchant ships, exports of German origin or ownership were made subject to seizure on the high seas. The many violations of International Law and the ruthless brutality of German methods have decided us to follow a similar course now, and an Order in Council will shortly be issued giving effect to this decision."

On Question, Motion for the adjournment agreed to.

House adjourned at four o'clock.