HL Deb 23 November 1939 vol 114 cc1880-5

12.8 p.m.

LORD NEWTON asked His Majesty's Government how many Basque refugee children are still remaining here and whether any steps are being taken to repatriate them. The noble Lord said: My Lords, it will not be necessary for me to detain the House for more than a few minutes, because the circumstances are quite well known. It will be remembered that over two years ago a number of Basque children, amounting, I think, to over 4,000, were brought to this country in order to prevent their suffering from the results of bombardments and of warfare generally. The arrangement was made on the terms that this was to be only a temporary measure, that they should be retained here only as long as there was any danger, and that at the earliest opportunity they would be repatriated. An enterprise of this kind naturally represents considerable expenditure of money, and I understand that a sum of £165,000 has been spent upon these refugees, but I am not quite clear whether that amount includes the money which was subscribed by foreign countries. With regard to those subscriptions and assistance from foreign countries, I cannot help thinking myself that it was a great pity that assistance was accepted from Russia, because Soviet Russia does nothing unless it expects something in return. If there were rumours in this country that these children were occasionally exhibited as a sort of Communistic specimen and that any blame was attached to Russian action, I am quite sure that nobody has ever yet received anything but damage from associating with those people.

There was another form of criticism which was prevalent at the time when previous attempts were made to repatriate these children, and that was because prominent members of the Committee showed a rather strange reluctance to part with their charges. They rather gave us to understand that the children were much better off here and much happier, and altogether much better situated than if they were returned to their parents. The result was that nothing like the number of children have been repatriated who ought to have been repatriated, and their repatriation has new become more difficult. But the original reason for keeping these children here no longer exists. They were brought here to protect them from danger. There is far more danger from aeroplanes at this moment in this country than there is in Spain, where, as far as I know, there is none. It is very difficult to find an excuse for retaining these children, and the only reason I have come across why they should be retained is that they would be extremely useful as advisers in A.R.P. as they are particularly well qualified to deal with difficulties of that kind.

Personally I can see no reason whatever why these refugees should not be repatriated at the earliest opportunity if means could be found to convey them. There seem to be three overwhelming reasons why they should go. The first is that conditions now are totally different from what they were when they arrived, and there is no danger for them in Spain itself. The second reason, and a very important one, is that the Spanish Government have formally requested that they should be returned. I believe they have made such a request with the exception of children whose parents prefer that they should remain in England. The third reason, and it is a very strong one, is that before long we may be, and in all probability shall be, confronted with the difficulty of other refugees, and they may be refugees who are more worthy of consideration than these children now are. I hope I shall be told that preparations have been made for repatriating these children at the earliest possible moment.

12.12 p.m.


My Lords, I am glad my noble friend has raised this question, and I hope the Government will be able to give a satisfactory reply. The repatriation of these children is long overdue. I cannot help feeling that had the Government shown a little more firmness than they did in the early stages of this movement a great deal of trouble would have been spared. My noble friend has alluded to the amount of money that has been spent. If only that money could have been given to the sick and wounded on both sides in the late Civil War, it would have been far better spent.

I do not believe there was ever any necessity for these children coming here at all. Personally I have been specially connected with a certain section of these children who were provided for in Catholic homes and convents in this country, and I should like to say that a word is due to those who have been looking after the children for the very great trouble and interest they have taken in them and the great personal inconvenience to which they have been put in looking after them. I am glad to say that nearly all these children have now been repatriated. I cannot recall exactly the number there were in this particular batch. I think it was something like 800, but they are now reduced to very few indeed. If only the Government could arrange speedily with the Spanish Embassy for the repatriation of the remainder of the Basque children and others to whom I am alluding, all would be well, but owing to the dilatory tactics which have been employed throughout on this question, they have, to use a common expression, "missed the 'bus." Had it been done before this war began, everything would have been done speedily, but now, owing to mines and other dangers, it has become more difficult. At the same time I hope the Government will come to a speedy arrangement with the Spanish Embassy and that every one of these children will be repatriated almost at once.

12.15 p.m.


My Lords, as a member of the Committee that organised the reception of these children about two and a half years ago, and as one who since that time has been responsible for their welfare in this country, I should like to say one or two words on this question. In the first place, although we should agree with most of what the noble Lord, Lord Newton, has said, I should like to dispel, if I may, one misconception. Our Committee have not received any money at any time from Russia. The money that has been subscribed to our funds has come from people in this country and from certain committees which were organised in different parts of the British Commonwealth. The various other countries who were helping refugee children and other refugees supported themselves and did not subscribe to our fund.

As the noble Lord rightly pointed out, when the children were brought over here it was to save them from conditions of war in Spain. Since these conditions ceased to prevail, when the Civil War came to an end, my Committee were as anxious as any noble Lord opposite to return these children to their parents. We immediately began the process of repatriation. Four thousand children came over here two and a-half years ago, and since the end of the Civil War 3,000 have been repatriated. When the European war broke out this autumn, we were acutely conscious of the reasons advanced by both noble Lords opposite for speeding up the process of repatriation, and we have, in the last two months, sorted out 500 of the remaining 1,000 children who are in a position to return to their homes in Spain. The only possible reason for delay in returning these children is the difficulty of obtaining a ship, which the Spanish Government has been good enough to undertake to provide. If any of the noble Lords opposite would represent the urgency of the matter to the representatives of the Spanish Government in London it would certainly be a great service to us and to the children.

It was suggested by the noble Viscount, Lord FitzAlan, that we ought to send the whole of the remaining children back to Spain. The reason why we are for the time being, and for the time being only, keeping 500 children in this country is that at the moment they have no homes to go to. Their parents are, in some cases, refugees outside Spain, probably in the South of France. Sometimes both parents are in prison for political or other offences, sometimes we have had no information since the children came over about either of them, sometimes the father is in prison and the mother a refugee, or the father is in prison and the mother dead. In these cases the children have no families which they can join in Spain—no homes to go to—and if they were sent back immediately, there is a very considerable likelihood that they might be permanently separated from their parents who may never return to Spain.


Is it not a fact that General Franco has himself undertaken to look after any children who are repatriated whose parents, for the moment, cannot be found?


Our responsibility, which was accepted two and a half years ago when the offer was made by the Basque Government, was towards the Basque Government and towards the parents of the children. We are perfectly aware of the willingness of the Spanish Government to look after these children, but we do not want to do anything that would prevent them from ever being able to be reunited with their parents, and for that reason, in the case of parents who are not at the moment but probably will be later on in a position to provide homes for their children, we are asking the British public to continue to look after them for the time being. As I say, it only applies to a very limited class, and as time goes on we shall be hearing from more of the parents in that class and more of the remaining children will be repatriated. I should like to assure noble Lords that we are as anxious as any one to return the children to their parents, which I am sure they would agree with us is the thing that is most in the interest of the children themselves.

In conclusion, I should like to express our gratitude to all those people who have subscribed money towards the support of the children in the last two and a half years, and to say that while there are a few children remaining we should be immensely grateful to them for continuing to assist. The best form of assistance they can give is by taking the children, as they have done in the past, into their own homes and looking after them themselves. If more private individuals could do that it would tide over the time before the remaining children can return to their own parents. I should like also to express our thanks to the Government for the very friendly co-operation which they have shown from the time the children came over, and which alone has made possible whatever we have been able to do. Particularly I should like to express our thanks to the two Departments mainly concerned, the Home Office and the Foreign Office, and more particularly still to those officials in those two Departments with whom we have been in direct contact. We have received every civility and every consideration, and I believe that the Government are in entire sympathy with our attitude and are doing everything they can to help us to carry out the policy that I have explained to your Lordships this morning.

12.23 p.m.


My Lords, a great deal of water has flowed under the bridges and a great number of chickens have gone home to roost since I last addressed your Lordships on the subject of the Basque children. But it is difficult for me to make a very useful contribution to the debate this morning because the Front Bench speech has already been made by the noble Earl who has just spoken, and who has really given all the information which is available on this subject. Of the 4,000 children who came over at one time or another in the course of this humanitarian experiment, 3,000 have now gone back; and, as the noble Earl has said, arrangements have now been come to with the Children's Committee under the changed circumstances of war, and 500 more children are to be returned in the near future. Therefore at the very outside it only leaves us with 500 who remain to enjoy our hospitality. But I can assure the noble Lord, if he feels that even that is 500 too many, that the Government will press on naturally as best they can in co-operation with the Spanish Ambassador and with the Spanish Government to restore as many more of these children as possible to their own parents. I do not suppose for a moment that they can all go back to their parents; at least it is unlikely that at the end of a civil war that would be possible; but no doubt some more, at any rate, will be able to return, and the Government will certainly press on as expeditiously as possible with that object in view.