HL Deb 14 February 1945 vol 134 cc1011-6

2.2 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to ask a question of which I have given private notice. I wish to ask His Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to ameliorate the economic disdress prevailing in France, Belgium and the Netherlands.


My Lords, I am glad of this opportunity of making a statement on the economic and supply position in the liberated countries of North-Western Europe. Conditions vary very greatly not only as between country and country, but also as between different areas in the same country. A shattered bridge may isolate a district completely, and there will be conditions of acute hardship in that district. Lack of transport creates almost insoluble difficulties in particular regions. That does not mean, however, that there is a serious over-all shortage of food, or that the problem would be solved, or even eased, merely by pumping quantities of foodstuffs into ports which are already strained to capacity.

France is producing as much foodstuffs as she did during the enemy occupation, and great quantities of food formerly taken by the German Army are now available to the French people. The principal difficulty in France, therefore, is one of distribution, and in the main of transport. The Belgian local production, together with S.H.A.E.F. imports, which are rapidly being increased as the produce of the last harvest becomes exhausted, would be sufficient, in our view, with proper distribution, to attain the present target of 2,000 calories per head per day which has been set, but I cannot conceal from your Lordships that in our view the collection and distribution of foodstuffs in Belgium have not been satisfactorily organized. In the liberated areas of Holland our difficulties have inevitably been increased by the fact that they are still the scene of active military operations, but increased supplies are coming in and the situation is rapidly improving. The most formidable problem with regard to Holland will, however, arise only when the areas at present in the occupation of the enemy have been liberated.

There is a good deal of misunderstanding about the rôle which U.N.R.R.A. can play in these matters. U.N.R.R.A. has been criticized in a way which suggests that it has responsibilities for supplying France, say, or Belgium, which it has been unable to discharge. That criticism is entirely unjust. By the terms of its constitution, U.N.R.R.A. cannot intervene in any country unless it is asked to do so by the Government concerned. Both the French Provisional Government and the Belgian Government have preferred to take on this responsibility themselves in so far as it has not been of necessity a military responsibility. That does not mean that other Governments who are unable to finance the relief of their civil populations will not wish to hand over this responsibility to U.N.R.R.A., or that U.N.R.R.A. will not have work to do that will tax its capacity to the utmost.

I have seen it stated that this problem of the needs of liberated Europe has come suddenly upon the Government with a shock of surprise. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was in 1941 that His Majesty's Government took the initiative in summoning a Conference at St. James's Palace to consider these very problems, and for two years past the Anglo-American authorities have been working out concrete plans which have become increasingly effective. It was the essence of these plans that there should be two periods—a military period, when the areas liberated would still be in the immediate war zone, and a civilian period, when the fighting had ceased or at least passed out of the area concerned. It was accepted (and I do not think it can be disputed) that during the first period the import of supplies for the civilian population could be carried out successfully only by the military authorities.

There are, of course, limits to what our Armies can do. The first objective of an Army is to wage war. The energies of the Allied Armies in the field of supplies have been inevitably confined, therefore, to first aid. Our Armies have been concerned with the importation of such essentials as food, medical supplies, soap, clothing, fuel and transport, agricultural supplies, and first-aid repairs for public utilities, in so far as they could be made available. Even so far as food was concerned there had to be these limitations which I have mentioned. It was decided that internal distribution was to be the responsibility of the national Governments and authorities concerned to the Maximum extent possible. I should add that all these military arrangements have been on a combined basis, regardless of whether operations have been carried out by British, American or Canadian tropps.

The long-term task of rehabilitating the national economy and of distributing food in excess of the standard set for the military period belongs, however, to the second stage which I have described—the civilian period. This is a problem by no means confined to food supplies; it involves restarting the whole economic life of the countries concerned. It is at this point that the national Governments themselves must begin to take over. The French Provisional Government and the Belgian Government have already formulated their import programmes for the first six months of this year, and the competent authorities of His Majesty's Government and the United States Government have been instructed to facilitate procurement against these programmes so that supplies will be ready for shipment as shipping can be made available. The Allied Governments have, of course, decided for themselves in these programmes what supplies are most essential. Preliminary steps towards the compilation of a Netherlands Government import programme have already been taken, and a Committee representing S.H.A.E.F., the Royal Netherlands Government, His Majesty's Government and the United States Government is already considering a national import programme for Holland.

The civilian import programmes of the French Provisional Government and the Belgian Government were formulated by the turn of last year, but 1945 brought with it a considerable shipping problem. In this connexion my right honourable friend the Minister of State recently visited Washington and, over a period of some weeks, exchanged views with representatives of the United States Government. I need hardly say that they appreciate as fully as we do the vital importance which, from every point of view, attaches to this matter of provisioning the liberated Allied countries in the wake of the battle. We were able to allocate at once certain shipping during the first quarter of this year for the carriage of supplies under the French and Belgian programmes within the limits of available port capacity and subject to overriding considerations of military necessity. An analysis was also made of this very complex programme which should prove of considerable value to the Governments concerned in regulating the future allocation of our shipping resources.

As regards the improvement of internal transport, since D-Day 7,500 lorries have been sent to the S.H.A.E.F. area—that is, France, Belgium and liberated Holland—for civil purposes. The reconditioning of ex-Army lorries is already under way. The programme is expected to produce from 200 to 300 a week and the first deliveries of 200 a week are expected to begin in a week's time. We hope to provide more new lorries as well. We are concerting with the French authorities measures to speed up locomotive repairs in France; such assistance will take the form of supplies of raw materials, components, machinery, etc. We have dispatched a representative to Paris to discuss wagon repairs and, when his report is received, we shall be in a position to know what materials, components and tools are needed to increase the rate of repairs. The French are informing us of their needs for machine tools and hand tools, and we hope to be able to meet the bulk of their requirements. We are making available reserves of material for highway bridges, which were held here against air-raid damage. S.H.A.E.F. are making tugs available to the French so that barges can be more extensively used. Many other similar forms of assistance are contemplated or in hand and, while it would be idle to hold out hopes that much can be provided from production in this country, the total effect of this assistance is by no means negligible. I would add that we have already sent to the Continent several hundred locomotives for the use of S.H.A.E.F. and are proposing to send a further 200 in the near future. This should relieve the strain on the French railways. It will also increase the strain on our own, which are already overloaded.

There is also the question of restoring the local administrative systems for the collection and distribution of available supplies. In all the countries so far liberated these systems have suffered severely, and this is in some cases the main reason why the target standard has not been reached. While we are doing our best to help, this is ultimately a matter for the Governments concerned and I cannot too strongly emphasize the importance of keeping their administrative machinery up to the mark and tackling this problem with the greatest energy.

To sum up: The economic situation in liberated Europe is certainly grave. Much remains to be done, and it will require the unremitting efforts of the United Kingdom and United States Governments, as well as of the Governments of liberated Europe, to solve the problems which face us. We have to remember also that the requirements of the liberated areas are in direct competition with urgent military demands. Nevertheless, I am confident that the problem will be solved. I am confident that our European Allies understand that we and the United States Government are doing everything in our power and that they understand that our main objective (theirs as well as ours) must be to bring the war in Europe to an end at the earliest possible moment.

2.16 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to thank the noble Earl for the courtesy of that very important statement. It will, of course, require close study and examination, but I think one can say at once that it shows there is no lack of good will and good intention on the part of the Government and, to that extent, should certainly serve to correct many mischievous statements and many mistaken ideas which prevail at the present moment. Again I beg to thank the noble Earl.


My Lords, might I ask the noble Earl, in view of the great importance of the valuable statement which he has just made, to consider whether it would not be proper that the whole subject of the organization of this assistance should be the subject of a discussion in the House on an early occasion? I note that my noble friend below the gangway (Viscount Samuel) has a question on the Paper. Either on that or on some other convenient Motion we ought to have a debate on the subject.


My Lords, I have a question on the Paper on this very matter for the 27th of this month. At present it does not end with a Motion for Papers, but perhaps I might add those words to the question and, if time allows, we might have a discussion on this matter on that date. The subject is one of very great importance. The statement made by the Government to-day will be warmly welcomed. At the same time, there is an uneasy feeling that these measures which are now being taken are six months too late.


My Lords, perhaps I might just say one word with regard to the debate. I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Addison, was contemplating putting down a Motion. The noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, has already a question on the Paper and I have heard rumours that other noble Lords might also wish to raise this problem. If it is convenient for the House I will consult with the noble Lords, Lord Addison and Lord Samuel, and we will get an agreed Motion which could be put down. I do not think the House would wish to have more than one debate.


I shall be only too happy if the Notice standing in the name of Lord Samuel could be modified to meet the occasion.


I shall be glad to do that.

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