HL Deb 10 April 1946 vol 140 cc679-700

4.38 p.m.

THE EARL OF MUNSTER had given Notice that he would call attention to the large number of British subjects in the Dominions, in India, in the Colonies and in foreign countries who desire an early passage home to this country; ask His Majesty's Government what are the prospects of increasing the number of passenger liners available throughout the world to bring home British subjects; and move for Papers.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, throughout the whole period of the war travelling by sea to and from this country was not accomplished without many dangers and difficulties. To-day, some twelve months after the conclusion of hostilities, the dangers have been lifted but the difficulties remain, and the position of British subjects in the Empire and elsewhere who wish to return home is becoming well-nigh intolerable. Many of the people for whom I believe I speak to-day are anxious to get home after seven, eight and even nine years' service overseas without any home leave.

A very large number of them have young children, who could obviously not return during the war for educational purposes, and whose health must suffer from any long stay in a tropical climate. My Motion is therefore designed to draw the attention of His Majesty's Government to the seriousness of the problem, in the hope that they may be able to announce new measures to alleviate the unhappy lot of many thousands of men, women and children who wish to return to their island home. I have made, and shall make, no reference whatever to G.I. brides, Australian brides or any other brides. My question is entirely devoted to these people who want to come back. I have a shrewd suspicion of the number of British subjects in the Dominions, in the Colonies and in foreign countries who are anxious to obtain a passage home, however uncomfortable the journey may prove to be. But whether my suspicion is correct or not, I do know that in January of this year there were 6,000 people in India who had been waiting for months, and even for years, to obtain accommodation for a homeward trip. I shall refer to their case briefly in a moment.

The first question I should like to ask the noble Lord who is going to reply is whether he can tell the House the number, at January 1 of this year, or later, if possible, of persons who had applied for passages and who were still waiting on that date for suitable accommodation on some ship to come home. I know that in sheer desperation many of these people have made more than one application, but that does not seem to me to be any reason why the Government should try to keep these figures secret. I hope, therefore, that the noble Lord will be in a position to tell your Lordships the number of British subjects throughout the whole of the Empire and the world who wish to come back to this country. On March 2 last the Government announced their intention of handing back on that date all cargo vessels to their owners, although passenger liners, with very few exceptions, were still controlled by the Ministry of Transport as transport ships. I wonder if the noble Lord could tell me the number of liners which are still operating under the control of the Ministry of Transport and how many have been returned to their owners. I shall make no criticism of the Ministry of Transport, who, I believe, have done excellent service throughout the whole period of the war and in these months of peace. However, they are at the mercy of the Service Departments, with the result that passage facilities made available for civilians on any particular date and from any named port overseas are sometimes cancelled at the last minute. I would ask your Lordships to picture the mental agony of young men, young women and children, who, some months previously, had been promised a passage home to England on a certain date, only to find on their arrival at the port that at the last moment their passage had been cancelled.

In a very few words I should like to try to show the House what actually occurs. During my recent visit to India I came face to face with the problem, of which of course I was aware before then. Up to January I of this year no fewer than 6,000 persons had asked for and were awaiting passages home. That number has been steadily increasing by reason of current bookings, and it is estimated that at the end of this month there will be no fewer than 11,000 people awaiting passages back to this country. There is a system in operation in India—and I have no doubt that the same system operates elsewhere—by which priorities for civil and military passengers who wish to come home are arranged in eight categories. I need not weary the House with these categories, nor need I enter into the somewhat complicated arrangement for the allocation of passages home, which is ultimately under the control of the Ministry of Transport. Roughly speaking, 400 passages a month are allocated to civilians in sailings from India.

One of two things now occurs. Either the Service Department—in this case I think it is the War Office—cannot arrange for sufficient transport to be allotted to the Indian run or, having obtained sufficient transport, it finds it necessary, probably due to faulty calculation, to reserve the greater part of the accommodation for Service personnel. So, as your Lordships will see, in both cases it is the civilian-priority category traveller who has to forgo his place and wait, perhaps indefinitely, until another opportunity arises. It is quite clear that the difficulty of clearing off the arrears of civilian passengers is aggravated by this lack of shipping or by the last minute demands of the Service Departments. But in India that is not quite the whole story; lately there has been a considerable reduction in the air trooping lift, and this in itself increases the pressure on the limited accommodation which has been reserved for women and children. I wonder if the noble Lord could give us some information as to why the air trooping lift has been reduced, if not abandoned, and whether it is intended to start it again or to increase it to its former level.

Your Lordships observe that I have dealt chiefly with the question as it affects India, but from letters I have received from South Africa and from information which has been placed at my disposal concerning Australia I have no doubt whatever that the plight of British persons wishing to return home from those two Dominions is just as serious as the plight of those in India. That brings me to the question of what can be done to alleviate the sufferings and the continuous worries of British persons overseas who want to come back. I wonder if the Government could release for immediate reconditioning one or more liners to be put on those routes and to visit those countries where the situation is so bad. If the Government are unable to do that, would it be possible for them to add an additional liner to those routes, and could the accommodation on that additional liner be reserved wholly and entirely for deserving cases? I read in the newspapers the other day that the Ministry of Transport had taken the "Mauritania" off the North Atlantic run and put it on the Indian run to Bombay. Is it intended that this ship shall be used entirely to convey civilian passengers?

I wonder if the noble Lord could tell us whether he, speaking on behalf of the Minister of Transport, is satisfied that there is no wastage by the Service Departments. Could he also ensure that Service demands are not subject to frequent and constant fluctuation, and that the quotas which have been given on each ship to bring back the civilians are not changed at the last moment? I have wondered whether we are making a maximum use of aircraft carriers to convey military 'as well as naval personnel home from the East. The noble Lord, with his knowledge of naval matters, will no doubt be able to tell me whether the maximum use has been made of them, and whether it would be possible to put additional aircraft carriers on these routes, already over-burdened, in order to release liners for civilian use. I have been informed that there is a scheme in operation whereby military and I suppose Air Force personnel, too, win are serving in the Middle East are shipped to Toulon and Marseilles, and then complete the passage home by tram through France. I wonder if that plan is working to its full capacity. Perhaps the noble Lord can give us some indication of how it is working.

Finally, I would ask the noble Lord whether he himself could not make arrangements for additional aircraft to be placed on these routes to convey home the most pressing and deserving cases. That is the general case which I put to the noble Lord to-day, and I hope I shall have the support of other noble Lords in this House. Might I just add this? I read with some surprise a few days ago that the B.A.O.C. had agreed—no doubt under the authorization of the noble Lord, the Minister of Civil Aviation—to convey in one of their aircraft home from India a giant panda, with 80 lbs. of bamboo shoots upon which to feed it, and a Chinese zoologist who was to interpret the wishes of the panda and to feed it at reasonable hours. I would really ask the noble Lord, having regard to the position when there are tens of thousands of people waiting to come back, why he gives this priority to pandas.

I would like to summarize to your Lordships a letter which appeared in The Times a short time ago. The letter says this: Can nothing be done to get extra ships to bring home the many families of civilians and Servicemen whose homecoming is long overdue …? Many have children and have been waiting with boxes packed in hopes of a passage. The hot weather is upon them, and travelling with children becomes increasingly difficult in the heat. Meanwhile leave is expiring and aged parents are waiting. In many cases families have not met for over eight years, owing to war conditions. In our own case we have not seen our son for that period; he is a doctor, and has been engaged in medical work among the Forces in addition to his usual work … so is greatly in need of a rest … and we are both over eighty years of age. Can nothing be done to expedite matters? In spite of all our losses during the war; in spite of the difficulties to-day, I do believe that something additional could be done to assist these people, and I can only re-echo the words of that letter: Can nothing be done to expedite matters?

4.55 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to say a few words in support of the noble Earl's Motion. I think all your Lordships will agree that he has performed a great service in bringing it before your Lordships' House and, like him, I do not speak in any sense of criticism of the Government for what has not been done. We all realize the difficulties regarding transport since the war, whether it be by air or whether it be by ship, and I do not feel that the Government have been remiss. But I wish to support the appeal which the noble Earl has so movingly made that something more should be done. The noble Earl has referred particularly to India, a country of which he knows a great deal more than I do. He is aware of the facts in that country, and has given your Lordships figures and facts which I think have gone far to prove his case.

I rise to say a few words so far as South Africa is concerned. Last autumn when I was in South Africa I heard there were about 6,000 or 7,000 British subjects who were anxious to get back to this country, either on a visit or to come back to their own homes. There was quite insufficient shipping to convey them. I think the noble Lord who will reply to this debate will agree that when you begin to talk about thousands of civilians wishing to travel, so far as the air is concerned his Department would be unable to cope with it. It is only by placing additional shipping at the disposal of these people that their difficulties will be able to be solved. Only the day before yesterday I received a letter from South Africa from a friend of mine, whose wife and two children have been anxious to get over here since July last. They made application, and were told it was quite impossible to leave probably until May or June of this year. Now it has been found that whilst a passage can be given to the lady in question—who has been ill and has to come over here for treatment, and is receiving very special priority—she has to leave her two daughters behind, and that whilst it is possible they may be given passages next April, even that is not certain.

That is only one case. There are thousands of others in the same category, all waiting to come over here either to join their relatives or for schooling purposes or for private affairs. I am talking particularly about South Africa but the same conditions apply also in Australia, India, New Zealand and other parts of our Empire where people have been kept out of this country for six years owing to circumstances over which they had no control. They wish to return here as quickly as possible, even if only for a visit to see once more their own people in this country. To-day, from the figures I have heard, there are anything from 12,000 to 15,000 people in this category in South Africa awaiting passages to this country. I urge the Government to see what can be done to provide shipping for these people. Whether that shipping goes up the East Coast of Africa through the Canal, or up the West Coast of Africa straight to the United Kingdom, I am sure would be immaterial to a great many of these would-be travellers, if only they could get home. I wish to support the noble Earl in the plea he has made, and to congratulate him on doing so.

5.0 p.m.


My Lords, I have listened to the speeches of the noble Earl and the noble Viscount, Lord Elibank, and I noted that they devoted themselves mainly to the first part of the Motion, which asks about "an early passage home to this country." I happen to be President of the West India Committee, which concerns itself with the welfare of the British West Indies and the residents there, and I want to ask His Majesty's Government what are the prospects of increasing the number of passenger liners available throughout the world to bring home British subjects. Thai: includes British subjects who are resident in the West Indies and who are stranded in this country. I would like to give your Lordships a picture of the situation in which many of these people find themselves. As your Lordships know, the West Indies are among the oldest and the most beautiful possessions of the Crown, and their inhabitants have a splendid record for loyalty to the Throne. They contributed many thousands of volunteers, both in the 1914–18 war and in the recent one, to all three Services.

Before the last war, there were two main routes to this Dependency. One was the route to and from Jamaica; the other was to and from Trinidad and the Lower Caribbean Islands and British Guiana. As to the route to Jamaica, before the war there were two lines which carried bananas from Jamaica to this country, each of which maintained a weekly passenger service. They were Fyffes Line and the Jamaica Banana Producers Co. Ltd. In addition, the Royal Mail, Shaw Savill & Albion, and the East Asiatic Lines each maintained a monthly service, and other lines called occasionally—probably about twelve ships a month each way—between the West Indies and this country. Nowadays they have only the Jamaica Producers, who run one ship of a capacity to carry 50 passengers, and Fyffes Line, running two small ships, each carrying only 18. passengers. These are the only lines which now run regularly to and from Jamaica.

The position on the other main line route is even worse. Before the war, the Harrison Line maintained a monthly service with the "Inanda" and "Inkosi"; there was a Dutch Line (Royal Netherland & Steamship Co.) which maintained a fortnightly service, a French line (the C.G.T.) which also maintained a fortnightly service, and two German lines (the Hamburg American and Horn Lines) which maintained monthly and fortnightly services respectively. This amounted roughly to eight ships each way in a month. Nowadays, no regular passenger service exists between the British West Indies and this country. The Harrison Line ships were sunk early in the war, and have not been replaced. The French and German Lines have no ships on the route. The Dutch Line has three small ships running to and from the West Indies, but priority is, naturally, given to Dutch subjects who are passengers to the Dutch West Indies, and only three or four berths are usually available for British subjects. The cost is £78 single against £36 pre-war.

At the present moment there are about 5,000 or 6,000 Service personnel awaiting repatriation to their homes. Service men whose release date has long since passed, can get no satisfaction from any authority as to the possible date of their repatriation to their homeland. This is particularly exasperating the case of the R.A.F., notably to the members of the air-crews of the R.A.F., because the R.A.F. have repatriated the West Indian members of the ground crews, and so excluded air-crew members who have far longer service and a prior right to repatriation. I have, naturally, no desire to hamper in any way tin legitimate desire of ground-crews to get home, but I do think that it is a shame to gratify their desire at the expense of their air-crew colleagues.

Apart altogether from the Service personnel, there are literally thousands of people, both in the West Indies and here, awaiting passages to and from the islands. On both sides, there are numbers of business men who urgently need passages in connexion with the re-establishment of their businesses in export and import trades. There are numbers of employees of private firms, and there are also hundreds of wives and children of men whose working lives must be spent in the West Indies and who are unable to join their husbands and fathers. The result is, I think, nothing short of a scandal. The husbands are forced to maintain two establishments on resources quite inadequate for that purpose. Many cases of real hardship, and, indeed, of acute financial embarrassment, come constantly to the notice of the West India Committee. The West India Committee has repeatedly communicated with the Colonial Office, but unfortunately the Communications Department of that office seems to be in a hopeless muddle. We have heard of numbers of cases where on inquiry as to the progress of an application for a passage the papers cannot be found. Replies to letters take at least three weeks, but a great number of letters and cables are simply ignored.

I called attention to the fact that the Harrison liners were lost early in the war. So far as is known, no steps have yet been taken to replace them. I understand that the chief difficulty is that no decision has yet been taken by the Colonial Office as to the type of service which they would require of any company undertaking the service—that is to say, passenger accommodation, speed of vessels, quality of accommodation, etc.


Would the noble Viscount kindly repeat the name of the Office where he alleges there has been these delays?


The Colonial Office, which, of course, is concerned with the British West Indies. In the circumstances which I have just mentioned, Harrisons are naturally unwilling to commit themselves to a ship-building programme which, when it is completed, may not suit official requirements, and may be completely unprofitable without assistance from the Government. Obviously, to build suitable vessels and put them into commission will take not months but years, and the time has long passed when a decision should have been taken on this matter, and communicated to the shipping companies.

I believe that about a year ago the Colonial Office did dispatch a circular to the various West Indian Governments asking them for their views as to the passenger traffic of the area, and as to the speed, frequency, and size of the vessels which, in their view, would be required to maintain an adequate service. Presumably this was in order to enable the Government to decide what measure of assistance they should give, and the type of accommodation they would require, but no intimation has yet been given by the Colonial Office or any Government Department as to any decision which has been taken on these points. I should like to ask the noble Lord who is to answer for the Government, whether the Government have in fact made up their minds as to what they would require and what help they would be prepared to give. I would also like to ask whether any British shipping company has as yet indicated that it is prepared to operate a mail and passenger service between this country and Trinidad and the rest of the British West Indies. I hope the sense of public indignation about this matter will stimulate the Government to perform their public duty, which they seem lamentably to have failed to do so far.

5.11 p.m.


My Lords, I would like to add one or two words in support of this Motion. I need not say anything on the ground of hardship, which is very grave, or of convenience, or of the needs of business—particularly export, which is so important at this time. They have been most thoroughly covered by the noble Lords who have spoken. This is not merely an appeal on what I may call sentimental grounds—although they are very, very strong, when people have been separated for years and years. It rankles all the more when you get the kind of case to which one of my noble friends referred, where the ground staff get home but the people who have been doing the dangerous job of flying do not get home. I want to say a word about Service co-operation at the end. I put the appeal first on the ground of efficiency.

I want to pray in aid my own experience in West Africa. A tremendous task all over the Commonwealth and Empire is going to fall on our administrators, who have been discharging vastly added duties all through the war with very little leave. I was very lucky when I was out in Africa. I stood up to the climate because I was brought home for Cabinet meetings every year. It made all the difference in the world. I can say without any hesitation whatever, from my own personal experience, that unless you bring them home in eighteen months, efficiency steadily goes down. Their minds cease to work; and when a man has been out two years, and still more two and a half years, he really is perfectly useless. You never run an engine like that. At least you would very probably get the sack if you were a mechanic if you did. The noble Lord does not allow the aircraft that he runs—that he tells his companies how to run—to wait until they are all completely worn out, and their pistons are making an awful noise, before they have their overhaul. Yet that is exactly what we are doing with our public servants. It is not only hard treatment, it is very bad business. The noble Earl made some reference to the grand panda. I do not know whether that came home in partnership, and that one of the achievements of the noble Lord's Empire tour was to bring home the grand panda to join Uncle Torn Cobley and all.

It is not only bad mechanics, it is bad planning. The Government are a great Government of planners and I hope they are going to plan this shipping rather better. I wonder whether the best possible use is being made of the ships. I know it is easy to criticize when you have no longer the responsibility, but there are certain principles—practical principles—on which in these matters it is wise to work and they are principles we worked on together during the war. Our shipping was quite extraordinarily well run during the war, and after all ships were being sunk all the time and they are not being sunk now. In fact those which went into repair must be coming out and now there must be more ships.


And no convoys.


And no convoys. You had then to bring the fastest ship down to the pace of the slowest. Indeed you had to take the chance of sending the fast ship independently routed, without any convoy, in order to avoid any loss of time. We won through because we charged with the conduct of shipping people who knew how to run ships. Nobody knew more than Lord Leathers and people like Sir Ralph Metcalfe, Director of Sea Transport. I wart to ask the noble Lord whether that is being done to-day. The Government must lay down what are the priorities. They must tell the Services who will make their claim on what the priorities ought to be. That is all right. What I want to know is, who is really running the ships? Is it the people who know about running ships, or is it the Service Departments? It is perfectly right that the Services should have a right to say "We have got to have so many men transported every month from here to there," but what is not reasonable is for the Services to tell the shipping people how to do the job. They ought to say whom they want carried, but they should not be the judges of what ships they should be carried in, or how they should come.

I take an example from my noble friend Lord Munster about the use of Toulon and Marseilles. Obviously everything, or a very great deal, depends on a quick turnround. By slight reinforcements on the railways of France—and they have not to carry to-day the millions of men and munitions which they had in the war—it might be possible to make better use of them. Is the fullest use being made of them? Obviously if you can bring a ship into Marseilles, turn it round quickly and get it away to the East again, and bring home overland the men—and they would not mind not being awfully comfortable just for a few hundred miles across France—then the little ships can bring them quickly across the Channel. I am not making any allegations about this.

Then again, special ships should be used quickly to do a special job. Lord Leathers was doing that over and over again. Sudden emergencies arose which had to be met. The ship, and the right ship, could be quickly slipped in to do a particular job. You need not necessarily establish a line and say, "If this ship goes it has got to run on a scheduled service"—as the noble Lord would call it—but you might have a charter service equally suitable for the purpose. The main thing I want to be sure of—and frankly I am not quite sure of it—is that the people who have the say in what ships are to go, and how they shall run, are the people who really know how to manage the ships. The other people are the travellers, whether Service Departments or not. They are the customers; and the people who know how to run the ships are the operators.

5.19 p.m.


My Lords, let me say at once that my right honourable friend is acutely aware of the large numbers of British subjects now overseas who desire an early passage home. The number of those desiring passages outward from the United Kingdom must be at least equally large. It is frankly recognized that most of these people have a very good claim for an early passage. I regret very much but I have to say, equally frankly, that the prospects of increasing the number of passenger liners available throughout the world to carry out this movement are not bright in the short term. It would be as cruel as it would be wrong to make promises, or to hold out hopes which are not certain of fulfilment in this matter. My right honourable friend very deeply regrets the prolonged delays which are inevitably encountered by persons wishing to travel overseas, even if they have very good reasons for doing so. It is a matter which gives him real concern, and it is one which he keeps under his direct attention.

The real difficulties are due to two causes which are quite beyond his control. First, crippling losses in passenger ships on naval service, particularly armed merchant cruisers, were suffered by the British Merchant Marine during the war. These were far in excess of similar losses suffered by any of our Allies. Secondly, such passenger ships as remain to us are almost entirely occupied with urgent military movements and with the repatriation of Service personnel badly needed in productive industry.

British passenger liners requisitioned at the outbreak of war, mostly as armed merchant cruisers, but some for trooping service, suffered the losses which I have mentioned. At the end of the war, such of them as remained to us were switched on to the repatriation of Allied armies. In addition to these repatriations, the wives and families of Dominion Service men have to be carried back to their home Dominions. In recent weeks a few passenger liners have been released from military service. These are now undergoing reconversion, but this work will take about six months in the case of the larger vessels. In view of the Government's recent decision to accelerate repatriation, it is under consideration whether any more passenger ships can be released in the next two or three months. Even if they can be, the number cannot be large, but as soon as vessels can be spared from their military tasks they will be released at once.

In the meantime, my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport has made arrangements to secure the maximum use for civilian passengers of such resources as are available. In the United Kingdom and in the major overseas areas Priority Boards have been set up to ensure that those whose journeys are most urgent shall travel first. A very restricted flow of civilian passengers is carried on troopships. The number cannot be increased owing to technical considerations, in particular the shortage of cabin accommodation in troopships. There are very many cargo liners which carry a limited number of passengers, and the accommodation on these ships is employed to the full under priority directives from the Minister.

Looking to the future, we can expect that the number of passenger liners released from military service will be much increased towards the end of the year, but I must point out that these ships so released will not begin to affect the situation until about six months after their release. Even this period assumes that sufficient labour in the shipyard finishing trades can be found to carry out all the reconversion work. There are seven large passenger carriers under construction in this country, but only one of these is likely to be in service this year. A very much larger number of passenger-cum-cargo liners is being built, but here again only four are likely to be in service by the end of this year, although a large number will come into service next year.

I should like to answer the specific questions which were put to me by the noble Earl and in respect of which he was considerate enough to give me notice. I think the noble Earl said that only 400 civilians were being brought back every month by sea from India. My information is that actually about 1,000 a month, including the wives of Service men, are being brought back. Then the noble Earl asked me the number of British persons overseas who had applied for a passage home and were still waiting on January this year. I think the noble Earl made some reference to the figures being secret. I know of no wish to secrete any figures in this connexion, but it is a fact that the precise figures are not available for this date. The number of civilian priority passengers awaiting homeward passage to the United Kingdom from the several Dominions and Colonies on March 15, 1946, was 36,874. As regards the number of British passenger liners operating at present on the more important routes and the accommodation available in them for civilians, the total number of ships operating as troopships was 107.

With some few exceptions, all purely passenger liners are at present engaged in trooping service, and the majority of them are employed in bringing back Forces for repatriation from India and the Far East. There are also the small passenger-cargo liners of which I have spoken, which in some cases carry up to 250 passengers. The majority of them, however, carry under 50. But these ships taken together make a substantial contribution to the problem, particularly from New Zealand, Australia and India. The allocation of berths (and this I think answers a point put to me by the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton) available for civilians in these ships after the Cabinet have decided the military allocation is determined by Piority Boards set up in the several Dominions and Colonies.

Then I was asked what is the reason for the considerable reduction in the air-trooping lifts from India, and whether it is possible to make more aircraft available. In order to reduce the strain on the squadrons engaged on the air-trooping programme during the winter, the Air Ministry in January of this year introduced a series of measures, details of which were given by the Under-Secretary of State for Air in another place on January 23. The effect of these measures was to cut down the target of the air-trooping programme between this country and India from 10,000 to 5,000 a month in each direction and to suspend the United Kingdom-Italy programme. Further drastic cuts in Royal Air Force manpower accompanied by an increased rate of demobilization were subsequently decided on, and as a result it became clear that the air-trooping programme must eventually be terminated. This was announced in the recent White Paper on Defence which said that as demobilization proceeds still further, the air-trooping programme must inevitably be brought to a close. This factor has been fully taken into account in our demobilization plans.

The reduction of the troop lifts from India has thus been due to the contraction of the Royal Air Force as a result of demobilization. It is not entirely a question of the availability of aircraft, it is also a question of the availability of aircrew to fly the aircraft and of experienced ground personnel to maintain them. But while the resources of Transport Command are limited, both by the reduction in the size of the Royal Air Force and by the disturbance caused by the rapid demobilization of so large a proportion of the Forces, such air transport resources as we have will be fully employed on useful work including the maintenance of scheduled services between the United Kingdom and India and the Far East. While I have to announce this reduction, I am sure your Lordships will recognize the immense trooping programme which has been so successfully carried out by Transport, Command.

As regards civil aircraft, it is appreciated that the existing services on the main Empire routes provide insufficient capacity to cope with all the demands. These services are, however, being developed as rapidly as possible as additional aircraft and crews become available; but even if additional aircraft were immediately available, there would still be a crew difficulty in view of the special training required fully to qualify ex-Service pilots for commercial air transport operations. Then the noble Earl asked me if the Government could release one or more large passenger liners, which, when reconditioned, would be put on the routes where they were most needed. Consideration has been and is being given to the release of passenger liners for reconversion when military requirements permit, and two are now in hand. The question of further releases is being examined at this moment in consultation with the Service Departments. Then I am asked whether there is any wastage by the Service Departments. This point was also raised by the noble Viscount. Is accommodation, which has been reserved for civilian passengers, seized at the last moment by the Service Departments? The noble Earl said that Service demands are in violent fluctuation, but a great deal of the world is in violent commotion at the moment, so that is not surprising.


May I interrupt for one moment? That is perfectly true—the world is in a difficult position. I am talking, however, about soldiers coming home from India, not those having to go to India. The position is that a number of troops arrive in Bombay. The War Office estimate the number will be 10,000, but it is found there are 20,000. By that method the civilian, who has a place reserved for him on a particular ship, is squeezed out.


I quite appreciate the noble Earl's point, and that the remark about fluctuation was particular and not general. My information is, however, that this matter is very carefully watched. The ships are under Ministry of Transport control. Once the military lift has been allocated, the military authorities have no further say in the matter, and my right honourable friend knows of no cases of accommodation reserved for civilians having been seized at the last moment by the Services. If the noble Earl has some specific cases in mind, I hope very much he will let me know of them, and I will certainly bring them to the attention of my right honourable friend, who I know will be very glad to look into the position.

I am asked, is the best use being made of aircraft carriers? As demobilization proceeds, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep ships in commission, and this applies to aircraft carriers. I may tell the noble Viscount that everything is being done to use aircraft carriers for trooping purposes, but the Admiralty give priority to the carriage of naval personnel homewards because they can help towards working the ship. Your Lordships will notice that while this helps on the homeward journey, it still leaves the Admiralty with the difficulty of manning on the outward voyage. Although priority is naturally given to naval personnel, personnel of other Services are carried, and consideration would be given to the car- riage of other exceptionally urgent cases. This use by the Admiralty of aircraft carriers for bringing home naval personnel of course reduces the Admiralty demands on other shipping space; in fact, such Admiralty demands are now practically negligible.

The last question put to me by the noble Earl was with regard to the "Mauretania." The "Mauretania" will be used outwards for civilians going to India, and Italian prisoners of war returning to Italy. Homewards, she will form part of India's back lift, which covers both troops and civilians. The proportions of military and civilian passengers carried by an individual ship are determined by technical considerations, as I have mentioned, namely, the proportion of cabin accommodation available. What matters is the total lift, not that of any particular ship. As regards the overland journey from Marseilles and Toulon, which of course would save so much shipping space, I am informed that its importance is realized, and that overland service is being fully utilized.


How many ships are there on that run from Toulon?


I will communicate the number to the noble Earl later. The noble Viscount, Lord Elibank, dealt with this question mainly from the point of view of South Africa. A great many of his points have been generally covered by the answers which I have given to the noble Earl. It has been brought to my notice, however, that my right honourable friend answered a question as recently as March 4 about the allotting of more ships and berths for British and South African nationals on the lines serving South Africa. My right honourable friend said: Large numbers of passenger ships have been converted for use as troopships and will continue to be needed for this purpose for some time to come, and until they can be released and reconditioned, accommodation for civilian passengers must inevitably be short. The available passenger space is allotted as equitably as possible on the various routes concerned, with due regard to the numbers of priority and essential passengers awaiting movement on each route. South Africa's needs receive the same consideration as those of other destinations. Appreciable numbers of people have in fact been brought back from South Africa during the last few months.


May I interrupt for one moment to point out that there are two routes from South Africa? You can either go by the West Coast or go round the East Coast, and you are serving two different sets of ports, communities and trades. Consequently, it may be more easy to put additional ships on the South African route than on the others, and I feel quite sure that those civilians who want to go over would be only too pleased to put up with the rather more lengthy voyage up the East Coast if they could only get home. That is the point would like to urge.


I will certainly bring that point to the notice of my right honourable friend, who, I am sure, will appreciate its importance. The noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, raised the question of the West Indies in particular. Again might I call his attention to a reply recently given by my right honourable friend to the effect that careful attention would be paid to the question of the West Indies, but that he regretted that he was unable to see any prospect of an early improvement? I understand that the Netherlands are increasing their capacity on that route. But may I assure the noble Viscount that there is no discrimination intended against the West Indies? They share, I fear, in the misfortunes which are caused by general shortage of shipping with suitable accommodation.

I will certainly bring to the attention of my noble friend the Secretary of State for Air, and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Colonies, what the noble Lord has said affecting their Departments. I should be reluctant myself to encourage any statement as regards the Services, that one section was being gratified at the expense of another. Certainly, I am sure that in no Service could there be any deliberate intention of doing that sort of thing. If we are to use such a word as "scandal", I must point out that the use of that word is only justified when the matter cannot be remedied. There may be a disastrous and unfortunate state of affairs prevailing, but unless it can be shown that it cannot be remedied, the use of the word "scandal" cannot be justified.

The noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, raised several very important matters, but I think he will agree that many of the points which he raised have been answered by the replies I have given to the noble Earl. I agree with him completely on the importance of leave for our administrators. I have seen many men working under very arduous conditions abroad who, quite clearly, were not able to do as good work as they would desire to do because they had not had proper leave. Certainly the Government wish that they should have proper leave, but, as I have said, I am afraid many people share in a general misfortune brought about by causes which are almost beyond control. The noble Viscount says that we should plan our shipping better, but I do not think he has succeeded in showing where we are planning it badly. It is true that we are not having sinkings now, but I remember very vividly indeed the matter of the sinkings during the war, because I took a particular interest in that matter. In that connexion I think it is necessary to point out that we must not, for the purposes of his Motion, lump cargo and passenger ships together. Our great difficulties at this moment are due to the particularly heavy losses of passenger ships which we incurred during the war and to the fact that during the war such replacements as were built were replacements of cargo ships and not of passenger ships. That was a perfectly proper decision, but we are suffering for it at this moment.

The noble Viscount asked whether the people who knew about ships were running them or whether the Services were doing so. I can assure him at once that it is the Ministry of Transport who are running the ships and not the Services; and the Ministry of Transport is, of course, in constant touch with the shipping companies. It is not the case that the Service authorities are telling the shipping people how to do their job: the Ministry of Transport is in control. I would certainly endorse what the noble Viscount said about the work performed by the noble Lord, Lord Leathers, during the war, which commands the admiration and respect of all of us. However, while in some ways the noble Lord had a more difficult task, in some ways he had perhaps an easier one because in meeting his problems he could call upon the whole of the Allied shipping resources. To that extent his task was in some ways simpler than the task which confronts the Government to-day.

I have endeavoured to answer clearly and fully all the questions which have been put to me. I would conclude by saying that while there has been a note of criticism—it is nothing that I would complain about for a moment—running through some of that speeches, criticism is only justifiable if it can be shown that my right honourable friend is not doing all that can be done in this matter, and I consider that that has not been shown. The noble Earl has raised a most important matter and, if he will allow me to say so, he has done so very fairly indeed. We can all of us imagine the human implications which lie behind this Motion. It bears to some extent upon the Motion which the noble Earl introduced on the subject of Service divorces in that it deals with prolonged absence placing a heavy strain upon married life. Then there are those factors of which he spoke—health, education which is interrupted and business which cannot be resumed or restored. We all sympathize deeply with those who long so much to get home and have to suffer that hope deferred which fills the heart with sorrow. Words, I realize, are poor things in the face of so much anxiety and frustration. As I have said, it would be as cruel as it would be wrong to make promises which possibly might not be fulfilled, but I wish to tell all those who are affected by the existing state of affairs, many of whom are living in very lonely places under very difficult conditions, that their need is not forgotten. The Government and my right honourable friend are alive to what is involved, but the plain fact is that what can be done is being done. It will be our constant endeavour to do more and as much as the circumstances will allow to reunite the exiles with their homes and their families.

5.48 p.m.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for the information which he has given in the course of his reply. I quite agree with him that it would be cruel and wrong to hold out hopes and bright prospects to these people overseas when none really exist. I understood the noble Lord to say that the Toulon route was working to full capacity. I hope it is, but perhaps he will ask his right honourable friend to look into the matter again. There were two Italian liners on this route, one of which was sunk. My latest information goes to show that there is in point of fact one ship only running on that route from the Middle East at the moment. The noble Lord said there were 107 liners in operation to-day. I should have thought myself that military movement and the repatriation of Service men from overseas was declining and that more of these liners could be put on the routes on which they are most required. The noble Lord mentioned that 1,000 a month were coming back from India. It is quite correct that my figures were wrong and that it was 1,000 a month during last year and the first months of this year, but it is not so now. Here the noble Lord has been wrongly informed. The figure has been cut down to 300 a month. It was that figure which was in my mind and perhaps the noble Lord will take it up with the Minister of Transport. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.