HL Deb 04 March 1947 vol 146 cc94-100

4.30 p.m.

THE LORD BISHOP OF SHEFFIELD rose to ask His Majesty's Government, what facilities can be given for the sending of gifts of food and clothing in bulk for distribution through approved agencies in the British Zone in Germany and in Austria; and to move for Papers.

The right reverend Prelate said: My Lords, the Motion down in my name covers a limited subject and I propose to keep well within its limits. I will assume that there is general agreement in regard to shortage of food in many cities in the British Zone and in regard to shortage of clothing, at least among the expellees in the British Zone. These facts are now widely known in this country, and there are a great many people who want to do something to relieve the situation. No single individual can send much, but collectively something appreciable can be sent. To my knowledge, our responsible officials over there want these extra supplies of food and clothing to be distributed through welfare organizations where they are most needed and to the people who need them most. I think it is true to say that they recognize that such gifts from various sections of the community over here to different sections of the community over there have, in addition to their material value, a psychological value in that they encourage morale and also sharing among the German and Austrian people themselves. One's plea, therefore, is that this flow should be encouraged and allowed to take place smoothly and quickly, but for some reason or other the flow is not so quick as some of us would wish.

First, a word about the food. It is widely known now that permission is given for individuals over here to send parcels of rationed food up to 7 lb., by post to addresses over there. That permission has brought great relief to the minds of many who have relatives and friends over there. But I would point out that there is no ground for supposing that these personal gifts go of necessity to those whose need is greatest; they merely go to those who happen to have someone over here who knows them. As a method of relief, it is chancey and casual, and it is not really what the welfare officials over there most want. Alternatively, of course, one may send a parcel through "Save Europe Now" or some other organization, which can then be sent on to a welfare organization over there, but it has always to be a 7 lb. parcel. One knows that brown paper and string are in very short supply in the British Zone, but they are also in rather short supply in this country. I cannot see the sense in requiring, if you have several thousand pounds of stuff to send and when obviously it is much easier to pack it in, say, 70 lb. parcels, that you have to send it in 7 lb. parcels, which all go to the same organization.

One asks: Why so fantastic a regulation? So far as my researches enable me to find out, it is because some people m positions to exercise authority think that if a group collection is made in any locality, individuals who are not really in a position to give anything may be persuaded by a mass emotion to give more than they need. Mr. A., who dines or lunches regularly in an hotel during the week, may, out of his superfluity, give 10 lb., and his action may persuade Mrs. B., who feeds at home, to give 10 lb. out out her scarcity. I cannot believe that life works like that. My observation of the local collection is that there is no competition whatsoever in sacrifice, and that in fact it enables many people who can only give a very little indeed, not 7 lb., to give it for the relief of their consciences and for the good of their neighbours overseas. I hope, therefore, that such regulations may be withdrawn, and certainly in the Churches we should like to feel that we could collectively send these gifts to similar groups over there, believing that such action is worthy. There is also evidence that where it has happened, it has had the results on. would wish to see. I can pass on evidence of that to the noble Lord who is to reply.

Just a word about clothing. Here, too, one would like permission to send direct to the welfare organizations over there. The point which I would like to make about clothing is that it does seem rather an unnecessary strain on transport that gifts from all parts of the country should all have to be sent up to London to be transported from the Thames. Why could not other centres be used in other parts of the country, so that the very long delays which are at present bound to exist might be obviated? I have no doubt that the Government wish this voluntary action to be carried on in this country, and that they do realize that our officials over there are greatly frustrated by the position in which they are placed, and that the sufferings over there are indeed great. A great deal does depend on this work going forward smoothly and quickly.

May I make one practical suggestion? During these months of the winter emergency would it not be possible to use R.A.F. transport for this purpose? I speak without any real knowledge, but I am told that training flights might possibly be used to carry some of these goods across to the other side without deflecting them from their essential purpose. In one or two cases this has been done, but I would ask whether the R.A.F. might not be used, for the next month or two while winter is still with us, to facilitate the quick despatch of relief where it is most needed. As the admirable secretary of "Save Europe Now" said to me only last week, it is not only that food and clothing are urgently needed but that they are needed quickly. It is because I am conscious, as many of your Lordships are also conscious, of the need to make that relief quick that I beg to ask this question of His Majesty's Government and to move for Papers.

4.38 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that we have all listened to the right reverend Prelate not only with interest but with sympathy and understanding. Human misery and suffering, whatever the cause—and in this case we all know that the primary cause is one for which the aggressive Nazi leaders and their followers must accept responsibility—make a powerful appeal to the common spirit of brotherhood and compassion. The right reverend Prelate said that a good deal was being done and that he wanted the flow to be maintained. I think it will be agreed that our capacity to help is limited—limited by circumstances, and not by any lack of the will to give assistance where it is sorely needed.

The first point the right reverend Prelate raised was with regard to freedom to send bulk collections from this country to group interests in Germany or Austria. There is no difficulty, so far as I know, in that sort of dispatch of food and clothing, but I must point out to the right reverend Prelate that there are very important reasons why there should be centralized despatch from this country. In the first place, it makes checking and the arrangements for shipping easier. The second point is that it is better from the standpoint of zonal distribution that it should be done in this way. All bulk contributions are sent to the zonal welfare sub-committee which represent the five major German voluntary relief organizations, and they work to a key-plan which aims at getting the assistance where it is most needed, and ensuring that this sort of assistance is properly distributed.

Another reason is the question of transport difficulties. The demand for shipping space for relief goods has to be considered with large claims for essential goods. It is thought—and I believe there is a good reason for thinking—that where there is a large relief organization which is being steadily filled with contributions and which is responsible for the transmission of those contributions to Germany, if it knows that the flow will continue it can look ahead, and without waiting for the actual receipt of the goods it can make arrangements for shipping space in advance, and thus very considerably reduce the amount of time which is taken between the receipt of goods at the depot and the actual shipment.

The right reverend Prelate asked whether it was possible for goods to be dispatched from ports other than London. I understand that the main shipping port is London, but there are other ports in the country—Hull, Newcastle and Bristol—from which ships ply to Germany. So far as I am aware, none of the organizations has so far made any use, or has applied to use, shipping going from those ports. I do not know of any reason why it should not be done, and I should have thought that if these organizations had found some difficulty in the existing system they might collectively, out of their experience, be able to suggest improvements to the responsible authority. I am perfectly certain that the authorities would give proper consideration to any such suggestion. As regards speeding up transport, I have looked into this matter with very close attention, and I can assure the right reverend Prelate that as a result of my consultations I do not believe that decentralized despatch, as distinct from the centralized despatch through approved organizations, would produce any speedier time-table.

The central fact is that applications for shipping space for food and clothing in bulk, as well as essential goods which have to be sent to Germany, are decided at a regular interval by one authority, and there is no advantage in going direct to the shipping agents instead of to the control office who deal with the shipping space requirements of "Save Europe Now." I went into this matter this morning with the official primarily responsible, and I am assured that to increase competition for shipping space would not lead to increased total consignment of goods. The right reverend Prelate also referred to the use of air transport. As regards carriage by plane, the only training flights to the Continent at present undertaken by Transport Command consist of regular freight-carrying services to Bückeburg, Hamburg and Vienna, and there is no space capacity normally available. The right reverend Prelate may be interested to know that the Royal Air Force has recently been able to transport by its regular transport services, thirty tons of clothing for "Save Europe Now," but this arrangement was on a strictly temporary basis. The space capacity arose as a result of the daily newspaper loads for the Services in the British Zone being sent by surface transport, in order that increased traffic over Christmas and the New Year period could be carried without an increase in the number of services. It has been found necessary to arrange for the carriage of newspapers by air to be resumed, and I am afraid that the air-carrying assistance now being granted on a temporary basis will come to an end.

As the House knows, the Royal Air Force is not nearly so well off for transport aircraft and crews as it used to be. It is rendering important services to civil aviation during the initial period, when the Ministry of Civil Aviation's own re- sources are not adequate for the responsibilities that have to be discharged. Also, we all know that the Service is experiencing the serious effects of demobilization. The outgoing of skilled men from the Service has been considerable, and the problem of manpower is a difficult one. Training commitments have been undertaken which have necessarily been delayed owing to the application of transport planes to assist civil aviation.

Bomber planes could not be diverted to the task of carrying relief to Germany and Austria without seriously interfering with Bomber Command's training plans. Both these Commands are at present seriously under strength and it is therefore out of the question for them to undertake a regular commitment in regard to the carrying of food and clothing consignments to the Continent. If there is any space available from time to time in these Royal Air Force planes, we feel it could best be utilized by carrying penicillin, insulin and other urgently needed medical supplies. I can only regret, therefore, that I am unable to hold out any hope to the right reverend Prelate of being able to bring into active service for this purpose transport planes of the Royal Air Force.

I come finally to the point that the right reverend Prelate mentioned—namely, the question of group collection. It is perfectly true that, hitherto, by and large, the system has been that arranged under the scheme for the despatch of 7 lb. parcels. It is recognized that while there is no lower limit to the weight which may now be sent as a gift food parcel, the cost of sending a parcel of less than 7 lb. is disproportionately high. Collection is, therefore, no doubt a convenient and easy way of contributing for those who cannot spare more than an odd one or two cans of food. In present circumstances, the collector finds himself with the task of packing gifts into 7 lb. parcels, which must then be posted direct or through "Save Europe Now".

The right reverend Prelate referred to the apparent waste of labour, and of packing and string, but I think he knows that the Ministry are alive to these considerations, for it was stated in another place on February 15 that the Minister was considering whether arrangements could be made which would allow food collected in this country for relief abroad to be shipped in bulk. The right reverend Prelate will realize that I am not in a position this afternoon to anticipate what the decision of the Minister may be. Frankly, I do not know, but I feel that the right reverend Prelate should be able to find some measure of encouragement out of the fact that the Minister is now considering these proposals. The least I can do—and this I naturally undertake to do—is to bring to the Minister's attention the observations which have been made by the right reverend Prelate this afternoon, and I am quite sure he will give them the attention and consideration which they deserve.


I thank the noble Lord for his reply and for the trouble he has taken. I feel my Motion has served its purpose if it has emphasized the word "quickly." The winter lingers, suffering remains and people die. One does hope that if there is relief here to be sent it will reach its destination while the winter is with us, and not when the year is getting on towards the autumn. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.