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War In Europe

Volume 65: debated on Saturday 8 August 1914

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Returning British Subjects

Whereupon Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order of the House of 17th July, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."

I see that the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs is in his place, and I should like to mention once again the matter which I brought under his attention the other day, namely, the position of British subjects abroad at the present time who are anxious to get back to this country. I am conscious of the fact that he is fully aware of the urgency of the matter, but I feel it is necessary that even greater steps should be taken than have yet been taken in order to meet the present emergency. I have a letter here, which is one out of many scores I have received, which I will summarise as showing to some extent the position. It is from a well-known London physician. I shall be glad to show the letter to anyone, but I am sure the House can accept what he says as being absolutely reliable. He says that English ladies almost penniless are stranded in Paris and elsewhere. One, fourteen days after a serious operation, has been compelled to spend a night in a crowded third-class carriage and a night in a coal truck on Dieppe Quay. The need was for English money at the British Consulate in Paris and elsewhere, as there was a refusal by most hotels of cheques and Bank of England notes, and the English sovereign is valued as low as eighteen francs. If, however, the Consulate could be supplied with an adequate supply of French money, a good deal of the distress would be at once lessened, since there were many in the crowd who throng the Consulate day by day who would gladly help those in difficulties.

In the papers this morning I saw a telegram from Switzerland saying that the English people are in financial difficulties, and many of them are sleeping in Salvation Army beds. I have letters here making statements which I do not think it is advisable for me to give to the House. I think the Under-Secretary ought at once to ask the House for a Vote to deal with this matter. It seems to me that it would establish confidence abroad and it would follow, although at some considerable distance, the splendid example which has been set by the United States. I do not know whether the Vote which we have already passed is drawn widely enough to cover this matter, but it is of the most urgent character, and it is really necessary that money should be sent abroad at once, and that our Consuls should be informed that they can draw on British credit. If it is not necessary to get a Vote, I am sure the House would indemnify the Under-Secretary for anything he does in this direction. All the Vice-Consulates should be informed that they could use British credit for the purpose of immediate relief. Through the banks which have branches in London they could telegraph money immediately, and place it at their disposal as was considered necessary.

There are, of course, two sides to this question. There are those who are on their way back. Some have been for a week in the war area, having left six days ago, and have never been heard of, and naturally their relatives are in a very anxious state of mind. I have several letters from heartbroken mothers, which are very touching. The power of the Government is limited so far as those returning from France are concerned, but something might possibly be done even in that direction. There are those who are willing to come back and have not the facilities. Switzerland, in particular, is a country that ought to be considered. There are, I am informed, four or five thousand Britishers there, most of them absolutely penniless. The serious situation in regard to this matter is that food is going up so much in price that I fear that the outlook before them will be grave indeed. The hotels, of course, have been contemplating closing. That is another very serious matter. I have just heard from Switzerland that a Moratorium has been proclaimed till the end of August. That is satisfactory because it will probably keep the hotels open for some time longer. I think, therefore, if the Under-Secretary could by some means, as soon as the French mobilisation is over, arrange immediately for special trains to bring all the visitors to Switzerland over, it would be a very satisfactory matter, and it would allay the alarm which I know exists there. There is another very serious matter, though it is very difficult to suggest how it could be dealt with, and that is the position of Britishers, especially women, in Germany. I know it is difficult to approach, but I think we might keep in view the possibility through the American Ambassador in Berlin, to whom I am sure we are all grateful for what he is doing, of making a bargain to return pertain Germans in this country if we could get our own people home. I do not see that that is absolutely impossible, notwithstanding the breaking of the relations between this country and Germany. A neutral power might intervene, and I am sure it would be to the satisfaction of all who are most directly concerned. I hope the Under-Secretary will be able to give us an assurance that this matter is engaging his very careful attention, and will thus allay the feeling that exists.

As my hon. Friend did not give notice that he was going to raise this question, I have not been able to prepare any considered answer. I gave an answer two days ago on the subject, and I have not much to add at present. I think it will be for the convenience of the House that I should give a considered answer on Monday as to the position in the different countries where there are now British subjects, and more especially with regard to the facilities which can be afforded for persons who desire to return, and also with regard to advances of money. I think it would be for the convenience of all parties that I should have copies of that answer printed for Members who will be able to send the information to their correspondents, and so on. But for the moment, I can deal with some of the points which the hon. Member has raised. Our consuls and vice-consuls in those countries have been empowered to make advances of money. During the financial crisis which there has been in other countries, it was impossible for them in some cases to get any money from the banks, but we are now informed that that state has passed over, or is very rapidly passing over, and that there is no question whatever of our wanting an extra Vote or anything of that kind. We are willing to authorise them to draw money on the credit of the British Government in all cases where they think it necessary to relieve distress. Some persons, of course, have been a little selfish in that matter. Persons who are only in want of £4 or £5 have asked for £100. We will not allow our consuls to advance large sums of that kind, but they are authorised to make small advances in cases of real distress to enable people to get back to this country. That can be done by the ordinary machinery which we now possess without coming to this House for any Vote to enable that to be done.

Is there any means by which the Government can notify all the people abroad who are concerned in this matter that this machinery is in operation? There are cases of young ladies near the French and German borders, and this class of subjects very often have not the knowledge to apply to the British Consuls for assistance. Can the British Government, through the British representatives or otherwise, take steps to bring this information to the knowledge of our subjects in those places?

All I can say, as I stated two days ago, is that "we cannot undertake to give our representatives special instructions in special cases. We cannot instruct them to inform specially any particular persons, or to come specially to the aid of particular persons. The only exception I make is in the case of Belgium, where I am able to make a small exception. In the case of Belgium, people have been taken more by surprise than in other cases, and we have been in a position to arrange in certain instances that the representative of the British Government should do what he can in those particular cases in the country round Liege and the actual war area. With regard to France, it is true that for some days there was a state approaching panic, and in the changing of negotiable instruments and matters of that kind, there was undoubtedly a very great deal of hardship to English people in Paris, but we have definite information that that is very rapidly passing away, and that a large number of people are coming back by the ordinary routes. Advances of money have been made in many definite cases of which we know, and people are finding it, I believe, much easier to get cheques, bank-notes, circular notes, and things of that kind, cashed. With regard to Switzerland, there are a great number who are coming into the towns. I wish they had stayed in the mountain resorts, rather than crowd into Geneva and other places. Our representatives in these places are endeavouring to arrange for trains to bring them across France. Everything must give way to the French necessity of completing their mobilisation before other arrangements are made. I can only say that I am very sorry that we have not been able to complete any definite arrangement for trains to come with these people across France. I hope that that will be arranged as soon as possible. I hope to be able to give further information about that on Monday. But meanwhile there ought not under the arrangements made to be any difficulty about small advances to British people to tide them over until those arrangements can be made.

With regard to Germany the position is different. Our representatives of course have ceased to work there, and our interests have been very kindly taken over by the United States. But we must remember that similarly German interests in England have also been taken over by the United States, and I think that we ought in those cases of persons whose whereabouts are not now known, who may be in distress in Germany, not to bring those cases individually before the American Embassy or Consulates in this country, whose primary duty, in addition to all their ordinary work, is to look after the interests of German subjects in this country. I have arranged with the American Embassy, who have been most courteous in the matter, that as far as possible we shall shelter them from particular applications made direct to them with regard to British subjects in Germany. But those inquiries ought to come through the Foreign Office. I shall be staying there during the recess, and therefore, if hon. Members will write direct to me about cases which they know, we have arranged to transmit them whenever convenient to the American Embassy lists of those persons concerning whom we wish to have inquiries made or for whom it is urgent that something should be done, and they will transmit them by whatever may be the most safe or expeditious manner to their representatives, so that whatever can be done will be done. But I would ask persons not to send particular cases to the American Embassy, but to send them, if they think it necessary to do so, either to hon. Members or direct to the Foreign Office where we will do the best we can.

The hon. Gentleman will remember that yesterday I brought to his attention the case of a young girl who has been stranded in Berlin, and he was good enough to say that he would communicate with the United States Ambassador at Washington, and that the Ambassador would communicate with Berlin, but the hon. Gentleman told me that he could not guarantee to communicate by cable. I would ask him if he could not insist on the cabling being done?

It is quite natural that the hon. Gentleman should ask that, but the arrangement which I have been describing is subsequent to the conversation which I had with him, and it is a better arrangement. We do not think it necessary to communicate at all with Washington. We shall short-circuit the matter. Lists of persons prepared in the Foreign Office will be forwarded as often as possible by the quickest route that is available to the representatives of the United States Government in Germany. I will now only add that the matter is well in hand and there is no break-down in our arrangement. It will be for the convenience of the House that I should give a more formal and more considered statement on Monday which would explain the position as far as possible. There must be a great deal of inconvenience, but I have not heard of cases of actual danger. People, especially those in Germany, must be as patient as they can, and keep as quiet as they can, and we very much hope by the generous aid of the representatives of the United States that some such arrangement as my right hon. Friend suggests for the transfer or exchange of British subjects in Germany, and German subjects in this country, can be come to before very long.

Will the hon. Gentleman try to ascertain the whereabouts of large numbers of English people who left Switzerland last Sunday and have not since been in any way heard of?

Censorship Of News

May I refer again to a point which I raised at Question time? I wish to impress on my right hon. Friend the absolute necessity, in regard to a military censorship, of having it supplemented by journalistic experience. Persons engaged in newspaper offices deal with a large amount of news by cable, and it requires great promptitude, great intelligence and very considerable training. Owing largely to the necessities of the case this Department—I am not speaking of the Department over which presides the hon. and learned Member for the Walton Division of Liverpool (Mr. F. E. Smith)—ought not to be left entirely to military men. I think that they require to be supplemented by trained journalistic experience. Last night I endeavoured to send a cablegram to the United States, which revealed no military secrets, but dealt with the ordinary political aspects of the situation in this country. And there are scores of other journalists in London who are in constant communication with their newspapers on the other side of the Atlantic. There is also a large number of business men whose daily occupation is to be in cable communication with the United States. I am afraid that if this difficult work is left entirely in the hands of the military gentlemen, there will be a great deal of unnecessary delay, and a great deal of unnecessary friction. I would suggest to the Government that the military censor or censors should have the assistance of trained journalists, in order to prevent pressure and interruption of communication between this country and the United States.

I wish to support the few words that have fallen from the hon. Member for the Scotland Division of Liverpool (Mr. T. P. O'Connor). There is no censorship in this country as the right hon. Gentleman knows, it does not exist, and it seems to me that what has taken its place is not working, and cannot be expected to work with great efficiency. The officers sent to discharge this duty are not men trained, as my hon. Friend says, to handle news and other literary matter quickly, and they raise technical objections which there is no great object in enforcing. For example, I can give the right hon. Gentleman an instance which occurred a few nights ago, where telegrams were stopped because a foreign correspondent sent them under a surname which is identical with a common Christian name in this country. I do not say that was not an accident which could not have been prevented under the rules which were laid down for the guidance of the officers in question. I am not blaming them. I say this red tape is a mistake, and it could be avoided if men of trained capacity accustomed to dealing with news, like journalists or others who have had the same sort of experience, were introduced either in substitution for the military officers, or in addition to the military officers. If that were done, then there would be greater case in working the machinery, which must of course be liable to friction, and which it is most necessary should be adapted as quickly as possible to public requirements.

My hon. Friend the Member for the Scotland Division (Mr. T. P. O'Connor) and the hon. Member for Mile End (Mr. Harry Lawson) have raised a very important question. I agree that in the working of the Censor Bureau it is most essential that there should be what we may describe as journalistic common-sense, and that messages should not be stopped merely from ignorance of the censor of these matters. I shall represent the views which they have expressed most earnestly to those responsible for the Bureau. It has only just been established, and when the machinery is in full working order, I trust most earnestly that there will be no ground for complaint.

I wish to bring a matter which strikes me very forcibly, to the notice of the House and of the Home Secretary. We heard this morning of the dissemination of false news and of the cruelty and hardship which is inflicted in that way. The right hon. Gentleman himself is constitutionally and by statute master of telegraphs and of communications, and may I ask him to represent to the Postmaster-General that it would be very useful if the news that comes from the Official Bureau were telegraphed to all the districts in the country where there is a Post Office and telegraph connection. The public are intensely interested and have a right to know and to be placed in full information of everything in connection with this War. It is in the interests of the Government and of the country that the information should be conveyed to the people as far as it can be directly. The expense would be very small in comparison with the great public interests involved. Such news would give a sense of confidence. It could be communicated immediately, and the method would render ineffective the disposition of certain people who, in order to obtain small sums of money, try and harrow the deepest feelings of their fellow countrymen. This news is public property and is of such interest and so vital to every one of us that it should be communicated at the earliest possible moment.

I desire to refer to a matter which was mentioned earlier and that is with regard to communication with Ireland. It was then denied by the President of the Board of Agriculture that there had been any interference. [HON. MEMBERS: "Speak up."]

Privately I was assured that nothing was known, and the correction shows almost as much laxity. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, oh."] I do not think that is too strong an expression. We have now ascertained that communication between Fishguard and Rosslare is entirely stopped, and that the ships have been taken away to be used as hospital ships. They cannot be absolutely dependent on those particular three ships, and there must be communication with a great many places cut off. Other ships engaged with this traffic might very well have been used for that purpose instead of these three vessels. We have heard also that the communication with Dublin by Holyhead has been reduced by one-half. It seems to me a great pity that those changes should have been made if they could have been avoided. I think almost every other connection ought to have been restricted or interfered with before connection between this country and Ireland at the present time. Ireland is practically entirely dependent upon this country for its food supplies, and we, now that the supplies have been cut off from Denmark and other continental countries which send in dairy produce, are almost entirely dependent upon Ireland for such goods. Just at this crisis we find these changes made in the first few days. I think that some explanation might be given by the Government, with a promise that a restricted service, if necessary, but still a sufficient service for the supply of the necessary food for the people on both sides of the Channel will be restored without delay and maintained almost at all costs. I hope I have said nothing that will irritate my right hon. Friend; I know that his efforts in this direction are always very well conceived; but I think that this is a matter which should receive the immediate attention of the Government.

I do not think that any blame attaches to the Department of Agriculture in Ireland in connection with this matter. The three services connecting the South of Ireland with the South of England, which brings the largest amounts of butter, bacon and eggs from Ireland to England, has been commandeered by the Admiralty for an indefinite period. That was done, I understand, without communicating with the Irish Department; therefore, the Irish Department are in no way to blame.

And, it being half an hour after the conclusion of Government Business, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Order of the House of 17th July.

Adjourned accordingly at Seven minutes before Two o'clock till Monday next, 10th August.