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Volume 344: debated on Monday 6 March 1939

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asked the Prime Minister whether he will give an assurance that, before entering into negotiations as to a loan from Great Britain to General Franco, he will lay down as a condition the recognition by the new Spanish Government of the legitimate aspirations of the national minorities in Spain, the Basques, the Galicians, and the Catalans?

No such negotiations are at present in prospect; the question, therefore, does not arise.

Would not the Prime Minister agree that a Spain in which the minorities are contented would be the best security for any loan we may make?

Can the right hon. Gentleman give us an assurance that we shall not be faced with a promise to make loans without any assurances as to the treatment of minorities or prisoners in Spain?

I do not think the time has arrived to give any such assurances.


asked the Prime Minister whether he can make a further statement concerning the conditions in the Spanish refugee camps in Southern France?


asked the Prime Minister whether he will consider making proposals for joint action with France to organise relief and migration of Spanish refugees who entered France in consequence of the defeat of the Republican Government forces in Northern Spain

His Majesty's Government are at present awaiting the views of the French Government on various aspects of this question, and I regret that I have at present nothing to add to the reply which I gave on 27th February to the hon. and gallant Member for Nuneaton (Lieut.-Commander Fletcher).

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that credible eye-witnesses reported last week that the average mortality per day was approximately 200 or 300, and that the conditions are really beyond description? They have now been endured for a month, and it is believed that they have been allowed to continue in order to bring pressure to bear on these men to return to Spain. Will the right hon. Gentleman make representations in this regard?

I should not like to accept the latter part of the hon. Member's statement, but I know that the conditions have been very serious, and we have been in communication with the French Government on the matter. The House will realise that, if we had had a reply from the French Government on these points, I could give more information, but as this is on French territory I can say no more.

Are the British Government contributing anything to the maintenance of the refugees, either in the way of money or by sending doctors to assist in this extremely difficult situation?

The British Government's contribution is sent through the International Commission. The International Commission operates to help the refugees on the French side of the frontier, as it did before on the other side, and in that way we are helping. With regard to the more detailed points, these are matters on which we have had exchanges with the French Government.

Have the Government any direct information from eye-witnesses on the spot about the conditions in these refugee camps; or, if not, on what information are the Government relying?

We have had a certain amount of information on the conditions, in these camps, and that is why I acknowledge that the conditions have not been satisfactory.

Could the right hon. Gentleman consider sending tents or other shelter, in view of the fact that many of these people are in the open in very severe weather conditions?

Have the Government made an offer to the French Government to send their own representative to the spot to discuss these matters with the French authorities at the camps?

As our communications with the French Government are not yet concluded, I am afraid I can give no further information on details, but the hon. and gallant Member may be reassured that every aspect of the question is being considered with the French Government.


asked the Prime Minister whether relations are to be maintained between His Majesty's Government and the Spanish Republican Government through the medium of diplomatic representatives; what status is to be accorded to the representatives of each Government in London and Madrid, respectively; and whether he will make a statement on the matter?

On a point of Order. Before this question is answered, could I ask for your guidance, Mr. Deputy-Speaker? In view of the ambiguity in the minds of many hon. Members in regard to the Spanish situation, will you guide us as to how questions should be phrased in future, and as to whether General Franco's troops should now be referred to as the Government forces and all the others as insurgents?

I do not think that that is a matter on which the Chair should give a decision; it is a matter of individual taste and opinion. Hon. and right hon. Members will phrase their questions or their speeches according to their own choice, and it will depend on their exercise of that choice whether the questions are called by the Chair or not and whether speeches are interrupted by the Chair or not.

Is it not a peculiarly un-British thing to kick a brave people when they are down?

Recognition of the Republican Government was withdrawn simultaneously with the announcement by His Majesty's Government of their recognition of General Franco's Administration as the Government of Spain. There can, therefore, be no diplomatic representation between His Majesty's Government and the Republican Administration. In the territory which is not at present under General Franco's control His Majesty's consular officers will take such action as may be appropriate for the protection of British interests and for humanitarian purposes.

In view of the fact that, prior to the recognition of the Spanish insurgent authorities, the British Government maintained an agent at Burgos, do not His Majesty's Government propose to maintain an agent in Madrid? Or do they propose to have no relations whatever with the authorities in Central Spain?

As far as we know, the late Spanish Government are not in control of the territory around Madrid.

Will the late Spanish Ambassador continue to have the status held by the Duke of Alba before the recognition?

I have said there are no diplomatic relations between His Majesty's Government and the late Spanish Government. I cannot say without notice what the exact position of the Duke of Alba was then.

Is it not a fact that, prior to the recognition, the Duke of Alba had no diplomatic status but, nevertheless, was in continual communication with the Foreign Office? Will that now be the position of Senor d'Azcarate?

No, it certainly will not, because the position of General Franco's Administration at that time was quite different from that of the late Government now.

In view of the fact that there has been no surrender by the late Government, and that the contest is still going on, is not the situation precisely what it was before?

Is it not a fact that the late Spanish Ambassador in London was accredited to the Government of Senor Negrin, and that that Government has been replaced by a joint committee?

Has the right hon. Gentleman received any information from Madrid as to whether Senor Negrin's Government is in control, in view of the number of times we were warned not to accept mere Press reports?


asked the Prime Minister the approximate number of civilian refugees in Catalonia who crossed the French frontier for whom grants in relief have been provided by Great Britain and other Powers; and what proportion of the population of Catalonia this represents?

His Majesty's Government, together with many other Governments, have made grants to certain international organisations for purposes of Spanish relief. One at least of these organisations recently extended its activities to cover the relief of Spanish refugees on French territory. I understand that some 400,000 refugees, that is some 17 per cent. of the normal population of Catalonia, crossed the frontier into France. Nearly all of these are doubtless receiving some form of assistance from the French Government.

Is it not a fact that of that 400,000 some 300,000 were in fact militiamen, and that my question referred to refugees?

I cannot differentiate in detail without notice. I have given the total number.

Can my right hon. Friend say how many have gone back into Catalonia?


asked the Prime Minister whether, in view of the large sums of money subscribed in Great Britain for food supplies for the relief of sufferers in Barcelona and the fact that this money was collected on humanitarian grounds, he can give an assurance that the food supplies thus purchased have in fact reached, or will reach, Barcelona; and whether he will seek the co-operation of the Spanish Government to this end?

Arrangements for the distribution of food supplies by independent relief organisations are not under the control of His Majesty's Government, and must be a matter for those organisations themselves.

In view of the fact that my ever-generous constituents are subscribing to these food ships which are proposed, will my right hon. Friend see whether, if there is any difficulty about those ships getting to Barcelona, he can open negotiations with a view to facilitating them?

Will the Minister also make inquiries as to how many cheques the hon. and gallant Member for Bournemouth (Sir H. Croft) sent?


asked the Prime Minister whether the French Government have informed him of the terms of the arrangement reached with General Franco as to the return of arms left in France by the Republican forces?

My Noble Friend has received no information from the French Government on this subject.

Will the right hon. Gentleman make inquiries as to whether an agreement has been reached between the French Government and General Franco with regard to this matter?

I will certainly see whether an agreement has been made, but it is a matter for the French Government.

Is it not a matter of some interest to us whether an agreement has been made?

In view of the interest to us, I will see whether inquiries can be made, but I must repeat to the House that it is a matter for the French Government.


asked the Prime Minister whether he can give any further information as to the death of the master of the "Stangrove"; and whether he has any information as to the safety of the non-intervention officer?


asked the Prime Minister whether he has yet received a report on the loss of the "Stangrove"; whether she was captured on the high seas, and by whom; when information of the capture reached the Foreign Office what action was taken upon it, and when; whether the "Stangrove" received at any time help from the naval authorities; whether she was ordered to sea in bad weather; and what was the cause of the death of the captain?

A British Naval Court, which assembled in co-operation with His Majesty's Consul at Palma on 28th February, found that the master's death was due to injuries received accidentally when alone on board. According to a report received from His Majesty's Consul, the Spanish authorities made every effort, when the crew were rescued, to save the master as well. The nonintervention observer is understood to be safe and to have been landed at Marseilles by one of His Majesty's ships on 2nd March. I made a statement on 20th February on the circumstances of this vessel's capture and the action taken by His Majesty's Government at Burgos, to which I would refer the right hon. Gentleman. I would only add that the "Stangrove" was not ordered to sea in bad weather, but was requested to raise steam. I am not aware that at the time of her capture any request for assistance was made by the master to the naval authorities.

May I ask why the owners were not informed for a whole fortnight after the capture of the ship, and whether, perhaps, the life of the master might not have been saved had the owners been so informed?

It was understood in the present case that the master was known to have been in touch with His Majesty's Consul at Palma within 48 hours after the vessel's capture, and was therefore assumed to have followed the usual practice for establishing direct contact with the owners. An explanation in this sense has been given to the company concerned, and, in response to inquiries from shipping interests, my Noble Friend has agreed in future cases of this nature to inform the shipowners irrespective of any information which they may have received from the master. In regard to the latter part of the question, I would only say that I very much regret the death of the master in these tragic circumstances. Every effort was made to take the master off the ship at the time the crew were taken off, and he refused to leave his ship.

Why was it that this ship's captain, 68 years of age, was allowed to remain captive from the 8th to the 24th February, and then ordered to raise steam and go to sea? Does not that really amount to the constructive murder of the captain?

No, Sir, I cannot accept that. The British Government made representations to the Burgos authorities immediately the news came through on 8th February. As a result, the Burgos authorities agreed to release the vessel, but, unfortunately, before its release took place, a storm arose in Palma Harbour, and the authorities requested the master to raise steam because of the danger of drifting on to the rocks. The master refused to raise steam, and the ship did drift on to the rocks. They saved the crew, but the master refused to leave his ship, and, unfortunately, he died from the head injuries he had received.

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether the master had coal on which to raise steam; and whether the master was not in fear that he was to be taken to another port in order to be kept in prolonged captivity?

How is it possible for the court of inquiry to say that these head injuries had been received accidentally when the master was alone?

I can only give the House the result of the Naval Court. I understand that they found that his injuries were received as a result, presumably, of concussion when the vessel went on to the rocks.

Is it not the fact that this ship was captured on the high seas, and that on that, and on other grounds, its detention was utterly illegal from 8th February onwards?

I have already told the House that we regard the capture and detention of this ship as illegal.

Is it not the fact that a naval officer was on the ship; and why did he not save the captain and get him out? Why did he leave him for a fortnight until he met his death?

May I ask whether the evidence given before the court of inquiry can be made available to this House?

I will certainly investigate the point that the hon. Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts) has put to me. With regard to the former point put by the right hon. Gentleman, the Government took immediate steps which resulted in the decision to release the vessel, but, unfortunately, circumstances arose of a nature over which we had no control which resulted in the vessel going on to the rocks.

The right hon. Gentleman does not answer my question. Why was the master kept a fortnight in fair weather, and then ordered to sea in foul weather which resulted in his injuries and death?

The interchanges between His Majesty's Government and the Burgos authorities took the time in question, and resulted in the decision on the part of the Burgos authorities to release the vessel.

Will the right hon. Gentleman state the name of the owners?

Is it not the fact that the master's death occurred from injuries received as a direct result of the unlawful seizure on the high seas; and is it not right to suggest that this constitutes constructive murder?

No, Sir, I cannot accept that from the hon. and learned Member or anyone else. No one regrets these tragic circumstances more than we do. They were circumstances of a very extraordinary case, but I cannot accept the construction the hon. and learned Gentleman has put upon it.

Does the right hon. Gentleman mean that he intends to take no further action in respect of this sea captain who met his death in the circumstances which are admitted on both sides?

No, Sir, I never said that we would take no further action. I never made any such statement.

If the right hon. Gentleman has any matter to submit to me I will naturally consider it.