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Governor Of Algeciras (Visit To Gibraltar)

Volume 413: debated on Friday 24 August 1945

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5.14 p.m.

I owe hon. Members an explanation for intervening briefly at this moment on a topic which is not in anyway related to the very interesting and important topic raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Brighton (Flight-Lieutenant Teeling). The reason is simply that both his subject and mine are subjects which fall within the responsibility of the War Office and, therefore, it was thought more convenient both for the House and for my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the War Office, upon whose maiden Adjournment on the wrong side of the counter I congratulate him very warmly indeed, that both subjects should be taken together and receive an omnibus reply.

The subject that I want to raise briefly is one about which I: asked an unstarred Question this morning as follows:
"To ask the Secretary of State for War, if he is aware that the Spanish Fascist Governor of Algeciras paid a ceremonial visit to Gibraltar on 11th August"—
by the way, I must apologise to the War Office: that is a slip; it should be the 10th August—
"at the invitation of the Governor and Commander-in-Chief, and that British troops were obliged to show him the respect customarily accorded to honoured guests; and if he will instruct the military authorities concerned that the offering of such courtesies to any representative of General Franco's régime is undesirable."
To which Question I received this afternoon, a somewhat dusty answer, as follows:
"Mr. Lawson: I have no information. The provisions of guards of honour for foreign generals and for distinguished personages is governed by King's Regulations, paragraph 961."
I can assure the Secretary of State, and my hon. Friend who is deputising for him to-day, that, as regards information, the facts as set out in my question were correct. It was based not only on information that reached me in, letters from constituents serving at Gibraltar, but also on newspaper cuttings, reports and photographs from the "Gibraltar Chronicle" of 11th August of the visit to Gibraltar of this Spanish General. So that if my hon. Friend institutes an investigation, as I hope he will, he will find that the facts as stated in the question are correct. The matter of opinion, of course, which now arises, and which I shall trouble the House with briefly, is whether such a visitor ought to be treated by British troops as a "distinguished personage," in the words of King's Regulations.

I would not have been raising this today, if it were not that this morning certain additional details came to my knowledge through the courtesy of the hon. Lady the Member for Rushcliffe (Mrs. Paton) who herself received a letter about this from a constituent of her own, a leading aircraftman serving at Gibraltar, which she was good enough to pass on to me, knowing that I had a question down about it on the Order Paper. In his letter this constituent of the hon. Lady refers to this visit by this Spaniard as
"an act that has infuriated the Forces stationed on the Rock of Gibraltar. I enclose a cutting from the 'Gibraltar Chronicle' showing a photograph of the reception given to General Franco's Fascist Governor of Algeciras. He was received with much ceremony, with guards of honour, and entertained by the Governor at Government House on his invitation. This is not the first time he has been over here."
The letter adds:
"On the last occasion he was provided with an escort of Ventura aircraft and naval launches as he crossed the Bay, and a salute of guns was fired as he landed. The Garrison band played the Spanish national anthem"—
and that, of course, is a Fascist National Anthem, an anthem glorifying a régime based on murder and tyranny—a régime put into power by the help of German Nazis and Italian Fascists. It is not the old, lively, jaunty Riego hymn which some of us remember so poignantly from the days of the Spanish War. It was a Fascist national anthem, and to my mind it seems almost as bad that the garrison band at Gibraltar should be required to play that as it would be to teach the massed bands of the Brigade of Guards to play the Horst Wessel Song. The letter goes on:
"Troops had to line both sides of the streets leading from the docks to Government House. We feel most strongly that anyone connected with Fascist Spain should not be entertained on British territory, by representatives appointed by His Majesty's Government, at the British taxpayers' expense."
I think that feeling will be shared by many hon. Members of this House, and I might remind my hon. Friend—he really needs no reminder of it from me—of the words used last Monday by the Foreign Secretary in this House when he said:
"…While we have no desire permanently to penalise the Spanish people, we cannot admit Spain into the club unless she accepts the basic principles of the club."
And again—
"…We shall take a favourable view if steps are taken by the Spanish people to change their régime."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th August, 1945; Vol. 413, c. 296]
words which I think were rather overlooked by some commentators on the right hon. Gentleman's speech: they are very important words in their implication.

It is perfectly fair, of course, to say that this particular reception took place some day before the Foreign Secretary made that statement, but I hope at least that, when my hon. Friend has had the matter investigated, he will be able to convey a sharp warning to those responsible and an instruction that such hospitality should not be extended in future to similar guests from Spain.

Before the hon. Gentleman concludes, may I ask him, just to have it clear in my own mind, whether his objection is to the fact that an official visit was arranged, or that when this official visit was arranged on the arrival of this Spanish officer he was received with the honours laid down in accordance with his rank?

I am always glad to try to help clear the mind of the hon. and gallant Gentleman. I really object to the whole proceeding altogether, because I do not regard Franco's Spain as a friendly neutral country in any way; I regard it as a near-enemy neutral country.

I was just about to conclude when the hon. and gallant Gentleman interrupted me. I would like my hon. Friend at least to assure the House that he will send a fairly vigorous message to the Governor and Commander-in-Chief at Gibraltar, telling him that, however near neighbours they may be, it is at any rate unseemly—just after the end of a war which has resulted almost entirely, thank God, in the extirpation of Nazism and Fascism—that any representative of the British Government and the British people should be fraternising with Fascists.

5.23 p.m.

With the permission of the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Brighton (Flight-Licutenant Teeling) I hope I may be allowed to deal with the point which has been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg).

I am very sorry indeed that the hon. Member should have thought that my answer to him this morning, which was on behalf of my right hon. Friend, was a dusty answer. That seems to me to be a very inauspicious start to my period of office, but it was the best we could give under the circumstances. This matter has been raised at very short notice, and we have not had time to make investigations. All I would wish to say at this stage is that we shall do so, but whether my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will think it necessary to send such a vigorous instruction to the Governor of Gibraltar as my hon. Friend would desire I cannot say at the moment. I would prefer to consult him later. As to the expediency of such visits, of course it would not be proper for me to express an opinion. It is a matter of policy for wider circles in the Government than the War Office, and indeed I should not be at all surprised if my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary would, have views on that matter.

If I may now proceed to the subject raised by the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Brighton, I want to say that I can sympathise with him, as representing a seaside constituency which is largely dependent on boarding houses and, indeed, all kinds of houses, for the livelihood of many of his constituents, in raising this matter to-day. All that I have to say to him in answer is that we in the War Office are acting with speed and expedition. It is not long since my right hon. Friend and I took over the reins at the War Office, and there have been many matters which have engaged our attention. This is one of them, and with it my right hon. Friend has considerable sympathy, and he has: asked me specially to keep an eye on it. I hope, in the course of my reply, to give the hon. and gallant Gentleman, and others who are interested, an assurance that they will have to wait only a fairly short time before this matter becomes one which will trouble them no longer. I also hope to give figures which will bear out that statement.

I do not think it would be helpful to have one Ministry supervising matters which concern all three Service Ministries, and which involve the Ministry of Health as well. The War Office has the largest number of properties under requisition, and in relation to the hon. and gallant Member's own constituency I think the Air Ministry have only five and the Admiralty one. However, no doubt my right hon. Friends will speak for their Departments if it is thought advisable. With regard to hotels, they present a slightly different problem from private houses. It might surprise the House to know that because of the difficulty of repairing large premises when they are derequisitioned we have had a request, made to the War Office, to continue requisitioning until the time when the building industry has expanded and more labour will be available to carry out the extensive repairs of such hotels, which are necessary in many cases, I am afraid, after occupation by the troops. The War Office has a large number of small houses on requisition, properties up to a capacity of 12 rooms and larger houses of 12 rooms and over, and there is a different method of dealing with the two types, as I hope to show. Undoubtedly one of the reasons for the delay in getting the properties back into the hands of their owners, or the local authorities, is the time necessary to make a schedule of their condition when the Army or the other Service Ministries leave. The owners of properties not only want their properties back quickly, in many cases they also want substantial compensation for the damage done by the military authorities during their occupation.

It is necessary, if we are to safeguard the interests of the taxpayer that the War Office, or the appropriate military Department, should know the extent of the damage which has been caused during occupation in order that they may be able to bargain later with the owners of those properties, and not pay out excessive amounts in compensation. That necessitates experienced and trained professional staff. Both in the Army and in civil life—because the owners of properties have to engage technical and professional men to bargain and argue for them—there is a shortage of such trained staff. We are urged to release as many of these trained men as possible, and we are endeavouring to do so, but the more we release them the greater the problem will be, when we come to de-requisition these properties, if we are to have adequate schedules of dilapidations prepared. But I can tell the House, even though this does not come within my purview but is within the province of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, that we are trying to devise a system whereby it will be possible to make not a detailed investigation at the end of each occupancy but a general survey which, we hope, will result in a speedy settlement of compensation as between the Government Departments—the War Office in this case—and civilian owners.

Perhaps I might now come to the hon. and gallant Gentleman's own constituency in which, of course, he is mainly interested, although this is a question which affects other towns in the country. There are towns in a worse position than Brighton, Liverpool for instance, whose housing requirements are even more urgent, where large areas have been blitzed. In comparison Brighton has not suffered the same amount of damage. Generally speaking, we cannot make any exceptions among towns and we do our best throughout the whole of the country to get on with the job of speeding de-requisitioning. The number of flats and houses now under requisition by the War Office in Brighton and Hove, is 475, of which the South African authorities hold 174. Those occupied by the South African authorities are not on our direct charge; they are on their charge, and I am sure that the hon. and gallant Member would be the first, on behalf of his constituency, to offer hospitality to our Dominion troops who have done such excellent service, who are so far away from home and do perhaps require the amenities for which Brighton is famous before they proceed on their long journey home.

I thought I made it quite clear that the South Africans are all returned prisoners of war, and that we are more than glad to do all we possibly can for them. But now they are practically all gone, and in the next week or fortnight will be completely gone. By that time I hope something will be done to give the properties back to us, and not to give them wholesale to other people.

The process of de-requisitioning will be speedy; indeed, it is now going on. But the hon. and gallant Member must understand that it is not a question simply of walking out and leaving properties to the owners or to the Ministry. For instance, in all these properties there are considerable fixtures and fittings belonging to the Services and they have to be removed. Our trouble is shortage of staff to do that. There are 301 flats and houses on the direct charge of the War Office, and of these all but a dozen have been evacuated by the Army and are in the process of being derequisitioned. I have given some figures of the process of de-requisitioning, but perhaps I may burden the House with a few more. The Quartering Commandant responsible for Brighton and Hove is also responsible for the whole of West Sussex. At the moment he is releasing an average of 66 houses a week, of which a considerable proportion are in Brighton. It is hoped to increase this number to 100 a week as soon as the necessary staff can be made available, but staff difficulties are likely to make it impossible to go beyond this figure.

Now may I deal with the point raised by the hon. and gallant Gentleman as to co-operation between the Service Department and the local authority? Our method when we de-requisition houses is to notify the senior regional officer of the Ministry of Health, and that prevails throughout the country. We offer these houses, at any rate, houses of the smaller twelve-roomed type, first of all to the Ministry of Health regional officer, and within a period of three weeks, he has to make up his mind whether he wants any of these houses, and I assume that he consults the local authority. I think that is the best method, rather than that the Military Department should notify the local council direct, because it is a matter for the Ministry of Health. The War Office have no interest in the houses once they have de-requisitioned them and as the Ministry of Health has now been put in charge of housing throughout the country, I think it better we should notify the regional officer of the Ministry of Health as soon as we de-requisition. If, in that period of three weeks, the regional officer of the Ministry of Health notifies us that he does not desire certain houses, we thereupon hand them straight back to their owners from whom we requisitioned. I think that would commend itself to most hon. Members. If the local authority want to-take any further action once the houses are in possession of the original owners, then it is up to them. We have no further Interest.

Can the hon. Gentleman assure us that the local regional authorities actually do contact the local council, because so far as I am aware, until a week or two ago, they had not done so in the case of the Brighton Council?

I do not think I should be called upon to supervise that matter. That is a question which the hon. and gallant Gentleman should address to the Minister of Health because he is responsible for his local officers and not the War Office. I can assure him that that official is responsible for notifying the local authority, and all I can say is that I hope he does it.

In the case of larger houses of over 12 room capacity, we notify the Ministry of Works, and they are responsible for dealing with these houses once we hand them over to them. I will give a few more figures which I hope will convince the House that we are getting a move on at the War Office. On 30th January this year there were 24,000 odd houses under requisition by the War Office throughout the country. There are now 14,000. The figures for July are very significant. During July, we de-requisitioned 3,319 small houses and flats and 64 schools and 1,765 other properties. When one compares that with the numbers de-requisitioned in the six months between 1st January and 30th June, one finds that during July we de-requisitioned approximately 50 per cent. of the number derequisitioned in the first six months of this year. I hope, therefore, the House will agree that the War Office have done their best to speed up this matter.

Is there any possibility before de-requisitioning of his getting in touch with the local councils to find out what they most need? One hears of a vast number of houses being de-requisitioned but on what basis is it being done? Is he working in with the local needs?

I think we must keep to what the Army would call "the drill." We are in close contact with the regional officer of the Ministry of Health, but it is his job to keep in touch with the local authority and not ours. Many of the owners of these properties are very closely in touch with us, because they do not let us forget that these properties belong to them, and they want them back. I hope I have given the House information which will convince them that the War Office are now going full steam ahead in relation to this matter.

5.40 p.m.

I would like to add a word on R.A.F. properties in Brighton. These properties are occupied by the Dominion Air Force on their way home. He suggests that some of the personnel might be moved to R.A.F. camps. That is a suggestion which we would be rather reluctant to carry out. They are our guests in the Dominion R.A.F., and they have done us remarkably well. They are on their way home, and they will not, in most cases, be here very much longer. What is prolonging the time factor is shipping, and we do not know exactly how long that position will last. At the end of their stay in this country I think that it would be rather difficult to move them out of the undoubtedly admirable accommodation which they have in Brighton to the comparative austerity of R.A.F. camps. We hope that the shipping position will be good enough to enable us to keep them where they are during the remaining short period of their stay in this country and that this property will be available in the not too distant future.