Liberated Countries (Supplies)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 28 March 1945.

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Photo of Mr Arthur Greenwood Mr Arthur Greenwood , Wakefield 12:00, 28 March 1945

Well, the Noble Lord hinted at it. We are facing the making of the new era after the Western victory, and I say that supreme victory comes first, not only in the West, but in the East. There is nothing that this country would do to hinder the end of the war, or to postpone it by a day, or an hour. On the other hand, whilst the dominating aim of the people of this country, of our Dominions and of our Allies is the final destruction of the forces working against us, then, a first measure, quite clearly, even in our own self-interests—but I would not put it on that basis—must be the sustenance and the rehabilitation of the people who have been overrun, despoiled and disordered by the Nazis. The Prime Minister made a great declaration, which I heartily approved. I was then, with the right hon. Gentleman, a member of the Cabinet. This was as early as August, 1940. It was a declaration of policy which binds us in honour and which we must try to fulfil. The Prime Minister said, on 20th August, 1940, in this House: We can and we will arrange in advance for the speedy entry of food into any part of the enslaved area, when this part has been wholly cleared of German forces, and has genuinely regained its freedom. We shall do our best to encourage the building up of reserves of food all over the world, so that there will always be held before the eyes of the peoples of Europe, including—I say it deliberately—the German and Austrian peoples, the certainty that the shattering of the Nazi power will bring to them all immediate food, freedom and peace."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th August, 194o; Vol. 364, c. 1162.] The right hon. Gentleman the Foreign Secretary has had to leave, but I may recall that in June, 1941, there was a conference at St. James's Palace which he and I attended—I referred to it in a speech rather over a year ago now, in the House of Commons—and at which we dealt with these problems. The Prime Minister himself was present on that occasion. In September of that year, we had a further inter-Allied conference. The British Government were taking constructive action then before our great Ally the United States of America came into the war. At that conference in September the Ambassador from the U.S.S.R. was present and again there was a declaration which I will repeat: It is the common aim—(that is, of the Allied Powers present, assented to by the U.S.S.R.)—to secure that supplies of food, raw materials and articles of prime necessity should be made available for the post-war needs of the countries liberated from Nazi oppression. These are the decisions to which this House of Commons, this Parliament, this people and all the Allied nations are committed. What is the position now? The kind of situation that might arise was known long before our invasion of Europe. It was foreseen. We had the Hot Springs Conference—another of those marvellously named places which we do not possess in this country—dealing with the whole problem of nutrition in the future. It made a great contribution to the future permanent policy of the world with regard to food supplies and nutrition, but there is now a more immediate situation. I think that Britain has done its best. Britain was first in the field of all the Allies to deal with the question of the rehabilitation of the overrun countries when they were freed. That will always stand to our credit, and that undertaking we must in honour fulfil to the utmost of our ability. I remember the Debates in this House about A.M.G.O.T. and the discussions we have had on U.N.N.R.A. and Greece. It would appear that there are some defects in the organisation of this great plan. I, like the noble Lord, do not wish to be controversial, nor do I wish to utter one word against either a great Ally or a small Ally, but it would appear to me that the centre of gravity, the headquarters of this great organisation, ought to be in Europe and not on the other side of the world. I express that as a personal view, strongly held; I have held it for a long time. I would have thought that this country was the best headquarters for the succour of Europe and that we could take the food and supplies the liberated people need.

I would like to refer to this aspect and I hope my right hon. Friend may say something about it. There is a very grave world problem to-day. As far as I have been able to ascertain, the food situation in the world as a whole is, this year, somewhat grim. The food supplies available in the world, apart perhaps from wheat, are likely this year to be lower than they were last year. We have the tragic situation that where territories have been liberated, the people are starving, that they are hungry and their crying needs ought really to be satisfied and answered. With every territory that is liberated, those cries will rise louder and louder to the heavens and more and more people will rely on our consciences for their sustenance. The real question is, Is there enough food in the world available now to satisfy the reasonable needs of the peoples of the world and to succour the devastated areas?

My right hon. Friend the Noble Lord has referred to American Army rations. I do not want to go into that question. Those rations seem to me to be ample as far as I have opportunities of judging them, but that is not the point. The real point is, if we have now a reduced world supply of food, then we must come to the priorities of its application. You mast feed your fighting men; nobody would complain about that. You must feed your civil population; no one would complain about that. Whether the civilian population in certain great territories over in America should treat themselves as handsomely as they apparently have done, is another matter, but it is important at this stage that we should declare two things. The first is, this country does not beg for food from any Ally. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister came down in person the other day to deny certain statements that had been made that we had 700,000,000 tons of food stored away in order to fill the bellies of the people of this country, and he came down and told the truth—that it was 6,000,000 tons. We do not beg for food. If we have to tighten our belts again to fulfil the obligations of honour which we have undertaken, we will do it. I would be sorry if we had so to do, but at least we are entitled to make an appeal to the great food-producing countries of the world to come to the aid of the starving peoples in the West of Europe.

Although I do not want to use the word "merely" in any small sense, it is not merely a case of humanitarian interests, though they are considerable and important, and, to me, primary. Unless we can mobilise the world's food resources now in order to take them to the people who have been battered nigh unto death by the Nazi terror, unless we can bring to them the aid and nourishment that they need, Britain's future will indeed be bleak and hard. And unless we bring food quickly, there will be famine and death in the so-called liberated areas. No area is liberated if it is under the menace of hunger and death and disease. In the so-called liberated areas we shall face a problem the like of which the world has never seen, not even in the grim days of the Black Death.

We have to take this problem seriously into our consideration. After the last great war there was an enormous amount of suffering, an enormous number of deaths due, first, to preventable diseases, and, secondly, to sheer starvation—numbers paralleling the numbers who had been slaughtered in war, or who had died bf their wounds. The situation may very shortly become even grimmer than that. The situation will be worse, because there has been a greater migration of people during this war. We have had mass movements, slaves driven into new countries, carrying with them—if I may use the term—their indigenous diseases and unaccustomed to withstand new diseases in the areas into which they went. That situation itself must lead to a situation on the Continent of Europe, the like of which we have never seen before. Whatever Dumbarton Oaks may say about international organisation after the war, and whatever organisation they may establish to deal with territories after the war, disease germs know no frontier, and this country may be just as open to some of the grievous diseases as those countries where they may arise and develop after the fighting has ceased. The problem has become complicated because of the difficulties with regard to the breakdown of normal food production in Europe. It has been further complicated by the breakdown of transport in Europe. It has been terribly endangered by the actual breakdown in many of the countries in South-Eastern, Eastern and Western Europe of the health services, and we may, therefore, very shortly be facing a terror that we have not known hitherto.

On the health side, I believe myself that the first need is food. I do not say that that is the final thing. There are three problems. The first is: Is the world willing to share its available food supplies amongst the people who need them? The second is: Can we do something to improve the long-distance transport of food? Shipping is a very grave problem—I appreciate that to the full—but in view of the urgency of the food situation, can anything be done in the coming weeks and months to improve the long-distance transport of food from the food producing areas to those areas, in the West of Europe particularly, which so urgently need food? Then there is the equally important question of internal transport and distribution on the Continent. It is little use loading up ports on the West of Europe, loading up Antwerp, for instance, with food, unless you can distribute it. I hope the agencies for distribution are all right, but I have the gravest fears as to the adequacy of internal transport on the Continent at present time. There are bridges down, and railways damaged; there are not nearly the number of locomotives on the lines as formerly, indeed, but a fraction of what there were. There are very few lorries, and so on, available. This problem is really a vital problem, and I think we are entitled to ask the Government whether it is not possible to transport—I know this means sea transport as well—over the water, the lorries and vehicles which, to-day, by the thousand are being stood aside and are more or less out of use. That, I suggest, is clearly a matter of primary importance and might succeed in saving a very large number of lives. It is, however, not merely the question of food. In the Resolutions adopted by the Allied nations—