Forced Labour Camps (Inquiry)

Oral Answers to Questions — U.S.S.R. – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th July 1949.

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Photo of Sir Eric Fletcher Sir Eric Fletcher , Islington East 12:00 am, 27th July 1949

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs what are the terms of the request His Majesty's Government are making to the Economic and Social Council for an investigation by the United Nations as to the conditions existing in slave camps; and whether he will make a statement.

Mr. McNeil:

I take it that my hon. Friend is referring to the forced labour camps which exist in the Soviet Union and certain other countries. The Economic and Social Council at its last session adopted a resolution which declared that an impartial inquiry was desirable into the charges that had been made concerning forced labour in certain countries. The Secretary-General of the United Nations was instructed to ask all Governments if they would be prepared to co-operate in such an inquiry. His Majesty's Government have declared that they would be willing to co-operate in any such inquiry which is generally acceptable, and it is our hope that all other Governments will do likewise. This subject is due for discussion at the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations in the near future.

Photo of Sir Eric Fletcher Sir Eric Fletcher , Islington East

Can my right hon. Friend confirm whether it is true that the Soviet Government have consistently refused to give permission to the United Nations to visit these camps? Is he aware that so long as this policy of secrecy is maintained the public are compelled, however reluctantly, to draw the worst conclusions about the barbarous conditions that exist?

Mr. McNeil:

It certainly is quite true that the delegation from Soviet Russia at the last meeting of the Council at which this matter was discussed refused to admit the terms of a resolution which provided for investigation upon the spot. It is probably true that people will continue to draw regrettable conclusions from the continued refusal of Soviet Russia to accede to such a request.

Photo of Mr William Gallacher Mr William Gallacher , Fife Western

In view of the original answer of the Minister that there are forced labour camps in the Soviet Union, may I ask him two simple questions? One is: Is it not a fact that the Soviet delegation have tabled a motion at the council in favour of investigation of working conditions in all countries and Colonies, including the Soviet Union? The second question is: Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I sent a letter to his neighbour on the Front Bench, in which I showed that the present Foreign Secretary, when he was Secretary to the Transport and General Workers' Union, condemned this story as a lie and a slander, and will the right hon. Gentleman see that the letter is communicated to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations?

Mr. McNeil:

The answer to the first part of the supplementary question is that delegations of the Soviet Union have in my opinion continued to evade this question by proposals—

Photo of Mr William Gallacher Mr William Gallacher , Fife Western

On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. My question was: Has the Soviet delegation tabled a motion?

Photo of Mr Douglas Clifton Brown Mr Douglas Clifton Brown , Hexham

The hon. Gentleman must not dictate to the Minister how he shall answer.

Mr. McNeil:

I will answer the first of the three points put to me by the hon. Gentleman bluntly and factually, in a fashion he will not like. It is my opinion that the Soviet delegation—

Mr. McNeil:

The hon. Gentleman shall have the facts, but I am entitled to draw an opinion from the facts. It is my opinion that the Soviet delegation have continued to attempt to evade this issue by claiming that investigations should take place. To that effect they have tabled a resolution which was a counter-resolution to one which demanded an inquiry into labour conditions in all countries. The Soviet delegation have on this subject, as on others, refused to allow United Nations investigators to proceed to the spot to make an inquiry which would satisfy dispassionate witnesses.

On the second point, I am not aware of the letter, but since I saw an article about this in the "Daily Worker," I think it probable that the hon. Gentleman has written a letter in similar terms.

Photo of Sir Godfrey Nicholson Sir Godfrey Nicholson , Farnham

If, as appears probable, the Soviet Government persist in their refusal to allow an inquiry to take place with visits to the actual places, will it be the policy of His Majesty's Government to urge upon the United Nations the desirability of the fullest possible publicity and publication of such facts as can be gleaned without a local investigation?

Mr. McNeil:

No, Sir. I do not think that would be profitable or useful or—I am not sure—appropriate, but I am certain that, as long as the Soviet Government adopt this attitude, even people who wish desperately to be friendly with them cannot escape coming to the conclusion that they have something to hide.

Photo of Mr Emrys Hughes Mr Emrys Hughes , South Ayrshire

As the document quoted at Geneva was dated 1940, what official protests were made between 1940 and 1946 against slave labour in Russia? If the Government object to slave labour, is it intended to continue conscription?

Mr. McNeil:

The second part of the supplementary question is a confusion, and in any case it should not be directed to me. My recollection is that the publication date of the Codex was 1943—I might be wrong in that—but at any rate, whatever the date was, we took into account any subsequent amendments to the regulations. The subsequent amendments have been published. I see the hon. Gentleman shaking his head.

Photo of Mr Emrys Hughes Mr Emrys Hughes , South Ayrshire

I am asking what protests the Government made.

Mr. McNeil:

If the Soviet administration publishes alterations to the parent regulations, we are right to assume that the parent regulations are still in force. As to protests, we have several times at the United Nations attempted to have this subject investigated.

Photo of Mr Richard Stokes Mr Richard Stokes , Ipswich

Is my right hon Friend aware that I have repeatedly asked the Soviet Government to let me visit some of the slave camps—and have named them—and that I have been consistently refused?

Photo of Mr John Platts-Mills Mr John Platts-Mills , Finsbury

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this story about slave labour camps in the Soviet Union is the oldest and the least founded of all the silly anti-Soviet twaddle; and that in 1931 it was the Swedish timber exporters who began the story to prevent the British people from buying Soviet timber, that Goebbels continued it actively for eight or 10 years, and that now His Majesty's Ministers have taken it up? Is he not rather shamed by that?

Mr. McNeil:

Whatever may have been the facts in 1931, this is no fabrication of the Swedish timber trade or His Majesty's Government or any other government. It is a publication and an enforcement made by the administration of Soviet Russia

Photo of Mr William Gallacher Mr William Gallacher , Fife Western

What about this country 20 years ago?

Mr. McNeil:

—and whether the hon. Gentleman likes it or not, these are the facts, and no wriggling can escape from that.