HC Deb 27 July 1931 vol 255 cc2071-80

Motion made and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. T. Kennedy.]


I want to ask the House to listen to me for a few minutes while I appeal on behalf of an Englishman whose wife is detained in Russia. When I saw Mr. Walford a few weeks ago, I took particular care to take down careful notes of what he told me, because the story is almost unbelievable, in that it has involved such tremendous delays with the Foreign Office. Mr. Walford married a Russian subject, whose name I hesitate to try to pronounce—Varvaria Niki-vorovna Tunikoff—on the 8th February, 1931, in Odessa. At once he applied to the Odessa Gorsoviet for permission for her to leave the country on a Russian passport. This was refused three weeks later. At the same time he informed Sir Esmond Ovey, the British Ambassador in Moscow, of his application, and Sir Esmond Ovey gave him the hint that he might at the same time apply for her release from her Soviet nationality. Accordingly, he made application at the end of February for her release from Soviet nationality, and, after three weeks' delay, he was told, on the 20th March, that the application was refused. Thereupon he informed Sir Esmond Ovey, who promised to take up the question in Moscow.

At the beginning of April, Mr. Walford left Odessa with his wife, and went to Moscow, and at intervals of about a week he saw either Sir Esmond Ovey or his counsellor, but had no success at all, although he is certain that Sir Esmond Ovey did all that he possibly could. Eventually he decided, on the 22nd May, to leave Moscow for London, and, as soon as he arrived in London, he went to the Foreign Office—to be exact, I think it was on the 28th May—and saw one of the Foreign Office officials and explained the whole position to him. He was told that a letter from Sir Esmond Ovey had been received explaining the case, and explaining three other cases of people placed in a similar position. On the 8th June, he went to the Foreign Office again, and was told that the Foreign Secretary had spoken to the Soviet Ambassador. He applied at the Foreign Office at intervals of about a week, but each time was told that no reply had been received, although information had been received from Sir Esmond Ovey that the three similar cases had been settled.

Then he came to me, and I, not wishing to raise the question before I had written to the Secretary of State for, Foreign Affairs, wrote to him on the 11th June, sending him letters from Mr. Walford and asking him to take up the matter with the Russian Ambassador in London. On the 14th June, Mr. Walford himself paid a further visit to the Foreign Office, but was told that there was no further news, although he received again a further assurance that the matter would be taken up with the Ambassador. On the 15th June, my letter was acknowledged, and on the 19th I heard from the Foreign Office that the Foreign Secretary would take up the matter with the Soviet Ambassador. On the 23rd June, Mr. Walford went to the Foreign Office again, but still there was no news. I waited a month, and eventually, last Monday, put down a Question to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. I have the OFFICIAL REPORT here, and it seems to me that the answer which I got was very unsympathetic. Here was an application to the Foreign Office by an Englishman whose wife was detained in Russia, and this is the answer that I got on his behalf: The case of Mrs. Walford has been discussed by His Majesty's Ambassador at Moscow with the Vice-Commissariat for Foreign Affairs, and has also been taken up with the Soviet Embassy in London. I have not vet been informed of the decision of the Soviet Government. That was on the 20th July, although Mr. Walford had arrived in London on the 28th May, and over a month had elapsed since I gave the right hon. Gentleman full notice of the matter. I put a supplementary question, to which the Secretary of State replied: I do not know that we are in a position to press this case. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] We have brought it to their notice in both the ways which I have described, and we must await the reply."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th July, 1931; col. 1050, Vol. 255.] I would quote the case of myself and what I should feel if my wife were detained there. My feelings are obvious from the fact that I am speaking here to-night. If the hon. Gentleman had married a woman in Russia, would he not want her to accompany him back to this country so that she might hear his speeches in the Ladies' Gallery? I cannot quite understand why the Government take up this attitude, why they have not been able to approach the Soviet Ambassador in London or why they have not secured this woman's release through the British Ambassador in Moscow. It seems to me it is the question of debts and hostile propaganda over again—delays all the time.

The other side of the picture is the subservience of the British Government when questions of credits are involved. Then there is almost a cringing subservience to the Russian Government. The hon. Gentleman may say, "What would you do?" I will give him one idea as to what could be done. Two or three weeks ago a distinguished Russian, Mr. Bukharin, came to this country disguised as a scientist. Could not the British Government say to the Russian people, "Let the wife of a British citizen come into this country and, if you refuse, we will keep out other Russians who want to come here." Two thousand years ago if any man could say "Civis Romanus Sum," no foreigner dare touch him. Up to now wherever a British citizen was, in the far flung parts of the Empire or in foreign countries, it was something to be a British citizen. I appeal to the Government to get the wife of this Englishman back to London as soon as possible.


I am sorry the hon. and gallant Gentleman should have thought my right hon. Friend's reply to his question last Monday was not sympathetic. I will endeavour to explain some of the points of difficulty in this case, and also what we are endeavouring to do in the matter. Mr. Walford, who was an employé at one time of the Indo-European Telegraph Company in the Soviet Union, like several other Englishmen who have recently been in Russia, elected to marry a Russian lady. In the future, such unions may soften the acerbities of Anglo-Soviet relations, and we may heartily welcome this union of races. On broad and general grounds I am sure we shall welcome anything that will lead to Russian ladies coming to this country as the wives of British citizens, enabling thereby better relationship and understanding between the two countries to be promoted. Mrs. Walford was a Russian, and, having married an Englishman, she is what lawyers call a dual. She has a dual nationality. She is a Soviet citizen in the Soviet Union by reason of her birth, and by reason of having married an Englishman she is a British citizen in the view of our law. Her case is not an isolated one. It has become almost an epidemic among Englishmen lately in Russia to marry Russian brides, and we have had five or six other cases where Englishmen domiciled temporarily in Russia have married Russian wives, and precisely similar difficulties have arisen.

10.0 p.m.

The Soviet Government have laid down certain regulations whereby no persons are allowed permanently to leave the Soviet Union who are Soviet citizens unless they secure release from their Soviet citizenship. A number of these other ladies have done this and have duly been permitted to leave the country. I have particulars of five or six such cases where, after considerable delay, I regret to say, after representations made by our Ambassador in Moscow, and in some cases after representations made at this end with the Soviet Ambassador here, we have been able to secure that these ladies should come out. Mrs. Walford is the only case at present in which we have not been successful. We are not at all satisfied with the position so far as she is concerned any more than Mr. Walford is. It is suggested that we have been unsympathetic and inert, but that is not so. On a number of occasions this case had been brought up by our Ambassador at the other end, and on at least one occasion at this end, before the hon. and gallant Gentleman put down his question. Since then we have taken it up again. My right hon. Friend spoke about the matter to the Soviet Ambassador in my presence last week and also gave instructions to our Embassy in Moscow to bring the case up again there, and I saw a telegram to-day from our Ambassador reporting that we have again reminded the Soviet authorities that we are getting rather tired of waiting for this case to be dealt with. We shall not allow it to rest, but if the hon. and gallant Gentleman thinks that, under any Government, and under any circumstances we can always get these things settled as quickly as we should like, there is much bitter experience to contradict that

The hon. and gallant Gentleman in his supplementary question last Monday asked what is the use of having an Ambassador at Moscow at all? The answer is that our Ambassador has brought out all the other Russian ladies who have committed the imprudence of marrying Englishmen with the sole exception of Mrs. Walford, and this achievement would not have been accomplished had there been no British Ambassador in Russia to plead the cause of these ladies of dual nationality who are anxious to leave the country of their birth for the country of their husbands. Therefore, I think we can say that the British Ambassador in the Soviet Union has already been able to accomplish a great and humane work on behalf of these ladies of dual nationality. This is the one outstanding case in which he has not succeeded, and I hope it will not outstand very much longer. We shall endeavour to secure permission for Mrs. Walford to leave the Soviet Union and, in return for that undertaking, which I gladly give on behalf of my right hon. Friend, I hope the hon. and gallant Gentleman will be able to give me an undertaking that, if we are successful, none of his friends will try to move the Home Office to keep her out, because sometimes, when Russian citizens have tried to find their way here, there has been great perturbation on the benches opposite, and the question has been raised whether the Home Secretary should let them in.


The hon. Gentleman knows that there is no power to keep her out if she is a British citizen.


I was not proposing to embark on an argument in law with the hon. and learned Gentleman. I dare say my knowledge of law is as small as that of some of his friends behind him. What I was saying was that I hope, if we succeed in getting permission for her to come here, that none of his friends will take fright because she is a Russian by birth and endeavour to keep her out, as they have tried to keep out other Soviet citizens who have endeavoured to come here.


Mr. Trotsky, for instance.


That however is a side issue. I can assure the hon. and gallant Gentleman that we are not unsympathetic to his desire. We have done our best successfully in a number of other similar cases, and we hope that before very long we shall be able to secure the Soviet Government's agreement so that Mrs. Walford also may be able to join her husband.


The hon. Gentleman who has just addressed the House appears to think that this is a matter of amusement. The whole of his speech has been of a character indicating that there is something of a laughable nature in this case, and he seems to think this a fit subject in which to indulge some extraordinary ideas of a comic character. I would beg the hon. Gentleman to disabuse his mind and to regard the matter as a serious one. It will not be found satisfactory reading by the friends of the particular lady or by British subjects up and down the country when they realise the demeanour of the hon. Gentleman. I was amazed that a representative of the Foreign Office should think that this was an occasion to indulge in these methods. There is nothing amusing in the case, and there is nothing in the case to suggest that there is a party motive. I am sure that on reflection the hon. Member will realise that he has made a big mistake, and the first person to point out such a mistake, I am sure, will be the Foreign Secretary himself on his return. When the hon. Gentleman thinks that it is something of a joke he is not only making a great mistake but is doing a great disservice to this country. He said that he had made a most sympathetic reply to the representations that had been made in this case.

What was the reply which he made to my hon. Friend the other day? All he' was able to say was that after a protracted period ho had made representations once again to the Soviet Government begging and praying of them to do something in the matter. That is a very extraordinary position for the British Foreign Office to take up in a case of this kind. He has not given a definite undertaking to the House to-night and is not able to report that he has made any progress in the representations which the British Foreign Office has made to the Soviet Government. As far as the statement made to-night is concerned the husband and friends of this lady are in no better position from the point of view of receiving an assurance than when the hon. Gentleman first spoke. This is an illustration of the weakness of the present Government when approaching matters of this kind. On every occasion when they make representations to the Soviet Government or to the Soviet Ambassador we are always told that the matter is under consideration.

Far from anything practical being achieved, the British Government have been flouted again and again. We have seen that in the answer given to-day as far as Soviet debts are concerned, and also in the representations which the Government have made in regard to the case of the Lena Goldfields, in regard to which the Foreign Secretary and the hon. Gentleman have tried to ride off on the ground that some commercial interest was concerned. There is no consideration of that kind in the case we are considering to-night. The hon. Gentleman has again stated the inability of the Government to deal with the situation. It is indeed a melancholy reflection upon the position and influence of the British Government. The hon. Gentleman has not helped the case by his demeanour or by his answer to-night. In spite of all the talk about the great influence and prestige which the British Foreign Secretary has presumably attained during the last two years, this is another illustration of the way in which the country is being dragged into the mud and of the results likely to accrue as long as this Government and the Foreign Secretary remain in office.


In many countries of the world an expression or wish on the part of Great Britain meets with an acceptable response. I think that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs might perhaps, in his contact with the Soviet Government, express regret a little forcibly with regard to this particular case. I am sure that the House would desire on all occasions to express its sense of indebtedness to Sir Esmond Ovey for all the work he is doing. All of us who have had dealings with Sir Esmond and know of the inestimable services he and his staff are giving in circumstances of great difficulty, are indeed very grateful to him. Although the hon. Gentleman gave particulars of some of the instances in which Sir Esmond's services have been particularly successful, they by no means exhaust the complete category of cases where hs has been doing great service to our country. But in this particular case an unfortunate situation has arisen, and while there are many things within the power of a sovereign Government with which no other Government on a friendly footing can possibly interfere, there is nothing to prevent His Majesty's Government, both in conversations with the Soviet Ambassador in London and through the Embassy in Moscow, conveying the deep sense of regret that the repeated requests of the Government of Great Britain should meet with such a little result. I doubt not that something of that kind has already taken place. Although we are dealing with a Soviet-born citizen, admittedly under the sole control of her own Government, admittedly outside our power to enforce by any method known to international law, admitted freely by hon. and right hon. Members above the Gangway on this side, as well as by those of us in other parts of the House, I suggest that His Majesty's Government of Great Britain, in asking repeatedly that a particular lady, the wife of a British subject, might be granted not immediate release but might be granted release from her Soviet allegiance in order that, having elected to become the wife of a non-Soviet citizen, she might return to the country and domicile of her husband, are not making a very large request.

Were it a question of compulsory military service, were it a question of a secret invention or the possessor of some secret regarding the national Safety of the Government concerned, one could conceive an argument, but here is a lady—whether she may be possessed of some knowledge which the Soviet Government are anxious should be kept within their territory, I do not know—and a request made by His Majesty's Government, backed by a discussion in the House of Commons, reasonably put forward and with dignity by the Foreign Secretary in our own country, and put forward by our Ambassador in Moscow, might receive some response. I think that His Majesty's Government in their next communication might emphasise the feeling of regret which this House has expressed time after time that this incident should be treated in this way. We realise the difficulties that there are, but we are not asking for an impossibility. We are not asking from Russia more than we should ask from any other country. We expect that the Government of Great Britain, when it puts forward a reasonable request, to which no real answer has been made, might at least have an honourable answer.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Eighteen Minutes after Ten o'Clock.