HC Deb 20 October 1953 vol 518 cc1851-4

5.45 p.m.

Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas

I beg to move, in page 13, line 43, to leave out from "time," to "imported," in line 45, and to insert "during the war period."

I suggest that it would be convenient to discuss with this Amendment that to line 45—after "Act," to insert "enemy property seized from Germany and."

Clause 11 is one about which I feel some difficulty. It provides that any property brought to the United Kingdom by a Government Department—or by the authority of a Government Department, in the words of the Clause—which is property seized from the Germans between the 3rd September, 1939, and the passing of this Act, it shall vest in the Crown. That, briefly, is the effect of the Clause. It seems to me that the property need not be actually seized from Germany itself. It need only be brought here under the vague phrase of "property seized from Germany." I do not know why that phrase is used. What does it really mean? What is the intention behind it? That is the first point.

Secondly, with regard to the date, the property may be seized even today. There is no war limit to the seizure at all, as I understand the Clause, the scope of which is unjustifiably wide. The third point is that, apparently, the property need not be enemy property at all. It may be the property of an ally or may have been the property of a British subject, because even that is covered by this Clause.

The object of the Amendments is to ensure that the property shall be limited to enemy property, and if, in fact, seized from Germany, it should be enemy property seized from Germany during the period when we were still at war with Germany. The war period is defined by a later Clause. Those are the purposes of the Amendments, and they concern matters on which I should be obliged if I could have some explanation. I realise that there may be some difficulty in finding the precise and exact explanation of all this, but I hope I have given the Parliamentary Secretary sufficient time to recover his position and be able to make his reply.

Mr. Janner

I also wish to ask one or two questions on this so that, if possible, we may have a fuller answer. It seems to me that the Amendment in line 43 is justified because in my view—I may be entirely wrong—seizures from Germany after the war period have not, in fact, taken place. If they have not taken place, would it not be contrary to international law and the policy adopted by this country towards the Federal German Republic?

The Attorney-General

I think I can help in regard to this matter. First, there is no need for any alarm in connection with line 46 on page 13. It is intended to mean only property seized from Germany, and it is probably desirable that that word should be substituted as it is not intended to widen the matter in any way.

As regards the other point, one has, I think, to approach it in the light that in this Bill we are validating action which took place during the war period, that is, up to July, 1951, when the war with Germany officially ended. In this particular case, however, it is necessary to go further for a special reason which I will explain.

Under the Military Government arrangement there was a requirement for the reporting of all foreign exchange to the authorities, and a decision was made that certain currency should be treated as German external assets. There was a complicated business with regard to that. The whole of that transaction was completed before that date except for the one final step. Everything but the final step took place in the war period, and it is just a matter of extending the operation to cover cases where the importation into the United Kingdom was delayed until after the termination of the state of war. There was importation into this country which was not illegal, but which has to be provided for. The answer is that there we are only dealing with one special case, but that we must have the words in the Bill if we are to cover it.

Mr. Janner

I am much obliged to the hon. and learned Gentleman for his explanation, but I am still a little doubtful—this being a kind of unilateral arrangement on our side—whether it is going to be acceptable in regard to the particular matters he has in mind to whatever other country may be concerned. Perhaps the hon. and learned Gentleman will have a look at that. Of course, I do not know what the example is and I could not go into it on the spur of the moment, but I think it worth while having a further look at the point.

The Attorney-General

We will certainly have a look at it.

If I may now deal with the other point about enemy property, the position there is that in a number of cases this property was seized from Germany and brought to this country in circumstances in which it would be impossible for anybody to know to whom it originally belonged. Therefore, as we are dealing with an indemnity Bill, that is the best way in which we consider we can deal with the matter, and I do not think one can carry it further than that.

Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman and appreciate the difficulties which face the Government in drafting an indemnity Bill for the purposes they have in mind. I agree that the purposes mentioned by the hon. and learned Gentleman are purposes which should be covered by Clause 11, but I cannot help feeling that the Clause is drafted in very wide terms. I am sure that as lawyers both the hon. and learned Gentleman and the Parliamentary Secretary would wish to see the Clause as restricted in its application as is consistent with the objects they have in mind.

I find it difficult to believe that the Clause could not be drafted to achieve its purpose without the extraordinarily wide scope given in its present form. While I appreciate the force of the hon. and learned Gentleman's observations, and certainly agree with the objects he has in mind, all he has really said is that the criticisms made about the Clause as drafted are correct but that, unfortunately, it cannot achieve the necessary objects except by being drafted in this way.

It is most undesirable to have a Clause drafted in terms which cover cases which it would be unjust to cover in order merely to cover cases which it would be just to cover, but that is the defence put forward by the hon. and learned Gentleman. I am not saying that it is easy to draft a Bill limited severely to the objects which the hon. and learned Gentleman has in mind. Knowing that these objects are right and proper, I cannot oppose this Clause nor press my Amendment, but I do suggest that the Clause should be re-examined with a view to seeing if it is really necessary to frame it quite so wide for the purpose of achieving these admittedly desirable objects.

The Attorney-General

I shall certainly be happy to consider that, but I wish to say that those who have been responsible for the drafting of this Bill have had a most appalling task. They have done their very best and have achieved a very remarkable result. Of course, if it were possible to simplify the Clause, we would be quite prepared to do so.

Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas

I entirely agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman in the observations he has made about this Bill and about the difficulties of drafting. However, I shall be obliged if, even at this late stage, he will see if anything can be done to restrict its scope. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.