HC Deb 20 October 1953 vol 518 cc1866-9

It shall be the duty of the Board of Trade to give the direction mentioned in subsection (6) of section one of the Distribution of German Enemy Property Act, 1949, in favour of the person who would have been entitled to the property or proceeds therein mentioned if the definition of enemy property within the Trading with the Enemy Act, 1939, had excluded property for the time being belonging to or held or managed on behalf of or controlled directly or indirectly by an individual or body of persons (whether corporate or un-incorporate) who possessed the nationality of a State allied with His late Majesty or who was a member of any Allied or Associated Forces within the Allied Forces Act, 1940.—[Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

The Board of Trade, under the Distribution of German Enemy Property Act, have a discretionary right to distribute property to persons whom they are satisfied are entitled to the property. By this Clause we suggest that where the Board of Trade are satisfied that a person is entitled to the property and is a national of a State allied with his late Majesty—in other words, was an ally during the war or a member of the Allied Forces during the war; for instance a Pole serving here with the Polish forces—the Board of Trade should be under an obligation to let him have his property back. That is the effect of our proposal, in very rough terms.

We fail to see why, in those two cases, which seem to us to be very right and proper, and deserving cases, the Board of Trade should not be under an obligation to give a direction that such property, in the hands of the Custodian, should be handed back. I hope that we shall have a reasonably sympathetic view from the Government on this question.

Mr. Janner

I should like to reinforce what my hon. and learned Friend has said. Here we are asking for something which ought to be given without any question. All we ask is that Allied nationals or members of Allied and associated forces should have a legal right not to be treated as enemies. If, as at present, they are confined to mere ex gratia proceedings, they are placed in an humiliating position which, in the view of my hon. and learned Friend and myself, should be avoided. In our view they should have access to the courts of law and be able to enjoy the full protection of our law and the administration of justice. This Clause should commend itself particularly to the Government and they should have no hesitation in accepting it.

Mr. H. Strauss

I am not sure whether this new Clause quite carries out the intention in the mind of the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, North-East (Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas), because it proposes the amendment of Section 1 (6) of the Distribution of German Enemy Property Act, 1949. That means that here we are concerned only with German enemy property and this is really another plea for looking behind the constitution of a company to see who are the beneficial owners. That question has already been dealt with on a previous Amendment, but I would say generally to the hon. and learned Member that the question really is whether it is appropriate that this should be mandatory.

I do not think it can be mandatory, because nationality in itself would be a wholly insufficient test. That is why I have no doubt that the Government of which he was a distinguished Member—though I cannot recall whether he was a Law Officer at the time—legislated in the way they did, and not in the way which the hon. and learned Member now wishes. If there were merit in the idea behind this new Clause—which, for the reasons I have given, there is not—the time to have given effect to it would have been in 1949, and it is now hopelessly late.

It would hold up any amount of matters which are now proceeding smoothly, and would be ineffective in certain cases where action had already been completed. If the hon. and learned Member will look into the matter he will see that he is really proposing the amendment, not of this Bill, but of an earlier Act. I do not think it would have been right at any time, and it is certainly too late now.

Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas

What I hoped was that we should get from the hon. and learned Gentleman some statement about the undertaking in the kind of case mentioned in the Amendment. Some of his criticisms of this Amendment were fully justified, as I appreciate. This is a case where it is extremely difficult to frame a Clause which would have a mandatory effect. I agree with him there. If this matter could be dealt with in a satisfactory way by an undertaking which would preserve the discretion of the Minister, then it would clearly be the more flexible and better way to deal with it.

This matter arose on Second Reading, and the Minister gave an undertaking, but his undertaking was limited in an extremely narrow form and what we were anxious to have was an undertaking that would be somewhat less limited than the one which he gave. The Government were pressed on Second Reading and elsewhere to consider that undertaking and not to have it drawn in such an extremely careful and narrow form as it was drawn both elsewhere and here. I do not know whether the Parliamentary Secretary can add something which would give us the assurance that all the cases we have in mind—and he knows the cases we have in mind: the case of the ally, of people fighting with us during the war—would be covered by the discretion which the Board of Trade already have. That was the object of putting down the Amendment.

Mr. H. Strauss

I am not sure whether the hon. and learned Gentleman was not inadvertently confusing two things. He so seldom confuses anything that I make that suggestion with the greatest hesitation, but I think he has slightly confused the discretionary use of this power in the Statute referred to in the Amendment with the quite distinct undertaking about ex gratia payments made by my right hon. Friend. I am afraid I cannot give the hon. and learned Gentleman any information at the moment about the working of the power in the Statute, but I think the intention has been to use it in every proper case. As for the quite different considered statement made in both Houses on ex gratia payments, I am afraid I have no authority to alter the wording.

Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill reported, with Amendments; as amended, to be considered Tomorrow, and to be printed. [Bill 114.]