HC Deb 23 October 1953 vol 518 cc2304-11
Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas

I beg to move, in page 15, line 3, to leave out from "enemy," to the end of line 5.

This Clause deals with the definition of "German enemy," and the Amendment proposes to eliminate from the definition joint owners. This again was a matter covered in Committee, our point being that, in the definition of "German enemy," in so far as it covered joint owners, we might have the case of British people, or people who fought with us in the war, having their rights extinguished because they are treated in precisely the same way as Germans who fought against us and who were treated as German enemies.

We appreciate the difficulties which the Government indicated in Committee, and all we are concerned with here is a provision for compensation in the case of the extinguishing of patents or copyrights where there is joint ownership and some of the joint owners are British, allied or neutral. It is quite unjust that people of that kind should have their rights extinguished without compensation, either in full or by ex gratia provision. I put down the Amendment to find out the result of the Government's reconsideration of the points raised in Committee.

Mr. H. Strauss

I know that the hon. and learned Member will frankly agree that in Committee I held out no hope whatever, and gave my reasons for not accepting this Amendment. He pointed out quite rightly that, in so far as the point was in any way bound up with the points he had raised on the previous Clause, on which we had promised further consideration, we should consider it. That, of course, we have done, but the conclusion is as I stated on the previous occasion—that we could not, consistently with the purposes of this Measure, alter this definition Clause at all. In so far as it is bound up with the other questions, I have already dealt with it in dealing with the other Clauses, and I must therefore ask the House to reject the Amendment.

Amendment negatived.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."—[Mr. H. Strauss.]

11.38 a.m.

Mr. Janner

As has so often been said in the course of the discussions on this Bill, this is a very intricate Measure, but its effect will not be quite so difficult to understand by those who are to suffer in consequence of it as are the terms of the Bill itself. I am unhappy about this Bill. I think it is a Measure which does not do justice to ourselves as a great nation when we are considering the rights of private individuals who suffered in consequence of persecution or because they were unable to establish their rights before.

I do not want to cover again the ground which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, North-East (Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas) and I have done on previous occasions, but I would not like to see this Bill go on the Statute Book without making one or two comments about points which have been raised in the debates. In the first place, considerable hardship which has resulted on all too many occasions to the recognised owners in which persons "in the know" bought from the Custodian of Enemy Property at far too low a price property which they still retain. If this was non-enemy property, is there any reason at all why the true owner should be confined to recovering the inadequate consideration received by the custodian, instead of their own property? I think not. Unfortunately, this Bill does not give them the right to do so.

Secondly, on the question of income from moneys invested by the custodian, it is rather mean to offer interest at ¾ per cent. in respect of moneys which had been taken, and which, surely, must have been invested at from 2½ to 3 per cent.? Perhaps I am wrong, but I hardly regard ¾ per cent. on moneys retained for a considerable period as adequate compensation, unless, of course, the authorities, the custodian, or whoever it may have been, had only received that amount, although I can hardly believe that to be the case.

Now may I refer to the case of a woman of British origin who married a German? By the British Nationality Act, 1948, such a woman is re-granted British nationality, but her property in this country remains forfeited. The Board of Trade grants an ex gratia release if she is residing in the Federal Republic and intends to come to this country. As I understand it, however, ex gratia release is, on principle, refused to such a woman if she lives in Eastern Germany. In my view, this means that British subjects are compelled to remain in Communist territory against their will. I think that the action of the Board of Trade is an arbitrary one in such cases coming under the discretion granted by Section 16 of the Distribution of Enemy Property Act, as the person's residence appears to be the sole test.

I will give a further illustration. A Communist woman of British origin and dual nationality residing in Western Germany may come back and claim her property. Perhaps the following will appeal to the Attorney-General. On the other hand, even a stalwart Conservative must remain in the Soviet zone and cannot obtain the release. Perhaps that illustration will help the hon. and learned Gentleman to do something about the ex gratia matters referred to in this Bill.

I appreciate that indemnity must be given in proper cases, but I think that the question which I asked on a number of occasions when this Measure was passing through its various stages, and Which has as yet not been answered, that is, whether any other country apart from our own has passed a Measure of this sort, is one of extreme importance. I do not think that we ought to act unilaterally in a matter of this description.

11.43 a.m.

Mr. William Teeling (Brighton, Pavilion)

I agree with the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Janner) that the interest of ¾ per cent. which it is proposed to allow under Clause 43 is really a very small and very meagre amount of money. In another place, this matter was raised by both Opposition and Government supporters, and it was pointed out that there must be many ways in which this money could be invested at a better rate.

It should be remembered that, at the moment, there are considerable funds in the possession of the custodian which only came into his possession because Germany moved into countries which were already behind the Iron Curtain. It is extremely difficult to know when these moneys will be released and returned to their rightful owners. It may be a long time or it may be quite soon, but, if it is going to take a long time, I feel that the Board of Trade or the Custodian of Enemy Property should take more seriously the question of how these moneys are invested.

I know that the Minister will probably say that ¾ per cent. is the interest which the Custodian of Enemy Property is receiving on these investments; but, as I have said, there are many other ways in which the moneys could be better employed and which would eventually give a better return to their rightful owners. I ask my hon. and learned Friend if he will meet me or others and discuss this matter again after the Bill has become an Act so that something may be done for those people who, as far as we can see, are not going to get anything for a very long time.

11.46 a.m.

Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas

This is, of course, a completely non-party Measure, and its main principle has had our sup-port throughout. We recognise, and have fully supported the view, that there must be complete indemnity for all those who have acted in furtherance of the war effort, or who have taken part in gathering the fruits of victory.

The whole of our effort in opposition on this Bill has been concerned with ensuring that rights are not taken away from perfectly innocent people without adequate provision being made for compensating them. We are very glad that in another place the Government accepted our proposal that where money is paid back to a non-German enemy, in accordance with the provision of the law on the subject, interest should be paid. We are really rather shocked that the Government should have stood out for so long against our proposal that interest should be paid on moneys which, ex hypothesi, belonged to the people to whom it was eventually paid. We are relieved that the Government accepted our proposal on that point.

The difficulty which the Ministers have experienced here is one which, I am afraid, faces all Ministers in dealing with questions of this kind. The difficulty is, of course, that in an anxiety to cover perfectly proper cases for indemnity, such as we have here, the provisions of the Bill go further than are necessary, and, therefore, do injustice to people who should not be affected by the Measure at all.

The Bill is one of great perplexity, as has been recognised by everybody throughout. Not only are its provisions complex, but the whole of the background into which this Bill has to fit is also very complex. Therefore, any opposition must be very careful regarding the proposals it makes for amending a Bill of this kind.

We recognise that the Ministers handling this Bill have been anxious to meet the points which we have put forward for consideration by the Government, but we still feel it is very unfortunate that rights should be taken away from these people and that they should only be left to be compensated through the discretionary power which is reposed in the Executive. It is a very unsatisfactory position, and even more unsatisfactory when it is seen that when it comes to the Government giving an undertaking on ex gratia payments, it is, in fact, a very severely limited one.

Finally, I hope that when cases for ex gratia payments come before the Minister for his consideration, he will not limit himself to the narrow terms in which his undertaking to the House has been drawn up. I trust that in every case concerning a neutral person, an allied national, perhaps, or maybe a British subject who fought for his country during the war whose rights are inevitably affected by this Bill, the Minister will exercise his discretion to ensure that the injustice we have in mind, and which has been brought before the House time and time again, will be remedied. I hope that he will consider such cases sympathetically with a view to carrying out the purpose which both sides of the House have made it perfectly clear we have in mind. First of all there should be an indemnity, and secondly, in all these cases where rights are taken away, compensation should be paid for them.

11.51 a.m.

Mr. H. Strauss

I thank all hon. Gentlemen who have taken part in the debate for their brevity on this occasion and for their generally helpful, if critical, attitude in the proceedings on the Bill. I wish now to say one or two words in reply to some of the points that have been made.

The hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Janner) mentioned one or two points, the first of which was: Suppose something was bought from the custodian, probably during the war, at a price which somebody else now alleges was inadequate. Really, does anybody in this House think that we could have a provision which made every sale by the custodian during the war, perhaps to clear a port at the height of air raids, questionable on the ground of price? We are getting into Cloud Cuckooland if we suggest that anything like that is possible.

Mr. Janner

I did not mean that every case came within it, but there was a large number of cases in which properties were sold at very low prices to people "in the know," and there ought to be compensation.

Mr. Strauss

The hon. Gentleman practises in the legal profession. If he thinks that we can say arbitrarily that in a certain case there was somebody "in the know" and in another case there was not, without providing any means of investigation, he is going even further into Cloud Cuckooland than he was buried in it already. [Laughter.] My metaphor appears to have become a little mixed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Teeling) criticised the rate of interest provided under the Bill, but it is approximately the rate earned by the custodian. I ventured to point out in my speech on the Second Reading, with some trepidation on account of the far greater knowledge of Chancery matters possessed by the hon. and learned Gentleman on the Government Front Bench, that the duty of the custodian and the duty of a trustee were different. The trustee's duty is to invest but the custodian's duty is to preserve. If the custodian invests in such things as Treasury Bills which earn a very low rate of interest, he is doing something which his functions and duty make it proper that he should do.

The third point raised by the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West was really a criticism of the Bill for its omissions rather than for what it contains, and in so far as that is the case it would be out of order for me to deal with it on the Third Reading. Apart from that, the case he described was one in which there might be justification for discretion, but it would be very hard to justify providing a right to sue. My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion asked whether he and others might approach us to discuss the matter. Of course he may. We are always most willing to see hon. Members on this and other subjects.

I do not think I greatly differ from the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, North-East (Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas) as to the proper duty and approach of Parliament to problems of this kind. We ought to give the indemnity that it is right to give with a minimum of injury to innocent parties, but the late war, of which this is a consequence, ranged so widely over so many countries that it gave rise to extremely complicated problems. The perfect Measure that we should desire would, in the circumstances, be an absolute impossibility. All we can do is to make the Bill as good as possible, and I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for the help that he has given. He said that if, notwithstanding that, injustices eventually come to light, they should be dealt with on an ex gratia basis. With his general approach I have no quarrel at all.

This is a necessary and, as far as we can make it so, a good Measure. I note what the hon. and learned Gentleman said about ex gratia payments, but I repeat that I cannot in any way alter the terms of the announcement which has been made in both Houses of Parliament.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed, with Amendments.

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