HC Deb 07 November 1955 vol 545 cc1612-24

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Colonel J. H. Harrison.]

9.59 p.m.

Mr. Austen Albu (Edmonton)

The matter which I wish to raise is, I think, a most extraordinary gloss on the debate which we have just conducted. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, in his reply, will deal with the matter in the same liberal terms as those used by his right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister, because the matter with which we are concerned is a very similar one. It might, in fact, be said that this is the Burgess and Maclean case in reverse. I hope, therefore, that the Parliamentary Secretary will adopt the same sort of attitude towards it as was adopted by the Prime Minister in his peroration a few moments ago.

To put the House in possession of the facts, may I say that this arose out of a conference held on 28th September on regional planning and development at Bedford College. This conference had its origin in a symposium—

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Albu

The symposium at the Imperial Institute in 1953 was attended by about 100 persons with academic and professional qualifications in the fields of architecture, sociology, economics, agriculture, community development and town planning. The purpose of the conference was to try to set up a centre to improve the means of co-operation and exchange of information between people engaged in the very broad fields of regional planning and development throughout the world.

As a result of the symposium there was set up a preparatory committee, which finally consisted of 16 persons. In view of the accusations which have been implied by the Government against the persons organising the conference, may I say right away that at the most there were three members of that committee who were Communist sympathisers and whose Communist sympathies were perfectly well known to a large number of people. It may be that one or two others had some slight contact with Soviet academic or cultural activities.

One of them, a very well-known Quaker town planner, certainly attended the Warsaw Peace Conference, at which he was extremely critical, and has since been acting as adviser, presumably with Foreign Office approval, to two Middle East countries; and since the conference was held, he has been pressed by the Foreign Office to visit Norway and to address a professional seminar. He is, of course, still engaged in advising those Middle East Governments. The truth is that the members of the committee were well known for their professional qualities and experience and it was for this reason only that they got together for the purposes which they did.

The proposed conference was sponsored by a number of extremely respectable academic bodies—for example, the Institutes of Colonial Studies and of Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford, the Institute of Education in London University and a number of other colleges and institutes of the University of London, by the University of Liverpool and the University of North Carolina.

When invitations to the conference were sent out, there were over 400 registrations from 44 countries from persons who wished to attend. Only one of those applications for registration came from persons from behind the Iron Curtain—it was, in fact, from Poland—before the Government's banning or dislike of the conference was made known. I believe that subsequently there were four more applications, two more from Poland and two from Czechoslovakia.

Among those intending to participate in the conference were a number of United Kingdom Government Departments as well as a number of bodies in the United Nations—some of the Special Agencies, and so on—the Federation of British Industries, the Association of Consulting Engineers, the Royal Institute of Public Administration, and so on.

A number of Colonial Governments were interested and until very late in the preparatory time of the conference the Colonial Office continued to transmit applications for registration to the organisers of the conference. I have with me a file of correspondence showing that right up to the end of August, high officials in the Colonial Office itself were either proposing to attend the conference or, if they were unable to do so, were expressing good wishes to the conference and saying that they were unable to attend because they would be out of the country. There is no doubt whatever that the conference had the most respectable auspices.

In view of the subject of the conference, its organisers asked that Madam Pandit, the High Commissioner for India, should accept the honorary office of Presidency of the conference, and she did so. Perhaps I might read to the House the letter that Madam Pandit sent to the conference in accepting: I welcome this opportunity to be associated with this conference as I am conscious of the tremendous importance of integrated social and economic development all over the world and particularly in the lesser developed regions of Asia, Africa and the Americas.… I have no doubt that this conference, which, for the first time, will bring together all those engaged in similar activities in various parts of the world, would make a substantial contribution in tackling the problems of poverty and want. Some months before the conference was due to take place three members of the preparatory committee received hints from the Foreign Office that it was advising other Governments not to participate. Indeed, the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs admitted this in reply to a Question I put to him last week when he said: My right hon. Friend had been asked by a friendly Government if the conference was reputable. On learning that some of those responsible for organising the conference were Communists or Communist sympathisers he passed on this information to the Government in question and to a number of other friendly Governments."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 31st October, 1955; Vol. 545, c. 66.] The latter, presumably, gratuitously. The Colonial Secretary, apparently, at a very late stage, after or late in August, said the same with respect to the two Colonial Governors, as was admitted in reply to a Question I put on 26th October.

In spite of information which was freely given to the Foreign Office by those concerned, the Foreign Office refused to change its attitude, although other Government Departments continued to support the conference, including the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but just before the conference was due to take place the organisers were shown a letter from a civil servant in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food saying that the Foreign Office had forbidden him and a colleague to attend.

After a letter to The Times the Home Office issued a statement in which it said that certain of those responsible for the conference had undesirable political affiliations and that it asked members of the Government service to consider whether it would be right for them to attend. A number of withdrawals now took place. The Norwegian Government, presumably the Government which had asked about this originally, withdrew, though they were going to present a paper on planning in Northern Norway. Dr. Olivetti, a well-known town planner, also withdrew. Others withdrew, either completely, or after only reading a paper, and then they left the conference.

The conference attained a high standard in its speakers and its chairmen, and I say that not because of anything that I have read but because I attended it. At the plenary sessions there was not one paper from behind the Iron Curtain, and only one at a short evening session, and that was from a town planning institute in Poland. The main subjects dealt with at the conference were the T.V.A., the Indian Community Project, the Volta River Project, and a privately sponsored project for planning in northern Italy.

The chairmen were most academic and most respectable men, and I give their names to show the quality of those assisting in this work. There were Sir William Holford, Professor of Town Planning. University College, London; Professor Charles Madge, of Birmingham; Professor Robson, of the London School of Economics; Professor Wooldridge, of King's College, London; and Professor Gardner-Medwin, of Liverpool.

Professor Madge was ill and unable to attend, but he sent a letter saying that the action of the Government was extremely foolish; but not one of the other university professors failed to attend. The organisers, realising the awkward situation created for Madame Pandit, invited her to withdraw, and she withdrew saying that she did not want to be involved in the controversy.

Owing to Government action, to pre-sure brought on participants in the conference by Government Departments, some High Commissioners and diplomats from other countries withdrew, but we cannot blame the American Embassy, because, after all we have said about American security services, the Americans must have thought there was something very wrong about this conference and that our Government must have had some very serious information about it.

However, the most frightening thing was that independent businessmen and the representatives of independent research foundations also withdrew. I ask the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department to realise the effect not only of such direct action by the Government but of this enomous power that is wielded by the Government on independent research workers. A number of university research workers who were present at the conference expressed the view to me that they were considerably anxious about the results of attending the conference, because they wished to go to America and their attendance might affect the possibility of their obtaining visas.

Only about 60 people out of 420 withdrew and an excellent conference was held. It was decided to set up an international centre for planning and development and a provisional committee of 32 members from a number of countries was set up. These are the facts, and they are supported by almost every Press report, with the exception of one newspaper which has made highly suggestive and inaccurate comments and is apparently unwilling to withdraw them.

I hope that the Joint Under-Secretary will not waste the time of the House over the agreed right, which I entirely support, of the Government stopping its servants attending conferences which have undesirable political connections, or preventing people coming into the country for subversive reasons. It does not apply in this case.

The only reason—other than professional jealousy—for interfering with this conference was that it had been infiltrated with Communists for their own purpose or was a "front" organisation. I think that I have rather longer experience than most hon. Members of this and I say categorically that there was not the slightest sign that the conference was an organisation used by Communists or that it could possibly be a "front" organisation. It was exactly the reverse. It surely cannot be the policy of this country that the mere presence of an English Communist on an academic or professional body is sufficient to damn it. Surely it is not their policy that civil servants are not to discuss professional matters with Russian or Iron Curtain experts.

Why, then, this action, which has done immense harm to a worthy object? It has branded as innocent dupes, or worse, a number of excellent academic and professional people and has brought the name of our country into disrepute with a number of people from abroad? I suggest that it was due to panic or to inability to judge what is and is not subversive activity. The Government have immense powers and, as has been apparent in the earlier debate today, some of us agree that they must have these powers in our present circumstances, but they are powers which not only have a direct effect but indirect effects. They have effects by suggestion. They may be necessary, but they can be only powers which we give to the Government if they use them with judgment and discretion.

The Government must steer a course between Maclean and McCarthy. They have not done so in this case. I hope that the Joint Under-Secretary will admit the mistake and repair the damage. I hope that he will say that there is no reason why civil servants should not attend conferences held by this immensely respectable body. If the hon. Gentleman is not willing to go as far as that, I hope that he will say that he will receive a deputation from hon. Members on both sides of the House who will put matters before him for his consideration.

10.14 p.m.

Mr. Martin Maddan (Hitchin)

I rise to support briefly what the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu) said. I do so because I think it important that we should all realise that this case has nothing to do with the merits or otherwise of regional planning, but is something that concerns the liberty of professional associations in the country.

I am concerned that a ban should have been placed on civil servants attending this conference and that measures should have been taken to discourage representatives of other Governments from attending while no opportunities were given to this body to put its case to the people who apparently are administering the ban. I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary will find himself able to announce a reversal of opinions which have been held or, if he cannot do that, that at least he will find the time to reconsider his opinion and perhaps gather more evidence.

10.15 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth)

There is something of a contrast between this debate and the one which has just ended. I do not think that the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu) took part in the earlier debate. I am sorry that he did not do so. I should have liked to have heard his views on the matters that were then discussed. The question which is raised in this debate is an important and a wide one, affecting a number of Departments. I am answering on behalf of the Government and not only in respect of those matters for which the Home Secretary is directly responsible.

During the summer it came to the attention of the Government that the Association for Regional Planning and Development was preparing to hold a conference in London. A number of Government servants, both here and in the Colonies, had been invited to that conference. Information in the possession of the Government indicated that although many respectable and eminent people were associated with the project, and although its aims as published were themselves innocuous, nevertheless a number of the organisers were Communists or known Communist sympathisers.

Mr. Albu

How many?

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I will deal with that question in a minute.

It is a well-known Communist technique to try to secure control of organisations with respectable and high sounding and innocuous titles for the purpose of using them for Communist propaganda. The Labour Party itself was driven to proscribe many such organisations. It did so in 1953, and most of the organisations then proscribed were what the hon. Member for Edmonton called the "front" organisations, that is to say, what are generally known as the peace front organisations. In these the Communist method has been to seek to exploit the natural yearnings of people everywhere for a lasting peace, and the fact that these yearnings have been used to promote Communist propaganda is now common knowledge.

Mr. Albu

It is irrelevant to this case.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

The hon. Gentleman himself stated that fact. The world peace movement has, therefore, become generally discredited. That is the fact, and it is the background of that fact which we have to consider in this connection. It only became discredited after it had deceived many worthy and, indeed, eminent, and well-meaning citizens.

As regards the individuals engaged in organising the conference, I want to tell the hon. Gentleman straight away that I will not be drawn into disclosing any information on that subject. I will not mention names and I will not say how many were Communist or Communist sympathizers—

Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Rossendale)

Smear the lot.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

—for the reasons which were mentioned at this Box by the Prime Minister only a few minutes ago, and which had the general approval of the House. In fact, if that information were disclosed it would reveal the sources upon which the information is based. Therefore, I say only that there were a sufficient number of Communists and Communist sympathisers, to the knowledge of the Government—

Sir Leslie Plummer (Deptford)

How many?

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

—among the organisers for the Government to consider the possibility that the technique which I mentioned in connection with the peace front movement was about to be used again in this connection.

The number was sufficient to justify the Government in believing that there was a risk that the association would come to be used as an instrument of Communist policy and propaganda. The Government view was strengthened in that it appeared that the conference drew inspiration from the former School of Planning and Regional Research Development. That organisation was certainly under a considerable measure of Communist influence. Indeed, the connection was expressly admitted. I understand, during the conference, and I rather think the hon. Member for Edmonton indicated that in his speech.

Mr. Albu

Certainly not.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

if the hon. Gentleman did not, then I certainly withdraw that. I thought I heard him say so.

There was a serious risk that the association would be abused, and it seemed clear to the Government that it would be wrong that any impression should be given that the conference was receiving Government support. It was, therefore, made clear to civil servants known to have received invitations to it in an official capacity that they were expected not to attend the conference. The hon. Member, I think, suggested—I may be doing him an injustice here—that the information was conveyed by the Foreign Office. It was not. It was contained in a communication from the Home Office to the heads of the Departments concerned.

Mr. Albu

Will not the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that the matter was first brought to the attention of the Home Office by the Foreign Office because a foreign Government asked the Foreign Office what it should do about the conference, and it was the Foreign Office which took the initiative?

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I do not know that that is either relevant or a proper subject for discussion. However, the hon. Member is not correct. That is contrary to the truth. The communications to the civil servants were made some weeks before the date of the conference. It was not at the last moment, as has been stated this evening and elsewhere. The action taken was, of course, confidential, for it was a communication within the Government, and it would not have become publicly known in the ordinary way.

However, the organisers of the conference wrote a letter, which was published in "The Times," disclosing that such advice had been given, and it was that disclosure which led to numerous Press inquiries and to the Government statement to which the hon. Member referred. It is obvious to anyone how embarrassing it would be if Her Majesty's Government appeared to be associated with any organisation engaged in Communist propaganda—

Mr. Albu

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the organisation's purpose is to engage in Communist propaganda?

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

The hon. Member is extraordinarily innocent. Does he not realise exactly what happened with the peace front movement?

Mr. Albu

I have done more Communist-fighting than any member of the Government Front Bench.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

The whole point of the peace front movement was that apparently innocent and proper organisations were used as stalking horses for Communist propaganda. I am glad to see that that is now recognised in all parts of the House; it was not at one time.

Mr. Albu


Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

The Government have no apology of any kind to offer for the action which we have taken in this matter. We were perfectly within our rights. Indeed, it was our duty to take steps to ensure that in the circumstances Government Departments and civil servants acting in an official capacity were not in any way associated with the conference. We informed Commonwealth and other friendly Governments that we had doubts about the political background of the organisation and were taking steps to prevent civil servants in this country from attending the conference.

May I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin (Mr. Maddan) that that is the only action which the Government took. We took no other action in the matter and, in particular, persons coming from abroad to attend the Conference were not refused visas. There is no ground for the allegation that the Government have banned the conference, or in any way interfered with civil liberties.

Mr. Greenwood

Can the Under-Secretary say what action was taken in respect of Colonial civil servants?

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

They were dealt with in the same way as any other British civil servants. They were given the same advice as I have already indicated to the House was given in the case of civil servants in this country. At least, that is my information.

No reflection was cast or intended on the numerous people of eminence in their own professions whose interest in th conference was confined to its declared object. I quite agree on that score with the hon. Member for Edmonton.

Mr. Maddan

The particular point that perplexes me is why the people who were organising the conference were never given a chance to state their view and whether, since that was so, they may be given a chance to do so, because new facts or opinions may be formed as a result of what they say.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

My hon. Friend says that those organising the conference were not given a chance to express their views. They did in fact express their view. They took the initiative in the matter. They expressed it in a letter to "The Times." There is no question here of the conference intervening in the internal affairs of the Government. The point I have made is that this was a matter of advice given by the Government to its own employees and of telling other Commonwealth and friendly Governments of the action which we ourselves were taking. That is all that happened and the whole suggestion that has been built up—that we were banning the conference by preventing people coming into the country and all the other implications—has no foundation at all. It is true that many eminent people took a part in this conference and I am quite certain that they did so with complete propriety and in innocence.

10.28 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Younger (Grimsby)

The Under-Secretary has given a most unsatisfactory reply to the House. He has not been prepared to tell us that this was a front organisation in the sense of the Peace Campaign and he has not been prepared to tell the House that in the view of the Government this conference was being called as part of a Communist campaign. He has not been prepared to tell us, nor could he have told us, that it was, in fact, used for making Communist propaganda. According to my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton, it did no such thing.

The Under-Secretary leads us to believe that the only criterion the Government are now adopting is that they will take action of this kind to discredit any body, however genuine it may be, if some unspecified number of Communists participate. That is the tenet of the Government and when I reflect the great anxiety the Government felt at the time of the Sheffield conference about five or six years ago, I feel that the Home Office is getting on to a thoroughly slippery slope and I hope that the Government are thoroughly ashamed.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

Will the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Younger) tell us how long it was before he made up his mind in the case of the Sheffield conference?

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.