HC Deb 02 February 1956 vol 548 cc1201-14

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

9.54 p.m.

Mr. W. Griffiths (Manchester, Exchange)

I am very glad that the attention that the Committee has been paying to the important Housing Subsidies Bill has finished in time to allow us a few extra minutes to deal with this important matter. It is my intention to be as brief as possible in the hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) and other hon. Members who are present may have an opportunity of addressing the House.

The matter that Mr. Speaker has allowed me to raise tonight concerns the action of the Foreign Secretary in compelling three Iraqi students to leave this country a week or two ago. His order to them to leave came during the Christmas Recess and there was no opportunity to raise the matter in the House, although it has been referred to since the House met again. It will be necessary to go back a little way and explain what this is all about.

I first became interested in the case of these students in the summer of last year. There are several hundred Iraqi students here in Britain, some on Government grants and some paying for their own further education, and I am advised that 80 per cent. of them are organised in the Iraqi Students' Society.

Mr. Paul Williams (Sunderland, South)

The hon. Member said that he became interested in the case of the students in the summer of last year. Is he referring to the general question or to the three particular cases?

Mr. Griffiths

I am referring to the general question, and it is necessary to say something about that. As I have said, 80 per cent. of the students are members of the Iraqi Students' Society. Some of the members of the Society have been in conflict with their Government, with the result that their grants and their passports have been withdrawn. That is not a matter for the British House of Commons and I do not think that the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department will refer to it, but, in parting, I will say of the alleged misdemeanours of members of this Society that, as far as I have been able to judge, by Western democratic standards their crimes are very small. However, we are concerned about the action of the Home Secretary and British responsibility in the matter.

Among the men whose passports and grants were withdrawn in the summer was Mr. Nuri, one of the three students about whom I am specially complaining this evening. At the time, the students were extremely worried as to what was going to happen to them. They wondered whether they would be able to stop in this country and I made representations in the summer of last year to the present Joint Under-Secretary's predecessor.

Eventually, the Home Office agreed that the men who had lost their passports and Government grants and were non persona grata with the Government of Iraq could remain here on conditions which it is usual to apply to overseas students. These conditions were that they must make reasonable academic progress, that they must have adequate financial support, and that they must be in possession of a laissez-passerin case the Home Office had to return them to their own country.

This third condition was waived by the Home Secretary later last year when it was pointed out to him that it was extraordinarily difficult for these students to obtain such a document from their own Embassy here, as the whole object of the operation on the part of the Iraqi Government was to bring pressure to bear on them and make them return to Iraq.

I do not suppose that the Joint Under-Secretary will say that the three men against whom he has proceeded have failed to satisfy those conditions. Indeed, the whole of this business is shrouded in mystery. It has caused widespread comment in the Press, notably in a leading article in the Manchester Guardian, to which I shall refer in a moment.

In the summer, then, the cases of these men were not proceeded with further as far as our own Government were concerned. They were allowed to stay, but in the Christmas Recess there suddenly came this action by the Home Secretary, when Parliament was not sitting, when he said that these students had to leave this country by 20th January. 1 at once made representations to the Joint Under-Secretary, who was good enough to see me, and I saw the Home Secretary later with some of my Parliamentary colleagues.

I should like to refer in more detail to these three men.

Mr. Nuri was one of those who had his Government grant and passport withdrawn in the summer. He was hoping to sit for his final B.Sc. examination in electrical engineering in June this year. He had been in this country four and a quarter years, so presumably the Home Office knew about him——

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. Griffiths

It seems to me extraordinary that after the man had been here such a long time this mean action was taken against him when he was within six months of taking his finals. When I talked to these Iraqi students I felt deeply ashamed about the behaviour of the British Government in this matter. They have gone back to their country with a lesson in British democratic practices which does not reflect any credit upon any of us. They have not been told the charge against them, they have not been put on trial, they have simply been arbitrarily ordered out of the country.

In addition to Mr. Nuri, Mr. N. A. R. Hussain was to take his final examinations in March, 1957, for a diploma also in electrical engineering. There was also a Mr. Mustafa, who was due to complete his studies in two years, also hoping to take a degree in mechanical engineering. It is a curious business so far as these two latter men are concerned.

Apparently they are persona grata with the Iraqi Government and they still retain their passports and educational grants. I know that we shall hear from the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office, as I heard from the Home Secretary, that the fact that proceedings were taken against two people who are persona grata with Bagdad is clear evidence that the Home Office and the British Government have not succumbed to pressures put upon them from the Middle East.

Indeed, all the way through this matter the Home Office has said that the decision was taken entirely in British interests. Yet the House will recall that on Monday last some of my hon. and right hon. Friends had Questions down to the Foreign Office. Anyone who reads HANSARD for last Monday will see at once that despite the cagey quality of the answers given, the matter had been referred to the Foreign Office by the Home Office. Having re-read HANSARD tonight, it is clear to me that pressures have been brought to bear on the British Government from Bagdad, though whether it be the case that this has proved decisive is a matter upon which we must try to make up our own minds without the advantage of much evidence, because the Home Secretary has never brought any charges against these men.

What did the Joint Under-Secretary of State say on Monday of this week? In response to a supplementary Question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Swingler) he said: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Foreign Office does act as a channel of communication in these matters, but the decisions are for the Home Secretary."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 30th January, 1956; Vol. 548, c. 583.] It is clear from the answers of the Minister that the Foreign Office has been active and interested in this matter.

The difficulty we are up against in this case is that no details of charges have been brought against these men. Everybody who met them before they were compelled to go home would agree. I think, that they were non-political types on the whole, and anyone who is a political animal can pretty well detect what are a man's politics after a while. Also, I am sure that in the Iraqi Students' Society there are many hundreds with varying points of view. I do not knew whether the Home Office now says that if a man holds a political point of view as a foreign student in this country that provides grounds for deporting him at the request of his home Government. Perhaps the Joint Under-Secretary of State will tell us?

Here I come to what I regard as a very serious matter. We in this House and in this country are extremely proud of the sanctuary that we give to aliens who, we feel, would be in danger if we compelled them to leave these shores. Speaking with a due sense of responsibility, I really believe that these men are in some danger of at least losing their freedom when they go back to their home country. As I am sure this debate will be reported in the Middle East, if it does nothing else it may at least cause the Iraqi Government to be a little cautious about how they treat these young men.

I would again ask the Joint Under-Secretary whether he is absolutely satisfied that these men will not be in danger. The Home Secretary said that all that is happening to them is that they are going to be put into the Army to do their military service. I am advised that in Iraq, and in Basra in particular, there are so-called military training establishments which are, in fact, rather gruesome detention camps. I should like to know whether that is the sort of place to which the Joint Under-Secretary thinks the students may be going. If there is any reason to be apprehensive about the safety of these students, will he undertake to make representations to the Foreign Office for inquiries to be made in Bagdad in order to reassure us that the students are not being victimised or losing their freedom and that our apprehensions are not justified?

Civil liberty is not enjoyed in Iraq as it is here, and many of these students have been informed, through devious means, by their families that they should at all costs avoid returning to Iraq. They have been warned to be careful about returning because their families have the liveliest apprehensions about what is likely to happen to them if they do.

I hope that even now it may be possible for the Joint Under-Secretary to give us some idea of the charges which are being made against these students. As the Manchester Guardian rightly said in its leading article, the only explanation given by the Home Office is that they must go because their presence is not conducive to the public good, and the Home Secretary is not obliged to give his reasons for an expulsion, but if he does not do so, all kinds of suspicions grow up, and he cannot complain. Of course, the Home Secretary cannot complain.

It sounds absolutely monstrous to say that the Home Secretary has perhaps deliberately chosen two people, who are in possession of their passports and their Government grants, just to make a gesture to the Iraqi Government to get some of them out of this country and break the solidarity of the Iraqi Students' Society in the United Kingdom. Hon. Members may say that that is an outrageous observation, but, as the Manchester Guardian quite properly said, the Joint Under-Secretary cannot complain because he has not told us anything, and unless he is able to tell us a little more tonight than he has done in the past, we shall all continue to be worried about the fate of these students.

I cannot end without referring to other people who are involved, other students whose permission to stay here is very short-term. Can the Joint Under-Secretary assure us that this is the end of the campaign against the Iraqi Students' Society, or is there anything intrinsic in the constitution of the Society or its behaviour as a collective body that makes him feel that he must taken even further action in the future?

I leave it there, but I hope it will be possible for some other hon. Members to express their points of view. I hope the House will receive something more from the Joint Under-Secretary than we have had from him in the past. The chief officers of the Home Office have recently been under attack in connection with capital punishment and three men recently pardoned, and there is a feeling that there is a growing illiberality in the handling of the Home Office. May the Joint Under-Secretary disabuse us of that notion if we are wrong.

10.9 p.m.

Mr. Philip Bell (Bolton, East)

It is no secret that a number of hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House have interested themselves in this problem. I am very glad to think that the traditional jealousy of the House for the freedom, not only of Englishmen, but of visitors should cause hon. Members to endeavour to investigate these matters to the best of their ability. The hon. Gentleman will perhaps excuse me if I do not follow him entirely in all his observations, but a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House were interested enough to consider the matter.

There were two things which impelled me to pay attention to it. The first question was whether this was a question of political asylum. That is a traditional feature in our country. Were these students being forcibly ejected from the country because they objected on reasonable grounds to being sent to the Army or whatever it was, and was the Home Secretary ejecting them against their will?

I should like to know from my hon. Friend whether any appeal was made to the Home Office that they should not go back on the grounds that they wanted political asylum and that they would be directly or indirectly persecuted or punished for some political opinions which they had expressed in this country and which did not agree with the views of the Government in Iraq. If I can be satisfied on that, that removes a great deal of my anxiety. I should not like it to be thought that we had refused political asylum to students. That is the first thing to find out.

The next thing which I am concerned about is this. Can my hon. Friend assure me, not that there were no discussions—that would be asking too much—but that there was no pressure direct or indirect, advice or encouragement given by the Iraqi Government to the Home Office that these gentlemen should go back? They obviously may have asked whether they were married or where they lived or what they were going to do, but as I conceive it, the duty of the Home Office or of Her Majesty's Ministers when they are considering the question of removing passports is to make an individual decision which must not be influenced by the political desires even of some friendly Government.

On these two points only have I hopes that we may get an assurance. I cannot perhaps subscribe to the view that executive officers should submit to trial by ordeal or by the House of Commons and give their reasons and explanations for every executive act they do, but I think that in these circumstances, and particularly in view of what has been said, the House might well be entitled to an assurance that they did not deny political asylum and that they did not act under pressure.

10.13 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey de Freites (Lincoln)

The hon. and learned Member for Bolton, East (Mr. Philip Bell) has stated two points most fairly, and I think that the least we should get to-night is an answer to those two points. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Exchange (Mr. W. Griffiths) on his persistence in this case.

I understand that the Home Office claims that it has a good case. If it has, the Home Office is to blame because its good case is not understood. My hon. Friend touched on the reason why the Home Office is to blame, because its recent behaviour has caused the loss of priceless good will and the respect of a large amount of liberal opinion in this country.

The whole aspect of liberty of speech and the protection of the individual against the State is a real thing for the Home Office to protect at all times. The Home Department is not a Ministry of the Interior or a Ministry of Justice or something which we know about in foreign countries. Its task is to protect people. The recent actions of the Home Office have caused the loss of public confidence. I could refer to a matter which I have raised in the House, and which other hon. Members have raised, on what we regard as the niggardly compensation for innocent men after two years' imprisonment.

What about other matters raised in this House which have disturbed public opinion, such as the appearance of attacking free speech through the suppression of the conference at Bedford College, delays of up to eight months in dealing with a prisoner's petition, increasing delays in dealing with petitions from prisoners, and cases like this today, with the timing which my hon. Friend gave? Why was the order of expulsion made two days before the House adjourned for Christmas when I, like other of my hon. Friends, asked if it could be deferred until after the House had reassembled? Why was the order made to take effect just before the House assembled? Public confidence and trust in the Home Office and the Home Secretary are the foundations for the very wide discretion which the public and the House give to the Home Secretary. The difficulty is that through its actions in recent times the Home Office has lost that public confidence.

The Joint Under-Secretary will, it is clear, have plenty of time to deal with this point. Was the Home Secretary compelled to act in this way in the interests of this country, or was he acting in the interests of the Iraqi Government? My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Exchange deserves a full answer to the case he has made.

10.15 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. W. F. Deedes)

The best answer I can give to the general, rather sweeping and unjustified charges which the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) has just made is to reply directly to all the main points which have been made in the debate, and I think I can. I want to deal first with the criticism, which I concede is the most difficult feature of this case, which is that the reasons for the action taken against the three students have been withheld, and the circumstances, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Exchange (Mr. W. Griffiths) said, have been shrouded in mystery, and that my right hon. and gallant Friend confined himself, as I shall do, to saying that this action was taken in the public interest.

It has been suggested—the hon. Member for Manchester, Exchange said it—that that leads to the worst inferences. That may well be. Decisions of this kind and their consequences, as the hon. Member for Lincoln knows, are not the smallest of the burdens which the Home Secretary of this country has to carry. The House knows quite well, what parties outside the House who have concerned themselves with the cause of the students may not know, that this formula, this reference to the public interest, was not invented to meet this particular case. The hon. Member for Lincoln knows that well.

The Aliens Order explicitly gives the Secretary of State power to deport at discretion and the entire responsibility rests with him. He takes the decision himself, as he has done on this occasion, and it has become the practice for the Secretary of State not to discuss the reasons and to ask the House of Commons to trust him. It was, I may add, the practice of the Home Secretary in the last administration and fully justified by the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Younger) on one occasion.

In some cases, I agree, no possible harm might be done by disclosing the whole story. In others it may be that there are issues at stake which cannot be discussed because of the public interest. The best course is to adhere to the practice that reasons need not be given, and this, I stress, is not new. It has broadly been the course adhered to since the Aliens Order was first introduced in 1919.

Of course, it may be said that some hint, some indication, should be given in justice to the individuals themselves. But that simply stimulates more speculation and more disclosures and down the slippery slope which affords satisfaction to none and may well lead to injustice to the individual concerned. This course inevitably leads to suggestions that there are sinister forces behind the decision, or dictating the decision as has been suggested in this case.

That brings me to the second point to which all hon. Members referred, a most serious allegation, widely circulated and widely credited, that the decision was taken as a result of pressure by the Iraqi Government. I can deny that categorically. It is completely untrue. The decision was my right hon. and gallant Friend's and his alone and was influenced by no communication whatsoever from the Iraqi Government. Nor was the decision taken as the result of action by that Government such as withholding their passports or scholarships. I have seen a reference—it was not made in the debate, but it is relevant to the debate—to a speech by the Minister of Education in Iraq in which he said that twenty-five students had had their scholarships withdrawn and he looked to the co-operation of the British authorities in cancelling their residence permits in Britain. Much has been made of that by some hon. Members previous to this debate.

What are the facts? Of these twenty-five students, I am informed that fourteen were in this country and, so far as I know thirteen are still here. So far as we know, only one of the three students who have gone had his scholarship withdrawn. The other two still have them. But I should have thought that was conclusive evidence—I hope that the House will accept it as such—that our action was wholly unrelated to the actions or wishes of the Iraqi Government. Perhaps in this case it is permissible to quote the words used by the right hon. Member for Grimsby on a rather similar occasion, when he said, I rather resent the ready assumption that my right hon. Friend, and for that matter myself, are … dancing like marionettes as some hidden hand jerks the strings."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th July, 1948; Vol. 454, c. 1796.]

Mr. de Freitas

We had not lost the confidence of the people.

Mr. Deedes

I wish to deal next with the criticism made by the hon. Member for Lincoln that these students were required to leave when the House was not sitting, or were deported without the House having had an opportunity to discuss this matter while they were still in this country.

That criticism infers one of two things; either that when the House is not sitting my right hon. and gallant Friend should put into suspense the powers conferred on him by Parliament, which he is empowered to act on—the Aliens Order—and to exercise at any time, or secondly, that my right hon. and gallant Friend is being accused of deferring action which he considered in the public interest because of a reluctance to defend that step in the House. I hope that the House will agree that no Secretary of State could accept such limitations of power and has never been expected to. In effect, it would be consigning to the Legislature a power conferred by the Executive and which has been exercised by the Executive. No such limit is imposed upon any other aspect of executive powers.

My right hon. and gallant Friend makes about 150 deportation orders a year and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, they are fairly evenly distributed throughout the country. It would be quite unreasonable if the Administration in such cases—and there are those in which immediate action is essential to secure the repatriation of an undesirable—had to be related to the sitting of Parliament. As to the second point, no hon. Member who knows my right hon. Friend will believe that he fears to face this House on this or any other matter. He has never shown any reluctance to justify the administration of powers he holds under the Aliens Order.

Mr. de Freitas

Is it not the fact that my hon. Friend and I both asked that this matter should be deferred until the House reassembled? And was not that merely a matter of days?

Mr. Deedes

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will allow me to finish this part of my remarks.

The students were required to leave on 20th January. The House met on 24th January. These events are quite unrelated. In view of the time that they have been in the United Kingdom, it was reasonable that the students should be given a month. They were written to on 21st December and asked to leave on 20th January. As matters have turned out, neither hon. Members—

Mr. W. Griffiths

One of the three students, Mr. Nuri, was, of course, dealt with in the summer of last year. If it was so urgent to get rid of him in the Christmas Recess, I wish to know what new situation had arisen, since he had been allowed to stay when representations were made on his behalf, and on behalf of the others, in July.

Mr. Deedes

That underlines what I said earlier, namely, that these decisions are not quickly or lightly arrived at. When the decision had been reached the notice was sent—and one month's notice was given. As it turned out, neither the students nor hon. Members were deprived of taking action. The students circulated a memorandum to many hon. Members; stories have appeared in the Press—one has been referred to tonight—and a great many letters have been received by my right hon. and gallant Friend and myself. On 10th January I saw the hon. Member for Manchester, Exchange and on 17th January my right hon. and gallant Friend saw a deputation of four Members, including the hon. Member for Manchester, Exchange—and all this happened while the students were still in the country.

Of course, it is open to the House, as it always is, to criticise my right hon. and gallant Friend's exercise of his powers, but if he withheld those powers under threat that the matter would be raised in the House he would be regarded as failing in his duty.

One other important question was asked by hon. Members, in connection with the possible danger to life or liberty to these three students upon their return to Iraq. We have no reason whatever to suppose that there is any such danger, and the question of political asylum raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Bolton, East (Mr. Philip Bell) therefore does not arise. The hon. Member for Manchester, Exchange will correct me if I am wrong, but to the best of my knowledge the three students themselves did not suggest it. I ought to make that clear, in fairness to them.

The students were not required to return to Iraq, and I believe that none has yet done so. My information is that Nuri booked a passage, by air for Egypt via Dusseldorf. My latest information is that he disembarked there. Hussain and Mustafa travelled via Harwich to the Hook of Holland. I understand that Hussain decided to remain temporarily at Amsterdam.

The hon. Member asked whether this was the end of a campaign against Iraqi students. There is no such campaign, and there never has been. I want to deal with the question of the possible unsettling effect upon not only Iraqi but other students about their future, as a result of this decision. The letter which the students sent to hon. Members, dated 20th January, refers to the fact that naturally recent events have increased anxieties among our members as to their future. As the House knows, our policy is to admit foreign students very freely to this country. That is not altruism. We believe that such a policy has reciprocal advantages. Genuine full-time students have always been and will always be welcome. In the last academic year about 25,000 foreign students came here. That figure has now risen to about 30,000. I have no information officially, but I believe that students from Iraq number about 550, of which 320 are members of the Iraqi Students' Society.

Only two general requirements are asked of them. The first is that there shall be a reasonable application to their studies, and the second that they shall be sponsored or adequately maintained. The House knows that all aliens are subject to the overriding consideration that permission to stay may not be extended, or that existing permits may be cut short, on grounds of public interest. I dealt with that aspect earlier in my remarks.

I hope that recent events will not mislead this great body of students, especially the Iraqis, to suppose that they are any less welcome, or that there has been any fundamental shift in our belief that their presence here will be for the long term benefit for our respective countries.

10.29 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

I think that I have time to say that the reply of the Joint Under-Secretary is thoroughly unsatisfactory, and I hope that the House will find another opportunity for resuming this debate. I have a special interest in these Iraqi students, because one of them attended a technical college in my constituency. I have made exhaustive inquiries in his case. He is a man whose father holds a high place in Iraq. He has been unfairly prejudiced and, as far as I have been able to discover, there is nothing which can be held against him.

I have found ground for suspicions—I do not put it higher—that representations were made by the Iraqi Government. The Joint Under-Secretary has been careful not to deny that. What he said was something entirely different—that his right hon. and gallant Friend did not come to his decision because of those representations. But he was asked whether any representations had been made. If they had been, in view of the decision which was taken, I think that we are entitled to know the form of those representations, and to what effect they——

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.