HC Deb 11 June 1956 vol 554 cc201-8

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

11.43 p.m.

Mr. William Teeling (Brighton, Pavilion)

I am very glad that I am able to bring before the House tonight the case of a young constituent of mine who is a member of the Merchant Navy and who was shot in Cuba on 26th February last. The more I go into this case, and the more inquiries I make, the more nonplussed I am as to who is really at fault.

Let me say at once that I have no desire to criticise either the Foreign Office, or the Cuban Government, and, having spoken to this young man since he returned home, I think that the last thing which he wants is for that to happen either. On the other hand, he is only 28-years of age, more than six feet tall, and is in normal circumstances, a strong, healthy man, but he is now, temporarily at least, paralysed. He must think of his own future.

Another point to which I would refer is connected with the Press. We are constantly hearing of interference by the Press in private life, and the various things they do to make people unhappy; and therefore, when a case arises where the Press has done a great deal to help a young man, I think that we should recognise the fact. I doubt whether anybody in the country would have known about this case or have worried very much about it if it had not been for the way in which the Daily Express, first, and afterwards the Daily Mirror and the Man-chester Guardian and other papers, inquired into the question and found out more or less what happened.

The Press took a much stronger line than it seems to me either the Foreign Office or the Seamen's Union have taken about it. The Seamen's Union especially, I should have thought, could have done a little more to help in the case. The Press has pointed out now that nowadays we are so anxious to make friends with foreign countries and to keep friendly with them that we are rather apt occasionally to forget about our own people who may be suffering because of what may have happened in those foreign countries.

I believe the consul who dealt with the case in Havana had that aspect very much in mind. He rather wanted to keep AngloCuban relations at their friendliest, as they are at the moment. I hope that they will be even friendlier yet, but he probably felt that it was rather a nuisance that a man like this should come on the scene. I am not certain that he did all he could have done to help him.

The story roughly is this. This young man went into a bar in a place called Guayabal, about 400 miles away from Havana. It is on the coast, and where his ship was at that time unloading sugar. He arrived about midnight in the bar, where he was a little drunk but not very drunk. He was sitting there with three or four other British sailors, when suddenly, a man came in who was wearing a sombrero, with his shirt hanging out, and generally giving the impression that he was probably a little drunk. He went round and tapped two or three people on the shoulder in what was considered to be a friendly manner, but as none of them knew Spanish none knew what he was saying.

The suggestion was that he was asking for a drink or some cigarettes. Be that as it may, he came round and put his hand on Topham's shoulder, and Topham, being much the taller and bigger man, just shook him off.

This evidently angered the man, and before anyone knew where he was, a shot had been fired and Topham was hit in the back—in the shoulder. The bullet went right through from the left to the right side, barely missing the spine. Topham could not have been very drunk because he realised there was a noise behind him, and turning, saw the man retreating with a gun in his hand. Then he completely collapsed. The three sailors, who were not even friends of Topham, but off another ship, took him in a taxi to hospital.

It seems odd that in a civilised country in these days a man claiming to be a marine guard should have gone into a place to quell some riot—nobody seems to know what riot there was—and have shot a man sitting at a table—nobody got up from the table—and then have gone out. If Topham, as the guard suggested, had done something wrong, or got mixed up in a brawl, one would not have shot him; one would have tried to arrest him; or, at least, having shot him—if one had had to go to that extremity—one would have tried to take the body away somewhere. Not a bit of it. This man walked out and disappeared.

My constituent was taken by the three sailors in a taxi to the nearby hospital. There it was found that the wound was more dangerous than had been expected, and the next day he was taken to Havana, where he was operated on. That was about 27th February. We are now in the middle of June. He remained there in the Anglo-American Hospital for quite a long time. It was then, I believe, that the Daily Express managed to find out some of the things that had happened, and got them made known.

I believe as much was done for him as could have been done at that time, but neither he nor his father is very happy about it. They feel more could have been done. After all, this was a young man aged 28, entirely alone, and he might have been visited more often by somebody from the Embassy.

I do not mind mentioning that, because I myself have had cases to deal with in nearer countries where constituents of mine have been in trouble, and I have often found that the consular staff are not keen to do the visiting. They prefer to leave things at a distance. More humanity might be employed towards that type of constituent who has never before been in a similar position.

Mr. Topham remained there for a long time, and he noticed that his limbs were gradually hardening. He was completely paralysed from the hips down, and he slowly realised that his legs were stiffening. This made him extremely nervous about his condition. This is where I complain a little about the consul. Mr. Topham asked Mr. Smith whether something could be done for him. The local doctors who operated said that he could not possibly be cured without some kind of special treatment which could be given to him, but it was up to the consul to decide.

The consul, a little brutally, told him that he had already cost the country 3,000 dollars and therefore there was no likelihood whatsoever of him being allowed that treatment. That, not unnaturally, rather panicked the young man and put the consul in such a position that he was able to make some kind of agreement with him whereby he would be willing to return at once to this country. The young man thought that he would be sent back in two or three days, because that was the original idea, but after fourteen days, and the consul still not having come to see him, he finally got in touch with the consul by phone and said that he was about to get in touch with his Member of Parliament. This he eventually did, but not until the end of April. On 16th May I took up the matter in the House, and I am glad to say that on 23rd May a ship was found for him, and he was brought back to this country.

I should like to know exactly what has been done with the man who shot him. Topham understands that he has been tried, but I gather that that was only some sort of preliminary trial. In the course of that trial the owner of the bar and various local witnesses said that there was a row going on, and that Topham was accidentally shot in the course of the row. This is completely at variance with the statements of three men whom we have every right to believe as much as the Cubans.

The master of the ship says: At 01.30 today I was called by the night-watchman who brought a Mr. Kenneth Foster, 2nd Engineer, and a Mr. Terrance Flynn, 4th Engineer, of the s.s. Mapledore ' of London, also at anchor off Guayabal, who told me that one of my crew had been shot in the shoulder on shore, and that their 2nd Mate had taken him in a taxi to a hospital … One of the men, the 4th Engineer of the s.s. "Mapledore" gave this evidence: I was sitting in a bar in Guayabal when a British seaman whom I did not know came in and sat at the same table Shortly afterwards a man came in and slapped me on the back, and speaking in Spanish which I do not understand, indicated that I should leave the place.I told him in English to stop that conduct. He thereupon did the same thing to this seaman, slapped him on the back, who turned round and pushed the man's hand away. This man immediately drew an automatic pistol and shot the seaman through the left shoulder and then left the bar. The man was dressed in blue dungaree trousers with his shirt hanging outside and wearing a sombrero. I saw him get into a car but he did not drive away in it, but left shortly afterwards on foot… Those are statements given by perfectly reliable British sailors.

Topham himself is a man with a very good record. His father has been for many years in the Army. He was a warrant officer, and ended up by taking charge of our Territorial Army buildings in Brighton. He is now a postman. Only last year, on 5th April, the son received an award from the Royal Humane Society which stated that he: … is justly entitled to the Honorary Testimonial of this Society inscribed on Vellum which is hereby awarded him for having on the 20th November, 1954, at great personal risk gone to the rescue of a man who was unfortunately asphyxiated in a gas-filled tank on board the s.s. ' Inagua ' at Tokuyama, Japan, and whose life he gallantly assisted in trying to save. I could give more details about this highly respectable young man who, since the age of 15, has been in the Merchant Navy, and who, when unemployed, insisted on being called up and joined the Services for two years.

What is to happen to him now? He is the last person to want to cause trouble between England and Cuba, but since the middle of February he has been completely incapacitated. He arrived in Liverpool only last week and is now in the Albert Dock Seamen's Hospital here in London. paralysed from the hips downwards. It is hoped that as a result of the treatment available here Topham will be able to walk again by the end of the year, but he should be given some compensation or in some way eased over this period. Probably he has nobody to maintain, but at the same time he has his own future to think of.

I want to ask my noble Friend to see what he can do to try to make things easier for this young man in the future, and, generally speaking, to protect British sailors in cases like this when they get into trouble through no fault of their own, so far as one can see.

11.56 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Lord John Hope)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Teeling) for raising this extremely sad business tonight, but, having expressed my gratitude to him, I want now to temper that a little by saying that I am sorry that he found it necessary to say one or two of the things he did, because I do not think they were really justified, especially what he said about the consul in Havana. Before I come to that aspect, however, may I refer to a suggestion made by my hon. Friend that Her Majesty's Government should have taken a stronger line—I think those were the words he used—in this case from the beginning?

What matters in this kind of case, and what mattered very much in this particular case, was that nothing should be done either in terms of events or in terms of time that was not in the best interests of this young man himself. It is not easy, in a distant country, to know exactly what is for the best week by week, but I am satisfied that there was no dereliction of duty by the consul in Havana, and certainly we did all we could to back him up and see that things were done in the best possible way for Topham.

My hon. Friend said that he was not at all sure that the consul had done all he could have done to help. That really is not so. The consul was in constant touch with the situation, and he put other members of the English community into touch with this unfortunate young man when he was in hospital, and they visited him. How often, I do not know, but they did so. The consul himself bought him fruit, etc., and at the end lent him one of his own suits to wear on the way home.

I wanted to make these points and facts clear because, although of course hon. Members must criticise the servants of Her Majesty's Government if they think it necessary to do so—and I do not suggest that my hon. Friend did not think it was necessary—I can assure him that it was not necessary to criticise what was done by the consul in Havana.

The travel arrangements were also mentioned by my hon. Friend in a rather critical strain. Arrangements for Topham's passage home were set in motion as early as March. It is true that there was a delay, but that was unavoidable and was because a passage which had been hoped for on a certain ship did not materialise, owing to the chartering of the ship for some other purpose, although I do not know exactly what it was. There again I am satisfied that there was no avoidable delay. Obviously this young man was not fit to travel for some time.

With regard to the facts of the case, my hon. Friend has stated the facts as we know them, and of course they are disquieting. The so-called guard who shot Topham has not yet been tried, so it is probably wiser for me not to comment on the case. I hope that he will be brought to trial very soon. The reason for the delay is that the Cuban authorities have not decided whether the proceedings should be civil proceedings, or by court-martial. Certainly the fact that the guard was in plain clothes is a disturbing element in the case.

Mr. Teeling

Will my hon. Friend make it clear that, although he has not been tried, something has happened, and that he has been acquitted, or something like that?

Lord John Hope

There has been an inquiry, what one Alight call a service inquiry. I am afraid that I do not know exactly what legal effect that has, but it may be like a summary of evidence in the Army here. The actual trial has not taken place; preliminaries certainly have.

I do not think that the Government, through their consul, have in any way been negligent in this case. This is how official action has gone so far: on 6th March, Her Majesty's Embassy drew the attention of the Cuban Minister of State to the matter, saying that according to British officers from another ship who witnessed the incident the attack was unprovoked, and asking to be kept informed and advised of the date and outcome of the trial of the assailant. A reply dated 23rd April was received by the Embassy on 29th April, enclosing without comment a copy of a report dated 27th February by the local naval commandant to his superior. That was one of the preliminary stages. That report was received in London on 10th May, which is getting more or less up to date.

My hon. Friend very rightly mentioned the future. Of course, the future for this young man is by no means without anxiety. We all hope that he will recover completely; but he has been very badly wounded—incidentally, he was shot in the back—and has by no means completely recovered yet. What remains to be done? The answer is that the Cuban Government have been notified that we do require compensation for what has happened to this young man. There again details obviously have to wait until the trial of the assailant is over, and we shall also have to see how the young man's injuries come along. I can assure my hon. Friend—and I hope that he will tell his constituent—that Topham's future is very much in our minds. We shall do our very best for him and certainly let no chance go by to help for all we are worth.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes past Twelve o'clock.