HC Deb 29 March 1956 vol 550 cc2400-11

2.31 p.m.

Sir Henry d'Avigdor-Goldsmid (Walsall, South)

I think it is only right that I should begin by saying how much I personally regret the severe attack of laryngitis which prevents the Parliamentary Secretary of the Board of Trade from being in his place today. We all know the extreme conscientiousness with which he carries out his multitudinous tasks, and I am quite certain that hon. Members on both sides of the House will wish him a quick recovery so that he will be able to deal with the very heavy duties that will fall upon him immediately after the Recess. In his place I am very pleased to see the Minister of State, Board of Trade, and I am most grateful to him for giving up his valuable time to deal with the problems I propose to raise.

I am grateful also to Mr. Speaker for allowing me to raise on the Adjournment a matter many of the interested parties to which are now dead and of whom none has a Member of Parliament to speak for him: but it is entirely in accordance with the high traditions of this honourable House that such matters should be discussed here, that legitimate grievances should be ventilated here, and wrongs, if they exist, brought to light.

The matter which I want to raise concerns the disposal of assets in this country sent here for safe keeping before the war by individuals from the war-time enemy territories. In most cases the people concerned are not themselves the depositors but the heirs, and in many cases the property can now presumably be considered as heirless. The reasons for this are, alas, obvious. England is traditionally the country of refuge, and thanks to the humane and imaginative immigration policy of the Government of this country in the years up to 1939 very large numbers of Jews escaped to this country from persecution and ultimate murder. For that the Jewish people will always be grateful.

I want to make it clear that although I propose to be critical of the Board of Trade, that criticism in no way extends to the policy of the country as a whole, for this country has always been a great upholder of the oppressed and has always maintained that tradition. Any remarks which I may make which are critical of the Department are not intended to reflect in any way on the country or to detract in any way from the great gratitude which the Jews will always feel to the country which supported them against their persecutors.

I want first to deal with the heirless property still left in England and administered by the Custodian of Enemy Property. I understand perfectly clearly the words used by the former Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade in a letter dated 30th April last year, in which he said: It remains impossible either to define, Identify or estimate the extent of Jewish property in the hands of the Custodian or to say what part of any property he holds is heirless. I accept that, but there are certain considerations to which I must draw attention. The first is that all civilised nations have had to reconsider their idea of heirless property as a result of the Nazi policy of genocide. Amongst Western nations it is the exception for there to be no heirs to identifiable property. Amongst the Jews of Germany, and, indeed, Eastern Europe as a whole, the case is reversed.

In witness to this I can cite my own experience as chairman of the Jewish Trust Corporation set up under the auspices of the Foreign Office. I would at once pay tribute to the Foreign Office for the very great help it has given to this body in all its difficulties over these matters. It was set up to administer Jewish heirless and communal property in the British Zone of Germany. During the six years I have been associated with it it has dealt with 27,000 pieces of identifiable real estate. When one recollects that the total pre-war Jewish population of this area of Germany probably never exceeded 300,000 and that presumably only a percentage of them could be considered as owners of real estate, I think one can understand the appalling effectiveness of the Nazi effort to extirpate the Jews. The huge number of cases of estates of which there are no identified heirs bears eloquent witness to this fact.

It has been recognised in the United States Of America, where on 23rd August, 1954, President Eisenhower signed the Bill passed by Congress authorising the transfer of three million dollars from the proceeds of confiscated alien property to the Jewish charitable institutions which would use them for the relief and rehabilitation of Jewish victims of Nazi persecution. I understand that Switzerland is considering a Bill in the same terms. All such property in Western Germany is vested in successor organisations with the same object in view.

I think I have said enough on this point to establish that there is a real case in equity for considering heirless property, formerly the property of Nazi persecutees, on a special footing, and for the Government to consider whether it would be appropriate to make a special ex gratia payment to the refugee organisations, Christian and Jewish, which have worked to relieve the victims of Nazism. If such a suggestion is liable to find favour with my right hon. Friend, I need not tell him how pleased many friends of mine outside this House will be to collaborate with his officials in order to find some way of arriving at a rough approximation of the amount involved.

I have dealt first with the heirless property, and I should like to pass now to the question of property sent here for safe keeping by Jews, not only from Germany and Austria, but also from Hungary and Roumania. When war broke out and Europe was over-run by the Germans all these deposits became frozen by the Trading with the Enemy Act, and in due course they were vested in the administrators of enemy property. After the war it was recognised by most of the victorious Powers, including the United Kingdom, that it was inconsistent with the proclaimed war aims of the United Nations, and, indeed, with the ordinary dictates of justice and humanity, that the property of enemy victims should be taken in the same way as that of ordinary enemy subjects. That is the main point, that enemy victims were not in the ordinary sense of the term enemy subjects, especially as these victims had no other means in the world to support themselves or their families except the property they had been able to salvage from the general disaster by placing it in what they thought was a safe place in this country.

Certain rules were drawn up and were accepted and approved by the Inter-Allied Reparation Agency in Paris in November, 1947. They are embodied in a letter I have here from the Trading with the Enemy Department. I should like to read extracts. Two categories of claimants are considered, namely, those enemy nationals formerly domiciled in former enemy countries, Germany, Austria, Rumania and Hungary and their heirs. I should like to read from that letter: As regards claimants in the first category mentioned above, the Board of Trade will require to be satisfied that the applicant will fulfil the following conditions:

  1. (i) that he was deprived of liberty pursuant to any law, decree or regulation which discriminated against religious or racial groups or other organisations, and
  2. (ii) that he did not enjoy full rights of citizenship of the enemy country of his residence at any time between 1st September, 1939, and the abrogation of such law, decree or regulation, and
  3. (iii) that he has left that country, or intends to leave it within a reasonable time to establish his permanent residence outside enemy or ex-enemy territory, and
  4. (iv) that he was not disloyal to the Allied cause during the war; and
  5. (v) that he has a case which merits favourable consideration."
In the case of heirs and legatees, the following requirements would have to be satisfied:
  1. "(a) That the deceased himself satisfied the conditions (i) and (ii) above regarding deprivation of liberty and loss of full civil rights and
  2. (b) that his death occurred before the end of active hostilities in the enemy country of his residence, and
  3. (c) that the heirs or legatees are resident, or intend to reside, outside an enemy (or former enemy) country".
These rules are not in themselves oppressive if broadmindedly interpreted, but a narrow application of them has given rise to anomalies which could have been overcome by sympathetic handling of individual cases. I am going to cite a number of these where no satisfaction has been received in illustration of my point.

The first category covers people who were in hiding. People who went underground in order to avoid persecution do not qualify for restoration of their assets if they escaped being imprisoned. I will return to this presently.

Where death occurred as a result of persecution but subsequent to the signing of the Peace Treaty, the heirs cannot benefit. Persecutees from Germany and Austria who found their way to Italy are deprived of benefit because that country was regarded as former enemy territory. The same applies if they remain in Germany or Austria. This is particularly hard as it applies mainly to people of very humble origin possessing small means who simply are not in a position to emigrate.

Where the owner of the funds died a natural death during the war, release is refused to his heirs even if they themselves were persecuted. I understand it is argued by the Board of Trade that as the owner himself escaped persecution the title to his estate could not pass as the estate itself was forfeit.

Funds standing to the credit of a partnership are not being released to the individual partners, although they qualify personally under the rules.

My last example is the most important. Although in present circumstances it is obviously very difficult indeed for people to leave countries behind the Iron Curtain, funds are not being released to them until they succeed in doing so.

The urgency in this situation is that steps are even now being taken to distribute these and other amounts to commercial creditors. Surely, it would be reasonable to earmark, in favour of claimants still in Hungary or Roumania, those sums so that they can obtain possession of them when they succeed in escaping.

I will now give some particular examples of the anomalies created. All these cases are known to the Board of Trade, and in no case, according to information received up to two days' ago, has a claim been met. The first concerns a Hungarian who applied through his solicitor in this country for the release of funds at the time when the ex gratia policy—the policy indicated in this letter—was in force; he was arranging his affairs in Hungary so as to leave the country together with his family. Incidentally, he tried to do the same just before the war but "missed the bus." He was in various concentration camps in Hungary and was ultimately deported to Auschwitz by the Nazis, so that the facts of his case as to victimisation rendered release of his assets under the policy a certainty. His solicitors were notified by the Department in terms indicating that release would be forthcoming as soon as he left Hungary.

Upon receiving this information, he immediately applied to the Hungarian authorities for an exit permit, which was refused. He then tried to obtain one through "underground" channels, but fell into a trap laid by a police agent who promised to obtain a passport by extra-official methods but who, in fact, reported him to headquarters. As a result he was incarcerated in the same concentration camp where he had previously been detained by the Nazis, his crime being an attempt to leave the country illegally. He died in this concentration camp at the end of 1952.

According to the Departmental ex gratia policy, as published, the intention to leave former enemy territory is recognised in principle as being capable of full-filling the relative condition of release. Surely death resulting from an attempt to put into effect the intention to leave former enemy territory cannot amount to frustration of this condition and, therefore, of release to his successors in title resident abroad. His daughter obtained French nationality by special decree of the French Government in recognition of her remarkable services to France. This woman cannot obtain possession of her father's property.

Next, I will mention the case of a Hungarian, Baron Ullmann. On the 19th March, 1944, Baron Ullmann, a Jew and well known anti-Nazi, was among the first ten Hungarian Jews whom the Gestapo sent to arrest when the Germans entered Budapest. Three minutes before they entered his house, he was persuaded to go into hiding in a windowless attic in his barber's house. He remained in this cupboard until the Russians entered Budapest in October, 1944, a total of six months; and during that time all bodily functions, eating, sleeping, and all natural functions had to take place in this dark cupboard. When he reached the United Kingdom his funds were not released to him on the grounds that he had not been deprived of his personal liberty.

I have another case from Hungary, Mme. de W. On 4th April, 1944, all Jews in Budapest were ordered into "Jewish houses", a preliminary to deportation to concentration camps. Mme. de W. was smuggled out of Budapest in a car, having faked suicide. She was hidden in a house in the country, which she did not leave day or night until 31st October, 1944, when the Russians occupied the area. Meanwhile, her father was deported and died in the concentration camp at Theresienstadt. Her sister-in-law who failed to go into hiding was deported to Auschwitz and beaten to death by S.S. guards on the railway line. Her younger brother was sent to a concentration camp and has never been heard of since. On arrival in the United Kingdom her funds were not released to her as, on the facts disclosed, she had not been deprived of her personal liberty.

I have many more cases which I could cite all couched in similar terms. I would particularly like to have the Minister's reply, so I will not take up more time. These are all actual cases the details of which I have here, and full information in regard to them is in the hands of the Board of Trade. Every one of them can be identified. If I have only instanced three, that is not because I have no more to quote.

The President of the Board of Trade himself in a letter dated 3rd October, 1952, said that there is no international agreement prohibiting the release of these assets. I do hope, on the other hand, it will not be urged that the commercial creditors of Hungary and Rumania are entitled to all these funds at the expense of these people who sent them here in all innocence and for safe keeping.

This is tainted money, and I do not think that the average fair-minded Englishman would desire to profit at the expense of such injustices as I have described.

In conclusion, I will draw attention to the noble words of my right hon. Friend the present Prime Minister which he uttered in this House on 30th March, 1944, in reply to a question by the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman). Referring to the persecution of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, he said: Happily there are individuals and even official authorities among the satellites who have resisted the evil German example and have shown toleration and mercy. These things are known to the Allies, and in the hope of encouraging such good deeds and increasing their number His Majesty's Government are concerned to make it clear that those who have followed the right path will also not be forgotten in the day of final reckoning. The time of respite is short, but there is still opportunity for the merciful to multiply their acts of humanity, and for the guilty to try to make amends.… Now comes the passage to which I want to draw particular attention: His Majesty's Government, for their part, are firmly resolved to continue, in cooperation with all Governments and private authorities concerned, to rescue and maintain so far as lies in their power all those menaced by the Nazi terror.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th March, 1944; Vol. 398, c. 1562–3.] These are great and inspiring words. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State will be able to recommend to his colleagues that this is a splendid chance of implementing them by relaxing, even if only a little, some of the formalities by which his Department is making it so difficult for these poor people to recover their funds. They are people whose only fault is the race into which they were born, and they are funds which they confided to this country trusting in its historic rôle as the champion of the oppressed. It may be said that hard cases make bad law, but I think I can claim that the cases which I have cited are so very hard that the law under which they arise ought to be reconsidered. I hope that the Minister of State will advise his colleagues at the Board of Trade in that sense.

2.51 p.m.

The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. A. R. W. Low)

I should like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid) for his kind words about my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, whose absence from the Dispatch Box I deplore as much as he and the House do. As my hon. Friend knows, this difficult matter falls within the province of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade and not within my province, but I have done my best to make myself acquainted with the points at issue, and I will do my best to answer my hon. Friend.

I should like to start by saying that I am sorry my hon. Friend should have charged the Board of Trade with being unkind and callous in the way in which it is administering Government policy in this matter. I can assure him that this is a question of administering Government policy and that there is no difference inside the Government on these matters. I can also assure him that the Parliamentary Secretary, who had prepared himself to answer the debate, had studied this matter carefully, though he may perhaps not have studied the individual cases mentioned, and that what I am saying has his approval.

My hon. Friend's speech really raised two different points, and I congratulate him on the conciseness and clarity with which he put them. He raised, first, the question of whether we might not consider the heirless property specially on a separate footing and make it available to refugee charitable organisations, whether Jewish or Christian. I will come to that at the end of my reply. The rest of my hon. Friend's speech asked for more concessions or more liberal treatment in our policy relating to the restitution of property in this country to victims of Nazi persecution.

This point has been discussed before, as has the other, in debates in the House in 1949. It has been discussed in correspondence between hon. Members and my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, and with deputations from the Board of Deputies of British Jews and others to former Ministers. Therefore, my hon. Friend will know that great consideration has been given to the kind of concessions that can be allowed. My hon. Friend read to the House very fairly the terms of the concessions that are allowed in dealing with the property in this country of German and other ex-enemy nationals.

The decision to allow these concessions was taken after the war as a result of an inter-Allied agreement. The concessions are those which my hon. Friend read out in accordance with the Inter-allied Reparations Agency rules. They seek to allow the live victims of Nazi persecution and, on certain conditions, the heirs of those victims, to have their property back. If those concessions were not granted, the property would go to the British claimants against the countries concerned. A large number of claims have been made within these concessions. A total of 904 cases have been examined, of which 656 have been admitted and 248 rejected. The percentage of admissions thus comes to 73 per cent. and covers £1½ million. I assure my hon. Friend that those cases have all been handled very thoroughly and with the greatest of sympathy.

Mr. John Foster (Northwich)

I will not ask my right hon. Friend to answer the question, because I know that it is not within his bailiwick. He said that the rules would apply. Would he, therefore, ask the Parliamentary Secretary to see whether I am not correct in saying that the requirement that death should be due to Nazi persecution has been imported into the rules and that all the rules required was that the persons concerned should be dead?

Mr. Low

I will have that point referred to my hon. Friend.

When we consider concessions, the House must be aware of the difficulties of administering them. I know from my own experience how infuriating it is when one puts forward a case which seems to have sound backing on humanitarian grounds to be told, when that case is acknowledged, that there are grave administrative difficulties. The administrative problems with the concessions already given have been very serious—the large number of cases, the widely differing circumstances and the great difficulty of getting evidence, much of which has to come from behind the Iron Curtain and, we must face it, the opportunity for abuse. The very skilled and experienced staff which has handled these cases has shown not only sympathy but efficiency and fairness.

In anything like this it is right that the rules should be clearly, and fairly strictly, followed not only for administrative reasons but because releases to applicants are at the expense of British creditors. The rules have been in operation since 1948. There were minor modifications in 1950 and 1951 but there has been no modification since and, in the period since 1951, some of the property concerned has been distributed. Indeed, distribution is now well advanced.

The letter from the former Parliamentary Secretary, to which my hon. Friend referred, said, for example, that the German administrator had already distributed about 80 per cent. of the money coming into his hands. I am afraid, therefore, that it is too late to consider altering the rules. Quite apart from the amount of property that is left, there is the fact that every single one of the cases which have been rejected would have to be looked at again.

My hon. Friend referred particularly to aliens in hiding who had gone under- ground. I appreciate the force of the point he made, but I think that he would agree that it was not only persecuted Jews who went underground but sometimes criminals. He will also agree that the evidence of going underground is difficult to find and often obtainable only from interested parties.

My hon. Friend's main argument was that we had gone wrong in strictly interpreting the words in the concession: … was deprived of liberty pursuant to any German law, decree or regulation discriminating against religious or racial groups or other organisations … My hon. Friend was seeking to get us to extend that, but it would not really be extending it but altering it if we made it cover people who had not only been deprived of liberty pursuant to such a law but who had voluntarily—I concede that it was under pressure—avoided the effects of the law. Therefore, I think that there is a difference and I am afraid that I cannot hold out to my hon. Friend any hope that we shall be able to alter our administration on that point.

The other major point that my hon. Friend made concerned the heirless funds and he requested that we should treat them separately and distribute them to refugee organisations. I ask my hon. Friend to believe that it is impossible to "define, identify or estimate"—I am reading from the former Parliamentary Secretary's letter—"the extent of Jewish property in the hands of the Custodian" or to say what part of that property is heirless. For it is a fact that a large part of the property in the Custodian's hands is unclaimed. That part of it was claimed was because the Jewish people who claimed it realised that there were concessions open to them. The other nationals of these countries do not claim their property because they know that British creditors rank before them.

The task of defining and identifying this property which he wishes us to treat separately would be impossible to carry out. I understand that the United States have treated this problem slightly differently. They have larger assets and relatively fewer claimants. They have allotted a global sum to Jewish charities and have not allocated to them a sum based upon the source of the property. They have been able to do that because of the amount of property in their hands.

I am sorry to have to say to my hon. Friend that, despite his persuasive speech, I am unable to hold out hope to him that we shall be able to alter the policy. Successive Governments have done their best to be fair to the victims of Nazi persecution. I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend will take it from me that neither my sympathy, nor the sympathy of the Government, for these people needs to be stated. The administration has been sympathetic and thorough, but we have also had to keep in mind the interests of British creditors and the fact that every concession to the victims is at the expense of those creditors. We have tried to hold as fair a balance as we can, and I believe, from such examination as I have been able to give to this matter, that the Department has been successful in holding that balance.