HC Deb 05 February 1957 vol 564 cc244-9
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement.

The Government announced on 6th December last that they had decided to make a grant of £100,000 to the Anglo-Egyptian Aid Society to assist British subjects from Egypt. Since then the Society, with the assistance of other voluntary organisations, has worked extremely hard to deal with pressing personal problems. The Society has performed a most valuable task in difficult and strenuous circumstances, and I should like to take this opportunity of expressing the Government's appreciation of the way in which voluntary workers have risen to the demands of this emergency.

About 4,000 people have now reached this country from Egypt, and more are still arriving. The operation of assisting these people and enabling them to start their life again will be a large one. The Society has itself taken the view that as a voluntary welfare organisation it should be relieved of the growing responsibility for making payments from Government funds. The Government accept this view, and propose to set up a new body to be known as the Anglo-Egyptian Resettlement Board.

I am glad to be able to tell the House that Lord Colyton has accepted my invitation to serve as Chairman of the Board, and that among the other members will be Lord Listowel, Sir Humphrey Trevelyan and representatives of the Anglo-Egyptian Aid Society and the other voluntary organisations. The Board will take over the grant-in-aid from the Exchequer.

The function of the Board will be to co-ordinate all the work at present being done to assist British subjects from Egypt, including the running of the hostels and the giving of financial help; until the Board is ready to assume this responsibility, the Society will continue its present work.

An organisation has also been set up within the Foreign Office to classify claims against the Government of Egypt of persons who suffered loss on their departure. A special section is now in being which is recording information about the assets of British nationals in Egypt affected by the measures taken by the Egyptian Government and about other debts outstanding. Both firms and individuals have been invited to submit information on these matters to the Foreign Office. It is hoped that this can be done expeditiously.

Meanwhile, the Resettlement Board will be authorised to deal with the needs of any British subjects who have come to the United Kingdom as a result of recent events in Egypt and are in need. In helping these people, the Board will deal with each individual case on its merits and, in addition to paying allowances, it will be authorised to meet immediate educational commitments and to make grants or loans in appropriate cases.

In particular, the Board will be authorised to make advances as may be necessary to former pensioners of the Egyptian Government up to the full amount of the pension due until arrangements are made for the Egyptian Government again to discharge its contractual obligations.

Mr. Gaitskell

While welcoming, in general, the new arrangements announced by the Prime Minister, and the appointment of the Resettlement Board, may I ask whether the Government are limiting the amount of money with which they are prepared to assist this organisation to the £100,000 mentioned? The Prime Minister will be aware that that amounts only to £25 a head, even on the basis of the existing 4,000 refugees.

The Prime Minister

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has asked that question. The £100,000 was put forward, in the first instance, to assist the Society, and we shall have to see what is necessary to fulfil these obligations in an honourable way.

Mr. Grimond

Does the Prime Minister agree that to discharge these obligations a very much larger sum of money will be necessary? Secondly, can he tell us what is being done for British subjects expelled from Egypt but not coming to this country? Will the Board have authority to deal with them?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Member will recognise that it is important to maintain these claims against the Egyptian Government, and that will be done. The immediate problem is to meet the needs of these people until those claims, as we hope and believe, are finally satisfied. The question of persons outside the United Kingdom is another matter. I think that there are a very small number of them, but I will look into it and give the hon. Gentleman a reply.

Captain Pilkington

Can my right hon. Friend say what will be the total amount of the claims, when they are finally formulated?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. I think that the first thing is to get the registration done, both by firms and by individuals and, meanwhile, to set up an effective organisation to take over the work which has already been so well done by the voluntary Society.

Mr. Hunter

If the Egyptian Government do not meet these claims for compensation, will Her Majesty's Government do so?

The Prime Minister

That is the kind of question which is easy to pose, but I do not want to give an answer which in any way derogates from our right and power, at the appropriate time, to make claims on behalf of the British Government.

Mr. Remnant

Does my right hon. Friend mean, as most of us wish, that he will see that no Egyptian assets will leave this country in the meantime? Is he aware that it will please many people to know that we are not trying to observe Queensberry rules with people who do not recognise them?

The Prime Minister

There will, of course, be claims and counter-claims. The question of Egyptian sterling balances was dealt with by the Financial Secretary on 31st January, in reply to a Question.

Mr. Crossman

Would the Prime Minister agree that, whatever success we may have in getting money from the Egyptian Government, our Government have an absolute responsibility for looking after these people and should not be allowed to have any doubts as to that responsibility because of our hope of getting money from the Egyptian Government? Could he not give an unequivocal assurance that, whatever success we have, we shall look after our subjects?

The Prime Minister

The purpose of the Board is to do precisely that, but I must say again that the first process is to register the claims, both of individuals and of trading companies and, on that basis, to put forward, at the appropriate moment, our claim to the Egyptian Government. That is one purpose. The other is to meet individual needs during the interval.

Mr. H. Fraser

Would my right hon. Friend consider the pledge given by the evacuation authority in Port Said, on 1st December, that funds taken out by British subjects in Egyptian pounds would be converted at the official rate? Thousands of pounds have been brought out and, far from their being converted at the official rate, they are being converted at 12s. to the pound, when the official rate was 20s. 6d. at the time. Would my right hon. Friend consider that the Anglo-Egyptian Resettlement Board's first function should be to fulfil this pledge made by Her Majesty's Consul to those being evacuated from Port Said?

The Prime Minister

I will look into that, but I am informed that no such advice was given officially by any of Her Majesty's Ministers or consuls or by any representative. If there are questions of hardship they will, I think, be dealt with by the Board in the ordinary way.

Mr. Steele

The Prime Minister mentioned in his original statement that assistance would be given for educational purposes. Representations have already been made to the Foreign Office. Will it be necessary for those people concerned again to make representations to this Board although particulars of cases to be dealt with have already been sent to the Foreign Office?

The Prime Minister

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has asked that question. We are arranging that information in the hands of the Foreign Office should be made available to the Board as soon as it begins to do its work.

Mr. Marlowe

Would my right hon. Friend clear up one matter to do with pensioners? Many pensioners of the Egyptian Government have not received any payment from Egypt, of course, since October last. Will the Board have power to pay the arrears which are due to them over these months?

The Prime Minister

As I have said, it will make advances or loans against these claims, but we shall still hold these claims as claims we are entitled to press. Meanwhile we shall make advances against them.

Mr. Janner

While the right hon. Gentleman is considering this very important matter, will he consider, also, the position of Stateless persons and others who have come to this country in consequence of persecution by the Egyptian Government against them because they happen to be of the Jewish race? Will he see that they will have the same kind of consideration?

The Prime Minister

That is another question, of which I was not aware. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would get in touch with me or with one of my colleagues, and we will see whether anything can be done.

Mr. Gower

Can my right hon. Friend say whether the pensioners of the Egyptian Government will be able to recover from this fund through the Board even though they are not able to establish conditions of desperate personal hardship?

The Prime Minister

I do not think that we want to use such phrases as "desperate personal hardship" by any means. I think that we must trust to the Board, which has upon it very good representation drawn from people of great experience and knowledge. We shall just have to make this experiment and make what adaptations or alterations in it are necessary as we go along.

Mr. Snow

Did I understand the right hon. Gentleman to say that he did not consider the rights of Cypriot and Maltese British subjects to be of exactly the same importance as those of residents from this country?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. I am very sorry if any such impression was created; there is nothing in what I have said or in the statement I made which could possibly lead to that conclusion. All British subjects are British subjects.

Major Wall

Would my right hon. Friend bear in mind that some of these people are of Maltese origin and that quite a number of them wish to emigrate to Australia? Is it within the terms of the Resettlement Board to assist their emigration?

The Prime Minister

I will look into that. I do not see why it could not do that, in association with the ordinary migration authorities.