HC Deb 12 July 1957 vol 573 cc719-26

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

3.53 p.m.

Mr. W. F. Deedes (Ashford)

I hope that the rather ominous wording of the title of this debate does not lead anyone to suppose that I am seeking the curtailment of pleasure expeditions to France which have been, and are, a very agreeable feature of the summer months. My intention is quite the opposite, as I hope I shall be able to make plain.

The need to raise the subject arises from certain incidents in Boulogne, on Saturday, 15th June. They involved three of my constituents, Mr. George Pile, Mr. Michael Fewins and Mr. J. Withington, all members of the staff of the Southern Electricity Board from the Ashford Electricity Department. On their return from a day trip, the annual "Seeboard" outing, they complained that they had been beaten up by the French police. The incident was widely reported at the time, and my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs has an account which I then sent to him.

There is no need to recite the details again, except to say that the complaints which the men made were certainly not frivolous. They had been severely handled, and I am not embroidering on that. They protested to me and asked me to carry out an investigation. I interviewed the senior of the three, Mr. Withington, and I then sent particulars to the Foreign Office and asked that there should be an investigation.

I am seeking the facts, and only the facts, such incidents sometimes have two sides, and it may be that there are two sides to this. I am not seeking to whitewash these three men, and in fairness to them I should say that they have not asked me to do so. Nor, of course, am I seeking to whitewash the French authorities.

It seems that there did arise out of this incident more serious considerations. It became clear that this was not altogether an isolated incident. Mr. Withington expressed the belief to me that the police in France "had it in" for someone. Without accepting that quite literally, it is clear that there was a background to this unfortunate incident of 15th June.

These day trips are very popular—deservedly and understandably so. In June and July—those are the principal months—tens of thousands of people go on them, usually on works' outings and organised expeditions, and a much smaller number alone. They go on two routes, the short route from Folkestone to Boulogne, which takes about 90 minutes, and the longer route from Southend, Margate or Ramsgate to Boulogne, which takes three or four hours. These timings have a certain significance, for the longer run affords to those so disposed—as there is not much else to do—time to consume a certain amount of alcoholic refreshment. In the vast majority of cases no harm is done, except perhaps to the digestion.

The last thing I want to do is to make heavy weather of this. I can think of nothing more agreeable than three or four hours on a smooth sea with a glass of beer in the hand. Unfortunately, English and French liquor, although admirable in themselves, marry badly. They make uneasy bedfellows, and not all who make these expeditions are aware of that simple fact. It is only in a tiny minority of cases that mischief arises from this source, but it is clear from both this and earlier incidents that that tiny minority does imperil the pleasure of the majority. It can have consequences out of all proportion to its importance. It can imperil the pleasure of the majority and can lead to trouble in France. It has led to trouble; it has led to a great deal of trouble for the staff of my hon. Friend called upon to investigate such incidents. Clearly, this incident has provoked some feeling between the French and ourselves. Such incidents can sow the seeds of minor disorder. This can happen in any seaside resort at this time of the year, but it leads to indignation, bad relations, protests and so on which seems a very great pity.

I consulted the companies concerned. The Southern Region of British Railways told me that it had little trouble, as one would expect, because that organisation is concerned with the short haul. The General Steam Navigation Co. said that there had been isolated incidents. It thought that friendly warning on the ship's loudspeaker about the potency—I will not say the perils—of French liquor might be a help. Clearly, any undue interference, fussiness or supervision would be intolerable and out of the question in this matter.

I want to make it absolutely clear, and I am sure that it is the view of my hon. Friend, that we should not tinker with a man's right to drink beer when he chooses. That is a fundamental principle, and I would not venture to question it, but I think some obligation does rest on the firms organising expeditions to keep a friendly eye on things so that excesses can be prevented. Those who come off worst are those employed overseas by the Foreign Office. They have to sort out the subsequent muddles, mollify the French and investigate cases, as I believe an investigation was carried out in this instance. It is not an easy question, because it poses a small but delicate problem in human relations.

It being Four 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. Brooman-White.]

Mr. Deedes

No one has any right or the power to interfere unduly, nor is it the responsibility of my right hon. Friend to do so. I understand that the interests of my hon. Friend in this matter lie in the relations between ourselves and the French and the unfortunate consequences which may result from even small incidents. As there are very few guilty among the tens of thousands who get a great deal of innocent enjoyment out of these trips, one needs to be very careful not to get the general picture out of proportion.

But one cannot altogether ignore the situation, quite apart from the fact that my constituents have asked me to raise the matter. Anyone who has been beaten up by foreign police is entitled to have a voice raised here on his behalf. One cannot altogether ignore a situation which leads to British subjects getting beaten up by police overseas, as these men undoubtedly were. The case was subsequently widely reported, in some cases nationally, and I believe that this upset the French, and there have been reper- cussions some distance from Boulogne. All this may not encourage more day tourists to take these trips.

It is also as well to probe the facts of the events of 15th June, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to say a word about these, partly to redress the very adverse publicity to all concerned. In view of this, I thought it well to have this short debate. If it does no more than remind those who organise the trips and those who take them that a very small amount of folly, which would elsewhere be absolutely harmless, may have consequences and effects upon other people out of all proportion to the offence, this will not have been a wasted occasion. If it encourages those who might again be concerned in such incidents to exercise a little more restraint, it will also have achieved something. It is in that spirit that I have raised the matter, and I hope it is in that spirit that my hon. Friend will respond.

4.3 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Ian Harvey)

I am very much obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) for the way in which he has presented the case. He did it in a very carefully reasoned manner. He has stressed a point which I want to stress, that the matter must be looked at in proper perspective and treated in proper proportion.

I propose to divide my answer into two parts: first, dealing with the specific case of my hon. Friend's constituents; and, secondly, making one or two observations in connection with the general practice of these visits, concerning which my hon. Friend has made some remarks with which I entirely agree.

My hon. Friend's three constituents were arrested by the French police in a French public house. They had not been given anything to drink at the public house. The reason for that was that the proprietress thought that they were not in a fit condition to have any more. It has been reported that they were not given any drink because of animosity on the part of the proprietress towards them personally and towards the British people in general. That is absolutely without foundation. The proprietress of the public house has a very high reputation. I am sorry to say that when she refused to give them the drink, they addressed her in language not at all Parliamentary, and not at all the sort of language one would expect from constituents of my hon. Friend.

As a result of this scene, and as a result of the language—which was quite clearly understood by the French—the police were summoned. They removed my hon. Friend's constituents. When they had put them into the black maria—or whatever is the French equivalent—these men became extremely violent. When one is travelling in a black maria—although neither my hon. Friend nor I has yet had that experience—it is very difficult, when others become violent, to take no notice. The police, in fact, had to restrain these people not, in our opinion, with unnecessary force, but with sufficient strength of purpose to prevent their being injured themselves.

At the police station, there was, I understand, a further scene, there was some difficulty with the crowd and, all in all, I think that it was between the restraining action of the police and the difficulties with the crowd that the various bruises and abrasions which my hon. Friend has mentioned were sustained.

A very full inquiry has been made into this matter by responsible members of the Foreign Office staff, with full cooperation from the French, and we are absolutely convinced that the French police acted with restraint and that there is no blame to be laid on them for what happened. Furthermore, as my hon. Friend suggested, his constituents had an idea that the local populace "had it in" for them. I do not think that there is evidence of this. There is certain evidence that, although we have had no other serious events such as this, there have been occasions noticed when visitors on these trips have not been altogether as steady as they might have been.

It may interest my hon. Friend to know that these men, having been taken to the police station, were detained for only three-quarters of an hour. No charge was preferred against them, though it was perfectly within the rights of the French police, in view of everything that had occurred, to have done so. They were then taken back to the ship. When they got on board, their conduct continued in such a way that the purser found it necessary to have them removed below. It will be seen from all this that they had no opportunity of drinking in France, but, having been detained for only three-quarters of an hour, the effects of whatever jollification it was that they had had had not worn off by the time they got back on board the ship, and they had to be segregated from the rest of the party.

I should like to say, with regret, that I think that the evidence in this case points to the fact that these men did, in fact, behave in a disorderly fashion, and were no credit at all to this country. It is to be regretted.

I should now like to follow up the more general observations of my hon. Friend, and to endorse them. Of course, we do not want to start interfering with the normal pleasures of people on their holidays, but I think that we ought to understand that a very large number of people do go on these trips which, because of the limited space on board, with the bar open all the time, provide remarkable opportunities for imbibing refreshment. Although it did not happen in this case, it undoubtedly can happen that people who are normally used to beer and to English spirits are rather taken by surprise when they come to imbibe the other drinks that are available on the other side.

There is the well-known story of the soldier who got in similar trouble with his commanding officer, and who said that he did not know that the "three-star beer" that he had been drinking was so potent. That indicates a certain misunderstanding of what is available in France. I would stress that this did not occur on this occasion, but I think that there is some evidence that it has occurred on other occasions, although not with any violent results.

In 1955, 65,000 people or more went on these trips, and, in 1956, 100,000 went. This and one other small incident are the only serious cases of disorder which have been reported to us. I should like to endorse, nevertheless, that when our citizens do go abroad there is an added responsibility not only on their part but on the part of those who organise these occasions, for ensuring that the susceptibilities of those whom they visit are not upset.

My hon. Friend made a very wise suggestion that it would be as well for these steamship organisations to issue a very friendly but firm reminder to those who are about to visit France of the possible dangers of other kinds of alcohol, and, in the case of those who may have had a very good time going over, to remind them that a little more alcohol might lead to rather a lot of harm in the long run.

At the Foreign Office, we particularly hope that these interchanges will go on. We regard them as a most happy form of association between the peoples of our two countries. It should be emphasised that the French are in the same position to come over here and to have similar exchanges. In this case it was the action of a minority which has caused this disturbance out of all proportion to the normal occurrences on these kinds of trips, but then, as my hon. Friend and other hon. Members will know, very often the actions of minorities do that in any case.

We do not believe that there is any call for any specific action other than to draw attention to the dangers inherent in the operation, which, I trust, I have been able to do this afternoon, and I am glad to have been offered the opportunity of doing it by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford.

At the same time, in dealing with my hon. Friend's specific case, I want to make it perfectly clear that we cannot accept the story which has been given publicity in the newspapers that these visitors were brutally beaten up by the French police. In fact, the reverse is the case. The French authorities behaved with very good humour and remarkable restraint, considering the problems with which they were confronted. I should like to take this opportunity of expressing our appreciation of the way in which the case was handled by them in so far as no serious result transpired in the form of any court action.

I would hope that in future the words that we have exchanged here may be noted by the organisations responsible for these exchanges, because it is of great importance that the exchanges should go on. For our part, in the Foreign Office, we hope that the numbers who travel to and from our two countries may increase as the years go by.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Four o'clock.