HC Deb 01 April 1958 vol 585 cc1181-8

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

11.3 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Wall (Haltemprice)

Mr. Speaker, one morning in September, 1956, the British public, reading their newspapers at their breakfast tables, were confronted with the banner headlines: "British Captain Foils Plot. Nasser's Propaganda Move Defeated." These headlines referred to a small freighter, the "Empire Chub", managed by Townsend Brothers and operated for the Ministry of Transport.

This ship was lying in Benghazi harbour, where she had been loading Army lorries to take back to Malta. Captain Harvey, captain of this vessel, discovered late one evening that a plot had been engineered by the Egyptian Embassy in Benghazi to gather his crew into the Embassy that evening so that he would he unable to sail the following morning, the implication being that the Egyptian propagandists were to come to the quayside the following morning and take photographs, which would be displayed to the Press of the world, showing that the crew—who were largely Sudanese, Greeks and Egyptians—would not work for the British Government or the British Army.

When Captain Harvey discovered this plot, with the six members of his crew who remained loyal, he sailed his vessel from Benghazi Harbour, in spite of an armed guard on the quay, at 3 o'clock in the morning, when there had been a half-gale the day before. It was a patriotic and courageous action, and it was so acclaimed by the Press of this country, and, indeed, by the Press of the world in general. At the time, it was referred to as a civilian version of the escape of H.M.S. "Amethyst".

When Captain Harvey, with the six loyal members of his crew, sailed his ship back into Malta Harbour, he received congratulations from many important persons. I have here a letter from the Governor of Malta, in which he says, Did you ever get any official recognition for your splendid adventure? The C.-in-C. Mediterranean Fleet, in another personal letter, wrote: I have great admiration for your fine and courageous action". Congratulations were also given, on a personal basis, by the staff at the Ministry of Transport.

For the next two months, November-December, 1956, the "Empire Chub" served in the Suez operation, and it was not until January, 1957, that Captain Harvey brought his ship back to Malta. When he arrived there, he was interviewed by the Marine Superintendent of Townsend Brothers, the Company managing the "Empire Chub," and asked for his resignation on the ground that his action in taking his vessel out of Benghazi harbour had made him persona non grata with the Libyan and Egyptian Governments. Captain Harvey refused to resign for doing what he considered his duty, and he was thereupon dismissed by the Marine Superintendent. He was told that his salary would be paid until July of that year. I would emphasise that Captain Harvey and, indeed, his successor in the "Empire Chub" were not on a definite contract. The understanding was that the appointment was for two or four years, but there was no specific contract. The firm acted, therefore, perfectly legally. I am not suggesting that it did not.

Having been dismissed his ship because he was persona non grata—or so it was alleged—with the North African Governments, Captain Harvey took an action which I think the House will agree showed the greatest initiative—he flew to Benghazi and interviewed the Prime Minister of Cyrenaica and explained that he had taken this action to save his flag being dishonoured and so that his ship should complete her duties in accordance with his responsibility as captain, which explanation was accepted by the Cyrenaican Government. I have here a letter sent by the Director of Communications of the Provincial Government of Cyrenaica, in which it says: In the circumstance the Government is prepared to overlook this incident and have no objection to you entering the ports of Libya in command of any vessels. Captain Harvey did not leave it at that. He went to an interview at the Egyptian Embassy and explained the reasons for his action. The Egyptians respect initiative, and he was assured by the First Secretary that he would be allowed to go into any Egyptian port in any ship which he commanded.

Unfortunately, Captain Harvey then went into hospital for a month. After he had recovered he returned to England, where he reported to his previous employers, Townsend Brothers, in order to clear up the ship's papers. I might add that, when the papers and accounts were completed, Captain Harvey was told that he would not be paid any expenses he had incurred by his action in going back to Benghazi to try to clear up the misunderstanding with the Cyrenaican or Libyan Government. I think that that was perhaps not altogether a generous action on the part of his employers.

During the two months in which he was clearing up the ship's papers, he four times asked his employers to reinstate him in command of the "Empire Chub," pointing out that the reason given for his dismissal—that he was persona non grata with the Libyan and Egyptian Governments and, therefore, could not take his ship into their harbours—no longer applied. He had written evidence, as I have shown, to state that that was a fact.

In spite of that, the managing director of Townsend Brothers stated in an interview that he could not be reinstated in the ship and used the phrase, The Ministry would not like a politician in charge of one of their ships. That left Captain Harvey bewildered, and he decided to write to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. As a result of his letter, he was accorded an interview at the Ministry of Transport, where, I say at once, he was very sympathetically received. He then returned to Townsend Brothers expecting to get his ship back, but he was told that he could not be reappointed except on direct instructions from the Ministry of Transport.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will say that the appointment or dismissal of captains of ships managed by private shipping firms is nothing to do with the Ministry of Transport. That I accept, and so does Captain Harvey. But what should he do? He had taken action with the best of intentions. He had overcome his difficulties with the Libyan and Egyptian Governments, and even then it was made quite obvious to him that he was not to get his ship back. He then requested my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport for a public inquiry into the matter. In a very sympathetic reply, the Minister told him that it was not possible under the Merchant Shipping Act. We thus have the position that this captain has had no ship for fifteen months and no pay for the past eight months. Hon. Members may well wonder why that should be.

Lest it should occur to hon. Members on either side to wonder whether Captain Harvey may be a rather wild, buccaneering type, I should like to refer to some of his past record. He served as an apprentice in the last year of the 1914–18 War. In 1938, he joined the R.N.V.R. During the whole of the Second World War, he served in the Royal Navy. Three times he had his ship sunk under him by enemy action. He commanded operational mine-sweepers for seven years, and during this time it was said of him by his commanding officer that he was A captain in whom I have the greatest confidence and trust". Since then, he was employed in the Mediterranean in a ship belonging to the Halal Shipping Company. Again, when he gave up command of that ship, it was said of him: We have pleasure in stating that during all this period Captain Harvey's services were entirely satisfactory. He carried out all his duties both as officer and as Master competently and diligently. He is strictly sober". In other words, Captain Harvey has had an excellent report in the Merchant Navy and in the Royal Navy. I hope the House will believe that his action in Benghazi was vindicated by public opinion. Certainly it had a great measure of support in the Press of this country and abroad.

For fifteen months Captain Harvey has now been "on the beach"—that is, without a ship. What redress has he for losing his ship apparently over his patriotic action in Benghazi? I do not suppose for a moment that this is the responsibility of the Minister of Transport—

Mr. Speaker

If the hon. Member cannot suggest that it is a Ministerial responsibility, he is out of order on the Adjournment.

Mr. Wall

I do not suggest that it is the direct responsibility of the Ministry of Transport to employ or dismiss Captain Harvey, but I do suggest, in view of the allegations made by the director of the managing company, that the Ministry had said that the company should not employ him in command of its ships, there is a certain measure of responsibility on my right hon. Friend. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to say this evening that his Ministry recognises that Captain Harvey in both his actions in Benghazi apparently acted from the highest motives and that the Ministry has no objection at all to his being re-employed in the "Empire Chub" or in any ship managed on the Ministry's behalf.

If I may try to put Captain Harvey's feelings in a nut-shell, he feels very deeply, having done his duty by his ship and his flag, that he has in consequence lost command of his ship, whereas if he had acted as a craven and submitted to Nasser's indignities, his employment would have continued. I hope my hon. Friend will be able to say tonight that he will be only too willing to see Captain Harvey given employment in the shipping industry. This debate tonight will have served a good purpose if it serves to vindicate Captain Harvey in the only way now possible.

11.15 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Airey Neave)

While my right hon. Friend's Department is not and never has been in any direct contractual relationship with Captain Harvey—that is entirely a question for the managers—my right hon. Friend has been approached about this matter and is anxious to do what he can to assist Captain Harvey and to find him employment in the future. He has a general responsibility regarding matters relating to merchant shipping, but my hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) has put forward a number of matters which I cannot deal with on their merits.

I was glad my hon. Friend has raised this matter, became my Department has a certain sympathy with Captain Harvey regarding the facts which my hon. Friend has related. My right hon. Friend the Minister in no way underrates the daring and seamanship with which Captain Harvey escaped from Benghazi and brought his ship to Malta with the loyal remnants of his crew. He did, in fact, give a racy, if not to say salty, account of this incident in his pamphlet, which he calls "Who laughs last!". No one can read this pamphlet without admiring his courage and determination in an awkward predicament. As to the wisdom of his action, I do not think I should comment further. It is no doubt easy to be wise after the event.

The principal question with which I should like to deal is Captain Harvey's future position. It is utterly untrue that my Department has in any way victimised Captain Harvey on the grounds that he was a politician, as my hon. Friend said, in charge of one of our merchant ships. That has in no way affected the handling of the case by the Ministry of Transport, nor has my right hon. Friend's judgment been in any way influenced by considerations of this kind. In fact, he was approached by a number of hon. Members and greatly regrets that Captain Harvey should be labouring under a sense of grievance about this matter. He has taken a close personal interest in this case and has done his best to help Captain Harvey to find other employment.

My hon. Friend has referred to Captain Harvey being persona non grata with the Libyan authorities, and to a number of other matters. The one thing my right hon. Friend cannot accept is the claim that Captain Harvey appears to be making, that he has some sort of right to be in command of the "Empire Chub" or some other ship.

The question of Captain Harvey's further employment is, however, the only thing with which I ought properly to deal. It is a question of his qualifications, personal and professional, to be selected as master of a ship, and his record as vouched for by his various previous employers throughout his career.

I should like to make three points. My right hon. Friend and his Department, as such, have nothing against Captain Harvey. The company which manages the "Empire Chub" is now under completely different management since the time of the incident. The new managers came in after Captain Harvey had left and, therefore, have no personal knowledge of him, but no doubt they will consider what they hear and act on their own discretion, as would be the position in the case of any other employer. Finally, the former management of the company—those who were in management at the time of the Benghazi incident—have informed my right hon. Friend that they would be quite willing to give Captain Harvey a testimonial if he asked for it. I cannot take the matter further than that, and I do not think that my hon. Friend expects me to do so.

I was very impressed by the account of Captain Harvey's escape, and I regret the incidents occurring in between. While wishing him well, I do not think that this is, as you have said, Mr. Speaker, my right hon. Friend's responsibility any further than I have outlined.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes past Eleven o'clock.