HC Deb 07 February 1958 vol 581 cc1580-8

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

4.1 p.m.

Mr. William Teeling (Brighton, Pavilion)

I should like to start by thanking you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to change the subject of my Adjournment debate at rather short notice in order to bring forward the very pathetic case of a constituent of mine which has now been going on for an unconscionably long time. This is in no way the fault of the Foreign Office but is rather the fault of the Government of the country in which my poor constituent was shot. I observe that in one of the volumes of HANSARD there is a reference to the death of this man in Cuba, but he is not dead; he is very far from it.

The case concerns Mr. Topham, a constituent of mine, who was in the Merchant Navy. He had an extremely good record, was quite young and was very physically fit. Mr. Topham was in a bar in a place called Guayabal in Cuba on 26th February, 1956, when, after some kind of accident—it has never been proved what happened—at a time when he was sitting at a table, he was shot in the back by a policeman. I might add that the policeman was not wearing official police dress.

The bullet presumably went through some nerve. At any rate, it went through his shoulder, with the result that the poor man is now almost completely crippled and it looks as though he may be crippled for the rest of his life. Re was eventually brought to this country to a hospital in the London Docks. Later he returned home. Mr. Topham can now get about a little but he has to have the use of a wheelchair and when he walks he is never certain that his legs will not give way, as happened on one occasion in the middle of the road when he was very nearly run over.

Mr. Topham comes from a highly respectable but quite poor family in my constituency who can certainly ill afford to have a young man of that age faced with the prospect of living for the rest of his life on National Assistance. It is an appalling thought for him. Moreover, it is unlikely that he will find a happy married life. All these are things which we think must be faced by the Cuban Government. Since returning to this country this young man has had a course of training through the Ministry of Labour in the hope of finding a job, but I understand that he is still looking for one.

I raised this matter on the Adjournment as far back as 11th June, 1956. At that time I said that I did not wish to criticise the Cuban Government or the Foreign Office, but I feel that now, after this extremely long delay, I must criticise the Cuban Government. Had they wished to do so, and if their desire was for friendly relations with this country, they could have made some kind of gesture to pay the man sufficient compensation—not a vast sum—to keep him at least in greater comfort than is possible on National Assistance. They have done nothing of the sort.

At that time, in 1956, we were told that there would be a trial and that until the trial had taken place nothing could he done for him. The Cubans would do absolutely nothing for him. We pointed out then, I think, that even if the trial of this policeman were to go in such a way that, for some reason or other, he was acquitted, we should still insist upon some compensation being paid to my constituent. Has my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary any information about the trial? It was to be by court-martial, and I was told on 1st August, 1956, in reply to a Question, that it had been definitely decided that it should be by court-martial.

Later, on 27th May, 1957, in reply to a Question, the Foreign Office told me that our Ambassador in Havana had, on several occasions, discussed the matter with the Cuban Government and a short time before, on 17th April, our Ambassador had discussed it with the Cuban Foreign Minister, who had promised that he would take up the matter with the Minister of Defence, so that there might, at least, be some possibility of getting the court-martial through. We were told that there was some delay because Topham's evidence which had been taken was being translated into Spanish. Why that should take so long is really now past understanding. We asked whether the Cuban Government could waive their decision not to give compensation until after the trial, but they said they could not, and they have remained fairly adamant on that point.

Later, in 1957, the Speaker of the Cuban Parliament came to London, and, thanks to the good offices of our Foreign Office, I was enabled to go to see him at the Dorchester Hotel and have a long talk with him. My idea, as you will appreciate, Mr. Speaker, was that, if one could get the Speaker of the Cuban Parliament to take an interest in the case, there would be little doubt that the Cuban Government would do something to help Mr. Topham. He talked to me at great length on the different problems of Roman law, Cuban law, and the great difficulties which were present; but he assured me that, if I wrote him a letter giving all the details, he would do whatever was possible for the sake of friendship between our two Parliaments. I pointed out that, although Topham was my constituent, I was not the only Member of Parliament who was interested in the matter, but that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Huyton (Mr. H. Wilson) had taken a great interest, and there were other Members who were becoming very disquieted about the whole business.

At about that time, the Cuban Ambassador here was asked to come to the Foreign Office to discuss the matter with the Permanent Under-Secretary of State, really the head of the Civil Service side of the Foreign Office, who made it quite clear to the Ambassador that this was the sort of matter which worried people greatly in England. The Cuban Ambassador rather took the line, I understand, of asking why friendship between two great countries should be hindered or embarrassed by such a minor detail as this. That is not our attitude in this country; we are inclined to feel that, if a man has been ruined for life physically or in any other way, it is up to those responsible to see that he receives proper compensation.

Later, we went farther—many people will realise that this is not very usual—and the Cuban Ambassador was again called for, this time to see the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, who left the Ambassador in no uncertainty at all about how strongly we feel. Since then, possibly, because of that, we have heard, as I was told in reply to a Question I asked on 20th November, that the Cuban authorities have now sent additional interrogatories to their Embassy in London, and my hon. Friend who is to answer today said that he hoped that, when these interrogatories had been completed and returned, it would be possible to make further progress.

Once again I ask, what has happened since then? In that Answer in the House, he definitely put responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the Cuban Government and frankly I think he was right in so doing.

On 29th December my constituent wrote a rather pathetic letter about the matter. He said: Will you please inform me it any headway has been made in my case with the Cuban authorities since my last communication to you on 2nd August. I have just read through the correspondence relating to the case that I have received during the last eighteen months. It looks very impressive on paper, but up to now it certainly has not brought any concrete proposal or any satisfactory reply of action by the Cuban authorities. Surely they cannot go on evading the request made to them at Government level indefinitely. The case was first raised in the House of Commons on 11th June, 1956, and also on later dates. In order that this case should not die a natural death could it not be again raised in the House and some action taken by the Foreign Office to obtain better results? As far as I know up to the time of writing"— that is the end of December— no medical evidence has been requested by the Cuban Naval Authorities as reported to me in your letter which you sent to Dr. Gaston Godoy". That is roughly the position as far as I see it. I honestly do not know what the Foreign Office can do. All I can do is to try to continue raising this matter in the House and in Committees too. We know that the Cubans have their own troubles. We are all agreed about that, whether they are Dominic Elwes troubles or rebellion troubles. The main fact remains that here a British subject injured in a foreign land being rather fobbed off, and unnecessarily so.

I am told that he came up to London about a week or ten days ago to try to find a job, and on that day while he was away, the police called at his house and left a message inquiring if he would be prepared to motor up with them one day soon to Scotland Yard. I only hope that that means that he will be given an opportunity to give further evidence at Scotland Yard. I presume that it will be something on those lines.

I should like for the sake of this man and his family to obtain an authoritative statement from my hon. Friend this afternoon. Both his family and myself thank the Foreign Office for what they have tried to do up to date.

4.13 p.m.

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

I am obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Teeling) for the way in which he has raised this very sad and troublesome case. I do not in any way dissent from the description he has given of what has occurred. This is a case which has caused the gravest possible concern for the reasons that he outlined.

We feel very deeply that a British subject, who is not in a position to look after himself and who has suffered a serious disability through no fault of his own under circumstances of violence, should not be left without any redress for so long. We appreciate that the course of law in other countries may take longer than the course of law here, but, as my hon. Friend rightly said, this case has taken and is still taking an unconscionable time. I do not think my hon. Friend will want me to go through the long and tiresome story of the various interventions that have been made by the Foreign Office on behalf of Mr. Topham. They are all too well known to him and to the House. I consider that my hon. Friend serves his constituent well by the persistence with which he has followed up this case.

I should, however, like to underline one or two points which my hon. Friend has made. We have indeed taken exceptional steps in this case. My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary himself has seen the Cuban Ambassador personally, as also did the Permanent Under-Secretary. I hope that the interview, which was arranged through Foreign Office auspices, with Dr. Godoy, the President of the Cuban Chamber of Representatives, will have done some good in accelerating, if one may use such a word concerning this case, the course of justice.

The position now is that a court-martial has not taken place because the case is tied up with the tribunal. The tribunal has not made progress because, as far as we can ascertain, the officer who was in charge of the proceedings died last year and a new officer is now apparently in charge. As a result of the resumption of these arrangements, the Cubans have called for further medical evidence.

As my hon. Friend and the House will realise, as a result of the very long time that has elapsed since the incident, the medical authorities who were involved in this country have moved to other positions and it has been difficult to obtain the evidence needed in the questionnaire. The latest interrogatory is, however, now being completed and my hon. Friend was quite right when he surmised that the reason why Mr. Topham had been asked to go to New Scotland Yard was to complete these, I trust, final interrogatories in this case. I am very hopeful that when this has been completed, and I am most anxious that it should be completed at a very early date, the authorities in Havana will be able to proceed with this very long delayed operation.

I should like to say categorically that Her Majesty's Government, and the Foreign Office in particular, are not prepared to let this matter rest. We believe that all the evidence indicates that Mr. Topham has a just case. We believe that that case should be dealt with without any further delay and that he should receive redress. Although I know that an expression of sympathy for Mr. Topham in his predicament is not particularly valuable after all this time, I would like through my hon. Friend to express my sympathy to Mr. Topham and to say that I regret very much indeed that a British subject should have been the victim of such an incident. I regret even more that he should receive no redress.

As my hon. Friend has made perfectly clear this afternoon, the Cuban authorities have been left in no doubt at any level as to the feelings in this matter of Her Majesty's Government. They are feelings which grow stronger as the delay becomes more protracted.

As my hon. Friend has said, Mr. Top-ham is a young man whose life has been ruined by this incident. He is not in a position to look after himself. I earnestly hope that the Cuban authorities, in the name of justice and humanity, will now settle this case, because, in my opinion, the responsibility for this man's unfortunate plight rests squarely upon those who caused this tragic accident.

4.19 p.m.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

I fully agree with all that has been said by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Teeling) and by the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. The conduct of the Cuban Government is certainly open to criticism. It could even justifiably be described in much stronger language than has been used by either the hon. Gentleman the Member for Brighton, Pavilion or by the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. An appeal has been made on the grounds of justice and humanity to the Cuban Government, an appeal which, I hope, will not fall on deaf ears, although the Cuban authorities are taking an unconscionably long time in doing the right thing in this case.

It is as well to remember that only a little while ago the British Government, who had a trade agreement with Cuba, increased the quota for the import of Havana cigars into this country. I just mentioned that to show that, whereas hitherto the British Government may not, perhaps, have used every possible weapon at their disposal, the Cuban Government should realise that there are, perhaps, one or two other actions which could be taken by the British Government to make the Cuban Government realise that they have some responsibility in this matter. I hope that when the Cuban Government realise the full implications of what has been said by the Joint Under-Secretary of State today they will, without further delay, do the right and honourable and just thing.

Mr. Teeling

I would ask my hon. Friend to clear up one question, that of possible compensation without having to await the trial, without having to wait too long. Has there been any hope of that?

Mr. Ian Harvey

We did, as my hon. Friend knows, put that forward, and we made no progress in that direction, but I am really very hopeful that these matters have now reached a stage where we can expect a result; but if no result is forthcoming and we are subjected to further indications of delay, that is a point which I personally would be very glad to put forward again.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes past Four o'clock.