HC Deb 23 January 1959 vol 598 cc657-70

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

4.2 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Rippon (Norwich, South)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter which has caused deep anxiety in my constituency and which raises issues of much wider public interest. On 8th January, it was first reported in the Eastern Evening News that two members of the crew of the Syrian ship "Sourya", then under arrest at Yarmouth, had been detained for alleged contravention of the Aliens Order, 1953, and were imprisoned in Norwich Jail.

The governor of the prison, when telephoned by the Press, confirmed that the men, one a Spaniard and the other an Italian, had been detained upon a Home Office warrant from the Immigration Department at Harwich and were unlikely to appear in public court—as, in the event, they did not. It was reported that the Italian, named Angyal Raul, was a young mess-boy who had told a reporter that he was a student working his way about the world with the idea of writing about his experiences. Nothing was then known about the Spaniard except that his name was Enrique Luanco Bousquet.

It was subsequently reported, on 10th January, in the Eastern Daily Press, that the Chancellor of the Consular Section of the Spanish Embassy was astonished to learn that a Spanish seaman was detained in Norwich prison. The Chancellor was reported as saying that a Spanish seaman had been paid off his ship and was simply trying to pass through England on his way back to Spain. It was also reported on the same day that an official of the Italian Consulate in London had said that before his arrest the Italian had telephoned asking him for help. He had apparently been told by the official to go back to Italy, and that the Consul-General was prepared to pay his fare. But the Italian, Ravl, refused this offer, and he also refused to return to his ship.

The next fact reported in the Eastern Daily Press was on 15th January, when it was announced that both men had been released from prison; that the Italian had been repatriated on 14th January and arrangements were being made for the Spaniard to leave the country by air. I presume that those arrangements have now been completed.

Whether or not these people wanted to stay in this country, or for how long, or whether or not they were sent back against their will, we do not know, and we never will know—at least from their own mouths. I hope, however, that my hon. Friend will be able to explain the circumstances of the case and say whether, for example, the Italian boy had changed his mind about going home and, if so, why. Neither I nor, I think, anyone else has any reason to doubt that this was a routine case with none of the elements of tragedy and high drama which have characterised some of the cases which have been raised and debated in this House in recent years.

If this is a routine case, I and a good many other hon. Members would say that we heartily dislike the routine. The really disturbing factor in this and all other cases of a similar kind is that so far as I can judge no one would have known anything about it if the Italian boy had not happened to get in touch with the reporter while he was still at liberty.

I do not suggest that it is wrong to control immigration. In this small island there must be some control over the number of people who come in to live and work here. Equally, it is only fair, I think, to acknowledge that the Government have tried to the best of their ability to maintain a necessarily difficult balance between our liberal traditions and controlled immigration.

In this connection, I have noted the figures which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary gave during a debate on the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill on 20th November, 1958. He said: In the twelve months ended 30th September last no fewer than 1,306,878 foreign passengers entered the United Kingdom. Of those 2,638—less than 02 per cent.—were refused leave to land. We must acknowledge that this is a fine record. It is therefore all the more regrettable that the procedure governing the treatment of the 0.2 per cent. tends to give such a bad impression. I should like to know how many of those 2,638 cases received any publicity at all; how many people were detained in prison without trial; and how many of those cases might have been questioned in this House, either at Question Time or in an Adjournment debate or in some other way, if all the facts had been established cither in open court or in the Press or in some other way.

The Home Secretary in the debate on 20th November went on to analyse what had happened in the 2,638 cases of people who were refused leave to land. He said: Of those refusals 589 cases were purely technical arising from transit procedure, 523 were turned back because they intended to work here and had no labour permit … 356 had insufficient means to support themselves during the period of their stay, 99 should have had a visa but had not, and 178 were stowaways …".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th November, 1958; Vol. 437, c. 1348.] Those figures add up to 1,745. We may well ask what happened to the other 893 who were not accounted for.

I should be the first to concede—and I think my constituents would also—that we have been by no means ungenerous since the war in our treatment of refugees and in meeting the claims of various individuals to asylum. I believe it is true to say that the 120,000 Poles whom we admitted since the war constitutes the largest single entry since the Huguenots, and more recently we have not been ungenerous in our attitude to Hungarian refugees.

The point I want to make is that, however small the numbers who are turned away, what causes public anxiety in these cases is that an individual's fate may hang upon the decision of officials acting in secret.

Whatever the particular issues involved in this case—and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to clarify them—what really shocks public opinion in my constituency, and indeed throughout East Anglia, is the realisation, in the words of a leading article in the Eastern Daily Press, that it is possible in this country for anybody to be carted off to prison on a warrant from an official without being charged or tried and without any opportunity to state his case.

The anxiety expressed in the local Press has been reflected in the views of other hon. Members. Certainly my hon. Friend the Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) have both expressed their anxiety about this case since they heard of it. My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, Central (Sir F. Medlicott) said in an interview to the Press There is everything to be said for ensuring that these men are dealt with in open court, with the Press and public present, so that justice can be seen to be done. We ought to be alert and vigorous about this. We have deprived the men of freedom without trial, and that is not in accordance with our ideas of a valid system of justice. I think that the views of the hon. Member for Norfolk, Central are widely shared. Many people in this country, of all parties, are profoundly disturbed by the thought that these things may happen without any form of publicity whatsoever, and perhaps to a refugee from tyranny escaping to what he believes is a free country where individual rights are invariably protected by Parliament, by the courts and by the Press.

Of course, this is not a new problem. We have an opportunity to discuss the renewal of the Aliens Order when each year we debate the Expiring Laws (Continuance) Bill, and we took that opportunity on 20th November last. We know of individual cases which have been discussed in the House, and in that connection I think it particularly significant that when these cases come to the public attention, perhaps because quite inadvertently there has been a report in the Press or some leakage of information, under pressure the Executive have from time to time either modified or reconsidered their original decision.

One is left with an uneasy feeling that there might be more of these cases raised in the House if publicity were given to them and if the men concerned were given the opportunity to state their case either to the Press or before a tribunal, in open court or in some other way.

As I have said, I have no reason to doubt that a right decision was taken in this case. Neither I nor the courts, nor the public nor anyone else is in a position to judge. I believe most profoundly that where the rights of an individual are concerned we cannot afford to take matters of this kind on trust.

I cannot in an Adjournment debate make proposals for the amendment of the law which would require new legislation, but I would ask the Government when they are considering whether or not to renew the Aliens Order in its present form to bear in mind that in this country, which has a long and honourable record of giving asylum to refugees, there is a very strong and growing feeling that no man's fate should be decided behind locked doors.

As for imprisoning men without trial, this is an arbitrary power which is hateful and contrary to all our traditions and beliefs. I would also like to ask how it can be reconciled with the provisions of Article 9 of the Charter of Human Rights of the United Nations which states unequivocally: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile. It is not, in my view, sufficient for the Government to rely simply on the powers given by the Aliens Order. It is not enough to say, "This is the law." Laws must be the agents of justice. In these cases we have no means of knowing whether justice is done. It is certainly not seen to be done. We do not know where the law stops and justice begins.

I hope, therefore, that the Government will give urgent consideration to the setting up of some form of inquiry, perhaps by way of a Royal Commission, so that we can be assured that there is a just and proper procedure. If that were done, then it might not be necessary tonight or on any other occasion for these individual cases to be raised in the House.

For generations men and women have come to our shores in the belief that they are coming to a democracy founded on fundamental rights of human freedom. I feel, and I am sure that a good many other hon. Members on both sides of the House feel, that we must not break faith with even one of them.

4.14 p.m.

Sir Frank Medlicott (Norfolk, Central)

I am very grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the Minister, for allowing me briefly to support what has been so ably said by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Rippon).

I rise to speak because the two men who have been mentioned were, in fact, detained on the borders of my constituency. I confirm that there, as well as in the constituency of my hon. Friend, there has been a good deal of anxiety, an anxiety which we welcome because it is a matter on which we ought never to allow ourselves to become careless or complacent.

I wish to make only two points. The first is that both as a lawyer and as a citizen I have always held the belief that it was not possible in this country to deprive any man, whether British or foreign, of his freedom for more than a matter of a few hours, or perhaps a day or so, without enabling him to know in open court what he is charged with, or for what reason he is detained. That is one of the absolutely sacred rights that we must at all costs preserve. I am interested and curious to know how it has come about that that apparently sacred and long-standing rule can be broken.

The second point is that we must not overlook the effect on public opinion abroad of events in this country. When we hear that one of our fellow-citizens has been detained in a foreign country for some reason that is not explained, we are apt to compare foreign systems of justice with our own and to take pride in saying that that kind of thing cannot happen here. Apparently it can happen here.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South for giving opportunity to the Minister to explain how it can happen. I hope that it will not happen again.

4.17 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Miss Patricia Hornsby-Smith)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Rippon), to my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, Central (Sir F. Medlicott) for his comments, and for the way in which the matter has been raised in this debate. It is not often that one welcomes an opportunity to discuss the criticism of one's Department, but there has been so much misrepresentation about this case that I welcome the opportunity to put the facts before my hon. Friends and the House.

The aliens concerned are two seamen named Raul Angyal, an Italian national, aged 31, and Enrique Bousquet, a Spanish national, aged 34. These men arrived in this country at Great Yarmouth on 23rd December as members of the crew of the s.s. "Sourya", a Syrian ship which had come from Mantyluoto, in Finland, with a cargo of timber. Seventeen members of the crew belonged to six different nationalities: Greek, Egyptian, Spanish, Italian Lebanese and Ethiopian.

The first essential point to remember is that seamen are a special class of alien. An appreciation of their distinctive position is essential to a proper understanding of the present case. Seamen enter into a contractual engagement with the master of a ship. This contract normally covers such considerations as the duration of the voyage, amount of wages, the port of final discharge and the arrangements for repatriation of the seaman should the need arise. Such arrangements can, of course, be terminated by agreement, but a seaman can land for discharge from his ship only with the assent of the receiving country.

In practice, no country in the world permits seamen to discharge except for special and convincing reasons, for example, for hospital treatment, transfer to another ship or for repatriation. Therefore, not only were these men not dealt with in any way differently from other seamen in other ports, but they were dealt with in accordance with the normal procedure for seamen in similar circumstances in almost any other maritime port.

So far as the United Kingdom is concerned, foreign seamen are not only a special but a privileged class of alien. In effect, seamen may land without the permission of an immigration officer, provided they leave with their ship. That is an important proviso. Nowadays, nearly 40,000 foreign ships come to the United Kingdom every year and they carry crews totalling approximately 1 million foreign seamen. Is it to be suggested that any of these seamen could suddenly decide that they would like to desert ship and go to ground, in other words, avoid immigration control, and abuse their privileged position in that way?

If such desertions on any considerable scale were allowed, they would have grave results both from an immigration point of view and also as regards the turn-round of ships. A similar state of affairs might well soon result at the ports if seamen were allowed to discharge themselves from their commitments at will and to come ashore and holiday or immigrate into the United Kingdom at their discretion.

On this matter, all international maritime practice is agreed: ships, like the show, must go on, and the crews must be back on board in time to see that they do go on.

I return now to the "Sourya". Immediately upon its arrival at Great Yarmouth, on 23rd December, the "Sourya" was placed under arrest by order of the Admiralty Marshal for nonpayment of a substantial debt owed to one or more United Kingdom firms. It was not released from this arrest until 12th January. Meanwhile, members of the crew were given shore leave in the usual way. A week later, on 31st December, Angyal and Bousquet applied for discharge from the ship. Their request was not supported either by the master or the agents of the "Sourya". Angyal, who had practically no means at his disposal at all stated that he wished to resign from the crew and spend a month's holiday in London.

Bousquet, who was also without funds, said he wished to spend a month's holiday here to improve his English. It was clear that neither man had any satisfactory reason for seeking discharge from the ship and neither was eligible to settle in this country. Both men were formally refused leave to land and the agents and the ship's master were advised accordingly.

This meant that these two men should have remained on board ship until it sailed again. Five days later, on 5th January, Angyal absconded. At the same time, it was found that Bousquet had also declared his intention to leave the ship. Angyal was detained on the same day by the police in Great Yarmouth. In view of his desertion from the ship and Bousquet's intention to follow his example, it was decided to hold both men in custody under Article 8 (4) of the Aliens Order. They were detained in Norwich Prison and their consular authorities notified. To this detention there was virtually no alternative, short of allowing them to take the law into their own hands, to come into England and go to ground and be lost to the service of the ship.

The "Sourya" was under arrest and the date of its release uncertain. There were no facilities for detaining the men and guarding them on board if they determined to leave. It would not have been practicable to attempt to place a cordon round the ship, and to allow them to come ashore illegally would have been contrary to commonsense. It would have been necessary in due course to round them up if they could be found and organise their compulsory departure. If they did not go willingly—they had no means they could use if they were willing—there would have to be a deportation order, which in the circumstances would have been far less to their advantage than the manner in which they finally were repatriated.

In those circumstances, and as one of the principal objects of the Aliens Order is to prevent illegal entry to the United Kingdom, the only practical and sensible course was to detain Angyal and Bousquet in England until they could be removed on the "Sourya" or be successfully repatriated, provided that it did not involve detention for an inordinate length of time. In the result, the period was eight days for Angyal and 10 days for Bousquet, during which time continuous efforts were made to secure their repatriation. It must be recognised that both as regards the intentions of the men and the circumstances of the ship, the position was most unusual, almost unique.

The "Sourya" was not merely under arrest; there were all sorts of other difficulties aggravating the situation. Funds were not available to pay the crew or, indeed, to feed them adequately and the vessel itself was in bad shape. The date of sailing was uncertain. It was proving difficult to assemble an adequate crew to get the ship under way on its release from arrest. Six members of the original crew were discharged on conditions of repatriation, but the agents of the "Sourya" were not prepared to repatriate either Angyal or Bousquet, neither of whom are seamen by calling.

Angyal, who came as steward on the "Sourya", claimed to be a student engaged on writing a book about his journeys round the world. Therefore, it is a possible assumption that he took advantage of a trip and of the privileges accorded to seamen and thought that was a means by which he could leave the ship when he wished and possibly hope to obtain entry to this country. He also established contact with Press representatives as soon as he arrived here and, in due course, claimed that he had been refused leave to land because he had paid four visits to the Soviet Consulate while he was in Rotterdam before joining the "Sourya".

There is no foundation whatsoever for this suggestion and the immigration authorities had, in fact, no information at all about Angyal's antecedents before he came here. He was not placed in custody in consideration of any activity or for any reason other than the plain fact that he deserted ship and attempted to enter and go to ground in this country illegally.

Bousquet, who was clearly acting in collusion with Angyal, lives in France and, as he says, works as a courier for a tourist agency during the summer. He made no secret of his intention to desert ship and, in his case also, the detention was authorised solely on that ground. These two men are not by calling seamen. They took the opportunity of employment on a ship to provide themselves with free passages and, they hoped, to provide easy facilities for them to enter this country.

Every effort was made to secure the repatriation of the two men as soon as possible. The agents of the ship were, naturally, reluctant to accept responsibility for repatriating the men before the "Sourya" sailed. The ship remained under arrest until 12th January, and even then it was not possible for her to put to sea.

As a result, however, of consultation between the Home Office, the agents of the "Sourya" and the appropriate consular authorities, the latter finally agreed to provide funds and facilities for the repatriation of Angyal and Bousquet. Angyal was released from detention on 13th January and embarked from Folkestone on 14th January. Bousquet was released from prison on 15th January and embarked at London Airport on a plane for Barcelona on 16th January. The "Sourya" put to sea the same day.

Criticism has been directed against the handling of this case by the East Anglian Press—the Eastern Evening News and the Eastern Daily Press—on two main grounds. It is contended, first, that an immigration officer should not have power to authorise the detention of an alien without trial, and secondly, by implication, that the detentions in the present instance were not justified or were unduly prolonged.

As regards the first point, there is no question at all about the vires of the action taken in the case of Angyal and Bousquet. They were not in any sense illegally detained. They were detained in pursuance of a power of long standing conferred by Parliament and without which it is difficult to envisage any system of immigration control being satisfactorily maintained at the ports, and particularly in the case of foreign seamen who might wish to come to this country. What sanction is there to be if a seamen deserts or declares his intention of deserting his ship? Is he to be allowed to enter the country in defiance of our law and go his own way at will? He already enjoys the privilege of being allowed to land for normal shore leave without seeking the immigration officer's permission.

Mr. Rippon

May I interrupt my hon. Friend, because this is really important, and is the burden of the complaint in the Press? Whatever may be the merits of the case, was it impossible for all these facts to be stated in open court?

Miss Hornsby-Smith

The suggestion which my hon. Friend makes is that these people should be allowed to come into England freely—

Mr. Rippon

No, that they should be allowed to go into open court and have an opportunity of stating their case.

Miss Hornsby-Smith

But they must first be detained before that can be done.

I must point out that the circumstances here were practically unique. If the ship had been of the normal run of ships turning round in a day or two days, the men would automatically have gone back with their ship. Here we have the unusual case of a ship detained for debt, and without question these men had no intention of going back to the ship. They had expressed their intention of illegally landing in Britain. In those circumstances, they were breaking the law and, under the authority which we have, they were detained.

Even under the existing system hundreds of men desert their ships every year. In fact, more than 4,000 deserted in the last eight years and not more than a very small minority of those were detained. These deserters have normally no means and it is not long before they get into trouble. They have to be traced at public expense. They have to be repatriated at the expense of the agents. They have to be replaced by the efforts of the ship's master and they are a very serious liability to everybody. If the situation is to be kept under control there must be some effective sanction, and in some cases detention is the only realistic course if desertion is not to be acquiesced in. That was the position in the case of Angyal and Bousquet.

To put this matter into perspective, it should be understood that not all deserters are detained. Desertion may be accidental or may be attributable to special personal reasons which deserve recognition; and in all such cases, the Home Office does everything to help the men; for example, to see that they are properly housed for the time being in Seamen's Homes or Missions, and that suitable arrangements are made for their repatriation.

Detention, too, is often for a very short period—a very temporary physical safeguard against a determined attempt to abscond. Angyal and Bosquet were certainly unfortunate in their ship—a vessel without radar or other navigational aids, with antiquated radio, with dynamo, lighting and heating restored only a few days before she came into Yarmouth, covered wth rust from stem to stern, and "a dreadful sight", as she was described by an experienced observer. They were unfortunate, too, in the circumstances of the ship's arrest and the financial and other difficulties which attended its arrival.

Not only were all these factors quite outside the control of the Home Office but the general combination of circumstances—the conjunction of a ship held up under arrest with the determination of two members of the crew to discharge themselves illegally into this country— was also most unusual. But for the difficulties under which the "Sourya" was labouring, the need to detain the men would probably never have arisen, and, certainly, they would have been detained for a shorter time.

As things were, the detentions were justified and necessary, and were, indeed, brought on their own heads by the men themselves. As I have stressed throughout, continuous effort was made to arrange the repatriation of these two men as quickly as possible, and they were not detained one day longer than was consistent with the achievement of that object.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Five o'clock.