HC Deb 05 April 1960 vol 621 cc199-202
The Minister of State for Commonwealth Relations (Mr. C. J. M. Alport)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I will make a statement.

On Thursday, I promised to keep the (House as fully informed as possible about United Kingdom citizens who may be under arrest there as a result of the emergency in the Union of South Africa.

The United Kingdom High Commissioner in South Africa has reported that he has been assured by the Union Prime Minister that as soon as any arrested person has been identified, to the satisfaction of the Union Government, as a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies, or a British-protected person, the High Commissioner, or his representative, may have access to him.

The High Commissioner has so far been informed of the names of three United Kingdom citizens who have been arrested: Mr. Peter Wilkins, who has now been released; Miss Hannah Stanton; and Dr. Elias Letele. The High Commissioner is arranging to send a representative to visit both Miss Stanton and Dr. Letele immediately.

The High Commissioner has been further assured by the Union Prime Minister that persons against whom charges are brought will appear before the ordinary courts and may be legally represented. If they apply for bail this will be a matter for the courts to decide.

Mr. Marquand

We welcome the action taken by the High Commissioner and its successful outcome so far. May we be assured that in future, whenever and wherever arrests take place, the High Commissioner will pursue similar action and ascertain as quickly as possible whether British subjects or British-protected persons are involved? In that connection, does the hon. Member expect any difficulty, in view of the fact that the agreement made between the High Commissioner and the Union Government requires that any arrested person should be identified to the satisfaction of the Union Government?

Is not there a danger that the Union Government may insist upon the production of a pass? Can the hon. Gentle- man assure the House that if that is done the High Commissioner will still proceed to try to identify a British-protected person?

Mr. Alport

The problem of identification is largely related to the problem of dual citizenship, which, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, is one of the difficulties which often arise in these cases. As we understand it from the High Commissioner, the Union Government are concerned to make certain that a person arrested is not a dual citizen. There are difficulties with regard to identification which are purely practical, but I know of no reason to suppose that that will prevent the High Commissioner from obtaining the information he requires, or unduly delay him in obtaining it, when the occasion arises.

Mr. Marquand

In view of all we know about the action of the Africans in burning passes, can we be assured that the hon. Member will draw to the attention of the High Commissioner the fact that it is possible to identify people without requiring them to produce passes?

Mr. Alport

I would not like to go into the technicalities of the matter, but I agree that it is possible to identify people without the production of passes. Nevertheless, I would have thought that the lack of passes might, in some cases at any rate lead to some delay.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

Is my hon. Friend aware that Miss Stanton comes of a distinguished family who lived in my constituency for over fifty years; that her father was Sir Thomas Stanton, the well-known scientist of the National Physical Laboratory, and that she has a local reputation of being not only an ardent church worker, but a very public-spirited person? Can my hon. Friend press the High Commissioner—who, I am sure, has sympathy with this case— to ask for Miss Stanton's release on bail as soon as possible?

Mr. Alport

As I said in my original statement, the First Secretary of the High Commissioner's Office will visit Miss Stanton immediately, and all those questions will be discussed by the High Commissioner with the authorities as soon as his representative has reported to him.

Mr. Grimond

Can the hon. Gentleman tell us how long these two people have been in prison; whether any charges have been brought against them, and, if so, what the charges are?

Mr. Alport

I am not aware of any charges having been brought against them. As far as I understand it, they are detained under the emergency regulations. The period for which they have been imprisoned is about a week.

Mr. Callaghan

What is the nature of the conversations that are to take place between the High Commissioner and the Government of South Africa? Have Her Majesty's Government instructed our High Commissioner in South Africa to protest against the arbitrary arrest and detention of these men and women, under the existing oppressive laws of South Africa?

Mr. Alport

The instructions that have been sent to the High Commissioner are the instructions that would be sent to any diplomatic representative in the circumstances, namely, to give all the help that lies in his power to those arrested.

Mr. Callaghan

Surely the matter goes further than that. Are we not all aware, from the public reputations of the people who have been arrested—who are well known to other hon. Members as well as the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke)—that it is quite absurd that they should be detained by any civilised State in respect of any crime concerned with freedom or liberty? May I impress upon the Minister the necessity for our Government to protest to the South African Government and make it clear that we do not accept their code of conduct or behaviour in relation to British citizens, and that it is our Government's duty to protect them?

Mr. Alport

It is certainly the Government's duty to give what assistance they can, but I think that it is important that we should wait for the report which the High Commissioner will be able to send us as a result of the visit of his representative. I realise that hon. Members on both sides of the House may have very strong feelings about this. As far as the Government are concerned, the position was very clearly set out by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in relation to an earlier Question today.

Mr. S. Silverman

Does the hon. Gentleman not think it highly dangerous, almost mischievous, to pay tributes in the House to the high-mindedness, liberality and public spirit of these persons? Is it not for these qualities that they are being detained?

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

Does my hon. Friend recall that the Opposition poured its moral censure upon another country during the summer of 1956 and later resiled from it? Will he continue to resist falling into a particular frame of mind at the invitation of right hon. and hon. Members opposite?

Mr. Gaitskell

Is the Minister aware that we are not here raising again the general issue of any Government statement about South African policy? What we are asking is that the High Commissioner should demand the release of these two British citizens unless there can be charged against them offences which really count in ordinary law. Will the hon. Gentleman give the High Commissioner instructions that he is to act accordingly?

Mr. Alport

I realise that the right hon. Gentleman is gravely concerned about this, but I do not think that he can be pressing upon the Government that they can demand the release of any particular person regardless of the law of the country in which that person is residing at any time. That would be a new approach to international law with which I am not familiar, but in these circumstances it is right and obviously proper that the High Commissioner, on instructions from the Government, should give any help which he possibly can.