HC Deb 26 July 1960 vol 627 cc1457-72

11.35 p.m.

Mr. James Watts (Manchester, Moss Side)

My intervention in the curious proceedings which help back benchers to air their views in the House is not concerned with disarmament. I want to discuss a question which has exercised my mind, that of the compensation which is being given to British subjects who have lost their property in Egypt following on the Suez campaign.

It is well known that directly after the Suez venture was finished the police entered various houses, and in the case about which I am talking, the police firmly, but I am bound to admit without violence, there and then deported the family. They were given 10 minutes to leave. All their possessions had to be left behind. The Foreign Secretary knows the name of the family which asked for my help. I do not propose to make any names public in this debate, but I wish to use this example to put forward a general appeal to the Government to try to speed up the object of tie agreement which was made by the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Erroll), on behalf of the British Government with the Egyptian Government in 1959.

The object of that agreement was to King justice to British subjects who had suffered loss. I admit that many families have been given back their properties, both real and moveable, which were sequestrated, but as they are not allowed to sell these assets and take the money out of the country, except for a small proportion which I will deal with later, this return has no convertible value.

At present they may remove £E5,000 per family, and I was told by officials in tie Foreign Office that this sum may be raised to £E5,000 for each individual. My submission to the House is that the Government should press for British subjects to be allowed to remove all their property and take it out intact.

I now come to the process by which parsons whose property has been nationalised can secure compensation. This must be done by a claim duly submitted through the Foreign Claims Corporation, and the money from which these claims are to be paid, which includes claims for any damage to returned requisitioned property or for any losses—because not all the movables were returned, or the property was damaged—will come from the £27½ million hard cash which the agreement got from the Egyptian Government.

The Minister has been kind enough to come down to the House and has had to mess about all day waiting for this question of mine to be raised. No doubt my right hon. Friend will tell us—and it is my information also—that £45 million of British assets have been nationalised, and that about £30 million worth of damage has been done to sequestrated property.

It is very interesting to read in the OFFICIAL REPORT Of 16th May, 1957, the following words by the Foreign Secretary referring to blocked sterling assets at that time in England. He said: The existing No. 1 Account, of course, remains blocked. Removal or modification of the restrictions must naturally depend upon satisfactory arrangements covering all financial claims against Egypt."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th May, 1957; Vol. 570, c. 584.] None the less, after the agreement which was presented to the House in March, 1959, Cmnd. 639, these blocked sterling balances were released although the grievances remained and still remain. I believe that these balances amounted to £108 million for which, of course, we had only received £27½ million in return. It is, of course, true that interim payments are now being made under an Order in Council No. 1291 and a greater proportion of the total claim are given to people who have small claims and who are poor people than to the rich ones.

None the, less, if my information which I submit about the total loss is true, there will be a large difference, or to use the official term, "fall out" between the total collective claim in compensation for nationalised assets and for damage to returned property which was requisitioned and the £27½ million which we have at our disposal in hard cash.

I therefore base my hopes that justice will be done on the Prime Minister's statement in the House on 16th March, 1959, which I will quote. My hon. Friend said: While we will not here and now pledge ourselves to make any fixed addition to the total of £27½ million, as has been suggested in the debate, I can say now that the Government will watch how this works out and will play their part in reaching a settlement which will be reasonable and fair, and we do not exclude a further contribution from public funds. But, as I am sure the House will agree, while we must wait for precise calculations, for the final settlement, we must try to deal with any hardships and gaps that arise between now and a final settlement. But this point is worth remembering. Any general undertaking, such as that asked for in some quarters, given by Her Majesty's Government before agreement was reached, that we would stand behind and pay in full all British claims, would certainly not have resulted in a satisfactory agreement."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th March, 1959; Vol. 602, c. 150.] The passage which I have quoted was shown to me by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, and his kindness in the matter, together with the help that I have received from the Foreign Secretary and from all the officials at the Foreign Office, leads me to believe that the Government are determined to see that justice is done. But I would like it done speedily. Three and a half years have already gone by since the other events which I have described took place.

11.44 p.m.

Mr. John Rankin (Glasgow, Govan)

The hon. and gallant Member for Croydon, North-East (Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett) used one sentence during his speech which I apologise for quoting in his absence from the Chamber. He said that the case for disarmament was overwhelming. That was an important statement from one versed in armaments, whose life has been built up in the training for war. Whether he practised the art I do not know. Yet he admitted that the case we are seeking to present is overwhelming.

That immediately prompts the question, if the case is overwhelming, why go on making armaments and increasing them? From whatever point of view we regard it, I think there is complete agreement with the claim made by the hon. and gallant Member. The economic case is strong, the moral case is strong, and so is the social case. Frequently we have debated the delinquent, the problem child of today, and I think that very often when we are lamenting the delinquency of children we forget the part that we as adults have played over the last 40 or 50 years in influencing those children. Men of 40 and 50 years of age, right from the time of their birth, have known nothing but war, the preparation for war and the aftermath of war. They have been taught violence and reared in a State which believes in violence, despite the fact that the case for doing away with the arms which produce the violence is overwhelming.

These young folk have had no chance to develop in the type of society which would produce the kind of men and women which we ought to be producing in increasing numbers. The policies of the Government have contributed to the presence of many of the things which we deplore. I wish to examine briefly the moral aspect of the matter. The other day the Prime Minister, when dealing with the questions which followed the announcement of the text of his letter to Mr. Khrushchev, said that, after all, we all carried on spying. To me it was a confession of moral degredation that the Prime Minister should say to the world that we all engaged spies and that others did the same. It was a statement that we engage in a practice which we regard as dishonourable when we apply it to the individual.

No one likes to be called a spy. Even in this House we try to avoid the word "spy" by referring to "intelligence". Now we are calling it "reconnaissance". Not so long ago, and since I have been a Member of the House, when we discussed the appropriate Estimates and asked the Government how much was spent on intelligence work, they more or less denied that such work existed. We never got the figure. I ask again tonight: how much are we spending on spying, intelligence, reconnaissance—whichever word we use—the cold, brutal word or the euphemisms we use to conceal the real significance of what is taking place? The fact that we are now openly confessing to this kind of thing is a sign of moral degradation. That is one of the penalties we face because in practice we refuse to recognise that the case for disarmament is overwhelming.

I do not want to look at this problem of armaments merely in its physical aspects, in the number of men who could or should be engaged and the weapons which are used, and so on. In the argument which proceeded between my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) and the right hon. Gentleman as to the number of troops that would be allowed by agreements that were entered into or were about to be entered it to, I recollect that we had been offered the number of 600,000, yet last week we discovered that we could not enlist, at the very most, 180,000.

Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)

My hon. Friend has got his arithmetic mixed. The 600,000 refers to all three arms of the Services; 180,000 refers to the Army.

Mr. Rankin

O.K. I do not think my figures are mixed up and I shall be glad to know whether or not, even with the three different Services, we shall reach the 600,000 which have been offered.

I want to look at the attitude of mind which should lead to peace rather than the physical aspects of the problems wench will lead to war unless we are very careful. I want to direct the attention of the House to the Motion on the Order Paper in the names of my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) and other hon. Members. There are some forty-five names to it, and I believe that the number will grow during the next day or two. That Motion seeks to direct attention to the fact that, in the view of many of us, the Prime Minister has made an unfortunate change in his attitude.

It seems to us that before the Summit talks he was trying to bring the two sides together. He was trying to act as the arbiter between Russia and America. I thought that a very helpful thing to do, but the letter he read from the Dispatch Box last week and the Note he sent to the Soviet Government seem to indicate that he is no longer trying to act as a pacifier; as one who will try to remove the grievances, discontents and dangers which exist between America and Russia; but now is acting as an individual it who, unfortunately, has taken sides.

He has come down definitely on the side of the American Government. I want to look at one or two of the things he said in his reply to the Soviet Note. He said. …clearly…the United States aircraft in question was never less than about 30 miles from Soviet land territory."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 19th July, 1960; Vol. 626, c. 252.] What was the evidence on which he said that? I submit that there is no evidence to enable the Prime Minister, speaking on behalf of this country, to make such a statement. It may be that we shall be given some evidence which will justify what he said. So far none has been offered.

Moreover, nowadays distance is not the primary consideration. We are dealing with machines which travel at 600 m.p.h., and time as well as distance is a factor in the danger which can result. A distance of 30 miles means three minutes from the coast of another country.

This leads to many other questions. Why was the machine there at all? What was it doing? General White has said that it was there in order to give us a certain amount of courage. If that were the case, why were its movements kept secret from us? How can we possibly take courage from something of which we are totally unaware? When these facts were revealed, why were they then denied? Why were these movements called merely weather missions? According to General White, the U2 and RB-47 flights were intended to fortify us with the assurance that America was behind us. If so, why hide them from us and, when they wore discovered, why deny that they had ever taken place? I emphasise a point made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition—

The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. John Profumo)

The hon. Member refers to the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition. I wondered whether there was any Member on the Opposition Front Bench.

Miss Margaret Herbison (Lanarkshire, North)

Where is the Prime Minister?

Mr. Rankin

I am glad to note the right hon. Gentleman's interest in my right hon. Friend. I am sorry that he did not show the same interest when I referred to his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

Mr. E. Fernyhough (Jarrow)

Surely the answer to the right hon. Gentleman is that this is the day of back bench Members and we do not want to be troubled by Front Bench Members taking too much time in the debate. We want to enjoy one of the historic rights of back bench Members.

Mr. R. J. Mellish (Bermondsey)

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough) will take it from me that when we discuss London housing we hope that the Minister of Housing and Local Government will be here.

Mr. Rankin

Before the pow-wow started I was referring to the dangers of aircraft visiting the shores of another country. [Interruption.] That is putting it euphemistically, which I hope will please the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Teeling).

My right hon. Friend asked whether we would feel completely undisturbed if Russian aircraft were spotted 30 miles off the British coast. Would the American Government be so indifferent if a Russian 'plane were observed 30 miles from the coastline of the United States? That is the other aspect. That is the point of view of the other fellow which the Government side feel it so difficult to accept. We must look at the situation from that point of view if the real purpose of the Government is to bring peace, or help to bring peace, to the world and prevent the outbreak of war between America and Russia.

We have got to try to look at the situation from the point of view of the other fellow and ask ourselves how we would feel if such things were happening to us. That is what our Motion seeks to put before the House. We say that if there is a case to be presented against Russia, there is a case that can be presented against America. We believe that United States policy has also contributed to the increase in world tension, not merely in the sense of what she has created in war potential; but in what she is doing to cause suspicion in the minds of other nations.

I hope that when the Minister of State replies, he will assure us that the United States of America, with whom we are in close alliance, is prepared, in the words of the Motion, to adopt a foreign policy more likely to lead to understanding with Russia, to bring China into the United Nations and end the fear that the nuclear arms race may lead to a third world war which could destroy civilisation.

12.3 a.m.

The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. John Profumo)

I hope that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Rankin) will acquit me of discourtesy if I do not reply directly to his speech. I felt that you, Mr. Speaker, and the House would forgive me if I intervened to reply for a moment or two to the interesting speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Moss Side (Mr. Watts) about the Anglo-Egyptian Agreement.

It can, of course, be argued that the financial agreement which we made was wrong, but I would remind my hon. Friend of some of the advantages. First, it was an essential step—

Mr. Rankin

Do I understand that the right hon. Gentleman is politely telling us that he does not mean to reply to the debate on disarmament which we have just had?

Mr. Profumo

I was not being even as polite as that. I was asking the House whether it would permit me to reply to a speech on a different subject which requires an answer. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State has already made a speech. I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Govan said on the subject of disarmament, and I did not think that he added anything to the subject which needs a reply from me at this stage. If the House decides to go back to the matter later, my colleague or I will be present at any time that the House sees fit. I felt that I should be permitted very shortly to reply to a speech on another subject which is of great importance.

Mr. Wigg

Before the right hon. Gentleman makes a reply to his hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Moss Side (Mr. Watts), may I ask him if he realises that he did not put all the story? In pleading with the Government to accept their responsibility in connection with the Suez situation, he ought to remember the very considerable number of British ex-officers who were persuaded to go out to Suez and the very considerable number of them who, when they came back, were left in a position of hardship. The only effective rôle which the Government undertook was to collect from them Income Tax and pay it over to Nasser. If the right hon. Gentleman is going to make his reply to his hon. Friend now, it is a little unfair, because I certainly wanted to add something to what the hon. Gentleman the Member for Moss Side said.

Mr. Profumo

I am entirely in your hands, Mr. Speaker, and I am in the hands of the House, if the hon. Gentleman the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) wishes to say something more on this subject. I did not realise that. I bought that we were going to debate on another subject, and I wanted just to say a word in reply to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Speaker

This is all my fault. I wanted, for the convenience of the House. to group the topics. I was mistaken about the intention of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Rankin). I thought he was going to speak on another topic. It is probably for the convenience of the House that those who wish to speak on compensation and Egyptian matters should speak now. If that is the intention of the hen. Member for Dudley, I will call him now.

12.7 a.m.

Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)

I shall not detain the House very long. Ever since Suez I have done my best to plead in this House the case of these ex-officers who went out to Suez, many of them resigning their commissions and taking reduced rates of pay to do their duty as they saw it. Many of them were imprisoned by Nasser. Many of them had the patriotism to recognise that it was inevitable that they should be left behind in Suez and that no warning could in fact be given. Many of them suffered from ill health.

At the time when the Government made their announcement, to which the hon. Member for Manchester, Moss Side (Mr. Watts) referred, I raised in the Huse the question of compensation to those officers. The Prime Minister was kind enough to say that he would see me privately, which he did.

I was very sorry, indeed, I did not get more support from hon. Gentlemen apposite, particularly those who were vociferous in support of the Suez operation. However, as a result of this, a very considerable number of highly patriotic ex-officers not only suffered great financial loss, but permanent impairment of their health, many of them to the extent that they could not hold again or get jobs of responsibility comparable with the jabs they had in the Suez base and had to give up.

As I say, it is an astonishing fact, and I would have thought hon. Gentlemen opposite would have hidden their heads in shame when realising that the one thing the Government did do was to collect from these officers Income Tax they owed to President Nasser, and that the Conservative Government became Nasser's tax collector. Whenever hon. Gentlemen opposite talk about Suez, they ought Ito remember that fact. I hope that hon. Gentlemen within my hearing tonight, whenever they go to the constituencies and want to get a few cheers when speaking about the records of some of my hon. Friends about Suez,. will remember the function performed by the Conservatice Administration, which was to collect Income Tax for President Nasser. I have no doubt that they did it very effectively indeed [Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Member will look it up in HANSARD. I have raised the matter in the House before. and it is on the record.

We did not get satisfaction for these men. Many of them have emigrated. The hon. Member for Moss Side has every right to make a speech on the subject, but now that we have heard from the hon. Member let us hear from the Government also, and not only about the £27½ million. Let us hear what the Government have done for the British officers who did their duty, even if the Government did not do theirs.

Mr. Speaker

I am sure the House gives the right hon. Gentleman leave in the circumstances. Mr. Profumo.

12.10 a.m.

Mr. Profumo

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) for his contribution, made with what I recognise is the great sincerity with which he speaks on the matter. I hope that he will not think I am trying to run away from this problem, because I recognise that it is a very important one. I am in a difficulty. This is basically a matter for the War Office, and I wanted to try to reply to the general problem, in which I happen to know, from the Foreign Office point of view, some of these ex-officers have considerable interest. In so far as I can answer that side of the problem of these ex-officers, I should like to take a little of the time of the House to do so. I should like the hon. Member for Dudley to know that the specific matter which he has raised, although it is not within my purview, is a matter which the Government, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War and my right hon. and learned Friend consider most seriously. If the hon. Member does not feel that he has had any satisfaction, I am sure that he will "have a go" again—and when he does "have a go" he really has a go—and no doubt my right hon. Friend will take into consideration what he has said tonight. Perhaps, therefore, I shall be acquitted of any discourtesy to the hon. Member in saying that that is not a matter which is within my purview.

The Anglo-Egyptian Agreement touches all people who had an interest in the past in Egypt, and it is a matter which is exercising the continuing interest of Her Majesty's Government. It may be of assistance if I can go back and take some of the points which my hon. Friend the Member for Moss Side raised. It can be argued that the financial agreement was wrong and that it was wrong of us to have made it, but I ought to remind the House of some of the advantages which we gained out of it.

It was, first, an essential step in putting our relations with Egypt on to a proper footing once again. It is serving our wide interests in the Middle East and at the same time it is very much in the interest of British people who had financial interest in Egypt. Owners of sequestrated property can now have their property back, and, indeed, are getting it. Funds have been secured for compensation for the owners of property in Egypt. Compensation, when it comes in, is in sterling, and this is of considerable value.

It was a compromise, but a compromise accepted by Her Majesty's Government with their eyes wide open and accepted by this House as in the best interests of both British claimants and the country as a whole. We had a full debate on the matter, in which both the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister took part, and it was thoroughly aired. I will not waste the time of the House on that debate. Hon. and right hon. Members can look it up in HANSARD.

It can be argued that it was foolish—as my hon. Friend the Member for Moss Side argued, though he used a politer word—to release the sterling balances at all. This was done as part of the Agreement. We would not have obtained that Agreement if we had not undertaken to realise the balances. It will be seen that Article II sets out that the Agreement was not to be valid unless we release the sterling balances. With respect to my hon. Friend, it is not accurate to say that the release of £108 million in sterling balances secured only £27½million in compensation. We also obtained the release and return of sequestrated property, which is a tremendously important consideration.

Mr. Watts

But it cannot be sold or taken out. It is frozen. If it cannot be taken out, it does not retain its value.

Mr. Profumo

I shall be coming to that point in a moment. It can be argued that the Agreement is not being quickly enough honoured or is not being implemented quickly enough, but I assure the House that everything possible is being done to get things moving as fast as possible. This depends partly on the Egyptians. The section of the Foreign Office which deals with British property in Egypt maintains regular contact with claimants and at its head, Sir George Rendel, to whose tireless energy I am glad to pay tribute, sees representatives of claimants every single week. My hon. Friend will be glad to know how closely those who are looking after the interests of his friends are associated with the Foreign Office. Sir George has recently been in Cairo where he has had discussions with the Egyptian authorities. I hope that this will lead to further improvement in the handling of these cases at that end. Recently I have myself been studying what can be done to help the Foreign Compensation Commission to deal even more rapidly with numerous claims now coming to it which it is having to consider. One can argue that it is—

Mr. Wigg

I gather that a senior official of the Foreign Office regularly sees the representatives of the claimants. Does he see representatives of the Suez contractors' employees' association? If so, when did he last see them?

Mr. Profumo

Without notice, I cannot say the exact people wham he sees, but there is an association of claimants loosely formed together, and they see Sir Geogre Rendel more or less every week.

Mr. Wigg

The right hon. Gentleman must be aware that the ex-officers have formed an association. They lost their kit. They were promised compensation. What I suspect is that the representatives of property have been seen but the representatives of the ex-officers have never been seen at all.

Mr. Profumo

The hon. Gentleman is back on the point that he raised earlier. At the moment, I can deal only with the conditions under which the Anglo-Egyptian financial agreement is being worked out. That is the responsibility of the Foreign Office, and it is believed that Sir George Rendel sees the representatives of the claimants who come under the financial agreement, but he does not see the military people.

Mr. Wigg

The right hon. Gentleman must be aware that a very considerable number of these officers who were serving came out as civilians. They lost their money and their kit. It is true that the War Office did the best it could, but the Treasury was sitting on its shoulder and the War Office was not as generous as it would have been if it had been given a free hand. It is disquieting to hear that Sir George Rendel sees the representatives of property but never the representatives of the ex-officers.

Mr. Profumo

There is absolutely no reason why anybody who has an interest should not see Sir George Rendel. My hon. Friend has, I think, already seen him, and I have put many other hon. Members directly in touch with Sir George. Insofar as any of these ex-officers may have financial interests in the Anglo-Egyptian Agreement, they are perfectly entitled to see Sir George, and I am sure that some of their representatives see him. But if the hon. Member feels that some of his friends are being left out of an interesting liaison, I should be glad to see that they are put in touch with Sir George. However, I think he will probably find that it would be more appropriate if they were to see representatives of the War Office. I will look at the matter; I am anxious to see whether there are any stones which can be turned to make the system work better.

One can argue—my hon. Friend did—that it is not much good having one's property returned if one cannot sell it and then take the money out of Egypt. There is nothing to prevent somebody selling his property. The trouble arises over the fact that normally Egyptian exchange control regulations permit non-resident aliens to transfer from Egypt only the income on their property and assets in Egypt plus £5,000 per head of family. These regulations were in existence long before our agreement was reached, and they apply not only to the British. They apply to all non-resident aliens. Our financial agreement has improved on this because it includes a provision under which British claimants can go further in that they are at liberty to transfer any jewellery and effects which have been sequestrated. There has been some difficulty over the interpretation of a point of the agreement, whether the £5,000 was per head of the family or for each person. I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that there are now good prospects that these difficulties will shortly be overcome.

Again, one can argue that the £27½ million will not be anything like enough to compensate with. I think it is too soon just now to be able to come to any such conclusion. I do not know where my hon. Friend got his figures. For instance, some of the biggest Egyptian claims have still not been assessed, and the claims for the damaged sequestrated property have hardly started to come in at all. So it really is premature, to say the least of it, to predict at this stage the size of any shortfall or, as my hon. Friend called it, "fallout" which there might be between assessed claims and the total funds available.

At all events I was glad that he recalled the statement that was made by the Prime Minister on 16th March last year. I am well aware that he would like me to go further than this tonight, and no doubt other hon. Members would, too. I am sorry to have to disappoint them, but I am not prepared to stick my neck out any further than it is.

Mr. Wigg

If the right hon. Gentleman does stick his neck out he will not become Foreign Secretary.

Mr. Profumo

There is just a fear that something strange might happen, and I hope that the hon. Member will bear with me. At least the statement by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister stands as a beacon of hope to faint hearts. It can be argued that the interim payments are not quite enough, or that the ratio of payments is unfair, as my hon. Friend suggested.

Mr. Watts

No, no.

Mr. Profumo

The Order in Council spelling it out was laid before Parliament and the principle of the interim payment order was discussed in general with representatives of the claimants beforehand. The whole idea of an interim payment was to avoid hardship as far as we could. That is why payments have been graduated as they are. There is no reason to think that the ratio of interim payments will necessarily bear any relation to the final distribution when the time comes.

All these things can be argued—perhaps with some force, but none the less the Government have gone to considerable lengths hitherto never done in order to try to see that justice is done and is done as quickly as possible. In addition, we have re-established diplo- matic relations with Egypt. We again have a mission in Cairo and Egypt has a mission in London. This must be the way in which we can repair our relations, and as we do so the people my hon. Friend and other hon. Members have in mind are bound to begin to benefit.

Our relations with Egypt are, I am glad to say, already better, and I will stick my neck out to the extent of saying that they are improving. I hope that what I have said will show that this matter is causing continuing consideration on the part of the Government. My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary asked me at the outset to try to keep personal touch with and watch over this matter so that there is a Minister in the Foreign Office who tries to follow this through. If any hon. Member wishes at any time to come to me about this matter, I guarantee to give his problem first-hand consideration, for it is in our minds to try to see how speedily we can solve this problem and get to the stage where we can make a final distribution to all those people who have suffered so much.

Mr. Wigg

The right hon. Gentleman was kind enough to say that he could not stick his neck out and add anything to what the Prime Minister said. Will he give the House an assurance that the Prime Minister's still stands in its entirety?

Mr. Profumo

Certainly I can give that undertaking.