HC Deb 29 July 1960 vol 627 cc2017-38

11.6 a.m.

Sir John Vaughan-Morgan (Reigate)

The matter to which I and some hon. Members on both sides of the House wish to draw attention today is the rather curious story of some stewards, employed by B.O.A.C., who were dismissed. I shall try to point out the injustices that, in our view, have been committed in this matter.

It is a curious and rather unsavoury story. For some months in the earlier part of this year, there were in various newspapers, particularly in the Daily Mail, stories of a smuggling racket on a large scale which had been taking place in gold between Hong Kong, India and certain cities in the Middle East. I saw these cuttings, and then my attention was drawn to the matter by a constituent, who complained that he had been dismissed with a month's notice by B.O.A.C. after fifteen years of loyal service.

I was convinced of his innocence when I had had an interview with him, and I shall come back to his case later. I want, first, to deploy some of the facts regarding the whole situation, and then to come back to the case of my own constituent, and I hope that others of my hon. Friends will be able to amplify the points that I hope to make later.

My constituent has suffered dismissal, as others have, and he has forfeited all the experience that he gained in fifteen years of working for this Corporation. He has been very hard put to it to find other suitable employment. On his behalf, I made representations to the Commonwealth Relations Office and to B.O.A.C. Later, I found that there were many others involved, and since then I have been working in conjunction with my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. David James), who has been most active in this matter, and other hon. Members.

The news story finally broke in The Times of 30th May, under the heading, "How B.O.A.C. Caught The Gold Smugglers." It is a fantastic story. It reads like the very best holiday readings in a paper-back, and the story that is told tends to redound to the credit of B.O.A.C. and the activities of its security officers. Most of us are not concerned with the whole of the story, and I do not propose to go into the full details, as our case is based on what was stated in a report, inspired, I think, by B.O.A.C.

It contained this paragraph: Summary dismissals have been given to 49 stewards, one navigator and one engineer officer … It is pointed out that a dismissed official has the right of appeal to the highest authority, and it is significant that none of the men summarily dismissed has availed himself of this right. So far, so good. Everyone will be delighted that those guilty men have been given the fate that they deserve.

But between the two sentences which I have read out was another one, which read as follows: A further 26 stewards and one engineer officer have had their contracts terminated with appropriate notice. Those are the 27 men—now 23—with whom we are concerned. That paragraph was most misleading, because those 27 men—and not the ones who were summarily dismissed, and who, therefore, have a right of appeal, which they have not chosen to exercise, for obvious reasons—are the persons against whom there is no evidence of guilt, but who have been dismissed with one month's pay.

The others forfeit the dubious privilege of one month's pay, and get away with the loot, but the men with whom we are concerned, who are not guilty, in our view, have only one month's pay.

There have been no prosecutions against these 23 men. They were dismissed because the Indian Government have chosen to declare them persona non grata. This means that they cannot fly to India and, owing to the organisation of B.O.A.C., they cannot comply with the terms of the contracts tinder which they were engaged. We allege that, as a result, a substantial injustice has been done to a number of British subjects.

Throughout this matter we have had the greatest difficulty in pinning down the responsibility. We have seen B.O.A.C.; we have seen the Indian High Commission, and the C.R.O. and, quite frankly, we have been pushed from pillar to post. We could not pin anyone down. They all said, "It is not our fault; it is the fault of someone else." We have had many interviews, with little or no satisfaction. In fairness, I would say that B.O.A.C. and the Indian Government are within their legal rights. No one can gainsay that. Further, I have some sympathy with the difficulty in which B.O.A.C. finds itself in trying to staff its world-wide routes, although others view the matter differently. I am more concerned to deploy what I consider to be the case against the Indian Government.

We approached the Commonwealth Relations Office to find out what steps it had chosen to take to defend the interests of these British subjects. Incidentally, the Indian Government have insisted throughout on dealing with B.O.A.C. and not direct with the High Commission. Our High Commission in India had discussions with the Indian Government connected with certain petitions, and I received a letter from the Minister of State, which was cold comfort, and in which he set out what was virtually the case of the Indian Government, and stated that our High Commissioner was satisfied that the Indian Government had acted knowing that it might jeopardise the livelihood of these men.

Throughout this correspondence there has not been a word to say that the Commonwealth Relations Office was dissatisfied, and I need hardly say that the word "protest" has never entered into the correspondence. I cannot help feeling that if this had been concerned with a foreign country there would have been far more vigorous protests from the Foreign Office. The fact is that the Indian Government are in a position to hamstring the operations of B.O.A.C. by not admitting its staff.

I think I am right in saying that if the converse were true, and stewards of an Indian airline were implicated in such a matter, it would not be possible for us to refuse entry to their employees. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend would confirm whether or not this is a fact. If it is it becomes a very gross misuse of the privilege of Commonwealth free entry. The whole existence of the Commonwealth involves reciprocity, and I cannot accept that there is reciprocity in this matter.

After stating what I feel about the Indian Government, I want to deal for a few moments with the case of my constituent. As I said, I was and am convinced of his innocence, but I said that I was not prepared to take up his case unless I had from him a sworn affidavit stating what he knew. I have that in my hand. I must remind the House again that there has been no evidence against this man in any court of law. None of us has been able to find any evidence in the hands of B.O.A.C. or the Indian Government, and I am, therefore, prepared to proclaim my complete faith in his innocence on this sworn document alone.

Some measure of the injustice which has been done by a man being dismissed like this will be shown if I read certain sentences from his affidavit. Mr. Casey, my constituent, states that he first came in contact with Mr. Wang Fie Liu through the medium of a crew member Mr. Wang is the spider in the middle of this web.

I was introduced to him, and entertained to dinner. Subsequently over a period of about four to five years I met him on five or six separate occasions in Hong Kong, each time I was entertained, together with other crew members, to dinner and tours round Hong Kong Island. He took my name and address, which was entered in his diary, and yearly I used to receive Christmas cards from him. At no time was I approached by him to engage in any illicit activities. … My constituent met this man over a period of years. He last met him in this country in December, 1958, in the course of normal social acquaintanceship. My constituent has not flown to India since April, 1957, and he was not interviewed in this matter by B.O.A.C. until early this year. He goes on to say: At no time whatever during the fifteen years I was employed on world wide routes by B.O.A.C. have I engaged in any illegal activities whatsoever. If this were not a very serious matter one would be inclined to make a few flippant comments. If I were to be banned from a country because I received Christmas cards from someone in it, or because my name was in the address book of someone who might have been implicated in crime, I can only say that I should find it difficult to leave this country at all. That is the only evidence which can be produced against this man—that his name is in someone's address book. I am, therefore, convinced that a very great injustice has been done to this man, and, I feel, to many others. I can think of no course in which the House of Commons can be better employed than in trying to obtain redress for injustice from another Government.

11.20 a.m.

Mr. A. Fenner Brockway (Eton and Slough)

This is a matter about which hon. Members on both sides are concerned. I want to express my appreciation of the close co-operation which there has been on this issue between hon. Members on both sides.

I, too, am interested in this because one of my constituents is among the 27 men who have been dismissed by B.O.A.C., although there has been no evidence whatsoever that they have been guilty of participation in this smuggling racket. The constituent of the hon. Member for Reigate (Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan) served with B.O.A.C. for fifteen years. My constituent is a younger man and served only five years, but during that time there had never been any complaint against him. Indeed, when he was dismissed by B.O.A.C. the cabin services officer under whom he served wrote to him and expressed appreciation of his loyalty and co-operation during the five years they had worked together.

I have seen this steward more than once. I have gone very thoroughly into his case, and I am convinced that this man is absolutely innocent of any participation in this smuggling racket. The headquarters was at a jeweller's premises in Hong Kong, and the only evidence against my constituent is that he visited this jeweller's shop and his name is in the address book of the jeweller who appeared to be the head of this racket.

When my constituent came to me I made three approaches. First, to B.O.A.C.; secondly, to the Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who has been a personal friend of mine ever since he was at the university; and, thirdly, to the Transport and General Workers' Union, of which this steward is a member.

I agree with the hon. Member for Reigate that one is entitled to make some criticism of the Indian Government. I do not think that they had the right to exclude all these men from their airports unless they had evidence that these men were guilty. In a considerable number of cases no evidence of their guilt has been provided.

In reply to my letter to the Indian Prime Minister, he stated that they would have the right of personal appeal through B.O.A.C., and that the Indian Government would consider individual cases on their merits. As a result of petitioning the Indian Government through B.O.A.C., five of the men have now been cleared by the Indian Government.

I want to concentrate my remarks mostly on B.O.A.C., but let me say, first, that we have all had the greatest co-operation from the officer of the Transport and General Workers' Union who has been particularly involved in this case. The union has helped these men to appeal to the general manager of B.O.A.C. I will refer to the result of that appeal in a few moments.

I do not know whether hon. Members appreciate the depth of feeling which has been aroused among these men by the fact that they have been dismissed under what must, inevitably, be a suspicion of guilt. They say that they are innocent, and, in the cases we know personally, we are convinced that they are innocent.

One of these men has been involved in two air crashes while serving with B.O.A.C. After the second air crash B.O.A.C. paid him the highest tribute for his service in saving lives. This man is now in a condition of mental collapse. One of the factors which has led to that mental condition is the deep feeling in him that his family and those around him know that he is suspected of having participated in this smuggling racket. He has been dismissed without any evidence against him whatsoever.

When the men appealed to the management of B.O.A.C., the answer was that it was necessary for them to be dismissed because it was a world-wide service, and that if the Indian Government did not permit them to use Indian airports a world-wide service could not retain them. I was with hon. Members on the other side who saw the chairman of B.O.A.C. and the highest officials. Some of us put to them very strongly that these men, even if they could not serve the Far East route through India, could be employed on other routes. They could be employed on B.O.A.C. routes to South Africa, West Africa, the United States of America, and South America.

The reply we received from the officials of B.O.A.C. was that in a worldwide service it was impossible to employ men who were not allowed on a particular service. I can give two instances where B.O.A.C. staff, although they have been declared persona non grata by another Government, or have been prevented from travelling on particular routes, are still employed by B.O.A.C.

One of these two cases rather astonishes me. The United States Government have objected to a member of the B.O.A.C. staff touching the United States of America, on political grounds. I am glad to find that B.O.A.C. has been broad enough in its political approach to maintain the services of this man even though he is not permitted to go to the United States.

The second case is interesting. It is that of a Jewish member of the staff of B.O.A.C. He is not able to visit Arab countries, and is not able to serve B.O.A.C. on routes which enter Arab countries. Again, in this case, B.O.A.C. has agreed to retain him in its service although he is not able to work on the routes which pass through Arab territories. I put it very strongly to B.O.A.C. that when there is no evidence of guilt whatsover against these 27 men—now reduced to 23 men—it ought in its great organisation to be able to find a place where they can continue to serve instead of being dismissed in this way.

I wish to conclude by raising a matter of broad principle. I am very proud of B.O.A.C. It is possible that hon. and right hon. Members opposite may not regard me as a patriot in all respects, because I am very critical both of the foreign policy and often of the colonial policy of Her Majesty's Government.

But I am certainly a patriot in my great admiration for our national services, and I want to see them outstanding for the way in which they treat members of their staffs. It hurts me to think that B.O.A.C. should treat men in this way.

It seems to me absolutely intolerable that a great national service should dismiss men because a foreign Government, even though that Government are a member of the Commonwealth, declare them to be persona non grata—that a national service owned by our people and serving our people, one in which we have great pride, should act in this way because a foreign Government have declared members of its staff persona non grata and when that foreign Government have provided no evidence, as, indeed, has no one else, as to the guilt of those people.

I plead with the Ministry of Aviation to use its influence with B.O.A.C. to reconsider the matter. I ask it to do so on the point of principle. I ask it at the very least to write to these men and to say, "So far as we are concerned your Character is clear; so far as we are concerned we have no evidence against you at all; so far as we are concerned your service in the B.O.A.C. has been good; so far as we are concerned your character is absolutely untarnished." If B.O.A.C. would do that, it would contribute a little to enabling these men to recover their sense of dignity and personal pride.

But I repeat my plea on the broader ground that no national service in this country ought to dismiss members of its staff on the action of a foreign Government unsupported by evidence. It ought to have a greater sense of our national sense of fair play than to do that. I hope that through the new Minister of Aviation there may be a reconsideration of the problem so that justice may be done to these men.

11.34 a.m.

Sir Charles Mott-Radclyffe (Windsor)

I think that it is clear from the two speeches to which we have listened this morning that in this somewhat tangled story, beyond which lies a quite simple principle, the position of the constituents of hon. Members who are involved in this affair is really very far from satisfactory. We are anxious that the Parliamentary Secretary, when he replies, should approach the matter in the same serious vein as we do ourselves.

Let me say at once that I accept that there has been a large-scale smuggling racket and that it is obvious from the scale of the activities that quite a number of people must have been involved. It was high time that an end was put to it. The culprits were caught, and it was quite right that they should be dismissed. I accept all that straight away.

Secondly, I accept the right of the Indian Government, on legal grounds and within the terms of international law, to declare anyone persona non grata without necessarily giving any reason for so doing. Of course I accept that.

Thirdly, I accept the fact that by the very terms of contract with B.O.A.C. its employees are required to have clearance over all routes throughout the world. Here, I must confess, I do not agree with the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway), because I believe that unless, save in very exceptional circumstances, that rule is enforced it is quite impossible for any international airline operating on all routes, as does the B.O.A.C., to operate satisfactorily.

Once you agree that 27 employees of B.O.A.C. who have been declared persona non grata on Indian territory shall be taken off almost all routes to the Far East, and then double that number because there will be other people who will want to be taken off the Far East routes for compassionate reasons, because they have uncles, aunts or sweethearts living, say, in South Africa, you would bring the airline to a standstill.

Therefore, I accept straight away that the essential condition of service in B.O.A.C. must be that its employees should have clearance over all routes throughout the world. But, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan) pointed out, the story is not as simple as all that. We are dealing not with what I might call the black category of people who have been summarily dismissed presumably because the charges against them were clear and who were obviously implicated in smugging; we are dealing with another category against whom suspicion rests, though it only rests, as far as we can discover, within the knowledge of the Government of India. B.O.A.C. has absolutely nothing against them.

Nevertheless, for the very reason that they have been declared persona non grata, their terms of contract have been terminated and they have been given notice. My constituent has been given three months' notice and has since got another job. Here we come up against a conflict of evidence. My hon. Friends and I have seen the Deputy High Commissioner in London. We have also seen, accompanied by the hon. Member for Eton and Slough, the management of B.O.A.C. with which we had a long amicable and frank discussion. But whereas the Deputy High Commissioner assured us that to the best of his knowledge such information as was in the possession of the Government of India had been made available to B.O.A.C., the Corporation flatly deny it.

Frankly, the attitude of the Government of India is a little strange. The Deputy High Commissioner wrote a letter to The Times on 8th June, and I will only detain the House by reading to it the last paragraph of that letter. He said: It may also be emphasised that, excepting such persons in respect of whom there is absolute evidence of complicity in smuggling operations … the others will not for all time be viewed with suspicion, and their cases will be reviewed from time to time on the basis of their proved good conduct. This is a matter for the B.O.A.C. to take up with the Government of India if there are adequate grounds for such review. But, with respect to the Deputy High Commissioner, that is distinctly impracticable. Who would determine when the probationary period was over? Not the Government of India, for they would have no idea how the suspects were behaving. Not B.O.A.C., because so long as the suspects continue to be suspect they are banned from the Far Eastern routes and could not be employed by B.O.A.C. I take the simple view that a man's character should not be besmirched, nor his career endangered, on suspicion alone. He ought to be given a chance to clear his character and, if he does so, to stay in his employment. Or, on the other hand, if he fails to clear his character, he should be dismissed.

I quite see that the Government of India security authorities might well not wish to disclose various sources of information. That is something which I think applicable to security services the world over. None the less, I should have thought it possible, under these rather peculiar circumstances, that the Government of India security authorities could at least give the B.O.A.C. security authorities some idea of the evidence on which the suspicion rests regarding these 23 or 24 stewards whose period of employment with B.O.A.C. has had to be terminated.

I now wish to come to the position of the Commonwealth Relations Office in this affair. What has been done? Did the C.R.O. do anything until some of my hon. Friends and myself started writing letters to them? If I understand the position correctly, those individuals against whom suspicion rests, but against whom nothing has been proved, have the right to put forward a petition to the Government of India deploying their case, and this has been done. In one or two cases the petitions have been allowed and, therefore, the employees are being taken back into the employment, or the notices of dismissal withdrawn. In other cases, I understand that the petitions have been dismissed.

Are these petitions a sort of written statement, a kind of affidavit, a sworn statement of the kind written by my hon. Friend's constituent and which he read out to the House? Are the Government of India security authorities not allowed to be cross-examined on behalf of the petitioner? Is any representative of the High Commission's office present when these cases are reviewed? Has each individual case been taken up in some detail? These are the things that we should like to hear from my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, if we were dealing with a foreign Government the ambassador in the country in question would be instructed to find out what was happening. I should have thought that in dealing with a Commonwealth country the principle of what I might call most-favoured-nation treatment might be taken into account. I ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to tell the House frankly whether anybody from the High Commissioner's office has pointed out to the Government of India that if B.O.A.C. personnel is declared persona non grata, the inevitable consequence is that B.O.A.C. is bound to dismiss those individuals. It is quite unfair, at the same time, to refuse to disclose, even in private to B.O.A.C. security authorities, the grounds on which suspicion rests, and then to say, "It is nothing to do with us; it is all entirely a matter for B.O.A.C."

That is not the way in which a Commonwealth country should treat subjects of the mother country. I do not think that this improves Commonwealth relations. It puts B.O.A.C. in an extremely difficult position and it has put hon. Members representing the various constituents involved in this affair and against whom suspicion rests, but nothing has been proved, in an even more difficult position. I beg my hon. Friend to take this matter seriously as involving a question of principle.

11.47 a.m.

Mr. David James (Brighton, Kemptown)

This deplorable story has been so well deployed by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan) that there is no need for me to cover the same ground twice. Nevertheless, having a constituent whose innocence I am convinced has been greviously mishandled by this whole matter, I should like to make one or two points. I agree with what has been said about the Indian Government, but I think that, in fairness, it should be put on record that on the wider issue the Indians have behaved extremely well. Their very security was threatened by a most widespread smuggling racket and they would have been fully within their legal rights had they impounded the planes and refused B.O.A.C. any rights of transit whatsoever.

Having behaved as well as they have over the wider picture, it is all the more strange that they should besmirch their own good name by a refusal to give evidence in these 24 cases. I suspect that the reason is the only evidence so far as my constituent and others are concerned—and they make no bones about it—is that they did go along and have supper with Mr. Wang Fie Liu. But there can be few people who, having known the thrill of going abroad for the first time, under the circumstances would not take advantage of any offer of hospitality which they receive. I think it a great pity, and I made this point particularly, that my constituent was never warned during his training course of any dangers of hospitality in foreign ports.

I wish to refer only briefly to the rôle of the Commonwealth Relations Office in the matter, because everything has been said on that point. I feel that the C.R.O. should be as responsible and alive to the need to protect the reputation of United Kingdom citizens in the Commonwealth as the Foreign Office should be regarding similar people in foreign countries. I hope they will take up this matter with renewed vigour. All our constituents will want to have their names cleared.

Finally, I come to the rôle of B.O.A.C. I accept, of course, the very difficult position in which B.O.A.C. has been placed, but I cannot agree with the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway), who suggested that these people should have been kept on. However, were there no alternative courses of action available to B.O.A.C. other than giving loyal servants a month's pay and telling them to pack their bags and go? No attempt was made to offer them a job on the ground catering staff at London Airport. No attempt was made to secure their transfer to B.E.A. or possibly Air Lingus. I think that a good employer should have taken such steps.

I believe that underlying this matter there is a far more important proposition, that we shall not get the increased production which alone can solve our political and industrial problems in this country unless there is a radical improvement in labour relations. This involves, I believe, the acceptance by top management of the proposition that when a man is employed, they are not only responsible for getting £15 worth of work, for £15 per week, but that they assume a certain responsibility for the employee's career structure, for his wife and children, for the instalments on his house, and, in fact, everything which makes life worth living for everyone of us. By that criterion it would be admitted that B.A.O.C. has failed.

I believe, moreover, that some of the better sections of private industry have accepted their responsibilities, and if for any reason they have to get rid of people they make proper provision for tiding them over until they get another job.

I should like to see our nationalised industries not only following an example in such matters but setting one. I wish to make plain that, as a result of our representations, B.O.A.C. is now looking sympathetically at these questions, but I believe that they should do so without being prodded by Members of Parliament.

I want to acquit the present top management of B.O.A.C. in a personal sense. They have treated us with extreme courtesy in our negotiations on these matters. I believe they have been engaged in following out rigidly a policy set by successive Ministers of the Crown which has laid down that it is all important for B.O.A.C. to make a profit. I am an unashamed believer in profits; they are the lifeblood from which industry can recreate capital, but I do not believe there is any fight between high profits and the highest possible form of human relationships. Only when we have the right human relationships can people give the loyal services whereby profits can be made.

I have a constituent who I believe has been very aggrieved in this matter. He has suffered both in health and financially. He was ill when given notice and was not even fit to look for another job after his twenty-eight days' notice had expired. I hope that as a result of this debate these matters will be gone into again most carefully, that the C.R.O. will press the Indian Government to divulge any information they have and that B.O.A.C. will give its employees such a letter as the hon. Member for Eton and Slough suggested, if it cannot re-employ them. I hope they will be given some compensation for the loss they have suffered.

On the wider issue, if this debate plays only a small part in getting nationalised industries at large to look at human relations again, may-be we have not raised this story in vain.

11.52 a.m.

Mr. W. R. van Straubenzee (Wokingham)

My intervention will be very brief because, clearly, hon. Members on both sides of the House are wishing to hear the reply and I do not wish to trespass on the time of my hon. Friend unduly. It would be right to start by saying how grateful I personally, and I believe all hon. and right hon. Members, feel to you, Mr. Speaker, for permitting us to raise this matter at this particular time.

Before I became a Member of the House, which was quite recently, I had realised what a remarkable place of contrasts this is. It seems to me that this little debate illustrates that. Only a matter of hours ago the House was packed to overflowing and party feeling was at its very highest. This morning the world might say that the Chamber is almost empty and there is close co-operation between hon. Members whose views are widely different on certain matters, yet I venture to think that this discussion is more important even than the historic one of last night, I have always believed that when the House and individual Members are seeking to right an injustice suffered by constituents we are performing our greatest function.

Because I speak with great depth of feeling, although I express myself very shortly, I venture to trespass on the generosity of the House. As a practising, although inefficient, lawyer I feel deeply that when one of my constituents has a shadow of suspicion cast upon him with no ability to stand his trial and no ability to have his guilt proved, but rather to seek to struggle in some way to prove his innocence if he can—the very negation of the system of justice as we understand it—it is right and proper that such a man should look to his Member and that hon. Members interested together should seek to raise the matter here.

I am bound to say that, equally, I differ slightly—it is a matter only of degree—from the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) as to what B.O.A.C. could have done. I agree equally with my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. David James), as I cannot feel that B.O.A.C. will look back on its industrial relations and what it did to these men with any great sense of pride. I should not feel happy if I were in the top management of B.O.A.C. and subsequently, as I hope will happen, took a more lenient view because I had been brought into that attitude through the matter having been raised by hon. Members in the House.

It should be said that all hon. Members concerned in this matter have a large number of constituents who serve B.O.A.C. in one way or another. That applies to my constituency, which is near London. I am confident that other employees of B.O.A.C. are watching this matter as a test case with anxiety. It concerns us deeply. In my case, as in the case of other hon. Members, only one constituent is concerned, but other employees of the Corporation feel that if this matter is allowed to go by without protest or murmur they may be put in jeopardy should they ever find themselves in a similar position. Therefore, I suggest to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary that there is far more in this than just the case of 20 men although I make no apology for saying that the innocence of 20 men, or only one man, is a matter which properly should be raised in this House.

When he replies, I hope that my hon. Friend will take seriously the determination of all hon. Members concerned in this matter to prosecute it to a proper conclusion. I hope that if, this morning, he has been impressed by the most eloquent arguments put forward from both sides of the House, he will deliberately say so and, if necessary, ask for time for further consideration, which I am sure the House would give him. If he attempts, as I am sure he will not do, merely to brush us off, he will entirely misunderstand the determination of hon. Members on both sides of the House.

11.56 a.m.

Mr. Elwyn Jones (West Ham, South)

May I have the indulgence of the House for a moment to say that I have constituents directly affected by this matter who feel deeply that they have a genuine cause for grievance? They feel deeply aggrieved by the action that has been taken, and I wish to endorse the requests made to the Minister to have this matter reviewed again from the beginning to see if what appears to be an injustice can be set right.

11.57 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations (Mr. Richard Thompson)

This debate is the culmination of much correspondence, Parliamentary Questions and deputations by hon. Members both to my Department and to B.O.A.C. It reflects the very great interest which has been aroused, not only in this House but outside, by this affair of the B.O.A.C. stewards which we have been debating.

I say at the outset that there is not the slightest disposition on the part of anyone to take this matter lightly. The presence throughout the debate of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Aviation is an indication that, although it is not possible for more than one Minister to wind up a debate of this kind, he recognises the depth of feeling which this affair has engendered on all sides. Of course, it is entirely reasonable and proper that hon. Members of this House and others should be concerned with the situation that arises when a man loses his employment in a case where, as here, he is suspected of complicity in smuggling but when no actual charges have been made against him. That is what we are all worried about.

I am obliged to hon. Members on both sides of the House for the temperate and very reasonable manner in which they have raised this difficult problem. Perhaps for a moment I may be allowed to sketch in the history of this affair. Hon. Members will recall that early in 1959 two B.O.A.C. stewards were convicted in India of gold smuggling offences. Gold smuggling in India is a traditional activity. It is exceptionally serious for the Indian Government and they take a very grave view of it. The inquiries that were made in connection with these cases revealed the existence of a widespread smuggling ring based on Hong Kong in which many B.O.A.C. employees were found to be involved.

The Indian authorities started to interrogate those concerned as and when they returned to India in the course of their employment, and this resulted in those people being unable to continue their flights and it caused considerable dislocation in the B.O.A.C. services to or staging through India. In those circumstances, B.O.A.C., which was itself liable to very heavy financial penalties and confiscation of aircraft as a result of the action of their employees, discussed the situation with the Indian authorities, with the result that the Indian authorities agreed to take no further action against those concerned provided that B.O.A.C. on its part undertook not to employ them on routes passing through India and also took appropriate disciplinary action.

Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan

Does my hon. Friend really think that the Indian Government were likely to impound the aircraft of B.O.A.C. and deprive themselves of the services of the major air carrier in the country?

Mr. Thompson

I am not discussing that. What I am saying is that that was a penalty which could have been exacted in this case. It is a very serious penalty indeed, and I think it must have borne some weight in B.O.A.C.'s consideration of these matters.

The Indian authorities then went on to send B.O.A.C. lists comprising some eighty to ninety names, and they said that the transitting of the aforesaid crew members through India is not considered desirable. They reminded B.O.A.C. of the penalties to which it would be liable under Indian law in the event of a recurrence of smuggling. As a result of this, B.O.A.C. carefully considered the individual cases involved. In 50 of these cases—a pretty large number—B.O.A.C. was satisfied that there was conclusive evidence of complicity, and those concerned were summarily dismissed. Of course, I accept at once that it is not about those 50 that we have been concerned today. But it does give some indication of the size of the operation which was going on.

There were 31 other cases on the India list where B.O.A.C.'s inquiries showed that there was suspicion but not conclusive, proof of complicity. The Indian authorities had said that they were prepared to consider appeals submitted by individuals through B.O.A.C., and 23 such appeals were submitted. While they were under consideration by the Indian authorities their position was discussed with those authorities by a representative of the United Kingdom High Commissioner in New Delhi accompanied by senior officers of B.O.A.C. I shall return to that point in a minute, but it is a matter on Which my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe) required assurances and I am very glad to give them to him.

As a result of these discussions, the High Commissioner was satisfied that the Indian authorities were fully aware of the serious consequences to the individuals of the request that they should not be employed in aircraft transiting India and that their petitions would be considered fully and fairly. The Indian authorities were not, however, prepared to reveal the evidence in their possession against the individual employees. In the event, five of the petitions were accepted and the names withdrawn from the Indian list. In the remaining cases the Indian authorities stated that they had given very careful consideration to the petitions but were not prepared to withdraw their request to B.O.A.C. to cease to employ the individuals on aircraft transiting India. That was the result of this further approach to the Indians in New Delhi on these residual people against whom there was suspicion but no more.

As hon. Members have pointed out, since B.O.A.C.'s terms of employment of air crews stipulate availability on any route served by the Corporation, the latter had no alternative but to terminate the employment of those 26 who could no longer fulfil this requirement, and this the Corporation did, giving a month's notice of termination.

Mr. A. E. Hunter (Feltham)

Was there no alternative? Could not representations have been made to B.O.A.C. to employ these 26 stewards on other routes besides the Indian route?

Mr. Thompson

I do not think the hon. Gentleman can have heard all of the debate. That is a point which has already been made by one hon. Member.

As a result of all this, I think two points of cardinal importance emerge. Certainly they have come up in all the speeches that I have heard today. First, why is it not possible to produce the evidence against the stewards who are in the position of losing their livelihood, as it seems, on suspicion only? That is the first paint. Secondly, have we really pressed the Indian authorities sufficiently energetically in this matter?

I have given some thought to these two points because they are absolutely cardinal to the whole subject that we are discussing today. On the evidence, the uncovering of this international gold smuggling ring was an extremely com- plex, long-drawn out and difficult matter. The Indian Government—and I think my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor recognised that this might be the case —understandably, I think, are not prepared to disclose the information at their disposal which might easily compromise their sources of information in a situation where we know that this smuggling is still going on. For instance, hon. Members will have observed recent events in Pakistan which suggest that this smuggling racket has not been completely defeated, notwithstanding the action taken in the case that we are debating today.

Mr. James

I do not see why disclosure at confidential level either to B.O.A.C. or to the High Commissioner's office in New Delhi should in itself compromise the Indian sources of information.

Mr. Thompson

That is very much a matter of opinion. It is really impossible to give a definite view on that one way or the other unless one knows precisely what would be involved in providing this information. But in any case, whatever view one takes of that, the Indian Government have a sovereign right to exclude anyone they choose from India without giving reasons. It is for them, and them only, to be satisfied that they have sufficient grounds for their action. Even if they were to produce the evidence against the remaining stewards, they have in fact already taken their decision and this has had the effect which we have been hearing about of preventing these men from plying their normal avocation.

Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan

Would my hon. Friend answer the question which I put? Could we do the same thing to the Indian stewards if they indulged in the traditional industry of smuggling which my hon. Friend mentioned?

Mr. Thompson

I was going to reply to that point at length later on, but if my hon. Friend would like me to advert to it now I will do so. The United Kingdom could not refuse entry to Indian nationals. That is perfectly correct but, without wishing to appear to split a hair, I must say that the Indian Government have not in terms refused entry to B.O.A.C. employees. They have asked B.O.A.C. not to employ them as air crews while transiting India. It may be said that that has the same effect, but they have not, in fact, said that these people must not go there. There is no reason why the United Kingdom should not make similar requests to Indian National Airways if one of the employees of that airline were suspect, and if such a request were made I have no doubt that the airline concerned would co-operate. It is true that the Indian Government can declare a United Kingdom citizen a prohibited immigrant if they wish to, but, so far as I know, they have never yet done so.

Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe

If the Indian Government are to refuse to disclose to the B.O.A.C., even on a security level, the nature of the information on which suspicion rests, what type of reference can the B.O.A.C. in all,honesty possibly give to its employees? It does not know whether it is recommending someone who is absolutely innocent or someone who may be completely dishonest.

Mr. Thompson

I see my hon. Friend's point. What I am concerned with is the reasons, as I think they are, for the Indian Government refusing to give this information. I quite accept the possibilities for the employees concerned. My point was to explain why this information had not been available.

The second very important point is whether sufficiently energetic representations have been made. Having gone into this case personally, I can honestly tell my hon. Friends that I am satisfied that this is so. On 12th April of this year a meeting took place in New Delhi. It was a specially convened meeting. The B.O.A.C. flew out appropriate people for it. The Counsellor of our High Commission attended. The Indian authorities were there. It was an ad hoc meeting to discuss the additional 31 names. The whole question, including the appeals put in by the stewards, was thoroughly discussed.

Considering the Indian Government's legal rights, I do not feel that there has been any failure or reluctance on our part to put the facts before them and express our very grave concern at the turn that events have taken. The Indian Government have in fact, as hon. Members have acknowledged, been extremely co-operative all along. Had they chosen to deal with the matter differently, they could have arrested these men during the course of their transit through India, as a result of which the B.O.A.C. would have suffered complete dislocation of its services, the possible impounding of its aircraft, and a liability to fines totalling £3 million. This has been avoided by the action which the Indian Government took. I am convinced that the B.O.A.C. is satisfied that the Indian Government have acted responsibly.

In conclusion, I assure my hon. Friends that it is my honest belief that everything possible has been done in this case. But if any of them has any further relevant information on any individual cases which has not been disclosed or vouchsafed up to now, I shall be perfectly prepared, in conjunction with my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Aviation and the B.O.A.C., to see that it is brought to the attention of the Government of India. That is the maximum that I can say at this stage.

I am obliged to hon. Members for raising this very important matter, because it deserves to be ventilated. I assure them that there has been no failure on our part to take it seriously and to pursue it energetically all along.

Mr. Hunter

Will the hon. Gentleman reply to the point made by hon. Members? Could not the B.O.A.C. employ these stewards on other routes or other duties outside India?

Mr. Thompson

I hate to say this, but that is a matter for the B.O.A.C., for whom I have no responsibility. I do not know how transferable these people might be. I am sure that the point will be looked into.

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