HC Deb 19 May 1960 vol 623 cc1485-8

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:


To ask the Minister of State for Commonwealth Relations what requests he has received from the Government of South Africa for the return to the Union of persons who have taken refuge in the Protectorates of Swaziland, Basutoland, and Bechuanaland; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister of State for Commonwealth Relations (Mr. C. J. M. Alport)

With permission, I will now answer Question No. 44.

None, Sir. I assume that the right hon. Gentleman has in mind recent Press reports of statements made in the South African House of Assembly. The High Commissioner was immediately asked to forward the official record and to seek from the South African Government an elucidation of what was said.

No negotiations are in progress with the South African Government on this subject. The border between the High Commission Territories and the Union is and always has been open, subject to the immigration laws in force from time to time. A small number of people have arrived in the territories from the Union in recent weeks. Some of them have said that they have come for political reasons.

It is not the intention of Her Majesty's Government to compel them to return to the Union on political grounds, though the House will recognise that the question of return to answer criminal charges would be a matter for the courts.

Mr. Marquand

Is the hon. Member aware that that answer seems to be well in line with the traditions of British justice? Can he give a similar assurance that any persons who have sought refuge in these territories will not be impeded if they wish to go elsewhere?

Mr. Alport

I have replied to this question on previous occasions and have assured the House that there is no restriction upon moving out of the High Commission Territories, although I realise that a problem arises for individuals after they have left the territories concerned. If the right hon. Gentleman would care to put down a Question on the subject I will try to give him a fuller answer.

Mr. Marquand

Will the Minister also undertake to consider any representations made to him upon this matter, not only by me but by other Commonwealth Governments?

Mr. Alport

Yes, Sir.

Mrs. Castle

Is the hon. Member aware that one of the difficulties which refugees face in leaving High Commission Territories is that they normally have to be in transit through the Federation? Is he also aware that I have brought to his attention the case of one refugee who was anxious to get to Ghana and was asking for papers and assurances that he would not be arrested in the Federation, and that the hon. Gentleman's Department has done nothing to assist that refugee? Cannot he take steps to approach the Federation Government to make sure that "in transit" facilities will be granted in all these cases?

Mr. Alport

Questions of entry into and exit from territories of the Commonwealth, including the Federation, are matters for the Governments concerned, but it has already been made quite clear that anyone coming to the United Kingdom will be dealt with by my right hon. Friend in accordance with the normal practice in this country in these matters.

Mr. Grimond

I welcome the categorical assurance from the Government that refugees are not to be returned to South Africa. Can the Minister say, from his examination of the record, if it is true that the Prime Minister of South Africa said that the state of emergency would be maintained in South Africa until these refugees were returned? If so, can he say whether any representations have been made about this extraordinary statement?

Mr. Alport

I understand that the facilities for the appearance of the official record in the Union of South Africa are not as good as they are here, and that some time elapses before it is published. My noble Friend will study the record when it comes. I believe that the statement was attributed to the Minister of Justice, during the Committee stage of a Bill in the Union Parliament.

Mr. Dugdale

I recognise that the Federation has powers in this matter, but will the hon. Member undertake to see that representations are made to the Federal Government of Rhodesia in order that transit permits shall be granted?

Mr. Alport

The question of granting transit permits is not relevant to this case. No question of visas is involved. It depends upon the character of the documents available to the traveller when he reaches the Federation.

Mr. Albu

I believe that the Minister said that cases concerning criminal charges will be subject to appeal to the courts. Does this include criminal charges under recently passed South African legislation?

Mr. Alport

That would be a matter for the courts to decide in accordance with the interpretation of the fugitive offenders' legislation.

Mr. Marquand

This is very important. Will the Minister distinguish between what he has said already, namely, that political offences would not be regarded as crimes for this purpose, and the fact that South Africa has passed a Prohibition of Communism Act, which appears to make political offences criminal offences? Will he distinguish between offences under that Act and normal criminal offences, which, we agree, must be handled in a different way?

Mr. Alport

The right hon. Gentleman will not expect me to give a judicial interpretation of legislation, nor is it right for a Minister at the Dispatch Box to try to do so. The right hon. Gentleman's attention can perhaps be drawn to Section 19 of the Fugitive Offenders' Act, which contains provisions with regard to general equity in matters of this sort.

Mr. Gaitskell

The hon. Member said that refugees would not be sent back on political grounds. This is a very important point. If South African legislation makes political action a criminal offence, does that in any way weaken the hon. Gentleman's assurance that only persons who may be charged under the criminal code as at present existing in South Africa will be sent back?

Mr. Alport

I should like to give further thought to that matter, but as I understand it, consideration and interpretation of this Act would be in accordance with the normal principles of English justice, and not related to the justice in any other country.

Mr. S. Silverman

Would not the difficulty be solved if the hon. Gentleman undertook that no one would be returned in this way who would not be returned under the relevant provisions of either the Fugitive Offenders' Act or the Extradition Acts, in which safeguards exist against the extradition of a refugee on what might be a quasi-criminal charge?

Mr. Alport

The hon. Member may realise that the Extradition Act does not apply to Commonwealth countries. In this case we are bound by the law which is operative in the territory at the time. The House will probably recognise that in the past, in our history and in the history of other countries, the courts have proved to be staunch defenders of freedom and justice.