HC Deb 24 January 1961 vol 633 cc32-5
Mr. Paget (by Private Notice)

asked the Civil Lord of the Admiralty whether he will make a statement on the employment of H.M. ships to hunt the s.s. "Santa Maria", seized by Portuguese rebels.

The Civil Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. C. Ian Orr-Ewing)

Yes, Sir. The full facts concerning the seizure of this vessel are not clear, but Her Majesty's Government and the United States Government were asked by the Portuguese Government for any information on the "Santa Maria's" whereabouts and for all possible help in securing the restoration of the vessel and her cargo to the rightful owners.

Acting on this request, instructions were issued to the Senior Naval Officer, West Indies, to attempt to arrest the ship provided contact was gained outside territorial waters and provided this could be done by peaceful means without loss of life or risk of scuttling. If, however, this was impracticable the Senior Naval Officer was instructed to shadow the "Santa Maria" and report.

I am advised that Her Majesty's Government are fully entitled, in accordance with international law, to take this action to meet this request.

Mr. Paget

First, will Her Majesty's Navy be equally at the disposal of the Russian or Hungarian Governments in the event of one of their crews making a dash for liberty? Secondly, if this is to be treated as a matter of piracy, does the hon. Gentleman agree that in that event we have jurisdiction over anybody whom we may arrest and that we shall exercise that jurisdiction and not hand them over to somebody against whom they may be in rebellion? If this is not a matter of piracy, is it any business of ours?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

The request came from a recognised friendly and allied Government. I made the point that under international law, when it comes from a constitutional and recognised Government, we are certainly entitled to meet it. It is not for us to judge the politics of a Government that we are trying to assist. We are entitled under international law, in circumstances such as these, to comply with the request of another Government to assist in the protection of life and property on one of their ships on the high seas. I do not think that the House will wish to neglect the humanitarian aspect. One life has already been lost and one of the ship's officers has been seriously wounded. This must cause considerable anxiety to the 600 passengers, including many women and children.

On the second point, as the hon. and learned Gentleman knows only too well, it is a very complicated question of international law. We will certainly bear in mind the various points which he has put forward before any action is taken.

Mr. G. Brown

The Civil Lord said that we are entitled to do this. There is a great distinction between "being entitled to" and "being obliged to". The feeling of some of us is that we seem to have dashed in to give support in what is really an internal affair. Did the Government consider what was involved in this in terms of internal Portuguese politics before we dashed in in this way?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

It is in the tradition of the Royal Navy that when it is asked for assistance it should provide assistance. We have done exactly that. By good fortune it so happened that the Senior Naval Officer, West Indies, was on board H.M.S. "Rothesay". The first we learned of the incident was when a body and a seriously wounded officer came ashore at Santa Lucia, which is British territory. As a result of that, H.M.S. "Rothesay" set sail towards the South. Signals were sent to the United States authorities telling them of the action we were taking and offering our other West Indies frigate, H.M.S. "Ulster", which was in the North, to assist in their part of the search if it was wanted.

Mr. G. Thompson

If any requests for political asylum arise out of the incident, will the Civil Lord give the House an assurance that they will be most carefully considered before any question arises of handing over Portuguese citizens to the Portuguese Government?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

As I explained at the beginning of my statement, the full facts of this case are not known. We do not know whether the ship was boarded, or whether those who took over took pas- sage at Curacao, which was the last place of call. Until the full facts are known I think that it would be wrong to pronounce on it. I give the undertaking to the House that the Law Officers of the Crown and other legal advisers will carefully consider the legal implications before any action is taken.

Mr. Gaitskell

Would it not have been very much wiser to have hesitated while ascertaining the full facts? Would it not have been very much better for the Government to have ascertained the full facts before they intervened? Is the Civil Lord saying that it is in accordance with the traditions of a British Government that they should arrest those who are seeking to escape from a dictatorial regime? If this is indeed the case, as has been reported. how can the Government possibly defend their action?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I think that the House in general would expect Her Majesty's Navy to go to the help of a friendly Government—and incidentally, one of our allies in N.A.T.O.—when murder has been committed and serious injury done to others. That is exactly what we have done.

Mr. Shinwell

Do I understand from the Civil Lord's statement that the reference in the Press this morning and yesterday to the intention of the commander of the British vessel to board the ship in the event of any refusal on the part of its commander to hove to is untrue? The Portuguese Government have now been apprised of what has occurred. Have they no naval vessel to undertake this task?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

On the second point, I have no Ministerial responsibility in that field. The point is that we had a naval vessel within a few miles when the incident occurred and when we first learned of it. I cannot go further than the point which I made most carefully in my statement. I said: instructions were issued to the Senior Naval Officer, West Indies, to attempt to arrest the ship provided contact was gained outside territorial waters and provided this could be done by peaceful means without loss of life or risk of scuttling. That is as far as I can go. I am sure that we can count on the good sense of the Navy to act in accordance with those instructions.

Mr. Doughty

While we must await investigation into the full facts, is it not right that when a friendly and allied Government tell us that one of their vessels has been the subject of an act of piracy by the crew upon the high seas it is the duty of the British Navy to stop piracy wherever it is being carried out?

Mr. Paget

May I ask the Civil Lord a further question? is not the position that we have no obligation, either by custom or anything else, to interfere where there is a case of political rebellion against a sovereign country? If we have to intervene here, it is because it is piracy and, in the light of piracy, possibly for humanitarian reasons. In neither of those events are we under any obligation—indeed, it is quite contrary to our duty—to hand over anybody we arrest to the Government of Portugal. If they are pirates. we have jurisdiction. If they are not pirates, we have no business.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I think, as I have said, that the hon. and learned Gentleman has made a perfectly valid point, and I have also said that the Law Officers of the Crown will be consulted about this complicated matter of international law, and will certainly bear in mind the point that he has made.

Mr. Mendelson

The Minister has said that the situation is unclear. Is he aware of a report by a reputable Canadian news agency, telling everyone interested in the matter that the origin of the trouble was the refusal of someone on board the ship, who was regarded as a political enemy by the regime in Portugal, to be forcibly returned? Why cannot the hon. Gentleman give an assurance, in accordance with the traditions of this House—and in accordance with the traditions of the country—that that man, or others who are in similar danger, will not be returned forcibly to Portugal?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I have not seen the report, but the House has the assurance that I gave earlier, that we shall look at all these legal implications.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot debate this now.