HC Deb 19 November 1965 vol 720 cc1594-608

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn,—[Mr. Fitch]

3.52 p.m.

Sir Richard Glyn (Dorset, North)

I am grateful for this opportunity to ventilate today a case which arises out of my constituency but which is of national interest and importance. Now that so many people, both young and old, travel abroad on British passports, it is more important than ever before that the Foreign Office should give them the protection to which they are legally entitled and help them and their relatives in the event of anything going wrong.

In the case of my constituent, John Richard Balson, the Foreign Office arrangements appeared to have broken down. It would not be appropriate for me to deal at length with what happened outside the jurisdiction, but the background to the case is that he was confined in a Spanish prison for 17 days, denied access to any lawyer or to the British Consul, his letters were intercepted, and he was prevented, after his release from prison, from returning to Britain for a further 34 days, making 51 days in all.

It would not be appropriate to raise today the legal implications of the Spanish law, of course, in which the Foreign Office is not at all involved, but it should be known that John Balson, who was a pupil at Wimborne Grammar School in my constituency, had won a travelling scholarship granted by the school governors as a result of which he was touring in North Africa. On returning from North Africa to join his parents in the South of France, he had to travel through Spain. He had to pass through Spain on his journey from North Africa to France, and it is wholly wrong to describe him as a visitor to Spain, as was done, unfortunately, in an answer to one of my Questions.

As he was passing through Spain, there was a difficulty about his railway ticket, which, apparently, though in order, did not satisfy the ticket collector. John knew no Spanish at all and could not understand what was being said to him, but he was removed from the train, ended up in police custody, and almost immediately found himself in prison. There he was held, his letters being intercepted and his requests for a lawyer and for the British Consul being refused. He remained there, first in the local prison and later in Madrid, for 17 days. The letters which he wrote were posted nearly a month afterwards, after he had been released on bail.

When John failed to turn up, his parents waited in the South of France for four days and then reported his disappearance to the British Consul in Paris, who was most helpful and who took every possible step to see that if he turned up later, after his parents had gone, they should be informed. His parents then returned to England and approached the Foreign Office in London where, unfortunately, it was quite a different story. On 6th September the Foreign Office told them on the telephone that there was no cause for anxiety, that it was too soon for them to take any action, that no action was necessary and that if Mrs. Balson heard nothing more by the end of the week she was to ring them again.

By the end of the week Mrs. Balson was very worried. Her son was an experienced traveller. He had kept very close to his itinerary all through his travels in North Africa and he had written to her from every town in which he had stayed. All this she told the Foreign Office. When she telephoned the Foreign Office as arranged on 10th September he had been absent for ten days without any message or sign, and when the Foreign Office again told her that they were not prepared to take any action to help her, she was entirely dissatisfied. They told her to ring again on Monday, 13th, and said that they would see what they could do. This was so utterly different from the attitude of the British consular official in Paris that she was completely dissatisfied and went to the local police at Wimborne station and asked them to notify Interpol. There is a dispute as to whether they did.

On 15th September I received from her particulars of what had happened, and I immediately rang up the Foreign Office, who told me that they had made certain inquiries. I mention this because I think that it is important: they led me to suppose on the telephone that they themselves had alerted Interpol. I mention this because it is so difficult to find out what the Foreign Office really did. I wonder whether they know what they had then done. Later that day I was told in another telephone message that they had not alerted Interpol but had told the police that Interpol might need to be alerted, which is rather different.

To finish the confusion about Interpol, in a recent television appearance on Southern Television in which the Balson family and I appeared, the commentator had been given to understand by a Foreign Office spokesman that the Foreign Office had informed Interpol as early as 13th September.

On 15th September they told me that they had not done so. I do not suppose we shall ever know what, in fact, the Foreign Office did, and I am not sure whether they themselves are certain about it. But we know that two things happened on 17th September—one good and one bad. The bad thing which happened was that Mr. Balson received a note from the Foreign Office asking him to acknowledge and confirm his oral undertaking made over the telephone to pay the Foreign Office the cost at current commercial rates of any telegrams or any telephone calls which the Foreign Office might send or make in connection with the tracing of his son. Up to that point the Foreign Office had been telling the Balsons that they had not done much about it because there was no need to do so, but in subsequent letters the Foreign Office told me that as early as 9th September they had rung up Madrid on the telephone and alerted them to John's disappearance. If Mr. Balson had signed this paper, which I am glad to say he did not, he could not possibly have known the expenditure he was letting himself in for or the expenditure which had been involved.

An accurate synopsis of the position as it stood then was that at the time the Foreign Office were telling the Balsons that there was no need for alarm and that they had not started searching, whereas they have told me in letters since then that they started searching on about 9th September. Which is the truth, I do not know. It was, however, unfortunate that if the Foreign Office began searching on the 9th, on the 11th and the 13th Mrs. Balson was told that there was no need for alarm and that they could not see any reason for doing it. On the other hand, if the search was started on the 9th, it was equally unfortunate that the Foreign Office should put in writing to me what it did.

It being Four o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed. That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr.Fitch]

Sir Richard Glyn

I do not wish to labour the details of the inaccuracies in the Foreign Office story or the difficulties I have had in ascertaining what happened.

The second thing which happened on the 17th is without doubt. It is that John Balson was found languishing in a Spanish prison in Madrid as a result of a telegram which, I think I can say, he had smuggled out the prison two days before. Here again, there is a very great discrepancy about what happened.

I was told in writing that the reason why no action was taken on the telegram until the 17th was that it was not received by the British Consul in Madrid until the 17th. I have challenged this as a result of information from another source and I have now had it admitted that the consulate in Madrid received this telegram on the 16th. At what time is was received is still in dispute, but there is no doubt that the Consulate in Madrid had this telegram on the 16th from John Balson to say that he was in prison only a mile or two from the Consulate and that the Consulate took no steps either to release him or even to let him know that at long last one of his messages which he had bribed people to smuggle out of prison had reached safe hands. It was not until the following day that the consulate made contact with Mr. John Balson and arranged ultimately for his release.

An even more serious feature of this truly unfortunate case—which I am ventilating solely in the hope that my doing so will stop anything of the kind ever happening again—is that in one of my many telephone conversations with the department of the Foreign Office which had been charged with the duty of trying to find John Balson, I suggested that the Spanish Government must be under a duty to report to British Consuls whenever a British subject was arrested in Spain. I was told that I was quite wrong in so thinking.

I set about, as far as a back-bench Member of this House can, trying to trace the international agreements with Spain, which, to say the least, is a fairly large job. Before I had got far with it, I was telephoned back by the Foreign Office and told that there had been a consultation, that they had come to the conclusion that I was right and that Spain was under a legal duty to report the arrest of British subjects in that country. There is no doubt whatever that under Article 26 of the Anglo-Spanish Consular Convention, the Spanish authorities have this duty.

It is most unfortunate that the department of the Foreign Office which had the duty to rescue British subjects arrested in this way did not know what the Spanish Government's legal responsibilities were, and this at a time when British subjects were being arrested in Spain almost at the rate of one a day. In the 33 days ending 22nd September last, which covered the period of John's arrest, 32 British subjects were arrested in Spain. In answer to a Question of mine on the Floor of the House, I was told that in only 20 cases did the Spanish authorities actually report these arrests, that in nine cases the consul got to hear about them and that in three or four cases the arrest was never reported. In these circumstances, it seems no less than alarming that the department of the Foreign Office charged with the duty of rescuing British subjects in this unfortunate position was not even aware of what the situation was in international law.

In his letter to me on 29th September, the Foreign Secretary frankly admitted that he was not, as he said, "Entirely satisfied" about the way in which this matter had been handled by the Foreign Office. I should like to think that that was a marked understatement because I think that he should have been deeply distressed and perturbed by the way in which his Department had behaved in this matter.

When I asked on the Floor of the House on 1st November what steps he was taking to make sure that this sort of thing would never happen again, the Foreign Secretary wholly ingnored that part of my question and merely offered, in correspondence, to explain to me what had happened. I must put this right. The letter to which he referred was sent by one of the Ministers of State —the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Padley)—on 7th November, and all it said was that he would write to me as soon as the Foreign Office had completed its examination of what the hon. Gentleman described as "this serious case". I supposed, of course, that I should ultimately receive a written explanation.

On the contrary, all I got was a letter full of excuses, with no suggestion of contrition, or of improved methods, or of anything to be done to make things better—just excuses, which, I may add, I received after it was known that this debate was to take place. There was no offer to me of explanations. There was only the promise of an explanation which was never discharged.

There is another side to this case. Balson was a grammar school boy. His parents are not wealthy. They have been put to enormous expense which they can ill afford. I would first ask the Minister of State to assure the House that any oral agreement that Mr. Balson may have made to refund to the Foreign Office the cost of the telegrams and telephone calls will not be enforced. Mr. Balson was asked to sign a document but he has not done so. It refers to an oral agreement.

I plead with the Minister of State not to enforce an oral agreement. The Balsons —and it is right that this should be known—were forced to rely on the financial assistance of relatives to find the very large sum of bail that they had to deposit to get John out of prison. Although he has long since been released they have not yet had that money back. It is still in Spain. More hundreds of pounds had to be found to cover legal expenses.

I ask the Minister of State to assure the House that, if there was any undertaking by Mr. Balson to pay the cost of telegrams and telephone calls, it will not be enforced. I would like him to say whether there is any means, ex gratia or otherwise, by which the Foreign Office can help to ease the burden of these parents, who were guilty of nothing. It was not their fault that John won a scholarship which involved travelling by himself. In any case he commited no offence known to English law. But they have been put to this crippling expense, part of which at least arises from the curious actions of the Foreign Office.

I wonder what would have happened if Mr. and Mrs. Balson had been unable to find the bail. Would John still be in prison? Are there any powers in the Department to find out these things in such cases? I ask the hon. Gentleman to see what he can do in this important case. The Foreign Office was wrong from the beginning in not taking adequate steps to find John Balson or, if it was taking them, of concealing the fact from his parents. It was wrong in not telling the parents what was happening. It was previously wrong in not knowing that Spain was legally liable and legally responsible for reporting to the Foreign Office the arrest of a British subject.

I maintain that the Foreign Secretary was wrong, was misguided, in not giving a more helpful answer to my question on 1st November when I asked him what he was going to do to make sure that this sort of thing never happened again. The British passport entitles a British citizen to full protection from the Foreign Office when travelling abroad. I hope that we shall hear that, from now on, British subjects travelling abroad, both old and young, are to receive the protection to which they are legally entitled and that nothing resembling the treatment of John Balson's family will ever happen again.

4.10 p.m.

The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. George Thomson)

I personally welcome the opportunity provided by the hon. Member for Dorset, North (Sir Richard Glyn) to put before the House the facts of the unfortunate experience suffered by John Balson as they were seen through our eyes at the Foreign Office, and also to explain to hon. Members, and through them to the public, some of the risks involved in foreign travel and the realities about how far the Foreign Office can help for we have to face some facts about this matter.

The hon. Gentleman has stated very plainly the timetable of events and I will not try to cover the points which he has covered, except in so far as they are in dispute. He mentioned the earlier happenings when John Balson's parents were in France and consulted our Consulate in Paris and then took up the story when they returned to this country.

On 6th September, the parents informed the Foreign Office in London that their son was still missing. The Foreign Office at that stage started preliminary inquiries and the Consular Department of the Foreign Office informed Her Majesty's Embassy in Madrid of John Balson's disappearance on 9th September. I think that that deals with one of the points of confusion which the hon. Ger.tleman raised.

On 13th September, since there was still no news, the Department followed this up with extensive inquiries by telephone and urgent telegrams in France, Spain and Morocco. On 16th September, we received confirmation of the youth's departure from Morocco to Spain on 28th August. On the afternoon of 16th September—and this is one of the important dates, as the hon. Gentleman said—the Embassy in Madrid received an unsigned and corrupt telegram in English which it traced back to the Carabanchel Prison.

This telegram was received too late in the afternoon to take action on it at that point, but permission to visit the prison was immediately sought and a visit was paid on the morning of 17th September. In the light of the facts, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has a justifiable ground for complaint about the period of some hours which elapsed between the telegram being received and being deciphered and the visit being paid to John Balson.

Although I am only too anxious to deal with the difficulties in this matter, I thought that the hon. Gentleman was complaining a little unreasonably when he said that his first telephone call to the Foreign Office elicited the view that there was no binding obligation on the Spaniards under the Consular Convention and his complaint that an hour later this was corrected. I do not think that he can expect the Consular Department of the Foreign Office, with the kind of pressure that it is under during the tourist season, with many temporary workers, always to give accurate information, but there was a correction back to the hon. Gentleman within an hour and, in face of the more serious issues involved, that is hardly something to complain about seriously.

The news of the whereabouts of the missing youth, who had been under arrest since 31st August, was immediately conveyed to the Foreign Office and the parents, and he was released on bail on 18th September. As the hon. Gentleman and the House know, there was a final court hearing, when a sentence of six months' imprisonment of a suspended character was imposed on 20th October, on which day Mrs. Balson and her son left Madrid for home.

Perhaps at this point I may take up the matter, raised very properly by the hon. Member on behalf of his constituents, about the cost of the telegrams involved in this matter. Where the services of the Foreign Office are required in matters of this sort it is the normal practice for the people involved to have to pay the cost of these messages, but in the special circumstances of this case, and in view of the plea made by the hon. Member on behalf of his constituents, I should like to tell him that we have decided to waive the charges.

The criticism by the hon. Member is directed both at the Spanish Government and the Foreign Office. As the Foreign Secretary informed the House on 1st November, following our representations the Spanish Government tendered an apology for their failure to notify this arrest of a British subject in accordance with their obligations, and added an assurance that measures had been taken to prevent a recurrence. As the hon. Member pointed out, this is not the first time that the Spanish authorities have failed to notify the arrest of a British subject, but it is fair to say that in most cases they have promptly done so in accordance with the spirit and the letter of the Anglo-Spanish Consular Convention. I am confident that following this incident the Spanish authorities intend to fulfil their obligations under the Consular Convention.

I hardly need to say that the Government will keep a close watch on these matters in Spain as elsewhere where we have consular conventions, and I need hardly add that the spectacle of an immature and entirely harmless tourist being solemnly charged, tried and sentenced for a few words uttered in the heat of the moment is repugnant to people in this country, with our traditions of free speech, as well as—as the hon. Member said—being a matter that would not have been the cause for any legal action under the laws of this country.

I now turn to the Foreign Office's part in this incident. The disappearance of John Balson, unfortunate though it undoubtedly was, must be seen in perspective. In Britain today there are estimated to be 175,000 missing persons. In the summer period 100 persons per month on holiday abroad are reported missing to the Foreign Office and, faced with this situation, the Foreign Office and their consulates have to concentrate their energies on the many cases of fatal or grave injury or illness among people on holiday and the Department has to convey news of sudden death to the next of kin in this country and to advise on the funeral arrangements with foreign countries.

During the past season about 150 such fatalities have been notified and assistance sought in France and Spain alone, apart from other countries. They have many tourists from Britain. Sometimes the victims of accidents and persons afflicted by mental illness have to be accompanied on their return journey to this country. British subjects who are imprisoned always need advice, and relatives have to be consulted. If the accused cannot afford to pay for his defence the Consul tries to arrange for free legal aid wherever possible. The Foreign Office may have to organise an urgent search for lost climbers in the mountains, or for overdue yachtsmen.

The larger the number of travellers the greater the number of accidents, and if there are some complaints and some mistakes, as there are bound to be in these circumstances, there are also many letters of thanks. The hon. Member may be interested to know that during this summer in Madrid alone there have been 27 warm letters of thanks from people who received help from our Consulate in that city. In addition to this, distressed British subjects in great numbers apply for repatriation at public expense. These cause a great deal of work for the members of our posts abroad. Last year 3,100 people applied for repatriation. The number of people applying for repatriation is becoming something of a scandal with some of our Consulates, and has choked them up to the detriment of more urgent and serious cases that do occur.

Earlier this summer the Government introduced new measures to prevent the abuse of these arrangements, and they appear to have had some success already, in that the number of repatriation cases this summer is running at about one-third less than it was last year. The point is that the small section of the Consular Department in London which is responsible for France and Spain deals in the course of the tourist season with a startlingly large toll of real disasters, as well as with an even greater number of less serious inquiries—although every inquiry that is made, as we well understand, seems extremely serious to the person making it. Inevitably, we have to give priority to those cases which we think are of the greatest gravity and seriousness—

Sir Richard Glyn

The hon. Gentleman talks about real disasters. Would he accept from me that this is a complete disaster for the whole Balson family, whose finances are now prejudiced? For a very considerable period this was a disaster and it is one—a real disaster.

Mr. Thomson

When it was discovered that John Balson was lying in a Spanish gaol in contravention of the Consular Convention, at that point we knew that the tragedy had occurred and at that point I think that every possible action was taken by the Foreign Office.

However, the point which I want to make to the hon. Member and press on him is that, before that—during the earlier period he described—against the total demands on our posts overseas and our Consular Department in London, I do not think that the House would expect us to give immediately the highest priority to the search for a 17-year-old youth who had been missing—in the circumstances of this case as known at that time —for a week or 10 days. The House would be surprised how often Foreign Office records show that people much older than John Balson and with family and other responsibilities cause a good deal of anxiety and expense to their families by their neglect to send word of a change of route or timetable.

As the hon. Member said, John Balson was not an inexperienced traveller. The fact that he went off alone to tour Western Europe and North Africa is a sign, I think, that he is of a self-reliant and adventurous character—the hon. Member will know his constituent and I do not—? but I think that it is reasonable also to assume that his parents in these circumstances accepted the risks of his holiday plans. The fact is—this is what I press on the hon. Member—that it is generally impracticable to trace anybody in the circumstances in which the present case began. It is literally like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Frontier and police controls over movements of tourists these days are not so strict as they used to be and among the 4½ million British tourists who are travelling in the course of a year about the Continent there is small chance of finding any individual traveller unless the area of search is narrowly limited. This was not the case with John Balson, who, until we knew where he was, might have been anywhere in three countries. When the Foreign Office makes arrangements in an attempt to trace anybody, as it may well do after a reasonable lapse of time—and began to do in the case of John Balson on 9th September—inquiries seldom produce any results. We have to face this.

Another fact which raises problems in the Foreign Office is that the traveller quite often turns up, quite oblivious of all the trouble he has caused, and, often, the relatives who have called on the Foreign Office for assistance forget to tell us that he has turned up so that we can cease our injuiries. I think that the House is entitled to know the practical problems which we face when we are under criticism.

We are all glad that the grand tour of Europe which used to be the privilege of the wealthy few in another age is now something which is open to a wide range of young people who wish to travel as far as possible before settling down, as well as to many older people in modest circumstances. But the great majority of these tourists still go blithely abroad rather in the same spirit as they go off to Eastbourne or Brighton. The do so without giving serious thought to the risks of foreign travel, and these risks are real, although only the unlucky minority get into trouble, fortunately.

The unwary traveller faces the risks of theft in a foreign country when there is a language barrier, as there was in this case, and where they are keeping to a touring timetable. Sickness and injury in a foreign country may bring not only physical suffering but—as the hon. Member knows in respect of his constituents— it may bring financial disaster.

I cannot emphasise too strongly that the prudent traveller should take out an ample insurance against these inevitable dangers. In addition, it should be remembered that, in some countries, offences to which our tolerant British society would pay scant attention bring down severe penalties on the offender, as happened, unfortunately, in this case.

The number of British tourists visiting France and Spain in a year has doubled and trebled, but economy and public expenditure, which I am sure the hon. Member would support, has prevented any corresponding increase in the same period in our consular establishments. The Consular Department of the Foreign Office receives some reinforcements in the tourist season, but the demands made upon them by the public in connection with deaths, grave accidents and other emergencies are far more than can be dealt with in our normal working hours. We are, therefore, entitled to some understanding when under the pressure of that kind of demand. Occasionally mistakes are made.

It is necessary that the Foreign Office and consular offices abroad should be ready to help our citizens when they are in real need of official protection or assistance, but their primary function, in and out of the tourist season, is to promote international trade and assist our traders abroad. They are not meant to be universal aunts or a free national help service, as I am afraid some visitors overseas sometimes think they are. I am not, of course, commenting on the hon. Gentleman's constituent's case but on the general problem, of which this case was a particularly difficult example.

I believe that the House will consider, as I do, that in present economic circumstances it would be wrong to divert scarce public money and even scarcer diplomatic manpower for the purpose of helping tourists in ever-growing numbers to cope with the risk of foreign travel, of which they should to a large extent be aware or be able to discover for themselves and be able to look after themselves. In view of these limitations on manpower and finance, I submit to the hon. Gentleman that the practice of the Foreign Office in regard to missing persons is just about right.

No Government can protect all its citizens against the hazards they may meet when travelling abroad. British travellers abroad should, in their own interests, insure against mishaps and use good sense when they travel. It is for parents to consider the risks involved in relation to the age of a boy or girl or the conditions that may be expected on the route that is chosen before allowing teenage sons or daughters to travel alone or to travel on a shoestring, as it were. If this were done universally consular offices would be free to devote their services to those in real distress—and in any case, a traveller who is in distress should telegraph or telephone without delay.

Hon. Members who are properly anxious to protect and help their constituents should know—and I welcome this opportunity to say this to the House frankly—that the Foreign Office only in exceptional cases can effectively trace missing persons. The consular offices will continue to render all possible assistance to citizens of this country who are in difficulty.

The hon. Gentleman complained that he had not been adequately treated by Foreign Office Ministers and had not been supplied with the explanation which he required. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State offered to show the hon. Gentleman the full report which he had in his possession, but that we have received no reply from the hon. Gentleman since then. However, no doubt he felt that this was a more adequate method of raising the subject, and it certainly satisfies us very well.

Sir Richard Glyn

This Adjournment debate had already been arranged, so that it did not seem appropriate to do other than have this debate.

Mr. Thomson

I did not know about that. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that in an earlier letter my right hon. Friend had said that he was not entirely satisfied with the arrangements. Since writing that letter my right hon. Friend has investigated the sad case of John Balson thoroughly critically and personally. He is convinced that the Foreign Office could not reasonably be expected to have done more in the matter to trace him. The moment it was known that the Consular Convention had been broken, all the resources of the Embassy were concentrated on helping and making representations to the Spanish authorities. I think it is fair to say that these efforts produced results and I am sure that this is the right scale of priorities to operate in these difficult matters—or the only scale of priorities practicable in this modern age of mass tourism.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock.