HC Deb 13 June 1968 vol 766 cc438-44
Mr. William Deedes

(by Private Notice)asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department on what grounds Mr. Cohn-Bendit has been given a 14-day extension of his permitted stay in this country.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. James Callaghan)

Mr. Cohn-Bendit arrived at London Airport on 11th June at the invitation of the B.B.C. He said that his purpose was to take part in a programme to be recorded on the following day, and he accepted that a stay of 24 hours would be sufficient for this purpose.

Last night, his legal representative applied for permission for him to stay on for 14 days to visit student friends and a relative.

Naturally, I looked at this with some care, but in all the circumstances I did not think it necessary to refuse the application.

Mr. Deedes

While there may be two views about the value of admitting this student, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the handling of this matter by the Home Office has really contrived to make it look ineffably silly and that to appear to have been pushed, between Tuesday and Wednesday, from 24 hours to 14 days, in a panic, is a travesty of what the Home Office ought to be, which is an example to all our other institutions at this very difficult time?

Mr. Callaghan

I am aware that when the right hon. Gentleman is not sure on which side to come down he attacks the procedure by which the application has been handled. He might tell us— perhaps I should not ask him, but it would be interesting to know—whether he thinks it was right to admit the man or not.

Mr. Faulds

Will my right hon. Friend continue resolutely to resist the blandishments of the Opposition—the sirens were a load of old women too—when they counsel illiberalities alien to the Bitish way of life?

Mr. Callaghan

This country has a tradition of allowing people of all kinds to express their political opinions provided that they do not break the law, and that tradition is worth preserving. I would add my hope that no one will exaggerate the extent of this young man's importance.

Sir D. Renton

Is the Home Secretary aware that foreigners are admitted to this country as a privilege, not as of right? If this young man abuses that privilege by stirring up trouble here, as he has done elsewhere, will his stay be brought to an end at once?

Mr. Callaghan

His legal representative informed the Home Office that this gentleman does not intend to cause trouble whilst he is here—[Interruption.] We shall see. However, I do not propose to judge the issue until trouble arises.

Mr. Michael Foot

Does the Home Secretary agree, as his action indicates, that the proper way to uphold the principle of free speech, in which we in this country believe, is to enable people to exercise it? Does he also agree that many newspapers, like The Times, spend quite a lot of money properly reporting to the people of this country the views of prominent students in Europe? Does he not think that the B.B.C. deserves every congratulation for its initiative in upholding the best traditions of this country?

Mr. Callaghan

I have no doubt that the soil of this country is less fertile for agitators and that the people of this country are more able to make up their minds about the value of opinions expressed than in a great many other places. I have enough to answer for myself. I do not want to offer any encomium or apologies for the B.B.C.

Mr. van Straubenzee

What weight did the Home Secretary give to the effect that his decision would have upon the vast majority of students in this country who want to pursue their studies seriously and who are dismayed at the admission of a man of this kind?

Mr. Callaghan

I have no evidence that anybody is dismayed, except a small handful of Conservative backbenchers. If hon. Gentlemen do not believe that, they had better read the editorial in the Daily Telegraph this morning which set out views much more liberally than some that are being expressed today. Of course, we should take into account people's views about this matter, but we should also remember that this country has a tradition for admitting foreigners to express their views, provided that they keep within the law. So far, this young man has not broken the law.

Mr. Heath

Is not the Home Secretary doing less than justice to himself in refusing to recognise that this is a matter which causes grave concern to a large number of people in this country? The reason is because of their desire to see free speech preserved and the rights of others to come to this country to exercise it, at the same time knowing the activities in which these students have been engaged in their own universities and the incitement to violence which some of them deliberately make as part of their political philosophy.

While recognising the Home Secretary's determination to see that free speech is exercised, what the country wants to know is that, if in any way this is abused, he will immediately take firm action. That is; the assurance that we want from the Home Secretary.

Mr. Callaghan

I have indicated that the Home Office has been given an assurance by the legal representative of Mr. Cohn-Bendit that he does not intend to cause trouble—[AN HON. MEMBER: "What does that mean?"]—by which I understand he means that there will not be any breach of the peace. In those circumstances, I would not think it right to deprive this man of his right to express his views here. It is for people to make up their minds whether they find them acceptable or not. If he breaks the law he will be in breach of the Aliens' Order and will be subject to prosecution. That is where I stand on the matter.

Mr. Alfred Morris

Speaking as one who is concerned for the future of Britain's application to join the Common Market, can my right hon. Friend give an assurance that any restriction on the free movement of our fellow West Europeans will not hurt our prospects as a prospective signatory to the Treaty of Rome?

Mr. Callaghan

I think that my hon. Friend has adopted a most ingenious method of advancing his anti-Common Market attitude. I well understand that it will be more difficult for us to refuse admission in future if we join the Common Market than if we stay out.

Mr. Sharpies

Can the Home Secretary say why, if it was right to restrict this young man's entry to 24 hours in the first place, the decision was later made to extend it to 14 days? Does he not appreciate that the impression given two hours before he was due to depart appeared to be giving way to threats, and that indecision of the Home Office is the worst possible thing?

Mr. Callaghan

No. I think that that is a partisan way of putting it. He agreed to a stay of 24 hours because that was the time taken to record the relevant programme. Then his legal representative came along with a further application, which was granted. I thought that it would be useful for him to do some of the things he wanted to do. I even thought of teaching him the words of the Internationale, as he does not seem to be too sure of them. When he expressed a desire to see Buckingham Palace I could think of nothing better for his education.

Mr. Whitaker

Is the Home Secretary aware that the Tories are making complete clowns of themselves by thinking that Great Britain will be threatened by this young man? Is he also aware that most people believe in living in Britain because we have a tradition of allowing minority dissenting viewpoints to be heard, unlike in the Soviet Union or at a Tory Party conference? In view of our tradition for giving this hospitality to de Gaulle, Napoleon and Garibaldi in the past, will the Home Secretary resist the Stalinist blandishments of the Opposition?

Mr. Callaghan

I have no intention of departing from the traditional view that we admit foreigners and that they are free to express their views, provided they keep within the law whilst they are here. I hope that the Leader of the Opposition supports that view.

Mr. Maudling rose

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We are talking about free speech. I want to hear what is said.

Mr. Maudling

The Home Secretary has made it clear that if this gentleman should act against the law he will take firm action. What will he do if, short of breaking the law, he should depart from the conditions put forward by his lawyer upon which he was admitted?

Mr. Callaghan

I should consider the circumstances and nature of the breach of the obligation.

Mr. Molloy

Will my right hon. Friend resist falling into the trap of the Opposition which, when it suits their purposes, call students who protest in Eastern counties freedom fighters and, when they protest in other circumstances, say that they are nuisances? Will my right hon. Friend maintain the tradition of this country and allow people to come here and, if they wish to protest, to be allowed to do so, on the understanding that they might also learn something?

Mr. Callaghan

I was hoping that by sticking to the traditional principle I was avoiding the danger of falling into a great many traps. I advise some hon. Members of the Opposition to do the same.

Sir C. Taylor

Did the right hon. Gentleman receive any representations from the French Government and was a dossier on this particular man sent by the French Government? If the Home Secretary received representations, what were they?

Mr. Callaghan

I have had no representations and no dossier. He arrived with a German passport, which he presented. If I do get any representations I will, of course, consider them.

Mr. Raymond Fletcher

Is my right hon. Friend aware that when I was the same age as this young man I held precisely the same views and engaged, with rather less success, in the same form of activities? Is my right hon. Friend also aware that I began to simmer down and grow up—

Mr. Speaker

We must have a question and not an autobiography.

Mr. Fletcher

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that further contact with a democratic Labour movement such as we have in Britain will have the same salutary effect on Mr. Cohn-Bendit as it had on me?

Mr. Callaghan

For many years I have watched over the flowering of my hon. Friend's genius, and perhaps if Mr. Cohn-Bendit stays here for as long as my hon. Friend has he will attain the same level of eminence.

Mr. Frederic Harris

How can the right hon. Gentleman possibly stand by the policy decision in this case, when only a short while ago his Government were responsible for withdrawing the passport of Sir Frederick Crawford?

Mr. Callaghan

That is another question. Sir Frederick Crawford was not denied admission to this country, and, as far as I know, while he was here he freely expressed his opinions, whether they were agreeable or not.

Mr. Winnick

Can my right hon. Friend explain why, although Mr. Cohn-Bendit has been present for more than 24 hours, as yet we have had no revolution? Is this due to the sunny climate?

Mr. Callaghan

No. Sir. I have no doubt that people in this country will set their own valuation on any sentiments expressed by Mr. Cohn-Bendit—or by anybody else who comes to these shores —whatever he may preach.

Sir W. Bromley-Davenport

At a time when our great ally the French people are fighting for their very existence against Communist revolution, is it not typical of the bad taste of the B.B.C. that it should bring over to this country and offer payment and publicity to one of the archenemies of free speech and law and order?

Mr. Callaghan

That question should be addressed to the Postmaster-General.