HL Deb 10 September 1914 vol 17 cc589-602

My Lords, I rise to ask His Majesty's Government whether they will consider the desirability of advising His Majesty to make an Order in Council under the Aliens Restriction Act, 1914, making the whole of the East Coast of Great Britain and a distance of fifty miles inland therefrom a "prohibited area for alien enemies." In bringing this question forward I hope it will be considered that I do so in a non-controversial and purely non-Party spirit.

The Aliens Restriction Act which was recently passed gave certain powers for imposing restrictions upon aliens and prohibiting the residence of aliens in any area certified by Order in Council. My suggestion is that the whole of the East Coast and a distance of fifty miles inland should be a prohibited area in respect of alien enemies. I was informed that the coast of Aberdeenshire and Banff was a prohibited area, but when the matter was investigated this was found not, to be so. I may say that I knew it was not a prohibited area, because of our experience. The reason I have brought this matter up is that I am informed that there is no power, as the law exists to-day, to control alien enemies against whom we have absolute proof. The town of Aberdeen—my information conies from the Lord Provost and from the Chief Constable—sent up eighty-two eases. They had to go before the Provost-Marshal of the district in Edinburgh, who ordered twelve of the worst to be sent forward; the others were ordered to be held subject to their cases being considered. But the whole of the eighty-two have since been returned and have been at large in our midst. Some of them have been known to have been actively engaged in signalling from the coast, yet in present conditions the Police have no power to act. They have power to arrest the individual and to take from him any arms or camera or anything else that he is carrying, but they have no power to go to his house and search for papers. Therefore their powers may be said to be nil.

The aliens to whom I am referring and who were caught red-handed were found to be back in the district again, many of them distributed along the coast as voluntary farm labourers. They were all better off than when they were sent away, and they are now actively engaged in some way or other in passing on information. The smallest and most insignificant thing that happens in connection with departures from the ports of Aberdeen, Peterhead, Fraserburgh, and Banff is recorded. There was one matter to which I called the attention of the Police, but with regard to which they had no power to interfere. I refer to the photographing of the "drifters" as they are called—the trawlers—as they go out, the very thing that to-day is most actively required by those who are sowing mines. I know of cases in which mines have exploded after drifters had passed over them in the morning. These alien enemies have photographed the drifters going out of harbour. It is illegal to photograph any part of the harbour or anything inshore, but it is not illegal to photograph ships going out of harbour, and the Police inform me that they have no power to stop these photographs being taken.

A much more serious item is this. Within a mile-and-a-half of our principal naval wireless station at Aberdeen lives a noted German. He is an ex-captain in the Prussian Army and has been called out, twice. Each time it has been said, "Never mind; you stay there." Anyhow he has gone through two wars with honours given to him, and yet he is allowed to reside within a mule-and-a-half of our principal naval wireless station. The Police have no power to go into his house. They have at present two men constantly shadowing him. But why should the law stop at that, and not enable the authorities to carry the thing out and put an end to what is now going on—the loss of life to our gallant people. There are no braver men than those who are engaged in sweeping for mines. I know that there are two or three volunteers all the time for every one that is missing. Therefore from the point of view of humanity we should so arrange the law that it will permit of the removal of these people who are actively engaged as enemies in our midst. I have it from officers in the highest command that information is all the time being given from our coast.

I will give an instance. How is it that none of our Fleet, who are steadily working sweeping the whole of the North Sea with the best kind of outlook, were aware of the whole bunch of Grimsby fishermen who were picked up? Why were not they noted? Why, because they had information and had to go elsewhere. We cannot with our existing forces be considered to keep a good look-out, because the coastguards are down to one man a station with eight boy scouts. They do splendid work night and day and are giving evidence that is extraordinary, but it is not the evidence that will pay on this question of knowing what is a dangerous craft. That can come only from the knowledge of fishermen or people connected with the places from which boats go out, who know the numbers of the boats and can readily recognise them as belonging to Aberdeen or other ports. These are matters which I am perfectly certain His Majesty's Government can ascertain from agents who have been over the ground within the last three days.

The question of scheduling a distance inland, which is my request, is simply a matter of elasticity of the law. I put the distance at fifty miles, because that was suggested to me by the Police. It is not necessary to schedule the whole of the coast line, but in the Question which I have placed on the Paper I have made the suggestion sufficiently broad to cover the whole of the East Coast. I do not say that there is an absolute necessity for fixing the distance inland at fifty miles. It is a question of how far these alien enemies should be put back. A large number of these men who are enemies of our country are actively engaged in the fishing business in Aberdeen, Fraserburgh, and Peterhead. Nearly all the salesmen and clerks are German. Sonic of them have changed their nationality, but they are of German extraction and remain of German sympathy. And these are the persons who are coming in and going out of the ports alongside the coast in the course of their regular business. They go out to other boats. And look at the information they can carry! The whole thing is as plain as anything. I do not say that the signalling is of much importance, although there is no doubt about its being done. A young fellow was caught during the last three days. This is all well known to the Admiralty. They saw that there was night signalling by means of a flash light going on, and they got cross bearings until they actually fixed the window from which it was coming. Then the Police acted, and arrested the man red-handed with a flash light. If that is not evidence I do not know what is. That is the sort of thing that can be proved up to the hilt. Therefore I think I am justified in requesting that the present law should be so extended that it would enable the authorities to guard our interests and our shores in a better way than is at present the case.

As regards the naval wireless station to which I have referred, there is no question about the matter. At the present moment within a mile-and-a-half of this wireless station a German citizen with a commission in the Prussian Army is representing German capital in the business that he is doing. He is carrying it on for the benefit of our enemies. Is that man to be allowed to remain a resident at that spot? Any lad can, with a small plant, read wireless messages. I do not say that he would have the code. He could read them, but he could not decode them. But there is some one in this country who is decoding them in such a rapid way that the official telegrams are known to the enemy nearly as quickly as they are to our own people. I am not speaking from imagination, but from information supplied to me by officers and men whose names, of course, I cannot mention. I therefore ask the Question standing in my name, and I hope to receive a favourable reply.


My Lords, the noble Lord who has asked this Question prefaced his remarks by saying that this was no Party question and that he did not introduce it in any Party spirit. I am confident that no one in this House would suggest that any proposal made from the other side at this moment of national gravity for the better protection of the country was made in any Party spirit. I am sure we are all with the noble Lord in that feeling. I may inform him that the areas prescribed by the Aliens Restriction Order as "prohibited areas" within which alien enemies are precluded from residing without a special permit from the Police were the subject of long and careful consideration by a sub-committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence prior to the outbreak of war. These were prescribed in the Order issued on August 5, and they included all those portions of the coast line which the naval and military authorities thought it necessary to protect in this way. In the course of the administration of the Order since the war began it has been found desirable to add certain areas to those which were already prohibited, and at any time when it is found necessary to do so further areas can be added.

At the present moment the prohibited areas extend in an almost continuous chain on the East Coast from Kent right up to Northumberland, and again from Haddingtonshire to Aberdeenshire, and they run inland for a distance of ten miles and upwards from the coast line. I take it that the cases of signalling and so on cited by the noble Lord have taken place at a considerably less distance than fifty miles and probably much nearer the coast than ten miles, so it would not seem quite clear that the extension of the area to fifty miles as suggested would afford any further protection; but certainly the illustrations which he has given are of a serious character, and I will bring them to the notice of those in authority and see what further can be done to meet the views which the noble Lord has expressed. I cannot help thinking that the noble Lord is mistaken when he says that the Police have not sufficient powers. I thought they had ample powers, under the various Acts and Orders in Council that have been passed recently, to deal with any such matters as he has brought to the notice of the House. It has never been suggested by the naval or military authorities that it was necessary to extend the ring of prohibited areas to fifty miles or any such distance inland. It has certainly been believed up to now that the prohibited areas as now prescribed afford the protection which it was considered necessary by the authorities to secure. His Majesty's Government are fully alive to the desirability of maintaining and, if necessary, increasing this protection, as, indeed, they have power to do, and they will take the proper steps for the purpose as soon as it appears to them to be desirable to do so.


My Lords, there is one point to which I desire to draw the attention of the House and which is not covered by the Aliens Restriction Order. It is this. Under the German National Law of last year a German may take out naturalisation papers in any other country and yet remain a German citizen. It is obvious that if a German takes out naturalisation papers in this country he ceases to be regarded as an alien and does not come under the provision of the Aliens Restriction Order. I venture to think that this is a very important point, and it is one that is not generally realised. In the White Paper that was issued in March of this year your Lordships will find the following description of the German National Law— A person does not lose his naturalisation if, before acquiring a foreign nationality, he has applied for and has received permission from the proper authorities of his home State to retain his nationality. I speak under correction, but I believe that we do not require aliens who take out naturalisation papers here to declare whether or not they had announced to their home authorities that they desired to give up their original nationality. If that is the case, it is obvious that a man can be at the same time a German citizen and a British citizen, and he is therefore in a position to serve whichever State he prefers and whichever pays him best.

I venture to think that we are gradually learning common sense on this subject, and that many of us on both sides since the outbreak of this war feel that the only punishment for a spy who is caught is that he should be shot. That is the opinion in both of our Services, and it is gradually becoming the almost universal opinion of civilians as well. It makes no difference whether the spy is caught actually on the field of battle or many hundreds of miles away He is acting against this country, and the ordinary penalty recognised under international law is that that man should be shot. It is a question between his life and the lives of, perhaps, many hundreds of citizens of this country serving in His Majesty's Army or Navy, and even of civilians. We want to make perfectly dear what is a citizen of this country and what is not; and any man if he is not actually a citizen of this country who pretends to be a citizen of this country should be treated as a spy.

I have been at some pains to discover what oath has to be taken in other countries before a man is allowed to take out his nationality there, and I venture to think that we might learn a great deal from the United States in this matter. When a man takes out naturalisation papers here, all that he has to do is to swear that he "will be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King George V, his heirs and successors, according to law"; but in the United States he has to forswear his former country. He has to swear that he will support the Constitution of the United States, and that he absolutely and entirely renounces and abjures all allegiance and fidelity to every foreign Prince, Potentate, State, or Sovereignty, and particularly by name to the Prince, Potentate, State, or Sovereingty of which before he was a citizen or subject. In our Naturalisation Law there is a very grave loophole. We do not definitely make clear that before a man can become a citizen of this country he has to cease to be a citizen of any other.

I draw the attention of the Government to this point, and I suggest that our Naturalisation Laws should even now be looked into; that those persons who have been naturalised should be compelled to take this further oath, and that foreigners who are coming into this country at the present moment should be asked to take an oath of a similar kind. There are many Belgian refugees coming in whom we are only too glad to help by every means in our power. But mixed up with them may be others who are not refugees from Belgium but enemies of this country. I venture to suggest, that when an alien lands he should be asked whether he is prepared to forswear allegiance to those countries with whom we are at present at war. Every Belgian, of course, would take such an oath without a moment's hesita- tion, as every Englishman would also. I think we should then be able to separate the sheep from the goats; and any man who had taken that oath and who acted against this country would unquestionably be a spy, and should be treated as spies ought to be treated in any country during a state of actual warfare.


My Lords, I understood the noble Viscount opposite to say that on August 6 last the area from Haddingtonshire to Aberdeenshire was scheduled as a prohibited area for alien enemies. I myself live on the coast south of the noble Lord who initiated this discussion, I live on the water area which leads up to the base of Rosyth, which is masked by the Forth Bridge, and I should like to inform the noble Viscount that, whatever may have been scheduled as regards alien enemies in that area, an area of vital importance to the efficiency of our Fleet, alien enemies continue to reside on the coast. In spite of what the noble Viscount said, I state categorically—and I can give proofs of what I say—that aliens are living there now. Last week at the extreme end of the county of Fife nearly opposite Dundee, owing to the activity of a civilian friend of mine, an alien who had been living there for years was detected tapping wires. Thanks to the energy of a local soldier who is a member of this House that German gentleman has been safely put out of the way and is now residing behind barbed wire in Edinburgh. That happened ten days ago. What had that man been doing since August 6, when Fife, of immense importance from the point, of view of strategic information, was scheduled as a non-alien area? A few miles closer to Rosyth, on the coast, nearly opposite to my own home, there is a German living, or was a few days ago. A few miles further up, at Kirkcaldy, again closer to the Forth Bridge, on Monday last there were two German aliens resident, and possibly a third; and I dare say if I had cared to pursue my inquiries on the opposite coast I could have found, at Portobello and elsewhere, other alien enemies enjoying similar facilities in a prohibited area. The desire of the Home Office is well shown by their announcement that these areas are prohibited, but I ant afraid they have not been very successful in putting their schedule into effective operation.


My Lords, I was glad to note that the noble Viscount who spoke for the Government admitted frankly that the facts to which my noble friend Lord Leith called attention were of a serious character. There can be no doubt as to that. The Act to which reference has been made and which was passed a few weeks ago gives, as your Lordships are aware, very wide and extensive powers to the authorities. It does not seem to me that the Act is in any way to blame in this matter, but I think a case has been made out to show that a little more strictness might well be used both in regard to the areas to which the Act is applied and as to the manner in which, within those areas, the powers of the Police are made use of. I do not for a moment suggest, because I do not know sufficient of the subject, that it is necessary to extend the prohibited area, as my noble friend suggests, to a distance of fifty miles inland from the seaboard. That may be unnecessary. But even within the area to which the Act at present applies it would seem, from what has been stated to us both by Lord Leith and by Lord Crawford, that there are at this moment persons residing whose presence in such regions is, to say the least, extremely undesirable.

Let me repeat, if I may, what I understood my noble friend Lord Leith to say as to the particular case to which he invited attention. He is aware of the fact that a German ex-officer is at this moment permitted to reside within a distance of a mile-and-a-half of an important wireless telegraph station. It cannot be contended that this ex-officer is a notoriously innocuous person, because my noble friend tells us that he has been shadowed by the Police. If he is a person whose record or whose present position is so little satisfactory that he has to be shadowed by the Police, I venture to think he ought not to be allowed to reside there at all. There are many reasons why a little extra strictness and vigilance is necessary, and one of them certainly is to be found in this—that at the present moment I gather that for obvious reasons the seaboard can only be very insufficiently patrolled. I think my noble friend said that many stations were in charge of one coastguard and eight boy scouts. If that is all the force that we have to rely upon to watch the proceedings of suspect characters, it semis to me very much better that such persons should be warned that they should transfer themselves to some other part of the country.


My Lords, I think the House will not regret that a discussion of this kind has taken place because it is clearly desirable, where a great deal of suspicion exists throughout the country—in some cases, as I believe, in exaggerated form—that the whole subject should be discussed in Parliament; and consequently I do not regret that the noble Lord opposite has raised this particular question. With reference to what was said by Lord Stanhope, I have no doubt that the Home Office will consider the particular point which he made as to naturalisation. But I am bound to say that I think he is rather sanguine if he believes that the exacting of a declaration from an alien desiring naturalisation that he should renounce the King of Wurtemberg, or the King of Prussia, or the Sovereign whose subject he might be, would prevent such a man, if he was of evil disposition, from engaging in espionage if he settled here and intended to do so. I am afraid that a safeguard of that kind would be nugatory in the case of those for whom it would be specially designed by the noble Earl.


I did not think that it would entirely prevent espionage. But a man who had taken an oath of that kind and then broke it could be dealt with with far greater severity.


There is no difficulty in dealing with necessary severity with any person who is found guilty of actual and dangerous espionage. When it comes to a question of people being executed—I believe that no such case has taken place in this country up to now—nobody will deny that in certain cases such a punishment would be fully deserved, and if the circumstances demanded it I have no doubt that that penalty would have to be paid. We need not be unduly mealy-mouthed in the matter. But in a great number of cases a slighter penalty would be generally held, as I believe, to meet the case. Then the noble Earl opposite, Lord Crawford, mentioned the particular case of the coast of Scotland. I think he did not quite do justice to Lord Allendale's statement when he implied that my noble friend had said that the whole of the East Coast from the Thames up to the North of Scotland was a prohibited area.


From Haddingtonshire to Aberdeenshire was what Lord Allendale said, and I so quoted him.


I think the phrase which my noble friend used was that it was practically continuous, or something of that kind—not that the whole of the coast, as a matter of fact, is a prohibited area. What I believe occurs is that from certain centres at which danger is thought possible a considerable length of coast line and a certain area inland are taken, and that forms a prohibited area. But it is quite possible there may be some gap between that and the next prohibited area along the coast where there is no habitation and presumably no danger and no means of communication. As regards the County of Fife, if I remember aright there are something like sixty parishes in that county which are within a prohibited area, and that must comprise a considerable part of the county, and, I take it, the greater part of the coast line.


Does the noble Marquess say that there are already sixty parishes in the County of Fife which are within a prohibited area?




Then why was not the parish of Crail scheduled, from which wireless messages can be sent as far north as the eastmost point of Aberdeen and the same distance south, and which parish commands the whole entry to the Forth?


My knowledge of the County of Fife is not equal to the noble Earl's and I cannot answer his interrogation offhand, but I am not saying that his is not a question to be put to the proper authority. And that leads me to say a word about the original Question put by the noble Lord opposite, Lord Leith. He mentioned certain specifie instances in which, as he thought, there had been failure on the part of the authori- ties to put the Act into proper operation, and he also expressed some doubt as to whether the terms of the Act itself were altogether sufficient to meet the case. It seems to me, in all such cases as these, where a particular place or even a particular person or persons are involved, that where the noble Lord or anybody else considers that there has been a failure to administer the Act, the proper course in the first instance is to bring the circumstances to the notice of the proper authority, the Admiralty, or the Home Office, or whatever the authority might be, before attempting to raise the question in Parliament. Here we are only able, as a matter of fact, to look at the matter in its more general aspect; but I am quite certain that all the Departments are desirous of doing their duty in safeguarding these particular areas to the utmost possible extent, and that they would be only too grateful to anybody with local knowledge who called attention to anything which might be regarded as a gap in the administration. I cannot believe that any such representation would be resented by any one of the Departments concerned.

As regards the case of particular individuals, I may remind the House that all enemy aliens who are liable to any form of military service are, as it is, to a man interned. No such person is about loose. In addition to that, there are a great many more—I do not exactly know how many, but it may run into thousands—who, for one reason or another, are regarded as suspicious characters and have been put away, or at any rate are not allowed to live within a prohibited area. And if the particular case to which the noble Lord alluded is one which ought to be brought under the notice of the authorities, I am sure the noble Lord will take that course and will be able to adduce the evidence which he considers sufficient in the special instance to warrant a severe treatment of the particular individual. There are, as we all know, a certain number of aliens—Germans and Austrians—who have been resident for a long time in this country and who have become much more English than anything else, and to whom it would be a very severe hardship to be turned out of house and home and perhaps deprived of the power of conducting their business. Careful discrimination has to be used. I should be far from saying that any error on the side of excessive leniency or anything approaching carelessness ought to be condoned, and where there was a doubt I myself should not give the man the benefit of it, but I should give this country the benefit of it and see that he was removed, even at some possible hardship to him.

I may say once more that I do not at all regret that this subject has been raised. The noble Lord, if he will forgive my saying so, once or twice made my blood run slightly cold because I thought he was going to give details about the particular manner in which the coast was guarded, which world be supplying information not generally known to the public and of a kind which ought not to be spread abroad. But in the main I think we need not be otherwise than grateful to him for having raised the subject, and although we all ought to avoid anything approaching a feeling of panic in this matter yet it is one which has to be most carefully watched, and I am certain that my right hon. friends who preside over the particular Departments concerned are fully alive to its importance.


I can give an instance of the kind of which the noble Marquess has spoken. A professor who has resided for thirty years in this country, during the whole of which time he was connected with a college on the coast of Scotland, has been arrested within the last two days, and the authorities found in his house papers containing the exact lines of the whole coast, together with notes of the information that he had given as to the coast north and south of St. Andrews.


We certainly need not doubt that such cases exist, and a case of that kind ought, of course, to be promptly and in one sense at any rate severely dealt with. I think it is quite possible that there are Englishmen who have resided in Germany for a great number of years who, to the best of their ability, are trying to do the same thing, and it need not altogether fill one with surprise. The precise degree of moral guilt attaching to conduct of that kind must depend upon a hundred different circumstances, and can only be understood by reference to the particular cases. But, of course, we entirely agree that even long residence in this country is not an absolute safeguard, although in sonic cases I am glad to think that Germans and Austrians have made this country their home, and, as I hope, greatly prefer it to their own.