HL Deb 27 July 1916 vol 22 cc983-97

LORD SHEFFIELD had the following Question on the Paper:—

To ask His Majesty's Government whether, by the powers contained in Section 12 of the Aliens Restriction Consolidation Order or otherwise, any pressure has been put through the Police on Russian subjects in this country to return to Russia; whether Russian and other alien friends are made aware by the authorities that there is no obligation on them to return to their own country; whether the policy of the Government is as indicated by the Home Secretary in the House of Commons on 11th July, to present to refugees here the alternative of deportation to their own country or military service in the British Army; and whether, in the event of His Majesty's Government abandoning the policy of asylum for political refugees which has long been the settled practice of this country, persons whom the British Government desires to expel will at any rate be left a free choice among the countries that do not close their doors to political refugees.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Question standing in my name is one which I am very sorry should have to be raised, and I regret extremely that the action of any Minister should have laid the foundation for the points to which I wish to call attention. There is no material dispute about the facts. We have had a case in the Law Courts, and its latter phase is reported this morning in the newspapers. I will not discuss the exact legality of the action of the Home Secretary, because that question is challenged and will come before the High Court. In fact, I do not raise this question as one of mere legality. Under the Defence of the Realm Act we have given to the Government the very widest powers to act for the security of the nation. We have given them powers to intern people on suspicion, and to do all sorts of things; and the wider the powers we give to the administrators the more important it is that those administrators should bear in mind what the tradition of the English Government and of English policy has been, and should keep a severe check on themselves not to use those powers one atom beyond what is necessary for the defence of the country, and not to be led away into acts of violence which are apt to be mistaken as being acts of strength.

The question which I am raising principally relates to Russian refugees, and among these mostly Jews. But I do not raise this subject simply in the interest of Russians or of Jews, but in the interest of the time-honoured custom of this country that it should be an asylum for political and other refugees from other countries. But as to the facts, they must be illustrated mainly from the conditions of these Russian Jew refugees. Although, of course, one might do so, I do not in the least wish to raise the question of the propriety of the acts of any foreign Government, even in time of peace. To my mind, nations ought to be their own critics; and the less one nation makes itself an ethical critic of another the better. And if that is a wise policy in time of peace, I feel it is more obligatory on me in time of war not to raise a discussion which should attack the policy and legislation of a country with which we are in alliance. But, quite apart from that, I do not think that anybody will dispute that these Jewish refugees view with apprehension, and, I may say, even terror, the prospect of being deported from this country and sent back to Russia.

May I just mention—this is incidental, but it illustrates what I think is the thoughtlessness of the Home Secretary—that the great mass of these Jewish refugees are said to come, not from Russia proper, but from Poland. They were inhabitants of that district which is now over-run by the German Armies and under the control of the German Administration. As your Lordships know, Jews are not allowed to settle freely in any part of Russia. Many of these men have come with their wives, others have left their families behind, but in either event it is quite impossible for them, if sent back to Russia, to re-enter the district where they lived and where their associates are; and they have no legal status to stop in other parts of Russia. How incongruous it is for a people which has behind it the traditions of this country to attempt to put these refugees in the position which I have described.

It ought to be stated at once—I think Mr. Samuel mentioned it in the House of Commons—that no invitation or request whatever has come from the Russian Government for us to take this action. It is a purely spontaneous and gratuitous act on the part of the Home Office here. As I have said, it has been our boast for centuries that this country is a hospitable refuge for those who flee from other lands. At the time of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew in 1572 and of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, we were the refuge for the Huguenots. To come to more modern times: Mazzini found a refuge here when he fled from Italy; Victor Hugo came to Jersey to escape from the despotism of Napoleon III. We have never inquired into the antecedents of those who have sought a refuge here, but have received them; and they have been subject to the common law—answerable for their actions, but not for their opinions.

But what has been the action of the Home Office? It is obvious that there is no legal obligation on an alien to serve in the British Army. But by the threat of expulsion—not expulsion to the wide world, but expulsion to Russia, from which these people have fled—the Home Secretary has endeavoured to force them to do a tiling which he had no legal right to demand, namely, to enter the British Army. It was alleged by the Home Secretary in the House of Commons that he first of all invited these people to enrol themselves voluntarily, and that it was because he met with practically no response that he had fallen back upon these threats. Even if he had met with no response, he had no right to fall back on threats; but I am advised that this statement of this invitation to enrol voluntarily was a very deceptive and superficial one. I understand that a few notices were posted up in the Tower Hamlets, but that they were rapidly pasted over with other notices. There was really nothing to bring it home to these people to enlist. And what is more, it was not enough to invite them to enlist; they should be invited to enlist under fair conditions.

What is associated with the obligation of military service? I take it that it is connected in the minds of all with the rights of citizenship. Mr. Samuel has indicated that the idea might be entertained that any Russians who came forward and enrolled themselves in the British Army should at the expiration of the war, were their conduct satisfactory in the Army, be accepted as British subjects, with a waiver of the fee of £5 which is at present charged for naturalisation. That as a basis of negotiation would, I am told, secure a large number of recruits and would be equitable. But this statement would need to be supplemented. If a man is incapacitated by wounds or sickness before the expiration of the war, he should have the same credit, the same right of naturalisation, as if he had gone through the war, and if he is killed or dies of sickness his family should be able to come in just as if he had survived. These men should also have the same rights and privileges with regard to allowances for their dependants. It has been suggested that so long as a man is an alien he has no right to Poor Law relief in this country. For a time he has, but after a while there comes in the question of his removal. If these people are invited to enlist, they should be invited with a large-handed frankness and a willingness to allow them to become naturalised. The action of the Home Office has created a deep sense of mistrust of the offers that have been made to these people, and any further offers would require to be made much more definite and with much more adequate guarantees of genuineness than these people consider previously to have been the case.

Although it is not necessary for my argument—for, as I say, our traditional policy has been to receive these people freely and treat them hospitably until, by some definite act here, they forfeit their right to asylum—I should like to say what has been the reputation of these men in the East End of London. I have had a good deal of experience of them in connection with the late School Board for London. A large number of these people came from a country where their social and mental development had not been cared for. They came here not speaking a word of English, and almost with the elements of barbarism attaching to them What has been our experience of them in the East End of London? They have sent their children to school with excellent regularity; far more regularly than the British inhabitants sent their children, although they had become acclimatised to the School Board system under compulsion for years. The children of these refugees made good progress; they were intelligent, and did well in the scholarships that were awarded by the County Council and other bodies. As to the home, everybody will tell you that the Jewish family relations in tills crowded and poor part of London have been of the highest standard. Their infant mortality is much lower than that amongst the other people round them. They are religious. As to cleanliness, they keep their tenements cleaner than do the others round them. They are also industrious. So far as there has been any distress they have been relieved by the Jewish Board of Guardians, which has endeavoured to set them on their feet and not allow them to sink into the slough of pauperism. To sum up our practical experience, I would say that they have been industrious, sober, fond of their families, and anxious to get on.

Some say that these people are all socialists and revolutionists, and that they are very dangerous members of society. If you want to create revolutionary sentiments you can do it as easily as an epidemic of disease can be engendered in an ill-drained and ill-scavengered town. You have only to get the germs of social repression to produce acts of social revolution. As everybody knows, the longer these people have been here the more their revolutionary feelings wear out and the more anxious they are to be merged into the life of England. As soon as they can save the £5 which is necessary, these men rush forward for naturalisation. If you would do away with the strong suspicion which has been created through, to put it mildly, the impolitic action of the Home Office I believe very satisfactory results would be obtained. According to the figure given to me, there are in London not more than from 5,000 to 6,000 of these men of fighting age; but, whatever the numbers, surely we have not come so low as to seek them by coercive or fraudulent means. Were they approached properly, a large number of them would undoubtedly enlist. And if they are to be enlisted, let me say that I hope they will be invited to enlist in the general movement of the Army—I do not want a military Ghetto. Our object is to get these people to take to the idea of English citizenship. They may have pride in their race and religion, but a true sense of citizenship of the country of adoption can flourish side by side with the, racial peculiarities of the Jews. We see it in France, though it has been set back by the anti-Semitic feeling which has grown up there, and we also see it in the United States. It is said that every country gets the Jew it deserves.

To these people who have paid us the compliment of feeling that our country was an asylum and refuge for the oppressed we owe it to live up to that character and not go back from it. We ought not, by a cruel, oppressive, and abusive use of very vague and extensive powers granted for the defence of the Realm, to offer these people the sort of pirate's alternative, "Either be killed by me on deck or walk the plank." There is very little difference between that alternative and saying to these people that they must either be deported to Russia or join the British Army. Any one who has read the recent remarks of the Home Secretary in the House of Commons might think that I was exaggerating the situation, that I was, as the French say, bursting in an open door. He might say that the Home Secretary has conceded a great deal. That is one of the faults I find with the Home Secretary—namely, that his words and his acts do not correspond. Your Lordships will see from The Times of this morning that about ten days ago, almost at the moment that the Home Secretary was saying that no person had been evicted or forced back to Russia, the Police—and many of these poor people with Russian experience think that when a policeman enters the house it is the law itself coming in—the Police had been set to work illegally and without due authority and had said to these people, "You have to go back to Russia. Here is your ticket; you are to be at Euston Station on such and such a day."

I will illustrate this by the case of Charles Sarno, who, three years ago left Russia and came to this country seeking refuge. An order was served upon him; he was to be deported to Russia. That order was challenged by moving for a writ of habeas corpus on the ground that the order was valueless, not being signed by the Home Secretary. When it came to argument the representatives of the Crown abandoned the case. They admitted that there was an illegality, and Charles Sarno got his discharge. The Court, however, refused him his costs against the policeman who had illegally imprisoned him. What happened? On, I think, Tuesday last Charles Sarno appeared in Court and was set free. Immediately on leaving the Court he was again arrested at the door and told that he was to be put on board a ship bound for Russia. Now the Home Secretary, on Monday, said distinctly that it was quite false that he had ever ordered any man to go to Russia and that there would be no deportations. I must leave it to the Home Secretary to reconcile his action with his words. I am not surprised that the Jews in the East End of London want something more than the words of the Home Secretary as to how they are to be treated in the speculative regions of the future. As a matter of fact, Charles Sarno moved for a second writ of habeas corpus. His contention and that of his friends is that whereas Section 12 of the Aliens Restriction Consolidation Order enables the Secretary of State to deport a man, it does not enable him to determine the place to which that man shall be deported. I hope that your Lordships and the Government will see that a very grievous mistake has been committed by the Home Department, and that we shall have from the Front Government Bench what we are entitled to demand—namely, a vindication of the traditions of English freedom and hospitality. We ask that people's past in other countries shall not be raked up against them, and that no attempt shall be made to penalise them.

I think it would not be a bad thing for these men, if they were perfectly willing and free, to show their manliness and courage, their sense of recognition of the hospitality this country has extended to them, and their willingness to accept the obligations of citizenship—which I have said the great mass are only too glad to take up—by enrolling themselves voluntarily. But we have no right to intrude any element of coercion into that which ought to be a voluntary act. Let the Home Office attempt recruitment on frank and candid terms, and they will get these men—if they attach importance to them. I do not personally attach importance to them—a mere 5,000 or 6,000 among many millions. I attach importance to our own conduct.

We are not alone in this matter. This question was raised in France by the anti-Semitic party. It was carefully discussed, and a Committee was appointed to investigate it. I have the Report of that Committee in French, and I dare say the Home Office have it. If not, I am perfectly willing to give the Government representative on the Front Bench a copy of this Report, which has been drawn up by a member of the Sorbonne. The French Government refused to apply coercion to aliens who had taken refuge with them. We have a lot of hard cases here. We have a number of Russians who had taken refuge in Belgium, and who, when Belgium was overrun by the Germans, came to this country; and now they are, to be driven out of here, not to be set free like the dove from the Ark, to find any place where they can rest their feet, but to be driven into what is to them the anteroom for Siberia. I put this on the ground of our self-respect, and not on the ground of what we owe to anybody else. But I am told that this action of the Home Office has created grave disquiet in Salonika. The great mass of the population there are Jewish, and the people are hovering on the border of friendliness to the Central Powers or the Allies. Therefore any harsh action we may now take will show the Jews in Salonika that we are no friends of theirs, and they will think that we are not very much better than the Germans. I am told that articles have appeared in the American Press, and that our action is having a very bad effect upon the possible future good relations between us and America. But it is not because our action makes others condemn us that I have called attention to this matter. It is for ourselves and our own good name that I raise my voice— Pudet hœc opprobria nobis Et dici potuisse, ct non potuisse refelli. There is still time for the Government, as a responsible whole, to say that there has been a Departmental mistake, that the Cabinet have not had full consideration of the matter but are not going to be false to the traditions of English freedom.

It is necessary that this question should be raised in order to escape the disgrace, as I think it, of being false to our traditions. If, however, this country, through its official representatives, is going to run away from the most honourable traditions of the English people, do not let us be guilty of sending back refugees to the country from which they have fled, but let us at any rate say that the whole world is open to them. There is Holland, Switzerland, and America; all these countries would give asylum if we do not. Do not let it be supposed for a moment that in order to terrorise these people into joining our Army we are holding over them the threat of what would be a living death owing to the legal severities they might experience elsewhere. These people will go back to a country where they have practically no legal or civic rights; they will go back to a country—I think this is the least I can say about it, and I am obliged to say it—where we know that through official oppression and pogroms their lives have been made a torture. Mr. Samuel said the other day, when asked whether he was going to take any action with regard to Armenians because they were Turkish subjects, "Why bring out the formality that they are Turkish subjects when the Armenians have suffered as hardly any other nation has suffered?" But is he not threatening the people to whom I have referred with something almost as bad as the treatment that has been meted out to the Armenians? I beg to put the Question standing in my name on the Paper, and hope to receive a satisfactory answer.


My Lords, my noble friend will forgive me if I do not follow him in every channel of the speech which he has just made. He speaks with a great knowledge of the East End of London, and we know the labours that have engaged him for a lifetime in the educational work of this great city. With regard to the particular case that he mentioned, I cannot claim to be familiar with it. I think I might say, in regard to what the noble Lord said about the invitation to these Russians to enlist, that there were posters in Yiddish and English. This the noble Lord admits, although he does not seem to be quite satisfied with the publicity they obtained.


I said they were promptly pasted over.


Who pasted them over, I cannot say. But I may add that leading men were taken into counsel, and recruiting offices were opened in Lord Rothschild's office, but the results, as regards the invitation to join the British Army, were not at all satisfactory. It is not the case that any pressure has been put through the Police on Russian subjects in this country to return to Russia. There have been a few cases in which it has been found necessary to expel a certain number of Russian criminals or men of bad character from this country, but there has been no pressure put on Russians of good character living in this country to leave it.

Alien friends living here are not required by the British Government to leave this country; but if the Question of the noble Lord was intended to suggest—which I am sure it was not—that the British Government can excuse Allied subjects of military age from the obligations imposed by the law of their own country, it is impossible for the Government to take any action in this direction. It is obviously desirable in the interests of the Allied cause that the most effective use should be made of their resources in men, and very properly the British Government, in response to requests by the French, Belgian, and Italian Governments, lend their assistance for the purpose of securing that subjects of these Allied Governments who are in this country return to do their duty in their own national Army. If a Frenchman, Belgian, or Italian in this country who is liable to join his national Army refuses to do so when summoned by his own authorities, the British Government consider on the merits of each case whether to make him return to his own country, by force if necessary. This has not been done in the case of Russians, who are being exceptionally treated by being permitted by the Russian Government to serve in any of the Allied Armies.

Those who consider that the British Government propose to present to refugees here the alternative of deportation to their own country or military service in the British Army overlook one fact, and that is that Russian subjects will be given an opportunity of applying to a public Tribunal for exemption from service. And I may say that in the case of these people all reasonable steps will be taken to ensure that applications for exemption from service are considered by Tribunals having as members people specially qualified to deal with the cases before them. The desire of the Government is to enlist Russians in the British Army, and not to refuse hospitality to those who have been living here. It is impossible to apply by legislation the provisions of the Military Service Acts to Russians in this country, and the power which exists under the Aliens Restriction Act to require an alien to leave this country is the only convenient sanction for making service compulsory. If a Russian Jew is ready to enlist here, no question of his return to Russia arises; and the intention is that he shall be given facilities for making application to a Tribunal for exemption from service on exactly the same grounds as are open to a British subject under the Military Service Acts. All Russians in this country are not refugees, and it is obviously unfair to British subjects who are compelled to fight that Russian subjects of military age who have taken up their residence here should not make equal sacrifices in the common cause.

There is no question of the abandonment by the British Government of the policy of asylum for political refugees. The British Government have no desire to expel any one, but at the present time, when the restrictions on immigration are closely enforced everywhere, it is impossible to allow any person whose conduct makes it necessary to require him to leave this country to embark for any country except his own; and it is doubtful whether there is any country which would welcome the Russian who was leaving this country because he refused to take his share in the common burden here.


My Lords, I do not think the reply a satisfactory one at all. I think it admits everything that has been said by Lord Sheffield. Let me make clear what my view is, so that I may not be misunderstood. I do not in the least object to any one being required to serve his country or the country where he has taken refuge, if you can make him do so by law. That seems to be a reasonable duty to impose on all of us. I should not myself object to saying to a man, "We do not allow you to take the benefit of the defence that is being made by Englishmen and to do nothing yourself when you choose to come and reside here." But what I think is a startling proposition is that you should say to a Russian Jew, "Unless you will give your service in the Army you shall be sent back to Poland or to Russia, where you came from, and to no other country." That seems to me to be wrong. I remember about ten or eleven years ago being asked to take the chair, because I was a Christian and had no connection with the Jews, at a great meeting which was held to protest against the treatment of Polish Jews in Russia. I shall never forget the terror and affliction felt by these people and brought home to my mind by what I saw and heard at that enormous meeting. Now what is being done by Mr. Samuel—if you please!—of all people? If I were a Jew or bad a drop of Jewish blood in my veins, I would sooner cut my hand off than say to one of these men, "If you do not enlist in the British Army you, being a Polish Jew, shall go back, not where you like, to any part of the world, but to Poland or to Russia." That is admitted, apparently, by the noble Lord. This kind of thing will only kindle feelings of bitterness among Jews, who are admirable citizens and have strong racial feelings. I respectfully submit that it ought not to be done, and I hope that the noble Marquess, Lord Lansdowne, will use his influence against such an impolitic, such an unworthy, course of action, so widely departing from the past traditions of this country.


My Lords, the noble Lord who answered this Question is so suave and courteous in his manner that the House might have thought, from the reply received, that we were discussing some trumpery matter of an Irish sub-postmastership or something of that sort; and the Front Bench did not think the matter of sufficient importance to leave a representative here through the greater part of the speech of my noble friend Lord Sheffield. But we do not want smooth words and smooth phrases. We want a considered answer to a very serious question—a question which has excited feelings of concern in all of us who have any care for the old traditions of British freedom. No amount of glozing over will remove the necessity for a plain answer. The question is, Are you going to deport to Russia Russians who, when they get there, will be dealt with by their Government for political offences? The noble Lord has admitted the first part of the charge made by Lord Sheffield. He has admitted that to these Russians of military age the alternatives have been presented: Either you must serve in one of I he Allied Armies or you shall be deported to Russia.


Subject to the Tribunal.




On which carefully selected people are placed.


That has nothing to do with it. This is a matter, not for Tribunals, but for Parliament. If such laws were required they should not be carried out by administrative action but should be passed by Parliament in a Statute. This seems to me to be a dangerous introduction into this country of that method of punishment by administrative action which has been looked upon as a curse in Russia and as the greatest possible menace to freedom. Lord Sandhurst has not told us—except in regard to the Tribunals, for which I care nothing—what safeguards His Majesty's Government have taken to see that these men are not political refugees and will not be punished for political offences when they return. I dare say they will not accept the man's own statement, but steps should be taken to have it corroborated as far as possible. The noble Lord has not told us that if the man is a political refugee the Tribunal ipso facto will excuse him.

But there is another very simple precaution which could be taken if His Majesty's Government were in earnest in this matter. They could easily obtain an assurance from the Russian Government, particularly now that we are allied with them, that no man who was returned under this system would be tried for a political offence until he had been placed in as good a position at any rate as he was in before he was deported. It is all very well to say, "Here are men who have taken refuge in this country; they are of military age"—that is true, but they are not our subjects and they are not subject to our Military Service Acts—"they are not bearing the burden which their fellow-countrymen and which our own countrymen, under the Military Service Acts in this country, have to bear." That is the sort of argument which is relied upon. But to these men we have an obligation, the obligation of the host to his guest. A host may request a guest to leave his house, but it is his duty to see that his guest returns to the same position of safety and freedom as he enjoyed before he entered his house. But the noble Lord is not giving a chance to these men to go where they like. They are to be deported to Russia, and not to the part of Russia where they lived before, and where they have friends, but to any part of that vast country. If such a great change is to be made in the right of asylum, it should not be done by administrative action; it should not be done by any Home Secretary or by any Cabinet; it should be done by the considered judgment of Parliament, after the matter had been discussed in the ordinary way by both Houses and the measure placed on the Statute Book.


My Lords. I came to the House this afternoon expecting to deal with a very different subject—namely, a Motion which was on the Paper in regard to the Declaration of Paris, but which has been postponed—and I have not considered the question which has been raised by my noble friend Lord Sheffield. It is impossible to have listened to the speeches which have been delivered without realising how deep and sincere is the feeling to which this question has given rise in the minds of the noble Lords who have spoken. I fully appreciate the point on which they have concentrated their attention. I understand that what they desire in particular to secure is that no refugee in this country shall be placed in the dilemma of having either to serve in the Army of this country or to return to another country in which he may find himself liable to pressure or harsh treatment on political grounds. I am quite sure that it is not the intention of those responsible for this policy that any person who has taken refuge in this country should be placed in that dilemma. I will not, however, pursue the subject further to-night; but I can assure the noble Lords who have spoken that I will make it my business to inquire into the matter, and if on some future occasion they are pleased to revert to it my noble friend or I will be prepared to deal more fully with the question.


With your Lordships' indulgence I should like to say that I accept the offer of the noble Marquess and I feel that a consideration of the matter by the Cabinet as a whole will be of the greatest value. I addressed this Question to the Leader of the House, because I wanted to know whether the whole Government were conscious of, and were making themselves responsible for, the action of the Home Office. We have had an answer merely from the noble Lord who represents the Home Office. I do not want to enter too much into controversy, but I may say that he was not accurate in his statement of the facts. I would refer Lord Sandhurst to the categorical statement made by Mr. Samuel on the 11th of this month—column 175 of Hansard: Russians of military age settled in this country will, unless they prefer to return for military service in Russia, be required to enlist in the British Army…. The details of the scheme are now being worked out… Lord Sandhurst referred to the power to go before a Tribunal to get excused. May I say that I consider it utterly worthless. In the first place, the whole force of the Tribunal attaches to the fact that the applicant is liable to military service unless he shows that he should be exempted. These men are not liable, and you have no right by a side wind to mate out that they are liable when they are not. But what shocked me most was the distinct assertion that these men would be sent back to Russia and not allowed freedom to go to any other country. It was suggested by the noble Lord that they were sending back only criminals and people of bad character. But you are not to take away a man's character by administrative decree on secret Police information. If a man is dangerous, the Government have the power to intern him during the period of the war; and they have power to deport a man if he is convicted of an offence and if the Judge thinks fit to recommend that such a step should be taken. But Heaven preserve us from the blackening of character by administrative decree! That is opening the door to the most ghastly scandal of Continental bureaucracy, from which I earnestly hope we shall always be free. In view of what the noble Marquess has been good enough to say, I trust that we shall soon have a satisfactory assurance with regard to this whole matter.


I suppose the noble Marquess will promise the House that there shall be no deportations meanwhile?


I will make inquiries.