§ 6.3 p.m.
LORD KILLEARN rose to draw attention to the continuing distress of British citizens expelled by order of Colonel Nasser from Egypt and deprived of resources held both in Egypt and in the United Kingdom; to urge upon Her Majesty's Government the need for decision to grant interim relief from United Kingdom resources to admitted claims pending a just and full final settlement; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords I rise to put before your Lordships' House the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. Before I get down to my main theme, may I register (and I feel sure I shall have the feeling of the House with me in this) an expression of the embarrassment in which we have been placed by being kept waiting here from 2.30 this afternoon until 6 o'clock by other business. I raised this matter once before and I have the record here. I raised it on April 30. I referred to the interests of the Private Member. I put a Question [OFFICIAL RFPORT, Vol. 203 (No. 61), col. 185]:
To ask the Leader of the House whether the Standing Orders can be so altered as to prevent a debate on an important Motion being delayed by Bills and other matter placed in front of it on the Order Paper subsequent to the tabling of the Motion.
§ On that occasion I pointed out to your Lordships that on March 28 I could not get up to speak on a Resolution which I was moving until two-and-a-half hours after the House met on a Thursday afternoon. To-day—another Thursday—the House met at 2.30 and it is now past six o'clock. It is not fair to your Lordships to be kept waiting in this way on a matter of this importance. You have taken the trouble to come down here because of the importance of this matter. And what has happened? There has been a procedural affair which has held us up. I leave that matter in the hands of the House, but I submit it is one to which serious attention should be called. Having said that, I will pass to my main theme—the Motion before the House.
Before I left my home this morning, through the kindness of Lord Hailsham my attention was called to a little item of news in The Times. The date line is: "Cairo, June 26". The item is quite short. It reads:
The Egyptian Government to-night announced that it had decided to permit the arrival of a British Committee to survey the position of British property in Egypt sequestrated by the Government.
That was a Reuter message. I thought it well to bring that little item to the notice of your Lordships, because some of you may have missed it. I have taken advice in competent circles in this connection, because it struck me on the face of it as being possibly of some importance—we do not know, of course; it may be rather a red herring. I have taken opinion in competent circles and that opinion is to the effect that, in practice, desequestration would be next to impossible to implement, for the refugees' property has been disposed of, their homes no longer exist, in many cases the individuals have had to shift for themselves and many of them have gone to far distant lands. I brought that in only because I thought it right to do so. So far as I am aware neither the Government nor anyone else really knows exactly what the report means.
§ Now may I turn to my main theme? In Arabic there is a vernacular expression "Talta t'abtah" which, roughly interpreted, means: "Third time lucky". This is the third time that I find myself addressing your Lordships on this subject. I make no excuse for doing it a third time because the cause is so important and so just that one would be justified in putting it to your Lordships again; indeed, one would be justified in putting it an innumerable number of times until justice is obtained. I am encouraged by the Arabic expression which I have just quoted, and I only hope that it may prove true on this occasion. I hasten to add that there is also an Arabic proverb which means: "There are days of honey and there are days of onions". I only hope that, despite the lateness of the hour, this may prove to be a day of honey and not a day of onions.
The special reason I say that is this—and I come back once more now to April 30 when I raised the Question which I have mentioned in your Lordships' House. I feel that I am doing a courageous thing to-day because—it is true he spoke in a mood of jest—on that occasion the noble Earl, Lord Home, referring to me said [col. 186]
May I say that we will take all steps available to us to see that he does lose a Division whenever he moves a Motion.
The noble Earl qualified that later by saying:
The noble Lord must not take what I said too seriously.
Nor do I take it too seriously. At the same time, I would point out that I am running against that declaration from the Front Bench which I would much rather not have seen recorded in Hansard.
§ Now to proceed with my main theme, may I first of all make a general observation. Like other Members of your Lordships' House I have spent many years in Government service under many Governments—since, I think, 1902, to be accurate. During much of that long period it was my privilege to serve abroad as representative of the Crown and the Government. My function was to do my best for my country and, coupled with that, to do my best for my local community. I spent twelve years in China, twelve years in Egypt and periods in other places. I can say with all sincerity that during that time I had many cases to deal with and many tricky negotiations to carry through—some successful and some not—but in my long career I have never had a more frustrating experience than trying to defend the interests of my own compatriots with our own Government.
§ Let me touch on the question of the timetable. These people were expelled about the beginning of November—that is to say, seven months ago—and since then I have moved two Motions in your Lordships' House and have asked innumerable questions. We had to ease up at the Easter and the Whitsun Recesses. On February 28, in one of these debates, we were told that it was unreasonable to expect the Government to formulate policy until they had done investigating, collating and collecting the claims, and that it would take six to eight weeks. Already these people had waited a long time and they were in great straits, as I shall bring out in a moment, but my noble friends and I decided that we would wait for those eight weeks. That brought us to May 23. It so happened that that synchronised with the debate on the Suez Canal on a Motion by the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, and my friends and I considered that we should be ill-advised to bring this question up in that debate 496 because it would be liable to be submerged in much higher issues. I believe that we were right. That is how it comes about that this Motion is before your Lordships' House to-day, June 27.
§ May I touch on how this whole problem has developed? The seizure of the Canal took place at the end of July and the Anglo-French action followed—I thought too late, but that is neither here nor there. As a result of that action, Egypt took retaliatory action against our nationals. That took the form of the expulsion from Egypt of all British nationals and the seizure and sequestration of their property of every sort and kind. As we know, many of them were thrust out at the point of the bayonet and allowed to bring nothing out at all except £E15 in paper money. They had to leave everything behind. Truly their situation on arrival here was desperate.
§ Their arrival did awaken a certain amount of public interest and sympathy. I think that their plight would have provoked more public sympathy if their arrival had not coincided with the wave of public indignation over Hungary and that wonderful and noble response for the wretched Hungarians. I expect that that blunted the edge of public sympathy with these unfortunate co-nationals of our own. I cannot think of any other reason. But it is rather surprising that up to date the Press has not taken more active interest in the question, although lately there has been a burst of interest, along interesting lines—namely, that the attitude taken by the Government is indefensible and that the Government ought to do better.
§ Here I would pay all credit to the Government for having established the Colyton Committee. I am not throwing any bricks or criticism at the noble Lord, Lord Colyton. I believe that he has run his Board with the ability which we should expect from him, and they have given great relief to many cases of real hardship where people were in need of subsistence. But we have it on record, in the words of the noble Lord himself, that his mandate is limited and does not allow him to cope with the type of case I am talking about to-day, which involves a claim for financial compensation and restitution. His Committee cannot touch it. That is a great pity. When the Government formed this Board, which took 497 the name of the Anglo-Egyptian Resettlement Board, I had hoped that they would have a far wider mandate and would be placed under a Minister. I believe that that would have saved much trouble and delay, much misunderstanding and much departmental bother.
In view of the length of time which has elapsed, are noble Lords seriously surprised that these wretched people are beginning to lose patience and suspect that the Government have been purposely dragging their feet? I do not say that they have, but it looks very like it. On top of this quite normal suspicion, when these people read in the papers that the British Government have agreed to release £20 million sterling from the credits due to Egypt in order that Egypt might settle currency difficulties with the Sudan—well, it is a bit odd, to put it mildly, is it not? I have seen the agreement between the Egyptians and the Sudanese and I can produce it for the noble Viscount afterwards if he likes. On top of that again there is a meeting in Rome of (I do not know what to call them) representatives of Britain and Egypt. Many of us were sceptical about what this meeting could produce, and what it did produce I do not know, except a report in the Press that another £6 million was to be released for some purpose which has never been explained to your Lordships, so far as I am aware. That is another thing which these people are at a loss to explain, and we cannot really be surprised that feeling is mounting high. I know that this House likes to have specific cases put before it. I have here five cases which I will read to your Lordships. They are headed: "Typical Cases of Distressed British Subjects now in the United Kingdom." Case No. 1 is as follows:
Director of a private British company and manager of another; both now sequestrated and Egyptianised, and all assets seized. Expelled from Egypt with wife, and now in the United Kingdom without means. About to retire after 45 years in Egypt. All savings and investments to provide pension indemnity and insurance benefits banked in Egypt are now seized. House, car and all personal belongings lost. Now living precariously on a small grant from Resettlement Board, friends and ex gratia payments. Too old to seek re-employment.
Case No. 2:
Middle aged man, manager in a British local private firm. Worked in Egypt 31 years. All accumulated savings lost. House, car and personal belongings seized. Deprived of means
of livelihood and insurance benefits and compensation by decree. Now in the United Kingdom without means and, at his age, finding difficulty in getting employment.
Case No. 3:
Director of British local company working and living in comfortable circumstances in Egypt. Married, with three children at school in England. All assets, home and personal possessions of himself and wife lost in Egypt. No means whatever outside Egypt. After 30 years abroad finding it exceedingly difficult to get employment to enable him to support himself and family. Now living on the generosity of family and small grants from Resettlement Board.
Case No. 4:
Married man, 40 years, with two children, working partner of a prosperous family agency business in Egypt. The business now Egyptianised and its commercial activities as a British concern destroyed beyond restitution. This partner, who has lost his occupation, home and entire possessions, investments and bank deposits in Egypt, is now in the United Kingdom without employment or the means to educate his children. Is getting temporary aid from Resettlement Board. He has lost his all in Egypt and has no means outside that country.
I come back now to a case I quoted to your Lordships the first time I brought this matter before you on February 28, because I know the case personally. It refers to the matron of the Anglo-American hospital, a very worthy institution, in Cairo. I happen to have been President of the Hospital for twelve and a half years, so I know something about it. She was thrown out at half an hour's notice, with just what she stood up in plus, I think, £E15. Fortunately for her, she was obviously a highly-trained nurse, and she was offered, and has accepted, a temporary occupation in the nursing profession. I am very interested in the case. She took this occupation more or less by way of a refresher, because she still thinks that the time will come when she will be able to go back. Only this last week she was talking to me about that, and I am afraid I had to be rather discouraging. But it does show the right spirit. Apparently, there is a new arrangement, and these people are to be issued with £50 for clothing—though I am not quite sure about that. She, like many others, received a large supply of forms to sign; she was visited by the W.V.S., who were very friendly and helpful and suggested that she should apply for £50 outfit allowance. Her case now reads:
Application acknowledged. Visited twice by W.V.S. Filled in more forms. Waited patiently for several weeks, but no £50.
She has received nothing else.
Lastly, there is the case that I also quoted the first time that I addressed your Lordships on this matter, that of the widow of the lawyer. She is still in very difficult circumstances:
Lawyer's widow, who left Egypt prior to nationalisation of Canal, with all formalities for transfer of money completed. Not a case for the Resettlement Board"—
because she had already left—
Still unable to cash Post Office Savings Bonds"—
I think she has £1,000 worth.
After repeated visits to the Board,"—
that is the Resettlement Board—
was told they were only prepared to put forward her case for a subsistence allowance. Nothing further has been heard.
My Lords, I quote these cases because they speak for themselves; and I hope that they prove my thesis, which is that this is not a fictitious movement, worked up, but is a genuine case of hardship and, as many of us feel, of British Government moral responsibility.
§ I would sum up my attitude by recording that certain things are unquestionably involved. First of all, national honour. Secondly, that it is an all-Party matter—it is not a question of Party differences. Thirdly, however much the Government may dislike it, there is a moral obligation. After all, nobody in his senses can pretend or claim that these unfortunate people had anything whatever to do with what the British Government did. Personally, I approve of what the Government did—but that is neither here nor there. It is impossible in any circumstances to make out a case that these unfortunate sufferers were in any way responsible for what overtook them. Lastly we should think of national credit—and I shall come to that in a moment.
§ I want to get the situation crystallised. I know that many of your Lordships have heard the story before, and that you will probably be (if I may use the expression) bored at hearing it again. However, it is no bad thing to have it crystallised afresh in the record. Therefore I would recapitulate the salient features—namely, that as a direct result of the action of Britain over the Suez Canal, all British subjects employed in Egypt were immediately discharged without notice; their legal rights, the rights of all British residents, to 500 indemnification, to compensation, insurance benefits and pensions were cancelled by decree; and their entire assets, bank balances, savings and property were seized. They were barred by law from further employment in Egypt, and that law still applies. The wholesale dispossession of all British nationals was, and is, complete.
§ Deprived of their possessions and the means of livelihood, British subjects were forcibly expelled, and were allowed to take with them practically nothing. The assets of private firms and businesses and of all private individuals were sequestrated, liquidated or sold outright under harsh and ruthless conditions. British commercial and industrial activities have been entirely extinguished by Egyptian Government action. For those British subjects who had spent their lives in Egypt the loss in terms of cash and human suffering is incalculable, and the calamity that overwhelmed them is due directly to British Government action. Please mark, my Lords, that that is incontestable. Surely the responsibility for restitution and redress thus falls squarely on the British Government. That, to our mind, is really the kernel of the whole question.
§ As a side issue—and I feel I must just touch upon this—and on top of these disasters, those British subjects who believed that they had saved something from the wreckage in Egypt in the form of funds deposited with British banks in London, now find these accounts blocked and payment withheld. These restrictions apply also to the funds held physically in the United Kingdom by the banks for British schools, churches, and other charitable institutions, sequestrated in Egypt, but with obligations to meet in England. The need of those dependent upon them now cannot be met, as banks withhold the funds.
§ I should like for one moment to interpose that funds such as the funds for running the Victoria College of Alexandria (with which I have had in the past a great deal to do) and the Cathedral of Cairo (with which I was also closely connected) are affected by this situation. I do not know if I have mentioned it before, but I can do so again. Just after the war, all the Egyptians were grateful for what we had done, and they said: "You have only to ask and you may have 501 it." After the war, I reminded them of this, and I collected from them and from the British community, who subscribed most generously, £650,000—which is not a mean sum. That was used for British educational and charitable purposes, hospitals and concerns of that sort. I myself was not going to have anything to do with the distribution, so I appointed a trust, and the trust put these funds in the hands of Barclays Bank. That was in 1946, or thereabouts. The bulk of this money has been used for the purposes for which it was subscribed, but there is a residue of between £67,000 and £70,000 which is over here Now this catastrophe comes along. Everybody is driven out. The teaching staff and clerical staff of the cathedral have been driven out, and they depend for a large part on this fund. One would suppose there would be no difficulty. The funds—or what is left of them—are here. One would think that the head of the community council committee would get them from the bank. But he is refused. To me, that is completely incomprehensible.
§ I put to the noble Viscount who is to reply certain questions on June 6 about National Savings Certificates. I did not understand his reply. I do not think he did—but that is a frightful thing to say about so eminent a lawyer, and he will probably rebut it with an oath.
§ LORD KILLEARN
Anyway, he will rebut it. The normal mind finds it difficult to grapple with this question of banking niceties. The long and short of it is that the banks apparently require some form of indemnification—from the Government, I presume—which should be forthcoming without further delay. I will leave this matter to the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, who will perhaps deal with it in a more comprehensive way than I can. But the net result is that they cannot touch these funds, and individuals who have put their money into Savings Bonds cannot touch their money. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Gifford, will be able to elucidate the matter, or, at any rate, ask pertinent questions.
It is very late, and I have kept your Lordships longer than I intended. But what matters in all this? Surely, it is 502 only one thing: to ensure prompt, effective financial restitution to these Suez victims. Is that not right? If that is right, as I see it it does not matter two jots where the funds come from. It is for the Government, who are responsible, in my view, to shoulder the responsibility. Whether it is by releasing blocked Egyptian credits or whether it is this or that, I would not know, but, surely it is high time that something of a practical and prompt nature was done to relieve the distress of these people. That brings me back to the terms of my Motion. It has occurred to me that if this type of distress—for it is distress—could be regarded as constituting hardship, as indeed it obviously is, through deprivation of all assets and possessions, so much the better. I do not think it matters under what heading this matter is treated. The Treasury may have their difficulties, but I throw that in simply as a passing thought. The thing is to get on with the job. Now I am going to resume my seat. But before I put the Motion formally before your Lordships, would noble Lords, would the Front Bench, would even the Treasury, perhaps remember that oft-quoted saying which, I believe, dates from 1510:There, but for the grace of God, go I.My Lords I beg to move for Papers.
§ 6.27 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT HAILSHAM
My Lords, I think it would probably be for the convenience of the House if I spoke comparatively early in the debate, and if, with the leave of the House—for otherwise I cannot do so—I responded to the arguments which are raised at the end of it as well. Ordinarily speaking, I think this would have been a debate which would have attracted the attention of my right honourable friend the Leader of the House, whom I am glad to see with me for the moment. But he is, as I expect your Lordships know, very much preoccupied at this time with obligations concerned with the Commonwealth Conference, and if your Lordships would be good enough to grant me the indulgence I have suggested I believe we can get along without insisting upon my noble Leader's attendance.
May I say at once how much I welcome a general debate on this topic. It is some time since I became responsible, as the Minister answering on behalf of 503 the Treasury, for dealing with questions about this matter. But for some weeks now I have been conscious of the need for something more than question and answer, and for some time I have become uneasily aware that, because of the limitations from which I suffered in answering questions, we were getting at a certain element of cross-purposes with those of my noble friends who have interested themselves in this topic.
I feel perfectly certain that the whole House will share the concern which is felt for our fellow subjects who have been expelled and who have taken refuge from Egypt. I would wholeheartedly endorse the last sentiments expressed by my noble friend who has moved this Motion. We should all, in approaching this matter, start from the premise that, as he said in the earlier part of his speech, those people who have suffered acutely have done nothing themselves for which they can be blamed; and we should also start from the premise with which he concluded his speech: that in this disturbed, uncertain and convulsive century, there, but for what he described as the "Grace of God", would have gone any one of us who had happened to place his fortune and his life inside that particular territory. I wholeheartedly endorse that and feel sure that the House would share the indignation at their sufferings of which he spoke and the desire with which he was obviously animated to see their wrongs righted so far, and as quickly, as possible. I think we can quite clearly agree with all those things.
The Motion to which the noble Lord has invited the consideration of the House draws attention to the continuing distress of British citizens who find themselves in this position. It limits it, I think probably not intentionally, to those who are deprived of resources held both in Egypt and the United Kingdom. The distress, of course, is not limited to those who have been deprived of resources, although I would frankly concede that it includes them no less than the others. It urges the need for decision to grant an interim relief pending a just and full final settlement. Your Lordships may think that this last clause of the Motion contains the operative part.
I do not think your Lordships would desire me to be drawn into too detailed a 504 description of what I should consider a just and final settlement would involve. I must, I think, interest myself primarily in the claim for interim relief, and I am hopeful that I may give a certain measure of satisfaction both to the noble Lord and to other noble Lords who desire to speak on this matter. I am hopeful, too, that the House will agree, and agree in all quarters, that, whatever the rights and wrongs of the Suez policy—and I know that the noble Lord who has just spoken took a view which was radically different from that of the Party opposite—there could be no justification for the seizure of the individual assets of individual citizens (I am glad to see the noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, concur in that) and that even if such a justification could have been said to exist in November, there can be no justification for their continued retention now and no doubt that restoration ought to be the condition precedent to the resumption of ordinary trading relations.
I feel I must say this at the outset, since much that has been said by the noble Lord, and I daresay much that will be said during the course of this debate, may tend to obscure certain elementary facts and principles of international law in this matter. Even a prolonged and bitter war between two countries, such as that recently between Britain and Germany, does not, of necessity, justify the permanent expropriation of private property. Obviously, political, economic and military exigencies may suspend the right of individuals to the exercise of proprietary rights, but they still do not necessarily give the right of expropriation. A custodian of enemy property does not become in the ordinary course the owner of enemy property—even, as I say, in war. Consult whatever legal textbook you will and you will find this principle vindicated. Whatever may have vitiated or may vitiate still relations between Britain and Egypt, neither Government, so far as I know, maintains that a state of war exists at all. Such military operations as there were were over in a matter of days and the occupation in a matter of weeks.
Of course, there must be between Governments negotiations in cases of this kind; but it would, at least in my opinion, be disastrous, not merely to these claimants about whom we are talking to-day 505 —and they are important enough—but to the whole fabric of civilised behaviour based on international law, if it were to go out from this House that principles evolved during the centuries were of no account and that the claims of individuals to the restoration of their identifiable property were to be used simply as bargaining counters in negotiations between the States. That would be an abhorrent conception. The Egyptian Government has indicated that it desires resumption of normal trade relations. Speaking for myself, I should like, as I have always urged from the moment of the "Cease Fire" that the relations of the two States should be governed by technical and objective considerations in the interests of the two peoples. But it can hardly be expected that trade, which depends on confidence, can be resumed without the recognition of the rights of individuals to their own admitted property. I do not myself despair that an elementary consideration of this kind will for ever be ignored.
I could not help noticing that, as the noble Lord said in introducing this Motion, in the centre page of The Times to-day there was the following paragraph:Cairo, June 26. The Egyptian Government to-night announced that it had been decided to permit the arrival of a British Committee to survey the position of British property in Egypt sequestrated by the Government.That was the first I had heard of this piece of news, but I naturally desired to find out what there was behind it. I understand that the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs have in fact put a suggestion to the Swiss Embassy in Cairo that we should send one or two Government officials to Cairo to look into matters concerned with the sequestration of British property in Egypt. The situation is vague as to the exact scope of their investigation and we are asking for further details in order to assess the value of such a visit. I may say that this suggestion was not a reply to any British initiative.
It is true, as my noble friend said, that in many cases property can perhaps no longer be identified; in many cases it consisted of intangibles which perhaps have vanished and evaporated; but I, myself, should have thought that, provided we received satisfaction about the 506 inquiries we are making, those considerations should not stand in the way of an investigation to discover what can and what cannot be restored or what must be left to a legitimate claim for compensation. I believe that that would probably be the feeling of your Lordships' House in this matter. I, myself, was deeply struck by a remark which I read yesterday of the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, when he was replying to the debate on March 28 [OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 202, col. 934]:…if by anything we did at present we prejudiced the final settlement of claims which might be owing, we should have done the refugees themselves no good at all.I believe that that is a sentiment with which probably all Members of the House would agree.
However the continued delay in the negotiations for what my noble friend has called in his Motion a "just and final settlement" obviously affects the hardships of those who are awaiting with impatience the recognition of the claims which they cannot but regard as unanswerable. I feel that my noble friend is right in drawing attention in this connection to continued distress. Her Majesty's Government cannot but be affected by that hardship and that distress; and if the exigencies of the negotiations result in added hardship, as they must do if there is delay, as there has been delay through, as I would say, no fault of ours, obviously Her Majesty's Government must take that into account and would wish to do so. I myself would agree that hitherto the definition of hardship upon which we have been operating may have been unduly narrow. My noble friend to-day indicated to me the case which I think he mentioned in your Lordships' House, where the date on which one of the refugees had thought it wise to leave Egypt precluded her from coming within the operations of the Resettlement Board. I confess that it should not have been, but it was, a novel point to me, and I will undertake that that is considered by the authorities concerned.
But I would agree that even on broader grounds the definition of hardship that hitherto we have been operating on may well have been unduly narrow. This may have been because we were hoping for a more reasonable response in 507 a shorter time as the result of our negotiation. Obviously I think we cannot be pressed to make concessions which would impinge upon our stand for what I, at any rate, regard as a legal and moral principle which we should be failing in our duty not to assert. But when I heard my noble friend Lord Killearn, argue, as he has done just now, that for a person in possession of considerable assets to be kept out of possession of those assets for an indeterminate and prolonged period of time, is in itself a degree of hardship, I must say that I was impressed by the substance of his argument. It seemed to me that there was a great deal of justice in the claim, and in one sense I would go even further than he did. I would say that quite obviously the extent of hardship and the degree of hardship suffered in such a case necessarily increases in proportion as the delay increases. So far as I know this is a point which has not been made so far in public debate in this connection, although it was, I confess, at one time in my own mind. Since I have had to administer in my Department a quite different scheme based on hardship, I have always thought that the expression should be given a wide and generous interpretation.
I think I know the general mind of my right honourable friend the Chancellor on this subject. I do not think that this afternoon I should be justified in giving a definite reply to the argument, and probably—at least I should hope—my noble friend would not press me to do so; but I feel that I know my right honourable friend's mind well enough to be certain that he would wish to take account of this viewpoint. Perhaps I should say no more at this particular stage, but I feel that this is a valuable point which has emerged from our discussions and one which should be pursued further before things are brought to a conclusion.
As I have said, my noble friend's Motion is framed to ask for interim relief pending a just and final settlement. In the light of what has been said by my noble friend I should not desire any hasty reply of mine to prejudice any interim relief which might be made available, and I hope that my noble friend who has moved this Motion would wish to be influenced by the same kind of 508 consideration. If the matter is to be pursued in this spirit, as I hope it will be, I would appeal to my noble friend and to any who may be influenced by his advice, to co-operate with me in giving this valuable thought further consideration, and not to make things more difficult, as I am sure he does not desire to do, by pressing me before we have had time to take it into account. I would also make another suggestion in the same vein. I can assure your Lordships that the Government share your Lordships' concern in this matter and are sincerely trying to act in the best interests of those affected.
Before I deal in detail with the problem I should like to say this. I have been conscious in the past of some absence of liaison. I believe that I can assist in some, perhaps a good many, of the individual cases, and possibly in some classes of case, if noble Lords would put a few typical cases before me. My noble friend has mentioned some particular cases in his speech which emboldens me to refer to the matter. It may be that one could help if one knew the details of the people concerned and of the kinds of assets which they have lost. For instance, in one case my noble friend referred to Post Office bonds. There are two types of bond which may be involved. If he will get in touch with me to discuss which kind, it may be that I can help a little there. I hope that in any event noble Lords will feel that I am available should they wish to consult me on this matter, and if they agree with me that there are aspects of the matter which can be discussed more fully with the Minister or with my right honourable friend than in public debate, I hope that they will take advantage of my offer. I should also like to say that if any representative of the Cairo community wishes through either my noble friend or through me to get in touch with the Chancellor of the Exchequer or to approach me direct, I feel certain that there will be mutual advantage in a detailed and frank discussion of various aspects of the matter otherwise than in the storm and stress of debate on the Floor of the House.
In the meantime there are some general observations that I should like to make which I feel in fairness ought to be put on the record. Some, but not all, have 509 been said before. They all need to be recorded as part of the background against which we view this matter. Noble Lords will know that about 6,000 British subjects have arrived here from Egypt. Some of them—I think even the majority—were unfamiliar even with the English language. They came with no money to a country where everyone, though a fellow countryman, was a stranger. Others have assets in this country; some have friends. Some more have assets which, for one reason or another, such as those to which my noble friend referred, they are unable to touch. There are also, of course, considerable business interests which are, strictly speaking, outside the terms of reference of this debate.
How have those been dealt with so far? I think that we must not forget in the first place that the vast majority needed immediate assistance in terms of money, employment and housing—this group, of course, includes both those with assets which they left behind and those without. I feel certain that we have been right in dealing with this in advance of any other. I am glad my noble friend spoke so kindly of the decision of the Government to set up a Resettlement Board and of the work of my noble friend Lord Colyton in administering that Board. The Board has been dispensing assistance recently at the rate of £200,000 per month. I do not think that this in itself has been ungenerous, although of course I should be the first to concede that it does not help with the specific problem with which my noble friend was largely pre-occupied and with which we also are concerned this afternoon.
It is however, none the less directly relevant to the discussion, since my noble friend has referred to continuing distress and asks in his Motion for interim relief based on possession of assets. In order to gauge the necessity for this we must realise the extent of the interim relief available without regard to frozen assets. Even if this were not the case, I feel that the House would desire to know from me the extent to which relief regardless of assets has been made available. The Board have so far made 4,500 initial payments of £50 to adults, and £25 in respect of children. It has accommodated 2,507 in hostels. With the Ministry of Labour it has helped to place or has placed in work about 1,092.
510 The Board is progressively providing housing and is subscribing as a donation £300 to every local authority which makes certain accommodation available, and up to £500 to individuals as a deposit to building societies. It has paid full maintenance allowance to, I believe, 550, and supplementary allowance, to supplement earnings, to 177 more. It has paid furnishing giants to 215. It provides grants of up to £750 and loans of £2,000 to enable suitable claimants to set up in business It reckons, in conjunction with the Australian authorities, to provide passages and voyage expenses of considerably more than 1,000 individuals to go to Australia, and I should like here to give thanks to the Australian Government for their generosity, help and sympathy. Some have also been helped to go to Canada, Brazil, the Lebanon and other countries.
Local educational authorities have, of course, coped with educational problems, as it is their duty to do. In addition, 44 pupils have been assisted to remain at independent schools where they had already been placed, 7 students are at various colleges of further education and 71 at various training courses. In addition, after employment a final resettlement grant of between £750 and, I believe, £1,000 for a family is available, to find accommodation and furniture before the refugee is signed off the books of the Board. It is against this background that we must look at the problem of compensation for lost assets. I should like, in passing, to agree with my noble friend that the coincidence of the flow of refugees from Egypt and that from Hungary probably proved to be a disadvantage to the former.
I now turn to compensation for lost assets. A certain amount has already been done here. As my noble friend knows, advances are already made to former pensioners of the Egyptian Government, if necessary to the full amount of pension due, and this relief has recently been extended to private pensioners whose pensions have been stopped as a result of recent events in Egypt. These grants are dealt with by the Board from public funds. Next, there is the problem of employees of contractors engaged in work on the Suez Base. These were among the first to make and to press their claims, and here again I can, I 511 think, give the House some assurance. Her Majesty's Government recognise their special obligation towards these men as being virtually the employers in whose service the men remained until the last moment; and they are already proceeding to make advances ex gratia, of which I will give details to any noble Lord who is interested. I think it will be found that those advances are not ungenerous.
The next group of claimants were those who brought Egyptian notes from Port Said with a Consul's certificate. In pursuance of a promise made by the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, on March 28 last, these have now been recouped in full to the amount of £65,000. We now come to a group of claimants in whom the noble Lord, Lord Killearn, has shown special interest—namely, the holders of National Savings Certificates. As I have tried to indicate, apparently without success, from what the noble Lord has said this afternoon in the last question he asked of me, National Savings Certificates held by British subjects who have been expelled from Egypt are in a class quite distinct from other Government securities.
In the first place, unlike most other Government securities, National Savings Certificates are payable at any time on short notice. This means that they give rise to a direct obligation on the part of the Government to repay the fund represented by the certificates—that is to say, they are not in the same position as a Government security not yet mature for repayment. In the second place, the obligation to repay is to the registered holder, and to no one else; and the Government are therefore entitled to honour their obligation quite independently of the right to possession of the relevant certificate as a piece of paper. National Savings Certificates cannot be charged or hypothecated in any way, and cannot, for instance, be used to secure an overdraft. It follows that they are valueless in the hands of anyone but the registered holder. Further, the Government are authorised to repay in certain circumstances independently of the possession of certificates.
Some misgivings seem to have been caused by the fact that some claimants have not possession of their books. They may be in the hands of the bank. Possession of the book is not necessary. 512 Accordingly, to holders of National Savings Certificates I say: send us particulars of your holding. Identify the holding and the amount. Give the name and address in which you were registered, and produce whatever evidence you can of identity with the registered holder. If you have the certificate, produce it. If not, explain what has happened to it, if you can. In many, perhaps in all, cases it may be possible to pay these certificates in full without any real delay. I made this offer before, but I fear that inadequate use has been made of it. We have received only twenty-eight applications for encashment in respect of certificates which were left behind in Egypt. All these have already been met. I hope to receive more as a result of this debate, with the co-operation, where possible, of my noble friends.
The next class of case is where a refugee has assets physically in this country and lodged with a British bank or held by the British branch of a bank carrying on business in Egypt, on behalf of its Egyptian branch. These assets may consist of securities (Government or commercial), valuables, or other property. I would say that I could not in this case draw a distinction between Government securities in this class and other securities. Government securities are not mature for payment, and, in consequence, no obligation to cash them arises. What the refugee, not unreasonably, desires is to obtain possession of these securities in order to sell them on the market and so turn them into cash.
Here I must remind the House (and I hope I shall be supported by learned and noble Lords opposite and elsewhere) that the primary questions in this class of case arise between the customer and the banker. If a British banker refuses access to his British customer of the customer's own assets physically available in this country, then, in my judgment, he withholds permission at his own risk, and he does so presumably only after taking legal advice that, for some reason, the customer's claim cannot be sustained. I am not aware of any action by Her Majesty's Government which causes that withholding. There may be many good reasons on the merits of which I would say nothing—there may be a set-off or an overdraft, or a charge of some kind on the assets. The British branch may not be in a position to ascertain or verify the 513 state of the account. On the other hand, there may be some general ground, and I understood from what my noble friend said in his speech to-day that a general kind of attitude may have been adopted.
In a supplementary question to me the other day, my noble friend indicated that he had been advised that British courts would not recognise Egyptian penal legislation. I expressly declined to comment upon this, except to say that in each case both sets of parties would do well to take legal advice, I do not think it is reasonable to press the Government, at this stage, and before the parties have ascertained what their legal rights may be, to make a general proposal. It may be that the banks are liable in some cases. Where this is so, no question arises. There may also be cases where a special defence on the merits exists. In other cases, the parties may differ as to the effect of the general law or the exchange control regulations, or of the appropriate law applicable to the contract or its performance. It would not be right for me to anticipate the result of possible litigation here.
I would say, however, that, before a case is to be made for some specific action on the part of the Government limited to this class of asset, there must be some good reason to suppose that the banks are not liable to their customers to restore the customers' own property, and there must be some clear case for Government intervention in the matter in the interests of the parties. I must say that I think it is strange that a test case has not yet been started, though I should be the last to encourage litigation. I would not myself, though sorely tempted to do so say what I think as to some of the considerations which I know are passing through the minds of the parties. Then there is the case where the assets are held in banks in Egypt or Egyptian branches of British banks. In this case there are also questions which might be the subject of litigation between banker and customer.
That brings me to the final classes of case. There are a number of assets in Egypt, some identifiable, some lost beyond recall or sequestrated by the Egyptian Government and destroyed. Some will consist in businesses whose good will can never wholly be restored. On the other hand, some will be quite 514 easily identifiable assets which, if the Egyptian Government would remove the sequestration, could be restored tomorrow. Two cases were mentioned by the noble Lord. There are cases of houses which have been sequestrated, and they must still be there. There are also assets of limited companies. I do not think it is possible for me to enumerate all the possibilities—only generalities can be made. It is precisely here that Her Majesty's Government must recognise the urgent need of many of those whose properties have been unjustly removed from them.
Our attitude is that, even on the assumptions which the Egyptian Government felt themselves entitled to make, their action cannot now be justified, either in morality or in law. Our claim is that they should be restored, or compensation paid. I would recognise the need for an interim settlement, but I imagine that those who themselves have suffered most would be the first to tell us that if their chances of recovering identifiable property, or a substantial part of it, were jeopardised by pressing a claim now against the British Government, they would wish to hold their hands, even at the cost of some hardship, and trust to temporary interim relief such as the British Government may make without prejudice to the just and final settlement mentioned in the Motion which we all would most earnestly desire to see.
That is my view, and I think it is the view of the Government. If I may say so, by way of summary, I think we have advanced a considerable distance as the result of these discussions, and I think the new argument which has been raised by my noble friend, and legitimately raised, has helped to make that advance. This new point, as I understand, was based on the view that the definition of hardship recognised as the basis of interim relief hitherto has been unduly restricted and might well be extended to include hardship suffered by the owners of assets who are being kept from their property for a period unduly prolonged by what we regard as the unreasonable attitude of the Egyptian Government. I believe that the point is well worth exploring, and I hope that we may have the opportunity of exploring it. I would, if I may, before I sit down, appeal to my noble friend to 515 consider whether that opportunity could not best be pursued by private discussion of the kind I have indicated.
§ 7.16 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUGH
My Lords, we have listened this afternoon with great interest, and I am sure with a good deal of sympathy in all parts of the House, to the case put by Lord Killearn upon his Motion. Obviously, there are hardships existing which no one in this House, and I believe no one in the country, would wish to see continuing. I do not propose to go into any of the details which the noble Lord, Lord Killearn, has submitted to the House in support of his Motion. I will only say that we at any rate have considerable sympathy with him in his effort to obtain this help from the Government.
We have listened also to an able speech coming from a very able legal mind. We all appreciate the submissions which Lord Hailsham makes to the House from time to time, but I should like to say to him that it is clear that he knew from the beginning that on this occasion he had a difficult case with which to deal. We have never yet had any real answer to the case which was put by the Leader of the Opposition in another place during the debate on May 15. My right honourable friend then said (OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, Vol. 570 (No. 109), col. 415):Can we also have an assurance that the British Government now accept full responsibility to indemnify all those British subjects who have suffered severe losses in Egypt personally and in relation to their property? It really is quite unreasonable that the Government who placed them in this position should not be prepared to face the responsibility to pay them back.That is the point that has not been answered. Mr. Gaitskell went on:Of course the Government are entitled to claim what they can from Egypt. But we cannot be sure for the reasons I have given that such claims will, in fact, be substantiated, and if they are not substantiated then we on this side of the House say that the Government opposite must accept full responsibility for this matter.Now those of us who have been interested in the matter have been waiting ever since that speech was made to get something like a real assurance to the people involved and an answer to the point put by the Leader of the Opposition in 516 another place. I am bound to say that, try as he did (and he certainly tried very hard), the noble and learned Viscount does not seem to have met us on that point.
There were clearly personal feelings on his part which seemed to take him somewhat closer to the point of view of Lord Killearn. I listened with great interest and appreciation to what he said about his own personal view: that probably up till now too narrow a view had been taken of certain questions of hardship. But he was quite unable—I am not complaining; he is in a difficult position, answering for a Department other than his own—to give any assurance to the noble Lord or to the House that a wider margin would now be given to the consideration of hardship. Therefore, from that point of view, as yet we are still in the position of having no real reply, though I would say (and I am sure Lord Killearn would say also) that we greatly appreciate the personal view expressed on the matter by the noble and learned Viscount.
When I listened to the very long list of items which have been dealt with, and for which I am sure we are all grateful, I could not help feeling that we should need to read Hansard carefully in order to see what it all amounts to. It is very necessary that we should do that. Perhaps when the noble Viscount replies he will be able to tell the House how much of that long category of cases goes right back to last August, or whether they have all been since the actions of the Egyptian Government at the beginning of November last year. I shall be interested to know about that, because the Board, which was in possession of private funds and of some aid which the Government granted, had certainly been dealing with a number of cases spread over both periods. I should like to have some clarification of that point.
The submissions of the noble Lord, Lord Killearn, have been so important and have come at so late an hour in the Sitting and the ground covered by the noble Viscount has been so wide, that I do not think that it would be wise for us to try to come to a final conclusion on the matter. I cannot speak for the noble Lord, Lord Killearn, about what he will say in answer to the appeal made to him by the noble Viscount, but I would say 517 that we are exceedingly nervous when the plea is put up that nobody would wish action to be taken by the Government to indemnify certain people in the interim period if that were to interfere with the final settlement.
There are one or two points on which I should like to make my position clear. I have not the slightest sympathy with the action of Nasser in the many cases in which he has dealt so unreasonably with British subjects and their property. Nor do we wish to raise any criticism of the noble Viscount's submissions on international law, as based on the precedents in previous conflicts between nations. Here, again, I want carefully to read what the noble Viscount said on this aspect of the matter. I am certain that in all cases we ought to stand upon our rights. But when I come to think of the people who are in this country—and in this country only because of the military démarche made by this Government at the end of October and the beginning of November last year—then it seems to me quite unreasonable that eight months afterwards we should still be having to debate and haggle about the general principle of whether the Government should accept liability.
Could I ask one or two questions? It is getting late; I ought to have been miles away from here already, and I shall have to go very soon. On top of the details which the noble Viscount gave in his speech and which we are going to examine, cannot we have a fuller report from the Board than we have had yet, dealing with these matters, say, up to the middle of July, before we rise? Could we not have an undertaking from the Government tonight that a definite answer will be given to the House, before we rise for the Long Recess, on the general principle of accepting liability in the matter—a question which we are pressing and which has, in my view, never yet been answered? I do not think that that is an unreasonable request to make. If we could get assurances on that point, I should not be inclined to ask my noble friends to divide on this Motion at the present time. I think that those who are interested, not only in this House but outside, are entitled to a much more definite statement of what is being done and of what can still be done if the general principle that we ask for is admitted by the Government.
§ 7.25 p.m.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, my purpose in rising to intervene in this debate is to support, briefly but most wholeheartedly, the plea for more generous treatment by Her Majesty's Government of our fellow-countrymen who are now refugees from Egypt which has been so eloquently urged by the noble Lord, Lord Killearn, in the speech in which he introduced his Motion. In view of the late hour, for which we are not responsible, I do not propose to go into any of those points of detail which were mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, in the latter part of his speech. I am sure that we are all most grateful to him for the full information that he has given the House.
I should like, if I may, to take the broad issues which all of us, Government and everybody else, must equally face. In dealing with these, I do not propose to suggest—it would be foolish to do so—that Her Majesty's Government alone are responsible for the unhappy position which has arisen regarding these people. Of course, that is not so. I am sure that we should all agree with the noble Viscounts, Lord Hailsham and Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, that nothing can excuse or justify the action of Colonel Nasser in sequestrating the property of individuals in Egypt, who are not in any way responsible for their own or any other Government. That, I think, is clear. At the same time, that is not to say that Her Majesty's Government have no responsibility, not merely for the relief of these people but for the restitution of the assets of our own citizens in foreign lands who have been unjustly penalised by events in these countries.
We have heard to-day, as in earlier debates, heartrending stories about the plight of these unhappy people, many of whom previously were in very comfortable circumstances, and many of whom have now been deprived of all they possessed and are reduced to what amounts very nearly to dependence on charity. I am sure that the Government, equally with us, would agree that that is a deplorable situation, for which none of us can repudiate all responsibility or concern—and I think that that was the impression created, so far as I can see, by an Answer which was given in another place yesterday by the Minister of State for the Foreign Office, about which I am 519 rather sorry the Minister of Education did not say anything this afternoon. Previous to that, the position (in fact, I announced it myself, with the approval of all the Departments concerned) was that claims were being registered at the Foreign Office, a process which, it was estimated, if I remember right, would take about six or eight weeks; and that then, when the total amount of claims had been received, it would be possible for the Government to consider and, I hoped, decide on further policy with regard to the claims. That was the statement which I myself made to your Lordships' House.
But we are now told by the Minister of State—and I quote his words; I think that I am allowed to do that, though said in another place, because he was speaking for the Government [OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, Vol. 572 (No. 128), col. 187]:The amount of claims by British nationals arising from this and other actions of the Egyptian Government can only be known when British assets in Egypt have been desequestrated and owners have had access to their property.That is entirely different from the answer which I was empowered to give only such a short time ago. In my view, it puts off any action by Her Majesty's Government with regard to compensation to these British nationals who have suffered so much absolutely to the Greek Kalends. Indeed, the Minister of State made it perfectly clear, in an answer to a supplementary question which followed the main Question, that Her Majesty's Government were unlikely to recognise any responsibility at all at any time for their fellow-countrymen, these people who have been largely ruined as a result of recent events in Egypt. The present position, he said, quite bleakly and frankly, was theresult of the action of the Egyptian Government and not of Her Majesty's Government.That clearly was not merely an "off-the-cuff" remark by a Minister who was being heavily pressed in the House, such as we have known in the past. It represented, I think, what he believed to be the settled policy of the Government, for something very much of the same kind was said in an official letter sent by the Foreign Office to one 520 of the claimants who pressed for an early settlement of his claim, which I believe was quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Killearn, in an earlier debate. I would quote this afternoon only one sentence from that letter. This is what it says:There can be no question of Her Majesty's Government paying compensation for losses which may have been inflicted by the Egyptian authorities.That seems to me to imply that the matter of compensation was merely one between the Egyptian Government and the British subjects in question, and that Her Majesty's Government are not directly concerned at all. I must confess that if that is the meaning—and I do not want in any way to misinterpret the position of the Government—many of us would find that position quite impossible to accept.
We may be told that that was the position adopted by previous Governments in regard to the claims of British nationals arising from earlier disputes, such as the First and Second World Wars, to take two obvious examples. I agree that a defence could be put up for such an attitude in cases where, as in those two wars, the injury to their nationals flowed entirely from action taken by the other party to the dispute—and by that I mean the German invasion of Belgium in the First World War, and the German invasion of Poland in the Second World War, which started the conflicts. But that is not true in the present case. The sequestration of assets of British nationals in Egypt, with, I suppose, the exception of those who were affected in their shareholdings of the Suez Canal itself, did not follow Colonel Nasser's seizure of the Canal, but followed on our landing in Egypt.
I do not for one moment suggest that that proves that our action in landing in Egypt was wrong. On the contrary, as your Lordships know, I believed at the time that our action was right, and I believe that at the present time, too. But that does not alter the fact, in my mind, that our action, however right it may have been, involved casualties; and that among the main casualties were these British nationals in Egypt, who had assets there, and whose assets were, in fact, sequestrated. Directly as a result of our action, those people suffered severe 521 hardship, and it is, in my view, morally right that we should face up to that fact.
I believe it is right, too, that we should recognise, as the noble Lord, Lord Killearn, properly stressed this afternoon, that, in its fullest sense, hardship inflicted does not mean merely the inability to buy the necessities of life: lodging, food, clothing and so on—or even education for one's children. In a wider sense, it clearly includes deprivation of those assets which constituted the basis of one's former standard of life, whatever that standard may have been. I was therefore particularly glad to hear the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, speaking with all the authority of the Government, say that he felt there was some substance in the point which the noble Lord, Lord Killearn, had made, and that he by no means rejected the possibility of widening the meaning of the term "hardship" to include the deprivation of assets; and that he would give an assurance to the House—though, of course, without any prejudice whatever—that he would bring that possibility to the notice of his colleagues for their consideration. I hope and believe that this particular proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Killearn, if properly followed up, and if it can be adopted by Her Majesty's Government, may well lead to a sensible narrowing of the gap which at present divides us on this question.
I do not say, especially in view of what was said yesterday by the Minister of Stale at the Foreign Office, that that will by any means entirely bridge that gap. I confess that I, like, I expect, many of my noble friends, should have felt much happier if the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, had found it possible to say—and I still cannot see why he could not—that Her Majesty's Government would propose to lake a much firmer line with the Egyptian Government. After all, we are not without substantial means of pressure which we could exert against them. Egypt has considerable assets frozen here in Britain, and she badly needs the use of those assets. They might remain frozen until some agreement of a kind satisfactory to us might be reached.
But having said that, I would add that I feel strongly that we must recognise that the assurance which has been given to-day by the noble Viscount, Lord 522 Hailsham, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, to submit for the consideration of his colleagues this important point that has been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Killearn, regarding a wider interpretation of the word "hardship", does introduce a new element into our discussion. And I personally hope that the noble Lord, Lord Killearn, having received that assurance, will give the Government a chance to see whether some temporary arrangement, at any rate, might be reached on those lines which would be satisfactory both to Her Majesty's Government and to the claimants. There is also the announcement to which the noble Lord, Lord Killearn referred, of some statement by the Egyptian Government regarding further discussion on the subject of claims, which might, I should have thought, further incline the noble Lord in the same direction.
But, equally—and this is the last thing I want to say—I hope that if the noble Lord, Lord Killearn, does find it possible to take that course, the Government will not regard his action as constituting any weakening in his point of view, or the point of view of those who agree with him on this particular issue. It would, I believe, be very unwise for any of us to underestimate the intensity of feeling which exists in many quarters throughout the country on this issue. The ordinary man and woman in the street, whether or not they approved of the action that was taken by the late Government last year, all expect justice to be done to their fellow-citizens who have suffered as the result of that action. I am certain that they will want some satisfactory answer on this point from the Government, and they will want it quickly.
I hope, therefore, that if, as I say, the noble Lord, Lord Killearn, agrees to give the Government the time which they ask for consideration of this new point that has been raised, they, for their part, will not ask for too long; and that they will recognise that much more must be done than has yet been achieved. Otherwise, I am fairly certain that when the question comes to be re-examined here at an early date—and I hope it will be very early—the House, which so often reflects accurately the views of the country, will express its indignation in no uncertain manner.
§ 7.39 p.m.
My Lords, the general considerations of this grave and important matter have been put to your Lordships so well by the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, that I shall not attempt to speak further about them. I will confine myself to dealing with the specific points with regard to securities and so forth, in which I have specially interested myself throughout this series of debates. I would only say this. Eight months have now gone by since these people were thrown out of Egypt and suffered disaster—and "disaster" is the only word one can use for their situation. Until to-day I think all of us have felt completely frustrated, because we have had no encouragement at all from Government speakers. To-day, my noble friend Lord Hailsham has given us a glimmer of hope that a more sympathetic attitude is going to be adopted.
Now, if I may, I will make two or three suggestions which I hope will help my noble friend and the Government to deal with some of these matters which are outstanding. Some time ago Barclays Bank D.C.O. submitted a memorandum to the Treasury dealing with the subject. They were then asked to bring in other banks and submit a joint memorandum on the problems which were arising with their customers. Barclays Bank got together the other banks, and this memorandum was submitted through the Bank of England to the Treasury. It has now been in their hands for over a month, so there is no doubt that the Government are fully aware of the various problems in respect of different kinds of security—as the noble Viscount has rightly said, some of them physically in Egypt, and some of them in the banks in this country. It seems to me that there is one quite simple way in which a great deal of this distress can be alleviated. I believe that there are certain classes of security about which the Government could say, "We will give an indemnity to the bank concerned if they make advances to their customers on the security of the scrip that they hold"—such things as Government Stock, and so forth.
§ VISCOUNT HAILSHAM
Would the noble Lord say what exactly is keeping the banks back from giving their customers their own property?
The noble Viscount himself has said that there are many obscure legal problems, and the banks are afraid that if they make advances against these securities they may be sued by, possibly, the Egyptian Government, or other people, and will suffer loss as a result of having made these advances. I do not think that the danger is very great, and I believe that it would cost the Government nothing to give an indemnity to the banks in a large number of cases.
§ EARL JOWITT
May I ask a question? Is that in cases where the man who claims the money has lost the documents of title? If he has the documents of title, I cannot see what right the bank have not to pay him. If he has not got the documents, then, of course, the question of an indemnity arises—I quite follow that. Is that the case the noble Lord has in mind?
As I understand it, in many cases they are people who subscribed to war funds, very often at the request of the noble Lord, Lord Killearn, and took up large quantities of War Loan and Government Stock, and that sort of thing. They bought it through the branch of the bank in Egypt, and the scrip is now held at the head office in London in a blocked account. They are unable either to obtain these securities or to obtain any advance against them.
§ VISCOUNT HAILSHAM
The noble Lord used the expression, "blocked account." So far as I know, whatever block is on the account, it is not blocked by the British Government.
It seems to me that the noble Viscount is adopting a very extraordinary attitude over this matter. The British Government asked the banks to submit a memorandum which was put into their hands a month ago. I am not a banker, and I am not in a position to-day to deal technically with this matter. But surely it cannot be beyond the bounds of possibility, if Treasury officials and high officials of these banks get together round the table with good will, that some modus vivendi can be worked out quickly, so that these people can get advances on their securities or, in certain cases, have their securities released so that they can sell them and get the money which they badly need.
I was rather amazed at the noble Viscount's remarks about Savings Certificates, because it seems to me that he 525 was putting forward as a new suggestion the very suggestion which the noble Lord, Lord Killearn, himself made a few weeks ago. I am glad to hear that apparently holders of Savings Certificates can cash them, provided they can prove their title to them.
§ VISCOUNT HAILSHAM
I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord again, but I was only repeating, if I may say so, the suggestion which I had made in answer to a principal question from my noble friend the last time he asked me a question. I tried to give the answer then, and I gave it more fully to-day—more fully, of course, than I was able to then.
So far as I know, there are still holders of these certificates who have not yet been able to get their money.
§ VISCOUNT HAILSHAM
The noble Lord should have listened to my speech. The reason why they have not got their money, so far as I know, is that they have not asked anybody for it.
§ LORD KILLEARN
I think the difficulty has been that the actual books, or whatever they are called, were in the physical possession of the Egyptians. The moment they were handed over by the Egyptians to their rightful owners, the rightful owner could proceed across the street, present it across the Post Office counter, and, I believe, in accordance with the terms, on the appropriate notice, the Post Office has to pay. But in order to do that, owners must have physical possession of the pieces of paper. In certain cases they had; in others, they had not. There was some difficulty in getting delivery of these certificates. I understand, as a matter of fact, that the situation has now been considerably alleviated.
§ VISCOUNT HAILSHAM
I tried to explain in my speech—and I think the noble Lord will find it in Hansard—that the lack of possession of the actual book was not a fatal bar to getting the cash, because the right to the cash is based upon the registration of the holder in the books of the Government, and not upon the possession of the book. The position is, as I understand it, that, in the ordinary course, the Government insist upon the production of the book as evidence of title or evidence of identity. But I was explaining in my speech that that was not necessary in this case, if only the other course would be adopted.
I hope that this matter of Savings Certificates has been cleared up. The noble Viscount kindly said that if the noble Lord, Lord Killearn, or myself, could find any cases where people have not been able to get their money, he would look into it.
§ LORD KILLEARN
The poor lawyer's widow, whom I quoted, apparently has £1,000 of Post Office Bonds. I do not know which issue or what Post Office Bonds they are. But she has, among other things, £36,000 over and above the Post Office Bonds—that is the phrase she uses. She cannot get them from the bank. She cannot get the other money, because it is blocked. She has used up the £884 which she had when she arrived here, and she has not a "bean" in her pocket, if I may lapse into the vernacular.
§ VISCOUNT HAILSHAM
There is a difference between Government securities which are not mature for payment, and National Savings Certificates, which can be cashed I hope that that distinction will be borne in mind. I also asked my noble friend to give me particulars of the issue of the Bonds.
I have just been informed that somebody present in this House at this time, who has two accounts in this country, one in London and one in Edinburgh, both of which are blocked, is limited to drawing £100 at stated internals.
I know. But, surely, it is one of the things which the Government could discuss with the banks. That is what I have tried to say many times over. It is no good the noble Viscount saying that it is not the Government who are doing the blocking.
The other matter that I should like to bring to his notice is that the British Communities Association, an organisation of which the noble Viscount is well aware, have put forward a very carefully thought out scheme for graduated advances against assets. It is a moderate scheme, and I hope that Her Majesty's Government will consider it carefully because I think it may well prove the answer to the more liberal attitude which they 527 are proposing. I should like to thank the noble Viscount particularly for one thing, a matter which I personally raised—that is, the honouring of the Egyptian pounds which were brought out from Suez. I think the noble Viscount said the figure was £65,000.
That has been redeemed, and I am sure that those people from Suez will be duly grateful. I do not intend to detain your Lordships any longer. We have a glimmer of hope to-day. I do not know what the noble Lord, Lord Killearn, intends to do, but I think he would be well advised to give the Government that time for which they have asked. But I think it must be clearly understood that if, in a fortnight of three weeks' time, we do not get real satisfaction, we must take action and go into the Division Lobby.
§ 7.52 p.m.
§ LORD BALFOUR OF INCHRYE
My Lords, in the briefest manner I should like to support my noble friend Lord Killearn, because, after all, it has taken eight months and three debates, with the victims of Nasser's aggression on British property still deprived and still suffering, to get in a most sympathetic speech from the noble Viscount an admission that there has been a lagging behind by Her Majesty's Government in the definition of hardship and an advance by Her Majesty's Government towards the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Killearn. So I think that, as the noble Viscount said, the House and the Government can be grateful to the noble Lord for giving Her Majesty's Government the opportunity to achieve that much advance.
The prospects of any final settlement for these victims depend on intergovernmental negotiations not yet started, undoubtedly protracted and of a doubtful finish. It is as well to realise one point which has not been stressed in this debate: that for the majority of these victims their Egyptian lives are over. They will not go back and it is no good negotiating on the basis of an expectation that these people will be able to resume their lives there. Many of them are of an age when they could not start again, and those of an age who could start 528 again have in many cases had their physical assets removed. Only yesterday I saw a letter from an Egyptian official now looking after a previously British business, soliciting British customers in this country on behalf of the Egyptian authorities who have taken over that particular business.
The other point I should like to make is that, like the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, I was gravely disturbed at the expression by the Minister of State yesterday in another place when, in reply to a question as to the ruin of the individuals in Egypt and whether the Government had got to accept responsibility or not, he said [OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, Vol. 572 (No. 128), col. 188]:We do not accept responsibility for this.That is a very definite repudiation, and quite different in word, and I believe in spirit, from what we have had to-day from my noble friend Lord Hailsham and from what we have had from Ministers in this House on previous occasions. There is a great disparity of view. It is, I know, impossible, or it would be very unwise and unfair, to ask one Minister of Her Majesty's Government to repudiate another, but, by inference, I should like the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, when he comes to reply, to make it quite clear that Her Majesty's Government take the sympathetic attitude, and not the attitude of repudiation. I would entreat the Government to do that, because when we refer to what happened in another place yesterday it takes away in our minds a good deal of the hopeful feeling raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham.
I should like to support also what my noble friend Lord Salisbury said: that this is a position that disturbs a far wider circle than those affected, and that it is to be hoped that Her Majesty's Government appreciate the strength of public opinion on a situation that reflects on all of us of every Party—not only those in the Administration but those who support the Administration in this and in another place—so long as it is allowed to continue. These people want justice; they do not want charity; and we must be careful of that fact in the extension of any definition of hardship to the point that we can compensate for assets—an extension which I hope Her Majesty's Government will accept and interpret 529 liberally. Let us be quite sure that we regard it as justice and not charity, which is being given to those people.
I trust your Lordshsips will allow me to say this in conclusion. It seems to me, as a comparatively new Member of the House, that your Lordships' House is held in high esteem in the country, first because of the freedom of expression, secondly, because of the integrity of purpose, and, thirdly, because of the determination to have justice. We can serve notice tonight on Her Majesty's Government that there will be no let-up on this matter until justice prevails. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Killearn, will not press this Motion to a Division tonight but will think of taking steps immediately to put a Motion back on the Order Paper in two or three weeks' time, so that the Government have an opportunity between now and then to implement that helpful and hopeful attitude shown by the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham. Then, when we come back, we shall, having served notice, be able to withdraw that Motion with feelings of relief and gratitude that justice has been done.
§ 7.58 p.m.
§ THE EARL OF LUCAN
My Lords, I can assure your Lordships that I shall not be guilty of any repetition, but I should like to say that it seems to me that in this subject we are treading on very difficult ground. The ground is shifting all the time between our feet and between one debate and another. Just think: a few months ago we were told that a memorandum on the subject of blocked accounts was going to be taken to the Treasury and discussed. We know that that meeting with the officials duly took place at some time at the end of April, but, unless I misunderstood the noble Viscount who spoke, there was no outcome of that meeting. Again, we were told repeatedly that what was holding up action was the collection of the claims at the Foreign Office. It was reasonable to suppose that, once the total amount claimed by these British subjects was known, it would then be possible for the Government to start their approaches to the Egyptian Government to get restitution. But what do we hear now? The Minister yesterday shifted his ground entirely and said that there was no question of the claims of British nationals being known until they had been allowed to go 530 back to Egypt and recover their property. Surely, that is an impossible situation, and is a complete change of ground.
The noble Viscount told us that he felt that a resumption of normal trade relations with Egypt must depend on Egypt's restitution and restoration of the assets they have claimed. But he went on to advise the claimants against taking any action or pressing their claims, because, as I understood him, if I may paraphrase it not quite accurately, any concession that might injure the legal and moral principle of the wrongness of Egyptian action should be avoided. That seems to me a most extraordinary doctrine. If, through no fault of his own, a British subject is injured by a foreign Power, do Her Majesty's Government divest themselves of responsibility for making good that damage? The noble Marquess who spoke just now referred to the moral responsibility of Her Majesty's Government. Whatever Ministers may say, I am sure that that is where opinion in the country places moral responsibility for the situation of these claimants.
The question of blocked accounts has been mentioned. I think it has been mentioned in several different senses. With regard to the blocked accounts in the English banks, we understand that the Government's suggestion is that the legality of the bank's action should be tested by action brought by private individuals or institutions. The other aspect of blocked accounts was raised in another place not long ago. I should like to quote a sentence or two from the speech of the Foreign Secretary on May 16, when, referring to the Egyptian Government's assets in this country, he said [OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, Vol. 570 (No. 110) col. 585]:The blocked accounts are our security for the claims of British subjects against the Egyptian Government. We have no intention of whittling away that position. The House can be sure of that.Does not that demolish the idea that by pressing the claims of the British nationals, it would injure the strength of our case against Egypt? It seems quite beyond reason that the Government should take their present attitude. I should like to remind them that all the people for whom we are appealing are British subjects. They hold British passports and, if I remember rightly, on the inside of the cover of a British passport 531 Her Majesty's Foreign Secretary calls on all British officials to give the holder all the help of which he may be in need. That is a thing which Her Majesty's Government might well remember.
§ 8.5 p.m.
My Lords, my intervention in this debate will be exceedingly brief. All I want to say, in the first place, is that I believe this has been a useful debate and I think we owe a debt to my noble friend Lord Killearn. If it has done nothing else, the debate has cleared away a certain amount of confusion; and I hope it has also made the position clear to Her Majesty's Government how my noble friend, and I think those of us who support him, feel about this matter. Whatever the legalistic view may be—and I do not dispute that it may well be legalistically true that the claims of these people lie against Colonel Nasser—speaking for myself, and, I believe, for all my noble friends who have spoken in this sense this afternoon, I think we all feel that we, severally and individually, and the British nation as a whole, owe these people a debt of honour and we cannot just accept the purely legalistic view.
I was rather encouraged by the remarks of the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, this evening to think that the Government had shifted rather in their attitude to this matter. But there is still, to my mind, a certain doubt as to where, ultimately, the Government stand in this matter. We have had these conflicting statements, one in another place and the general impression which was created by the speech of the noble Viscount this afternoon. At any rate, there is one issue which has been brought to the surface and on which the views of your Lordships' House have been demonstrated. I venture to say that I think those views were overwhelmingly in favour of the sentiment that we have here laid upon us a debt of honour which we cannot repudiate. I think that was the general sense of your Lordships' House.
Secondly, I would say that the debate has been useful because it has again brought to the surface a number of complicated matters on which there still appears to be an enormous amount of confusion. There is the whole question of the frozen assets; why the banks are 532 unwilling to release them; and whether anything can be done to help these people to get their assets. The noble Viscount who replied rather suggested in his speech that anybody in this situation ought to take his bank to court and have a test case. But I must remind your Lordships that most of these people are destitute, and the services of people like the noble Viscount are, quite rightly, extremely expensive.
§ VISCOUNT HAILSHAM
May I say at once that any member of the Bar, including myself, whilst I was practising, who was on the roster for legal aid, would have given his services without charge to a client who was destitute, and without any kind of expense whatever to such a client.
I am glad to hear that; I spoke in error and I withdraw my remark. I personally should still like to have enough money to engage the noble Viscount.
Apart from that, there is the question of the banks, a matter which has been discussed this afternoon. I understand that the situation is different again. I understand that the reason why the banks are not prepared to release these assets is because they are frightened of paying twice. They are frightened that these assets are the assets of the branch in Egypt which has been nationalised by Colonel Nasser; and they are frightened that if they release the assets they will be sued in the Egyptian courts for the money. Therefore, they want an indemnity for the individuals concerned. Again, these people are unable to provide the indemnity. I do not know whether that is right or not, but here is a matter which has been discussed now for months and months and, judging by the debate to-day, there still seems to be considerable confusion. If, as the result of this afternoon's debate, we can get somewhere nearer to a solution to this problem, again something will be achieved.
I should like personally to thank the noble Viscount for what was a most helpful speech. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Killearn would be right at this stage to withdraw his Motion and to enter into discussions with the noble Viscount and others to see whether something more cannot be done in the way of interim help. I think that is all that I 533 need say. I hope that in the circumstances my noble friend will withdraw his Motion.
§ 8.9 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT HAILSHAM
My Lords, I can reply only by leave of the House and I hope that I may do so extremely briefly. In the absence of the noble Viscount who leads the Opposition, perhaps I may inform him, through his Chief Whip, that I should like to answer the queries which he has raised by letter, after consultation, because I do not think his questions can be answered straight away. There was one question raised about the possibility of having a full report before the Recess from the Colyton Committee. I should not like to answer that, but I am sure that his request for an answer will be taken account of, and I will seek, if I can, to write him a letter as shortly as may be.
Secondly, in view of the very pleasant tone of the speeches which have been made, I do not think I should answer many of them in any great detail, because I do not wish in any way to disturb the harmony of these proceedings. I was at pains to point out in my speech that the Motion was confined to interim relief, pending a just and final settlement, and I explicitly disclaimed any personal desire to inquire into what a final and just settlement might involve. It was in order to advance the cause of interim relief that I made the particular suggestion I did, which I hope and believe has met with a friendly reception.
I thought that my noble friend Lord Salisbury made rather heavy weather of the reply of my right honourable friend to his kinsman in another place. I am not sure that the Rules of Order of this House are not partly to blame. I must say that this is the first time that this matter has been brought to my attention. The noble Marquess felt himself entitled, and barely entitled, to read out the answer, but apparently felt under no obligation to look at the Question to which the Answer referred. I do not know whether I may be breaking the Rules of Order of this House, but I shall try not to do so by reading out only the last phrase of the question to which the answer referred. The questioner had asked [OFFICIAT REPORT, Commons, Vol. 572 (No. 128), col. 187]:As these individuals have all been ruined as a result of the action taken by Her Majesty's 534 Government, surely the Government have a responsibility whether they recover from the Egyptian Government or not?I should have thought the most enthusiastic supporters of the refugees from Egypt would not have claimed that the British Government had a responsibility if the claimants recovered from the Egyptian Government. Perhaps I had better not take that matter any further, but it seems to me that when one is dealing with a supplementary question and answer in another place, one has to be very careful to read these things in their context. As I have explained to the House, I had not previous knowledge of this, so perhaps we can leave it there for a moment.
I would say, in all fairness to the noble Earl, Lord Lucan, who spoke recently, that although I can understand the attitude about a final settlement adopted by my noble friend Lord Salisbury, I think that when he noble Earl reads in cold print what he said to your Lordships this afternoon, he will see that he has gone beyond any kind of doctrine which anybody could seriously suggest was the responsibility of the Government. I am sure he will find, when he reads Hansard, that what was said was that whenever the property of a British subject was injured by a foreign Government, the British Government should make it up to him. I am sure that, on reflection, the noble Earl will not wish to justify that. Even in the palmiest days of Lord Palmerston that would not have been put forward as a serious doctrine.
To my noble friend Lord Salisbury I would say that, while I recognise what he says, my own feeling is that it is probably a novel doctrine that in order to give rise to an obligation on the part of the Government one first had to make a political judgment as to whether damage flowed directly from an action of the Government or some other Government. I doubt whether, in the long run, that would be in the interests of British subjects. The last thing I should suggest is that Her Majesty's Government owed no responsibility in any case where a British subject had suffered damage. The area of dispute, if there is one, would be limited to the point of time at which that responsibility arose and the way in which the responsibility should be discharged. At the moment we are seeking to discharge our responsibility by bringing 535 home to the Egyptians the iniquity of continuing a sequestration which was never justified—if any situation could conceivably arise in which sequestration was justified—and I believe we are right in doing so.
The noble Marquess urged upon us a firm line, and that is what we are trying to take. And I am perfectly sure, from the little I have had to do with these unfortunate refugees, that their public spirit would be equal to helping us in this respect. I hope very much that my noble friend Lord Killearn will be able to accede to the appeal of the noble Marquess. I certainly will do my best to see that any discussions which take place bear some fruit. I fully recognise that my noble friend is entitled to further discussion on this matter, and should he feel desirous of having a debate at a later date, before the Summer Recess, or if he feels that there is anything more to say after the discussions have taken place, I imagine that that can be arranged through the usual channels.
I was going to suggest the adjournment of the debate, but I am told by those who understand the Rules of this House better than I do that this would impose on my noble friend an oath of silence, which I am not anxious to enforce. If, therefore, he would consent to withdraw his Motion, I should not, speaking for Her Majesty's Government, take it amiss if another Motion found its place on the Order Paper, and I should be willing to lend such small influence as I possess to finding an early date for it at a suitable occasion before we rise for the Summer Recess. I hope that, by that time, either discussion will prove unnecessary or that we may record that further advances have been made.
§ 8.18 p.m.
§ LORD KILLEARN
My Lords, I am very grateful for what the noble and learned Viscount has said. Before I come down to bedrock, may I say that I fully support what has been said by the noble Lords, Lord Salisbury and Lord Balfour of Inchrye, about these curious 536 and rather conflicting (as between another place and here) statements by the Minister of State for the Foreign Office. I am not going to press the noble and learned Viscount to explain away what his colleague said, but there is a very odd discrepancy, and a rather shaking one, between the two statements. I am very glad that both the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, and the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, called attention to what the Minister of State has said. It is true, as the noble and learned Viscount has pointed out, that the statement was in answer to a supplementary question but it shook me a bit. I do not propose to say anything more on that, except that we are all very glad that both noble Lords called attention to this discrepancy.
It is now past eight o'clock, and I want to thank all noble Lords who have had the patience to come and stay here so long to listen to this debate. I know that in many instances noble Lords have missed trains and put out their arrangements, and have gone to immense pains. I am most grateful to them all. To come now to the point, the noble and learned Viscount has made a suggestion which centres round the word "hardship". I shall study very carefully in Hansard what he has said. I think noble Lords would be well advised to do so. The noble and learned Viscount also suggested that in the circumstances I might be prepared to withdraw my Motion, on condition that it could be put down again later on, and I gladly respond to that suggestion. I should make clear that it is on condition (if I may make a condition) that this subject shall come up again in a fortnight's time. I have been so bold as to earmark a date—Tuesday, July 16. The Chief Whip, I believe, is "in" on this, so, if that suggestion has the approval of the Front Bench, I would now propose, by leave of the House, to withdraw my Motion, and I will to-night transfer the same Motion to Tuesday, July 16.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.
§ House adjourned at twenty minutes past eight o'clock.