HL Deb 18 December 1962 vol 245 cc1026-35

3.7 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, when the Foreign Secretary made his statement to your Lordships on Tuesday of last week about Egyptian compensation he listed five proposals Which the Government were making. Only the first two of those proposals need any legislation; that is to say, the topping-up of the payments to owners of Egyptianised property and claimants for damage to de-sequestrated property, for which purpose £27½ million has already been paid into the Exchequer by the Egyptian Government. My noble friend told your Lordships that the Government were proposing to provide another £5½ million to increase those payments. The second proposal was that contain additional claims arising out of the Suez incident which could not be included under the present Orders in Council should be made eligible for compensation. The expense of that was estimated at £1 million making £6½ million under those first two items, and this Bill is simply an enabling Bill to make that possible. It does not mention any figures.

Clause 1 gives the Secretary of State power to provide out of monies provided by Parliament the sums which will be necessary to implement the first two of the proposals explained to your Lordships by the Secretary of State last week. Your Lordships will see from subsection (2) of Clause 1 that the Orders in Council to give effect to these payments will be subject to Affirmative Resolutions and not merely to the Negative Resolution procedure. They will have to be passed by Resolution of both Houses; so that your Lordships and the other place will have an opportunity of discussing whatever is proposed can be done.

The next clause, Clause 2, enables deductions which have been made in respect of repayments of loans already advanced to be paid into the Exchequer. That regularises the procedure the legality of which was previously doubtful. Clause 3 simply enables the Government to pay certain pensions to personnel who are serving on the Foreign Compensation Commission. This Bill has been certified by the Speaker of the House of Commons as a Money Bill, and I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Dundee.)

3.11 p.m.


My Lords, I rise with some trepidation to tackle this subject because, certainly to me, and I imagine to many of your Lordships also, it has been a matter of considerable doubt as to what in fact we are going to discuss this afternoon. After all, an enabling Bill is really only a piece of machinery and, as such, I would say, is entirely uncontentious. That, perhaps, is one of the curious phenomena of the British system of running Government affairs—that the British Government cannot pay any money into this body, the Foreign Compensation Commission, because it is English money, and by their mandate the Foreign Compensation Commission are allowed only to accept money from foreign countries. That seems to me to be an odd and rather clumsy arrangement, but no doubt it is all right. As a result, we now have before us this enabling Bill, which enables the British Government to pay additional funds into the funds already in the hands of the Commission and received from Egypt, and then to get on with the distribution thereof.

But where I and a great many others have been completely "stumped", is that this Bill does not have anything at all to do with the money; it merely enables the Commission to accept more funds to provide for what is called "topping-up". I think that is right. If I have this right (probably I have it quite wrong), the actual distribution of the money and the scheme are dependent on further legislation, with takes the form of two Orders in Council, themselves, I believe, also subject to Parliamentary debate and assent. I hope the noble Earl will correct me if I am wrong—I am completely unversed in these matters, and I am probably floundering. It is all rather puzzling. So when I rise, as I do now, I really do not know what I am addressing myself to. Am I talking about the enabling Bill, or am I talking about the scheme? So far as the enabling Bill goes, as has been said, there are only three clauses—


My Lords, would it not simplify matters if we were to call upon the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, to clarify that point before we go further, because others in the House are perplexed. It would help if the noble Earl could give us a correct interpretation.


My Lords, it is not for me to tell your Lordships what you are talking about if your Lordships do not know. I hope that my noble friend Lord Killearn is talking about the Bill. I think he has been quite right so far in saying that it is an enabling Bill which enables money to be paid. As for his question about Orders in Council, he is equally right in saying that the amount of money will be determined by, perhaps two Orders in Council, though I hope that in fact it may be possible to combine them in one.


So that to-day we are not actually discussing the scheme at all; we are discussing simply the machinery for implementing the scheme, if and when it is approved. Of course that greatly affects the line of my observations. If I get down to the matter of the enabling Bill, that is entirely uncontentious. So far as the mechanics go, it is as simple as pie; there is nothing to it.


My Lords, perhaps I may again intervene. Could the noble Earl not clarify that point? Because in another place there was presented the Foreign Compensation Bill, followed immediately by the Foreign Compensation (Money) Bill. On the same day they were dealing with two entirely different and separate categories. I think it would help the House if the noble Earl could give some interpretation of the juridical relationship of the two and how, as they were taken in the Commons, it affects us here in this House.


My Lords, it is not for me to interpret proceedings in another place. Although a Money Resolution is a necessary consequence of a financial Bill in another place, it is not the same as Orders in Council Which have to be laid before both Houses at a later stage.


My Lords, I thank the noble Earl. Are we in this House to have an opportunity to discuss the Money Resolution? I admit that we cannot alter it, but I suggest that we should, at some other stage, have the opportunity to discuss the actual allocation of the money.


My Lords, I said in my few opening remarks that Clause 1 (2) of the Bill provides for an Affirmative and not a Negative Resolution. That means that the Order in Council cannot just lie on the Table and come into force so long as nobody objects to it; it means that it will have to be approved by your Lordships and by another place. So that there will be a full opportunity for anyone who wants to discuss the Order, to do so.


My Lords, this Resolution that we are talking about will have to be passed as it stands?




I see. I am sorry that I am so ignorant of Parliamentary procedure; I do not pretend to be anything else. Having cleared up that little point, may I get back to the Bill?

There is one point which has nothing really to do with the Bill itself. It is something about which I have always felt strongly. In the Explanatory Memorandum the reference to Clause 2 mentions the refund of ex gratia loans. So far, up to November 30, refunds made amounted to £1,356,000 odd. I have inquired about these loans and I understand that the total advanced was £7 million-odd. May I ask your Lordships to cast your minds back a little, to when these things happened? There was, first of all, the Suez Canal crisis, then the Suez incident, and finally what I may call the situation of the Suez victims. There were 8,000 law-abiding peaceful British subjects who were thrown out on their ears, lock, stock and barrel, without even their tooth brushes or anything else. Everything was taken from them and they were completely penniless.

Emotions and sympathy ran high in this House, and the Government showed themselves quite moved. The Government gave Parliament certain undertakings which, fortunately from my point of view, are on the Official Record. I grant that perhaps they were rash undertakings to give; perhaps they were impossible of implementation—I do not know. But the fact remains that these people were driven out, dispossessed of their possessions, and most of them landed on their beam ends. Emotions were running high and sympathy was running deep, though it was slightly overshadowed by the fact that the Hungarian affair synchronised with these feelings. That was unfortunate. None the less, certain undertakings of an explicit character were given. They could not have been given more formally. They were given to Parliament. One was given by the Prime Minister and the other, which was even more explicit, was given by the then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.

The Prime Minister said—and I am quoting from memory, although I have the text in my pocket if anyone wants to see it—that there would be complete restitution or, in the alternative (and I emphasise this), complete compensation. I suppose that that does mean what it says—namely, complete compensation. Seven days later the then Foreign Minister, Mr. Selwyn Lloyd, was questioned in the House of Commons, quite naturally, about the large Egyptian credit fund in this country which at that stage stood at £93 million. He gave the most explicit pledge that these assets were the security for the payment of these debts. That was the policy of the British Government, from which there would be no departure, no whittling away of this security—they were his words, and he said the House could be assured of that. My Lords, I was brought up in a school where the word of a private individual was worth something, and the word of a Government, and particularly my own Government, I thought was sacrosanct. Well, you live and learn. There have been several attempts, very unconvincing attempts, to run away from these pledges. But they still stand.

I remember I had a little tiff on one occasion when Egypt was negotiating an agreement for compensation with shareholders of the Suez Canal. With the help of the International Bank they came to an agreement whereby Egypt paid this, that and the other. The first amount that fell due was a payment of £3 million, and through the intervention of the Chairman of the International Bank we released £3 million from this blocked Egyptian credit. I took this up rather violently, and I had quite a brush with the Lord President of the Council, who maintained that this was not a departure from the pledge given in Parliament. I said that I thought English meant What English said. We argued it in good part and I have looked it up. The incident ended in this way. The noble and learned Viscount addressed these words to me: I hope the noble Lord, Lord Killearn, will continue to place full and absolute confidence in any assurance given by the Front Bench. My Lords, one really begins to scratch one's head and wonder where one is. When is a pledge not a pledge? When is a word a word, just not worth a twopenny damn? Is it not really monstrous? It makes me blush, if that is possible. I have served a series of British Governments for very nearly half a century. To me it has always been axiomatic that the word of your Government is as good as its bond. Just look at it!

Now I come back to this Bill. I do not think these people should be made to repay their loans, for the very good reason that these loans were given them at a time when they were "down on their uppers." The total advances were made, in two payments of up to £5,000 each, so that the maximum anybody got was £10,000. That was some years ago. If there was ever a case of a forced capital expenditure, was that not it? These people had to live; they had to spend this money because they were forced to spend it. When they got the loans they were given a piece of paper to sign. You know what it is like when you are in a jam, you sign anything. They signed an agreement to pay if and when Egypt "coughed up". Nobody at that time thought Egypt was going to pay. These loans were enforced capital expenditure, and I do not think that morally, they should have been repayable. After all, if you are "down on your uppers", practically starving, and you have lost everything, you will realise how these people felt. How would noble Lords sitting on these Benches feel if their whole means of livelihood suddenly were to go? They have had to live on this money. They have had to pay back £1,356,000 out of the money they have received from late foreign compensation.

The total money that was advanced to them by the resettlement board—and I have checked on this—was £7,560,000. If the whole of that is to be recouped, where is your generosity? Where is this generous spirit about which we have heard so much in this scheme?

I raise that apropos of the Bill. Otherwise I am not going to say anything against the Bill; this is not the fault of the Bill, but of the Memorandum accompanying the Bill. I take the very strongest exception, on every ground, to making these unfortunate people repay money which they have certainly spent in order to live. Is that right? I should like to interpose one remark. We like to think that Parliament governs the Government, that what Parliament thinks the Government will do. But, my Lords, there is something much bigger behind it all, and that is public opinion which is above everything. And if we do something thoroughly ignoble, which we are in danger of doing, I think—then wait and see, that is all. Unfortunately, my claimants, if I may so call them, have no votes. They cannot vote for this, that or any other Party—"Who cares? Throw them to the wolves! They are defenceless, let them suffer! Victims of Suez? Of course they were. Who cares? It is past. Governments come and go, and the British Government's word is not worth a twopenny damn. What does it matter?" Unfortunately these people have no means of exerting pressure, none at all, except for silly folk like me who get up and talk for them—and I am not properly briefed.

My Lords, I am now going to leave the Bill. I am told I shall be in order if I refer to the project that was introduced, the five curiously entitled proposals which the Foreign Secretary brought up before us the other day. We are all very grateful to him; he and his Department have worked like beavers. I said at the time that you cannot get blood out of the Treasury stone. The Foreign Secretary and his staff have done their best; I am not saying a word against them. But the scheme is not really so generous. It proposes to pay—and I am speaking from memory—£9½ million out of public funds. The first thing I should have liked to see done, especially if you are confronted with a thing of this complexity, something vitally important to a great many innocent people, was to get a proper opinion from those for whom one is speaking. But, my Lords, we have not had the time.

Let me recall to your Lordships again one of these curious, indeed, very odd, coincidences. What number am I on the agenda to-day? I cannot tell you, because I do not have the Paper, but I am quite a long way down. What is to-day? The last day but two of the Parliamentary term. This scheme was launched on Tuesday of last week, just a week ago. I do not know whether your Lordships know the habits of elephants, but I am told they take two years to gestate. My Lords, that is a fleabite; the Government take seven years. Then they suddenly present you—and I say this with the best will in the would—with seven days in which to ponder upon an extremely intricate and difficult scheme. It is not good enough.

That brings me back to the same old point I made before about the extraordinary coincidence that we are always the last item on the last day of the term. Before the Summer Recess I had a Motion down. It was the sixteenth item on that day. By the time we got down to it everybody was tired to death, and the House was bored with the whole subject. By the time it came to the end there was only one Opposition Member left here. The noble Earl, Lord Lucan, will bear me out. He was the only Member of the whole of his Party left in the House. So I could not divide—what was the good?—even if I had wanted to. It is an extraordinary thing, in the light of the importance of this subject—and, mind you, I want speed, but the right kind of speed—but here we are practically at the last day of this term again confronted with another pistol. That is not the right way to do these things of such importance to so many people.

I must finish, my Lords. I was told that I could speak for a quarter of an hour, after which, I should be shot. I do not know whether or not I have exceeded the quarter of an hour. But there is £9,700,000-odd under this scheme. They get back £1 million in taxation from these unfortunate people; that knocks a million off. They got back over £1 million here on refunds; that knocks £2 million off. So this much-vaunted £9,700,000 is, at the most, £7,700,000, and I doubt if it is even that. But I do not have the time and I do not want to get drawn into that side of it, though there is one point about that particular scheme to which I hardly know how to allude.

It was put over with tremendous advertising, that 90 per cent. of the people are going to get 100 per cent. of their claims. My Lords, I have been assured that this is just not true. As I have said, I cannot get up and argue that, because I do not have the facts; and anyway it would be rather difficult to do. But these experts assure me that that just is not true, and that it is misleading.

I have almost finished, my Lords. The so-called scheme has five proposals. It is headed to the effect that it is a final settlement. That seems to me straight away to be a contradiction in terms. Are they proposals, or are they part of a dictated and final document? They must be one or the other, and if they are dictated there is not much mare to be said. I should like to think that they are proposals; anyhow, they are called proposals. There are five proposals, some of which might be pulled to bits—others not so much. The one on which I should like to concentrate is the last one, No. 5, which sets aside £2½ million and sets up a special committee to deal with hardships of British subjects whose assets, through having been sequestered, are blocked in Egypt.

I do not know if your Lordships realise the impossible situation that these people are in. Through our putting up the money to Egypt, they have been enabled to get £5,000 each transferred to this country. The rest of this property in Egypt—£5,000, £10,000, £50,000—is blocked. They cannot touch it, they cannot sell it, they cannot use it. What is the good of it to them? I have asked one claimant in very well-informed circles: "What do you assess is the value of the property in Egypt which is so frozen in Egypt?" I asked the noble Earl himself last week. I did not think he would be able to answer and he told me that he could not, which did net surprise me. It was put, earlier on, by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, at being £130 million. We know that the Shell people settled separately for £50 million. That knocks it down to £80 million, so altogether it was left at that time at about £80 million out in Egypt. Who knows how it has fared since? Anyway, all the claimants are going to get for this frozen property under the present Government scheme, is £2½ million. I am assured by one claimant who happens to be among those affected, though that does not affect his judgment, that a low estimate of the property thus frozen in Egypt is £20 million. Against that the scheme provides £2½ million, plus a committee to go into cases of hardship.

Honestly, my Lords, I do not think that is good enough, but I do not really know what my status is in talking of this thing at all, because if it is not still sub judice what is the good? I would not dream of dividing the House on it; it would not be any good, anyway. But it really is such a crying scandal that I must reserve full liberty to revert to that particular part of the scheme later on, as we discover how things really are. I get back to the elephant and the period of gestation. We have only had seven days to ponder on this work of seven years. It is not very long.

My Lords, I have kept you long enough. You are always very patient and very helpful. But what you have to remember is that what matters is not me; it is not what I say to you; it is not really what you think yourselves. It is these unfortunate individuals, these poor, wretched people who, seven years after the event, are still without adequate means and are still deprived of their own property. They are the people we are talking about and of whom we must think, and it is on their behalf that I speak to you today.