HL Deb 25 January 1962 vol 236 cc972-8

3.7 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government:—

(1) whether, as bearing on the question of "short-fall", they are mindful of the unequivocal assurance given in Parliament on May 16, 1957, by the then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (now Chancellor of the Exchequer) that the blocked accounts then standing to the credit of Egypt were the security for the claims of British nationals—victims of the Suez incident: that Her Majesty's Government had no intention of whittling away "that position" and that Parliament might be sure of that;

(2) at what figure these Egyptian credits stood on May 16, 1957, when the above assurance was given;

(3) how many releases—and of how much was each—wore made in Egypt in the interval between the above assurance of May, 1957, and the signing of the financial agreement of February, 1959, which released unconditionally to Egypt the residue of £41 million; and

(4) whether Her Majesty's Government do not agree, in the light of the above facts and figures, that some practical step should be taken forthwith to cover the discrepancy between the £27½ million received from Egypt and the duly established value of the British claims—as was so clearly foreshadowed by the Prime Minister, in his statement to Parliament on March 16, 1959 (see Commons Hansard, Vol. 602 (No. 78), col. 150) in regard to any short-fall".]


My Lords, on the first part of my noble friend's Question, I must remind your Lordships that the Agreement, however unsatisfactory it may now appear to be, was debated and approved by both Houses in March, 1959. It was clearly stated then that, if the Egyptian balances had not been released, there would have been no Agreement at all. Her Majesty's Government were mindful then, as they are now, of the assurance to which my noble friend has alluded: but the clear intention behind that assurance was that the balances would not be unblocked until an Agreement had been reached. Indeed, to have forgone the chance of making an Agreement would have meant, not "whittling away" the position, but abandoning it wholly at one stroke. And as the Agreement was then accepted by Parliament, Her Majesty's Government see no practical purpose in reopening the question now.

On parts (2) and (3) of my noble friend's Question, as the then Paymaster General stated in this House on November 23, 1955 [OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 194 (No. 37), col. 753] it is not the practice of banks to reveal the balances they hold, since such matters are always regarded as confidential between banker and client. For similar reasons I am unfortunately not able to give the information about releases asked for by my noble friend. All I can say is that, according to the records published by the National Bank of Egypt, the Egyptian balances in Accounts numbers 1 and 2 together amounted on May 30, 1957, to £93,400,000.

On part (4) of my noble friend's Question, the total value of the claims before the Foreign Compensation Commission has not yet been "duly established". Nearly half of the formulated claims have still to be assessed. There are, in addition, claims which have been presented but which cannot yet be formulated; and we know that there will be many more still to be presented. Your Lordships will understand that until more is known about these outstanding claims we cannot make any clearer estimate about the future total amounts of claims than that which I gave your Lordships on December 20.

I would also remind your Lordships that the Prime Minister's undertaking, to which my noble friend has referred, was to ensure a settlement that is reasonable and fair". Of the claimants, whose claims had been assessed by the Foreign Compensation Commission up to the end of 1961, over 83 per cent. are being paid 90 per cent. of the assessed value; and less than 1 per cent. are being paid under 37 per cent. This last category comprises at present eleven claimants, almost all companies. Some of these have suffered losses largely due to circumstances which arose before 1956. In most cases these losses appear already to have been written off.


My Lords, as always, I am very grateful to the noble Earl for his full reply. I fear that the Answer, rather like my Question, is slightly involved, and I would beg leave to take time to consider it a little before forming any general conclusion. In the meantime, I have a couple of supplementary questions that I would put to my noble friend. On the first point, I asked for a figure at which the Egyptian credits stood when Mr. Selwyn Lloyd gave his assurance. The answer to that was a "lemon"; I was not given a figure. There was a long reason why I could not be, but I was not given that figure, and it is very material.

I now come to my two supplementaries. The first is about the facts which I have not yet been given, which are the disbursements in the interval between the assurance and the signature of the Agreement. There was one made of £3 million to the Suez Canal Company. I would ask the noble Earl whether this country are not 46 per cent. shareholders in that Company—in other words, whether the British Government are not beneficiaries of this £3 million. That is question number one. The second supplementary question I would put to my noble friend, with which I think he will probably agree, is whether it is not far better, in the light of these questions and answers to-day, that I should leave it to the House—and, after all, there is no more balanced or experienced body in the country—to assess whether in their own unbiased judgment these wretched claimants have been treated with either decency or fairness.


My Lords, I gave my noble friend the only figure which I could give about the amount of Egyptian balances: that is, according to the records published by the National Bank of Egypt. I said that the Egyptian balances on May 30, 1957, in Accounts Nos. 1 and 2 amounted to £93,400,000.


If that answers my first point I withdraw my stricture.


My noble friend's Question, which is long, and my Answer, which is even longer, both deal with the mount of compensation in the Fund of £27½ million for the purpose of compensating people who have had their property nationalised or who have claims for damage. I have no information here about any payments, made in respect of Suez Canal shares, which I think is a different question from that on the Paper. But I shall be very glad if my noble friend will put down a Question upon it; or, if he does not want to do that, I will, of course, circulate the information.


My Lords, I am afraid I have already done so and have had a brisk exchange of view with the then Leader of the House, the noble and learned Viscount. I take it that the noble Earl was talking about the £3 million. We had a very sharp exchange, which is on the Record. And I still maintain that it was, as I said then, pretty sharp practice.


My Lords, it may be on record, but it does not arise out of the Question on the Paper to-day. I should, however, be delighted if my noble friend would like to put the question down again, and perhaps we may manage this time with a less sharp exchange about it.


My Lords I see no point in putting it down again, because really the point I am getting after is the question of the "short-fall".


Order, order!


I revert to the Question. However, I must not make a speech.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl whether he can supply some additional information? He gave some figures of the total compensation which is being paid and which I must say surprised me. I think he said that something like 80 per cent. had been paid. One of the great difficulties in this matter is getting accurate information. Might I ask the noble Earl whether it would be possible for us to have more detailed information as to the actual amounts paid both for Egyptianised property and for sequestration claims up to date, so that I may check up with my own information? I have no doubt that the noble Earl is correct, but the information would be helpful.


My Lords, the figure I gave was that 83 per cent. of the claimants for Egyptianised property and sequestration losses had received 90 per cent. of their assessed claims. I should be very glad indeed to get the more detailed information for which my noble friend asks. It is, as he will understand, changing every month. Disbursements have increased very rapidly month by month since last November.


My Lords, in view of the concern of the claimants, would the noble Earl be in a position to state what is the amount remaining in the Fund out of the £27½ million, and can he give any indication of the total of the present agreed amounts? Could he give those two figures? Also, could he give any indication to the House of the progress which is being made on the release from Egypt of the agreed amounts?


My Lords, in regard to the first question, the last figure I had was about £18 million still left in the Fund. That was a few weeks ago. But it is changing every week and I will get more up-to-date figures for my noble friend. My noble friend's other supplementary, about the question of exchange difficulties, we discussed on December 20 and I understand that some of your Lordships are arranging that we should discuss it again. It does not really arise out of the Question on the Paper, and I think it is better not to mix them up.


My Lords, arising out of the apparently rather promising figures which the noble Earl gave us of some 83 per cent. getting 90 per cent. of their claims paid, is it not the case that those rather hopeful figures are discounted by the fact that they do not include claims for sequestration, and they arc claims arising from nationalisation? The sequestration claims are unable to be included because people are not yet able to formulate their claims. Is it not the fact that sequestration claims will come to a very much larger total than the £27½ million?


My Lords, I take it that when my noble friend talks about sequestration claims he is referring to the claims for damage suffered by the property while it was sequestrated andbefore it was restored. My noble friend will find in Hansard of December 20 all the figures I could give on that.


They are not included in this total?


Yes, but they form a very small proportion of it. Speaking from memory, I think the figures I gave were about a total of £4 million for claims for sequestration damage, compared with £58 million or more for confiscation. So far, sequestration claims have been a very small proportion of the whole; but, of course, they take longer, much longer, to formulate, and therefore we expect a good many more to come in. The figures which I gave of 83 per cent. of the claimants getting 90 per cent. of their claims refer of course to those whose claims for Egyptianised property and sequestration losses have already been assessed and approved.

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