HL Deb 13 June 1968 vol 293 cc221-7

3.38 p.m.


My Lords, I hope it will meet your Lordships' convenience if I reply now to the Private Notice Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor.

Mr. Cohn-Bendit arrived at London Airport on June 11 at the invitation of the B.B.C. He said that his purpose was to take part in a programme to be recorded on the following day, and he accepted that a stay of 24 hours would be sufficient for this purpose. Last night his legal representative applied for permission for him to stay on for 14 days to visit student friends and a relative. Naturally, my right honourable friend looked at this with some care, but in all the circumstances he did not think it necessary to refuse the application.


My Lords, while recognising that the blame for inviting this alien to this country rests upon the authorities of the B.B.C. and not upon the Government may I ask the Government whether they think that their decision to grant him a further stay in this country will be backed by British opinion here, or whether they think some British interest will be served by allowing him to stay here?


My Lords, it is not possible for me to conduct, as it were, an instant referendum to establish what all the people of this country think; but for a great many years we have had in this country a liberal tradition that the powers vested in the Home Secretary to exclude foreign nationals should not be exercised arbitrarily or lightly. I think that is still the opinion of the great majority of the people of this country. I believe that in admitting Mr. CohnBendit, who is not a convicted criminal, we were maintaining that tradition and our reputation as a civilised country. Like any other person in this country, Mr. Cohn-Bendit will be free to express his views. Like them, he will be subject to the law of the land, and answerable for any breach of it. I think that we are serving a useful purpose.


My Lords, is it not a fact that this particular foreign student—if indeed he is a student—is subject to the usual regulations governing the entry of other foreign students, and that there is therefore no particular reason to treat him exceptionally, so long as he behaves himself?


My Lords, that is entirely the view of my right honourable friend. He is also of the opinion that we should not exaggerate this young man's importance and make him, as it were, a martyr. We were informed by his legal representative that he does not intend to cause trouble while he is here. That we shall see.


My Lords, did I understand the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, aright? Did he say that the Government were performing a useful service in permitting Mr. Cohn-Bendit to enter the country?


My Lords, I was answering a question from the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor. I believe that when we allow views to be freely expressed, when we indulge in dialogue and allow people to talk instead of suppressing their talk, we are performing a useful purpose.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether Her Majesty's Government have made any serious attempt to ascertain Mr. Cohn-Bendit's intentions in this country during the next fortnight, particularly in the universities, where at present there is a wave of unrest?


My Lords, these things were gone into with Mr. Cohn-Bendit when he arrived and presented himself for admission; and in my Answer I gave an indication of precisely what it was that he intended to do in this country in the first twenty-four hours, and subsequently.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether the B.B.C. informed her Majesty's Government that they were going to put on this programme which, by giving free gratuitous publicity and advertisement to these students, was bound to embarrass several foreign friendly Governments?


My Lords, the B.B.C. are, of course, quite free within their Charter to decide what is a matter of public interest and what should interest the public, just as your Lordships on Wednesday of next week are going to debate the question of increasing student unrest. This is a matter of interest which the B.B.C. thought it proper should be the subject of a programme. So far as embarrassing foreign countries is concerned, we must see what is said in this programme.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister this question? Did the B.B.C. inform her Majesty's Government that they were inviting this revolutionary to enter this country for reward, or did they think it sufficient to inform Mr. Tariq Ali? The second question I should like to put is this. Was Mr. Cohn-Bendit's imminent arrival known to the Minister at the time he answered a Question on this subject earlier this week?


My Lords, I do not know what, if any, communication the B.B.C. had with Mr. Tariq Ali, but they did inform my right honourable friend of their intention, their general intention, with regard to this programme. Whether or not when the young man arrived he was to be admitted, as I made perfectly clear in answer to that Question—I will give exactly the same answer now—would depend on all the circumstances relevant at the time, and those circumstances included what Mr. Cohn-Bendit said on arrival.


My Lords, I entirely appreciate that. The question I put to the noble Lord was whether the fact of his imminent arrival was known to the Minister at the time he answered the Question in this House.


My Lords, I am sorry. We knew that this young man might arrive here to present himself for admission on June 5, and on June 9, but he did not do so. There was a possibility, of course, that he would do so on June 12. We did not actually know until he arrived.


My Lords, having regard to the fact that there is considerable student unrest in this country at the present time, will the Government give an assurance that if this alien visitor engages in agitation in the universities, his permit to stay here will immediately be terminated?


My Lords, as I sure the noble Lord is aware, under the Aliens Order the Secretary of State has power to make a deportation order, whether or not an alien is in breach of his landing conditions, when he considers that this is conducive to the public good. Most certainly, if this young man offends, or is in breach of the understanding by which he was permitted to enter, we shall act.


My Lords, arising out of the last question and answer, can the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, give an assurance that, at the end of the present extension, her Majesty's Government will most certainly not give any further extension?


No, my Lords, I cannot give any kind of assurance like that. It is exactly the position that if an application is made for a further extension it will be considered, as always, in the light of the then relevant circumstances. I cannot, therefore, say in advance that if a further application were made it would most certainly be refused.


My Lords, does the noble Lord recollect that in reply to a Question of mine on May 22 he refused a request for an independent inquiry into the case of the 39 officers at Heathrow who had complained that the Home Office was caving in to pressure over immigrants? That request was supported by an ex-Lord Chancellor and an ex-Home Secretary, but it was refused. Does not the noble Lord now think that this action indicates that there is a necessity for an inquiry, since when pressure was applied immediately the Home Office gave way and granted an extension from 24 hours to 14 days?


My Lords I think that the whole of this case so far is strong evidence that the Home Secretary will not give way to pressure in this matter. I would ask your Lordships: where is the pressure coming from, except from those who want us to send this young man back immediately, or not to admit him? I would ask your Lordships to realise we are acting regarding this young man in exactly the same way as we should act with regard to any other foreigner coming to these shores.


My Lords, would not my noble friend agree that it is rather refreshing that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary should take a chance on any mischief that Mr. Cohn-Bendit might do in this country, seeing that, despite their grievances, we treat our students here far better than students have been treated in France?


My Lords, while refraining from any comment about France I agree with my noble friend Lady Gaitskell: it is refreshing. And, my Lords, I hope that this will demonstrate that in this country we handle certain situations better than similar situations are handled in certain other countries. I am also sure that Mr. Cohn-Bendit, like many other people, whatever he thinks he may teach us, will learn a great deal more from us than he can teach us.


My Lords, can the Minister say why, whim Mr. Cohn-Bendit arrived, it was thought necessary to say that he must leave this country in 24 hours, and what it was that changed the Minister's mind and made him think that 24 hours might he 14 days?


My Lords, the answer is perfectly simple. Mr. Cohn-Bendit was admitted for 24 hours because that was all he asked for at the time as being necessary for a television recording. If at the time of entry he had said, "I want to come in to visit friends and relatives", or even, "want to visit my mother's grave, and I want to stay for 14 days", if the decision had been to admit him—as it was—he would then and there have been admitted for 14 days.


My Lords, would not my noble friend agree that universities exist for intellectual ferment, and that, provided any visitor to this country obeys the laws of the country, he is welcome in this country, and that it is still a free country?


My Lords, that is entirely what I have been trying to convey in all my answers; and I am so regretful that noble Lords opposite, or many of them, do not seem to take the same pride in our law and custom; as I do.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that for many year; past the Communist Party, as a matter of policy, has been boring into the student movement for the purpose of gaining Communist influence in that movement? Has the noble Lord noticed the coincidence that in this morning's Times there is a photograph of a number of the leading students who are conducting this agitation, all of whom are giving the well-known Communist salute? Does he consider it a good thing that the E.B.C. should provide a platform for the expression publicly of views which are contrary to the interests of this country? If he does not, can he explain why it is reported that this young man, Cohn-Bendit—bended but not broken, evidently!—is not prepared to give any undertakings concerning his activities in this country? I see that he is reported to that effect. In the absence of an assurance, can the Minister have the slightest doubt that this man's activities will be hostile to the best interests of this country?


My Lords, I did see the photograph in The Times and the clenched hand salute. I know that this young man on television, asked, as his friends were, about his views, said, so far as I could understand him, that the revolutionists in France look forward to going back to Karl Marx exactly as in 1860. We have had that revolution for a long time. I did not hear anything new. What I do know is that the Communists in this country are allowed to express their views and no doubt will continue to he allowed to do so, and so long as any Communist in this country, or Cohn-Bendit, keeps to our laws and does not abuse them, he will he protected by the law.


My Lords, do the Government think that there is any serious danger of the universities in this country being totally or seriously corrupted by the arrival of one young foreigner?


My Lords, that, of course. was part of my right honourable friend's decision. So far it is working quite well.


My Lords, if this young man is welcome in this country, as the noble Lord has suggested, can the noble Lord say why he was detained 2½ hours at Heathrow? Also, if this young man is responsible for any social unrest in this country, can the noble Lord give an assurance that he will be sent back to France?


My Lords, the delay at the airport was occasioned because it was decided that if and when this man arrived the final decision of whether to admit him or not would be taken at a very high level in accordance with the relevant circumstances at that moment. The assurance that the noble Lord asked for I have already given, but I readily repeat it. If this young man breaks our laws, incites revolt or attempts to damage this country, he will most certainly be sent back.