HL Deb 15 May 1969 vol 302 cc213-9

Clause 1, page 2, line 34, leave out subsection (5).

The Commons disagreed to this Amendment for the following Reason:

Because it alters the financial arrangements made by the Commons, and the Commons do not offer any further reason, trusting that this reason may be deemed sufficient.


My Lords, I beg to move that this House doth not insist on its Amendment No. 2 to which the Commons have disagreed. The House will remember that this Bill was passed on March 27 with five Amendments. Four of these have been accepted in another place. Amendment No. 2 which was to leave out subsection (5) of Clause 1 of the Bill as it originally came to us, was not accepted, and it has been decided in another place that this subsection ought to stand part of the Bill. The relevant subsection reads as follows: When so directed by the Treasury, the custodian of enemy property shall, by way of repaying a payment of £500,000 made out of moneys provided by Parliament for the purpose of implementing the provisions of the agreement recited above for the payment of that sum to the Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, pay the like sum into the Consolidated Fund out of money held by him, being former property of a Baltic State or ceded territory. As the House will see from the Message before us, a question of financial arrangements made by the Commons is involved. I need not, I think, elaborate on this. The effect of omitting the subsection is to leave the burden of the payment of £500,000 to the Soviet Government, which has already been made, with the Exchequer instead of recouping the Exchequer from the assets, as was explicitly envisaged in Article 5 of tile Agreement with the Soviet Government of January 5, 1968. It has never been seriously argued, I think, in this House or indeed in another place, that this payment should fall upon the taxpayer rather than upon the claimants to whom the assets are to be distributed and in whose interests the Agreement with the Soviet Government was concluded, and I can think of no reason why it should. As I understand it, the reason why this House deleted the subsection, as the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, said in the course of an earlier debate, was that it was the only way in which disapproval of the Agreement with the Soviet Government could be shown and would give another place another opportunity of considering this matter. Now that it has been reconsidered in another place, which adheres to the view that the subsection should be retained it is the Government's hope that this House -will not feel it necessary to insist on this deletion.

As for the provision in the Agreement of which this House was seeking to express its disapproval, it is perhaps too much to expect that I could at this late stage, bearing in mind all that has been said in this House, convert many noble Lords opposite to the Government's view that the payment of this £500,000 to the Soviet Government was a price which had to be paid, and was worth paying, for an Agreement with them. Nor, I think, would the House wish me to take up any more time in going once more over the ground which was fully debated when the Bill was before us. My Lords, may I perhaps subscribe to the general atmosphere of good will that we have in the House this afternoon by saying how grateful and appreciative I was, as the Government spokesman on this Bill, for the care and expert knowledge with which this Bill was considered. I believe that the Bill as it has now come back is a better Bill than the one which arrived here in the first place. I hope that as noble Lords have now made their protest they will be content and will not press any further for the deletion of the subsection from the Bill. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House doth not insist on the Amendment to which the Commons have disagreed.—(Lord Chalfont.)

3.40 p.m.


My Lords, despite what the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, said about the atmosphere of good will that prevails in this House this afternoon, I am afraid that I cannot resist expressing views which perhaps cannot be translated as being good will. Presumably this is the last occasion on which we shall be considering this humiliating and objectionable piece of legislation. On May 1, in another place, when your Lordships' Amendments were considered and when, as the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, has told us four Amendments out of five were accepted, it was pointed out that in Amendment No. 2, to which the Commons have disagreed, privilege was involved. Nevertheless, we are to consider this afternoon the Reason advanced and accepted in another place for disagreement with this Amendment as the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, has explained to us. We have already discussed at considerable length this squalid transaction between the Prime Minister, the then Foreign Secretary and Mr. Kosygin, and I will not weary your Lordships by again going over all the details, but I feel bound w say that this transaction and what has flowed from it seem to me to epitomise some of the most unpleasant aspects of Government as it is at present practised in this country.

I was surprised and dismayed, when your Lordships were discussing the important legal question of the desirability or otherwise of appeal either against a provisional determination or a final determination of the Foreign Compensation Commission, but not against both on the same matter, to hear the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack twice assure this House that the Government did not stand to lose or gain, whatever the solution. It seemed to me at the time a strange remark and to suggest, if I may say so, an attitude which was not consonant with the high responsibility of the Lord High Chancellor of England. Perhaps if this observation had not also been twice repeated by the Solicitor General in another place when dealing with the same question, I should have dismissed it as simply an unfortunate choice of words. Of course, my Lords, the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack, and his right honourable and learned friend the Solicitor General, would, one would have hoped, in any case have been concerned solely that the system of law should gain. Thanks to the initiative of the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor, did finally introduce a new clause which has now been accepted by both Houses of Parliament, and I am grateful to him for this.

But, my Lords, what has all this to do with the consideration of the Commons disagreement with Amendment No. 2? It is this: that, unlike in the case of appeal from a determination of the Foreign Compensation Commission, in the case of Mr. Kosygin's visit to the United Kingdom there was much to be gained or lost by the Government in the appearance or otherwise of a diplomatic success. As your Lordships now know, little or nothing to the United Kingdom's advantage came out of Mr. Kosygin's visit. But in order to present some semblance of success and to achieve political gain for the Government, the Executive has appropriated funds to which it had no right in equity; it has given gratuitously £500,000 to the Government which had oppressed, murdered and subjugated the peoples to whom the funds belonged; it has shown complete contempt for Parliament; it has called in question our reliability as international bankers and it has humiliated honourable men and women in both Houses of Parliament who, because of our present Parliamentary system, have felt bound to support it.

Seven powerful and carefully argued speeches were made by right honourable and honourable Members of the Opposition in another place in support of your Lordships' Amendment No. 2. The Government Benches were practically empty and only the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs spoke briefly for the Government. There was evidently as little enthusiasm to do the Executive's dirty business in another place as there was in your Lordships' House—and yet 95 Government supporters endorsed their bosses' actions. It is my belief, my Lords, that if the honest British people up and down the country knew all the facts of this squalid story as they have gradually and painfully been exposed to us in Parliament, they would be ashamed of the Government and, I believe, resentful that, through the arrogance and uncontrolled power of the Executive, they have themselves been put to shame.

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to add a few words to what my noble friend has said. I am very glad indeed that the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, has not taken on the Homeric task again of trying to convince Members of this House that the bargain to pay the £500,000 was justified. I have said all I have to say on that matter and I do not propose to repeat what I have already said. I am glad that the noble Lord did not attempt to reopen that subject on this occasion. I am glad, too, that he recognised that in the course of the debates in this House we had secured improvements to the Bill.

I do not want to part company from my noble friend to any material degree, but I must say that I did not read any sinister significance at all into the words of the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor, in relation to the appeal system. The noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor, was pressed as heavily as I could press him—and I am, I think, at least of considerable physical weight—to give way on that point; and I must say that I think it was perfectly justified to say that the Government, as such, had no interest in the matter, whichever way it went. I know, also, from the time that I held that office, that there always has been a considerable weight of opinion in certain quarters against there being any appeal procedure. We had a very useful discussion on it, and I think that the Bill has been considerably improved by the Amendments which were ultimately tabled in the name of the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor.

I did press the second Amendment to a Division, and I did so in order that this House could express its views upon the matter and with the object of enabling another place to give further consideration to it. That has now taken place, and I certainly should not be one to suggest for one moment, that course having been taken and a Division having taken place really on that basis, that we should now insist on that Amendment.


My Lords, let me say, first, that I am grateful to the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, for saying what he has said about his interpretation of the remarks made by my noble and learned friend who sits on the Woolsack. I am sure that that, coining from him, will have done a great deal to reassure anyone in this House who thought that there was anything sinister implied by those remarks—I cannot believe that there are very many.

My Lords, I had hoped not to reopen this matter, except in the most formal way, but I cannot, I feel, let pass what the noble Marquess, Lord Lansdowne, has said. Certainly he is right in saying that a good deal of the feeling of good will that existed before he stood up has now been effectively dispelled. I cannot really accept as a fair categorisation of either the Agreement with the Soviet Union or the Foreign Compensation Bill that followed it, the words "squalid", "humiliating" or "shameful". I must reject also emphatically the suggestion that this Agreement was arrived at with the Soviet Union for some ephemeral diplomatic advantage that would accrue to this Government. That is simply not the case. As I said before, and I will say it very briefly again, noble Lords opposite are no more entitled to use this kind of emotive language to describe this payment, in a situation in which there was almost complete incompatibility between Soviet and British views on the legal aspect and, indeed, total absence of agreement in general, than to describe any agreement which involves the payment of money by the British Government. The choice was between a settlement on the terms obtained or the continuation of long-drawn-out negotiations for many years, with no prospect of any better settlement at the end of the road.

The Government took the view that £500,000, a very small percentage of the total assets, was worth paying for Soviet agreement to forgo their claim to the assets and to place no impediment to those assets being distributed to our claimants. We believed that the majority of our claimants, in whose interests the settlement was being sought, even though they have no legal title to the assets other than that which we now create through this Bill, and who have been waiting for some thirty years, would far prefer a settlement on these terms with the prospect of early distribution, even though this means a very small reduction in the assets available for distribution. We thought that they would prefer this than indefinitely prolong negotiations in the faint hope that we may save this £500,000 for them. That is the case for the payment and for making the payment out of the assets.

The case for the Agreement we have argued at length in your Lordships' House. Even if I still have not been able wholly to persuade noble Lords opposite that the bargain which we made was a reasonable one, I emphatically repudiate any suggestion that it was "squalid", "shameful" or "humiliating". I believe that it is a good agreement. It was made in the interests of the people to whom this money will now be distributed. I hope, as the noble and learned Viscount has said, that noble Lords will not seek to press any further for the deletion of this subsection from the Bill.

On Question, Motion agreed to.