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British Subject's Claim

Volume 360: debated on Thursday 9 May 1940

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2.59 p.m.

I ask the indulgence of the House with reference to the case of Mr. Joseph Martin, of Brighton. This may seem a small matter to bring up on a day like this but it is not a small matter for Mr. Martin, who is blind now and has been otherwise ill for 17 years. I have raised his case by means of Questions put in this House—and there have been other Questions which I have endeavoured to put but which have not been allowed—at intervals extending over a period of 10 months or more, and I have been advised by hon. Friends on both sides of the House that, having failed in that direction, my best plan is to submit the case for the consideration of the House on the Adjournment, This is entirely a non-party question, and I shall not make a speech. I just want to make a chronological epitome of what has taken place during the past 17 years, and I shall not take 17 minutes over it.

In 1917 Mr. Martin was a teacher in Moscow. After the Revolution in 1917 he was restrained from leaving the country and was kept in Russia, but after two years he was sent for and was informed by the Cheka that there was nothing against him and that he could apply within a few days to the Russian Foreign Office for his British passport, which would enable him to go home. That followed negotiations between the British Government and the Soviet Government. He was told by Litvinov that he would have to be detained in Russia to carry out anti-British propaganda, and he was given certain documents which he had to translate. Those documents when translated appeared to be incitements to anti-British revolutions throughout the British Empire, and in India particularly to start with. This he refused to do, and in consequence he was thrown into prison without being charged with any offence and without any trial. He was treated with the utmost brutality, he was starved, beaten and thrown into a cell full of verminous people. In his so-called bedchamber he was flung on to the floor and bound. All his clothing except his shirt was taken from him, and he had to lie on this verminous floor along with verminous people. He was refused all medical attention when he caught typhus. After five months, owing to the intervention of the British Government, he was repatriated, and then he became blind as a result of his privations.

In September, 1922, His Majesty's Government took up his case with the Soviet Government with a view to securing him compensation, and this was renewed on 2nd May, 1923. This is a very vital date, because at that time there were only three cases of personal cruelty which had been brought up before the Soviet Government. The other 206 cases, to which I will refer later, had not then been discussed. The two other cases were those of Mr. Davison, who had been shot, compensation being paid to his widow, and Mrs. Stan Harding, a journalist, who had been imprisoned for four months. Those cases were taken up by means of an ultimatum, to the Soviet Government, and the Soviet Government were told that unless compensation was given in these two cases, His Majesty's Government would not sign the trade agreement with Russia. Mr. Martin's claim is that his case had been considered with these other two cases and everything settled in regard to those two cases. Compensation for £10,000 was given to Mrs. Davison and for £3,000 to Mrs. Stan Harding. But, through the omission of His Majesty's then Government, and Lord Curzon in particular, to include Mr. Martin's case, he was left with nothing. I am not blaming the present Government, except that they have not remedied the grievance. Successive Governments and Ministers have been dilly-dallying with this case of Mr. Martin's for 17 years and holding him off with the hope that some day he may get something when a suitable occasion arises. A suitable occasion means carrying on negotiations again with Russia. It must be well known to members of the Government that in these times there is about as much chance of getting anything out of Russia as there is of a cat jumping over the moon. Mr. Martin claims that, as the Government were guilty of neglect in not forwarding his claim, they should compensate him for all the sufferings that he has had to endure for 17 years. He is unable to follow any occupation. One reason why they cannot put his case forward is that they say it must take its turn with 260 other cases. Those cases had not arisen in 1923, and they are not cases of personal injury.

It is useless to make comparisons with the other two cases, but Mrs. Stan Harding and Mrs. Davison were charged with being spies. Mr. Martin was not charged with anything. He was not even tried. He was thrown into prison and was denied any serious consideration of his case. The Minister in charge and the Prime Minister both referred to Mr. Martin's as a very sad case, but they have not done anything to make it less sad. If he had taken on anti-British propaganda work, he would, like Lord Haw-Haw, probably have been drawing a big salary, but because he was a loyal British subject and refused to preach or to write against his country, he is left to his fate. He is 65 years old and has a wife, and he wants compensation in order to leave something for her. I appeal to Members in all parts of the House to support my request to the Government to grant him compensation, or, if they think they can ever get any money out of Russia, to make a grant on account of the compensation which he will get. Mrs. Stan Harding was given £3,000 and Mrs. Davison £10,000. I am not authorised to make a bargain, but why not split the difference between the two figures? It is a very small amount for all the suffering he has had to put up with. He has had typhus and other complaints and always has to walk about with somebody with him. I ask the Government not to give the usual reply that on the next opportunity that arises they will forward his claim. I would seriously ask my right hon. Friend whether he cannot do something. I know I have worried him a lot from time to time, though I do not apologise, and he has been very thoroughly into the matter. It does not rest with him, but he can surely use his influence with the Government to make some grant to this man before it is too late

3.8 p.m.

One thing that I am quite sure of is the earnestness with which my hon. Friend has presented the case of Mr. Martin and the care with which he has considered his constituent's interest. I can inform the House that no week passes without some communication from my hon. Friend on the subject, and, if they study the Official Report for the past few months, they will find that the Government have consistently returned the same answer since the early days to which he has referred. It does not mean that the Government under-estimate the importance of the case or the suffering of Mr. Martin. If my sympathy, again expressed, is of any value, I should like to say that we are fully sympathetic with the very severe time through which Mr. Martin passed in his experiences in the Soviet Union and the suffering of mind that he must have been through since. When we examine the facts of the case, we can, I think, accept the hon. Member's statement as correct. The hon. Member has outlined the chronology of this matter. He has alluded to the intervention of His Majesty's Government to secure the release of Mr. Martin, and to the fact that his case was submitted by our representative to the Soviet authorities. It was submitted then without success. The hon. Member points out that in 1923 this case was not submitted by Lord Curzon together with two others. That is also correct. I am sorry that it was not submitted, but the reason was that it was not likely to be successful.

The hon. Member asks the Government to do their best to re-submit the case, and, if possible, to obtain some grant or compensation for Mr. Martin. Our difficulty is that the case was not submitted at the date in question, under a decision taken by the then Secretary of State, Lord Curzon, in his discretion. We are faced with the fact also that there are some 260other claims against the Soviet Union. I have informed the hon. Member, in one of the many letters that I have written to him, that we have racked our brains for possible ways of securing satisfaction for Mr. Martin. It is not possible to imagine simply that, by a submission of the case, compensation will be immediately forth- coming for Mr. Martin. If that were the case, the Government would immediately take action, but their conduct must be guided by two considerations: first, whether such a step would be likely to be successful, and, secondly, whether they can now treat this case differently from the many other cases which are outstanding. The conclusion that I have imparted so frequently to the hon. Member is that we are unable to take action, first, in view of the results that would be likely to be achieved, and, secondly, because we cannot differentiate this case from the many others outstanding against the Soviet Union.

As I have pointed out so many times, there is no analogy between this case and the 260 other cases. The other cases are trade claims, against which there are counter-claims amounting to millions of pounds. It is confusing the issue to bring them in.

We have gone carefully into the matter, and, while there may be no exact analogy between this case and the other cases, it is our opinion that we cannot differentiate. This does not mean that, if a suitable opportunity offers, we should not resubmit the case, which was unsuccessfully submitted in 1922. I will undertake that if any suitable opportunity occurs for obtaining redress, the Government will not dismiss it; but I do not want, in view of the suffering which Mr. Martin has gone through, to raise any false hopes. I do not think it would be right for the House, or, indeed, for the hon. Gentleman himself, who has gone to the very limit in trying to help his friend, to raise any false hopes that satisfaction can be obtained. If any suitable opportunity arises, this case will be dealt with, but, short of that, I can say no more. I think it would be very wrong, at this late date, to think that we can obtain the satisfaction that the hon. Member so ardently desires. If an occasion arose when we saw that satisfaction could be achieved on this and the other outstanding cases, he may be sure that the Government would not lose the opportunity.

Will my right hon. Friend deal with the point I mentioned of compensation from His Majesty's Government for neglecting to send in his case in previous years? Mr. Martin is not worried about his hopes of ever getting anything out of Russia. I have hardly ever seen him, but he is a constituent of mine, and I want to do what I can to get what I can out of the Government, Mr. Martin not having secured compensation as did Mrs. Stan Harding and Mrs. Davison. I appeal to His Majesty's Government to give, out of suitable funds or by other devious methods, a sum of money in compensation for what he has suffered at this time for his loyalty.

Can my hon. Friend indicate to the House what would be regarded as suitable compensation?

Mr. Martin is not worrying about himself but about his wife. I suggested on my responsibility a figure between the two figures which were secured before.

I have no authority to do that, but that would be better than nothing, anyhow.

I cannot undertake that His Majesty's Government can pay compensation to an individual, however hard his case may be, because of his claim against a foreign Government. It would raise new issues and would mean differentiating between this case and other cases outstanding, and I think I should be doing an ill service to Mr. Martin himself if I held out any hope that compensation could be obtained from His Majesty's Government. I have informed my hon. Friend of this quite categorically on several occasions, and particularly on 21st March, and I again say that this matter cannot be re-opened. I am sorry to have to be firm about this, but in the circumstances I must be so.