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Congress, Sheffield (Admission Of Foreigners)

Volume 480: debated on Tuesday 14 November 1950

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

I propose, with permission, to make a statement on the action taken by His Majesty's Government in the matter of the admission of foreigners to the self-styled World Peace Congress. As I informed the House on 19th October, the policy was to consider applications for entry on their individual merits, but to reserve the right to exclude any foreigner who was persona non grata. In addition, on 1st November, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in his speech to the Foreign Press Association said:

"We shall not deny admission to people who in good faith may wish to attend the congress, but we are not willing to throw wide our doors to those who seek to come here to subvert our institutions, to seduce our fellow citizens from their natural allegiance and their daily duties and to make propaganda for those who call us 'cannibals and warmongers'."
Foreigners seeking admission to this country fall into two broad classes, namely, nationals of visa countries and nationals of non-visa countries. As regards nationals of visa countries, up to the evening of 10th November, 561 applications had been received in London, and of these passport control officers abroad had been authorised to grant 300 and instructed to refuse 215. In fact, only 82 foreigners to whom visas had been granted presented themselves at our ports and, of these, 75 were given leave to land.

As regards nationals of non-visa countries, the House will appreciate that information about these foreigners is not so readily available as it is about nationals of visa countries, and it is, in general, necessary to await the arrival of the foreigner at our ports before a decision can be taken on the question of allowing him leave to land. Of those who sought admission 131 were given leave to land and 65 were refused.

The case of each person applying for admission was considered separately in the light of such information as we had about his past and present activities and the closeness of his relationship to the Cominform. Only those were excluded who, on this test, appeared likely to engage in action detrimental to the determination of the democracies to meet and resist aggression.

His Majesty's Government are satisfied that they have not departed from the great tradition of this country in the matter of free speech and free assembly.

What was the object of the right hon. Gentleman in volunteering to us this statement at this juncture? Would he not be wise to disabuse his mind of the possibility of this occasion and the manner in which it has been handled bringing him any large measure of compliments and congratulations from the country as a whole? Has it not given the greatest advertisement to those whom he describes with so much just severity and has it not exposed us to a very great deal of inconvenience and laid us open to much abuse? I personally am not attacking in any way the hostility of the right hon. Gentleman and the Government towards the peace conference, but if he thinks that he has handled this matter well—or that the Government in general have, for I do not blame him in particular—if he thinks that he has handled the matter with tact, skill and discretion, he is very much mistaken.

I did not desire to make a statement. I may say that. But yesterday I was given notice that a Private Notice Question would be asked.

On a point of order. Would a Private Notice Question have been admissable? Surely this matter is not in any sense urgent?

I think I might have been allowed to complete the explanation I was trying to offer. When I arrived at the House I was asked to alter this from an answer to a Question to a statement. Yesterday there were two statements already to be made on behalf of the Government, on a day when there was a most important debate. If there had been an answer to a Private Notice Question the responsibility for the making of the statement would have been the questioner's and not mine. I thought it would have been very wrong yesterday to include a third statement in an order of business which appeared to me already somewhat overcrowded. I therefore suggested that I might be allowed to postpone the statement until today.

In view of the last words of the statement made by the Home Secretary about the cherished tradition of free speech and free assembly, could the right hon. Gentleman be more specific as to the test which was applied by which some were allowed to come and some were rejected?

The test that was applied was, whether these people who were coming here were people who were so closely in touch with those who desire to prevent the democracies from taking the necessary steps to resist aggression, that it was likely that their contributions to a discussion in this country would be of a nature that would hinder the objects the democracies have in view.

While entirely confirming what the Home Secretary has said, that I was proposing to ask a Private Notice Question, and that I postponed it in deference to the views which were put forward, may I maintain the position that this is a matter of urgency, and that it is most important that these matters should be dealt with, in view of the colossal publicity this has received throughout the world? May I further ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he would reconsider this principle, and decide in future to refuse admission only on security grounds, and leave it to the kind of tolerant ridicule which he has used so effectively in the past to deal with the matter?

No, I am not prepared to do that, because once a statement has been made it is very difficult indeed to overtake it.

Is the Home Secretary aware that anti-Communists in this country, including the "Manchester Guardian," strongly deprecate introducing the methods of the Communist police State in this country? Is he further aware of the regret we feel that he has made his spiritual home under the bed of the hon. Member for Orpington (Sir W. Smithers)?

I read yesterday's leading article in the "Manchester Guardian." It seemed to me very much like an aged maiden aunt trying to instruct her modern grandniece in the facts of life. With regard to the second point, I hope that my hon. Friend read the letter that appeared on the same page of the "Manchester Guardian," from which I should like to read one paragraph:

"I have literally no use for a 'peace' conference that is run by people who believe war is so nearly inevitable that their job is to recruit all-in support for the Soviet Union, right or wrong. I view with suspicion 'Partisans of Peace' led by people who believe their prime duty is to recruit partisans for the Soviet Union in case of war, and camp followers for the Soviet side in the cold war."
That was written by Mr. Zilliacus.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, in any event, the vast majority of the people of Sheffield are very glad not to have to consort with these people?

When we want to show our detestation of totalitarian regimes cannot we find a better method of doing that than slavishly imitating their practices? Surely, all the Home Secretary has just said about the nature of this conference was known before permission to hold it was ever given. How did the situation change in the last few days?

The situation did not change. I have stated that I had no power to prohibit this congress, and I had no intention of attempting to deny British citizens the right to meet and discuss these matters. While Communism is not illegal in this country they are entitled to do that. But it is not part of my duty to ensure that foreigners shall come here in an endeavour to carry out propaganda on the lines indicated by Mr. Zilliacus.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that one of the leaders of the French Communist Party, Waldeck-Rochet, has declared that the real purpose of the peace congress and peace campaign was to "undermine the imperialist armies," and that he went on to say:

"Do you not see that this is the best means to assure the destruction of our enemies?"
In view of that statement does the right hon. Gentleman not feel that anyone who holds the views that man does and is associated with them should have been excluded?

While agreeing in the main with what my right hon. Friend has done in this matter, may I ask him if he will inform the House why he thought it necessary to exclude such an eminent musician as Shostakovich and such an eminent churchman as the Metropolitan Nikolai of Moscow?

On representations by bishops of the Established Church of this country I decided in the end that I would grant a visa to the ecclesiastic last-mentioned. With regard to the others, the information I have was that they were so closely in the counsels of the Cominform that I thought it undesirable that they should come.

May I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we on this side of the House are in full general accord with his purpose and intention? But we are far from being convinced that the best way and most convenient method of achieving that purpose were chosen.

The only other method that was open to me—I came to this conclusion—would have been to ask this House to pass a Bill declaring this Conference illegal. I have so much respect for the right of public meeting and public assembly for the citizens of this country, and I am so anxious not to create any precedent that would injure that, that I declined to consider that method.

Would the right hon. Gentleman throw some light on some of the figures he has cited to the House? For instance, in the visa countries 300 visas—permissions—were granted, but only about 80 of those people presented themselves for admission to this country. Why was it that such a small number of the people granted visas made presentations?

I cannot explain why the 218—I think it was—who did not present themselves did not do so. I cannot give any explanation why they did not come. They had visas and could have presented themselves at the ports.

On an occasion like this while the "cold war" is going on, do we not expect our Home Secretary to do everything he can to protect the broad national interests of this country; ought we not to feel that he has done so in this case; and is it not to be deplored that even now, at this time, the Opposition should seek to exploit the situation by alleging that he has done something he ought not to have done?

Is not the best protection the natural robustness and integrity of the citizens of this country; and why does the Home Seccretary think they are so easily to be suborned and seduced by the statements that might be made in Sheffield?

One has to consider not merely the points that the noble Lord has raised. I think that the majority of people of this country fully deserve the description he has given to them, but one has to consider that this was to be broadcast to the world as a world peace conference held in Britain, and was supposed to represent, in some way, the voice of this country, which I do not believe it would have done.

Would my right hon. Friend say whether there is any truth in the statement by the British Peace Committee that the British authorities

"are now by administrative measures, by creating difficulties in the way of granting passport facilities or the refusal of clearance forms for charter planes, hindering British citizens who now desire to attend the Warsaw Conference from leaving the country"?

I cannot prevent anyone from leaving this country who wishes to go. Let that be made quite clear. As to the points my hon. Friend has raised, while I do not think there is any truth in them, they are not within the jurisdiction of my Department.

In his original statement the right hon. Gentleman most properly used the words "self-styled peace conference." Is he aware that the Press generally in the United Kingdom used either the word "phoney" or "self-styled," or used inverted commas, but that the B.B.C. again and again referred to the matter as "the peace conference," and should he not have guided them upon that point?

I am quite certain that if I had endeavoured to give any guidance to the B.B.C. hon. Members opposite, and indeed in other parts of the House, would rightly have been indignant.

In view of the fact that the Home Secretary permitted one of the delegates to enter this country only after consultation with the English Church authorities, does he propose in future to decide the rightness or otherwise of claims to be peace delegates by asking the opinion of other religious denominations?

No, Sir. I did not consult these people, but two members of the bench of bishops approached me and made certain statements with regard to the ecclesiastic concerned and their relationship with his church and with him, which made me think that it was advisable that in his case a visa should be granted.

Will the Home Secretary say whether the information upon which visas were refused to nationals of visa countries was in some cases obtained from the passport control officers?

It was obtained from various sources, and I should not like to be too precise because it might hinder our getting information on other occasions.

Are we to understand from the Home Secretary's statement that in the case of all future conferences held in this country there is to be a political test applied to foreigners who wish to come to those conferences, and that it is to be a test applied partly by immigration officers at the ports; and does the Home Secretary really think that conforms with his statement last week that we were determined to maintain the traditions of a country of freedom?

My hon. Friend should not draw those conclusions from what has happened in this case. Were it proposed to hold a similar congress in this country in future in the state of international feeling that now exists, I am quite certain that whoever holds this office would have to apply some tests of a very similar kind.

Supposing that we do have another case like this coming up while conditions are in their present difficult state, would it not be right to consider as an alternative asking for special legislation from Parliament and allow the opinion of the country to be expressed upon the matter by its representatives?

Of course, it is always difficult to say what will happen in some hypothetical future. Personally, I know of no reason for departing from the rule of free public assembly for people of this country, but it is no part of my duty, or the duty of this country, to find sounding boards for people not of this country for causes detrimental to this country. I do not want to be taken as giving any definite answer with regard to the future, but I have given as strong an indication as I can of my own opinion.

Is it not perfectly clear from what my right hon. Friend has said that in this case a number of highly respectable and, in some cases, very distinguished foreigners were refused admittance into the country, not because of any objection to the persons but because they were proposing to attend a function which the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend himself had declared to be perfectly lawful; is it not equally clear that he justifies that by the very original new constitutional principle that the right of free speech in this country is limited to British citizens; and is it not quite clear that this was an outrageous abuse of the constitutional authority reposed in him?

No, Sir, I do not think that anything of the sort is made clear. It is no part of my duty to provide people who are engaged in a "cold war"—or whatever term one likes to give it—against this country with an opportunity for spreading——

—an opportunity for spreading their doctrines, and I offer no apology for the action I have taken.

Is it not the case that there is a vast difference between those who are genuinely intent on a peaceful solution of the world's problems and those who are intent only on destroying countries opposed to them so that their task can be made easier; is it not also the case that the people who come at the instigation of Russia are, in their respective countries, murdering and imprisoning all similarly minded people to those in this House; and is the Home Secretary aware that the view of the man and woman in the street is that not one of these individuals should be allowed in for their nefarious purposes?

On a point of order. In view of the very important nature of the statement the Home Secretary has made, which many of us regard as a highly unsatisfactory statement, I beg to give notice that I shall take as early an opportunity as possible of raising the matter on the Adjournment.

The hon. Gentleman will realise that as we are now getting Motions on Fridays this might be a suitable Motion for a Friday.

Without pretending either to have heard or to have understood the whole of that comment, might I ask whether it is not the normal procedure when a Minister has made a statement and dissatisfaction is felt at it to give notice that one proposes to raise it on the Adjournment? Or are we to abandon all our constitutional privileges on this matter?

I was not complaining of what the hon. Gentleman said. I was only pointing out to the House that we now have an opportunity of debating these matters because we get Motions on Fridays. If I might say so, it is quite improper for the hon. Gentleman to take offence at what I said. My remark was kindly meant, and really I thought his interjection unworthy of the hon. Gentleman.

In view of what you have said, Mr. Speaker, may I express my regret that anything I have said should have caused you any feeling of that kind. I can only say in explanation that I have been in the House a long time and I have heard the notice that I gave a minute or two ago very frequently given without causing such a comment as you, Sir, thought fit to make on this occasion.

Might I venture to ask you, Mr. Speaker, to make clear your Ruling on the point of whether it is a matter of a point of order for a Member to claim the special privilege when he gets up to give notice that he will raise a matter on the Adjournment or later? I am sure it would be of great interest to hon. Members who wish to act in accordance with the rules to know exactly what we may or may not prefix by saying "On a point of order."

Actually, it is not a point of order at all. Any hon. Member can get up and say, "Owing to the unsatisfactory nature of the answer, I propose to raise the matter on the Adjournment." It is not necessary to say "On a point of order."

In that case, Mr. Speaker, how can an hon. Member give notice, because very often you would not call him, but would say "We have had enough of that."

I think there are ways in which an hon. Member can indicate what he proposes to do, so we need not bother about that.