Skip to main content

Dr Joseph Cort (United Kingdom Residence)

Volume 529: debated on Thursday 1 July 1954

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


asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he will grant political asylum to Dr. Joseph Cort.


asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will grant political asylum to Dr. Joseph Cort, a United States citizen, who is threatened with punishment and loss of citizenship for political opinions if he returns to the United States of America.

I would refer the hon. Members to the reply which I gave to the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) and other hon. Members on 24th June.

Is the Minister aware that that answer bitterly disappointed all those who believe that political asylum is one of the precious traditions of British life? Is he aware that no criticism of a foreign Power, or no support of a man's political opinions, is involved in political asylum when asylum is granted; and is he also aware that, if his interpretation of political asylum had prevailed at the time, neither Victor Hugo nor Emile Zola would have been allowed to come to Britain? Will he not reconsider the whole position?

I would point out, with regard to political asylum, that what I stated to be the principle has not only been the principle acted upon in this country throughout the past years, but is enshrined in the latest Convention that deals with the subject; namely, that political asylum is given where the national of a country is in danger in regard to his life and liberty from political persecution, among other forms of persecution, in that country. That is the principle that has been applied and is applied and what I pointed out was that I have no grounds for believing that it was not applied in this case.

Why has the right hon. and learned Gentleman altered the phrase he used last week from "life or liberty" to "life and liberty"?

I am sonny, I should have said that; I intended to say "life or liberty," I beg the right hark. Gentleman's pardon.

In view of the Minister's very unhappy answer, may I ask him if he will not admit that this is a vital question of principle? Rightly or wrongly, Dr. Cort believes that, if he returns to the United States, he will be in danger of punishment and persecution for his political opinions. Is it not in accordance with the long tradition of political asylum in this country that asylum should be granted, that it should not be restricted to refugees from Iron Curtain countries but should be universal in its application? Is he not aware that there is an overwhelming feeling throughout the country that his decision was wrong and that—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is entitled to ask a question, but it should be a question and not a speech.

Would not the Minister agree that, if there is any doubt in his mind at all, as there obviously is, his discretion should be exercised in favour of the individual?

On the first point which the hon. Gentleman posed in his question, the danger of imprisonment in which Dr. Cort is placed, as far as I know, is the danger of a sentence for an alleged delinquency, of which I am not the judge, under the Selective Service Acts of the United States. With regard to the second part of the question, there is no distinction between people from the Iron Curtain countries and anyone else. The law of asylum applies and is applied to every country, and every case is examined on its merits. With regard to my own decision, I am aware that people disagree with it, but, in administering what I think everyone will agree is a difficult matter, all I can do is to come to the decision which I think is right.

Are we to understand from the right hon. and learned Gentleman that he repudiates his Under-Secretary, who, in a letter to me on 28th May, said that:

"Except in the case of refugees whose homes are behind the Iron Curtain, the Home Secretary is not prepared to allow foreigners to settle here."

[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh"] Further, would it not be better to be quite honest about this? [HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw."]

The hon. Member is not entitled to suggest that another hon. Member is being dishonest.

I maintain that I was referring to the point that it would be better if we were all honest about the matter. Would it not be better if we were more honest about it and recognised that men who are Communists or ex-Communists are persecuted in the United States, and that in his message to Congress in January, President Eisenhower asked for legislation to deprive Communists of citizenship?

In reply to the first part of the hon. Member's supplementary, let me say that the Under-Secretary of State was referring to what are the vast majority of cases—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Let me give my explanation. The vast majority of these cases are from behind the Iron Curtain, and the great majority of these were people who came in when the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) held my office. He, very rightly and with the approval of the whole country, let in a large number, many thousands, of people in order that we should do our share in helping with the refugee problem in Europe. A number of these people, whose national status was in great doubt, were allowed in, but I think that decision was generally approved at that time.

Since then the position has stabilised somewhat, and now it is the practice to apply it in each case. That is what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary had in mind. I assure the House that it is applied perfectly generally and is open to the nationals of all countries.

With regard to the other point, the matter which I had to consider was that, through the alleged breach of the Selective Service Laws this gentleman might, in the case of conviction, have lost his nationality and therefore would not have been returnable under the administration of our aliens laws.

Has the right hon. and learned Gentleman no information that would lead him to believe that if this man returns to the United States he will not be dealt with for selective training but will be brought before Senator McCarthy's Committee?

My information is that what is desired is that he should go before the authority dealing with the Service Acts.

In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply—[Interruption.] I understood, Mr. Speaker, that you had called the next Question.


asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department in what cases other than that of Dr. Joseph Cort he has refused to renew the permit of a resident alien on the ground that the country of his origin had threatened to deprive the alien of his citizenship.

The hon. Member's Question is based on two misapprehensions. In the first place, Dr. Cort has been here on a purely temporary footing and not as a resident alien; in the second place, the risk of his losing his citizenship derives from his own refusal to comply with the law of his country and not from any threat of executive action on the part of the United States Government. It is not possible to identify from the records the particular class of case which the hon. Member appears to have in mind, as it is the normal practice to require aliens who apply for an extension of their permission to remain in the United Kingdom to produce evidence that they have return facilities to another country. Whenever it appears that there is a risk of such applicants losing their citizenship or re-entry facilities, permission to remain is refused.

Is it not a fact that the Home Secretary's decision is made on the ground of returnability, which depends on the threat of the United States to withdraw this man's citizenship under the McCarran Act? Secondly, can the Home Secretary point to any other case in which any foreign Power has made a similar threat to withdraw citizenship as that upon which he has acted? Thirdly, is the right hon. and learned Gentleman not creating a dangerous precedent in this case by acting in response to something that a foreign Power does, which means in substance that if the foreign Power desires the return of one of its citizens all it has to do is to threaten to withdraw his citizenship?

May I answer the last part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary first, because there has been a great deal of misapprehension on that point? The question rather suggested that in this case the man is returned by some action of mine to a foreign Power. The man in question can go where he likes. The only thing that my action does is to see that he does not stay in this country.

On the first point, of returnability, the hon. Gentleman correctly stated the practice. On the second point, I have not initiated any precedent in this case, and, if I had come to any other decision, I should have been acting contrary to precedent. With regard to the remaining part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary, I do not think it would be right to give names of specific countries, but I am informed by my Department that the action has had to be taken in numerous cases.


asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department under what circumstances the British police can act as agent for the United States authorities or any other foreign Power for the purpose of questioning an alien resident in this country.


asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department under what authority the Birmingham police acted for the United States Government in questioning Dr. Cort.


asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether it was with his authority that the Birmingham Criminal Investigation Department interviewed Dr. Cort last December on behalf of the United States authorities; what notice his Department had that they were to do this; and under what authority foreign Governments are permitted to use British police officers to question their nationals resident in Britain.


asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he is aware that the connection of the police forces of this country with Interpol has resulted in the interrogation by police officers of persons resident in Great Britain who have not committed any action which would render them liable to prosecution in a British court or to extradition proceedings; and what action he proposes to prevent this happening.

It was not with my knowledge that the Birmingham police interviewed Dr. Cort last December. They were acting in accordance with the normal procedure whereby police forces in this country make inquiries on behalf of foreign police forces, on a reciprocal basis, in matters in which offences against the law are involved. I am considering in consultation with the Commissioner of Police, to whom inquiries from foreign police forces are sent in the first instance, whether it is necessary or desirable that advice should be given to the police as to the scope of investigations undertaken on behalf of police forces elsewhere.

Can the Minister say whether questioning like this normally takes place on non-extraditable offences, and, in particular, offences which are offences in the other country and not against the law of this country? I should also like to know whether, in the case of Dr. Cort, the right hon. and learned Gentleman thinks that the practice carried out in these circumstances was desirable, because he seems to have adopted it in the statement he made in reply to the Questions submitted last Thursday?

I think there are two points. Really the sort of case in which, if I may use the colloquial expression, Interpol work between forces should operate, should not be limited to extraditable offences. But the point I had in mind in the last few lines of my original answer to the hon. Gentleman—and I think it is worth considering—was whether, in any offence of a novel kind and not one which has been constantly used by this procedure, the procedure ought to apply. I do not want to be more specific, because I should like to consider that fully. That, I think, covers the other point which the hon. Gentleman had in mind as to procedure in this case.

I would just like to point out to the hon. Member—and I say this entirely objectively—that I think it is very undesirable that embassies or agencies of other foreign Governments should communicate direct with their nationals in this country. I think that anyone who considers it from any point of view would see that there has to be some channel. As I say, the ordinary channel was followed here, and I think that what I have said should reassure the House that I am going to look into the machinery and see that it will operate in the best way.

While I appreciate the Home Secretary's reply, especially that part of it in which he states that he was not aware that this occurred, may I ask him to bear in mind when considering it that a very considerable volume of opinion in Birmingham is shocked that this should have happened, because this way of calling a person and reading over a statement in this manner to a visitor from another country is quite obnoxious.

Is the Home Secretary aware that one of the charges made by the police, acting as agents for another Power, was that this man had left his own country to evade military service, and that he was asked to give an answer to that? Did the right hon. and learned Gentleman know then, or does he know now, that this man was rejected for military service owing to active pulmonary tuberculosis as well as three other conditions? Had the Minister known these matters then, as he knows them now, would he not have agreed that the charge put to this man was not put in good faith at all?

I am afraid that I cannot agree with the hon. Member. With regard to the first part of his supplementary, it is the same point as that covered by Question No. 43 in the name of his hon. Friend, and perhaps he will wait until I answer that.

Will the Minister explain to the House how it was that in his statement last week on this matter he said that Dr. Cort

"had refused to make a statement"
to the Birmingham police, in view of the fact that this morning I obtained from the Chief Constable of Birmingham, through the courtesy of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's own Department, a signed statement by Dr. Cort in which he had denied the charges made by the American Embassy and expressed readiness to make any statement required to the Home Office? Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman further aware that the Home Office never made any communication with Dr. Cort following that?

With regard to the first point, the facts are that there were two interviews. As I understand it, at the first interview Dr. Cort did not make a reply. He then took advice—I am not criticising his doing this—and at the second interview he made the reply of which I have provided the hon. Gentleman with a copy. That is what happened. With regard to the question of his denial, the position is that if Dr. Cort had either gone to face the charges or had indicated, which he did not, at the earlier stage that he had an answer to the charges which the American authorities could consider, it would then have been for them to consider whether the charges could still be maintained.


asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department, at the time he was informed by the United States authorities of the presumption that Dr. J. Cort was evading national service, what information he was given of the medical condition of Dr. Cort at the time he was rejected, on medical grounds, for army service.

The hon. Member's Question is based on a misapprehension of the facts. The American authorities did not inform me, as suggested in the Question. I received a report on 18th December, 1953, made by the Birmingham police of two interviews which they had had with Dr. Cort. No mention of Dr. Cort's medical condition was made in the report, and I have since ascertained that it was not referred to at the interviews.

Is not the Home Secretary aware—and, surely, it was recorded on his medical card—that Dr. Cort was showing signs of active tuberculosis as well as muscular defects resulting from infantile paralysis? In these circumstances, can the right hon. and learned Gentleman really accept the view that Dr. Cort was being recalled for military service? In such a case as that, would not the right hon. and learned Gentleman make representations to the American Embassy?

Is not the Home Secretary aware that this man gave his address to the authorities before he left America? Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman think that a man wanting to evade military service would give his address in this country? Is it not a fact that this is an excuse to get the man back to America to grill him about his early days?

If I had thought that it was an excuse I should have come to a different decision. I do not think it is an excuse. That is one of the reasons, as I have tried to state as fully as I can, why I came to the decision I reached.

Is the Home Secretary aware that the man's medical sheet, which I hold in my hand, shows that he suffers from a residual poliomyelitis, residual tuberculosis, dangerous allergy and marked myopia? Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman say in what army in the world a man suffering from those complaints would be of any use?

I submit—although it is most unusual in the case of the right hon. Gentleman—that that is an irrelevant consideration. If the man were in bad health he would be rejected, but the right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that many people, especially those who are to do specialised duties, are called up for medical examination and are then rejected.

Would the right hon. and learned Gentleman look back into the Home Office records of previous applications made by Governments for the return of refugees and see just what kind of points were put up? Because if there does happen to be in a country a certain wave of persecution hysteria it is very essential that this country should stand by its own principles.

I can answer both points. The law of asylum in this country remains as it has always been. It is, as I stated earlier, that asylum will be granted to those whose life or liberty is in danger owing to political or racial persecutions. That still remains. The second point is that no request was made to me by the Government of the United States. I have made that perfectly clear. Any suggestion—I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman meant to make it, but even if he did not it should still be dealt with—that I was acting at the request or under the influence of any other Government is entirely untrue.

Would the right hon. and learned Gentleman be prepared to be guided by the report of an eminent medical specialist in this country, chosen by himself, who would examine this man with a view to ascertaining whether he would be fit for military service?

That is not the point. The point is that this man has chosen to take such a course as leaves him open to the accusation that he is avoiding the military service Acts of the country concerned. While he is open to that charge he may lose his nationality and therefore will no longer be within the returnability rule. While he is in that position I cannot change my decision.