10.51 pmSir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West) : Portugal is our oldest ally, a partner in NATO, in the EEC and, of course, in the Council of Europe.
We have all admired the transition of Portugal to a democracy in recent years. However, one of the characteristics of democracy is that the rights of individuals should be respected.
It is because such rights have been transgressed in the case of my constituent that I raise the subject tonight. The failure to settle and the prevarication of the Portuguese Government over some 13 years can only be described as an international scandal.
In January 1970, my constituent, Mr. R. C. Arnold, of Harston, Cambridgeshire, with his partners, acquired 11,000 acres of land at Galveias farm, Alentejo, Portugal, with a lease of 18 years, which was later increased to 24 years.
They successfully operated until the Portuguese revolution.
Then, in October 1975, they were dispossessed by the Sindicado, which is the Communist trade union. I understand that valuations of the property were made by Portuguese valuers at the time of expropriation.
When democratic government was established in Portugal, the Government recognised the need to adhere to the treaty of 1914 and to compensate for the expropriation, which was agreed in principle. The amount of money involved was approximately £1 million, much of which was for repaying banks.
Subsequently, my noble Friend Lord Pym and then my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Paice), one of whose constituents was a partner in this venture, have pursued the matter vigorously on behalf of their constituents. However, no progress has been made, despite continued expressions of agreement.
I then came into the picture. On 4 July 1985, Baroness Young, who was then Minister of State, told me that "welcome progress" was being made. That was after 10 years. She told me that the Portuguese had set up an inter-ministerial commission in October 1984. On 10 July, we were told, "Rest assured, we shall continue our efforts" to pursue this matter on behalf of my constituents.
On 8 November, we were told that the claim was about to be settled but a general election intervened in Portugal and caused further delay. However, we were told that it was "agreed in principle". The Foreign Office told me:
"Your constituents' claim will be treated first against those still outstanding".That was in November 1985, but absolutely nothing happened.
I understand that in May 1986 my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told Senor Cavaco Silva that she viewed the matter with some concern. On 22 July, my constituents told me that the Portuguese lawyers acting for them had been
"trying for weeks, without success, to bring the Portuguese authorities to the negotiating table".
On 31 July 1986 Baroness Young told me that the Portuguese Ministry of Agriculture officials would contemplate their valuation report by September 1986, but once again nothing happened. At that stage, my constituents counted up the number of promises of settlement and they came to no fewer than 44, but not a single escudo had been produced.
820 On 21 October 1986, we were told by the Foreign Office that the
"valuation work was all hut completed"and that continued pressure would be brought to hear at the highest level to ensure that, but absolutely nothing happened.
On 4 December 1986, we were told that on 28 November 1986 the British ambassador had handed a message from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to the Portuguese Prime Minister expressing concern that the matter had still not been resolved.
The Portuguese Prime Minister agreed that it had gone on for "far too long". We were told:
"the way is clear for direct negotiation".Another six months elapsed and an 80-page document in Portuguese descended on my constituents.
Much of their claim was ignored but a derisory offer of less than £300,000 was offered on terms which were by no means clear. On 21 May 1987, my noble Friend Lord Pym was told that the Portuguese Foreign Minister was
"anxious to resolve the matter".
There were elections in Portugal on 19 July last year but the Foreign Office said that they "should not delay matters". Once again the time-honoured Foreign Office words were, "We shall continue to press hard". My constituents had received about 69 letters on the subject, but not a solitary escudo.
On 17 August 1987, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State who is to reply to the debate emerged on the scene and informed me that the Foreign Secretary himself had raised the matter twice.
The new Portuguese Government had an overall majority for the first time and I was told that the Foreign Office view was that its officials would press hard for the earliest possible decision to be made.
However, all that tremendous pressure makes one wonder that the Portuguese have not been ground into the soil. Nevertheless, on 5 November 1987, the Foreign Office said that Senor da Costa Pereira was "urging an early decision" and that they would
"not let the matter rest".
We now come to 16 November 1987 when the Portuguese Foreign Minister said that he
"appreciated the seriousness of the matter"and that he would do what he could to clear it up. The last thing that happened was that on 22 March this year my right hon. Friend the Minister of State told me that prior to the Portuguese Prime Minister's visit to this country on 10 to 12 March the Portuguese Government had informed the embassy that they were prepared to compensate British subjects for expropriation "in a just way".
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that she hoped that the matter would be settled quickly, but absolutely nothing has happened.
Thirteen years have now elapsed and, frankly, that is just not good enough. I have always loved Portugal, have admired its people and worked closely with the Portuguese parliamentarians during the 10 years that I was a member of the Council of Europe.
However, this is not the behaviour that we expect from our oldest ally and partner.
If it had happened in the middle east we should have had hostage taking and violence by now.
Nor does the Foreign Office come out of this affair well. All the talk of pressure has led to nothing. It has been far too feeble in its approach—I exonerate entirely my right hon. Friend the Minister of State from this—and far too wishy-washy. I sincerely hope that my right hon. Friend 821 will have some better news for my unfortunate constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East, who has fought, as I have, on their behalf.
10.59 pmThe Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mrs. Lynda Chalker) : I am grateful for the opportunity which my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-West (Sir A. Grant) has given me to explain the Government's action on behalf of his constituent, Mr. Arnold, and the managers of the Galveias farm.
First, let me express to Mr. Arnold and his partner the Government's sympathy for the considerable financial loss which they have sustained.
I share my hon. Friend's sense of frustration and that of Mr. Arnold that, despite the enormously long lapse of time, no compensation has yet been paid.
I hope that I can demonstrate to the House that this is not due to a lack of vigorous and continuous action by this Government or our predecessors. It is due to a lack of response from those who alone can make the positive decision to alter this wrong state of affairs.
The Galveias farm was one of nine British-owned or rented farms in the Alentejo area which were expropriated in 1974–75. The British were not the only ones to have their farms expropriated: Portuguese, Germans, Belgians and other nationalities were also faced with the loss of their livelihood.
It was not for the British Government to negotiate the terms of compensation with the Portuguese.
Our role was to do what we could to ensure that compensation was paid. To this end, successive British Governments have made repeated calls on the Portuguese Government on behalf of the owners of the nine expropriated British farms.
We finally appeared to be getting somewhere when, in 1983, five of the original nine farms were returned to their original owners.
We believed then that a satisfactory solution for the other four claims was at hand. I am as cross and disappointed as they that our good friends the Portuguese, which they are, have not found it possible to resolve these four remaining claims.
The Galveias farm issue and the other three claims are of grave concern which I will raise next week when I see the Portuguese Minister for Foreign Affairs in Luxembourg at the Foreign Affairs Council. I have arranged for the ambassador to have a copy of the report of this debate tomorrow so that he will be fully aware of the seriousness with which we regard this issue.
During her visit to Portugal in April 1984, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister discussed the question with the then Portuguese Prime Minister, who is now the President, Dr. Mario Soares. They agreed that the issue should be resolved by officials. We continued persistently to lobby in both London and Lisbon.
The Portuguese Government set up an inter-ministerial commission in November 1984 to investigate the claims. Our efforts seemed about to succeed when the inter-ministerial commission accepted the principle of the claim lodged by Mr. Arnold and his partners, and set a deadline for the cases to be resolved by the end of April 1985.
Any optimism again proved to be illusory. In the 822 summer of 1985, the Portuguese National Assembly was dissolved, elections were called and again the decision-making process ground to a halt. But our ambassador in Lisbon continued to press for a resolution of the case as soon as the new Government were in place.
In January 1986, the ambassador raised the question with the new Prime Minister, Professor Cavaco Silva. The ambassador provided him with a list of the claims and Professor Cavaco Silva promised to get the new Minister of Finance to look into the matter.
The embassy followed up by leaving an aide memoire with the Foreign Ministry in February. On 12 May 1986, when Professor Cavaco Silva called on my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in London, she again pressed for a speedy resolution of the problem.
Professor Cavaco Silva told her that a settlement was close and only the amount had to be decided. I visited Lisbon later that month and I too took up the issue. Despite constant pressure from our embassy in Lisbon, no sign of a satisfactory conclusion has appeared.
As my hon. Friend has mentioned, on 28 November 1986, my right hon. Friend sent another message to Professor Cavaco Silva expressing her concern that the problem had still not been overcome. In reply, Professor Cavaco Silva said that the commission report evaluating the four outstanding claims had just been completed. We subsequently learned from the Portuguese embassy that the report had been agreed and that the way was clear for direct negotiations with the claimants.
Pressure on the Portuguese Government continued throughout last year. In particular, my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the matter with the Portuguese Foreign Minister when they met on 15 June and again on 22 June.
The Portuguese elections in July last year again delayed progress.
The ambassador raised the matter with the Secretary-General of the Portuguese Foreign Ministry in September, as soon as the composition of the new Government was known, and with the Foreign Minister in October. The next part of the litany is that the ambassador reminded the Foreign Minister of the assurances given by the present and previous Governments to settle the claims, and referred in particular to Professor Cavaco Silva's remarks to the Prime Minister in May 1986.
Our ambassador again emphasised that the delay in settling the claims was becoming intolerable and that we did not want the issue to cast a shadow over our otherwise excellent relations.
He warned the Portuguese that adverse publicity could be expected if a settlement was not reached soon.
The Foreign Minister said that he appreciated the seriousness of the matter and that he would do what he could to clear it up.
Shortly before the visit of the Portuguese Prime Minister to London in March this year, the Portuguese Ministry of Foreign Affairs notified our embassy in Lisbon that the Portuguese were prepared to compensate, as my hon. Friend has said, "in a just way." They said that they now had sufficient information to allow them to enter into direct negotiations with the parties concerned or their representatives.
I must tell the House that, when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister saw Professor Cavaco Silva in London on 11 March, she again impressed on him the need to resolve the issue quickly.
The embassy in Lisbon subsequently told all the claimants that they should make the necessary contact with the Foreign Ministry and the four British claimants have now provided full details of 823 their claims to the Portuguese Foreign Ministry.
Only last week, our ambassador also spoke again to the new Secretary-General of the Foreign Ministry, as he explained to me earlier today.
I make no apology for running through the chronology of events in some detail. That is important if we are to understand the efforts that have been made by the Foreign Office—I must correct my hon. Friend—and by successive British Governments. We have sought to resolve this matter, but it is not in our hands to give the solution into the hands of my hon. Friend's constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Paice).
This outstanding bone of contention with the Portuguese Government has gone on far too long and it is high time that it was sorted out.
Portugal is our oldest ally.
We have very good relations, and in 1986 we celebrated the 600th anniversary of the treaty of Windsor.
We are friends and partners, and we sit next to one another in European Community meetings.
We have a good spirit of friendship 824 that normally solves problems without them ever having to come even to the notice of hon. Members. Certainly they should not take up debating time late in the night.
I believe that the Portuguese Government are aware that such cases are doing harm to their reputation. I hope that they will take it from me tonight that we are determined and convinced that this problem can and should be solved forthwith.
The debate will have provided the Portuguese Government with a demonstration of the depth of feeling aroused by the matter.
As I mentioned earlier, our ambassador in Lisbon will be instructed to hand over a copy of the Hansard record of this debate to the Portuguese Foreign Minister.
I shall speak to him next week about this matter. I hope that we shall very soon see the grave problems of Mr. Arnold and the other three people solved so that once and for all this issue can be put behind us, which is what should have been done many years ago.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Eleven o'clock.