Orders of the Day — Argentine Railways (Pensioners)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20 July 1949.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Popplewell.]

10.44 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Williams Mr John Williams , Glasgow Kelvingrove

The matter I wish to bring before the House tonight concerns 300 to 400 persons in this country who were formerly employed on the railways in Argentina or are the widows of such railwaymen and normally in receipt of a pension in respect of such employment. In February of this year, when the Argentine Government prohibited all remittances from that country, payment of these pensions ceased and the pensioners were placed in a very serious position, especially having regard to the fact that, due to years of absence from this country, the majority of them would not be qualified under any State pensions scheme.

Last April I asked a Question in this House about the non-payment of these pensions and, later, I had correspondence with the Foreign Office. I much appreciate the readiness with which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs has provided all available information concerning this matter. Continued delay in the resumption of payments, however, compels me to raise it again.

To give an idea of the nature of this problem, I shall quote from a letter I received last March from a constituent of mine, Mrs. Elizabeth M. Clarke of 17, Pitt Street, Glasgow. She writes as follows: I am in receipt of a small pension in respect of my husband's employment with the Buenos Aires and Pacific Railway Company. It seems there are now going to be difficulties over the payments of pensions to those living here. I am a widow and have received a pension almost 11 years now. I came from the Argentine two-and-a-half years ago and received my pension regularly until recently … I had to pay £5 14s. for a power of attorney to get my pension. I had to send the money in February last to a firm of notaries public in the City of London [name and address given]. After sending that money I had to pay 5s. 8d. for a survival certificate which has to be sent to the Argentine every three months through the Argentine Consul in London. … This is the first I have had to send. … My pension is less than 20s. a week and it is all I have to depend on. Last payment I received was in February last. Some time last March these pensioners, as some informed me, received news that payments would be resumed soon within modified limits. The remittances were to be allowed up to a certain point. The figure given might seem liberal, but the question of arrears came in as well as the cost of living bonus allowed from 1st January last which still remains unpaid, and not one penny has yet been paid to these people in the last five months.

As a representative of these pensioners has stated: Whilst permission has been given for the remission up to 250 pesos per month for each pensioner, this money is not forthcoming … These pensions are being put to various expenses most of which mean payments to the Argentine Government representatives here, although no money is being received from that country to meet these demands … The latest ruling is that all pensioners here must submit a print of their right thumb on a form supplied by the Argentine pension authorities. This has to accompany a duly authenticated signature and the whole has to go to the Argentine Consul for his legislation. He will no doubt charge a fee, though he has been written to on this matter, but no reply has been received to date. I appreciate that the payment of these pensioners is the responsibility of another Government and that His Majesty's Government cannot answer for the intentions of another Government. I also understand that these and other payments were involved in the recent meat negotiations with the Argentine and that it was hoped to see a resumption of such essential payments at a fairly early date. When it was learnt that sterling remittances which have remained blocked in Buenos Aires as a result of exchange difficulties would be released, the pensioners began to ask a few questions. They ask how soon payments are likely to be resumed. Will arrears be paid en bloc? Will all future pensions be paid in full?

It has been asked by some of these pensioners whether, as a temporary measure, it will be possible for money collected for the firm holding the power of attorney, to be handed to the British Embassy in Buenos Aires and an equivalent sterling payment made by His Majesty's Treasury to the London bank which has been handling these payments. In conclusion, I can only plead with my hon. Friend that he, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will give this matter further attention so that payment of these pensions may be resumed at an early date.

10.51 p.m.

Photo of Mr Luke Teeling Mr Luke Teeling , Brighton

I have a number of constituents interested in this pension question. They have come to see me in the past, and I have tried to link this up with another question which I have asked frequently in the House, namely, what was going to happen to the Buenos Aires Transport Corporation and the payment of their funds. Therefore, I have not pressed the pensions question, because I thought it seemed to be involved in the same issue. When we read the White Paper, we see the pensions problem is very definitely being brought into the consideration of this matter.

All I would like to ask tonight is for the hon. Gentleman to assure us that, since the Treaty has been signed, we have not, so to speak, in Buenos Aires, sat back. I am fully aware that in the Argentine and South America there are delays and that people take a long time over this. I also know, in this country even, we have too many people who can deal with these foreign trade issues and problems, and therefore, we can only deal with one at a time. Therefore, we must not press too hard for a too sudden decision to be made.

It was said that, as soon as the Treaty had been signed, the question of these pensions and also the question of the other matters of Buenos Aires Transport and so on would be dealt with. As far as we know, nothing very much has happened. We must not complain about that, because it is only a fortnight or so since the Treaty was signed; but I should like some assurance from the hon. Gentleman that our Embassy has not, so to speak, entirely gone on holiday in regard to the matter, but are pressing on and going to deal with all these issues.

There are some of these wretched people who feel they have lost all and who have been hoping, indeed, are hoping—not necessarily against hope, but not with an optimistic possibility—to be repaid, or that something is to be done for them in the near future. They should not feel that because a Treaty has been signed, we are now not going to press on with the other issues. There is a general feeling of happiness, in a sense, as a result of the Treaty, both in the Argentine and here, which was exemplified in the speeches made yesterday by the Foreign Secretary and also by the Argentine Ambassador. I hope we are now going to press that all these issues may be settled.

10.54 p.m.

Photo of Mr Christopher Mayhew Mr Christopher Mayhew , Norfolk Southern

May I begin by giving the hon. Member for Brighton (Mr. Teeling) the assurance for which he asks, namely, that His Majesty's Embassy in Buenos Aires is not on holiday; that, indeed, since the signature of the Trade and Payments Agreement, we have been in touch with the Argentine Government on the question of pensions; and that we have not, and will not, fail to do the best we can for those British holders of pensions who, in many cases, are in a difficult and distressing situation as a result of the failure to allow remittance of their pensions according to their rights.

On the general subject, which I am glad my hon. Friend the Member for Kelvingrove (Mr. J. L. Williams) has raised, may I say that we sympathise with and support the case put forward so sympathetically. The House has shown a lively interest in this subject. We have received a large correspondence at my Department about these pensions, and I think it can be said that we have taken action and that the action has helped to bring about the very hopeful state of affairs which now exists on this question.

It is a great hardship to many people suddenly to have their pensions stopped, in effect, as they have been stopped. My hon. Friend the Member for Kelvin-grove quoted a letter which he received. I also should like to quote from a letter typical of those which we have been receiving. It is from Mr. McBay, of Parkstone, Dorset, who writes: My own position is such that, if I cannot obtain any definite information as to when remittances will be made, I shall soon have to return to the Argentine to live, as soon I shall have exhausted all my small savings. I served during the 1914–18 war as a volunteer from the Argentine. My only son … served in the late war until he was killed in action in an air raid over Nuremberg in February, 1943. During the late war, I, along with many other Britishers working in the Argentine and too old to serve again, did what we could by financially assisting the British war effort by contributing from 15 to 20 per cent. from salaries right up to the end of the war. I am now over 65 years of age, retiring in 1947, and returned to England to live in 1948, and it will be a very bitter day for me if I am now forced to leave the land of my birth because I cannot receive the pension to which I am legally entitled after contributing for over 30 years to the Railway Pension Fund. That letter is typical of many we have received from nationals among the 350 in this country who have been put into a distressing and difficult situation as a result of these measures of the Argentine Government. Up to the last quarter of last year there was no difficulty on this score. Then severe exchange restrictions were imposed by the Argentine Government, which, may I say, was not the only government to impose severe restrictions on all kinds of remittances. They were restrictions which hit the pensioners hard.

The situation arose from the original railways agreement which was negotiated by the railways themselves—not by His Majesty's Government—in 1947. In the course of the negotiations, Sir Montague Eddy, negotiating for the railways, received an oral—not written—agreement on the subject of these pensions from the Argentine authorities. In retrospect, it might perhaps have been desirable to have obtained, or tried to obtain, a more specific assurance on the point at the time when the railways' agreement was being negotiated. But it is easy to be wise after the event, and it would undoubtedly have been difficult to obtain.

Since the end of last year, none of the pensions have been paid in this country: remittances have not been allowed for any of the payments. We had hoped to clear up the position during the projected visit of Senor Miranda to this country, but he relinquished office, and it was not until the Trade and Payments Agreement began to be negotiated in February of this year that it became possible to make headway on the general problem of Argentine trade restrictions, which included this problem of pensions.

We have more than once made representations to the Argentine Government. These representations have taken the form of requests for the remission of remittances between the Argentine and the United Kingdom, and this larger question has been settled in principle by the signature of the Trade and Payments Agreement. The special case of pensioners has been mentioned from time to time; on 20th April by our Counsellor at Buenos Aires in an interview with the Argentine Minister of Defence; on 29th April by the Secretary of State when he handed to the Argentine Ambassador a memorandum covering employees generally, and in which the special hardship of pensioners was mentioned; and our Ambassador at Buenos Aires has sought to persuade Argentine banking authorities to release funds for pensioners in this country.

I think we cannot be accused of lack of sympathy, or lack of action, on behalf of these pensioners. The position now, I am glad to say, definitely appears to be much more promising. As a result of patient and hard negotiations, we have succeeded in reaching the signing of the Trade and Payments Agreement. Article 25 of that Agreement states: The Argentine Government would permit without restriction, in so far as sterling exchange is available, the remittance of invisible payments including profits, pensions, and other incomes in favour of residents of the scheduled territories. I can also inform the House that the Argentine Government are making arrangements to clear off, within a short period, without exchange loss, all pending remittances and all outstanding accounts. I think that assurance covers the two points, raised by my hon. Friend, which are still worrying pensioners in this country. In the first step of implementation of the Trade and Payments Agreement the Argentine Central Bank has issued a circular, and we are in touch with the Argentine Government on this very point.

In those circumstances I doubt whether it is a good plan to set up some new arrangement as outlined by my hon. Friend in connection with the power of attorney, transferring, I suppose the peso assets to the British Embassy while the pensioners here are paid in sterling. I do not think that would be wise. We went into this before the Trade and Payments Agreement was signed, and we decided we really could not accept responsibility for, in fact, paying the pensioners in this country. There were many people and individuals in a difficult plight as a result of exchange restrictions in other countries, many indeed who were in a difficult plight on account of non-payments of peso assets as a result of Argentine exchange restrictions, other than these particular pensioners, and although we went into this carefully, we decided it was not practical to undertake some such a scheme as that outlined by the hon. Gentleman. The co-operation of the Argentine Government in this scheme might not have been possible to obtain.

On the other hand, the action we have taken, the representations we have made, have led to a more hopeful situation, and we are justified in feeling that a satisfactory settlement will shortly be reached on this problem. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this question, and I hope that before long the anxieties of these British pensioners will be relieved.

Photo of Mr Luke Teeling Mr Luke Teeling , Brighton

The hon. Gentleman stressed the point that the Embassy is certainly not asleep, but he did not refer to whether he is still pressing the claims of the Primavita Gas Company and the Buenos Aires Transport Corporation.

Photo of Mr Christopher Mayhew Mr Christopher Mayhew , Norfolk Southern

On the subject of pensions, I explained that the Embassy was still in touch with the Argentine Government. On the subject of the Transport Corporation, the hon. Member will be aware of the recent representations we have made, and will know from the answers that I and others have given in the House that we are constantly making representations on this point.

Adjourned accordingly at Five Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.