Orders of the Day — Argentine Railways (Pensioners)

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

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Photo of Mr Christopher Mayhew Mr Christopher Mayhew , Norfolk Southern 12:00, 20 July 1949

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.