HC Deb 24 March 1961 vol 637 cc821-6
Mr. Gaitskell (by Private Notice)

asked the Prime Minister whether he will make a statement on consultations which have taken place between Her Majesty's Government and the United States Government regarding the possible use of British troops at Laos.

The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. Edward Heath)

I have been asked to reply.

There have been continuing consultations with the United States Government about the situation developing in Laos but they have not been concerned with the use of British forces. The House will, however, recall that we have undertaken certain obligations under the Manila Treaty in relation to this area.

Mr. Gaitskell

May I ask the Lord Privy Seal whether he will give us an assurance that before the use of British forces is seriously contemplated the House of Commons will be consulted? May I ask him whether he is aware that there will be general support in the House for the British proposals which have now been put to the Soviet Government, and that there will be general satisfaction that these proposals include the suggestion, or, indeed, the request, made by the Soviet Government as well as our own, that is to say, that there should be the reconvening of the conference as well as the supervisory commission?

Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that I am sure that there will be general support for President Kennedy's desire for a settlement at the conference table and not on the battlefield?

Finally, may I ask whether he can give us any information about the progress of negotiations towards the formation of a coalition and genuinely neutral Government in Laos?

Mr. Heath

Yes, Sir. I will do my best to keep the House informed about developments in this situation. I should like to thank the right hon. Gentleman for the welcome which he has given to the proposals put by my noble Friend, as co-chairman, to the Russian Foreign Minister. I think that everybody is agreed that Laos should remain a neutral and independent State. Therefore, we hope that these proposals will prove acceptable and will lead to a settlement. We are most anxious that there should be a peaceful settlement of this problem.

As far as a wide-based Government is concerned, we have always been using our influence to try to achieve that. A short time ago it looked as though Prince Souvanna Phouma would be able to conciliate in this matter. Unfortunately, that has come to nought and we can at the moment see no progress in that direction. We hope that, if the Soviet co-chairman will accept these proposals, immediately after the cease-fire it would be possible to have a broadening of the base of the Government.

Mr. Gaitskell

Have there been any discussions at a diplomatic level with the Soviet Government about the form of a broader-based Government? What were the particular difficulties that arose? Can the right hon. Gentleman give us an assurance that the American Government are also in favour of those proposals now?

Mr. Heath

Yes, Sir. My noble Friend has made clear his view to the Soviet Government that we would favour a broader-based Government. I think that the difficulties have, in fact, been more in Laos, between the politicians in Laos, to try to find a broader-based Government rather than on our side.

Mr. Harold Davies

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that between 10th and 13th March, Prince Souvanna Phouma, Prince Boun Oum, and General Nosavan met at Phnom Penh and agreed there themselves that a broad-based Government should be established, even with Pathet Lao representation? What efforts did the Government make to encourage this? Are the Government aware that if they were to move troops in, it would be a breach of Article 6 of the Manila Treaty, which distinctly says that no nation is to take the responsibility out of the hands of the United Nations; and this question is already under United Nations supervision, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, so far as the general broad conference is concerned?

Mr. Heath

We have used our influence through diplomatic channels to try to help in the formation of a broader-based Government, and following the meeting to which the hon. Member has referred——

Mr. Davies

It was an excellent meeting.

Mr. Heath

It was a very good meeting, and the communiqué was a very good communiqué. But, unfortunately, immediately following that, Prince Souvanna Phouma of the Pathet Lao intervened. As a result, conciliation broke down, and that is very regrettable. Our obligations are quite clearly stated in Article 4 of the Treaty of Manila.

Mr. Ridsdale

Is the lord Privy Seal aware how much we are anxious to see that the conference takes place fairly soon in order to stop the fighting? In the meantime, however, can he say what the present military situation is in Laos? Is it not a fact that the rainy season is due to begin in about a week's time?

Mr. Heath

The rainy season is due not quite as quickly as that. I have undertaken to give a full statement about the military situation to the House on Monday in answer to a Question put down by my hon. Friend.

Mr. de Freitas

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that as long ago as last autumn it was apparent to every one of us who visited Laos and the surrounding countries that, if the new American Government adopted the policy of a neutral Laos, Prince Souvanna Phouma was the man who had the best chance of obtaining support of the East, the West and Laos as a genuine neutralist national leader? Now that President Kennedy has accepted our neutral policy for Laos, after the cease-fire conference will Her Majesty's Government impress on the Americans, the Russians and everyone else concerned the unique position of Prince Souvanna Phouma?

Mr. Heath

How quickly we can use our influence to get a wider-based Government and national unity in Laos will depend to a certain extent on how quickly the other co-chairman is able to give his support to these proposals. If that is done, these results could be achieved fairly quickly.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

Will the Government bear in mind, in the background of their talks with the Americans, that the Korean War was an ideological war which did absolutely no service to the cause of Britain and the Commonwealth, apart from the devotion to duty and gallantry of our troops involved, and that this country does not wish to see a parallel instituted at the present time?

Mr. Heath

As President Kennedy said in his interview yesterday, he is most anxious for a peaceful settlement, and so are we.

Mr. A. Henderson

Does not the situation in Lao endanger the maintenance of international peace, so as to justify a consideration of the situation by the Security Council under Article 34 of the Charter? Can we be assured that there is no intention of by-passing the United Nations, as has been done on previous occasions?

Mr. Heath

Yes, Sir. We have been trying to find a peaceful arrangement through the existing arrangements under the co-chairmen, which is a fully justifiable arrangement under the United Nations. But S.E.A.T.O. is entitled to discuss this, as a regional organisation, and both questions are governed by Articles 51 and 52 of the Charter.

Colonel Sir Tufton Beamish

Can my right hon. Friend say what is the attitude of the Soviet Government to the British suggestion that the conference should meet? If he does not yet know, can he say how soon he hopes to learn it?

Mr. Heath

The Note from my noble Friend was delivered yesterday to Mr. Firyubin, Mr. Gromyko being in New York. We have not had a reply from Mr. Gromyko or Mr. Firyubin, but, naturally, we hope that it will be given as soon as possible.

Mr. Gaitskell

Am I right in supposing that Prince Souvanna Phouma is coming to Europe in a few days? If he does, will the right hon. Gentleman consider inviting him to London to discuss these problems?

Mr. Heath

At the moment he is in Delhi, and he is coming on to Europe. It may be that he will then come to London.

Mr. Warbey

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind, as The Times said, that neither rival Government in Laos has a cast-iron claim to legitimacy; that both sides have received military aid, but that there has been no evidence whatsoever of direct military intervention by forces from outside, and that it would be quite wrong for any British forces to be involved in any intervention in Laos? Will he therefore contradict the report of Mr. Salinger that the use of British troops is not inconceivable?

Mr. Heath

I have already pointed out that we have obligations under the Treaty of Manila.

Mr. Harold Davies

Only if there is unanimity.

Mr. Mendelson

Is the Lord Privy Seal aware that, whilst the general proposals made by the British Government in the last 24 hours deserve general support, a difficulty may arise over the timing of the recall of the Commission and the convening of the Conference? Would it not be possible for the British Government further to propose that they should take place at one and the same time and that there should not be serious disagreement over the timing of the two events?

Mr. Heath

I do not think that the timing of the two things need lead to disagreement. We have proposed that both co-chairmen should call for an immediate cease-fire and that the International Control Commission should immediately be reconstituted to see that the cease-fire is being carried out, and, when the International Control Commission reports, that a conference should immediately assemble. If those stages are carried out, it can be done very quickly.

Mr. P. Noel-Baker

If things should go less well than we hope with our proposals, can the right hon. Gentleman give us an assurance that there will be question of using force until the United Nations has been consulted, either through the Security Council or through the Assembly, which is now sitting, in the light of our general obligations under the Charter?

Mr. Heath

We are doing this in the light of our obligations, as I have mentioned, and, in particular, under Articles 51 and 52, which cover the actions of regional organisations.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot debate this matter further now.

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