HC Deb 30 March 1961 vol 637 cc1531-5

The following Questions stood on the Order Paper:


To ask the Lord Privy Seal whether he will make a further statement on the situation in Laos.

65. Mr. HEALEY

To ask the Lord Privy Seal if he will make a statement on the negotiations for a settlement in Laos.

The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. Edward Heath)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I will now answer Questions Nos. 64 and 65.

I undertook last Monday to inform the House before it rose for the Recess of the latest position on Laos, and I will now make a short statement.

The general military situation remains unchanged and there have been no re-reports of renewed fighting in the past few days.

No reply has yet been received to the proposals which we put to the Soviet Government on 23rd March.

Hon. Members will have seen the text of the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation Resolution on Laos and the final communiqué of the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation Ministerial meeting. I think that the House will agree that, whilst emphasising the determination of the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation powers to safeguard the independence and neutrality of Laos, these statements reflect their desire for a peaceful solution of the Laotian problem.

Mr. Henderson

The communiqué to which the right hon. Gentleman has just referred stated that the rebel forces in Laos were continuing to be supplied and assisted by Communist Powers. Does that mean that the Russian airlift is still going on and that there is evidence that further foreign military personnel are being sent into Laos?

Mr. Heath

The assistance continues in that the Vietminh, whom I mentioned to the House the other day, are still supporting the Pathet Lao in large numbers in specialist occupations. We have had no information that the airlift has come to an end.

Mr. Healey

I assure the Lord Privy Seal that we on this side of the House very much welcome the fact that the tone of the S.E.A.T.O. communiqué is so much more moderate than the rather strident bluster in the Foreign Secretary's speech at Bangkok.

First, I notice that in the communiqué there is reference to the possibility that "members" of the Treaty Organisation may take action in certain circumstances. Does this imply that certain members of the Treaty Organisation indicated that they would not militarily intervene in those circumstances? In that case, is it possible for any Western intervention to take place under the auspices of S.E.A.T.O.?

Secondly, I note with great pleasure the right hon. Gentleman's remarks that the fighting appears to have stopped in Laos. In that case, is not the Western pre-condition for an international conference already met and is it necessary for any further formal steps to be taken to announce a cease-fire.

Mr. Heath

I do not accept the remarks of the hon. Gentleman about my noble Friend's speech. Similar remarks were rejected by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House earlier this morning.

The statement in the communiqué about members refers to all members of S.E.A.T.O. and is carrying out their obligations under Article IV of the Treaty of Manila. With regard to the cease-fire, it has been one of the features of the fighting in Laos that it comes and goes, so to speak, and that it is, as I said to the House, rather sporadic. The proposal is quite clear—that there should be an appeal by the co-chairmen for a cease-fire, and then it can be verified by the Control Commission.

Mr. Healey

May I press the right hon. Gentleman on the first point? The point has been noted by nearly all diplomatic correspondents this morning that the word "members" rather than the phrase "the members" is used in the passage in the communiqué to which I referred. This has clearly been taken to imply that, in the circumstances referred to, certain members of S.E.A.T.O. would not participate in the action envisaged. I should like the right hon. Gentleman to make quite clear to the House whether this interpretation, which is unanimous among the diplomatic correspondents, is incorrect.

On the second point, I remember the Lord Privy Seal telling the House a few days ago that Her Majesty's Government, at any rate, did not propose to be fussy about timing concerning the international conference. Can he assure the House that, if the Soviet Union makes clear its readiness to have an international conference along the lines proposed in the British Government's note of last Thursday, and if fighting is no longer taking place inside Laos, the conference will be called at the earliest possible moment?

Mr. Heath

Concerning the reference in the communiqué, our understanding is that there is an obligation on all members of S.E.A.T.O. to take action together under Article IV of the Treaty.

With regard to timing, what I said to the House was that the order of the proposals enabled action to be taken very quickly and that, as soon as the Soviet co-chairman accepts that there can be an appeal for a cease-fire and the Commission can go to Laos to confirm that it has been carried out, the conference can meet. All those things can happen very quickly.

Mr. Mendelson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, although he has told the House several times that timing need not be a serious difficulty, Prince Souvanna Phouma is reported as having said in Paris yesterday that he regards timing as very important and a major weakness in the proposals submitted by Her Majesty's Government? Cannot he give us an assurance that, in order to get out of that difficulty, the British Government will support a policy which will allow the conference and the Control Commission to start work at one and the same time, because an effective ceasefire has been established? Would it not be sensible to move in that direction so that timing will not prevent a successful conclusion to these negotiations?

Mr. Heath

I repeat that timing need not interfere in the least. If there is a de facto cease-fire, as soon as the Soviet co-chairman replies to our proposals with a joint proposal that there should be a cease-fire, the Control Commission can go immediately. Mr. Nehru has already indicated that he is prepared for the Indian chairman to convene the Commission at very short notice. Then the conference can take place. It is bound to take a little while for members of a considerable number of nations—probably up to fourteen—to assemble together for a conference. As I say, this point need cause no difficulty at all.

Mr. Gaitskell

May I press the right hon. Gentleman just a little further? He said, "Then, the conference can take place". Is it not likely that the Control Commission would take a considerable time to cover a country like Laos and to investigate whether fighting of any kind was going on? It is not a clear black and white situation; it is hazy and confused. Therefore, would it not be much wiser, particularly if the Soviet Government desire this, to summon the conference immediately the Soviet Union has accepted the proposals of Her Majesty's Government?

Mr. Heath

Concerning the time that the Control Commission would take, I have stated that it could go to Laos quickly. In view of the modern means of air communication by small aircraft in Laos it could also form a judgment fairly speedily. It is, however, necessary to have the appeal for a cease-fire and a judgment that the cease-fire is being put into effect before the conference actually meets.