HC Deb 15 July 1964 vol 698 cc1382-94

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

12.19 p.m.

Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)

I want to raise an aspect of the question concerned with the sale of equipment in the form of frigates to the Spanish Government. During this controversy I must say that the years have slipped away, and they slipped again this afternoon when I listened to the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Defence, because "this is where I came in."

I remember 1938, when I had just come out of the Army and the first by-election in which I could actually join was the Stafford by-election. The right hon. Gentleman had his spurs to win and he fought an election campaign based on an admiration for Franco, Hitler, Mussolini and Mr. Chamberlain. He is the archetype of a Municheer. As I listened this afternoon something clicked in my mind and I went back to The Times and there, sure enough, I found it. On 11th June, 1938, there was the result of the Stafford by-election. The right hon. Gentleman was elected by an increased majority.

In the same issue of The Times, indeed, on the same page, there is an account of British ships being bombed by Franco planes, British sailors being killed by being machine-gunned from the air. Indeed, there is even a report of a British non-intervention officer being killed as a result of a Franco attack. I do not want to exacerbate old sores, but when the right hon. Gentleman talks about the supply of equipment to Spain—and this applies to the Prime Minister, too—and in the same breath they talk about friendship between the British and the Spanish people, it makes me have a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. On this side of the House we can in all sincerity talk about freedom for and friendship with the Spanish people, but not friendship with Franco and we look forward to the time when a free Spain will once again, under the rule of democracy, have friendship with the British people.

I do not want, however, to dwell on that aspect. I want to deal with the announcements with which the Government are concerned, because I think that if this is to be a subject of controversy at least we ought to try to get the facts straight. We were told one thing by the Prime Minister yesterday and something different by the Secretary of State for Defence today, but let us start with the statement by the right hon. Gentleman the Foreign Secretary on 15th June, when he told the House: There was a premature disclosure."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th June 1964; Vol. 696. c. 929.] Something about the negotiations which were going on had been prematurely disclosed. We have endeavoured, through the use of the Order Paper, to elicit the facts, and yesterday the Prime Minister told the House that there was a brief. He said: The brief was a purely internal document…The public relations officer knew that agreement was imminent and understood from the trend of questions put to him by certain correspondents that agreement had been reached. The right hon. Gentleman went on and, by way of explanation, said: This officer simply made a mistake. He was referring to the officer in the Press department. The right hon. Gentleman then spoke in the plural and said: Correspondents put questions to him in a certain way which is not unknown to right hon. and hon Members."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th July, 1964; Vol. 698, c. 1028.] It may be just a slip. There was no plural here. There were no correspondents. There was one correspondent. It is a slander, intentional or not, on Mr. Chapman Pincher to suggest that he put questions in a certain way to elicit information or in an attempt to trap the Press officer into indiscretion.

Moreover, it seems very odd, and it is an indication of the pressure which the Prime Minister feels himself to be under, that the right hon. Gentleman, the head of the Government, should come to the House and put the blame for what is, after all, a political mistake on a very junior Press officer. It seems to me to be contrary to our traditions. But that is what he did; he put the blame on the Press officer.

Today, in Answer to a Question which I put to the Secretary of State for Defence, there was a slight change of tune. The Secretary of State said: The fact that negotiations had been going on with the Spanish Government had been known fairly widely both here and abroad for a number of months. On 8th June, the Directorate of Public Relations of my Department was approached by a member of the Press who stated that information had been received from abroad… This is not in accord with the facts. What happened was that Mr. Chapman Pincher, on 8th June, approached the head of the Press department of the Ministry of Defence and said that he had information about this deal. What we are not told is where he got the information from. I say frankly that I do not believe that he got it from abroad.

Commander J. S. Kerans (The Hartlepools)

I am personally acquainted with the P.R.O. to the Ministry of Defence, who has seen me over a number of days and who is quite clear that he gave no information whatever which was "leaked" on this deal. I can assure the House of his integrity, and I am certain that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will guarantee it, too. What I object to is the way he has been impugned and his integrity has been impugned by the questions of hon. Members opposite. It is quite wrong.

Mr. Wigg

No. The hon. and gallant Gentleman could not have listened. It was the Prime Minister who referred to a Press officer and said that he "simply made a mistake". All I am saying is that Mr. Chapman Pincher went to the head of the Press department and said, "I have heard a story", and asked that Press officer, the person the hon. and gallant Gentleman is referring to—this is no attack upon him—a question. The Press officer behaved perfectly properly. He said to Mr. Chapman Pincher, "I know nothing about it, but come back again". The idea that he was asked any questions, or that he was trapped into an admission, whether the Prime Minister says it or not, is, therefore, absolutely untrue.

Several hours later, Mr. Chapman Pincher went back again and was then told not by the first officer, but by a junior officer—here I quote Mr. Chapman Pincher's report, the part which appeared in quotation marks— I can confirm that the Spanish Government is to build 'Leander' class frigates under licence. The announcement will be made in Madrid". It was not made in Madrid. After the statement appeared, what one could not then establish was whether it had been contradicted or not.

I find this fascinating. I telephoned the office of the Secretary of State for Defence on several occasions to establish this simple fact. If there had been a misstatement in the Ministry of Defence, what steps did the right hon. Gentleman take to put it right? In other words, if the Prime Minister's account is right, that there was a simple mistake, when the mistake was discovered and the next day, 10th June, there appeared in the Daily Express the story headed: Spain angry over British arms leak what steps were then taken? And I repeat that the Foreign Secretary said that there had been a premature disclosure. After a great deal of effort on my part, I got a statement from the Secretary of State for Defence in a letter on 10th July, in which he said: No such retraction was issued. Thus, no attempt was made to put right the mistake.

This afternoon, the Secretary of State for Defence made great play, and he was received with hilarious laughter from the other side of the House, with the suggestion I was in some difficulties because I was suggesting that there was a process of leak, which then led up to the disclosure, that this must have been known to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and that my right hon. Friend's speech in the House in the foreign affairs debate subsequently led to the cancellation of the order. That is not my interpretation of events.

I want to be as objective and as accurate as I can. My first point is that negotiations about these frigates had been going on for a quite considerable time. The point was made that negotiations were going on in other countries, and that is true. A Spanish naval mission had visited other countries besides this country. The mission came here twice last year and was here from 23rd October to 1st November, 1963

Stories have appeared in the Press here of astronomical sums being spent. The Sunday Express, last Sunday, suggested a ship worth £30 million. The Daily Telegraph, yesterday, suggested that the frigates would cost £5 million apiece. The Minister of Defence was much more modest. On 8th July, he said that we would get £2 million to £3 million for design. As to the Prime Minister's statement that loss of the order would cost British workers their jobs, if the ships were to be built in Spain, how would British workers be deprived of jobs? That is a bogus sort of story.

The Spaniards had been after the "Leander" and, above all, the Seacat because they were cheap and because the Seacat was unsophisticated and was cheap—costing about £5,000 each. This approach, however, had been on, off, on and off again. The Spaniards, for their own reasons, never clinched the deal.

I go back again to the statements which have been made by the Press department of the Ministry of Defence. When Mr. Chapman Pincher pursued his inquiries as recently as yesterday, he was informed that the entry in the log book of documents which are received from senior officials giving guidance for use when inquiries are received, was dated 15th May last. In other words, it was a long time ago and it was not treated as an exalted deal that would save the country's economy and win the election for the Tories. It was dealt with as something which was purely routine. The whole thing was routine and unimportant.

The Spanish military attaché had visited the School of Artillery in the early part of May. The Spaniards had been making inquiries over a period of years, but they had placed no orders. In my judgment, that was for the one simple reason that they were short of the lucre; otherwise, the deal might have been on, but the truth is known only to Franco. It must be said, in fairness, that we do not know—indeed, it might be on at some time in the future.

What is absolutely certain is that when the Secretary of State for Defence suggested, as he did on 8th July, that this vessel and the Seacat could be bought from either French or American sources, either he was a very stupid and ignorant man, of which there is a high probability, or he was making suggestions which he well knew to be untrue. The French are getting their seaborne short-range surface to air missile, the Tartar and the Terrier, from the Americans. The American ships which are comparable to our frigates are extremely expensive. The cheapest of them costs about 25 to 30 million dollars, which is far beyond the ability of the Spaniards to pay.

My view about this is that, for some reason, after 15th May the Spaniards changed their minds. I can hazard a guess as to the reason. I think that the Americans came along and offered them the chance of buying supersonic aircraft and that the deal might well have gone through except that the American officer who was flying the aircraft and the Spanish observer were killed. They were flying a Starfighter, and the proposal which was put to the Spaniards was to have one squadron of American Starfighters and four squadrons of F5s on favourable terms.

I believe this is what happened, that the Government were hoping against hope that they would get a deal; not the deal which has been described in terms of £14 million, £18 million, £30 million, even £50 million, and even, in one case, £200 million; but a modest deal involving the sale of the design of a ship, not very modern, and of a missile, which is very unsophisticated and tending to be obsolescent, and to get a small sum in return. What I think Franco did was this: he double-crossed the Government. He led them to believe that the conclusion of negotiations was imminent.

I think that Mr. Chapman Pincher, in the exercise—the proper exercise—of his calling, got information about this, and went to the Ministry of Defence; the story leaked out, the Spaniards were very cross, and took the opportunity to climb out, and our Government then seized what they regarded as a political initiative and blamed my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friends on this side of the House.

Let me make it perfectly clear, in all honesty, that as far as I am concerned I would stop any equipment to Franco. So far as the peace of Europe and the well-being of the Spanish people are concerned, the quicker the Franco régime goes the better. When the time comes when there is a democratic régime in Spain, then, if the Spaniards want arms and equipment, if only for psychological reasons, I would hold my hand up in favour.

What the Government here have done, in their sheer desperation, is to trot out an inflated suggestion that the British economy depended upon this deal going through. There is one thing which hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the House do not understand about this case or, indeed, about any other matter concerning defence and defence deals. The Government can come here and deceive their own supporters, and they may also put it across the Lobby correspondents and the Press, but there is one thing certain, and that is that the Chancelleries of the world, Washington, the Kremlin. Peking, know the truth.

Their intelligence services are right up with the facts, and up to knowing just what the chances were of this deal going through, and what happened that made the Spaniards decided to call it off, as I believe they did.

It is about time the Government dropped this cock and bull story. It is time they stopped blaming junior officers in the Ministry's Press department for v/hat may have been a calculated political leak. I do not know how Mr. Chapman Pincher originally got the tip off. The best of good luck to him. But I believe that he got the original story from the Government. Then the Prime Minister came here on Tuesday and the Secretary of State came today, and they told completely different stories, which do not add up to the truth. It is about time the Government stopped this. For surely, even in the dying days of a Government and a Parliament, it is better always to tell the truth.

12.38 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy (Mr. John Hay)

Although time is short I welcome the opportunity which this Adjournment debate gives to set out in detail and in proper order the events which preceded the decision of the Spanish Government to break off these negotiations. This is the first time in this House that there has been full opportunity to dispel many of the untruths and mischievous allegations emanating from the benches opposite.

From 1961 onwards it became apparent to us that the Spanish Government were seriously interested in modernising their navy. Informal talks and discussions at all levels began to take place over ship designs, weapons and equipments, and eventually, during the next two years, missions were exchanged, as the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) has said, which went into these matters in greater detail.

From an early stage anti-submarine frigates featured in the Spanish programme, and by 1963 it was apparent that the "Leander" design was what they really wanted. We were certainly prepared to sell this type of design to them. Of course, while we were discussing the matter with them, they were also having preliminary discussions with other countries, but in early May of this year it looked very much as though negotiations were reaching their final stages.

On 13th May—not 15th May—the appropriate Department of the Ministry of Defence passed this information to the Navy's public relations organisation. We expected on that day that the Spanish Cabinet would award us the contract very shortly. As the House knows, it is customary for the public relations staff of a Government Department to be alerted in advance to deal with any Press inquiries which may be foreseen. We expected an announcement from Madrid very shortly, and a form of words was given to the Press department to confirm the announcement here when the announcement had been made in Madrid. The form of words was entered in a log which is kept in the Press department at the Ministry of Defence. That was on 13th May.

In fact, the decision was delayed by the Spanish Government. On the morning of 8th June, which was a Monday, Mr. Chapman Pincher, of the Daily Express, telephoned the Director of Public Relations at the Ministry of Defence, I understand, and inquired about the deal, which it appears he had heard about, as he subsequently said twice in his newspaper, from an American source. He was told that the Director of Public Relations would refer the inquiry to the Director of Public Relations (Navy), as we call him, the D.P.R.(N), who would ring him back.

An officer in the D.P.R.(N) office, who had no prior knowledge of the progress of the negotiations, consulted the log and the text of the reply that had been tabled there for use in answer to Press inquiries. He tried to get hold of Mr. Chapman Pincher on the telephone, but without success, but that afternoon he was told that Mr. Pincher had called to see him, and, in fact, they met in the Ministry of Defence Press office.

I understand that Mr. Pincher spoke to the officer in a confident manner about the warships for Spain deal and—I think that the House will take it from me and this is certainly what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had in mind in answering Questions in the House yesterday—he was making use, quite legitimately, of a technique with which we are all familiar when an experienced journalist wishes to obtain confirmation of a story which up to that moment has not, in fact, been confirmed. The officer to whom he spoke thought that he was free to give him confirmation of the story and he told him that he could confirm that the Spanish Government was to build "Leander" class frigates under licence and that an announcement would be made in Madrid. He told him nothing further.

It is absolutely clear that this was, in fact, an error. I have myself asked the officer about it and I have examined the entry in the log book. I think that there is a certain ambiguity in that entry which might clearly have misled someone who was not completely au fait with the progress of the negotiations. Certainly, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said this afternoon, no blame can attach to Mr. Chapman Pincher. He quite properly carried out his professional duties and sought confirmation from us of a story which had been given to him from outside.

The following morning, 9th June, the story broke in the Daily Express and the error was discovered. My noble Friend the Minister of Defence for the Royal Navy was out of London and on my own responsibility I sent for the Spanish naval attaché. I conveyed to him our apology for a wrong confirmation that we had given final approval, and I asked him if he would please pass this apology on to his Government. I tell the House frankly that I was anxious lest it be thought in Madrid that we had deliberately taken this action somehow to put pressure on the Spanish Government to hurry up and complete these negotiations, and my own anxiety was to ensure that the deal was completed. I also sent a signal to the British naval attaché in Madrid to convey a similar apology at that end.

I waited with bated breath for the next 24 hours to see what would happen. I then heard from the naval attaché in Madrid that he had delivered our apology, that he had been most cordially received, and that the apology had been accepted. The naval attaché added that work was continuing, and that he hoped to have the Spanish draft of the joint letter of agreement that week.

There was no question whatever of a Spanish protest at a leakage having taken place. We made a mistake, and for that my right hon. Friend takes the responsibility. We apologised for its consequence, our apology was accepted, and the negotiations went on. As the hon. Gentleman has been told by letter, no retraction was issued. Anyone who rang up or otherwise inquired about the truth of the story was told that the negotiations had not, in fact, been completed.

Eight days passed, and then, on 17th June, we had the foreign affairs debate in this House. We had the speech of the Leader of the Opposition, the gratuitous insults to the Spanish Government, and the reopening of quarrels more than 25 years old. There is no doubt whatever that it was this, and this alone, which put an end to the negotiations.

The Spanish Government announced on 29th June that the negotiations were suspended, and this was finally confirmed by the Spanish Minister of Marine on 1st July. In a statement made then to the Press in Madrid he used these words: I am not prepared to accept the interference of the honourable Mr. Wilson, Leader of the Labour Opposition, in the internal affairs of a country such as Spain which maintains the most friendly and normal relations with Great Britain. I hope to be able to continue to maintain our cordial collaboration with the British Admiralty but political prudence makes it advisable for us to break off a transaction which has been the subject, on the part of the honourable Mr. Wilson, of a misplaced and unjustified intervention. That is what the Spanish Minister of Marine said. That is the true account of what happened in this matter. There was no plot, and it would have been an extremely clumsy plot if it had been tried, to embroil the Opposition in this matter, because no one who did not know him could have expected that the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition could have been so irresponsible as to make the statement that he did.

The disgraceful suggestion made by the hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) is equally not true, that we caused one of our officials to make a false statement. What happened was that there was a premature announcement of the conclusion of the negotiations which had not happened. That was followed by an apology. The negotiations then went on for eight days, and then came the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition and the suspension of the negotiations by the Spanish Government.

What can we do now? I still hope that despite their natural anger at the right hon. Gentleman's attack the Spanish Government will reconsider the matter and reopen the negotiations. We are still ready and willing to do so. So far as this country is concerned, the best that we can do is to see that the right hon. Gentleman does not become responsible for our foreign and commercial affairs after the next election. Heaven help us if he does.

Mr. Wigg

I take it that the last part of the on. Gentleman's speech specifically repudiates the statement made by the Secretary of State for Defence that there is a possibility of this order being placed in France or America?

Mr. Hay

Not at all, because the fact is that these negotiations have been suspended. It is still very likely, on the face of it, that the Spanish Government will go elsewhere, and speeches like that of the hon. Gentleman himself tonight will not make the prospects of them coming back here any better.

12.48 p.m.

Mr. Denis Howell (Birmingham, Small Heath)

It is time that somebody said that 400,000 British service men and civilians lost their lives in the last war because, to use the Prime Minister's language, they made the appalling mistake of fighting Fascism.

That the memory of these people should be betrayed by this Government conducting negotiations in this way without first coming to the House is a matter which some of us who still have some national pride should denounce, and we do denounce it.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) said, this is not to make a condemnation—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Wednesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eleven minutes to One o'clock.