HC Deb 04 February 1965 vol 705 cc1280-4

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:


To ask the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on the proposed Commonwealth conference of Prime Ministers.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With permission, I will now answer Question No. Q16.

I have been consulting other Commonwealth Heads of Government about the possibility of holding a Commonwealth Prime Ministers' meeting during the summer.

I am glad to be able to inform the House that there is general agreement to a meeting during the second half of June. The precise dates are to be settled later.

Mr. Hamilton

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the whole country will be gratified by this further new initiative by himself and the Government? Will he consider—I am sure he will—the possibility of putting on the agenda the question of increased Commonwealth assistance in the serious and costly South-East Asia situation which this country is now shouldering almost on its own?

Secondly, will he make it quite clear to the Commonwealth Prime Ministers that he rejects the view constantly put forward by the Opposition, particularly at the time of the negotiations about the Common Market, that the Commonwealth is a declining asset, and that Commonwealth trade must inevitably fall?

The Prime Minister

I do not think that it is right to say that we are carrying the whole burden in Malaysia to deal with the attacks made by Indonesia. I am glad to be able to tell the House that earlier this week we had an extremely valuable meeting with the Prime Ministers of Australia and New Zealand on this question, which has already resulted in a still further increase in the very valuable assistance and co-operation which they are giving in that area.

On the second question, I feel that while last year's Commonwealth Prime Ministers' conference did some very valuable work indeed—not least, I think, those parts of the communique which affected Southern Rhodesia—one of the gaps in the work of the conference—and I commented on it at the time—was insufficient discussion on economic links within the Commonwealth, particularly trade links on which, to judge from the communique, apparently nothing was done. It is very important to use the first Commonwealth Prime Ministers' conference in the new setting to discuss what we can do to help one another to expand trade. Certainly, we absolutely and totally reject the idea that Commonwealth trade is a declining asset.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We are glad to hear that there is to be another Commonwealth Prime Ministers' conference, and I endorse what the Prime Minister said about Commonwealth co-operation to deal with the Indonesian threat to Malaysia. We are glad that there is to be another conference, because we think that the more often the Prime Ministers of the Commonwealth meet, within reason, the better.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, the last conference was extremely successful. If he refreshes his memory, he will find that the Prime Ministers considered the possibilities of assisting each other in the economic field, and I hope that this will be carried further.

The Prime Minister

As I said at the time—and it was clear from the right hon. Gentleman's statement—there were some valuable discussions on assistance, on development aid, and things of that kind. Quite valuable, and one or two new proposals were put forward, which are going ahead. What I do not think there was any discussion on at all—indeed, I asked the right hon. Gentleman about this at the time—was on trade links, and what we could do to agree to buy more from one another on a trade basis as opposed to development aid.

I feel that a great deal of harm has been done to our Commonwealth trade links by certain events over the last two years. Although it is a little late in the day, we want to put that right as soon as we can.

Mr. Grimond

I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman cannot tell us about the agenda of the conference, but will he bear in mind that one subject which might usefully be discussed is the question of immigration? Secondly, will he at some point inform the House who is to come, particularly from Africa and the Caribbean? Thirdly, may I ask how much consideration has been given to the possibility of sometimes holding the meetings of Commonwealth Prime Ministers in places other than London, in other parts of the Commonwealth? Lastly, will he consider informing the House in the near future of the progress made on some of the recommendations of the last conference, particularly over the Commonwealth Secretariat?

The Prime Minister

As the right hon. Gentleman said, it is not the practice to discuss the agenda in advance, but I think that there will be general agreement that the subject he has mentioned, immigration, and trying to get agreement among the Commonwealth countries about this programme, is important and very appropriate for such a conference. A number of new ideas, which were aired for the first time last July, have been pressed on with, and, in particular, the Secretariat idea has been the subject of a recent conference held in London, at which very good progress was made. Whether we can carry it further until we have the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' conference I do not know, but I think that the House will be satisfied with the progress that has been made there. Of course, we shall be prepared to consider the idea of holding future conferences in different parts of the Commonwealth, but this next conference will be held in London.

Dr. David Kerr

Can my right hon. Friend say whether the Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia is among those who have indicated their intention to support the conference? If so, may we have an assurance that the opportunity will be seized to further the excellent work which my right hon. Friend has done to lead to a reconciliation of Southern Rhodesia's difficulties?

The Prime Minister

We are following the practice of the last conference, namely, that so long as the constitutional position of Rhodesia remains unchanged, the previous decision continues to apply, namely, that these meetings should in future be confined to the representatives of fully independent States. Mr. Smith has been told this, and that if he wishes to be present at any discussions on Rhodesia I shall be glad to put this suggestion to my Commonwealth colleagues, but he has, in fact, declined this on the ground that he could not agree that such discussion would be proper.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Is the Prime Minister aware that many of us welcome the emphasis on trade rather than aid, with particular reference to the proposed new Part IV of the G.A.T.T.? May I ask him again, on the question of the Commonwealth Secretariat, whether he expects that it will begin to come into operation in time for the conference, or whether it will take longer?

The Prime Minister

That is what I am not sure about, because if we are going to have the Secretariat in any form in being before the conference, we shall have to reach agreement, including agreement on the personalities concerned, before that meeting. This kind of consultation is very difficult to hold, so I am doubtful whether we shall finalise the arrangements for the Secretariat in advance of the conference in June.

Mr. Frederic Harris

In view of the indignity suffered by the Prime Minister of Kenya on the occasion of the last Commonwealth Prime Minister's conference, will the Prime Minister ensure that at future conferences every possible protection is offered to all those coming to this country?

The Prime Minister

Yes, right hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House have expressed their regret at what occurred, and we shall certainly do our best to avoid any repetition of such an incident.