HC Deb 12 July 1965 vol 716 cc32-9
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement.

Last Friday, the right hon. Member for Barnet (Mr. Maudling) sought your leave to table a Private Notice Question about the refusal of the North Vietnamese authorities to grant a visa to a Foreign Office official. Had the Question been allowed, I should, of course, have been in my place to answer it. Following a series of points of order in the House there were discussions, as a result of which an undertaking was given that I would volunteer to make a Statement today.

The facts are as follows. When we were informed that my hon. Friend the Member for Leek (Mr. Harold Davies), Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance, would be welcomed in Hanoi we decided that it would be helpful if he were accompanied by a Foreign Office First Secretary, Mr. Donald Murray. Soundings in London confirmed that a visa would be available for him.

In the event, when my hon. Friend and the official concerned were half-way to Vientiane the North Vietnamese Chargé d'Affaires in Vientiane informed Her Majesty's Ambassador there that a visa had been authorised for my hon. Friend only. Representations on this matter were made in Vientiane, but it became clear that no instructions had been given to the Chargé d'Affaires concerned to issue the second visa.

In these circumstances we had to decide whether my hon. Friend should go on to Hanoi alone. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I, though disappointed at the fact that the second visa was not forthcoming, and relying on the fact that Her Majesty's Consul-General in Hanoi was available for consultation and advice, decided that the issues at stake were too great to warrant cancelling my hon. Friend's visit.

I remain convinced, and I hope that the House will agree, that the decision was right.

Mr. Maudling

May I thank the Prime Minister for making that statement and put this point to him? He seems to assume that this mission cannot possibly, in any circumstances, do any harm. Is it not a fact that great harm could be done if it gave rise to misunderstanding by the authorities in Hanoi of the position of Her Majesty's Government? Is there not already considerable evidence, from what Hanoi Radio has said, both about the status of the mission and about the prior views of the Parliamentary Secretary, that precisely this sort of misunderstanding can arise? Is it not likely to be even more possible in circumstances which I believe must be unprecedented—in which a Minister has gone on an official mission where his official adviser has been vetoed?

The Prime Minister

Of course this is unprecedented, because the situation which we face is unprecedented. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that we should take every opportunity to get a dialogue started with Hanoi. I hope that he will agree that as we have no diplomatic, as opposed to consular, representation in Hanoi, this has not been possible, and that this is the first time anyone from the West has been able to go to Hanoi for discussions in this vitally important situation?

I say to the right hon. Gentleman as I said in my statement: we should very much have liked Mr. Murray to accompany him, not least for the reasons which the right hon. Gentleman has in mind. But I tell the right hon. Gentleman that my hon. Friend is perfectly capable of looking after himself in any company. Secondly, to judge from the first reports which I have had of the seven hours of discussion which he had, I think it was on Friday, the Hanoi authorities are in no doubt whatever about the position of Her Majesty's Government. They were, I gather, somewhat repetitive in telling my hon. Friend what it was.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Is the Prime Minister aware that millions of ordinary people in this country who want peace firmly welcome this visit to Hanoi? Is he further aware that many of us feel that to help towards its success we should now dissociate ourselves from the bombing of North Vietnam, and that this becomes even more vital in view of this weekend's news of the alleged flights over China and of the admitted Fascist nature of the South Vietnam leadership?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend, in Hanoi, has gone straight along the line that Her Majesty's Government have taken in all matters affecting the fighting in Vietnam—that every piece of news which comes out, whether substantiated or not, is further evidence of the danger of this war escalating into something still more dangerous if something is not done.

Of course, we should like to have been able to make direct diplomatic contact. But one effort after another has been rebuffed, when various people who one would have hoped could have gone to Hanoi have been refused entry. When we are given advice, as we were by the Leader of the Opposition in a somewhat arid speech this weekend, about diplomatic contacts, I should like to know how he thinks we could have had diplomatic preparation of any settlement with Hanoi when, as he knows quite well, we have no diplomatic connection with Hanoi.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Will the right hon. Gentleman believe that I am serious in this matter? We have supported the right hon. Gentleman consistently in his policy on Vietnam. Will he take it from me that my anxiety is this: the Hanoi Government have stated to his hon. Friend that he is one who has protested against United States' aggressive policy in Vietnam. That is being put out from Hanoi. This is the danger—that the British Government's real policy, pursued by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, will be distorted in the eyes of people outside.

I will tell the right hon. Gentleman now that we shall support him in any peace move which he makes, and that we do not wash out unorthodoxy in this matter, but that there are real dangers in the approach which he has made and in allowing the Foreign Secretary and Foreign Ministers to be rejected, and their officials, and sending his hon. Friend.

The Prime Minister

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman's support will be forthcoming not only inside the House, but in the speeches which he makes outside the House. My hon. Friend has had ample opportunity, while he has been in Hanoi, to make perfectly clear his association with the policy of Her Majesty's Government, to make clear what the policy of Her Majesty's Government is and to make clear, also, the purposes of the Commonwealth Peace Mission which has been proposed and which, for a time at least, had the support of right hon. Gentlemen opposite.

I would simply say this: all of us on this side of the House, and I hope many on the opposite side of the House, have the fullest confidence in my hon. Friend and in his ability to keep his end up. The right hon. Gentleman has been in some pretty strange places himself in the past.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker

Is the Prime Minister aware that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun) said, the vast majority of the country welcome this mission very warmly and have greatly regretted the attitude of the Opposition? Is he aware that the risks of doing nothing are incomparably greater than the risks of taking such an initiative?

Mr. Wilson

Yes, Sir, and I made that clear the other day. Of course, by any action of this kind one invites a rebuff. However, I thought the risks so great that I would rather take a rebuff, and a succession of them if necessary, if we can get peace in the end, than that I should not make the effort. Other attempts to send the sort of people who should be there—whether it be U Thant, Foreign Ministers, or the Commonwealth Peace Mission—have fallen on stony ground. When this opportunity presented itself I think that we were right to take it, but when we are told by Members opposite that this should have been done through the diplomatic channels, when they know that we have no diplomatic representation in Hanoi, I wonder whether they are trying to tell us that we should recognise North Vietnam.

Mr. Blaker

Would the Prime Minister not agree that the real question is this? When the authorities of North Vietnam stopped the Foreign Office official from proceeding beyond Vientiane, how is it that they allowed his fellow traveller to go on to Hanoi?

The Prime Minister

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was really trying to impart any suggestion in his choice of words. If so, I hope that he will have the guts to make plain what he was saying. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] The position is as I said in my original statement; that we would have liked Mr. Murray to have gone on. We were faced with the question, when he was not able to get a visa, whether we should cancel the visit of my hon. Friend. I took the view, with the Foreign Secretary, that it was right for my hon. Friend to go on, in view of the dangers. If hon. Gentlemen opposite say that we should have recalled him when Mr. Murray did not get a visa, why do they not get up and say so?

Mr. Maxwell

Would my right hon. Friend not agree that the only harm from the point of view of distortion which is likely to come from my hon. Friend's visit to Hanoi is likely to come from the words and attitudes of hon. Gentlemen opposite? Would he not Further agree that probably the only thing upsetting hon. Gentlemen opposite—which shows how niggly, mean and small they are—is that this is a person who has been on the Left wing of the Labour Party movement all this time?

The Prime Minister

I think that it would be unfair to right hon. Gentlemen opposite to suggest that they are against any measures which might, whatever the difficulties, lead to peace. I think that the right hon. Gentleman made that clear this afternoon. However, I do feel that, from time to time, there is evidence that they are rather worried about who it is who is taking the initiative.

Mr. Grimond

As the Prime Minister earlier referred to a seven-hour discussion by the hon. Member for Leek (Mr. Harold Davies) in North Vietnam, can he say with whom that was held? Can he say whether the hon. Gentleman has met members of the North Vietnamese Administration?

The Prime Minister

There has been some difficulty in communication with Hanoi—[Laughter.]—for reasons which at least the right hon. Gentleman opposite understands. This has not been an easy mission for my hon. Friend. Indeed, it has been very, very difficult and not without danger. Only this morning the International Control Commission plane which it was intended my hon. Friend should join tomorrow was turned back because of military activity and danger to that plane, so I hope that no one will titter about this question of communication.

The only information I have had so far on whom my hon. Friend has talked to is that he has talked—had a seven-hour meeting the other day—with political leaders there, with what I believe is called the Fatherland Front, which is headed by Ho Chi-Minh; that is, the party and not the Government. The discussions throughout that period were led on their side by the head of the appropriate department of the North Vietnamese Foreign Ministry.

Mr. Grimond

Was that with a member of the Government?

The Prime Minister

The discussions were led by a chief official of the North Vietnamese. In so far as the distinction between Ministers and civil servants has much meaning in a country like that, he was what we would call a senior civil servant, equivalent, presumably to Sir Paul Gore-Booth in our own Foreign Office—a head of a department and not a first secretary. As I say, there have been difficulties in communication.

My hon. Friend has asked to see the Prime Minister, but I have not yet learned whether he will meet him. One of the difficulties my hon. Friend has had has been that it has been his job to make it absolutely plain, as he has done, what is the position of all of us in this matter. I am not certain that his activities have been helped by all the blaze of publicity we got in this country immediately before his arrival.

Mr. Shinwell

Does my hon. Friend not regard it as somewhat extraordinary that when every effort is being made by Her Majesty's Government to bring this tragic affair in Vietnam to a speedy termination Her Majesty's Opposition should be contenting themselves exclusively and solely with making party capital out of it?

The Prime Minister

I would not say that I find it all that extraordinary. In fact, what we are discussing this afternoon—the statement I was asked to make—related, I think, not to the general issue of my hon. Friend's mission, but of the particular question about a Foreign Office official.

As I say, we felt very strongly that it was highly desirable that he should have gone. He is an experienced, even if a junior official, and it would have been useful for a number of purposes that he should be there because, after all, this is the first dialogue of any kind that there has been for many years, certainly since the fighting became dangerous. It would have been valuable to have had a Foreign Office official there. However, this was not possible.

As the House realises, Her Majesty's Consul General, who does a tremendous job in Hanoi in the most difficult circumstances, is not allowed by the Hanoi authorities to handle political issues or messages relating to international questions. His duties are purely consular. So far as the Opposition's views of the Foreign Office official is concerned, I share them. I wish that he could have gone. But if hon. Gentlemen opposite are saying that we should have stopped my hon. Friend, I totally disagree with them.

Mr. Maudling

So far from making party capital about this, as it has been suggested—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I remember very well the terms of the Prime Minister's original Answer to me on this matter last Thursday. So far from making party capital, we have made it quite clear that while we support anything which is likely to produce a settlement in this part of the world, it is not wise to assume that every measure, however well-intentioned it may be, is a sensible and effective one. It is our duty, as Her Majesty's Opposition, to criticise and put to the test anything which the Government do. Is the Prime Minister aware that any party considerations which have been introduced in this matter this afternoon were introduced by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Maxwell)?

The Prime Minister

I agree that in an unprecedented situation of this kind every move taken must be considered on its merits. I readily agree, and I said so on Thursday, that this is an unprecedented move on our part, but one which, I think, was justified. However, certainly every case must be taken on its merits. I welcome the change in attitude of the right hon. Member for Barnet (Mr. Maudling) just now. It is very different from the extremely strong criticisms which were made by his right hon. Leader in the country at the weekend and still more different from the attacks which were made by the hon. Gentleman who makes a lot of speeches outside but never in here, the Chairman of the Conservative Party, on this question.

Several Hon. Members


The Speaker

Order. We cannot debate this matter in terms of questions on a statement. We cannot go on without there being a Question before the House.