HC Deb 23 June 1966 vol 730 cc918-22

Mr. Michael Foot (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Defence why he has acceded to the recent request of the United States Government for the supply of British bombs and other weapons without imposing restrictions about their use in Vietnam.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Denis Healey)

I have not acceded to any such request.

Mr. Foot Does my right hon. Friend's reply mean that he repudiates entirely the reports which have appeared in many newspapers this morning, ranging from the Daily Express to The Guardian, even though some of those newspapers indicate that they have checked the matter with the Ministry of Defence? Many of us greatly welcome the fact that he has made no such agreement. Would he make clear that there is no proposal in forthcoming days to agree to these propositions?

Mr. Healey

I am prepared to give an assurance to my hon. Friend and to the House on both matters. The reports in the Press are totally inaccurate, and Her Majesty's Government have no intention of acceding to any such request.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

Will my right hon. Friend investigate how, why and in what way the Press got these reports? Is it right that things of this sort should be spread round the world if they are totally inaccurate? Will he see whether any fault lies with the newspapers?

Mr. Healey

I am not responsible for what appears in the newspapers, and neither is any member of Her Majesty's Government. I should like to remind the House that Her Majesty's Government's policy remains as defined by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in the House on 17th May this year, namely, that we do not propose to supply arms directly or indirectly for the fighting in Vietnam. Her Majesty's Government believe that this would be quite inconsistent with our position as co-Chairman of the Geneva Conference.

Captain W. Elliot

Would not the right hon. Gentleman agree that the super-salesman of arms appointed by the Government will, if possible, sell arms to the United States? Would he say whether, if he is successful in doing that, the Government will impose restrictions on the United States in the use of those arms?

Mr. Healey

I have made it clear to the House that one of the purposes of the Government in appointing a head of defence sales was to ensure that sales of armaments from this country were subject to some political restraints. I think that this is a safeguard required by both sides.

On the question of restrictions, certainly, Her Majesty's Government would take care in considering any specific request to ensure that acceding to it would not violate the policy laid down by my right hon. Friend.

Sir G. Nabarro

Is it not a fact that there is an ANZAC brigade, equipped with British weapons and British bombs, fighting in Vietnam with the Americans? Could not the origin of the alleged weapons and bombs referred to by the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) be British, and could they not have found their way into Vietnam via Australia and be used by the ANZAC brigade and by the Americans?

Mr. Healey

That has nothing to do with the question.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Is the Minister aware that a few minutes ago I telephoned a world-famous journalist—[HON, MEMBERS: "Name."] Certainly, I will name him: Chapman Pincher—who told me that he had had this confirmed at the Ministry of Defence. Secondly, is it not monstrous that this dangerous move should be made to pay for the purchase of the Fills? Should not both these dangerous moves be reconsidered in view of the possible consequences?

Mr. Healey

I am unaware whether my hon. Friend telephoned Mr. Pincher, as I am unaware of many of his activities. I have taken care to find out what guidance was given to the Press by my officials yesterday, and I assure the House that no indication was given by any of my officials—nor could any indication have been given, because it is not the case—that Her Majesty's Government have acceded to any request of the type referred to.

Mr. Maudling

Is it not, therefore, the fact, as the Minister seems to be implying that no arms can be sold and sent from this country to the United States unless there is a clear guarantee that in no circumstances will they be used in any way in connection with the war in Vietnam?

Mr. Healey

I have already told the House that we shall take care to satisfy ourselves that, in supplying arms to foreign countries, we shall not violate the policies laid down by the Government.

Mr. Grimond

Could the Minister be more explicit? We are told that arrangements have been made by which very large dollar purchases of arms are made in this country to offset dollar sales. Are we to understand that no transactions will take place unless there is an effective guarantee from America that the arms so purchased will not be used in Vietnam?

Mr. Healey

The right hon. Gentleman is one of the Members who have pointed out that so far we have not sold many arms under the agreement. He will be aware, and the House is well aware, that it is an agreement covering the next 12 years. I have made it clear that in deciding whether or not to accede to any requests for armaments we shall take care to ensure that our agreement does not violate the policy which has been laid down.

Mr. Shinwell

Will my right hon. Friend remind the House about the nature of the Private Notice Question, which was to ask whether we were proposing to send bombs and weapons to the United States of America? Did he not give an assurance that there was no truth in that statement? Does he consider that the other questions are relevant?

Mr. Healey

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) is based on a misunderstanding of the facts. The Government have not acceded to any request of the nature referred to.

Mr. Heath

Will the Minister stop talking in generalities and answer the specific question which has been put to him by a number of my hon. Friends and the Leader of the Liberal Party? In terms of specific policy, is he saying that no arms can be sold to the United States unless the Administration of that country gives an undertaking that they will not be used in Vietnam? Is that the position—yes or no?

Mr. Healey

That is not the position. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I made that clear in answer to a Question on 11th May, when I said that we will not seek to impose restrictions on the use of arms which we sell to an ally but that we will take care to ensure that we do not sell arms the use of which is likely to violate the principles to which I have referred.

Mr. Sydney Silverman

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that these newspaper statements followed by the questions in the House this afternoon, will be studied carefully all over the world? Does he not agree that he could clarify the situation very much if he would say what requests have been made to the British Government in this context at any time, and what reply was made to them?

Mr. Healey

With respect, it is well known that the Government are not in a position to reveal details of negotiations with other Governments on questions of armaments. What I can tell the House is that a request for certain airborne weapons was received from the United States a year ago, and we were unable to accept it. A further request was received some weeks ago. We are considering it, but we are satisfied that we shall be unable to accept that, either.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

Surely the right hon. Gentleman will agree that his policy of paying for aircraft with sales of British arms is now in total ruin. Further, will he make clear what is the position about the replacement of stocks in the United States which will be used in Vietnam? Will he see that those stocks are not replaced? Can he give his Left-wing hon. Friends and assurance to that effect?

Mr. Healey

I have made it clear that we shall consider each specific request on its merits in the light of our policy as we have defined it.

Mr. Heath

Will the Minister amplify this point? Has he refused this request from the United States because he is unable to meet it for reasons of production, or because the weapons will be used in Vietnam?

Mr. Healey

We shall be unable to meet it for reasons of production. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."] I hope that the House will give me a chance to answer the question put by the right hon. Gentleman. But, in any case, after looking into the matter—and, as I say, we have to look specifically into the likely implications of acceding to any request of this nature—we are satisfied that it would not have been proper to meet the request, for the reasons that I have mentioned.

Several Hon. Members rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. Mr. Heath, Business Question.

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