HC Deb 03 July 1968 vol 767 cc1499-503
Sir K. Joseph (by Private Notice)

asked the President of the Board of Trade whether he will make a statement on the loss of an export order to Greece.

The President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Anthony Crosland)

I have had no confirmation of the loss of any export order to Greece. It would be in the interests of neither country to allow political differences or misunderstandings to affect our trade. Indeed, I have just heard that the Director-General of the Press Ministry in Greece has today denied that the Greek Government had decided to cancel Government contracts with the British firms as a result of recent remarks made about the Athens régime.

Sir K. Joseph

Is it not a fact that the representatives of one firm have been informed that an order that was due to be signed this week has been cancelled as a result of the comment by the Prime Minister in the House last week? Will the Government do all they can to rescue this and any other order?

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that condemnation by the Prime Minister of this or any other Government in the context in which it was used last week is most unlikely to do any good to anyone and is most likely to endanger British jobs and trade?

Mr. Crosland

On the facts of the case, what appears to have happened was that an official in the Greek Ministry of Co-ordination spoke on the telephone to the Greek agent of the firm concerned, and informed him that this might happen—that is the action to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred. There has been no confirmation of this at all, either to the British Embassy in Athens, to whom I have just spoken, or to the firm concerned in this country, to whom I have also just spoken.

I have now heard that the Director-General of the Press Ministry in Greece has denied that any cancellation of contracts is in progress.

As to the latter part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, it is quite wrong to suppose that people in this country who feel strongly about political régimes, whether in Greece or in Communist countries, will not say so, or to suppose that they should not say so. What is important is that all countries who have political differences with each other should strive hard not to let those differences affect mutual trade.

Mr. S. C. Silkin

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will not be deterred by any threat of economic sanctions from saying what is right about the actions of dictators and dictatorships, whether of the Left or Right? Furthermore, will he confirm that, if threats of economic sanctions of that kind are made, the Government will not hesitate to use economic sanctions in return?

Mr. Crosland

The Government will continue to make known their political views on régimes, whether in Greece, Communist China, Cuba, or South Africa—

Dame Irene Ward

Or Russia?

Mr. Crosland

They will make them known perfectly freely. But we still take the view, as do other countries concerned, that, although we have acute political differences with each other, nevertheless, it is not in the interest of either country to restrict mutual trade.

Sir F. Bennett

In view of the Minister's apparent impartiality on this question, can he remind the House when the Prime Minister last described one of these Left-wing dictatorships, such as those in China, Cuba, or Russia, as "bestial"? Would he care to give to the House some form of criteria on which we can judge whether we should or should not do our best to sabotage Britain's export drive?

Mr. Crosland

I understand that when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, on a previous occasion, in December of last year, referred to the régime in Greece he referred to"the barbarous methods in use in Greece today." My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has told me that in answering a supplementary question on Tuesday of last week he had intended to repeat his earlier phrase. If it is of any satisfaction to the hon. Member I am perfectly happy, and so would any member of the Government be, to use the same word, "barbarous", to apply to what is happening now in a number of Communist countries throughout the world.

Mr. John Fraser

Would my right hon. Friend confirm that it never has been, and never will be, the policy of the Government to trim and mince their words to appease dictators who are in breach of fundamental human rights? Would he also agree that the concern of the Opposition for commercial considerations, above human rights, makes them worthy competitors of Judas Iscariot?

Mr. Crosland

I can confirm what my hon. Friend said in the first part of his supplementary. As to the second and more theological part of his supplementary, I would only say that one would deduce from the Opposition's attitude today—but I imagine incorrectly, as the Leader of the Opposition, from his own experience at the Board of Trade would confirm—that because they as a party, just as we as a party, hold strong views about the internal régime of Communist countries, they would not take steps to increase trade with those countries. If that is their view, it is not one which we share.

Mr. Tapsell

Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that the House is very ready to accept the Prime Minister's apology for his incompetence?

Mr. Whitaker

Would it not be a black day for the House of Commons if commercial blackmail were suggested by any hon. Member as a reason for anyone in the House not denouncing injustice in any country, especially in the country concerned, where it has been attested by the Council of Europe?

Mr. Crosland

It should remain, I would have thought, the view of both parties, certainly of this party, that we ought to continue to make our views absolutely clear about the nature of régimes with whom we disagree, but that, nevertheless, we should continue trading with them.

Sir G. Nabarro

Earlier, the right hon. Gentleman referred to "a firm". Is he aware, for example, that among Press reports this morning the Daily Express, in its righthand column on the front page, referred to both Rolls-Royce and Metro-Cammell? Has the right hon Gentleman consulted both firms individually and obtained their assurance, individually, that no order which they have had on their books has been cancelled as a result of the Prime Minister's speech?

Mr. Crosland

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be aware that Rolls-Royce and Metro-Cammell are jointly concerned with this contract. We have checked with the joint organisation of the two firms concerned.

Mr. Hooley

Does the Minister agree that it would be most unwise for the Greek régime to compound the folly of political behaviour by this kind of commercial folly, should it pursue the line suggested?

Mr. Crosland

It would be most unwise of the Greek régime, but, as I said in my Answer, there is no evidence that it has any such intention. Were it to carry out such an intention, it would be unwise, because it would undoubtedly start other countries pursuing their trade relations in accordance with their political views. That would be a very foolish thing for any Government to do.

Sir K. Joseph

Would the right hon. Gentleman accept that on this side of the House we think that he has made a very good job in making the best of the ill-judged remark by the Prime Minister? Will he also accept that we entirely agree with freedom of trade and freedom of expression, but still think that it was very ill-judged of the Prime Minister, unnecessarily and ineffectively, to make that sort of comment?

Mr. Crosland

As the right hon. Gentleman is in favour of freedom of expression, I hope that he is in favour of this in Greece, as well as in Britain. Subject to that, I make it clear again that what Her Majesty's Government want, despite our political differences, is an increase in our mutual trade with many countries of the world with whom we have profound differences.

Mr. Heffer

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Council of Europe sent a delegation to Greece and that the evidence that it came back with made it clear that there are bestial practices in Greece? Is he also aware that the Conservatives, at the meeting of the Council of Europe, did everything possible, by their manoeuvring, to keep this matter quiet? It is amazing how the Opposition always defend Fascist and reactionary organisations and régimes.

Mr. Crosland

I am aware that this matter is currently being considered by the European Commission of Human Rights. There are Questions down to the Foreign Secretary on Monday of next week on the wider political considerations. I cannot comment on how Conservatives behaved at Strasbourg, because I regret to say that I was not there.

I must make it clear to my hon. Friend that, whatever view he and I may take of this régime, it would be wrong for either Government to regard that view as a reason for inhibiting proper trade between us.

Sir C. Osborne

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that both sides of the House agree that political differences should not be allowed to impede trade? Would he not also agree, however, that it was rather unfortunate for the Prime Minister to use such extravagant terms? —[HON. MEMBERS: "They were not extravagant."] Would the right hon. Gentleman like to tell the House the definition in the dictionary of the word which was used? Is it not a most offensive word? If we insult everybody with whom we do not agree, will not our trade go down to nothing?

Mr. Crosland

As I know very well, the hon. Gentleman is not behindhand in occasionally using quite strong language about people or bodies he happens to dislike. He is rightly, very closely concerned with the development of Anglo-Soviet trade, despite the political views which he no doubt holds about that country. I have already answered a question about the precise language used by the Prime Minister.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker