HC Deb 06 March 1968 vol 760 cc438-48
The Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. George Thomson)

Mr. Speaker, with your permission and that of the House, I wish to make a statement.

The House will already have learned with deep regret of the execution in Salisbury this morning of the three men whose fate has been so much in all our minds in the last few days. I think that for most of us regret has been accompanied by a sense of shock and outrage at the execution of men, however abhorrent the crimes for which they were sentenced, who had been so long under sentence of death and who had been denied time for their cases to be determined by the court of final appeal. And I would remind the House that, at the time of the executions, proceedings in the Privy Council to challenge their legality had already been begun. I need not dwell on the fact that the executions took place in defiance of the exercise of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy.

Let me add that nothing can remove or reduce the grave personal responsibility that rests on all those involved in these executions. The legal implications of what has been done are receiving urgent consideration by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General.

In answer to questions in the last two days, I have urged on the House that we should keep separate the legal and humanitarian considerations on the one hand and the political issues on the other, and I have been grateful for the way in which the House has responded to that urging. But we now have to face the situation which has been created by the régime's decision to execute the three men. That decision defied both common humanity and the Royal Prerogative. It is evident from the reports that we have all seen of protracted meetings yesterday in Salisbury of Mr. Smith and his colleagues that their decision was a deliberate and considered one.

The régime themselves have thus made it impossible to keep the different issues separate, as I have been trying to do. In particular, there is the matter of the ideas brought back recently from Salisbury by the right hon. Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Sir Alec Douglas-Home). When the news of the impending executions reached us, I was carefully considering those ideas together with my colleagues. But the régimehave created a new and grave situation. The House will understand that I would wish to discuss with my colleagues in the Cabinet before giving a considered view of the consequences which flow from today's tragic events in Salisbury.

Finally, I wish to turn to a quite separate point, which I think I ought to mention to the House. It does not arise from the executions but from certain views recently expressed by the Chief Justice of Rhodesia on the constitutional issues. There is an instrument, known as a dormant commission, which empowers the Chief Justice to discharge the duties of the Governor in the event of the latter's disability. It is clearly inappropriate, in the light of the views which Sir Hugh Beadle has expressed, that he should be the person designated to discharge the Governor's duties in that event, and we are therefore taking steps to enable the dormant commission to be revoked.

Mr. Maudling

This is clearly a very grave situation, and I am sure that no one would wish to say anything today which might make things even more difficult. However, may I ask this of the Secretary of State? He has said that he will be having discussions with his colleagues in the Cabinet before giving a considered view. However, will he undertake to give an early considered view to this House, upon which we can then discuss the situation which has now arisen?

Mr. Thomson

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the restraint of his question, and, of course, I undertake to make a further statement to the House as soon as the Cabinet has had an opportunity to consider the situation.

Mr. Faulds

Since these judicial murders have now taken place, can my right hon. Friend confirm that the judges and officers of the so-called Government of Southern Rhodesia, the warders and the hangman will be held personally responsible and, in due course, after due process of law, will he ensure that proper retribution is exacted, not excluding the death penalty?

Mr. Thomson

As I indicated in my main statement, all these questions are matters for my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, and, again as I indicated, he is giving urgent consideration to them.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he spoke for the whole House when he referred to the sense of shock which has been felt? May I ask him two questions? First, when these matters are considered by the Cabinet, will consideration be given to whether or not clarification might be sought from the Privy Council on the legal issues outstanding? Secondly, will consideration be given to what powers exist under the 1961 Constitution for the removal of judges?

Mr. Thomson

The first matter raised by the right hon. Gentleman is already under consideration by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General. I agree with him that important questions arise over the situation in which judges have left the judiciary in Rhodesia recently. Those matters are also receiving consideration.

Sir Dingle Foot

Apart from the grave legal issues involved, would my right hon. Friend not agree that, as has been often maintained from these benches, there can be no valid or honourable settlement with this gang of criminals in Salisbury? May we have an early opportunity of debating these issues and of debating the conduct of Sir Hugh Beadle and his colleagues on the Bench in Rhodesia, who have earned the contempt of the legal profession throughout the world?

Mr. Thomson

Before there is a debate in the House, I think that the House would wish to await the more considered statement that I have promised to it.

Mr. Wall

Does the Minister realise that when a Government in Africa is directly and publicly challenged—

Mr. Faulds

They are not a Government.

Mr. Wall

—it has no alternative but to answer that challenge—

Mr. Faulds

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I should have thought that even people like the hon. Member for wherever it is would know that they are not a Government.

Mr. Speaker

That is not a point of order. The hon. Member for Smethwick (Mr. Faulds) must control himself a little.

Mr. Elystan Morgan

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

It was not a point of order. But the hon. Gentleman can submit another, if he wishes.

Mr. Morgan

Is it not a fact, under Rule 167 of the Manual of Procedure of this House, that to speak seditious words constitutes a breach of the order of the House? I submit that to clothe the illegal régime in Rhodesia with any trace of legality amounts to sedition.

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is even less a pout of order than the earlier one. Mr. Wall.

Mr. Wall

Does the Minister not appreciate that when a de facto Government in Africa is publicly and openly challenged, it has no alternative but to react to that challenge or lose its authority? Have we not now a position where the Prime Minister has got what he wants in the shape of the final break with Rhodesia for which he has been working since Christmas?

Mr. Raymond Fletcher

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. When an hon. Gentleman wishes to raise a point of order, he need not point a finger at Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Fletcher

Mr. Speaker, I was temporarily overcome, and I apologise. Is it necessary for this House to listen to representations made by an hon. Member who is no more than a public relations officer for the Smith régime?

Mr. Faulds

It is disgraceful. As a Member of this House, the hon. Gentleman ought to be ashamed of himself.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must ask—[Interruption.]

Mr. Faulds

He is Smith's apologist and he needs some apologising for.

Mr. Speaker

Order. If the hon. Member for Smethwick (Mr. Faulds) cannot contain himself I shall have to ask him to leave the Chamber. This is a matter on which there are violently different opinions in the House and both sides must hear opinions with which they disagree.

Mr. Thomson

I think this is the last day that the hon. Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) should choose to act as an apologist for the Smith régimeand to espouse the dubious doctrines that we hear from Salisbury.

Mr. Shinwell

Although it would be desirable to exercise some prudence and caution in the matter, in view of further statements which my right hon. Friend proposes to make at a later stage, will he be good enough, on behalf of the Government and every Member on this side and, I hope, every Member on the other side, to repudiate the article which appears in the Evening Standard today with the allegation that what has happened today in Rhodesia, the hanging of these men, is due to the action of Her Majesty's Government? Will he repudiate that allegation, which is the result of what I would describe as stinking British journalism?

Mr. Thomson

I certainly repudiate, with all the authority that I can command, these kinds of allegations. I sought to do the constitutional duty that was laid upon me.

Mr. Grimond

First, whatever one may think of the status of the Smith régime, would the Minister agree that the execution of three men, after being kept in prison for three years after sentence of death, is an act of inhumanity almost inconceivable by anyone?

Secondly, would he make it clear that, so far from presenting a challenge to the so-called Government in Salisbury, it was only after it became perfectly clear that they were about to commit this murder that the Prerogative of Mercy was invoked and issued?

Mr. Thomson

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I endorse every word of it.

Mrs. Anne Kerr

Does my right hon. Friend not feel that it is rather strange that, in a week when Parliament is being asked to vote £2,300 million for military weapons, we are incapable of putting down a revolt in a Colony the white population of which is the size of Croydon?

Mr. Thomson

I think I am right in saying that, whatever the House voted this week, my hon. Friend did not feel able to join with the House in voting it. More seriously, I think that the House of Commons has always had its conscience stirred by cases of this kind, but, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) said, capital cases which have stirred this House in the past have never been of the character of the ones before us today. It will be a poor day when both sides of the House of Commons do not express the feelings of passion which have been expressed.

Mr. Tapsell

Does the Secretary of State recall that it was Winston Churchill who said: "Grass grows quickly over the battlefield; over the scaffold, never."?

Mr. Whitaker

In view of the condemnation which this act has received on both sides, both for its inhumanity and its unconstitutionality, will my right hon. Friend propose new and sterner measures as the régimehas now slammed the door on any possibility of negotiation? Further, will he take the necessary action to remove Sir Hugh Beadle and those judges responsible for denying these men their right of appeal to the Privy Council?

Mr. Thomson

I have already told the House that the position of the judges in Rhodesia is under consideration by the Government. Concerning the first part of my hon. Friend's question, clearly the kind of measures which the Government ought to take are exactly the matters which will have to be considered by the Cabinet.

Sir J. Eden

Will the right hon. Gentleman give an explanation for the particular timing which has brought this matter to an end just at a moment when it appeared to most of us that there was the prospect of a political settlement?

An Hon. Member

What an innocent!

Mr. Thomson

The hon. Gentleman ought to direct that question to Salisbury, not to London. The timing of this particular matter was chosen by the people in Salisbury and, in particular, by the decision that was handed down by the judges in Salisbury. The timing was not of the choosing of anybody in this House.

Mr. Rose

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the hon. Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) and some of his associates must take their share of the responsibility for this outrage? Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that should any of those responsible set foot on British soil or in any country with which we have an extradition treaty the appropriate action will be taken? Will he also say what steps he intends to take to protect those many citizens who are at present under sentence of death in Rhodesia and whose lives are now threatened?

Mr. Thomson

My hon. Friend will perhaps recollect that in my main statement I said that the question of the grave responsibility that rests on individuals in connection with these executions is being put under consideration by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, whose responsibility these matters are.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Will the right hon. Gentleman now explain to the House what he did not explain before, namely, why the Governor played no part in these proceedings? Has he resigned? Or is it possible that that very honourable public servant feared political and judicial considerations in this tragic matter might not be kept entirely separate?

Mr. Thomson

As the hon. Member raises this question, I will seek to answer it, though I would prefer to keep as confidential as possible my own exchanges with the Governor, partly to protect him and partly because I do not want to seek to shelter behind him. The decisions that I have taken have been those that it fell to me to take, and I assure the House that they have been my own. As the hon. Gentleman raises the question, I should tell the House that I have been in constant touch with the Governor, both before and since the Petitions were presented to the Queen, and on these matters the Governor's views and mine have been in close alignment.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, under Section 2(1) of the Southern Rhodesia Act, 1965, Her Majesty in Council may take such necessary and expedient action to deal with any unconstitutional action that has taken place in Rhodesia as she deems fit? Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that he will tender the appropriate advice to remove judges who have given the cloak of spurious legality to acts of treason and murder?

Mr. Thomson

I give my hon. Friend the assurance that these matters and the strong feelings which have been expressed in the House will be taken fully into account in the considerations I have mentioned.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Does the Commonwealth Secretary realise that, whatever differences of opinion there may be on Rhodesia, the one point on which the whole House is united is in condemning the flouting of the exercise of the Queen's Prerogative?

Mr. Thomson

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that comment. I was also grateful, though I did not rise to say so, for the extremely apt and moving quotation by his hon. Friend the Member for Horncastle (Mr. Tapsell) a few minutes ago.

Mr. Winnick

I am sure my right hon. Friend will agree that the horror of the crime committed in Salisbury today will be felt for weeks and months or even years ahead. Does he agree that the Leaders of the illegal régimeby their action today have finally closed the door on humanity and international public opinion and have virtually placed themselves outside civilised behaviour?

Mr. Thomson

I think that my hon. Friend has expressed the deep feelings on both sides of the House.

Mr. Evelyn King

While deploring the action of the Smith Government as unwise and inhuman, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he recalls the wise words that he used yesterday, that our difficulty is that we have responsibility but no power? Is not that still so, and would not we be wise to remember it?

Mr. Thomson

The trouble about this proposition is that the hon. Gentleman draws exactly the opposite inference from it than is drawn on this side of the House, and indeed by some hon. Members on his side of the House. He believes that because we do not have power to do exactly what we want to do, we should absolve ourselves of all moral responsibility. I think that his is very much a minority view.

Mr. Ogden

Does my right hon. Friend agree that had the Smith régimewished to avoid a direct political challenge to this country it could have done so by acceding to the appeal for clemency made on behalf of the executed men to Mr. Dupont?

Mr. Thomson

I hope that my hon. Friend's words will be taken note of in Salisbury.

Miss Quennell

Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that it will be unfortunate if hon. Members have to wait until next week before hearing the further statement to which he referred earlier? Is it possible to assure the House that the statement will be made before the weekend?

Mr. Thomson

I would not like to give the House that assurance. This is a very grave and serious situation. I think that the wise course is to consider it more carefully before giving the House the Government's views.

Mr. Goodhew

As the right hon. Gentleman has told the House twice this week that the Constitution of Rhodesia delegates the Royal Prerogative of Mercy to the Governor to be exercised on the Queen's behalf, and since Her Majesty's Government maintain that legal authority for government resides with the Governor, and the Governor himself agrees with the Government's action, why was this matter taken to Her Majesty at all?

Mr. Thomson

The matter went to Her Majesty because the solicitors in London acting for the men presented a Petition to Her Majesty. In these circumstances, I was duty bound to tender advice to Her Majesty.

Mr. Henig

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the events of today demonstrate quite clearly that if the British Government are to keep their respect they can have no further dealings whatsoever with any of the members of the so-called Government in Rhodesia? Will he undertake to break off all diplomatic relations, in every sense of the word, and not to send or receive messages, either through any hon. Member of this House, or any other place, to or from these gangsters who are now ruling in Salisbury?

Mr. Thomson

I think my hon. Friend will understand when I say that I do not want to go beyond the words that I used in my main statement. I remind him that we have no diplomatic relations of any kind with the régime in Salisbury.

Mr. John Page

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that in exercising Her Prerogative Her Majesty was acting entirely on the advice of the Government?

Mr. Thomson

I think that in an interrogative way the hon. Gentleman is giving a description of the normal constitutional arrangements in this country.

Viscount Lambton

Can the right hon. Gentleman say when the solicitors representing these men brought this case to Her Majesty's attention?

Mr. Thomson

On Saturday morning.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I think the House will feel that in the last few days the Commonwealth Secretary has dealt with a most extraordinarily difficult situation in a way which, on the whole, the whole House has supported. Is it not as well to remember though that what we are trying to do in the long run—and this is why both sides of the House have sought a political settlement with the Rhodesian Governemnt—is to protect all the Africans in Rhodesia and all the Europeans in Rhodesia in future from victimisation on a racial basis? Although we are very emotional at the moment, is not this worth bearing in mind when we are seeking a long-term settlement?

Mr. Thomson

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his generous opening remarks. In his further remarks, he is referring to the principles which were originally laid down by himself while he was Prime Minister, and which we have carried on. They are at the heart of the responsibility which this country has for the people of all races in Rhodesia, a responsibility which the hon. Gentleman who questioned me earlier seemed anxious to dissolve and dismiss. It is precisely because of the need to study the seriousness of this situation that I sought the leave of the House to take some time to give further consideration to it.

I ought to make a small correction to the answer that I gave a moment ago to the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Viscount Lambton). The Petitions were delivered to the Queen during the afternoon of Saturday, not Saturday morning as I said.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that we shall be discussing this again at some time.