HC Deb 04 February 1969 vol 777 cc211-8

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:


To ask the Prime Minister whether he will make a statement on the changes he has made in Ministerial responsibility for Rhodesia.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With permission, I will now answer Question No. Q9.

I announced on 16th October that, following the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Commonwealth Secretary had been appointed Minister without Portfolio and that he would, for the time being, be available to take such Ministerial action as might arise from the talks in H.M.S. "Fearless". He so acted in the follow-up discussions in Salisbury.

Now that the immediate follow-up to the "Fearless" negotiations has been completed, I have decided that it is undesirable to continue separate Ministerial responsibility for what is an integral part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and, accordingly, my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary will now have undivided responsibility for all the work of the combined offices, and he and other Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers will answer Questions in this House accordingly.

My right hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio, will in future, like his predecessors in that and similar posts, carry out a wide range of duties as a non-departmental Minister, including chairmanship of Cabinet Committees, as may be assigned to him from time to time. His great experience and knowledge of the Rhodesian problem will be available in the advice he will be free to give at all times and will be invited to give at all times to my right hon. Friend and to his Cabinet colleagues.

Mr. Fraser

Does this rearrangement mean that, in the Prime Minister's judgment, the "Fearless" terms are now not likely to be operative? In view of the extra time at the command of the Minister without Portfolio, will he be able to organise a diplomatic assault on Portugal, which is the one nation providing a block against the operation of sanctions against Rhodesia?

The Prime Minister

All diplomatic endeavour will now be in the hands of my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary.

Concerning my right hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio, the decision does not involve any judgment on my part in relation to the "Fearless" terms. The position is exactly as stated to the House before Christmas and, indeed, in the report to the House on the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference. They are on the table, and we are prepared to have further discussions within the ambit of the "Fearless" proposals.

But I think it would be for the convenient working of the Department, with which my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary agrees, and, indeed, of the House, that we should now end that temporary arrangement that was made. Should there be discussions at any future time, if it was thought fit, my right hon. Friend, in view of his past experience in these matters, would be free to be involved in them, but there is no immediate sign of such discussions.

Mr. Heath

While accepting that Rhodesian policy must be part of an integrated foreign and Commonwealth policy, is it really satisfactory that the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, with all the burdens which we know are upon him at such a time, should have to devote his attention to trying to find a solution to the Rhodesian problem?

If the Minister without Portfolio is to be available for talks at any future date, is it not more sensible for him to keep in day-to-day touch with the situation and to use his experience and abilities creatively to try to find a solution?

The Prime Minister

It is possible that the right hon. Gentleman underrates the extent (o which my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary has been fully involved in the Rhodesian problem before "Fearless", during the "Fearless" period and, indeed, after "Fearless". There is, and need be, no change so far as that is concerned.

I do not think that it now devolves on either of my right hon. Friends, to use the right hon. Gentleman's phrase, to try to find a solution to the Rhodesian problem. It is widely recognised that the "Fearless" terms do represent a solution available to the Rhodesians. The next move must come from them.

Mr. Paget

Is my right hon. Friend aware that those of us interested in the Rhodesian problem welcome what he has said about the Minister without Portfolio being available for negotiations when they start again, because that Minister has done a great deal to overcome the barriers of personal distrust which were one of the main troubles in the earlier negotiations?

The Prime Minister

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for what he has said. I am not indicating that if there were Ministerial talks—and there is no sign at the moment—it would be my right hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio. But, as I have said, he would be available if my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary felt that that was the right way in which such discussions, which are extremely hypothetical at the moment, should be conducted. He might prefer, say, one of his colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Mr. Heath

May I press the Prime Minister on the impression that he has given that the Government's only responsibility is to sit still and wait for initiative from the other side? The right hon. Gentleman has stated that there are certain spheres in which the Government are prepared to consider and to work out other solutions, particularly concerning the second check on the blocking quarter and on the composition of the institutions there with the blocking quarter? Will he, therefore, accept that it is the Government's responsibility to work for solutions in the spheres in which he agrees that alternatives can be considered?

The Prime Minister

I am not quite sure what the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting. I think that he would agree that no one could have done more than we have during the "Fearless" period, and since, to see whether there was a basis for agreement. Having failed to get that basis, we have left it on the table so that it can be picked up again. But, as the right hon. Gentleman will recall, I told the House that we offered a number of alternatives to the Privy Council form of external check in the discussions on board "Fearless".

Subsequently, the Minister without Portfolio offered another alternative form, which was not an external check but an internal check. This was dismissed at the time, as my right hon. Friend reported to the House. I feel, after some years' experience of this, not least the high hopes raised by the "Fearless" talks, that we would make more progress if, just once in a while, we received alternative proposals from the other side instead, all the time, of having to go back and say, "All right, you do not like this formulation", and regarding it as our duty to alter the formulation. If we could be told what formulation would be acceptable, we would look at it.

Mr. Winnick

Though many of us are opposed to the "Fearless" offer, may I ask the Prime Minister whether he still stands for what he said to the House a few weeks ago, namely, that there will be absolutely no further concessions on the "Fearless" offer? Also, could he clear up precisely the matter of the messages which have been coming from Salisbury? Have they been some kind of offer to the various suggestions which have come from Whitehall?

The Prime Minister

I stand by what my right hon. Friends and I have said on the matter and what was said to the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference. We have always been willing to examine alternative ways of dealing with outstanding problems. Not only the external check or the extra-Parliamentary check, or whatever kind of check it is called, was causing difficulty in the talks in Salisbury, but the Minister without Portfolio reported to the House a whole series of other vitally important problems on which agreement was not reached.

We are always ready to look at those to find alternative means. We cannot accept a settlement which is less effective in providing the guarantees of the six principles than the "Fearless" proposals. It may vary in certain ways, but it cannot be less effective, nor would the House want us to put forward less effective proposals.

It is best that the recent messages are left as confidential, but it is the case that we have had no alternative plan. I think that some newspapers in Salisbury have suggested that an alternative plan has been sent, but no such plan has been received by us.

Mr. Hastings

In view of reports that Mr. Smith is unaware, or does not accept, that any suggestions for an alternative to the Privy Council proposals have come from Her Majesty's Government, may I ask the Prime Minister to explain precisely what these are?

The Prime Minister

I am not aware of Mr. Smith being ignorant about these questions. I am not responsible for Press reports on these matters, because I reported to the House during the debate on Rhodesia, following the "Fearless" talks, a number of alternatives to the Privy Council proposals which I put forward. If the hon. Gentleman turns his mind back, he will remember what these were at the time.

Following that, when my right hon. Friend visited Salisbury in November, as he later reported to the House, he put forward yet an additional alternative, a purely Rhodesian alternative, based on a referendum of separate races. These are all alternatives. There have been a number of them. What we have not had is any willingness to consider any of them.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Prime Minister aware that those who have a very high regard for the qualities of his right hon. Friend are relieved that he is no longer to be retained as a messenger boy between the Prime Minister and Mr. Smith? Is he further aware that many of us feel that there is no need for a full-time Minister to open the post from Salisbury to see whether Mr. Smith wishes to persist in his rebellion, or to accept terms which, in the view of many of us, are far too generous as it is?

The Prime Minister

I thought that some of the terminology of the right hon. Gentleman's question fell a little below his usual standard, and was less than fair to my right hon. Friend, who has never been a messenger boy, but a fully responsible member of the Cabinet who was involved in the "Fearless" and the Salisbury talks, in addition to carrying a very much wider responsibility in other spheres. Nor does my right hon. Friend open the post.

In answer to the question by my hon. Friend, I can say that so far there has been no post to open.

Mr. Wyatt

Is not the Prime Minister treating the Minister without Portfolio rather badly? As he is one of the most able of the Government's Ministers, would not it be better to give him something to do, instead of standing around without a portfolio?

The Prime Minister

I know that there is sometimes disappointment among those who stand around without portfolios. I am able to assure my hon. Friend that that disappointment is not shared by my right hon. Friend, who has a very full-time job to do following the tradition of these non-departmental posts in connection with the duties which have been assigned to him.

Mr. Sandys

Am I right in thinking that the Prime Minister's earlier reply indicated that he had recently received a communication from Mr. Smith? Can the right hon. Gentleman say something about that?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman is right in recognising that there have been Press stories from Salisbury that we have received a communication from Salisbury. I said that I did not think that it would be helpful—indeed it would be to the contrary—to the general basis on which the "Fearless" talks were conducted if I were to indicate what it said, though I read a pretty full account, under a Salisbury dateline, in one of the newspapers this morning.

Nevertheless, the position is as I have said. There has been no plan whatsoever, no alternative proposal sent to us from Salisbury. In view of the fact that there were public statements in Salisbury not long ago that such a plan had been devised, and it was even suggested that it had been sent, the House ought to know that we have not received such a plan or such proposals.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I should like to follow up the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. There are at least two alternative plans to the use of the Privy Council. One is the possibility of a treaty, another is the plan lately put forward by Sir Albert Robinson, the former High Commissioner in London. May we have an assurance that these two possible alternatives are being studied by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs?

The Prime Minister

The idea of the treaty was stated as long ago as 1965, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, just before U.D.I. We had discussions about it. It was turned down by the then Rhodesian Government, and, in any case, agreement was reached between us on one point. It is not so much the form of the treaty as what will be included in it, and the means for enforcing it. The treaty was not pursued on board the "Fearless". It was not acceptable as the alternative here.

There is the interesting proposal of the distinguished Rhodesian, referred to by the right hon. Gentleman. I think that we are getting to the point, having put forward so many proposals ourselves and tried them out, that it might be useful if we had some indication from the Rhodesians of what they might be interested in studying so that we can study it further.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

Who, under the new arrangement at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, will be responsible for conveying the deep regret which we all feel at the death of one of the greatest men in Southern Africa, Dr. Eduardo Mondlane, to the people of Mozambique?

The Prime Minister

I think that my hon. Friend will rightly feel that all of us regret the death of Dr. Mondlane, and the pursuance there, or in any other part of the world, of assassination as a means of helping to solve—if that is the right phrase—political difficulties.

The answer to my hon. Friend's question is that all these matters fall within the sphere of my right hon. Friend, the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary.