HC Deb 24 July 1969 vol 787 cc2146-56
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Michael Stewart)

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

Mr. Brooke, the British subject who was sentenced by a Soviet court in 1965 to five years' imprisonment for alleged anti-Soviet activity, has been released and has returned to this country today. Her Majesty's Government have undertaken that a recommendation will be made for the remission in three months' time of the remainder of the sentence of 20 years' imprisonment which was passed on Mr. and Mrs. Peter Kroger in 1961 in connection with the Portland spy case. Upon their release Mr. and Mrs. Kroger will be free to go to any destination of their choice. We have also agreed that Polish consular officials may visit them at monthly intervals until their release.

The Consular Convention between the United Kingdom and the U.S.S.R. provides that consular visits to British subjects in detention in the Soviet Union shall take place "on a recurrent basis". Under Soviet regulations such visits have been permitted not less frequently than once every four months; but the Soviet regulations also provide that offences against prison discipline may be punished by forfeiture of consular visits. At one time Mr. Brooke went for more than a year without a visit, and more recently Mr. Lorraine has been deprived of a consular visit. We have now been assured that even in cases where offences against prison discipline are alleged the Soviet authorities will favourably consider our request that the intervals between visits by British consular representatives should not exceed four months.

The Soviet authorities have undertaken that on the day after the departure of Mr. and Mrs. Kroger from this country Mr. Michael Parsons End Mr. Anthony Lorraine, the British subjects who in 1968 were sentenced by Soviet courts to four and three years' detention, respectively, for smuggling drugs into the Soviet Union, will be released.

It has been arranged, as a separate matter, that three British subjects who have for some years been endeavouring without success to marry Soviet citizens will, not later than 24th October, be granted visas to enter the Soviet Union to register their marriages, and that thereafter their partners will be free to leave the Soviet Union should they so desire. We have been told that one other British subject in this category may have a Soviet visa at any time.

In deciding to make these arrangements, Her Majesty's Government have had three considerations in mind. The first is that of humanity towards Mr. Brooke. We were informed on 28th April that fresh charges, carrying very heavy penalties, were being prepared against him. His health has not been good throughout his imprisonment, and further years in prison might have had the most serious consequences.

Secondly, the Krogers will have served over 8½ years in prison. They will have paid a substantial penalty for their offences.

Thirdly, the other arrangements which I have mentioned, affecting British subjects, and consular visits, are in themselves desirable and remove an obstacle for improvement in relations between this country and the U.S.S.R.

Taking these considerations into account, and recognising the counter-arguments which can be advanced, I believe that the decision which I have announced is right.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Reaction to the Foreign Secretary's statement must be in two parts. The first is that Mr. Brooke ought never to have received such a savage sentence for a minor infringement of Soviet law and that this release is merely belated justice. It should have happened long ago. Therefore, for him and his wife, who has shown such courage, the House is unreservedly glad that his terrible ordeal is over. The second part concerns Mr. Brooke's exchange for the Krogers. They had engaged in an entirely different order and scale of espionage. This is bound to arouse public anxieties and reservations.

In the first place, the Foreign Secretary should understand that this is an encouragement to the Russians to believe that they can always squeeze Her Majesty's Government in this way. The Foreign Secretary understands, does he not, that they are not in the least inhibited from starving a man until he is ill so as to play on the feelings and humanity of the British people? Their cold and brutish behaviour is part of the Russian make-up in this matter.

Secondly, is there not a real danger that professional spies like the Krogers may not have told all that they know to Her Majesty's Government; that they may have knowledge which could still be of use to the Soviet Union concerning personnel or other matters. Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that the first consideration must be the morale of our own services in a most hazardous occupation?

Having said that, I must point out that the Foreign Secretary and the Government have shouldered a very heavy responsibility. I have not—and I do not think that any other hon. Member has—sufficient knowledge or information to make a considered judgment on this case. That can be done only by the Government and the Foreign Secretary. Therefore, the right hon. Gentleman and the Government must bear responsibility for this matter. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to assure the House that he has taken all these very grave matters into full account in arriving at his decision.

Mr. Stewart

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we have taken very seriously into account all the arguments and counter-arguments that can be advanced. I accept that this is not a matter which any humane or sensible person would think could be decided casually or off the cuff. There are very grave considerations on both sides.

I entirely accept that although Mr. Brooke did, and this is not in dispute, something contrary to Soviet law, it was not something that we in this country would regard as an offence, and we always took the view that the penalty imposed upon him was on any judgment out of all proportion to what he had done.

I accept, too, that the position of the Krogers was very different indeed. The right hon. Gentleman drew attention to the possible advantage there might be in that information could be obtained from the Krogers. I had to weigh this up, and it seemed to me that with every month that passed the weight of this argument became less and the weight of the argument of humanity for Mr. Brooke became greater.

I ask the right hon. Gentleman to believe that we have taken this decision very carefully, taking all the factors into account. I believe it to be the right decision both on humanitarian grounds and on the long-term judgment of relations between the Soviet Union and this country, and the security of this country.

Mr. Mendelson

One readily accepts the humanitarian motives of the Government's actions. Anyone who knows the position of Mr. Brooke and the position of his relatives will appreciate that action. At the same time, while accepting that my right hon. Friend must speak with the great reserve placed on him in his position, it should be made quite clear that here there is nothing but contempt and very grave concern for future relations with the Soviet Union as a result of this example of blackmail applied to a man who had obviously committed nothing that would be regarded as an offence in a democratic society; and that there is a very grave danger for future relations when we see the Soviet Union acting in this way. The Russians ought to be left in no doubt about the reactions of all democrats in this country, and in other countries, to the way in which they have acted.

Mr. Stewart

I do not think that I can at all dispute what my hon. Friend has said, but he will accept that, after he had said it, he did not feel that he could dissent from the decision which the Government had taken.

Mr. Hastings

I have two questions. First, what were the serious consequences to which the Foreign Secretary referred previously in regard to the threat to retry Brooke, and why were those not resorted to long ago to obtain his release instead of having this disgraceful and dangerous deal? Secondly, will the Foreign Secretary give an absolute assurance that no pressure has been or will be brought on Mr. Gerald Brooke by the Foreign Office to prevent him pub- lishing, should he so wish, in due course a full and unrestricted account of the circumstances of his arrest and his treatment at Russian hands?

Mr. Stewart

We should not dream of bringing any pressure to bear on Mr Brooke. This is a free country and he can say or write what he likes. I merely express the personal opinion that I think that Mr. Brooke, after what he has been through, will probably want to relax in family life and, if I tray say so, find his feet again in this country before he wants to express himself in public at all. But we certainly should not attempt to restrict him.

The hon. Gentleman used, as, I am afraid, he so often does, adjectives like "disgraceful", and so on, which do not really add anything to the serious problem we have to consider. I know the problems that are involved, but I am quite convinced, after looking at all the aspects and weighing them all up, that if we had pursued another course—we could have pursued the course of retaliation and counter-retaliation—this would in no way have helped Mr. Brooke. It would have inflicted such damage on relations between us and the Soviet Union as to serve no good purpose either to Mr. Brooke or to this country, or to mankind

Mr. Moonman

Whilst I welcome the general details of the package deal, will my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary say that in the case of people, such as one of my constituents, who are given an opportunity to return to Russia for marriage, such an arrangement as this will not happen again, as it would be serious if it were repeated?

Mr. Stewart

Frankly, I do not think that I can answer for that, but the position of those British subjects who desire to contract marriages with Soviet citizens—and we know that there are three precise cases—is that they will be able to go to the Soviet Union if they wish to register the marriage and, having done so, they and their partners will be free to reside in whichever country they wish. I think that that is the best one can expect.

Mr. Evelyn King

Whilst I deplore the whole sordid deal, does not the Foreign Secretary agree that another embarrassing question arises? If the Krogers are to be released, what is the Government's attitude towards the other Portland prisoners and, in particular, Ethel Gee, an ageing spinster of 55, now serving a 15-year sentence for a lesser part in that plot? Is it conceivable that the Government intend to release the master in treachery and maintain in prison one who was, in fact, his catspaw?

Mr. Stewart

I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but this is a question that he must put to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Alan Lee Williams

Although my right hon. Friend will appreciate that there is a good deal of support from all on this side for the very delicate decision he had to take, can he confirm that another Government—I believe, the German Government—recently entered into a similar arrangement with the Soviet Union? In view of this, would he consider consulting other Allied Governments on what implications arise for British subjects and subjects of other Western countries visiting the Soviet Union in future?

Mr. Stewart

I should require notice of that question.

Mr. Bessell

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that my right hon. and hon. Friends well appreciate the difficult position which the Government found, and the difficulties of the negotiations; and that we join with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Sir Alec Douglas-Home) in his expressions of pleasure that Mr. Brooke has been released? But is the Foreign Secretary aware that a deal of this kind, whereby two prisoners are exchanged for one could set a dangerous precedent? Will he give an assurance to the House that in no circumstances will this present exchange be regarded by the Government as a precedent?

Mr. Stewart

I do not think that we can regard a matter like this as a precedent in any sense. This was a very particular case. I had to decide what it was right to do in this particular case, taking all the factors into account.

Mr. Moyle

While my right hon. Friend will be aware that I welcome the humanity of what the Government have done in bringing home Mr. Brooke in these conditions, will he also agree that a promise by Soviet Intelligence to potential employees that if the worst comes to the worst they can be got out of prison in nine years is unlikely to ease their recruitment problem?

Mr. Stewart

I must say that I very much take the point that my hon. Friend makes. It is a point of very serious substance.

Sir J. Rodgers

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that many of us on this side of the House deplore the sordid package deal in the release of two arch spies like the Krogers in exchange for Mr. Brooke, who committed a minor crime as compared with that committed by the Krogers? Is he not ashamed to come to the House and say that the Soviet authorities have said that they would favourably consider regular consular visits rather than giving a firm promise? How does he have the nerve to come to the House and to use such phrases?

Mr. Stewart

I do not think the hon. Member has faced this problem in his own mind. At one moment he announces his pleasure that Mr. Brooke is coming back and in the next moment he calls it a sordid deal. He cannot have it both ways. He ought to make clear whether he thinks the whole matter is right or wrong. I accept that there are arguments on both sides, and he ought to be able to decide his position. He does not seem to have solved the matter in his own mind. I have to solve the matter, and I have tried to solve it in a way which I think is consistent both with humanity and with the long-term interests of this country.

Mr. Michael Foot

Will the Foreign Secretary accept that, while no one in his senses would envy him in the decision which he has had to make, all hon. Members who have applied their minds to the problem recognise that he has dealt with this matter with great honour and intelligence? Will he further accept that the implications in the questions of some hon. Members opposite are that we should discuss in full in the House the Secret Service. If we are to have partial discussion of those matters, then we will have to have a full debate, with wide-ranging implications indeed.

Mr. Stewart

I am obliged for what my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) has said. We can say, without arrogance, that our country maintains a very high standard of regard for human rights and dignity, that we are not prepared to inflict injuries on human beings as a measure of retaliation, and that this sometimes makes it difficult when we have to make bargains with foreign governments. In the light of those considerations I have to make this kind of decision. Weighing everything up, I am firmly convinced that this was the right decision to take.

Sir F. Maclean

The Foreign Secretary has spoken of his anxiety to do nothing that might prejudice Anglo-Soviet relations. Will he consider conveying to the Soviet Government that they also have a contribution to make in this respect?

Mr. Stewart

Yes, indeed, I will certainly do that; and I am sure that they will note what has been said in this House.

Mr. Paget

Would my right hon. Friend agree that the people who work for us in espionage are honourable people who serve their country, and that this is probably equally true of the Russians? Probably both are right, since the more we know about each other's specific intentions the better. Therefore, if we have an opportunity, without danger to our own country, to release people who have behaved in this way, it should be a matter for rejoicing, not a tragedy.

Mr. Stewart

My hon. Friend in that question raises major philosophical issues to which I would not like to give an answer off the cuff. I would go thus far with him. I accept the proposition that somebody who carries out espionage on behalf of the country to which he has given his own loyalty is in one box, but somebody who has been born and brought up in one country and owes everything he has to that country and then engages in espionage against it is in quite another.

Lord Lambton

Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House whether he has received an absolute assurance from the security authorities that the knowledge in the hands of the Krogers could now be of no use to any Power whatever?

Mr. Stewart

In the nature of the case, I do not think that one could possibly give an absolute 100 per cent. assurance, as the noble Lord asks. I considered this matter, and I felt that the value of retaining the Krogers in prison had now so diminished that it was right to do what we have done.

Mr. Archer

While fully accepting that those who care most about humanity are the most susceptible to blackmail in these cases, will the Foreign Secretary confirm that he will never make this a reason for lowering the standards of compassion which he has shown in this case?

Mr. Stewart

All I can say in reply to that is that I hope not. I will try to do my best.

Mr. Maude

How do Her Majesty's Government propose to ensure that whenever we in this country catch and sentence a Russian agent an innocent British subject is not arrested in order to set up a package deal for the Foreign Secretary? Furthermore, what is the deterrent value of long sentences against spies if this kind of blackmail can be applied to get them off with less than a third of the sentence?

Mr. Stewart

As for the last part of the question, I have already pointed out that they have served a substantial term of imprisonment. The first part of the question raises an important problem, but I would invite the House to notice that Mr. Brooke undoubtedly did commit, and knowingly committed, an offence against Soviet law. In view of what he has suffered I do not want to over-labour this point, but it is important for the House to notice that, so far as I can discover, there is no recent instance of any British subject who has gone to the Soviet Union and who has been careful to observe its laws who has got into any kind of trouble. I think that one can say with reasonable confidence that a British citizen who goes to the Soviet Union and is careful to observe its laws while he is there is not at risk for this reason.

Mr. Dickens

Nevertheless, in view of Mr. Brooke's experience in the Soviet union, and in view of the consequences of which we have heard today, is it not now incumbent of the Foreign Office to make quite certain that visitors from Great Britain to the Soviet Union are informed of the very serious and severe penalties prescribed by Soviet law for quite trivial offences?

Mr. Stewart

The Foreign Office is always very ready, and has been ready on a great many occasions, to provide visitors to any country with information which might be important to them. I agree that this is particularly true of people who visit countries whose whole concepts of human liberty are different from ours. I should have thought that it is now clear to British citizens who intend to visit the Soviet Union and certain other countries that it is important to carry out strict observance of their laws and that the risks in not so doing are very grave.

Mr. Blaker

Would not the Foreign Secretary agree that surrender to blackmail has implications which go rather wider than this particular deal and affect the credibility of British foreign policy in general?

Mr. Stewart

Of course, we considered that matter. When the hon. Member uses phrases like "surrender to blackmail", he must try in his own mind to answer the question whether he feels we ought not to have made this arrangement. If he thinks we ought not to have done so he must understand what that means in the consequences to Mr. Brooke, in the forfeiture of the humane arrangement which we have been able to make and in the permanent injury which this might do to relations between this country and the Soviet Union. That is the question which has got to be answered.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We must get on.

Dame Irene Ward

On a point of order. As a matter of humanity, might I mention a British subject who has been detained for a very long time in Russia because the Soviet Union will not issue a visa for her to come to this country? This has occurred in spite of representations made at ambassadorial level—indeed at a very distinguished level involving Lord Montgomery. Did the Foreign Secretary do anything in the consultations with the Soviet Union to obtain a visa for Miss Natasha Whitehead to come to this country, as she wishes to do and as our people, through our Ambassador, wish her to do? What has been done about Miss Whitehead since we have heard nothing about her for a very long time?

Mr. Stewart

I do not think that I can answer this question without notice, but I will be glad to consult the hon. Lady about it.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

On a point of order.

Mr. Speaker

Order. A point of order must not be a device to get in an extra question.

Mr. Griffiths

I have no such intention, Mr. Speaker. I merely wish to draw to your attention that yesterday I had a Question to the Foreign Secretary asking whether he would make a statement about Mr. Brooke before the House rose. I had no Answer to that Question yesterday and I had no indication today that such an Answer was to be given. As you, Mr. Speaker, said earlier, surely this is against the conventions of the House.

Mr. Speaker

Order. If the hon. Gentleman had a Question yesterday, it would have been good of the Minister to let him know that such a statement was being made today.