HC Deb 16 June 1969 vol 785 cc28-34
35. Sir B. Janner

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether he will make a statement on the situation in the Middle East; and what progress has been made following the four-Power conference in respect of the invitations to the Arab States by Israel to meet them with a view to discussions taking place between them to arrive at a permanent peaceful settlement.

23. Mr. Walters

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the latest developments in the Middle East.

37. Mr. Colin Jackson

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the most recent developments in the Middle East.

Mr. Goronwy Roberts

The situation in the Middle East continues to cause us concern. For this reason, we are taking an active part in the four-Power talks still going on in New York. We hope that the Four will before long be in a position to convey proposals or recommendations to Dr. Jarring.

Sir B. Janner

Does not my right hon. Friend realise that the only way of getting a permanent peaceful settlement is by direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Arabs, particularly in view of the experience we have already had when in two successful wars against aggression Israel agreed to terms which were immediately broken by the other side and when none of the powers which had encouraged Israel to accept terms took the slightest step?

Mr. Roberts

As my right hon. Friend and I said on 24th March, direct talks between disputants would normally be what one would expect and although we still hope that at a certain date, sustained by the fact of the four-Power talks, such direct talks will be possible, I fear that they do not seem to be any nearer than they were.

Mr. Goodhart

As the Foreign Secretary frequently says that the survival of Israel is Britain's main policy in the Middle East, why does the Foreign Office approve a policy of selling Chieftain tanks to Israel's enemies while refusing to sell Chieftain tanks to Israel herself? Is not this just another example of the Government letting down their acknowledged friends?

Mr. Roberts

It is not the practice to pronounced on individual transactions of this sort. However, it is understood on both sides of the House that we scrutinise very carefully and responsibly any application that is made to us from this area for arms, particularly with a view to assessing the impact of any decision for or against such an application on the political situation, the peace and the stability of the area.

Mr. Jackson

Have the Government had any success in persuading Mrs. Golda Meir in the recent talks to allow Israel to adopt a more constructive and positive approach to the Four-Power talks?

Mr. Roberts

The Prime Minister of Israel has already had useful talks with my right hon. Friends and expects to have another talk tomorrow.

Mr. Amery

In view of the widespread anxiety in the House on the question of apparent discrimination in the sale of tanks, will the right hon. Gentleman say why the Foreign Secretary is not here this afternoon and whether he will arrive before the end of Question Time?

Mr. Roberts

My right hon. Friend has very carefully considered what was said in the House on this matter last week and understands the concern of very many hon. Members. However, he is not able to make a statement which would go beyond what I have said this afternoon—

Hon. Members

Why not? Where is he?

Mr. Roberts

—and it is not his intention to come down to the House this afternoon to make it. It is his considered judgment that he cannot make a statement on this matter, at least at this juncture.

Sir A. V. Harvey

On a point of order. Mr. Speaker. You will recall that last Thursday the right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) and others raised through you, Sir, to the Leader of the House, the question of the Foreign Secretary's coming here at the earliest opportunity—which would have been today—to explain this matter. The Leader of the House, with his normal courtesy, said that he was sympathetic and would do what he could. Surely, it would have been appropriate if, instead of being foisted off with these meagre answers, the House had been told earlier at Question Time what the form was, whereas we are now told at 3.30 that the Foreign Secretary is not coming, and no reason has been given. May I ask, Mr. Speaker, through you, whether the Leader of the House himself will make a statement explaining the position? The House should be treated with courtesy.

Mr. Shinwell

May I ask the Minister this question, Mr. Speaker? Even if it is the traditional custom not to furnish information about the provision of arms to other countries, how does my right hon. Friend justify the Government's action vis-à-vis Libya of providing that country with Chieftain tanks, in spite of its declaration of war against Israel, and refusing to implement the undertaking with Israel to provide similar tanks? Is he aware that the Leader of the House last Thursday gave a definite undertaking that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary would be here to make a statement on the subject? Why is he not here?

Mr. Paget

On a point of order. Mr. Speaker. May I give notice that I shall seek the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 9—

Mr. Speaker

Order. There is no need at this moment for the hon. and learned Gentleman to give notice of his intention to make an application under Standing Order No. 9. He knows the appropriate moment to make that application.

Sir G. Nabarro

In the circumstances, and in the absence of the Foreign Secretary, may we now have the information? How many tanks have been sent to Libya? Under what contract have they been sent to Libya? Is any part of the contract outstanding for further tanks to go to Libya? What is the total value of the contract with Libya? Was Israel notified of the contract with Libya? Why is there this manifest discrimination against Israel, our friends in the Middle East?

Mr. Roberts

It has never been the practice to pronounce on details of such transactions by this Government or preceding Governments. It is the practice to scrutinise very carefully and with the utmost responsibility every application made by any country in the Middle East for arms from this country so that the decision, whether it be for or against an application, will not disturb or imperil further the peace and stability of the area.

Mr. Mayhew

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, unlike Israel, Libya is not in breach of United Nations resolutions, has not annexed tens of thousands of square miles of other territory, and is not ruling over more than one million foreign subjects with an increasingly heavy hand?

Will he bear those facts in mind in his arms policy towards the Middle East?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Would the right hon. Gentleman, perhaps, wish to alter the words which he used when he said that it was not the Foreign Secretary's intention to come down to the House? This is Foreign Office Question day, and I think that those words were hardly acceptable to the House.

In the context of arms, would it not be one thing if there were an agreement—if there had been an agreement—in New York concerning the Middle East situation, but, in the absence of such an agreement, is not an obligation almost, if not wholly, entered into quite discriminatory against Israel if these tanks are refused?

Mr. Roberts

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his opening remark. If I phrased my answer so as to indicate that the Foreign Secretary was in any way less than very sensitive to the feeling of the House, I apologise at once. It was his considered judgment that he could not usefully make a statement today. This is a normal process of Ministerial decision. I need hardly say that the Foreign Secretary is a Parliamentarian who would be the last to be suspected of being discourteous or inconsiderate towards the feelings of the House.

On the second and substantive point which the right hon. Gentleman made, it has always been our aim, and will continue to be our aim, so to consider these applications from this troubled area as not to discriminate or to appear to discriminate but by whatever decision we make in each particular case to conduce to rather than imperil the political stability and peace of the area.

Mr. Richard

My right hon. Friend is right when he says that it is not Government policy to give details of individual arms supplies, but does not he agree that from time to time in the recent past the Government have given precise reasons why they have abstained from supplying arms to certain countries, notably in the case of South Africa, and have clearly set out the principles? Could he not be a little more forthcoming and give the House some at least of the thoughts of the Foreign Office on the reasons for its refusal?

Mr. Roberts

I cannot add to what I have said. It is an accepted convention, and an essential one, that we should not engage publicly in giving details of these transactions.

Mr. Walters

Will the Foreign Secretary stand robustly by British interests? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it is a British interest to supply equipment to Libya, an old and valued friend of Britain, and a very peaceful country?

Mr. Roberts

We are in very good relations with Libya, as we are, indeed, with Israel. It is extremely difficult to deal with applications for arms from whatever quarter and so to decide for or against without one or other of the disputants in this difficult matter accusing us of being partisan. However, so far this country has maintained a reasonably balanced approach to the area.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker

When my right hon. Friend speaks of traditional practice, does he recall that between the wars it was the policy of all British Governments to secure the fullest possible publicity for the traffic in arms and that today the objections to secrecy in this matter are very strong? Even on his own showing, is it not the urgent duty of the Secretary of State to come and make a statement about the Libyan affair?

Mr. Roberts

I shall convey the views and feelings of the House to my right hon. Friend, who, I know, will once more consider what has been said and see what he can do.

Mr. Hooson

Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that this kind of problem would be solved if Britain ceased to supply arms to other countries?

Mr. Roberts

We have taken the lead in that matter. However, unless it is followed by the others concerned, one is in a worse case than previously. We stand ready at any time to participate in an effective all-in agreement to control, to register and, indeed, to cease the supply of arms to all countries in this area.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Mr. Edward Taylor, Private Notice Question.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It will be within your knowledge that, in answering that group of Questions, the Minister, no doubt inadvertently, answered my Question No. 39 regarding discussions with the Israeli Prime Minister, without taking the necessary courtesy of asking the permission of the House. As that Question was answered, Mr. Speaker, may I have opportunity, as is the normal custom, to put a supplementary question arising out of the answer to my Question?

Mr. Speaker

That is a most ingenious request, but I cannot concede it.

Mr. Lewis

Further to my point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not your usual custom, if a Question is answered within a group, and the hon. Member concerned rises in his place and other hon. Members are called, to give him an opportunity to ask a supplementary question? I cannot now postpone my Question. I cannot put a supplementary question. The Minister will not be here again for some weeks. This has now precluded me from the opportunity of putting my Question, postponing it, or putting a further Question down.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman's second observation has more weight than his first one. He may put his supplementary question.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

I am much obliged. Mr. Speaker May I ask the Minister whether, when he said that discussions had ensued with the Prime Minister of Israel and that further discussions would take place tomorrow, he will give a definite assurance that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will himself come to the House and make a statement on those discussions?

Mr. Roberts

I can only convey to my right hon. Friend my hon. Friend's desire that he should do that. I cannot commit him to such a course.