HC Deb 22 February 1971 vol 812 cc34-42

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:

78. Mr. MOYLE

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, what orders for arms the United Kingdom has now received from South Africa.


To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign arid Commonwealth Affairs, if he is yet in a position to make a firm decision on the supply of arms to South Africa

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Alec Douglas-Home)

With your permission. Mr. Speaker, I should now like to reply to Questions No. 78 and 79.

The Government's position was made clear in the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to the House on 26th January and in the White Paper laid before the House on 4th February by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General.

No orders relating to any new arms deal have been received. In response to an inquiry, however, Her Majesty's Government have informed the South African Government that if orders are placed for Wasp Helicopters we will. according to our legal obligations, issue export licences at the appropriate time. Her Majesty's Government are also continuing the practice of the previous Administration in licensing the export of certain spare parts.—[Vol. 801, c. 321–40.]

Mr. Moyle

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his statement will be received with emotions varying from doubt as to its wisdom to angry despair at all points between Washington and Singapore? Does he mean that he has indulged in negotiation about the selling of arms to South Africa without having received a single firm order for weapons? Does he think that this is really the price of the Commonwealth? Will he think again about it and undertake not to supply any arms to South Africa?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not share in the angry despair, and I hope that he is not asking us to break a legal obligation, which would have wide ramifications.

Mr. William Hamilton

Does the statement mean that the Government do not intend to go beyond their legal obligations as laid down in Simonstown? Second, why have the Government taken this action before the Commonwealth Committee of Eight has reported? Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that any military advantages which might accrue are far outweighed by the political and economic disadvantages which will redound in the rest of Africa, the new Commonwealth and beyond it?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

No, Sir; if there is a legal obligation, as the Attorney-General has advised the House there is, this must be fulfilled, and if a request comes from South Africa we must meet it. That is what I said to the House about our legal obligation. As regards any further sales to South Africa, we must reserve our own judgment and judge this matter in relation to British interests at a future date.

Mr. Dodds-Parker

Will my right hon. Friend agree that this decision will be acceptable to many people who, while totally rejecting apartheid, believe, like the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey), I think it was, when Secretary of State for Defence, that the defence of the Southern sea routes depends on the Simonstown Agreement being observed not only legally but in the spirit?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Yes, Sir; we attach great importance to the Simonstown Agreement, as did the right hon. Gentleman when he was Secretary of State for Defence in the last Government. It is very valuable in the context of the defence of the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.

Mr. Healey

The Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary has made a very serious statement, and many will regard it as particularly deplorable that Her Majesty's Government should have reached this decision before the 8-nation group, set up by the Singapore Conference, had even had its first meeting. Will the right hon. Gentleman take it that the House will wish to debate this decision at the earliest opportunity, for a full day at least, and may we hope that, before this exchange ends, the Leader of the House will be able to give an assurance that this will be possible?

On the substance of the right hon. Gentleman's statement, is he aware that the last Government, while maintaining that the Simonstown Agreement was useful, though not essential, also maintained on legal advice that there was no legal obligation to supply these helicopters? Further, is he aware that the consequences for the Commonwealth, for British interests, and for British lives and property in Africa, while damaging in any case, could be disastrous unless he gives an assurance this afternoon that the delivery of these helicopters will be an end of the matter?

Will the right hon. Gentleman, therefore, give an assurance that Her Majesty's Government will not supply any arms to South Africa which they do not believe themselves legally obliged to provide under the Attorney-General's finding? Otherwise, does not the right hon. Gentleman recognise that this decision will be seen as the thin end of the wedge and as the first of a series of arms deliveries which are in no way limited by legal obligations, and that in that case a catastrophe will follow of which the right hon. Gentleman and the Prime Minister had clear warning from all the members of the Commonwealth at the recent conference in Singapore?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I cannot accept the warning from the right hon. Gentleman after his record in the last Government, when, as everybody knows, he supported the sale of arms to South Africa. If he does not admit that, he will no doubt remember that there was a contract made with a French firm for the sale of helicopters to South Africa. When the Government knew that the Puma contract was to be made and the proposal was to sell some of these helicopters to South Africa, they never objected.

Mr. Healey

We had no right to.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The right hon. Gentleman says that they had no right to object. That is his view. He could have objected. He knew that the sale of military helicopters to South Africa was to take place. He could have objected, but he did not, and neither did his Government.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that, if we have a legal obligation, we should not fulfil it. I do not think that he is. I think that he is saying that this is a matter for debate and that, no doubt, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will, through the usual channels, discuss the possibilities for debating the matter. I have no quarrel with a debate on the subject; this is a perfectly proper matter for debate.

As to the study group, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made perfectly clear at the Prime Ministers' Conference at Singapore that there was no connection between a Possible sale of arms to South Africa and the study group. The study group is meant to look at the whole problem of the defence of the sea routes and the Indian Ocean in the long term.

Mr. Healey

Will the right hon. Gentleman please attend to the very serious problem facing Britain and the Commonwealth as a result of this decision? Whatever the Prime Minister may have said in Singapore, leaders of the Commonwealth, including Mr. Trudeau and a number of African and Asian leaders, made clear that they expected the British Government not to take a decision on the supply of arms until the study group had reported. Will not the right hon. Gentleman accept—if he does not accept it now, the facts will force him to in the next day or two—that the way in which this decision is received by the Commonwealth will depend very much on whether Her Majesty's Government sees this, as reported in some newspapers, as the first in a series of deliveries going far beyond our legal obligations even as defined by the Attorney-General or as strictly obliged by the legal situa- tion? Unless the right hon. Gentleman can give an assurance to the House on this question now, the consequences, before the House has a chance to debate it, may well be disastrous.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I deny that. But, at any rate, neither the Prime Minister of Canada nor any Prime Minister of the Commonwealth was left in any doubt whatever as to the legal obligations which fell on Her Majesty's Government, and it is that and that alone with which we are dealing today.

Sir F. Bennett

Before the debate, will my right hon. Friend arrange through the usual channels for publication of the memorandum submitted by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) and Lord George-Brown to the Cabinet in which the sale of unrestricted maritime arms was advocated?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I do not know that that would be a proper course, but my hon. Friend could read Lord George-Brown's memoirs.

Mr. Michael Stewart

The right hon. Gentleman was earlier asked a question by one of his hon. Friends to which he did not reply; would he deal with it now? Apart from any other aspect of the sale of arms to South Africa, can the right hon. Gentleman give us an assurance that he will not do this so long as South Africa uses her police forces in support of a rebellion against the Crown in Rhodesia? Is it not the overwhelming legal obligation of Ministers of the Crown to be loyal to the Crown rather than to Dr. Vorster?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I replied earlier that I did not think that we could connect the two matters. Any British Government would have to reserve its position on any future sale of arms. We must consider this in relation to British interests and the necessity to keep the Simonstown Agreement in repair, and every Government, including the previous Government, have felt that that should be done.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

Does the Foreign Secretary recognise that the Wasp helicopters which it is proposed to sell are merely a replacement of the antisubmarine helicopters of the same type which have been worn out and broken in the course of naval exercises undertaken by us with the South Africans during the time of the late Labour Government?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The legal obligations are set out in paragraph 60 of the White Paper which, on the present showing, we shall probably be debating before long.

Mr. Thorpe

Leaving aside both the wisdom and morality of the right hon. Gentleman's pronouncement, may I put two questions to him? Is he aware, first, that there is grave dispute as to whether there is a continuing legal obligation, and that this is a matter for argument? Will he remember the admirable precedent of the present Prime Minister, the present Leader of the House and the present Chancellor of the Exchequer when in December, 1957, they voted for a petition to the Queen for the then advice of the then Conservative Attorney-General to be referred to the Privy Council? Is he aware that that advice of that Attorney-General, no less eminent than the present, namely, Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller, was held to be totally wrong? Secondly and finally, in view of his very wide experience of Commonwealth matters and accepting all the reservations which the Government made plain at Singapore, would he say that the taking of this decision before the eight Powers have even had a chance to meet let alone report will strengthen or weaken Commonwealth ties?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Attorney-General has advised the House and the Government accept the advice that he has given. Therefore, there is no need to have a further study. As for the study group—

Mr. English

On a point of order. The Foreign Secretary has just said that the Attorney-General advised the House. Is it not the case that that advice was presented in a White Paper by command of Her Majesty, which is quite a different thing?

Mr. Speaker

That may or may not be so. It is not for me to confirm the answers of Ministers.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I have always understood that that was one of the ways in which the Attorney-General advised the House.

I do not think that this decision by Her Majesty's Government ought to have any effect on the study group's progress in the minds of Commonwealth leaders. I must repeat that they understood that we had this legal obligation. The Prime Minister told them much of its nature, and they are therefore prepared that we should fulfil our legal obligations and the study group go on. That is the only answer that I can give to the right hon. Gentleman now.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Foreign Secretary suggesting by that answer that all lawyers, not least the Attorney-General, are infallible?

Mr. Burden

Does not the Simonstown Agreement constitute a defence agreement? If it is a defence agreement, how can the Labour Party argue, to take it to its logical conclusion, that because of apartheid, if that defence agreement is invoked and there is war, we should still be unable to support South Africa with the arms necessary to carry out her part of the pact?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

As did the previous Government, we value this as a military defence agreement in the context of the sea routes and the sea routes only.

Mr. Paget

If we are to discriminate in our arms sales against Governments which rule tyrannically and which exercise racial discrimination and which confine people without trial, would we have any available African customers?

Sir A. Irvine

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there will be general agreement on both sides of the House with the conclusion set out in paragraph 59 of the Law Officers' advice in the White Paper? Does he confirm that there is no general or continuing obligation to permit the supply of arms to South Africa?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

As I under stand it, there is a legal obligation to do this, but surely that is a matter for debate rather than an exchange across the Floor of the House at Question time.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware, one, that we do not accept the advice by the Law Officers in the White Paper, contrary as it is to the advice we have on this question by no less eminent legal advisers? Is he aware, two, that we do not accept his statement about what he was seeking to attribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey)? Is he aware that from my own personal knowledge I can say that his answer to that question was totally false?

Thirdly, he referred to French sales. Is he aware that we repeatedly—and I can give him the specific date when I did, June 1967, in Versailles—expressed our view to General de Gaulle that there should not be arms supplies by France to South Africa? Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that he has given a very unsatisfactory answer about arms sales beyond what was in the White Paper and that there is no justification in law, morality or the interests of this country for supplying arms beyond what was in the White Paper, even if we were to accept what was in the White Paper?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I can understand the right hon. Gentleman's objecttions to the Attorney-General's point of view. This is a matter which can be debated and which should be debated. As I understand it, there are documents and facts available to the Attorney-General which were not available to, or not sought by, the Attorney-General in the last Government. This alters the situation. What the right hon. Gentleman has said about what he said to General de Gaulle about France not selling arms to South Africa and saying this in 1967 makes it rather worse that in 1968, when they had the opportunity to object to the French about helicopters, the Labour Government did not do so.

Mr. Harold Wilson

The right hon. Gentleman has just purported to say what my right hon. and learned Friend the then Attorney-General had before him and what he asked for. There is a very long convention that Governments do not ask for what was seen by the previous Government—we did not. By what right and on what evidence did the right hon. Gentleman make that accusation?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

There are various quotations and letters in the White Paper which may have been studied by the Law Officers of the previous Government.

Hon. Members


Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I do not think that I have said anything to the House that I need withdraw. All that I am saying is that if all those facts were available to the Attorney-General in the last Government he did not come to the same conclusion as the present Attorney-General. The advice of my right hon. and learned Friend the present Attorney-General has been given fairly and straight to the House.

Mr. Harold Wilson

The right hon. Gentleman is hedging on what he has just said. Is he aware that he has just said that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Ham, South (Sir Elwyn Jones) did not ask for those documents and did not have them before him? That is untrue. The right hon. Gentleman has no justification for saying that. He cannot know, and has no right to ask, what papers were before any Minister. Will he now withdraw the implication that he made and say that this Government, unlike any previous Government, are now burrowing in the documents of their predecessor, which no Government have ever done before?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

There is no question of anything of this sort. When it comes to the debate I am certain that my right hon. and learned Friend will confirm that I have said nothing improper whatsoever.

Mr. Leonard

On a point of order. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) asked whether there would be an early opportunity to debate the decision. The House has not been told whether this can be done.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. William Whitelaw)

Further to that point of order. My right hon. Friend made it perfectly clear that I was prepared to consider and discuss any such request. That I will do.