HC Deb 04 February 1972 vol 830 cc823-32

11.4 a.m.

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

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

The Acting Head of the British Mission in Dacca this morning conveyed a message from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh informing him officially of Her Majesty's Government's recognition of that State. I am sure that the House will wish to join me in sending our good wishes to the Government and people of Bangladesh.

I hope that this decision, which recognises the reality of what has happened in the area over the past months, will be the beginning for us of a new era of friendship and co-operation with all the countries of the sub-continent. We wish to remain on good terms with those countries and to help them to tackle the many problems that have arisen from the recent war. I shall be going to India this weekend for talks with the Indian Government and, by invitation of President Bhutto, I plan to visit Pakistan on my way home from the Far East on 19th and 20th February. An opportunity for me to visit Bangladesh may arise later in the year.

Mr. Healey

First, may I say how warmly we on this side of the House welcome the Government's decision, however belated? We join with the right hon. Gentleman in wishing the people of the new State a peaceful and prosperous future. Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that their chances of achieving peace and prosperity will depend critically upon the aid that they receive from the peoples of the world, especially in the coming months? Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us any more than he did on the occasion of his last statement about any initiative that Her Majesty's Government are able and prepared to take on this matter? Secondly, what chance is there of sending members of the Royal Engineers to help repair bridges and communications in Bangladesh, as suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Roy Jenkins)? Finally, could not the right hon. Gentleman possibly find an opportunity during his visit to the sub-continent to go to Bangladesh? Could there be a better time for a British Minister to visit that State than immediately following our recognition of it?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his welcome to Her Majesty's Government's recognition of the new State. I am in touch with Sheik Mujib about a possible visit. I think that probably it will be more convenient later on. There is a great deal to be done in Bangladesh at the moment. I might be able to revise my plans. But, as I say, I am in touch with Sheik Mujib, and it might be better if I went later. I should very much like to go in a few months' time.

As for relief, I agree that there will be a great need. I am happy to say that reports about food supplies are still good. The real trouble is with communications. We have been able to lend to Bangladesh Mr. Ross, who is one of our top engineers in bridge construction, to advise overall on plans for better communications. We have sent a number of flat-bottomed boats and tank landing craft which will shortly be in position to help Bangladesh. There is £1.8 million of our aid unspent, and again I am in touch with Sheik Mujib and his Development Minister about how this can best be dispensed in the circumstances. There is a considerably larger sum at the disposal of the United Nations, which is now getting into a position to help. So there should not be a shortage of funds in the immediate future.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

Like the right hon. Member for Leeds. East (Mr. Healey), I welcome the announcement of Her Majesty's Government. I trust that my right hon. Friend will be able to visit Bangladesh, if not immediately, perhaps in June when he goes again to the subcontinent. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the skill that he has shown throughout these difficult times, a skill which is manifested by the fact that he is welcome in Rawalpindi, Delhi and Dacca.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I am obliged to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Bottomley

I acknowledge the need to recognise the State of Bangladesh, but is not it to be regretted that it results in a further fragmentation of the great sub-continent of India? Cannot the right hon. Gentleman give some lead, as the Russians did after the earlier India-Pakistan war, by calling a conference not in Tashkent but in London in order that the three countries may be encouraged to work harmoniously together?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We have told both Sheik Mujib and Mr. Bhutto that we offer our services. If they would like to come to London to talk, we have already said that we should be very happy. So far, they have not availed themselves of this opportunity. It is an unhappy fact that Pakistan has left the Commonwealth. We hope that this will not be irrevocable. We were trying to time our recognition of Bangladesh at a point when there would be no rupture in bilateral relations and the maximum harmony created for the three countries of the sub-continent to come together.

Sir F. Bennett

Now that Pakistan has, unhappily, left the Commonwealth, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he will tell us today, or perhaps arrange for a full statement to be made later, about the consequences in economic terms on trade with and aid to Pakistan? Will he also tell us the position not only of Pakistani immigrants who are already here, but of those dependants who would have been entitled to come had Pakistan not felt it necessary to leave the Commonwealth?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We are giving close study to these matters. I will inform the House when our inquiries are complete.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that his statement will be warmly welcomed? I should like to associate myself with the good wishes he has expressed to Sheik Mujibur Rahman and his people in their appallingly difficult task of building a new nation. Clearly the position of neutrality which the Government have adopted has been absolutely the right policy to pursue.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that if he could call in on Bangladesh by rearranging his schedule it would be a significantly important move at such an early stage?

Concerning aid, will he consider the possibility of some new dramatic international consortium, perhaps being formed through the United Nations? On one minor point, compared with the whole of the aid programme, is the Foreign Secretary aware that there is a suggestion that hovercraft would be particularly useful in the conditions of Bangladesh? Does he agree that this is something which we are particularly well equipped to provide?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We will certainly consider that point.

Referring again to the Royal Engineers, we are perfectly happy that they should go, but it depends whether Sheik Mujib wants them.

Regarding my visit to Bangladesh, I could go there for a very short time only, if at all. I will consult Sheik Mujib, but he might prefer it if I were to make a visit in a couple of months.

Mr. Edward Taylor

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is still the Government's top priority to maintain good relations between Britain and Pakistan? Will he also tell us whether the new Government of Bangladesh have given any indication of their attitude towards the ownership and control of substantial British assets in that country?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

On the latter point, we have not yet got the matter clear with the Bangladesh Government, although businessmen here who have firms there have been having satisfactory talks with the Bangladesh Ministers, in particular about jute and the future of the jute firms. I cannot give my hon. Friend any more information on that matter at the moment.

We certainly want the friendliest possible relations with Pakistan, and we will do all that we can to help. I had a meeting with Mr. Cargill of the World Bank a couple of days ago. He had been to all three countries and had a look at their economic prospects and was going to the consortium meetings with very full knowledge of all their needs.

Mr. Roy Jenkins

On the point, about the Royal Engineers, I should like to tell the Foreign Secretary that I had the opportunity of putting this suggestion to Sheik Mujib himself and he said, admittedly as a snap reaction, that he would greatly welcome their help. Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore bear that in mind?

May I press the right hon. Gentleman further to consider making a visit to Bangladesh on this occasion? I understand that he is going to Calcutta, which is literally only 25 minutes flight away. If his visit were not welcome to Sheik Mujib at this stage—I should find that difficult to believe—that would be a different matter. However, if it is welcome, there would be an element of imbalance in the right hon. Gentleman going to the two other capitals, including one where it has been announced that they are regrettably—irrevocably they say—leaving the Commonwealth, and not going to the capital of a country which greatly wants to join the Commonwealth. Such a visit now would also have the advantage that the Foreign Secretary could see for himself the aid needs. Bearing in mind, as he said, that the food position is not at present urgent, this is very much a short-term matter. It will become desperately urgent from March onwards. Unless steps are taken immediately to deal with the position, from then on it will deteriorate and build up to a major international tragedy.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

On the right hon. Gentleman's first point about a visit—I was not going to Calcutta—I will see whether I can look in. On this occasion it could not be more than a look in. I am not quite sure that Sheik Mujib, with so much on his hands—he has a lot of internal problems—will think that this is the best time. I am willing to rearrange my plans, if he wishes, just for a short visit there.

Mr. Burden

Has my right hon. Friend been in touch with the other Commonwealth countries to ascertain whether they will join in composite help to this very needy country of Bangladesh, which will obviously soon become a member of the Commonwealth?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I cannot answer for all the Commonwealth countries, but I am sure a number of them will jointly help Bangladesh.

Mr. Prentice

I should like to join in the congratulations to the Foreign Secretary on his statement. May I ask when we can expect a statement on long-term development aid for Bangladesh as distinct from immediate relief and rehabilitation needs? Will the Government bear in mind that the needs of Bangladesh combined with the needs of India, which has had to bear a great burden in the last 12 months, and the needs of Pakistan will mean that there must be a larger allocation of aid to the whole of the sub-continent? Does not that in turn mean that the Government must look again at the total over head ceiling of aid over the next few years?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We are doing this. As the right hon. Gentleman said, there must be a considerable allocation for the sub-continent. We have that matter very much in mind.

As for the longer term developments, as I said, I have had a talk with Mr. Cargill. He is going back to discuss with Mr. McNamara, who has also been to the sub-continent, what is necessary. The consortium will then meet, and I think that that will be the time to make a decision about the long-term development plan in all three countries.

Mr. Mather

First, has my right hon. Friend had any indication when Indian troops will leave Bangladesh? Secondly, has he any information about the release and repatriation of the 90,000 Pakistani prisoners?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I have no information on the latter point. I shall naturally be talking about this matter to the Indian Ministers. The Indian Army has begun to leave Bangladesh. Sheik Mujib has said that the troops that remain are there at his request.

Mr. Stonehouse

Will the Foreign Secretary accept my warm congratulations not only on his wise decision announced today, but on the fact that his Overseas Development Administration anticipated this decision and went fast ahead to provide essential relief supplies?

Will the right hon. Gentleman throw more light on what is being done now by the advanced States to provide an aid consortium team to go into Bangladesh to assess its needs not only in the short term, but in the long term, bearing in mind that this country now faces monumental problems, which it has borne almost entirely without reserves as Pakistan has not apparently made any arrangements to allow Bangladesh to share in its reserves?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I understand that a United Nations team is shortly to go there and it will be doing a longer term estimate of what is needed in Bangladesh. There will be very severe problems in all three countries. A lot depends on American aid to India. There is a rephasing of the debt problem in Pakistan. As the right hon. Gentleman said, there are other development needs in Bangladesh and they have not got the reserves. There is a whole series of problems related to the three countries which must be looked at together.

Mr. Farr

I should like to add my warm congratulations to my right hon. Friend on the statement which he has made today.

May I press him a little more about Bangladesh's membership of the Commonwealth? What is the machinery which is being put into motion to extend an invitation to Bangladesh to join the Commonwealth? I suggest that it might be a good idea if the process were expedited, because, as soon as Bangladesh is a member of the Commonwealth, it will come under the umbrella of the Commonwealth Development Corporation's funds for aid and assistance in development.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The procedure is that the country wishing to join the Commonwealth applies to the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth. When Sheik Mujib does that, the Secretary-General will then settle the matter either by correspondence or by calling a meeting. I do not anticipate that there will be any difficulty whatsoever.

Mr. Barnes

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Bangladesh will be a very important and sensitive area of that part of Asia for many years? Will the right hon. Gentleman take care that the great good will which exists in Bangladesh towards Britain is not allowed to wither away in future, but rather that the part that the British attitude played in helping Bangladesh to come into existence remains the firm bond that it is at the moment between our two countries?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I hope that that will be so, and I shall do everything that I can to achieve it.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Having had the privilege of serving independent Pakistan, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he will use his skilful diplomacy to try to heal the breach with the Commonwealth, which is largely occasioned by recognitions at a time when Bangladesh is still under Indian occupation? Will my right hon. Friend have CENTO in mind, and will he ask our representatives in the new State to do what they can to see that the Biharis and other people in difficulty get humane treatment?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I am sure that the latter is Sheik Mujib's intention. Internal security in the new State of Bangladesh is a difficult matter, because so many people are armed, but Shiek Mujib has asked for those arms to be given up. I hope that that will happen, but it will probably not happen very quickly.

It is an unhappy thing that Pakistan has decided to leave the Commonwealth, but that is a matter in the decision of any Commonwealth member. Nobody tries unduly to influence a country, but I hope that the break will not be irrevocable.

Mr. Spearing

The right hon. Gentleman has, quite rightly, mentioned communications. Is he aware that river transport plays an important part in Bangladesh, and that that is emphasised by the lack of bridges? Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether the needs in that respect have been quantified and, if so, how far what we are offering in the way of barges and landing craft meets those needs? If they do not, what other organisations, such as the United Nations, are prepared to fill them?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Mr. Cross, the best man we could put on the job, is discussing with the Minister for Development in Bangladesh the overall needs with regard to communications, and I shall hear more about that shortly. We have supplied in the way of flat-bottomed boats and other boats which can assist in the reconstruction of bridges and getting material to the site all that is available close at hand. When we hear the longer-term plan we shall know what we can do, and I shall bear in mind what has been said about hovercraft.

Mr. J. H. Osborn

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that many people will agree that the recognition of Bangladesh will help the new régime to gain political and economic stability? While welcoming the fact that my right hon. Friend is to visit West Pakistan, and accepting that there is a need to bring about a reconciliation between West Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and the rest of the world, may I ask my right hon. Friend to find out where the United Nations funds are which were originally promised for the refugees who were going into India? Can those funds quickly be directed to rehousing and building up the infra-structure, including telephones, communications, and roads which will take somewhat longer to repair?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I think that it would be necessary to have further contact with the Secretary General of the United Nations to find out exactly the conditions under which the funds were subscribed to the United Nations. I do not think that there would be any difficulty about switching the funds. I under- stand that the United Nations team is in a position to begin work in Bangladesh.

Mr. Russell Kerr

Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Chigwell (Mr. Biggs Davison), may we have an assurance that there will be no precipitate withdrawal of the facilities afforded to Pakistanis now resident in this country, and in particular to their dependents, so that the situation can be allowed to settle down before there is a final rupture?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Yes, Sir. We must take time and care to see that injustice is not done.

Mr. Cormack

May we take it that the Government are treating Bangladesh as a full member of the Commonwealth as from today, and that her citizens will be so treated in this country? On a minor point, can my hon. Friend say what the nationals of the new country wish to be called?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I do not think that that last matter is for me. On the point about membership of the Commonwealth, I think that we must wait for the application and for the Secretary General's action.

Miss Quennell

Does my right hon. Friend recall that in the White Paper on the transitional arrangements for India and the former Pakistan in relation to the E.E.C. certain tariff concessions were made available to Pakistan as part of that region? Can my right hon. Friend say whether those concessions will be transmitted to the new State of Bangladesh as a former part of Pakistan, or not?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I should like notice of that question, but I have taken note of it and will give my hon. Friend an answer later.

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