HC Deb 21 March 1973 vol 853 cc425-8
17. Mr. Leslie Huckfield

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether his representatives in South Africa have yet completed their survey of how British-owned firms are participating in apartheid practices; and whether he will make a statement.

Lord Balniel

Her Majesty's Ambassador and his staff in South Africa are not carrying out any survey of the kind mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. But they naturally keep themselves as closely informed as possible on this subject.

Mr. Huckfield

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that most of the British firms which have been expressing surprise and ignorance about the behaviour of their subsidiaries in South Africa have known all along what was going on in terms of wages? That includes Jim Slater, to whom I wrote as long ago as last September.

Will the right hon. Gentleman instruct our ambassador in South Africa to draw up a full report showing exactly what British firms are doing in participating in apartheid practices? Will he also instruct our representatives to tell British firms that they do not have to follow local custom in South Africa and that they should strive to pay black workers exactly the same wages, give them exactly the same promotion opportunities and allow them exactly the same levels of trade union organisation as they grant in this country? If British firms cannot do that, they should get out.

Lord Balniel

I cannot comment on the specific charge the hon. Gentleman makes. I most certainly welcome the reaction of British firms which have announced their intention of looking into the practices and enterprises in South Africa for which they have responsibility.

Last August the Government gave positive advice, through a pamphlet issued by the Department of Trade and Industry to firms considering investing in South Africa, emphasising the scope for improving wages and conditions of service of non-white employees. It is certainly in the interests of British companies in South Africa to establish a good name as employers and to keep abreast with the best current practices of pay and conditions of service for their employees.

Mr. Ian Lloyd

Although South Africa, very regrettably, has only herself to blame for the long-standing and often hysterical preoccupation of the Left over conditions in that country, will Her Majesty's Government resist most strenuously the temptation to assume some sort of broad moral responsibility for economic and social conditions in a part of the world for which we ceased to have responsibility 63 years ago?

Lord Balniel

Investment by British countries in South Africa is most important in bringing employment to non-white employees in South Africa. The whole House will agree that this is very important. I do not believe that a policy of boycott or ostracism towards South Africa would be of any help to the non-white population.

Mr. Richard

Will the right hon. Gentleman take the opportunity to repudiate the squalid remarks made by his hon. Friend? If he does not, is it not time that he realised that a large part of this country, not necessarily confined to one particular view or one political party, was profoundly shocked at the recent disclosures of what British firms have been doing to their employees in Southern Africa? What have the right hon. Gentleman and the Foreign Office done to establish the facts? Have they, for example, asked the firms concerned to account directly to them for the allegations which have been made? Have they had in representatives of the firms to discover exactly what the position is?

It is time we knew what the Government intend to do about this because the country as a whole, and certainly my right hon. and hon. Friends and I will not be keen on letting this matter rest where it is. We want something done about it.

Lord Balniel

Maybe that is so, but it does not alter the facts. I am astonished by the hon. and learned Gentleman's remarks. What is notable is that the Labour Government did nothing whatsoever when they were in office, whereas in August last year we issued advice in a pamphlet through the Department of Trade and Industry which emphasised the importance of improving pay and conditions of service.

As for the inquiry, I have nothing to add to the letter sent by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan), which is being placed in the Library. There is a great deal of information about conditions in South Africa, and this has been made public as a result of social and economic surveys conducted by reputable independent bodies. I believe that is the best way of getting the information publicly known.

Mr. Ronald Bell

Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that the duty of persons corporate or individual in South Africa is to obey the law of that country? Will the Government seek to avoid giving the impression of interfering in any way in the internal affairs of South Africa or setting up standards of conduct for a country 6,000 miles away of which, on the whole, we know very little.

Mr. Leslie Huckfield

It is not the law.

Lord Balniel

We are not responsible for the law in South Africa, and in that sense I agree with my hon. and learned Friend. Equally, however, there is scope for improving pay and conditions of non-white employees with British companies, and I hope those companies will look very carefully at the possibilities of doing so.

Mr. Richard

The right hon. Gentleman is evading my point. Specific allega- tions have been made publicly and these allegations should be investigated publicly. It should be done, if possible, by an inquiry through the machinery of this House. Why on earth do the Government not accept that position?

Lord Balniel

Because I have already explained that a mass of information has been made available. If the hon. and learned Gentleman will take the opportunity of studying it he will be able to inform himself on the subject.

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