HC Deb 18 July 1979 vol 970 cc1779-89
The Lord Privy Seal (Sir Ian Gilmour)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement that has been made by my right hon. and noble Friend in another place on the Indo-China refugee problem. Hon. Members will be aware of the deep concern with which the Government have viewed the rapid deterioration of the refugee situation in South-East Asia over recent weeks. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dr. Waldheim, has now convened a special international meeting in Geneva on 20 and 21 July to deal with the problem. The Government welcome this move, which was originally proposed by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

There can he no doubt that it is the callous and inhuman policies of the Vietnamese Government which are the root cause of the problem, and it is imperative that the Vietnamese Government change those policies. Meanwhile, the burden that the flood of refugees is imposing on others in the region can be relieved only by a major and genuinely international effort.

The Government have given very careful consideration to the extent of the humanitarian problems, and in particular to the appalling burden that is being placed oil the resources of the Government of Hong Kong. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has asked us to accept a further 10,000 refugees from Indo-China for settlement here. We have agreed. Because of our direct concern for the situation in Hong Kong, over a period to be agreed with the Governor these extra refugees will be taken from Hong Kong, where there are already over 66,000 awaiting resettlement. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is getting in touch with the voluntary agencies which have played such a commendable role in helping with the resettlement of the refugees who have already arrived in the United Kingdom. I would like to take this opportunity of recording again the Government's gratitude to the voluntary agencies for the splendid work that they are doing in this field.

The Government also propose, subject to parliamentary approval, to make a further £5 million available from the over- seas aid programme for dealing with the refugee problem in South-East Asia over the next 12 months.

My right hon. and noble Friend will himself attend the opening session of the Secretary-General's meeting in Geneva on 20 July. I can assure hon. Members that we shall play a full and constructive role in Geneva.

Mr. Shore

That is a welcome statement as far as it goes, both in terms of the numbers that the Government propose to accept for resettlement and in its condemnation of the callous behaviour of the Vietnam Government. I take it, however, that the two-day conference, which will inevitably be short, will focus on the major problem of resettlement that faces the whole of South-East Asia.

Can the Lord Privy Seal confirm that the offer to settle 10,000 refugees is to be our immediate response to the appalling pressure on Hong Kong, and that Britain, as the sponsor of the international conference, the country ultimately responsible for Hong Kong and a nation with a great humanitarian tradition, will he ready with others to make a continuing contribution to the resettlement of refugees, should that be necessary?

The statement naturally deals with the boat people from Vietnam, but can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House anything about what I believe are sometimes called the "foot people"—the vast numbers of refugees from other parts of Indo-China, and from Laos and Cambodia in particular, who have made their way, under appalling and distressing conditions, to Thailand? Is it the case that in Cambodia, in particular, a major cause of exodus is hunger? Has the right hon. Gentleman talked to the Red Cross about that second pressing Indo-China problem, and are there any plans for bringing food supplies to that area in order to alleviate it?

Finally, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether the Government have in hand any arrangements to ease and facilitate the reception of the 10,000 refugees who are to come to this island? If so, will his right hon. and noble Friend be prepared to make a statement at the appropriate time?

Sir I. Gilmour

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for welcoming my statement and condemning the callous behaviour of the Vietnamese Government. As he says, this is our immediate response, but, as he well knows, we have considerable problems in this country. We are an overcrowded island. We have responded to the request that was made by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and it would be unreasonable to expect us to make further undertakings at present.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that apart from the boat people there is a considerable problem concerning what he calls the "foot people". We hope that it will be dealt with by the Geneva conference, which we have been instrumental in setting up. He will be interested to know that we have raised, with our partners in the Community, the question of what should be done about providing food relief for the refugees in South-East Asia. The Community, before making further decisions, has agreed to make available 8,000 tonnes of rice and 1,500 tonnes of skimmed milk as emergency aid.

On the right hon. Gentleman's last point, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has arrangements ready. If necessary, at the right time he will make a statement on the subject.

Sir Paul Bryan

Is the Lord Privy Seal aware that the people of Hong Kong will be grateful for the Government's new gesture and for any further pledges that may be made at the Geneva conference tomorrow? Will he ask the Foreign Secretary when he is at that conference to do his utmost to see that Hong Kong gets its fair share of the sum of those pledges? Is my right hon. Friend further aware that over the past six months Malaysia has had 40 per cent. of its intake of refugees resettled, whereas Hong Kong, with 65,000 refugees in its camps, has had only 8.5 per cent. accepted for resettlement? Is that not discrimination in favour of inhumanity? No boats crammed with refugees have been towed out to sea from Hong Kong.

Sir I. Gilmour

I have a great deal of sympathy with what my hon. Friend says. There is no doubt that the Hong Kong Government have behaved in an exemplary fashion. I am hopeful and confident that what we have agreed to do will set an example to other countries in the inter- national community to help Hong Kong. As my hon. Friend knows, the situation there is growing more grave daily. There are still thousands of refugees arriving. It is imperative that as a result of the Geneva conference other countries should agree to help Hong Kong with the appalling problem with which it is faced.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

What possible grounds can there be, moral, political, historical or ethnic, for the admission to this country—[HON. MEMBERS: "Shame, shame."]—of large numbers of persons from Indo-China—a country with which we have no connections and towards which we have no obligations?

Sir I. Gilmour

There are moral, historical and ethical reasons for doing what we have done. The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) seems to be ignoring the appalling tragedy that is now being enacted in South-East Asia. It is something that has not happened on such a scale for 30 years. For us to ignore it, sit back and pretend that it is not happening, and to pretend that whatever happens elsewhere in the world is nothing to do with us, would be totally wrong and entirely contrary to the ethical and political traditions of this country.

Mr. Grimond

Is the Minister aware that his statement will give almost universal satisfaction? Is he also aware that we owe some obligation to people as human beings, even if they are a different colour and their misfortunes are not our fault? Can he say whether the international community, through the United Nations, has succeeded in bringing pressure to bear in Vietnam to stop this callous behaviour? Also, can he tell us whether there are still refugees pouring into Hong Kong, and has any direct aid been given to the voluntary societies to deal with this problem? I understand that £5 million of overseas aid has been given to Hong Kong, but is there any aid for the voluntary societies themselves?

Sir I. Gilmour

It is true that the £5 million is abroad, but some effect on public funds will be felt as a result of the reception of refugees in this country. I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman's remarks at the beginning of his question. This is a major humanitarian problem. We are, after all, part of the human race and we cannot stand aside. The flow of refugees is continuing and there is no sign of its ceasing at present. We have tried to do what we can to bring pressure to bear on Vietnam, but our relations with that country are not very close. We have done what we can and we hope that other countries will do all they can, because it cannot be in the interests of the Vietnamese Government to alienate all their neighbours in South-East Asia.

Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson

Can my right hon. Friend tell us who will pay for this operation? Is he aware that my constituents living around Sopley camp are very concerned whether this is a charge on the Government or whether, because local authority facilities are being used, the ratepayers will be expected to pay? Can he tell us when the first refugees in this new group will arrive, and whether the existing facilities will be used?

Sir I. Gilmour

This is a Government responsibility, and the expense will not fall on the local authorities.

Mr. Ennals

Contrary to the abhorrent views put forward by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), there are those of us on both sides of the House and in all parts of the country who have been urging that more refugees should be admitted as part of a massive effort to deal with this huge problem, and we warmly welcome the statement today. This will give some relief to Hong Kong. Will the Minister accept from me, on behalf of the voluntary organisations, the assurance that they will co-operate to the full both with the Government and with local authorities in settling these unfortunate people in our country?

Sir I. Gilmour

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. We deeply admire the efforts being made by the voluntary organisations. Obviously, we all wish that the situation had not arisen, but since it has it is only right that we should play our part in trying to solve it.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in Staffordshire members of the National Front took the part of the Vietnamese Government in trying to attack the local refugees but were dispersed with contumely by local police? Will he put further pressure on the Soviet Union to persuade that country, as far as it is possible to do so, to control this movement, which is against all laws and all considerations of humanity? Will he endeavour to ensure that in his central organisation for the care of these refugees proper attention is given not just to the education of children but to the education, in the English language, of the adults who arrive here?

Sir I. Gilmour

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is important to educate not only the children but the adults, and the evidence so far in other countries is that these people learn very fast. I am grateful for what my right hon. Friend said in the first part of his question. Of course we shall do everything to try to make the Soviet Union bring its influence to bear on the Vietnam Government. So far we have failed in our efforts, but I cannot believe that it is in Vietnam's interests to fly in the face of the opinion of virtually the whole of the civilised world.

Mr. Frank Allaun

The Minister referred to the callous and inhuman behaviour of the Vietnamese Government. Did he make the slightest protest when the American Government were bombing that country to bits? I am not opposing the reception of refugees into this country, but would it not be possible for the British Government to give some relief to the thousands of political prisoners in Latin America who are being tortured at present? I gather that most of the Vietnamese refugees are not being tortured, but are getting out with considerable financial aid.

Sir L Gilmour

Even the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) has never given a clearer example of double standards. Many of us took very different views about the Vietnam war, but that is nothing to do with what is taking place now. We see a callous, calculated policy to expel from Vietnam about 1 million people merely because they are of Chinese stock—

Mr. Skinner

The Minister is getting wound up now.

Sir I. Gilmour

Perhaps the racial policies of the Vietnamese Government appeal to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), but they certainly do not appeal to anybody else. By trying to defend those policies by talking about something that is going wrong elsewhere in the world, the hon. Member for Salford, East really demeans himself. This expulsion from Vietnam is taking place on a scale that is unparalleled anywhere else, and if the hon. Member has any standards at all he should condemn what is going on.

Mr. Alexander

Will my right hon. Friend accept that there is a difference in this country between refugees and immigrants? Will he accept that we have an honourable history, over many centuries, of accepting refugees, and that many people on both sides of this House will be happy with his statement today? However, will he consider deducting from the total number of immigrants that we accept from other countries the number that we are accepting today from Vietnam?

Sir I. Gilmour

With due respect to my hon. Friend, there is a slight inconsistency between the first and second parts of his question. I entirely agree that there is a distinction between refugees and immigrants. I also agree that we have an honourable record both on refugees and immigrants. But as they are not the same thing, and as we are faced with a problem which, up to almost a year ago, nobody expected, I do not think that it is right to join these two categories together. They are relevant only in the sense that our country's capacity to absorb new people is limited. I do not think that any closer connection is justified.

Mr. Shore

Precisely because so many people are now at risk in the South China Sea, and because we must fear that their numbers will greatly increase in the days ahead, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman not to take up a firm position—it would be wrong to do so at present—about the nature and extent of the commitment that we and others may have to undertake? May I also press him on the question of the real shortage of food supplies inside Cambodia? If a major source of exodus is the lack of food inside the country, clearly the best way to relieve that is to get food in.

Sir I. Gilmour

I agree, but, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, that is not always easy to do. The European Community has acted. I take note of the right hon. Gentleman's comments, and if more can be done to alleviate the problem I shall see that it is done. However, with respect, the right hon. Gentleman is pushing things too far. After all, we have made a commitment and a conference will take place in Geneva in the next few days. Surely it is rushing matters to look beyond that. We have made the commitment that we were asked to make and we hope that the Geneva conference, which we have been instrumental in setting up, will lead to an advance towards solving the problem. I do not believe that we should look further ahead than that.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. There is another statement to follow. I propose to call three more hon. Members from either side.

Mr. Ronald Bell

Is my right hon. Friend aware that every episode of immigration since the end of the war has been justified on the ground of extreme hardship? Those who have resisted that, like myself, have been accused of callousness on each occasion. That applies in the case of the West Indies in the 1950s, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Bangladesh, and now Indo-China. Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a real danger of self-indulgence in a matter of this sort, and that this overcrowded island in the North Sea should not be the terminus of any major migration?

Sir I. Gilmour

With respect to my hon. and learned Friend, I question his version of history. The initial impetus for immigration to this country did not spring from misery; it sprang from a feeling of being part of a Commonwealth in which people were allowed to migrate freely. That was the beginning of the matter. I do not believe that it is a question of self-indulgence. It is possible to be self-indulgent in either way—in a humanitarian or non-humanitarian way.

Mr. Hardy

Does the Minister agree that most hon. Members appear to endorse the Samaritan position? Does he agree that in the parable the Samaritan paid for the kindness that he showed? In his statement the right hon. Gentleman suggested that the moneys would be provided from the existing aid programme. Who will suffer as a result of that?

Sir I. Gilmour

I cannot answer that question. The hon. Gentleman knows that we are re-examining our aid programme and cutting it. However, the aid programme is so organised that there is always a certain sum set aside for contingencies.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

I congratulate the Government on stopping on the Jericho road and not passing by on the other side. I ask the Minister to confirm that the country is not becoming a major terminus for refugees from Indo-China, because other countries are taking many more refugees than we are.

Sir I. Gilmour

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. I believe that we have taken the right step. He is perfectly right in saying that other countries are taking many more refugees than Britain.

Mr. Ashley

Is not the truth of the matter that it is as politically unpopular now to help refugees from Vietnam as it was to help refugees from Nazi Germany in 1938 and 1939? There were no historical grounds for admitting the refugees from Nazi Germany. It is equally a matter of life and death for the Indo-Chinese refugees as it was for the Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Therefore, should not the Government defy popular prejudice and the National Front by repudiating the National Front's harassment and accepting a far larger number than the 10,000 that was announced today? Moreover, should not the Government provide those refugees with jobs and housing, in the face of unpopular public opinion?

Sir I. Gilmour

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman to some extent, but I do not believe that he is right to sniff at what we are doing. We are making a considerable contribution and I do not believe that it should be underestimated. I agree that it is something that we should do and that it would be wrong for us not to do it. There is a parallel with previous tragedies of the past, and none of us would want to repeat those.

Mr. Latham

My right hon. Friend is talking about hundreds and thousands of people who have been or are being drowned or murdered by pirates. Is he aware that many hon. Members were deeply regretful to hear the remarks of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell)? There are many in the country and on both sides of the House who will give an unreserved welcome to my right hon. Friend's statement.

Sir I Gilmour

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for stating so eloquently what I believe the position to be. Even now, many people in this country are not fully conscious of how desperately serious the position is. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for emphasising the point—which I had failed to do until now—that one of the worst aspects of the problem is the enormously high percentage of refugees who are drowned. Between 40 per cent. to 60 per cent. of those who set out from Vietnam fail to arrive anywhere.

Mr. Weetch

We all welcome the right hon. Gentleman's statement about our response to the problem, but is it not a short-term response? What we need is a more permanent framework of reference, so that when calamities arise, whether natural or man-made, decisions can be taken quickly. In that way we could have avoided some of the humiliating circumstances that have occurred over the past few months.

Sir I. Gilmour

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I disagree. I do not believe that it should be taken as being the natural course of events that Governments behave in the way that the Vietnamese Government have behaved over the past year. It is something that is comparable only to Stalin's extermination of the Kulaks or Hitler's treatment of the Jews. It is not something that we should reasonably expect to occur in the future. Therefore, talks of a framework are not appropriate in this context.

Mr. Skinner

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I always thought that it was usual that when an hon. Member was mentioned in dispatches by the Minister concerned the opportunity would be afforded to him to say a few words. I refer to the occasion when I drew the Minister's attention to the fact that the Prime Minister—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I watched carefully what occurred on that occasion. The hon. Gentleman says that he was mentioned in dispatches, but that was because he was interrupting continually. I do not consider that to be justification for calling anyone.

Mr. Skinner


Mr. Speaker

Does the hon. Gentleman have a new point to make?

Mr. Skinner

Yes, Mr. Speaker. It is a new point. I was trying to attract the attention of the Minister in regard to the fact—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman cannot pursue the point that he would like to have made if I had called him. I thought that he was pursuing a point of order.