HC Deb 06 May 1980 vol 984 cc28-35
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. William Whitelaw)

Mr. Speaker, I will, with permission, make a further statement about the taking of hostages by armed gunmen at the Iranian embassy.

As the House is aware, this incident was brought to a conculsion yesterday evening following an assault by members of the Special Air Service Regiment. I regret that it proved necessary to resort to the use of force, but there was in the end no alternative. The terrorists killed two hostages. The outcome of the assault, I believe, speaks for itself. Of the 19 hostages known to be alive when the assault took place, all were rescued. Sixteen have already been discharged from hospital. Three remain there. Four gunmen are believed to have been killed in the assault and another is in police custody. None escaped. There were no police or SAS casualties.

Throughout five days of the siege, the Metropolitan Police patiently sought to negotiate towards a peaceful conclusion. As a result of their efforts, five hostages were, progressively, released. On behalf of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and myself I made it clear to the Commissioner that Her Majesty's Government were not prepared to give in to the terrorists' demands for a safe conduct out of this country. Subject to that overriding consideration, we did everything in our power to persuade the terrorists peacefully to surrender and free the hostages. It was in the light of that policy that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office sought the assistance of some ambassadors from certain Middle East countries, but help from that source was not possible. The Commissioner of Police underlined the approach that his officers were taking in a personal written message that was delivered into the Iranian embassy yesterday. The help of a Muslim imam was also sought. He spoke personally to the gunmen in an attempt to persuade them not to take action that would be damaging both to their hostages and to themselves.

As yesterday progressed it became increasingly clear, however, that the days of patient negotiation and of personal direct appeals were not going to achieve their objectives. From the start of the seige, the gunmen regularly threatened to kill hostages if demands were not met. As soon as it became clear that they had begun to carry out those threats, I authorised, at the Commissioner's request, the commitment of the SAS.

I know that the House will wish to join with me in congratulating the Metropolitan Police on an operation that they carried out with skill, care and determination. Their conduct throughout was an example of the highest standards of the British police. The success of the final assault and rescue is an outstanding tribute to the professionalism and bravery of the SAS. I am sure that the House, and, indeed, the country, will wish to join the Government in giving thanks to all those involved—police, military or civilian. Our sympathy goes to the families and friends of those hostages who have been killed or injured.

Finally, Mr. Speaker, I would simply add this: the way in which this incident was conducted and resolved demonstrates conclusively the determination of the British Government and people not to allow terrorist blackmail to succeed.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

Is the Home Secretary aware that the Opposition believe that he was right, as the Secretary of State in charge of the operation in the last six days, to take time for negotiations and discussion before deciding to act in the way that we saw last evening on television? Is he aware that we believe that the overall operation was well carried out and that it shows the merit of the procedures built up for operational control at two levels—ministerially and with the police? On behalf of hon. Members on both sides of the House, may I ask him to convey our tribute to the bravery shown by many of those involved—the police, the SAS, and other individuals? We echo his sympathy for the relatives of those who were killed.

Is the Home Secretary aware that we believe that he was right to bring in the SAS at an early stage, just in case they needed to be used? Is he aware that we believe that the right note was struck a moment ago by him and by the Commissioner last night, which is to the credit of all concerned? There is a feeling that all has gone well and that we have won something, but it was not expressed in that way. Last night it was said that it was a matter of deep regret that the siege had to be ended by violence. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I believe that that is the right approach to such a matter?

Is the Home Secretary further aware that we believe that the Government were right to make it clear that in no way will any British Government be prepared to offer safe conduct to those who commit criminal acts? Does he agree that lessons are to be drawn from the events of the last six days, operationally and in general?

May I ask the Home Secretary a number of questions, which should be asked now that the events are over? Given the spread of Middle East terrorism to this country, will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Foreign Secretary to impress on Middle East embassies that passports should not be given under any pretext to people who are not their nationals? Will he remind them that the carriage of arms under diplomatic protection is an unfriendly act?

What is going on in the Libyan embassy? Are the people working there officially accredited to this country? I bring to the Home Secretary's notice what the Americans have done in that respect.

What steps are being taken to deal with Colonel Gadaffi's threat to liquidate Libyan nationals in Britain unless they return home? That threat has been made, and steps must be taken to ensure that it does not happen.

We accept students from all parts of the world who come to our universities and polytechnics. Long may that continue. It is an important part of our life. However, why is it so easy for Iranians to come here to follow courses that have sprung up in institutions in different parts of the country when Asians and West Indians who want to come here to study are forbidden to do so? Will the Home Secretary examine the ease with which Iranian students can come here for that purpose?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his generous tribute to all those involved in the operation. As he and the Leader of the Opposition will appreciate, planning in advance of such operations has been conducted by successive Governments and was most important when it came to the moment of carrying out the operation. I pay tribute to all the planning that has been done in the past. It was extremely important.

I shall certainly draw the attention of the Foreign Secretary to the points that the right hon. Gentleman made about Middle East terrorism, passports, and the carriage of arms. As to the Libyan embassy position, we have made it clear that we expect the law in our country to be carried out. I note the right hon. Gentleman's question and shall consider carefully what he said.

Concerning the last point, I would, of course, point out that under the amended immigration rules that I introduced recently the regulations to deal with those who might be described as bogus students were greatly tightened up. Nevertheless, I think that the right hon. Gentleman makes a broader point, which is taken by many people in this country, and I undertake to look into that as well.

Mr. David Steel

Is the Home Secretary aware that my colleagues and I would wish to be associated with the tributes to the patience and courage of the police and the SAS and, in particular, to the high standard of competence shown in this operation?

Mr. Skinner

He wants a share of the action.

Mr. Steel

Will the right hon. Gentleman also accept that we wish to be associated with the remarks by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition about the lesson that the Iranian Government should learn from this episode? May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he will—without necessarily giving details to the House—undertake to review the standard of protection that we offer to politically sensitive embassies in London?

Mr. Whitelaw

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said and I am glad that he and his colleagues wish to be associated with the tributes to those concerned in the operation. Of course, it is our duty to afford protection to the various embassies, but I would add that the embassies themselves have a considerable duty to organise their own protection, and many of them do that. All embassies should carefully consider that issue, but I take the right hon. Gentleman's point.

Mr. Churchill

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the heroic actions of 5 May command the admiration not only of the nation but of the world? Does he further agree that, by contrast, they make the TUC's politically motivated day of inaction on 14 May appear all the more petty and futile?

Mr. Whitelaw

I think, perhaps, that I would be wise to confine my remarks to my responsibilities as Home Secretary. They seem to have been quite sufficient in themselves in recent days.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

Will the Home Secretary confirm the understanding that the reference at the end of his statement to the determination of the British Government and people applies equally to all parts of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Whitelaw

Yes, Sir.

Mr. Back

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the whole House wishes to be associated with the congratulations to the SAS and the police force? We should also like to congratulate him on taking the bold decision to send in the SAS. Was their action not further acknowledgment of the sheer professionalism of our forces? Will my right hon. Friend seek to mark, in some way, the marvellous success of this operation, if not by the striking of a medal, at least in a manner that demonstrates how we appreciate what has been done on this occasion?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful for what my hon. and learned Friend said about all who took part in the operation, and I am also grateful to him for his personal reference to me. I can only say that such was the care with which all the operations were planned that the final decision had to be taken by the Home Secretary. Of course, if things go right it is good; if things do not go right the situation can indeed be very difficult. However, that decision is one of the easier actions to take in the final event. I appreciate that I might not be standing here saying that today had events turned out differently.

Mr. Mellish

Speaking as a Londoner, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to convey to the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis the deep appreciation of all Londoners for the magnificent job that the police did during the seige? Will the Home Secretary also convey to the Commissioner the fact that the vast majority of Londoners respect and admire the police force and wish them well?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I will certainly pass on that message to the Commissioner. I think that it would be appropriate for me to say, having been in close contact with the Commissioner over all these days, that I greatly admired his personal courage and steadfastness during an extremely difficult operation. I should like this House to know that. I shall be pleased to pass on to him the congratulations offered not only to him but to all the members of his force. Such congratulations are extremely well deserved.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call two more hon. Gentlemen only from either side.

Sir William Clark

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, as has already been said, not only the whole House but the whole world will congratulate the SAS and the Metropolitan Police on the way in which this matter was handled? Does he agree that it is time that some action was taken to prevent non-British people demonstrating in this country, thus putting our police forces at risk? Is it not time that we considered telling foreigners that if they wish to demonstrate they should demonstrate in their own countries?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said in support of all those who carried out the operation. Concerning demonstrators, we have recently published a Green Paper on public order, which raises many questions, including the one referred to by my hon. Friend. It is important that we should consider these questions together. They raise difficult issues about freedom in a democratic society, which we in this House would do well to ponder carefully.

Mr. Ogden

Was any request made by the Home Secretary or the Commissioner to radio, television and news reporters to be cautious in their reporting in order to deny to those inside the embassy information that might have hindered security operations? Has the Home Secretary any information on the reason why the attitude of the terrorists, who at one time were showing a degree of humanity by releasing hostages, suddenly changed to murdering them? Will he accept that the important question is not how successful we were in getting people out but how they came to be in that situation in the first place?

Mr. Whitelaw

Inevitably, events such as this are a matter of major public concern. They are, therefore, bound to be covered by TV and radio. Had there been a moment when it was felt necessary to ask the authorities concerned to exercise restraint, that restraint would have been asked for, but I must tell the hon. Gentleman that such an occasion did not, in the final event, arise.

As to the hon. Gentleman's other point, I would prefer to go no further into the details of the operation. I think that I would be wise not to do so.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Has not this event—like many others—underlined that the first social service that any Government owes to its people is the maintenance of the Queen's peace? Will my right hon. Friend therefore dismiss all those calls that have been heard recently in this House for the abolition of the Special Patrol Group, for the standing down of the Special Air Service, for the reduction of powers under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, for the reduction of MI5 and the security services, and for the control by the borough of Lewisham of the operations of the Metropolitan Police?

Mr. Whitelaw

It is well known that I believe that the maintenance of the services that look after and protect our citizens is of vital importance. I believe that those service must be preserved and encouraged in all their forms. I have never disguised from the House my view on that. The way in which we employ the British police service is of enormous importance.

What pleases me about this operation is that we brought it to a successful conclusion while, at the same time, preserving the highest standards of the British police service and demonstrating that we have a community police service in this country.

Mr. Edward Lyons

While I share in the general satisfaction, may I ask the Home Secretary about the surviving gunman? Bearing in mind that the alleged killings took place within the Iranian embassy, is this man to be repatriated to Iran or is he to be tried in the courts of this country?

Mr. Whitelaw

I understand, on advice, that he is to be subject to the due process of law in this country.