HC Deb 07 July 1981 vol 8 cc265-9 3.38 pm
The Lord Privy Seal (Sir Ian Gilmour)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement about my right hon. and noble Friend's visit to Moscow. [Interruption.]

Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is impossible to hear what the Lord Privy Seal is saying. Can he wait until we can hear?

Mr. Speaker

I thought that the time had come when I could call the right hon. Gentleman. Apparently it has come now.

Sir Ian Gilmour

My right hon. and noble Friend paid a short working visit to Moscow for discussions with the Soviet Foreign Minister on 6 July.

His principal purpose was to present to the Soviet Government the proposal adopted by the European Council on 30 June for a two-stage international conference on Afghanistan. Discussion of this matter occupied a full morning of talks.

In explaining the proposal, my right hon. and noble Friend made it plain that he was speaking on behalf of the ten member States of the European Community. He emphasised that the problem with which it dealt was one of global significance whose solution was essential in the interest of peace, stability and the development of East-West relations.

He reminded the Soviet Government that the Ten—and indeed the great majority of the international community—are convinced that the complete withdrawal of Soviet troops is an essential element of any solution.

Mr. Gromyko took the view that the proposal by the Ten was, as he put it, "unrealistic", because the main problem was intervention by others in the affairs of Afghanistan, because it was not stated that the present Afghan regime should participate at the outset and because the proposed composition of the conference was unsatisfactory.

My right hon. and noble Friend told him that he did not find these arguments convincing. Mr. Gromyko did not say that he rejected the proposal and did not exclude further discussion. For his part, my noble Friend made it plain that the proposal, which has already received an encouraging degree of support in the international community, remains on the table and that its details are open for discussion.

The brief communiqué which was agreed at the end of the visit refers to the intention of both sides to continue the dialogue. My right hon. and noble Friend made it clear that as far as he was concerned this means about Afghanistan. He will now wish to consult his colleagues in the Ten on the next steps.

He also spoke to Mr. Gromyko about theatre nuclear forces, the Madrid conference and the Middle East. On theatre nuclear forces, he took issue with some of the figures put forward and pointed out that the problem could only be resolved in the negotiations between the Soviet Union and the United States which are due to start before the end of the year.

They agreed that the situation in the Middle East was dangerous and that the right way forward was a negotiated settlement, even though our views on timing and method differed.

They shared the view that if agreement could be reached in Madrid on the area to which new confidence-building measures would apply, the way should be clear for a rapid conclusion of the conference.

Mr. Denis Healey (Leeds, East)

While one applauds the Foreign Secretary's desire, which I am sure we all share, to secure the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, does the Lord Privy Seal agree that the summit conference grossly overplayed the prospects of the success of that initiative on Afghanistan to distract attention from the wilting of its Middle East initiative and its failure to tackle the crises in the Common Market on the common agricultural policy and the budgetary regime? Does he not agree that the only concrete result of the Foreign Secretary's visit so far has been to infuriate the Italian Government by failing to consult them in advance?

The Lord Privy Seal told us that theatre nuclear forces were also discussed. Can he confirm the report that Mr. Brezhnev told Mr. Willy Brandt on his recent visit to Moscow that the Soviet Union would cease deploying the SS20 missiles the moment talks began on theatre nuclear weapons, even if the United States continued to develop and produce the cruise missile, and that the Soviet Union would be prepared for such talks to discuss a cut in the number of SS20s already deployed? Finally, on the Middle East, which was also discussed, what view do Her Majesty's Government take of the evidence of substantial increases in Soviet forces and equipment in Syria in the last few days?

Sir Ian Gilmour

I do not accept what the right hon. Gentleman says about my right hon. and noble Friend's visit to Moscow. I do not agree that the plan put forward at the European Council was grossly overplayed, still less for the reasons that the right hon. Gentleman gave. It was extremely useful that an essentially reasonable scheme was introduced to the Russians. If they do not intend to agree to it, they must find convincing reasons for turning it down. They have not done that. I should have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would agree that it was right that the continuing Soviet invasion and oppression of Afghanistan should be kept before the notice of the world. That is what my noble Friend has done.

I cannot confirm what the right hon. Gentleman said about the talks between Mr. Brezhnev and Mr. Willy Brandt but I can confirm, as I said in the statement, that my right hon. and noble Friend pointed out to Mr. Gromyko that talks would be beginning this year between the United States and the Soviet Union and that the decision would be made only in that forum.

Mr. Healey

If the summit conference did not grossly exaggerate the importance of the initiative, why did not the Foreign Secretary, the moment that the meeting was over, spread the news around that it was unlikely that the initiative would have a chance of success? Secondly, if the Foreign Secretary discussed theatre nuclear forces when he was there, surely he must have asked Mr. Gromyko whether Mr. Brezhnev's reported intentions were his intentions. Cannot the Lord Privy Seal tell us something about that? Finally, will he answer the question about the build-up of Soviet forces and equipment in Syria, as that is a serious matter?

Sir Ian Gilmour

I cannot say anything about the so-called build-up of the Soviet forces in Syria, which did not come up at the talks that my noble Friend had with Mr. Gromyko. The right hon. Gentleman's idea that the initiative was overplayed is contradicted by what he has said. My right hon. and noble Friend was at the European conference in his official capacity. If he said, as the right hon. Gentleman alleges, that it was unlikely that the initiative would be an immediate success, that proves that the initiative was not overplayed.

Mr. Healey

What about Mr. Brezhnev?

Mr. Speaker

Order. During the debate on the defence White Paper a large number of right hon. and hon. Members will try to catch my eye. I do not propose to allow questions on the statement to go beyond five minutes to 4 o'clock. There is also a Ten-Minute Bill.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

Is the Lord Privy Seal aware that there is a school of thought at present in Washington and sometimes in this country which says that unless Ministers return from a mission of this kind with cut and dried items of success, the whole meeting has been a failure and a washout? Will he resist such a view and accept that public opinion is concerned about the continuing invasion of Afghanistan and the deployment of theatre nuclear forces and that the Foreign Secretary must go on trying?

Sir Ian Gilmour

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said. If any Foreign Secretary was prepared to take an initiative only if he knew for certain in advance that it would be successful, the world would be a more dangerous place than it is.

Mr. Dennis Walters (Westbury)

The Foreign Secretary's wise decision to visit Rome immediately after Moscow must have gone a long way to dispel Italian ill feeling at the lack of an invitation to the Italian Foreign Minister to the meeting before the visit to Moscow. Will my right hon. Friend try to ensure that in future Italian participation is ensured at such meetings?

Sir Ian Gilmour

I take my hon. Friend's point, but my noble Friend must be allowed to meet his colleagues as and when he likes. There cannot be any restriction on that freedom. As my hon. Friend pointed out, he met Signor Colombo on his way back from Moscow.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, East)

I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on his initiative and wish him every success, but why, as he was prepared to extend the discussion beyond Afghanistan to include nuclear weapons and the Middle East, was the Lord Privy Seal so careful to add in his statement that the reference in the Community to continuing dialogue was only about Afghanistan?

Sir Ian Gilmour

It is surely as plain to the hon. Gentleman as it is to the whole House that the future of East-West relations depends on a settlement of the Afghanistan problem. Until that is settled, they will not be as they were before the invasion.

Sir Frederic Bennett (Torbay)

Although I agree that the Foreign Secretary's visit was worth while to keep the issue of the Afghan invasion in the public eye—as the Leader of the Liberal Party rightly said is essential, because we must not appear to accept the situation and let things go—does the Lord Privy Seal accept that there is accumulating evidence that the Soviet Union is not militarily invading and occupying Afghanistan simply to add another satellite to its empire, but, from its infrastructure of roads and its building of military forward bases in the south of the country, it is apparent that it regards the invasion as yet another step towards further Soviet ventures?

Sir Ian Gilmour

I should not like to speculate about that, but the evidence is consistent with what my hon. Friend says. However, as he well knows, the Soviet Union is not having an easy time in trying to subdue Afghanistan. Indeed, after his recent visit to Poland, Mr. Gromyko talked about the problem of Afghanistan. I believe that it has been driven home to the Soviet Union that it has a considerable problem on its hands.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Did the Foreign Secretary form the view that the position of the Soviet Union had in any way changed? Does he believe that further discussions are likely to follow to clarify what Mr. Gromyko meant by "unrealistic"?

Sir Ian Gilmour

We must hope so, but it is difficult to say. As I said in my statement, the reasons that the Soviet Union gave were far from convincing. It is not realistic—to use that word—to pretend that the problem of Afghanistan is one of external intervention and that the massive invasion of about 85,000 Soviet troops is not part of that intervention. It is impossible to say whether further discussions will follow. As I said in my statement, my noble Friend will consult his colleagues in the Ten and in other countries in the international community to see the best way forward.

Mr. Kenneth Warren (Hastings)

I welcome the Foreign Secretary's insistence on keeping the initiative in Moscow going, but will he bear in mind the fact that the Russian leadership probably needs the initiative as much as the West and must now realise in its heart that it has no military means to escape from the turmoil created in Afghanistan?

Sir Ian Gilmour

That is very likely true. As my hon. Friend will be aware, as long ago as last February the Soviet Union stated that it was ready for discussions on the international aspect of the situation in Afghanistan. During my noble Friend's visit, Mr. Gromyko did not explain in what way the European proposal failed to provide for such a discussion.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Will the Lord Privy Seal now be good enough to answer the question put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) about the reported exchange between Brezhnev and ex-Chancellor Brandt?

Sir Ian Gilmour

I have no information on that point.

Mr. Raymond Whitney (Wycombe)

May I welcome the Afghan initiative, which some of us have been urging on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for over a year, but will my right hon. Friend accept that what was needed—and after the Moscow visit is needed perhaps even more—is a much wider mobilisation of international opinion generally, so that the pressure of that opinion on the Soviet Union is as great as it was in the case of Rhodesia? Does he accept that what was granted through the Lancaster House talks to the people of Zimbabwe could, through a widely based international initiative, be achieved for the people of Afghanistan?

Sir Ian Gilmour

Obviously I sympathise with my hon. Friend's general argument, but he will be aware that at the first discussion of the matter at the United Nations 104 nations condemned the Soviet invasion and that at the next 111 did so. There is, therefore, a wide measure of international condemnation of the Soviet Union. As my noble Friend's visit made clear, we shall continue our efforts to keep the subject before all international forums and before the bar of world opinion.

Mr. Frank Allaun (Salford, East)

Before the talks, Mr. Brezhnev offered a moratorium on medium-range missiles in Europe. Did the right hon. Gentleman see the report of Mr. Abartov, the leading Soviet disarmament expert, who offered to go further and consider the reduction or removal of the SS20s already in Europe?

Sir Ian Gilmour

It is, in fact, the deployment of the SS20s that has largely created the problem. It would, indeed, be entirely right for the Soviet Union to take them away, and we should certainly welcome that.