HC Deb 18 November 1981 vol 13 cc270-3
10. Mr. Stan Thorne

asked the Lord Privy Seal if he will hold talks with his counterpart in the Union of Soviet Socialists Republic regarding ways of strengthening British-Soviet friendship.

11. Mr. Gwilym Roberts

asked the Lord Privy Seal if he will initiate bilateral talks with the Soviet Government aimed at encouraging co-operation and improving relationships between the two countries; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Humphrey Atkins

My right hon. and noble Friend had two meetings earlier this year with Mr. Gromyko, when they discussed a number of internationl and bilateral questions of mutual interest. The Government would certainly like to achieve a more constructive relationship with the Soviet Union, but bilateral relations cannot be divorced wholly from the international situation It would improve the atmosphere for future discussions if, for example, the Soviet Union were to take early steps leading to an acceptable and peaceful settlement to the problem of Afghanistan.

Mr. Thorne

In view of the continual reference by the Government to the Soviet Union as being the likely enemy in the event of a nuclear war, will the Minister say whether the discussions to which he has referred have given any hope that the Government's attitude in that regard is likely to change?

Mr. Atkins

If the hon. Gentleman is asking whether the discussions lead the Government to the conclusion that there is a likelier enemy, the answer must be "No".

Mr. Roberts

Will the Lord Privy Seal at least accept that the deterioration in East-West relationships over the last two years is a matter of great concern to the whole world? Will he welcome and support both the initiative taken by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition in Moscow last September and the zero option proposals which President Reagan is putting forward today?

Mr. Atkins

It is, of course, the Government's concern that relations between East and West should be improved where possible, and that is what we are striving all the time to do. If the visits by leading Opposition figures are helpful in this regard, we naturally welcome them.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the speech which is to be made very shortly by President Reagan. We have not yet seen the text of it, but I understand that it will make clear the importance of the United States' commitment to major reductions in the level of nuclear weapons. This is something that we have been seeking for a long time and to which we wholly subscribe.

Mr. Pawsey

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one way of strengthening Anglo-Soviet relations would be for the Soviet Union to stop seeking to intimidate the Polish people?

Mr. Ioan Evans

Like the Secretary of State for Employment.

Mr. Pawsey

Will he take the opportunity to give his support to the Polish people in their rightful aspirations?

Mr. Atkins

Yes, Sir. It has been a cardinal feature of

British foreign policy, under successive Governments, that other countries should have the right to self-determination, to decide how to run their own affairs, and that they should be able to do so without threats from outside. In so far as there are threats from outside to the aspirations of the Polish people, we naturally deplore them. We shall continue to pursue this policy.

Mr. Healey

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his

implicit rebuke to the Minister of State for describing the outcome of the visit to Moscow by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and myself as being simply ridiculous chatter. We are grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that.

The Opposition are as anxious as the Government appear to be to have an improvement in Soviet behaviour over Afghanistan and to see a peaceful and happy resolution of the problems in Poland, but will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that these matters will in no sense be treated by Her Majesty's Government as conditions for negotiations with the Soviet Union on the overriding question of arms control?

Now that President Reagan is committing himself to the zero option—which has been the unanimous policy of the Socialist parties in Europe for many months—will the right hon. Gentleman cease the timid, sullen and reluctant acceptance of this concept, which he betrayed in the last debate on foreign affairs, and give it his full support?

Mr. Atkins

If the right hon. Gentleman will study what I said a few moments ago I think he will find that my remarks indicated that visits that were helpful were welcomed by the Government. That does not mean to say that I think that his visit was helpful.

As I said earlier, while we believe that steps by the Soviet Union to bring about an acceptable settlement in Afghanistan would be helpful to our relations, it does not mean to say that we break off relations unless and until they do. But if they would take those steps, I believe that our relations would improve dramatically.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will read again what I said in the foreign affairs debate on 5 November on the nuclear position in Europe. We want to have a level of forces at the lowest possible level. If that lowest possible level is zero, so much the better. I have said that to him from the Dispatch Box before, and I say it again. If the zero option can be achieved, no one will be more pleased than Her Majesty's Government and, I believe, the whole House.

Mr. Healey

I hesitate to intrude again on the private grief of the Government Front Bench. At least the right hon. Gentleman failed, in attempting to protect his hon. Friend the Minister of State, to endorse the offensive and mistaken remarks made on the earlier occasion.

With regard to the zero option, I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman has gone far enough to satisfy the House. The fact is that the whole of Europe, and world peace in—[HON. MEMBERS: "Question."]

Mr. Speaker

Order. We are not debating the matter. We are asking questions and hoping for answers—which of course will, I hope, be forthcoming.

Mr. Healey

I hope, Mr. Speaker, that your desires will be requited, as I hope that mine will, and that we shall get an answer from the right hon. Gentleman.

On this essential question of the zero option under which the Soviet Union would dismantle its SS20s in return for a decision by the Western Governments not to proceed with the cruise and Pershing deployment—[HON. MEMBERS: "Question."]—will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah!"]—that this will be the Government's prime objective in the forthcoming negotiations? Nothing less will satisfy Opposition Members.

Mr. Atkins

The right hon. Gentleman is trying very hard. He is not succeeding. Let me repeat that the Government's position is clear. We are for the maximum possible reduction in the level of nuclear weapons in Europe, by mutual agreement. I hope that that reduction can result in what the right hon. Gentleman calls the zero option. That would be the ideal. I have said that to him three times. I hope that he has got it.

Mr. Churchill

Is it not facile in the extreme of the Leader of the Opposition to make himself the advocate of the Kremlin's policy of a nuclear-free zone in Europe, so long as that is on the basis of the Soviets retaining east of the Ural mountains no fewer than 175 SS20 missiles with a range of 3,000 nautical miles, which would enable them to hold every city in Western Europe within their targeting? Could there be any more direct route to war than for that plan to proceed? Will my right hon. Friend, on the other hand, press to the maximum for the Western position of the zero option in the negotiations opening in Geneva?

Mr. Atkins

Yes, Sir. I hope that the Leader of the Opposition and the whole house will recognise that the zero option, which we all want, must be genuine, otherwise it is useless. By "genuine" I mean that Europe must be free of the possibility of attack by these weapons, from wherever they are launched.

Those who believe that by withdrawing weapons simply from the soil of Europe one attains that objective are very much mistaken, as my hon. Friend has pointed out.

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