HC Deb 09 May 1983 vol 42 cc703-6

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Goodlad.]

9.43 pm
Viscount Cranborne (Dorset, South)

I do not know whether the House, after the extraordinary events of the past few hours, can cast its mind back to March, which seems now a long time ago. I then put down an early-day motion in the names of myself and others of my right hon. and hon. Friends. To my delight, but not to my surprise, I saw, as the days went on, that the early-day motion had attracted no fewer than 189 signatures from right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House.

At the risk of seeming invidious, I must say that I believe that it is remarkable that any motion should attract the enthusiastic support of so diverse a range of opinion as from my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Sir J. Biggs-Davison) to the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan). That was the achievement of the motion. It is worth considering why the motion attracted such support. It called for the institution of a period of free post for Poland. A period of four months was suggested. As a result of the enthusiasm demonstrated by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, I have been emboldened to ask for this debate. Why did it attract this support?

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South-West)

It was a very good motion.

Viscount Cranborne

I thank my hon. Friend. It was a good motion. After all, he helped me to draft it.

The motion attracted that support because the whole House is more than aware of the extraordinary plight of the people of Poland. We have read about that plight in our newspapers and seen it on our television screens month after agonising month. It is surely evidence enough of the desire of the people of this country to support the people of Poland in their agony that we should be here in such numbers, at least on the Conservative Benches, to support a further plea to the Government.

My plea is based not on the fact that no support is going to the people of Poland. The reverse is the case. There is an impressive list of items of aid from the European Community as a community. There is a long and no doubt boring list of goods that have been sent from this country under the EC programme. I shall give two examples—nearly 500,000 tonnes of barley and about 500,000 tonnes of other grains from this country. All that is under the EC programme, and is very laudable. In addition, I notice that Her Majesty's Government have joined our partners in the Community as well as those in NATO to encourage the increase of aid through voluntary agencies, which is laudable. I am sure that the whole House will support that increase.

How are we to go about increasing the aid? Many voluntary agencies are carrying aid to Poland at the moment. All of us know of the voluntary agencies that take lorries to Poland month after month. Goods to an enormous value have been conveyed in that manner. However, there is no doubt that it is becoming increasingly difficult to deliver those goods, particularly to the remote parts of Poland that are now suffering so badly. Equally, the overheads associated with the transport of the goods are increasing rapidly. It is increasingly doubtful whether all the goods will reach the destinations that they should reach as the authorities become more suspicious of the good work that is being done.

There is, however, another way in which we can help the Polish people. That way is simply the institution of a period of free post. I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friend will accept my word for it, but in case they do not I shall pray in aid perhaps the greatest authority to support my contention—the Roman Catholic Church in Poland. If right hon. and hon. Members were to have the opportunity of consulting, for instance, Bishop Wesoli, the primate of Poland's delegate to the Vatican, they would be told without hesitation that by far the most effective way of helping the Polish people would be the institution of a period of free post.

My proposal would help the Polish people in two ways. First, it would help their morale, which is at rock bottom. Polish people say that their country is a country without hope. The arrival of parcels from every quarter of the United Kingdom would provide a boost for morale unequalled since other countries in the European Community themselves instituted a period of free post. Secondly, it would give practical aid. We could be sure that the parcels would arrive—an important point—and this would be the most cost-effective way of making sure of that.

Those who will not believe the Roman Catholic Church in Poland could consult the EC countries which have tried the free post themselves—Sweden, Germany, and Italy. Germany had two periods of free post during 1982 and sent no fewer than 8 million parcels of food, medical supplies and clothing to help the Polish people.

What have the Government done, outside their EC role? They have done quite well. They gave £11,500 to the Ockenden Venture, a well-known and admirable charity. They also managed, I am told, to divert towards medical supplies £1,500,000 from the £65 million of credit that was already committed to Poland. That is splendid. However, in view of their commitment to increase the aid through voluntary agencies, have they really done enough? When taxed with that question, how do my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Government reply? Their reply is the same as that of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House of Commons when pressed on this matter during business questions before Easter. His reaction — expressed, of course, with his usual elegance—reminded me of that of a houseproud householder looking at something nasty that the cat had brought in. He intimated that it would be too expensive. He also took an argument from the script of "Yes, Minister", employing the theory of the thin end of the wedge. The Government argument has been that if we give free post to Poland there is no reason why we should not give it to everyone else as well. However, not every country is capable of receiving a free post, and there is no guarantee that, just because it would suit Poland, it would suit every developing country.

The Government must reconsider the question. In case they cannot see the merits of my proposal simply from my arguments, I shall finish by appealing first to the Government's more unworthy instincts — all Governments, however excellent, have such instincts—and secondly to their more worthy instincts. First, I ask the Under-Secretary of State for Industry—who will reply to the debate with his usual eloquence, I am sure— to consider the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway). Those who do not know my Friend as I know him sometimes tell me that he sits for a critical, marginal constituency. That is quite untrue. However, I should like to point out to the Minister that the number of Poles resident in my hon. Friend's constituency exceeds his present majority.

I also suggest that there is a more noble way of looking at this problem. We owe a great debt of gratitude to the Poles, 16,240 of whom died defending this country during the last war. We would not have won the Battle of Britain had Polish pilots not come to our aid. I know that gratitude is not something from which international relations or countries that conduct them suffer. Indeed, we need only look at the treatment of the Poles in 1945 to realise that we did not suffer from it either. However, I suggest that in the dying days of this Conservative Government, in the brief moment of electioneering that will elapse before the next Conservative Government, it might be a worthy gesture, indicative of many of the good things that we know will flow from that Government, if we go out on a final decision that tells the world that we at least do not forget our friends and that we repay our debts.

9.56 pm
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

The initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Cranborne) is most welcome to the people of Poland, particularly to the large community of expatriate Poles in my constituency and the London borough of Ealing who have worked to support their mother country in a noble way.

I have had the honour to present to the Prime Minister and others three enormous petitions on this issue from people in my constituency—expatriate Poles and others who rightly support their cause. May Day in Poland had to be seen on television to be believed. We saw the police with their truncheons and water cannon displaying savage pressure against a people who were striving to express their spirit, as Polish people do everywhere. Is there any wonder that at present morale in Poland is low, given the pressure that the people are encountering from their own Government and police force as they strive to move towards a more open society in which they are free to say what they think, just as we are in this country?

It is our business and duty to support those in our own community who seek to sustain that morale at a critical time in the history of Poland. Such support may come from trade unions, the churches or all sections of the community, but it is our business to stand by Poland today.

Martial law has depressed the Polish nation even further than it was depressed before the present difficulties—[Interruption.] The fact that martial law is maintained in such a vigorous and ruthless way is not a subject for chi-iking by Labour Members. Instead, it is a matter for shame, and it is our business to stand for Poland.

There is a continuing shortage of food and other supplies to Poland, but that has been substantially overcome by massive aid from our own country. Smaller things, such as letters from friends here, will go a long way towards sustaining the morale of that nation. That must be our business as the greatest nation of free people in the world.

The Polish community in Ealing has a marvellous record of help to their brothers and sisters in Poland, and I am proud to be able to say that. If this great cause received the same help from every other constituency, the people of Poland would be even more strongly sustained. Rather than gibing, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) should support people who want to be, should be, and deserve to be, free. The thought in Polish people's minds that people from Britain will write them letters and send them parcels will be of incalculable value to Poland.

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.