HC Deb 09 May 1983 vol 42 cc710-4

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

Dr. Jeremy Bray (Mortherwell and Wishaw)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall take the point of order out of the time for the Adjournment and, election or no, we want to be fair.

Dr. Bray

This is a business statement the contents of which it was impossible to anticipate. During the business statement it was possible to have some hurried consultation between the two sides of the House about the important statements that Ministers have undertaken to make that were not referred to by the Leader of the House. Would it be in order to ask the Leader of the House whether the Secretary of State for Industry intends to make a statement on steel before the Adjournment?

Mr. Speaker

That would not be possible at this stage.

Mr. Greenway

I simply conclude what I was saying by urging my hon. Friend to announce, on behalf of the Government, regular periods of free post to Poland.

10.11 pm
Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

Despite the frivolity from the Labour Benches when my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) was speaking, I am sure that on reflection the whole House will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Cranborne) for raising this matter on the Adjournment. The Leader of the Opposition, who is not with us tonight, said in December 1982 that the civilised world held its breath to see what might happen after the heroic exertions of the Polish people to establish their just rights. Any attempt from outside to interfere with the assertion of those rights, the rights of people to have free and independent trade unions along with other rights, would be a tragedy and a crime against the world. Hon. Members are asking what now can be done to help, and my hon. Friend has pointed the way in his speech tonight and in an early-day motion that I, among many others, supported.

I congratulate Her Majesty's Government on what they have done themselves and as a member Government of the Community in providing credits for the purchase of medicine and medical supplies and in supporting voluntary and Church agencies. It is not just because I am Roman Catholic that I say that the Church in Poland is the agency that is most likely to ensure that supplies do not get into the wrong hands. The Polish Red Cross, unfortunately, like Red Cross agencies in all totalitarian regimes, is an instrument of the state.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South brought out well the fact that parcels of food and clothes for Poland have a strong psychological influence, and this is a time when morale is low and new hope must be given. Her Majesty's Government and the Post Office can do something tonight to light a new candle of hope and to show our acknowledgement of our debt of honour to the people of Poland.

10.13 pm
Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South-West)

I intervene briefly to give my warm support to my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Cranborne) for his courageous persistence. He has not only tabled a well-drafted motion but has supplied us with this Adjournment debate. It is wholly appopriate that this should be one of the last things that this Parliament should turn its attention to. The success of the Government and their record should be judged not only by great acts on the world stage but by those little, long-remembered acts of kindness that show that they appreciate the things of enduring value and permanent importance. Poland has a proud but tragic history that should excite the respect, admiration and affection of our people.

I hope that in replying tonight the Minister will show that there is considerable sympathy with what my hon. Friend has advocated. I hope there will be a determination to show in a tangible and proper way that we are in spirit with the Polish people in their struggle—it is not the first struggle they have had for freedom and independence —and that we shall show that we remember that in the darkest days of the 20th century we came to their aid, as they came to ours.

Now, as the 20th century draws towards a fairly sombre close, we in this country are still with the Polish people, determined to help them, to acknowledge their plight and, as my hon. Friend has so lucidly and eloquently said, to bring a little light into the darkness and to light a candle to freedom in their name.

10.16 pm
Sir Victor Goodhew (St. Albans)

I cannot let this moment go by without saying how much I support my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Cranborne) in his Adjournment motion.

Early in the war, I was at Northolt when the Polish squadrons were formed. I saw those courageous men flying in and out of that airfield in Spitfires and Hurricanes, almost knocked to pieces. I saw them dumping on to the grass beside the runway aircraft with the undercarriage shot away and rushing up to find in the hangars other aircraft in which to take off. Their courage was great, and ever since I have known only too well what it must have meant to them to be in the situation that they now face.

I join my hon. Friends in their feelings that we should do anything possible, in the last few days of this Parliament, to help the Polish people. I am most anxious that this House should agree with my hon. Friend in his motion.

10.17 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Industry (Mr. John Butcher)

I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack), for Epping Forest (Sir J. Biggs-Davison), for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) and for St. Albans (Sir V. Goodhew) for their contributions, and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Cranborne), for his tenacity in pursuing the issue on the Floor of the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South asked the Government to consider the noble way—if I quote him accurately — to resolve the problem. He gently chided us for taking what I think he called a ministerial line. I think that he even mentioned the sins which are sometimes summarised in the programme "Yes Minister".

I refer my hon. Friend to a noble man, an honourable man and, indeed, an hon. Gentleman — his great grandfather the third Marquess of Salisbury who, as I am sure my hon. Friend will be aware, wrote a very interesting piece in the "Quarterly Review" of 1863. Having seen that item of information—admittedly only three hours ago—I could not but be struck by the poignancy of its content and by the fact that what was written by my hon. Friend's great grandfather in 1863 seems to have an uncanny accuracy and a moral which could be re-examined in the context of 1983.

I hope that the House will bear with me for a few moments while I refer my hon. Friend to his great grandfather's words. He wrote: The virtues the Poles have displayed and the sufferings through which they have been made to pass through the last half century have called forth a unanimity of sympathy from all civilised nations which even the Italian movement failed to command. Whatever its issue may be—and the prospect is far from cheering—the incidents of this struggle are much more heart-stirring than those which made Garibaldi into a hero. The tyranny has been more savage and more powerful, the endurance has been more unconquerable, the supreme effort has been more despairing, and the ultimate results to which it may lead are far wider in their range. Were the House not constrained to the subject of the provision of a free postal service, those hon. Members who have taken an interest in modern history and in the history of central and eastern Europe would find in each of those nine or 10 sentences a rich vein to be mined For debate on Poland's current irony. Lord Cecil writing in 1863 would have been delighted to see his offspring repeating some of those sentiments on the Floor of the House in 1983.

During the past half century — the Polish nation rediscovered itself as a nation which was then reabsorbed into one form of totalitarianism only to experience brief freedom before being absorbed back into another form of totalitarianism. My hon. Friends have done justice to the House by reminding us that there is something unusual in our affection for those people. As someone who was born into an Air Force family, I tell my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans that I, too, although unfortunately I could not witness the events, have been left in no doubt, after listening to tales in Air Force talking shops, that the Poles were fanatical in their opposition to Nazism. They lost many aeroplanes because they took great risks. Their bravery was almost foolhardy. They had great courage. Many of the children of those pilots are living in England today, not least in my constituency and the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North The debate proposes a method which the United Kingdom could perhaps use to help replace some of the debts that we owe to Poland in terms of lives lost and to show, dare I use the word, solidarity with the principles which the Polish people so fondly wish to keep alive. I fully understand the wish of my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South and other hon. Members of the Government to see as much consideration as possible given to the Polish people. They have endured great hardship. They are now constrained by the dictates of a military Government who, with the full backing and support of the Soviet Union, have imposed their will by force against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the Polish people.

As the demonstrations in Poland on 1 and 3 May revealed, this rule is actively opposed by the vast majority of Poles who seek the establishment of a freer and more just society. As the House is aware, Britain and its partners have condemned in the strongest terms the imposition of martial law in Poland. We have repeatedly called upon the Polish Government to honour their undertakings to re-establish civil liberties in that country and the process of reform as rapidly as possible. In pursuit of these objectives, the Government have taken several practical measures against Poland and the Soviet Union both as a mark of our disapproval of the developments in Poland and as a sign of our willingness to go further in the event of more overt Soviet intervention. At the same time, through the provision of humanitarian aid and in other ways, Britain has sought to demonstrate to the Polish people the anxiety and sympathy to which their plight gives rise in the West.

Against that background, I turn to the specific proposal that my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset South has placed before the House. The Government are aware of the high degree of interest in the proposal for a free post to Poland. That fact is most vividly confirmed by the number of signatures which my hon. Friend's early-day motion attracted. We have, accordingly, carefully examined the possibilities and arguments for such a project.

It may be helpful if I set out some of the considerations against which the proposal has to be judged within the context of our overall policy towards Poland. I emphasise the importance that the Government have attached to the provision of humanitarian aid to Poland. Immediately following the imposition of martial law, we and our European partners agreed to provide two million ecus, about £1.2 million, to help to alleviate the material difficulties in Poland at that time and the Polish people's isolation from the outside world. Those funds were channelled entirely through non-governmental agencies. I fully understand the reservations of my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South about the use to which even the Red Cross can be put in eastern Europe.

That aid was followed in February 1982 by the decision of EC countries to provide further funds for the purchase of essential foods and medicines for Poland. My hon. Friend spoke of the diversion of £1,500,000 from the figure of £65 million of credit to medical supplies for Poland and said that we have given help to the Ockenden Venture in two sums of £5,000 and £6,500.

In contributing that aid, our objective has been to help those in Poland most in need of the necessary food and medicines that we in the West take for granted. We have also given thought to those in this country who have wished to volunteer aid and one of the main aims of the co-ordination activity that I have mentioned has been to enable the smaller charities and local appeal groups to pool their resources with the larger agencies, thereby helping to reduce the cost of arranging and transporting aid donations to Poland.

That co-ordination has also helped to establish a secure and reliable mechanism to ensure that aid from the United Kingdom reaches those in Poland for whom it is intended. Although the Polish authorities have forbidden the transportation of individually addressed parcels through those channels, we understand that many of the voluntary agencies have been prepared to help by collecting and adding individual contributions to their aid and by giving them to the Polish Church for distribution in Poland.

In answer to a specific question from my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South, I should say that the feedback that we have received, particularly from the Church aid agencies in Poland, but also from other agencies, is that the remote areas to which my hon. Friend referred are receiving the aid that was designated for them. No doubt my hon. Friend and I can take up that matter, in one capacity or another, in the next Parliament.

It is against that background that I approach, with a little difficulty, the proposal for a free post for Poland. My hon. Friend has commented on such schemes that have been operated by some of our European partners. A few countries have granted temporary concessions on postal tariffs to Poland, but that has not become a widespread or standard practice.

We understand that Sweden ran a free parcel post to Poland during the first nine months of 1982, but has since ended the concession. The Federal Republic of Germany introduced a free post from February to June 1982 and reintroduced it in November-December 1982 for Christmas parcels. That scheme was similarly closed at the end of 1982. Of our other Community partners, Italy and Luxembourg introduced schemes for three and two months respectively in 1982, but no longer operate the concession.

As far as we are aware, none of our Community partners which operated free post services in 1982 has firm plans to reintroduce them or to extend the concessions more generally. As far as we can discover, the position of Sweden seems to be similar. Indications from our other Community partners who have not introduced free post schemes suggest that there is no intention to bring them in at the present time or in the foreseeable future.

Any decision about the possible provision of a free post service to Poland must take into account the wider perspective, and a number of factors have to be considered. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Post Office receives many requests for special consideration from charities and other needy causes, both in this country and abroad. Internationally, there are regular requests for such consideration to be given to countries going through periods of particular economic hardship and, indeed, to Third world countries in general.

My hon. Friends have asked us to reconsider the case for a free post. I fully appreciate their anxiety. My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South may have heard much of this before, but we have been challenged to take up the cudgels again on behalf of the Polish people and I cannot say to him at this moment that I am prepared instantly to redefine policy in the final days of this Parliament. The best hope that I can offer him is that our successors in the next Conservative Government will look at the debate and may review the case sympathetically. It may be that they will decide that they should reassert the arguments of my hon. Friends and bring them to the attention of the authorities in the Post Office.

The European Community may be asked to take another look at the problem. In conjunction with our European Partners and at the request of the Commission or others, a review may be entertained. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South will not expect me to go further. I congratulate him on securing the Adjournment debate on the fourth anniversary of another historic event, which was the return of the Government on 9 May 1979.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.