HC Deb 01 May 1984 vol 59 cc209-25 4.35 pm
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

With permission Mr. Speaker, I will deal with the foreign relations aspects of the subject on which my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has just made a statement.

The so-called Libyan people's bureau dates back to 2 September 1979. At that time, a series of self-styled revolutionary committees took over Libyan embassies in London and in at least eight other western European capitals. After long negotiations with the Libyan authorities, we and the other Western Governments concerned, working together, in June 1980 recognised one official in each people's bureau abroad as equivalent to a head of mission. At the same time, we and the other countries agreed to treat the people's bureaux as diplomatic missions.

During this period, Her Majesty's Government took firm action against those Libyans who infringed our laws. In June 1980, Mr. Musa Kusa, the newly accredited secretary-general of the Libyan people's bureau, stated publicly his approval of the killing of Libyan dissidents in the United Kingdom. On the following day, my predecessor required him to leave the country forthwith. With the co-operation of the Home Secretary, three other Libyans were also expelled.

In November 1980 the two children of a Libyan dissident were poisoned in Portsmouth. As a result of that crime, four Libyans—none of whom had any diplomatic status—were convicted and sentenced to long terms in prison. In purported retaliation, the Libyans expelled three members of the British embassy staff in Tripoli and an attempt was made to burn down the embassy building.

Throughout the next three years, the behaviour of the Libyans remained unpredictable and sometimes very difficult. On many occasions, the Libyans made hostile threats in characteristically intemperate language. There were, however, no further incidents of comparable gravity to those of 1980.

Then, in the middle of February this year, a group calling itself the committee of revolutionary students announced that it had taken over control of the Libyan people's bureau in London. Since that date, no member of the new revolutionary committee, nor any other Libyan, has been given any form of diplomatic status. We made it plain to the Libyans, both in London and Tripoli, that unless and until they took steps to establish a customary diplomatic mission, we would not be willing to deal with them on a normal basis.

On 10 and 11 March there was a series of bomb explosions in London and Manchester. In close consultation with the Home Secretary, and with the police and prosecuting authorities, those events were thoroughly investigated. Four Libyans are now in custody awaiting trial on serious charges. Six more were deported by the Home Secretary.

I must emphasise that none of these people had any form of diplomatic immunity, and that there was no firm evidence linking the people's bureau with those incidents. Nevertheless, I made it clear on 11 March, both in London and Tripoli, that the use of British territory for acts of terrorism by any foreign group was totally unacceptable, and that any repetition of incidents of that kind was bound to have a serious effect on our relations.

I now come to the period immediately before the murder on 17 April. Around midnight on 16 April two members of the Libyan people's bureau came to the Foreign Office. They told the duty officer that they had come to protest against a demonstration to be held next morning and to say that the Libyans would not be responsible for its consequences. This information was immediately passed to the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police, which both already had knowledge of the planned demonstration. Our ambassador in Tripoli was also summoned after midnight that day to hear a similar message from the Libyan Government that they would not be responsible for the consequences.

As my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary told the House on 25 April, such language has been repeatedly used by the Libyans in that context. The House should know that such night-time summonses were by no means unusual in Tripoli. When the ambassador commented that threats of violence did not impress the British Government the Libyan official said that no direct threat was intended.

The following day we were confronted with an unprecedented act of violence conducted from the diplomatic premises in the heart of London. My right hon. and learned Friend has reported on the events which ensued and on the action subsequently taken. I should like to add to my own profound expression of sympathy to the family of Yvonne Fletcher, who so tragically lost her life.

As my right hon. and learned Friend has already told the House, the expulsion of the staff and occupants of the Libyan people's bureau was completed on 27 April. On the same day our own embassy staff and families were also safely withdrawn from Tripoli. I should like to pay tribute to the calm and courageous way in which the ambassador and his staff, and their families, have conducted themselves throughout. I should also like to express our thanks to the Italian Government for agreeing to act as protecting power.

The House will wish to know that the embassy premises in Tripoli, which are the property of the Libyan Government, have been cleared of all classified material. The premises are now in the hands of the Italian Government as protecting power. The Libyan authorities have conducted a search of the premises. I have so far received no report that any damage has been done.

We have made it clear to the Libyan authorities that we hold them responsible for guaranteeing the continued safety of the British community. Two British embassy officials have remained behind to man the newly established British interests section of the Italian embassy. Their first task has been to continue to press for the release of those British citizens who are unjustifiably detained in Libya. The Italian ambassador yesterday reinforced the urgent representations which had already been made on numerous occasions by our departing ambassador.

We are urgently reviewing all existing contracts for the supply of defence equipment to Libya. There can be no question of allowing any fresh exports of that kind. As my right hon. and learned Friend has told the House, we have also terminated the training of two Libyan officer cadets at Dartmouth.

These brutal and unprecedented events underline dramatically the changed world in which we now live. The implications of international terrorism, of course, spread far beyond the diplomatic field. In this recent case in London the basic problem arises from conflict between those supporting the Libyan regime and those opposing it. We cannot, and will not, permit foreign countries to export their internal disputes to the streets of London in this way.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and I maintain close co-operation, which we have had throughout, to deal with this threat.

I turn now to the questions most directly concerned with diplomatic relations. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary told the House last Wednesday, I have instituted a full review of the Vienna convention, its operation and enforceability. I shall report the outcome of this review to the House. The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs may well wish to study the same question, which I would welcome.

But it is not enough simply to await the outcome of the review. We are therefore taking immediate unilateral action to strengthen control over the operations of foreign missions in this country.

The ultimate sanction is of course the complete severance of diplomatic relations, as has been done in the present case. But this is an action that should be taken only in the plainest possible case. This is not a question of diplomatic nicety. This concerns the way in which Her Majesty's Government discharge their responsibility for the protection of many thousands of British subjects who live their lives, often in the furtherance of Britain's worldwide trading interests, in every corner of the globe. In all too many places, the conditions which they have to face are anything but safe. It is precisely in such places that the protection of Her Majesty's Government is most necessary.

There are up to 10,000 Britons resident in Libya. It is the second largest Western European community in that country.

I recognise very plainly the anger that every British citizen must feel in the present case. I share that sense of anger. That is one good reason why decisions of this kind should be taken only after a full and proper appreciation of the interests of our country and our citizens around the world. This explains why the severance of diplomatic relations is such an exceptional event. No British Government have done this previously in response to abuse of immunity.

The House may be interested to compare our reactions to Libyan provocation with those of some other countries in a similar plight. The United States embassy in Tripoli was burnt down in December 1979, yet it was not until 1981 that diplomatic relations were suspended. Even then they were not broken.

The French embassy in Tripoli was burnt down in 1980. Libyan and French troops to this day confront each other in Chad. Yet diplomatic relations continue. In the case of more than one country the Libyans have taken hostages, who have been exchanged for convicted Libyan prisoners without provoking a break in diplomatic relations. The British response in the present case has been stronger than that of any other country in comparable circumstances.

It is obviously right to consider whether other measures short of a break in diplomatic relations may be appropriate on such occasions. It has, for example, been asked whether effective measures can be adopted to prevent abuse of the diplomatic bag without requiring any amendments to the Vienna convention. The convention provides that diplomatic bags shall not be opened or detained". The question of scanning bags is not expressly covered. There is argument whether this is permitted or not. The practice of nearly all states is, in fact, not to scan. Our own practice hitherto has been never to allow our own bags to be scanned, nor to scan the bags of others.

This topic is currently on the agenda of the United Nations International Law Commission. We have more than once considered whether any change of practice is desirable. Any such change would inevitably take place on a reciprocal basis. We have to decide in these cases how best to protect British interests, in particular the security of our essential communications. Another sanction is the expulsion of any diplomat who abuses his status.

We can take similar action against other staff of a diplomatic mission who do not have full diplomatic status but nevertheless enjoy immunity. Normally we take such action where there is evidence of personal conduct incompatible with diplomatic status. From now on, we shall go further. We shall be ready to use this power as an exemplary measure against any mission that the Government have good reason to believe is responsible for unacceptable activities in this country.

We also have the power to set limits to the size of diplomatic missions and to refuse to accept as having diplomatic status any premises of a mission which are not in our view being used for diplomatic purposes. We now face a wider threat from international terrorism. We shall not hesitate to use our powers to prevent the abuse by missions of their diplomatic status in connection with terrorist activities.

We have ourselves decided upon this action in response to the changing threat of international terrorism. But we do not propose to leave the matter there. I have already raised the issue with our European partners, and shall be pressing it again at the Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels next week. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister intends also to raise the question for consideration at the London economic summit in London in early June. The most effective answer to international terrorism is international action taken collectively by the major countries. We have taken the firmest action so far of any country faced with these threats, and shall continue to press for similar action on an international basis.

Mr. Denis Healey (Leeds, East)

Both The Times and the Daily Telegraph have described the episode to which the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary have addressed themselves as a humiliating defeat for Britain. I think that that must be the view of the majority of hon. Members on both sides of the House—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I think that the Foreign Secretary and his predecessors must accept a large share of the responsibility for this humiliation. The miserable story that the Foreign Secretary has recounted would, in a more robust age, have been regarded as grounds for impeachment. [Interruption.]

The Foreign Secretary has made it clear in his statement that, since the end of 1979, the Libyan Government changed the status of its diplomatic mission into that of a people's bureau. That mission has been the centre for organising criminal acts against people living in this country, many of which have led to deaths by poison, by bombing or by gunfire. In 1980, President Gaddafi compiled a list of opponents living in other countries who were marked down for murder. In that year he sent death squads roving the countries of Europe and the middle east to carry out these sentences of death. The first victims in Britain, as the Foreign Secretary told us, led to the expulsion of the head of the people's bureau and certain other Libyans.

A couple of years later, it was discovered that the weapons used in the killing had been sold to the murderers by a British arms dealer for £80,000. No public attention was drawn to that fact. The arms dealer simply received a fine of £4,500, yet the people's bureau continued its actions.

In 1983 Mr. Sodami, with three other members of the bureau, organised 60 activist students living in this country to exercise surveillance over opponents of the regime among the Libyans living here. They established liaison with extremist groups such as the Workers Revolutionary party, for which they are thought to have provided money. No action was taken against Mr. Sodami at that time by the Government.

A few months later in February 1984, a coup occurred inside the mission. On that occasion, the Foreign Secretary called in some people who, I presume, were earlier members of the bureau. He made it plain in London and Tripoli: Unless and until they took steps to establish a customary diplomatic mission, we would not be willing to deal with them on a normal basis. The Government, however, continued to deal with the mission on a normal basis. A few weeks later, a series of bomb explosions occurred in London and Manchester in which 23 persons were injured. The response of the Foreign Secretary on 11 March was to make it clear that terrorism by any foreign group is totally unacceptable and any repetitions of incidents of this kind are bound to have a serious effect on our relations. The Foreign Secretary has often been described as having a laid-back style, but I suggest that this response to the bombings in London and Manchester was positively horizontal. According to the Foreign Secretary's account, a few weeks later he was warned by our embassy in Tripoli and the Libyan bureau in London that violence was likely to attend the demonstration before Easter. The police were told, but the implication of the Foreign Secretary's statement is that they were warned not to take those warnings seriously. The police were allowed to police the demonstration with an unarmed policewoman who stood during the demonstration with her back to the bureau.

The Foreign Secretary's behaviour throughout those four years, as he has described it to us, is not the first example of a failure to act on information available not through intelligence sources but through the press and the public. A Select Committee recently accused the right hon. and learned Gentleman of lethargy in a similar matter involving Grenada. I suggest that his behaviour towards the Libyan bureau in London showed cataleptic stupor. Warning after warning and act after act were totally incompatible with the position of any diplomatic mission in this country, and yet no effective action followed at any time.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Are we not reaching the point when a question might be asked?

Mr. Speaker

A very heavy day is in front of us. This is an important statement, but I hope that we can contain questions reasonably.

Mr. Healey

The Foreign Secretary read out 17 pages of a statement. I assure the House that, unless I am interrupted again by Conservative Back Benchers, I shall take no longer than the right hon. and learned Gentleman did in putting these points.

Does the Foreign Secretary really believe that we can allow diplomatic missions to behave in that way? Libya is not the only mission that has behaved in that way in recent years. The Iranian mission in London has been acting as a centre for harassment and in some cases has organised the beating-up of Iranian students in various cities. The same is true of the Iraqi embassy. The South African embassy has been allowing itself to be used as headquarters for the operation of the South African secret service against opponents of the apartheid regime in this country.

I shall discuss some of the facts that have come to light in this crisis. The other day the police told the Daily Telegraph that an arsenal of weapons existed in the bureau. We learned from this morning's newspapers that those weapons included gelignite. Why were 11 occupants of the bureau, who did not enjoy diplomatic immunity, sent back to Libya without any attempt having been made to establish whether they had shown complicity in the abuse of diplomatic status and in the murder? A moment ago, the Home Secretary told us that the police suspected that two members with diplomatic immunity were responsible, but the police did not know. When the men were sent back, the police had not completed their inquiries. They had not interviewed the person shown the other day on the television who was behind the policewoman when she was murdered. The police had not examined the embassy. It is clear from what the Home Secretary told us that a good deal of evidence was discovered during the examination.

There can be little doubt that some of the 11 occupants might have been involved in the accumulation of weapons in the embassy. No attempt was made to hold those people. The only excuse offered, under cover, by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is that it was frightened that, if we had taken any action against any abuse of diplomatic privilege by those people who did not enjoy immunity, some action might be taken in Libya against British citizens.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that that argument is an invitation to blackmail? It is simply telling any Government that, if they wish to murder people in Britain or to commit crimes against people in this country, they will get off scot free by threatening to do something to British civilians living and working in their country. That is precisely the action the Government have forsworn in the case of kidnapping. The Foreign Secretary's behaviour in allowing those 11 occupants of the embassy who did not enjoy diplomatic immunity to leave without examining their possible complicity in breaches of the law was improper, and I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will comment on that point.

What can we do to improve the position? There is some truth in what the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) said—the Foreign Secretary's account of some steps he proposes to take is locking the stable door when the horse has bolted. Hindsight is better than blindsight, and some action must be taken now to prevent a repetition of what happened in the case of the Libyans the other day. That action could happen in other embassies in the near future. I agree with the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Luce), that the Government should not break the law, and I hope that he sticks to that position. If the Government are not going to break the law, they must at least seek to change the law, which is patently inadequate.

Mr. Onslow

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I believe that I can pre-empt the hon. Member's point. The right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) has almost done his 17 pages. This is an important matter and many hon. Members wish to take part. I hope that the right hon. Member will bring his questions to a close.

Mr. Healey

With great respect, Mr. Speaker, the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary made it clear how important this matter is. They raised questions to which they refused to give answers.

A few moments ago, the Foreign Secretary told the House that he plans to consider whether any changes are required in the Vienna convention. How long will that consideration take? As I understand it, in a few months the International Legal Commission of the United Nations will have to put proposals to the General Assembly if any change of action is to begin this year. Does the Foreign Secretary intend putting proposals to the International Legal Commission and ensuring that they are considered in time to be put to the sixth committee of the General Assembly?

Secondly, the Foreign Secretary made it clear that electronic scanning was not excluded by existing law. It may well be that electronic scanning is not always capable of detecting every improper content of a diplomatic bag. However, it is far better to scan bags, if that is permitted, knowing that it may not be a perfect means of control, rather than allow weapons and other illicit matter to be passed in the bag with full diplomatic immunity.

I must put a final question to the Foreign Secretary—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The right hon. Member has been speaking for the best part of 20 minutes. I must ask him kindly to bring his remarks to a close.

Mr. Healey

Is there any truth in the stories widely reported in the newspapers and on radio and television today that the American Government are approaching their allies with a view to co-operation in illegal action designed to overthrow the Gaddafi regime? There have been reports on the radio this morning from America that a proposal—[Interruption.] Conservative Members must ask for a reply to that question. They may remember a reply to a similar question that I asked the Foreign Secretary not long ago about American action in Grenada.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that to use illegal action to try to bring international anarchy under control would be to damage international law and the prospects for world peace far more seriously than anything that happened in St. James's square the other day?

I accept your requests, Mr. Speaker, that I should bring my remarks to a close. I shall simply ask the Foreign Secretary whether he believes that his record on this or any other matter justifies confidence in the House or outside that he will protect the country's national or international interests in this and many other matters. Four years of recklessness and lack of grip have profoundly disturbed the British people.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Although the right hon. Gentleman is dealing with a matter that the whole House recognises as being of great importance, the scale of his so-called questions, far exceeding the length of my original statement, shows that in this, as in so many other respects, he has lost every sense of proportion and is entirely at sea. A number of the questions that he deigned to ask towards the end of his long statement have been answered more than once by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary—for example, he has demonstrated clearly why scanning, for the reasons that he gave, would be ineffective in most circumstances, and stated that the matter had been considered.

In my original statement I made it plain that I would be reporting to the House on my review of the Vienna convention as soon as I was in a position to do so; that I should welcome the intervention of the Select Committee on Foreign affairs, and that I should also be taking other international action in respect of the convention.

With regard to action following the bombing in the middle of March, I made it plain that, apart from the strongest possible diplomatic representation at that time, the Home Secretary and myself, acting and appraising the evidence together, took firm action to secure the deportation of six people at that time. Further deportations have been announced by my right hon. and learned Friend today. We shall continue to take action along those lines resulting from that incident or any other.

The right hon. Gentleman asked another question that has been answered many times by my right hon. and learned Friend: Why were people, not enjoying diplomatic immunity, sent back to Libya with others at the conclusion of last week's events? The answers given by my right hon. and learned Friend were that, first, without the cooperation of those within the people's bureau it would not have been possible to gather sufficient evidence to proceed against them. Secondly, and far more importantly, in taking the extremely difficult decisions that had to be taken by my right hon. and hon. Friends during the course of the past 10 days, one of the matters that they had to take into account—it would have been irresponsible not to do so—was the safety not just of our diplomats but of the large British community in Libya, a number of members of which are already unjustifiably detained. Far from the handling of that matter being regarded as a humiliating defeat, the feeling has been widely expressed in the House that my right hon. and learned Friend's handling of the matter has been conspicuous for its skill and courage.

In his wide-ranging remarks at the beginning of his questions, the right hon. Gentleman suggested that for years squads under orders from Colonel Gaddafi to do a series of alarming things have been roaming the countries of Europe. There is no doubt about the dangers that we all face in that respect. They are the dangers with which we have been grappling. It is significant and noteworthy that at no stage during the years that those gangs were roaming, as the right hon. Gentleman said, or during the weeks since the incidents took place in March, did he raise the subject in the House.

Today the right hon. Gentleman, as Shadow Foreign Secretary, with many years' experience in the high offices of state, during which behaviour of this kind has occurred, raising these questions in relation to many other countries, suggests for the first time that diplomatic relations should be broken off with no fewer than three countries. His contribution to the exchange this afternoon has been wholly undistinguished save by its recklessness.

Sir Peter Blaker (Blackpool, South)

Before the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) began to ramble so badly, my right hon. and learned Friend described graphically to the House—I congratulate him on the length of his memory—the threat that every developed country in the free world faces from Colonel Gaddafi's Libya. Apart from the United States, which has suspended diplomatic relations, can my right hon. and learned Friend say which of those countries has expelled the Libyan mission?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The United Kingdom is the only European or industrial country that has taken that step, as I said in my original statement. It is right to add, of course, and the House may not be surprised by this, that a number of Arab countries have expressed a similarly severe view of the conduct of the Libyan Government. At least one, which has had its embassy in Libya burnt down, no longer has representation there.

Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

Why was the bureau allowed to continue operating for two months after the ousting of the four accredited diplomats in mid-February and before the shooting outrage, without the Foreign Secretary knowing who was in charge of it? Has that happened in the case of any other embassy in London? Why were steps not taken to close the bureau until such time as the Libyan Government supplied a fully accredited representative? Does he accept that public anxiety about this matter will not be allayed by an internal inquiry by those responsible for the intelligence services into their own activities and that, therefore, an independent inquiry as demanded by both sides of the House will be necessary?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

On the first point raised by the right hon. Gentleman, if he had listened to my statement he would have understood that the events that he described were paralleled precisely by those that took place at the time of the original establishment of the Libyan people's bureau. The revolutionary committee ousted the then ambassador and took over the embassy under the name of the people's bureau. It was with those circumstances that this country and eight other European countries were having to cope in determining what should thereafter happen. That position persisted from September 1979 until May 1980 before it was resolved.

Revolutionary committees were involved in both cases and the right hon. Gentleman may have the greatest difficulty in distinguishing between one revolutionary committee and another, as I have, but I am afraid that the circumstances were closely similar to those that existed between 1979 and 1980.

In regard to the inquiry, I have nothing to add to what has already been said by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend agree that no reasonable person would recognise in the unscrupulous hindsight of an almost interminable intervention by the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) the exercise, skilfully carried out and prudently pursued, of damage limitation conducted by the Government in a virtually impossible situation? Do I take it from his statement that my right hon. and learned Friend would welcome an examination by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs of the formulation of the concept of diplomatic immunity for the future and its application in the recent past?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his initial observations. On the second point, as I indicated in my statement, I would certainly welcome an inquiry by the Foreign Affairs Committee into the matters covered by the review I have in hand of the Vienna convention. As he and I can well imagine, that review might need to range over many of the topics suggested.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Is it the position of the Government that this Parliament is competent or not competent to legislate if necessary to alter the laws of diplomatic immunity in this country?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Some aspects are determined not by international law but by national law. There our freedom remains unfettered. In so far as they are determined by international law and in particular by treaties to which we are a party, we have to take account of those treaty obligations when considering the powers of this Parliament. That is why the process of change in something like the Vienna convention would be a matter for international negotiation. As the right hon. Gentleman repeats so frequently, in that respect, just as in the case of any other treaty to which this country is a party, the competence of this Parliament is limited, short of denouncing or determining the obligation. Because any change in such a convention is likely to take a long time I have thought it right today to announce further action being taken unilaterally by the Government forthwith within the limits of our power.

Sir Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

Is it not clear that any agreed change in the Vienna convention will not be easily obtained and might be impossible? If that is the case, will Her Majesty's Government consider proceeding unilaterally, whether by derogation from the existing convention or otherwise?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My hon. Friend knows well how seriously one has to consider the possibility of taking unilateral action in respect of a treaty. Plainly, it may have to be considered in certain circumstances but it is also important to remember that a multilateral convention of this kind must not be judged simply by the benefits that it confers on one country at one time. Part of the essential of such a treaty is that it confers rights and obligations multilaterally. Therefore, one needs to be very careful before deciding to depart from it unilaterally.

Miss Betty Boothroyd (West Bromwich, West)

Will the Foreign Secretary give some indication of the initial reaction of European Governments following the initiative that he took within the EC? Secondly, since taking that initiative, can he say which of the EC Governments have publicly condemned the act of violence and the abuse of diplomatic immunity within a member state? Thirdly, and finally, since some days have elapsed since the Government severed relations with the Libyan regime, can he tell us which of the EC Governments are supporting Britain's action by themselves either severing diplomatic relations with Libya or taking steps about the entry of Libyan nationals into EC countries?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The matter is still a relatively recent event in regard to other countries but my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have sent messages to a number of Governments seeking their support and interest in opposing the misuse of diplomatic premises for terrorism. We have sent messages to a number of Heads of Government with influence over Libya and have received public expressions of support from a large number of friends and allies — the United States, Canada, Belgium, Norway, Australia, Ireland and France, for example. The actions that will follow consideration by the European Community will have to be decided by the nations concerned.

Mr. Dennis Walters (Westbury)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept that, as the record of the Foreign Office in protecting and upholding British interests is first class, he is absolutely right not to be on the defensive about simplistic attacks from whatever direction they may be launched? Will he also reassure the House that changes in the Vienna convention will be pursued with the utmost vigour and that we may hope that some changes will be made relatively soon?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his opening remarks. I must come back to the point that he clearly has in mind, that to secure changes across the international spectrum in the existing provisions of the Vienna convention is likely to take some time. Some aspects of the convention are already being reviewed by international legal bodies. It is for that reason that I am seeking to secure a concerted response from the countries in the European Community and that my right hon. Friend will be seeking to secure a similar response from the countries attending the economic summit at the beginning of June. It is only if we are able to mobilise international opinion among leading nations that we shall get effective action quickly enough to change the convention. That is an additional reason for the decision I have announced today in respect of unilateral action on our own account.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

There has been a potentially explosive situation involving the Libyans for some time in this country. Can the Foreign Secretary tell the House what consideration he gave to the advantages and disadvantages of breaking diplomatic relations with Libya before this regrettable and tragic event?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

As I indicated in my original statement, the actual breach of diplomatic relations is a step taken only very rarely. It has been undertaken only by this country since the end of the second world war in only three cases—first, in respect of Albania; secondly, in respect of Uganda; and thirdly, in respect of Argentina. No previous Government have broken diplomatic relations on grounds of breach of diplomatic immunity of the kind with which we are concerned. Therefore, it would not be right to suggest that an actual breach of relations is something that has been under active consideraion throughout recent years. We have endeavoured instead to ensure that relations with Libya are conducted in an orderly fashion so that we may continue to enjoy the benefits of relations between the two countries.

Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson (New Forest)

Is it not totally unrealistic to believe that anything positive will flow from a review or renegotiation of the Vienna convention? Was that convention not agreed at a time when political power in the world was in the hands of a handful of European states? Would it not be wiser to address this problem by recognising that the best answer is improved intelligence-gathering, a much more positive attitude towards political activists from other countries and a greatly increased strengthening of the security forces within this country?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Obviously the last matters raised by my hon. Friend should be, and are, under consideration by my right hon. Friend and myself. Certainly the actions that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and I have announced for closer and more rigorous surveillance of diplomatic and non-diplomatic people in this country are a response of the kind that my hon. Friend is seeking. In regard to the Vienna convention, it is not by these standards an antique text. It dates from 1961 when the world had already begun to gather a large number of states far beyond the traditional European nations. So it is a relatively modern text. That does not diminish the force of the point that he makes, that it will be difficult to secure early changes. That is why I say again that we have decided to take action ourselves.

Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North)

What does the Foreign Secretary say about the allegation that the reason for the British Government's failure to respond quickly enough to messages between Tripoli and the people's bureau stems directly from the collapse of morale at GCHQ Cheltenham, which is not now functioning efficiently?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I say precisely what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in her letter to the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) earlier today. She said: On your specific point about GCHQ, I can assure you that GCHQ's operations and activities in this and other matters have been totally unimpaired by the recent changes at GCHQ. I am glad to have this opportunity of expressing the Government's appreciation of this fact.

Mr. George Walden (Buckingham)

Without wishing to sound cynical, does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that regimes such as Colonel Gaddafi's signed the last Vienna convention and will sign the next? Does he accept that the problems of enforcement will not be overcome because a veto will apply? We have seen how irresponsibly the Russians reacted to the event.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend therefore take with him to the meeting of Foreign Ministers in Brussels next week a firm proposal for an agreement between the Ten to react against any gross violation of diplomatic immunity—first, by an approach through the Presidency to the county concerned, secondly, by joint retaliation in all the capitals of the Ten against the country in question, and, thirdly, by political and perhaps economic sanctions?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I always respond without enthusiasm to any proposal for economic sanctions, for reasons well established by experience. Subject to that, I shall certainly consider my hon. Friend's suggestions. As he knows better than many in the House, we are living in a world in which the chances of relying effectively upon countries' commitments to international treaties are being increasingly diminished.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

Can the Foreign Secretary explain why arms contracts are still current between Britain and Libya in view of the unpredictable nature of the regime and what it has done over the years to the French and American embassies there?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Arms contracts and defence sales form a small part of our trade with Libya. They are subject, as are all such contracts, to strict control. Export licences are required and are considered on their merits. Licence applications for Libya are subject to particularly close scrutiny to ensure that no offensive equipment is sold.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend return for a moment to X-ray and electronic surveillance? We have heard the Home Secretary say clearly that the reason that it is inadequate is that weapons can be covered in other metals so that they may not be detected. If we have reason to believe that the Vienna convention is being breached, we are not able to search a diplomatic bag, nor are we not able to ask for it to be returned. If that is so, when there is suspicion about metal objects, should we not ask for the bag to be returned and be willing for exactly the same procedures to be used against our diplomatic bags in countries against which we have adopted that procedure? Surely that would go a long way towards giving an assurance that weapons are not being brought into this country illegally.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The difficulty about electronic surveillance of any kind, where there is a premise for the return of a bag, as my right hon. and learned Friend said earlier, is that the electronic surveillance can so easily be deceiving. Weapons can be covered in such a way as to disguise their presence. Even if one detects something that looks suspicious, the success of the operation relies on the ability to open the bag, which is not an option available at airport inspections.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman realise that his decision not to cancel immediately defence contracts with Libya is wholly unacceptable? Does he agree that he should have followed the example set by my right hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), when he immediately cancelled sales of arms to El Salvador in 1978?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman would be wise to reflect precisely on the implications of what he has just said. I have said that no further defence sales will be authorised. Defence sales that have taken place have frequently involved matters of which even the hon. Gentleman would find it difficult to disapprove. Instant cancellation of existing contracts could have serious repercussions on industrial opportunities in Britain.

Sir David Price (Eastleigh)

Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that about 8,000 British nationals live in Libya? In view of the highly tempestuous, revengeful and unpredictable nature of the Gaddafi regime, what advice is he prepared to give to our nationals about whether they should stay in Libya or come home?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I agree that there are upwards of 8,000 British citizens in Libya. As I said in my statement, we have made it clear to the Libyan authorities that we hold them responsible for the safety of the British community. We have made it clear that this is a quarrel between Governments and that the British community should not be regarded as being in immediate danger. We have also made clear our determination to press for the release of people unjustifiably detained by the Libyan Government. In addition, we have advised members of the British community in Libya to consider their position carefully. We keep in touch by broadcast messages.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

When considering whether to abrogate parts of the Vienna convention or to seek changes in it, will the Foreign Secretary bear in mind that these matters are reciprocal and that any actions that we take could have a detrimental effect on members of our diplomatic missions currently serving abroad?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He underlines an important point, which I have already made.

Mr. Derek Conway (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that those of us who have a personal experience of the beautiful country of Libya and its ugly regime welcome the considered steps taken by the Government? Bearing in mind the size of the British community in Libya, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that if he took the advice of the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) he would not be succumbing to blackmail but extending hostages to fortune to that wicked and evil regime? Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that he would be wise to disregard the right hon. Gentleman's advice?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am enthusiastically prepared to accept my hon. Friend's advice.

Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield)

What advice did the Foreign Office give the Home Office when it passed on the communication from Libya that the demonstration would not be tolerated and that our ambassador to Libya had been called to a midnight meeting in Tripoli? Did the Foreign Office advise the Home Office to take the threat seriously or to treat it lightly?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

As my right hon. and learned Friend said, it is not the practice to add to what has already been said about such matters. The style, attitude, language and pattern of the Libyan Government's performance was as well known to the Home Office and the police as it was to the Foreign Office.

Mr. W. Benyon (Milton Keynes)

I appreciate my right hon. and learned Friend's remarks about economic sanctions, but do not Colonel Gaddafi's powers stem entirely from oil revenues? What steps can be taken to try to achieve a Western boycott of Libyan oil?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I have no reason to suppose that the mobilisation of economic sanctions in relation to the regime, however unattractive it may be, will in the end prove any more effective than previous examples.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

In view of Colonel Gaddafi's support for the IRA, can the Foreign Secretary be satisfied that money is no longer corning from Libya to the United Kingdom to finance terrorism? What special discussions has he had with the Irish Government, with whom we share a common travel area, which might provide a backdoor entry for terrorists?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

It is not possible to give an unqualified assurance about the consequences of actions taken or promoted by the Libyan Government. Certainly, anything which gives support or comfort to the IRA is of equal concern to us and the Government of Ireland. It is a topic upon which we have close and regular consultation.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

As the Libyan regime made it abundantly clear at the weekend that it would give every possible help and assistance to the IRA, is there not an overwhelming case for considering whether we should put an immediate ban on current sales of arms and spares to Libya?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I have already answered that question more than once. No future contracts will be authorised. I told the House of the nature of the current contracts, all of which are being reviewed. I would not wish to go beyond that now, bearing in mind all the contractual and other implications of those existing contracts.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

As a reconsideration of the Vienna convention is likely to take considerable time, should not the Foreign Office take a more immediate approach and scrutinise much more carefully any proffered diplomatic staff before granting accreditation, with an increased possibility of rejecting some of them?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

As I said in my statement, we intend to exercise our powers within the existing limits of the Vienna convention as seriously and closely as we should in the light of the events.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend tell the House whether the Government have received support from Commonwealth countries, especially those in Africa?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

We have been in communication with some of them, but without notice I cannot give a direct answer. I shall write to my hon. Friend about it.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that, even if he stood at the Dispatch Box all day, he would never convince the British people of his case? The death of the young policewoman was appalling. Is he aware that Colonel Gaddafi has trampled over him, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister? Is he aware that one reason why the intelligence gatherers were not up to the mark was that the Government, with their Cobra meetings, were more interested in gathering intelligence about the movement of miners supporting their right to work?

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is miles away from the matter being considered. I call Viscount Cranborne.

Viscount Cranborne (Dorset, South)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the Government's conduct during this wretched affair after the shooting in St. James's square has been predictably brilliant and well balanced? However, will he assure the House that the Foreign Office was absolutely certain in February, when the explosions in London and Manchester occurred, that there was no connection, or shadow of a suspicion of a connection, between those explosions and the Libyan establishment in St. James's square? If there was such a suspicion, what steps of a robust nature were taken to deal with it?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Both my right hon. and learned Friend and I have made it clear separately today and last week that after the events surrounding those explosions in the middle of March his Department and mine were in the closest possible touch assessing the evidence in relation to all those who might qualify for deportation or other treatment. The prosecuting authorities were similarly involved in consideration of the evidence. We arrived at the conclusions jointly and after an assessment of all the evidence. At that time we both said that there was no firm evidence to link the explosions with the Libyan people's bureau. Further evidence now available may enable my right hon. and learned Friend and the police to take inquiries further in that and other directions.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. In the interests of balance, I shall call those who have been seeking to intervene, but I ask them to put their questions briefly.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

My right hon. and learned Friend referred to people being unjustifiably detained in Libya. Is he telling the House that British subjects are being detained without trial and, if so, how many?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

There are two such subjects detained without trial and one other in respect of whom we take the same view of the condition of his detention. We have been making the strongest possible representations on their behalf.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington)

In view of the considerable number of British citizens who hope to continue to live and work in Libya, is the Foreign Secretary aware that many people in the House and the country understand the firm but cautious nature of the Government's response to these difficult events? Will he put particular stress on the suggestions, already made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden), that the matter should be tackled resolutely and come high on the agenda both at the European Community and the London summit?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I certainly accept the importance of my hon. Friend's points.

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)

In case it may be forgotten, is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the country's admiration for the police operations in St. James's square is equalled by our high appreciation for the work done by our ambassador and diplomatic staff in Libya?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That opinion is widely shared and I shall pass it on to them.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

While welcoming the Prime Minister's undertaking to carry out a review, may I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to consider two matters concerning the police service? First, will he say whether the Foreign Office evaluation of the advance warning was conveyed to the Metropolitan police in an adequate fashion and, secondly, whether the decision to call off the police operation before it achieved a result was a political one or an operational police decision? Those issues should not be hidden behind intelligence matters but should be made public in the interests of police morale. Will the Foreign Secretary ensure that that is done?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The second point is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, who is directly responsible for handling matters in connection with the police. In answer to his first point, I have nothing to add to what my right hon. and learned Friend said.

Mr. Healey

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that his enthusiasm to accept that British civilians in Libya are hostages against the British Government applying British law to crimes committed by Libyan citizens in Britain is a surrender to blackmail and sets a dangerous precedent for dealing with other unscrupulous regimes? Secondly, will he answer my earlier question and tell the House whether he has information about the intention of the United States' Administration to use illegal or covert means to seek the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime? If so, will he assure the House that the Government will oppose it?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The second question scarcely arises from the events, and I have no information in that respect. I recall a speech made by Secretary of State Shultz on 5 April, in which he expressed United States anxiety that action should be taken by free countries in respect of international terriorism by Libya. In reply to his first question—

Mr. Healey

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that his readiness to accept that British civilians in Libya are hostages—

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The proposition implied in that question in the circumstances of this case, as it has been handled by my right hon. and learned Friend and others, is superficial and a quite unjust observation.