HC Deb 27 November 1984 vol 68 cc779-82 3.32 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Richard Luce)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on the murder of our Deputy High Commissioner in Bombay.

Shortly before 0800 local time, or 0230 GMT, three shots were fired at our Deputy High Commissioner in Bombay, Percy Norris, on his way to his office. He was hit in the temple and the heart, and died in hospital at about 0845 local time. I am sure that the whole House will wish to register its deepest sympathy for and condolences to Mrs. Norris and her family.

We understand that no one has yet claimed responsibility for this cowardly and senseless murder. The House will be aware of reports that a man of European appearance was observed on the scene at the time of the killing, but I must emphasise that it is premature to speculate on who may have been responsible or what their motive may have been. The Indian police are making every effort to capture the assailant and are co-operating closely with our High Commission.

Upon learning of the assassination, the Indian Government immediately provided extra security for British diplomatic premises, including British Council offices. The Indian Prime Minister, Mr. Rajiv Gandhi, has expressed his deep distress at the tragedy and his condolences to Mr. Norris's family in a message to the Prime Minister.

Security arrangements for British officials serving overseas are a high priority and are kept under constant review in the light of the known threat. We take this matter very seriously. The House will forgive me if I cannot go into details, for obvious reasons. I can, however, say that the security of our Deputy High Commission in Bombay was inspected last year, and the recommendations have been carried out. More recently, the Indian authorities agreed to provide additional measures of their own. But I emphasise that it is not possible for diplomats, any more than politicians, to carry out their functions properly and to be assured of absolute security at all times.

As my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary has said, this appalling crime demonstrates once again the danger faced by members of the Diplomatic Service, along with others in public life, from acts of terrorism around the world, which we all strongly condemn.

Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)

The whole House shares the sense of horror and outrage at the brutal and senseless assassination of Mr. Percy Norris. I associate the Opposition with the sincere condolences expressed to Mrs. Norris and her family. This desperate murder underlines the increasing dangers faced by our diplomats, even in friendly countries. It should remind us all that security for our missions and representatives overseas must be appropriately tight.

It is suggested that there might be a connection between the murder and the press coverage in Britain of celebrations in Southall after Mrs. Gandhi's death. Have the Indian people been made sufficiently aware of the fact that such reports are the sign of a free press and not an endorsement of such behaviour by the British people?

Is the Minister satisfied that the protection of our missions from possible terrorist threats will not be in any way compromised by any cut in the Foreign Office budget? Will the Minister make it clear that no terrorists, whether here in Britain or abroad, will persuade this country and its Parliament to alter their friendship and long-standing links with the people of India?

Mr. Luce

I am sure that Mr. Norris's family will be extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the condolences he has expressed. Whatever the adjustments in the expenditure of the Foreign Office, which were announced last week, security remains the highest possible priority. Expenditure on security for the protection of diplomats in various parts of the world has increased considerably during the past few months and years, and, as far as we can see, that expenditure will continue to increase, because there are special dangers to diplomats in various parts of the world.

On the question of the views on Mrs. Gandhi's assassination which have been expressed in this country both in the press and by, I think, a tiny minority of Sikhs, I believe that the Government and people of India will be in no doubt of the views expressed by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I am sure that her statements echo the views of the majority of people in this country. Those who have been rejoicing at Mrs. Gandhi's death are only a tiny minority. We utterly and totally condemn those views.

There was at Mrs. Gandhi's funeral the strongest possible demonstration on behalf of all hon. Members of the great friendship between this country and the people of India. The Indian authorities have reacted solidly and sharply to the serious incident that took place this morning.

Sir Peter Blaker (Blackpool, South)

Conservative Members wish to be associated with my hon. Friend's expressions of sympathy to Mr. Norris's family and his tribute to the foreign service in the risks its officers run in carrying out their duties. Is the House right in interpreting my hon. Friend's answer to the questions asked by the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) as an assurance that, whatever the security measures deemed to be necessary, they will not be constrained by cost considerations anywhere in the world where they are required?

Mr. Luce

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his opening remarks. I give him a strong assurance that the highest possible priority will be given to the security of our diplomats in whatever part of the world they may be.

Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

I wish to associate myself with the expressions of shock at the criminal murder of Mr. Percy Norris. Only three weeks ago, on the day of Mrs. Gandhi's assassination, I arrived in Bombay to be met by Mr. Percy Norris and his wife. They assured me and took immediate care of my security and safety. They regarded themselves as being responsible for my safety until the time I left. Mr. Norris was a most unassuming and capable officer. Mr. and Mrs. Norris had arrived in Bombay shortly before my visit. They were both looking forward eagerly to serving this country in India, as they did. Mrs. Norris especially told me of her enthusiasm for her new task. I and I am sure the whole House would like to express our deep regret and sorrow to Mrs. Norris. I hope that she will be given strength during this period of trial.

I should like also to express our sympathy to Mr. Norris's driver, who had driven Mr. Norris and his predecessors for 20 years. I express also sympathy to the staff of the Deputy High Commissioner to whom Mr. Norris's death must have come as a great shock.

Mr. Luce

I am sure that Mrs. Norris and her family and the whole Diplomatic Service will be moved by the right hon. Gentleman's tribute and will be grateful to him.

Sir Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

I associate myself with the tributes paid to the Norris family. Does not this sad episode illustrate the dangers to which the foreign service officials are exposed and give the lie to the stories of diplomatic lassitude and luxury which some newspapers attempt to spread? Was Bombay considered to be a dangerous posting?

Mr. Luce

People are becoming increasingly aware of the difficulties and dangers that many diplomats face in some parts of the world. We remember the recent serious incident involving the British ambassador in Beirut.

The Indian authorities and ourselves have kept in close touch about any security threat. We believe that we were as aware as we could be, following the regular assessments, and I can add nothing more about that.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

Liberal and SDP Members extend their sympathy to the wife of Mr. Norris and to the Diplomatic Service, which must be grieving at the loss of a dedicated servant. Does the Minister agree that, despite that loss and the feelings aroused in the House, nothing must be said or done to call into question or doubt the capacity of India to pull together and to survive the shattering blow that it has recently experienced? Above all, nothing should be said in this country to cause any suspicion in India that we have anything but confidence in the Indian Government and people to overcome the problems of sectarian violence and religious and other rivalries and disputes. Despite our loss, that must be the main feeling coming out of the House.

Mr. Luce

I am sure that the views expressed by the right hon. Gentleman are those of the vast majority of hon. Members and of the British people. After this morning's tragedy, the Indian authorities extended to us the utmost co-operation in seeking out the assailants.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

As one who, like you, Mr. Speaker, holds Indo-British relations dear, may I be associated with the sentiments that have been expressed? Will my hon. Friend take pains to ensure that no inflammatory statements are made by members of Indian minorities in this country, because if such statements are relayed to India they may cause grievous problems and perhaps put British lives at risk? I accept what my hon. Friend said about security, but does he agree that, although expenditure on security has been increased, the nature of the threat has increased many times more?

Mr. Luce

I assure my hon. Friend that we constantly review and monitor the threat to our diplomats in all parts of the world, and will continue to do so.

On my hon. Friend's first question, all that I can do is to express the hope that no members of the British community will express views that will exacerbate the tensions that exist following the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi and this morning's tragic murder. I am sure that what my hon. Friend has said is an appeal which can go out from the House to the British people.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

In the light of the tragic and ghastly murder this morning, and in view of the understandable need to increase expenditure on security measures in defence of our staffs abroad, was not the Foreign Secretary's statement on the Foreign Office budget the other day all the more deplorable?

Mr. Luce

No. I have already made it plain in answer to an earlier question that the adjustments to the budget that were announced last week will have no effect on the priority that we give to security. I stress again that expenditure on security has increased, is increasing and, as long as we think it necessary, will continue to increase.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

Is my hon. Friend aware that a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation from this country was received in Bombay two years ago with tremendous warmth and friendship? We should be in no doubt that this shocking and dreadful atrocity does not reflect the views of most people in Bombay or in the rest of India.

Mr. Luce

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am sure that the horror that has occurred is as shocking for the people of Bombay and India as it is for us.

Mr. Mark Hughes (City of Durham)

We welcome the fact that security is to be extended to British Council activities in India, but how is it to be paid for when the budget has been reduced?

Mr. Luce

The security of British Council and, obviously, of diplomatic premises is the responsibility of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. That remains the case.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I must have regard to the succeeding business. It is an Opposition Day and I have a large number of applications to take part in the debate.