HC Deb 23 April 1985 vol 77 cc743-8 3.30 pm
Mr. Denis Healey

(Leeds, East) (by private notice) asked the Foreign Secretary if he will make a statement on the expulsion of Soviet diplomats from London and the Soviet response.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

Our policy towards the Soviet Union is consistent and clear, and has been made clear to the Russians on numerous occasions including most recently when informing them of the expulsions. We wish to improve relations with the Soviet Union. We have made considerable efforts in that direction which will be maintained, but they have been hampered by the unacceptable activities of certain Soviet officials in this country. In the circumstances, and in accordance with our long-established policy, we had no choice but to expel the officials concerned.

We deeply regret the retaliatory action taken against three members of the staff of our Moscow embassy. That was wholly unwarranted, and the accusations made against them without substance. We have protested strongly to the Soviet authorities.

There can be no relaxation of our policy where national security is concerned, but we shall continue our policy of seeking improved relations with the Soviet Union, and better relations between East and West.

Mr. Healey

The Foreign Secretary will recognise that the Opposition approve his attempt to improve relations with the Soviet Union and welcome the progress that he has made in recent weeks. That makes it all the more difficult to understand why he mishandled the case of the behaviour of Soviet diplomats. As I understand it, the Foreign Office made it clear last night that it was prepared to ask three of the Soviet diplomats engaged in illegitimate activities to leave without publicity, on condition that the Soviets did not expel British diplomats in retaliation. In that case, why did he not approach all five diplomats in the same way, when he might have received an acceptable response? He must recognise now that the way in which he mishandled the case—the fact that he has made a distinction between two expelled with publicity and three expelled with the promise of no publicity—is difficult not just for the Opposition but for foreign diplomatists in Moscow to understand.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I do not believe that the right hon. Gentleman can sustain that charge. When the Soviet ambassador was informed last Thursday, he was told that Captain Los, the assistant naval attache, who had been found to have engaged in activities incompatible with his status, should leave the country within seven days. He was further informed that Mr. Grigorov, a member of the staff of the Soviet airline Aeroflot, was also found to have engaged in unacceptable activities and that, if he were still in the country in seven days, measures would be taken against him.

The ambassador was informed at the same time that we wished the Soviet authorities to withdraw a further three officials within one month for activities again incompatible with their status and presence in this country. The Soviet ambassador was also told that if, in response to the expulsion of Captain Los and Mr. Grigorov, the Soviet authorities expelled any member of the British community in Moscow, we would then publicly expel the three named officials and reduce the Soviet embassy's ceiling accordingly. The Soviet authorities chose to disregard that warning and informed us last night of their requirement that three members of our embassy staff in Moscow should leave. It was in those circumstances that we informed the Soviet chargé d'affaires that three further named officials — Captain Zaikin, assistant naval attache, Colonel Cherkasov, assistant military attache, and Mr. Belaventsev, the third secretary, must also leave this country within seven days and that the appropriate embassy ceiling had been reduced.

In those circumstances, the way in which we handled the matter was consistent with our overall objective of wishing to diminish the impact of this incident on our search to improve East-West relations. We had also to take into account our intention to protect, as far as we could, the position of the British community in Moscow. It was on that basis that we gave the original information. It was as a result of the Soviet response that we found it necessary and right to follow through the original warning.

I must emphasise that this sort of incident arises because of unacceptable conduct by Soviet officials in this country. It is necessary to respond appropriately to such conduct and at the same time to underline the fact that we remain committed to improving relations between East and West. That fact was emphasised in each of the conversations with the Soviet ambassador and Soviet authorities during the past three days.

Mr. Healey

The Foreign Secretary has confirmed my suggestion that he mishandled the affair. He still has not explained why he drew a distinction between announcing the expulsion of two of the offending diplomats and being prepared to keep secret the expulsion of the other three. Is it not the case that his hand was forced by a quite impermissible leak in a British national newspaper of his intention to expel the first two diplomats?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The right hon. Gentleman has failed to understand the position. We made it plain to the Soviet ambassador that we were requiring the withdrawal of five Soviet officials from this country. We intended to publicise the fact that two of them were required to withdraw within seven days, and we said that if the Soviet Union expelled any member of the British community in Moscow we would give publicity to the other three Soviet officials who were also required to withdraw.

It was handled in that way to give the Soviet Union the opportunity to avoid doing damage to the British community in Moscow and to give it the opportunity to withdraw five people, as we required, without publicity. It is because of the Soviet response that it has become undoubtedly necessary and right to give publicity, as we promised, to the three other people involved. The matter was handled throughout in a fashion entirely calculated to do the least damage to Anglo-Soviet relationships. The responsibility for what has happened rests upon the shoulders of those who have committed unacceptable activities in this country.

Sir Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the years of creeping and crawling by the right hon. Member for Leeds, South-East (Mr. Healey), to the Soviets—when the right hon. Gentleman had influence—were as barren as they were humiliating to this country? Is it not the position that Russia knew the rules, it broke them, it was caught, and it should now stop whining?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My hon. Friend puts the matter very clearly. It is because of the activities of Soviet citizens that these actions have been necessary. They have been carefully judged to make them as consistent as possible with our long-term desire to see a continued improvement in our relations with the Soviet Union.

Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

If the Foreign Secretary's intention was to safeguard the security of the country, to minimise damage to our relations with the Soviet Union and to protect the British community in Moscow, why did he give any publicity at all to the incident?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Because if one is securing withdrawals in that way, accompanied by a reduction in ceilings, that inevitably leads to speculation about why that has happened. In addition, and in a wider sense, it is necessary in the case of conduct that threatens national security to demonstrate to all concerned, and not only the Soviet Union, that such activities cannot be tolerated.

Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson (New Forest)

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his action. Is there any truth in the report that at least one of those expelled was trying to obtain information about British laser technology? Are any proceedings likely against a United Kingdom citizen as a result of investigations by the security services?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Action is taken in cases of this kind on the basis of irrefutable evidence, but the House would not expect me to give details about the background of this operation.

Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

Is there any reason why the Secretary of State should not at least give us some idea what these diplomats were doing, which might help the House?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman ignores the necessary, regular and prudent practice. It is not appropriate in places such as this to give any further details than I have given. I can assure him that the actions were based on irrefutable evidence.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman recognise that it would be disastrous if these expulsions prevented the continuing improvement in Anglo-Soviet relations? While I recognise the need at all times to protect our national security against any country, would it not be right for the Foreign Secretary to make it clear to the Soviet authorities at the highest level that it is the wish of Her Majesty's Government to see a continued improvement in Anglo-Soviet relations? Should that not be made clear at the first opportunity?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The position is entirely clear. We have to remain serious and vigilant in our protection of national security. We have to remain serious and realistic in our search for improved relations with the Soviet Union, and both those matters have to be considered alongside each other. I have made it plain, through the Soviet ambassador on Thursday, through the Soviet chargé d'affaires last night and through our ambassador to Moscow, that we intend to sustain our policy of searching for improvement in East-West relations, and with the Soviet Union. I shall take an early opportunity, I expect when I meet Mr. Gromyko in Vienna early next month, to make the same point to him.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his handling of the affair. Does he agree that what is required in the handling of East-West relations is consistency? By undertaking this act, he has shown the Soviet Union that, unless it obeys the rules and behaves according to diplomatic circumstances, we shall not be prepared to forward our friendship with it, except on a proper basis?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I agree. We have always made it clear to the Soviet Union that our search for improved relations would have to be conducted on the basis of realism and proper reconciliation of the interests of both sides, and that includes continuing to take proper account of national security.

Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

Presumably, the alleged offences of the three officials were less serious than those of the first two officials about whom we heard. Why did the Foreign Secretary think that restricting publicity to the first two would influence the Soviet response?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

It is customary in these cases to make a judgment of how far one publicises the action that one has taken, as has been pointed out. In this case, we judged that it was right to require the withdrawal of two Russians with publicity at the outset, to make it plain:hat such conduct would not be tolerated, while the withdrawal of the other three would not be accompanied by such publicity. We did so to try to limit the damage to the British community in Moscow. That was the intention and it is a matter of great regret that the Soviet Union chose not to respond to our suggestion in the way that we hoped.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

Has my right hon. and learned Friend noticed the interesting contrast between the noisy if unconvincing protest of the Soviet embassy spokesmen in London on this issue on the one hand, and on the other the uncharacteristic silence of the state-controlled media in Moscow on the subject? Does my right hon. and learned Friend conclude from this, as I do, that this may be a case of the Soviet authorities knowing that they are in the wrong and hoping that this incident will not damage our long-term relations?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I certainly hope that the Soviet Union will draw that conclusion, and will recognise that such activities are bound to impair the process of improving relations. I hope that the Soviet Union recognises that we are serious in our intention to secure such an improvement.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. I have to protect the remainder of the day's business. I intend to take only two more questions from each side of the House.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the great majority of hon. Members and of the people of this country appreciate his realistic and determined approach to improved relations with the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc countries, and thank him for it? They also appreciate his determined, even gentle, approach to matters concerning our security, which are of equal importance, and thank him for that, too.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

Does this case have further ramifications? Will any British citizens be arrested under the Official Secrets Act? Is it true that, as has been rumoured, a spy network has been uncovered?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am not in a position to add to what I have said about the background to the case. In this as in every other case, the prosecuting authority will investigate the matter fully.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that Soviet diplomats in the United Kingdom are given freedoms that British diplomats in the Soviet Union do not enjoy? If so, are there any plans to advise the Soviet Union that we shall restrict the movement of Soviet diplomats to the level of that of our diplomats in the Soviet Union?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I do not propose, at this time, in this case, to outline any of the steps that I may have in mind.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Has not the Foreign Secretary bungled it? Could not all five Soviet diplomats have been expelled without publicity, in private, as was done in previous cases by Labour Governments? Were not the first two expulsions publicised simply because the Government wanted to do some Commie-bashing?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman's question could not more clearly illustrate how completely he fails to understand the policy of Her Majesty's Government. We are not interested in Commie-bashing, as the hon. Gentleman so crudely puts it. We are interested, and have been engaged on a sustained basis, in improving relations between East and West and between this country and the Soviet Union.

However, we must make it clear that that pursuit cannot be conducted at the expense of national security. In this case, it was necessary to give publicity to the initial expulsions to make it clear to all those who might be concerned in such activities that they will not be tolerated.

Mr. Healey

May I assure the Foreign Secretary that we share his suffering at the pompous congratulations that he has received from Conservative Members whose aim is to make relations between Britain and the Soviet Union more difficult, rather than less?

May I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman to bear in mind the damage that he has done to his major objective through his mishandling of this issue?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the greater cause for dismay—not suffering—is the patronising inaccuracy of his own question.