HC Deb 26 February 1986 vol 92 cc945-51 3.33 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Tim Renton)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the position in the Philippines.

The House will be aware of the dramatic development yesterday in the Philippines which led to Mrs. Aquino taking up office as President. I am sure that the House will wish to join me in warmly welcoming this development, the more so because it has come about with the minimum of bloodshed and violence.

The Government wish President Aquino and her colleagues well in the fulfilment of their new and heavy responsibilities. The task of restoring the Philippines to peace, stability and economic regeneration will, indeed, be challenging.

We have been greatly impressed by the courage President Aquino, her colleagues and the Filipino people have shown in defence of democracy. This, and the evident wish of the Government and people of the Philippines for reconciliation, bodes well for the future.

The Government look forward to a close and positive working relationship with Mrs. Aquino and her colleagues. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is sending the President a congratulatory message. I also pay tribute to our ambassador in Manila, Mr. Robin McLaren, and to his staff. The information and advice which they have provided, and their protective role in relation to the British community, has been an excellent example of our missions abroad at work.

President Aquino said last night: A new life starts for our country tomorrow. The House will, I know, wish to send her and the people of the Philippines its warmest good wishes on this new start.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

We unreservedly join the Minister in welcoming the triumph of democracy under President Aquino. We hail the victory of people's power over a corrupt dictatorship as a model for the peaceful transition of power in other troubled lands about which we differ from this Government's policies, such as Chile and South Africa. We praise the role of the Church in the Philippines and the constructive role played, ultimately, by the United States Administration, who acted swiftly, decisively and to good effect to end the conflict.

Will the Minister confirm that in the circumstances no formal act of recognition of President Aquino is necessary from our Government? Does he also agree that those events pose a series of challenges for President Aquino —to cast aside the oligarchies of the past, to repeal the draconian laws and to meet the popular expectations of the radical restructuring which is vital if the insurgency is not to start again?

There is a challenge to the United States Administration, who must avoid a narrow, strategic and military view and come to terms with the fundamentally different relationship which must result from the new nationalism in the Philippines. Finally, there is a challenge to us in Europe, as the new Government may well look to Europe, especially since the accession of Spain to the European Community, as a counter to United States influence. To that end, will the Minister tell the House what efforts he will make to consult our EEC partners on the development of joint policies in that area?

Mr. Renton

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks, especially those at the beginning of his statement. He is correct to say that no formal action is required for the recognition of the new Government. We do not recognise Governments, we recognise states; so no formal action is required. I agree with him that the United States Government are to be congratulated on the part that they played in the encouragement of the restoration of democracy. I also agree with his statement about, the challenges that lie ahead of President Aquino. The whole House will agree that she has shown great restraint and firmness of character, especially in recent days. That must augur well for her ability to tackle the undoubtedly heavy tasks that lie ahead.

On the hon. Gentleman's last point, about the Community's role in this matter, he will be aware that the 12 Foreign Affairs Ministers who met yesterday issued a joint statement on the situation in the Philippines and warmly commended Mrs. Aquino on the part that she has played. There are two meetings in prospect between the European Community and the Association of the South East Asian nations. One, between officials, may well take place in Manila towards the end of June or early July. There is also the possibility of a European Community Foreign Ministers' meeting when again the whole subject of co-operation between the Community and the ASEAN countries, including the Philippines, will be fully discussed.

Sir Peter Blaker (Blackpool, South)

Is it not clear that, despite the welcome changes of the past few clays, the new Philippines Government is likely to face considerable problems in establishing and preserving stability? Will Her Majesty's Government consider offering the new Government any technical assistance that they may wish from this country, especially on matters of internal security and counter-insurgency?

Mr. Renton

I listened carefully to my right hon. Friend's question. I shall pass on his comments about assistance with internal security. He knows that we have a small technical co-operation programme. Last year it was worth about £250,000. However, we stand ready to discuss our assistance programme with the new Government of President Aquino.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Although my right hon. and hon. Friends and I fully endorse the Minister's congratulations to President Aquino and will encourage her in her attempts to build up a Government of reconciliation, would it not have been better if this note of congratulation had been sounded yesterday by the Prime Minister? She seemed to indicate that she was waiting for the OK from Mr. Shultz before recognising what had happened in the Philippines. Does the Minister agree that Mrs. Aquino has a difficult but essential task to perform in restoring the civil liberties that were taken away under the Marcos regime and in releasing political prisoners? Will she receive this Government's encouragement in restoring those basic rights to the people of the Philippines? Does the Minister realise that the relief and self-congratulation in Washington must be tinged with the realisation that the United States was rather slow to recognise how discredited the Marcos regime had become and that it very nearly finished up on the wrong side?

Mr. Renton

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his earlier remarks. However, his statement that the Prime Minister might have been slow in congratulating President Aquino takes no cognisance at all of the fact that, until yesterday afternoon, the situation in Manila was extremely confused. It was quite clear that neither we nor any other sensible Western Government wished to say something which could add to the confusion or which could lead to the possibility of greater loss of life and greater bloodshed in Manila. I said earlier that the Prime Minister is sending a congratulatory message to President Aquino. We have long been concerned about the abuse of human rights in the Philippines. We are confident that President Aquino will give priority to doing all she can to achieving a rapid improvement in human rights. We shall be watching events. If she does this, it will be closely in line with the ideals that she has mentioned and upon which she stood in the recent election campaign.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

Is my hon. Friend aware that I hold him and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in great esteem? But was it really necessary to have a statement today on the Philippines? Are there any British interests there? Do we have any power or influence to guard there? Are we to have a debate every time that there is a change of Government far away from here?

Mr. Renton

I thank my hon. Friend for his esteem. Esteem is welcome, from whatever quarter it comes, but it is particularly pleasant when it comes from such an old friend as he. The United Kingdom has, and has long had, a valuable and important relationship with the Philippines. Our relations are long standing. Last year we exported to the Philippines about £100 million-worth of goods and we imported about £170 million-worth of goods. It is a very important country within the framework of the Association of the South East Asian Nations. In recognition of this triumph of the ballot box and of democracy in Manila during the last few days, I hope that my hon. Friend will feel that perhaps a brief statement was worth while.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

Will the Minister congratulate the people of the Philippines who played such a noble role in this transition while others were sitting on the fence? Will he particularly endorse the actions of those Filipinos who placed their bodies between the contending military groups? Finally, will he accept that that bravery perhaps prevented the Americans from making their greatest foreign affairs mistake in Asia since Vietnam?

Mr. Renton

I fully endorse what the hon. Gentleman, who has a great deal of experience in foreign affairs, says about the bravery of the Filipino people. However, I do not agree with his closing remarks about the United States. Unless 10,000 people had interposed themselves literally between the tanks and Camps Aguinaldo and Crame, it is clear that the results might have been very different indeed. The people who did this are indeed to be congratulated upon their bravery and upon their commitment to democracy.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

While warmly endorsing my hon. Friend's support of President Aquino's welcome new Government in the Philippines, does he have any evidence of possible Russian subversion in the delicate weeks that lie ahead for that country?

Mr. Renton

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. I do not have any evidence of Russian subversion, but the Soviet Union appears to have been the only country to congratulate Mr. Marcos on his election victory. It must be wondering if it did the right thing.

Mr. Ken Weetch (Ipswich)

Before too much credit is given to the United States, would the Minister not agree that the United States has been propping up this brutal, corrupt regime for the past 20 years, just as it has propped up the Duvalier regime in similar circumstances? When the Minister gets close to United States policy makers, will he tell them quite clearly that it is too late when they fly the tinpot dictators out when the game is up, and that in future could they make recommendations to regimes which are a little less disreputable?

Mr. Renton

I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said. I think that he will recognise that the United States has long and traditional historic links with the Philippines. It has strategic links there, and the existence of those links has always put it in a particularly committed and prominent position. I think that today we should congratulate the United States on the part it has played in recent days in encouraging the restoration of democracy and helping President Aquino to the position that she now holds.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Before we all get carried away by euphoria over the events in the Philipines, would it not be as well to remember that Mrs. Aquino was not even the winning candidate in the recent fraudulent elections? Therefore, has my hon. Friend any knowledge as to when free elections may be held in the Philippines which will give some legitimacy to the Administration which has now been taken over, quite unconstitutionally, by Mrs. Aquino?

Mr. Renton

I have listened to what my hon. Friend says but I think that above all that is a matter for the Filipino people to decide. The impression I have, from the decisions taken in Manila last night, is that they are quite confident that they now have a legitimate Government and one they wish to support.

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)

Is the Minister aware that the Government's message of good wishes to Mrs. Aquino and her colleagues accurately reflects the views of the overwhelming majority of people in this country? In view of the very real economic problems which will be faced by the new Administration in Manila, will the Government actively and sympathetically support any request which the Philippines Government make for a rescheduling of their international debt?

Mr. Renton

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening remark and I am certain that it accurately reflects overwhelming opinion in the House and in the country. We have fully supported the package of assistance of 615 million special drawing rights which the International Monetary Fund is providing for the Philippines. However, I recognise what he says. Although this is a fundamentally rich agricultural country, it has no great natural mineral wealth on which to rely. I am sure that the international community, including ourselves, will now look forward to a beneficial relationship between ourselves and the Government of the Philippines.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton (Edinburgh, West)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that it will be the policy of the Government to maintain and, if possible, increase trading links with the Philippines in the future?

Mr. Renton

Yes, Sir. That is one of the things that I hope we would be discussing in the context of the European Community and ASEAN meetings, and in bilateral meetings.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Since Ministers now hold Mrs. Aquino in such high regard, would they ask her advice on two matters? Does she think it right that in the Pacific basin our French partners should continue their testing of nuclear weapons at Mururoa atoll? Is that what she wants? Secondly, a bit nearer home, what are Mrs. Aquino's views on the naval exercises called RIMPAC and, in particular, the taking of British nuclear weapons to the Pacific against the wishes of the New Zealanders? Does the Philippines want to see our ships with nuclear weapons on those exercises in the Pacific?

Mr. Renton

I point out that Mrs. Aquino has been President only for some 20 hours, and neither I nor any other Ministers have yet had time to discuss her views on nuclear testing on Mururoa atoll or naval exercises in the Pacific. Let there be parity of abuse. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Soviet Union has its own base nearby, in Vietnam, at Cam-Ranh bay, and this is also a fairly important strategic factor, about which the new Philippines Government will be well aware.

Mr. Rob Hayward (Kingswood)

I reiterate my appreciation of the efforts of diplomats both in Manila and this country on behalf of our citizens who have been in Manila in the past few weeks. As my hon. Friend is aware, I have a personal association with this problem. However, I also draw his attention to trade and the need to get alongside the new Government as quickly as possible, given the fact that the Philippines has the largest British aircraft fleet of any airline in the world, including British Airways.

Mr. Renton

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. I am aware of his family interests in the situation in Manila and I am grateful for his kind comments, particularly those about Foreign Office staff in Manila, who have done their best to give advice to British citizens throughout the Philippines in the past difficult few days. I take on board his point about trade. The Philippines is an important potential trading partner for us. I note what my hon. Friend says about the aircraft fleet and I hope that we shall be able to discuss this a great deal in dialogue with the new Government.

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the single most important thing is for democracy in the Philippines to become firmly established, and to that end will he see what can be done to foster cultural and other interchanges between the Philippines and Hong Kong?

Mr. Renton

That is an interesting point. There is a traditional relationship between the Philippines and Hong Kong, and I shall see that the hon. Gentleman's points are brought to the notice of officials in the Hong Kong Government.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

I am pleased that there has been such a swift and bloodless changeover in the leadership in the Philippines. However, will my hon. Friend resist any temptation to grant political asylum to any of the 18 diplomats from the Philippines residing in the United Kingdom who might be supporting Marcos and who might become a burden on our state?

Mr. Renton

I note what my hon. Friend says. Some of the diplomats in the Philippines embassy in London declared firmly and bravely their support for Mrs. Aquino on Sunday when the dice had by no means been thrown in a certain direction. I bear in mind what he said about asylum.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is the Minister aware that Labour Members strongly suspect that if the United States had not given support to the new regime, we should not have had the statement today? Is it not time that we told the United States, our good friends and allies, that they should stop supporting many other tyrannical regimes, certainly in places such as Chile and Guatemala, and that it would be better for the western world and western democracy that the Marcos-type regimes did not exist?

Mr. Renton

I am saddened by the hon. Gentleman's somewhat twisted approach to this success of democracy and the ballot box in Manila. I remind him of something that Mr. Shultz said yesterday when he was speaking about the new President in the Philippines. He said that that was not something that the United States had done but something that the Filipino people had done. We should bear that in mind.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

Does my hon. Friend share my concern at the possible precedent that we may be setting in elections being held in a far-off country, someone crying foul, the election result being overturned and us welcoming a result that has not come from the election? Does he recall whether any statements were made in the House in 1960 at the time when the presidential elections in the United States were cast in some doubt after the activities in Cook county?

Mr. Renton

No, Sir, I do not recall that. I wondered for a moment, knowing my hon. Friend's interest, whether, once he had started to talk about elections, he would lead into the elections for the European Parliament, and that that was going to be the twist to his question. I was fortunate to receive first-hand accounts of the conduct of the elections, from Lord Mackie and the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), both of whom had been observers, soon after they returned to the United Kingdom. It was clear from what they said that they had no doubt—nor did the other observers—that massive fraud had been taking place during the election. It is against that background that we can firmly welcome the new Government as democratic representatives of the Filipino people.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

While welcoming President Aquino's offer of amnesty for political prisoners, will Her Majesty' s Government impress upon President Aquino the need for an early dialogue with the political parties which were banned by President Marcos, in particular the National Democratic Front, the Communist Party of the Philppines and the New People's Army? After hearing the statement by the Vice-President this morning that he expects most Communist guerrillas to lay down their arms and come home, does the Minister think that that will come to pass if the land which was stolen from the guerrillas, the loss of which led them to become guerrillas, is not returned to them?

Mr. Renton

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the reports of a general amnesty are encouraging and that very much lies within the character of President Aquino and the remarks that she made in the election campaign. However, with regard to his specific points about the Communist party, we shall have to wait and see what developments take place in the coming days.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea)

The Minister said earlier that it has long been the British Government's policy to be critical of the human rights record under ex-President Marcos. Is not one of the lessons to be learned from the series of events in the Philippines that it is all very well for the Government to have a critical policy about human rights records but that if that policy is not expressed publicly and clearly we are in effect giving tacit support to dicatators? Should we not now review the Government's stand on human rights and urge the Minister to consider being much more public in his condemnation of breaches of human rights wherever they occur?

Mr. Renton

I have listened to what the hon. Gentleman has said and I understand his deep concern on this issue, which is shared by many hon. Members. I said earlier, and this is correct, that the Government have long been concerned about the abuse of human rights in the Philippines. In all seriousness, however, the hon. Gentleman must stand back and consider how any Government can most efficiently and efficaciously press their case to help political prisoners or other detainees.

The case immediately comes to mind of the many detainees and political prisoners in the Soviet Union. Those cases are often advanced by Oppositon Members for reasons that I well understand. We must always form a balance of judgment as to whether we can more efficiently help people to be released by acting quietly in talks with visiting Ministers and through our Ministers' visits to Moscow or whether we can get people released by more public outcry and by shouting from the rooftops.

It is a matter of judgment, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I and other Ministers at the Foreign Office regularly bear in mind and consider how best to proceed to help political prisoners.