HC Deb 07 July 1986 vol 101 cc21-6 3.31 pm
Mr. Denis Healey (Leeds, East)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether it remains his intention to visit South Africa, and if so what are his plans.

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

I intend to make an early start on the mission entrusted to me at the recent European Council meeting in The Hague. I accordingly proposed last week to the Governments of Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa that I should visit them in the period 9 to 11 July on the first stage of the mission. The Zambian authorities have confirmed that a visit this week is convenient. The Zimbabwean authorities have given a similar indication, but we are still waiting for confirmation. The South African Government have made it clear that they are ready to receive me, but have proposed alternative dates. These are now under consideration. I shall therefore proceed with the visit to Lusaka and Harare, leaving from Strasbourg tomorrow evening, and plan to visit South Africa later in the month. Further visits to and within the region are, of course, not excluded.

Mr. Healey

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his statement. Does he agree that, following the refusal of black leaders in South Africa to see him, the humiliating snub from President Botha confirms all his initial doubts about the wisdom of his mission? Will he use this example to persuade the Prime Minister that she is not always right and that the Foreign Office is not always wrong?

The Opposition welcome the Foreign Secretary's visit to Zambia and Zimbabwe this week. The Government have left a lot of fences to be mended in those countries and there is a real risk of the Commonwealth breaking up unless he takes advantage of his mission to take more notice of the views expressed by those countries than the Government have taken so far.

Does the postponement of the Foreign Secretary's visit to South Africa mean that he intends to meet the conditions set for his visit to President Botha and, if so, what are those conditions? Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman assure the House that he is not seeking to delay matters until after the Commonwealth summit?

Does the Foreign Secretary accept the view expressed by President Mitterrand and the Prime Minister of the Netherlands and Denmark that the Government are committed to sanctions if his mission fails and does not secure the unconditional release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the African National Congress? Incidentally, will the Foreign Secretary take the opportunity, while he is in Lusaka, to visit the ANC, as emissaries of President Reagan have been doing over the past few days?

Finally, do the views expressed by the Prime Minister to Mr. Malcolm Rutherford and set out in last Friday's Financial Times now represent Her Majesty's Government's policy, in particular, that the unconditional release of Nelson Mandela will depend. as the article says, on the threat of sanctions and that the Government are prepared to go to the Security Council for mandatory sanctions if his mission fails?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I accept no responsibility for answering the right hon. Gentleman's more fanciful inquiries based on newspaper articles, for which neither my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister nor I have any responsibility. Nor do I intend to respond, in the spirit in which the right hon. Gentleman put it, to suggestions of snubs or anything of that kind.

The position—I should like the right hon. Gentleman to understand this—is that I have been entrusted by the Community with a mission of some importance and outstanding difficulty. I intend to pursue it with patience and determination to see, so far as I can, all those whom I ought to see in discharge of the objective of trying to promote an opportunity for dialogue to take place.

I am not yet able to say when the mission will come to a conclusion. I intend to pursue it patiently and as far as I can.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the House in her report on the meeting at The Hague, certain measures have been taken in the past against South Africa and certain other contingencies are being studied in the terms set out in The Hague communique.

If it turns out to be convenient and possible. I shall certainly be prepared to consider an opportunity of meeting representatives of the ANC, because it is important to urge them as well as others of the need, above all, to turn away from violence in southern Africa and try instead to go down the path of dialogue, negotiation and conciliation.

With regard to broken fences in South Africa. I shall try my best to repair those which the right hon. Gentleman has destroyed.

Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the good will and good wishes of every sensible person in Britain and in Europe will go with him in his attempts to bring an increasingly tragic state of affairs in southern Africa to as speedy an end as possible?

Will he also accept that many Conservative Members, I hope all, believe that his visit is necessary in order to counterbalance the impression created by the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey), the Opposition spokesman on foreign affairs, and many other Members of the House?

Thirdly, will he accept that many people in the House, and most people in the country, will welcome his readiness to meet the ANC when he visits Lusaka?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for each of his three comments. I appreciate that on almost every aspect of this case it is not easy to do anything that commands universal assent. Subject to that, I am most grateful for his support.

Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

Is the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary aware that we on these Benches wish his series of missions all success and hope that he will be able to talk to all those whom he wishes to see, but does he recognise that his chances of doing that will be greater if he stresses that he is going as President of the Council of Ministers of the European Community, and that as such he will not be handicapped by the public foot-dragging on sanctions of the Prime Minister? Will he also make it clear to the South African Government that the question is not whether white minority rule changes, but when and how, and that most of us would prefer it to be sooner and peacefully, rather than later and violently?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The right hon. Gentleman made some observations for which I am grateful, but he spoilt his intervention by a rather graceless reference to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. The important point that he makes, which I want to underline, is the extent to which one must try to build on positions that are common as far as possible. President Botha has said that apartheid is an outmoded system and that he looks forward to a system that will be without domination by any race. All those things are pointers in the right direction and will help me in the difficult search for a way to dialogue.

Sir Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

Are not these matters rather too serious for the juvenile debating points that are all that the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) has in his armoury? Will my right hon. and learned Friend make it clear that he goes with the support not only of this Government but of that of the 11 other almost most important Governments in the world?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for underlining that point. It is important for it to be understood, and I think it is, that I am going as the Foreign Minister and the current President of the European Council of Ministers, and that I am supported by the other 11 Governments.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

When the Foreign Secretary eventually visits South Africa, will he accept that the release of Nelson Mandela, long overdue as it is and universally welcomed as it will be, will not in itself be enough? Does the Foreign Secretary recall that in an interview with a British newspaper last year Nelson Mandela said that his own freedom and the freedom of his fellow citizens are indivisible?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman has made an important point and it is in line with the point made in the statement by the European Council at the Hague, which said: This dialogue cannot take place as long as recognised leaders of the Black community are detained and their organisations are proscribed. It is plain that a furher amplification of the scope for democratic dealogue is important. Most people recognise that the prospect of the release of Nelson Mandela is far and away the most important key, if there can be a key.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the tone of the questions by the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) and what he has been saying in the media and elsewhere make it doubly clear that his principal objective is to try to sabotage the Foreign Secretary's mission before it starts? That is sheer mischief making. On this occasion, is it not right that every responsible hon. Member who wishes not to jeopardise the prospects of the success of this mission should not press my right hon. and learned Friend too hard? Mr. Speaker, these exchanges need not be prolonged indefinitely.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

As far as I can, I acknowledge the force of the points made by my hon. Friend. I hope that the wisdom that exudes from his present important position will penetrate at Leeds, East.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Does the Foreign Secretary realise what a farce this has become and that he was right in the first place to have many reservations about his trip to South Africa? When will he persuade the Prime Minister that there is no effective alternative to sanctions against the apartheid regime and that trips to South Africa or anywhere else are no substitute for such action? The Foreign Secretary may know that such action was advocated last night by his Minister of State on a television programme.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I wish that this problem could be resolved as easily as the hon. Gentleman so readily implies. He knows, or he ought to know, that it is far too superficial to argue that this long-standing and difficult problem can be resolved by the mounting of comprehensive sanctions against South Africa. The position set out last week by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is the position adopted by my hon. Friend and by me. Over the years certain measures have been taken against South Africa. Certain contingency plans outlined in The Hague communiqué are being made. We do not think that threatening further sanctions immediately or automatically will help to bring about the negotiations that we desire".—[Official Report, 1 July 1986; Vol. 100, c. 822.] That was said by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and it represents the position of the Government.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend realise that his mission is bound to get the good will and support of all people of wisdom and common sense in every European country, but particularly in Britain, in view of his position as President of the Council of Ministers? Over the weekend there was an outburst by the South African Foreign Minister against sanctions. Does my right hon. and learned Friend draw an optimistic, or pessimistic, conclusion from that stance, which appears to be a change of line on the part of the South African Government? It is not a wish not to have sanctions imposed. They are defiantly saying, "Come and get us, we do not care."

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the first part of his question. As for the second part of it, it is tempting in circumstances of this kind to feel obliged to comment on almost every statement that is reported in the newspapers or elsewhere, but I do not think that that is helpful, even though I understand why my hon. Friend has made that point.

Mr. Norman Buchan (Paisley, South)

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has stressed that he is going to South Africa to represent the EEC as well as this country. Will he keep in mind the circumstances that give rise to his visit—that sanctions are wanted immediately, but that he and the Prime Minister want sanctions, if they are to be imposed at all, to be postponed? Will he keep in mind that the bulk of his fellow Ministers in the Community favour sanctions, not because they or we believe that sanctions are the only solution, but because they are a necessary solution to bring home to the South African white regime that it must come to terms and an agreement on the basis eventually of one man, one vote?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I shall bear in mind my own assessment of the views formed and the advice given by the other members of the Council of Ministers. I shall certainly bear in mind that the Heads of Government of a number of other countries took the same view as Britain and that many of those who considered the matter carefully were increasingly impressed with the need to adopt a patient and cautious approach to this matter. That is why the conclusion set out in the communique was unanimous.

Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

Would not sanctions, as called for by the Opposition, have a catastrophic effect upon some of those other countries that my right hon. and learned Friend is about to visit, with our goodwill? Does it not also show a misunderstanding of the South African Government and the Afrikaners generally to suppose that sanctions will bring about any desirable effect? It is not important to encourage as well as to warn?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

There is real force in both of my hon. Friend's points, and I endorse the last part of his question.

Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North)

If Britain's Foreign Secretary, who is President of the EEC Council of Ministers, has not been snubbed and humiliated by the South African Government, will he tell the House the date of his rearranged visit to South Africa and whether it will take place before the Commonwealth summit? Will he also make it a condition of his rearranged visit to South Africa that even if he does not see the President and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of South Africa, he must see Nelson Mandela?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I shall tell the House of the date, or dates, of my further visits when those are clear. I told the House in my original statement that they are still the subject of further discussion. Those whom I shall hope to see certainly include all those who were mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

Sir David Price (Eastleigh)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept that he goes to South Africa with the total goodwill not only of this House but of the whole of Europe? Will he also explain to those who are criticising his mission that this country started this century with nearly 500,000 men-at-arms against the Afrikaners, that 22,000 perished in South Africa at the beginning of this century and that our track record in opposing the Boers is impeccable?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am always grateful to my hon. Friend for the depth and breadth of his historical analysis, and I shall hear in mind what he said, but I shall also try to bear in mind more recent events than that.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

In view of the Foreign Secretary's understandable request for patience and time, has he seen the announcement in this morning's edition of The Guardian, which reminds us that more or less the same thing was said in 1963, 25 years ago? Does he have in mind a shorter time span than 25 years?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I have no doubt that the longer the unresolved policy of apartheid has continued in South Africa, the harder has become the task of its removal, but in making that kind of assessment one should take account of the steps that have been taken in the last year or two. I know that it is fashionable to discount them completely. They should not be so discounted. We have to try to start from where we now are and move as quickly as possible towards a solution that is founded on dialogue, not on violence.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I have to bear in mind that this is private Members' day and that this is a private notice question. I shall call two more hon. Members, one from each side of the House.

Viscount Cranborne (Dorset, South)

Would my right hon. and learned Friend's task be made any easier if the buccaneering tendencies of the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) could be restrained, as he is increasingly behaving like the Captain Morgan of foreign policy?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am always content to accept my hon. Friend's judgment on the performance of' the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey).

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

Will the Foreign Secretary's bargaining position be strengthened, or weakened, if it is clear that the European Community will take further action should his mission fail?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The position of the European Community is clearly stated in the communiqué to which I have referred the House. It is clearly to the effect that further measures that might be needed are now the subject of contingency planning, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the House last week.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I have endeavoured today to give priority to those hon. Members who were not called on previous exchanges, and I hope the House will think that that is fair.