HC Deb 21 July 1987 vol 120 cc205-16 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about yesterday's Security Council resolution 598 on the Iran-Iraq conflict.

My attendance at yesterday's Security Council meeting, together with six other Foreign Ministers, underlines the importance which we attach to this resolution: as well as representing a united approach by the five permanent members, it owes much to British initiative, and is the culmination of many months work.

This resolution, which was passed unanimously by the Council, is mandatory, and demands an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of forces to internationally recognised boundaries without delay. It is carefully balanced and favours neither of the parties more than the other. Both should be able to accept it. In the event of non-compliance, the Council will meet to discuss possible enforcement measures.

The Secretary-General will have a major role in the implementation of the resolution and with bringing the parties to a negotiated settlement of the conflict.

This mandatory resolution reflects the gravity with which the whole international community views the continuing conflict between Iran and Iraq and the consequent threat to stability and peace. The resolution is a determined attempt to tackle the underlying causes of tension in the region.

Attacks on shipping are at present the most dangerous symptom of that tension. I made clear in yesterday's Security Council debate the urgent need not only for a settlement of the conflict as a whole, but also for a halt to attacks on shipping in the Gulf. It is vital to uphold the principle of freedom of navigation, and the Armilla patrol continues to play its part by providing protection for British vessels.

The world has never been more united in seeking an end to this bloody and senseless conflict. The international community yesterday made plain to the parties that it looks for a comprehensive, just and honourable settlement of the dispute through negotiation and diplomacy rather than by force of arms. The United Nations resolution offers both parties the right way forward. I am sure that the whole House will join me in urging them to seize that opportunity.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that Her Majesty's Opposition fully support the unanimous mandatory Security Council resolution? We regard it as right that the Foreign Secretary went personally to the United Nations to advocate it.

Can the Foreign Secretary tell us how long the Government will wait to decide whether there has been compliance or non-compliance? Unless the resolution is speedily obeyed by both sides, we believe that the United Nations must take further action speedily in the shape not of Britain's curious present ban on what it calls lethal arms, but a total international arms embargo.

Britain should take the lead and should immediately examine whether the Iranian arms procurement agency at 4 Victoria street should be allowed to continue its activities. It is vital that nothing should be done to exacerbate a dangerous situation. Will the Government, even at this late stage, discourage the United States from any adventurist plans to escort a reflagged fleet through the Gulf? Such an action is unpredictable and. could lead to uncontrollable escalation and grave consequences not only for peace in the immediate area but for world peace. It could alienate the Russians, whose co-operation is both essential and encouraging.

We support the Government's assertion of the right of self-defence for British warships in the area. Will the Foreign Secretary give the House a firm assurance that the British Government will not go beyond that and take provocative unilateral action? Will he distinguish between the formal registration procedure and the charade of a reflagging procedure — what we might call rent-a-flag? We believe that the Secretary of State for Defence was absolutely right yesterday to say that Britain should keep a non-provocative low profile. Any additional peace-keeping action should not be unilateral action by a single power but should be organised through the United Nations.

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that Her Majesty's Opposition will support firm British action to stamp down on Iranian or other terrorism here in Britain, and that if the perpetrator of Saturday's bomb attack is tracked down Britain must stand firm against any blackmail of the sort that is being used against France? Every effort must be made to keep potential terrorists out of Britain and to throw out provocateurs who are already here. Britain's streets must not be allowed to become a battleground for murderous factions, and Britain must play her part in reducing tension in what is today the world's most dangerous flash point.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

May I begin by welcoming the right hon. Gentleman to his new-found role in foreign affairs? I also welcome the support that he has given to the part played by the Government in the Security Council yesterday. I welcome, too, the vigour with which he expressed his support for appropriate measures against terrorism in all its manifestations in this country. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will look forward to receiving that support from him and his hon. Friends on every appropriate occasion.

It is clearly premature at this stage to give any judgment about the timing of further measures and further consideration because they depend on the progress that is made by the Secretary-General in the days and weeks ahead. The right hon. Gentleman may be assured, however, that Her Majesty's Government already refuse to sell defence equipment to either side if suet equipment would significantly enhance capability to prolong or exacerbate the conflict. That position is firmly upheld and widely respected by other countries around the world. It is recognised as probably being contrary to Britain's economic and commercial interests, but it is undoubtedly morally right. On that basis, I made plain yesterday that we should be willing — if that was judged right — to support a United Nations embargo on arms sales to either party to the dispute if that was thought necessary.

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the arms procurement office is kept under the closest possible scrutiny, and its status—not only for compliance with the present state of the law and the present ban — will remain under close scrutiny in the light of changing events.

As regards other vessels in the Gulf, the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that not only are United States and British vessels there, but French and Soviet vessels are, too—I think that there are some minesweepers, a frigate and some trawlers. They are all there upholding the vital principle of freedom of navigation.

There is no question of denouncing United States activity for adventurism or anything else, although the phrase, coming from the right hon. Gentleman, did not surprise me. Each country is making its own contribution to upholding the principle of freedom of navigation. The United States has responded today to the Kuwaiti request. Britain has deployed the Armilla patrol since 1980, and, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence yesterday said that our ships are maintaining a non-provocative low profile presence. Our forces in the Gulf have the ability to defend themselves if they are attacked, and they have instructions to do just that. In other words, their role is self-defensive in support of British ships and non-provocative.

With regard to the suggestion about a United Nations naval presence, that would raise a number of very substantial complications. So far it has not been canvassed or suggested in the course of the proceedings in the Security Council, but, of course, it is not excluded from the range of possibilities.

Mr. Dennis Walters (Westbury)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, while the Iran-Iraq war poses the most immediate and serious threat in terms of an escalation of war and that, therefore, while this resolution is much to be welcomed, the whole area continues basically to be destabilised by the Arab-Israeli conflict? Will he now use every endeavour to bring about a settlement in that long-standing and apparently permanent dispute?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My hon. Friend is entirely right to draw attention to the wider although distinct conflict that has caused us so much anxiety for so many years—the conflict between the Arab and Israeli sides. I remind him that we firmly believe that an international conference is the most practical way forward to the negotiations that are necessary between the parties directly concerned. That was fully discussed last week between my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and President Reagan, and I discussed it again yesterday with Secretary of State Shultz. We have made plain our view about progress in that direction. We hope that the United States will take the lead in exploring the way forward to direct negotiations between the parties. It is clear that the next step will depend in large part on agreement within the Israeli Government about an approach to the international conference.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on the Western diplomacy that has made it possible to involve the Soviet Union and China in the Security Council. Has he seen Mr. Gorbachev's statement of only a few hours ago in which he says that he is ready for discussions in any format and to undertake superpower action for peace in this area? In the light of that, and in the light of the British decision to have a non-provocative low profile naval presence in the Gulf, will the United Kingdom make representations to the United States to take very seriously the Soviet concerns about the United States's build-up of naval vessels? That would give a little more opportunity for the Security Council's resolution and the Secretary-General's initiative to take effect.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the support that he expressed in his opening remarks. Like each of the other countries providing some measure of naval protection in the Gulf, the United States is well aware of the dangers of confrontation in the current tense situation. It joins with us in the terms of the resolution in urging restraint and caution on all nations.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's endorsement of the steps that we have been able to take to promote closer co-operation among the five permanent members. It is important for that kind of consultation and co-operation to continue and not for it to be confined to the five permanent members.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

I welcome the resolution, but will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that it is far from the first Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in this war? Since the initial reaction of the Iranians was not very good as they did not attend the debate at all and condemned it, and since both countries are led by extremists, will my right hon. and learned Friend assure us that the two superpowers in particular will do everything possible by diplomatic means to bring pressure on the two leaders of those countries?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I agree with my hon. Friend that this resolution by no means represents a solution to the problem. Even so, it is right to say that previous resolutions have been accepted by Iraq, provided that they are taken as a basis for producing a comprehensive settlement. I trust that Iraq will abide by the new resolution. I also agree with my hon. Friend that it is important for us to continue to urge Iran to respond positively to this new step. I can understand why my hon. Friend may have some doubt about the likely effectiveness of what is taking place.

It is important to remind the House that this is a formidable new step. The resolution is even-handed between Iran and Iraq and has the backing not only of East and West alike but of the non-aligned countries, and includes all five permanent members of that group on the Security Council. It carries the prospect of a further resolution if necessary to enforce it. In my judgment, it represents the best available springboard so far for peace in the area.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)

Will the Foreign Secretary reflect on the complexity of the issue in relation to the fact that, while he is trying to achieve cooperation within the United Nations, it seems increasingly difficult to achieve co-operation between the four powers with naval vessels in the Gulf, especially on rules of engagement? Without disclosing anything confidential, can the right hon. and learned Gentleman say whether there have been any discussions between ourselves and the United States with regard to determining agreement on rules of engagement and the escort of merchant vessels through the Gulf? In addition, what, if any, additional facilities have the United States asked for in relation to the base on Diego Garcia?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I preface my remarks with the observation that there are a number of matters which it is customary not to discuss in detail. For example, it is not customary to discuss the rules of engagement in detail. However, the presence of the Armilla patrol is intended to be non-provocative and de-escalatory. Its position is constantly reviewed in the light of changing circumstances. The United States Administration are of course well aware of the presence of other naval forces in the area and of the dangers of confrontation in the current tense situation. We keep in close touch with other naval forces in the area, but there is no question of any formal integration.

Sir Ian Lloyd (Havant)

As the ability of both Iran and Iraq to finance their massive imports of arms is substantially, if not wholly, dependent on their ability to export oil, has the Security Council considered an embargo on the export of oil from those two countries? That would be by far the quickest and most effective way of bringing the war to a halt.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I confess that my hon. Friend is more frequently to be found among the ranks of those drawing attention to the difficulties, if not the improprieties, of embargos of that kind. In fact, the discussions in the Security Council, so far as this point has been discussed, have concentrated on the importance of an arms embargo as possibly the most effective measure.

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

While the resolution is very welcome, does not the Foreign Secretary recognise that its effectiveness will require not just an arms embargo but a serious attempt to deal with the massive arms trade which is being carried out under his very nose in the city of Westminster at a time when it is reckoned that there may be as many as 500 arms dealers in London?

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman also consider the fact that the protection of merchant shipping is an international issue, and should we not now consider ways of using the United Nations flag in that role of protection?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman's second point, as I have said, raises a formidable range of difficulties and it has been recognised in the past to do so. It has not therefore been the subject of discussion or consideration in the proceedings in the United Nations. That is why a number of different national forces are playing the parts that they are playing. However, it is not excluded from further consideration.

With regard to activities within this country, the law is enforced in this country. The organisation of transactions in arms sales is not illegal unless the goods concerned are imported into or exported from the United Kingdom in breach of British law. Any rumours or suggestions of breaches of the law in that respect have been investigated and have not been substantiated. Any evidence of illegal activity would be investigated most thoroughly by the appropriate authority.

Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson (New Forest)

As Iran has a vested interest in keeping the gulf shipping lanes open and peaceful to operate its terminal at Kharg Island and elsewhere, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the somewhat unhappy juxtaposition of the Irangate hearings and the much heralded reflagging of Kuwaiti ships tends to give the impression to the world that Iran will be the most likely aggressor in the Gulf when history has proved that that is completely incorrect" To ensure that the resolution is given a fair wind, will lie therefore make it crystal clear that apportioning blame in the Gulf about the starting of that war is not possible and that the British Government will remain completely even-handed in any dealings they have with any of the combatants?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Our position is ore of even-handedness without any discrimination between the two parties in relation to our ban on arms sales and in every other respect. One of the components of the Security Council resolution provides for the possibility of an inquiry into the blame for the initiation of the conflict, since that matter has often been pressed by Iran. Beyond that, we press strongly the need for a cessation of all attacks on shipping both ways by both sides. In our judgment, they are the most potentially dangerous components of the present scene. We believe that Iran and Iraq should refrain from any such attacks.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, Central and Royton)

Is it not rather late in the day for the Foreign Secretary to discover that the sales of arms to other countries is immoral? Does he recall that any time any Opposition Member makes that point he is met by a clamour from Conservative Back Benchers about the jobs that would be lost in this country if we were to take such a moral stand? Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman sure that the Prime Minister will satisfy herself that every step along the way towards this peace solution will be verifiable, in view of what we have heard from Colonel North and others in the United States, when it seemed that even the President was not quite sure what was going on with regard to the supply of arms to Iran?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am not prepared to follow the hon. Gentleman in the long exploratory disquisition at the end of his last sentence. As for this conflict, our policy is well known. The guidelines were set out by me in the House on 29 October 1985. We refuse to sell to either side defence equipment which will significantly enhance the capability to prolong or exacerbate the conflict. Those rules are scrupulously implemented. They will remain in force whether or not there is a United Nations embargo. Our defence sales policy is a direct result of our impartiality in the conflict.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

My right hon. and learned Friend was talking about the possibility of an international conference on Arab-Israel relations. When does he see that taking place? Does Israel have a veto over it? If it does, what action does my right hon. and learned Friend envisage the international community taking to make sure that this gross injustice is rapidly brought to a conclusion?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My hon. Friend is straying rather far from the point of my original statement. We believe that an international conference represents the most practical way forward for negotiations between the parties concerned. We have been pressing the case for progress towards such a conference. We have been pressing our partners, and indeed everyone we can legitimately persuade, to press their case. We can do no more than that.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Because of the appalling implications of an Iranian victory in terms of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, about which some of us have been warning for many years, why was the right hon. and learned Gentleman not involved in launching such an initiative some years ago, particularly in view of the enormous boost that this conflict has given to the international arms trade? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman assure the House that, if things get risky or go wrong in the Gulf, he will take the decision as to what Britain's reaction is and that it will not be taken by the Prime Minister under Reagan's instructions?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman, who often poses rather worthwhile questions, should have allowed himself to be led down the path of fantasy at the end of his question. Her Majesty's Government's policy will be determined by Her Majesty's Government in accordance with the ordinary conventions.

As for the hon. Gentleman's underlying question, he will be aware that we have supported a number of previous resolutions by the United Nations to try to bring the conflict to an end. It was our judgment, which is why we set the process in hand last autumn, that we needed to try to mobilise a resolution carrying in its initiation the support of all permanent members and carrying in its conclusion the support of all members of the Security council, just as we were able to secure it yesterday. That is an important addition to everything that has gone before.

Sir John Farr (Harborough)

Although it is important that the Royal Navy should adopt a non-aggressive, low profile role in the Gulf, will my right hon. and learned Friend assure the House that should any Royal Navy vessels or any of the vessels that it is escorting be attacked they will in no way be inhibited in or prevented from deploying all their defensive weapons systems to the full?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My hon. Friend raises an important point. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has made it plain that the Royal naval ships there are provided with self-defence equipment relevant to the full range of threats in the region. We have every confidence in their being able to defend themselves on that basis.

Mr. A. E. P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

If the Foreign Secretary ponders the bellicose remarks of his hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr), will he also bear in mind, and impress on our American friends, that the deployment of larger naval forces in the Gulf, with all the attendant risks that something will go wrong—as it sometimes has, even when adventurism has not been involved—will leave the Prime Minister and the President with little option but to deploy even bigger fleets, with no guarantee that the conflict will not become open-ended?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

We start from the position that it is vital to uphold the principle of freedom of navigation. That is why, in addition to American, French and British ships, there are Soviet Union ships — three mine-sweepers, a frigate and some trawlers — present for exactly the same purpose: to defend shipping in the Gulf. Each country is making its own contribution to upholding that principle. The hazard arises from the continuation of attacks on shipping. For that reason, the Security Council resolution calls for a ceasefire, and we hope that it will lead to a cessation of such attacks. The best contribution to the reduction of tension would be a cessation of attacks on shipping by both sides.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm reports that the Government of Kuwait have made a formal request to Britain to have some of their vessels reflagged under our flag? What will be our policy in response to such a request; and, if it is granted will my right hon. and learned Friend note that to honour it will almost certainly require an increased naval presence, which it will be difficult to see as de-escalatory?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

That would not be an intergovernmental matter. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) informed the Kuwaiti Deputy Foreign Minister of that this morning. If there were any question of registering or re-registering a Kuwaiti or any other ship, it would be a purely commercial and procedural arrangement, to be carried out in accordance with the existing law on the British shipping register. There is no need for a formal decision by the Government.

Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)

Do not the carefully-worded phrases that the Secretary of State has used time and again mean that we would consider selling some sort of arms to Iran? What sort of arms are so innocuous that that would be allowable?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman spoke about the position of private arms dealers in the United Kingdom. Would the British Government at least stop the export of licences for arms bought or procured in this country to Iran or Iraq?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The answer to the second question is that the position is exactly as I have stated. Our law applies to prohibit any illegal transactions in connection with the import or export of arms to or from the United Kingdom. Any allegations of infringements of that kind would be immediately investigated.

I cannot emphasise too strongly that our defence sales policy in regard to both sides in the conflict has existed for a long time. It is absolutely plain and without qualification. We will refuse to sell defence equipment that will significantly enhance the capability of either side, to prolong or exacerbate the conflict. Those rules are scrupulously implemented. They are the result of total impartiality, and are well understood and widely appreciated by the wider international community. That is why our prospective support for an arms embargo is so widely respected. It is well understood and clearly founded.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I must have regard for the subsequent business on the Order Paper, which is heavy today. I shall call those hon, Gentlemen who have been standing regularly.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells)

It must be the wish of the House to try to bring an end to the war, which has claimed over 1 million casualties. However, will my right hon. and learned Friend be cautious about endorsing a worldwide arms embargo without that embargo being watertight? It may be our definition of our neutrality to supply weapons to neither side, but other countries define theirs as providing both sides with weapons, and they may continue to do so, in defiance of United Nations resolutions. If they supply weapons, including chemical weapons, in secrecy, it may make the position even worse.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My hon. Friend is entirely right to draw attention to the practical difficulties of any embargo, including an arms embargo. I have described the United Kingdom's policy, which proscribes arms sales to either side and has done so for a long time. The possibility of an arms embargo being imposed by the United Nations would have to be considered against whichever of the parties failed to respond to the resolution that we passed yesterday. It has not yet been decided; it is for consideration. It would be effective only if it were to be universally and effectively supported. Therefore, the matter has to be very carefully considered.

If the House wants us to play an effective part in trying to bring this conflict to a conclusion, a worldwide United Nations enforced arms embargo against the non-complying party must be a legitimate weapon of the international community.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

The Secretary of State assured the hon. Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) that our ships would be able to protect themselves. Is he prepared to give an assurance that the weapons mix on our ships will he sufficient for them to defend British merchant shipping, which I understand is the purpose of the Armilla patrol? Is he able to say what the Armilla patrol is up to? There are not enough ships to provide convoying. What will be the relationship between the three ships on patrol and British merchant shipping that is transiting the Gulf area?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am not prepared to give detailed material about that. The Armilla patrol provides cover for British shipping when it is in the relevant area. It has recently been the subject of some reinforcement and its resources are constantly reviewed. Inevitably some risk is involved in any operation of this kind. All I can say is what I have already said: I offer to the hon. Gentleman the assurance of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence that the ships are provided with self-defence equipment that is relevant to the full range of threats in the region.

Mr. Derek Conway (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend recall that a company that manufactures main battle tank and other personnel carrier engines in my Shrewsbury constituency has for the last three or four years been prevented from supplying the re-engining of both Soviet tanks for Iran and also tank transporters? That is positive evidence of the Government's determined stand. I support and endorse my right hon. and learned Friend's strong principle, but it is important for all hon. Members to appreciate the definite effects that this has on our economy and on jobs. Wise words have to be paid for by many of our constituents.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing that out. Our even-handed and firm enforcement of our arms embargo, as I have described it, involves the probable loss to British industry of hundreds of millions of pounds worth of business. It brings us no thanks from either side in the conflict, but we have no doubt that it is appreciated—and rightly so—by the wider international community.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I recognise that the major responsibility for the present crisis undoubtedly lies with the unsavoury régime in Iran, but, to return to an earlier theme, may I ask the Foreign Secretary whether there is absolute need for all the powers, particularly the United States, to exercise the greatest self-restraint, without which the crisis could escalate? That would play right into the hands of the leaders of Iran and break the international consensus that, fortunately, was achieved last night by the United Nations Security Council resolution.

Bearing in mind that we are about to enter a very long recess, if the crisis were to escalate, may we have a guarantee from the Foreign Secretary that the House would be recalled at the earliest possible opportunity?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

On the hon. Gentleman's last point, any question of that kind would undoubtedly fall for consideration through the usual channels, and by the Leader of the House. The United States, together with all the other nations that were represented yesterday, is well aware of the dangers of confrontation in the current situation. That is why the resolution calls upon all other states to exercise the utmost restraint and to refain from any act which may lead to further escalation and a widening of the conflict and thus to facilitate the implementation of the present resolution.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Although I am aware of the difficulties that lie ahead, does not my right hon. and learned Friend think that the House may be in danger of losing sight of what has been achieved? With the help and leadership of the United Kingdom, the United Nations has at last come to the united and unanimous resolution to start to take a grip on what for a long time has been an area of international anarchy. At last, with Britain's leadership, the international community is now taking a firm lead and hold on trying to resolve this very difficult question.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is right to say that the resolution that we supported yesterday presents a unique opportunity to end this uniquely horrible war. It is the longest major conflict of the century. The most effective step that would unwind tension immediately would be for both Iran and Iraq to refrain from attacking shipping on either side.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

If I could nag back to the question that was put by my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands), may I ask who makes the judgment—and on what criteria do they make it—as to what equipment should not be sold because it enhances the capability? I follow the Foreign Secretary's own wording. Are there contracts outstanding? What equipment is innocuous?

What is the position about the end-user certificate system when the most sophisticated weapons, we understand, can be bought in the bazaar at Peshawar? Has not the time come for an investigation into the end-user certificate system? What does the Foreign Secretary mean when he says that these exports can be investigated by "the appropriate authority"? Who is the appropriate authority?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The control of the export or import of arms is conducted by the Government through their normal agencies—the licensing procedure, as laid down by statute. The appropriate authority in the first instance for the enforcement of that legislation is Customs and Excise.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

Notwithstanding our good example, it seems to be abundantly clear that both combatants are finding it all too easy to obtain arms, presumably from those who supported the resolution yesterday. Does this not mean that there will be very little chance of an arms embargo? What can we do to ensure that that happens?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

It is clear that arms supplies are still reaching the combatants because there is not yet in force an international arms embargo. I have been describing our policy on arms sales to either side. The prospect of a mandatory, worldwide arms embargo is something that would have to be considered at a later stage. Then it would be most important that it should be properly complied with.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

May I bring the Foreign Secretary back to the question of reflagging? In reply to a question from me on 17 July, the hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) said that the reflagging of merchant shipping was a commercial and administrative matter. Surely the Foreign Secretary must understand that when there is any application for reflagging there are also very important political and military considerations that have to be taken into account.

Has there been an application from Kuwait or any of the other Gulf states for reflagging, using British flags? Secondly, will the Foreign Secretary assure the House that, if an application is received, it will be refused? If he cannot give that assurance, will he at least assure the House that in a matter of such military and political importance Government consideration will be given precedence over commercial and administrative considerations?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I can only repeat what my hon. and learned Friend the Minister said earlier: any registering or chartering of vessels would be a purely commercial, procedural or administrative arrangement which would not call for a formal decision by the British Government.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

Do the Government believe that it is in the British national interest to assert the so-called principle of free navigation wherever a problem arises? Do we have a role as world policemen?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

We have a role, in regard to the interests of Britain as a power with a substantial mercantile trade throughout the world, in upholding the principle and securing its application wherever we sensibly can for the benefit of the British merchant marine.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

What contracts are outstanding? Is there any evidence that the Iranians or Iraqis have developed or are developing a nuclear military capacity?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I do not know what contracts the hon. Gentleman is asking about. Even if I did, I would not be able to answer the question, nor should I do so.

Mr. Kaufman

In response to the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), the right hon. and learned Gentleman said that a reflagging operation involving Britain and Kuwait was purely commercial arrangement. However, there are defence implications. Therefore, is the right hon. and learned Gentleman saying, that, if there were a purely commercial reflagging arrangement between British and Kuwaiti interests, the Royal Navy and British foreign policy would be dragged along behind such a private commercial arrangement? If so, the consequences could be grave and incalculable.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The right hon. Gentleman is taking the matter too far. The question of re-registering or chartering a vessel in a different form is, as it has long been, a purely commercial and procedural arrangement in respect of which there is a wide range of legal and other implications that must be complied with.

Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)


Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman obviously was not here when I said that I would call hon. Members who had been rising regularly.