HC Deb 22 May 1989 vol 153 cc677-82 3.30 pm
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the expulsion by Britain of eight Soviet diplomats and three journalists and the expulsion by the Soviet Union of a similar number of British diplomats and journalists.

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

The Soviet ambassador was asked to call at the Foreign Office on Friday 19 May. He was informed by the political director, Sir John Fretwell, that 11 present members of the Soviet community in London, and a further three who have recently departed, had been carrying out activities incompatible with their status. Mr. Zamyatin was asked to arrange for their withdrawal within 14 days. He was also informed that we were declaring persona non grata three Soviet officials who had recently left. I am arranging for the names of those concerned to be circulated in the Official Report.

Less than 36 hours later, on the evening of Saturday 20 May, our ambassador in Moscow, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, was informed by the Soviet Foreign Ministry that eight members of our embassy staff and three British journalists were required to leave the Soviet Union within two weeks. A further three former members of the embassy were declared persona non grata. In addition, a quota would be established for the personnel of British organisations and representatives in Moscow.

The decision of Her Majesty's Government was taken only after very careful consideration and on the basis of incontrovertible evidence. By contrast, the Soviet Union's almost instant mirror-image response has no possible justification. It is all the more to be deplored that the Soviet Union should have chosen, in these circumstances, to expel three British correspondents whose independence is not in question. Their work has contributed directly to the recent significant improvement in relations between our two countries, which has been welcomed by the whole House. It was primarily to give the Soviet Union an opportunity to show that this improvement extended to an area where Soviet behaviour has been at its most unregenerate that we decided not to give any initial publicity to our decision to expel members of the Soviet community.

The Soviet Union's response to that deliberate restraint on our part shows how far it still has to go to live up to the standards of behaviour that the free world regards as normal. Even so, we shall continue to work to sustain the improvement in relations that has taken place and to which we attach importance. But we shall not turn a blind eye to unacceptable activity, which threatens our national security and so the safety of our citizens.

Mr. Kaufman

The Opposition regard the expulsion of three reputable British journalists from Moscow as wrong and completely without justification. We deplore any proven cases of Soviet espionage in this country. We assert the right of Britain to take proper action to protect national security and we ask the Government the following questions.

Why were the expulsions of Soviet nationals from Britain handled so incompetently, with the news announced not in London by the Foreign Office but as a result of Soviet action in Moscow? Did the Foreign Secretary really delude himself that he could keep this action quiet? Were the expulsions the best way, or indeed the only way, of handling the issue? Could not the problem have best been sorted out directly during the visit of President Gorbachev to Britain last month? When did these cases come to light? Was it during the last few days or was it earlier? Did the Government take into account the danger of tit-for-tat reprisals? Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman worried about the serious deterioration in British-Soviet relations that is now occurring, with Mr. Genady Gerasimov today warning of a further 170 expulsions of British citizens from the Soviet Union to bring its quota into line with our limit of 205 Soviets here?

British security must be safeguarded, but is it best safeguarded by reawakening cold war attitudes on both sides?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I was tempted to welcome the support that the right hon. Gentleman offered me in the first two or three sentences of his question, but in the light of the hand-wringing querulousness with which he continued, I do not now find it possible to do so. I explained to the House why we took the action in that way, precisely for the deliberate purposes that I have described. If I had announced these matters in a different fashion, ahead of the announcement made in the Soviet Union, the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends would have been the first to accuse me of provocative cold war attitudes. The decision to expel those people was taken only after the most careful consideration, after a long period in which the Soviet Union had been increasingly aware of our deep concern about such matters.

We are not alone in finding it necessary, sadly, to take such decisions. We are aware that a total in the past five years of 248 Soviet officials have been required to return to the Soviet Union from postings abroad, including expulsions in this country. In the past 12 months alone, a total of 24 Soviet officials have been expelled from 12 countries. We had no alternative but to take this action now, in the light of the mounting evidence of an accumulating risk to the security of the people of this country. I invite the entire House to support what we have done.

Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that many of us have been impressed by the efforts of President Gorbachev to introduce more glasnost and openness in Soviet affairs, such as more openness in its conduct of foreign policy? While applauding my right hon. and learned Friend's reticence in announcing the action that was taken, I am aware that the Soviet response of expelling highly reputable journalists who had carried out their normal functions of reporting the news shows that the malign influence of the KGB is still abroad in the Soviet Union. Will my right hon. and learned Friend take it from those who want more co-operation with the Soviet Union that we are deeply depressed by the evidence that the KGB has not been put out to grass?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's support, especially over the way in which we have handled the announcement. He knows that no one has striven harder than my right hon. Friend and myself, during the six years that I have held this office, to promote an improvement in east-west relations. My right hon. Friend and I have sincerely and warmly welcomed any improvements. We shall continue to welcome all the evidence of new thinking that President Gorbachev and my opposite number, Mr. Shevardnadze, have brought to the conduct and management of Soviet foreign policy. That makes it all the more regrettable that these matters have demonstrated a continuance of certain activities and of an attitude that shows that, at least in this area, new thinking has not yet penetrated the Soviet structure. We wanted to give that a chance to happen, and we still hope that it will.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

Will the Foreign Secretary make it clear to the Soviet Government that both this House and this country regard the right of independent reporters to report independently as a fundamental civil liberty? Can he assure the House that there was no means other than expulsion to remove those Soviet citizens from this country? Could not that have been secured by a voluntary arrangement, which would not have created the resulting tension?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I welcome the hon. and learned Gentleman's first point. It is regrettable that the Soviet Union should have chosen to disregard the legitimacy of independent journalists' activity just at the conclusion of the London Information Forum, during which both east and west exchanged views to try to establish that principle.

It is not possible to take action other than expulsion in cases of such unacceptable activity. That has been plainly underlined by the unwillingness of the Soviet Union to respond to our action in the way that I had hoped.

Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the vast majority of people in Britain will welcome his action and deplore the Opposition's wimpish attitude? Does he further agree that this unhappy episode makes it clear that there is another face to the Soviet Union, which has nowhere near been exorcised yet, and that it behoves us to keep up our guard for the foreseeable future?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I welcome my hon. Friend's support and endorse his last point. The continuance of such conduct makes it necessary for us to remain vigilant in all aspects of the Soviet Union's conduct. I wish to emphasise one point, which I am sure has the support of the whole House—that we would prefer to live in a world in which the Soviet Union, in this matter, had caught up with some of its new thinking in other matters. The world would be a far better place if the Soviet Union was willing to discontinue such unacceptable activity, which unfortunately still affects its relations with many other countries.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

I agree that the expulsion of the three journalists is foolish and that their work in the Soviet Union has been of great value. What does the Foreign Secretary mean by "new thinking"? Does not spying take place by all countries? During the past few minutes one would have thought that only the Russians engaged in spying. Would it be a good idea to hold a conference not only to balance nuclear and conventional weapons but to balance the amount of spying carried out by all countries?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The right hon. Gentleman is right to pay tribute to the three journalists, who are all experienced writers and who have provided faithful reporting, of a high quality, on the Soviet Union. That has been in the interests of both countries. I must make it clear that the diplomats concerned have, in their different areas, also made an important contribution to relations between our two countries.

The right hon. Gentleman must surely appreciate from his experience in office, supported by the figures that I have given the House, that the scale and nature of unacceptable activities undertaken by the Soviet Union are in a class of their own and have continued unabated during recent years. That is why we have had to take this action.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that this action justifies the Government's cautious approach throughout the glasnost and perestroika of the past few months? Is he aware also that the term "deliberate restraint" is not in Opposition Members' vocabulary and that, by raising the matter in such a way today, they have demonstrated their total inadequacy to run the foreign affairs of this country?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I do not find it difficult to agree with my hon. and learned Friend's last point. I cannot emphasise too strongly that, in our handling of this matter, we were concerned only to take the right decisions for the security and safety of the people of this country. We were not looking for any kind of propaganda advantage. With the success that has been acclaimed on both sides of the House, we continue to remain committed to the improvement of relations betweeen East and West. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who was muttering from a sedentary position, is now repudiating the tribute that he has paid on many occasions to Her Majesty's Government's success in improving relations between East and West. That is our objective. It is a matter of the utmost regret that that kind of conduct on the part of Soviet authorities should continue.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that although, unfortunately, there are several KGB people stationed in this country who could not care less about improving Anglo-Soviet relations, there is speculation that other people—certainly those on the Tory Benches and in other places—also could not care less about the undoubted improvements in relations which, as the Foreign Secretary has admitted, have occurred between the Soviet Union and this country? Is the Foreign Secretary aware also that there is added speculation that the Prime Minister herself wanted an issue prior to the NATO summit to try to demonstrate that the Soviet Union remains the enemy?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman's question is down to the usual quality of his interrogation. As I told the House this afternoon, the action that we have taken was taken in the face of accumulating evidence that could not have been allowed to continue any longer. It has been taken with regret, because we would like to see an end to such activity on the part of the Soviet Union. We are determined to go on working in the future, as we have done in the past, for improved relations. We only hope that the Soviet Union will understand exactly what that should entail on its part.

Sir David Price (Eastleigh)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that Russian intelligence and secret services had an independent existence within the Soviet state long before the Soviet Union was ever invented—back to the days of Peter the Great? Does he recognise that, for Russian intelligence, glasnost and perestroika mean "take the foreign suckers for a ride"?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I would not follow my hon. Friend in the full sweep of his eloquent denunciation. However, I remind him that the whole House has welcomed what President Gorbachev is trying to achieve for the Soviet people and for the improvement of relations between that country and the rest of the world. Perestroika and glasnost are part of that. The whole House should join me in regretting the extent to which those propositions manifestly do not apply to the matters with which we are concerned today.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

What is the Foreign Secretary saying to Mr. Roxburgh, one of the journalists involved, who went into print to say that these matters are rather better handled in a number of other countries such as Germany and France? Without being offensive to the Foreign Secretary, he will forgive me for asking whether, in the light of GCHQ and Zircon, the incontrovertible evidence has been submitted to the Security Commission. For example, does Lord Griffiths of Govilon, a High Court judge and chairman of the Security Commission, agree that it is incontrovertible evidence?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The matter has been handled in accordance with the normal standards that apply to matters of this kind, without—

Mr. Dalyell

The normal standards are Westland.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

—without enthusiasm and with great regret. We have concluded that the action that we have taken was absolutely necessary. To remove the impression that was left by his question, I remind the hon. Gentleman that, in the past 12 months alone, Soviet officials have been expelled from a dozen countries covering a wide range of political backgrounds. This is the inevitable response to the character and quality of such Soviet action.

Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in congratulating the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) on giving the House a courageous and rather terrifying insight into Labour party security policy?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I concur with that.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that the statements made by some of his colleagues today suggest that—contrary to all the meetings between Gorbachev and the Prime Minister and others in this country—they want the cold war flames to be fanned once again?

How many diplomats have been sent back to South Africa, apart from the three referred to earlier this year? How many have been sent back to Japan or to West Germany? If the Prime Minister is so concerned about the carryings-on in the Common Market, how many have been sent back to Common Market countries?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman can always be trusted to broaden the scope of the question. For his benefit and for the benefit of the House, I repeat that our action in this case has been careful, measured, to the point, and designed to deter the continuation of unacceptable activity by and on behalf of the Soviet Union. This is action that we have been compelled to take, together with many other countries in the free world. We hope that the Soviet Union will learn its lesson, because the whole House wants to see a comprehensive, genuine and sustained improvement in relations with the Soviet Union. That will not be possible on the scale that we would wish as long as misconduct of this kind continues to take place.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that this is a private notice question and an extension of Question Time. We must now move on to a statement by the Secretary of State for Defence.

Following are the names:

List of those Soviet Officials currently in London who have been given 14 days notice to leave

List of those Soviet Officials who have left the United Kingdom but who have been declared persona non grata

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