HC Deb 21 February 1990 vol 167 cc931-6 3.33 pm
Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton) (by private notice)

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the outcome of the Council of Foreign Ministers meeting in Dublin yesterday.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. William Waldegrave)

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary represented us at yesterday's meeting. Discussion focused mainly on Germany, the CSCE and South Africa.

On Germany, Minister Genscher gave a very detailed account of the prospects for German unification and gave assurances, which were widely welcomed, that the Federal Government were ready to consult their partners and allies on external aspects of the process.

Against the background of the dramatic changes in eastern Europe, the Ministers discussed the important role of the CSCE process, and in particular the summit meeting to be held later this year, in fostering co-operation throughout Europe. The Ministers issued a statement on this.

On South Africa, my right hon. Friend proposed that the Community should respond to the important steps taken by Mr. de Klerk by lifting the ban on new investment, which is implemented voluntarily in our case. As there was no agreement to take such a step collectively, the United Kingdom reserved its right to act nationally.

Statements on the following subjects were also issued: the code of conduct for Community companies operating in South Africa; Namibian independence; the worrying situation in the horn of Africa; the extension of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories; and progress towards a settlement of the Cambodia problem.

Copies of all statements issued are being placed in the Library of the House.

Mr. Robertson

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for this chance to cross-examine the Minister on this vitally important meeting. Whatever gloss the right hon. Gentleman may put on the other subjects at the Council meeting, does not the outcome represent a further miserable humiliation for Britain, leaving us yet again isolated and derided as the last friend of apartheid? At a time when united economic pressures have just begun to produce some movement towards reform in South Africa, what conceivable reason is there for Britain, alone among all our allies and partners, to relax those pressures before the real reform takes place?

Does the Prime Minister and those who are forced, against their own judgment, to speak for her not recognise the perversity of her position? She is reneging on her own commitments, freely entered into, to keep sanctions in place at least until the state of emergency is lifted, until all political prisoners are set free and, as the Commonwealth communiqué said, until "change is irreversibly secured".

If he can, will the Minister of State explain how, when the Prime Minister told the House yesterday that our investment sanctions would be lifted come what may, at the selfsame time in Dublin the Foreign Secretary was offering to delay the decision? Who actually speaks for Britain, or is it again the case of the messenger not getting the message?

Finally, yesterday the Prime Minister sought to bolster her feeble case on investment sanctions by quoting BMW South Africa. Will the Minister now confirm that that investment did not come from Germany?

Mr. Waldegrave

The last point is the most easily disposed of because the Prime Minister herself made it clear yesterday that internal profits were being reinvested. However, that makes the point that it is childish to talk about an investment ban when some companies are massively expanding their operations in South Africa.

Our argument seems extremely strong. I am not sure that the Opposition yet understand that the measures taken by the Community on 15 September 1986 were explicit. They reaffirmed the urgent need for national dialogue across the line of colour, politics and religion in South Africa. They urged that, since the South African Government were then taking no steps in that direction, certain measures should be undertaken until the dialogue was launched. The dialogue is now launched, as all sides in South Africa have made perfectly clear, and will begin soon. Therefore, the reason for those sanctions—not all sanctions, but those sanctions—has fallen. In the hon. Gentleman's terms, they have been successful. We are talking about the 1986 measures, which were under discussion yesterday.

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, who seldom makes silly points, he made a silly point about the alleged difference between the Prime Minister's position and that of the Foreign Secretary. There is no difference. The Foreign Secretary made the point yesterday to colleagues that if there was a will to consensus, we would be happy to find consensus around the strict letter of the law of what was agreed in 1986. However, there was clearly no will for that, except for Portugal, which has supported us throughout. Therefore, there was no purpose in pursuing that argument.

The argument remains the same. If the hon. Gentleman's party, which is committed to mandatory comprehensive sanctions now—that is its position in its policy document—believes that that is the way to respond to the steps that de Klerk has taken, it is totally out of touch with reality.

Mr. David Howell (Guildford)

Can my right hon. Friend explain or account for the sanctions nostalgia that seems to infect the Opposition Benches? Is it not now plain common sense to accept that South Africa has entered into a period of transition, and, we hope, negotiations leading to a proper democracy in that country and the rejection of the hated apartheid system? Does it not follow obviously from that that not less but more investment is needed—in particular, to help the black communities, which have had a very poor deal so far, to develop? Can my right hon. Friend explain why Opposition Members and others are so determined to do down efforts for reform and to do down the black community?

Mr. Waldegrave

I genuinely find it difficult to understand the Labour party's policy, which has nothing to do with trying to produce a particular outcome in South Africa. It has something to do with the internal politics of the Labour party. It is not an example of a sensible policy but a matter of declaratory emotional statement. Those of us who are committed to trying to produce change in South Africa should be providing incentives for that change. We are not saying, "Sweep away all sanctions." We are saying, "Remove some sanctions to give an incentive for further progress." I agree with my right hon. Friend about the necessity to develop the economy of South Africa—the best way of dissolving the apartheid system which, among other things, rests on a great deal of state control of industry.

Sir David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

Will the Minister explain how it serves British interests for this country to be identified with the interests of the South African regime of the past rather than the South African regime of the future and to divide the European Community in the process?

Mr. Waldegrave

We are identified with the steps taken on both sides, first by Mr. de Klerk, which have been welcomed by a wide grouping of opinion in South Africa, and we welcome the steps that many African leaders, including Mr. Mandela and Mr. Sisulu, have taken to respond. We do not think that our policy should be dictated by one group in South Africa, any more than their policy should be dictated by us. We do, however, believe that it is rational to seek a response to the event.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

Did my right hon. Friend discuss in Dublin with his European fellow Foreign Ministers whether they intended to invite Nelson Mandela to visit them? In particular, did he consider asking Nelson Mandela to visit England after his visit to Stockholm and his discussions with Mr. Tambo so that we can be certain that our policy is co-ordinated with his in dismantling apartheid?

Mr. Waldegrave

It is well known that Mr. Mandela has said in public that he has received an invitation and is considering it; he has said that an invitation from the British Prime Minister is a very serious matter. It is no news to Mr. Mandela and no news to us that we disagree on this point.

The House has yet to get an answer on the Labour party's policy, although I asked for it last week. We still do not know whether Labour Members believe that mandatory comprehensive sanctions are what is now required. If Labour Members believe that that is what is now required, as against a response to what Mr. de Klerk is doing, they are totally out of touch.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Does the Minister realise that the unilateral decision by Britain on lifting sanctions will undoubtedly mean that the Prime Minister of Britain will again be seen as giving aid and comfort to the leaders of the South African regime at a time when the other European countries simply refuse to take the same step? Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why we should disagree with the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), who said that yesterday's decision will mean that Britain is once again isolated over sanctions? Was not the former Conservative Prime Minister speaking the truth? Perhaps the Minister would be saying the same if he was not the Foreign Office apologist for the occupant of No. 10.

Mr. Waldegrave

There are plenty of examples of countries in the European Community taking what they believe to be their national position over matters. It will be within the memory of the House that during the Falklands war the Republic of Ireland chose to end unilaterally its sanctions against Argentina. There are plenty of precedents.

Sir Peter Hordern (Horsham)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that mandatory sanctions remain in place and that voluntary sanctions are entirely a matter for companies—that it is for companies to decide whether they wish to trade in South Africa? If that is so, why do we need to say anything at all?

Mr. Waldegrave

The reason why we need to say something is that we issued guidance. Thankfully, we have no legal capacity to direct the investment of British companies, although I expect that the Labour party regrets that. We agreed to draw to the attention of companies our wish that they should not invest, and it seems a suitable step to take to revise that guidance, and, after my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has reported yesterday's discussions to the Cabinet, that is what we are likely to do.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

The Minister is misleading the House—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Minister cannot mislead the House.

Dr. Owen

Surely the Minister accepts that the decision taken in the Council on 27 October 1986 is binding on Her Majesty's Government. It is voluntary in respect of companies because, under British law, they cannot be bound by a decision—and that was always made clear. However, the British Government are bound and cannot unilaterally disavow a decision taken by the Council of Ministers. It is equally unusual for the British Government to do so when the Prime Minister, on 22 October last year, made it clear in Kuala Lumpur that she accepted that the first steps required the unbanning of all political parties—which has been done—but also the lifting of the state of emergency and the freeing of political prisoners. She made it quite clear that only when those necessary steps had been taken would it be right to lift some of the measures imposed by the international community. Surely the Government are acting unlawfully.

Mr. Waldegrave

There are two separate matters involved here. The right hon. Gentleman should be careful in his use of language. He has failed to understand the position, which is a little surprising for a former Foreign Secretary. There is no question but that we are within the law of the Community in choosing, after consultation with our colleagues—that is our obligation—to follow our national interests. I can ask my officials to help to educate the right hon. Gentleman in this matter. The issue of the Commonwealth measures is not at present under question. We are talking about the 1986 measures that were specifically aimed at producing national dialogue. We believe, and Opposition Members do not deny it, that national dialogue is about to begin. That means that those measures fall.

Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we in this country do not need to take any lessons from the European Community on economic sanctions? Is it not a fact that since 1986, when the agreement was reached, France has doubled its imports from South Africa and its exports have gone up by 20 per cent., Germany has trebled its imports from South Africa and its exports have doubled? Do not those countries agree with us that if we are to defeat apartheid it will be by economic growth, not by economic sanctions?

Mr. Waldegrave

What my hon. Friend says is correct. All South Africa's principal trading partners have increased their trade to South Africa in recent years. In the words of the Times leader of today, there is a great deal of humbug about this subject.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

Even when he tries to respond today, the Minister is in an uncomfortable position. He knows that, rather than greeting the release of Mandela with some sort of humility, because she played very little part in it, the Prime Minister over-reacted and immediately sought to reward the people who had imprisoned that man for 27 years. It is rather perverse that we are again isolated from not only our European partners, but the rest of the world.

Mr. Waldegrave

The hon. Gentleman, who has such a fine record in trying to bring the parties in the middle east to the table, would surely not want to argue against us now when we seek to reward not the people who imprisoned Mandela, but those who let him out and are producing new policies in South Africa. They have said that they will put the building blocks and pillars of apartheid into the negotiations and are willing to enter into constitutional talks to bring about fundamental change in South Africa. If we are not to reward those steps by taking a step-by-step approach, the hon. Gentleman's approach in the middle east is completely forgotten.

Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that sanctions are no more likely to help Mr. de Klerk in his quest than they would help Mr. Gorbachev in his?

Mr. Waldegrave

The parallel with Mr. Gorbachev two or three years ago is fair, I think. Little had changed constitutionally by then; indeed, little has changed even now, but we were right to respond to what he was trying to do. As well as welcoming the statesmanlike and sensible remarks that Mr. Mandela and other leaders are making in South Africa, we should try to add power to those on the white side who are leading the way towards dialogue.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. This is an extension of Question Time. I shall allow two more questions from either side, and then move on. We are to have a Standing Order No. 20 application and an important debate.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that yesterday the Prime Minister sought to justify her position by saying that new investment was going into South Africa to BMW? Is he aware that her economic advisers have seriously misled her, that that investment was internally generated and that, in any event, it began in 1983? Since the right hon. Lady is getting such bad economic advice—and it is clear that she is getting bad political advice—would she not do better to take the advice of Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison and had many hours of discussion with Mr. de Klerk before being released, instead of listening to the wild men on the Conservative Back Benches?

Mr. Waldegrave

The disagreement with the ANC over sanctions has been long-standing. I suspect that Mr. Mandela would be as astonished if we reversed our position on these matters overnight as we would be if he reversed his. The disagreement is not crucial; we are discussing tactics. I think that I can persuade any open-minded person—there seem to be few such people among the Opposition—of the need to make a symbolic but practical response to the brave steps that Mr. de Klerk has taken.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that the Government's reversal of their policy on new investment in South Africa is a welcome and positive response to the positive moves in South Africa to bring about the reforms that we all want? When the state of emergency has gone, and when the Group Areas Act and the Population Registrations Act—the twin pillars of apartheid—have been repealed, will my right hon. Friend speculate on whether the rest of the sanctions now imposed by Britain on South Africa will also be removed?

Mr. Waldegrave

When the day for which we are all working—that of the total destruction of apartheid—comes, we hope that there will be unanimous agreement to do away with all sanctions. I am sure that my hon. Friend is right—as long, that is, as the Labour party is not still stuck in some 1968 position paper.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

Does the Minister agree that the reason why there has been change in South Africa is that sanctions have worked?

Mr. Waldegrave

The underlying pressures for change in South Africa are far more formidable than the largely symbolic sanctions that are now in place—as witness the Labour party, which has argued again and again that they are minor. I notice that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), who is an honest man, agrees. So it cannot be argued that those sanctions brought about fundamental change, which is presumably why the Labour party still wants comprehensive and mandatory sanctions.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

Did the Foreign Secretary tell his European counterparts that it was pure hypocrisy on their part to refuse to pull out from sanctions, given that sanctions are being widely ignored in at least five other EEC member states? Will he invite M. Jacques Delors to initiate a special inquiry to find out exactly why West Germany has emerged as the largest trading partner of South Africa, despite the German Foreign Minister's appeal to us to boycott trade with South Africa? Is not that a typical example of Ministers agreeing to a policy that they are blatently ignoring in their own selfish interests?

Mr. Waldegrave

I think that there is a big difference between those in the Community and elsewhere whose main policy on this matter seems declaratory—they pass motions, but that is about all—and those who are trying to engage in practical action to help to bring about change in South Africa. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is a diplomatic and tactful man and did not use the language that my hon. Friend mentioned, but I am sure that the facts were made clear.