HL Deb 10 February 1976 vol 368 cc22-30

3.43 p.m.


My Lords, with the permission of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement which is now being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister—and I will use his own words:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would now like to make a fuller Statement, following my Statement to the House yesterday, on the reports of the activities of British mercenaries in Angola and on the wider issues involved.

"In the present confused and dangerous situation in Northern Angola it is obviously difficult to ascertain all the facts. I regret, however, that there can now be little doubt that an atrocity of the kind reported over the week-end did take place. There must inevitably remain a doubt about the number of deaths and how they took place until police investigations have been completed. A plane carrying British mercenaries left Kinshasa yesterday evening for Brussels and reached London this morning in two parties totalling 44. All are now being questioned by the police. I understand that three of the mercenaries are seriously wounded and that at least one has been found in possession of a firearm and has been detained.

" The organised recruitment of young men, many of them with no military experience whatsoever, for mercenary service in Angola must be a matter of deep concern to the Government and to all honourable Members.

" The Government have therefore decided to establish an inquiry with the following terms of reference:

'In the light of recent events, to consider whether sufficient control exists over the recruitment of United Kingdom citizens for service as mercenaries; to consider the need for legislation, including possible amendment of the Foreign Establishment Act; and to make recommendations. ' "

" This Inquiry will be conducted by a small Committee of three Privy Councillors, and I am pleased to inform the House that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Diplock, has agreed to act as Chairman of this Inquiry and that the other two members of the Committee will be the right honourable Member for Kettering [Sir Geoffrey de Freitas] and the right honourable Member for Hertford shire East [Sir Derek Walker-Smith]. Lord Diplock, as the House will know, is Chairman of the Security Commission, and his expertise in that field will be especially relevant to this Inquiry.

" The whole House will, I think, have been as disturbed as I was by the evident facility and speed with which a small group of people, funded by an unknown source, were able to recruit misguided people to participate in what the right honourable Member for Barnet [Mr. Maudling] referred to yesterday as ' this bloody business '. The potential dangers of such easy recruitment are apparent, but the proper form of control is not easily defined—and the existing law on the many complex issues involved is unsatisfactory. We have therefore concluded—and I hope that the whole House will endorse our conclusion—that we must establish the facts of the situation by a thorough Inquiry into all relevant aspects, so as to prepare the ground for any necessary changes in the law. The Committee will be asked to proceed with all possible speed, given the complexity of the issues. They will of course be free to make an interim report, or reports, if they see fit to do so."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.


My Lords, I am sure the House will be very grateful to the noble Lord for having given us the burden of the Statement made in another place by the Prime Minister. I think we would all agree that it is indeed a "bloody business", and one which has many unfortunate aspects. May I put three points to the noble Lord? The first is that it is very difficult for any of us to make a judgment on what has gone on until we know the facts. The Statement repeated by the noble Lord said that it is difficult to ascertain all the facts, and I think I should like to underline that. Until we really know all the facts, it is very difficult to come to any judgment. In the second place, I am sure the noble Lord would also agree with me that it is very important that the police should have a completely free hand to investigate any matters of a criminal nature that may have been committed by British subjects in the course of this affair, and I take it that the fact that a Committee of Inquiry is to be set up will not in any way affect the operations of the police in carrying out their duties.

The third point I should like to put to the noble Lord concerns the terms of reference of this Committee of Inquiry—and we all join in welcoming the fact that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Diplock, is to be its chairman. I notice that the terms of reference refer specifically to "the recruitment of United Kingdom citizens for service as mercenaries". Would this exclude the question of volunteers? Because in the past a great many citizens of this country have taken part in civil wars or internal disputes in other countries as volunteers; and one can remember, on the other side of the fence, certain Americans who joined our Forces at the beginning of the last war, for whose help we were indeed extremely grateful. I would suggest that possibly these terms of reference are rather too narrow, and that they should cover not only mercenaries but also volunteers who go of their own free will and take part in activities of a warlike nature in other countries.


My Lords, first of all may I say that it makes a pleasant change to see the Press in full pursuit of mercenaries instead of British politicians for once; but, having said that, I should like to support very sincerely the setting up of this Committee of Inquiry. I think the noble Lord the Leader of the House made a slip of the tongue when he referred to the Foreign Establishment Act; it is in fact the Foreign Enlistment Act that we are dealing with and I thought I would put that right just for the Record. Following on what the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, has said, I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, exactly what assistance the Committee of Inquiry will have in ascertaining the facts about recruitment in the United Kingdom and atrocities, if they have occurred, overseas. Is this going to be a matter of the British police assisting the Committee of Inquiry, or is there to be a special unit with special powers? As speed is essential, I think that this ought to be clarified very quickly. As the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, said, there are probably two sides in this matter. One is the levelling of criminal charges for offences that may have occurred and the other is to sift the facts on both recruitment and atrocities.

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful for the reception that both noble Lords have given to this Statement. In regard to the question of the terms of reference, it is true that the terms refer to mercenaries. I suspect that the reason for that is that we are dealing with the present and very sad situation in Angola and, if we arc to deal with this situation, the Committee must act very quickly and this can be done only if the opera tion of their inquiry is in a very narrow field. The noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, mentioned volunteers. One thinks of those who have served with honour as volunteers in various causes. This would raise very wide issues. I should have thought that the first thing was to deal with this particular case and this is why the terms of reference have been so drafted.

Clearly, this inquiry is not to replace that of the police. The police have to inquire into any criminal act that may have occurred, both in Angola and in this country. The Committee will be responsible for their own inquiries. What relations they may have with the police will be a matter for them and the police. In order that evidence may he given to this Committee, freely and without fear, my understanding is that the Attorney-General intends to exercise such powers that those giving such evidence will not be charged under the Foreign Enlistment Act 1870—and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Byers, for his correction. One of the difficulties about making a speech and then having to make a Statement is that one tends to mix up the various Acts of Parliament.

I would agree with the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, that before making a judgment one needs the facts. I do not think that there can be ally doubt that an atrocity did take place in which some of our citizents were involved. My only judgment—I do not think it is a hasty one and I suspect that the House would agree with it, because the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, referred to it—is that when people for commercial reasons enlist men to go to fight, it is indeed a "bloody business" and one that should not be tolerated in a civilised society.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether the terms of reference will include the category associated with the Cubans and the Russians? Are they to be regarded perhaps as peacemakers or will some other definition apply? Are they not also mercenaries? Why should we condemn, although they be very foolish, some of our people, young and middle-aged, who want to assist in this adventure, no doubt for remuneration or some other reason? Why condemn them and not utter one word of rebuke about the Cubans and members of the Soviet Union?


My Lords, my noble friend is highly articulate. I suspect that from time to time his memory may be, for convenience, short. But my noble friend from this Box has on a number of occasions condemned all sides, including the Soviets and the Cubans, for their military intervention in Angola. At the present moment, Her Majesty's Government have a responsibility to British citizens. That is what the Inquiry is about. I should have thought therefore that on reflection my noble friend would feel that his intervention was perhaps less worthy than one customarily expects from him.


My Lords, in view of the great urgency of this matter and its tragic involvement both for persons and also in a political context, may we have an assurance that pressure will be brought upon this Committee to produce at least an interim report with extreme speed?


My Lords, the House will know of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Diplock, and the speed with which he can work if he sets his mind to it. I think that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Diplock, will be aware of the urgency of this matter, particularly if legislation is required. I have no doubt that the views which the noble Baroness has expressed—and which will be shared by all Members of the House—he will take note of and do his best to comply with.


My Lords, in case it is felt that no one else in this House feels like the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, I too should like to voice some doubts. While welcoming the Inquiry very much, I was not quite sure whether the noble Lord the Leader of the House did himself justice when using the words" should not be tolerated ". Let us await the results of this Inquiry. I wonder whether a local inquiry in this country will cover the fact that volunteers are going in large numbers from France, Germany, Belgium and the United States. Ought we not to seek a report from our diplomatic representatives on the spot as to what is happening to those volunteers?

May I remind the noble Lord the Leader of the House that it is not too long ago in all our memories when between 1,000 and 2,000 volunteers from this country went to serve in Spain, and they had the strongest encouragement from the Labour Party of the day. The British battalion, No. 1 Company, after being visited by the then Mr. Attlee was in fact called the Major Attlee company. It is not without honour that people serve in bloody events of this sort. May this fact be borne in mind? Furthermore, could the Government, having got this Inquiry out of the way, now turn their minds and that of our allies to stopping the massive invasion by 12,000 Cuban troops carried by Russian military aircraft?—because that has been the cause of the main problem in this desperately unhappy state of affairs.


My Lords, we could have a long debate upon the difference between what has happened in Angola and the way in which recruitment has taken place in this country, and the free volunteers who went to Spain in support of a democratic Government fighting against the enemies with whom we ourselves were confronted from 1939 onwards. I agree with the noble Lord that we should exercise judgment. Perhaps it may be easier for the noble Lord to do so, than for me with (shall I say?) my own particular knowledge of this matter. I hope that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Diplock, will produce his Report, which will be available to this House, and that it will be one that this House will be able to consider. I hope too that, if legislation were to be necessary, it would be legislation that this House would certainly expedite in its processes.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that those people who have been responsible for recruiting these mercenaries, now announce that they have a contract for 500 more? May we take it that while awaiting the Diplock Report the Government will ensure that there is a shortage of transport methods from this country for any of them?


My Lords, no British airline has made any aircraft available for mercenaries to go from this country to Angola. Representations have been made to a Belgian airline to cease transporting them. My understanding is that they are now willing to comply with that request.


My Lords, will the Government keep in mind the dangers that may flow in the long term from the narrow terms of reference? While one welcomes the Inquiry and understands the necessity of it in view of the particular tragedy that is alleged to have taken place within the last few days, if as a result of the Inquiry we give the impression that we are contracting out of the bigger conflict behind Angola, the bigger conflict based on ideologies which are in conflict, it may be that we shall be doing long-term damage. By all means let us inquire into this specific problem; but let us not do so in a way which will give the impression that we, as a free democratic country, are not prepared to play our part in resisting the encroachment of a dictatorship which would be objectionable to all of us.


My Lords, the role of this Government must be to seek, through the United Nations and our relations with the Commonwealth, the EEC, and the OAU, a peaceful settlement not only in Angola but throughout the world. I held very strong feelings in those days of 1938 and 1939, and I still hold them. I believe the participation which has taken place recently is not conducive to what the noble Lord has in mind. It is much more likely to bring discredit, rather than anything else, on this country and the West. It may be that what has happened will be used against the West, and this country in particular. We need terms of reference for this specific Inquiry; but clearly, if the noble and learned Lord, Lord Diplock, felt it necessary to go further or wider, it would be for him to approach the Prime Minister, and I have no doubt that that would be a matter to which we would give most urgent and careful consideration.


My Lords, does my noble friend understand that though we are not necessarily associated with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, there is a great deal of truth in what he said. Though there were friends of ours associated with the volunteers in Spain—and we would never dub those people who died as" mercenaries "—there were on the other side people who rose to high positions in the Conservative Party who were proclaimed friends of Franco, who wanted volunteers to assist the rebel Government over there at the time. Coming to the point which the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, made, if the American Congress had decided to go into this business in Angola, we might have placed ourselves in some intellectual difficulty. We need a far wider-ranging Inquiry; we cannot decide the matter on the question whether a 17-year-old is likely to be killed.


My Lords, may I suggest to my noble friend, and perhaps to the House, that this is something to which we may well have to return when the Report from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Diplock, is available. I say that because I am conscious that we have before us a debate which is of considerable importance. I suspect that, like my noble friend Lord Pannell, I have been guilty of getting involved in a debate. I should have been more careful and dealt with the Statement as my noble friend Lord Goronwy-Roberts always does. In the knowledge that we shall have to come back to this matter at a later date, perhaps we should now move on to the other business before the House.


My Lords, in view of the fact that Scotland was once a source of many" soldiers of fortune "—that is a better phrase than the word "mercenaries"—could the noble Lora, Lord Shepherd, assure the House that the Diplock Committee will keep an eye on the position under Scottish law? This need not necessarily be a matter of their terms of reference or personnel.


My Lords, knowing the history of the Scots as mercenary soldiers, I am certain the noble and learned Lord, Lord Diplock, will have the Scots well and truly in his mind.