HL Deb 16 June 1977 vol 384 cc304-12

3.41 p.m.


My Lords, with the leave of the House I will now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:

"I should like to make a Statement about the meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government which ended in London yesterday.

"Thirty-three Heads of Government or their personal representatives attended, together with the Commonwealth Secretary General whose work contributed greatly to the success of the meeting. The communiqué and separate Statement on apartheid in sport have been placed in the Library.

"It has often been said that the Commonwealth provides a unique bridge between peoples of different races, areas and stages of development. This feeling has never been stronger than at the conclusion of our successful meetings at Lancaster House. We discussed serious and difficult issues without acrimony and with a growing understanding of each other's positions, and on many issues we reached a complete identity of view.

"A distinctive feature of the meeting was a concentration on basic human values and rights.

"One area where human beings are deprived of these basic rights is Southern Africa. All the Commonwealth leaders welcomed our current initiative to achieve an independent Zimbabwe enjoying majority rule in 1978 and all of them would prefer to reach that objective through a negotiated settlement, but a number were deeply sceptical about the chances of success. The exchanges reinforced my view that if the minority regime in Rhodesia fails to negotiate constructively, then the fighting and the bloodshed will continue and the destruction will go on, with all that that implies for the future of that country. Some Commonwealth leaders put their faith primarily in the armed struggle to bring about majority rule in Southern Africa. We shall continue to try to find another way.

"In the context of Southern Africa, and following informal discussion at Gleneagles, a Statement was issued on the question of sporting contacts with South Africa. This expressed our general detestation of apartheid in sport, and looked forward to the holding of the Commonwealth Games in Canada next year.

"We had constructive discussions on the international economic structure, noting with deep concern the declining living standards and poverty in which many are living in the developing countries. We affirmed our view that the economic health of both developed and developing countries is interdependent. Thus, in addition to the moral grounds for solving the problems of poverty and inequality, this is also necessary if the wealthier parts of the world are themselves to continue to prosper. Equally it was recognised that these problems could not be solved without the continued economic strength of the industrialised countries. There was disappointment that more could not be achieved in recent international negotiations, but the Conference noted the progress made and agreed that we should build on this in forthcoming negotiations. As a practical step we agreed to set up a Commonwealth technical working group to consider in detail the possible operations of a Common Fund, to report before the UNCTAD negotiations begin in Geneva in November.

"We identified some of the difficulties faced by the different regional groupings in the Commonwealth, and asked the Secretary General to draw up a special programme of Commonwealth assistance. The Heads of Government also welcomed the continuing expansion of the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation, and several members of the Commonwealth, including Her Majesty's Government, indicated that they would make substantial increases in their contributions to the Fund.

"Against the background of the tragic events in Uganda, Commonwealth leaders reaffirmed their belief in the fundamental rights of all men to life and liberty, to those personal freedoms that are the common heritage of their peoples and to respect for human dignity and the equal rights of all men. The Commonwealth condemned in unequivocal terms the disregard for the sanctity of life and of the massive violation of basic human rights in Uganda, which should invoke the concern of the world. The House will endorse this statement by Commonwealth leaders and will look forward, as does the whole of the Commonwealth, to the day when the people of Uganda can once more enjoy freedom and security and be represented with dignity at our meetings.

"There was a general wish to make this a useful and constructive Commonwealth meeting, and we succeeded. No one who attended is in any doubt that the discussions, both in the formal sessions and most particularly in the informal gatherings during the past 10 days, have proved once again the vitality and value of the Commonwealth."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.47 p.m.


My Lords, the House will wish to thank the Leader of the House for having repeated the Statement, and will wish also to agree with the Statement that this was clearly a useful and constructive Commonwealth meeting, with far less propaganda and contention than there has been in recent years. I think that is to be greatly welcomed. One of the great values of meetings of this kind is the contacts which the Heads of Government can have with each other. Also, it would have been unthinkable for a meeting of the Heads of Commonwealth Governments not to have made a Statement about Uganda, and I am very glad that it was agreed unanimously to do so. The Commonwealth would cease to have any meaning if what is happening in Uganda were overlooked at a meeting of this kind.

I have greater hesitation about one aspect of the Communiqué. In the Statement which the Leader of the House has read out, the Government say that though some Commonwealth leaders put their faith primarily in the armed struggle, Her Majesty's Government will continue to try to find another way. I am glad that the Government have emphasised this point. However, I note that in the passage in the Communiqué about Rhodesia the words regarding majority rule in Rhodesia are as follows: In this connection they noted that the armed struggle has become complementary to other efforts, including a negotiated settlement, and agreed that its maintenance"— "its" being force— was inevitable". It may be that we in this country do not have the power to stop armed forces being used in Rhodesia at present, but I should have thought that it was dangerous tacitly to admit that these kinds of dispute should be solved by force. After all, it is against the Charter of the United Nations, which explicitly states that disputes of this kind should not be solved by force.

I have one perhaps rather revolutionary suggestion to make. On the next occasion of a Commonwealth Prime Ministers' meeting, I wonder whether it might not seriously be considered whether it is desirable to have a Communiqué at all. As I said earlier, it seems to me that the value of these meetings is the exchange of views between various Heads of Government. On this occasion I have noticed that almost more time has been spent by Heads of Government in discussing the Communiqué and its actual words than in discussing what the Communiqué is telling us. That seems to me to be a very bad situation. Perhaps we might think in future of going back to those old days of Commonwealth meetings when it was not felt necessary to issue a Communiqué about what was decided. The meeting was primarily designed for an exchange of views.

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, we, too, would like to thank the noble Lord the Leader of the House for repeating that Statement. We all agree that it is certainly useful that the Commonwealth should have reached general agreement on so many matters, even if, naturally, no actual decisions could be taken except of course in relatively minor spheres. It is very satisfactory—and here we join with the noble Lord, Lord Carrington—that there should have been condemnation of Amin, even if, unfortunately, it was not possible to condemn him by name. I imagine that the use of the adjective "overwhelming" in the longer Communiqué in connection with the condemnation may conceal the fact that the condemnation did not actually commit every Head of State represented in the Commonwealth. I presume that was the object of using that particular adjective. Perhaps the noble Lord will tell us if that was not so.

Generally speaking, we have no doubt that the meeting was instrumental in creating much good feeling among so many disparate nations, and to that extent it must be welcome in the eyes of this country and this House. But we must surely recognise, if we are at all realistic, that the interests of the Members of the Commonwealth cannot always be identical, any more than there could possibly be a community of interests in such an organisation as the United Nations. On certain general principles, such as the maintenance of human rights, the struggle against racism and the desirability of assisting the development of the poorer nations, no doubt there can be agreement and there should be agreement, but as to how exactly those principles should be applied there may well be profound disagreement. Indeed, the passage to which the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, referred; namely, that some Commonwealth leaders put their faith primarily in the armed struggle, but Her Majesty's Government continue to try to find another way, surely reveals a certain diversity of interests. That cannot be denied.

Therefore, I ask the Government to say whether they agree that that is so, and whether they further agree that common interests, as opposed to sentiment—which of course is not negligible; it is important to have sentiment—are far more easily discernible in the European Economic Community than they are in the Commonwealth, excellent though the latter may be, in smoothing relations between richer and poorer nations.

3.53 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, for his remarks. I agree with him especially about the armed struggle. He is quite right to emphasise that, and he indicated that it would be against the Charter of the United Nations. I note what he said.

I will pass on to the Prime Minister his suggestion about the Communiqué. It is a point worth noting that more time is often spent at the end of conferences in trying to agree to a Communiqué—we all know that, and it is true in many other fields of human activity. I am grateful to the noble Lord for welcoming the Statement on behalf of the Opposition, and also I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, speaking for the Liberal Party. I do not think I should get involved in all the subtleties about what we mean by certain words or comparing the Commonwealth with the European Economic Community. They are different bodies and the organisations are quite different. Each has its virtues and I do not want to create any rivalry between the two. It is interesting that many of my Commonwealth friends, when we were negotiating entry into Europe, were strongly in favour of Britain going into Europe at that time, so there is no difference of opinion here.


My Lords, while thanking the Minister for his Statement I should like partially to endorse the remark made by the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition on the production of Communiqués. Leading from that, would it not be of value to give the opportunity to this House to debate the whole gamut of the Commonwealth Conference?

My second question—I have always understood, and it is my impression, that questions follow Statements—is: Does the Minister know whether this magnificent move towards industrial economic order produced by the Commonwealth Secretariat was under discussion? My third question is this: Has he any information on the progress—and this is much more important than Amin—of transnational firms and their relation to the Commonwealth, and on the terrific problem of finding stability for economic prices? I think that I have asked enough questions, and I had better sit down, in the hope that ultimately we shall get a debate in your Lordships' House.


My Lords, if that is the case, I have noted carefully what my noble friend has said and I will await the time when he may be able to elaborate on it—but not now. I am not sure that all the points he has mentioned were covered in the Conference. I accept that the points with regard to trade and the development of economies were important, and I feel sure they would have been discussed.


My Lords, following the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, I should like to ask the noble Lord the Leader of the House whether he will consider seriously with the Opposition Front Bench the holding of a "full dress" debate on the Commonwealth before we rise in July. This is a subject which has been sadly neglected by this House for a long time past, and surely this is the right time for us to try, as a House of British Parliament, to assess the future of the Commonwealth in the years immediately ahead.


My Lords, certainly I will take note of that suggestion. I know there is strong feeling about this. It may well be that the problem will be whether there is sufficient time, from the point of view of business. However, I have noted carefully what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, and by the noble Lord, Lord Alport. I would just say to your Lordships that the full Communiqué will be in the Library.


My Lords, as someone who has had the privilege of serving on the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations six times in 12 years—three months in each year—may I be allowed to congratulate the Government on the Conference and on the Communiqué. I have never heard anything quite so coherent; quite so full of promise. I say that without exaggeration, because we cannot achieve something spectacular by means of a short Conference. However, the atmosphere seemed to me to be more constructive than anything I have ever heard from the Commonwealth during the debates in the United Nations.


My Lords, I am grateful for what my noble friend has said about this. Considering her experience in inter- national gatherings, it was a pleasing tribute and I thank her for it.


My Lords, as regards the Communiqué, will the Government bear in mind that a meeting of this sort, which involves an enormous number of private conversations by people who do not readily agree at first, is apt to result in nothing very much unless some attempt is made to make concrete the points on which they are agreed. If there is no Communiqué, my experience of international meetings is that people are apt to leave the Conference and to express totally varying opinions about what happened and what was agreed. Will the Government bear that in mind when considering the important points made by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington?


Certainly, my Lords. That is another point of view which shows some of the difficulties. Often it is necessary to have a Communiqué because it crystallizes the views and thoughts of the people participating in the Conference.


My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for the Statement he has made, and endorsing the fact that it is quite obvious that the Conference was a very useful one, may I ask him what steps are being taken in order to put into effect some of the resolutions that were passed or the sentiments that were expressed at the Conference itself? I am thinking, for example, of the unhappy and terrible state of affairs in Uganda and of the question of human rights in so far as the Helsinki Agreement is concerned, particularly with regard to approaches that should be made, some of which were emphasised in our recent debate, to ensure that the issues are dealt with on a common platform by the Commonwealth.


I think it is too early yet for one to assess what each individual country will do. Obviously we want a joint Commonwealth approach on many of these matters, especially human rights. But, after all, the Conference has just finished. I am hopeful, in view of the spirit which prevailed, that action will be taken.


My Lords, may I, as the senior official who helped to advise the Government eight years ago in the Commonwealth Conference, associate myself strongly with the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, on the successful management of this particular and by no means easy Conference. May I endorse what my noble friend Lord Hankey said about the issuing of a Communiqué, by adding to what he said the negative advantage of a Communiqué, which is that if there is wording which has been agreed then a number of people who might have liked to depart from that wording are in future unable to do so. This is a very great advantage.

Finally, may I ask one question on the difficult matter of armed struggle versus negotiation. Would it be in the thinking of the Government that perhaps some advantage could be taken of the situation to switch our criticisms of Mr. Smith? Is it not the case that perhaps calling Mr. Smith a bad man has rather worn out? But the point that has not worn out is that the longer unreasonable opposition to the development of majority rule goes on, when the inevitable majority rule comes the fewer young "British" Rhodesians, so to say, will there be to help in the development of the country?


My Lords, I know the noble Lord, Lord Gore-Booth, has had long experience of the Foreign Office and dealt with international affairs. I note carefully what he has said. I take note of his remarks about the value of a Communiqué. On the specific Rhodesian matters, I again re-emphasise that Her Majesty's Government do not believe that armed struggle is the way to find a solution.


My Lords, may I add one point about the Communiqué. Whatever the future may be, it really would have been rather a pity if we had not had a Communiqué on this occasion, because the Commonwealth would not have expressed its views on what is happening in Uganda. It is very important that that was said at this particular Commonwealth Conference.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for her remarks.