HL Deb 22 March 1977 vol 381 cc382-6

2.50 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the time has not come for a new consultation with the other three powers responsible for Spandau, to give Rudolf Hess parole in view of his state of health and the 30 years he has already spent in jail.


My Lords, there is, unfortunately, no evidence that there has been any change in the Soviet position on this matter. But we are always ready to consider and to take, in consultation with the French and American Governments, any steps likely to lead to agreement between the four Powers concerned on Hess's release; and we are in touch with them on this subject at the present time.


My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Would he not agree that the continued incarceration of this sick old man in solitary confinement is a gross violation of human rights? Would the noble Lord impress on his right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary to do all he can to impress on the Soviet Government that, if the other three signatories to the Potsdam Agreement request the release of Hess on parole, it would be entirely in the spirit of détente and humanity if they would comply with this request?


My Lords, I shall certainly convey to my right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary the noble Viscount's feelings, which I take to be the general feeling of the House. I think it is the general feeling in this country. I do not think that this is quite necessary. I know my right honourable friend's views on this and those of the Prime Minister and of the Government, but it is always well that good intentions are reinforced, especially from this House.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether the occupying Powers other than the Soviet Union contribute to the maintenance of Spandau? Is it not time that this situation, which is no longer a farce but a tragedy, was brought to an end? What possible advantage is it to the Soviet Union to keep this old man in prison almost at the end of his life?


My Lords, I think we are all familiar with the statement of Soviet objection to the release of Rudolf Hess. It is based, as they say, on the state of Russian public opinion, which recalls, as they say, the involvement of Rudolf Hess in the events of 1933 to 1941, when he left the country. However, on my noble friend's question as to the costs of Spandau prison, all the costs of the three Western Powers in Spandau prison are borne under the 1953 agreement by the Federal German authorities as part of the Berlin occupation costs. I would hazard the opinion, in reply to my noble friend, that the Russians have no financial preoccupation about this, but they do insist that they have an ideological, and indeed political, preoccupation arising from what they conceive to be a continuing responsibility for the events of the period I have mentioned.


My Lords, will the Government remind the Soviet Government that Hess was not sentenced to solitary confinement, but that he has been having to endure that penalty for several years simply because of the death or release of all the other war crimes prisoners who were at Spandau? Should not this be the deciding humanitarian reason for mercy now, to which even the Russians ought to be able to agree?


My Lords, I believe it is true to say that Hess is now the only inmate of Spandau. Whether the conditions of his detention there fit the term "solitary confinement", I am not so sure. We are, of course, apart from our representations with our other partners in the four-party agreement for his release on the grounds succinctly put by my noble friend Lord Shinwell, concerned that the conditions of his detention should be as humane as possible. I understand that those are basically acceptable, but I take the noble Lord's point that we should have a constant and careful look at conditions as well as at the question of release.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that the trial of Warren Hastings in Westminster Hall was in no way comparable to what we are doing to this old man, Rudolf Hess? Is it not time that we threw away the niceties of diplomacy and that the Three-Power Commission, apart from Russia, said that we are going to release this man, because Russia is only keeping him in Spandau jail in order to keep afoot in West Berlin and to protect that monument beside the Brandenburg Gate?


My Lords, my noble friend presents what is an attractive course of action. I would, if I may presume, advise the House that it is very important that we maintain the four-power agreement which was negotiated with some difficulty in 1953. Although it creates this kind of difficulty in regard to Rudolf Hess, it is very important on the plus side for the allies that it should be maintained. I think that this is a case for keeping a balanced view of the results of anything like unilateral denunciation of that agreement.


My Lords, may I suggest to the noble Lord the Minister that the reason why I take particular interest in this matter is that I knew Hess before the war? I spent one whole afternoon trying to persuade him to come to England and not believe his unfortunate Ambassador in London. Already, then, he impressed one with the fact that he was not a normal man. I would suggest to the noble Minister that possibly in getting together with the other three Powers one might save the face of the Russians by this question of parole. Whereas they will never agree to release, one could on health grounds, and from the public opinion point of view, get them to agree to granting parole. I think that this would meet the case at the moment.


My Lords, we are in touch on this subject with our allies and other co-signatories of the agreement at the present time. I most certainly will convey to my right honourable friend the tone and temper of the House as expressed this afternoon on this subject.

The LORD PRIVY SEAL (Lord Peart)

My Lords, I think perhaps we might hear from the Cross-Benches now.


My Lords, the Cross-Benchers have not had a chance, and I am going to ask a short question. I would simply ask the noble Lord how the Government can bring themselves to participate any longer in an act of barbarity which really amounts to the slow torture of an old man to death?


My Lords, I think the question, fairly, would be what considerations weigh with this Government and weighed with their predecessors in maintaining the four-power agreement. As I have said, there are distinct advantages to the West in maintaining that agreement which, I repeat, was negotiated by a Conservative Government with laudable skill against very grave difficulties. I would hope that my noble friend Lord Boothby would reflect on the implications of his question to me today.


My Lords, would it not be a good idea if—


My Lords, we all appreciate the feeling of the House on this matter. I think we ought to proceed.


I should have liked a go, too, my Lords.