HL Deb 30 November 1978 vol 396 cc1400-5

3.10 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 on what grounds the United States Government requested them not to supply the Tass Agency with sophisticated computer equipment: what discussion there has been with the French, West German and Japanese Governments which received similar requests; and what decision has been made.


My Lords, the United States Government informed us of their decision not to permit the sale of a particular computer system to Tass and sought our co-operation. We did not discuss this approach with any other Governments, but under the strategic embargo the export of any sophisticated Western computer to the USSR requires the prior approval of all COCOM partners.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that this first example of what I may call economic diplomacy, as a protest against the savage sentences meted out to Soviet dissidents who were monitoring the promises made by their own Government arising out of the Helsinki Agreement, has done more than any mere words can do to emphasise how seriously we do take the human rights question? May I also ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that apart from the strategic embargoes imposed under the COCOM arrangements—and they are purely military, of course—there does not appear to be any adequate machinery whereby the free countries can co-ordinate the bringing to bear of any pressures they might wish to bring to bear in trade matters or financial matters, such as loans, and many people take the view that these pressures could very well be politically highly effective? Is there not a real gap here which ought to be looked at?


My Lords, there may be, but I do not at the present think there is a real gap. The noble Lord's opinion is always apposite and valuable in these matters. I believe the so-called political co-operation in EEC—I make no reference to NATO for the moment—is very effective indeed in these matters, and, when joined to the operation of the Paris Co-ordinating Committee, the COCOM procedures can be extremely effective, not only in signalising our objection of principle to repression in the Soviet Union and other totalitarian countries, in the way President Carter did in this instance, but also attach that to the necessary strategic conditions which control the export of sensitive technological goods to that part of the world.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that some of us are a little bewildered? It is not so long ago that on television throughout the world we saw pictures of United States' and Russian astronauts working together on the most sophisticated equipment in the world. The small piece of apparatus in question is not beyond the wit of the Russians. This, to me, is just intellectual dandyism which will have no effect on the result of any war.


My Lords, I must confess that I am somewhat lost in outer space by the last part of my noble friend's question. However, I join with him in rejoicing in the fact that astronauts combined on whatever idea-logical basis in outer space. The point is that, whatever equipment they used, I am quite sure that it was approved by COCOM.


My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that a ban on the sale of computer equipment to Tass—equipment which is of no particular strategic or military significance—is not necessarily the best way of indicating the severe displeasure and disquiet felt throughout the West by the trial of dissidents and, in particular, the appalling treatment meted out to Anatoli Sharansky the famous computer scientist, who has so many friends in Britain and the United States? What steps will the Government take to continue making it absolutely clear to the Soviet Union that co-operation on technical matters, including computers, is rendered far more difficult if it continues to persecute distinguished computer scientists like Mr. Sharansky?


My Lords, I am quite sure that President Carter's gesture in his statement earlier this year in which he joined the decision as regards the Sperry-Univac computer, had an impact on Soviet thinking and its reaction in regard to the repressive measures that at that time—and the noble Lord has instanced an outstanding case in this connection—were taking place. As to how we continue to make absolutely clear to the Soviet Union and like-minded countries our detestation of these repressive measures and our support for basic human rights, I can assure the noble Lord and the House once more that we lose absolutely no opportunity to make clear to them here, in Moscow and in the other capitals concerned, where we stand. In that we are healthily joined by the Government of the United States and other Governments in the sphere of Western democracy.


My Lords, will the noble Lord not agree that the principle upon which the Question is based is one of applying economic sanctions? Cannot one take it that when the Foreign Office implements such a policy it will do so with equal enthusiasm and perhaps a little more efficiency than it has shown in the case of Rhodesia?


My Lords, my noble friend and I must agree to differ on the efficacy of sanctions in various parts of the world. All I know is that it is the intention of this Government, and, I should think, of any other Government that comes to power in this country, to make absolutely clear to totalitarian Governments, of whatever colour and in any part of the world, our basic and utter detestation of repressive measures of the kind that have been mentioned this afternoon. At the same time, there is no influence without contact and certainly within reason we would continue to have diplomatic, cultural and even commercial contact with those Governments, seeking to influence them, but at no time yielding an inch on the question of principle, and doing everything we can to assist those in such countries who are afflicted by the kind of policies which, unfortunately, they continue to adopt.

The Earl of HALSBURY

My Lords, in responding to the American request, does the noble Lord discriminate between sophisticated equipment and circuitry, which as often as not are American, and as regards which they have locus standi, and overall design and logic which as often as not are British and as regards which we ought to be masters in our own house?


My Lord, the Paris Co-ordinating Committee of course, as the noble Earl knows, reviews what I shall call two lists: the list of technological equipment which is deemed to be unexportable on strategic grounds to certain countries; and the list in which national Governments—and now I come to the point of the noble Earl's question—are deemed to have total authority as to how they proceed as regards exploits in that field. I am convinced that the system has worked and is working extremely well. Very little escapes the attention of the COCOM procedures in Paris in which, of course, we take a very active part indeed.


My Lords, is it not a fact that the COCOM agreement means that those types of equipment included within this animal cannot be exported to Eastern European countries unless every member of COCOM agrees? Therefore, is it not wrong to suggest in the Question that the United States has requested us not to supply, whereas in fact it is in a position to assert that we may not supply until the COCOM list has been altered?


My Lords, it is exactly true to say that all countries participant of the Paris arrangement—that is to say, the NATO countries plus Japan but minus Iceland—have an equal voice, indeed a very strong voice, in commenting and in a practical veto on such exports when they are repugnant to the general question of security within the NATO ambit. As my honourable friend has said, it is equally true to say that in pursuance of that policy the position is reviewed frequently and very carefully. As I have said, this country, and indeed the United States, and in varying degrees the other members of the consortium, exercise their rights.

Earlier this year the United States Government, led by its President, made a fundamental declaration on human rights. In that connection the President said that there would not be this particular export. They then came to us—this country in many ways being a leading computer country—and said that they hoped we would equally address ourselves to the importance of this particular export. We did so, partly on the question of human rights and partly, I assure the House, on the question of strategic security.


My Lords, will my noble friend note that in his expression of detestation for this breach of human rights he has spoken for every section of this House?