HL Deb 20 May 1980 vol 409 cc765-72

4.24 p.m.


My Lords, with permission, I would like to answer, in the form of a Statement, the Private Notice Question which was put earlier this afternoon. Before I do so perhaps I may apologise to my noble friend Lord Keith, who is waiting to make his maiden speech, though, as I know him very well, I do not think he need be very nervous about that.

My Lords, I informed the House yesterday of the decision which the Foreign Ministers of the Nine had reached at our meeting in Naples on 18th May on sanctions. I would refer particularly to that part of my Statement in which I said that contracts for the supply of goods to Iran entered into after 4th November 1979 would be affected by the sanctions. This was indeed part of what we agreed in Naples. Our other partners thought it appropriate, in order to show the necessary solidarity with the Americans, to apply trade sanctions to contracts which had been entered into after the date when the American Embassy was invaded and its diplomats taken hostage.

Nevertheless, it became apparent to the Government yesterday afternoon that there was very strong opposition in Parliament to any element of retroactivity. The Government cannot ignore this. Accordingly, we have decided that sanctions will not be retrospective. No orders will be laid before the House which ban the supply of goods under arrangements assumed before the date on which those orders were laid. And last night we informed our Community partners and the Government of the United States that, in view of the opposition of the other place to retrospection, we would no longer be prepared to proceed to apply any element of retrospection among the decisions which we agreed to at the meeting in Naples. Arrangements which ban the supply of arms continue in force.

The Government have all along sought to assure President Carter and the Government of the United States of their support over US efforts to secure the release of the hostages. That remains our position, although clearly we must take account of the feelings of Parliament in the precise measures which we adopt for this purpose.

The Government will now proceed to lay the necessary Orders in Council before the House as soon as we can co-ordinate with our partners to ensure that the orders to be used by each country will cover the same ground and have parallel effect.


My Lords, may I first thank the noble Lord for making the Statement, and join with him in wishing good luck to the noble Lord who is to make his maiden speech? A good speech always improves with keeping for a little time.

We do welcome the response of the Government to the concern expressed in both Houses, the strong reservations in this House and the strong protests in another place, about any element of retroactivity arising from the Naples agreement. The Government have done well to respect the wishes of Parliament so clearly expressed to them yesterday. We also welcome the clear undertaking: that, no orders will be laid before the House "— either House— which ban the supply of goods under arrangements assumed before the date on which those orders were laid ". This takes us to Section 1 (2) (a) of the Temporary Provisions Act, which we approved last week. I should be glad of confirmation— I am sure the noble Lord can give it— that this applies to any sanctions action and any order which is laid either under the Import, Export and Customs Powers (Defence) Act 1939 or the Iran (Temporary Powers) Act 1980. Are we clear that any order in pursuit of sanctions agreed and co-ordinated with our Partners laid before Parliament will have this provision— namely, that it will not be operative before the date on which the order is laid?

Further, may I ask the noble Lord whether he will clarify a little further his final paragraph in which it is said that the Government will, co-ordinate with our partners to ensure that the orders to be used by each country will cover the same ground and have parallel effect "? I wonder whether he can enlarge that to include not only covering the same ground and having generally parallel effect but also being operative from the same date. Ground is the question of ambit and date is the question of timing, and it is the question of timing that has involved the Government in some difficulty in the last few days. Will these orders in each country not only cover the same ground but be timed to be operative from the same date?

Finally, we note that the Government have already informed our partners in the United States and in Europe of the decision not to apply any element of retrospection. May I ask whether, apart from the American and the European Governments, other countries, such as Japan, Australia and New Zealand, have been informed, and is the noble Lord in a position to give us some idea of the reactions to the decision as imparted to them?

I ask the question in order to make the comment that we on this side of the House— and I am sure noble Lords on both sides of the House— expect confidently that our partners in America, Europe and in any other country which is joining in this action, will understand and accept our decision that we cannot, in face of the opposition of Parliament and the feeling in the country, apply any degree of retroactivity to these measures. We confidently expect that our friends will understand the reasons and the necessity for our decision. The noble Lord can be assured of our support in whatever further friendly representations he may feel he must make to our friends.

Finally, while the Government, are preparing— reluctantly, if they have to, but as a matter of international duty and of loyalty to our friends in difficulty— these measures, may we be assured that they will in the meantime fully and consistently support all diplomatic efforts to free the hostages and to restore respect for international law and practice? In particular, may we be assured that they will support the new United Nations' initiative in Tehran, which coincides with some encouraging remarks by President Bani-Sadr and with the decision of the Tehran Administration to bring forward to next week the meeting of the Iranian Parliament which the Ayatollah has said has the power to decide the future of the hostages?

4.32 p.m.


My Lords, while also thanking the Foreign Secretary for his reply to the Question, we on these Benches confess that we are a little bewildered by what appears to be the sudden reversal of a policy agreed unanimously by all members of the Council of Ministers of the European Economic Community. There is no doubt that, as a result of the debate which we had last Thursday, rightly or wrongly, the impression was created that sanctions would apply only to future contracts that is to say, those concluded after the sanctions Act had actually come into force. When the fact that they would be retrospective as from 4th November last was announced yesterday we were surprised, but given that it was the result of a unanimous decision of the Council of Ministers of the EEC we did not protest. However, I should now like, with great respect, to ask a few questions of the Foreign Secretary.

First, was it made clear in Naples to our colleagues in the council that our agreement to retrospective sanctions was dependent on the consent of Parliament in this country? Secondly, will it now be necessary to have another urgent meeting of the council in order to arrive at a fresh decision on sanctions generally? And, if so, does the Foreign Secretary think that our colleagues will all be content to allow sanctions to apply only to future contracts? Thirdly, what is likely to be the effect of the reversal of the policy of the Naples Council on public opinion in America? Is there not a danger that it will be provoked by this reversal of policy, and might it not even increase the agitation in favour of some military action in Iran, which I think we all consider would be absolutely disastrous? Finally, broadly speaking— I do not know whether the Foreign Secretary can answer this question— what is the amount of British trade with Iran which would have been lost had sanctions been applicable as from 4th November last? Would the ensuing unemployment have been very considerable? I hope that the Foreign Secretary may be able to reply to those questions.

4.34 p.m.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, for the non-partisan way in which he has approached this matter. I share, of course, the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, and the noble Lord opposite, about the effect that this decision might have upon the United States. I think that it is important that our allies should realise the situation in which the Government found themselves. I am quite sure that Senator Muskie, who is a congressman, a senator of some considerable standing, will understand the situation of a Government which rely on Parliament for their support. I am equally sure that he will understand that it does not in any way mean that anyone in this country is backing away from the support that we have given to the United States about Iran and the hostages and our determination to do what we can to help in the way of sanctions.

The noble Lord, Lord Goronwy- Roberts, asked me a number of questions. There will be no sanctions which will be retrospective, although the arms ban will continue. In so far as the other eight countries of Europe are concerned, there is a meeting being urgently called in Brussels, of, I think, permanent representatives— not a council meeting as the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, said, but a meeting of representatives in Brussels— to coordinate the sanctions which will need to be readjusted as a result of this decision. We intend not only that all of us should do the same thing, but that sanctions should operate from the same moment. The other countries have been informed, but I do not know what their reactions have been. Moreover, I believe— as I think does the noble Lord opposite— that the most likely way of achieving the release of the hostages is by diplomatic effort. We shall support that as much as we possibly can and in every way that we can, and our ambassador there is doing so, and I, too, with him, welcome the fact that there has been a date fixed for the meeting of the Iranian Assembly.

I think that I have answered two of the questions put by the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn. As regards the third, there is only one large contract that the Government know of between the 4th November and today, but there may, of course, be a number of smaller contracts of which we are not aware.


My Lords, we have, I think, for long suffered from the difficulties of America in having a foreign policy or being able to implement it. Is it not rather alarming for us to be told that we are now in the same kind of difficulty? When we wished to support the Americans over the Olympic Games and declared that we would not attend the Olympic Games, the Olympic Association proceeded to express their indifference for British interests and their intention of defying the Government. All that the Government did was to say that they were helpless and that they would not consider withdrawing passports. Why not? Now we send the Foreign Secretary to sell an agreement to Europe on our behalf, and when he comes back he finds that what he has sold has been repudiated because the Tory Back-Benches do not like it, and he tells us that that is an American custom which they will understand. In England, I understood that when a Foreign Secretary was repudiated in that manner, he resigned.


Well, my Lords, I do not think that I shall just yet, if the noble Lord will forgive me! I do not think that it would have met with the approval of Parliament, the House, or even the Back-Benchers of the Labour Party in this House— I suppose I must exclude the noble Lord— if we had removed the passports of those who wished to compete in the Olympic Games. I happen to disagree very much with the decision taken by the British Olympic Committee, but they have a perfect right to take it, and this is still a free country. I am surprised at the noble Lord.

I am also rather surprised at his second question. He seems to ignore Parliament and believes that the Government of the day can ignore the wishes of Parliament, their supporters and the Opposition, riding roughshod over any opposition quite regardless of the circumstances. I am frequently "twitted" that I have never sat in another place. The noble Lord sat in another place for rather a long time. I suspect that I am a better democrat than he is.


My Lords, I should like to ask the Foreign Secretary to clarify one issue which I know has somewhat puzzled a number of Members of this House and the other place. In the debate on 15th May we were assured by the Leader of this House that the sanctions order which we were being asked to approve would not apply retrospectively, and I have the quotation from Hansard here, which I shall not bother to read. How does it come about then that this Parliament was told that there would be no retrospective legislation in the debate of last week, but that the Foreign Secretary, representing the Government, agreed to retrospective action at the weekend?

This is a somewhat puzzling situation to arise, because the point was specifically underlined in both Houses, and in the other place specific questions were asked on this issue which were clarified by the Government before the noble Lord the Foreign Secretary went to Naples. What authority did he have— it could not be parliamentary authority— to make this agreement with his allies in Naples?


My Lords, I think that this is where the misunderstanding arises, because the noble Lord is perfectly right in saying that that assurance was given for the new legislation which was going through the House. But it was explained— I think here, but certainly in another place— that there was legislation already on the statute book which it was possible to use in order to prevent the carriage and the despatch of goods— the export of goods— to Iran, and that this power was in reserve. It was this power that would have been used in the context of the contracts between 4th November and today.

However, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Hatch of Lusby, is quite right that the impression he had is the impression left both upon this House and another place. This was one of the reasons why the Government felt that they ought to make the decision not to go ahead with the proposal.


My Lords, for clarification, can the noble Lord say whether the position at which we have arrived means that none of the other eight members of the EEC will apply sanctions orders retrospectively? If that is so, does it mean that we are all in line in that attitude towards our responsibilities, or are we still in a sense the odd man out?


My Lords, I do not know that, but \ know of two countries which would follow our lead. I have not heard from the others. However, the idea of the meeting in Brussels as soon as possible would be to co-ordinate that point.