HL Deb 05 December 1983 vol 445 cc876-8

2.51 p.m.

Lord Beswick

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what evidence has been made available to them which shows that the Soviet authorities and air forces were aware, at the time the Korean aircraft was destroyed, that the machine was in fact a civil airliner.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Young)

My Lords, the Soviet authorities had plenty of opportunities to intercept the Korean airliner and identify it visually during the substantial time that it was in Soviet airspace. They failed to do so.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Baroness for that answer. Is she aware that many people—probably most people—in this country agree with the Prime Minister and with the Commonwealth Conference that the time has now come when we should try to get a constructive dialogue with the Soviet Union? Would she think that the theatrical presentation at the United Nations by Mrs. Kirkpatrick, in which she used inaccurately and probably misleadingly transcribed tapes and when the President of the United States talked about the cold-blooded shooting down of the airliner when there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that the Soviet pilot knew that it was a civil airliner is really consistent with a sincere desire for a dialogue?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I think the incident inevitably damaged the Soviet Union's international standing. So far as Her Majesty's Government's relations with the Soviet Union are concerned, we would welcome a more constructive relationship, but would expect a change in the Soviet attitude for this to be achieved. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made clear, the Government are ready to pursue in the right circumstances a sensible and realistic dialogue.

On the question of the verification, the evidence is that, despite Soviet claims, there is no evidence from the transcript of the interceptor pilot's conversation that he either made visual manoeuvres in front of the airliner to-indicate that he had seen it or attempted to make contact by radio on international emergency frequencies.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, would not the Government be prepared to accept the possibility that in a moment of panic the local Soviet authorities were not aware that they were actually going to shoot down an airliner with 260 passengers on it?

Baroness Young

My Lords, on the incomplete evidence that is available, there is no reason to contradict the answer which was given by Marshal Ogarkov on 9th September that the decision to shoot down the airliner was given by the Commander of the Air Defence region.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, is it not the case that both the Americans and the Japanese had been monitoring this aircraft for two hours before it was destroyed and had passed on no information that it was off course to the pilot or had any communication with the Soviet authorities?

Baroness Young

My Lords, all air traffic on the route between Anchorage and Japan is out of radar coverage from the time it leaves the Anchorage area until it approaches Japan. The pilot of each airliner using the route is responsible for reporting his position from time to time, using his own navigation system. So far as we know, the pilot of KAL.007 made regular reports of his position and it appears that he thought he was following a normal air route. In the circum stances, the air traffic controllers would have had no way of knowing that the airliner was in fact off course.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is it not the case and becoming generally accepted that the colonel in the Korean Air Force who was flying the aircraft knew precisely where he was and that the aircraft was in fact on a spying mission and that he had instructions—

A noble Lord


Lord Jenkins of Putney

—and our own civil aircraft organisation agrees that this was not a stray. This is now widely accepted and, in view of this, is it not the case that a thorough examination of this whole affair, including the entirely regrettable loss of life, might reveal a state of affairs which would be different from that which the Government at present believe?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I am not prepared to agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, has said. It is not clear whether there was human error or some equipment failure as to why the airliner strayed off course. There is, of course, an inquiry by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, whose report is expected to be published today. That may throw some light on it.

Lord Kilbracken

My Lords, in view of the fact that all aircraft on this route are followed by radar control by the Japanese, must it not have been perfectly obvious to the radar operators that this aircraft was a very long way off course?—yet they gave absolutely no knowledge of this to the pilot of the aircraft.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I am afraid the noble Lord is under a misapprehension. As I said in an earlier answer, in fact there is no radar cover on this part of the course of the aircraft.

Lord Bishopston

My Lords, does the noble Baroness recall the fear which gripped the world following the incident? Is she aware of the grave concern which many have in all countries that if such an incident occurred again with a nuclear dimension we should not be able to ask questions and sort out the merits afterwards? Can she say what initiatives the Government have taken with other countries, including the United States and the Soviet Union, to see that such an incident does not happen again?

Baroness Young

My Lords, as I have already indicated, there has been an inquiry into this matter and the results are expected to be published today.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, is my noble friend not disturbed that with the exception of the last question, which did not fall into this category, all the questions on this subject so far seem to imply that the Americans were wrong and that the Russians did nothing very wrong?

Baroness Young

My Lords, the Government's position on this matter has been quite clear. We thought that the destruction of the Korean airliner on 1st September was a disgraceful breach of the Soviet Union's international obligations in respect of air safety. As a consequence, we, together with the majority of our allies, imposed a 14-day ban on civil flights between the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union and on Soviet over-flights of the United Kingdom.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree, without taking sides in this matter at all, that nobody has yet brought forward any explanation which is in the least satisfactory as to how this aeroplane ever got off course to this extent and remained unconscious so long of what was happening? It really did sound, as one paper put it, as though the pilot must have become unconscious for some reason. Have we any explanation at all?

Baroness Young

My Lords, as I indicated in answer to an earlier supplementary question, we do not know whether there was a human error or whether there was some equipment failure in the aircraft. The report of the inquiry into this matter may shed some light on the cause of it.

Lord Beswick

Are the noble Baroness and the noble Lord opposite aware that I have more reason than most for not wanting civil airliners to be shot down and I think it was disgraceful that a civil airliner should be lost with that number of lives? Nevertheless, will the noble Baroness take into account that if the Soviet Union had really wanted to shoot down an aircraft regardless, they would have done it much more efficiently by using a SAM II missile from the Kamchatka Peninsula? Will the noble Baroness try to answer my first supplementary, which was: did she think it was consistent with a sincere desire for dialogue for Mrs. Kirkpatrick to go to the United Nations, use inaccurate and misleading transcripts and create the sort of atmosphere which is quite contrary to any desire for dialogue?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I was very pleased to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, said in the first part of that supplementary question, but I am sure he will accept that it will not be for me to explain American policy on this matter. It is for Mrs. Kirkpatrick to speak for herself. But, not surprisingly and like all other countries, the Americans were very disturbed that a civil airliner should have been shot down.