HL Deb 02 April 1987 vol 486 cc697-706

3.32 p.m.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement about the Prime Minister's visit to the Soviet Union which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:

"Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about the visit which I paid to the Soviet Union from 28th March to 1st April, accompanied by my right honourable and learned friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary.

"I was able to carry out a very full and interesting programme arranged by the Soviet authorities for whose hospitality and welcome I am very grateful. The most important aspect of my visit was of course the very extensive talks which I had with General Secretary Gorbachev. These covered the following subjects: first, the prospects for agreements on reductions in nuclear, chemical and conventional weapons; secondly, the fundamental differences between our two political systems and their wider consequences; thirdly, Mr. Gorbachev's programme of restructuring of Soviet society and the Soviet economy; fourthly, international regional problems; and finally, human rights.

"In our talks on arms control we agreed that priority should be given to an agreement on intermediate range nuclear weapons, with strict verification, with constraints on shorter-range systems and with immediate follow-on negotiations to deal more fully with shorter-range systems. We did not reach agreement on NATO's belief that the West should have a right to match Soviet shorter-range systems, or over the precise systems which should be covered in the follow-on negotiations. I should add that I made clear to Mr. Gorbachev that the United Kingdom would not be prepared to accept the denuclearisation of Europe, which would leave us dangerously exposed to Soviet superiority in conventional and other forces.

"We also agreed that priority should be given to negotiating a ban on all chemical weapons (the United Kingdom has made important proposals on this in Geneva and Mr. Gorbachev indicated that the Soviet Union could broadly accept our approach) and that there should be early negotiations on reductions in conventional forces. As the House knows, the Soviet Union has a substantial preponderance in these forces. I expressed our support for a 50 per cent. reduction in strategic nuclear weapons. Mr. Gorbachev made clear the Soviet view that this matter was linked to agreement on SDI. I made a number of proposals for achieving greater predictability in this field, which Mr. Gorbachev will consider. Deployment of an advanced strategic defence system would of course be a matter for negotiation, as President Reagan and I agreed at Camp David in December 1984.

"Mr. Speaker, I do not underestimate the differences which remain between us on these matters. But it was nonetheless clear from our talks that we do agree that progress on arms control requires a step-by-step approach with clearly identified priorities, and that we are largely in agreement on what those priorities shall be. This is a useful and positive step. I am hopeful that a satisfactory agreement can be reached on intermediate nuclear forces by the end of this year.

"In our discussion of regional problems, I explained to Mr. Gorbachev the reasons for Western apprehensions about Soviet policies and intentions. I said—and the Foreign Secretary made the same point to Mr. Shevardnadze—that the United Kingdom could support the creation of a neutral, non-aligned Afghanistan and had indeed presented proposals for this as long ago as 1980. But this could not be achieved until the Soviet occupation was ended and elections held.

"On human rights problems, I welcomed the steps which had already been taken, while expressing the hope that more prisoners of conscience and dissidents would be released and Jews allowed to leave the country should they wish to do so. I emphasised that we were not interfering in the Soviet Union's internal affairs: the Soviet Government had accepted the commitments in the Helsinki Final Act on the freer movement of people and ideas and we were asking that these be observed. Mr. Gorbachev said that the Soviet Government considered all humanitarian cases very carefully and would continue to deal with them attentively, with positive results where possible.

"I told Mr. Gorbachev of our welcome for his policies of openness, restructuring and democratisation. We wish him all success in his endeavours. They point the way to the greater trust and confidence which will be needed if we are to reach agreement on arms control and in other areas.

"My talks with Prime Minister Ryzhkov concentrated on bilateral matters, particularly trade. On this we agreed to work together to achieve by 1990 a volume of £2.5 billion in our bilateral trade. During my visit, contracts and letters of intent were signed or initialled amounting to nearly £400 million. So we have made a good start towards the target which we have set ourselves.

"My right honourable and learned friend the Foreign Secretary held extensive and very useful talks on a wide range of international regional problems with the Soviet Foreign Minister Mr. Shevardnadze including in particular the Middle East and Iran/Iraq. They also signed three intergovernmental agreements and a memorandum of understanding on space co-operation, providing for co-operation between our scientists in a wide range of space sciences; on information and culture (this will encourage contacts and exchanges, in particular giving an opportunity for schoolchildren to visit Soviet families in their homes. It also provides for free and normal reception of radio broadcasts. We welcome the end of jamming of BBC broadcasts); on improvement and upgrading of the United Kingdom/Soviet Hot-Line; and on sites for new embassies in Moscow and London. Copies of the texts have been placed in the Library of the House.

"In addition to my talks, I visited the ancient monastery and church of Zagorsk, and took part in a service there as a visible demonstration of support for those who continue to maintain their tradition of faith and worship in the Soviet Union. I toured a new housing development on the outskirts of Moscow and gave an interview to Soviet television in which I was able freely to set out Western policies and concerns and which was broadcast in full. And I paid a most enjoyable and interesting visit to the Soviet Republic of Georgia. Wherever I went, I was struck by the spontaneous warmth and friendliness of my reception by the people of the Soviet Union. I believe that this augurs well for our future relations.

"Outside my official programme I had meetings with: a delegation from the Soviet Committee for the Defence of Peace; a group of writers, artists and intellectuals; Dr. Sakharov and Mrs. Bonner, with whom I had a most interesting exchange on arms control and developments within the Soviet Union; and a group of Jewish refuseniks. In the course of this I was able to present to Mr. Josif Begun the award from the All-Party Committee on Soviet Jewry.

"Mr. Speaker, my visit took place at a most interesting and crucial moment in the development of the Soviet Union. I firmly believe that it is in our interest to welcome and encourage the course on which Mr. Gorbachev has embarked. Our political systems will remain very different and we shall continue to hold widely divergent views on many international problems. But Mr. Gorbachev and I were able to discuss these differences frankly in a spirit of friendship.

"When I took my leave of him, Mr. Gorbachev expressed the Soviet Union's willingness for wider co-operation in every field with the United Kingdom. Mr. Speaker, that was a positive end to a most constructive and valuable visit."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Viscount for repeating the Statement. It is clear that the Prime Minister received a warm welcome in Moscow and elsewhere. That in itself is a step forward in our relations with the Soviet Union. We are glad that she was able to meet Dr. Sakharov and Mr. Begun and to discuss human rights with Mr. Gorbachev. These encouraging events demonstrate the changes which have in fact taken place under Mr. Gorbachev's leadership.

We also welcome the agreements which were reached on embassy sites, space research, cultural information and education exchanges, which also contain a no-jamming agreement on broadcasting. We have also noted the personal accord between Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Gorbachev. This, if built upon, can be a bridge to further exchanges and a better understanding between our two countries.

Our chief concern of course has been with the progress on disarmament. Here, as we have just heard, there was a good deal of discussion. However, I was dismayed to hear Mr. Arbatov, a senior Soviet foreign affairs spokesman, stating on Independent Television News last night that Mrs. Thatcher was less forthcoming than President Reagan on disarmament proposals, especially as the Prime Minister has said in her Statement that she is hopeful of an agreement on intermediate nuclear forces by the end of this year. Perhaps the noble Viscount would care to comment on that when he responds. Is it the case, for example, that the Prime Minister said that the precise fulfilment of the Helsinki Accord must precede any significant progress in disarmament talks? Given the much more progressive attitude on dissidents in Russia in recent months, the Prime Minister may have been misreported on this.

Furthermore, what will be the implications of the Soviet offer to freeze short-range missiles and of the probability of there being an intermediate arms agreement before the end of this year? The Statement refers to negotiations on cuts in conventional weapons. What time-scale is envisaged on this, and will such negotiations be in the Vienna MBFR forum, or will other new talks be initiated? We warmly welcome the agreement to negotiate a ban on chemical weapons.

We welcome the bilateral package referred to in the Statement, which has been agreed, and we note the target of £2.5 billion by the end of 1990. Can the noble Viscount say what will be the percentage increase in the level of trade, and will this be an opportunity for securing jobs in the United Kingdom? These are the basic issues on which progress is needed. It is, however, encouraging that the Prime Minister and Mr. Gorbachev parted on good personal terms, and we congratulate her on achieving that relationship.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Diamond

My Lords, we too wish to thank the noble Viscount the Leader of the House for repeating this very important and very long Statement. It deserves the kind of very careful consideration that it is impossible to give to it in the time that we have had available. It almost goes without saying that it is of such importance that we would naturally expect an opportunity to debate it fully. I do not ask for an answer on that point at the moment, but I merely state what my noble friends and I think is the obvious, having regard to the importance of the Statement.

We on these Benches do not feel that this is a moment for carping. We believe that the Prime Minister has carried out an excellent task for this country, and that we should congratulate her upon it. We believe she was fortunate in choosing the right time—and it is a wise mark of good statesmanship to choose the right time—to go along and do everything she could to encourage Mr. Gorbachev in the line and the variation that he is undertaking with great courage in his country.

We welcome a number of things which were mentioned in the Statement, and in particular we welcome the comments on chemical weapons. We welcome the statement about ending the jamming of the BBC broadcasts. We also very much welcome the trade agreement that has been reached. On that, I wonder whether I am right in thinking that the balance of trade up to this moment has been heavily in favour of Russia and that it would still be somewhat in its favour if the agreement were fully implemented. Also, am I right in thinking that it has only been possible to implement this agreement as the result of a number of firms in the City getting together to provide the necessary finance? If that is the case it should be recognised.

We welcome very much indeed the kind of reception the Prime Minister was able to receive from the people she saw both in Moscow and in Georgia. It is very clear that not only was she able to make good personal contact with Mr. Gorbachev but also with the people of Russia. This will no doubt have done her a great deal of good in electoral terms, and I have myself no doubt that if she were to stand for appointment as Prime Minister she might very well find herself appointed Prime Minister of Russia at any moment. What will happen in this country of course is a matter for the future.

I end by repeating what the Statement says in the Prime Minister's words: I firmly believe it is in our interest to welcome and encourage the course on which Mr. Gorbachev has embarked". If we proceed to do that, we shall be able to open a variety of doors which will, I am sure, be for the benefit of both our countries and for the peace of the world.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos and Lord Diamond, for their reception of the Statement. I am particularly grateful for their generous tributes to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. I feel that she would be extremely grateful to have heard what they said and I believe that these expressions are justified by a very remarkable personal achievement. To those who saw the pictures on television there can be no doubt of that, and it is true to say that the various discussions were neither easy nor based on agreements between her and Mr. Gorbachev at times.

Those who came with me, such as the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, know that discussions with Mr. Gorbachev are not necessarily based on agreements on all matters between our two systems and he speaks his mind very forcefully. He did speak his mind very forcefully to the Prime Minister but I think he was answered back in terms fully as forthright and frank as perhaps he had ever heard in his life before. I would expect that was probably right and I suspect that he gained very much thereby, because such an understanding between our countries, if it is based on full and frank discussions of both agreements and disagreements, must be the best way to edge forward in a very difficult relationship in a difficult world.

As regards the particular points which the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, asked about, turning first of all to Mr. Arbatov's comments on radio, I think it is important to stress again something which I know the noble Lord appreciates, as does the House: that it was not the purpose of this visit to negotiate concrete agreements on arms control. It is clear and appreciated that the United States is negotiating with the Soviet Union in these matters. However, the visit will have enabled my right honourable friend to convey to Mr. Gorbachev the European position, which fully supports the United States. It will indeed have left him and the Soviet leadership in no doubt that there is no scope for dividing the United Kingdom and Europe from the US. I think that is very important.

It follows from that that there were no negotiating implications in these talks. I do not know exactly what was said on some of the matters to which the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, referred, but certainly they have no implications for the negotiations which are being conducted by the United States.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for having welcomed the at least tentative progress on chemical weapons. It is good to know that the Soviet Union agrees with our approach to a matter where it has considerable weapons and we have not and the Americans have done away with theirs as well. So that is an important advance.

On the question of the other agreements which the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, welcomed, I think that for all these there will be a general welcome and I am very grateful to him for what he has said.

As regards the percentage of trade, I am afraid I cannot give the noble Lord that answer but I shall certainly look into it. It is true that, to the extent that we succeed in promoting more trade, that means more jobs for us where we can get the deals and the markets in the Soviet Union. It follows, in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, that we trust that we can get these markets. In matters of trade, a promise to aim at a target, as many noble Lords in this House know, does not mean that that amount of trade will actually be achieved, and there will need to be a great deal of hard work by the Government, by chambers of commerce and by the firms concerned if we are to make these targets a reality.

I cannot give the exact figures for the trade balance at the moment but, as is well known, the Soviet Union has had difficulties in foreign exchange matters and selling there is a difficult task. We must appreciate that too. I am grateful to both noble Lords for their interventions.

Lord Home of the Hirsel

My Lords, I should just like to add my voice to those who have welcomed the Prime Minister's visit. It was clearly a very remarkable achievement. She has opened up a close relationship with Mr. Gorbachev which will clearly be followed up and it augurs very well, I think, for future meetings.

Perhaps I may put a couple of questions to my noble friend the Leader of the House. Do I understand that the negotiations about chemical weapons are to be delayed until after the negotiations have been opened on the medium range weapons? I think that is right.

Secondly, perhaps I may ask whether any arrangements have been made for reopening negotiations on the Helsinki Accord. I always thought that was the most promising of the arrangements made and agreed between the Soviet Union and ourselves and I hope that it has not been lost. I understand that possibly those negotiations are to be reopened also.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for his remarks and for what he said about my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, which I know will be a great pleasure to her. On his two points, I understand that basically he is correct on the chemical weapons front. As far as the reopening of the Helsinki Accord is concerned, I have no information about that at the moment but I shall find out and write to my noble friend.

The Earl of Selkirk

My Lords, I wonder whether I may underline one point which has been made. Ought we not to be very grateful for the quality of the television presented in this country on the events which are and may well be of immense historic importance? We actually saw happening something which will linger in our memories in a manner which written words or even, if I may say so with respect to the noble Viscount, spoken words, could never make quite so clear. I think we should express our gratitude to the television authorities and to those who went to much trouble to do this work.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for what he has said. Not everything that is said in your Lordships' House or in either House of Parliament is always fully supportive of the activities of the broadcasting organisations. I am sure that on this occasion when they are getting such compliments—and I must say that personally I think they are richly deserved—they will be all the more pleased.

It is perhaps important to add that the Soviet authorities did everything they could to make sure that my right honourable friend's television broadcast of some 50 minutes, I understand, with three interviewers, was not only very full but was also broadcast in full and that every possible effort was made to ensure its success. Everything the Prime Minister asked for in going for the broadcast, so far as the interviewers and all other points were concerned, was immediately granted by the Soviet authorities. I think that should also be said.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, perhaps I may echo what my noble friend Lord Diamond said about the evident success which in many ways attended the visit of the Prime Minister to the Soviet Union. It was certainly a most remarkable effort on her part and we are especially glad that she found herself able to express a degree of trust in Mr. Gorbachev. We can only hope that this degree of trust will be reciprocated by President Reagan and the United States.

As we on these Benches said before this happened, the real success of the tour will depend on the degree of influence it has on the all-important negotiations between the super powers. On that, the Prime Minister said that she hoped and believed there would be an agreement on intermediate weapons before the end of the year, so presumably we must at least wait until the end of the year before coming to a conclusion as to whether it was a great success or not.

This is not the moment to raise any contentious matters. I hope we may have a debate on this subject before very long, but I should like to raise two points now. What is meant by the words on page 5 "constraints on shorter range systems"? I do not quite know what is meant by "constraints".

Secondly, seeing that Mr Gorbachev made it clear, from the paragraph on page 9, that reductions in strategic weapons were linked to agreement on SDI, may we be told whether the Government now favour the narrow, as opposed to the broad interpretation of the treaty of 1972?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am grateful also to the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, for what he has said and for the welcome which he has given to the visit of my right honourable friend. I accept his point that of course the major arms control negotiations are being conducted by the United States with the full support of her European allies. That is where much of the importance will lie.

I am looking again at page 5, which was mentioned by the noble Lord. and I think that "constraints on shorter-range systems" must be read in conjunction with the words in the previous sentence, "with strict verification", because constraints on shorter range systems, as indeed with intermediate range nuclear weapons, will only succeed if they are accompanied by strict procedures for successful verification. I believe that that is what the phrase means. If I may just add this for my noble friend Lord Home, I understand that the Helsinki Accord is being discussed at the Vienna review meeting at present. The discussions have been in progress since October last and apparently are due to finish on 31st July 1987.

Lord Elton

My Lords, is it not the case that on a visit of this nature our Prime Minister represents all the threads in the national life? If so, can we not thank her in our well-deserved congratulations on this visit for symbolising in her visit to Zagorsk the concern which all the Christian denominations in this country feel for Christians in the Soviet Union? I think that that added a distinction to a very valuable visit.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am indeed grateful to my noble friend.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, may I be allowed, as I happen to be the treasurer of the all-party Committee on Soviet Jewry for both Houses, to express our very great appreciation of the way in which the Prime Minister went out of her way to meet the Jewish refuseniks and, as I understand it, to present the committee's award to Josif Begun—a particularly outstanding dissident who suffered very greatly indeed? We are most grateful for her efforts in that regard.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for having expressed that feeling, which I know the Prime Minister felt very strongly herself. She will be very grateful to the noble Baroness.

Lord Morris

My Lords, perhaps I may thank my noble friend for repeating the Statement. I particularly welcome the agreement to ban the jamming of broadcasts by the External Services of the BBC, the significance of which I do not think can possibly be judged at this moment but which will have immeasurable significance, as will be seen. May I ask my noble friend whether this will encourage Her Majesty's Government to seek similar agreements to ban the jamming of our broadcasts to the satellite countries of the Soviets? I am thinking in particular of Poland.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I note what my noble friend says. I think that we made the agreement so far as concerns the BBC's broadcasts. I am in no position to go any further than that this afternoon.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, while adding a tribute to the skill, frankness and stamina of the Prime Minister on this visit, perhaps I may ask the noble Viscount to clarify one point. In her remarkable television interview, the Prime Minister appeared to suggest that the British deterrent is not in any circumstances negotiable. Is this now the Government's position? If not, in what circumstances would the Government be willing that our deterrent should go into the disarmament negotiations?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, my right honourable friend was making clear something which she has made clear on many other occasions: that in the present negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union on arms control generally, our nuclear deterrent—which I understand is about 3 per cent. of the whole of the weapons concerned—is certainly not included and is not negotiable in that context.