HL Deb 22 October 1987 vol 489 cc243-52

3.33 p.m.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should now like to repeat the Statement on the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Vancouver being made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place.

"With permission, I shall make a Statement about the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Vancouver which I attended accompanied by my right honourable and learned friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary. Texts of the statements issued at the meeting have been placed in the Library of the House.

"The discussions covered two main issues: Fiji and South Africa. The resignation of the Governor-General of Fiji was announced during the meeting. Heads of Government agreed a statement in which they acknowledged that, by Commonwealth convention, Fiji's membership of the Commonwealth lapsed with the emergence of a republic. They went on to express their sadness at developments there and to call for a resolution by the people of Fiji themselves of the island's problems. They offered the Commonwealth's good offices towards such a resolution. They made clear that they would be willing to consider an application from the Republic of Fiji to renew its membership of the Commonwealth if circumstances so warrant.

"In my speech at the opening ceremony of the meeting, I had set out our belief that the Commonwealth should not turn its back on Fiji in its moment of greatest need. We worked hard at the meeting to find a way to keep open the option of Commonwealth membership for Fiji. The outcome is therefore a satisfactory one. I hope that acceptable arrangements will be found in Fiji which preserve that country's tradition of democracy and enable it to make a successful application for renewed Commonwealth membership in due course.

"Heads of Government also agreed a statement on South Africa. This reiterated the Commonwealth's determination to work for the total elimination of apartheid and confirmed our commitment to see this goal achieved by negotiation against the background of a suspension of violence on all sides.

"Most Heads of Government repeated their support for sanctions against South Africa and agreed a number of procedural steps, including a study to examine South Africa's relationship with the international financial system and the establishment of a committee of Foreign Ministers. However, no specific additional measures or sanctions against South Africa were adopted. The statement also underlined the importance of continued aid to black South Africans, as well as to the front line states in order to reduce the latter's dependence upon South Africa. In both these respects Britain's record is outstanding.

"The statement represents no significant change from the position reached at the Commonwealth meetings in Nassau in 1985 and in London last year, although there is a growing realisation on the part of many Commonwealth countries, first, that the change in South Africa will be a slow and long-drawn out process and, secondly, that the momentum for change must come from within South Africa itself.

"Britain for its part has faithfully implemented the limited measures to which we agreed at earlier meetings as a signal to South Africa. We shall continue to do so. But where we disagree with other Commonwealth Governments is on the most effective means to get rid of apartheid. We believe that sanctions only harden attitudes, as the recent elections in South Africa have shown. Moreover, so far as they do have an effect, the first to suffer are the black people of South Africa, whose jobs and livelihoods would be put at risk, without any social security to fall back upon. They would also be very damaging to the front line states, which have themselves come to understand more fully the difficulty of applying sanctions.

"I would draw the House's attention to three further matters discussed at the meeting. First, as regards trade, Heads of Government put their names to an important pledge to promote the liberalisation of trade. The unanimous support by all members of the Commonwealth, both developed and developing countries, for a strong and effective GATT and a positive outcome to the Uruguay round should significantly enhance the prospects for those negotiations.

"Secondly, we discussed the special problems of the poorest and most heavily indebted countries primarily in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Commonwealth has declared itself firmly in support of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's initiative to help relieve the burden of debt in these countries.

"Thirdly, the Commonwealth has decided to embark upon an imaginative and valuable project to help meet the educational needs of member countries. We agreed to create a Commonwealth institution to promote co-operation in distance education. There is much detailed work still to be done, but we in Britain have much to contribute with our experience of the Open University and the Open College.

"It was agreed that the next meeting will be in Kuala Lumpur in 1989.

"I am grateful to the Canadian Government and particularly to Prime Minister Mulroney, who chaired the meeting, for the useful and productive work which was done. The Commonwealth tolerates many points of view. The genuine differences within it over the best way to help get rid of apartheid should not obscure the very valuable contribution which the organisation continues to make to the well-being of its members".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Viscount for repeating the Statement. Perhaps I may deal with the South African aspect first. In spite of the vagueness of the Statement—and we have heard all these argument before—no one can pretend that the Vancouver conference was other than humiliating for Britain. When 44 nations with whom we have the closest connections take one clear view on the central item on the agenda and we alone take a different stance, then something is seriously wrong.

We on this side of the House have made our position on sanctions against South Africa clear on several occasions. Indeed, the Prime Minister and the Government have repeatedly said that they oppose apartheid; and we accept what they say. But I am sorry to have to say again that I find the Government's stance in Vancouver deplorable. It is not true that this Government oppose sanctions in principle as they seem to imply in the Statement. Sanctions against Poland or the Soviet Union are acceptable, and we supported the Government in that regard. Indeed, very limited sanctions against South Africa were thought right in Nassau and they were on the subject of Krugerrands, as the noble Viscount will remember. It is strong, effective sanctions against Pretoria which seem to be anathema to the Prime Minister. If she carries on like this for another four years there may well be no Commonwealth left, or there may be a Commonwealth without Britain. That is the danger of a persistent policy of this nature.

Again, if we consider the Statement carefully, and alongside what Mr. Mulroney said—the Prime Minister of Canada who is friendly towards this Government in Britain—we see a different picture. It is a picture that does not come out in the Statement at all. Let me refer the House to what was reported in The Times newspaper. He said: almost unanimously"— I repeat, "almost unanimously"— we came to the conclusion that sanctions do work, that they shall continue to be applied and that they must be applied more extensively. That is the message which, with the exception of Great Britain, we send out from Vancouver. How does the noble Viscount reconcile the words of the Prime Minister of Canada with the words of this Statement? Does he not agree that there was a serious and fundamental disagreement in Vancouver and that we stood alone against our 44 partners of the Commonwealth? I should be grateful if he would reply clearly on that point because it certainly does not come out in the Statement.

Furthermore, a decision was taken again by 44 votes to one to set up a committee of foreign ministers to consider measures against apartheid. May I ask the noble Viscount to plead with the Prime Minister to reconsider the decision not to be a member of that committee? Should we not be represented on it? Would he please ask his right honourable friend to think again because it is a very serious matter that all the countries of the Commonwealth are represented on a committee and that we decide to opt out on a matter which the Government themselves have said that they oppose; namely, apartheid. Surely it is reasonable that we should keep in the closest touch with our Commonwealth colleagues if, as the Government have stated, they are against apartheid. Will the noble Viscount today confirm the Government's continuing opposition to apartheid and the desirability of continuing to talk to Commonwealth governments about the problem? That is absolutely vital if the Commonwealth is to be preserved.

It is proper that I should very briefly welcome some other matters which were agreed in Vancouver: for example, the declaration of world trade mentioned in the Statement; the statement about the further remarks about the third world; the references to the continuing intransigence of South Africa in relation to Namibia; and of course the Fijian crisis which is mentioned fairly extensively. These are matters which we hope we can debate in the House in the course of this Session.

I noted the Prime Minister's remarks about Fiji but there is one specific question that I should like to ask the Leader of the House to clarify; namely, whether Her Majesty's Government intend to pursue any specific policies towards Fiji apart from the generalisations in the Statement itself. For example, do we propose to continue trade relations as before with Fiji now that Fiji is no longer in the Commonwealth and is indeed a republic and a military dictatorship? Can we say what diplomatic relations we are proposing to establish with that new regime?

Baroness Seear

My Lords, we on these Benches also wish to thank the noble Lord the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. There are certain aspects of the Statement with which we concur, for instance, the general approach towards Fiji in that there is a desire ultimately, when it has returned to democracy, that Fiji should be brought back into the Commonwealth. We should also like to applaud the Government's continuing determination to fight protectionism, which comes out in the Statement, and to support a further satisfactory GATT round at Uruguay.

Having said that, it is very difficult to find anything else in the Statement to which we can give our support. In particular, as the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, has always said, the central issue here was undoubtedly the issue of sanctions. We on these Benches understand the complexities of the sanctions issue but surely it is totally deplorable that the message which must have gone out to the whole of the world—to the Commonwealth, the black African countries and indeed to the South African republic—is that the United Kingdom is not at one with the members of the Commonwealth; that it is to all intents and purposes repudiating the policy of sanctions. After all, we sent out the Eminent Persons Group. The Prime Minister supported the Eminent Persons Group and the eminent persons took the line that there was room for further extension of sanctions which could bring about some improvement in the apartheid position.

Moreover, the whole issue of sanctions has a symbolic importance as a sign to those who are fighting to get rid of apartheid that the world outside is supporting their battles. The attitude taken up by the United Kingdom must give the contrary sign: that we are not beside those who are trying to oppose apartheid. Even if we are, the signal given—the symbolic effect of the attitude taken up in Vancouver—must be very hostile indeed and most discouraging to people who are in the front line of that battle.

We on these Benches, as I think do most people in your Lordships' House, value the Commonwealth very highly indeed. Again, as an exercise in consolidating the valuable institution of the Commonwealth, it is surely sad, indeed deplorable, that Britain should stand there alienated not only from the new Commonwealth countries, the African countries, but also from the countries of the old Commonwealth which have given us the greatest possible support in the past—countries such as Canada, New Zealand and Australia. We can only deplore the handling of the conference.

3.45 p.m.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, and the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, for their response to the Statement. Just as they have done perhaps I should concentrate first on the central issue of sanctions for South Africa. The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, said that the conference was humiliating for Britain. He found the Government's attitude deplorable. On many occasions I find myself in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, but he will not be surprised to learn that I do not agree with him on either of these points. I do not consider that it is humiliating to stand up for what you believe to be right. After all, all the other countries of the Commonwealth stand up for what they believe to be right and they are very forceful in making statements on their points of view. If they are prepared to do that, surely Britain is entitled to do it too.

On the same point, the noble Baroness said that the future of the Commonwealth is very important. Indeed, it is. I totally accept what she said, but surely it is true that the Commonwealth would not have its importance, nor with its very diverse nature all over the world would it have its influence, if it did not tolerate many different points of view. The idea that the Commonwealth has to have one point of view on issues—this is well known to many of your Lordships—would be totally impossible to live with over a long period of time because there are bound to be many different points of view. So I do not accept either of those points.

Furthermore, the Government agreed to the limited sanctions that were agreed at Nassau. I accept that they were limited. If I may say so, the Government have faithfully implemented sanctions with which they agreed, which is another important point. It is no use agreeing with this sort of thing unless you are prepared to implement it. On this occasion, though I understand that strong views were taken about effective sanctions, there were actually no measures put forward as to what those effective sanctions would be or indeed how they would be effective.

I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, yes, by all means it is important to have the sanctions. I am not so sure about the symbolic importance. If the sanctions do not seem to have any effect in helping the people they are designed to help in South Africa, how come that they can really be found to have been of great importance or of symbolic importance? The horrid and nasty truth is that they have not done anything to get rid of apartheid, which the British Government make abundantly clear they are opposed to, which they have always been opposed to and which they are well known to be opposed to. We want to take measures which will end apartheid.

We have no knowledge of the fact that sanctions are doing anything towards ending apartheid in South Africa in the present circumstances, and the evidence is there to be seen. Indeed, the evidence is there also from the fact that the front line states themselves admit perfectly freely that they are not in a position to impose effective sanctions, so one has to take that into account as well.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, raised two points. I have already reiterated the Government's firm opposition to apartheid. Will the Government talk to the other Commonwealth countries? Most certainly; of course they will. Indeed, it would be very strange if they did not, because the Government have offered aid and are keen to give further aid to the front line states and have said so. The Government have a good record of aid to many of those countries and they will talk to them if they are to continue the aid, which they most certainly are. Of course the Government will continue to talk to those countries. Many of the countries concerned who appreciate the aid given to them by Britain will be only too keen, and properly keen, to talk to this country in the future. I give the noble Lord that assurance absolutely.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for what she said about Fiji. The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, raised two points on this matter. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made it perfectly clear that we are most anxious to see Fiji make arrangements herself through her citizens which will enable her to have a democratic government and to be able to apply to return to the Commonwealth. We should like to assist them in that process in any way that we can.

We believe that British interests and our ability to influence developments in Fiji can better be maintained by keeping our representative on the spot than by withdrawing him. Our mission in Suva will continue to conduct business with the regime as necessary. I think that was the point which the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, raised with me.

I hope I have answered the points put to me by the noble Lord and by the noble Baroness. I simply reiterate once again, because it is of great importance and must be said consistently and is said consistently, that this Government abhor apartheid in South Africa. We shall certainly stand against it and do everything we believe to be right and sensible to help to end it. However, we must take account of the fact that sanctions have not been effective and that many of the white people in South Africa who are most anxious to see the end of apartheid are the very people who say that the sanctions have not had the effect which many other people would like to believe they have had.

Lord Bottomley

My Lords, is it not regrettable that for the first time ever the United Kingdom finds itself in isolation in the Commonwealth of Nations? What steps will the Government take to make sure that that situation does not continue?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, in answer to the noble Lord, whose knowledge, experience and work in these areas I fully appreciate and admire, surely it is better, if it is on a matter of principle in which you believe strongly, to be isolated rather than pretend to go along with something in which you do not believe. If the British Government do not believe that sanctions would be effective in the ending of apartheid I believe it is better for the health of the Commonwealth if they honestly say so. Surely it is equally true that many of the other Commonwealth countries are not slow to make all sorts of statements by which in many cases they distance themselves from other members of the Commonwealth and are happy to do so.

If we feel that we could not go along with this, surely it is right and proper to stand up and be counted for what we believe to be right, bearing in mind that the main objective of getting rid of apartheid is something to which the whole Commonwealth subscribes.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I agree with the noble Viscount that the majority is not always right. Is not the central issue here the fact that the Prime Minister has been totally unable to convince our friends in the Commonwealth of the sincerity of the opposition of this Government to apartheid? Is not the central point the failure to convince the Commonwealth of the sincerity of the Government's opposition?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I note what the noble Lord says about the merits and demerits of majorities and the rest. Having been many times in minorities and majorities, sometimes in all sorts of different cases, I fully accept that both have their uses and their positions. In regard to what the noble Lord said about failing to convince the Commonwealth of our sincerity, I should have thought that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister did far more to convince them of our sincerity by standing up and saying what we believe to be right and the way in which we believed it was proper to go forward.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I am sure that your Lordships welcome my noble friend's statement that further thought will be given to finding a better solution for the constitutional problem in Fiji. In giving attention to this matter, will Her Majesty's Government bear in mind that there is in Fiji an indigenous people with a tradition and culture of their own and that it would be quite wrong, merely in the name of democracy, to find this indigenous community losing its identity and its place in its own country?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, perhaps it is best, in answer to my noble friend, to confine oneself to saying that we are all most anxious to make sure that the peoples in that community, which we have all known in the past, should be able to get on together and should be able to resolve their problems. The Government will do everything that they can to help them.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, the noble Viscount said in answer to my noble friend Lord Cledwyn that he hoped he had answered all the points. He has not. Can he tell the House whether the Government are opposed in principle to sanctions as a means of international coercion? If so, why is South Africa to be treated differently from Poland, the Soviet Union, Iran and Libya in the eyes of this Government? Is he not a little jejune in telling the House that sanctions have not worked when we warned him after the Nassau conference and after the Commonwealth conference in London a year ago that the minimal sanctions that the Government were prepared to apply would not work because they were minimal? Is this not a circular argument? They will only apply minimal sanctions; then, when these do not work, they say that sanctions do not work. The Government have never supported the majority view in the Commonwealth that to work, sanctions should be maximum, not minimal.

Nor has the noble Viscount answered the question put by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear. Do the Government now repudiate the findings of the Eminent Persons Group on which the British representative was the noble Lord, Lord Barber, of his own party, who spoke in the House on this subject? The Eminent Persons Group came to the conclusion that nothing short of increased sanctions could lead the South African Government away from the path of apartheid.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I do not think that I would ever be so unwise as to say in your Lordships' House at any moment that I had answered all the points. If I used those words it was very uncharacteristic of me and very unwise in front of the noble Lord of all people. I do not think for one moment that I did say that I had answered them all. I had tried to answer them all; but trying is different from succeeding.

The Government did go along with the Nassau sanctions as a limited signal to South Africa. We set out our position perfectly clearly in doing so. Therefore, the answer to the first point the noble Lord makes is that if you agree to go along with limited sanctions you cannot be opposed in principle to sanctions of any sort or kind. I think that is perfectly fair. Then the noble Lord asked whether we repudiate what the Eminent Persons Group said. One must come back to the point to which the noble Lord does not address himself. If you are going to have these effective sanctions, how is it that they are not actually enforced? The people who say they want them did not come forward with any particular proposals as to what they were going to be. Many of those who would wish to see effective sanctions admit that they could not possibly undertake them themselves. Those are questions which anyone who addresses this problem simply has to answer.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, lest our silence on this side should be misinterpreted, will my noble friend accept that many of us are wholeheartedly in agreement with the attitude of Her Majesty's Government both in respect of Fiji and in respect of sanctions but that some of us think that these matters are better treated in this House by way of debate, when speech is unlimited and can be made on both sides and from every point of view, rather than by pursuing the matter on a Government Statement?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I can only thank my noble and learned friend, as I have reason to do on many occasions.

Lord Irvine of Lairg

My Lords, will the noble Viscount tell the House what specific sanctions, if any, against South Africa the Government believe to be of real practical effect today?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I can only answer the noble Lord by saying that we agreed to the Nassau sanctions as a signal to South Africa. That is what we are continuing to support and what we have actually fulfilled to the letter. We have done exactly what we said we would do.

Lord Irvine of Lairg

My Lords, does the noble Viscount believe that these sanctions, each of them agreed at Nassau, continue to be of great practical effect?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, my right honourable friend made it clear that she agreed to them as a signal to South Africa. She believes that they will continue to be a signal to South Africa, but she made it perfectly clear that she did not see that sanctions as a whole would be effective. If the noble Lord means effective in getting rid of apartheid, she said she did not believe that the sanctions would get rid of apartheid.