HL Deb 25 May 1993 vol 546 cc173-5

3.3 p.m.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the South African Air Force can be represented at the 75th anniversary of the Royal Air Force.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware that military contact with South Africa remains restricted by UN, EC and Commonwealth agreements to which the United Kingdom is a party. We believe that attendance at the International Air Tattoo at Fairford in July by elements of the South African Air Force would constitute a breach of those guidelines.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for that reply which I was aware of beforehand. But does he not agree that this year's International Air Tattoo is special in that it celebrates the 75th anniversary of the formation of the Royal Air Force in which Field Marshal Smuts played an important role? The Minister is also aware, no doubt, that the South African Air Force supplied 30 squadrons in the last war in the Middle East and Italy and played an important role at El Alamein. Would it not be the right thing to do at this moment, with the changes that are taking place in South Africa, to welcome the South African Air Force at this celebration?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I have considerable sympathy with what the noble Baroness has said. I wholly accept that this year's tattoo has special significance. I equally wholly accept the remarkable and for this country in many ways life—saving role that the South African Air Force played not only in the Second World War but also in the first. I also acknowledge Field Marshal Smuts's role in setting up the Royal Air Force. However, it is our considered judgment that we should be in breach of the agreements I have referred to were we to allow participation. I look forward very much to the day when it will be possible for us to do so.

Lord Balfour of Inchrye

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that I was in South Africa in September 1939 when war was declared and a number of my friends lost no time in enlisting in the South African Air Force? Later I had the privilege of knowing Group Captain Malan, probably the outstanding air ace in the Battle of Britain. Is not the Government's reply to this question nothing short of an insult to those people and to all the others in the South African Air Force who flew alongside our airmen in the last war?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I should be sorry if anything that I have said were taken as an insult to the memory of those brave men who helped us to win the Battle of Britain. I draw the noble Lord's attention to the fact that we have asked a representative ship to attend the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Battle of the Atlantic this week in Liverpool. That has been taken as a clear understanding of the contribution that the South African people made to the survival of our nation during the Second World War. As I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, I greatly look forward to the time when these matters need no longer be discussed in your Lordships' House.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, why ask a representative ship and not an aeroplane?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I cannot add anything further to what I have said already.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister aware that we are not disagreeing with what he has said but we are disagreeing with the Government's action? Is the Minister not further aware that some of the people who would represent the South African Air Force have grandfathers who are buried in our soil as they died defending us in the Battle of Britain? Do the Government not understand that some of us consider that respecting their memory is a bigger priority than simply doing what the United Nations says, although we support that body on almost every other matter?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I agree with the sentiments behind the noble Lord's question. However, I would ask him whether during the course of his political life he supported the agreements to which I referred in the original Answer I gave to the noble Baroness. If he did, I would suggest that that is entirely inconsistent with his position at the moment.