HC Deb 05 May 1964 vol 694 cc1114-6
The Prime Minister (Sir Alec Douglas-Home)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a short statement.

Her Majesty's Government have been informed by the United States Government that their embassy in Taiz has said that there is no truth in reports that the heads of British soldiers were publicly exhibited in Taiz.

Mr. Healey

I think that the whole House will be deeply relieved to know that at least in one important particular the report which was published on Sunday has proved to be untrue, but does not the Prime Minister agree that it is most improper for the G.O.C. Middle East Land Forces to have given international currency to such a report on so scanty evidence, without first informing the Minister to whom he is responsible?

Is the Prime Minister aware that such a report has caused great distress to the families of those concerned, one of which first heard this appalling story on television without any prior notice from any official source? Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is most undesirable at this time to inflame emotions on an issue which, above all, requires a cool appraisal? Can the Prime Minister tell us what steps he is taking to ensure that such an occurrence does not take place again?

The Prime Minister

I am sure that the G.O.C. shares the deep regret that so much unnecessary distress and anxiety should have been caused. I think that everybody feels the same way and I will take the necessary steps to see that such a situation does not recur.

Mr. Grimond

From the statement itself it is not apparent whether the Government actually accept or reject the United States information. If they reject it, are they taking any further steps to find out what happened? If they accept it, surely it is very odd that there is no formal expression of regret or explanation as to how this statement came to be made? May we take it that one will be made in due course?

The Prime Minister

It is not a question of rejecting or accepting. This is the information which we have been given and for which we asked the United States Government, who obtained it from their embassy. Further knowledge I do not have. I have given all the knowledge that I have today to the House.

I have already said that I will take steps to see that such a situation does not recur if it can possibly be avoided, and I express the deepest regret of the Government, and, I think, of the whole House, for the distress which has unnecessarily been caused. I think that everybody will feel that it is much better not to cause any further distress to the relatives.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Important and regrettable though this tragic matter is, is it not even more important at this grave time that this House should do a service to our British dead by ensuring that our troops, the Federal forces, and the people of Aden are fully supported in their fight against Yemeni Republican aggression and Egyptian imperialism?

The Prime Minister

I have made it clear on a number of occasions, and I do so again in response to my hon. Friend, that we must accept the obligation to stand by those to whom we have obligations, and this we will do in the Arabian Federation.

Mr. Wigg

Before the Prime Minister passes any strictures on the G.O.C., will he bear in mind his own responsibility in the matter? Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that this story was current throughout Fleet Street on Sunday? What steps did the Government take even to point a word of caution that there was some doubt about it, or to inform the Press that they were seeking to confirm the story? Is it not a fact that Government circles did all that they could to boost this story in the hope that it was true?

The Prime Minister

I think that the hon. Gentleman has made a most offensive suggestion. The moment we could possibly do so we sought to estab- lish the facts, and it is on facts that I prefer to give information to the House.

Mr. Loughlin

Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that action should have been taken by the High Commissioner in Aden to inform Her Majesty's Government of the situation? Is not he also aware that an increasing number of British boys will be in danger if the present situation is allowed to go on? Will the right hon. Gentleman bring back Sir Kennedy Trevaskis and ask him to discuss the whole situation in Aden, which is not a war against the Yemeni, but is a bolstering up of the sultans against a tribal rebellion?

The Prime Minister

Sir Kennedy Trevaskis was back here and discussed the whole situation the week before last.

Mr. Healey

It seems that there are two issues at stake here. One is the propriety of the military commander in making a statement which was bound to have most inflammatory international consequences, without the authority of Her Majesty's Government. I take it from what the Prime Minister said that on this issue new instructions will be issued to military commanders which will give them better guidance.

The other is the wisdom of the commander himself in giving currency to such a statement on evidence, which seems, from statements in the Press, during the last day or so, to have been scanty in the extreme. Has the Prime Minister called for a report from the local commander as to the evidence on which he took this action and made this report?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. Naturally, we are asking for an account and why this statement was made on the evidence available. I think that we must realise that in the shock and emotion of certain situations things may be said which may be bitterly regretted later. No one can quite guard against that, but we are trying to see that the situation does not recur.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not think that we can discuss this further without a Question before the House.