Leave having been given on Monday 19 May under Standing Order No. 9 to discuss:
The breach of the procedure of the House of Commons by the Government in failing to bring forward new legislation on Iran (Temporary Powers) in the light of the Lord Privy Seal's statement and the Government's decision to back-date the imposition of sanctions to 4th November 1979.
§ I shall be brief, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday you gave leave under the Standing Order No. 9 procedure for a very specific topic to be discussed, namely, the retrospective element in the Iran (Temporary Powers) Act. For reasons that I do not think the House will require me to rehearse, circumstances have changed. It would be an abuse of the procedure of the House if we were to succumb to the temptation to try to raise all sorts of other interesting issues arising from the general issue of sanctions policy.
§ There is a particular reason for not trying to exploit the Standing Order No. 9 procedure unfairly and to injure it by abusing it at a time when decisions on foreign affairs, especially with our EEC partners, are by nature ever more fast-moving. The Standing Order No. 9 procedure represents the best brake that the the House has over what would otherwise be faits accompli.
§ The salutary feature about yesterday's episode is that it means that a Minister—however senior and prestigious—before entering into an agreement with our EEC partners, with the Americans or with anyone else, must seriously ask himself "Can I be sure that the House of Commons will wear such a policy? "
§ I close with the thought that yesterday proved that the House will not be a rubber stamp for any Government, and that a Minister must realise that he or she at any time may have to face the hurdle of the Standing Order No. 9 procedure. It is in that spirit that I ask the House to adjourn.3.40 pm
§ The Lord Privy Seal (Sir Ian Gilmour)
the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) has played a notable part 255 throughout these proceedings on sanctions. The House will have greatly admired the restraint that he has shown this afternoon. I shall try to be almost as brief as he was, but I hope that the House will understand that I cannot be quite so brief.
After my statement yesterday about decisions taken on the implementation of sanctions against Iran by Foreign Ministers of the European Community meeting informally in Naples over the weekend, the House made its view very clear that the inclusion of retrospection, however limited, was unacceptable.
The Government have therefore decided that sanctions will not be retrospective. No orders will be laid before the House which ban the supply of goods under arrangements made before the date on which those orders were laid. Last night we informed our European Community partners and the Government of the United States that, in view of the opposition of this House to retrospection, we would no longer be prepared to proceed to apply any element of retrospection among the decisions that we agreed to at the meeting in Naples. Arrangements that ban the supply of arms continue in force.
The result of the Government's decision not to go ahead with the retrospective element in the decision of the Nine will now be that the Orders in Council which will be laid before the House to implement sanctions, will not apply to the export of goods under arrangements made before the date of those orders. The Government hope to make these orders as soon as possible. But it is our intention to make sure that the orders cover the same ground as the parallel orders that our partners in the Nine will be making, to give effect to the sanctions measures to which we have all agreed.
I am sure that the House will agree that it is important to make sure that we all go along this road at the same pace and that we cover the same ground. The necessary procedures for co-ordinating with our partners are already in hand.
I can also assure the House that when the orders are laid before the House there will be an opportunity for the House to debate them. As explained to the House during the debate on the Iran (Temporary Powers) 256 Act, any orders made under the Act will lapse if the House does not approve them within 28 days. The House was also given an assurance that any orders made under the 1939 Act will also be made subject to a parallel procedure. That is to say that, although the 1939 Act does not provide for orders made under it to be subject to a resolution by the House, in this case, because of the obvious importance of the question and the clearly expressed views of the House, the Government have undertaken to revoke any orders made under the 1939 Act if the approval of the House for such orders is not forthcoming.
The House has been virtually united in its condemnation of the illegal detention of the American hostages in Iran. The Government thought it right to play a leading part in working towards their release. One of the measures decided upon, in conjunction with our European partners, was the implementation of the sanctions put forward in the vetoed Security Council resolution. Although we recognise that sanctions are of limited value, we continue to believe that the policy of applying them is right, in order to demonstrate our solidarity with our friend and ally, and with the limited objective of securing the release of the hostages.
Our Community partners have hitherto taken the view that the appropriate way of showing such solidarity would be to apply sanctions to contracts concluded after 4 November 1979. But we accept the view of the House that sanctions applied in the United Kingdom should not be retrospective. We shall continue to work for the release of the hostages through what means we have, through quiet diplomacy and insistent persuasion. This is by no means incompatible with the operation of sanctions, and we trust that our efforts and the efforts of our partners will help to bear fruit.
§ Mr. Peter Shore (Stepney and Poplar)
The House is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) for raising this debate. I echo the words of the Lord Privy Seal in welcoming both the manner and matter of his short but cogent speech. He is entitled to great personal credit for his energy and tenacity in pressing this issue, 257 for the effectiveness of his intervention yesterday, and for his sucess in obtaining a debate under Standing Order No. 9. Not least, credit is due because, he has brought about an almost unprecedented change in Government policy. That change was unprecedented both in the speed with which Ministers reversed their decisions, and in the nature of the change, which affects agreements that were reached with eight other countries only 36 hours earlier.
I, too, will be short. We all know what happened. The story does not simply concern the reaction of the House yesterday to the Lord Privy Seal's statement. When the Government launched a two-day debate on the Iran (Temporary Powers) Bill last week, they had already taken a policy decision to activate the powers under the Iran (Temporary Powers) Bill, if no progress had been made to secure the release of the American hostages. That would have affected future contracts.
Ministers reminded the House that the Government had in reserve the heavier powers contained in the 1939 Act. However, their intention was clear. They indicated that these powers would not be invoked for some time. That was the strong and inescapable impression that they gave. Among other things, that is why no serious response was made in ministerial replies to the anxieties that had been expressed by hon. Members from all parties about the disruption of existing contracts and the problems of compensation.
After the Bill had been enacted, the Foreign Secretary went to Vienna and then to Naples. During the course of his discussions in those cities he was persuaded not only to activate the powers under the Iran (Temporary Powers) Act 1980 from a date to be announced in the relevant order, but to backdate sanctions to 4 November 1979. That was the date on which the American hostages were unlawfully seized. That was contrary to the understanding and wishes of the House. It was also contrary to the terms of the Iran (Temporary Powers) Act.
If 4 November had been contemplated for a moment as the starting date, the Iran (Temporary Powers) Bill would not have excluded—as it did—all contracts 258 that had been signed previously. Clause 1(2)(a) would have stated that an Order in Council would not apply to any contract made before 4 November. However, the existing text states that an Order in Councilshall not apply to any contract made before the date on which the Order is made.Yesterday the House heard the Lord Privy Seal's statement. Hon. Members felt strongly aggrieved. They felt that they had been deceived during those two days of debate. I believe that the Government did not intend to deceive the House last Monday and Tuesday. I believe that they were forced to deceive retrospectively, as a result of agreements that had been reached in Naples on the Saturday and Sunday. There is no reason for me to labour these points. The Government's decision last night has explicitly conceded them.
I have one question to ask the Lord Privy Seal before attempting to draw some lessons from this experience. The question relates to the powers contained in the 1939 Act. If the Government intend at some future stage to seek the approval of the House and to activate any of those powers, I hope that they will lay an affirmative order, rather than one that would reflect the type of order for which provision is contained in the Iran (Temporary Powers) Act. Perhaps the Lord Privy Seal has already agreed to that. However, I should be grateful for confirmation. We might otherwise find ourselves dealing with an order that had come into effect before the House had had a chance to debate it. That would be quite contrary to the wishes of hon. Members.
I warmly endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian about the importance of Standing Order No. 9 procedures. They were introduced about 12 years ago. They have given the House of Commons, under the guidance of Mr. Speaker, an ability to respond immediately to events in a way that was previously inconceivable. They are of great value to all who believe in the authority of the House of Commons and in the central importance of debate on the Floor of the House.
An Adjournment debate which is raised under Standing Order No. 9 serves to remind Ministers that their control over our timetable is far from perfect. It 259 reminds the nation that issues of great interest and importance can be debated without delay. It reminds all hon. Members of the central truth of British parliamentary democracy, namely, that, however large a Government's majority may be, they ultimately depend on the votes of hon. Members.
Secondly, these events have taught a most important lesson about the conduct of British foreign policy. Provided that Ministers have the support of the House of Commons they can conclude firm agreements with other countries on all matters that they think important. But if Ministers think that in their dealings with other countries they are free agents who can safely yield to the pressures of other nations and just assume the consent of the House of Commons, they are profoundly mistaken.
This is important in our relations both with the United States and the EEC. We are friends and allies of the United States, and the whole House has made it plain that the United States has our strong support for concerted, non-military measures to bring about the early release of the hostages. We believe that they have been grievously wronged, and that the Iranians have committed a most serious offence against international law. But we have the right and the duty to decide the nature and timing of the measures that we can take in order to assist the release of the hostages. It is our judgment, and not our obedience, that we offer.
The view of the House and the Government was made clear last week. It was sensible to proceed slowly using modest sanctions as a minor accompaniment to diplomatic and political measures. The use of stronger sanctions was not ruled out in future, but it was not the general view last week of either the Government or the House that this was the time to invoke them. We already knew then that the United States had a different view, but that was in no way sufficient reason for the Foreign Secretary to go further than the House intended.
The lesson for the EEC is also clear. There can be no question of a common foreign policy, of speaking with one voice, except on those occasions when it is the will of the House to do so. The result of the Naples agreement and of 260 last night's reversal is, of course, a shambles. I do not welcome a situation in which our Foreign Ministers, in their dealings with the EEC, can be accused of being uncertain or irresolute. I have said in another context, and I say it again, that British Ministers should say what they mean and mean what they say. We have taken that position on many other matters of great importance, including that of the budget contribution before the Dublin meetings last year.
The Government will have to deal with the problem that they have created. The Foreign Secretary is bound to find it embarrassing. The important thing for the EEC to understand is that in Britain the House of Commons is supreme. That does not mean that British Ministers cannot make firm and binding commitments. It means that in Britain, at least, commitments must be preceded by agreement in the House of Commons.
My third point is practical. Clearly there is a need for greater co-ordination between Foreign Office Ministers than we have had so far. There is a problem here. If Senior Ministers are obliged, as in the case of the Lord Privy Seal and the Foreign Secretary, to undertake a series of overseas visits, and if junior Ministers are given the responsibility of handling sensitive legislation, there is an obvious danger that senior Ministers will become out of touch and insensitive to the opinions and understandings of the House. This is even more a problem when the Foreign Secretary is in another place.
We had a classic example of such in-sensitivity yesterday. The Lord Privy Seal made a number of tart comments to my right hon. and hon. Friends which, had he been able to listen to the debates last week, he would not have made. It is not for me to suggest how this problem can best be dealt with, but it is a problem and Foreign Ministers should seek seriously to overcome it.
I do not wish to carry the matter any further today. The Government were right to bow to the will of the House. There are worth-while lessons to be learnt and our allies and friends may rest assured that in asserting, as we have, the supremacy of the House of Commons we in no way resile from our view of the total unacceptability of the Iranian conduct towards the American hostages. We shall 261 seek to assist their early release in every sensible way.
§ Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness)
I wish to ask only two questions, but first, like the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore) and the Lord Privy Seal, I think it proper to pay a tribute to the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell). All the firms that would have been affected by the retrospective legislations should be grateful to him for his action. Very often we are annoyed by the hon. Member's persistence, but on this occasion it has been wholly vindicated.
The Minister emphasised throughout that the Nine seek to move in parallel in bringing the sanctions into effect. Will this position change? Will the Government's decision affect what the other eight Governments do? Presumably the others persuaded us to make the matter retrospective. Will they not now make it retrospective themselves? What is the position?
The right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar described the Government's action as somewhat "shambolic ". I do not know about that, but I do find it very strange. I do not understand why a British Government, in consultation with Foreign Ministers, should enter into a commitment and then go back on it. Either they should decide that, mistakenly or reluctantly, they propose to enter the commitment and adhere to it, or they should tell their European colleagues that they genuinely feel that they cannot take this commitment and therefore they will not enter it. In other words, surely the Government have been guilty of profoundly misjudging the situation. I agree that certainly one cannot accuse them of seeking consciously to deceive, but clearly they have seriously misjudged the situation.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I am on my feet I will call the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), but he must wait his turn like anyone else.
262 I believe that it is the will of the House that we come to a conclusion on this matter quickly. I hope that those hon. Members who, nevertheless, feel that they must speak, will bear that in mind.
§ Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)
I want to ask the Lord Privy Seal one question. Had he given way to me during his speech, all this could have been avoided. My question is on precisely the same point as that made by the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston). This is very important. The right hon. Gentleman said that there would be a co-ordination of activity between the Government and our friends in Europe. Precisely what does that mean? Does it now mean that the EEC countries have agreed that sanctions will not be retrospective for them either, or does it mean that we are actually going it alone? I should be very pleased if it were the latter.
§ Sir Ian Gilmour
With the leave of the House, I shall answer the questions that have been put to me.
The right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore) asked for an assurance about orders. In my statement I said that although there is no provision in the 1939 Act for making such orders, we shall apply exactly the same procedure for orders under the 1939 Act as for those made under the Act passed last week. I further assure the House that we shall ensure that the debate on those orders, if any, takes place as soon as possible.
§ Mr. Shore
That is precisely the point. I did not mishear the right hon. Gentleman. If the Government use the 1939 Act with the affirmative order procedure in the 1980 Act, that order will come into effect before it can be debated. To avoid that difficulty I asked the right hon. Gentleman to use the normal affirmative order procedure, where drafts cannot come into effect until the House has debated and approved them.
§ Sir I. Gilmour
I was seeking to make the point that now that any possibility of retrospection has been removed from orders made under the 1939 Act, I do not believe that there is cause to make a distinction between orders made respectively, under the 1939 Act and the Act passed last week. I shall certainly think 263 about the matter, and I have undertaken that debates will take place as soon as possible.
I am sorry that I did not give way to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer). As he knows, I normally give way, but I was hoping to bring the proceedings to a close as soon as possible. The answer to the question proposed by the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston) is that it is too soon to know. We notified our partners only last night, and we cannot say what will happen. As I said, we accept the need for co-ordination and for moving at the same pace down the same path.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.