Skip to main content

Hms "Leopard" (Visit To Angola)

Volume 640: debated on Monday 15 May 1961

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

(by Private Notice) asked the Civil Lord of the Admiralty whether he will make a statement about the good will visit of H.M.S. "Leopard" to Angola.

H.M.S. "Leopard" was one of three of Her Majesty's ships which visited Freetown during the Sierra Leone independence celebrations. Since then her sister ship, the "Lynx", has been visiting the newly independent former French Colonial Territories, and H.M.S. "Leopard", while returning to Simonstown, has visited Ghana and Nigeria and arrived this morning at Luanda.

As my noble Friend showed in his Explanatory Statement which accompanied the Navy Estimates for 1961, visits by the Royal Navy are not confined to countries whose policies are identical with our own: for example, the map annexed to the Statement showed that Dubrovnik and Leningrad were visited last year.

I welcome the opportunity to emphasise that this visit, which was planned last February, is not connected with colonial policy. To cancel it at this time would have been an insult to a friendly nation and a N.A.T.O. ally.

Does the hon. Member realise that we are quite well aware that this visit is not concerned with colonial policy? It seems to run straight across it. Does the Admiralty live in a self-sealing container, insulated from the rest of Government policy? Is the hon. Member aware, for instance, that at the United Nations a resolution was passed by an overwhelming majority condemning the Portuguese behaviour in Angola and that we explained our abstention on the ground that, while we agreed with the resolution, we did not agree with, the right to pass it?

Has the hon. Member consulted his right hon. and hon. Friends at the Colonial Office or the Commonwealth Relations Office? Has it occurred to him that while this may appear to be a good will visit to the Portuguese Government, it appears to be an exceedingly ill-willed visit to every African in Africa? Will not he give instructions to H.M.S. "Leopard" should immediately up-anchor and proceed to some other urgent duty which has been discovered for her?

Perhaps I may try to deal with some of those seven supplementary questions. The visit was cleared with the Foreign Office beforehand. It is not generally appreciated that the term "good will" is used by the Admiralty to cover all overseas visits. I make that point because over 800 separate overseas visits of this type have been paid by the Royal Navy in the present calendar year. It has never been the Government's policy to cancel arrangements for such visits as an automatic reaction to local political difficulties.

Does not my hon. Friend agree that the value of these visits is not only showing the flag, but also helping our trade? Portugal is our oldest ally. Surely we have a right to make these visits.

When this visit was cleared with the Foreign Office, was the Foreign Office aware that a revolution was in progress there, or was it completely in the dark? The hon. Member refers to a visit to Leningrad. Was this made on the assumption that the revolution of 1917 was still in progress?

I made the point—not in connection with the Leningrad visit—that we have a planned series of visits in very large numbers. We keep in touch with the Foreign Office and obtain its views, as we did in this case. Last year, we visited Korea during the spring riots and also visited Japan. We do not take account of the changing political situation, although on this visit we consulted the Foreign Office at every stage.

Can my hon. Friend say whether the ships of any other nations have visited this country since the emergency? Secondly, is it the job of the House of Commons to tell the Navy where its ships may go on social visits? Thirdly, would it not be a good thing to weigh one's words carefully and not to use them with the levity with which they are used by hon. Members opposite?

I believe that United States warships have paid a visit to this port quite recently. I have been urged by the Opposition that none of Her Majesty's warships should visit South Africa either. I think that it would be a very sad day for the Royal Navy if we were to decide never to visit any of those ports on the West Coast of Africa or South Africa. On the whole, the Royal Navy is a welcome visitor and is deeply respected wherever it goes.

When did another warship last visit Angola or Luanda? Is the hon. Member not aware that it is repugnant to a very large number of people that this visit should take place during the revolution? It is not just that it is taking place to a country with whom we may not always agree; it is that the visit is being made during a revolution in which, from such information as we can get, which is singularly little, it appears that the Portuguese Government are shooting down men, women and children.

That is a matter which probably comes within Foreign Office purview. That is why we consulted the Foreign Office at all stages about this visit.

Is it possible for the Government to make H.M.S. "Leopard" change her spots and to send her on a good will visit to Havana?

The hon. Member says that this is a normal visit. Is he not aware that there is a very abnormal situation in Angola? Weighing one's words, does not the evidence suggest that in the last few weeks, in Angola, the Portuguese have killed more African people than at any other time during this century?

I am aware of the serious position in Angola. That is why we considered this matter. The Opposition should bear in mind whether the cancellation of the visit would have done more harm than the continuation of the visit.

Will not the hon. Member reconsider the position at this point? Is he not aware that about 20,000 people have been killed in Angola and that it appears to Africans that this visit—even if 800 visits are made—is of the nature of intervention on our part at this stage? Is he not aware that this is the deepest embarrassment to the new African Governments, particularly in Kenya, which we are trying to get going? Will not he consult his right hon. and hon. Friends in the Colonial Office as to whether this ship ought to be immediately withdrawn?

I hope that the hon. and learned Member weighs his words carefully. I do not honestly believe that there is any evidence that 20,000 people have been killed in Angola. This is not a matter which should be thrust across the Table unless there is firm evidence, and I certainly do not know of it. I agree that this is a matter more directly for the Foreign Office.

On the second matter, we have gone there after very careful consultation. The ship is there now. She arrived at 0.800 hours this morning British Summer Time. It is a visit of two or three days—quite a short visit—and I do not think that there is any point in our letting down an old N.A.T.O. ally by withdrawing her at this stage.

Whether 20,000 have been killed or not, was it not clear to the Admiralty, at the moment that the ship was moving in, that there was a civil war going on there? Whatever clearance it had from the Foreign Office before, did the Admiralty then consider whether it should have changed its mind, since appearing there at that moment is clear intervention? At what stage does the Admiralty consider the situation at the moment that it is moving in?

That is precisely why we keep in touch with the Foreign Office until the last moment. This was a matter which had to be considered and the Royal Navy, as other Services, must always be in touch with the Foreign Office and the appropriate Departments. Having done that, we were assured that it was right to continue and that is why we went in.

On a point of order. I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 9 to consider a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely,

"the refusal of Her Majesty's Government to issue orders to H.M.S. 'Leopard' to leave Angola forthwith."

The hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) asks leave to move the Arjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 9 to consider a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely,

"the refusal of Her Majesty's Government to issue orders to H.M.S. 'Leopard' to leave Angola forthwith."
I do not believe that I could say that was within the Standing Orders, having regard to existing opportunities this week, and, accordingly, I do not feel able to accept the hon. and learned Member's application.

Further to that point of order. When you say that there are opportunities this week, Mr. Speaker, I presume that you are referring to the foreign affairs debate, but the Civil Lord of the Admiralty stated that the ship was on only a three-day visit. The ship will probably have left by then. The importance in this, as we see it, is that this gesture, which would appear to so many people in Africa as Her Majesty's Government taking sides in the dreadful events in Angola, must be cancelled and it would then be too late to cancel it. The visit would have come to an end in the natural course of events.

I appreciate what the hon. and learned Member puts to me. I would ask him and the House to believe that all these considerations were in my mind when I ruled. Nevertheless, I desire to adhere to my decision, because I believe it to be right, and I hope that the House, on reflection, will take that from me.

Further to that point of order. Of course, we accept your Ruling with deference, Mr. Speaker, but may I ask you to go a little further? Standing Orders require in these cases that there should be a definite matter. This is clearly definite. The ship is there. The rules require that it should be a matter of urgent public importance. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) has sought to submit to you that it is urgent, since the ship is there for only two or three days, and it is of public importance in terms of our intervention in what appears to be a civil war. I would have thought that all this could not be controverted.

You said, Mr. Speaker, that there would be opportunities later, but, with respect, I see nothing in the Standing Order which introduces the suggestion that if we can debate it later, and provided that it is not too late, it should not arise now. All the issues which the Standing Order requires to be matched up to are matched here. The matter is definite, it is clearly urgent, and clearly of public importance, and the fact that we might have a requiem on it afterwards is not part of the Standing Order.

I understand the points that the right hon. Gentleman puts to me. I quite understand that he finds it difficult to understand the principle. I can, if necessary, give a detailed explanation, but I thought that the House preferred, in the general interest, that the Chair should not give reasons for its Railings on these occasions because experience shows that it inevitably results in argument. I am only the servant of the House. If I decide something wrongly the House can deal with me, but I would infinitely prefer, in the common interest, not to argue the matter now and I would ask the House to accept my Ruling.

Whereas I think that everyone agrees that in many of these cases the House thinks it wise that you should not give reasons, Mr. Speaker, where, in the view of large numbers of hon. Members, there is a strong case for a Motion being put, I think that there is a case for your giving a reason, because we surely must have some guidance in these matters. This seems to us a strong case, on the face of it, and I put it to you that in these circumstances—though it might not always be so—it would be helpful to the whole House if you gave reasons.

I will oblige. The kind of principle which I follow is set out in page 371 of the current edition of Erskine May, where it is stated, under (c):

"the motion has been refused when an ordinary parliamentary opportunity will occur shortly or in time…"
I quite follow that the visit of the vessel may be past by Wednesday, but the opportunity to debate will not and my concept of the proper use of Parliamentary debating time is to bring the Government to book, if the House likes, in respect of a decision taken for which the Government bear responsibility to all of us. I conceive Wednesday as an early enough opportunity for me rightly to say that the debate should not take precedence over the current business of the House when there is an opportunity as early as that.

I do not think that we need fight about it. Maybe we can supplement each other. We do not need to quarrel about it.

The entry on page 371 of Erskine May, Mr. Speaker, offers two alternatives. If a debate may occur shortly for the purpose of bringing the Government to book, that I would understand, but here we are still rather at the point when the Government may be brought not to book but to do—as a large part of the House thinks—the right thing, which is to take the ship away. To debate that, we must debate it, according to Erskine May, in time. If you rule out to-day, Mr. Speaker, you rule us out of a debate in time. You may leave us then with the opportunity to criticise Her Majesty's Government, and that you cannot deny us, but, with respect, what you are, in fact, denying us is the opportunity to take the feeling of the House in time to be able still to remove this ship.

I submit with great respect that on your own Ruling, on the basis of page 371 of Erskine May, to be in time we should be able to debate it this week and to debate "shortly" is not, in fact, counting out a debate "in time", but is an alternative that might apply in other circumstances. In these circumstances, what matters is the time. Today is in time and today the House could be of effect in terms of policy. I beg you, therefore, to reconsider.

This sort of point is very much in my mind. We should be making a mistake if we were to think of the House in any sense as the executive body. That is the difficulty about this. The executive decision to remove or not remove the vessel is, I understand, the responsibility of the Executive of the day, for which this House can make it answerable.

My responsibility is to decide whether, within the principles governing the operation of the Standing Order, we should give precedence to debating that executive decision over the current business of the day. I do not believe that this is a case of that kind. No one has submitted to me yet anything that I have not had much in mind and have not considered with anxiety. It is important to keep that principle in mind, because otherwise we shall have many instances when we shall disorganise the business in a way that we would not wish to do.

You appear to assume, from what you have said, Mr. Speaker, that the House of Commons is here to wait until the Government have acted and then pass judgment. That seems to me to suggest that we are not here to influence policy at all. I am sure that you did not mean that. The whole of the argument of my right hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) was that we were here to attempt to influence the Government's decision and that it would be possible to do this if we had a debate today but impossible to do it in this particular instance if we waited until the end of the week, which, I think, you had in mind.

With great respect, I cannot accept, and I am sure that you would not wish me to accept, the idea that we have no right to influence Government policy, apart from passing judgment on it at a later stage.

I do not for a moment say that no one has to pay attention to the views of this House, or that the views of this House may not be taken into account by the Government, but the Government of the day have to bear responsibility for a decision of this kind, and can be brought to book by debate at an early opportunity for any decision which they take which is wrong; and, no doubt, views expressed in that debate may do something to contribute towards public acceptance of the erroneous character of the Government's executive decision, if that be the view put forward by others in debate.

With respect, Mr. Speaker, is there not a misunderstanding between us? I could have asked leave to move a Motion in the form of asking the House to pass judgment on the decision of the Government to send H.M.S. "Leopard". I deliberately did not do that. I sought leave to put the Motion in the form of asking the Government to reverse that decision, to condemn the Government for refusing to issue orders for her to come back again and to leave Angola and to cancel this gesture. It does seem to me that while the first, that is, passing judgment, is a matter which we could have dealt with in the foreign affairs debate, the influencing of their policy—that is the form in which I have put my Motion—would be wholly irrelevant in the foreign affairs debate, for it would have ceased to apply.

I have not actually in my hand the Motion for Wednesday. I must say that the last time I read it that was not my impression. I read it with this kind of aspect of the hon. and learned Member's Private Notice Question in mind. I did not mistake the character of the hon. and learned Member's Motion. I realised the form in which it would be put, if this application were to be made. I fail, rather dismally, to carry the House with me at the moment.

I wish, none the less, to press the view that it is right that the Government of the day must bear responsibility for the ordinary executive decisions which they have to carry out, such as the moving of vessels on courtesy visits or their removal, always subject to debate and to being vigorously criticised by this House when there is a proper opportunity. I think that Wednesday does provide the proper opportunity. It is on that basis that I desire to adhere to my Ruling.

I am sorry to have to pursue this matter, Mr. Speaker, but I really am seriously concerned with the general implications of what you have just said, Sir. Surely it is part of the function of this House, not merely to pass judgment on the Executive when they do take action or fail to take some action, but to attempt to influence the decisions of the Executive, and I would have supposed that the word "urgent" in the Standing Order referred precisely to this kind of thing.

Although I have not, I must confess, had time to think of various precedents, I believe I am right in saying that on no less an occasion than the Suez crisis the Government did announce their intention to deliver an ultimatum to Egypt and we did have a debate on the Adjournment to try to stop them doing so.

Of course, I do not pretend that this, in importance, is comparable with that, but it is similar in that what we want to do is to get them to change their existing decision. I must say that I really am surprised that you should interpret the Standing Order in a way which appears to bar the Opposition and the House generally from exercising influence on the Government at the time, instead of waiting till after the event has taken place.

I follow what the right hon. Gentleman is putting to me, and I appreciate the courteous way in which he presses this matter upon me. May I go back to the familiar first principles about the application of this Standing Order? There must be, as I understand it, a sudden emergency in home or foreign affairs. I do not believe that this moving of this vessel and the failure to withdraw it upon request from the Opposition bear any resemblance to that kind of thing.

That is really why I do not think that this is the sort of case for a sudden intervention, when debate is required as an emergency matter in order to deal with a sudden emergency arising. I do not think that this is in that class. It is that and the early opportunity arising of debating what the Government have done which precludes me from being able to say that this is within the Standing Order. I am sorry if I cannot carry the right hon. Member with me. That is my own conclusion, right or wrong, and it is unlikely that I shall be shifted from it by further representation.

Mr. Speaker, what you have just said seems to me, with all respect, to make the situation even more disquieting, because, as you have rightly been good enough to explain, you are guided, or should be guided, only by considerations of urgency, definiteness, and public importance; but in your last observations it seemed that you were moving your ground slightly to considering the merits of the content of the Motion.

To some of us Angola is at this moment an extremely important subject. It is one of the greatest crises, one of the greatest danger-spots, in Africa, and intervention, or apparent intervention, by a British warship at this time can have very grave consequences. [Interruption.] I am only putting this point on the merits. Mr. Speaker, with the greatest respect, because it seems to me that you have moved towards discussing the merits in your last observations.

May I put a second point to you which is quite different from those which have already been put? Although passing references have been made today to the Foreign Office, this is primarily an Admiralty matter. Wednesday's and Thursday's debate is a general debate on foreign affairs. Will it be in order for an Admiralty spokesman to intervene at length in that debate and discuss a purely Admiralty matter?

There are two points. On the first one, if I gave any impression of being concerned with the merits beyond my duty I did so in error. My predecessors have always left the matter of importance to the House, and so do I. I never had any doubt about that.

On the second point, I thought that the burthen of this story was that certain arguments presented carried a world peace and Foreign Office implication, and, that being so, I would have thought, subject to looking at the terms of the Motion, which are very wide indeed, there would have been no irregularity in discussing them on that Motion.

I rise again with the greatest reluctance, Mr. Speaker, but it really did seem to us that you had shifted your ground in the last Ruling from the Standing Order to your own estimate of the degree of importance. I am relieved that you have just now said that the question of importance has always been left by your predecessors to the House. That is the reason why it is sought to find out whether 40 Members will rise, the point being whether a sufficient proportion of the House think that this to be a matter of importance.

On the ground of definiteness, which is within your purview, I gather you do not dispute that it is so. On the ground of being of public importance as distinct from being a private matter, I gather that you do not dispute this. As to the question of emergency, that is clearly covered by the fact that the ship will have left before any ordinary opportunity arises for discussion, and if we do not get the chance today there is no chance of discussing it while the matter is still urgent. I submit to you, Mr. Speaker, with the utmost respect, that on your own Rulings, since the issue of the degree of importance has been left with the House by your predecessors over a long time, the Standing Order, in every other respect, clearly has been met by my hon. and learned Friend's Motion.

I therefore beg you, in the light of what is now emerging, and the degree to which you yourself are seeing the extent to which we are being asked, by implication—if we accept your Ruling—to ex tend the Standing Order, to reconsider what you have said and allow us to raise today a matter which is clearly urgent, which is clearly definite, which is clearly important, and on which the degree of importance can be assessed if you will offer it to the House.

The whole question of the importance of the matter has been in my mind. I have always followed the principle of leaving that to the House We are really, I think, with respect to the right hon. Gentleman, going round in circles. Clearly, I cannot carry the right hon. Gentleman with me; I wish that I could. The basis of my decision is, in these circumstances, the absence of urgency in relation to debate. That is what I have to consider. I do not believe that I depart from precedent at all about this. I am not forgetting the point that the vessel may be gone by Wednesday. None the less, I conceive that the application of the Standing Order would be rightly applied if we discussed the matter on Wednesday.

With great respect, Mr. Speaker, may I mention two points? First, on the matter of urgency, what disturbs some of us is that there is a revolution in progress and there may be an incident during that time when British lives may be in danger. On the point, with great respect, about executive action, there was a case two or three years ago, which I myself brought before the House, when an Adjournment was granted. It was the case of a Spaniard—an individual case and of executive decision—and I would have thought that this would certainly come under that Ruling if not any other.

There have been cases, particularly in which the individual liberty of a subject might or might not be involved. None the less, I do not think that this is a case of that kind.

I think that we are all very grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing us to put the points. But some of us feel very strongly about this. Since the only point that you, as Mr. Speaker, have to decide is whether or not the Motion falls within the terms of the Standing Order, and not any question of desirability or other point, may I put to you that there are a great many of us in the House, not confined, I think, to one side, who think that the presence of this ship, at this time, will be regarded as a gesture of support or sympathy with the Portuguese Government in the matters that are now going on in Angola, and that that would be a total misrepresentation of the feelings of this House or of this country?

Unless something can be done now, as a matter of urgency, to stop it now, before the harm is done, then the public repute of this country in the councils of the world will suffer serious damage.

This must be urgent, and this must be the moment. If the House were limited only to passing judgment ex post facto there would be no need for Standing Order No. 9, which would then have become a dead letter. Standing Order No. 9 has to be used, if it is used at all, precisely to prevent the Executive, at an urgent moment, from doing what it is, in fact, doing. If that is what we wish to debate, can there be any doubt that the Motion is well within the Standing Order?

I do not think that that is quite right, according to the precedents that I have in mind. It is really, I would submit to the House, not quite reasonable to suppose that what it is being invited to deal with here is a sudden emergency. I do not think that there is a sudden emergency resulting from a refusal to remove the vessel. I do not think that there is anything like it.

With great respect, Mr. Speaker, the Standing Order does not ask us to justify a sudden emergency. It asks us to justify urgency. The urgency is that the vessel arrived this morning and sailors may go ashore and be killed in the course of civil war. [HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."] Of course.

I ask you, Mr. Speaker, not to allow us to widen the words in the course of this exchange. That it is urgent, I submit, is clear. It is urgent because it has only just arisen. It is urgent because if we wait a couple of days the visit will have ended and in the course of those couple of days grave difficulties may have arisen.

I repeat that a ship does not go into port without sailors going ashore and in the course of disturbances a danger to British lives can arise. I ask you, Mr. Speaker, again to reconsider this simply within the purview of the words in the Standing Order and not some other words.

I cannot do that because the Standing Order has been operating for ages. The Select Committee on Procedure, as far as I remember, suggested that we might get rid of the precedents and start again, but that has not been done.

I cannot help remembering that it was quite soon after the Standing Order was made that my predecessor, Mr. Speaker Peel, made his statement about what it means:
"What, I think, was contemplated was the occurrence of some sudden emergency either in home or foreign affairs."
I do not think that this refusal complained about is a sudden emergency of that kind. I appreciate greatly the courtesy and firmness with which right hon. Gentlemen have put this to me and I regret that I did not succeed, apparently, in carrying them with me. I can only assure them that I have given the greatest weight and consideration to what they have been putting to me, but I must adhere to my Ruling because I think that it is right.

With great respect, Mr. Speaker, there are two points which I would make. The visit of this vessel to Angola could have some benefit to a large number of non-Portuguese subjects who are living there.

Order. One thing which I cannot do is to concern myself with judgment of the merits.

My second point is that as we are unable to debate this matter until Wednesday, cannot the visit of the vessel be extended for 24 hours?

I am extremely sorry, Mr. Speaker, to worry you again. This is important from the point of view of precedent. Surely, when Mr. Speaker Peel gave that Ruling, he was using the word "emergency" as something that emerges. He was saying, quite simply, that what was contemplated by this Standing Order was something which suddenly emerges. If he had gone further than that and used "emergency" in the sense which I think it has only recently acquired in our language, as something of tremendous importance, as something which is a vital danger, he would have surely given a Ruling which was plainly at variance with the words which he was interpreting.

Whatever the word "emergency" meant to my predecessor, Mr. Speaker Peel—and I am sure that it was not concerned with emergency legislation or the meaning of "emergency" in that context—that Ruling has been considerably interpreted, as the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) and others will remember, in a sense which would qualify it as meaning something much more like an emergency in a sudden overtaking of events creating a new situation. I do not like trying to define words "off-the-cuff", on my feet, or I may give a bad verbal definition for the future. I am sorry. I have listened with great attention. I must bear responsibility for this Ruling, but I am bound to rule in accordance with what I think is right, and I do not think that further representation would cause me to change my mind.

Will you permit me, Mr. Speaker, on behalf of all of us who feel strongly about this matter, to say how much we appreciate your willingness, on this occasion, to allow a Ruling of yours to be the subject of examination here? It has helped us very much.

Perhaps I might ask the Civil Lord of the Admiralty, since he now has the sense of a large part of the House, whether he would not now like to order the withdrawal of the ship?

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said. In these difficult circumstances, I appreciate the courteous way in which he has presented the matter to me.