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Volume 15: debated on Monday 14 December 1981

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3.30 pm

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on Poland.

Martial law was declared in Poland from midnight on 12–13 December. A Military Council for National Salvation, consisting of military leaders, has been set up under the Prime Minister and Party Secretary, General Jaruzelski. Military commissars have been appointed to oversee central and local government. Other steps taken include the sealing of the borders, the severing of telex and telephone links, the imposition of a curfew, the suspension of civil liberties, a ban on strikes and gatherings other than religious ceremonies, a takeover of the broadcasting system, and suspension of regional broadcasts.

General Jaruzelski announced these measures in a speech broadcast to the Polish people early on 13 December. He stressed that they were intended to be of short duration and would be rescinded when calm and order were restored. He said that the measures were intended to preserve the fundamentals of the Polish "Renewal" and that reforms would be continued. We regard these two commitments as very important.

There are no reports of danger to the safety of members of the British community in Poland. The British embassy is in touch with British nationals and as a precautionary measure has advised them to stay at home. This advice has also been broadcast, at the Government's request, on the BBC world service.

Her Majesty's Government are following developments with the closest attention and with great concern. We are, and shall remain, in close consultation with our partners in the Ten and in the North Atlantic Alliance. The next few days would appear to be of critical importance to the future of Poland. We sincerely hope that the Polish Government and people will be able to resolve their problems without bloodshed, by compromise and consensus. We shall observe a policy of strict non-intervention, and we expect the same of all signatories of the Helsinki Final Act.

The official Opposition share the concern of Her Majesty's Government at what has happened in Poland in the last 24 hours. I think that we would all agree that it is a tragedy that the movement towards greater freedom and democracy in Poland over the last 12 months has been halted. We must hope, with Her Majesty's Government, that the progress will be resumed as soon as possible.

We agree that there must be no intervention by foreign Governments in the attempts of the Polish people to solve their own problems peacefully by their own efforts. It would be a disaster if any action or statement by any representative of any Western Government were taken as justification or excuse for intervention by the Soviet Government or by any East European Government.

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Polish economy is extremely fragile and that it depends very largely on the readiness of Western banks and Governments to reschedule Polish debt. I understand that agreement has been reached at the technical level between the banks and Governments concerned on such a rescheduling. It was due to have taken place during the next week or so. Can the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that Her Majesty's Government will use their influence with all concerned, both banks and Governments, on the Western side, to ensure that the debt is rescheduled and that Poland is enabled to have access to the amount of foreign exchange that she needs to keep her economy on the road. If they do so, they will have the full support of Her Majesty's Opposition.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support for the position that I have enunciated on behalf of Her Majesty's Government. In particular, I am grateful for his support for our view that intervention by any other State in the internal affairs of Poland would be a most serious matter.

The right hon. Gentleman is correct about the Polish economy. Poland's economic difficulties are well known. Over the past few months Her Majesty's Government have agreed to the rescheduling of debt and to the provision of new credit, but the Government are not solely involved; there are also the commercial banks. Our view is that it would be premature for them to take any decision to change what they had agreed.

What justification or business have we to express the opinion that the matters on which there is disagreement in Poland ought to be settled by compromise?

If there were intervention by a foreign Power, or if there were any attempt in Poland to settle matters by force, it might well involve our friends and allies in Western Europe. This is a matter that must concern Her Majesty's Government and, I should have thought, the right hon. Gentleman.

I appreciate that we must pursue a policy of non-intervention in physical terms, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the Polish Government and Poland have been subjected to completely unacceptable pressures from the Soviet Union and other members of the Warsaw Pact? Would it not be more appropriate for Her Majesty's Government at least to express regret at the suppression of the degree of freedom that had developed in Poland over the last few months?

It is always a matter of regret to Her Majesty's Government if civil liberties are suppressed and a curfew and martial law are imposed by any Government over their people. Our chargé d'affaires in Warsaw had a meeting yesterday with the Polish Deputy Foreign Minister and made Her Majesty's Government's views very clear.

Is the Minister aware of the widespread support in Britain for the struggle of the Polish people against the tyranny and inefficiency of the Communist regime? Is he also aware that he commands the full support of the SDP—[Interruption.]—in his call for non-intervention by the Soviet Union in the internal affairs of Poland? Will he bear in mind that the stark tragedy occurring today in Poland should be a warning to us all of the fate that would engulf us if we were to fall under the jackboot of the Marxist philosophy?

I am, as always, grateful for the support of the hon. Gentleman and his party. I am particularly grateful for the support that he and others have expressed for Her Majesty's Government's view that intervention by any other Power would lead to an extremely grave situation. It must be for the Polish people themselves to decide.

I share the concern expressed by my right hon. Friend about the developments in Poland, and I support his warning against any intervention by a third party, but is he aware that there is a further pressing problem? Is he aware of the considerable effort mounted by British and Polish charities in this country in recent months to channel essential food and medical supplies, through the Church and through Solidarity, to people in dire deed? If he is correct in saying that the frontiers have been closed and all communications cut off, is that flow of humanitarian aid to cease? As some contact has evidently been made at diplomatic level, will the right hon. Gentleman use his good offices to ensure that at least humanitarian aid of that nature does not cease and that the Polish people are not left to go through the depths of a hard winter at the mercy of a cruel and oppressive regime?

Yes, the Government are well aware of the substantial efforts made by voluntary and Church organisations, particularly in the supply of food and medicines. As my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State said in the House of Lords only last week, the Government have been helping to co-ordinate those efforts. I am sorry to tell the House that the restrictions imposed from Sunday have gravely hampered that work. We shall, of course, make representations that such humanitarian work should be allowed to continue.

Is the Lord Privy Seal aware that his reply to the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine) is unsatisfactory? Is he aware also that, as voluntary organisations have been sending substantial amounts of food and medicine, I inquired of the Polish Government this morning about the position? Is he further aware that the lorries supplying those goods are in Britain and that permission would be granted for them to take supplies to homes for the elderly and for children and to hospitals? Would not our solidarity with the Polish people be better shown by positive help than by some of the bellicose statements that have been made today?

I am delighted to hear that the right hon. Gentleman has been in touch with the Polish Government, and I hope that his efforts to further that humanitarian work will bear fruit. We, too, are seeking to pursuade the Polish Government to allow into Poland vehicles containing food, medical supplies, and so on, raised by the voluntary efforts of people in this country.

I echo the sentiments expressed by other parties. Is the Lord Privy Seal prepared to press the various banking and other agencies further on the rescheduling of the Polish hard currency debt? Will he contact the director-general of the BBC to ensure that objective, impartial news services are available to the Polish people through the BBC overseas service?

As I have said, the Government believe that it is too early for anyone—the Government or private commercial banks—to make any change in the arrangements so far agreed with the Polish Government about the rescheduling of debt and the provision of further credit. We must see how the situation develops.

I have no doubt that the BBC will continue to give impartial reports of events in Poland. As I have said, the world service has been broadcasting advice to British citizens in Poland. In view of the difficulties caused by the suspension of telephone links, and so forth, it is important that our subjects in Poland should be aware of the Government's advice.

Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify his comments about the rescheduling of debt? I understand that the agreement reached between the Polish Government and Western Governments and Western banks at the technical level was due to be signed last week. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the meaning of his comments is that the rescheduling agreement should be signed forthwith? Can he give any information about the position of Mr. Lech Walesa? Is he at liberty and perhaps in negotiating contact with the Polish Government?

I understand that the final agreements were due to be signed this week. Clearly, we shall have to decide how to proceed as day succeeds day. From the information that we have so far, it is clear that we should not jump into making changes in what was previously agreed. That is the position as I speak today.

I understand that Mr. Lech Walesa is at liberty and is in touch with the Polish Government.

Order. I shall do my best to call those hon. Members who have been rising in their places, but there is a Private Member's motion on unemployment in Wales, which will have to finish at 7 o'clock, and there is also another statement, so I hope that questions will be brief.

Does my right hon. Friend consider that it would help the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) if he were to recall the gallant way in which the Polish soldiers kept the bright light of freedom burning in this country during the Second World War and the special relationship that we have with the Polish people? Will my right hon. Friend therefore, be stronger and ask the Soviet Government not to intervene in Poland?

If my hon. Friend studies my statement he will find that that is precisely what the Government are asking of the Soviet Government, and, indeed, of every other Government. With regard to the Polish people, I do not think that anyone in the House would disagree with the view that what affects Poland must be of great concern to us.

Although what happens in Poland is clearly a matter for the Poles, will the Government remind the new military authorities that Solidarity is in a real sense the Polish nation and that any repression or reversal of the reforms achieved since August 1980 would in the end be self-defeating? Secondly, what efforts is the Minister making to ensure that food parcels from this country get through to Poland?

I think that I have already dealt with the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question. W e are doing all that we can to persuade the Polish authorities to allow food parcels and other gifts of a humanitarian nature to help to alleviate the sufferings of the Polish people, which everyone recognises to be extremely serious.

On the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I must repeat that this is a matter that can be settled only by the Polish people themselves.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the bans on meetings and on a free press are clearly in breach of the human rights basket of the Helsinki agreement? In the light of that, does he intend to continue with the Helsinki process? Can he give an assurance that on all the practical matters that the West must now consider, such as food supplies, credits and technology, the NATO Allies will act in concert and will remain united on this issue, which they failed to do on Afghanistan?

The answer to the first part of my hon. Friend's question is "Yes". The answer to the second part is that we are in close touch with our NATO partners—we were in touch yesterday, and another meeting is scheduled for today—because we believe that it is essential that we keep closely together and act in concert.

Will the Minister seek an early meeting with the new Polish ambassador and impress upon him that, although we wish to continue to help the Poles to overcome their economic crisis, it will be on the basis that there is widespread support in this country for the aims of the free trade union, Solidarity, and a widespread view that the economic crisis has been brought about not by Polish trade unionists but by those who have held a monopoly of power in Poland for 35 years?

We are using every means available to us to convey our views to the Polish Government, including their representatives here. I shall, of course, draw the attention of the Polish Government to what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Recalling that it was in defence of the freedom of Poland that Great Britain drew the sword against Nazi Germany in 1939, will the Government send a warm message of support and solidarity to the Polish people in their hour of trial? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a moral outrage that 36 years after the end of the Second World War Soviet troops remain in occupation of Poland? Finally, will the Government look again at the number of hours currently being broadcast by the BBC to Poland in the Polish language and see that this is stepped up?

I do not believe that the Polish people are in any doubt about the feelings of both the Government and everyone in Britain because of their contribution 40 years ago, as well as our admiration for the Polish people. I shall study the amount of time made available for BBC broadcasts in Polish and discuss with the BBC whether it could or should be profitably extended.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that those of us who believe in genuine trade unionism everywhere, be it in Chile, Britain or Poland, must be deeply disturbed by the action that has been taken by the Polish authorities? Is he also aware that the message from the British labour movement is now one of complete solidarity with the Polish people in their time of crisis?

I believe that all the people in Britain, be they trade unionists, members of the Labour Party or whatever, have followed events in Poland over recent months with the greatest of interest and admiration for the activities of the Polish people. I do not know whether it would be appropriate for me to send messages on behalf of the Labour Party, but I take note of what the hon. Gentleman has said.

My right hon. Friend has stressed the importance of nonintervention by other nations. Does that include the use of Soviet troops that are garrisoned in Poland?

In our view, non-intervention by other nations means every other nation. We believe that this is a matter primarily for the Polish people themselves. They ought to be allowed to organise their own affairs and settle their own differences without intervention by anyone else.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the only hope of preventing the sort of intervention referred to by the hon. Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Dr. Glym) is by enabling the Polish people to survive? I have just returned from Poland, where everyone is agreed that survival is the key. What is being done to move mountains of food—not just food parcels—so that people can eat? Why is it sensible for British citizens to stay at home, when the Minister should know that they will have nothing at all to eat if they do so?

I have already been asked about food parcels and voluntary organisations. The Government have made large quantities of food available over the last few months. We have contributed nearly 500, 000 tonnes of barley, 10,000 tonnes of butter and 3,000 tonnes of beef. That was part of an effort by ourselves and our European partners to alleviate shortages of the kind to which the hon. and learned Gentleman referred. It is essential that the Polish people are enabled to survive the winter, and the Government will continue to help in the way that I have described.

Will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking to review within the next 24 hours Polish language broadcasts? If the resources are insufficient, will some means be found to ensure that those broadcasts are performed in such a way that the Polish people can understand what is happening?

I assure my hon. Friend that I shall review this matter not within the next 24 hours but within the next six.

Will my right hon. Friend be prepared to make another statement if there is intervention by an outside Power? Will he make it plain to the Polish authorities that international cooperation on debts and aid to Poland will to a large extent be contingent on there being no interference by an outside Power?

I note what my hon. Friend said in the second part of his question. I am always ready to make a statement about any matter that affects us all.

Will my right hon. Friend comment on the possibility that Russian troops are already in action in Poland, only in Polish uniform? Will he comment also on the possibility that there is some connection between Israel's smash-and-grab raid in the Golan and problems in Central Europe?

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that Britain has a moral obligation towards Poland as a result of the decisions taken by Sir Winston Churchill, as Prime Minister, to put Poland in the Soviet sphere of influence after the Second World War, and that inflammatory speeches at this time by persons who object to that policy will not be helpful to anyone? The important thing is that we should all do our best to assist the Polish people to achieve a peaceful solution of their problems and to ease the economic background to a peaceful solution in every way that we can, including the provision of aid, financial assistance and food, as the Community has already agreed to do.

I am very much in agreement with the right hon. Gentleman. Everyone in the House is conscious of the service rendered by Poland to the Allied cause during the last war. We are conscious of the efforts that have recently been made to re-establish democracy in Poland. The last thing that anyone wants to do is to hinder those efforts. We want to help as much as we can. If at present we can be most useful by providing food and other essentials to enable the Polish people to survive what, unfortunately, is likely to be a severe winter, that is what we should concentrate on.

I will call the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill). [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Order. The hon. Gentleman was referred almost by name—[Interruption.] Well, I felt that he was. Mr. Churchill.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I was referring to the hon. Gentleman's grandfather, not to him—

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am obliged to you for calling me. Is it in order for the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey)—who just cast aspersions on the memory of my grandfather, particularly with regard to the fate of the Polish people at the end of the war—to be reminded that under the terms of the Yalta agreement, Marshal Stalin agreed—