Amnesty for Certain Offenders

New Clause 1 – in the House of Commons at 4:45 am on 13th May 1980.

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After the detained members of the embassy of the United States of America have been freed no proceedings shall be instituted in any court of law in any part of the United Kingdom in respect of a breach of an Order in Council under section 1 of this Act.—[Mr. Dalyell.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Chairman:

With this we may discuss new clause 5—Amnesty for contravention of this Act:' No power of amnesty derives in this Act for contravention of any of the provisions of this Act.'.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

New clause 1 arises directly out of the business the other night. It does not need a soothsayer to predict that the measure will soon come to considerable grief. There is no doubt that some kind of amnesty legislation will be needed.

Not entirely in a sarcastic vein did I suggest to the Leader of the House during business questions that it might be for the convenience of the House if a new amnesty clause were introduced at this stage rather than detain the House later on the amnesty issue. Much has been said about the way that the measure will not work. Amnesty will be needed sooner rather than later. Many of the arguments have been rehearsed. I do not intend to detain the Committee further.

Photo of Mr Robert Hughes Mr Robert Hughes , Aberdeen North

I shall speak about new clause 5. We have had a number of interesting debates. It would be improper and out of order to debate any of the amendments again. However, it is proper and in order to refer to the manner and substance of the Government's response to some of the points.

We are told that banks and financial institutions are not included in the Bill because they operate within guidelines and, by implication, they can be trusted to continue to co-operate in the Government's aims and objectives. Taken at its face value, the Bill implies that private industry and commerce apparently cannot be trusted to co-operate with the Government and will always take the opportunity to make a fast buck unless there are legislative constraints. Recent experience of Rhodesia sanctions shows that even when statutory constraints operate, private gain often takes precedence over public will.

Perhaps the Bill is nothing more than a charade and a public relations exercise to allow the Foreign Secretary to wave a little piece of paper on Saturday in Naples—a piece of paper which will have as much value as that waved by Chamberlain on his return from Munich. That is not the face presented by Ministers. Amendments have been resisted on the grounds that they would lessen the effectiveness of the Bill and undermine its purposes or that they are contrary to the Government's resolve. Ministers have not always been convincing, but they have shown that they mean business.

6.30 am

It is clear that the Government's intentions are undermined by clause 2(4), which states: Her Majesty may by Order in Council make such provision in relation to contracts of any description mentioned in section 1 (1) as appears to Her to be necessary or expedient in connection with the expiration of section 1; and an Order in Council under this subsection may make or authorise the making of such incidental, supplemental and consequential provisions as appear to Her Majesty to be expedient for the purposes of the Order. The negating of the Government's intention is contained in that subsection, which contains the seeds of the Government's destruction. The subsection would give the Government the power to wipe the slate clean and to provide an amnesty for any contravention of the provisions of the Bill. If the phrase "wiping the slate clean" has a familiar ring to it, it is hardly surprising, because we heard those words only last week. The precedent is in the Southern Rhodesia (Sanctions) (Amnesty) Order 1980, which we debated last Wednesday.

Other precedents arise out of our experience of sanctions against Rhodesia. Regrettably, the absence of the provision for immunity from prosecution does not guarantee that prosecution will follow any contravention of the law. Experience teaches us that there are ways to avoid prosecution. For example, a company could make certain that all its transactions were carried out by the oldest member of the company—the oldest director or the oldest employee—who could retire as soon as the transactions were discovered. Indeed, the Attorney-General put forward as one of the reasons why the Government should not proceed with a prosecution against the oil companies the fact that some of the personnel had retired.

Another way is to make the transactions as large and as complex as possible and to manufacture a labyrinth of paperwork that would work the Director of Public Prosecutions to death while he tried to unravel it. There are hundreds of ways in which those who wish to avoid the penalty of breaking the law can do so, whatever the penalties might be—and we have no idea about that at present. I am certain that many companies are setting their best brains to work to find ways to avoid prosecution and to evade the law. The whiz kids will labour away.

There can be no greater incentive to those who seek to set to one side the Government's good intentions and to break the law than the knowledge that, without recourse to an Act of Parliament the Government can provide immunity from prosecution or penalty under an Iran sanctions and amnesty order, which would be readily available under clause 2(4).

The Government have accepted the principle that, in certain conditions of international affairs, effective use of sanctions as a weapon is justified. The Government have recognised that constraints on the activities of industry, commerce, and even banking and financial institutions are legitimate in pursuit of foreign policy. The credibility of such policies has been put at serious risk already by the Southern Rhodesia (Sanctions) (Amnesty) Order 1980. It is not merely a question of fair treatment between those that are discovered and prosecuted and those that are not. It is a matter of how serious are the Government in their intentions. If we seek to carry any credibility in international affairs, we cannot repeat too often the post-Rhodesia sanctions experiences.

If, at the end of the day, it is decided that immunity from prosecution under the provisions of the Bill is desirable, and if that is the conclusion of the Government, such an action should be explained and defended in an open manner by primary legislation. These matters cannot be properly debated, properly approved or properly explained in a limited debate when an order is laid before the House.

I believe that sanctions should not be imposed without serious consideration of the repercussions of failure or the repercussions of failure to deal with those who contravene sanctions. We must bear in mind all the time that the whole purpose behind the Bill is supposed to be to create a climate in Iran which will help to produce an early release of the American hostages. That is what it is supposed to be all about. I was seriously worried when, in reply to an earlier debate, the Minister of State spoke of the possibility—he certainly implied the possibility—that sanctions orders might be laid during the period of a long recess of the House.

That would mean that three months from now we would still be in the process of trying to get through the House of Commons—or the Government would be seriously trying to bring into being—a series of sanctions which would help to release the American hostages. If they are still incarcerated in three months' time and if we have not created that climate or produced the machinery which is supposed to produce that climate, we shall be in an altogether different set of circumstances. If sanctions are to be effective, they must be short, sharp and applied quickly. If the matter is simply delayed, I believe that it will do nothing whatever to bring about the climate in Iran which the Government hope to bring about.

I accept that the Government are faced with the problems—as we all are—of how they can try effectively to get the hostages freed. I do not for one moment blame the Government for coming forward with sanctions legislation if that is thought to be helpful.

There is another aspect of the legislation. It is said that it is necessary to have it in order to demonstrate our solidarity with the American President and that only by such a demonstration of solidarity can we have some influence over future events. That poses a serious danger, because if the legislation fails and the policy of sanctions in concert with a number of nations fails we may find ourselves in a war situation. We are playing for very high stakes indeed.

I believe that the Government must put forward the case that they are serious in their intentions. They have certainly sought to do that. They may believe that this is an exercise which will work, and they may say "We intend to be effective and firm", yet buried within the Bill is yet another example of saying "Even if you are caught, you do not need to worry." At one stage during our discussions the Minister for Trade said that a nod was as good as a wink to a blind horse. We ought not to be saying to companies or individuals "Do not worry about it, because at the end of the day it means nothing and you will get off scot-free."

If the Government are serious in their intent to make the policy effective and to make the legislation work, it is necessary to accept the new clause, which simply states: No power of amnesty derives in this Act for contravention of any of the provisions of this Act. In other words, I believe that the Government ought to come clean and bring forward separate legislation before there is any amnesty for any breaches or contraventions of this legislation, should it become an Act.

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Oxon Mid

The two new clauses deal with ways of bringing the Bill, when enacted, and any measures under it to an end. The Bill is explicitly linked with the detention of the hostages, and it follows that when the hostages are released an order will be made appointing a day for the Act to expire under clause 2(3).

The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil (Mr. Rowlands) chided me for saying yesterday that I hoped that we would not think in terms of weeks rather than months. I thought that the hon. Gentleman would catch the point. That phrase was used in haste on an earlier occasion and was regretted at leisure. Everybody hopes that the hostages will be released quickly—indeed, at once. Surely, we must learn from experience, and experience suggests that it is rash to make prophecies about time. Therefore, there are no such prophecies in the Bill and there have been none in the speeches that my hon. Friend the Minister for Trade and I have made.

New clause 1 seeks to form a statutory link between the powers in the Bill and the freeing of the hostages and the discontinuance of any legal action. Of course, there are many possibilities that cannot be ruled out. I hope that none of those things happens, but all except one of the hostages could be freed, some of the hostages could be killed while others are freed, or some could be freed while others are sentenced. These are conceivable possibilities. The reaction might be different in different cases. Surely, it is better to preserve some flexibility for the Government and the House in bringing the Act to an end.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) spoke on new clause 5, which deals with an amnesty. The Rhodesian parallel is misleading, as I have tried to indicate. The argument that the Government advanced on the Rhodesian amnesty, which the House accepted last week, was that an amnesty was needed in Zimbabwe if the different factions and parties were to live together. That was accepted. Similar considerations may well not exist when this measure comes to be wound up. We do not know the circumstances of that time. Surely, it would be rash to start taking decisions to include in or to exclude from the Bill specific provisions about an amnesty.

We do not accept the new clauses, and we hope that they will not be pressed to Divisions.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

I have listened carefully to the Minister. I find his argument rather convincing and, in the circumstances, I shall not press the amendment. I beg leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara , Kingston upon Hull Central 6:43 am, 13th May 1980

The whole of the evening and night has been spent in examining and probing the Government's policies and attitudes in the sad affair of the Iranian hostages. Although a great deal of scepticism has been applied from the Opposition Benches towards the method that the Government are taking to try to secure the release of the hostages, it should not be thought that because we oppose the Bill there is any division in the desire to obtain the release of the unfortunate American citizens. We have been debating the wisdom of the Government's policy. We have tried to examine the way in which the Government are pursuing that policy and to indicate some of the dangers and pitfalls.

In the end, it is a matter of judgment whether this policy will succeed or whether our policy, adumbrated by the Opposition Front Bench, is sounder. Perhaps our method is more likely to achieve the release of the hostages in the long run. The Government have won the day because they have greater numbers. I am not certain that they have won the argument.

By allying ourselves to the Americans, we shall not strengthen the case for releasing the hostages. Indeed, I believe that case will be weakened. The policy may prove inimical to the ideas and aspirations of the free world. We shall lose the sympathy of the developing and uncommitted nations which supported us when Afghanistan was invaded. If we fail to take notice of the change of attitude that has taken place in the Islamic world following the abortive American attempt to release the hostages, we shall find ourselves following a course that is fraught with many dangers. There are dangers to our economy and to the safety of the world.

It would be wrong if those of us who oppose this policy did not tell the House that we are sympathetic to the hostages and wish that they had never been taken. It is horrible for anyone to be taken hostage. It is a breach of every tenet of international law and of the treatment of diplomats. The Government's course is foolish. In those circumstances, it would be wrong not to oppose the Bill as much as possible.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith North 6:47 am, 13th May 1980

I shall not detain the House long. Hon. Members would not welcome a detailed review of the past few days. I agree that the Government have won the day as a result of their numbers. However, they have not won the argument. I intended to speak on Monday, but several of the speeches were so good and mentioned so many of the things that I intended to say that I chose not to speak.

I was particularly impressed by the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore). He gave one of the best analyses and historical descriptions that I have ever heard. However, it is sad that I could not agree with his conclusion. It did not follow the logic of his argument.

There are two fundamental errors in the Bill. First, it is assumed that we are doing something that will affect the Government of Iran. That is a mistake. We have fallen into the trap of assuming that the Government of Iran do not wish to release the hostages. I suspect that they would do so if they were an effective Government of Iran. When I imply that they are not an effective Government, I do so for this reason: That the person who controls this matter is Ayatollah Khomeini, and I do not think that he is susceptible to rational argument on this issue at this stage. I do not think so for a number of reasons, not least—we often underestimate this—his attitude towards his religious beliefs and his feelings of nationalistic fervour for his country.

When a person is in leadership and is challenged, I can think of few things that are more likely to fail than challenges to that nationalism. I say that because one builds up one's strength on challenges to nationalism, just as this country built it up in 1940 and the Vietnamese built it up during the American bombing of the northern towns. It has the same effect. If anything, it stiffens resistance. My hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) has pointed out on a number of occasions that the Ayatollah has said that he welcomes the hardships that will be brought to Iran in standing up for what he regards as its rights in this matter.

I think that the second fallacy is that we in some way offer support and help to the United States by giving what I would call blind support. At a time such as this, the United States needs more than anything wise, calm, cool counsel and not blind support, which I think is what we are offering it.

At the time of Suez, I remember being very despondent about what was happening to the United Kingdom by our allowing ourselves to believe that we were pursuing a course of conduct which was in our own interests when to my mind it was manifestly not in our interests. At that time the United States, quite rightly, exercised the view that we were not right in what we were doing, and it would not support us. I think that this is a similar type of situation, in which we should say to the United States "This is not in your interests. It is not in the hostages' interests. It is not in the interests of the Western world." Even less is it in the interests of the battle for democracy, because in the many countries in which democracy is being challenged it will not be won by measures of this type. If anything, we shall lose the support which, as has been said, we were beginning to gain after the Afghanistan invasion.

The United States occupies a curious position. I have said in other debates that I think that it is in trouble. It is in trouble precisely because it is losing some of the confidence that it had in the past when it was indisputably the major world Power. That is no longer so. At times such as this, nation States go through a difficult crisis of confidence, just as we did after we lost our major world role. It is almost a case of the United States having to find a role in the world different from that which it exercised immediately after the Second World War.

One of the things that has saddened me during the debates was listening to one or two hon. Members talking about the debt that we owed to the United States. It was as though this was a one-way debt, as though the debt was in some way a total commitment to the United States and that the United States might not have a debt to us. I assume that that assumption is made on the assistance that the United States gave during the Second World War and its assistance after that war.

I am certainly not anti-American. Indeed, I have a considerable admiration for some of the things that the Americans have done both at home and abroad. But that does not make me an unqualified supporter of all that they have done. It certainly does not make me assume that we have some unpaid debt to them. It needs to be remembered that they also have a debt to us. Apart from anything else, the United States, in its origins, is an expression at least of Western Europe and primarily of Britain.

Secondly, if people are talking in this curious language of debts incurred in wartime, it needs to be remembered, and the United States needs to remember, that this country was involved in both world wars for some years before the Americans came in and there is a debt involved there, too. It was A. J. P. Taylor who pointed out that in the defeat of the Nazi regime during the Second World War the United Kingdom gave time, the United States gave resources and the Soviet Union gave lives. It is the latter, if we are to talk in terms of debt, that we need to remember and to respond to.

I believe that we are embarking on a policy which is unlikely to achieve anything other than a stiffening of the resolve in Iran to maintain opposition to any attempt at mediation. I do not pretend that the embassy incident in this country would persuade the Ayatollah Khomeini to get up in the morning and say "They are right. This is a terrible situation. If it was right for the British to release our hostages, we should release the Americans." Of course, that will not happen. But that incident gave us some long-term influence that we could have used. By passing the Bill, we are throwing away some of the good will that we might have earned.

Finally, it is relevant to turn to penalties. I suppose that I always had considerable concern about the sort of penalties that would be offered in instances such as this. We talk of this as a serious matter. Therefore, one assumes that serious penalties will be involved. As an ex-probation officer, I looked at a case recently in my constituency concerning a man who was sent to gaol for defrauding the social security system of £112. I have a sneaking suspicion that on this issue no one will go to prison. Whatever it may be, the penalties are not spelt out in the Bill, and that is a serious failure.

I do not pretend that the prisons in Britain will be full of Iranian sanctions-busting gangsters and their molls. But, if a Bill of this nature is to be passed, at the time that it is passed the penalties should be part and parcel of it. It is unwise to pass a Bill and to imply that it covers a serious matter without specifying the penalties in it.

The House has spent a long time on the Bill. I regret its passing. It will damage our cause. I do not think that we come out from it with any great credit. However, I recognise that the Government have the numbers and the right to go ahead. I shall watch with interest to see what happens. I fear that the whole incident will not be regarded as a happy state of affairs in the history of our relations with Iran or within the Atlantic Alliance.

Photo of Mr Eldon Griffiths Mr Eldon Griffiths , Bury St Edmunds 6:57 am, 13th May 1980

I crave merely 70 seconds of my hon. Friend's time at this hour in the morning, as chairman of the Anglo-Iranian group in the House, to say four things.

First, we have enabled the Government to fulfil an undertaking. The Foreign Secretary promised the other Ministers of the EEC that Britain would take a step, and the House of Commons has now enabled him to go to Naples this weekend and to deliver. That is a matter for congratulation.

Secondly, we have done well by the Americans. We were unmistakably right to stand with them on this matter. I do not disguise my serious misgivings about both the Bill and the policy, but they must be subordinated to the overriding necessity of showing our unity with the United States in its hour of need. I hope, too, that no American, after the House has taken this big step against difficulty, will fail to recognise that when they needed support we gave it and, further, that there are certain matters, such as forbearance in our problems in Northern Ireland, in which they would do well to reciprocate in the light of the action that the House has taken this day.

Thirdly, we have stood for a principle—the principle of the protection of diplomatic personnel wheresoever they be. Last week my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary stood for that principle by the use of our forces as necessary at Princes Gate. We have stood for the same principle tonight in a different way on the Bill. But we have, none the less, stood for our commitment to the integrity of diplomatic personnel.

I conclude by pointing out that it is a matter for serious consideration that an official Opposition amendment on an important aspect should have attracted only nine votes. The Opposition Front Bench should think very hard about whether it has come out of this with honour when it can muster the support of only nine hon. Members.

7 am

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

Having taken more than my share of the last 16 hours of debate, it would be curmudgeonly of me not to thank the Clerks of the House and the occupants of the Chair for their help. I also thank the two Government Ministers who have taken part. There are deep divisions of opinion between us, but I must acknowledge their courtesy and unfailing helpfulness when many Ministers in such a situation on previous occasions have been testy when provoked. There was no sign of either testiness or ill temper tonight, and for that I thank the Ministers.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil (Mr. Rowlands). We voted in different Lobbies on the substantive issue, but he has been nothing but helpful and understanding throughout the debates. I also pay a tribute both to my own colleagues and to the Conservative Back Benchers who have stayed a long time and have shown a great deal of good humour at hours when there is often acrimony and ill temper.

However, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I do not apologise to them, to you or to my own colleagues for the time I have taken, because in a sense this is the House of Commons doing its scrutiny job. It is the only opportunity that we had to air these differences of opinion. We would be criticised if we did not take that opportunity.

The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) criticised Labour Members for not being here. Many of my colleagues had pressing, long-standing engagements—he may think for bad reasons, I may think for good ones—and I do not think that chiding them on this matter is altogether fair, especially in view of the time and agony that have been expended.

Finally, the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Brotherton) made a contribution earlier which I wish to take up. Some of us will not be labelled as "anti-American". This is an argument about what friends should do to each other—whether we should follow or be candid and what form the candour should take. Some of us have grave reservations about the operation of the White House machine and the position of certain high officials who, by the very nature of their jobs—not their characters—have a very exalted view of themselves. I speak as one who was indelibly marked by being summoned by Walt Rostow to his White House basement office in 1967 and lectured on east of Suez and Vietnam. This is not an occasion for delving into the problems of the United States, other than to say that the White House can be deeply wrong.

In such circumstances, what should friends do? I suggest that it was right and proper, on a subject of overwhelming importance, that I, for the first time in 17 years as a Member of Parliament, should be instrumental in keeping my colleagues up to an ungodly hour. I do not really believe that Members should be kept up, even by the Opposition, for trivial reasons, but these things that we have been discussing are far from trivial.

Photo of Mr Ted Rowlands Mr Ted Rowlands , Merthyr Tydfil 7:05 am, 13th May 1980

My hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) has carried out a remarkable task, along with other hon. Friends, in ensuring that the Bill was given a degree of scrutiny which otherwise it would not have had. That must be said in view of the extraordinary circumstances in which we have had to consider these matters.

That is my answer to the churlish comments made by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) at the end of his remarks. This does not reflect on the official Opposition and the size of the votes during this debate. It reflects on the Government, who have pressed through a Bill of this nature at all hours of the night when this legislation should have been given a great deal more time. It is a comment on the system and on the way in which the Government are using this place. Tory Oppositions used to talk of the legislative sausage machine of Labour Governments. The present Government have produced longer and more indigestible sausages than any previous Government. Therefore, I do not accept the churlish remarks of the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds.

I also wish to commend the courtesy of the two Ministers who have handled the proceedings on the Bill for the last 16 hours. It has contributed to the success of our debates.

I began at the opening of this debate by supporting the principle of economic pressure on Iran as part and parcel of a broader diplomatic and political process in endeavouring to achieve the release of the hostages. However, having listened to the deployment of the case on a host of amendments, I am not sure that I am now as convinced as I was about some aspects of the Bill.

I voted for the principle of sanctions and economic pressure, and I believe that that principle should be part of the total approach. We have tried to convince the Government in this debate that we do not believe that the orders that may flow from the Bill should be regarded as a major part of the initiative in seeking to free the hostages. We hope that there will now be a pause and then further diplomatic and political initiatives. We hope that the Government, in conjunction with their European partners, will not launch into hasty economic sanctions following their forthcoming meeting. Such a move could destroy the taking of other opportunities that may be open on the diplomatic and political front. That has been the whole basis of our arguments on a host of amendments. We are not quite sure that the Government have yet fully accepted the way in which we presented those arguments.

We reserve judgment on the Government's action. Before the end of the week, we shall expect a much clearer and definitive statement as to the line they intend to take at the forthcoming meeting. In the meantime, we hope and pray that the basic principles of international law can be restored. Certainly, the detention of the American hostages challenges that principle.

It was for that reason that I supported the principle behind the Bill as part and parcel of the total pressure, but I repeat that these provisions must not be the major initiative. We wish to register that reservation. We shall watch the situation with interest and vigilance as events unfold, and we shall particularly note the Government's attitude once the Bill is enacted.

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Oxon Mid 7:10 am, 13th May 1980

This has been a very long but not a dull series of discussions in Committee and on the Floor of the House. Many right hon. and hon. Members have taken a distinguished part. I should like to pay a certain tribute to the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), who has borne the main burden of the night. I thought that I detected a slight tendency to ramble at about five o'clock in the morning, but the hon. Member rallied quickly and persevered, despite the virtual disappearance of his army of support. What the hon. Member did is certainly a matter for compliment and not complaint. As a good House of Commons man, he grasped the opportunity which he saw and made good use of it. No one could blame him for that.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister for Trade and I and all my right hon. and hon. Friends—whose support we greatly appreciated—have taken the same realistic view of the Bill. Of course, we would have been much happier if it had not been necessary to introduce the Bill. We shall be happy if its life is a short one. We have made no secret about that. We are satisfied that it is necessary.

This is not a matter, to use the phrase of the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley), of blind support for the United States. It is a matter, to use his other phrase, of wise and cool advice, backed, as we are sure it must be, by sympathetic effort. We believe that the Bill is necessary to help to bring to an end, as the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil (Mr. Rowlands) pointed out clearly, the dangerous breach of international law. We believe that it is also necessary to reinforce our diplomacy and the solidarity of our Alliance.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.