Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Complete list of 8,000+ Thatcher statements & texts of many of them

1976 Feb 10 Tu
Margaret Thatcher

House of Commons Statement [British Mercenaries (Angola)]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [905/236-47]
Editorial comments: Around 1544-1608. MT spoke at c238.
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 3923
Themes: Defence (general), Foreign policy (Africa), Law & order
[column 236]

BRITISH MERCENARIES

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should now like to make a fuller statement, following my statement to the House yesterday, on the reports of the activities of British mercenaries in Angola and on the wider issues involved.

In the present confused and dangerous situation in Northern Angola, it is obviously difficult to ascertain all the facts. I regret, however, to inform the House that there can now be little doubt that an atrocity of the kind reported [column 237]over the weekend did take place. There must inevitably remain a doubt about the number of deaths and how they took place until police investigations have been completed. A plane carrying British mercenaries left Kinshasa yesterday evening for Brussels and reached London this morning in two parties totalling 44. All are now being questioned by the police. I understand that three of the mercenaries are seriously wounded and that at least one has been found in possession of a firearm and has been detained.

The organised recruitment of young men, many of them with no military experience whatsoever, for mercenary service in Angola must be a matter of deep concern to the Government and to all hon. Members.

The Government have therefore decided to establish an inquiry with the following terms of reference:

“In the light of recent events, to consider whether sufficient control exists over the recruitment of United Kingdom citizens for service as mercenaries; to consider the need for legislation, including possible amendment of the Foreign Enlistment Act; and to make recommendations.”

This inquiry will be conducted by a small Committee of three Privy Councillors, and I am pleased to inform the House that the noble Lord, Lord Diplock, has agreed to act as Chairman of this inquiry and that the other two members of the Committee will by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas) and the right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith). Lord Diplock, as the House will know, is Chairman of the Security Commission, and his expertise in that field will be especially relevant to this inquiry.

The whole House will, I think, have been as disturbed as I was by the evident facility and speed with which a small group of people, funded by an unknown source, were able to recruit misguided people to participate in what the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Maudling) referred to yesterday as this “bloody business” . The potential dangers of such easy recruitment are apparent, but the proper form of control is not easily defined—and the existing law on the many complex issues involved is unsatisfactory. We have therefore concluded, and I hope that the whole House [column 238]will endorse our conclusion, that we must establish the facts of the situation by a thorough inquiry into all relevant aspects so as to prepare the ground for any necessary changes in the law. The Committee will be asked to proceed with all possible speed, given the complexity of the issues. It will, of course, be free to make an interim report, or reports, if it sees fit to do so.

Mrs. Thatcher

I thank Harold Wilsonthe Prime Minister for making his statement. I wish to put three points to him. First, as we clearly do not know the facts and the numbers and names of the people involved, and as many relatives will be suffering considerable anxiety or uncertainty, will the Prime Minister or one of his right hon. Friends inform the House as soon as the full facts are known?

Secondly, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we agree with what I believe he said in his statement, namely, that if a criminal offence has been committed here or by a British subject overseas the proper authorities to pursue that matter are the police, and that they must pursue it with all vigour and bring any offenders concerned before the courts in the usual way?

Thirdly, although recent events may be the occasion for setting up the inquiry, will the Prime Minister make clear that the inquiry is about the general question of the suitability of the Foreign Enlistment Act 1870 in the circumstances of today? As British citizens have within present recollection fought for many different causes overseas—[Hon. Members: “Not for money.” ]—any Act of this kind can be operated not according to whether the Government approve or disapprove of the cause but only according to objective tests laid down by law about British interests. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Foreign Enlistment Act makes no distinction between whether those who fight overseas are paid or are volunteers?

The Prime Minister

On the first question, I entirely agree with the right hon. Lady about the anxiety felt by the families concerned, and more widely. As soon as fuller facts become available they will be made known either in the House or, if there is delay in our sittings or the facts become known over a weekend, [column 239]even in advance of that, and I hope that the House will understand.

The right hon. Lady asked the general question whether the responsibility lies with the police when a criminal offence is committed. Yes, Sir. I have already said that the police are examining many aspects of recent events. Obviously, I cannot go into that as it is a police matter.

This is not only a question of the Foreign Enlistment Act, to which the right hon. Lady twice referred. There is some doubt about the interpretation of that Act, as the right hon. Lady knows well. It was last invoked, I think, in the case of the Jameson raid in the last century. Whether or not it is applicable here is a legal matter into which it would not be appropriate for me to enter. I have had advice on this matter. Certainly, the right hon. Lady will know the law. If murder has been committed or is alleged to have been committed abroad, even in Africa, by any British citizen against another, those who committed the offences are liable to be charged in this country in respect of such action if the facts support such a charge.

I agree with the right hon. Lady that there are different occasions, reasons, motives and inspirations for people going abroad to fight. For example, in the Yom Kippur war a number of her constituents—and constituents of many other hon. Members—went to fight for Israel, either because they were Israeli students in Britain—perhaps on the reserve list—or because they wanted to go to the land which is the foundation of their faith. That, I am sure, is understood by everyone. Similar considerations arise in other parts of the world. That is quite different from the present situation. It must be a matter for the Committee to look into.

It is entirely different from a situation in which members of a small group—I can say this without reference to their future or to police inquiries—of smalltime crooks with records have become possessed of vast sums of money, sums far greater than they could ever earn in other ways honestly or dishonestly, and have obtained access to lists of names of former soldiers, SAS and the rest, and signed them up as mercenaries in conditions which I hope the whole House would regard as utterly abhorrent to our [column 240]system and standards in this country. It is, therefore, a very different matter from the Foreign Enlistment Act, which certainly needs close examination, and that is one of the purposes of the Committee.

That is not the only purpose of the Committee. We must face the fact that within a few days a small group of people—whatever their background—have been able to raise a vast private army. That this is possible could be a threat to democracy in this country. They have raised a vast private army because they had access to money to enable them to do so. [Interruption] Hon Gentlemen may sneer at that, but there could be a threat to democracy in this country.

The reference to legislation in the suggested terms of reference of the Committee—I am, of course, prepared to listen to any views that the right hon. Lady has about them—is specifically but not exclusively to the Foreign Enlistment Act. There is legislation—some of it very ancient—about the raising and drilling of armies and about the protection of democracy, in the Public Order Act passed just before the war. These are matters to be inquired into.

Mr. David Steel

I fully support the setting up of the inquiry, but will the Prime Minister clarify what at first sight seems to be a contradiction in his statement? He said that the inquiry is to consider whether sufficient control exists over the recruitment of United Kingdom citizens, but later in his statement he said that the existing law on the issues involved is unsatisfactory. Is it the Government's view that the law should be changed to prevent the enlistment of mercenaries in this country by foreign Powers?

The Prime Minister

It is extremely difficult to answer that. From the advice one gets from those most highly competent in the matter of the application of the Foreign Enlistment Act 1870 to a situation such as this, it is very difficult to get a clear view. The Act itself is now, I think, very much outdated in certain of its particulars. One has only to read what it says about principalities, Powers, peshwas and all the rest of it. It is a little outdated in its language.

I find it very difficult to advise the House whether, on the advice given to me, [column 241]the Act can be invoked in this particular case. We need clarification, and if the Committee recommends that changes in that Act or in other legislation are needed it is for the Committee to say so and for the House to act on its advice.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be considerable disappointment in Britain and in Africa that the setting up of the inquiry will lead to delays in activating measures to stop mercenaries being recruited? Would it not be possible to put an Act through this House in 24 hours, at least making it illegal openly to recruit mercenaries in this country? The facts are very well known and action is needed now.

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has obviously been into this question and has expressed his anxiety. I share those anxieties to some extent. All I can say is that, within whatever powers are available to the Government under the law as it stands, we shall do everything in our power to prevent the further recruitment and establishment of mercenaries from this country to Angola or to any troubled areas.

Sir Frederic Bennett

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I refer to the Prime Minister's last remarks, and I make this point quite seriously and not contentiously. He earlier announced that the police are looking into whether citizens of this country have committed criminal acts, and he said that if they have done so they are to be prosecuted. I respect the Prime Minister for what he has said. He then went on a little later to describe those who may well be accused by the police as “small-time crooks” . In view of the fact that prosecutions may well be impending, I wonder, Mr. Speaker, whether on reflection the Prime Minister feels that it was a wise remark to make—or, indeed, whether it was in order in the terms of the sub judice rule.

The Prime Minister

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman quite genuinely misunderstood what I said. The inquiries that are being made by the police obviously refer to what has happened in Angola, and in particular to the issue—they are interviewing the mercenaries who have just landed, as I made very [column 242]clear in my statement—which has caused such deep concern in all parts of the House, the allegations about atrocities and murders out there. My reference was to the people who are being interviewed by the police to see what they can discover about what happened in Africa, whether any criminal charges lie and, if so, against whom.

When I referred to the small-time crooks—I did not want to flatter them—I was talking about the people who organised the mercenary operation. That is an entirely separate thing, and I am entitled to tell the House and the country that these deep anxieties hit all of us and that this is seen as a money-making operation organised by a small number of people. I think it is necessary for the House to take this matter seriously and to consider, after the report of the inquiry, what measures we may have to take to prevent a recurrence of that kind of behaviour.

Sir F. Bennett

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that the point of order was settled as a point of argument. There are a number of hon. Members who want to ask questions.

Sir F. Bennett

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not think that the recollection of the House is that the Prime Minister dealt with the matter in clear terms in what he said earlier. I hope that those who read Hansard tomorrow will judge for themselves.

Mr. Speaker

Order. In any case, the Prime Minister has made a further statement.

The Prime Minister

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Gentleman—I know from the best of motives—said that the impression left in the House was different. If it is in order, may I repeat the words I used? I said that “A plane carrying British mercenaries left Kinshasa yesterday” , and I talked about the arrival of the mercenaries here. I added that “All are now being questioned by the police” .

I then went on to refer to the reasons for inquiry.

I was not referring in the slightest to the police interviewing the people who were behind the mercenary operation. As far as I know, they are not at London Air[column 243]port. They are certainly not being held for any kind of inquiry. It was a genuine misunderstanding.

Mr. Amery

I wholly agree that it is appropriate for the Government to warn the public, and especially young people, of the dangers of going to Angola, but is the Prime Minister aware that many of us feel that the Western Powers collectively should be organising help to the pro-Western and anti-Communist forces in Angola and that, in the absence of such help, to interfere with the flow of genuine volunteers to the pro-Western forces in Angola would be tantamount to becoming accomplices of the Cuban and Soviet aggressors?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman must avoid confusing two separate things. There is, of course, ground for public debate in this House and outside about the whole foreign policy of the Western Powers, individual Western Powers and so on, in relation to Angola in view of the tragedy that has overtaken Angola. But that is, I think, an entirely separate matter from this.

I am talking here not about volunteers but about mercenaries. The Government would have taken exactly the same line and the House, I am sure, would have taken exactly the same line—and the public, I think, would have shared the same sense of shock—no matter for which side in Angola the mercenaries were being recruited to fight. I would have taken exactly the same view, for example, if anyone in this country, whoever it might be, were recruiting mercenaries on this basis to go out and fight for the Communist forces in Angola or for any other cause there.

This is an entirely separate matter from the much wider—and, I agree, difficult—foreign affairs question that the right hon. Gentleman has in mind.

Mr. Faulds

Is the Prime Minister justified in proclaiming a prohibition on men going to Angola while at the same time issuing a rallying cry for the recruitment of the Israeli forces? Does he not agree that this would appear to some of us to be somewhat partisan?

Although I personally deprecate that these men volunteered for the side for which they did in Angola, will not my [column 244]right hon. Friend agree that if men are stupid enough or heroic enough to volunterr for other people's wars that is their affair? Should we not remember the courageous contribution made to the Spanish Republican cause by some of our own colleagues?

The Prime Minister

The view that my hon. Friend takes now and, indeed, took at the time about events in the Middle East, of course, means that we fully understand the strength of his views on this matter——

Mr. Skinner

And he gets paid for it. [Interruption.]

Mr. Faulds

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. If you did not hear that observation of my colleague—I have to call him one of my colleagues—that I was “paid” others did. Would you care to make your comment?

Mr. Skinner

rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. Am I to understand that the hon. Gentleman said that his hon. Friend was also paid for it?

Mr. Skinner

I have every reason to believe that my hon. Friend has in fact been paid in kind on many occasions by the many visits he has paid to the Middle East.

Mr. Speaker

It is entirely out of order for any hon. Member to cast personal reflections on another hon. Member of this House. We work on the basis that we are hon. Members.

Hon. Members

Withdraw.

Mr. Speaker

If there were any imputation implied that the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) was paid in similar circumstances, the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) must withdraw it.

Mr. Skinner

I have made it perfectly clear that my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds), not unlike many in this Chamber, as instanced in the register of interests which has just been published, has in fact made many visits to the Middle East and that, as far as I am aware, on some of those occasions his visits have been paid for by various bodies—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let the House cool down. I gather that that is the [column 245]hon. Member for Bolsover's way of saying that he is not making the charge—[Hon. Members: “No.” ]—that the hon. Member for Warley, East took money as a mercenary, which I understood to have been the implication of his first statement.

Mr. Skinner

No.

Mr. Speaker

May I say to the House that I think that personal observations are not only to be deplored, but are sheer bad taste?

Mr. Faulds

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think that it has to be made absolutely clear that it is common practice in this House that Members do go on sponsored visits abroad and a great number have done so. There is a great deal of difference between that and the clear accusation, which the Gentleman from Bolsover apparently is unable to realise in his somewhat limited mind, that when he uses the phrase “He is paid for it” that is a total bloody lie, and he knows it.

Mr. Skinner

rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. May I say, first of all, that I do not like swearing in this place——

Mr. Faulds

Do you like that sort of accusation?

Mr. Speaker

No, I do not. May I tell the House, secondly, that I have been on sponsored trips myself, although I am not likely to do so any more. The hon. Member for Bolsover, I am quite sure, did not wish to reflect on the personal honour of the hon. Member for Warley, East.

Mr. Faulds

That is exactly what he did want to do.

Mr. Speaker

We must give the hon. Member for Bolsover a chance to make it clear that he was making no imputation on the honour of the hon. Member for Warley, East.

Mr. Skinner

Yes, Mr. Speaker. There are a few people in this House who have never at any time been involved in any sponsored trips of any kind to any country——

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let me say to the hon. Member for Bolsover that there [column 246]is no advantage to be gained by anyone trying to argue with the Chair. The position is quite clear. I am asking the hon. Member for Bolsover to make it absolutely clear that he made no reflection on the honour of the hon. Member for Warley, East. When that is done, the matter is settled and we can get on with our important business.

Mr. Skinner

As I said before, Mr. Speaker, I thought I had made it clear that I was referring to right hon. and hon. Members in this House who on many occasions—there is plenty of evidence to support what I say—have had trips abroad which have been paid for, and that I am one of those who do not——

Hon. Members

Name him.

Mr. Speaker

I have no intention of naming the hon. Member for Bolsover when he is, in his own way, making it clear that he meant no personal reflection on the honour of the hon. Member for Warley, East.

I think that the Prime Minister was about to answer a question.

The Prime Minister

Yes, Mr. Speaker, though it seems a long time ago. It was a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) in which he was making a comparison between the situation in Angola and situation in certain other areas. I thought that I was right earlier, and that probably it would get an echo in many parts of the House, to draw a distinction between volunteers of the kind I mentioned, especially those stirred by a deep religious faith or by any other faith, and people recruiting mercenaries for the sake of personal profit, the profit being to the group who sent them off. I think that there is a vast difference and that the House should be concerned that anyone can raise a private army by this means for service at home or abroad. That is why we are setting up the inquiry.

Several Hon. Members

rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let me tell the House that there is a Ten-Minute Bill and that, following it, a very large number of right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak in the debate on the Dock Work Regulation Bill. Since an inquiry is [column 247]being set up, I think that we had better move on now.

Later——

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. More in sorrow than in anger, may I make this brief comment on the ruling you have just given? In his statement today the Prime Minister made allegations about certain British citizens, in many cases former members of the British Army, who are to be the subject of investigation by the police and possibly the subject of action by the courts. I had always thought that a man in this country was presumed innocent until proven guilty. I very much regret that, due to the ill-advised intervention of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and others, the House has not been able to question the Prime Minister on this important matter.

Mr. Speaker

Every right hon. Member who makes a statement in this House takes personal responsibility for his own statement.