HC Deb 15 July 1953 vol 517 cc2060-4

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:

77. Mr. WYATT

TO ask the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he will make a further statement on the disappearance of Leading Aircraftman Rigden from Ismailia.

At the end of Questions

The Minister of State (Mr. Selwyn Lloyd)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to answer Question No. 77.

After my statement in the House on 12th May the number of incidents in the Canal Zone diminished, except for pilfering, but last week there was a recrudescence of Egyptian actions against British soldiers. The disappearance of Rigden on the night of 9th July under circumstances which appeared to implicate the Egyptian authorities was one of these. On the night of 11th July a British soldier was shot in Ismailia and subsequently died of his wounds. Another British soldier was shot in Moascar on the night of 12th July.

On 13th July, and after the two further incidents referred to, the Sub-Governor of Ismailia was informed that certain measures would be taken. All that has been done is to set up six check points to check traffic into and out of Ismailia with the object of maintaining law and order in an area where the lives of British soldiers were becoming insecure. Her Majesty's Government do not consider that our military authorities could reasonably have been expected to do less.

By their preliminary requests to the Sub-Governor of Ismailia they gave the Egyptian authorities every chance to cooperate in the first place; it was not the British authorities but the Egyptian Minister of National Guidance who gave publicity to the preliminary warning from General Festing. Her Majesty's Government regard the Egyptian Minister's broadcast as unnecessarily inflammatory. The measures taken were in fact reasonable.

The position as regard the resumption of negotiations is still as stated by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on 11th May, when he said that: If, at any time, the Egyptians wish to renew the discussions, we are willing, …. He went on to say: Our hope is that negotiations will be resumed. In the meanwhile, we may await the development of events with the composure which follows from the combination of patience with strength."—(OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th May, 1953; Vol. 515, c. 892–3.] That remains our policy.

Mr. Wyatt

Whilst appreciating that the British commander must take all steps necessary to protect his troops, may I ask whether it is not unfortunate that he did not communicate his intention to the Foreign Office beforehand, in view of the very delicate situation existing? Will the Government see to it that in future, before similar action is taken, the Foreign Office are informed and consulted? [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Because much wider considerations than purely military ones are involved. Would it not be as well if some political adviser were appointed to the staff of the British commander who might advise him before taking action of this kind which might precipitate something quite unnecessary and unintended?

Mr. Lloyd

I think that a commander must be given certain discretion to safeguard the lives of the troops under his command. It is the Government's view that the steps that were taken in this case were entirely reasonable. In answer to the last part of the hon. Member's supplementary question, the commander has a political adviser.

Mr. Shinwell

Whilst appreciating that General Festing, who is in command of the military in this area, must use his discretion in certain circumstances, may I ask whether he consulted the Ambassador, or whoever was in charge of the Embassy, about this matter, in view of the very delicate situation there and the political excitement that exists? May I ask also whether there is any evidence that the Egyptian authorities were responsible for this abduction or knew anything about it? Would it not have been wiser to have entered into discussions with the Governor of Ismailia in an attempt to settle this matter in a conciliatory fashion, instead of indulging in what is obviously an inflammatory action that is likely to cause further exacerbation?

Mr. Lloyd

I do not accept for one moment that this was an inflammatory action. To set up check points simply to check vehicles and railway trains going in and out of Ismailia seems to me an elementary precaution in these circumstances. So far as the question of discussion with diplomatic representatives is concerned, the General was in close touch throughout with Her Majesty's representative in the Middle East Office. With regard to the implication of the Egyptian authorities, Aircraftman Rigden was seen last in the company of an Egyptian officer and also in the company of a notorious character who is believed to work for the Egyptian Army intelligence and is known to have taken part in similar action previously of an anti-British character.

Mr. Shinwell

Is not that surely very flimsy evidence on which to found an accusation against the Egyptian authorities of abducting this man? Moreover, the Minister has told the House that General Festing was in touch with whoever was in charge in the Middle East, but were the Foreign Office informed of what was going on before this ultimatum was delivered?

Mr. Lloyd

It was certainly not an ultimatum and it is quite false to describe it as such. All that was said was that if this man was not returned by a certain time certain measures would have to be taken which would be inconvenient to the civil population, and that is what has happened, because it is inconvenient to the civil population to put up these check points. But it certainly was not an ultimatum.

Mr. Shinwell

What is the position now? Has there been any evidence of conciliation? Has the excitement died down and is there any likelihood of this action being modified in any way?

Mr. Lloyd

So far as we can gather at the moment, the action taken is having a very beneficial effect upon the security of British troops there.

Mr. Assheton

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that all hon. Members on this side of the House, and I suspect a good many on the other side, entirely support him and the General commanding?

Mr. Bellenger

As the purpose of any action taken at this moment in this connection is presumably to recover a British Service man, does the Minister not think that something different from the action taken by the British military commander is necessary, because it is obvious that already his intelligence service has failed to achieve what one would have expected, namely, the recovery quickly of this Service man?

Mr. Lloyd

Further action has been taken in the shape of representations through the normal diplomatic channels and that will certainly be pursued, not with any desire further to exacerbate the situation, but to see whether the man will be recovered. It is also quite untrue to say that these measures which are in force are solely related to Rigden, because since he disappeared one man has been killed and another wounded.

Mr. Stokes

May I ask whether the Egyptian officer with whom Aircraftsman Rigden was last seen has made any statement or whether any effort has been made to get him to say what happened?

Mr. Lloyd

Unfortunately he has not been identified.

Mr. Renton

In order that these incidents can be seen in their true perspective, would my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that during the past many years there have been, unfortunately, many similar incidents and that local commanders have always had to take action to protect their troops and have done so without reference to the Foreign Office?

Mr. Lloyd

That is so.

Mr. Wyatt

Does the Minister not understand that the general feeling is not one of complaint against what General Festing has done, but that he did not consult the Foreign Office first? The Foreign Office appear to be unable to control this sort of situation, and in this delicate situation can the Minister not say that in future action of this kind will not be taken without reference to the Foreign Office?

Mr. Lloyd

I certainly can make no statement of that nature at all. All that I said—and the tone of my statement is designed to show—is that nothing should be done which is likely further to inflame the situation.

Mr. Noel-Baker

Is it not clear that the best way of avoiding these very dangerous incidents in future is to have new negotiations to get a settlement? We all welcome and recognise the Government's readiness to negotiate. Will the Government consider whether they can do something more to re-commence the talks after the lamentable interval which there has been?

Mr. Lloyd

That is, of course, a question which is always present in our minds, but we did not break off the negotiations. It was the Egyptian President who said that he washed his hands of them, and we have said very recently, and again today, that if at any time the Egyptians wish to renew them, we are willing.

Captain Waterhouse

Will my right hon. and learned Friend give an assurance that murder and kidnapping will not encourage him to re-enter negotiations with anybody?

Mr. Lloyd