HC Deb 25 October 1954 vol 531 cc1607-13
The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Anthony Nutting)

Mr. Speaker, with your permission, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement on the Agreement with Egypt regarding the future of the Suez Canal Base which was signed in Cairo on 19th October.

The main Agreement follows the Heads of Agreement which were approved by this House after a debate on 29th July. The most important point is that we now have for the first time a legal right to maintain a base in Egypt. We shall be able to have there, for the duration of the Agreement, a reserve of warlike stores and also full facilities for the running of the workshops which are required for the maintenance and repair of British military equipment in the Middle East area in peacetime.

These facilities will be looked after by British civilian contractors. These contractors have been granted by the Egyptian Government immunity from the operation of those Egyptian laws which might in any way hamper their work. Furthermore they will receive customs exemption for most of the equipment and materials which they will need. These are very considerable financial and political concessions for a sovereign Government to make. The contractors will employ a maximum of 1,200 British technicians recruited in the United Kingdom and locally. This number is based on the contracting firms' own estimate of what will be sufficient for the job. We are greatly indebted to Sir Norman Kipping, the Chairman of the Federation of British Industries, to Sir John Duncannon, who led a mission to Egypt to survey the problem and accompanied

me on my last visit to Cairo, and to the firms concerned, for their readiness to take on this task of national importance.

British troops are to be withdrawn from the Canal Zone within 20 months from the date of signature of the Agreement. We have reached agreement with the Egyptians on satisfactory arrangements for the withdrawal of our forces and the hand-over of the installations to the contractors.

The House will have observed that we are now embarking on a joint enterprise with Egypt. Certain installations are being handed over to the Egyptians, which will be maintained by them in efficient working order and will be available to us should the Base have to be reactivated. A Headquarters will also be available. The Egyptians are maintaining these installations at their own expense, and they are also bearing the cost of providing for the security of all the installations, which will amount to a considerable sum. British technicians will be situated at two air stations to assist in the servicing of aircraft under R.A.F. control, and in the overflying, landing and servicing facilities provided for in the main Agreement.

The House will remember that there was a large number of claims on both sides arising, for the greater part, out of the unilateral abrogation by the Egyptian Government of the 1936 Treaty. Her Majesty's Government have never accepted Egyptian claims arising under this heading. Nor have the Egyptian Government accepted ours. It has been agreed with the Egyptian Government that all outstanding governmental claims up to the date of signature of the Agreement should be waived. This waiver extends to private claims concerning British and Egyptian Government servants and Service men who lost their lives or suffered injury in Egypt after 16th October, 1951. In arriving at the waiver due credit was taken by Her Majesty's Government for claims of this kind, and their inclusion in the waiver will enable each government to deal with its own nationals. The Egyptian Government have undertaken to set up a Commission which will assess the reparation payable to those British Officials who were dismissed by the Egyptian Government at the end of 1951.

I believe that this Agreement serves the interests of both Governments, and that it is the intention of the Egyptian Government, as of Her Majesty's Government, to make it work harmoniously. It marks a new and hopeful beginning to the process of rebuilding confidence between out two countries. I have been at pains to emphasise in all my discussions with the Egyptian Prime Minister and his colleagues that confidence is a two-sided matter. It is my hope that this confidence will now gradually develop. If that happens, then I believe that we shall have taken a step which will serve the cause of stability and peace throughout the Middle East.

Mr. Attlee

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman two questions? The Prime Minister has always stressed the great importance of having troops in the Canal Zone in order to ensure the safety of the Canal Zone. Can the right hon. Gentleman say what arrangements have now been made, now that the troops have been taken away, to satisfy the Prime Minister on this point? May I also ask him whether any steps are being taken to reassure the Government of Israel, because it is undoubted that the Israeli Government consider it an important point that there should be British troops in Egypt? Now that they have been taken away, have the Government considered giving any guarantee to Israel, such as is given to Iraq and Transjordan?

Mr. Nutting

In reply to the right hon. Gentleman's first question, British troops were there to protect the base and not the canal, and, under the Agreement now signed, as the right hon. Gentleman will observe in the White Paper, provision has been made for the reactivation of the base and the return of British forces in the event of an attack by an outside Power upon any Arab State or upon Turkey.

As to the right hon. Gentleman's second question, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has been in communication with the Israeli Ambassador in London, and has handed to him a memorandum giving full reassurances regarding the Agreement with Egypt. I should like to add my own reassurance in so far as this Agreement, in my view, cannot in any way disturb or alter unfavourably for Israel the balance of power in the

Middle East, and also to add my personal assurance that no weapons or arms of any kind will be left behind by British forces upon their withdrawal from the Canal Zone.

Mr. Shinwell

May I ask the Minister two questions? First, whether the Suez Canal will now be made free to the shipping of all nations; and secondly, whether any arrangement has been made about the vast stores at Tel-el-Kebir, which, I understand, are worth many hundreds of millions of pounds?

Mr. Nutting

As regards Tel-el-Kebir, that is to be the main workshop to which I referred in my statement. The Tel-el-Kebir workshop will be maintained by British contractors, and British technicians will live there. Stores will be kept there and in other parts of the base and in other installations, as the right hon. Gentleman can see for himself in the appendices to Annex II of the Agreement.

As to the first question my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made, it is plain in the debate on the Heads of Agreement that we hoped that this Agreement, when it was signed, would lead to a gradual improvement in our relations with Egypt and in general Middle Eastern relations. We cannot ensure all these things at once, but I hope that, as a result of this Agreement, the climate will improve and that the general situation in the Middle East will also improve.

Mr. Shinwell

Can we not have some more definite assurance on the first point? Surely the matter cannot rest there. Surely the Government intend to press the matter in order to make this international canal free to the shipping of all nations?

Mr. Nutting

The Government's view on the subject has been made plain for a very long time, but, as far as the present Agreement is concerned, which is what I am dealing with now, it is an Agreement about the Canal Zone Base and not an Agreement about the canal.

Mr. Clement Davies

I appreciate the limitations of this Agreement, but have not the Government asked for some guarantee that this international highway shall be kept open for all shipping with- out any interference whatsoever by the Egyptian Government Secondly, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman when the House will have an opportunity of further discussing this matter?

Mr. Nutting

As to the right hon. and learned Gentleman's second question, I would invite him to put it to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. In reply to the first question, I understand the feelings of the House in regard to this matter, but this Agreement was essentially limited to the future of the Canal Zone Base, and under it we have obtained certain undertakings and guarantees. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will agree that the situation arises out of the war between the Arab States and Israel, and it does not arise out of the former British occupation of military installations in the Cana Zone.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

As it appears that Tel-el-Kebir and other large installations will not only be maintained by the contractors but will be actively used to supply and maintain British troops in various theatres in the Middle East during the next seven years, will my right hon. Friend have another look at Appendix D, which seems to make it absolutely clear that the Egyptian authorities—and, indeed, anyone who cares to know—can find out at any time exactly what is entering the base or moving out of it to supply British units overseas? Will he have another look at it to see whether he is in a position to give certain assurances to the House?

Mr. Nutting

I do not know how my noble Friend proposes to move equipment in and out of the base secretly and without the knowledge of the Egyptian authorities, because he must know that for a very long time the Egyptian Government have been in control of the terminal ports of the Suez Canal, both Port Said and Suez, and therefore any movement must pass and must receive clearance from the Egyptian authorities.

Mr. Strachey

While appreciating that it would not have been wise to include any conditions regarding freedom of movement in this Agreement, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to make it clear to the House that our future relations with Egypt must depend upon freedom, without discrimination, of navigation in the canal?

Mr. Nutting

I lost no opportunity of impressing that point upon the Egyptian Government during my conversations, both before and after the signature of the Agreement, but I repeat that this Agreement is limited to the Canal Zone Base.

Mr. J. Amery

Following the question that was asked by the right hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies), can my right hon. Friend confirm that it is the Government's intention to set aside at least a whole day for a debate on this matter?

Mr. Nutting

That is not for me to answer, but for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

Mr. Crossman

While I do not want to press the right hon. Gentleman on a matter for which he is not to blame concerning personnel, is it not a fact that out of 1,200 so-called British personnel, about 400 are to be recruited in Egypt, and will, therefore, be either Maltese or Cypriots? Is it not a fact that 18 months ago the Government broke off or deadlocked the negotiations on the ground that 3,000 British personnel should be in uniform? I want to know why we have had the 3,000 dropped to 1,200, and the 1,200 now dropped to 800, and why the Government have wasted 18 months in time and £100 million in money to do so?

Mr. Nutting

I really fail to see why the hon. Gentleman should pass these smears on 400 British colonial subjects who will be employed in the Suez Canal Area. These men have served Her Majesty's Forces faithfully in the past, and I consider it to be a debt of honour to them that we should take on as many as we can, and that is definitely the view of the contractors. As to the larger number which was at one time required, that was when the base was going to be occupied and maintained by military technicians, and it was never conceived at that time that we would have a joint enterprise with the Egyptian authorities and that they would maintain certain installations for us against reactivation. That is now the arrangement we have made. We are maintaining many fewer installations than at the time to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and, therefore, we require fewer technicians.

Mr. Brooman-White

On the question of freedom of movement through the canal, are there not other countries which are just as concerned as Her Majesty's Government in maintaining freedom of navigation there?

Mr. Nutting

Yes, indeed. I think I can say that every maritime Power is concerned in that matter.

Mr. Jay

Does the Minister recall that as long ago as 1951 the Foreign Secretary, when in opposition, objected to the Government even making a financial agreement with Egypt without having an assurance about the freedom of the Canal, and that he divided the House? Why has he changed his mind?

Mr. Nutting

If the right hon. Gentleman will turn up the main Agreement, he will see that Article 8 reads that the two contracting Governments recognise that the Suez Maritime Canal, which is an integral part of Egypt, is a waterway economically, commercially and strategically of international importance, and both Governments expressed the determination to uphold the Convention guaranteeing the freedom of navigation of the Canal signed at Constantinople on the 29th of October, 1888.