HC Deb 17 December 1956 vol 562 cc928-34
The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Selwyn Lloyd)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a statement about progress in the clearance of the Suez Canal. I regret to have to inform the House that arrangements are not going as well as I had hoped. Therefore, I think it timely to put on record the facts of the present situation.

The Anglo-French salvage fleet is organised as one unit. It possesses a planning staff of unrivalled skill and experience. It has a variety of vessels, publicly and privately owned, some from other countries, with experienced crews, many of them civilians. That fleet has tackled the work of salvage in Port Said Harbour already with brilliant success. Two channels have been opened. The French and British Governments have offered the whole of this fleet to be used under United Nations auspices provided the safety of the equipment and crews can be guaranteed. That offer has not yet been accepted.

It has been suggested that the Anglo-French salvage fleet should be split. First, we have been asked whether we will allow the vessels now engaged in salvage operations in Port Said Harbour to continue that work after the withdrawal of our forces. We are prepared to agree to that provided adequate security arrangements can be made for the equipment and crews, and provided the civilian crews are prepared to continue at their work after the withdrawal of Anglo-French forces. That depends upon them being satisfied about safe arrangements for their work.

Secondly, we have been asked whether we will release certain ships now on charter to the Admiralty, particularly two German heavy lifting vessels and their tugs. We have said that so far as Her Majesty's Government are concerned we are prepared to do that. Whether the owners of the vessels will agree is another matter, and precisely the same point will arise with regard to security arrangements for the crews.

Thirdly, we have further offered six ships to work under the United Nations flag with United Nations observers aboard and with civilian crews to work south of the area of the Canal previously under Anglo-French control, provided adequate security arrangements can be made and the crews are prepared to continue to serve. That offer has not yet been accepted. It remains open, but a speedy decision is required for obvious reasons.

A counter suggestion has been made that those six vessels should be handed over to the United Nations authority without their crews, except for three instructors to be left aboard to train new scratch crews of other nationalities in the use of the vessels and their equipment. This, in our view, is an inefficient and unsatisfactory arrangement and I doubt whether it is practicable. It would, at best, involve a substantial delay. The House will readily understand that.

So far as the time for clearance is concerned, our estimate is that if all the Anglo-French and other resources are used a channel can be cleared through the Canal in seven weeks. If no Anglo-French resources are used south of the Port Said area, it would take at least double that time, and probably much more.

I am sure that the Secretary-General of the United Nations himself is acting in the spirit of the understandings which he reached with me.

I think it right to put on record that Her Majesty's Government and the French Government, by maintaining their programme of withdrawal without delay, have kept their word. It is now for others concerned, both Governments and individuals, to understand that it is essential in the interests of many countries that this matter should be tackled as an emergency operation and that all available resources of whatever nationality should be used in the most efficient manner. For if the period for the clearance of the Canal is prolonged, it will have the gravest consequences from the point of view of economies of many countries of Asia as well as of Europe.

Mr. P. Noel-Baker

May I say that we on this side of the House feel that it is urgently desirable that the Suez Canal should be cleared as speedily as possible in the interests of Europe, of Asia and, indeed, of Egypt itself? May I say that we hope the Foreign Secretary will be able to make arrangements on a reasonable and practical basis for the use of British ships with British crews working as civilians? May I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman whether he does not think it would be better if the First Lord of the Admiralty refrained from making speeches while he is engaged on these vitally important negotiations?

Mr. Lloyd

I would only say this to the right hon. Gentleman and others. I think it would be very much better if this were dealt with on a technical basis in this House and elsewhere, and that we should try to get this job done as quickly as possible.

Mr. Remnant

Can my right hon. and learned Friend give an assurance that no British naval personnel will be expected to serve in those waters in civilian clothes?

Mr. Lloyd

As I said, I think that this matter must be dealt with on a technical basis. As far as I am aware at the moment, the only matter at issue concerns the civilian crews. The position of Her Majesty's Government is that we are prepared to do anything which is consistent with the dignity of those who serve Her Majesty and that they should play every part that they are permitted to play in getting this Canal cleared.

Mr. Bottomley

In view of the fact that General Wheeler, the United Nations salvage expert, who has the fullest cooperation of the Egyptian authorities, cannot yet estimate how long it will take to clear the Canal, can the Foreign Secretary say how he himself reached his estimate?

Mr. Lloyd

I reached my estimate on the best technical advice available to me. I quite agree that there have been other estimates of a most alarming nature, for example, that it will take five weeks for the United Nations authority even to survey the task. That is exactly what worries me and why I say that it is important that this operation should be undertaken with all the resources available.

Mr. Page

How can my right hon. and learned Friend possibly ensure that there will be adequate protection to the salvage troops when our troops have gone, having regard to the attacks which are being made on them now? Cannot my right hon. and learned Friend say that we shall not move another man unless that salvage fleet is properly protected?

Mr. Lloyd

I understand my hon. Friend's point of view, but we have undertaken to withdraw without delay, and it is important that we should keep our word upon that matter. The safety of those engaged in this operation depends a great deal upon the attitude of the Egyptian Government themselves and upon the capacity of the United Nations Force to give protection.

Mr. Beswick

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has just repeated that we have given an undertaking to withdraw our troops without delay, but at present it would seem that the men are exposed in an absolutely intolerable way. What does the right hon. and learned Gentleman mean by "without delay"? How much longer are the men to remain there?

Mr. Lloyd

I am more interested in what the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Beswick) is driving at. Is he suggesting that we should not withdraw our troops?

Mr. Beswick

I am suggesting that while the delay continues the men are suffering in a quite intolerable way, and are exposed to personal danger. I am asking the Foreign Secretary when he intends that the men should be withdrawn.

Mr. Lloyd

What I say quite definitely is that any crews upon these vessels can only remain at their task if adequate arrangements are made for their security.

Mr. Gaitskell

I think that the Foreign Secretary misunderstood my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Beswick), who was asking a perfectly reasonable question. It was whether the Foreign Secretary was aware of the very difficult situation in which our troops find themselves in Port Said today. He was asking how soon the Foreign Secretary expected that they would be withdrawn.

Mr. Lloyd

They will be withdrawn in the near future. But it would be most undesirable that I should specify at this Box today the precise hour and date of their departure.

Major Legge-Bourke

Has my right hon. and learned Friend any information about the rapidity with which the Canal is silting up? What steps are being taken to ensure that the dredging equipment, some of which was scuttled by the Egyptians in the Canal, is being replaced now and made available as soon as possible?

Mr. Lloyd

I cannot answer about the extent of the silting up. The other matter is a contingency for which certain provisions have been made. The point about this matter is whether it is possible that all these resources should be used having regard only to technical considerations. That is the objective towards which we are working.

Mr. Paget

Is it not a fact that the blocking of the Canal did, and could do, nothing to serve in the defence of Egypt that it was a flagrant breach of the 1888 Convention; that the Egyptians' conduct, in obstructing the clearance of the Canal, is totally without justification; and that it is a measure of our impotence and humiliation that, as a result of the Government's policy, we can do absolutely nothing about it?

Mr. Lloyd

There is a great deal in the early part of the hon. and learned Gentleman's statement. So far as the second part is concerned, I think that, in the course of time, right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite may have cause to change certain verdicts that they have given.

Mr. P. Williams

The Foreign Secretary has referred to negotiations in his statement. Negotiations with whom? With General Wheeler, with the United Nations, with Mr. Hammarsckjoeld, or with Colonel Nasser? Will he say what he means when he refers to negotiations? Secondly, my right hon. and learned Friend talked about technical considerations, as he did in the House about ten days ago. What technical reasons can there be, especially in view of the Egyptian contravention of the Convention of 1888, for the failure to use British and French salvage vessels?

Mr. Lloyd

I am not quite certain that I understand my hon. Friend's reference to negotiations. I referred to certain understandings between the Secretary-General of the United Nations and myself. A counter-suggestion has been made. The point is really the speed and rapidity with which this United Nations organisation can tackle this problem. That is one aspect of the matter. I have already said that I believe the Secretary-General, in New York, is doing the best he can to get a move on with these matters, but he must depend, to some extent, upon General Wheeler and those who are on the spot in Egypt. Our relations in the matter are with the Secretary-General and our offers have been made to the United Nations.

As for the other matter, I am inclined to agree with my hon. Friend. This is a matter which can be dealt with on technical considerations and, provided the safety of our crews and of our citizens can be preserved, there is no reason why they should not be used.

Mr. Donnelly

The Foreign Secretary gave a figure of seven weeks for clearing the Canal, Have any preliminary estimates been made about the clearance of the Canal, not just for ships of limited size, but for fully-laden tankers? I agree that this is something that comes later, but can he give us some idea about the long-term possibilities?

Mr. Lloyd

No, I do not think that I can today. Obviously, it would take some months. It would be foolish to pretend that that would not be the position. My figure of seven weeks for this operation, provided we were allowed to go ahead with full speed at the job, might indeed be an overestimate.

Air Commodore Harvey

Can my right hon. and learned Friend tell the House whether he is satisfied that the United Nations Force, in particular in Port Said, is proving itself to be effective or not?

Mr. Lloyd

I do not think that I can answer that question without notice. So far as I know, there are about 1,300 United Nations troops in Port Said. I think that they are, on the whole, doing their job as well as they can be expected to do it. Now that the Anglo-French forces are withdrawn into a slightly narrower perimeter, that will be much of a test whether the United Nations forces can keep order, particularly in the Arab town.