HC Deb 19 December 1956 vol 562 cc1241-8
12. Mr. du Cann

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether it remains the policy of Her Majesty's Government to secure international control of the Suez Canal in the interests of free navigation for all nations in accordance with the negotations initiated to that end at the United Nations; and what progress has been made in furtherance of this policy.

36. Mr. Patrick Maitland

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether it remains the policy of Her Majesty's Government to seek a settlement of the Suez Canal problem only on the basis of international control; and when he expects negotiations to be resumed to that end.

43. Mr. A. Henderson

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs what reply the Government of Egypt have now made to the offer of Her Majesty's Government to have fresh discussions' on the Suez Canal on the basis of the six principles.

Mr. Selwyn Lloyd

There has been no change in the policy of Her Majesty's Government. As to the present state of the exchanges on the subject, I would refer to the statement which I made in the House on 3rd December. Exchanges with the Secretary-General of the United Nations have continued with a view to clarifying the position of the parties concerned. These exchanges are confidential and exploratory, and it would not be in the public interest to make a detailed statement on them at this stage.

Mr. du Cann

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the first sentence of his reply will have been heard with great satisfaction by everybody in the House and also by the country? Is he further aware that there is really very great anxiety in this country and among the United Nations that these negotiations should be brought to a successful conclusion as quickly as possible? Is he still further aware that there is substantial concern among the people whom I have mentioned as to what Colonel Nasser's attitude may be after the British and French forces are finally withdrawn from Port Said? That lends added weight to the importance of getting the negotiations finished as quickly as possible.

Mr. Lloyd

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is very desirable to get on as quickly as possible with these negotiations. I understand, in fact, that that is the wish of the Egyptian Government.

Mr. Henderson

Have the Egyptian Government given any indication that they would be prepared to resume these negotiations on the basis of the six principles, provided that the Anglo-French forces are withdrawn from Port Said?

Mr. Lloyd

There has been a general indication of their desire to proceed with these negotiations. At the moment the question is really with the SecretaryGeneral—and I think wisely so. We are ready to play our part as quickly as possible.

Mr. Patrick Maitland

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for the assurance that there has been no change in our policy.

Hon. Members

Which one?

Mr. Maitland

Are we to take it that that means that we still stand by international control as our objective? May I further ask my right hon. and learned Friend whether he considers that when it was stated by the Lord Privy Seal, on 22nd November, that we would try to negotiate on the six points put forward by the United Nations, he meant that those six points could be properly met only by international control?

Mr. Lloyd

The policy of the Government with regard to this matter is exactly as it stood at the end of the Security Council debate, when the Resolution was put forward endorsing the six principles and saying that we considered that the 18-Power proposals were the best method of carrying out the six principles, but that we recognised that alternative methods could be put forward. In the letter sent by the Secretary-General to the Egyptian Government—I believe it was on 24th October—there is set out the broad lines of a scheme which, if properly implemented and worked out in detail, could be regarded as complying with those six principles. We are perfectly ready to examine the alternative methods, but the one essential element of our policy is that we are not prepared to leave the Canal under the unrestristed control of one man or one Government.

Mr. Bevan

The right hon. and learned Gentleman should understand that hon. Members on this side of the House welcome the revolutionary character of the Government's approach. Having failed to obtain their objective by force they now propose to try to obtain the same objective by negotiation, having reversed the whole procedure of history. One usually uses force when one fails in one's negotiations.

Mr. Lloyd

I think that the right hon. Gentleman is getting his objectives confused.

19. Captain Duncan

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs if he will make a statement on the progress made towards clearing the Suez Canal.

22. Mr. Peyton

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs what information he has received from the Secretary-General of the United Nations concerning the clearance of the Suez Canal; and when he estimates that this will be completed.

32. Mr. Lewis

asked the Secertary of State for Foreign Affairs if he will refrain from making our offer of the use of British salvage equipment to the United Nations organisation conditional upon such equipment being manned by British crews, in view of the delay in clearing the Canal which will be caused by the insistence upon such a condition.

34. Captain Pilkington

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether work has yet begun on clearing the rest of the Suez Canal.

53. Mr. Fort

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs what progress the United Nations Committee has made during the past week in clearing the sunken ships from the Suez Canal.

62. Mr. John Hall

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs if he will make a further statement in regard to the date when the clearance of the Suez Canal will continue.

73. Mr. E. Johnson

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs what discussions he has had with the Secretary-General of the United Nations, with General Burns, and with General Wheeler about the use of British ships and crews for clearing the Suez Canal, and about providing for their protection while carrying out this work.

Mr. Selwyn Lloyd

I made a statement with regard to these matters on Monday which dealt with the points raised in certain of these Questions. The offer to which I referred then, that subject to satisfactory security arrangements the Anglo-French salvage vessels now working at Port Said should continue their work there, has been further considered by the Secretary-General. He has given the necessary assurances with regard to the protection of the vessels and the crews. He has also received a formal assurance from the Egyptian Government about the safety of the ships and their crews. It will be necessary, of course, to assure the masters and crews of the vessels on this point. I understand that the United Nations authorities on the spot will endeavour to do this. I am now awaiting confirmation that there are no further difficulties and that the work can continue, that is to say, the work now being done by the Anglo-French fleet in Port Said Harbour.

In my statement on Monday, I also mentioned certain German vessels. The United Nations authorities have agreed to make the necessary approach to their owners and the masters and crews of those vessels, so I hope that they will continue to be available for salvage work.

On the question of use of the six other vessels, our offer remains open. I still hope that it will be accepted.

Captain Duncan

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that that is all very unsatisfactory? Does it not appear to many people in this country that handing this business over to the world authority seems to be leading to giving in to petty dictators while putting to shame those, like this country, who have acted throughout in the interests of peace? is it not about time justice was done, as well as peace?

Mr. Lloyd

As I indicated in my statement last Monday, I was disappointed with the progress that had been made, but since the statement on Monday I think that a little further progress has been made. It does look as if we have now got a satisfactory arrangement for work to continue in Port Said Harbour, and that is of some importance. It also looks as if there may be a satisfactory arrangement for the use of the two available heavy German lifting vessels and their tugs. That, also, is an improvement on Monday. As regards the use of the other six vessels and ()fir resources to the south of the area at present held by Anglo-French forces, I am in entire agreement with my hon. and gallant Friend. I think it would in the interests of many countries in Asia and Europe if national considerations were not allowed to interfere with this matter, if it were looked at purely as a technical problem. It would be in the interests of the world as a whole if everything available were used as quickly as possible.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

Can my right hon. and learned Friend say from any aspect of international law, or indeed our own law, what would be the position of an officer, or man in one of Her Majesty's salvage units—I have had a personal case which I could send to him, if need be—who refused to get into civilian clothes and wear the polyglot arm band of the United Nations? Is he to be disciplined by the United Nations or subject to court martial by the admiral on the spot?

Mr. Lloyd

I am not sure that I am the right Minister to give an answer to that. I think it is a matter for the First Lord of the Admiralty. I am not clear how far what the noble Lord has suggested is likely to happen. Leaving all these things on one side, the important thing is to try to get as many people on to the job of clearing the Canal as possible.

Mr. Peyton

I am sure my right hon. and learned Friend would be the first to agree that quite an excessive amount of time has already been wasted. While I certainly support him in the efforts which he has made, may I ask if he will point out to the Secretary-General of the United Nations that the matter is now getting quite out of control and out of proportion, and that there are far greater things at stake than the vanity of a dictator? Will he not insist that the United Nations should now show that it is worthy of being a world authority by ordering that dictator not to act in a way highly damaging to the economy of Western Europe?

Mr. Lloyd

I hope very much that general pressure will result in this work being done speedily. I also say to my hon. Friend that it is not just the economy of Western Europe which is concerned; the economy of the countries of the Middle East and of Asia are also very much affected. Therefore I hope that we shall get the maximum amount of pressure and influence by all those interested to see that the job is done as quickly as possible.

Mr. P. Noel-Baker

Was it not always the understanding—which the Foreign Secretary accepted in the Assembly—that clearance work would start when foreign troops were withdrawn from Egypt? Is it not a fact that the delay which has occurred has been due to the fact that the Government took five weeks to make up their mind to withdraw our troops? Further, is it not a fact that while we have 15 ships there General Wheeler has assembled a fleet of 31 ships and tugs, that 10 are already on the spot and another nine will arrive tomorrow?

Mr. Lloyd

The right hon. Member is completely wrong. The position which he has attributed to Her Majesty's Government was the position taken up by Colonel Nasser. It was our whole endeavour in our negotiations to ensure that work on clearance began as quickly as possible. Towards the achievement of that purpose we did get the Secretary-General to send his representative, General Wheeler, out there. We did get a certain amount of survey work proceeding and speeded steps to try to assemble a United Nations salvage fleet. We have never accepted that this work should be delayed until the last of our troops had been evacuated.

Mr. Fort

Can my right hon. and learned Friend tell us why the United States are not putting the same pressure on to Egypt, via the United Nations, to get the Canal cleared and thereby forcing the United Nations Resolution on the matter, as they put on this country to force a withdrawal of our troops?

Mr. Lloyd

This is a matter which I did discuss with Mr. Dulles, both when I saw him in Washington and in Paris. I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer spoke to the American Secretary to the Treasury about the matter. I believe the United States Government are at present doing their best to bring such pressure as they can upon the United Nations and the Egyptian Government to let this work proceed.

Mr. Bevan

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman understand that we on this side of the House are equally concerned about clearing the Canal as quickly as possible, and have all along taken the view that if hon. and right hon. Members opposite had not been so stupid the Canal would not be blocked now? Would he please accept from us the assurance that we do not believe the Canal can be cleared either by denigrating the status and conduct of the United Nations representative or by throwing silly insults at the Prime Minister of Egypt, in relation to which hon. Members opposite have got themselves into such a silly position?

Mr. Hall

Is it not a fact that had this country and France not taken immediate notice of the United Nations the Canal might not be blocked now? Is it not obvious that the United Nations is as powerless to insist on the clearance of the Canal as it is powerless to insist on the removal of Russian troops from Russia. [Laughter.] I meant Russian troops from Hungary. Right hon. and hon. Gentleman know perfectly well what I meant, and it is no laughing matter. In those circumstances, what action can be taken other than turning our White Ensign into a white flag?

Mr. Lloyd

The authority of the United Nations in this matter comes from a Resolution which was passed by the General Assembly for which we voted, for which Egypt voted and for which all other countries present, I think, voted. I am not quite certain whether there were some abstentions. The authority is a United Nations Resolution. I also received assurances in the course of the discussions which I had that this matter would be governed solely by technical considerations. That is what I think we must try to see is done. If it is not done, then I think that certain of the things which have been said will not have been carried out.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Mr. Hynd.