HC Deb 30 July 1956 vol 557 cc918-21
The Prime Minister (Sir Anthony Eden)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a statement on the Suez Canal.

As a first step, measures have been taken, with effect from last Friday, in relation to Egypt's sterling balances and the assets of the Canal Company. An order has been made under the Exchange Control Act which has the effect of putting Egypt out of the transferable account area and generally making all transactions on Egyptian controlled sterling accounts subject to permission.

Secondly, a direction has been made under Regulation 2 (a) of the Defence (Finance) Regulations safeguarding the securities and gold of the Suez Canal Company.

The Governments of the Commonwealth countries were given early information of the situation as it affects this country and the Commonwealth, and close touch is being maintained with them.

Yesterday afternoon the French Foreign Minister M. Pineau and Mr. Murphy of the American State Department came to London for consultations with Her Majesty's Government. My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary took part in discussions with them which lasted until a late hour last night. They are continuing today. I cannot, therefore, say more about them at this stage.

This much, however, I can say. No arrangements for the future of this great international waterway could be acceptable to Her Majesty's Government which would leave it in the unfettered control of a single Power which could, as recent events have shown, exploit it purely for purposes of national policy.

Mr. Gaitskell

Although there are a number of questions in the minds, I am sure, of all of us, in view of the fact that consultations are continuing, I do not think it would be wise to put them to the Prime Minister today. I would, however, ask him whether he hopes to be able to make a further statement tomorrow. Can he, at any rate, give us an assurance that the fullest possible statement will be made before the Recess?

The Prime Minister

I am much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. I certainly can give the last-named assurance. I hope it will be possible to make a statement on the outcome of the discussions tomorrow, or, failing that, at the latest the day after. I know that the House will feel that it is important that these discussions should be fully concluded, after really adequate discussions, between the parties concerned. That is the only reason why I would rather not pledge myself to tomorrow. It may be Wednesday. In either case, the House will be fully informed.

Mr. Maclay

In view of the conditions in the Suez nationalisation law that employees of the Canal Company must continue with their duties under threat of from three to fifteen years' imprisonment, can my right hon. Friend say what is the position of British subjects who are employees of the Canal Company?

The Prime Minister

As I understand, the Canal Company is at present considering its position, which, of course, affects all the company's employees, many of whom are not British. So far as we are concerned, the Government regard it as unacceptable that British subjects should be ordered to stay, or kept as hostages, or under any form of duress.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Could the Prime Minister tell us whether it is true, as the Press report, that 140 ships seem to have gone through the Suez Canal yesterday, paying dues amounting to £150,000? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Colonel Nasser has said that he intends to encourage trade through the Canal to get money for the dam? Can the right hon. Gentleman assure us he has considered that economic warfare against Egypt may have serious repercussions upon the trade of this country?

The Prime Minister

I understand that ships are going through the Canal. I am not prepared to say in detail at the moment to whom they are paying their dues. That raises a number of difficult questions. I do say that Colonel Nasser's proposition that the Canal should be run to pay for the dam in Egypt is quite unacceptable in relation to his many engagements in international law.

Captain Waterhouse

In view of the vital importance of this matter, and the extremely critical position which has been reached, will the Prime Minister give an assurance that the House will have an opportunity of discussing this before it rises? May 1, on my own behalf at least, say that I am quite sure that the majority of hon. Members of this House would welcome a further sitting, or a prolongation of a sitting, rather than that we should go into recess leaving the matter in the uncertain condition in which it is at present?

The Prime Minister

That is a matter which, if I may say so, the Leader of the Opposition left very wisely at the moment, in the light of our discussions. We are now having international discussions. Before the House is due to rise, I hope that I or my right hon. and learned Friend will be able to make a statement about the result of those international discussions. As to a debate in the House, I think that we have to consider the repercussions of that debate in all their aspects. Naturally, I would not resist that if it were the request of all the House. At the same time, I think we have to bear in mind that we had better see, first, where we are in agreement in the discussions which are now taking place.

Mr. Gaitskell

May I suggest that this matter should be discussed through the usual channels in the light of the developments of those consultations?

The Prime Minister

I quite agree.

Lieut.-Colonel Bromley-Davenport

Would it not be rather a pity to hold a debate at this time, however much the House may want it? Probably the more talk we have during this critical stage, the more help we may give to Colonel Nasser. Would not, therefore, a policy of silence be better, followed by quick, decisive action? Whatever action is taken by the Government, all of us feel confident that it will not be the shameful policy followed at Abadan.

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend. I think his observations show the usefulness of our joint decision to handle this matter through the usual channels.

Mrs. Braddock

Can the Prime Minister say whether there are any export licences for the movement of war materials in the offing within the next few days? Can he give an assurance that in the case of any war material that is likely to be moved, for which licences have been issued, the licences will be cancelled? I was on the Dock Road and saw in the dock in Liverpool the "Star of Luxor", one of the ships which regularly carries ammunition, spare parts and armaments to Alexandria.

The Prime Minister

All exports of war material to Egypt have been stopped.

Mr. Bellenger

Does that include the two destroyers which this country has recenty sold to Egypt?

The Prime Minister

I do not know where they are, but I think that we can leave it to the Royal Navy. It will take care of them wherever they are.