HC Deb 09 November 1956 vol 560 cc421-8
The Prime Minister (Sir Anthony Eden)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I will now make a statement.

The United Kingdom representative at the United Nations voted on 7th November in favour of the Resolution sponsored by the Argentine and other countries. It will be remembered that I said on 1st November: The first and urgent task is to separate these combatants and to stabilise the position. That is our purpose. If the United Nations were then willing to take over the physical task of maintaining peace in that area, no one would be better pleased than we."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st November, 1956; Vol. 558, c. 1653.] Her Majesty's Government welcome the passing of this Resolution and regard it as essential to constitute the United Nations Force with the utmost urgency. The Argentine Resolution for which we voted approved the second report of the Secretary-General with regard to the plan for an emergency international United Nations Force and endorsed the Resolution of 2nd November. That Resolution in its operative paragraphs urged a ceasefire and the halting of the movement of military force and arms into the area. It urged the parties to the armistice agreements to withdraw their forces behind the armistice lines. It recommended that all members of the United Nations should refrain from introducing military goods into the area and it urged that effective steps should be taken to reopen the Suez Canal and restore secure freedom of navigation. The Secretary-General in his report envisaged that the force would exercise its authority in an area extending roughly from the Suez Canal to the armistice lines and stated that he thought its functions would be to maintain quiet during and after the withdrawal of non-Egyptian troops, and to secure compliance with the terms of the resolution of 2nd November. He believed that its work would have to take place in two stages.

Her Majesty's Government welcome the statement of the Prime Minister of Israel with regard to the withdrawal of Israeli forces and the intentions of the Israeli Government to co-operate with the projected United Nations Force. As soon as the force is in a position effectively to discharge its tasks, Her Majesty's Government, as has been repeatedly stated, are willing to hand over to it the responsibilities which they have assumed.

I understand that General Burns is now in Cairo and the Secretary-General of the United Nations has received a communication from him inquiring whether the Governments of the United Kingdom and France would agree to the entry into Port Said of some of the United Nations military observers who have been ordered to proceed immediately to Egypt in connection with the observation of the cease fire. For our part, we welcome the proposal and will give these observers all facilities.

I have been, of course, in contact with the French Government early this morning and it is in agreement with the comment I have just made. We also think it desirable that talks should begin at an early date between General Burns or his representatives and the Allied Command in Egypt. We are prepared for those talks to commence as soon as General Burns desires it.

Meanwhile we are making certain alterations to the present planned deployment of our forces in the Eastern Mediterranean, and I think the House should know of them. We shall retain in being the ground organisation of all the Royal Air Force squadrons previously deployed in Cyprus and Malta; but it will now be possible for many of those squadrons to fly home. In an emergency and with a ground organisation in existence, they can be redeployed in Cyprus and Malta within a matter of hours. So far as the Army is concerned, we shall replace the assault units of paratroops and commandos with the equivalent in infantry battalions, and the former will be withdrawn from Egypt. We shall also hold an additional infantry reserve in Cyprus.

Mr. Gaitskell

Might I first of all, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, say how warmly we welcome the statement by the Prime Minister of Israel that Israeli forces will be withdrawn from Egyptian territory?

In connection with that, may I ask the Prime Minister whether, in view of this most important move by the Israeli Government, he will give the Israelis some assurance that Her Majesty's Government will seek to provide far better guarantees of security for Israel in the future than she has had in the past. [Laughter.] I do not know why hon. Members opposite should look upon my remarks in that light, because at the very beginning I asked that that should be done. I made that request in the very first debate on Suez that took place. I should have hoped that, in view of the Israeli Prime Minister's statement, there would have been a general desire to respond to the Israeli move with some assurance of that character.

Also, in view of the contradictory statements which have emanated from the Government about our attitude to the international force, will the Prime Minister say that it is the case that Her Majesty's Government unconditionally agree to withdraw their troops from Egypt as soon as the international force arrives? The right hon. Gentleman said that the force must be able effectively to discharge its task. Will he say that he will accept an assurance from the Secretary-General of the United Nations on this point, and not seek to decide that issue himself? Might I also ask him whether he now, therefore, accepts the proposal that the United Nations Force should consist solely of forces of troops from countries which are not permanent members of the Security Council?

Finally, in view of what the Minister of Defence said yesterday, can we now have a further statement from the Prime Minister as to whether he agrees with the Minister of Defence's statement that: The whole point of this is that the Canal cannot and must not be solely the concern of the Egyptian Government. That is what all this has been about."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th November, 1956; Vol. 560, c. 262.] Is that, or is it not, the view of the Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister

Certainly, so far as the position of Israel is concerned, I think that most people probably have it in mind that there was a very considerable threat to Israel before this matter began. It is our hope—indeed, it has been said from the first; I have said it many times—that there should be a general settlement in this area. That has been the objective that we have constantly had in mind. Clearly, there would be no general settlement of the area unless it covered all the countries in it, and that includes Israel.

As regards the second question, as I have explained this morning, we have accepted the Argentine Resolution—we voted for it the day before yesterday—to which is attached also the Secretary-General's report, which is a very important but quite lengthy document. We accept that, and so far as we are concerned—there should be no doubt about this; I am sure it applies to our French allies also—as soon as a force competent to take over from us in this area can be created, the better shall we be pleased. There is no advantage whatever in delay, and we are certainly not going to attempt to make delays.

Finally, as regards the Canal, the right hon. Gentleman will find that in the report, and covered by the Argentine Resolution, is also the American Resolution which refers to the issue of the Canal.

Mr. Gaitskell

I am sorry to press the Prime Minister, but he has not really replied to three of my questions. First of all, I asked him, quite specifically, whether the Government now accept that the international force should consist of the countries which are not permanent members of the Security Council?

Perhaps I might, at the same time, put my two other questions also. Secondly, I asked whether the phrase which he used, to the effect that the international force must be able effectively to discharge its task, implied that we were to be the judges of that., or whether we accepted that the United Nations, through the Secretary-General, would judge that, and whether, as soon as we heard from the Secretary-General that that was the case and the force arrived, we would withdraw.

The right hon. Gentleman has not answered my other question regarding the statement by the Minister of Defence. It may have been a slip by the Minister of Defence. If it was, let him withdraw it. [Interruption.] I cannot read the whole of HANSARD, but I am asking for an explanation about it, and, as the Minister of Defence knows very well, an explanation is badly needed.

The Prime Minister

Perhaps I can deal with one or two of those questions straight away. First of all, with regard to the composition of the force, whether it is to be provided by large countries or small countries, I myself have said in the House, more than once, I think, that the criterion for us is not the size of the countries which make up the force, but the efficiency of the force when it can be made up. So far as we are concerned, that is the criterion.

Mr. Gaitskell

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept it?

The Prime Minister

This has, of course, to be decided by the United Nations and worked out by it, and if that is the method which is preferred and an effective force results, we make no objection in principle to it. I have said that in this House before now.

Mr. P. Noel-Baker rose

The Prime Minister

Please let me finish.

The second question which the right hon. Gentleman asked related to the efficiency of the force. Certainly, I think that this is a matter which we must have an opportunity to discuss with the United Nations, because it is really of the first importance. Everybody must realise that the force, when it does its task, must be effective. I see no reason whatever, provided a little help and good will is shown, why we should not be able to work out with the United Nations what is required in the shape of the force and why agreement should not be reached about it.

Sir L. Heald

Will my right hon. Friend accept that his statement today has greatly reassured a number of us who want to support the Government and has removed some uncertainties and ambiguities which were left last night?

Mr. de Freitas

If the international force requires airfields outside Egypt, shall we be prepared to let it use our Royal Air Force fields in Cyprus or Malta?

The Prime Minister

I should like to consider that point. I have not had notice of it. In principle, I should see no objection to that if that was what was required. However, I think one has to be given a fair opportunity to work out the technical details. I have made an offer and we are ready now to discuss the military and technical details. I think they had better be discussed by the officers concerned, rather than by us on the Floor of the House.

Mr. H. Fraser

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, in the Argentine Resolution, the question of freedom of navigation in the Canal is absolutely specified? As he rightly said, the details about the force are best left to the decision of the military experts on the ground rather than the permanent interference of the Opposition.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

I hope we shall not have a debate upon this subject. We have had quite a lot in the last few days.

Mr. P. Noel-Baker

Two days ago, I asked for an assurance that we should not oppose the international force by making a condition that we should have a British contribution. The right hon. Gentleman said he could not answer or could not give an assurance on that point. Now we have voted—

Mr. Elliot rose

Hon. Members

Sit down.

Mr. P. Noel-Baker

—for the Secretary-General's report which is founded on the basic principle that the contribution shall come from nations which have not permanent seats in the Security Council. Does that mean, or does it not, that we have agreed to the Secretary-General's plan?

The Prime Minister

I think that, on reflection, the right hon. Gentleman will consider the difference between principle in the two answers to which he refers. What I said was, I think—and I speak from recollection—that I was not prepared, naturally, for the exclusion of Great Britain and France from the international organisation. I do not think that any Government of this country could accept that, but in regard to whether it should consist of a force including great Powers or only the smaller ones, I simply guarded myself by saying that I could not give that assurance until I saw what the proposal was. It if was proposed that it should consist of small Powers, in principle, as against the great Powers, I said that we had no objection in principle, but what I said was that I could not accept anything which singled out ourselves and our French allies for any particular, unpleasant exceptions.

Mr. Robens

I should like to press the right hon. Gentleman on one point, and should like as direct a reply as possible. The Prime Minister, the Minister of Defence, the Foreign Secretary, and the President of the Board of Trade last night, have all been saying that the international force must be an effective force, a competent force. The question I want to ask is, in whose judgment is the effectiveness or the competence to be—the United Nations' or Her Majesty's Government's?

The Prime Minister

We have voted for the Resolution, we have sent a full reply to the Secretary-General, and we have offered to discuss the military problems. I really believe that right hon. Gentlemen opposite are not trying to assist the creation of this force.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I know that there are a lot of hon. Members who want to speak on the general Question, and a number of hon. Members who, although I have tried, I have not been able to place in this debate. I should be greatly obliged, and it would assist me, if this discussion could soon come to an end.

Mr. J. Griffiths

There is something which has caused great comment in the public Press today, and that is the statement made by the Minister of Defence yesterday. I do not think that this House should rise for the weekend without the Prime Minister telling us whether that statement, made by the Minister of Defence and widely reported, correctly represents Government policy.

The Minster of Defence (Mr. Antony Head)

This particular statement was lifted entirely out of its context, and was in reply to a supplementary question from the right hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) concerning the Egyptian refusal to allow us to clear the Canal, and asking me how we were to clear the Canal. The word "this" does not refer to our operations, but to the problem of the clearance of the Canal.

Mr. A. Henderson

May I ask the Prime Minister, or the Foreign Secretary, a question with regard to Hungary? It is stated on the tape this morning that the United States Government have protested that the Russian authorities are interfering with the supply of foodstuffs and medical supplies into Hungary. It is alleged that the United States have complained about that, and—

Mr. Speaker

I realise the importance of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's intervention, but it does not arise out of the statement that has been made. By the rules of order, I am bound to confine the House to the statement that has been made. There is no general Question before us now, and I think that we should continue with the general debate.

    1. c428
    2. AIR CORPORATIONS 60 words