HC Deb 29 November 1956 vol 561 cc579-89
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 my recent visit to New York and the discussions there with regard to the situation in Egypt.

My statement can only be of an interim character. There are important questions to be decided and they must be discussed with our French allies before decisions can be announced. M. Pineau is coming to London tomorrow afternoon and I propose to make a further statement next Monday.

I found the general atmosphere in the United Nations considerably improved, and a wider understanding of our position in certain sections of American opinion. The debate on the Afro-Asian Resolution during Friday and Saturday of last week indicated the change in the atmosphere in the United Nations.

I pointed out that we could not accept that Resolution, because it implied a measure of censure which we could not accept and because it demanded that we should withdraw forthwith. Also, the Resolution was unrealistic, as it made no reference to an international force. I indicated our desire to co-operate with the United Nations in these matters and I hoped for a Resolution which we could accept.

After I expressed these views, the representative of Belgium, M. Spaak, put forward an amendment to the Afro-Asian Resolution calling upon us to expedite the application of the Resolutions of the 2nd and 7th of November —which, among other things, urged us to withdraw— in the spirit in which they were adopted, particularly with regard to the functions vested in the United Nations Forces. I stated that if that amendment was accepted the United Kingdom would be able to vote for the Resolution. That also was the position of France. On the Belgian amendment the vote was 23 in favour, 37 against, and 18 abstentions, including the United States of America. In other words, the majority of the Assembly either voted with us or abstained. That constituted a considerable shift of opinion.

The original Resolution was then put to a vote and carried by a very large majority. I should, however, point out that the vote on this Resolution was affected, in my view, by the fact that Mr. Cabot Lodge, representing the United States, had stated that he interpreted the word "forthwith" to mean "a phased operation".

We have repeatedly indicated our willingness to withdraw our forces from Egypt when an international Force was effectively constituted and competent to carry out its functions. The House will recall the suggestion originally made by the Prime Minister on 1st November with regard to the United Nations undertaking the physical task of keeping the peace in the area.

From that date the conception of an international Force rapidly gained support. The United Nations Force has now been constituted and is growing in numbers, and I pay tribute to the speed with which the Secretary-General and his advisers have acted. There are already about 1,400 men in Egypt. By 1st December there will be about 2,700. Within about 14 days, the Force should number 4,100, apart from some air personnel, approximately 300 in number, stationed at Naples. The 4,100 will be in Egypt. Among these 4,400 will be about 700 Canadian troops.

Within a fortnight there should be an organised military force, with a headquarters and staff, under the command of General Burns, with two armoured car companies and the necessary supporting units including medical, engineer, transport, signals, supply, workshop, provost and post units and other army services elements. The provisional target of the Secretary-General is to increase that Force to two combat brigades with appropriate administrative backing, including air transport.

I mention these facts to the House because, obviously, the build-up of this Force must have an important relationship to a phased withdrawal of our own and the French troops. There are, however, other important matters to be considered, such as the speedy clearance of the Canal, and the negotiation of a final settlement with regard to the future operation of the Canal.

Decisions upon these matters must be discussed with our French allies, and I also await certain clarifications with regard to the carrying out of the Resolution passed last Saturday by the General Assembly. This Resolution authorised the Secretary-General to proceed with arrangements for clearance as a United Nations operation. I shall be able to deal with those aspects of the matter next Monday.

Grave anxiety has been caused in this country as to the position of British subjects in Egypt. The House will recall the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State on 26th November. As soon as I received the report from the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I made known to the Secretary-General of the United Nations the very serious view which Her Majesty's Government took of it, and of the consequences which would inevitably follow if the expulsions were put into effect.

On 27th November I sent a letter to the Secretary-General, which, I will circulate in the OFFICIAL REPORT, pointing out the hardship that would be caused to thousands of British subjects, many of them poor people, who were to be forced to leave the country where they had lived many years, without being permitted to take sufficient money with them to start a new life elsewhere.

The present position is not entirely clear, but it seems that no general expulsion order was made. The Egyptian Government did, however, issue a very large number of individual expulsion orders against British and French subjects. In addition, several hundred British subjects remain interned. The Swiss Minister in Cairo, to whose work I should like to pay a warm tribute—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—is doing everything he can both to improve the position of British subjects in Egypt and to clarify the Egyptian Government's intentions. We await his further reports.

Bearing in mind what I have said earlier, I hope that the House will be willing to await my further statement on Monday.

Mr. Bevan

May I be allowed to associate right hon. and hon. Members on this side of the House with the protests against the treatment of British and French subjects in Egypt? We regard it as entirely repugnant to civilised principles that innocent people should be the victims of State policy. Apart from any question of who is responsible for the situation in Egypt, innocent people ought not to be victimised because of the policies of their Governments.

May I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman to notice once more the sinister juxtaposition of three points in his statement: first, the phased withdrawal of our troops; secondly, clearance of the Canal; and, thirdly, the future of the Canal? Is it not a fact that our insistence all the while upon having a clear declaration from Egypt about the future of the Canal is one of the chief causes of differences between ourselves and the United States?

Is it not a fact that it is because it is assumed that we are trying to bring about a settlement of the question of the future of the Canal by force and not by negotiation that the difficulties have arisen? Is it not a fact that what the Government are doing all the while is attempting to associate the build-up of the United Nations Force in Egypt and the phased withdrawal of our own troops from Egypt with exacting from Egypt a declaration about the future of the Canal?

Is not this the chief stumbling block between ourselves and the United Nations and the United States? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman, when he makes his statement on Monday, bear in mind that the removal of that stumbling block is, in our opinion, the most important objective before the Government today?

Mr. Lloyd

I acknowledge the right hon. Gentleman's association of the Opposition with what was said about the position of British subjects.

We have never said that we sought to impose a settlement of the future of the Canal by force. If right hon. Gentlemen will read what was said in the earlier debates, they will see that that position was made perfectly clear. Nevertheless, I do not think that it is unreasonable that we should receive some indication about the future course of negotiations on that matter.

The clearance of the Canal is a practical matter. All we want to see is that the United Nations gets on with that job as quickly as possible, with all the resources available.

Mr. Bevan

Why does the right hon. and learned Gentleman speak with a twisted tongue in this matter? He says that he wants some assurance about future negotiations about the Canal, but is it not a fact that negotiations were in train before this action was taken? Is it not a fact that the President of the United States has stated that the allies wished to exercise force to settle this matter? Is it not a fact that the Foreign Secretary's own statement once more gives rise to the suspicion that we are not ourselves prepared to obey the United Nations Resolution unless we have some assurances about the future of the Canal? Is not that the chief stumbling block in the way of a settlement? Why does the right hon. and learned Gentleman not be as clear with the United States as he thinks he is with the House of Commons?

Mr. Lloyd

This is a matter which must be discussed with out French allies, and with which I shall deal next Monday. I do not believe this is a matter which is holding up further developments. I think that the immediate practical point is the build-up of the international force. I have indicated the time-table for that, and I have drawn attention to the importance of the practical matter of the clearance of the Canal.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

Is my right hon. and learned Friend able to say anything further today about a formal offer by himself and M. Pineau of Anglo-French salvage units, with their personnel, to the United Nations?

Mr. Lloyd

Yes, that has been made quite specifically. It was made some time ago. We have offered that our resources should be available to the United Nations for this task.

Mr. Grimond

As I understand, we were willing to accept the Belgian amendment, which certainly would have involved us in leaving Port Said before the future of the Canal was settled. May we take it, therefore, that it is Her Majesty's Government's policy that we do not need to keep troops in Port Said until a final settlement is made about the future of the Canal?

Mr. Lloyd

That is a question which I should like to consider. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] If the hon. Gentleman will refresh his memory as to the terms of the Belgian amendment, that referred to the application of the Resolutions in the spirit in which they were adopted, particularly with regard to the functions vested in the United Nations forces. If he further refreshes his memory by looking at the Resolution of 2nd November, he will see that there is a very important point in that about the securing of free transit.

Mr. Pitman

May I raise a point of clarification and interpretation of the words used by the United Nations? This group of forces is supposed to be a combat group, yet the United Nations has made it quite clear that their presence there is by invitation and concurrence of the sovereign Power—Egypt—so that if they will not lay down their arms and surrender to Egypt, they will at least clear out at the request of Egypt. If that is so, how can they possibly be called a combat force? Whom are they to combat?

Mr. Lloyd

As my hon. Friend will remember, these forces are to be armed. It is not, I think, envisaged that they will engage in major operations. Perhaps the word "combat", which is not mine—it was the word of the Secretary-General—is one which could have been improved upon. I think it is understood that the forces will remain there until their functions have been discharged.

Mr. Bevan

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman attempting so to interpret the Resolution of the United Nations as to make it assume that one of the functions of the force there is to secure the future of the Canal before we get out of Port Said? That is the inference of his reply to the Leader of the Liberal Party. Is it not a fact that there has always been ambiguity about what size the United Nations Force should be before we ourselves, in the view of the Government, should clear out, and that that has no relation whatsoever to the future of the Canal, which ought to be the subject of unfettered negotiation, not imposed by force?

Mr. Lloyd

I agree that the future régime of the Canal must be a matter for negotiation, subject to the fact that in the Resolution of 2nd November there is a very important operative paragraph. The functions of the international force are declared to be to assist in creating conditions—I am not using the actual words—in which the Resolutions of 2nd, 5th and 7th November will be carried out. I think that it is better that the matter should rest there.

Mr. P. Williams

Does my right hon. and learned Friend not agree that the history of this matter is rather longer than the period since the end of October this year? Will he not agree that whatever Resolutions and recommendations may have been passed by the United Nations, there is only one transgressor of international law, and that is the Government which has prevented the freedom of navigation of the Canal?

Mr. Lloyd

As my hon. Friend knows, we regard the action of 26th July as a breach of international law.

Mr. Paget

Is it not clear that whatever form this international force takes, it can only stay on Egyptian territory until the Egyptians ask it to leave? That being so, what is it to be effective for?

Mr. Lloyd

I think that the hon. and learned Gentleman did not hear a previous answer I made. This force is to remain on Egyptian soil until its functions are fulfilled.

Mr. Patrick Maitlaod

Can my right hon. and learned Friend say whether it is the case that Dr. Fawzi, the Egyptian Foreign Minister, on Monday repudiated the functions of this force when he said that it was not in Egypt to clear the Canal or to resolve any questions or settle any problems"?

Mr. Lloyd

I do not have the precise words of the Egyptian Foreign Minister in mind, but it is quite clear that it is not a function of this force to clear the Canal. That is a separate, independent United Nations operation, which, I believe, will be prosecuted with the utmost vigour.

Mr. J. Hynd

Will the Minister make it clear, if he really means this, that he intends that the British troops shall remain in the Canal area until the United Nations and Egypt have accepted our original proposals for the internationalisation of the Canal? Is he not aware that it is now clear to the whole world that the whole of this operation has been due to the Government's determination to force the acceptance of these proposals, and that if he continues with this attempt to blackmail the United Nations by keeping the British troops there he will succeed only in destroying all that is left of British prestige in the world?

Mr. Lloyd

I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. I think that he had better await my further statement on Monday.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We are to have another statement on Monday. Mr. Butler.

Mr. Healey

On a point of order. I have been continually on my feet, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker

Yes, but so were other hon. Members on the hon. Gentleman's side. The hon. Member has already made two speeches on the situation, which other hon. Members have not done. I am sorry if my discretion in this matter does not please him, but I cannot please everybody. I do my best.

Mr. Gaitskell

On a point of order. With very great respect, Mr. Speaker, we have waited a long time for this statement. The Foreign Secretary has been away and has come back, and I submit that we should be allowed to put a few more questions to him. The matter is of very great importance. To go away now and not have anything more on it for the weekend seems to me quite wrong.

Mr. Speaker

I saw no hon. Member rise from the Opposition Front Bench, and very few on the other side. To carry on a debate by question and answer is very difficult. I take into account what the hon. Member said, but this matter has had a long run. It has had twenty minutes' run.

Mr. Bevan

Further to that point of order. The statement itself took some time and surely, Mr. Speaker, when the right hon. and learned Gentleman says that we must await next week to hear the decisions of the Government, we are entitled by question and answer today to try to influence what those decisions may be. In this respect, we might have taken another course this evening, but out of courtesy to the Government we have not—[Interruption.] Certainly. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has announced that he is to meet the French Foreign Minister and we think that in the circumstances he is perfectly entitled to do so—[Interruption.]—if the House would allow me to finish my sentence and not be so schoolboyish—before the Government make their final decision to the House.

If we are to have those final decisions given to the House, surely we are entitled now to try to elicit something of what is in the Government's mind before that is done. Hon. Members really must remember —[HON. MEMBERS: Is this a point of order?"] I am on the point of order. [HON. MEMBERS: "Which one?"] There were right hon. Gentlemen on this side of the House who were wishing to put further questions and hon. Members behind and opposite who were wishing to do so, and in my respectful submission, Mr. Speaker, because of the very great importance of the matter, we ought to be allowed to ask further questions.

Sir I. Fraser

On the same point of order, Mr. Speaker. In the event of your allowing further questions, will you bear in mind that they could be and might be put not only by right hon. Members on both Front Benches but also by hon. Members on the back benches, on both sides of the House? May I ask, further, whether this is really a departure from the usual and long-established custom of the House that questions arising out of a statement are strictly limited when there is no Motion before the House?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman asks me several questions. The truth is, of course, that there is no Question before the House at this moment and that, therefore, there cannot be a debate. The House should have a Question before it before it indulges in debate. I allowed a number of questions, some of which were undoubtedly of an elucidatory description and very proper ones, but I could see that the matter was developing into debate, with references to older occurences, all of which would be far more happily gone into and more comfortably gone into when we have our two-day debate next week.

If my decision displeases the House I can only regret it. I have come to it honestly as my idea of the right thing for the House to do. That is what I am here for. I am sorry that the House should disagree with me in the matter, but I have done the best I can.

Mr. Healey


Hon. Members

Sit down.

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Healey

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker—a serious point of order.

Mr. Speaker

A point of order? What is it?

Mr. Healey

The Foreign Secretary has made a statement of some length in which he has referred to a large number of aspects of his visit to the United States. Almost all the questions following the statement have been concerned with one single issue which is involved in the problem. There has been no opportunity whatever of dealing with a number of other aspects on which this House deserves information, and which are quite separate.

Mr. Speaker

That is not a point of order. I have no idea what hon. Members will say when I call them to ask questions. I cannot be held responsible if they do not ask the questions which the hon. Member thinks they should ask. That is not a matter for me—

Mr. Healey


Mr. Speaker

Order. I really do think that the time has come when we are passing beyond legitimate questions on a statement, when there is no Question before the House. We could prolong these questions indefinitely and really get no farther forward. Let us have a Question before the House which the House can debate. Then we shall know where we are.

Following is the text of the letter from the Foreign Secretary to the Secretary-General of the United Nations:

I have the honour to draw your attention to the enclosed statement by Her Majesty's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in the House of Commons on 26th November regarding the treatment of British subjects in Egypt.

Thousands of British subjects have received orders from the security police, under instructions from the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior, to leave Egypt within a few days. In many cases, British subjects have been obliged to sign a declaration in Arabic (without ever, knowing its contents) confirming that they are leaving of their own free will, undertaking not to return to Egypt and renouncing any claim to damages. The Swiss Minister in Cairo, who is looking after British interests in Egypt, has vigorously protested to the Egyptian Government against what he has described as "a barbarous measure".

Several thousands of these British subjects are poor people. Some six thousand are of Maltese origin. They are being forced to leave a country where they have lived many years without being permitted to take sufficient money with them to start a new life elsewhere. Despite the efforts of the Swiss Legation, these people are not being permitted to make provision for the deserted homes and personal property they will be leaving behind. No facilities are being given them for the appointment of legal representatives.

The indiscriminate character of these expulsion orders is reminiscent of the barbarous methods of mass deportations at short notice which have been practised in other countries. This operation is being carried out with indiscriminate and brutal haste against people who have given service to Egypt and have spent their lives in that country.

I have the honour to request that this communication be brought to the attention of all the members of the United Nations.