HC Deb 13 February 1964 vol 689 cc552-5
Mr. A. Henderson (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations whether, in view of the widespread disturbances which occurred in Cyprus this morning, he will make a statement on the present position of British nationals on the island.

The Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations and for the Colonies (Mr. Duncan Sandys)

For some time the Commander-in-Chief in Cyprus has had authority to arrange for the evacuation of Service dependants and other British nationals who are living outside the sovereign base areas.

Plans have been made for this purpose and the necessary air transport is held in readiness.

In view of the renewed outbreak of inter-communal violence the Commander-in-Chief was reminded this morning that he has full discretion to proceed with the evacuation of British civilians should he consider that their safety requires it.

Mr. Henderson

Is it not a fact that about 5,000 or 6,000 British women and children are living in Limassol and neighbouring Greek and Turkish villages? Would it not be wise, in these circumstances, to arrange forthwith to concentrate them as far as possible in the Royal Air Force base and to evacuate without further delay those who cannot be so taken into the base?

Mr. Sandys

As I said in my reply, the Commander-in-Chief has full authority to do that and I think that, in the circumstances, it is better to leave this matter to his discretion. When I was out there, not long ago, I discussed the whole matter with him and I can assure the House that he is every bit as mindful as all of us for the safety of the Service families and other British nationals in Cyprus. I am sure that he will not delay beyond the time that he considers necessary.

On the other hand, it must be realised that to take these families away—to separate wives from husbands, and so on—and either to crowd them up in the base areas or to send them home, possibly with no particular arrangements for receiving them, is not something that should be done. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] They do not have homes to go to. I do not mean that they would be out in the street; just that great inconvenience would be caused to the families. One wants to leave it to the Commander-in-Chief to exercise his judgment in this matter.

Mr. H. Wilson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the whole House will not want, at this very critical moment in the negotiations, to have anything said that might make it more difficult to get the peace-keeping force and everything else required to settle the Cyprus problem? Equally, all of us will want to join in expressing our deep concern not only for our forces there, but also for the civilians to whom he has referred.

Having said that, may I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman would explain the rather extraordinary character of his original statement, when he said that this morning the Commander-in-Chief had been reminded of something or other? Did the right hon. Gentleman not think before this morning that the Commander-in-Chief was aware—was mindful, to use the right hon. Gentleman's phrase—of his powers in this matter and of the discretion that he should exercise? Was this reminder designed to press him into doing it, or was it based on the assumption that he did not know what his powers were? Why did the right hon. Gentleman use that odd phrase?

Mr. Sandys

I thought that, in view of the change in the situation which has taken place in the last 24 hours, it would not be a bad thing—perhaps unnecessary; but I did not think that I could be reproached for it—to get in touch again with the Commander-in-Chief, not only to remind him that he had the authority but also—it is no good the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) scowling at me. I am trying to explain this to the House.

Naturally, there are other considerations which the Commander-in-Chief has no doubt taken into account in recent weeks—the effect upon morale in Cyprus, the possibility of creating panic if we started prematurely to evacuate civilians.

Since Americans have already been evacuated recently, and in view of the deterioration in the situation, I thought it right to remind the Commander-in-Chief once again that he had the fullest discretion to do what he thought best in the interests of the safety of our Service families and civilians. I do not think that I should be reproached for doing that.

Mr. Grimond

As the Secretary of State has spoken of the deterioration in the situation, has he any late information to give to the House about the situation in Cyprus? Can he tell us how far, if at all, British troops have been involved in the latest troubles?

Mr. Sandys

They are involved all the time in all these troubles and that is why we are so anxious—although I do not wart to go into this today—to secure as quickly as possible the establishment of a larger and more broadly based peace keeping force.

Mr. Driberg

When will the right hon. Gentleman be able to make a statement on the broader aspects which we have twice been promised he would make later this week? Do not these latest deplorable incidents underline the urgent need of getting a solution which is acceptable to the Government of Cyprus and which will ease the task of the British troops?

Mr. Sandys

I will make a statement as soon as I can. I know that the House wants information, but these negotiations are still in a very fluid and difficult state. Of course, I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. One of the most awkward problems is to find a solution, a formula, for the international force which is acceptable to all the parties concerned, including the two communities in Cyprus.

Mr. G. Brown

Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that his statement, in which he thought it important not only to remind the Commander-in-Chief but to announce to the whole world that he had had to remind a Commander-in-Chief of his powers, cannot make the Commander-in-Chief's position very much more easy? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] If Ministers make statements they must be prepared to be questioned about them. We are bound, therefore, to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he had formed the opinion that the Commander-in-Chief had forgotten. If he had not, why did the right hon. Gentleman do it? And what is it we are now expecting the Commander-in-Chief to do? Does the right hon. Gentleman not see that his remark was a most odd one to make about a Commander-in-Chief who is faced with a very difficult situation? Are we not entitled to ask why that extraordinary remark was made?

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

We must move on to other things. I understood that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) wanted to rise on a point of order. This may be a convenient moment for him to do so.