HC Deb 05 August 1965 vol 717 cc1963-8

3.46 p.m.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

I doubt whether many serious commentators on military affairs would care to argue the value of Malta as a base on strategic grounds. It is my guess that if our actions were determined by purely strategic considerations, we would get out of Malta fairly rapidly. But Britain has economic obligations to Malta and, as I understand it, the Government's view is that these economic obligations must be honoured whatever the difficulty of Britain's own financial position. Certainly, few hon. Members would want to be party to leaving Malta and its economy high and dry.

Yet, if it is true that we are in Malta for economic rather than for strategic reasons, is it not legitimate to ask how our earmarked resources should be used? The purpose of this Adjournment debate is to suggest that instead of superfluous naval and military installations, an equivalent level of financial resources should be spent on a British teacher-training college in Malta, a British school in Malta and a British hospital in Malta.

Before going further, I must make it clear that if it were a question of having a school in Malta or a new school in Glasgow, I would choose the new school in Glasgow as a priority; that if it were a question of having a teacher-training college in the South-East of England, or a teacher-training college in Malta, I would choose the college in the South-East of England and that if it were a question of having a convalescent hospital in the West Midlands for those who suffer from bronchial diseases or having a similar hospital in Malta, the priority would clearly be the convalescent hospital in the West Midlands.

No sane politician, in the fortnight after the Chancellor of the Exchequer's statement, will advocate educational and health service frills of this kind in addition to what the national economy can bear, but we are not faced with an either-or situation like that. We are faced with another situation, and this is the anchor of my argument. Do we continue to use expenditure allocated to Malta for obsolete military purposes, or do we use for social purposes what we have to spend on Malta's economy? It strikes me that in the 1965 Malta situation we have a concrete opportunity to beat swords into ploughshares. Yet my efforts over the past months to get Government Departments to grasp this opportunity have not been happy.

Starting with a courteous interview with my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey), I have been buffeted around the Ministry of Defence, the Commonwealth Relations Office, the Ministry of Overseas Development, the Scottish Office and the Department of Education and Science. I am not implying either or laziness, but it seems simply that Government Departments on this sort of issue where there unquestionably are inter-departmental boundaries have been like independent satrapies each operating in the absence of a total view of the conditions.

I give two examples to back up my charge. I went to the Department of Education and Science and the Minister told me that he had been advised by his chief inspector that if there was to be a school or teachers' training college abroad it should be in an "important" country like France or Germany. Yet the chief inspector clearly has no responsibility for the balance of payments. A training college on the Seine or the Rhine would be wonderful, but we do not have the unused accommodation in Paris or Coblenz, nor have we an obligation to help the economies of those cities as we have in Malta.

My second example comes from the Ministry of Overseas Development. Officials there shake their heads and say, A factory for £1 million would create more employment in Malta than a teachers' training college." This may, or I suspect it may not, be marginally true, but can they be certain of getting £1 million for such a project in our present financial position and economic circumstances? The fact is that educational establishments of the kind I have indicated in detail in correspondence with Ministers would create at least as much work as the Admiralty ever did.

If the Minister has any concrete ideas as to what a Ministry of Overseas Development financed plant in Malta might make at an economic cost relative to the rest of the Mediterranean world we would be happy to hear about it. I hope that these two examples are sufficient to show that there is a case for the one decision I am asking for this afternoon. The one decision I am asking for this afternoon is the setting up of an interdepartmental committee under, I suggest, a chairman representing the Ministry of Overseas Development to look at the Malta position as a whole and an approach through what I would wish to call one satrapy or another of a Government Department is simply not sufficient.

I have been more limited for time than I suspected I should be, because of the 20 minute ceremony which has just taken place in the House of Lords. There have been two educational objections. One is on the ground of continuity of staff, which does not hold water. The other more serious one is on the ground that there would not be available teaching practice for those British teachers who, perhaps, would spend the second year of teaching training at a British teaching training college in Malta. The answer to that is quite simply that it is not necessary in all three years to have teaching practice, or to let British teacher-trainees practice in Malta schools. The argument for a school abroad has been outlined in great detail by Mr. William Monaghan, in his presidential address to the Educational Institute of Scotland. On the argument that there is not enough educational interest in Malta, I refer to the remarks of the ex-Chief Inspector of Schools of the L.C.C., Dr. Alec Hay.

On the question of a hospital in Malta, one perhaps has to be a little more careful. Transport could be fairly cheaply provided by a number of shipping lines. I do not want to pick out one, but the costs of taking pupils in the now orthodox school ships is not very great. This is a practical and relevant idea of making swords into ploughshares. I ask the Government to be alert to every opportunity of using obsolete defence equipment for constructive social purposes.

Wing Commander Sir Eric Bullus (Wembley, North)

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, may I ask him whether he has any support from the islanders themselves for the schemes he has suggested?

Mr. Dalyell

Yes. I have been in fairly close touch with them. I have been there many times, when I was working on the Schoolship "Dunera", and I know the set-up on the ground.

3.55 p.m.

Mr. John Hay (Henley)

I am sure that the whole House wall feel that the obvious sincerity with which the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) holds his views is a reason for our listening to him with great patience this afternoon. I must say that I was a little surprised, as I expect was the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy, that so much of this debate has turned, not upon the position of what is called on the Order Paper "the British base in Malta", but rather upon possible other developments in the social field. It is a pity, in some ways, that the hon. Gentleman did not first see exactly what it is that Britain has in Malta. The truth is that we no longer have a base in Malta.

Mr. Dalyell

I asked the Library for the exact current facilities. I was told that they were on the graded list.

Mr. Hay

I can only refer the hon. Gentleman to a number of documents which I propose to quote briefly in the course of the debate, beginning with the Statement on Defence, 1962, which set out the then Government's decisions about the base in Malta as it was then. I quote briefly from paragraph 16: Britain no longer has to discharge alone her obligations in the Mediterranean. Today, the maritime forces of the allied nations are sharing a N.A.T.O. responsibility there. So far as Britain is concerned, we also have a responsibility to contribute an air strike force in support of C.E.N.T.O. and, under our treaty, to help with the defence of Libya. We are adjusting our forces in the Mediterranean in recognition of the fact that our responsibilities there are shared with our allies; this process will continue. For the Royal Navy, the main base will be in Britain, but there will continue to be the need for forward operating facilities in Gibraltar and Malta. The Royal Air Force will continue to need airfield facilities at Gibraltar and Malta, and both places will continue to require small local garrisons. Summing up the argument at the end of the paragraph appear these words: In short, while we shall continue to maintain naval or air facilities with some land forces in Gibraltar, Malta and Cyprus, in none of these places need we base continuously large land forces for operations elsewhere; if necessary, such forces would be provided from Britain. I mention all that to set the stage for what I want now to say. It is vitally important to understand that the position of Malta has been, as it were, downgraded from the days of the great Mediterranean Fleet before the last war when Malta was a major British base. It is now an extension really of the facilities which we have here at home in all three arms.

The hon. Gentleman said at the beginning of his speech, and later he repeated it, that there is no longer a strategic position for Britain to hold in the Mediterranean. With all respect to the hon. Gentleman, he should look at some of our obligations, particularly to Libya, which are referred to in that White Paper. I will not go into them all now, but we have certain obligations under the Anglo-Libyan Treaty of 1953. Everyone in this country knows that there have been enormously valuable finds of oil in Libya which might be under threat or attack at some future time.

It is, I believe, an important British interest that we ought to retain close to Libya the staging post, the springboard, whatever one likes to call it, to enable us to fulfil our obligations and protect our interests there. He would be a very bold man who would say with complete conviction that the base facilities that we have in Cyprus are likely to remain for the full length of the Agreement. I am very doubtful about it. If we lose Cyprus and if we have given up the facilities in Malta, as the hon. Member would like us to do, we have nothing between Aden and Gibraltar at the other end of the Mediterranean. That is a situation which I would not want to contemplate.

I mentioned the 1962 White Paper, but I assume that this position is still held by Her Majesty's present Government, because in paragraph 20 of this year's defence White Paper these words appear and I would urge the hon. Member, with respect, to listen to them: It would be politically irresponsible and economically wasteful if our bases were abandoned"— I realise that Malta is not a base but, mutatis mutandis, the same argument applies— while they were still needed to promote peace in the areas concerned, though we recognise that they can be maintained only in agreement with the local governments and peoples. Our presence in these bases, our Commonwealth ties, and the mobility of our forces, permit us to make a contribution towards peace-keeping in vast areas"—

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