HC Deb 08 February 1967 vol 740 cc1659-62
Mr. Sandys (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs, in view of the Malta Government's intention to withdraw legal status of the British forces tomorrow, whether he will make a statement about the position.

The Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Herbert Bowden)

The High Commissioner was instructed to make a new approach to the Malta Government on 6th February. He did so the same evening and I understand that the Malta Government are still considering these proposals. I expect to receive a very early reply, but in the meantime, at this very delicate stage, I am sure the House will understand if I do not make a full statement at this moment.

Mr. Sandys

While I am glad that, in the face of universal condemnation—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—the Government are having second thoughts, and while I naturally wish success to these consultations, may I ask the Secretary of State whether he will assure us that the Government are prepared to consider extending the four-year period of the rundown, as any mere phasing within that period would be totally insufficient and would be just tinkering with the problem?

Mr. Bowden

I am sure that the House would consider it advisable not to go into the detail of the proposals which have been put to the Malta Government by the High Commissioner and which are now being considered. The House might like to know that, although the Malta Government has not completed its consultations with the General Workers' Union and the unions of Malta and the Opposition, it has decided nevertheless not to proceed at the moment with the further stages of the Visiting Forces (Amendment) Bill.

Mr. Driberg

Is my right hon. Friend aware that all of us, on both sides of the House I imagine, will be extremely glad and relieved to hear the last item of information which he gave us about the Malta Government's concession, if that is the word? Is he also aware that we shall be very glad if the reports published today prove to be correct and that, without extending the four-year period, he is able to some extent to rephase the cuts within that four-year period, since that would be wholly in accordance with what was urged on the delegation of hon. Members by the Prime Minister of Malta when we were there the weekend before last?

Mr. Bowden

I should remind the House that the original proposals by the British Government were that the rundown of two-thirds of the forces in Malta should take place over a period of two years, later amended by myself on a visit to Malta to a period of four years. I think that we should leave it at that for the moment. These discussions are now going on and they are very delicate and I do not think that we would add anything or help anything by further discussion at this stage.

Mr. Maudling

The Secretary of State will recall that on his last visit to Malta he started by saying that there was no room for any negotiation on any major matter—I think that those were his actual words. Can we take it—I hope that we can—that that condition is no longer imposed?

Mr. Bowden

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman did not wish to do so, but he misquoted me. What I said in Malta was that, in my view, there did not seem to be much hope of a further concession beyond the four years, because I was going out there with a concession of four years as against the earlier proposal for two years. Nevertheless, in view of what is happening at the moment and as the discussions in Malta are as difficult for them as they may be for this country, I think that we should leave the matter there and I will promise the House a full statement as soon as one can be made.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there will be widespread satisfaction that the Malta Government has deferred discussion of the Visiting Forces Bill? Will he bear in mind that, whatever view any hon. or right hon. Gentleman may take about the need to cut our defence commitments, there is no hon. or right hon. Gentleman who wants British policy to result in widespread unemployment in Malta?

Mr. Bowden

The House should realise that wherever British troops are withdrawn, whether from Malta or any other part of the world, there is bound to be some reduction of employment of the civilian population.

Mr. Dickens

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the immense majority of hon. Members on this side of the House very firmly take the view that there is absolutely no justification whatever for any further rephasing of the military aspect of this exercise? Is he further aware that we regard the economic aid programme for Malta as substantial, and will he bear in mind the fact that we expect the Malta Government to help itself?

Mr. Bowden

I have no intention of going beyond saying that, in the proposals which are now being considered by the Government of Malta, there are proposals which will enable them to get over the difficulties of unemployment which may be created as a result of the rundown.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in what the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dickens) has said about Malta he speaks for himself? Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House anything about the Soviet offer of aid to Malta? Has Mr. Kosygin had anything to say about this?

Mr. Bowden

On the latter point, I know no more than the hon. Gentleman on this question. I have seen these reports in the Press and I do not place a great deal of reliance upon them.

Mr. Mayhew

Since even four years is quite a short period in which to avoid the difficulties of unemployment upon our military withdrawal, may I ask what studies my right hon. Friend has begun about the impact of our military with-drawl from Bahrain and Singapore?

Mr. Bowden

I am aware that my right hon. Friend is in favour of a withdrawal from the Far East in the period of three years, which would mean a great deal of local unemployment. We should treat this matter rather more carefully, rather more seriously, and not jump to conclusions.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Ballot for Notices of Motion.