HC Deb 22 February 1967 vol 741 cc1717-23
The Minister Without Portfolio (Mr. Patrick Gordon Walker)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make the following statement.

I have sent a message to the Prime Minister of Malta welcoming the communication I received from him at midnight in which he informed me of his readiness to hold early negotiations in London with the British Government. I invited him to come to London early next week for these negotiations about the phasing and consequences of the rundown of British Forces in Malta.

As the House will have heard, Dr. Borg Olivier, in a statement to the Malta Parliament last night, said that the Malta Government would not proceed with the amendment of the Visiting Forces Act. This, as I have informed Dr. Borg Olivier, is a welcome and helpful development. During my visit to Malta, I explained to Dr. Borg Olivier that we could not agree to negotiations if the administrative measures against the British Forces were to continue. The Maltese Government were not able to give me a final reply on this point and are still considering the matter. I very greatly hope that, to enable the talks to take place, the Malta Government will be prepared to ensure that normal conditions for our Forces will be restored.

Mr. Maudling

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that statement. We on this side of the House are equally anxious that these talks should take place and hope that the necessary conditions will be fulfilled for that purpose. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we shall want at a suitable time to examine once again the policies of Her Majesty's Government which have led to this extraordinary and tragic situation?

Mr. Gordon Walker

We would welcome at any time such an examination. and we would be very confident about its outcome.

Mr. Driberg

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us on this side of the House are grateful to him for the tact and patience which he must have shown in his talks in Malta? Can he say a little more. since so much has already been published, about what concessions he offered? May I also ask him if he is aware that we hope very much—those of us who are friends of the Maltese people—that their Government will accept these concessions as a reasonable basis for negotiation without in any way lessening our sense of the urgency of major cuts in defence expenditure.

Mr. Gordon Walker

I thank my hon. Friend very much for his opening words. The major point was that I said that we would be ready to discuss in a very sympathetic way, when negotiations started, a fairly radical rephasing of the proposed run-down, the effect of which would really be to give ourselves and Malta a much better breathing space in the first two years, because there would be less unemployment in that time, in order to get the economy geared up and job opportunities created. We found, after listening to his arguments, that an extension of the run-down into the fifth year would help this rephasing very substantially. That is the basic point which we said that we would be prepared to discuss with him in the negotiations.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, while these protracted negotiations take place, the economy of Malta is being jeopardised, with cancellation of tankers going to the Dockyard and so on? Why, if the Government are now prepared to rephase the evacuation of British troops, did they not do it in the first place to avoid all this trouble? Would he impress on his right hon. Friends that, if any troops have to come back, they have to come back from Germany and not Malta?

Mr. Gordon Walker

On 'the last point, we have decided that. whatever may happen elsewhere in the world, it is proper there should be a run-down in Malta in the general strategic interest of the country. I very confidently hope that these negotiations will not be prolonged. The reason why we have at this stage said that we would be prepared to discuss the rephasing of the rundown is that in the course of argument we were persuaded that this was necessary, as we had not originally thought, in order to make very much easier the solution of the economic problems that would come upon Malta. If we had not budged, we would have been called "hard-hearted monsters". Having budged, we are called "pusillanimous people who run away".

Mr. Dickens

While all of us want friendship with Malta, is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us on this side of the House very much regret the implication in the statement he has made this afternoon, which seems to imply that there will be further needless additional military spending in Malta over a prolonged rephasing of this exercise? Is he further aware that this will be interpreted as a sign of weakness by the West German and Singapore Governments, and that it will make it very much more difficult for us to make definite cuts there in future?

Mr. Gordon Walker

There are in many ways unique features in our relationship and our agreement with Malta. My hon. Friend is exaggerating very much the effect that this rephasing would have over the period of four years upon the intended run-down, and I am sure he would not wish us to stick to a decision which would have involved much greater hardship and unemployment than our present proposals. I am sure that anyone who works all that out must agree that we have, broadly speaking, got it right.

Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan

When the right hon. Gentleman says that the Government have got it just right now, is not that an admission that they had got it just wrong up till now?

Mr. Gordon Walker

Only on the basis that one makes up one's mind and enters negotiations refusing to listen to what anyone tells one, or to look at the facts and figures. On that basis, we could have acted as the right hon. Gentleman would have liked; but, in fact, we listened to the arguments which were put to us in the course of these negotiations and talks and we came to the conclusion that there was considerable force in them and they could be met by this rephasing. I am sure this was the right, sensible and fair thing to do.

Mr. Bellenger

As it now seems likely that a settlement will be made on the five-year basis, did the Maltese Government suggest that period when previous negotiations were entered into by my right hon. Friend's right hon. Friends.

Mr. Gordon Walker

We have not said that the run-down would go over five years but into the fifth year. There is a difference. I do not think that the Maltese Government made this particular proposal to us. They made proposals which would have amounted to a permanent postponement of the run-down altogether. It was a different kind of proposal.

Mr. Fisher

Although the Government's handling of this matter has been inept and ill-judged until very recently, will the right hon. Gentleman allow many of us, on this side of the House as well as on his own, to congratulate him on the successful outcome of his visit to Malta? We hope that he will continue in charge of Commonwealth affairs for some time to come. Will he also note our view that we hope very much that the Government of Malta will now co-operate on the basis of the new suggestions which he has proposed?

Mr. Gordon Walker

I am grateful for that very helpful intervention.

Mr. Barnett

Does the statement mean that we shall be continuing military defence expenditure in Malta which the Government admit to be unnecessary? If so, would it not have been better if we had treated this, as it should have been treated, as a matter of aid and not mixed it up with the question of defence cuts?

Mr. Gordon Walker

There is sufficient aid to meet the problems. The question raised by the impact of the run-down was simply the rate of unemployment which it would create and, therefore, the capacity of the Maltese, with us, to use that aid to absorb unemployment. I think that it was right to continue some payment in order to moderate the impact of unemployment on a very small economy and to enable the aid which we are giving to cope with the problem. More aid would not solve the problem. The rate of increase of unemployment is the essence of the matter.

Sir Ian Orr-Ewing

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Egyptian forces have been exercising on the Egyptian-Libyan border? Is he aware that we have a treaty of friendship with Libya, the Anglo-Libyan Treaty of friendship and mutual assistance? Can he assure us that when our Forces in Malta are run down we shall still be able to honour that Treaty?

Mr. Gordon Walker

Of course, we are aware of all those factors, and we are confident that, with the dispositions which we propose to make, we can carry out our obligations.

Mr. Paget

Is it not a fact that the aid which Malta wants for both financial and emotional reasons is the stationing in Malta of part of our strategic reserves? Might it not well be that this would be the cheapest form of aid which we could provide? Will my right hon. Friend make quite sure that this is not a Departmental dispute in which we try to cut military costs, which are unpopular, instead of cutting aid costs, which are popular?

Mr. Gordon Walker

The Maltese Government did not make to us the proposal which my hon. and learned Friend suggested. Now that he has mentioned it, it is one which we will, of course, take into account as a possible line of action. We will consider it. There is no Departmental dispute in this matter. We must make this general run-down in the stationing of troops which were needed for the purposes of our defence agreement with Malta.

Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles

Will the right hon. Gentleman now approach this matter with an open mind, following what he has just said? Will he have another look at the strategic value of stationing at least some British Forces in Malta, which is and always has been the lynch-pin of the Mediterranean?

Mr. Gordon Walker

The run-down which we have proposed will leave some forces in Malta.

Mr. Dalyell

Now that the position is fluid again, will my right hon. Friend reconsider the question of educational expenditure to create employment, details of which were sent to the Department a long time ago?

Mr. Gordon Walker

Yes, of course we will. This is one of the things, together with similar kinds of expenditure, which I discussed with the Malta Government. I am glad to say that they are now able to raise quite considerable local loans out of their own resources for much of this expenditure. That is one of the ways of finding money for it.

Mr. Pardoe

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we on the Liberal bench welcome the new situation which seems to be developing, and, in particular, welcome the fact that the right hon. Gentleman seems to be teaching the Government how great nations should talk to small? Can I ask three specific questions? How much will the rephasing cost? Has the right hon. Gentleman accepted a moral obligation on behalf of the British Government for 6,000 jobs? Will he make sure, as far as he is able, that the new agreement is written in clear and explicit terms and means the same thing to both sides?

Mr. Gordon Walker

We could have come to an agreement very early if we had agreed to formulae which meant different things to the two sides. It was for this reason that I had such long talks. I was determined that there should be clarity about any agreement which we reached. At this stage I cannot give figures and quantities, because those are matters for negotiation. I had to tell the Maltese Government that I could not give them figures of that kind because I was not negotiating, but we will put before them answers to questions of that kind in the course of the negotiations and, when the negotiations are over, we will, of course, fully inform the House about them.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there can be no real independence for so small an island with so large a base on it and that, therefore, the majority on this side of the House fully accept the view that the base must be run down? Is he aware that most of us will accept that adding another year is something which we are, I think, prepared to support—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—if the consequence is that the situation of the Maltese people can be thus eased? Can my right hon. Friend say whether the Prime Minister of Malta will be bringing with him the Leader of the Maltese Opposition?

Mr. Gordon Walker

I do not yet know whom the Prime Minister of Malta wants to bring with him. He can bring anyone he wants, but I do not know whom he has decided to bring.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

May I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on abandoning Prime Ministerial practice in the matter of reaching agreements? Secondly, is he aware that his statement will be welcomed on this side of the House primarily as an earnest of the Government's intention to put right some of the harm which they alone are responsible for creating?

Mr. Gordon Walker

I am quite sure that, after the party points have been scored, there will be universal support in the House for this.

Mr. Hector Hughes

As my right hon. Friend has very properly said that Malta is a unique case, and as some supplementary questions have linked it with Germany and Libya, will he give an assurance that he will continue to treat Malta as a unique case for emotional and other reasons?

Mr. Gordon Walker

Certainly, within the framework of the statement, I am limiting myself altogether to the Malta problem.

Mr. Wall

Is it not now clear that the root cause of this unfortunate dispute was the Government's failure to enter into consultation with the Maltese Government at an early stage? I join in congratulating the right hon. Gentleman personally, but may I ask him whether these discussions will include not only the level of British troops remaining in Malta and economic support for Malta, but the future of the Dockyard?

Mr. Gordon Walker

Certainly. The root cause of this trouble goes back a good deal further in time than the hon. Gentleman has suggested.