HC Deb 17 July 1967 vol 750 cc1501-5
1. Mr. Lubbock

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs what steps he has taken to restore postal communications between the United Kingdom and British citizens trapped on ships in the Great Bitter Lake.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. William Rodgers)

We have been in touch with the owners and understand that mail to and from the ships is now being received regularly.

Mr. Lubbock

In view of the renewed hostilities between Israeli and Egyptian forces in this area, would not the hon. Gentleman agree that it is imperative for the crews of these ships to be withdrawn, and that in any case they are suffering severe hardships because of the breakdown of the air conditioning plant and the shortage of water and food? Would it not be in the interests of the crews and their families for them to be brought back to Britain?

Mr. Rodgers

I have no reports of any firing nearer to the ships than at least five miles, and most of the firing reported has taken place much further away. I agree about the crews and the necessity to make sure that there their conditions are at least tolerable. We are in touch with the ship owners and have discussed with them relieving and replacing the crews.

Mr. Marten

Can the hon. Gentleman say what is the size of the ship which is blocking the Canal south of Bitter Lakes? Is it large or small?

Mr. Rodgers

I understand that there is a later Question about that.

4. Mr. Dodds-Parker

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs on what evidence provided by the Egyptian authorities Her Majesty's Government accepted that the Suez Canal was closed contrary to Article 1 of the Convention of 1888.

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. George Brown)

The United Arab Republic authorities have publicly stated that the Canal was blocked by vessels sunk by Israeli action, but I have no other evidence to this effect. We have asked the U.A.R. authorities for information about the nature of the blockages. We have had no reply in spite of reminders. We have, however, other evidence which leaves no doubt that the Canal is physically blocked.

Mr. Dodds-Parker

When this news was first heard the other day, did the Government make any effort by sending a non-military vessel through the Canal to see in fact what was happening?

Mr. Brown

No, Sir, we did not.

Sir Knox Cunningham

Does the right hon. Gentleman foresee any chance of the Canal being open to international shipping before 1968?

Mr. Brown

I could not possibly speculate about when the Canal will be open. I have later Questions about what we are doing about that. Obviously, our desire is to get the Canal open as soon as we can.

14. Mr. Blaker

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs if he will make a statement on the progress of his efforts to secure the re-opening of the Suez Canal.

36. Mr. Hastings

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs what steps he is now taking to ensure the re-opening of the Suez Canal.

37. Mr. R. C. Mitchell

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs what steps he now proposes to take to ensure that the Suez Canal is recognised as an international waterway to which all nations should have free and unimpeded access.

41. Mr. Wall

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs what action is being taken to secure the re-opening of the Suez Canal; and if he will make a statement.

87. Mr. Biggs-Davison

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs what progress has been made in re-opening the Suez Canal to the shipping of the nations.

Mr. George Brown

As I told the House in the debate on 6th July, we are keeping in touch with other Governments who are interested in the Canal and are doing our best to get it opened as soon as we can. I regard the agreement of both sides to the stationing of United Nations observers in the Canal area as a useful first step towards this.—[Vol. 749, c. 2121.]

Mr. Blaker

What estimate have the Government made of the time that will be required to clear the Canal once the will to do so is present among those on the spot?

Mr. Brown

I think that it is much more important to get to the point where the will to do it is present. The physical clearance, I imagine, will not take all that long.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

While appreciating the steps taken immediately to reopen the Canal, what proposals has the Foreign Secretary for ensuring, once it has been reopened, that there is some form of international agreement to ensure unimpeded progress through it?

Mr. Brown

I do not think that that is something for me to ensure. It is something for the comity of nations to ensure. What we must concentrate on at the moment is finding the climate, the situation, in which we can get the Canal open.

Mr. Wall

When the Canal was closed 10 years ago, the whole world, including the right hon. Gentleman, reacted. Now nobody seems to worry. Why these double standards? Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether he expects the Canal to be opened before an Arab-Israeli treaty?

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman is one of the greatest practitioners of double standards I have ever met. My business at the moment is to do what I can, in consultation with others, to get the Canal opened and to find our way through to a settlement of the problems in that area That I am doing.

Mr. Henig

Have the Government discussed with other friendly Governments the possibility of using as an alternative to the Suez Canal an overland route from Eilat to Ashtot?

Mr. Brown

That is a different question which I should like to see on the Order Paper.

Mr. Dodds-Parker

Will the Foreign Secretary accept in future that a mere declaration by the Egyptian authorities in defiance of Article I of the 1888 Convention constitutes a closing of the Canal against international agreement?

Mr. Brown

The hon. Member is trying to take me far beyond where I should be at the moment. The right thing at the moment is to try to get the Canal opened and to try to get some other immediate problems solved, and then to try to work our way to a longer-term settlement in that area. To pronounce upon what should be part of the longer-term settlement at this point would be awfully silly.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Neil Marten.

Mr. Marten

Does the Foreign Secretary—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I called the hon. Member to ask Question No. 16.

Mr. Marten

Question No. 16.

35. Mr. Simon Wingfield Digby

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs what approaches he has made to the Government of the United Arab Republic about the clearing and reopening to shipping of the Suez Canal; and what assistance he has offered in the task of clearing the canal.

Mr. George Brown

As the House knows, we have told the United Arab Republic authorities that it is intolerable that our ships should be blocked in the Suez Canal. With regard to the second part of the Question, Her Majesty's Government have offered no physical assistance towards clearing the Canal, nor have we been asked for it.

Mr. Wingfield Digby

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that we still have the largest merchant fleet in the world, with the exception of one fleet under a flag of convenience? Will he bear in mind, further, the exceptional hardship created for Malta where a very large percentage of the working population is employed in the dry dock?

Mr. Brown

Yes. I bear in mind very many matters. Ours is not the only merchant fleet badly affected. As a matter of fact, we are not as badly affected by it as we were ten years ago. Nevertheless, it is serious for us, but it is very serious for the U.A.R. who are losing very considerable quantities of foreign exchange as a result. I think that the question of opening the Canal is much more a political one than a physical one, and we are working on that basis.

Mr. Shinwell

Has my right hon. Friend been made aware of the statement which emanates from the recent Arab summit conference to the effect that no Israeli ship will be allowed to pass through the Suez Canal and that, if any dares to do so, she will be fired upon? Can we have an assurance from my right hon. Friend that, in any arrangement regarding the opening of the Canal to international shipping to which my right hon. Friend and Her Majesty's Government are parties, there will be no agreement which excludes Israeli shipping?

Mr. Brown

I read many speeches and statements from many quarters. My business at the moment, among other things, is to see what can be done to get the Canal open.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Despite the pledges about upholding the Constantinople Convention of 1888, have the Egyptian Government notified anyone that they would resist the clearing of the Canal under proper international auspices?

Mr. Brown

No. I do not think that that point has arisen. If we are all grown up, as I imagine we are in this House, we know that there are a number of problems to settle if we are to get the Canal open and, as the hon. Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Wingfield Digby) said, it is in our interests to get it open.

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