HC Deb 27 July 1967 vol 751 cc972-8

Sir Alec Douglas-Home (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs if he will make a statement about the opening of the Suez Canal to international shipping.

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

As the House is aware, the canal is blocked between Port Said and Ismailia, as well as to the south of Ismailia, and it is also obstructed between the Great Bitter Lakes and Suez. There has been no change in this situation since I last reported to the House.

I deplore the fact that no steps have yet been taken by the United Arab Republic authorities, either alone or in conjunction with others who are willing to help, to start work on clearing the obstructions. The continued failure to take these steps is clearly contrary to the Constantinople Convention of 1888.

This is not a matter which affects this country alone. I am in close touch with the Governments of other countries affected and am considering with them how we can create conditions to get the canal opened as soon as possible to the shipping of all nations. I discussed this matter with Dr. Fawzi and with the Israeli Foreign Minister, Mr. Eban when he passed through London last weekend.

I have also made it clear in the United Nations General Assembly that in our view any settlement of the problems of the Middle East must cover the right of free and innocent passage through the canal.

As the House knows, the United Nations is urgently tackling these problems; and in this connection the stationing of United Nations Observers in the canal area is a useful first step.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The House will be glad, I am sure, to hear from the right hon. Gentleman that he is in touch with the other maritime nations concerned in trying to find ways and means of opening the canal. Is it not a fact that Egypt recognises the jurisdiction of the International Court in this matter? Is there not therefore something to be said for taking out an injunction against Egypt to require her to open the canal?

Mr. Brown

No, as I said earlier, there are difficulties in taking that course—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I remind the right hon. Gentleman that when he was in my job he did not himself accept the responsibilities and agree to accept the authority of the International Court in matters affecting this kind of situation. I am a little inhibited by the decisions made by a predecessor Government in this; in any case, apart from that, I do not think that this would be a very good course to pursue. I think that we are probably doing better the way we are currently doing.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

May I release the right hon. Gentleman from any feeling of inhibition which he may have? Will he give one more thought to this matter, which seems to me a proper way in which to proceed?

Mr. Brown

Of course, in opposition it is very easy to release the Government of the day from the inhibitions which previous Ministers placed on it. In fact, the British Government in the past, I regret to say, put the very inhibition on the use of the International Court which would allow the Egyptians to claim that these inhibitions were used by us.

But, that apart, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are much more likely to achieve the purpose which he and I both have in this matter by pursuing the political steps I am now currently pursuing.

Mr. Raphael Tuck

How does my right hon. Friend reconcile his idea of free and innnocent passage through the canal with President Nasser's avowed intention of never allowing Israeli ships to pass through the canal?

Mr. Brown

One of the things we all have to work out is a settlement in that area. Everyone, of course, is making propaganda statements at the moment and taking up a position from which they would want to move. Our business, as I said in my original Answer, is to try to get to the situation where we can provide the climate in which a settlement can be arranged. That we are doing and I do not think that it will be any use taking up a position of supporting one propaganda statement or the other.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that some of us hope that he will not excuse inactivity by reliance on Conservative precedent? How many British nationals are still in the Bitter Lakes area, are the southern approaches blocked structurally or politically, and is it not time that more was done about it than consideration and talk?

Mr. Brown

Inactivity is something for which I do not think I have to blame anybody at all. I am very busy indeed on this matter. While I am very happy to rely on Conservative precedents for other things, I do not need to do so on this. On the other hand, the way of doing it and how one might get it arranged is a complicated matter, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman understands.

On the question of the number of people on ships in the Great Bitter Lake, I do not carry that in my head, but it is not all that many. During the last three days a Canadian diplomat visited the ships, saw the masters and saw the crews and satisfied himself about the conditions. I have had a very full report about the situation there. We are in touch with the owners about replacing those members of the crews who want to come home, and this will be done.

On the last point, of physical obstruction, no I do not think that it is physical in the south.

Mr. Leadbitter

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that there is widespread opinion in this country that the policy of trying to be all things to all men in the Middle East is not bringing this country any great credit? Is he further aware that there is much concern about the political manœuvrings, particularly by Russia, in Egypt? Would it not be wise to state quite clearly that any access at some point in the Suez Canal is acceptable only if it carries with it the access for Israeli ships?

Mr. Brown

I am not quite sure that that would be a sensible declaration for me to make. What we want to do is to get the canal open to ships of all nations and to ensure that we are able to use it. This is what we are trying to do.

Mr. Tapsell

The right hon. Gentleman has now confirmed reports that there is no physical blockage of the canal between the Great Bitter Lakes and Port Tewfik. Is it not a fact that our ships are being held in the Great Bitter Lake as political hostages of the United Arab Republic? What is he going to do about it?

Mr. Brown

I hope that the hon. Member will accept my assurance that, in company with those other maritime Powers who are as much concerned as we are in this matter, we are trying to arrange the conditions in which the canal could be opened. If he will give himself a moment to think about this, he will realise that this is much more a political than a physical matter. Let us go on with the political policies we are pursuing.

Mr. Paget

Does not my right hon. Friend feel that the time is rapidly approaching when one should say to the Egyptians that if they continue to refuse to perform their international obligations to open the canal we shall ask the Israelis to do it?

Mr. Brown

I regard that as the kind of remark which, made here, goes down all right, but which creates very many additional difficulties elsewhere. I still say that what we have to do is to create a climate in which we can not only open the canal, but enable some other changes to take place in that area. This is a political matter to be conducted with great care and not by statements made in this House which give us a certain amount of enjoyment when we make them, but which are of absolutely no use afterwards.

Mr. Ian Lloyd

As the right hon. Gentleman has completely confirmed that the canal is not blocked to the South, will he say whether or not the United Arab Republic has specifically threatened to obstruct the departure of our ships or any other ships southwards?

Mr. Brown

I repeat that there are physical obstacles in the canal, but actual movement of these obstacles would not be a very great engineering problem. The great problem about opening the canal, let us face it, is a political one[Interruption.]—on which many nations and the United Nations itself are now engaged. I urge the House, both sides of it, to let us concentrate on the political difficulties to opening the canal.

Mr. Mendelson

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the difficulties that he is facing in this matter are well understood, that it is also clearly understood that he must act in concert with other maritime Powers concerned, and that as long as he continues to work for a solution which will safeguard the equitable rights of all nations in the Middle East he will have the support of this side of the House?

Mr. Hastings

Has the right hon. Gentleman yet requested permission from the Israelis for access to the ships for the supplies that are needed for them? Can he summon up his courage to that extent?

Mr. Brown

I do not quite understand what the reference to summoning up my courage means. We have access to the ships; they have supplies. We are in contact with them, they are in contact with each other, and they are in contact with their owners and so are we. There is no problem so far as this is concerned.

Mr. Alfred Morris

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many hon. Members on both sides of the House warmly appreciate the work that he has done in the matter—[HON. MEMBERS: "What work?"]—but can he say any more about the plight of the "Scottish Star" and, in particular, about the health and welfare of members of its crew? Is he aware of the reports about an outbreak of dysentery among the members of the crew?

Mr. Brown

When our Canadian colleague visited them on 23rd July the report that I then had was that there was no difficulty of the kind that my hon. Friend mentions and that the crew, as far as one can be in these circumstances, were reasonably happy and reasonably well looked after. But I repeat that we are arranging with the owners for their replacement. We are doing our utmost to get the canal opened and get the ships out in concert with the other countries that are affected like we are.

I do not know quite know what it is that hon. Members opposite who are jeering expect us to do. This is, and must be, a political operation and can be dealt with only in a political way.

Mr. Heath rose

Mr. Woodburn

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not an unwritten tradition of the House that parties will not use for party political propaganda the interests of this nation in foreign affairs and that it is more important to protect the nation's interest than to score a victory for a party—

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. That is a wonderful statement of political philosophy. I wish it were true.

Mr. Heath

We understand the political difficulties involved in these problems. What is more, I think that the whole House realises that it may take some time, indeed a considerable time, to resolve these political problems.

The Foreign Secretary appeared to confirm in his answer to a supplementary question what has already been said in this House, that there is no physical obstacle in the canal to the south of the Great Bitter Lakes. We believe this to be true. First of all, will he confirm this?

Secondly, if this is the case, there can be no justification in international law for these ships being detained by the United Arab Republic in the Great Bitter Lakes. Therefore, can he not take action through the Secretary-General of the United Nations to ensure that the ships shall be allowed to proceed about their peaceful business through a canal in which there is no obstruction?

Mr. Brown

I am much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for giving me a chance to put right something that I said earlier which, I understand, was misleading. There are, physical obstructions south of the Great Bitter Lakes. If I said something during the course of an answer to a supplementary question which made that sound differently, I am sorry. There are, to our certain knowledge, physical obstructions—[An HON. MEMBER: "In the main channel?"]—south of the Great Bitter Lakes. So the canal is physically obstructed there as well as in the North.

The point that I was trying to make—I am sorry if I confused it—was that clearing the physical obstructions will be a fairly short-run and simple arrangement; it is clearing the political diffi- culties that will take time. Hon. Members opposite, having got the canal obstructed once themselves, might like to remember how long it took them to get it open then.