HC Deb 13 March 1967 vol 743 cc52-9
The Minister without Portfolio (Mr. Patrick Gordon Walker)

With permission, Sir, I should like to make a statement.

We warmly welcome the statement issued by the Prime Minister of Malta yesterday evening.

In this statement he said that, without withdrawing the objections that they have raised, the Malta Government have decided to let the revised British plan a; a whole go forward. He further stated to quote his own words, that in the light of these considerations, the administrative restrictions imposed on the British forces will be withdrawn at once, and the Bill to amend the Visiting Forces Act will not be proceeded with. Dr. Borg Olivier also stated that if it becomes evident that the hopes of an adequate expansion of employment are not likely to be realised, the Malta Government must then feel free to ask the British Government to review the position. We are, of course, always in close touch with the Malta Government.

During my talks with the Prime Minister of Malta we agreed, subject to mutual acceptance of the package deal as a whole, that a Joint Mission should be appointed to report to both Governments on urgent steps to strengthen the industrial base in Malta and on measures for retraining and the creation of job opportunities. We also agreed to the appointment of a Joint Steering Committee to follow closely and report to both Governments on the progress achieved.

We agreed that our two Governments would give serious consideration to the recommendations of both these bodies. I readily confirm that we would be ready to discuss such reports with the Government of Malta whenever they so wished.

Like the Prime Minister of Malta, my right hon. Friend and I are glad that the danger of a tragic breach between Britain and Malta has been averted. I am sure that the whole House looks forward to the unbroken continuance of our longstanding and intimate relationship.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Heath

We are glad that a settlement has now been reached in the dispute between the two Governments, and pleased that the final proposals which the right hon. Gentleman put forward and the statement of the Prime Minister of Malta have made this possible. I am sure that the House and, indeed, the right hon. Gentleman are also grateful for the part played in reaching a settlement by my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Sandys).

I asked last Friday whether the Secretary of State would take into account the anxieties expressed by the Government of Malta as to whether the recommendations of the Joint Mission could be put into effect sufficiently quickly so as to provide employment after the 18 months of the serious rundown began.

The Prime Minister of Malta, in his statement, said that he claims the right to ask the Government to review the posi- tion at that point. Can we have an assurance from the right hon. Gentleman that the British Government will give every request by the Prime Minister of Malta the most careful consideration?

Mr. Gordon Walker

I read in the newspapers about the action of the right hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Sandys). If he played a part in helping to persuade Dr. Borg Olivier to come to the conclusion that he did, I am very grateful to him. His views have throughout been rather different from those of the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, who expressed quite different views on Friday. I must say that, whatever part anyone has played in this, the decision was Dr. Borg Olivier's alone. He had to bear the burden and responsibility of it, and nothing should be done to detract from that.

On the question of any approach to us by the Malta Government in 18 months or at any other time, in the light of the reports of the Joint Mission, we should, of course, be interested in anything that the Malta Government said to us and give the most serious consideration, as I said in my statement, to anything to which they drew our attention.

Mr. Driberg

While reiterating today the tributes to my right hon. Friend which some of us paid to him on Friday in rather less happy circumstances, may I ask him one question? Did Dr. Borg Olivier at any time demand or insist that there should be no discharges until alternative jobs had been provided?

Mr. Gordon Walker

I think that now that we have reached a happy conclusion perhaps I should not make comments on what were detailed and private talks. Many things were said during the course of the talks, which, in one way and another, went on for about three weeks. I think that we had better leave it where it is.

Mr. John Page

May I ask two questions? First, have any changes been made about the future of the Royal Malta Artillery since the talks began?

Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman put in hand quickly a new appraisal of the dockyard dispute between Baileys and the other parties?

I am certain that until this dispute is put on one side the dockyard cannot make a full and proper contribution to the recovery of Malta's economy.

Mr. Gordon Walker

The rephased rundown involves keeping the Royal Malta Artillery in Malta for an extra two years.

With regard to the dockyard, we made proposals which we think were realistic and, indeed, generous to Malta, but as litigation is pending between the Government and Bailey Bros. I think that I should not speak in any greater detail than that.

Mr. Dickens

Is my right hon. Friend aware that not all of us are happy about the arrangements made with Malta? Is he further aware that Dr. Borg Olivier does not seem to have accepted anything? He said at London Airport at half-past two this afternoon that he did not quite accept all the British Government's proposals. Would my right hon. Friend tell the House, in the light of that statement, what the actual defence savings will be over the next eighteen months in question?

Mr. Gordon Walker

I have read reports on the tape about what Dr. Borg Olivier said. I prefer to rely upon what he said after great consideration in a written statement which he had the kindness to send to me before he published it.

With regard to the basic saving in the rundown in Malta, the aim is to save about half the present cost of £12½ million per year, and we shall now achieve this after a period one year longer than under the earlier proposed rundown. In other words, it will be at the end of the fifth year instead of at the end of the fourth year.

We shall also be saving about £15 million over the present rephased rundown compared with not running down at all. We shall, therefore, save even on the rundown that we shall be making. But the prime thing is that we reach our target no longer than one year later than was originally envisaged.

Mr. Powell

What is the difference in the next financial year?

Mr. Gordon Walker

It is very hard to work out sums like this. Say there had been a breakdown in the talks. The amount of the stores that we had not got out, and which would have been left, the cost of rehousing the men here in a hurry, and so on, would have had to be put in. They are unknown things. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has in mind a complete and sudden withdrawal of our forces.

Mr. Powell

In accordance with the White Paper.

Mr. Gordon Walker

In accordance with the original White Paper?

Mr. Powell

The Defence White Paper Estimates.

Mr. Gordon Walker

It has cost us about £10 million of local expenditure as the cost of rephasing the rundown compared with the original proposal, but if we had had to do a withdrawal there would have been many other factors in the sum to be taken into account.

Mr. Paget

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the skill and patience with which he has conducted these negotiations have earned the gratitude of all who care for Malta? It has been a very good show.

Mr. Fisher

Has not the right hon. Gentleman been less generous than he usually is? Would he not agree that it is very much more difficult to settle a problem when negotiations have already broken down than when they are still in progress?

The decision by the Malta Prime Minister, which we all greatly welcome, owes a great deal to the initiative of my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Sandys).

Mr. Gordon Walker

I have no reason to doubt that. If what I read in some of the newspapers this morning is true, certainly we are very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. But we should not express gratitude to him in such a way that we detract from the gratitude that we owe to Dr. Borg Olivier for a very difficult decision.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Because of the experience which my right hon. Friend has gained in the negotiations, and in view of the substantial sum which has been saved, will he hold himself in readiness to go to Singapore?

Mr. James Griffiths

May I join in the tributes to my right hon. Friend for dealing with what all of us know has been a very difficult problem in Malta? I was a member of the Round Table Conference and know something about Malta's problems. May I ask whether the Joint Mission has any time limit set for its report? Will it consider, among other problems which will some day have to be faced, what level of population can be sustained in an economical and viable state in Malta?

Mr. Gordon Walker

I thank my right hon. Friend for the first part of his remarks. No one knows better than he does the problems and intricacies involved in conducting discussions of this kind.

The Joint Mission will have very wide terms of reference. Nothing relevant to the way in which Malta can tackle its problems will be excluded. There will not be a time limit, but we expect the Mission to report fairly quickly. Then the subsequent work will be conducted by a continuing Steering Committee, which should consist of high officials from both sides. It is better to leave it flexible in this way.

Sir W. Teeling

The right hon. Gentleman has referred to Baileys. There is no doubt that nothing can be completely settled in Malta until we have got the Bailey question out of everything. Four years is surely a bit long. May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to see whether some agreement cannot be reached within the next few months? Otherwise, we shall get nowhere.

Mr. Gordon Walker

We are aware of this and have gone into it in the most minute detail, but an agreement depends upon two people. Both need to move. I very much hope that some agreement can be reached. I do not want to say more than that.

Sir A. V. Harvey

In bringing British forces home from the Far East, Aden, and possibly Germany, will the right hon. Gentleman and the Government bear in mind that in the event of the Army finding difficulty, either with barracks or married quarters, they should give high priority to making full use of the existing facilities at Malta?

Mr. Gordon Walker

This is more of a general defence question which should be directed to my right hon. Friend.

Sir F. Bennett

The right hon. Gentleman, both on Friday and today, has referred specifically to a package deal. Can he give an assurance today, in view of past misunderstandings—and I am being quite neutral—that the agreement, to which he has referred as a package deal, will be adhered to for its full duration, in the letter and spirit, whatever the change of economic circumstances here?

Mr. Gordon Walker

Certainly, on our part, and I have no doubt at all that it will also operate on the part of the Government of Malta. The whole situation is perfectly clear to both sides.

Mr. Dickens

I beg to ask leave, Mr. Speaker, to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, the terms of the revised defence reductions proposed by Her Majesty's Government to the Malta Government and their implications. I will be very brief in giving you my cogent reasons for this request, Mr. Speaker. They are, first, that Dr. Borg Olivier's acceptance of the British Government's proposals is ambiguous and should be further clarified. Secondly, the revised terms involve the Government in needless additional defence spending, amounting to about £10 million, in Malta over the next four years—

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman must not argue the merits of what he seeks to raise.

Mr. Dickens

I will try to avoid doing so, Mr. Speaker. Thirdly, my right hon. Friend has given the House no indication of any equivalent Maltese concessions for mobilising their own considerable private resources on the island. Fourthly, there are wider implications affecting our overseas defence policy in Singapore and Aden, which will be greatly handicapped by these concessions made by my right hon. Friend.

Finally, I need scarcely say that before taking this step I have given the matter the most serious consideration. I take this action from the most sincere motives, as I believe that this settlement is not a fair one for this country or ultimately for Malta.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member asks leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, the terms of the revised defence reductions proposed by Her Majesty's Government to the Malta Government and their implications. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, with his usual courtesy, for having informed me this morning that he might seek to raise this matter under Standing Order No. 9, after he had heard the statement. Even on the most generous interpretation of Standing Order No. 9, I do not think that the situation now qualifies as being, in the words of one of my predecessors, "… an occurrence of some sudden emergency, either in home or foreign affairs".

I do not think therefore, that I can allow the application.