HC Deb 20 May 1968 vol 765 cc9-11
8. Mr. Shinwell

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs what further action is being taken in order to free British vessels held up in the Suez Canal.

13. Mr. Marten

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs if he will make a statement on the British ships detained in the Suez Canal.

48. Sir Knox Cunningham

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, if he will make a direct approach to the authorities in Egypt and Israel with a view to obtaining the release of the four British ships at present detained in the Suez Canal.

Mr. M. Stewart

Her Majesty's Government are in touch with the Governments of the United Arab Republic and Israel, with other ship-owning countries, and with the United Nations. We are doing all we can to get arrangements made for the release of the ships, but I cannot forecast when we shall see practical results.

Mr. Shinwell

My right hon. Friend will agree that these talks have been going on for a very long time. Is any progress being made? Is any pressure being brought to bear on the United Arab Republic? Can my right hon. Friend say whether the Government now find themselves in a hopeless and helpless position, and does not that also apply to the United Nations?

Mr. Stewart

No, Sir. I think that my right hon. Friend is taking too pessimistic a view here. The reason for the difficulties is that this is not an isolated problem: it is part of the whole Arab-Israel problem. We have been in touch with the Government of the United Arab Republic and, indeed, with all those who are concerned.

Mr. Marten

What is the cost to the British economy in the first quarter of this year of these blocked ships? As they have now been there a year, can the Foreign Secretary say which of the two Powers would object if a United Nations force tried to get the ships out by unblocking the south of the Canal?

Mr. Stewart

To a proposal for a United Nations force I do not think that there would at present be agreement by either party. As I say, we have to regard the solution of this matter as part of the solution on the whole Arab-Israel question. I think that the losses at present to our economy are in the neighbourhood of £20 million a month.

Sir Knox Cunningham

Since it may be a matter of years before the Suez Canal is opened, if ever, will not the right hon. Gentleman consider starting a special "operation-release" to get our four ships out, even if they prove the last to leave.

Mr. Stewart

Among the possibilities we have examined is one for getting out the ships that are at present there, which would be a different operation from completely clearing the Canal. There are possibilities there on which we are still engaged.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

Would my right hon. Friend agree that this is not just a question to be brought before the United Arab Republic, but that both the United Arab Republic and Israel have some responsibility for the fact that the ships are still there?

Mr. Stewart

Yes, Sir. I have very recently been in touch with both Governments about this matter.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The Foreign Secretary said that this is not a problem that can be isolated, but might it not be isolated? Was not there at one time a plan, with which it seemed that the Egyptians and the Israelis would agree, of a dredging operation to the south, which is the natural outlet?

Mr. Stewart

I should have said that an operation to get out the ships at present there could be isolated from the rest of the problem. The actual complete opening of the Canal is bound up with the whole problem. As I say, with regard to the smaller question, there are possibilities on which we are now engaged.

Mr. J. T. Price

If we are held to ransom in any way by the Egyptian authorities in this matter—and is it not a fact that the Egyptians are looking to this country to provide them with a massive loan—what is the extent of the terms we are being asked to meet for the release of British ships?

Mr. Stewart

I do not think I can answer that question. I do not think it should be put entirely in that way. There will be need for help from more than the Egyptians if this is to be solved.