HC Deb 18 November 1968 vol 773 cc867-70
3. Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs when he will expect the British ships detained in the Bitter Lakes by the Egyptians to be released; and what action he is taking to expedite this.

55. Mr. Will Griffiths

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether any further progress has been achieved in Her Majesty's Government's attempts to secure the release the British ships trapped in the Suez Canal.

68. Mr. Ian Lloyd

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what new initiative he proposes to secure the release of British ships presently detained in the Suez Canal.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Goronwy Roberts)

My right hon. Friend discussed the subject with the United Arab Republic Foreign Minister when they met in London and in New York, and my right hon. and noble Friend, the United Kingdom permanent representative at the United Nations, has been in touch with Dr. Jarring. The subject was also discussed with Mr. Allon, the Israel Deputy Prime Minister, during his recent visit to London. The substance of these consultations is of course confidential, but we are convinced that the way forward is through such patient negotiation.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the former Foreign Secretary told the House nine months ago that he expected the early release of these ships? Is the right hon. Gentleman simply prepared to go on with these interminable conversations while British ships are piratically detained for already 17 months?

Mr. Roberts

It is true that in January or February of this year we had fairly high hopes that the initiative we then took would result in the release of these ships. Unfortunately, incidents occurred which made this impossible. Since then we have been very active in pressing forward on all fronts to secure some solution to this problem which could, we think, be isolated from the general Middle East problem.

Mr. Will Griffiths

Is it not untrue to suggest that these ships are detained by the Egyptians? Is it not the fact that last January, when unarmed survey ships commenced to examine the technical feasibility of exit through the north into the Mediterranean, they were fired on by the Israelis, one death resulted, and surveying came to an end? What representations is my right hon. Friend making to Israel?

Mr. Roberts

I do not think that it will help if we try to apportion blame when, clearly, responsibility does not lie on one side or the other. We ought to concentrate on trying to reach a solution on the lines of that which was proposed in January and which came very nearly to fruition.

Mr. Ian Lloyd

Have the Government any contingency plans for steps to be taken in the event of hostilities breaking out in this area, as seems more than likely?

Mr. Roberts

That is such a wide-ranging and hypothetical question that I could not answer it at this point.

Sir B. Janner

As Israel is prepared to let the ships out at the south end, and there is every possibility of that being done, and as the U.A.R. has refused point-blank to acknowledge Israel's right to use the Canal, will my right hon. Friend, in the circumstances, press that the ships be allowed to come out through the southern part of the Canal?

Mr. Roberts

This and other possible technical solutions to the problem have been discussed and are being discussed. It would be helpful if we left the ship-owners' working committee—which was set up in January and which is now engaged in talks; in Cairo on these technical matters—to proceed without unduly overlaying the question with political comment.

9. Mr. Marten

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the continued closure of the Suez Canal.

42. Mr. Colin Jackson

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the continuing closure of the Suez Canal.

Mr. Goronwy Roberts

I believe that the best hope of reopening the Canal to international shipping lies in a general settlement in the Middle East. We are actively supporting Dr. Jarring's efforts to reach such a settlement on the basis of the principles in the Security Council's resolution of 22nd November, 1967, which included freedom of navigation through international waterways in the area.

Mr. Marten

Whilst I do not wish to embarrass the shipowners' conference which is going on in Cairo at present, I would point out that this has been going on for a very long time. Does the Minister recall a suggestion I made in a recent foreign affairs debate that the Canal should be unblocked at the south end and the ships let out, and then if necessary blocked up again? What has held up that suggestion?

Mr. Roberts

I have noted the suggestion. A number of suggestions have been made and are being made about the technical ways—and, indeed, as suggested by the hon. Gentleman, a political way—of solving the problem. It does not seem to me that, apart from the question of the trapped ships, to separate the wider question of the Canal from the whole problem of the Middle East looks promising.

Mr. Jackson

Bearing in mind the vital importance of this international shipping highway, will my right hon. Friend say if any consideration is being given to a United Nations survey of the obstacles and a clearance by the United Nations, as was done in 1956?

Mr. Roberts

The United Nations could not undertake a survey or removal of the blockage without authorisation from the Security Council. It is a matter for very careful consideration whether such a proposal in the Security Council about the Canal might not set afoot a wider discussion affecting the whole of the Middle East issue, which might not prove helpful to Dr. Jarring in his present negotiations.

Mr. Hastings

But for the presence of Israel, is it not a fact that the Russians now virtually control the Canal?

Mr. Roberts

No, Sir. I do not subscribe to that view. It is inherently unlikely that the Russians would wish to intrude further into the Canal issue.

Mr. Dalyell

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in certain cases deterioration has become critical to the point of write-off?

Mr. Roberts

That is a serious possibility, if not a probability. They are very expensive and valuable cargoes, and the longer this goes on deterioration sets in. We are aware of this, and it lends point to our efforts.