HC Deb 17 March 1969 vol 780 cc15-8
21. Sir J. Langford-Holt

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in view of the new situation which now exists in the Middle East, whether he is satisfied that Egypt now accepts the international status of the Suez Canal under the 1888 Convention; and if he will make a statement.

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

In a declaration dated the 24th of April, 1957, the Egyptian Government reaffirmed that they would continue to respect observe and implement the terms and the spirit of the Constantinople Convention of 1888. I believe that the United Arab Republic Government stand by this declaration.

Sir J. Langford-Holt

Is it not true that, in recent years, by their actions they have shown that they do not stand by this declaration? If one is talking, as we are today, about adherence to the resolution of the United Nations, is it not a good idea to go back to the first ones?

Mr. Roberts

It is a question of ability as well as of intention. My understanding is that the U.A.R. Government intend that the provisions of the Convention shall be observed. I would suggest that this, like other important aspects of a general settlement in the Middle East, could well be an important subject for discussion in the current talks in New York among the four permanent members.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Does it follow from that that Egypt accepts responsibility for the safety of British ships detained in the Bitter Lakes?

Mr. Roberts

I have said that they accept the Convention of 1888. From my own observation when visiting the area, certainly they have co-operated very fully in maintaining and helping our ships in the Great Bitter Lake.

Mr. Shinwell

Why does my hon. Friend assert and emphasise that Egypt respects the Convention of 1888, when she has disregarded it on every possible occasion?

Mr. Roberts

I do not think that it is quite as simple as that. We must remember that the Canal is in the middle between two opposing armies. It is a matter of practical difficulty on both sides as to how the Canal is to be released for free navigation. It will be a major aim of the present discussions, which we all hope will be fruitful, to attain this among other aspects of the United Nations Resolution.

23. Mr. Dalyell

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the latest negotiations over the ships trapped in the Suez Canal.

Mr. Goronwy Roberts

Discussions are proceeding but at the moment I have nothing to add to the reply which I gave on 17th February.—[Vol. 778, c. 27–9.]

Mr. Dalyell

What representations have been made for the safety of the ships?

Mr. Roberts

The safety of the ships is not in question. As I said earlier, there has been complete co-operation by the U.A.R. authorities and all concerned, and our consular representatives are constantly in touch with the crews. There is no anxiety for their safety and, from day to day, we are checking on the position.

Viscount Lambton

What is the position over the insurance of these ships?

Mr. Roberts

I think that all the ships except two are insured or reinsured to some extent on the British market. I cannot at the moment go into detail, but if the noble Lord would put down a Question, I should like to help.

Mr. Sandys

Is it not a fact that the presence of Israeli forces in the east bank does not prevent the clearance of the Canal or the release of the ships; and that the Egyptian Government are refusing to do so only on grounds of prestige?

Mr. Roberts

I do not accept that statement. This is a very delicate position but, as of now, I would say that both sides have been co-operative—[Interruption.] Well, co-operative towards the approaches made for the release of these ships. I hope that nothing will be said here that might complicate the negotiations now going on between the shipowners' committee, the U.A.R. Government and others, because, at the moment, there is hope that the survey for the southern exit will begin soon.

Mr. Shinwell

Is it not because the Government have remained silent for too long that Egypt has been getting away with it? Will my right hon. Friend be kind enough to define specifically what he means by "complete co-operation"?

Mr. Roberts

I have said that at the moment there is very full cooperation by both sides towards the attempts being made to release these ships from the Great Bitter Lake. [An HON. MEMBER: "What is stopping them?"] What is stopping them is the situation in the area, which is one in which two opposing armies face each other across the canal. Progress has been made and is being made, and I am hopeful that fairly soon we may see the survey of the southern exit put in hand.

Mr. Wood

Can the right hon. Gentleman say how much more co-operative the two sides will have to be to get the ships out?

Mr. Roberts

If the two sides maintain their present attitude towards the request of the shipowners' committee, I would say that the ships will be released.