HC Deb 01 July 1971 vol 820 cc578-80

Mr. Duncan Sandys (by Private Notice) ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement about the denunciation of the Anglo Maltese Defence Agreement by the Malta Government last night.

The Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Joseph Godber)

A public statement was issued yesterday evening by the Malta Government to the effect that the 1964 Defence Agreement with Britain was no longer in being. No official communication in these terms has been received by the British Government, who consider that both the Defence Agreement, and consequently the Financial Assistance Agreement which is dependent on it, have always remained legally in force and still do so. The only official communication from the Malta Government with which we have to deal is the Prime Minister of Malta's proposal for revision of the agreements. The House will be aware that only on 25th June a joint statement was issued by our two Governments announcing that the British Government had received that proposal, that contacts had started, and that our High Commissioner in Valletta would be returning to London this week for consultations. He returned to London last night.

Mr. Sandys

While welcoming my right hon. Friend's clear confirmation that in the opinion of Her Majesty's Government this agreement cannot be unilaterally abrogated, may I ask my right hon. Friend to remind the new Prime Minister of Malta that, although we have feelings of great affection for the Maltese people, the military facilities in Malta are no longer of the same strategic importance that they were in the last war, and that it would therefore be unwise of him to make unreasonable financial demands upon Her Majesty's Government?

Mr. Godber

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his comments. In considering the proposal of the Prime Minister of Malta, we shall certainly have in mind, on the one hand, the long and historic association between Britain and Malta, as well as the strategic importance of the naval and air facilities there, but, like my hon. Friend, we shall, on the other hand, have to consider whether the financial terms on which the Malta Government wish to base a revision of our agreement corresponds to the real value that we can attach in present-day conditions to the continued use of Malta's facilities for our defence purposes.

Mr. Healey

While welcoming the Minister's last assurance, and contrasting it with the attitude taken by the Conservative Party when the Labour Government decided to run down facilities in Malta, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he would agree that not only are the facilities far less important to Britain, with the ending of the Anglo-Libyan Defence Agreement, but that N.A.T.O.'s main concern is that the island should not be available to a potential enemy? Will he therefore consider seriously the possibility of neutralising Malta, as proposed by Malta's Prime Minister, since that would be both the safest solution and by far the cheapest for the British taxpayer?

Mr. Godber

I do not think that there is any point in commenting on the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's supplementary question—

Hon. Members

Why not?

Mr. Godber

—because it is not relevant to the point with which I am seeking to deal, although I should be happy to deal with it in debate.

What we are dealing with is an attempt by the Malta Government unilaterally to abrogate all our arrangements, and I say to the right hon. Gentleman that we shall bear in mind the various aspects to which he has referred, but I think that our duty is first to have consultations with our own High Commissioner and then to have discussions with the Malta Government on these very matters, and therefore I prefer not to comment on the wider issues that he has raised.

Mr. Wall

Would not my right hon. Friend agree that with the south coast of the Mediterranean and the north coast of Africa potentially hostile, Malta is still of great strategic importance, more to N.A.T.O. than to this country? Will he undertake that in any negotiations which may take place the British Goverment will attempt to safeguard the position of our N.A.T.O. allies on the island?

Mr. Godber

I think it is important to realise that the formal arrangements are between Malta and Britain. That is the first important thing to establish. We shall have the closest consultation with our N.A.T.O. allies about any arrangements that we may make, but I ask my hon. Friend to bear in mind the words that I used in my original reply, which were carefully chosen, about the present strategic value of Malta.

Mr. Michael Foot

Will the right hon. Gentleman take into account the fact that the people of Malta have just perfectly democratically expressed their view at a General Election and that the British people would dearly like the chance to do the same?

Mr. Godber

The British people expressed their view a year ago and in much more convincing fashion that the people of Malta did.