HC Deb 15 July 1971 vol 821 cc734-7
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Alec Douglas-Home)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a statement.

I think it is right to inform the House of the situation which has arisen in our relations with Malta over the 1964 Defence and Financial Agreements. The first gives Britain the right to station our armed forces in Malta, while the second, which is dependent upon the Defence Agreement, covers the provision of British aid to Malta. Both these Agreements are due to run until 1974.

As soon as he took office on 17th June, the Prime Minister of Malta, Mr. Mintoff, informed us that he wished to replace these Agreements, which, he said, were no longer valid. Then, in a series of messages, he asked that a Minister should come to Malta to negotiate a new agreement under which aid would be replaced by a form of rent for military facilities, and those facilities would be redefined.

He also said that the Minister should come on the basis that the 1964 Defence and Financial Agreements were at an end and that the new negotiation should be completed before the end of July. Mr. Mintoff would not elaborate any further on his proposals. This left us in doubt on a number of very important questions, for example Mr. Mintoff's intentions towards N.A.T.O., the redefinition he had in mind for our defence facilities and the financial implications.

Against this background, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister sent a message yesterday to Mr. Mintoff in which he said that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence would travel to Valletta in the course of the day and would be ready to discuss with Mr. Mintoff his proposals for modification of the existing Agreements. Lord Carrington's purpose would be to ascertain whether it was possible to negotiate fresh arrangements of a kind which he could recommend to the British Government to approve.

It was in reply to that message that Mr. Mintoff claimed that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had rejected all the conditions proposed by Mr. Mintoff for a fruitful meeting. He added as he has since made public in a statement, that he hoped that the Malta Government would not be caused the additional embarrassment of having to ignore the presence of the British Cabinet Minister on the island. To this message my right hon. Friend replied : Your message speaks of conditions. I had hoped I had made clear that there cannot be prior conditions in a matter which is essentially one for negotiation : and a negotiation requires that each of the parties should come to the table, with good-will and without prejudice to their respective views, to discuss matters which are of common concern to them in an honest and genuine attempt to reach agreement. It was for this purpose and in this spirit that Lord Carrington would have come to Malta, in the hope of agreeing with you fresh arrangements which he could recommend the British Government to accept. Lord Carrington remains ready to come, but since you say that you would have found this visit embarrassing. I renew my earlier invitation that you yourself, or your representative, should come to London. We have made clear to Mr. Mintoff that we have no desire to maintain forces in Malta against the will of the Malta Government. We have also made clear that we are ready to enter into negotiation at Ministerial level, in good faith and without preconditions, with a view to reaching an agreement satisfactory to both sides. We hope that the Malta Government will now agree that talks should start on this basis.

A further message to my right hon. Friend from Mr. Mintoff had been received by telephone just before I came into the House. This message holds out a hope that it may be possible to resolve the difficulty between us, but the House will understand if I say no more until my right hon. Friend has had an opportunity to study the text.

Mr. Healey

I wish, first, to congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the Government's calm in this rather turbulent situation. I am sure hon. Members will feel that this is a good time, in a particularly hot summer, to allow tempers to cool before resuming discussions. However, I hope very much that the Prime Minister of Malta will accept his invitation to come to London and discuss the matter as a reasonable man round a table.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's statement that Her Majesty's Government have no desire to keep forces in Malta against the will of the Malta Government. Will he make it clear to that Government that Britain's interest in keeping forces in Malta at this time is comparatively small and arises not out of Britain's national interests but out of our obligations as a member of N.A.T.O.? If this is understood, it seems that some reasonable settlement of this problem can, in the end, be reached.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks. We very much hope that discussions can be started in a friendly way. After all, in view of the history that there is between this country and Malta, we will lean over backwards to try to get a reasonable discussion started.

The right hon. Gentleman's remarks about our not needing to keep forces in Malta for our own defence purposes or for the defence of the island of Malta are true. As he said, they are part of the N.A.T.O. set-up, which is valuable in the Western Mediterranean.

Mr. Dodds-Parker

May I add my congratulations on the way in which my right hon. Friend is handling this difficult situation and express the hope that he may reach a solution which is satisfactory both to the people of Malta and to this country? May I also point out that, whatever happens, the regard of the people of this country for the people of Malta will continue in the same way as it has for many years?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I can only repeat what I said to the right hon. Gentleman—that we will do our best.

Mr. William Hamilton

In view of the apparent conflict of evidence as to what has taken place between the new Government of Malta and the British Government, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider publishing a White Paper containing all the correspondence that has passed between the two Governments, supplementing the information which he has given to the House this afternoon?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I suggest that the important thing is to try to start negotiations, but I would certainly consider the hon. Gentleman's suggestion in certain circumstances.

Sir F. Bennett

Is there any provision under the existing Defence Agreement for unilaterally breaking it off before its expiry, a point which many of us will obviously have to bear in mind in thinking of the validity of any assurances about the future?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

There is no provision for unilateral renunciation.

Mr. Maclennan

Will the right hon. Gentleman make it plain that Her Majesty's Government do not take too serious a view of the message which came yesterday from the Prime Minister of Malta in regard to the visit of the Secretary of State for Defence? There has been a rather hectic interchange and it is now plainly desirable to de-escalate the atmosphere.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I think the House will feel that we could not possibly help but take the situation yesterday seriously. We had offered to send a senior Minister of the British Cabinet to discuss the matter in good faith. We had to take the situation yesterday evening seriously ; but, as I said, we hope to start discussions, and Lord Carrington is always ready to go.