HC Deb 27 July 1971 vol 822 cc253-63

5.48 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Wall (Haltemprice)

Both sides of the House are united in their affection for Malta and the people of Malta. Malta has had a great place in European history and has twice saved western civilisation, first from the Turks and then from Adolf Hitler's hordes. When one thinks of Malta one thinks particularly of two things—first Malta's devotion to Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church; and secondly, the patriotism of the people of Malta to their island and also I believe to their Queen. I do not think there are many other places in the Commonwealth where one can ride in a bus and see as fixtures a crucifix and a picture of Her Majesty. This exemplifies the relationship between Malta and the Church on one side and this country on the other.

Therefore, when raising this topic, I appreciate that it goes wider than merely the defence agreement between Malta and Britain or Malta and N.A.T.O. It may affect the whole relationship between the Maltese people and the British people, the questions of the Sovereign, of our forces, and of civilian relations between the two peoples.

I appreciate that this is not the best time to raise this matter. My noble Friend the Minister of State has been to Malta with my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State, where they have been engaged in long discussions. I understand that negotiations are still proceeding. Normally, one would not wish to raise a matter like this when negotiations are still under way. However, I am sure that all concerned will appreciate that this is probably the last chance of raising the matter in the House until October. It is important for Malta and Britain to reach a clear-cut decision on this issue as soon as possible, and certainly well before October.

Having said that, as I pointed out in the House during Question time recently, I believe that Malta is still of considerable strategic importance to the West. Let us look at the cold war, such as it is, and compare it with the situation in the last war. In the last war the north coast of Africa was potentially friendly to the West. At present, most of the north coast of Africa is potentially hostile to the West. That means that this small island in the middle of the Mediterranean still occupies an important strategic place in the defence of Europe.

I agree, however, that the rôle of Malta has changed. In the last war, it was a major British base. The Mediterranean Fleet, with which I had the honour to serve before and during the war, was based on Malta. Now, it is different. Malta is of importance to the defence of Europe and, therefore, of importance to N.A.T.O. rather than to Britain, even though, as Britain is a member of N.A.T.O., it is our responsibility as well. So it is of importance to N.A.T.O. rather than to the Royal Navy and the defence of Europe rather than of Britain.

In both contexts, Malta is of value, but we must not close our eyes to the fact that there are alternatives. One of the important units based on Malta is our maritime reconnaissance air squadrons, one of the main objectives being the surveillance of Soviet submarines which proliferate in the Mediterranean today. However, those squadrons could be based elsewhere. A possibility is Sicily, bearing in mind that Italy is a member of N.A.T.O.

The dockyard is no longer used to repair naval ships, though it is of use to merchant ships. However, with the Suez Canal closed, the dockyard has been run down because Malta is no longer on the main trade route.

Communications is another vitally important matter, but again to N.A.T.O. rather than to Britain. However, the communications facilities could be duplicated in, say, Naples.

Then, of course, we use Malta for submarine exercises. However, from the point of view of training, these activities could be better carried on from Gibraltar, where there is deeper water adjacent to the port.

Clearly, from the British and N.A.T.O. viewpoint, redeployment of our forces from Malta is possible. I do not want that to happen. I am sure that Her Majesty's Government do not. Equally, I am sure that N.A.T.O. does not. But it could happen.

I turn to a matter which has caused me some concern. I refer to the recent attacks upon the Conservative Government which have been made in the island. There has been a great deal of talk of a master and servant relationship. I do not want to introduce party politics into this debate, since both sides of the House are united in their affection for the Maltese people. However, I want to remind the House of certain facts. It was a Conservative Government who gave Malta her independence. Admittedly we started the rundown which, unfortunately, was inevitable. But we had our defence and financial agreements to reduce the impact of the rundown on Malta. It was the financial agreement which gave Malta about £5 million a year to help her change her economy from a defence basis to a civilian basis.

That grant or loan was continued by the next Government, though there was a hiatus of about 18 months while right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite argued whether it should be a grant or a loan. When we returned to power, the aid was restored on the original basis of a 75 per cent. grant and a 25 per cent. loan.

Even by agreeing to renegotiate the present agreement, Her Majesty's Government are making concessions. I remind the House that on 19th February, 1969, I asked the then Minister of Defence: Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the defence treaty with Malta signed on independence, has been abrogated? Are the British Government, going to have talks with the Maltese to see what the defence position is? The reply of the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) was clear. He said: No, Sir. The defence agreement is in force until September, 1974."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 19th February, 1969; Vol. 778, c. 442.] Clearly the Government of the day realised that there was no question of the Maltese Government abrogating the agreement. I suggest, therefore, that the argument which has been put forward by certain people in Malta is not valid.

As one who has known Malta since the age of 15, and who has visited the island frequently, perhaps I might be allowed to try to look at the problem from the point of view of the Maltese people. They have a new Government. Any new Government must prove themselves. The new Prime Minister, Dom Mintoff, is a dynamic figure. Quite rightly from his point of view he has set out to gain the maximum assistance for his country that he can obtain. Clearly, he has a good case when he says that the £5 million agreed some years ago should be more today in view of the fall in the value of money. It has been said in some newspapers that £5 million then is equivalent to about £7 million today.

Perhaps I might remind the House or one of two important historic precedents. I carry the House back to our talks between 1955 and 1957, when last Dom Mintoff was Prime Minister of the George Cross island. There was a round-table conference in 1955. In 1956, this House agreed to the integration proposals put forward by Mr. Mintoff. The financial proposals which accompanied the integration proposals were discussed in 1957. Perhaps I might remind the House what those proposals were, since they provide a precedent for the argument taking place today.

The then British Government said that they would give a capital development grant of £25 million spread over five years and that they would subsidise recurrent expenditure to the tune of over £1 million a year for social services, that is to say, one-third to one-half of expenditure on education, one-third on health, and one-quarter on other social services. The Maltese Prime Minister then demanded more, much more. He asked for a £22½ million industrial fund and for £4½ million spread over five years to support a national assistance fund. Her Majesty's Government did not agree. Thereupon, the Maltese Prime Minister refused to recommend integration to the Maltese people.

In the following year, 1958, the Maltese Government, still under Mr. Mintoff, demanded £6 million for their budgetary support. Her Majesty's Government agreed to £5 million. The Maltese Government then budgeted for £7 million and demanded that Her Majesty's Government should pay the deficit, the Maltese Prime Minister saying that he would resign when the money ran out in April, 1958. Her Majesty's Government did not agree to this proposal, and Mr. Mintoff carried out his threat by resigning in April, 1958. The Opposition refused to form a Government, and Mr. Mintoff was asked to stay on. Riots followed. Certain orders were given to the police by the Prime Minister. The Commissioner of Police appealed to the Governor. He was dismissed by the Prime Minister. The Governor upheld the Police Commissioner, the Prime Minister resigned, and the Governor took over the administration of the island.

I do not want to weary the House with the succeeding historical picture. There were a number of discussions and conferences, the Constitution was then suspended, and eventually Malta was given independence.

During this time Dom Mintoff made a fundamental change in policy. He dropped integration and said that his policy would be independence for Malta outside the Commonwealth. I am bringing these matters, which happened some years ago, to the attention of the House because I believe that history can repeat itself. There were ever-increasing financial demands. I believe that this could happen and perhaps is happening today. The Government of Malta put the Opposition in a difficult position. They were asking for more money from Britain, and the Opposition obviously could not say that they did not want it, because it was for the good of the Maltese people to have the money. I believe that the Opposition in Malta are in a similar difficulty today.

Then Dom Mintoff made a radical change of policy from integration to independence outside the Commonwealth. I believe that there may be a radical change of policy contemplated from being a Commonwealth country sharing the same Sovereign to quite different links, if any links are planned at all.

All who know Malta must be worried about the future. I believe that the Maltese themselves must be worried about the island's future, whatever political party they support.

As I see it, there are three possibilities. The first is brought out in today's The Guardian which suggests that Dom Mintoff is asking for £20 million or more and that this should not be paid wholly by Britain but should be shared with N.A.T.O. Certainly there seems to be some good sense in any such arrangement, if it can be reached. But we want to know how much the cost will be. Obviously there must be a limit. It seems that going in one jump from £5 million to £20 million is a major step.

The more important issue in this respect is whether Mr. Mintoff will allow N.A.T.O. the use of the island that it has so far enjoyed. I believe that the important thing here is not so much the financial question as the use of Malta not only by Britain but by N.A.T.O. without interference by the Government of Malta. In other words, will N.A.T.O. be allowed to use the facilities that the British and their N.A.T.O. allies now enjoy and have enjoyed in the past? Is such an agreement possible? If so, how long will it last? Agreements with Malta have been terminated rapidly from time to time. What guarantees have we that any such agreement will be continued?

The second possibility put forward in certain newspapers, which I believe unlikely, is that, if agreement is not reached with Britain and N.A.T.O., Mr. Mintoff will change course and move directly towards the East and give the use of the dockyard or the facilities of the island to the Soviet Union and their growing Navy in the Mediterranean. I do not believe that this is likely, because Malta is a devoutly Catholic country and would not tolerate the use of the island by the Soviet Union. Nor could the Soviet Union provide the work which the West can provide for the dockyard or for the tourist industry and so on.

There is a third possibility, a halfway house. This was suggested in an article in the Daily Telegraph on 27th July. It is some form of alliance with Arab Socialism. I should like to quote one paragraph from that article, which says: Western observers cannot see the Libyan Revolutionary Council making a hard and fast agreement pledging large-scale aid over a 10 to 15-year period, while Maltese long-term economic planning could hardly depend on such a factor as Col. Gaddafi. In other words, the Maltese delegation in Libya at the moment may be asking for financial aid. Can any financial aid from Libya be given in the long term? I believe that pinning the future of Malta to such aid would be very dangerous indeed. Nor do I believe that an alliance between Arab Socialism and a neutral Malta in the world we know today fits in with Malta's historic past.

I hope that the Maltese people appreciate that, with the best will in the world, there is a price in cash and in strategic realities beyond which neither Britain nor N.A.T.O. can go. We want Malta to rettain her rightful place. I should like to see Malta as a member of N.A.T.O. She has a right to be a member of N.A.T.O. and I am sorry that she was not given that right in recent years. As I said, I hope that the Maltese realise that there is a limit beyond which no Government or alliance such as N.A.T.O. can go. I hope very much that Malta's links with Britain will not be cut, because I believe that such a cut would go much further than the defence agreement and would mean a final cut involving the Crown, the Services, and the people of Britain and of Malta. I believe that such a cut would not only be disastrous for Malta, European Christian Malta, but would not be desired either by Her Majesty's Government or by the British people.

I realise that my noble Friend will not be able to say very much today, but I hope that he will be able to give some explanation of what is going on and hold out some hope that we can reach an amicable agreement with the new Government of Malta which would not only maintain the defence agreement but the links between our two peoples, which I am sure everybody believes to be so important.

6.6 p.m.

Mr. George Wallace (Norwich, North)

I am sure that the House is grateful to the hon. Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) for raising this issue. I appreciate, as he does, that the Minister will have some difficulty in giving an adequate reply because of the negotiations which are going on.

My whole family and I have a tremendous regard for the Maltese. They are devoted to family life. I am sure that their standards would be a good example to Britian's permissive society. We always admire close-knit family ties. Certainly the standard of their life and their friendliness is greatly appreciated.

I was on holiday with my wife in Malta during the General Election there. I hasten to add that I was minding my own business whilst there on holiday, although I was aware of the election because fly-posting is not illegal in Malta. I shall never know how they manage to attach posters to buildings of between 30 and 40 feet in height.

One of the background problems in Malta—this is where the immigration problem has raised a certain difficulty, and it was certainly the main feature behind the scenes in the election—was the need for housing for its own people. The previous Government, just before the election, rushed in a show house. I am sure that the House will understand that, at a period when magnificent new homes are being built for British people out there, the Maltese are to some extent denied the opportunity of good housing. There is a certain feeling about this matter, but fortunately it does not undermine the pro-British feeling.

The hon. Member for Haltemprice mentioned the Daily Telegraph. It may be bringing out some constructive ideas now, but during the election campaign its series of attacks on Dom Mintoff did not do much to help British understanding in Malta and may be a slight factor in the difficulties which we are now facing.

The House will know that the new Government of Malta has a majority of only one. It may be unique for a Government to have a majority of one, but the Prime Minister is carrying out his election promises. I had the manifesto of the Malta Labour Party. Unfortunately, it is in Maltese and I do not understand it. However, I have an English translation, thanks to the Malta News. The Prime Minister, in his election manifesto, said: (1) The people of Malta and Gozo must put aside corruption and live honestly. (2) Every citizen must do his part so that productivity increases. When the burden is fairly distributed, nobody will suffer. Then the manifesto deals with the defence problem in this way: It is the duty of the Government to make every effort so that funds Malta gets from foreign nations for serving them in the military field increase and that they will suffice for the needs of the nation. The aim has to be that within a short time we can stand on our feet economically without the need of exploiting our strategic position in the Mediterranean. In this way only can Malta attain the independence which all other countries have. Otherwise Malta will once again become a servant and an instrument of war in the hands of other countries. Point 7 in the manifesto deals with the Defence Treaty: The Defence Treaty will be reviewed and it must be made clear that the funds coming from the British Government are not charity but as payment for the facilities Malta is according to Britain. Payment has to be adequate for the needs of our country and Britain cannot automatically pass on these facilities to other Powers. That is obviously a reference to N.A.T.O. It will also be ascertained that the Defence Treaty will protect better jobs of Service Department employees, and that those sacked will have to be adequately compensated and alternative employment found for them. That was the manifesto during the General Election. The Prime Minister of Malta is now carrying it out. The British Government must have been aware that if Dom Mintoff became Prime Minister, as he was such a dynamic character, he would go in a headstrong manner—majority of one or not—to carry out what he had said during the election. The talking point in Malta has been the difference between one Prime Minister and the other—one a very nice gentleman who was a little slow in reaching decisions, the other a gentleman who rushes in and makes decisions.

Some people still think back to the old days. However, Malta is independent. I repeat that there is still a tremendous pro-British feeling. The target of the present Prime Minister can be summarised as being to raise the dignity of life of the Maltese people. We must recognise this in our negotiations. I know that he is not exactly easy to get on with. In 1965 I went to Malta with a C.P.A. delegation. I believe that that was the first British delegation to Malta. At that time the present Prime Minister had a terrific chip on his shoulder in connection with the Church.

We tried to establish contact with him. In the end the message reached us, "If you want to see me come to see me at my house. I will not come to you". We went. We sat down to discuss various things. We wanted to be helpful and friendly. All that Dom Mintoff kept saying was, "You have taken your Army and your Navy out. This is your problem. You give us the solution". He was suffering then because he felt that by withdrawing our Navy we had undermined the standard of life of his people.

The only way in which I was fortunate enough to be able to make contact with him and to get some constructive proposal when I referred to what I called Malta's human exports—the migrants. They were trained at a wonderful polytechnic, at a new university, and at an old university which I believe is even more ancient than Oxford. The end product is an aircraft to Australia.

That got him going, because at that time British aid in the main took the form of setting up textile factories to employ cheap women labour. There is still cheap women labour in Malta. My wife and I visited a shoe factory where girls were producing hand-made shoes for £2–£3 a week for a six-day week.

There seems to be some confusion about the start of the present negotiations. I have had some explanations from the Malta Office of Information. It seems as if we rushed out there before arrangements were made for a proper set of negotiations.

I agree to a great extent with the hon. Gentleman on the question of N.A.T.O. Today the Press carries a report of the effect that the British Government are to approach N.A.T.O with a view to N.A.T.O. sharing some of the cost of the presence of the island. Anyone who goes to Floriana and looks across from the hotel there can see N.A.T.O.'s building flaunting flags, and so on: the building is visible from many parts of the island. If only Britain is making a contribution and N.A.T.O. is not, it is common sense for us to try to persuade N.A.T.O. to make a contribution.

It is just for the Maltese to say that the money we have paid and are paying has changed in value and that there is a case for stepping it up. I do not know what the Navy can do. There is little change in the set up of the dockyard. I hope that it will work. It is a shame that so many people are being kept idle and are being paid for being idle when this tremendous project and all the skilled people could be used. Could not we get work, particularly from the Navy, into the dockyard?

I repeat that I have a tremendous regard for the Maltese. They are so kind, so gentle, so downright honest as to the great majority of them, and they have such a good moral standard of life, that we should do better for them. We should go out with good feeling and good will seeking to solve this difficult problem. Very shortly the Maltese Parliament will meet. If our negotiators can swallow a little of Dom Mintoffs acid approach I believe that we can get places.

It is not our business as back bench Members to get involved. As I said, it was a tremendous temptation during the General Election out there, but I kept clear of it. I came back with a souvenir key chain carrying a picture of Dom Mintoff. The people said to me with pride—I am sure that the Government will not apreciate this— "Mr. Wallace, here is our leader doing a Harold Wilson". He was smoking a pipe. I do not think that Dom Mintoff will have time to write his memoirs for some time to come.

Mr. William Hamling (Woolwich, West)

He will not get as much money, either.

Mr. Wallace

I agree with what my hon. Friend said, but the Maltese system of taxation is a little different. During the General Election the Government party pledged themselves to abolish income tax. Dom Mintoff got elected because he promised to introduce P.A.Y.E.

There is a strong pro-Malta Lobby on both sides of the House. I appeal to the Government to do their best, to ignore one or two little kicks, and to tell the Daily Telegraph to behave itself, which is what it should have done during the General Election out there. The Daily Telegraph did not help. However, I hope that it will not blacklist me tomorrow.

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