HC Deb 15 February 1972 vol 831 cc254-9
The Minister of State for Defence (Lord Balniel)

Mr. Speaker, with permission, I should like to repeat a statement that has been made in another place by my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Defence about the progress of negotiations for a new defence agreement with the Maltese Government The statement reads as follows: The fourth round of talks in Rome on 7th and 8th February was attended by the Prime Minister of Malta, the Foreign Minister of Italy, the Secretary General of N.A.T.O. and myself. Dr. Luns and I confirmed the financial offer of the Alliance and made other proposals relating to our requirements for a defence agreement, with a view to bringing to a conclusion the negotiations which have been in progress since Mr. Mintoff formed a Government in June last year. In conjunction with our N.A.T.O. partners, we have offered payments at a level of £14 million per annum over seven-and-a-half years. These payments, which would be conditional on the signing of a satisfactory defence agreement, would take effect from 1st October, 1971. In addition, the Maltese Government have been offered bilateral economic support by certain members of the Alliance totalling more than £7 million in all. We would require in return to be able to deploy our forces in Malta, for national and N.A.T.O. defence purposes, and to have satisfactory arrangements for the exclusion or restriction of forces from countries outside N.A.T.O. During successive rounds of negotiations progress has been made towards defining the terms of an agreement. We have made clear that we would be prepared to release certain land and fixed assets required by the Maltese Government. To enable the Maltese Government to operate Luqa as a civil airport under their own arrangements at the end of a new agreement, we have offered to train and employ at British expense the necessary number of Maltese personnel. But throughout the period of a new agreement Luqa airport as a whole would continue to be controlled by the R.A.F., who would, as now, give full consideration to the requirements of civil aviation. We have also offered to meet the full net costs of running the Malta Flight Information Region, instead of only doing so in part as at present. If a satisfactory defence agreement can be reached, the British Government would expect to deploy Forces in Malta at a level that would ensure a substantial contribution to Malta's economy. But I have made clear to Mr. Mintoff that the reduction of Maltese supporting personnel has not kept pace with the rundown of our Forces which began in 1967. We should in any case have had to reduce substantially the resent number of some 6, 000 civilian and uniformed employees. The reduction now required is of the order of 1,600. To mitigate the effects of the reduction, I have shown readiness to discuss with Mr. Mintoff how the necessary reductions, over and above normal retirements and resignations, might be phased. Special terminal benefits would continue to be made available to those becoming redundant during the rundown period. In addition, we have offered to employ 200 men at our expense, at a cost of up to £1 million, to carry out the repair of historic buildings for the Maltese Government. We have also offered to bring the take-home pay of Maltese locally-enlisted personnel serving away from Malta up to the level of the equivalent British Servicemen and to carry out an out-of-cycle pay review for all Maltese uniformed personnel. The Secretary General and I asked the Maltese Government to indicate whether they accepted our proposals as a basis for a new agreement. A reply is awaited. We and our N.A.T.O. Allies still hope that the Maltese Government will state their readiness, on the basis I have already indicated, to conclude an agreement which would satisfy N.A.T.O. and British requirements. In that event, detailed negotiations could be resumed forthwith. Meanwhile, the withdrawal of British Forces and equipment continues in response to the request made by the Maltese Government at the end of last year. In the absence of new developments, withdrawal will be completed before 31st March. It will accordingly he necessary shortly to issue final discharge notices to the total of about 6,000 Maltese civilian and uniformed personnel we now employ. But it remains the British Government's hope that the Maltese Government will find it possible to accept the N.A.T.O. offer, which we believe is fair.

Dr. David Owen

I am sure the whole House hopes that the friendly relations established in both peace and war between our two countries will be able to continue under the new defence agreement.

Is the Minister aware, however, that we on this side of the House condemn the clumsy and often insensitive way in which, particularly in the early part, the negotiations—[Interruption.]—were conducted? Once again the Prime Minister's obduracy and insensitivity characterised these negotiations. [Interruption.]

Hon. Gentlemen opposite must listen to criticism even if they do not like it.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that they must listen to a question. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear hear."]

Dr. Owen

Thank you for reminding me, Mr. Speaker.

Is the Minister of State aware that my hon. Friends and I condemn the clumsy way in which these negotiations have been conducted and that we do not like the peremptoriness of the Prime Minister's initial approach to these delicate and difficult negotiations? Will the Minister of State confirm that his statement is not an ultimatum and that he remains flexible on the detail of the negotiations.

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House the total cost to be paid by the British Government per year under the seven-and-a-half-years of the agreement? Will he also explain what "exclusion" means? Does it cover only the Warsaw Pact countries? For example, will Libyan vessels be allowed to put into Malta? What about bunkering facilities?

In relation to the delicate and difficult question of the 1,600 redundancies, will the British Government be prepared to conduct negotiations with the Maltese trade unions as well as with the Government of Malta?

Finally, many Servicemen and their families in this country have been gravely inconvenienced because of the negotiations and I am sure that all hon. Members in the House will extend sympathy to them and hope that an early settlement can be achieved.

Lord Balniel

Certainly, it is the hope of Her Majesty's Government to continue the friendly relations which have existed, and which we believe do exist, between ourselves and the Maltese people and Government. But I most certainly cannot accept the criticism made by the hon. Gentleman about the way in which negotiations have been conducted. Under the 1964 agreement the outstanding payments would have been of the order of about £3.5 million a year to 1974. In addition, £3 million aid for dockyards would have been paid over the years 1974–75, and 1975–76. In contrast to these figures, the N.A.T.O. offer is worth £14 million a year, and, in addition, £7 million in economic aid would be paid by other members of the N.A.T.O. Alliance under bilateral agreements. The United Kingdom contribution to the N.A.T.O. offer is £5.25 million. This, I should have thought, would generally be regarded as not clumsy negotiating but a very generous offer made for defence facilities.

The hon. Gentleman asked in particular whether we could treat with great care the very sensitive and human problem of the redundancies. My right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Defence indicated in another place today that this matter will receive our most close attention and that he will be flexible in this matter.

Mr. Russell Johnston

Without making any comment on the way in which the negotiations have been conducted, may I ask whether the Minister will agree that it is a clear fact that since what he has described as generous proposals have been made this indicates that there has been a grievous failure in the past to recognise what is obviously now admitted to be a justifiable complaint of the Maltese people and that had there been recognition earlier this whole crisis might have been averted? Secondly, may I ask him whether he can say anything at all about the main grounds of disagreement which are left, to which he briefly referred? Finally, have the Maltese Government been asked whether they could postpone their request for withdrawal of British troops pending a final decision on negotiations?

Lord Balniel

I do not accept the premise of the hon. Gentleman's question in that I do not accept that there has been any crisis in what has been a process of negotiation. I do, however, concede that the negotiations have been very prolonged and should be brought to a conclusion as soon as possible.

The hon. Gentleman asked what are the main outstanding problems. They revolve around the financial provision which I have already outlined. Mr. Mintoff and the Maltese Government have changed their stance on this position on a number of occasions. N.A.T.O. has made its offer, and Mr. Mintoff is now consulting with his colleagues, and it would be wrong for me to attempt to anticipate his decision.

The other major problem is that referred to by the hon. Gentleman, which is the employment of Maltese personnel. Several concessions have been made by the United Kingdom in the course of the negotiations. The main issues are over the 1,600 Maltese who will be surplus to our requirements, and the rate of pay of locally-enlisted personnel who are serving with the Forces in Malta. Those remain the two main outstanding problems.

Mr. Ramsden

Could my right hon. Friend say another word or two on the £1 million for the repair of historic buildings, which will be welcomed in view of their outstandingly high quality? Would this be extra to the £21 million, and would the work be done by Maltese or British artisans?

Lord Balniel

This is extra money which we are making available for the repair of historic buildings in Malta which we believe will be of assistance in developing their tourist trade. Also, it would involve the employment by us of 200 Maltese men in fulfilment of this task.

Mr. Wallace

Is the Minister aware that there are many in this House and in the country who are most concerned about the welfare and well-being of the people of Malta and the hurt done to the feelings of many individuals in the negotiations, and would he consider slowing down the withdrawal of British Forces in order that negotiations might be favourably concluded? This is a case in which we must remember the past as well as look forward to the future as far as the Maltese are concerned. Britain still owes Malta a debt, and the Government and the nation should recognise this and conduct the negotiations with extreme patience.

Lord Balniel

There is no question of any hurt feelings, and I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, whose interest in the well-being of Malta is well known, that the human problems are of very great importance. The position is that 6,100 Maltese will be made redundant if we withdraw compared with 1,600 if we stay. As to the timing the withdrawal, as I have explained, is being conducted at the request of the Maltese Government and if continued will be concluded by the end of March.

Mr. Sandys

Leaving aside the financial aspect of the negotiations, can my right hon. Friend tell the House whether there is basically agreement already between the two sides with regard to the military facilities which are being asked for and also on the question of the denial of facilities to other countries such as the Soviet Union? Is that more or less agreed, and is the financial question the only one outstanding at present?

Lord Balniel

I am afraid I cannot go as far as I should like in answering what my right hon. Friend suggests. A proposal has been put forward by Her Majesty's Government on behalf of N.A.T.O. It covers various factors, military and financial, and until we receive a reply from the Maltese Government I am afraid I cannot anticipate which parts are acceptable to the Maltese Government.