HC Deb 17 January 1972 vol 829 cc41-9
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 on recent developments concerning our defence arrangements with Malta.

The position when the House rose for the recess was that the Malta Government had been offered £9½ million per annum in return for a satisfactory new defence arrangement. At the Chequers meeting in September, it had been agreed that the Malta Government would receive a six-month interim payment on the basis of that offer. Accordingly, the British Government had made a payment of £4¾ million on 30th September for the period up to the end of March.

Over Christmas, Mr. Mintoff demanded immediate payment of another £4¼ million, for the next three months, as the only basis on which he could permit the continued presence of British forces in Malta after 31st December. The British Government, of course, could not accept this demand, and they announced on 29th December that they were setting in hand preparations for the withdrawal of British forces in Malta, though they remained ready to continue to talk. The decision to withdraw was one which the Government took with the greatest regret. But throughout their negotiations with Mr. Mintoff they had made clear that they would not seek to maintain British forces in Malta against the wishes of the Malta Government.

Mr. Mintoff subsequently extended his deadline for the withdrawal of our forces until 15th January. Since there were suggestions that the Malta Government might contemplate taking measures against our remaining forces after that date, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister sent messages to Mr. Mintoff concerning the withdrawal. He made clear that we wished the withdrawal to be as orderly, amicable and expeditious as possible, though it would be physically impracticable to complete it by 15th January. He assured Mr. Mintoff of our sincere wish that any harm done to our relations by the failure to reach agreement on a defence arrangement and our consequent withdrawal should be as little and as short-lived as possible.

In the circumstances, the Government decided that every effort should be made to withdraw at least the families of our forces before 15th January. A special airlift was mounted for this purpose, and the House will wish to congratulate those responsible for the efficiency of the arrangements that were made, not least for the reception of the families in this country. The other stages of the withdrawal are proceeding according to plan. The reconnaissance aircraft that were based in Malta have already been redeployed elsewhere; and the forces which remain in Malta will be fully engaged from now on in the massive task of removing the large quantity of equipment and stores which we have there, as well as ensuring an orderly and phased handover of installations to the Maltese authorities.

Throughout the course of our exchanges with the Malta Government we have kept in the closest touch with our N.A.T.O. allies in view of their interest in the continued denial of Malta's strategic facilities to a potential enemy and in the use of these facilities to support N.A.T.O.'s southern flank. As the House knows, the retention of British forces in Malta is nowadays in the interests of the Alliance as a whole rather than of this country alone. The financial offer therefore, which has been available to the Malta Government since September, was made by the British Government on behalf of N.A.T.O. This offer, of a basic annual figure at a level closely approaching £10 million, was fair and, indeed, generous. Moreover, the Maltese economy would have continued to benefit from the local expenditure of the British forces—recently running at about £13 million per annum—and some of Britain's N.A.T.O. allies subsequently offered to contribute a substantial additional amount of bilateral economic support totalling £7 million spread over a period. The British Government have for some time made clear that for their part they do not contemplate increasing their own contribution to this offer, in view of all the other costs of maintaining a British military presence in Malta which fall on the British Government anyway. On the other hand, we have, of course, no objection to any of our allies offering further contributions to Malta in return for a satisfactory new defence agreement, if they judge this to be necessary in the interests of the Alliance.

The latest development is that, by mutual arrangement and through the good offices of the Italian Government, meetings were held in Rome last Saturday attended by the Prime Minister of Malta, the Italian Foreign Minister, the Secretary-General of N.A.T.O. and my right hon. and noble Friend the Defence Secretary. Some progress was made, and after the meetings Mr. Mintoff announced the removal of the deadline of 15th January. A further Ministerial meeting is expected to take place in Rome later this week, and official-level talks in Valletta are also being resumed immediately.

Since the talks are continuing, I would not wish to go into detail about them. The British Government for their part will continue, in close consultation with their allies, to do all they can to ensure that a satisfactory agreement, beneficial to both sides, is reached. But the gap which remains is still wide, and the process of orderly withdrawal will continue unless and until it becomes clear that such an agreement can be reached.

Mr. Healey

While thanking the Foreign Secretary for his statement and welcoming the signs that negotiations may now be resumed, and even more the statement by the noble Lord the Secretary of State for Defence that there is now a 50 per cent. chance of solution, may I say that many on this side of the House will have been surprised by the sour and ungracious tone in which the right hon. Gentleman referred to the contributions which have already been and may yet be made by our N.A.T.O. allies? We on this side of the House agree that there should be no increase in the British contribution. Indeed, if any money is available to create jobs, we believe that it should be used to create jobs in Britain rather than in Malta. But now that the other N.A.T.O. countries are clearly prepared to make a financial contribution commensurate with their interest in Malta as members of the Alliance, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us why the Government were so angry and embarrassed last week when the Americans finally came forward with a contribution, why they attempted to conceal this offer, which was made at least 12 days ago, from the Maltese Government, and why it took the rather improbable alliance of the Secretary-General of N.A.T.O. and my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Mr. Driberg) to get communications restored?

The Foreign Secretary has rightly stated a point which was pressed on the House by myself as Secretary of State for Defence and hotly contested by the Conservative Party some years ago, that Britain's and N.A.T.O.'s interest in Malta is not so much to have forces there ourselves as to prevent the Russians having a base there. Will the Foreign Secretary recognise in the course of the negotiations that a solution is much more likely if it de-emphasises the political and military alignment of Malta with N.A.T.O. and concentrates rather on eliminating the possible use of the base by Soviet forces? An agreement along these lines is more likely to receive the continued support of the Maltese people as well as being compatible with progress towards conciliation between the West and Russia in the Mediterranean.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The right hon. Gentleman has got this wrong. So far from concealing any offer made by an ally towards a solution with Malta, we have been pressing our allies month by month to raise some extra money over and above what we ourselves are willing to subscribe. Therefore, the right hon. Gentleman really has got his facts wrong on this matter.

There are to be further talks, so I do not want to go further into the finances now. However, there is this impartant question of aid in the future which I have no doubt would be available from allied countries. This would be of enormous value to Malta if Mr. Mintoff would take it in that form.

Mr. Healey

The right hon. Gentleman must not seek to present the facts other than as they were—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Is the Foreign Secretary denying that the American Government made this offer of an increased financial contribution at least as long ago as 8th January, that the British Government declared themselves extremely annoyed when the Maltese Government were informed of this offer by the American Government, that it took several days of persuasion by the Secretary-General of N.A.T.O. to convince the British Government that they must start negotiating again with the Maltese Government, and that the attempt to establish these negotiations did not in fact begin until Friday and Saturday of last week?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

In the presentation of facts, few of us are in the same league as the right hon. Gentleman. He really is talking grotesque nonsense in this matter. Certain figures were bandied about in the Press which bore no relation to fact, and to state that we discouraged the American Government from making any offer to the Maltese Government is totally untrue.

Sir J. Langford-Holt

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the main point of the Government of Malta is the future financial stability of the island. He will also be aware that many British firms, with the help of the Malta Development Corporation, have invested large sums of money and that events in the last three months have been shattering to their confidence. Has my right hon. Friend received any undertaking that in any future agreement these investments will be safeguarded?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We have received no undertaking in this respect; but we have so far been negotiating on the terms of a defence agreement. We have not had any undertaking in that respect yet, but we hope to get one in the renewed negotiations.

Mr. Driberg

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Mr. Mintoff's lifting of the Saturday deadline became known a day or two before the date which he has mentioned and that this contributed to the new atmosphere in which it was possible for the talks to start again? Will he confirm that when the talks start again this week—I think on Wednesday—they will begin from a new agreed starting point? Whether or not the right hon. Gentleman can now mention any figure for that new starting point, will he ask his right hon. and noble Friend to try to inject into the discussions a little of that humanity, psychological insight and sensitivity which so far has been sadly lacking in Her Majesty's Government's approach? Why is the right hon. Gentleman so rough with Mintoff and so soft with Smith?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

On a point about sensitivity, I think that everyone in this House wants an agreement with Malta, not only for reasons of sentiment, but because, as the right hon. Gentleman said, it is important for the protection of N.A.T.O.'s southern flank. We are all working for that, but I think that the hon. Gentleman, having just visited Malta, must recognise some of the difficulties of finding the money which Mr. Mintoff wants. The next negotiations no doubt will take place after the Secretary General of N.A.T.O. has been able to discover from the N.AT.O. allies whether there is any further money which they are able to subscribe.

Mr. Fisher

Is it not possible that Mr. Mintoff may lose more on the swings of less British private investment in Malta and less expenditure in Malta by British Service families than he gains on the roundabouts of increased N.A.T.O. aid?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

One of the great troubles here is that once confidence is shaken it is not easily restored.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that five or six years ago when the Labour Administration were running down defence facilities in Malta the then Opposition disagreed violently with that and argued in the House that there was a need to increase the facilities in Malta? Why have the present Administration changed their mind?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I must remind the hon. Gentleman that we did not start this controversy. We made a defence agreement which, in our view, still holds. We still hope to be able to make a satisfactory defence agreement which will meet N.A.T.O.'s needs.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Will my right hon. Friend accept that while hon. Members on this side of the House have the warmest feelings for Malta, and would welcome a fair settlement, they believe that the Government have been right to avoid giving in to financial blackmail?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We have offered what are really very generous terms in relation to anything done in the past. We spend a great deal of money there, and we have been very generous, too, in aid.

Mr. Duffy

However difficult and unpredictable Mr. Mintoff may be in negotiations, will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that his needs are different from and more urgent than those of Her Majesty's Government, and will he urge on his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister the need to avoid giving the impression of undue sensitivity and lack of generosity and, above all, of reinforcing his own political and electoral image at the expense of the Maltese people?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We have given the Maltese twice what we gave under the original agreement with Dr. Borg Olivier. I do not see how the hon. Gentleman can suggest that we have been ungenerous. As regards sensitivity and the desire to reach an agreement, I assure the hon. Gentleman and the people of Malta that we seek it as urgently as anybody else.

Mr. Peel

In view of what has been said by right hon. Friends and hon. Gentlemen opposite, could my right hon. Friend tell us whether the Labour Administration pressed our allies to invite Malta to join N.A.T.O., and if not, why not? Surely that is the most practical proposition?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I do not think that I can answer that question on behalf of the right hon. Gentleman, if not, why not?

Mr. Heffer

Will the right hon. Gentleman clear up one matter which has confused many Members and, I think, people outside? It has repeatedly been reported in the Press that the Foreign Office has said that Mintoff has talked in terms of an agreement, or possible future agreement, with the Warsaw Pact coutries. In the Sunday Times, Mr. Terry said that at the Chequers meeting assurances were given by Mr. Mintoff to the Prime Minister that there would not be any discussion with the Warsaw Pact countries, and that that matter had been cleared out of the way. There has been a lot of confusion. There has obviously been a lot of deliberate falsification of this issue. It think that the country has a right to know the truth about this matter.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We do not believe that Mr. Mintoff wants to see the presence of an Iron Curtain country in Malta—the Soviet Union or anybody else. But, irrespective of that, leaving that to one side, we want to see a defence agreement made with Mr. Mintoff on its merits, because we think it is important that Britain should be there on behalf of the N.A.T.O. allies.

Mr. Healey

May I help the right hon. Gentleman? Would he not agree that the reason the Labour Government did not invite Malta to join N.A.T.O. is the reason the Conservative Government are not taking that step? Would he not also accept that it is a remarkable thing that this Government, unlike the Labour Government, have succeeded in uniting Archbishop Gonzi and Mr. Mintoff against Britain?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I do not want to rub it in, but the right hon. Gentleman and his party got no agreement at all with Malta.