§ 4.0 p.m.
§ THE LORD PRESIDENT OF THE COUNCIL (THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY)
My Lords, although the House has completed its Business for to-day, I felt sure that it would be the wish of noble Lords in all parts of the House that we should adjourn during pleasure and then reassemble so as to enable me to make a statement which is being made by my right honourable friend the Lord Privy Seal in another place.
The House will understand that a debate is taking place in the General Assembly of the United Nations and that my right honourable arid learned friend the Foreign Secretary has not yet spoken. Under these circumstances, noble Lords will understand. I am sure, that to-day I can do no more than make an interim report on the position. I think that this may best be done by giving an account of the replies which are being sent to certain questions put to us by the Secretary-General of the United Nations. His first question was:Has any withdrawal taken place and, if so, to what extent?Her Majesty's Government, as an earnest of their intention to withdraw from Egypt as soon as the conditions they have specified are completed, have welcomed the arrival of the United Nations troops in Port Said and have stated that they are prepared to withdraw a British battalion. Her Majesty's Government are assisting and co-operating with the United Nations Command in the discharge of its task. In particular, they have arranged for the main body of the Yugoslav contingent to disembark at Port Said and to be assisted in transit. They are undertaking to provide the necessary vehicles for the Norwegian medical company and military transport for the Indian infantry battalion which will form part of the United Nations force. Detailed arrangements for meeting these and other United Nations requirements are being concerted by the Anglo-French and the United Nations Commands.
The Secretary-General's second question is:Can anything be said concerning the plans for withdrawal?542 On this point I would recall the statement made by the Prime Minister to the House on November 6:If the Secretary-General can confirm, that the Egyptian and Israeli Governments have accepted an unconditional cease-fire and that the International Force to be set up will be competent to secure and supervise the attainment of the objectives set out in the operative paragraphs of the resolution passed by the General Assembly on November 2, Her Majesty's Government will agree to stop further military operations.As a consequence of the steps taken to establish the United Nations Force in pursuance of the Assembly's resolution on November 7, Her Majesty's Government ordered the cessation of military operations. We have made it clear that we are ready to hand over to a United Nations Force which will be competent to discharge effectively the tasks assigned to it by the Assembly.
On a number of issues, progress has been and will be made. But here I must say that the unsatisfactory element in the Secretary-General's report which was published last night relates to the clearance of the Suez Canal outside the area of our control. As the House will be aware, the Egyptians deliberately and systematically sabotaged the Canal, sinking forty-seven ships and destroying two bridges. Colonel Nasser has suggested that this was because of the military action we took. This is obviously a fabrication. There can be no excuse for this act of wanton folly. I am glad to report that we have made excellent progress in clearing the part of the Canal which is under our control. Clearance vessels were attached to the Allied Naval Task Force and they began work as soon. as we occupied Port Said. We are also moving up or preparing a large fleet of salvage reinforcements amounting to some twenty-eight vessels. We hope that by the end of this week we shall have cleared a channel 25 ft. draught and 65 ft. beam, which will allow the passage of ships of 10.000 tons by early next week. The way is now clear for salvage forces to go forward beyond the limit of the Allied occupation.
The House should know that the Secretary-General's report does not seem to take full account of the Assembly's resolution of November 2, urging that, upon the cease-fire being effective, steps should be taken to reopen the Suez 543 Canal and to restore secure freedom of navigation, although it is true that he does envisage assistance from sources not directly approached by the United Nations. For all concerned, the clearance of the Canal is vital and urgent. This is the view underlined yesterday in an impressive statement by the International Chamber of Shipping. My right honourable and learned friend the Foreign Secretary has been asked to urge most strongly that, in view of world interest in expediting the clearance of the Canal, in view of our undertaking to begin the withdrawal of our troops and in view of the fact that the stretch of the Canal under our control will very shortly be cleared, there should be no unnecessary delay in starting the work in the Egyptian held area.
Finally, the Secretary-General asks:What is in your view the state of affairs as to compliance with the cease-fire?The cease-fire has been and is being strictly observed by the Anglo-French forces. Egyptian troops and civilians, who have been supplied with arms, have on several occasions opened fire without provocation on Anglo-French units. Your Lordships will have heard with indignation that the Egyptian Government has seen fit to publish the most reckless charges against the conduct of British troops. The House should give no credence to reports made by the present Egyptian Government. Last week, for example, the Egyptian Government formally complained to the Secretary-General of the United Nations that in violation of the cease-fire agreement, British armoured cars had driven south of the demarcation line. It was at once established and confirmed by the United Nations observers that not only was the allegation untrue, but that no armoured cars whatever had been disembarked at Port Said.
In conclusion, I would only say that we are witnessing an attempt by the United Nations to organise an effective intervention in an area which has long threatened the peace of the world. This intervention has been made possible by Franco-British action. If it succeeds—and we intend to sustain the efforts of my right honourable and learned friend the Foreign Secretary to make it succeed—a precedent will have been set which will give mankind hope for the future.
§ 4.8 p.m.
§ LORD HENDERSON
My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Marquess for the long statement that he has just been good enough to make to the House. There is one point that I should like to raise, but before putting that point I would assure him that we on this side of the House do not in any way accept the reckless charges, to which he refers, which are being made against the British Forces carrying out their duty in that part of the world. With regard to the statement as a whole, I find it a little difficult to understand exactly what Her Majesty's Government intend to do about withdrawal. It is a little difficult, following a rather long statement, to grasp exactly what is intended. Therefore, I would ask the noble Marquess whether he can give me a straight answer to a simple question—I think that this is the only way in which I can submit what I want to put before the noble Marquess. Is it the intention of the Government to withdraw British Forces from Egypt in accordance and in compliance with any decision taken by the United Nations? I put it in that simple form because I think it expresses exactly what we should like to know.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, of course the actual form of the withdrawal must depend upon the discussions which I have no doubt will take place between the Secretary-General and the representatives of the British Government. I read out the statement by my honourable friend the Prime Minister on November 6, which said [OFFICIAL REPORT (Commons), Vol. 559 (No. 1), col. 76]:If the Secretary-General can confirm that the Egyptian and Israeli Governments have accepted an unconditional cease-fire and that the International Force to be set up will be competent to secure and supervise the attainment of the objectives set out in the operative paragraphs of the resolution passed by the General Assembly on 2nd November, Her Majesty's Government will agree to stop further military operations.That applies equally to the withdrawal. We agree in principle to the withdrawal. Supposing all British troops were immediately withdrawn before adequate United Nations Forces arrive, that, clearly, would create a vacuum which might have deplorable results. But, as I say, we have in principle agreed to 545 withdrawal, and it will really be for us and the Secretary-General of the United Nations to work out the details.
§ LORD HENDERSON
My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Marquess for that answer, but further to it I should like to ask this question. In the statement which he quoted, the Prime Minister said, on November 6:If the Secretary-General can confirm that the Egyptian and Israeli Governments have accepted an unconditional cease-fire, and that the International Force to be set up will be competent …and so on. I would draw attention to the words:If the Secretary-General can confirm …I take them to mean that the decision as to whether the International Force is "competent" or not will rest with the Secretary-General. If that is the case, presumably, in the light of this statement and what the noble Marquess has said, when the United Nations call for the complete withdrawal of British Forces, the withdrawal will take place. It will be the Secretary-General, and not Her Majesty's Government, who will decide whether the United Nations Force is competent or not.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, as noble Lords will appreciate, this is a very delicate position for any Government spokesman, because the debate in the United Nations is at present in progress and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is now in New York. He is in close touch with the Secretary-General, and I do not want to say anything which would not be in conformity with what is being done there. All I would say at the present stage is that I do not withdraw from anything said by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. I do not think I can go further than that to-day.
§ LORD SILKIN
My Lords, of course this is not the occasion for debating the statement, but the noble Marquess will appreciate that on this side of the House it is not considered to be entirely satisfactory. We feel that our Forces have no legal right to be there, and that they ought to withdraw at the request of, and in accordance with the requirements of, the United Nations. It is not for the 546 Government to make conditions. I should like to ask the noble Marquess whether he has any idea when the Foreign Secretary will be returning, and whether it will be possible to have an early debate, possibly next week.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, I think that is a perfectly fair question. I do not know, to a day, when my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary will return—it depends on events in New York—but I do not expect his return to be at all long delayed. He will be here, I hope, very soon. I entirely agree with the request of the noble Lord that there should be a debate when he has returned and when the time is appropriate. As your Lordships know, it has been our practice in this House usually to allow another place to hold their debate first, probably because the responsible Minister is so often in that House and it is only fair that he should be given the chance of speaking first. Perhaps I may keep in touch with noble Lords opposite, and when the day for a debate in another place has been fixed I shall be happy to arrange a day convenient to them.