HL Deb 23 October 1956 vol 199 cc934-8

4.5 p.m.

THE MARQUESS OF READING

My Lords, perhaps it will be convenient to your Lordships if, with the permission of the House. I make the promised statement on the Suez Canal at this moment. Since the House last met on the 13th of September. there have been, as noble Lords will know, a number of important developments. The Foreign Ministers of the eighteen Powers which supported the proposals endorsed at the First London Conference met at a Second Conference in London to consider the situation caused by the Egyptian Government's refusal to negotiate on the basis of these proposals. They decided unanimously that certain observations made by Colonel Nasser after Mr. Menzies' departure were too imprecise to afford a useful basis for discussion. This Conference further decided to establish a Suez Canal Users' Association, to function in accordance with the principles laid down in the Declaration which was agreed by the Conference on the 21st of September.

Fifteen of the eighteen nations have now become members of the Association, which was officially inaugurated on the 1st of October. The remaining three nations have reserved their decision, but have continued to be represented at meetings of the Association as observers. The Users' Association has held a number of meetings, in which the problems of organisation, finance and operation have been thoroughly examined. Some progress has been made, and an Administrator has been appointed. It is our hope that the work of building up the Association will proceed rapidly. These developments, including the discussions with our friends at the Second London Conference, satisfied us that the moment had come to place this question before the Security Council. We had, a fortnight earlier, foreshadowed this move by our preliminary letter to the Security Council. On the 23rd of September the representatives of the United Kingdom and France in New York addressed a joint letter to the President of the Security Council and requested him to summon a meeting of the Council to consider the situation caused by the unilateral action of the Egyptian Government.

The Security Council met between the 5th of October and the 13th of October. I will not pretend to the House that Her Majesty's Government are fully satisfied with the results of these discussions. Once again attempts to achieve a just settlement of a problem have been frustrated by the 78th veto cast by the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, certain solid advantages were gained. The most significant feature was that the case which the French Foreign Minister and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary laid before the Security Council received overwhelming endorsement. Nine of the eleven members of the Council, in spite of the veto, specifically approved the proposals of the 18 Powers and called upon Egypt either to accept them or to put forward promptly an alternative system with no less effective guarantees. Similarly the non-Communist Powers also endorsed the Suez Canal Users' Association, recognised its competence to receive dues payable by ships of its members, and expressed the opinion that the competent Egyptian authorities should co-operate with the Association to ensure the satisfactory operation of the Canal, and free and open transit through it, pending a definitive settlement.

The position then was at the end of the Security Council meeting, and the position still is, that the Egyptian Government have been called on to put forward promptly their proposals. They have not done so. Part of the resolution at the Security Council was unanimously approved. That part set out six principles which must govern any solution of Suez Canal problems. We are told that the Government of Egypt accept these principles. Their representative at the Security Council said so. But there seems to be a gap between Egypt's acceptance of the principles and definition on her part of the means to apply them. What has to be done is to construct a system to provide the users of the Canal with adequate guarantees of efficiency and non-discrimination to replace the system which has been destroyed by the Egyptian Government. For this we need proposals, not the mere acceptance of principles. We still await these proposals.

Throughout the negotiations Her Majesty's Government have kept in close contact with the other members of the 18-Power group who represent over 90 per cent. of the user interest in the Canal from all five continents. It is our determination to continue to work for a solution under which there are guarantees to the users not less effective than those sought by the proposals of the 18 Powers.

4.12 p.m.

LORD HENDERSON

My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Marquess for his statement summarising the developments since the last discussion in your Lordships' House. I am not going to comment on the contents of the statement, other than to make two general observations, and I should like, also, to ask a question. First, I should like to say how much we welcome the constructive advance made by the Security Council in the unanimous acceptance of the six principles which are intended to govern a settlement of this Suez issue. Secondly, we welcome the helpful part played by the Secretary-General of the United Nations in the special private discussions which took place in New York.

The question I should like to ask of the noble Marquess arises out of a passage towards the end of the statement: that Her Majesty's Government and the other Governments working with them are still awaiting what I might call the counter-proposals of the Egyptian Government; that is to say, the Egyptian proposals for giving effect to the six principles. I gather from this statement that they have not yet been made; nor, apparently, have Her Majesty's Government any idea of when those counter proposals will be submitted to them. My question is this. Is it the view of Her Majesty's Government that these counter proposals should be given to them prior to a resumption of the private negotiations; or might it not be that, with the resumption of the private negotiations, the Egyptian counter proposals would then be submitted? I hope I have made the point clear, and that the noble Marquess may be able to give me an answer.

THE MARQUESS OF READING

My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord for what he has said about the statement, and I recognise completely the point of the question he has asked. What has happened is that more recently, after the departure of the French Foreign Minister and my right honourable friend, the Egyptian Foreign Minister and the Secretary-General of the United Nations continued to carry on discussions. We have had certain additional information from the Secretary-General as to the trend of those discussions, but we have not yet received anything in the nature of what we can call positive proposals. The view of Her Majesty's Government is that the proceedings at the Security Council placed upon the Egyptian Government the onus of producing certain far more definite proposals than anything that we had yet seen, and that if we are going to have successful discussions it is necessary that we and those associated with us should have the opportunity to study those definite proposals in advance of any further discussion. I hope that answers the question of the noble Lord.

LORD KILLEARN

My Lords, I did not follow to whom the fees are going to be paid▀×and a good deal depends on that. Perhaps we do not yet know. There was a mention of the payment of the fees to, I thought, the Users' Association, I just want to check if that is right.

THE MARQUESS OF READING

My Lords, what I said in the statement was that I thought it was generally agreed that the Users' Association should have the power to accept fees. But in addition, in view of what the noble Lord has said, I think I might say this. There was general agreement with the view, which was endorsed, at any rate, by nine members of the Security Council, that the Association is, and must be, qualified to receive the dues. There are certain matters still under discussion in that respect, but I trust that the further discussion will remove any differences.

LORD KILLEARN

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Marquess. I gather from his answer that there is an encouragement to pay the fees to the Users' Association, and that as part of our policy we rather hope they will.

THE MARQUESS OF READING

Yes.

EARL. WINTERTON

My Lords, arising out of the question of my noble friend, I presume that when the Users' Association is in operation there will be a further statement made by the noble Marquess, or a White Paper published. It is obviously important that the country should be fully informed of the situation.

THE MARQUESS OF READING

My Lords, I think the House can rely on one or other of those alternatives being adopted.