HL Deb 13 July 1967 vol 284 cc1253-6

3.6 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what information they have with regard to the reopening of the Suez Canal for international traffic.]


My Lords, I regret that Her Majesty's Government as yet have no information on the reopening of the Suez Canal. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made it clear in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly on June 21 that one of the elements in a settlement of the problems of the Middle East must be respect for the right of free and innocent passage through international waterways for the ships of all nations. We are, of course, keeping closely in touch with other Governments who have an interest in this matter.


My Lords, does not the realistic approach to a solution of the Canal problem lie through a package deal involving, first, the withdrawal of the Soviet naval forces from Egyptian waters; secondly, the demilitarisation of the East Bank of the Canal to an agreed extent; and, thirdly, the removal at once of the obstacles which impede the channel and the restoration of free passage for the ships of all nations, including those of Israel? Will my noble friend undertake to see that these points are ventilated at the United Nations?


My Lords, my noble friend has stated the situation very comprehensively. There is no doubt that a final settlement will have to involve a withdrawal of Israeli forces and respect for the right of free and innocent passage through international waterways; and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made this clear at the United Nations. I think my noble friend referred to the withdrawal of Soviet naval forces from Egyptian waters. I understand that these forces are in United Arab Republic waters at the invitation of the United Arab Republic Government, and that the Soviet Admiral said on July 10 that they would remain there for a one-week visit only.

As regards the removal of the physical obstacles, there was a report in The Times yesterday which broadly gave the position. In fact, if I might inform the House of this, I do not think there is any question of there being any concrete dry docks sunk, but there are probably some caissons or dredgers, and even when agreement is reached the actual physical removal of the obstacles may take some weeks.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord this question? It may well be that the package deal suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Rowley, is not capable of fulfilment; or it may be the wrong one. One would like to examine it much more carefully. But at any rate it is a constructive proposal, and so far as I know Her Majesty's Government have made no constructive proposal about the reopening of the Canal. Certainly we on this side of the House would very much welcome an approach by the Government with constructive and concrete proposals.


My Lords, I think the noble Lord was asking me whether I agreed with what the noble Lord, Lord Rowley, had suggested. I gather that was his question. If not, the noble Lord might like to frame his remarks in the form of a question, and then I will get it right. But this is not an easy problem. It is not within the power of Her Majesty's Government themselves to open the Suez Canal. It will depend, and must depend, on a settlement of the situation in the Middle East, and in particular on some sort of agreement in relation to the Suez Canal. Obviously, there is a great deal of activity going on along these lines in diplomatic circles and at the United Nations; but I am not quite sure what sort of plan, other than the proposals which my right honourable friend put forward in his speech, the noble Lord would ask for.


My Lords, my noble friend will of course appreciate that I did not ask whether the Government were in agreement with my ideas. I am seeking to stir up something that will break the deadlock that undoubtedly exists. That deadlock is not the fault of Her Majesty's Government. What I am seeking to do is to bring to the attention of Her Majesty's Government some ideas which I hope they will take into consideration and, if necessary, have ventilated at the United Nations.


My Lords, the noble Lord surely did not intend to tell the House that we could not expect the Suez Canal to be reopened until there was a political settlement in the Middle East. This surely cannot be right. A political settlement in the Middle East may take a long time.


My Lords, I think the noble Lord misunderstood me—perhaps it was my fault. I was not referring to a general political settlement in the Middle East, although the absence of one makes it more difficult to achieve a local settlement. But I did mention some of the conditions which were contained in my noble friend's statement, one of which was the withdrawal of the Israeli forces—and this, after all, is not likely to take place without some sort of agreement or conciliation. It is in this matter that the United Nations are engaged and in which the Government are particularly concerned; and we continue to emphasise and discuss with our friends the importance of the right of free and innocent passage. But I am grateful to the noble Lord for correcting what was possibly a mistaken impression that I gave.


My Lords, in view of the great damage done to Europe's economy by the periodical closure of the Suez Canal, and to this country in particular, would not the Government consider whether the time has come to encourage the creation of rival facilities by pipe-line and road from Eilat to the new port on the Mediterranean?


My Lords, I must say that I should be very sorry at this stage to consider that it was not possible to reopen the Suez Canal and achieve the guarantees that we all wish. I have noted what the noble Lord has said; but I should have thought that it was early to start thinking of an alternative to the Suez Canal.


My Lords, could the noble Lord tell us how many countries have ships impounded in the Canal? Are the ships of any COMECON country impounded?


My Lords, the answer to latter part of the question is, Yes. There are Swedish, German, United States, Greek, Norwegian, Italian, Bulgarian, Czechoslovakian and Polish vessels—and the number includes one ship carrying urgently needed food for India.


Could Her Majesty's Government say whether they are in touch with the owners of the four British ships detained in the Great Bitter Lakes with regard to welfare and possible reliefs, if necessary, for the crews abroad?


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, is, of course, very much aware of the shipping position. I am glad to say that we are in constant touch with the owners. Access to the Canal is restricted; but we understand that ships' agents in Suez and in Port Said are supplying the ships with what they need and are taking mail to them regularly. There is also the question of crew replacement. This is very much in the mind of the Government who are closely in touch with the owners.


My Lords, as the noble Lord has said that The Times report was broadly accurate, might it be possible to get some preliminary agreement that at least the Southern part of the Canal should be opened, so that the vessels at present impounded could escape?—and particularly the ship with urgent food supplies for India.


My Lords, I said that The Times report was broadly in agreement with the facts. I am not precisely aware of how serious are the obstacles that may remain at the Southern end, but I agree with what the noble Lord has said.

Back to