HL Deb 27 July 1967 vol 285 cc1189-92

3.33 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission I should like to repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary on the situation in the Suez Canal. The Statement is as follows:—

"As the House is aware, the Canal is blocked between Port Said and Ismailia, as well as to the south of Ismailia, and it is also obstructed between the Great Bitter Lake and Suez. There has been no change in this situation since I last reported to the House. I deplore that no steps have yet been taken by the United Arab Republic authorities, whether alone or in conjunction with others who are willing to help, to start work on clearing the obstructions. The continued failure to take these steps is clearly contrary to the intentions of the Constantinople Convention of 1888.

"This is not a matter which affects this country alone. I am in close touch with the Governments of other countries affected and am considering with them how we can create conditions to get the Canal opened as soon as possible to the shipping of all nations. I have myself discussed this matter with Doctor Fawzi and with Mr. Eban.

"I have also made it clear in the United Nations General Assembly that in our view any settlement of the problems of the Middle East must cover the right of free and innocent passage through the Canal. As the House knows, the United Nations is urgently tackling these problems; and in this connection the stationing of United Nations Observers in the Canal area is a useful first step."

Lords that is the end of the Statement.


My Lords, the House will be interested to hear that Statement, and we are grateful to the Minister for repeating it. Noble Lords will be delighted to hear about the strength of the Foreign Secretary's own personal protest to Dr. Fawzi and Mr. Eban. I should like to ask the Minister two things. The first relates to the question of relieving and replacing the crews of the four British ships in the Great Bitter Lake. These crews have now been there for nearly two months. Has any progress at all been made in getting these people out, even if the ships themselves have to remain there for a while? Secondly, could we be given any information on reports which suggest that the main channel South of the Great Bitter Lake is not, in fact, effectively blocked; that there is a tug boat sunk in it, but that the main channel of the canal might well be free. If we could be given any further information on those two points, should be grateful.


My Lords, in regard to the first point put by the noble Lord, the crews of the British ships in the Great Bitter Lake have now been visited and we understand that they are in reasonably good spirits and in good health. They are getting their mail. We are taking steps to maintain contact with the Egyptian authorities about a relief for these crews. I understand that arrangements for a relief are under way and we hope to have further information about that soon. In regard to the blocking of the channel South of the Great Bitter Lake, we are informed that it is physically blocked, although the possibility of making the removal of that obstruction a priority over all the others is under consideration.


My Lords, does not the noble Lord think that the time has now come when these great international waterways, on which so much of the commerce of the world depend, should be transferred to the United Nations, so that individual countries like the U.A.R. should not of their own volition be able to hold up the commerce of the world in this way?


The actual business of transferring international waterways to the United Nations would raise certain difficulties. All I can say is that Article I of the Constantinople Convention lays down that the Canal shall be open in time of war, as in time of peace, to every vessel, and that the Canal should not be subjected to blockade. What is happening now is clearly in contravention of that international Convention.


My Lords, is it possible to state how soon free passage will be available through the Canal once the political difficulties have been resolved; that is to say, how long will it take for the physical work to be done to enable free passage to take place?


I regret that I cannot give the noble Lord a very satisfactory answer to that question. There are various estimates about the time it would take in practice to remove the ships and other obstacles in the channels. As he points out, the immediate difficulties and the important difficulties are political. I am sorry, but I cannot give any really useful estimate of the time it would take physically to remove the obstacles after the political difficulties have been settled.


My Lords, is it a fact that the time problem is an acute one, in that there have been reports that the regular dredging has been discontinued? If that is so, the longer it takes to get the ships out the greater the problem will be if the dredging has not been taking place.


My Lords, certainly that is so. If indeed dredging has stopped—we have no firm information about that—then of course the silting up of the Canal will continue while the block ships remain there, and the navigation of the Canal will become that much more difficult. For that reason we are trying to get the political difficulties removed as quickly as we possibly can.


My Lords, could the Minister tell us whether it is a fact that a ship has recently come out from the southern part of the Canal without any difficulty at all, and that really the blockage there is neither here nor there; it is entirely a political factor?


My Lords, my information—although I will certainly check this to see that it is correct—is that there is a physical obstacle between the Bitter Lake and the South end of the Canal. It may conceivably be that a ship has emerged from the South end of the Canal, but if my information is correct it could not have come from the Bitter Lake. But, as I say, I will check my information to make sure that that is correct.