HL Deb 06 June 1967 vol 283 cc289-98

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, with the permission of the House I should now like to reply to the Private Notice Question of the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition on the subject of the Prime Minister's visit to America and the situation in the Middle East. If I may, I will repeat to the House the words of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place. He said:

"During my visit I was able to have very full discussions over a wide range of topics with the Prime Minister of Canada, the President of the United States of America, the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the President of the Security Council. Much of the content of these discussions must of necessity remain confidential but I can tell the House that the situation in the Middle East figured prominently in all of them; and that, in addition, President Johnson and I discussed the situation in Vietnam in some depth.

"My talks about the Middle East were aimed at securing conditions in which the countries concerned in the Middle East could be fairly asked to maintain continued restraint and not to resort to violent action. In particular, they related to the problem of the freedom of passage in the Straits of Tiran.

"As my right honourable friend said yesterday, the events of yesterday morning have overtaken these discussions but the House will recognise their direct relevance to any long-term settlement capable of securing and maintaining peace in the Middle East on a basis which could be regarded as honourable by all concerned in the area. It will be our objective in securing the ceasefire for which we are pressing to ensure that such a long-term settlement is achieved. The issues I was able to discuss in such depth last weekend will of course be highly relevant.

"I now turn to the current situation. Since my right honourable friend spoke to the House yesterday there has been a flood of news, a great deal of it conflicting, about the fighting in the Middle East, though a pattern seems to be emerging. The most serious operations on the ground seem to have been on the United Arab Republic/ Israel border, but information about them is unclear and disputed. Yesterday's air action by the Israeli Air Force against United Arab Republic airfields was extended to airfields in Jordan and Syria. There are also reports of advances by Israeli forces into Jordanian territory and the capture of the towns of Jenin and Latrum. The local truce in Jerusalem which was arranged yesterday did not, unfortunately, hold and fighting continued into the night.

"I would like to add the voice of Her Majesty's Government to that of His Holiness the Pope and others who have appealed for a cessation of fighting in the Jerusalem area before terrible damage is done to places which are sacred for three of the great religions of the world.

"A most serious development has been the deliberate spreading by the United Arab Republic Government of entirely false accusations that British and American air forces have taken part in the fighting on the side of Israel. It has been reported that President Nasser has announced that he, will in retaliation close the Suez Canal to navigation. President Aref of Iraq is also reported to have said that he has ordered a cessation of the pumping of oil to the Mediterranean for the same reason.

"There have also been reports that the Kuwait Government have forbidden oil exports to British and American destinations.

"Her Majesty's Government have already categorically denied this monstrous story, and all our Ambassadors in the Arab countries have been instructed to make clear to the local Governments that this is a malicious and mischievous invention. One story alleges that aircraft from British aircraft carriers have taken part in the fighting. During the past week the only British aircraft carriers in the area have been H.M.S. 'Victorious', which has been at Malta, and H.M.S. 'Hermes', which has been at Aden, each over 1,000 miles away. In view of these incontrovertible facts we are calling upon the Arab Governments not to disrupt commercial arrangements which are as much in their interest as ours on the basis of such false statements.

"In New York the Security Council met promptly as foreshadowed, but then rose for private consultations which continued for fourteen hours. I can only tell the House of my regret that a resolution calling for a prompt and general cease-fire has not yet been passed. I think it is vital that there should be no further delay.

"As regards the shipment of arms, as my right honourable friend informed the House yesterday, we are consulting with other Governments who are suppliers for the area. The House will realise the desirability of ensuring, so far as we are able, that any embargo covers all arms supplies to the area from whatever source. Pending the outcome of our consultations, we are suspending any further shipments to any of the countries involved."

My Lords, that completes my right honourable friend's Statement.

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, I must thank the noble Earl for repeating that Statement which has just been made by the Prime Minister. I think the whole House will share the Prime Minister's regret at the events that have taken place —or the lack of events—in the United Nations in the last 24 hours. We must all be most disappointed at what has taken place, and I greatly hope that Lord Caradon will bring home to his fellow delegates at the United Nations the crisis of confidence which is building up in the outside world about the United Nations. The lobbying and the bargaining in the corridors is all very well, but in the meantime there is a full-scale war going on, and casualties, both civilian and military, which war brings are being incurred.

I would ask the noble Earl two questions. I am glad that the Government have taken the opportunity of denying the rumours or allegations that British aircraft have taken part in the war. If the Governments of Kuwait and Iraq maintain their position, which they have stated, of not supplying oil to this country, can the noble Earl tell the House what will be the likely result on the economy of this country and on the ordinary man and woman in the street? Secondly, I wonder whether the noble Earl could tell the House what is the legal position over the Suez Canal. I am afraid I probably ought to know the answer, but my impression was that after the Suez affair President Nasser maintained that it was an international waterway and that in no circumstances would it be closed. If this is the case, what do the Government intend to do about it? If it is not the case, perhaps the noble Earl will take the opportunity of letting the House know exactly what is the position.


My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Earl for repeating the Statement which has been made in another place. We share with the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, the disappointment at the slow progress being made in New York, although I am sure that this is not because of any lack of diligence on the part of Lord Caradon and his team, who have a most difficult task on their hands at the present moment.

I have two points. Has any further consideration been given to trying to persuade a world figure to act on behalf of the United Nations, to meet both sides to see whether a practical cease-fire could possibly be arranged on the spot? Secondly, what steps are being taken to broadcast throughout the Middle East the truth about the monstrous allegations of British involvement at this stage? I hope that every step will be taken to bring home not just to Governments but to the people that these are lies.


My Lords, I am most grateful to both noble Lords for observing so careful an attitude at this particularly difficult moment. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, will allow me to deal with the last two points raised, those by the noble Lord, Lord Byers. Certainly, every possible step is being taken to broadcast the refutation of these monstrous lies, and any further suggestion that the noble Lord or other noble Lords can make will of course be appreciated. But we recognise this as certainly a prime responsibility at the moment. The noble Lord asked about the suggestion that a world figure might be brought in to try to arbitrate or bring the parties together. This point has been pressed on Lord Caradon, and I should like to feel that it would be fruitful. I cannot say more, except to assure the noble Lord that we are not being in any way dilatory in pushing forward that particular point.

The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, asked me to make sure that the Government and others were aware that there was a considerable crisis of confidence in respect of the United Nations. Well, that is one way of describing it. But I think one should say plainly that it is the attitude of the Russians that is at the moment producing this situation. It is not some intrinsic defect in the United Nations, let alone in the concept and philosophy behind the United Nations. I think we should be aware of that if we look at it in real terms at the moment.

The noble Lord asked me about reserves of oil, or what would be the effect on this country if oil supplies were suspended or restricted. I cannot give him an answer offhand. There are considerable reserves of oil. I can only hope that the danger to which he alludes will not eventuate; but certainly it is being attended to with the utmost urgency.

He asked me also about the legal position in respect of the Suez Canal. Again, on the spur of the moment I should not like to offer a legal opinion. The Lord Chancellor is not with us at the moment. But if steps were taken to deal with that, they should clearly be international steps rather than unilateral steps, as I expect the noble Lord would agree.


My Lords, I do not think even the noble Earl would suggest that he has been very informative in his replies to my two questions. I wonder whether he could either let me know what the answers are, or let your Lordships know, because these two questions are of considerable interest.


Well, my Lords, I doubt whether the noble Lord in my place would have answered a legal question on the spur of the moment without legal advice. I say that specifically.


You are the Government.


My Lords, if the noble Lord wished for a legal answer perhaps he would have cared to give me notice, and I would have given a proper answer. But I certainly have no intention of offering legal comments on legal problems without notice.

With regard to the position that would arise if oil supplies were cut off, I personally think that that is a gloomy hypothesis. Even if I knew the answer, or if the answer were readily available, while I would communicate it to the noble Lord, or indeed to any Member of this House, in confidence, I do not think I should be inclined to publish it.


My Lords, in view of the fact that the Security Council is to meet within the next few hours, and that the Government of Egypt is officially represented at the meetings of the Security Council, will any attempt be made to challenge the representative of Egypt to substantiate these lying statements which have been made officially by his Government? He will be sitting at the table of the Security Council. Surely it would be far more effective for him to be called upon to substantiate these statements, which he cannot do, in front of a forum representing almost the whole world.


My Lords, I think there is a great deal of force in what the noble Lord has said.


My Lords, all I would say is this. I think that we are rather wandering now. I think it is probably the fault of President Johnson, rather than of the Prime Minister. But, as the Prime Minister has already said, "Time is not on our side". If we could act in concert with the United States straight and direct and clearly, this crisis would be cleared up within 24 hours. I feel that that just is not happening, and I think it is a tragedy that it is not happening. If the Prime Minister could just make up his mind to go ahead with the United States, or even alone, it would be all much clearer and much happier. I feel tremendously, and I am sure that all noble Lords feel the same, that we are drifting.


Order, order!






Of course I will sit down. But I would just say that I feel that we are drifting, and that if we drift we could drift quite easily into catastrophe.


My Lords, if I had not been involved in this dialogue with the noble Lord I should have pointed out that he was not asking a question, and that meant he was passing beyond the point of order. I appreciate his immense desire, which is shared in all quarters of the House, to find a way to peace, but I am afraid that the difficulties here are deep-rooted, and I do not think that even inspired leadership on the part of any country, or even a group of countries, is going to produce a solution in 24 hours.


My Lords, if the Russians block a cease-fire resolution in the Security Council, can it be referred under the "Uniting for Peace" procedure to the General Assembly?


My Lords, I am afraid that the situation would hardly arise in quite that way. In other words, it would not be a question of a simple resolution blocked by the Russians.


My Lords, may I revert to the answer which the noble Earl gave with regard to the question of oil supplies? The announcement which he read out is that instructions had been given for certain of our oil supplies to be terminated. In view of that announcement, is it not right that the public of this country should be informed as speedily as possible as to the possible consequences on the economy of this country and on our daily lives? And would the noble Earl reconsider his answer that the information should be given only privately to my noble friend and not be given publicly to this House and to the people of this country?


I was, of course, talking about an answer given without notice. If the noble and learned Viscount asks me about a considered answer, then I think that there is a lot to be said for what he and the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, have in mind.


My Lords, would the Leader of the House give an answer to what I thought was a most admirable suggestion by the noble Lord, Lord Rowley: that the Egyptians at the Security Council should be challenged about the lies which are being told?


My Lords, I think that there is a great deal of force in that suggestion. I gather that the allegations have been made in very vague terms, and it is not quite easy to tie down a particular spokesman to a particular lie; but I quite agree with what is in the mind of the noble Earl.


My Lords, in order to check the repetition of this monstrous lie, would the Government consider it at all practicable that they should ask the Secretary-General of the United Nations to nominate an observer who would be present as a guest with our forces at the bomber stations and on the aircraft carriers? If that were to happen, it could be seen that there was no substance in it if the lie were to be repeated in future.


My Lords, I will certainly convey that to my colleagues. I have not come to the House in order to dispose in advance of any questions which are asked. This is an opportunity for suggestions to be made, and I will make sure that every one is looked into.


My Lords, can the noble Earl say how many of our Missions and Consulates have been burned or raided owing to the absence of proper police protection?


My Lords, there have been attacks on at least three Embassies. I think that I am right in saying that no British lives have been lost.


My Lords, is it not a fact that it was not the Egyptian representative or President Nasser only who made these monstrous allegations about the participation of fighters? It was King Hussein himself, who, unless I am wrong, said that there were British fighters based at aerodromes in Israel which were taking part in the defence of Israel. if that is so, would it be taken up immediately with our Ambassador in Amman, and would the Jordan representative at the United Nations be told that he must justify this in public at the Security Council?


My Lords, I gather that we have no official information about the particular rumour to which the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, refers; but in so far as we can track it down to any particular individual, we shall take every step to refute it. I can assure the noble Lord, without any doubt whatever, that I share to the utmost the profound indignation and feeling of revulsion which is felt by this House in face of these particular allegations.


My Lords, is the noble Earl able to expand at all on a matter which at this unfortunate moment is puzzling a great many people? The Press has given great prominence to the consideration as to who started this recent development. Surely the noble Earl can confirm that Egypt has consistently stated that she has during these past years been in a state of war with Israel—as is shown by the existence of the barbed wire fence at Jerusalem—and that her action in blocking the Straits was obviously the first action in this matter. All the speculation in the Press seems to have disregarded this, and perhaps we may have some clarification from the noble Earl on this matter?


My Lords, there are conflicting claims on both sides. We have no positive information on the question of who struck the first blow, and one could go further back than that, as was implied in a question put by the noble Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, yesterday. But in the absence of any United Nations machinery to report on the course of events, I doubt whether it is possible to form a judgment, or indeed very profitable at this moment to pursue this particular issue.


My Lords, would the noble Earl agree that these tragic events in the Middle East are not unconnected with the war in Vietnam, and that if the Americans were to stop bombing North Vietnam the Russian policy in the Middle East might undergo a very marked change?


My Lords, the noble Lord will forgive me for saying that I feel that that is taking us too far afield.


My Lords, is the House to understand that the Government have taken a decision not to supply arms to the Middle East, which in this matter means Israel? And can he say whether the Soviet Union has also decided not to supply arms to the United Arab Republic?


No; we have no evidence at the moment about the attitude of other countries, including the Soviet Union.


Would my noble friend say whether I am correct: that he did state that the Government have taken a decision not to supply arms.


My Lords, what I said was (and I will read it out again if necessary: it was in the last sentence of the Statement by the Prime Minister) that we have undertaken to suspend further shipments of arms to any of the countries concerned.