HL Deb 15 July 1971 vol 322 cc508-13

4.0 p.m.


My Lords, may I interrupt the proceedings at this point to repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs? I will use his own words.

" I think it is right to inform the House of the situation which has arisen in our relations with Malta over the 1964 Defence and Financial Agreements. The first gives Britain the right to station our Armed Forces in Malta while the second, which is dependent upon the Defence Agreement, covers the provision of British aid to Malta. Both these Agreements are due to run until 1974.

" As soon as he took office on the 17th June, the Prime Minister of Malta, Mr. Mintoff, informed us that he wished to replace these Agreements, which, he said, were no longer valid. Then, in a series of messages, he asked that a Minister should come to Malta to negotiate a new agreement under which aid would be replaced by a form of rent for military facilities and those facilities would be redefined. He also said that the Minister should come on the basis that the 1964 Defence and Financial Agreements were at an end and that the new negotiation should be completed before the end of July. Mr. Mintoff would not elaborate any further on his proposals. This left us in doubt on a number of very important questions, for example Mr. Mintoff's intentions towards NATO, the redefinition he had in mind for our defence facilities and the financial implications.

" Against this background my right honourable friend the Prime Minister sent a message yesterday to Mr. Mintoff in which he said that my noble friend the Secretary of State for Defence would travel to Valletta in the course of the day and would be ready to discuss with Mr. Mintoff his proposals for modification of the existing Agreements. Lord Carrington's purpose would be to ascertain whether it was possible to negotiate fresh arrangements of a kind which he could recommend to the British Government to approve.

" It was in reply to that message that Mr. Mintoff claimed that the Prime Minister had rejected all the conditions proposed by Mr. Mintoff for a fruitful meeting. He added, as he has since made public in a statement, that he hoped that the Malta Government would not be caused the additional embarrassment of having to ignore the presence of the British Cabinet Minister on the island.'

" To this message my right honourable friend replied as follows: ' Your message speaks of conditions. I had hoped I had made clear that there cannot be prior conditions in a matter which is essentially one for negotiation: and a negotiation requires that each of the parties should come to the table, with good will and without prejudice to their respective views, to discuss matters which are of common concern to them in an honest and genuine attempt to reach agreement. It was for this purpose and in this spirit that Lord Carrington would have gone to Malta, in the hope of agreeing with you fresh arrangements which he could recommend the British Government to accept. Lord Carrington remains ready to come, but since you say that you would have found this visit embarrassing, I renew my earlier invitation that you yourself, or your representative, should come to London.'

" We have made clear to Mr. Mintoff that we have no desire to maintain forces in Malta against the will of the Malta Government. We have also made clear that we are ready to enter into negotiation at Ministerial level, in good faith and without preconditions, with a view to reaching an agreement satisfactory to both sides. We hope that the Malta Government will now agree that talks should start on this basis.

" A further message to my right honourable friend from Mr. Mintoff has just been received by telephone. This message holds out a hope that it may be possible to resolve the difficulty between us, but the House will understand if I say no more until my right honourable friend has had an opportunity to study the text."

My Lords, that ends the Statement.

4.5 p.m.


My Lords, in this rather hot and busy time, first we should all like to say how sorry we were to read of the abortive and wasteful trip that the noble Lord had to Heathrow yesterday. We are grateful to him for repeating this Statement, and I am sure that we all regret that there should have been this apparent friction with a nation with whom we have had such close and friendly associations. So far as we can see, and from the Statement which the noble Lord has given, the difficulties do not arise from this side.

There are only two points that I would emphasise. The first relates to the sentence which the noble Lord included in his Statement; namely, that we have no desire to maintain forces in Malta against the will of the Malta Government. In the present defence situation there is absolutely no reason why we should want to do so. Secondly, I hope that following the telephone call to which the noble Lord has referred an atmosphere can be created in which more constructive exchanges can take place.


My Lords, I agree entirely with everything that the noble Lord has said, and I am obliged to him. I should like to make it abundantly plain that if difficulties have arisen they have not done so because of any action which Her Majesty's Government have taken.


My Lords, we find it difficult, without a greater knowledge of the facts, to express any definite view of the unfortunate state of our relations with the Government of Malta. We appreciate that on the face of it the Government seem to have done their utmost to meet Mr. Mintoff, given the fact that he has undoubtedly repudiated unilaterally a perfectly valid agreement. May we assume that Mr. Mintoff has not had recourse to any threats, direct or implied, in the event of all or some of his demands not being met?


My Lords, I do not think that the time has yet arrived when all the correspondence should be published.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord a question? Although I have no doubt that the Members of your Lordships' House will sympathise with the working people in Malta if, as a result of any severance of good relations, they lose their employment, has not the time arrived, quite frankly facing the facts, when Malta has no longer any strategic value so far as the defence of this country is concerned, and is no longer a deterrent against possibly aggression by any other country?


My Lords, I do not think this is the right moment to discuss the strategic value of Malta. It is quite true, as the noble Lord indicates, that even taking into account the affection which all noble Lords will have for the Maltese people, there can be a price which is too high to pay for those facilities.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister this question? Appreciating his difficulties, would he bear in mind two considerations: first, the tremendous contribution which Malta has made to the people of this country; secondly, that Malta has the right to pursue a policy of non-alignment if that is the wish of the people and of their Government. With those two considerations, would the Minister utilise the telephone call which has come to-day to renew negotiations on a co-operative basis?


My Lords, of course Her Majesty's Government will bear in mind those two considerations. I hope also that the Maltese Government will bear in mind what a great deal the British Government have done and does at this moment for Malta. At the present time we had better wait and see exactly the text of the message which has been received from Mr. Mintoff, and I do not want to add anything further.


My Lords, while recognising Malta's legitimate needs, will Her Majesty's Government undertake not to let themselves be threatened by bad manners or blackmail?


My Lords, the Statement that I made to your Lordships makes the position of Her Majesty's Government abundantly clear.


My Lords, while I regret very much indeed the friction which appears to exist between Her Majesty's Government and the Leaders of the George Cross Island, will the Minister agree that there appears to be a changed attitude regarding Malta towards NATO? Would he consider that the time may have come to consider upgrading Gibraltar in its relationship to NATO?


My Lords, I was wondering how my noble friend was going to bring Gibraltar into his question. I admire his ingenuity, but I think I will let it go until another day.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he would not agree at this delicate moment that we should now, when negotiations are going on, let the matter ride, expressing our confidence in the noble Lord, Lord Carrington?