HL Deb 15 February 1972 vol 328 cc11-6

2.55 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission I should like to make a Statement about the progress of negotiations for a new Defence Agreement with the Maltese Government. The fourth round of talks in Rome on February 7 and 8 was attended by the Prime Minister of Malta, the Foreign Minister of Italy, the Secretary General of NATO and myself. Dr. Luns and I confirmed the financial offer of the Alliance and made other proposals relating to our requirements for a Defence Agreement, with a view to bringing to a conclusion the negotiations which have been in progress since Mr. Mintoff formed a Government in June last year. In conjunction with our NATO partners we have offered payments at a level of £14 million per annum over 7½ years. These payments, which would be conditional upon the signing of a satisfactory Defence Agreement, would take effect from October 1, 1971. In addition, the Maltese Government have been offered bilateral economic support by certain members of the Alliance totalling more than £7 million in all. We would require in return to be able to deploy our forces in Malta, for national and NATO defence purposes, and to have satisfactory arrangements for the exclusion or restriction of forces from countries outside NATO.

During successive rounds of negotiations progress has been made towards defining the terms of an Agreement. We have made clear that we would be prepared to release certain land and fixed assets required by the Maltese Government. To enable the Maltese Government to operate Luqa as a civil airport under their own arrangements at the end of a new Agreement, we have offered to train and employ at British expense the necessary number of Maltese personnel. But throughout the period of a new Agreement Luqa airport as a whole would continue to be controlled by the R.A.F., who would, as now, give full consideration to the requirements of civil aviation. We have also offered to meet the full net costs of running the Malta Flight Information Region, instead of only doing so in part as at present.

If a satisfactory Defence Agreement can be reached, the British Government would expect to deploy forces in Malta at a level that would ensure a substantial contribution to Malta's economy. But I have made clear to Mr. Mintoff that the reduction of Maltese supporting personnel has not kept pace with the rundown of our forces which began in 1967. We should in any case have had to reduce substantially the present number of some 6,000 civilian and uniformed employees. The reduction now required is of the order of 1,600. To mitigate the effects of the reduction, I have shown readiness to discuss with Mr. Mintoff how the necessary reductions, over and above normal retirements and resignations, might be phased. Special terminal benefits would continue to be made available to those becoming redundant during the rundown period. In addition, we have offered to employ 200 men at our expense, at a cost of up to £1 million, to carry out the repair of historic buildings for the Maltese Government. We have also offered to bring the take-home pay of Maltese locally enlisted personnel, serving away from Malta, up to the level of the equivalent British Servicemen and to carry out an out-of-cycle pay review for all Maltese uniformed personnel.

The Secretary General and I asked the Maltese Government to indicate whether they accepted our proposals as a basis for a new Agreement. A reply is awaited. We and our NATO allies still hope that the Maltese Government will state their readiness, on the basis I have already indicated, to conclude an Agreement which would satisfy NATO and British requirements. In that event, detailed negotiations could be resumed forthwith. Meanwhile, the withdrawal of British forces and equipment continues in response to the request made by the Maltese Government at the end of last year. In the absence of new developments, withdrawal will be completed before March 31. It will accordingly be necessary shortly to issue final discharge notices to the total of about 6,000 Maltese civilian and uniformed personnel we now employ. But it remains the British Government's hope that the Maltese Government will find it possible to accept the NATO offer which we believe is fair.


My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, for making this Statement and will, I am sure, wish to compliment him on the very conscientious effort that he has made to meet the Maltese position. May I take it from the tone of the Statement that this is the final position of Her Majesty's Government, in which case I think we should say from this side of the House that the financial arrangements appear to be fair, if not generous. The noble Lord spoke of some 1,600 employees losing their positions. I hope that there will be some flexibility concerning the period during which these men are made redundant, in order that they may find new positions. My concluding remarks must be to Mr. Mintoff and the Government of Malta. I express the hope that they will accept these terms, provided of course that Her Majesty's Government bear in mind my plea for flexibility in regard to redundancies of citizens who are very loyal to this country.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for what he has said. I can confirm to him that, from the financial point of view, this is NATO'S final offer. Dr. Luns has made this quite clear and I think Mr. Mintoff understands it. I think that everybody has sympathy with the problems of the Malta Government over the redundancy of the civilians, and I have made it very clear to Mr. Mintoff that I am very willing to talk to him about the phasing of these reductions. The last thing that any of us would want to do is to make things more difficult for Mr. Mintoff and for the Malta Government. I would just point out, however—and I think one must remember this—that in 1967, in the days of the Government of the Party of the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, it was made clear to the then Malta Government that under Her Majesty's Government's plans the number of locally employed civilians would be a great deal less than we are now proposing by March 31, 1972. So I do not think this should have come as a great surprise to the Malta Government.


My Lords, I should like to endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, has said, and to congratulate the Minister on the patience and assiduity which he has shown over the past few months in a very difficult situation. I agree that this is a fair and generous settlement and I only hope that Mr. Mintoff will see it in that way, because I feel that time is not on the side of Malta in this matter. If an agreement could be reached within the next day or two, or within the next week or two, it would be far better for Malta than letting this matter drag on until the end of March.


My Lords, I am also very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Byers, for what he has said, which I think meets with the agreement of everybody in your Lordships' House. Certainly, he and the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, will know that there is a fund of good will in this country for the Maltese people.


My Lords, is it not quite clear from the Minister's Statement that the British Government have behaved to the Maltese exactly as they have behaved to the coal miners, in making an offer and then raising it like negotiations in an Arab souk? Is it not quite clear that, if the Maltese had been offered the sort of terms that they have now been offered, they would have accepted at the beginning?




My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether, in the event of an agreement being reached with the Maltese Goverment—and may I be allowed to interpolate with a statement and say that it seems to me that the proposition coming from NATO appears to be fair and reasonable—that agreement will be of some duration, or for one or two years? Also, will the noble Lord take into account the possibility of a diminution in the strategic value of Malta? In those circumstances, apart from the financial commitment, would it not be mistaken policy to continue any obligation to Malta despite their services in the past?


My Lords, of course all these factors were taken into consideration. The length of the agreement proposed—if there is an agreement—is seven-and-a-half years from October 1, 1971; but I think one can both over-estimate and under-estimate the importance of Malta. I think I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, and the noble Lord, Lord Byers, said, that this offer which has been made by NATO is a very generous one. Fourteen million pounds annually, together with the £7 million in aid spread over the period of seven years, is a good deal more than Malta has ever had before, and I should have thought that the Malta Government would feel that this was generous, and that it would be wise to accept it.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether the withdrawal of our forces from Malta can be halted if a speedy agreement is reached?


My Lords, if an agreement is reached not only will it be halted, but we shall start putting things back.