HC Deb 03 December 1968 vol 774 cc1254-68
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Fred Mulley)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a statement on the Falkland Islands.

My right hon. and noble Friend Lord Chalfont visited the Falkland Islands from 23rd to 28th of November to establish direct Ministerial contact with the people of the islands and to explain to them Her Majesty's Government's policy in their talks with the Argentine Government.

During his stay in the Colony, my right hon. and noble Friend was able to meet a large part of the island's population both in Stanley, the capital, and in the settlements, and he repeated to them the assurances that Ministers have given the House on many occasions this year, namely, that it is not the policy of Her Majesty's Government to transfer sovereignty over these islands against the wishes of the islanders.

My right hon. and noble Friend also had a number of meetings with the Islands' Executive Council, which was enlarged for the duration of his visit to include the unofficial members of the Islands' Legislative Council. On 25th November, the Executive Council told Lord Chalfont that in his meetings with the general public it would wish him to state, first, that he had discussed in detail with the Executive Council the present position reached in the talks with Argentina and the position which we hoped to reach soon; and, secondly, that the members of the Executive Council accepted that the British Government had been acting in good faith in the talks with Argentina and that the agreed position, if it is reached, would be fully in keeping with the promise that Her Majesty's Government would not transfer sovereignty against the wishes of the Falkland Islanders; and, accordingly. Lord Chalfont was able to give this additional assurance.

As my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary explained to the House on 26th March last, following the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2065 of December, 1965, we have had talks with Argentina with the object of securing a lasting and satisfactory mondus vivendi between these islands and Argentina". In particular, we are concerned to restore and improve communications between the islands and the nearest mainland since this would be of great benefit to the islanders.

We have made clear throughout these discussions, as the House has been informed on many occasions, that no transfer of sovereignty can be made against the wishes of the Falkland Islanders.

I hope that it may shortly be possible to conclude the present stage of the discussions and their outcome will then be reported to the House.

Mr. Braine

Is it not the case that the real object of Lord Chalfont's mission was to tell the Falkland Islanders that if they retain their present status their future is bleak? Why has no account been taken of recent proposals which may well transform the economy of the islands?

Secondly, would the right hon. Gentleman explain the extraordinary statement attributed to Lord Chalfont, in Buenos Aires, that Britain and Argentina may make a joint effort to convince the islanders that a change of status would be convenient?

Lastly, in view of the unchanging wishes of the Falkland Islanders to remain British, and the support which those wishes have on both sides of the House and in this country, will the Government take the issue of sovereignty off the agenda of any further talks with the Argentine?

Mr. Mulley

My right hon. Friend's visit was made in response to suggestions in this House, on the one hand, and in the Falkland Islands from the Governor and the Executive Council, on the other, that a Minister should visit the islands. He is the first Minister who has made such a visit in the history of this Dependency. The purpose was to explain the position in the light of a good deal of confusion which has arisen and not to persuade the islanders or in any way to direct their views. Secondly, I have no information about the so-called attributed quotation in Buenos Aires.

On the third point, about taking sovereignty off the agenda, the purpose of the talks is to restore communications between the islands and Argentina. The absence of such arrangements at present is a very great hardship. We have the absurd situation of imports from Argentina going all the way up to Montivideo and 1,000 miles across the sea to the islands. The purpose is to improve communications and in that context we are prepared to talk about sovereignty—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"]—but only in the context—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] With respect, the Government stand on this position. It is for the islanders to say and not for us.

Mr. Hamling

While welcoming my right hon. Friend's thrice-repeated assurance that the Government's policy is that independence will be maintained so long as the islanders want it, may I ask him to say whether the statement of Lord Chalfont, to which the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Mr. Braine) referred, was a genuine statement or newspaper talk?

Further, is my right hon. Friend aware that there are great economic interests involved here and that some of us on this side of the House are not prepared to see the islands handed over to a Government who treat Left-wing parties like some hon. Members opposite would like to treat them?

Mr. Mulley

I give the assurance that the Government have no intention to transfer these islands to Argentina unless that is the express wish of the islanders.

On the question of the news leak, we say many times in the House that we are not responsible for what appears in newspapers. I have no knowledge of that. I cannot believe that it was said, because it would be totally at variance with many excellent statements which Lord Chalfont has made in Press conferences in Argentina and the Falkland Islands.

Mr. Clark Hutchison

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that, although there may be no transfer of sovereignty, the spirit of the talks which Lord Chalfont had with the islanders has caused confusion and depression in the islands? What steps will the Government take to rectify the damage which they have done? Secondly, will a statement be made about the new seaweed project? Thirdly, may we be given an exact record of the discussions between Lord Chalfont and the Argentine Minister of Foreign Affairs and his officials?

Mr. Mulley

If I am to do justice to these questions, my answers must be a little long, and I hope that the House will forgive me for that.

On the first point, apart from creating confusion, I understand—and again I rely only on Press reports—that the hon. Gentleman sent a telegram to a trade union leader in the islands asking him to organise a petition and had a reply back from that gentleman, who is also a member of the Executive Council, saying that the Executive Council was satisfied with the assurances which it had received.

Lord Chalfont did not have any formal talks or negotiations in Argentina. As a matter of courtesy, he met the Foreign Minister. It would be inappropriate to circulate any record of talks following a dinner party.

We have known about the possibility—and I use that word advisedly—of seaweed developments for some months, but it was put to the Governor and others in the Falkland Islands that this was a fairly remote possibility. Only in July the Governor expressed his disappointment to Mr. Merton that even the prospect of a pilot scheme was remote. The dramatic developments of the last few days have been made known to us only through the courtesy of the B.B.C. and the newspapers.

Mr. Winnick

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement will be warmly welcomed by all those who have the interests of the people of the Falkland Islands genuinely at heart? Would he agree that this matter is like that concerning Rhodesia and Gibraltar and that what must be taken into account are the views of the majority of the people in any given Colony? If they wish to remain British it is only right and proper that they should do so.

Mr. Mulley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The situation is very similar to that in Gibraltar. While the people desire to retain their link with us, we are happy. But if the situation should change, as we have told the Gibraltarians, we accept that, too.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Would the right hon. Gentleman give the assurance that the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands is in no sense being used as a bargaining factor in the talks with the Argentine, and that it will not be so used in the talks which are to take place over the rest of this week? If he would give that assurance, the House might be satisfied. There is a feeling that sovereignty is being used in some sense as a bargaining factor, which would be totally wrong.

Mr. Mulley

I am willing to give the assurance in the form requested. Anyone with the remotest experience of diplomacy knows that it would be unwise to try to use it in a bargaining context when we attach the firm condition to it that it can be done only with the wishes of the islanders. We know, and I am sure that Argentina knows, the state of opinion in the Falkland Islands. The only purpose of the discussions and negotiations with Argentina is to try to improve the situation in terms of communications and facilities for the people in the islands.

Mr. Shinwell

In view of statements attributed to Lord Chalfont which have appeared in the Press over the past few days, apart from being mentioned in the House today, is it possible for my right hon. Friend to ask Lord Chalfont whether there is any truth in them? Why does my right hon. Friend dismiss this allegation as if it is of no consequence? Surely it is of considerable significance and has a bearing on the principle involved.

Mr. Mulley

Lord Chalfont, on his visit, was accompanied in every meeting, except for the confidential meetings with the Executive Council, by five journalists. A great deal has appeared in the newspapers about this matter. In the short time that Lord Chalfont has been back, I have not thought fit to ask him about every line in every newspaper. I cannot conceive that Lord Chalfont would make a statement of the kind—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ask him".] I will ask him, but I could not do so in between the question being asked and my answering it.

Mr. James Davidson

What, if any, concessions or undertakings have so far been given by the Argentine during the course of the talks? Will the Minister give an undertaking that before there is any question of a change in the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands the people there will be allowed to give an indication of their views through a referendum, as they were in Gibraltar?

Mr. Mulley

Any talk of a referendum is very premature, because we are all aware of opinion in the islands at present. As to the question of what concessions or other matters have been discussed, I cannot reveal the details of the negotiation until it is concluded, when I have undertaken that the result will be reported to the House.

Mr. Wyatt

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Lord Chalfont said some very odd things once in Zurich? What is worrying everybody is that Her Majesty's Government appear to be trying to persuade the islanders to hand their sovereignty over to Argentina, and nobody can understand why the Government are trying to do that.

Mr. Mulley

I take issue with my hon. Friend on what I thought were very unfair remarks about my right hon. and noble Friend. Anyone who thinks that the islanders have been pressured by Lord Chalfont completely misjudges the character of the islanders and Lord Chalfont. The islanders will not be pressured into taking a decision if they think that it is against their interests, and Lord Chalfont would not so seek to persuade them.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Why did the Government create doubts about the matter in the first place? Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that less than a year ago the Government admitted that negotiations were taking place with the Argentine for the supply of warships? Why at this late stage are we now being told that the talks are about communications? Why not tell us at the begin- ning what is taking place? Will the right hon. Gentleman consider publishing a White Paper, giving all the facts and all the things that Lord Chalfont has said?

Mr. Mulley

What I have said this afternoon follows almost word for word what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State told the House in the middle of the night of 26th–27th March. I think that it would be appropriate to consider a White Paper when—I hope shortly—the present stage of discussions has been concluded.

Mr. Alfred Morris

Since the Falklanders have made it repeatedly and emphatically clear that they wish to remain British, could the matter be left in abeyance until the improbable date when they say that they have changed their minds?

Mr. Mulley

The matter cannot be left in abeyance—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] Because we want, if possible, to improve the islanders' position with regard to communications. It is not satisfactory for them to remain in an isolated position. The only port they can use is 1,000 miles away and the nearest mainland is less than 300 miles away. All communications have to go that very long way round, and travelling to school, and so on, is very difficult. We want to improve their position.

Mr. Sandys

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that to leave in the air the alleged statement by Lord Chalfont about a joint duty of the Argentine and British Governments to convince the Falklanders that it is to their advantage to make a change would cause very serious anxiety and difficulty? Will the right hon. Gentleman ask his right hon. and noble Friend whether that statement was, in fact, made, so that the matter can be cleared up; and will he undertake to make a statement to the House tomorrow?

Mr. Mulley

I will put the point to my right hon. and noble Friend, and report accordingly to the House.

Miss Herbison

My right hon. Friend will be aware that, in spite of all the assurances given by Ministers from the Dispatch Box, there are still very grave fears among the people of the Falkland Islands that they will be handed over to Argentina. What further evidence do the Government want about the will of the people of the Falkland Islands? If they need any further evidence, why cannot they state forthwith that they will meet the will of the people of the islands to remain as they are, no matter what other discussions there are with Argentina to help them with communications, and so on?

Mr. Mulley

If I have not been able to make the Government's position clear in this respect, I do not know what the words in the English language mean. I should have thought that the words "there will be no transfer against the wishes of the islanders", are clear enough for everyone to comprehend.

That statement has been made not only today but many times, and was made in a remarkably clear and well-argued speech by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in March, the significance of which was that we had no more questions and trouble about the matter for a very long time after. I suggest to the House that the doubts and troubles do not come from the Government side of the House.

Mr. Birch

The right hon. Gentleman said that he had known for some months about the seawed project. Is not that a very important project, and would it not have altered the views expressed by Lord Chalfont about the weakness of the prospects of the Falkland economy if he had chosen to mention it?

Mr. Mulley

The position is not that I personally have known, but that the Government of the Falkland Islands have known about the possibility of the seaweed project for some months. There was correspondence between Mr. Merton and the Governor, but it was couched in terms of "maybe in five years, maybe in a much longer period" it would become an interesting project.

As I have told the House once already, the Governor told Mr. Merton by letter, I think it was in July, that he was very disappointed that even the possibility of a scheme was so remote. The right hon. Gentleman has been in business. Would he stake he whole of his future on an extremely vague undertaking of that kind? If it can become a real possibility, we naturally welcome anything that would increase the diversification of the economy of the islands.

Mr. Brooks

Will my right hon. Friend clarify why it is apparently so urgent to improve communications with the nearest mainland, which is the desert of Patagonia, where only a few Welshmen live? In view of the need to put the matter beyond doubt once and for all, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Constitutional Conference to be set up in the near future might have its terms of reference widened to include the problems of small dependent territories such as the Falkland Islands, and possibly consider their becoming constituencies of the United Kingdom and sending representatives to this House?

Mr. Mulley

The question of the terms of reference of the Constitutional Conference is not for me. My hon. Friend's suggestion is interesting, and no doubt he will convey it to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I do not think that it would deal with the Falkland Islands situation in the coming weeks, when I hope to be able to report further to the House.

Mr. Peyton

Why cannot the right hon. Gentleman accept without qualification or reservation the remarks of his right hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison)? This would entirely satisfy most of us. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is a deep suspicion, possibly born from the Government's record, that Lord Chalfont was sent on a very slippery mission, and that if he was not he made remarks which, perhaps unintentionally, gave very grave grounds for suspicion?

Mr. Mulley

I have undertaken to look at the question of the remarks about which complaint has been made. I cannot answer the question now, but I am certain that Lord Chalfont did not express that view. As to his mission, when we send a Minister—and Lord Chalfont is the Minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with particular responsibility for that part of the world—in response to demands in the House and in the Colony, the House should be satisfied instead of making the kind of complaints we have heard.

Earl of Dalkeith

On a point of order. Is not this possibly a case where it might be for the convenience of the House if the Minister concerned, Lord Chalfont, could be invited to come to the Bar of the House and answer questions directly?

Mr. Speaker

Order. We should be going back a long way in history if we attempted that procedure.

Mr. Jay

Will the Minister at least say clearly now whether it is the fact that the great majority of these islanders wish to remain British?

Mr. Mulley

In present circumstances, I think that there is no question but that the wish of the islanders is to remain British.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Is not the impression suggested by the hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Wyatt), that the Government are trying to push the islanders into Argentina really fortified by the fact that during five days Lord Chalfont did not think it necessary to refer to the seaweed scheme, with all its possibilities, but found time to tell the islanders that if they wanted aid from this country they must greatly increase their taxation?

Mr. Mulley

I should make this quite clear. There was no seaweed scheme when Lord Chalfont was in the Falkland Islands. The proposals which have recently been disclosed—I think that the gentleman who sponsors them says that they have a political motivation—were first made public not to the Government, but through the B.B.C. and the Press on Friday after Lord Chalfont had left the islands. The only discussion otherwise had been between Mr. Merton and the Governor, so that they were already seized of the situation, and they expressed their disappointment at the fact that the possibility of this coming to fruition seemed so remote. There was no scheme of the kind about which we now read in our newspapers in existence or within the knowledge of the Government at the time of Lord Chalfont's visit.

Mr. Paget

Can there be any doubt that the seaweed proposal, and, indeed, any other proposal for the development of these islands, would stand a very much better chance if there were communications and co-operation with Argentina than if there were not? Is that what Her Majesty's Government are attempting to provide?

Mr. Mulley

I think that improved communications, co-operation, and, for a small community of this kind, good relations with its neighbour, are matters of very great importance.

Mr. Turton

Does the Minister appreciate that to publish a White Paper after the negotiations have been concluded will be too late for the House? Will the Minister tell us, in particular, whether these talks are covering the Falkland Islands dependencies in Antarctica, where there are very rich mineral deposits?

Mr. Mulley

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that no step will be taken before the House has been fully apprised of any conclusions that come from the current talks. In any case, as the House well knows, although it is clearly a remote possibility, any transfer of sovereignty could take place only with the consent of the House.

Mr. Heath

The Minister has declared that the Falkland Islanders have no wish whatever to give up British sovereignty. Is it therefore not plain, and does not the right hon. Gentleman recognise, that the great majority of the House are absolutely determined to support the Falkland Islanders in this view? Therefore, sovereignty cannot pass.

Does not the right hon. Gentleman recognise that there can be no point whatever in discussing sovereignty with Argentina and that it should be immediately taken off the agenda? Until this happens, there is bound to be the gravest suspicion about Her Majesty's Government's motives in discussing this matter at all.

Mr. Mulley

It is not as simple as that, as I should have thought the right hon. Gentleman would know. It is not a question of an agenda. It is a case of discussing the position in the light, on the one hand, of the United Nations resolution—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."] It was only through the United Nations resolution that we were able to get these talks going.

The very unsatisfactory situation as regards communications and relations with Argentina pertained throughout the administration of the Conservative Party, and nothing was done about it. We want to utilise this situation to reach the best understanding we can between the islanders and the Argentine Government. We have made it quite clear to the Argentine Government that, unless the Falkland Islanders so desire, we shall not transfer sovereignty. I have made it quite clear that we do not rule out the possibility that in the future the islanders may change their minds.

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. The islanders do not need any help from noise in the House.

Mr. Mulley

The simple proposition that I put to the House is that, while we stand fully behind the islanders if they desire to remain British, in a different set of circumstances in the future I would hope that whichever party was then in power would be prepared not to stand in their way if the islanders change their minds. At present, there is no question but that the islanders wish to stay British. This has been the clear position we have adopted in our talks with Argentina. The words that we could not consider any transfer of sovereignty against the wishes of the islanders are as clear and plain as words can be.

Mr. Mayhew

Have the islanders given any evidence to the Government that in some future circumstances they might wish not to be British any more? If they have given no suggestion along these lines, are they not entitled to resent the statement which came from the Minister?

Mr. Mulley

I do not think that there is any resentment. I think that there has been concern over a long period in the islands, because their economy is based largely on wool, the price of which has been falling in world markets, because they are so isolated, and because the possibilities for the islands' younger generation are so limited. It is this concern, rather than the question whether they remain British or otherwise, that has been exercising the islanders' minds.

Mr. Thorpe

Since the right hon. Gentleman's penultimate reply was somewhat equivocal, may we know whether the fact that a Colony many thousands of miles away from the United Kingdom wishes to remain associated with and part of the United Kingdom and Colonies is a matter which the Government treat with pride and gratification or with dismay?

Mr. Mulley

I think that it has been made clear from both sides of the House today that it is received with great satisfaction. I certainly pay my tribute to the islanders; I stand second to none in my admiration for the hard work of these people and for their loyalty to this country and to the Crown.

Mr. Blackburn

Is my right hon. Friend surprised that after all the words he has used there is still suspicion in the House? Why cannot he just say simply that the Falkland Islanders have stated that they want to remain loyal to this country and, therefore, there is no question of any transfer of sovereignty ever?

Mr. Mulley

I thought that is what I have said.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker


Sir C. Osborne

On a point of order. Since you, Mr. Speaker chose the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon) and myself to go to the Falkland Islands less than two years ago, and as they raised two important points with us which have not been raised today, would you allow me now to put those matters to the Minister?

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Louth (Sir C. Osborne) for refreshing my memory of that important delegation. We are delighted that he got back from the Falkland Islands. He may put his question.

Sir C. Osborne

The Falkland Islanders raised two questions with the hon. Member for Chorley and myself. Their economy is shrinking because the price of wool is falling and they are having great difficulty in keeping the young men in the islands. They want to know, first, whether Her Majesty's Government will give them some economic aid if they run into more difficulties, as we have given economic aid to the newly-independent countries in Africa and Asia.

We were pressurised in Buenos Aires by the British colony there, who said that they represent much greater industrial and financial interests than the Falkland Islanders. The islanders were frightened—this was the second matter they raised with us—that it was the British colony in Buenos Aires which was pressurising the Government into taking action. Will the Minister make a statement on these two issues?

Mr. Mulley

We give no aid to the islands at present because the need has not arisen. The average income per head in the islands is about £500, almost the same as that which obtains in the United Kingdom. The rates of tax are very low. I think that it is about 2s. in the £1 on £1,000 and the highest rate of tax is 5s. 9d. starting at £6,000. I should have thought that before the question of budgetary aid arose the islanders have some possibilities themselves.

On the question of capital aid, we have made it clear to the Executive Council that, if it puts forward specific and realistic schemes, we shall consider what can be done. But no such proposals have been made since the early 1950s, when there was an attempt which, unfortunately, failed to get an export of frozen mutton.

On the point about Her Majesty's Government being pressurised by Anglo-Argentinians in Buenos Aires, that is certainly not the case.

Mr. Sandys

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely, the inability of the Government to give an unequivocal assurance that, in their present discussions with the Argentine Government, they will make it absolutely clear that there is no qustion of renouncing sovereignty over the Falkland Islands.

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Sandys) asks leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter which he thinks should have urgent consideration, namely, the inability of the Government to give an unequivocal assurance that, in their present discussions with the Argentine Government, they will make it absolutely clear that there is no question of renouncing sovereignty over the Falkland Islands. As the House knows, under the revised Standing Order No. 9, Mr. Speaker is directed to take into account the several factors set out in the Order but to give no reasons for his decision.

I have listened very carefully to what has just taken place, and I have given careful consideration to the representation that the right hon. Gentleman has made. But I have to rule that the right hon. Gentleman's submission does not fall within the provisions of the revised Standing Order and that, therefore, I cannot submit his application to the House.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We have established quite a good precedent that, when Mr. Speaker makes the very difficult decision of ruling on Standing Order No. 9, that is the end of the discussion. I hope that the hon. Member for Chigwell (Mr. Biggs-Davison) will keep to that. Is it the same point of order?

Mr. Biggs-Davison

No, Mr. Speaker. It is a different one, having nothing to do with the application under Standing Order No. 9.

Since it appears that Lord Chalfont cannot be brought to the Bar of this House, and since it also appears from my researches that he cannot now be impeached, may I ask you whether the Leader of the House is not anxious to catch your eye for the purpose of informing the House when we may have the further statement which has been indicated by the Minister of State—[An HON. MEMBER: "Promised."]—promised by him, to clarify his disastrous diplomacy?

Mr. Speaker

That is a point for the Leader of the House and not for the Chair.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Fred Peart)

Mr. Speaker, I think that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State said that he would have talks with his right hon. and noble Friend, Lord Chalfont, and that he would inform the House accordingly. I will see that that is done tomorrow.