HC Deb 20 November 1969 vol 791 cc1522-5
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Michael Stewart)

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

As I informed the House on the 11th of December, 1968, discussions with the Argentine Government have continued. In accordance with the practice for several years past, letters will be sent by the Argentine Government and ourselves to the Secretary General of the United Nations describing these discussions.

The text of these letters will be made public tomorrow at 7.30 p.m. Falkland Islands time, a time agreed by all parties and convenient to the Falkland Islanders.

With the permission of the House, I will make a fuller statement on Monday. Meanwhile, I can assure the House that the undertakings which Her Majesty's Government have repeatedly given both to Parliament and to the islanders remain unchanged, namely, that the Governor and his Executive Council have been kept informed and that there can be no transfer of sovereignty against the wishes of the islanders.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that his unqualified words that there will be no transfer of sovereignty against the wishes of the islanders will meet with general approval in all parts of the House? But as the letters to the United Nations apparently amount to nothing, could he not have said that today?

Mr. Stewart

On the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, I am sure that what I said about no transfer of sovereignty against the wishes of the islanders will be welcome to the House, but it is by no means the first time that it has been said. The Government have made this clear throughout. On the second point, it will be for hon. Members to judge when the text of the letters is published what significance they wish to give to them. I made this statement today because I gathered that a report from Buenos Aires alarmed some hon. Members.

Mr. James Johnson

Despite all the blether by hon. Members opposite, is it not obvious that the announcement will be made to suit the wishes of the Falkland islanders themselves? Is this not so?

Mr. Stewart

My hon. Friend is correct about that. The Falkland islanders, not having newspapers and relying on the broadcast for their daily news, wanted this to be at a time convenient for their evening broadcast.

Mr. Russell Johnston

While I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's assurance, what I find very difficult to understand is why there are continual assurances yet, at the same time, the Government's assurances seem to be continually undermined, whether intentionally or not, by rumours which seem to circulate—perhaps coming from the Opposition or the Argentine Government—which inevitably cause disturbance and distress to the Falkland islanders. This seems to be not only undesirable but unnecessary.

Mr. Stewart

I quite agree that it is unnecessary. There is no excuse for anyone, as some hon. Members opposite have done, to try to undermine these assurances. Fortunately, it was made clear some time ago by the Executive Council of the Falkland Islands, as I told the House last year, that it accepted that the British Government had been acting in good faith and that an understanding with Argentina, if it is to be reached, will be fully in keeping with Her Majesty's Government's promise that there will be no transfer of sovereignty against the wishes of the islanders. I deprecate attempts to disturb the islanders by questioning this.

Mr. Molloy

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that notwithstanding the fact that on a number of occasions he has made transparently clear that the Government stand fully with the Falkland islanders there are those who, apparently for purely political purposes, desire to find some false arguments? They are not helping the islanders at all with this sort of manoeuvring.

Mr. Stewart

I must agree that any attempt to suggest that the undertaking given in this House will not be honoured can only do damage. Fortunately, I think that the Falkland islanders have begun to take the measure of these manoeuvres by now.

Sir F. Bennett

The right hon. Gentleman has referred to letters being sent to the United Nations by the two Powers. Can he confirm a matter which may be disturbing? Are they to be in an agreed text, or will they be each country's separate interpretation?

Secondly, since the Argentinians made clear that the only matter in which they are interested is a transfer of sovereignty, which the Foreign Secretary has said is not on the cards if it is against the wishes of the Falkland islanders, can the right hon. Gentleman remind us what all these discussions are about?

Mr. Stewart

The letters will be, as in the past, an agreed text and will not be in the least anything inconsistent with the pledge that has been given.

The hon. Gentleman is incorrect in saying that the only thing in which the Argentinians are interested is a transfer of sovereignty. Both they and emphatically we are interested in trying to improve communications between the Argentinians and the islanders and the islanders are interested in that.

Mr. George Jeger

My right hon. Friend has said that the timing has been agreed between the three parties concerned. Can he confirm that the Falkland islanders are in agreement with the text of the communiqué as well as the timing?

Mr. Stewart

I should be glad to answer that question on Monday, when I shall make a fuller statement. The only reason I cannot answer it now is that the discussions through the Governor with the Executive Council have been confidential. I do not think that I could go further until the agreed time when the letters are published.

Mr. Braine

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Argentine Foreign Minister was reported early yesterday morning to have said that the joint statement would be a positive step towards a solution of the conflict over possession of the islands? Is it not most regrettable that on a matter affecting the interests of British subjects in a British territory this House should learn about the matter first from a spokesman of a foreign Government and not from the right hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Stewart

I think it regrettable that this report came out, but I still think that, having agreed to a particular time for the publication of the letters, I ought to stick to that time.