HC Deb 28 January 1972 vol 829 cc1751-3
Dr. Gilbert (by Private Notice)

asked the Minister of State for Defence if he will make a statement about the current movement of H.M. Ships and Service personnel in the Caribbean area.

The Minister of State for Defence (Lord Balniel)

There are long-standing plans for various exercises in the Caribbean over the next few months. During February there is to be a major amphibious exercise in the Caribbean area, including the assault ship "Fearless" and substantial Army forces. A reinforcement exercise started this week in British Honduras, involving the Second Battalion Grenadier Guards and supporting forces. This has been planned since April, 1971. The "Ark Royal", currently off Key West, Florida, is visiting New York on 4th February and the opportunity is being taken to exercise her with Army units in British Honduras in providing air support. She will later be taking part with other ships in national and multi-national exercises in the area.

Dr. Gilbert

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his reply. Can he answer certain points about these manoeuvres? It has been reported that the date of them has been advanced recently. If that is so, why? With respect to the manoeuvres in British Honduras, is notice normally given to the Guatemalan Government of our intention to carry out such operations? Thirdly, with respect to the manoeuvres in the Eastern Caribbean, may we have an assurance that, insofar as they involve United States territory, they will not involve the use of the base at Guantanamo?

Lord Balniel

These reinforcement exercises are in connection with a British dependency and are a regular annual feature. Notice does not have to be given to any other country. The exercises have been planned to take place between 31st January and 31st March, and those are long-standing dates. I require notice of the last part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question.

Dr. David Owen

Accepting that the British Honduras exercise had been planned for a long time, have the Government had in recent weeks any grounds for believing that there is a threat to the security of British Honduras? Have the British Honduras Government raised the question of independence recently? Finally, are these multi-national exercises to involve our N.A.T.O. allies? Have our N.A.T.O. allies been consulted over the recent possibilities of any tension?

Lord Balniel

The hon. Gentleman's first and second questions are more a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs but I find it hard to believe that Guatemala would wish to attack a British colony which we intend, and are well able, to defend. The wider exercises do involve our N.A.T.O. allies.

Mr. Kenneth Baker

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his answers are satisfactory, particularly his reply to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen)? Since British Honduras is a small and happy colony with a freely-elected Government honestly run by Mr. Price, any attempt to press Guatemalan territorial claims will, I hope, be firmly resisted.

Lord Balniel

I take note of what my lion. Friend has said, but, as I have pointed out, these wider matters are for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.

Mr. Palmer

What consultations, it any, have there been with the American Government, which normally take more than a paternal interest in politics in this part of the world?

Lord Balniel

The American Government are well aware of this long-standing exercise, and, of course, there have been consultation with all the Governments concerned.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

Is my right hon. Friend surprised to see this further illustration of how handy it is to have an aircraft carrier around occasionally, either for exercises or to deal with or prevent trouble?

Lord Balniel

That is another question but there is no doubt that the "Ark Royal" is a very fine ship; nor is there any doubt about the wisdom of the Government's decision to retain her in use.

Dr. Owen

Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that if there is any change in the situation or any question of a threat to the security of British Honduras the Foreign Secretary will make a statement to the House at the earliest opportunity?

Lord Balniel

I will draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend. Were there to be a substantial change in the situation I feel sure that a statement would be made.

Mr. Ogden

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he will never need to apologise to the House for using British forces to protect the interests of the people of British Honduras and Britain itself? In view of his statement, which I accept, that the exercises have been of long-standing, can he say how it is that the reports outside link them so closely with guerrilla movements outside the borders of British Honduras? What has happened to his information department?

Lord Balniel

I noticed those reports in various media. They arise, I think, from the fact that reports allege that Guatemalan troops have been concentrating on the border. There is no evidence to support this. Guatemala has a terrorist problem on the border, and it is probably the linking of that fact with these exercises that has given rise to widespread public interest.

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