HC Deb 16 December 1977 vol 941 cc1226-36

3.36 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Fraser (Stafford and Stone)

I am grateful for the opportunity of this debate to urge the full implementation of the Shackleton Report. I am also grateful for the presence of my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies), who, as Shadow Foreign Secretary, will be able to say a few words.

I draw the attention of the Government to Early-Day Motion 136 on the Falkland Islands, which, among other things, urges the Government to declare unequivocally that this free and democratic British community will not be forced into dependence upon a foreign power for its international communications and economic viability. That admirable motion, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine), has been signed by no fewer than 180 hon. Members of all parties in the House, although not many are present today.

If one were to search for a perfection of proportional representation, there would be none better than that of one M.P. standing behind every 10 Falkland Islanders. But Britain's vital interests cannot be over-represented. Indeed, until yesterday I believed that they would be strongly represented in the current negotiations with the Argentine Republic in New York.

I must draw the attention of the House to an article which appeared in Tuesdays Herald Tribune and Monday's New York Times, which said: Any agreement that the Falkland Islanders rejected would not even be submitted to the House of Commons for approval, the Foreign Office says, but the islanders would be under enormous pressure to go along with any deal placed before them. I believe that these leaks and rumours demand some sort of Government denial, otherwise what has been said in this House about the rights and wishes of the islanders being protected seems to be somewhat uncertain.

Today, we have had an announcement in The Times of what has happened in the joint talks. It seems that the British and the Argentine Governments have agreed to form two joint working parties on the issues of sovereignty and economic development. I do not want to go into the issue of sovereignty, but I do not see how we can have an effective working party on a matter which should be a subject for a judicial decision. A working party seems to be a bit of a nonsense. The subject of that working party, I would have thought, should be one for The Hague court.

With regard to the second working party, I would have thought that there was grave danger of burying the Shackle-ton Report before it is implemented. Lord Shackleton spent four months finding out what the developments were. I suggest that a further working party on economic development would only support what Lord Shackleton, recalling the 20 earlier reports, said in his report. When asked to define the Falkland Islands, he said: The Falkland Islands is a piece of land entirely surrounded by advice". There is far too much of that already.

What is at stake is not only the moral position of this country regarding the 1,900 islanders and the fellow subjects who remain there but the considerable British interests in maintaining our claim to the development of the Antarctic region. Any such development could be best advanced by successful negotiations with the Argentine Republic, but such negotiations could take place only on the basis of the Falkland Islands remaining British; and in any advance that is the key.

How important that region is or may be is best summed up by an article in the Financial Times in September 1977 which said: Antarctica has some 90 per cent. of the earth's usable fresh water; has the world's largest reserves of protein in the form of fish, krill and other marine life; some of the biggest deposits of coal and iron ore on earth; very large quantities of oil and natural gas; and possibly big quantities of plutonium, copper, nickel, gold, cobalt and other rare metals. In 1975 a U.S. Oil Survey talked about 9 times more oil than in the North Sea. Of course, such developments must be several years, if not decades, away.

There are those who would oppose that development. There is an Antarctic treaty which plays down development, but it expires in 1991. The hazards and problems are enormous with the ice, the cold and the mountainous seas. But already the United States and the USSR are spending scores of millions of dollars on researching the region, and research in world politics runs very close to the threat of development. Already the Germans and Japanese are experimenting on a big scale with krill fishing in the area.

How crazy it would be to throw away the key to what, in effect, could become a new subcontinent for human endeavour. Unless we see the Falkland Islands in this light as part of a chain of British islands—Ascension, St. Helena, Tristan da Cunha, Prince Edward Island, the South Orkneys and other Commonwealth remote island possessions circumscribing the Antarctic—we shall fail in our national duty to a once forward-looking people whose perspectives in trade and commerce are still global.

This is why immediate implementation of the Shackleton Report is so important and why it should not be shuffled off before substantive negotiations are resumed with the Argentine in February. If the Government do not now agree to expand the airfield, our negotiations with the Argentine will be sterile, unsuccessful and humiliating.

Lord Shackleton's report is a wholly admirable and immensely thorough and detailed document. I quote these examples. Item—the road between Goose Green and Stanley. Item—grasslands: the sheep population could well be pushed up from 600,000 to over 2 million sheep. Item—the seaweed industry, which could have finished alginate products worth £2,000 a ton. Item—clarification of offshore oil, mining, and sea fishing rights.

But the main and most important item is the question of communication. Lord Shackleton felt so strongly about this that he sent the Government an interim report on airfield expansion. Personally, I do not think he has gone far enough. The nodal point of economic development and of political independence for the Falklands is an airfield which can take planes, and large planes, without their touching down on Argentine territory.

Unless this critical question of the airfield is faced and the airfield is paid for entirely by British money, there is the danger that the Falklands will become an Argentine colony, grant-aided by Britain. It may be the will of certain officials in the Foreign Office that the Argentine should control all air movements, build jetties and subsidise air fares between the islands and the South American mainland. It is not, I believe, the wish of this House.

The history of the airfield is not a happy one. In 1969 a 2,300-metre field could have been completed for £1 million. Today, some £4 million at least has already been spent to bring the field up to 1,250 metres. Unfortunately, the real need is to build a field which would have to be nearer 3,000 metres than the 2,200 or thereabouts recommended by Lord Shackleton.

At the moment, a fully-laden VC10 would need 2,530 metres to take off and a BAC 111 would need 1,798 metres. Heavier air transport to move machinery, alginates or sheep—for which there might be contracts with the Middle East, as there are with sheep from Patagonia in the Southern Argentine—would need a runway of the higher order. These, of course, are technical matters. The fact is that the 2,300 metres recommended by Lord Shackleton is an absolute minimum, and this would need considerable expenditure.

One of the troubles is that the airfield was, strangely, built on peat, which meant the removal of 40 feet of overburden before rock was struck, but I am informed that much of the needed extension could be built on sand, which is a more manageable and infinitely cheaper and easier method of operation.

The total cost of Lord Shackleton's recommendations, omitting a major airfield development, is about £7 million over the next five years, but to this would be added a considerable sum for immediately expanding the runway. That might run into a further £7 million or £8 million, making a total of £15 million or more. Is that such a gigantic sum, seen against our annual expenditure of £230 million in overseas aid, some of which, like the £10 million to Mozambique, is very questionable? Is it so huge when one considers the economic and strategic implications of Antartica?

After all, as a trading nation our position in the South Atlantic is not unimportant in time of war. Long before anyone thought about the exploitation of Antarctica, in the 1914 and 1939 conflicts we fought two decisive and successful major naval battles based on the Falklands. Who knows? Perhaps under some international treaty we may be asked to play a part in policing as well as developing the Antarctic region. That is not impossible.

As for economic considerations, there are the obvious possibilities of oil, coal and fishing, as well as underwater development. In the past this country has played a leading part in the development of the oceans—in new designs for ships, as hydrologists, and in submarine design. Sea water covers—and, I hope, will continue to cover—three-quarters of the earth's surface. The Falklands could be a laboratory for the development of new technologies to give work to British industry and shipyards which now depend on huge Government subsidies for the production of shins which are more easily mass-produced elsewhere. For a seafaring people there could be no better challenge.

I am all for collaboration with the Argentine Republic. I have a high regard for Dr. Martinez de Hoz, the present most efficient director of the Argentine economy. There is much that we could achieve together. There is much that we have done in the past to assist the Argentine both in its ancient struggle for political freedom—British names still ring through its history—and in its economic development. I hope that we can see a return to that sort of relationship, but it can be based only on the Falklands remaining British, and the Falklands will remain British only if we can re-establish full air communications with this outpost of our national interests. For this we need a full implementation of Lord Shackleton's report.

3.47 p.m.

Mr. John Davies (Knutsford)

We must be grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. Fraser) for raising the whole question of the Falkland Islands, as we were grateful last Session to my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr Luce) for raising it in an Adjournment debate.

My right hon. Friend rightly concentrated upon the economic issues, on the economic importance, not only to the Falkland Islanders but to us of not abandoning them or disregarding their basic economic interests simple because of a relatively pettifogging attitude in favour of our own economy.

My right hon. Friend also touched on the geo-strategic issues. They are very important.

However, I should like to say a few words on the sovereignty issue. We welcome the repeated assurances by the Minister of State that there will never be any question of putting before the House any proposal for a variation of the status of the Falkland Islands without the full support and acceptance of the Falkland Islanders. However, we should not find it a very happy matter if that acceptance were extorted by such economic pressures being put on the Falkland Islanders as to make abandonment of their sovereignty almost a prerequisite of their economic survival. That would be very unsatisfactory. To judge from discussions I had in Ottawa earlier this year, at the time of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference, with the representative of the Falkland Islanders, there is in theory no need to discuss the issue of sovereignty at all. The islanders have already made it abundantly clear that they wish never to be anything but British. I understand that for reasons of convenience it may be necessary for these matters to be discussed, although that view has been clearly established.

The danger of introducing the question of sovereignty into the discussion is that it has the risk of becoming a bargaining counter. If there were any temptation to use that bargaining counter in a way prejudicial to the clearly stated wishes of the islanders, we would resent and reject it.

When we consider the Falkland Islands and other former imperial territories, such as Belize and Gibraltar, we must not forget the debt we owe them, which is of a purely moral character. We have a great debt of honour to those outlying residual parts of our former empire. We must not regard them as expendable, but as nations we honour, love and respect.

I hope that the Minister will be able to assist on the economic issues so effectively put to the House by my right hon. Friend, and will have in mind the deeper issues of sovereignty about which I am so concerned.

3.52 p.m.

Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)

On 8th December, the anniversary of the battle of the Falklands Islands, I was able to stand at the Cenotaph as a member of the all-party Falkland Islands Group in this House alongside representatives of the Falkland Islands. It was a symbolic moment for many Members of this House, notably for the right hon. Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. Fraser).

My only purpose in joining this debate is to confirm what my hon. Friend the Minister already knows—namely, the concern that has been expressed on this subject across the party divide. I was grateful that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned our desire to maintain the best possible relationships with the people and Government of Argentina—but not at any price. I hope that that situation will continue.

3.53 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Overseas Development (Mr. John Tomlinson)

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. Fraser) for giving me this opportunity--at greater length than the Government have been able to do previously—to explain the attitude of the Ministry of Overseas Development towards the Falkland Islands and in particular the Shackleton Report. I know that this subject is rightly a matter on which strong feelings are held in this House. The right hon. Gentleman was right to draw the attention of the House to the number of hon. Members on both sides of the House who have signed an Early-Day Motion on this subject.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) was able to emphasise the all-party concern on this subject. Perhaps as a result of these strong feelings certain misunderstandings have arisen, and I shall do my best to put them right this afternoon and try to allay some of the fears.

I recognise the wider political problems mentioned by the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) and I appreciate his concern, but those problems fall within the area of responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. I shall ensure that he fully understands the concern expressed in the House this afternoon. However, it would be wrong of me now to seek to intrude into the subject matter of this Adjournment debate other matters relating to the work of the Ministry of Overseas Development.

First, I should like to state emphatically that the present Government, as their predecessors, have always recognised that the remaining dependencies have a special call upon the aid programme. Political considerations apart—and I am not going to trespass on the territory of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs—this has meant that the Ministry of Overseas Development has given a high priority to considering the economic and social needs of the 1,950 inhabitants of the Falkland Islands. The commissioning of the report from Lord Shackleton and his team and the seriousness with which we have followed up the report's suggestions give abundant evidence of our concern with and involvement in their problems.

There is one general point which I must make. When the Ministry and the Falkland Islands Government consider aid—because, needless to say, British aid is not imposed on the Falkland Islands but is provided at the request of, and after discussion with, the Falkland Islands Government—we have to consider the amount of aid which the Falkland Islands can absorb without putting strains on its economy. The islands have hitherto been self-supporting, in the sense that the United Kingdom has not provided them with financial means to balance the budget. They and we wish this to remain so. We therefore have to consider aid which will not place an intolerable burden of recurrent costs on a small community mainly engaged in the wool and sheep industry.

Nor do we wish to flood the islands with expatriates. We have already a very extensive programme, for a country of this size, of technical co-operation and we also supplement the salaries of 44 expatriate officers working in the islands. The Ministry of Overseas Development pays for a large expert team working on the improvement of grasslands, an essential task in an economy based on sheep, but this sort of work is not the kind which produces instant dramatic results, or anything like the publicity which it really merits, both within and outside the Falkland Islands. We have funded a number of visiting experts to advise on subjects, ranging from education to fire fighting, and we shall, of course, continue to respond to similar requests from the Falkland Islands Government as and when they come forward.

Since the publication of the Shackleton Report, our programme of technical co-operation and other aid in the Falkland Islands has in no way ignored Lord Shackleton's recommendations—quite the opposite is the case. I would like to mention some of the things which we have financed which are directly in line with what the report recommends. The report rightly stresses the importance of internal transport to the islanders. We have financed a study of these problems, taking into account both road, sea and air transport. Its recommendations should be ready very soon, and the Falkland Islands Government and ourselves will be able to study them early in the new year.

Another major point made in the report was the importance of improving the education system in the islands. As a result of a subsequent visit by one of the Ministry's education advisers, a project for a new boarding school in Port Stanley has been drawn up, and we are prepared to provide finance for its building. We are also financing the expansion of the important Grasslands Trials Unit, which I have already mentioned, and we have sent an expert out to the islands to demonstrate sheepskin processing. We shall also be prepared, at the right time—the report suggests that this would be after the reports of the grassland trials unit have been received—to finance a study of mutton freezing.

If and when the Falkland Islands want it, we would be prepared to advise on diversification of agriculture, on fisheries and on knitwear production. We have already provided advice on the Islands' fiscal and taxation problems, and this is being studied by the Falkland Islands Government. At their request, we are also recruiting a development officer. All these activities, none of them bringing about revolutionary and dramatic changes, are precisely the kind of things which are needed in a small community with limited manpower resources.

The Shackleton Report, of course, made other recommendations of a far more wide-ranging sort. In particular, the report suggested that there could be large-scale exploitation of three industries in or around the islands, namely, oil, fisheries and tourism. The Government's attitude to these suggestions has been consistent, ever since the late Anthony Crosland made his statement to the House last February. If the industries are to be exploited, it will be for the commercial sector, and certainly not for the Ministry of Overseas Development, to provide the considerable capital sums needed. I do not think that there would be major disagreement with that assertion, but it will not be possible for such large-scale exploitation to take place outside a general framework of economic co-operation with Argentina. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman's remarks relating to Argentina will probably bear out that assertion—

It being Four o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Thomas Cox.]

Mr. Tomlinson

The Ministry of Overseas Development is not responsible for the political aspects but, as I have already said, it has to take into account the simple facts of geography in relation to the neighbours of the Falkland Islands.

It is for these reasons that we are not prepared to support, at this juncture, a further expansion of the new airstrip which has recently opened. The airstrip is perfectly capable of handling the present traffic requirements of the Falkland Islands. The case for enlarging it would have to be based on the much wider traffic which might be generated by large-scale industrial or other developments such as those I have just mentioned.

I hope that I have been able to convince hon. Members that the Ministry of Overseas Development takes the subject of development in the Falkland Islands very seriously. It has not only carefully considered the recommendations of the Shackleton Report, but has acted on a number of them and is prepared to act on more. It will be prepared to respond to any practical suggestions put forward by the Falkland Islands Government. But we must always have regard to the interests of the present inhabitants of the islands. We do not wish, by imposing aid on them for which they have not asked, to saddle them with a financial burden which they will find it difficult to carry.

As I said at the beginning, I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Stafford and Stone for the initiative that he took in raising this debate. I am grateful on behalf of the Ministry of Overseas Development to have the opportunity to elaborate at greater length than there has been the opportunity to do before on some of the less dramatic less headline-catching and less publicised features of our relations with the Falkland Islands.

I am sure that the House will recognise from many of the things that I have been able to list today, which are very important to the small island economy, that my Department is taking seriously the recommendation of Lord Shackleton and the future interests of the 1,950 people within the Falkland Islands. Once again, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising the debate. I can assure him that the serious problems that he has raised will continue to receive the serious attention of my Department.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes past Four o'clock till Monday 9th January, pursuant to the resolution of the House of 14th December.