HC Deb 02 December 1980 vol 995 cc128-34
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the Falkland Islands.

We have no doubt about our sovereignty over the islands. The Argentines, however, continue to press their claim. The dispute is causing continuing uncertainty, emigration and economic stagnation in the islands. Following my exploratory talks with the Argentines in April, the Government have been considering possible ways of achieving a solution which would be acceptable to all parties. In this, the essential is that we should be guided by the wishes of the islanders themselves.

I therefore visited the islands between 22 and 29 November in order to consult island councillors and subsequently, at their express request, all islanders on how we should proceed. Various possible bases for seeking a negotiated settlement were discussed. These included both a way of freezing the dispute for a period or exchanging the title of sovereignty against a long lease of the islands back to Her Majesty's Government.

The essential elements of any solution would be that it should preserve British administration, law and way of life for the islanders while releasing the potential of the islands' economy and of their maritime resources, at present blighted by the dispute.

It is for the islanders to advise on which, if any, option should be explored in negotiations with the Argentines. I have asked them to let me have their views in due course. Any eventual settlement would have to be endorsed by the islanders and by this House

Mr. Peter Shore (Stepney and Poplar)

This is a worrying statement.

Will the Minister confirm that involved here are the rights and future of 1,800 people of British descent in a territory which was originally uninhabited—people who, above all, wish to preserve their present relationship with the United Kingdom? Will he reaffirm that there is no question of proceeding with any proposal contrary to the wishes of the Falkland islanders? Their wishes are surely not just "guidance" to the British Government. Surely, they must be of paramount importance. Has the hon. Gentleman made that absolutely clear to the Argentine Government?

Is not the Minister aware that proposals for a leasing arrangement represent a major weakening of our long-held position on sovereignty in the Falkland Islands, and chat to make them in so specific and public a manner is likely only to harden Argentine policy and to undermine the confidence of the Falkland islanders? Will he, therefore, make it dear that we shall uphold the rights of the islanders to continue to make a genuinely free choice about their future, that we shall not abandon them and that, in spite of all the logistical difficulties, we shall continue to support and sustain them?

Mr. Ridley

The answer to all the right hon. Gentleman's questions is "Yes". There are about 1,800 islanders. I make it clear, as I did in my statement, that we shall do nothing which is not "endorsed" by the islanders. I used that word as well as the word "wishes". I agree that that is the predominant consideration in this matter. I am sure that equally the right hon. Gentleman will agree that nothing that he might feel, think or do should be allowed to interfere with what the islanders themselves decide. I confirm that our long-standing commitment to their security and economic well-being remains, and I said that in the islands.

Sir Bernard Braine (Essex, South-East)

Does not my hon. Friend agree that the option of yielding on sovereignty and leasing back undermines a perfectly valid title in international law? Secondly, does he not realise that the precedent of Hong Kong, which was taken from China by force, is an insult to Falkland islanders whose ancestors went there more than a century ago and settled peaceably in an uninhabited land?

Thirdly, did my hon. Friend discuss with representatives of the Falkland Islands alternative means of communications, which are perfectly feasible, in order to reduce the islands' total dependence upon the Argentine? Lastly, in view of the fresh anxieties that these talks have caused about the future of the islanders, and bearing in mind that the islanders are wholly British in blood and sentiment, will he give an assurance that the Government will include the Falkland islanders as an exception in the forthcoming British nationality law?

Mr. Ridley

I agree with my hon. Friend that we have a perfectly valid title. There is no question about that in our mind. The question is whether the islanders would prefer to have the dead hand of the dispute removed so that they can not only continue their British way of life but have reasonable prospects of economic expansion. I suggest that that is something upon which they have every right to give their views before we all give ours.

I consulted the islanders on the question of communications, but, of course, in the event of a dispute between ourselves and Argentina becoming more tense, my hon. Friend should realise that it is unlikely that communications could be established with neighbouring countries in South America. The question of British nationality is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness)

Is the Minister aware that his reception in the Falkland Islands left the islanders' views in no doubt, although it left a considerable doubt about his good intentions? Is he further aware that there is no support at all in the Falkland Islands or in this House for the shameful schemes for getting rid of these islands which have been festering in the Foreign Office for years? Will he take this opportunity to end speculation once and for all by declaring quite clearly that he disowns those schemes and that he will work to improve the economic and political links between the United Kingdom and the Falkland Islands? Surely, that is the way to end the emigration about which he talked earlier.

Mr. Ridley

Perhaps I am more aware of the reception that I received in the islands than the hon. Gentleman is. I hope that even those who did not like what I had to say were at least agreed upon my good intentions. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that a large number of people felt that it was right that something should be done to settle the dispute. Some of them liked some of the ideas and some did not. The islanders must be allowed to make up their own minds. The hon. Gentleman is rushing it a bit in trying to anticipate what they may eventually decide.

Mr. Peter Tapsell (Horncastle)

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that some of us who have interested ourselves in the future of the Falkland Islands over the years have considerable doubts about the tactical wisdom of placing the leasing point on the negotiation table? We therefore particularly welcome that part of his statement which said that no settlement would be pursued which did not have the support of the Falkland islanders.

Mr. Ridley

No offer has been made to the Argentine Government to negotiate on anything. This was a visit to consult the islanders about what they would like to see in any future negotiation or, in the case of a negative answer, if there were to be no future negotiation. There is no question about this being a negotiating offer on the table. This is something which the islanders will discuss among themselves in order to decide whether they wish it to be pursued.

Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)

Is not the Government's argument that the interests of 1,800 Falkland islanders take precedence over the interests of 55 million people in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Ridley

There need be no conflict between the two, especially if a peaceful resolution of the dispute can be achieved.

Mr. Julian Amery (Brighton, Pavilion)

Is my hon. Friend aware that his statement is profoundly disturbing? Is he also aware, as certainly the Falkland islanders are, that for years—and here I speak from some experience—his Department has wanted to get rid of this commitment? Is he further aware that it is almost always a great mistake to get rid of real estate for nothing, that the Falkland Islands may have an important part to play in the future of the South Atlantic and that, admitting that the interests of the inhabitants and their wishes must be paramount, there is also a considerable British interest in maintaining this commitment, which is probably much cheaper to maintain than it is to lose? Will my hon. Friend look back at the cost to us in terms of oil prices of the surrender of Aden and the Persian Gulf?

Mr. Ridley

I think that my right hon. Friend knows me well enough to realise that I do not embrace schemes which are thrust upon me by my Department. The Government as a whole have taken the decision to take this initiative. It is of a political nature, and it is not the job of the Foreign Office to devise such an initiative. There is a great deal in what my right hon. Friend said about the need to watch the strategic and other interests in the South Atlantic. It is in order to ensure that these may be peacefully pursued, including the possibilities of oil around the Falklands, that there is a premium on trying to solve the dispute.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

In order to allay the fears and doubts which his statement will have aroused among islanders, and in order to preserve the honour of the Government in the affair, will the Minister now advise the Argentine Government that the matter is closed unless and until the islanders wish to reopen it?

Mr. Ridley

I stress that I was in the islands more recently than the right hon. Gentleman. It is not for him to say what the islanders do or do not want. I have asked them directly, and I do not need his services to anticipate what they may say.

Mr. Kenneth Warren (Hastings)

I recognise that the Falkland Islands have severe current economic problems, but does my hon. Friend agree that the potential in terms of fisheries and offshore oil in the Falkland Islands is sufficient to sustain them economically in the not-too-distant future and that we should give the islanders every support that we can in their economic bargaining?

Mr. Ridley

My hon. Friend is right, but he will also know that it has not proved possible under Governments of either party to exploit those resources, either of fish or oil, because of the dead hand of the dispute with Argentina. We are seeking to find a solution in order to make that possible.

Mr. Tom McNally (Stockport, South)

Is the Minister aware that his Department's policy over many years has been the major cause of the uncertainty affecting the islands? Instead of making these humiliating excursions to the Argentine, would it not be better for the hon. Gentleman simply to say that, whatever the Government and whatever the majority, there will never be a majority in this House to give this historically separate people and these separate islands to the Argentine?

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman speaks as if he knows more about the position than the Foreign Office and the islanders; he seems to speak for the whole House. He may find that he is sometimes wrong.

Viscount Cranborne (Dorset, South)

Is my hon. Friend aware that his statement today has caused grave disquiet throughout his own supporters, and that merely by entertaining the possibility of the surrender of sovereignty he is encouraging the islanders to think that they do not enjoy the support that they deserve from their home country? Is he also aware that his attitude reminds me of the attitude of the Church of England over the old Prayer Book—

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Mr. Ridley

I was happy to be able to assure the islanders that they had our support, whatever course they chose to take. Of course, whether the position remains as it is at present or whether there is a lease back, the Government are obligated to defend their territories all round the world.

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)

It is clear that the islanders, whatever else they may think, have no wish for a change of sovereignty. Why cannot the Foreign Office leave the matter alone?

Mr. Ridley

The right hon. Gentleman should have accompanied me on my visit; it would have been very pleasant. He might then have heard the views of the islanders, a large number of whom believe that it would be to their advantage to settle the dispute. He must listen to the views in the islands instead of preaching what he has always believed to be the case

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I must protect the business on the Order Paper. I propose to take three more questions from either side of the House.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Did my hon. Friend discuss with the islanders the question of their right of access to the United Kingdom in any proposed change of the nationality laws, or did he tell them that a Home Office Minister would be visiting the Falkland Islands to do so? In other words, is it only to the House of Commons that my hon. Friend will not answer questions about that, or will a Home Office Minister do so?

What is the position concerning Falkland Islands trade with Southern Chile? There was some experimental trade in lamb. What opportunities are there for further economic links between Southern Chile and the Falkland Islands rather than that the Falkland Islands should be totally reliant on Argentina?

Mr. Ridley

The islanders certainly discussed the question of nationality with me, and I said that I would discuss the matter with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary when I returned home. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will discuss the matter with me at some stage.

The question of trade with Chile is open. There is no reason why the islanders should not trade with Chile or with any other country. There has been one delivery of sheep to Chile, and we hope that there will further trade between the two countries.

Mr. James Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, West)

The House will welcome, and has welcomed, the Minister's unequivocal statement that the islanders will be the arbiters and sole judges of their destiny, but what is he doing to ameliorate their conditions? The islands are 10,000 miles away with a diminishing population, and young people are leaving them. Argentina will not go away, so the Government's duty is to ameliorate conditions between the islands and the mainland. What are the Government doing about fishing ventures or any other commercial exploitations?

Mr. Ridley

I am taking an initiative to see, with the islanders, whether there is a way of solving the dispute. That is the way to unlock the economic potential that the islanders so badly need.

Mr. Matthew Parris (Derbyshire, West)

Will my hon. Friend explain why the continuing dispute with Argentina precludes help from the United Kingdom Government to the islanders in developing their territory?

Mr. Ridley

The possibility of declaring a 200-mile zone round the islands is remote without the agreement of the Argentine because of the difficulty of enforcing the licensing of fishing or oil exploration. Successive Governments found that that was not possible in the absence of an agreement. There is also considerable difficulty relating to investment and the extension of credit to the islands because of the fear of investors that the dispute may frustrate their investment.

Mr. John Home Robertson (Berwick and Hast Lothian)

Will the Minister tell the House more about the leasing proposals? Is it his idea to sell the freehold to Argentina and 10 lease it back as part of the Government's attempts to reduce the public sector borrowing requirement?

Mr. Ridley

The details of any lease-back arrangement would first have to be considered by the islanders, and then it would be the subject of negotiation with the Argentine and then the subject of endorsement by the islanders and this House- It is impossible to go into detail with any accuracy, but it is not envisaged that any money would change hands, either in the transfer or in the lease.

Mr. William Shelton (Streatham)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on taking the views of the islanders, which is right and proper. Will he confirm that should those views be for maintenance of the status quo he will accept that? Will he also say whether he has contingency plans to help the islanders, despite the lack of resolution of the problem?

Mr. Ridley

We shall have to wait for the answer. That is a hypothetical question, and we must consider the matter when we hear from the islanders.

Mr. David Lambie (Central Ayrshire)

As one of the few Members to have visited the Falkland Islands, may I ask the Minister whether he is aware of the deeply felt suspicion of the islanders of previous British Governments and British politicians, especially those representing the Foreign Office? Is he further aware that there was no need for today's statement, which will further heighten those suspicions? Is this a further example of the Government reneging on previous promises that were given to those people?

Mr. Ridley

As one of the few hon. Members to have visited the Falkland Islands—I have visited them twice—I beg to differ with the hon. Gentleman. My welcome was friendly, and the islanders were kind and listened to me with great attention. They were grateful for the frank discussions that we had.

Mr. Shore

The Minister was asked a few moments ago whether, if the islanders were to opt for the status quo, that would then be the Government's view on the matter and they would sustain it. He did not give a clear reply to that. If the Government are to honour their commitment that the views and wishes of the Falkland Islands are to be paramount, which is the word which has been used hitherto, he must assure the House and the Falkland islanders that that principle of paramountcy of their wishes about their future will be sustained by the British Government.

Mr. Ridley

I have said that anything that was proposed would have to be endorsed by the islanders. There is no need to repeat that. However, I cannot answer a hypothetical question about what might happen in certain circumstances, just as I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would not be prepared to say that if the islanders endorsed a solution he could make his whole party vote for it.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it possible to give notice after a ministerial statement that one would wish to raise a matter on the Adjournment? If it is possible, I should like so to do because of the intense dissatisfaction I feel about what the Minister said.