HC Deb 27 April 1982 vol 22 cc707-9
2. Mr. Kenneth Carlisle

asked the Secretary of State for Defence how it is intended to ensure the military security of the Falkland Islands in the long-term.

3. Sir William van Straubenzee

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on operations in the Falkland Islands area.

8. Mr. Frank Allaun

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement regarding his military measures against Argentina; and if he will ensure that priority is given to safeguarding the lives of the Falkland Islanders and the British residents in Argentina in any policy he contemplates.

10. Mr. Edwin Wainwright

asked the Secretary of State for Defence how many letters he has received, at the latest available date, criticising Her Majesty's Government's military dispositions in the Falkland Islands area before 1 April.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Nott)

I refer my hon. Friends and the hon. Members to the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister yesterday, informing the House of the operation undertaken on 25 April to repossess the British dependency of South Georgia and of the continuing diplomatic efforts to reach a negotiated solution to the crisis provoked by Argentine aggression.

There remains a substantial Argentine force on the Falkland Islands. The Royal Navy task force, deploying to the area of the Falkland Islands, is prepared for a wide range of military options. The House will not expect me to discuss these. However, the safeguarding of civilian lives will be one of our highest priorities.

Since the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands I have received over 600 letters, the vast majority of which have been generally supportive of the steps that the Government are taking.

I would prefer not to speculate on the future military security of the Falkland Islands while they remain occupied by Argentine armed forces.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call first those hon. Members whose questions are being answered.

Mr. Carlisle

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the only certain way to ensure the future security of the Falkland Islands is for the Argentine to understand beyond any shadow of doubt that it cannot gain its wishes by an act of aggression and that a lasting settlement can be reached only when it has withdrawn its forces?

Mr. Nott

I agree with my hon. Friend. That principle applies to many countries and islands throughout the world.

Sir William van Straubenzee

I appreciate that the military operations take place against a background of ceaseless diplomatic activity to find a peaceful solution, but does my right hon. Friend appreciate that if it should be necessary to take additional action, which might include the neutralisation of hostile air forces, there would be widespread support, particularly if the objective were the limiting of casualties, as has been so brilliantly displayed up to now?

Mr. Nott

I share my hon. Friend's desire that we should do everything possible to find a peaceful solution to this dispute. However, if force becomes necessary, I agree that we should use the minimum amount to achieve our objective.

Mr. Allaun

Do the islanders want the attack that was clearly implied by the Prime Minister yesterday, with all the blood and tears that that would entail for their families and for British Service men and their wives, children and parents? No one has asked the islanders what they want. As the Argentine Government have agreed today to allow a Red Cross team to go to the islands, should not the United Nations be authorised to send a team to ascertain the Falkland Islanders' views?

Mr. Nott

The Falkland Islanders cannot be consulted about such matters at the moment, because they are the victims of an act of aggression. Nobody would be happier than I if we could contact the Falkland Islanders to ascertain their wishes. That is our principal purpose.

I had not received the information about the Red Cross team, but we raised the matter some time ago and there appeared to be little enthusiasm. If that information is correct, I am delighted that the Argentine has agreed that a Red Cross team should visit the island.

Mr. Foulkes

Has the Secretary of State made, or does he intend to make, any arrangements to use an air base in Chile in the event of a military engagement with the Argentine over the Falkland Islands?

Mr. Nott

I cannot comment on that. We have had widespread support from countries all round the world, but I cannot comment on such matters.

Mr. Beith

After all that has happened, does the right hon. Gentleman now realise that visible, flexible naval power is a more important independent deterrent for Britain—and one that Britain may even be obliged to use on its own—than a nuclear deterrent?

Mr. Nott

I am certainly in favour of visible naval power. The conventional Navy receives about £½ billion more in real terms per year than when right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite were responsible for such matters. Among the lessons that we have learnt from this incident is that, in the last resort, Great Britain must be responsible for its own defence. There is no way in which this country can ultimately be protected without a nuclear as well as a conventional deterrent.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

Given that South Thule is in the general Falkland Islands area, will my right hon. Friend tell the House how many Argentines are illegally present on the island, and will he keep the matter under close review?

Mr. Nott

I am very conscious of the position there. I do not know the exact number involved, but it is between 40 and 70. The number varies as the winter approaches.

Mr. John Silkin

How can the security of the Falkland Islands—or, indeed, of the British Isles—be preserved on the basis of the last defence White Paper? Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that the Government intend to provide a strong and proper conventional maritime defence and to scrap Trident?

Mr. Nott

The principal threat to Britain comes from the Soviet Union and its allies, not from Argentina. As a member of NATO, we maintain a range of forces, both conventional and nuclear, to deter that threat. I repeat that the amount that we are now spending on the conventional naval programme—I emphasise "conventional naval programme"—is £½ billion more than what was spent on it when the Labour Party was in office.

Mr. Silkin

Has not the right hon. Gentleman yet understood that one-third of the task force will be scrapped two years from now under the defence White Paper scheme?

Mr. Nott

Again, that is an inaccurate remark. Of the destroyers and frigates now in the task force, not one is on the sales list and not one was on the sales list before the incident began. The figure of 17 vessels is a figment of the right hon. Gentleman's imagination.

Mr. Robert Atkins

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Royal Navy's ability to put together in four days a task force of sufficient size to go to the South Atlantic is a tribute to the Royal Navy's present capability? Is it not nonsense for the Opposition to suggest that the Royal Navy has suffered from cuts in the defence budget when the task force proves what can and will continue to be done?

Mr. Nott

As I said in our debate recently, nothing in our plans for the future will prevent a naval task force of the type now at sea from being sent on a similar task in 1985 or 1990. However, any such task force in 1985 or 1990 will have been further modernised and will have more up-to-date weapons. In a few year's time the task force will be even more powerful than it is today.

Mr. Skinner

Now that the Secretary of State and his colleagues have found out that they are dealing with a Fascist junta in the Argentine, will they give a categoric assurance, so that similar mistakes are not made in future, not to sell any more arms to Fascist regimes?

Mr. Nott

I cannot give any assurances—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"]—about the possible actions of Fascist juntas. However, the vast majority of the modern weapons possessed by the Argentines were sold to them during the time of the Labour Government.

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