HC Deb 14 June 1982 vol 25 cc611-5
Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement about the safety of British subjects in Port Stanley.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Cranley Onslow)

Throughout the course of our military operations to repossess the Falkland Islands our forces have attached the greatest importance to ensuring the safety of the civilian population on the islands. This has been a major consideration in the planning for, and conduct of, all our operations.

The most effective way of protecting non-combatants is through the establishment of a neutralised zone, as provided for in article 15 of the fourth Geneva convention. Such a zone in Port Stanley has been proposed by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which was able to visit Port Stanley for the first time on 10 and 11 June. The ICRC has been trying for several weeks to establish a presence on the Falkland Islands, but hitherto Argentina had not permitted this.

The British Government agreed forthwith to the neutralised zone which had been proposed by the ICRC. We have since been told by the ICRC that the Argentine Government have also agreed to this. The zone will consist of a rectangular area of roughly five acres around the Anglican cathedral. The cathedral is a large prominent building built of red brick. There are a number of other stone and brick-built buildings within the area of the zone, which is bounded by John Street, Dean Street, Philomel Street and Ross Road. Instructions have been sent to the British commander to respect this zone with immediate effect.

Besides the civilian non-combatant population, the zone may also be used for the protection of wounded and sick civilian and Service personnel. The area which has been designated should be large enough for the temporary accommodation of those expected to need protection.

I should like to express the Government's appreciation of the action of the ICRC in arranging for the establishment of this zone.

Meanwhile, as the House will be aware, Argentine sources have reported that some civilian casualties have occurred in Port Stanley during the fighting. We have no official confirmation of these reports. However, there is some independent evidence to support them, and I regret to say that we must regard it as likely that they are true. This tragic incident only underlines the importance of establishing a neutralised zone to minimise the risk to the islanders. We would hope to obtain further details concerning this incident when the representatives of the Red Cross return to Port Stanley.

Mr. Dalyell

Does not international opinion, considered so important in early April, now view with nausea the slaughter of young British men, young Argentines and Falklanders, and does it not call for an immediate end to the shooting? In the light of what is now happening to the Falklanders, is not the reality the same as it always was—that this war is less about the interests of the people on the Falkland Islands and much more to do with the injured pride of politicians making decisions?

Mr. Onslow

I am tempted to repay the hon. Gentleman in kind with use of the word "nausea", which is inappropriate in the sense in which he has imported it into this discussion. It is a fact that everyone in this House, as well as all international opinion, wants to see an end to the fighting, but it is also true that almost everyone, except the hon. Gentleman, understands the principles for which these lives have been lost—

Mr. Dalyell

Not true.

Mr. Onslow

—and, much though we regret them, we believe that it is necessary to go through with the enterprise.

Sir Timothy Kitson (Richmond, Yorks)

Would it be possible to arrange for the Red Cross to try to get some of the civilian casualties out? While we may not know officially who has been injured, certain people in Britain have been informed about deaths and serious injuries to their relations and are deeply concerned because they cannot get any further information. Could not we attempt to contact the Red Cross to see whether something could be done at least to remove the civilian casualties?

Mr. Onslow

I share my hon. Friend's concern about the uncertainty, but no direct or reliable source of information is available to us. Even the Red Cross has no resident presence in Port Stanley at the moment, and the information made available by it is based on only a brief visit during which its officials were able to meet only a small number of islanders. As soon as it becomes possible for the Red Cross to make an informed assessment, and if that suggests that evacuation is a practical possibility, we will, of course, do everything we can to co-operate with that suggestion.

Mr. Roland Moyle (Lewisham, East)

Is the Minister aware that the Opposition fully approve of the concluding of negotiations through the ICRC with the Argentines with a view to securing the safety of the civilian population of Port Stanley? That almost goes without saying. We only regret that it has taken so long because of foot-dragging by the Argentines. We want no more civilian casualties. We regret those that have been admitted this afternoon and wish to express our sympathy for the relatives.

Can the Minister give an authoritative, even if only approximate, figure of the number of civilians in Port Stanley? Various figures have been suggested in recent weeks. Why has the area around the cathedral been selected? I gather that there are a number of wooden buildings in that area. Are the Government satisfied that the arrangements they have now concluded will provide for the safety of the civilian population of Port Stanley, given the difficult situation that has arisen?

Have the British forces at any time offered a limited ceasefire to allow the civilians to be evacuated entirely from Port Stanley, and has there been any Argentine response either directly or through the International Red Cross? Do the Government accept that the presence of 600 civilians in Port Stanley, however they are arranged, is bound to place a restriction on our military operations? Have our commanders been informed that the preservation of the lives and well-being of the islanders is of prime importance, and are the Government confident that future operations will not put them seriously at risk?


I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his preface. The fact that hitherto there has not been an ICRC presence in Port Stanley is no fault of the Government or the ICRC.

I shall answer the right hon. Gentleman's questions as best I can, but, as I told my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Sir T. Kitson), the sources of information available to us are sketchy and sometimes of questionable reliability. We have no independent accurate corroboration of the figure of 600 civilians.

I can put forward no particular reason why that part of the town was selected. It must have recommended itself to the ICRC as being most suitable for a variety of reasons, doubtless including the type of buildings and the ease of definition. The safety of the civilians in Port Stanley depends on the ease and speed with which the Argentine authorities can get them into the neutralised zone. That again is not under our control, but I hope that it will receive all necessary priority.

I have no knowledge of ceasefire proposals initiated locally. It is not our intention from here to dictate to the force commander his operational priorities. Although we must accept the possibility of further civilian casualties as long as fighting continues, we should not expect the force commander to endanger the lives of his men by taking decisions that might in other contexts seem commendable.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

As the neutral zone has been created through the mediation of the ICRC, can the Minister confirm that the Government have at no stage, even at this late hour, ruled out the possibility of similar third-party intervention to secure a ceasefire and a peaceful Argentine withdrawal?

Mr. Onslow

The issue of a ceasefire goes wider than the context of the question. Our approach to the question of a ceasefire has always been that it must be linked to immediate Argentine withdrawal. If there is evidence to suggest that the Argentines are now willing to proceed direct from the one to the other, we should consider the matter.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Exceptionally, I shall call three more hon. Members from either side of the House, although it is a private notice question and not a statement.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

Everyone will be glad that the Red Cross has established the refuge for civilians and will note my hon. Friend's agreement that the United Kingdom would assist in evacuating civilian casualties, but can he tell us what arrangements there are to supervise the zone under the Red Cross so that there is no question of its being used by the Argentines for military purposes while being presented to the world solely as a neutral refuge for civilians?

Mr. Onslow

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he says, but I hope that he will appreciate that it is not in our power to monitor the use of a neutralised zone. That responsibility falls to the International Red Cross. However, I have no doubt that it is well aware of the rules and I am confident that it will do everything that it can to see that they are enforced.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

What is the state of information about the well-being of the British people on West Falkland? As we have more time available before we begin mopping-up operations on that island, is it not possible now to consider means of obtaining evacuation of those residents?

Mr. Onslow

I note what the hon. Gentleman says. I am sure that any appropriate action will be taken, but at this point I cannot go beyond that. Apart from anything else, our preoccupation must be with where the danger is greatest, which is undoubtedly in Port Stanley. That is where we want the ICRC to operate effectively as soon as possible.

Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate)

Considering the number of civilians in Port Stanley and the volume of the bombardment, is it not a remarkable feat that the task force aimers have been able to select military targets and, however sad, so far there have been only two civilian casualties?

Mr. Onslow

It is a relief that civilian casualties have so far been so small. Additionally, I have no evidence to suggest that the casualties that have unhappily occurred were the result of British military action. The matter has not been investigated and I am not prepared to pronounce on it.

Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)

Is the Minister aware that the Falkland Islanders who have been so tragically killed or injured are personally known to the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) and myself and that we are proud to call them our friends? Mrs. Doreen Bonner was a fine and courageous lady. She was a third generation kelper, who was much respected and will be missed by everyone who knew her. Mrs. Susan Whitley was a lovely and lively lady of good Welsh parentage, newly married to an excellent young husband. She was a teacher who was dedicated to the children and other people of the islands. Will the Minister accept our sympathy for the families of those who died and our good wishes that Mr. and Mrs. Fowler, who are also dedicated to the people of the islands, and Mrs. Mary Goodwin should be restored to good health? Will he bear in mind—perhaps the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) will also note—that no one on the islands will blame the British task force? They share pride and sorrow with other British families whose loved ones have been lost or injured in a common and just cause.

Mr. Onslow

It goes without saying that the sympathies of all hon. Members must be with the relations and friends of all who have been killed or injured. I am sure that what the hon. Gentleman says will be noted with appreciation and gratitude by the Falkland Islands community in particular.

Sir Frederick Burden (Gillingham)

Although the setting up of a neutral area is welcome to us all, might there not be problems with food, heating and sanitation with the large number of people in the area? Will my hon. Friend keep in touch with the Red Cross and get the latest reports on the situation and, with the agreement of the Argentines, see what might be done to alleviate what might be considerable suffering by those in the refuge area?

Mr. Onslow

I note what my hon. Friend says, but the problem stems from the presence in Port Stanley of civilians. Their concentration in one area, which can be effectively preserved as neutral, should effectively reduce the problem. Any needs that they may have can better be treated there. The area is big enough to satisfy accommodation problems, but if problems become more intractable we shall look to the ICRC to report on them without delay.

Mr. loan Evans (Aberdare)

Is it not a tragedy that we went in to defend the lives of the Falkland Islanders and now the first islanders have lost their lives? Will the Minister ensure that the House is kept informed of casualties, not only among the islanders but among Service men? Last week the Government made a statement about the Welsh Guards casualties. Many of us have constituents in the Welsh Guards who were injured or lost their lives. Could we not have an opportunity to ask questions about points raised with us by the families of these men?

Mr. Onslow

The hon. Gentleman is asking questions which are not for me and which have been dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence in his statements. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will keep the House as fully informed as his judgment tells him that it best can be. As soon as it is possible to produce accurate and reliable information on civilian casualties, I intend that it should be made available to the House.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I rise with hesitation on this sad and serious subject, but I wonder whether the private notice question by the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) was in order. It purported to be about the suffering of British civilians in Port Stanley, but it turned out to be an attack on the Government's policy.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Quite right, too.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) asked a supplementary question. The original question was the one of which he had given me notice.

Mr. Dalyell

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is there any suggestion that my supplementary question was not absolutely pertinent and relevant to the original question?

Mr. Speaker

I am not raising any question. The matter was raised by the hon. Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Stokes).