HC Deb 23 March 1982 vol 20 cc798-801
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Richard Luce)

I will with permission make a brief statement on developments in South Georgia, a Falkland Islands dependency.

We were informed on 20 March by the commander of the British Antarctic survey base at Grytviken on South Georgia that a party of Argentines had landed at Leith harbour nearby. The base commander informed the Argentine party that its presence was illegal as it had not obtained his prior authority for the landing. We immediately took the matter up with the Argentine authorities in Buenos Aires and the Argentine embassy in London and, following our approach, the ship and most of the personnel left on 21 March. However, the base commander has reported that a small number of men and some equipment remain. We are therefore making arrangements to ensure their early departure.

Mr. Denis Healey (Leeds, East)

Is it not the case that the Argentine party planted an Argentine flag on the island? Is it not odd that the right hon. Gentleman did not refer to that element? The Minister will recall that after his talks with the Argentine representatives in New York recently the Argentine Government said that unless they obtained a satisfactory agreement they would take unilateral action. Has the hon. Gentleman any evidence that the recent actions of these Argentine citizens was in fulfilment of that threat?

Mr. Luce

Yes, for a short period the Argentine flag was planted. It has now been removed. We are making arrangements to ensure that those who remain at Leith harbour will not do so for very much longer.

As I said when I answered questions on 3 March, the New York talks took place in a good spirit and there was a good atmosphere. The talks were not about the substance of the issue but about how we could adopt procedures to discuss the dispute in the longer term. Since then I much regret that some of the action that has been taken has not created a helpful atmosphere. In that climate I do not believe that it is sensible to discuss making further progress. If we want a peaceful solution, it is important that we should not proceed against a background of threats and provocation.

Mr. Healey

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's last remark. However, has he any evidence that this recent action by Argentine citizens took place with the support and knowledge of the Argentine Government?

Mr. Luce

The Argentine Government claimed that they did not know of this action and that it was action taken by a commercial company. We have to note that the ship that transported the party there, although a cargo vessel, is a naval transport ship. That is something that the House will need to note.

Sir Bernard Braine (Essex, South-East)

It is important for us not to over-react in such a situation, but does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important to maintain the morale of the islanders and that it is pointless to continue asserting that the islands will remain British as long as the inhabitants wish to remain there while withdrawing tangible signs of support, such as the survey vessel? Can my right hon. Friend give the House any indication that the Government intend to give tangible support to the Falkland islanders in this time of some anxiety to them?

Mr. Luce

I know that my hon. Friend has taken a keen interest in these matters over a long period. I must tell him that the Government are committed to support and defend the islanders and their dependencies to the best of their ability. I can assure him of that.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call those hon. Members who have been rising in their places to ask the Minister a question.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Does the Minister realise that that is not the impression that the past actions of the Foreign Office have given? Does he think that this escapade might have been encouraged by the stance taken by the British Government over the leaseback proposals, for example? Will he make it clear that self-determination for the islanders will be the cornerstone of the Government's policy and that we shall stand by that principle?

Mr. Luce

I must make it plain once again, as I have done on several occasions, that there will be no question of any changes on the islands without the consent of the islanders. The islanders' wishes are paramount. Nor would we do anything without the consent of the House.

Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South-East)

Does the hon. Gentleman recall that he was warned that as soon as the news of the withdrawal of HMS "Endurance" became known to the Argentinians this type of escapade would be likely? Is it not a gross dereliction of duty on the part of the Government to persist in this course? Will they please give an undertaking forthwith that they will ensure that HMS "Endurance" is not withdrawn?

Mr. Luce

I take this opportunity to say again to the right hon. Gentleman—it is important that I should do so—that I give the firm assurance that we are now taking measures to ensure that those remaining on the island will not stay there any longer than is necessary. We are taking firm action on that.

HMS "Endurance" is in the area and is in a position to help if necessary. As for the future security and defence of the area, I must give a firm reassurance that it is the duty of this Government and of any British Government to defend and support the islanders to the best of their ability. The deployment of a defence force and the type of force that it should be are matters for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the incidents of the past few days are tantamount to the invasion of an independent country, whether or not the personnel were sponsored by a commercial company? Will he answer directly the question posed by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan), the previous Prime Minister, who asked—I ask the same question from the Government Benches—whether my hon. Friend will ensure that HMS "Endurance" or another ship similar to her remains on station in that part of the world, in the South Atlantic?

Mr. Luce

I repeat again to my hon. Friend that HMS "Endurance" is in the area. It is not for me to answer questions specifically for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence on the deployment of forces. I must say as strongly as I conceivably can that it is our duty as a British Government to support and defend the islanders to the best of our ability.

Mr. Healey

Surely the Government put themselves in the situation in which they decided to withdraw HMS "Endurance". The only option open to them is to ask the Australian Government to allow HMS "Invincible" to spend some time around the Falkland Islands on her way to serve with Australian Royal Navy.

Mr. Luce

I do not think that there is any gain in my repeating an assurance for the fourth time. However, I assure the House that the position concerning our responsibilities to the islanders is as I have stated.

Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South)

My hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine) mentioned tangible support; what exactly is tangible support in South Georgia and the Falkland Islands?

Mr. Luce

As I have already told the House, and as my hon. Friend knows, the Government will take and are taking firm action to deal with the situation. I can assure the House of that and that HMS "Endurance" is in the area now.

Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)

Is the Minister aware that we are worried not about his intentions but about those of Ministers in other Departments? Will he check the record of this afternoon's proceedings and see that his ministerial colleagues, when asked about HMS "Endurance", said that they could not give an answer as they were awaiting a statement from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? Does he agree that they should get together? Is the Minister suggesting that a party of 50 or 60 Argentine Steptoes on a contract paid for, organised and controlled from Edinburgh and Buenos Aires can land on British territory for a commercial operation without the knowledge of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the British Government, the Falkland Islands Government, the British Embassy in Buenos Aires or the British authorities in South Georgia? Does he believe that that is preparedness? Is the Minister suggesting that the hoisting of an Argentine flag on British territory only weeks after the Government have made significant concessions to Argentina about sovereignty is of no political significance? Will he take the point made by—

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Ogden

—my right hon. Friend about—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) must not carry on speaking once he knows that I have risen to my feet.

Mr. Luce

I know that the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) takes a great interest in the islands and has recently been there. There is no question of the British Government having made any concessions—there is no such thing as a concession that the Government have made. The practical situation is that a landing by about 60 Argentines took place last Saturday We think that there are between six and ten left and we are taking steps to deal with them.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

Is the Minister aware that when I was in the Foreign Office, there used to be a cruiser on hand and when one was in trouble one called on the cruiser and on the next day it appeared? Can the Minister give an assurance, without going into detail, which one never expects the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to do, that there will be sufficient armed forces—naval, military or air—to defend the Falkland Islands and dependencies?

Mr. Luce

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Stokes) and I have that common experience. I reinforce the point that we have a duty to our islanders to support and defend them. That is precisely what we shall do.

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)

Apart from HMS "Endurance", what other defence forces do we have in the area? If the Minister cannot tell us, will he arrange with his colleague from the Ministry of Defence to tell us now?

Mr. Luce

Although the details of the deployment of forces is for my right hon. Friend the Secretary for Defence, it would not be wrong for me to state that there is a garrison of British Marines on the Falkland Islands as well as HMS "Endurance".

Mr. John Blackburn (Dudley, West)

Will the Minister make a covenant with the House and the nation that the matter of the sovereignty of these islands is not an agenda item for discussion with any other power?

Mr. Luce

It would not be right for me to make a covenant with anyone, but the Government are absolutely certain that we have British sovereignty over the Falkland Islands. It is equally certain, as we all know, that Argentina also claims sovereignty over the islands. It is a dispute and it would be sensible for all the parties if the dispute were resolved sensibly and peacefully. We cannot do that against a background of threats. That is utterly unacceptable to the British Government.

Sir Frederick Burden (Gillingham)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Have any defence Ministers requested permission to make a statement on the cuts in the Navy and Navy establishments? Most hon. Members I am sure, are deeply concerned that they knew nothing about those cuts until they read of them in the newspapers. The cuts are such that I am sure that most hon. Members consider that a Minister should have been present to make a statement and to be subjected to questions on the matter.

Mr. Speaker

I have received no request for a statement.