HC Deb 04 May 1982 vol 23 cc14-6
Q1. Mr. Gwilym Roberts

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 4 May.

The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

This morning I presided at a meeting of the Cabinet and had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, including one with the right hon. Members for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) and for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen). In addition to my duties in the House I shall have further meetings later today.

Mr. Roberts

In view of the terrible loss of life in the South Atlantic and the rapidly escalating military confrontation, will the Prime Minister make a further effort today to reach a peaceful solution to the situation, involving probably the United Nations?

The Prime Minister

We all regret the loss of human life in the South Atlantic, but our first duty is to protect, and to minimise the danger to, our own forces in the South Atlantic, who are there because we all agreed that we should send a task force——

Mr. Cryer

I did not, so do not start dragging me into your rotten schemes.

Mr. Foulkes

I did not.

The Prime Minister

—because we all agreed that we must stop the invader, and because the vast majority of people in the House recognise that the best way to stop the trouble is to withdraw the forces from the Falkland Islands. Of course, the effort to seek a peaceful solution continues, and will continue vigorously. My right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary will be reporting later on his visit to the United Nations. We shall pursue a peaceful settlement either there or through other means.

Sir Peter Emery

Will my right hon. Friend say over and over again that until the Argentine Government withdraw their troops from the Falkland Islands, every injury and fatality in the Southern Atlantic is absolutely due to the action of the Argentine junta?

The Prime Minister

Yes, it was the Argentines who broke the peace with unprovoked aggression. They are on British sovereign territory and there are British people under the heel of the junta. We sent the task force to rectify that situation. We hope to do so by all peaceful means and shall continue to try to do so. In the meantime, our first duty must be to protect our boys.

Mr. Foot

May I press the right hon. Lady on the question of the sinking of the cruiser and the tragic loss of life involved? We are all deeply concerned about it, just as we all are deeply aware that the origin of the crisis was the aggression by the Argentine. None the less, the Government have direct responsibilities in this matter, and the right hon. Lady especially so. Can she tell us what political control there was over this development, which was a major development? Can she say what calculations about the minimum use of force entered into those considerations?

Returning to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts), can the right hon. Lady tell us exactly what are the next steps that will be taken by the Government to try to deal with the situation? There is always the danger that such an event as the sinking of the ship will recur and that it can put our Service men in danger. We on the Labour side of the House are as determined to protect them as anybody in the country.

The Prime Minister

I wholly share the right hon. Gentleman's view that we must protect the lives of our own Service men, whose great skill and courage we applaud and admire. With regard to that particular event, and all events other than the mere tactical ones in the South Atlantic, the task force clearly is and was under political control. I want to make it perfectly clear that after the announcement of the maritime exclusion zone—I referred to the matter in the House last week—there was another announcement on 23 April, which was communicated to the Argentine Government and also to the United Nations. It may help if I read it in full: In announcing the establishment of a maritime exclusion zone around the Falkland Islands, Her Majesty's Government made it clear that this measure was without prejudice to the right of the United Kingdom to take whatever additional measures may be needed in the exercise of its right of self-defence under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. In this connection, Her Majesty's Government now wishes to make clear that any approach on the part of Argentine warships, including submarines, naval auxiliaries, or military aircraft which could amount to a threat to interfere with the mission of the British forces in the South Atlantic will encounter the appropriate response". The warning was given to the Argentine Government, I repeat, on 23 April. It was reported to the United Nations on 24 April.

Mr. Foot

All of us can understand the documents that have been put in the Library on this matter, but the right hon. Lady has not fully explained why such a development as this occurred in the circumstances in which it did occur, nor has she explained why the maximum amount—or, at any rate, a considerable amount—of force was used to carry it out. None of these things has been explained. They will need to be explained much more fully to the country and to others. Does the right hon. Lady appreciate that these are important matters for our own Service men, whom we wish to protect as much as anyone? They are also important for the support that this Government may command throughout the world in these matters. If the right hon. Lady and the Government do not appreciate that the sinking of the cruiser raises great questions of this kind, she does not understand the situation.

The Prime Minister

May I make it perfectly clear that the worry that I live with hourly is that attacking Argentine forces, either naval or air, may get through to ours and sink some of our ships. I am sure that that will also be in the right hon. Gentleman's mind. There was clear aggressive intent on the part of the Argentine fleet and Government. It could be seen first in their claims. They previously claimed that they had sunk HMS "Exeter", that they had damaged HMS "Hermes", leaving it inoperative and badly damaged, and that they had brought down 11 Harriers. That was clear evidence of Argentine aggressive intent. The right hon. Gentleman may also remember the persistent attacks throughout the whole of Saturday on our task force, which were repelled only by the supreme skill and courage of our people. He may also know, or will hear from my right hon. Friend, of the very heavy armaments that the cruiser carried, and, of course, the cruiser was accompanied by two destroyers, which were not attacked in any way.

Mr. Mates

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, of all the uses to which the word has been put in the last weeks, the word "paramount" applies most of all now to the safety and lives of our Service men in the south Atlantic? Will she further agree that the House of Commons, having agreed to send the task force to back up our diplomacy, cannot now flinch from the consequences that may occur, however serious they are?

The Prime Minister

I wholly agree with my hon. Friend. Our first duty is to our own forces, who are there on our orders and with our support. We must look after their safety. Our second duty is to see that we try to use minimum force. However, that cruiser and the asssociated destroyers—and, of course, there are other task forces of the Argentine Navy also at large in the South Atlantic, not far from the exclusion zone—posed a very obvious threat to the men in our task force. Had we left it any later it would have been too late and I might have had to come to the House with the news that some of our ships had been sunk.