HC Deb 05 May 1982 vol 23 cc155-60
Mr. Speaker

Statement, Mr. Secretary Nott.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I will take points of order after the statements.

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

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a further statement about the Argentine attack on HMS "Sheffield". In the statement I made to the House late last night I provided an outline of the attack on HMS "Sheffield" and of the loss of one of our Sea Harriers and its pilot. The pilot was Lieutenant Nicholas Taylor. His next of kin have been informed, and the whole House will, I know, wish to join me in expressing sorrow and deepest sympathy with his family.

It is entirely right that the House should now have as full an account of the attack on HMS "Sheffield" as I am able to give today. The House will understand why it will be necessary for me to repeat some of the details I provided last night.

At about 3.30 London time yesterday afternoon HMS "Sheffield" was attacked by Argentine Super Etendard aircraft which launched Exocet missiles. HMS "Sheffield" was some 70 miles off the Falklands enforcing the total exclusion zone, together with other elements of the task force. One missile missed the ship; the other hit her amidships. The resulting explosion caused a major fire. Although attempts were made to extinguish the fire for nearly four hours, with the assistance of fire-fighting teams from other ships in the area, it eventually spread out of control. At about 7 pm London time the order was given to abandon ship. Ships of the task force in the area picked up survivors, and the latest information I have is that about 30 men are still missing. A further number sustained injuries, and they are being well cared for under medical supervision. We have no further details of casualties at the present time. The ships are still engaged on operations and I know that the force commander will provide further information just as soon as he is able to do so. All the next of kin of the ship's company are being informed. The thoughts of the whole House are with them at this sad time.

Mr. Denis Healey (Leeds, East)

I associate the Opposition with the Secretary of State's tribute to the courage of the Harrier pilot and the crew of HMS "Sheffield" and we extend our sympathy to the families of those who gave their lives in defence of a principle which is regarded by all right hon. and hon. Members as one of great importance.

Is there any truth in reports in the American press and on American television that a major naval engagement is proceeding in the South Atlantic? May I also revert to an issue of great importance for the future that I raised yesterday? I think that the right hon. Gentleman will concede that the Argentines knew the position of our task force yesterday and that, therefore, its position on Sunday when the attack on the Argentine cruiser took place no longer needs to be concealed from the House or the world.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will find it possible to give us a better idea of the distance between—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] I will explain why in a moment. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will give us a better idea of the distance between the point where the engagement took place and the task force. If he is unable to do so, right hon. and hon. Members and foreign countries are bound to take his silence as implying that the decision to attack the cruiser was taken by the submarine commander without reference to the commander o f the task force—perhaps because, as the Secretary of State suggested yesterday, the submarine commander was unable to communicate with the task force commander.

If that were the case, it argues that there is a serious handicap in political control of our forces, at a time when, as the House agrees with the right hon. Gentleman, we must always use minimum force under political control to achieve the diplomatic objective.

Mr. Nott

I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's opening comment. Many men are missing and have probably died defending principles that the right hon. Gentleman said that he thought were supported by the House. I much appreciate those words.

We have no knowledge of any naval battle going on in the Atlantic at present. I am aware that there have been reports from American sources that one is taking place. I cannot be sure, but we have no reports and I did check on that quite recently. [HON. MEMBERS: "Not sure?"] I am sorry, but it is impossible at a distance of 8,000 miles to require our task force commander to communicate with London repeatedly during the day.

On the question that the right hon. Gentleman asked yesterday about the distance, I see no reason why we should not be able to provide that information within a few days. There is no reason to conceal it. We think that HMS "Sheffield" may have been detected by an Argentine reconnaissance aircraft. We cannot be sure, but we think that that may have been the case and perhaps that was the reason why the attack with Exocet missiles was successful. That underlines the fact that we must not, on any account, put our ships at hazard by giving information prematurely, but I certainly do not want to conceal from the right hon. Gentleman information that can be safely announced.

On the right hon. Gentleman's final question, I made it clear yesterday that every action by our foces in the South Atlantic is taken within strict political control and authority. The actual decision to launch a torpedo was clearly one taken by the submarine commander, but that decision was taken within very clear rules of engagement that had been settled in London and discussed by the Government. As I made clear yesterday, we regarded the "General Belgrano" as a threat to our forces and we could not conceivably have had any lesser rules of engagement than those which we issued, which were to allow our 'ships to defend themselves, as a fleet.

Mr. Alan Clark: (Plymouth, Sutton)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the loss of a ship is a dreadful thing for the Royal Navy and that whatever declamations of national purpose and heroism may be made, and with which I fully concur, nothing can make up for the personal, terrible grief and sense of loss of the next of kin? Will he assure the House that wherever it is humanly possible the next of kin will hear of such events before the news is released to the agencies? Would it be possible for an officer to visit the next of kin in every case to assure himself that no immediate personal hardship arises and to explain to the next of kin their entitlement to pensions and other benefits?

Mr. Nott

As my hon. Friend says, it has been a dreadful event. An organisation has been set up to process all casualty information and there are sub-units in naval bases that receive information and inform the next of kin of men of the Royal Navy. Next of kin are normally informed by selected officers from local establishments, preferably by a home visit but by telephone if essential. This is done as quickly as possible after information about casualties has been received from the task force. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that the procedures are very important and where possible should be done by personal contact.

It would be much appreciated by the Royal Navy and, of course, by the next of kin if those who are involved in this tragic event could be given some privacy by the media in the next few days. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear".] I ask that only because of certain problems which have arisen today.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

My colleagues on the Liberal Bench would obviously wish to be associated with the expressions of sympathy from the Government and the official Opposition to the relatives of those lost in this terrible disaster.

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that this incident, together with the sinking of the Argentine cruiser, gives added urgency to the need to seek an effective diplomatic solution to the dispute? Is it the case that consideration had been given to supplying HMS "Sheffield" with a stretched version of Sea Dart with updated tracker radar, and was that one of the casualties of the defence review?

Mr. Nott

I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his initial comments about the tragedy. He is right, of course: we want a diplomatic solution. We shall continue to strive for it. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will make a statement on that subject in a moment.

The "Sheffield" was armed with Sea Dart missiles of the latest type. The missiles are an area air defence weapon. They can be used, but not very successfully, against incoming missiles of a particular type. They are primarily for engaging incoming aircraft on an area basis. That was the principal defence of the "Sheffield". We do not know why the Sea Dart system did not successfully engage the aircraft. It is possible that the aircraft came in very low under radar cover, but there was nothing in the equipment of the ship which differed in any way from the normal complement of weapons on our type 42 destroyers.

Mr. Geoffrey Johnson Smith (East Grinstead)

As the battle goes on, more and more of us are concerned about the presentation of what happens. Leaving aside whether the statement last night was necessary, what should be of more immediate concern to my right hon. Friend within his total command is the extent to which we should be briefed in future through television by the Ministry of Defence in the way that it has done. I am sure that my right hon. Friend would agree that much of that briefing is for the benefit of the press who are incapable of taking shorthand. Perhaps it might be better to review those arrangements.

Mr. Nott

I am not entirely clear to what my hon. Friend refers. The Ministry of Defence spokesman briefs the press every day when there is an incident. He gives a purely factual account of what has arisen. I think that my hon. Friend must be referring to all sorts of other briefings which are given by other people. The Ministry of Defence briefing is a purely factual one. It never contains opinions and that is how we wish to keep it.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. There is a further statement to follow. I propose to call three more hon. Members from either side on this statement and then move on to the second.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Is the Secretary of State aware that the disaster to the "Sheffield", a ship which has immense ties with the city of Sheffield, has resulted in a great groundswell of desire, not only in Sheffield but much further afield, for peace negotiations? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that telegrams have come to Sheffield city council from many factories and to hon. Members representing Sheffield constituencies? Is he further aware that this afternoon in the city there will be an ordinary council meeting at which the leader of the council will move a resolution in which he asks, on behalf of the council, for peace negotiations through the United Nations? Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that the insistence that no negotiations will take place as long as those troops are on the Falklands is now a brake against the struggle for peace? Is it not time for that to be quashed and for Britain to go to the United Nations to discuss the whole question of a peaceful solution through negotiation?

Mr. Nott

Of course there is a desire for peace—that desire is widespread in the country. It is shared by all my right hon. and hon. Friends. We want to obtain, as soon as we possibly can, a diplomatic settlement to the problem. However, I hope that the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) will forgive me if I repeat a very fair and reasonable comment which he made this morning on the BBC "Today" programme.

The right hon. Gentleman said: It would not be to Britain's advantage to agree to a ceasefire unless we were clear that we had a negotiating process which would get the Argentines off the islands. That is the general view of the whole House. It is not shared by every hon. Member, but it is the general view of the House, and I share it.

Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the most appropriate memorial to the brave young men who lost their lives in HMS "Sheffield", the home port of which is in my constituency and whose loss has brought tragedy to the city and to my constituents, would be to carry through the enterprise for which they gave their lives as quickly as possible and with as little further loss of life as may be possible? Does he agree that the quickest way in which that could be done would be for the Argentine Government to agree to remove their troops from the Falkland Islands?

Mr. Nott

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. As I said yesterday, the way in which the conflict can be ended straight away is for the Argentines to agree to implement resolution 502. If, in the next few days, the Argentines do not challenge our ships and men and do not threaten them, and if they cease entering the total exclusion zone, no casualties can arise. But the way to solve the conflict is for the Argentines to abide by the United Nations resolution.

Mr. Jack Dormand (Easington)

In answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey), the Secretary of State said that there were difficulties in maintaining communication between the task force and the Government. I fully accept that there must be real difficulties in doing that, but the Secretary of State then went on to say that there was full political control of the decisions of the task force. Some hon. Members are extremely concerned about the way in which the decision was taken on the firing of two torpedoes. Is there not some inconsistency there which requires explanation?

Mr. Nott

I shall give an example to the hon. Gentleman of what I meant. When our ships are engaged in extremely dangerous operations in which they are subject constantly to attack, they frequently—and rightly—impose on themselves radio silence. Unless the ships are maintaining radio silence, their position can be detected. Therefore, there will be periods when, for very good operational reasons, we are not in contact with all our ships. That was the type of example that I was trying to give. The communications with the task force by satellite and by other methods are excellent and are more than sufficient for us to pass political directives and political orders to the commander but sometimes there may be delays for the sort of reason that I have given.

Sir Frederick Burden (Gillingham)

While we are pursuing every effort to bring about a diplomatic settlement of the dispute, is it not evident that the Argentines at this moment are determined to deploy all the military strength that they can against our task force? Therefore, should we not recognise that fact and no longer talk about using minimum force against an enemy who is prepared to deploy his greatest strength against us but use our strength as cleverly as possible to bring the dispute to an end and bring the Argentines to the diplomatic table?

Mr. Nott

When we say that we wish to pursue minimum force, that does not mean in any way that we are asking our forces to hold back on the pursuit of their objectives, nor in any way does it suggest that they are not totally free to defend themselves against attack and, when they are threatened, to attack the enemy first. They are not required to hold back in any way. I agree with my hon. Friend that the aggression started on the Argentines side. Since then they have continuously reinforced the islands, which they are required to leave by resolution 502. Before the "General Belgrano" was sunk—I understand the strong feelings in the House about that incident, which I share—it threatened the security and safety of our men and ships. In that situation it would not have been possible for us to ask our forces to hold back in defending themselves.

Mr. Allen McKay (Penistone)

Will the Secretary of State give us some information on political control, which has been exercising the minds of many people outside the House? Will he assure the House and many people outside that political control does not slow down any defensive action that the fleet may take in its task, taking into consideration the fact that HMS "Sheffield" was a type 42 anti-aircraft destroyer, built purely and simply as any anti-aircraft destroyer and the fact that radar picks up the planes many miles before they come into firing range?

Mr. Nott

I can give the hon. Gentleman that total assurance. There is nothing in any directives that we have given which can in any way hazard our ships, which are confronted with a difficult task.

Sir Patrick Wall (Haltemprice)

Is not the loss of HMS "Sheffield" a clear indication that we have now reached the missile age? Is my right hon. Friend aware that the only effective defence against sea-skimming missile s is Sea Wolf? Will my right hon. Friend press ahead as a matter of the utmost urgency with lightweight Sea Wolf and see that that weapon system is installed in most of our ships?

Mr. Nott

I share my hon. Friend's concern about the development in missiles. As he knows, we have made the radar tracker for the lightweight Sea Wolf a major priority in our programme. I agree with my hon. Friend. On; of the factors that perhaps has led to us not having anti-missile missiles as fully on our ships as I should like is that the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies until recently were not deploying sea-skimming missiles. That is one of the reasons why, in retrospect, we have not moved forward as fast as we should.

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