§ 12. Mr. Aitken
asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on his visit to the Falkland Islands.
§ Mr. Nott
I visited the Falkland Islands from 22 to 25 October. The major achievement of our forces since the ending of hostilities has been the construction at Stanley of a runway capable of operating air defence aircraft. The top priority now is to provide adequate accommodation for all military personnel prior to the next Falklands winter.
The excellent relations between Service men and islanders are mirrored by close co-operation between the military and civil authorities in their many areas of mutual concern. Much remains to be done and some significant problems, such as the presence of indiscriminately laid mines, remain. But the progress made since June provides every confidence for the future, and I am sure that the House would wish to join me in congratulating all concerned on what has been achieved so far.
§ Mr. Aitken
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and agree wholeheartedly with his last remarks. In view of the recent reports that Argentina has been trying to purchase Exocets and other formidable military equipment, can he assure the House that our own forces are in a satisfactorily strong position to defend the islands against any future attack or invasion?
§ Mr. Crawshaw
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the construction of the runway at Port Stanley by the Armed Forces is a remarkable achievement by any standards? Is he satisfied that the situation at that airfield is sufficient to carry out the military purposes of the task force? Has he any other place in mind for a second airfield?
§ Mr. Nott
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the achievement of the Royal Engineers in constructing the longer airstrip at Stanley is remarkable, and the speed with which they did it was amazing. We are looking at a more substantial airfield for the future. No decisions have been taken. A team has studied another site, but, as the hon. Gentleman may know, we have now asked the team to have another look at the present airfield site with a view to strengthening and lengthening it.
§ Mr. Foulkes
Will the Secretary of State confirm the recurrent annual cost of maintaining the garrison on the Falkland Islands? Will he also confirm that as public expenditure as a whole is not to rise, and as defence expenditure will, the cost of maintaining the garrison on the Falkland Islands will result in substantial cuts in other expenditure? Is it right, for example, that old-age pensioners should be asked to pay for this through the clawback in the pensions increase that the Government are proposing?
§ Mr. Nott
The hon. Gentleman knows that there is no clawback. The provision being made next year for the capital and revenue costs of the garrison is £424 million. That provision will be published in the public expenditure White Paper. That money will be used for the augmentation of our general defence capability and any increases in our forces to meet the garrison needs.
§ Mr. Buck
Is my right hon. Friend aware that hon. Members on both sides of the House are grateful for the fact that he saw us immediately on his arrival from the Falklands, before some of us embarked for the Falklands? Will he confirm that the morale of our forces on the Falkland Islands is at its highest and that they will all be in fixed roof accomodation before the onset of the next South Atlantic winter?
§ Mr. Nott
I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for leading a group of Members from both sides of the House to the Falkland Islands, and for what he has advised me on his return. The morale of our Service men was extremely high. They are still living under difficult conditions, and we have to get them into better accommodation before the next Falklands winter. They are doing a splendid job and morale is excellent.
§ Mr. McNamara
All those Opposition Members who went agree with the right hon. Gentleman's statement about the conduct and morale of our troops, who are working under appalling conditions. We are anxious that there should be no doubt about their being in proper accommodation when the next Falklands winter comes. Secondly, there seems to be a grave lack of airborne early warning systems in the area. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it seems to be a waste of ships to have them still out on picket duty?
§ Mr. Nott
On the latter point, we have good radar coverage of the islands. Until we update and modernise the radar systems, it is useful to use ships as radar pickets, to augment the existing system. The air defence of Port Stanley and the islands is now satisfactory. We have Phantom aircraft, augmented by Harriers. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we must have proper accommodation by next winter.
§ Sir Hector Monro
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Royal Air Force squadrons flying the air bridge, the tanker crews and the fighter squadrons being refuelled 142 on the way to the Falklands are showing exceptional airmanship? Will he give the Royal Air Force the congratulations of the House on that achievement?