HC Deb 09 December 1983 vol 50 cc598-605
Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that I raised a point of order at 9.35 am. I was told at 10 am that a private notice question had not been allowed. I am at a loss to understand how a private notice question can be disallowed when a Government statement is now to be made.

Mr. Speaker

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, matters about private notice questions are not normally raised with the Speaker. The usual time for announcements of these matters and of statements is after 10 o'clock, not at 9.30.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Ray Whitney)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the United States certification of and possible arms sales to Argentina. I apologise to the Opposition for not being able to let them have an earlier advance copy of the statement, due to circumstances of which I believe they are aware.

President Reagan's decision, announced yesterday, was not sprung upon us. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House told the House on 22 November, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made our position very clear to President Reagan when she saw him in September and the Americans have kept us closely informed. Their certification under United States law that Argentina has made significant progress in human rights is not equivalent to arms sales. Like the President, we have noted and welcomed the restoration of democracy in Argentina and other progress there on human rights.

Arms purchases are not one of the priorities of the incoming Government of Argentina. We have been glad to note the public assurance by the United States Defence Secretary that the United States Administration will exercise caution about the resumption of major new supplies to Argentina and will not supply weapons which could be used to attempt a new invasion of the Falklands.

We shall remain in contact with the United States Administration on this subject.

Mr. Denis Healey (Leeds, East

I thank the hon. Gentleman for responding so quickly to our urgent appeal for a statement in the House. I also welcome the very moderate and sensible tone of his statement today, which was in striking contrast with the excited rhetoric of the Prime Minister a few weeks ago when she talked of betrayal and outrage. Coming from her, such complaints were difficult to understand, as in the summer she had herself authorised British firms to supply vital equipment for German warships, knowing that they were to be sold to Argentina. She also authorised the sale of heavy water to Germany, knowing that it would be on sale to Argentina for the manufacture of nuclear materials suitable for weapons, although the Argentine Government had not —and still have not—accepted international safeguards in relation to their nuclear processes.

I also welcome the Minister's recognition that Mr. Alfonsin has no intention of wasting his country's money on armaments unless he is compelled to do so. The only threat that he now faces is from Chile, which is ruled by a dictatorship even less agreeable than the Argentine junta but to which, as we were told yesterday, the British Government are still supplying weapons which could be used against Argentina. Does the Minister accept that if the Government wish to dissuade the Argentine Government from taking advantage of the relaxation of American controls there is no better way to do it than to put an immediate embargo on the sale of British arms to Chile?

Mr. Whitney

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's condemnation of excited rhetoric. I hope that he will continue to take that view and to abjure the excited rhetoric that we have heard from him and from many of his right hon. and hon. Friends in the anti-American postures that they have adopted so regularly in past weeks — in opposition to all that the right hon. Gentleman himself previously stood for, although I appreciate his problems in seeking to maintain a facade of unity behind the rhetoric.

The circumstances of the transfers of heavy water have already been explained to the right hon. Gentleman and he knows that they had nothing to do directly with this Government. The attitude towards arms sales to Chile, which is not the subject of the statement, is examined on a case by case basis, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary explained clearly in the House on Wednesday.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman accepts the moderate, balanced and sensible tone of my statement.

Dr. Owen

too, welcome the marked difference in tone between the Minister's statement and those emanating from No. 10. Does he agree that it is a tragedy that the British Government will not be represented at the inauguration of President Alfonsin in Buenos Aires tomorrow?

Will the Minister explain what the Prime Minister meant when she wrote to me yesterday about the Argentine Government not having yet made a definitive declaration on the cessation of hostilities? The new President has talked about using peaceful means. The House should commend a man who, in the midst of the Falklands war, referred to the invasion as an illegitimate act by an illegal Government in a just cause. He is a true democrat and should be sustained by the House.

Will the Prime Minister now drop her hysterical attitude on fortress Falklands and realise that no country should continue to bear that burden unless there is failure to reach a negotiated settlement? She should now show generosity and a capacity to forgive, welcome the new democratic regime and declare the Government's readiness to open negotiations on the basis that they will be conducted by peaceful means only, which should be accepted as a satisfactory definition of the fact that hostilities are now over or will be over as from tomorrow.

Mr. Whitney

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on achieving his private notice question without its being allowed. I am happy to respond to it.

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Whitney

I apologise, Mr. Speaker. With your permission, I shall be happy to respond to the substance of the right hon. Gentleman's intervention, although it is somewhat far from the statement.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept that, as my right hon. and noble Friend the Minister of State said in another place this week. Her Majesty's Government welcome the election of a democratic Government in Argentina. We wish President-elect Alfonsin and his colleagues well."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 December 1983; Vol. 445, c. 1013.] I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will also acknowledge that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has consistently said that we look for normalisation of relations with the new Argentine Government.

The right hon. Gentleman must also recognise, however, that for the time being no cessation of the use of force has been formally declared and that it is vital that we continue to preserve the interests of the Falkland Islanders. In view of the support that he gave the Government in that difficult period last year, I hope that he will recognise that that vital principle must not be neglected.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Is my hon. Friend aware that, although Conservative Members believe that America is very much our best ally and deplore the anti-Americanism now sweeping through parts of this country and being triggered off by the words and actions of Opposition Members, some of us consider that it would have been rather more friendly and helpful if the Americans had required the Argentines to declare an end to hostilities with Britain before rushing to confer this benefit on them?

Mr. Whitney

The act of certification depended on progress on human rights and democracy in Argentina. As I said in my statement, the British Government acknowledge that significant progress has indeed been made in Argentina in those two important areas. The next step — the authorisation of specific arms sales — is something else again. On that, we have received assurances from spokesmen for the United States Administration. We have been assured, for example, that no arms transfers are contemplated that would increase the prospects of a renewed conflict in the Falklands.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Is it not the case that the defence of the Falkland Islands depends not on what arms Argentina can or cannot acquire but upon the ability and will of this country to reinforce the islands when a real threat to them exists?

Mr. Whitney

That is a major factor. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept that Her Majesty's Government are fully conscious of that point and are taking all steps to met it.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Does my hon. Friend agree that while a state of hostility formally exists it is necessary for our armed forces in the Falkland Islands area to remain at the highest state of vigilance? Can we rely on the good offices of the United States Government to try to ensure that this state of hostilities is ended by the Argentine Government?

Mr. Whitney

I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that her Majesty's Government's commitment to the defence of the Falkland Islands is beyond question, as all the evidence and all the steps we have taken surely prove. I can also assure my hon. Friend that the United States Administration are left in no doubt about Her Majesty's Government's attitude to the future of the Falkland Islands and to our relations with the Argentine Government.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

Does not the United States' decision underline the fact that the inexorable pressure of world events is compelling this country to recognise that it is being isolated in the Falklands and that sooner or later it will be forced to negotiate with the new Argentine regime? Is it not better to do so gracefully sooner rather than later?

Mr. Whitney

I repeat that Her Majesty's Government have already welcomed the democratic Government in Argentina. We have extended, through the statement by my noble Friend in another place the other day, our good wishes to President-elect Alfonsin and his colleagues. Our attitude to the future of the Falkland Islands government remains clear and our commitment to the future of the Falkland Islanders is beyond question.

Dr. Brian Mawhinney (Peterborough)

Does my hon. Friend accept that, because of the importance of our alliance with the United States, his intimation that there were prior consultations before this decision was taken is most welcome? In the light of Secretary Weinberger's comments, will Her Majesty's Government indicate to the American Government which classes of weapons we consider it would be unhelpful for them to supply to Argentina?

Mr. Whitney

I certainly accept my hon. Friend's point. As I pointed out, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made our position clear to the President in September and we have been kept fully informed by the American since those exchanges. On the issue of arms sales, the assurances we have been given by the United States, which have been made publicly, can give confidence to the House that the aim that my hon. Friend wishes and indeed we all wish, will be achieved.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does the Minister recall that at the beginning of this year the Prime Minister, along with the banks in this country and in connivance, I assume, with the United States banking set-up and the rest, decided that it would be in the best interests of the world's economy, or, more precisely, the banking economy, to send a lot of money to Argentina in order that this bankers' ramp could be continued? Does not the Minister agree that what he has had to say today about America and the selling of missiles is more than a little hypocritical in view of the fact that, were not the British banks taking part in the exercise to lend money to Argentina, the Argentines would not be so well equipped to buy those arms which, undoubtedly, on one occasion or another, will be landing on the airport which is costing the British taxpayer so much money?

Mr. Whitney

Not for the first time the hon. Gentleman is led astray by cries about a bankers' ramp. If the hon. Gentleman were to take time just occasionally to reflect calmly on British interests, he would accept that the Government are pursuing a calm, moderate and sensible policy in this difficult direction.

Mr. Skinner

Answer the question.

Mr. Whitney

With regard to the aid that our banks have given to Argentina, the hon. Gentleman should understand, as I am sure do workers in this country, that the prosperity of Britain and the jobs of British workers depend on the future of the banking system.

Mr. Kenneth Carlisle (Lincoln)

Does my hon. Friend agree that our long-term aim must be a prosperous and secure future for the Falkland Islands without an undue burden on this country? In this respect, I welcome very much his statement that we are pursuing a normalisation of relations with the Argentine and his welcome to the Alfosin Government. Will he reaffirm that we are determined now to normalise our relations with the Argentines? What steps might bring this into effect?

Mr. Whitney

I am happy to reaffirm Her Majesty's Government's strong desire to achieve a normalisation of relations with Argentina and at the same time, of course, to fulfil the commitment we have given and continue to give to secure the future of the Falkland Islanders. I believe that at this stage it would be premature to make any early forecasts about a Government who, after all, have not yet taken office.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

Does the Minister agree that the long-term defence of the Falkland Islands and particularly of the islanders' way of life depends not so much on a huge military fortress which no longer has public support in the United Kingdom but on early negotiations with Argentina without unnecessary preconditions?

Mr. Whitney

I can only repeat that Her Majesty's Government's policy, which I have outlined over the past few minutes, will achieve the ends we seek, which are the protection of the interests of the Falkland islanders and a normalisation of our relations with Argentina. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that it takes two to tango.

Mr. Ian Lloyd (Havant)

However welcome may be the improved legitimacy and democratic quality of the new Argentine regime, does not the normalisation of relations depend on the new President saying that he disagrees with his air force general who announced the other day that his air force would continue to probe the defences of the Falkland Islands in order to increase the cost to this country of defending them?

Mr. Whitney

I entirely accept my hon. Friend's point. We very much need a clear statement from the Argentine Government, once they assume office, that the use of force is banned for ever from their policy towards the Falkland Islands.

Dame Judith Hart (Clydesdale)

As the Minister has welcomed the restoration of democracy in Argentina, and as it is clear that the American Government recognise the tremendous improvement in human rights there which is the result of that, does he agree, first, that, having welcomed the election of Mr. Alfonsin, it is necessary to take any steps which will preserve and strengthen democracy in Argentina — that is relevant to the discussions that may take place between the two Governments — and, secondly, that this requires a complete review of our policies in Latin America, particularly in relation to arms sales to Chile? Is it not absurd that we welcome democracy in Argentina but continue to supply arms to its major enemy, which is the grossest offender against human rights in the whole of Latin America?

Mr. Whitney

I assure the right hon. Lady that, although we welcome the steps taken towards democracy in Argentina, when she asks whether we would consider any sacrifice, I must tell her that there are vital interests with regard to the Falkland Islanders which we most certainly will not sacrifice in that interest.

I have already told the right hon. Member for Lees, East (Mr. Healey) that the case in Chile is considered item by item. I wish that the right hon. Lady and her right hon. and hon. Friends would accept that there have been steps towards the opening of democracy in Chile during the past few months.

Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

As the Minister referred to the reaction of the Foreign Office as being "calm" and "moderate" towards this action by the United States, may we be assured that the Prime Minister has seen and approved his statement?

Mr. Whitney

It should scarcely be necessary for me to assure the distinguished right hon. Gentleman that any statement made from the Dispatch Box of course carries the agreement and approval of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I assure him and the House that any attempt to suggest that there is a wedge between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Prime Minister is pure fiction.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Will my hon. Friend accept that, although hon. Members on both sides of the House will wish President Alfonsin the best, we still have to conduct our defence of the Falklands on the basis that South American politics can be turbulent and the fact that there is a democratic regime there today does not mean that there will be a democratic regime there tomorrow?

Mr. Whitney

Sadly, that will remain a factor in Latin American politics, as it remains a factor in the politics of all too many countries.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, Central and Royton)

Remembering the Minister's excellent speech from the Government Back Benches when the task force was sent to the south Atlantic, may we take it that he at least recognises that this is one more step along the road to complying with the United Nations resolution that, to save ourselves enormous costs, we should get down as soon as possible to negotiating the future of the Malvinas?

Mr. Whitney

I did not quite recognise the last word in the hon. Gentleman's question. I should hate to accept his praise undeservedly. I recall that my statement on 2 April 1982 strongly urged the Government that, as the fleet steamed to the south Atlantic, they should negotiate earnestly and seriously to try to achieve a peaceful resolution. That is precisely what the Government did. The tragedy was that the military regime in Argentina rejected those attempts.

The Government's policy is to normalise our relations with Argentina, while preserving the vital interests of the Falkland Islanders, which we have committed ourselves to preserving.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that if the new Argentine Government made sensible overtures to us the Government would receive them with a positive and magnanimous attitude?

Mr. Whitney

My hon. Friend tempts me into the realms of hypothetical questions. Let us see what overtures develop. I assure my hon. Friend that they will be considered positively, in the spirit of our professed desire to restore normal economic and diplomatic relations with the Argentine.

Mr. Willie W. Hamilton (Fife, Central)

As the United States Government have said that in future aims sales to the Argentine they will distinguish between arms that could be used for a military invasion of the Falklands and those that could not, are the British Government satisfied that such a distinction can be made? If so, will they consider sending the Americans a list of the arms that they think would not be used in a military invasion of the Falklands?

Mr. Whitney

The United States Administration have given us an undertaking that they will remain in close consultation on this issue, and their performance has shown that they are firmly honouring that undertaking. I have no doubt that we shall remain in close consultation on the points raised by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

Does my hon. Friend agree that when a previous Labour Government decided to remove the deterrent force of an aircraft carrier and a support ship from the south Atlantic and the Indian ocean they left the Falkland Islands with no means of deterring aggression? May we be assured that plans being made now, by either the United States or ourselves, will not put the Falkland Islanders at risk again?

Mr. Whitney

The real crisis for the Falkland Islands came with the total failure of the Argentines to understand the Government's determination to resist aggression. After the events of last year, I am confident that neither the next Argentine Government nor any successor Government will be in any doubt about the fact that while the Conservative party is in power we shall respond positively in defence of the legitimate interests of the Falkland Islanders and any other minority people for whom we have responsibility.

Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

Last night, a senior member of the Cabinet said of our relationship with Washington: the scars are healing, but they are still there and we may get beyond the US election before we are back in the kind of circumstances where we have got better relations. That was said before this latest announcement. Does the Minister agree that the so-called special relationship between President Reagan and our Prime Minister is in tatters?

Mr. Whitney

Of course I do not. It is important to understand that the fundamental interests of and the relationship between the United States and this country extend far beyond any individuals, however important they may be.

Mr. Healey

Hear, hear.

Mr. Whitney

The fundamental interests that we share are absolute. The tragedy is that the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) used to understand that fact, but now, under the pressure of too many of his hon. Friends, he is ready to renege on it.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea)

Is the Minister saying that the Government's attitude to and willingness to negotiate with and sell arms to other Governments is not in the least related to whether those Governments are democratic or in fundamental breach of human rights?

Mr. Whitney

Did the hon. Gentleman refer to the United States or the British Government?

Mr. Dubs

I was talking about the British Government

Mr. Whitney

The hon. Gentleman should understand that, as has been explained many times in the House, the Government's policy is to consider those matters case by case. That has been done over the years by Governments of both complexions. It is the most sensible way to conduct our relations in the interests of Britain.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

Does my hon. Friend agree that but for the bravery of the British forces and the courage of our Prime Minister the chances are that the junta would still be in power in the Argentine and that the democracy there today owes a great deal more to the troops who died and the actions of the Government than to anything said by the Opposition?

Mr. Whitney

I agree with my hon. Friend. The Opposition's position during the months following the invasion was difficult to follow, because it moved so rapidly. There is no doubt that the point made by my hon. Friend is well taken.

Mr. Healey

Despite the typical comment made by the Minister a moment ago, I repeat that we welcome the fact that his statement has opened the prospect of a return to common sense by the Government in relation to the problems of the Falklands and Argentina. As the hon. Gentleman has said that he wants to normalise our relations with the Argentines, will he agree that by far the best demonstration of that desire would be to take advantage of President Alfonsin's taking office tomorrow to announce the full restoration of diplomatic relations between London and Buenos Aires? Sending an ambassador back to Buenos Aires would be by far the best demonstration of the Government's intentions and would not, in itself, imply anything further.

Mr. Whitney

I am sorry if the right hon. Gentleman thinks that my response was typical. What I was doing, and I shall readily continue to do it, was pointing out the inconsistencies in his attitude to the United States.

With regard to the right hon. Gentleman's substantive point, the Government continue to wish to see the normalisation of relations with Argentina. However, I repeat to the right hon. Gentleman, because it is appropriate in this context, that it takes two to tango.

Mr. Speaker

May I remind the House that it is not in order for right hon. or hon. Members to make any reference on the Floor of the House to the fact that a private notice question has not been accepted by the Chair. I hope that all right hon. and hon. Members will observe our long-standing practice in that respect.