HC Deb 27 June 1983 vol 44 cc345-51 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Michael Heseltine)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement about the Government's decision on the construction of a new strategic airfield in the Falkland Island.

The Government believe that the defence of the Falkland Islands, the support of the garrison and its reinforcement in emergency depend on permanent and improved airfield facilities; and the Government welcome the recent useful report of the Defence Committee which supports this view.

The present airfield at RAF Stanley is temporary and operations are restricted by the length and strength of its single runway. Therefore, we have examined the alternatives of improving RAF Stanley or of building a new aifrield on a clear site at Mount Pleasant, which is between Stanley and Darwin.

We have now decided that the right course is to build at Mount Pleasant. This is less expensive, even allowing for the cost of a road between Mount Pleasant and Stanley, and is much less likely to involve unforeseen delays and interruptions to the construction work. Most important, the use of RAF Stanley by the garrison will not be restricted while the new airfield is being built.

The new airfield will be able to operate wide-bodied aircraft, civil as well as military. This will enable us to make welcome savings in the running costs of supporting the garrison; it will greatly reduce the amount of time required to reinforce the garrison if need be; and it will give a powerful boost to the economy and infrastructure of the islands.

Tenders have been received from three consortia of British civil engineering contractors and a contract for the construction of Mount Pleasant airfield will be placed very shortly by the PSA with the consortium of Mowlem-LaingAmey Roadstone Construction. The value of the work to be executed under this contract, together with the costs of sub-contracts and shipping, is approximately £190 million. To this will be added the cost of the Stanley to Mount Pleasant road and a separate contract to install Government-furnished communication and navigation aids, making a total of about £215 million.

This order of cost was allowed for in the additional provision for Falklands expenditure included in the Defence budget and will not therefore add to planned public expenditure or necessitate offsetting reductions in defence expenditure elsewhere. The labour force will be recruited in this country. Work on the site will begin this autumn—the Falklands spring— and the new runway should be usable from April 1985. The whole airfield complex, including all the necessary facilities, will be complete by about February 1986.

I believe that this statement will be generally welcome, both in Parliament and in the Falklands, and will be seen as another practical sign of our determination to ensure the security of the islands.

Mr. John Silkin (Lewisham, Deptford)

The running costs of fortress Falklands are nowhere stated by the Secretary of State in his statement. Does he agree that they come to about £425 million a year? Secondly, will he give the figures of the so-called "welcome savings" in the running costs of supporting the garrison? Those figures are not given in the statement either.

Thirdly, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the cost of the Falklands policy between April 1982 and February 1986 will have amounted to £3 billion, or over £3 million per Falklands family? Not one Latin American power has offered us staging rights because of the Prime Minister's refusal to discuss the problem. Is fortress Falklands really a permanent solution?

Mr. Heseltine

The right hon. Gentleman asked for the provision in the public expenditure figures for the Falklands position. For the three years 1983–84 to 1985–86 the capital and running costs added to the defence budget were £424 million, £334 million and £232 million. The figure for potential savings that might be achieved by the building of this airfield is about £25 million a year, because it will not be necessary to keep hundreds of armed service men on the seas in transportation in the way we currently do.

To answer the right hon. Gentleman's question about the future strategy for the Falklands, no one is more anxious than this Government to establish friendly and harmonious relations with the countries of South America, and that we want to do compatible with our clear commitments to the islands.

Mr. Silkin

The £215 million, then, must be added to the three lots of figures which the right hon. Gentleman has given? If so, they are the equivalent of 10 years' so-called savings on the running costs of the garrison. How on earth are Latin American powers to welcome the decision of Her Majesty's Government to talk with them if they do not talk with them?

Mr. Heseltine

The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the figure does not have to be added because it is included in the figures I gave the House.

Mr. Silkin


Mr. Heseltine

The right hon. Gentleman asks a question and disagrees with the answer when I say that the figures I gave include the cost of the airport. He must understand that to be the case. He criticises us for refusing to talk. I should have thought that the position of the Government was perfectly clear. We have not yet even persuaded the Argentines that the hostilities have come to an end. It is difficult in those circumstances to construct a reasonable and constructive dialogue. We are anxious to do so. It is they who are not.

Mr. Silkin

Does that not—[HoN. MEMBERS: "No."] I am entitled to ask a further supplementary, am I not? [HON. MEMBERS: "No."]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I call Mr. Silkin.

Mr. Silkin

Will the right hon. Gentleman agree that what he says makes nonsense of the Government's policy in terms of lending money to Argentina so that they may buy arms to fight us?

Mr. Heseltine

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government took part in the negotiations to prevent the loss of the very substantial sums of British money that had already been lent to Argentina. Am I to understand that he is advocating that we should have taken a totally irresponsible view of the financial situation with which we had to deal?

Sir Antony Buck (Colchester, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement will be welcome as an indication of the Government's total determination that the Falkland islanders shall be allowed to live in freedom and not under the heel of a Fascist junta? Will he comment on what is proposed concerning the use of the airport not only for military purposes but in connection with the recommendations in the Shackleton report that an additional civilian facility should be available in the Falkland Islands?

Mr. Heseltine

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for his comments. The airfield will be built to deal with civilian traffic, and we understand and welcome the suggestions in the Shackleton report in that context.

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)

Will the Secretary of State accept that in the present unstable situation—in which hostilities have not yet formally ended—some Opposition Members regard the construction of the airfield as a sensible precaution for our service men as well as for the islanders, particularly in view of the stresses involved in the current resupply arrangements for the garrison? Will he accept, however, that the considerable costs involved underline once again the need to secure a stable and negotiated future for the islanders at the earliest possible opportunity?

Mr. Heseltine

Nobody would dispute that Her Majesty's Government went to every reasonable length to negotiate an avoidance of the military situation which developed. Substantial efforts were made by members of the Government and our allies to bring about a peaceful settlement. But in the last resort we had to face the fact that the Argentines had occupied the islands illegally and refused to remove themselves from that position. It is a sad and tragic irony that the Labour party, which was keen that the task force should sail, has since tried to renege on that.

Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

While it is true that had an airfield been built years ago, as many of us urged, there might have been no Falklands war, does not the attitude of the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Mr. Silkin) show what our fellow subjects in the Falklands might have expected had the Labour party been in office at the time of General Galtieri's invasion?

Mr. Heseltine

I appreciate the thinking behind my hon. Friend's question. The views of the people of this country are all too clear.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the strategic importance of this position is well worth the proposed expenditure and that if the expenditure had been incurred earlier, and if there had been more foresight, we might not have had to fight the war last year?

Mr. Heseltime

The right hon. Gentleman will not expect me to return to the assumption that we should have built this airport earlier. However, I very much sympathise with his view that at this moment it is open to claim that there are wide strategic implications. I believe that we shall come to give great thanks for the building of the airport.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

How many additional jobs will be provided as a result of this extra public expenditure?

Mr. Heseltine

At a peak, about 1,400 people will be employed by the contractors.

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

Does the Secretary of State agree that sooner or later we shall have to develop a sense of proportion about this whole crazy episode? If the Government feel that they are strong, a sign of genuine strength would be to seek negotiations with Argentina about the long-term future of the Falkland Islands.

Mr. Heseltine

The right hon. Gentleman will remember as clearly as I do that the Argentine Government were prepared to negotiate only on the basis of the transfer of sovereignty, which was not acceptable to this Government or the people of the Falkland Islands.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

In welcoming this useful public sector investment both in freedom for the Falkland Islands and in new jobs for Britons, may I ask my right hon. Friend two questions? First, what arrangements are there for single ministerial control of this project so that there is no muddle between the Property Services Agency and the Ministry of Defence? Secondly, since a modern airport requires a great deal more than earth moving, why has no electronics contractor been included in the consortium?

Mr. Heseltine

I know that my hon. Friend is familiar with the problems of airport construction. There is bound to be a close relationship between my Department and the Department of the Environment, which has the operational responsibility for the PSA. I do not think that it would have been possible, within the machinery of Government, for any one Minister to have been absolutely and individually responsible for the project. However, I have no reason to suppose that the conduct of the contract will not be carried through effectively and efficiently.

During the initial tendering process, we sought out seven of the largest and most experienced British contractors. They formed themselves into three consortia. It was for them to decide the nature of the sub-contractors that they wanted to involve in the tendering process. We considered that with Laing-Mowlem-Amey Roadstone in the lead, there was sufficient experience, backed by a hard record of achievement, to entitle us to accept the contract.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

Today's announcement can only mean a long-term commitment by the Government to a fortress Falklands policy, with all the implications for strategic policy and finance. Does not this announcement pre-empt negotiations about the long-term future of the Falklands?

Mr. Heseltine

There is no question of long-term negotiations about the sovereignty being transferred to the Argentines. That must be absolutely clear. We have a task to do. That task can be discharged only in a military capacity. It would be reckless of us to attempt to discharge that task at a lower level of military capability than we consider the task demands. That would be to risk those members of our armed services whose job it is to defend the Falklands. Once the House has taken that clear decision of principle, it is the responsibility of my Department to carry out the work effectively and to the right manning and equipment level. Anyone who tried to secure economies in that area would be taking grave risks.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the investment by the Government in a modern all-weather military airfield, allied with the enhancement of the RAF's air-to-air refuelling capability with the acquisition of Lockheed 10–11 aircraft, opens up the possibility of a very cost-effective defence for the Falklands relying more on high-speed reinforcement and modern combat aircraft than on a very large and static land garrison?

Mr. Heseltine

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who knows about such matters. That will be one of the benefits that we shall reap when the first 8,500 ft strip is opened in 1985. We will consider carefully whether we can make savings in the manpower deployment of the garrison because of the capacity for rapid reinforcement.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

The new green field site is likely to he very expensive in terms of opportunity costs and high diplomatic costs. If the Secretary of State is determined to have his new airfield, will he tell us why he chose a new green field site as opposed to expanding Port Stanley? In the light of his party's tradition of open government, will he produce an open government document detailing why the new airfield was necessary and, more important, why a new green field site is considered to be superior to an expansion of the Port Stanley site?

Mr. Heseltine

If the hon. Gentleman is interested in this matter, I refer him to the evidence of my Department to the Select Committee on Defence, which received much evidence from my Department on the details of the case. The reason why we decided to go for a green field solution was twofold. First, the existing Stanley airport can be kept operational while the new site is being developed. Secondly, a comparison of the figures shows that it is marginally cheaper to have a green field site.

Mr. Michael Marshall (Arundel)

As a Member of the Defence Select Committee which produced the report to which my right hon. Friend has referred, I welcome his decision. Will he take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Royal Air Force which kept the airbridge going? That task, which will now be phased out, was difficult and dangerous. Will he reassure the House that he is bearing in mind the problem of financial control of the project? Clearly, he had to inherit an estimate of the cost which must have influenced contractors in putting forward their prices, and the provision made in the public expenditure White Paper does not give him much elbow room. However, any control mechanism that he can outline to the House would be helpful.

Mr. Heseltine

I strongly support my hon. Friend's tribute to the serving men and women of the RAF for their quite remarkable achievement in keeping open the airbridge to the Falklands. The contract is, of course, a very remote contract of great complexity and expense and its management will test the ingenuity and resource of all those involved. I and the Secretary of State for the Environment will do all that we can to carry out our duties effectively.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea)

Will not the new Mount Pleasant airfield be vulnerable both to a hostile power and to bad weather? Is it the Secretary of State's intention that the wide-bodied jets would be able to return to Ascension, for example, if they could not land, or does he have some other arrangement in mind?

Mr. Heseltine

There is always a risk of the diversion of aircraft, whether of Hercules aircraft or of the new civil and military aircraft that will use the new airport. The weather is marginally better at Mount Pleasant than at Port Stanley. It is difficult to land at Port Stanley, on a number of days every year, but it is our view that landings will not be prevented at one of the two new strips by such weather conditions.

Sir Hugh Fraser (Stafford)

Apart from the military advantages of my right hon. Friend's proposal, does he agree that those of us who pressed for the development of an airfield in 1976 regard it as a means of enhancing our importance in the South Atlantic and the development of Antarctica? Sure communications will make all the difference to this strategic development in the next few years.

Mr. Heseltine

My right hon. Friend refers to a most interesting, albeit speculative, area of future development. The more I have talked to people and considered the issue, the more I have realised that the potential exists for the airport to be of significant strategic importance in the next century.

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North)

At a time when the Government are always saying that there is no money available, would it not have been better to spend this money on social projects at home—on the regions, for example? For how much longer can the Goverment afford the Colonel Blimp policy of fortress Falklands? Are we not in danger of not only supplying the Argentines with money for arms but giving them a military airfield for the future?

Mr. Heseltine

The Government are not prepared to take risks with the lives of our men and women based on the Falklands. [Interrruption.] Many of us are tired of listening to the hypocritical rubbish that we hear from right hon. and hon. Members on the Opposition Benches. They will have to learn that their defence policies have been thunderingly destroyed in the recent election. The Conservative party is committed to ensuring that our men and women are properly served.

Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)

How can the Secretary of State justify such a massive amount of public expenditure on a futile fortress Falklands policy when he spent most of his time during the last Parliament at the Department of the Environment cutting public expenditure? Does not he realise that the people of Merseyside also want freedom — freedom from unemployment and poverty? Will he switch some of that money to expenditure in Merseyside? Indeed, perhaps he could even develop Liverpool airport.

Mr. Heseltine

I shall tell the hon. Gentleman how I justify it. There are more than 3,000 of our men and women on those islands and we are responsible for the islands' defence. They are there because a Fascist dictatorship tried to take the Falklanders' freedom away from them. The Labour party is always content to find the language of the dictator more convenient than the language of democracy.

Mr. Joan Evans (Cynon Valley)

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that he has announced the expenditure of £405 million, which is equivalent to £800,000 for every family on the island, and that it has been estimated that while we are there it will cost us about £1 million per family per annum? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that we should not lend money to the Argentine so that it can buy Exocets and other military weapons, as there could be a renewal of hostilities and those weapons could be used as a result?

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman is fully aware that I did not announce the figures that he has mentioned. He must also be aware—

Mr. Evans

Did not the right hon. Gentleman refer to £215 million and £190 million?

Mr. Heseltine

If the hon. Gentleman had been listening, he would know that one is subsumed in the other; they are not added together. The hon. Gentleman must know that the Government were faced with an extremely delicate situation concerning whether British money that had been lent to the Argentine should be sacrificed, because we were not prepared to support an international attempt to rescue that economy.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

The right hon. Gentleman keeps suggesting the potential strategic importance of the islands. Do not those considerations presuppose the abandonment of fortress Falklands and co-operation with countries in the neighbouring area?

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman will be fully aware that the Government would wish to co-operate with countries in the neighbouring area, just as they would with all other countries in the world. We are trying to secure an honourable peace in which the inhabitants of the Falklands can live with their freedom and rights.