HL Deb 04 December 1968 vol 298 cc191-8

3.44 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' leave, I should like to repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. May I begin the Statement by saying that when many times during the Statement my right honourable friend refers to "my noble friend", he is referring to me. The Statement is as follows:

"In accordance with the undertaking given to the House yesterday, I have now enquired into statements made in the House yesterday about Press reports of remarks attributed to my right honourable and noble friend when in the Argentine. I have discussed this fully with my right honourable and noble friend and I have now received from Her Majesty's Ambassador the relevant Argentine Press reports of the Press Conference in question.

"The statement to which reference was made yesterday was made in the context of creating a framework in which the obstacles effecting ordinary relationships between islands and mainland will be overcome, particularly with regard to communications and economic and cultural links. In this context, and here I quote the relevant extracts from the two Argentine newspapers Clarin and Nacion: 'Question: Does this mean then that the problem would be to convince the islanders? 'Answer: I think it is something which depends not only on Great Britain but that Argentina also has to solve the problem. Britain's relations with the islands are very good so it is a question of Argentina promoting good relations between herself and the inhabitants of the islands.' "On the issue of sovereignty, again I quote relevant extracts from the Argentine newspapers concerned: 'Question: Has a date been fixed for the change of Sovereignty? 'Answer: We are not thinking in such terms of a change of Sovereignty. This is a question which depends entirely on the wishes of the islanders.' "My right honourable and noble friend confirms the accuracy of these reports."

May I break off there to assure your Lordships that I do indeed confirm the accuracy of these reports. To continue with the Statement which is being made in the other place:

"The honourable Gentleman the Member for South-East Essex suggested that my right honourable and noble friend said 'that Britain and Argentina may make a joint effort to convince the islanders that a change of status would be convenient.' "My right honourable and noble friend made no such statement.

"On all points in the Falklands and in the Argentine, as I repeatedly told the House yesterday, he made it clear 'that there can be no transfer of Sovereignty against the wishes of the islanders.' "The issue was further raised yesterday of the present state of the discussions with the Argentine Government. Since my right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary discussed these problems himself with the Argentine Foreign Minister when he was in New York in October, the House would, I know, wish to have a statement from my right honourable friend as soon as he returns from India. I understand there has been discussion about this through the usual channels, and my right honourable friend will be making a Statement next week."

That, my Lords, is the end of the Statement.


My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, for having repeated that Statement, but I must honestly tell him that it does not greatly reassure me. There is the assumption in one of the questions which he quoted that only the date for the change of sovereignty had to be fixed; and in regard to the question put to the noble Lord that the problem would be to convince the islanders, surely "the problem" must have referred to the question of sovereignty and nothing else. Even though his answers to these questions were unexceptionable, I must say that the whole trend of that report fills me with the greatest misgivings.

May I ask the noble Lord this question? Has he observed that the Argentine Foreign Minister has said that he would not sign any agreement which does not recognise Argentine's sovereignty over the Falklands? In view of this, and the fact that the inhabitants have repeatedly said that they wish to remain British, will he tell the House what on earth is the point of continuing the discussions? Does he not realise that to remove the question of sovereignty from the agenda is just about the only way that will allay the deep suspicion that we have of the motives of Her Majesty's Government?


My Lords, if I may refer first of all to the comments of the noble Lord on the Statement, I can only tell him that when the question was put to me that the problem would be to convince the islanders, my understanding of it was the problem of communications and economic and cultural links, because that is what I had been talking about with correspondents up to the moment that that question was put. I can therefore assure the noble Lord that my answer referred to that problem and not to the problem of the transfer of sovereignty. Similarly, when the question was put to me "Has a date been fixed for the change of sovereignty?", I said that the question depended entirely on the wishes of the islanders. I may add that I am at pains not to try any harder than I did yesterday to convince noble Lords opposite about our good faith in this matter, but simply to put the record straight.

To come to the specific points made by the noble Lord, I cannot, of course, comment on statements which are reported to have been made by the Argentine Foreign Minister. So far as removing the item from the agenda is concerned, I believe that the noble Lord and your Lordships' House will want to wait until my right honourable friend returns from India when he, who had these discussions with the Argentine Foreign Minister in New York, will be here and will make a report in the other place, which of course will be made known in your Lordships' House.


My Lords, surely the noble Lord must know whether or not the Argentine Foreign Minister made this statement. We have an Ambassador in the Argentine. Has the Foreign Office no knowledge of what the Foreign Minister said? This was reported in The Times this morning. Is the noble Lord suggesting that the whole thing is a fabrication?


My Lords, whether or not the report is a fabrication is not anything upon which I have commented. I certainly do not suggest that. I only suggest that it would be improper for me to comment upon remarks alleged to have been made to newspaper reporters by the Argentine Foreign Minister. I can confirm that the Argentine Foreign Minister has, of course, been in touch with us through the normal diplomatic channels. What has been said to us is confidential, and I cannot comment upon that either. But it would certainly be improper for me to comment on a remark made to a newspaper reporter and published in the Press.


My Lords, in my view the answers given to-day by the noble Lord do not carry this situation further. We are just as unclear about the matter as we were yesterday, and in fact to some extent even more unclear. We are now told that the Foreign Secretary also had a discussion in October with the Argentine Foreign Minister and discussed these problems. We do not know what the problems are because the noble Lord will not tell us what the negotiations are between the United Kingdom and the Argentine.

May I ask the noble Lord to give this assurance to the House? Is he aware that what is worrying this House and another place, as well as the public at large, is that people fear that the British Government are trying to make a business deal with the Argentine at the expense of the Falkland Islands? That is the crux of the whole matter. Can he assure us that, whatever these Press statements may say, there is no deal, that there will not be a business deal at the expense of the Falkland Islanders, and that, irrespective of commercial aspects, they will be entirely free to decide whether or not they will remain British subjects?


My Lords, let me first of all underline that I did not repeat this Statement with the object of carrying things any further in your Lordships' House. This is a Statement being made in another place.


My Lords—


My Lords, may I please finish the statement which I have to make, and then I will answer questions. I repeated the Statement in your Lordships' House because it had been asked for in the other place. The Government agreed to make it, and I thought it courteous and informative that I should repeat it in your Lordships' House.

If I may come on to the question of the discussions between my right honourable friend and the Argentine Foreign Minister in New York, these were discussions carried on while they were both at a United Nations Conference. I have said that my right honourable friend, who is in India at the moment, will be returning and will be making a full Statement next week, and I ask noble Lords to await a report from him. He is the person who had the discussions.

To come to the third part of the noble Lord's question—I really think it hardly necessary to answer it, but I will do so—there is no question whatsoever of the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands being bartered away with Argentina or with anyone else.


My Lords, may I put again the question which I put to the Minister earlier on, and on which he asked me to await the Statement that was to be made? As the House will recollect, the question was this. Is it not a fact that the Falkland Islands were a sovereign possession of the United Kingdom long before the Argentine Government obtained its independence from the Spaniards? If that is so—and certainly there is no doubt that it is—and if the noble Lord accepts that we are absolute masters of the sovereignty of our own possessions, is not the only way of allaying suspicion and of making the position clear to the Argentinians, to the Falkland Islanders and to the people of this country, that he should say quite frankly that there is going to be no question of the transfer of the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands? If that is said firmly to the Argentine Government, then everybody will be at rest. But short of that there must continue to be the most complete suspicion of what is in the minds of Her Majesty's Government, and of their intentions.


My Lords, this question has now been asked so many times that I fear to repeat the familiar answer, because it will simply bore your Lordships' House. All I think I had better say is this. The historical background to the Falkland Islands question is a long and complicated one. We have no doubt whatsoever about our title to the sovereignty. I think I can make that clear without going into the question of the Spanish rights and the Argentine rights that are alleged to derive from them.

I ask noble Lords once again to await the return of my right honourable friend from India. As I have said, he had these talks in New York, and perhaps I may make the point—as certain noble Lords seem to be surprised that he was having these talks—that the fact that he was having them was published at the time. It was made quite clear then that the talks would be continued in London and I noticed no uproar at that time. He has had these talks. I can do no more than to repeat to your Lordships' House the assurances which I gave yesterday. I am prepared to go on doing that as long as your Lordships wish, but I am not prepared to go further in the light of the Statement which I have just repeated.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, referred to the "motives" of the Government. We on this side have watched him orchestrate the noble Lords who might speak next, and we wondered whether this continued reiteration about suspicion and things of that kind, calling into question the motives of Her Majesty's Government, do not in fact contribute most materially to the difficulties. If noble Lords really have the interests of the Falkland Islanders at heart, would it not be better to leave this, as my noble friend has suggested, until a further time?


My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that intervention. I understand the disquiet of noble Lords opposite and, indeed, of certain of my noble friends behind me. I agree with my noble friend that the constant imputations of bad faith to Her Majesty's Government can do nothing but exacerbate the situation in the Falkland Islands where, as I have already told your Lordships' House, the Executive Council have told me that they for their part are satisfied of our good faith.


My Lords, the reason is that we do not think we are getting a straight answer from the noble Lord. That is why we are suspicious of the motives of the Government—not necessarily of the noble Lord. Will the noble Lord do this? Will he find out from the British Ambassador in Buenos Aires whether or not the Argentine Foreign Minister did or did not say that unless there was a transfer of the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands to the Argentine, the Argentine would not sign an agreement? Would he do that? If it is true that the Foreign Minister did say that, and bearing in mind that the people of the Falkland Islands want to remain British, will he remove the whole question of sovereignty from the agenda of any further talks?


My Lords, I will of course undertake to clarify with Her Majesty's Ambassador in Buenos Aires any issue that remains unclear in the minds of the Government. Having obtained that clarification, if it is necessary we shall act upon it. I cannot undertake to publish it, neither can I give any undertaking of the sort that the noble Lord has suggested, and I can add nothing to the Statement that I have just made.


My Lords, I do not know whether the noble Lord can speak Spanish, but is he aware that at the present time the Argentine Press are hinting that his Statement was the most tortuous made from the Government Front Bench since the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, answered questions on foot-and-mouth disease and Argentine beef?


My Lords, wilt the noble Lord recognise that there are a very large number of places in the world in which claims by one country of sovereignty to another exist, that they are a fertile cause of instability, and that the conduct of Her Majesty's Government may tend to be taken as a precedent for the way in which these discussions should be conducted?


My Lords, I am grateful for that contribution to this exchange. Of course, any international dispute is a potential cause of instability. It was to remove that instability that we engaged in these discussions with the Government of Argentina.


My Lords, may I ask one last question? Will the noble Lord be prepared to come to the House tomorrow and tell us whether or not the Argentine Foreign Minister did make this statement?


My Lords, I cannot undertake to do any such thing. If a Question is put down I will answer it. I think I should make it clear that our discussions with the Argentine Government about this have been, and confidential. I cannot undertake to report to your Lordships' House any statement made by the Argentine Foreign Minister to our Ambassador, and I cannot, I fear, comment upon remarks that he is alleged to have made to the Press.