HL Deb 02 December 1980 vol 415 cc342-6

3.42 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I will repeat a Statement on the Falkland Islands which is being made by my honourable friend Mr. Ridley in another place. The Statement is as follows:

"We have no doubt about our sovereignty over the islands. The Argentines, however, continue to press their claim. The dispute is causing continuing uncertainty, emigration and economic stagnation in the islands. Following my honourable friend's exploratory talks with the Argentines in April, the Government have been considering possible ways of achieving a solution which would be acceptable to all parties. In this the essential is that we should be guided by the wishes of the islanders themselves.

"My honourable friend therefore visited the islands between the 22nd and 29th November in order to consult the island councillors and subsequently, at their express request, all islanders, on how we should proceed. Various possible bases for seeking a negotiated settlement were discussed. These included both a way of freezing the dispute for a period or exchanging the title of sovereignty against a long lease of the islands back to Her Majesty's Government.

"The essential elements of any solution would be that it should preserve British administration, law and way of life for the islanders while releasing the potential of the islands' economy and of their maritime resources, at present blighted by the dispute.

"It is for the islanders to advise on which, if any, option should be explored in negotiations with the Argentines; my honourable friend has asked them to let him have their views in due course. Any eventual settlement would have to be endorsed by the islanders, and by this House."

3.45 p.m.

Lord Goronwy-Roberts

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord for making the Statement in this place as it has been made in the other place. It is important to keep Parliament informed of all discussions relating to an issue quite as sensitive as this is. So far as I can see, there is nothing in this Statement today which in any way weakens, still less contravenes, what was said as recently as last Thursday in this House by the Foreign Secretary when, in answer to his noble friend Lord Morris, he said: I would repeat that no solution can be agreed without the endorsement of the islanders as well as that of Parliament ".—[Official Report, 27/11/80, col. 199.] That is a double-barrelled proviso with which we wholeheartedly agree, that any solution which is finally found to be peaceable for promotion should have the endorsement of the islanders and also of the British Parliament. Subject to that all-important proviso, the Opposition—at least the Labour Opposition, and I am sure my noble friends below the gangway will agree—hope very much that every effort will continue to be made to improve the friendly and co-operative relations between this country and the Argentine, and certainly between the Argentine and the Falkland Islands.

The Statement refers to the way in which economic development in the South-Western area generally, in the seas between the Falklands and the Argentine, is being held back because of this continued uncertainty about the constitutional future of the islands. Once a solution which, in the first principle, is acceptable to the islanders, is also acceptable to everybody in the area, then, as my noble friend Lord Shackleton pointed out to us in his excellent report two or three years ago, there is a very great deal of economic development in the seas of that area which would redound to the benefit of the Falkland islanders and the Argentine, and indeed of this country. So we welcome the repetition of the proviso that no solution will be promoted by Her Majesty's Government unless it is endorsed by the islanders, and also that any such proposal would be placed before Parliament.

3.47 p.m.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, I need hardly say that we on these Benches go along with the Government's Statement that in this matter it is essential that we should be guided by the wishes of the islanders themselves, and that any eventual settlement would have to be endorsed by the islanders and by the other place, and presumably by this House also. Could the noble Lord indicate, supposing there was a solution agreeable to the islanders for exchanging the title of sovereignty against a long lease of the islands back to the British Government, how exactly that would result in "releasing the potential of the islands' economy and of their maritime resources"? What exactly would be likely to happen? And in that event, how would it benefit not only outside interests, including our own, but the interests of the islanders themselves? If that took place, how exactly would the interests of the islanders be promoted?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am obliged to both noble Lords for their reception of this Statement. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, I would say that most of the points which flow from his question would need to be negotiated with the Argentinians, when and if the islanders agree to that taking place. As the noble Lord will recall, Lord Shackleton's report, to which the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, referred, did spell out in very considerable detail the economic potential of the Falkland Islands and indeed the seas around them, and there, I would suggest, is where lies the great economic benefit to the people of the Falkland Islands. That is not to say that there are not most effective and successful businesses to be carried on on the islands themselves, but there is very considerable potential both on the islands and in the waters around.

Lord Shackleton

My Lords, if I may, I should like to congratulate the Minister of State for the energy and initiative he has been showing in a matter of immense difficulty. Would the noble Lord the Minister not agree that this is, of course, only a very preliminary statement, and that it is important not to come at this stage to too firm conclusions on this? I have no doubt that the islanders will have to think very carefully. May I ask the noble Lord to ensure that his honourable friend does not put the islanders in a position of either facing decline, because the British Government decline to continue such little assistance as they are already giving, or accepting this particular deal? But, at the same time, can he also tell us whether he foresees the possibility of some real development as regards fishing which will involve further Government expenditure? Can he say something about the dependencies of the Falkland Islands, and in particular I have in mind the beautiful island of South Georgia which is very much in the area where krill fishing may take place?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord and the House that there is no question of any pressure or threats being brought to bear on the islands to agree to this proposal or to any other. As the noble Lord knows, the fact is that my honourable friend Mr. Ridley visited the islands and put the proposal, among others, to them. This is the one that they are now considering very carefully. There is no time limit on those considerations and when they are ready to convey their conclusions to my honourable friend he will be ready to hear them and to act accordingly.

As for the fishing, as the noble Lord rightly says, a large development of fishing in that area would involve substantial investment. I confess that I cannot see much in the way of Government funds being available for that purpose at present, but certainly there will be nothing in the way, so far as I can see, of private investment for that purpose.

On the question of the dependencies to which the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, referred, that is another matter which is somewhat fluid and flexible at present and would clearly have to form part of the negotiations with the Argentinians when and if we get to that stage.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that his statement that there is absolutely no pressure being put on the islanders will be received with great satisfiaction and relief by those here who have the fate of the islanders very much in mind? Can he say whether he would not agree that there is a general interest among the Western powers on strategic grounds, if none other, that this matter should be resolved peacefully and sensibly?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, certainly there are reasons why this matter should be solved peaceably and sensibly. But the paramount reason why that should be so concerns, of course, the interests of the islanders themselves. The fact is that the Falkland Islands are under something of a blight at present. It is very difficult, because of the potential dispute over sovereignty, to encourage investment, for example, in the islands, and that is the principal reason why we are seeking a solution to this matter.

As regards the strategic implications to which my noble friend referred, I point out that those apply both ways—both to the Argentinians and to ourselves. They are a very technical matter, but I must say that the strategic implications of the Falkland Islands with regard to the sea lanes round the Cape are not as important as they were many years ago.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is it not putting pressure on the islanders for the Minister Mr. Ridley to go and negotiate in Buenos Aires on proposals which have not been submitted to the test of popular opinion in the islands themselves? Was not that the main reason why Mr. Ridley received such an adverse send-off from the islanders when he left recently?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, if I may say so, the noble Lord is wholly misinformed on this matter. Mr. Ridley has not negotiated anything with the Argentinians yet and he will not do so until he has obtained the approval of the Falkland Islanders themselves.

Lord Morris

My Lords, I welcome this statement in so far as it demonstrates Her Majesty's Government's understanding of the vitally important fact that the economy of the islands is dependent upon a political solution—of that there can be no doubt. Can my noble friend say that, if the proposed arrangements for sale and lease-back—some might even say "give-away and lease-back"—are put forward, they will not be put before the islanders as a package? The terms of the lease are absolutely essential to their interests—whatever our view of their interests may be—and we must have their demonstrable agreement to the individual terms of the lease. Also, will Her Majesty's Government clarify the position of the nationality of the islanders in the course of the forth-coming legislation? Finally, the excellent report of the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, has been mentioned. Does my noble friend recall the urgency of a major recommendation in that report that an airstrip be built, or at least repaired, as soon as possible in order to aid communications? Has there been any development so far as that is concerned?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, as regards the details of any leasing arrangement which may be decided upon or even discussed in the future, I must ask the noble Lord to wait for events before pursuing that line because it is very early days and the details must be for discussion between the parties in due course. We have no preconceived notions as to what those details might be. Indeed, my noble friend went on to refer to legislation. It is much too early to be speaking of legislation—we are nowhere near that stage yet.

As regards the nationality point which my noble friend raised, I point out that it is the case that not all the Falkland Islanders are entitled, as of right, to settle in the United Kingdom. However, that is a problem which we have faced before in other circumstances and if we have to face it again in this situation I have no doubt that we shall be able to solve it.

My noble friend also referred to the question of extending the runway on the airstrip in the Falkland Islands. The difficulty there, quite simply, is finding the money to do it with. Extending or building runways or providing the associated facilities is an extremely expensive business and I must confess that, like the other matter to which I replied to the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, I find it difficult to imagine that Government funds would be available for that project at present.

Lord Shackleton

My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Lord two more questions and I am very grateful to him for answering my previous questions so fully. Will the noble Lord ask his honourable friend that, in his negotiations with the Argentine, he will make clear that the people of the islands are as British as the members of your Lordships' House, if not more so so? They are totally of British stock and British in style. This is a matter that a proud people like the Argentinians ought to be prepared to take into account.

Secondly, will these negotiations have any effect in regard to Antarctic territories? I take it that any territory south of latitude 60 degrees will not be affected. Finally, could the noble Lord add something further on the dependencies?—not only the Falkland Islands which are 300 miles from the Argentine, but South Georgia which is another 700 miles from the Falklands, and by no stretch of the imagination could it ever have claimed to have been under Spanish occupation, unless we go back to the Treaty of Tordesillas.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the question as regards the other islands, including the dependencies, which stretch, as the noble Lord says, many hundreds of miles from the Falkland Islands, is something which will have to be discussed in the context of an overall agreement on this matter. As the noble Lord will recall, we are already in disagreement with the Argentinians over the question of their weather station on the island of Thule, many hundreds of miles from the Falkland Islands. Clearly that matter too would have to be resolved in the context of an overall settlement.