HL Deb 26 April 1982 vol 429 cc714-22

3.34 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Young)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about recent developments in relation to the Falkland Islands.

"In our continuing pursuit of a negotiated settlement, my right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary visited Washington on 22nd and 23rd April. He had many hours of intensive detailed discussion with Mr. Haig. Their talks proved constructive and helpful, but there are still considerable difficulties. Mr. Haig now intends to pursue his efforts further with the Argentine Government.

"However, the Argentine Foreign Minister is reported to be unwilling to continue negotiations at present. I hope he will reconsider this. As the British task force approaches closer to the Falklands, the urgent need is to speed up the negotiations, not slow them down. We remain in close touch with Mr. Haig.

"I now turn to events on South Georgia yesterday. The first phase of the operation to repossess the island began at first light, when the Argentine submarine 'Sante Fe' was detected close to British warships preparing to land forces on South Georgia.

"The United Kingdom had already made it clear to Argentina that any approach on the part of Argentine warships, including submarines or military aircraft, which could amount to a threat to interfere with the mission of British forces, would encounter the appropriate response. The 'Santa Fe' posed a significant threat to the successful completion of the operation and to British warships and forces launching the landing. Helicopters from the British warships therefore engaged and disabled the Argentine submarine.

"Just after 4 p.m. London time yesterday, British troops landed on South Georgia and advanced towards Grytviken. At about 6 p.m. the Commander of the Argentine forces in Grytviken surrendered, having offered only limited resistance. British forces continued to advance during the night and are now in control of Leith, the other main settlement on South Georgia. At 10 o'clock this morning, the officer commanding the Argentine forces on South Georgia formally surrendered.

"British forces throughout the operation used the minimum force necessary to achieve a successful outcome. No British casualties have been notified and it is reported that only one Argentine sustained serious injuries. About 180 prisoners were taken, including some reinforcements who had been on the Argentinian submarine. The prisoners will be returned to Argentina.

"British Antarctic Survey personnel on the island were reported to be safe when we last heard early yesterday afternoon. Our forces are making contact with them, and arrangements are in hand to evacuate them if they so wish.

"I am sure the House will join me in congratulating our forces on carrying out this operation successfully and recapturing the island. The action we have taken is fully in accord with our inherent right of self-defence under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.

"Mr. Speaker, my right honourable friends and I will continue to keep the House fully informed on the situation as it develops. I should like to emphasise that the repossession of South Georgia, including the attack on the Argentine submarine, in no way alters the Government's determination to do everything possible to achieve a negotiated solution to the present crisis. We seek the implementation of the Security Council resolution, and we seek it by peaceful means if possible."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.39 p.m.

Lord Shackleton

My Lords, the whole House will wish to extend the most heartfelt congratulations to the British armed forces. The achievement—which I will not say exceeded our expectations because we have very high expectations—is a matter for the greatest congratulation to those who planned and carried out what could have been a very dangerous operation. It is even more satisfactory that it was implemented without loss of British life and the wounding of only one Argentinian, and I would say at the outset how right the Government are to return the Argentinian prisoners to the Argentine.

I have at times bored the House by my insistence on the importance of South Georgia, and, because it is very important, I am delighted that it has been the first objective. The objective is much more than simply that of repossessing a British settlement; it is a key place in relation to conservation, and indeed to the whole of the Antartic. I would hope that the British forces will, within a very short time, retake South Thule, which is only a volcano. There are only a few people there and they, too, can be comfortably sent home to the Argentine.

It is necessary to stress, as the Statement did, that this was an action taken within the terms of the charter, in self-defence, and those of us who occasionally have listened to radio and television commentators asking questions such as, "Aren't you starting the hostilities?" must rebut such remarks as a monstrous suggestion. Indeed, everything that has been done has been consistent, and I am delighted that the Government are still proceeding to seek a peaceful solution by negotiation.

It is hoped that the United States Government will now join their European allies in taking such necessary economic measures as will make sure that this particular exercise of bravado by the Argentine Government comes to an end. The Argentines are not going to be very comfortable. They are going to run out of water. I gather that some of their vehicles went over the water pipes at Stanley and the reservoirs leaked. There are all kinds of reasons why, provided we do not seek an all-out assault, we might be able to solve the problem peacefully. It must be clear to everyone that we are totally determined to drive off this particular aggression.

There are one or two small questions that I should like to ask. Can the Government say anything further about the British Antarctic Survey personnel on South Georgia? Of course we have in mind the noble Lord's daughter, who is out there. I suspect that we shall be getting some marvellous films for Anglia. I know the noble Lord's daughter not only as a very attractive lady, but also as one well able to look after herself, and we should like to know of any news at any time. I think it important that the Government should constantly keep in touch with the British Antarctic Survey so that—I want to reiterate—the families of personnel, who are worried about them, know what is happening.

One would clearly wish to encourage further the efforts by Mr. Haig. I find it astonishing that the Argentine Foreign Minister, who is obviously very thrown by events, should still say that this is war, and I hope therefore that our friends at the OAS will now speak up for the British action in their own interests, in terms of resisting some of the aggressions across boundaries that might well take place.

I should like again to reiterate to the noble Baroness the hope that she and the Government will not exclude involving the United Nations in the ultimate solution, which will perhaps provide a peaceful reoccupation of the islands and which will then enable the wishes of the Falkland islanders finally to be settled. Will the noble Baroness also take some initiative, or ask the Government to take some initiative, either through the International Red Cross, or otherwise, to fulfil their suggestion that those who wish to leave the islands will be able to do so during this period?

3.44 p.m.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, we, too, should like to thank the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. I suppose that everybody here will welcome, as such, the forcible ejection of Argentine troops from a British island, which they seized by force, in flagrant defiance of Argentine's obligation under the charter, and over which the Argentine Government had never pretended to have even the faintest shadowy claim. We must also surely extend our warmest congratulations to the Royal Navy and the Marines on a splendid military operation. To have transported, at only three weeks' notice, over 8,000 miles of ocean, sufficient force to undertake the operation successfully, with no casualties, and in appalling climatic conditions, would certainly reflect the greatest credit on all the units concerned.

But, my Lords, surely the reoccupation of South Georgia where, after all, the Argentines had very few troops and no air cover, does not in itself make much easier the reoccupation of the Falkland Islands themselves, where, we understand, the Argentines have air cover and apparently about 7,000 troops. Forcible reoccupation of the islands should be undertaken, if at all, only in the last resort. It would seem that in default of an agreed solution—and here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton—the blockade, coupled with economic sanctions, would be the best way to reduce the garrison to ineffectiveness and bring the Argentine Government back to the negotiating table.

However, I suggest that once negotiations have been resumed, as we all hope they will be—and here I speak personally—we might well, from what is now obviously a stronger position than we had previously, consider the possibility of making some further concessions to the Argentine point of view. This may be an unpopular thing to say, but I should nevertheless like to say it. In any case, what was proposed in the last Haig talks in Washington by the Americans, and apparently rejected by us, should surely now at this stage be made public. Parliament should then say whether it is happy with such rejection, or whether it believes that the Government should by one means or another go a little further.

No doubt everything depends on whether we now receive full United States support; but we must recognise that our American friends have great difficulties with the Organisation of American States, and that it would be of considerable assistance to them if they could point to the fact that Britain was, as it were, leaning over backwards to arrive at a peaceful solution, leading eventually to friendly co-operation with the Argentine Republic, possibly under some new management.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I should like to thank both noble Lords for their very warm congratulations to our armed forces on what they have achieved. As the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, quite rightly said, it was a remarkable achievement on the part of both the planners and the forces themselves who took part in the operation. I am glad, too, to have had the recognition of the importance that we all attach to South Georgia—a point which I believe has been brought out very much in debates in this House. As both noble Lords have said, we had a right to take this robust stand under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.

The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, asked me three questions. First, he wanted to know whether I could add anything further about the Antarctic Survey personnel. The latest information I have is that, as was indicated in the Statement, they are all reported to be safe and well. They are at a number of locations throughout South Georgia, and our forces are making contact with them. The question of whether or not they should be evacuated is being taken up with the British Antarctic Survey, and we are in touch with the headquarters at Cambridge. The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, asked me another question, about the further intervention of the United Nations in the negotiations. Our view remains that, while the negotiations with Mr. Haig are still going on, it would be right to continue in this way because we hope that we shall achieve a successful solution, and at this particular time there is no reason to suppose that further intervention on the part of the United Nations would be appropriate.

On the last point that the noble Lord raised about the islanders being able to leave, I should like to confirm that the Government's position is that any islander who wishes to leave for the time being, and is able to get to either Buenos Aires or Montevideo, will be assisted to return to Britain. He should contact either the British interest section of the Swiss Embassy in the British Embassy premises, or the British Embassy in Montevideo. Those British citizens who do not have current British passports will have them issued to them in either Buenos Aires or Montevideo. Once each returned islander is in Britain, his case will be considered with the greatest sympathy, and the Government will not be found lacking in generosity.

I am grateful, too, to the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, for his reception of the Statement, and in particular for his generous remarks about the armed services. He asked about further concessions to the Argentines. I think it would be right to say that the Government's position is that we cannot negotiate under duress and, as a matter of first importance, the Argentinian troops must leave the Falkland Islands.

Lord Aylestone

My Lords, in congratulating Her Majesty's forces on their great success in reoccupying our territory of South Georgia, may I ask Her Majesty's Government if the time is not now ripe for all-party talks to take place on the whole question of the current Falklands situation? The time certainly is not ripe at the moment to decide the future of the Falklands; but that can be done when the islands return to British sovereignty.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Aylestone, for his remarks. I shall take note of them, but, as he will appreciate, the Government are keeping Parliament informed of developments as they unfold over the present situation.

Lord Morris

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend the Leader of the House whether Her Majesty's Government would note very well the very warm reception of the Statement she has just repeated by Her Majesty's Government's Loyal Opposition in this House? Could she please be good enough to use her best offices to draw to the attention of the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition in another place to the very reasonable tone used by the spokesmen for Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition in this place as opposed to the Opposition leaders in another place?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I do not think it would be appropriate for me to comment on affairs in another place. I hope that, as I have indicated when speaking to the responses to the Statement today, my colleagues and I in this House have been grateful for the debates that we have had in this House, which I think have been very responsible and helpful; and we have been very pleased with the remarks that the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, has made today, as on other occasions.

Lord Peart

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will not carry on in this way. After all, we all want a successful outcome. I think that, after saying what he has said, he ought to give an apology. In any case it is not true.

Several noble Lords

It is not true.

Lord Soames

My Lords, there can be no doubt that throughout the whole House there is a feeling of the greatest admiration for the way in which this operation has been carried out. The repossession of South Georgia no doubt will prove to be of the greatest possible use in having terra firma for our forces amid somewhat inhospitable waters. That is one of the many reasons why it gives the House pleasure that South Georgia is back in British hands. When repeating the Statement, my noble friend said that the Foreign Secretary of the Argentine seemed (to say the least) to be somewhat hesitant in getting back to the negotiatiating table at the moment. As a result of that, if the Argentine Government continue to refuse to negotiate, and it looks more likely that some degree, at least, of force will be necessary in the Falklands, I wonder whether my noble friend would give some thought to this.

When we last had a debate on this matter I suggested that secret diplomacy was all-important, but I think that if the time comes when it will be necessary to use a greater degree of force, it will at the same time be necessary for us to take action to ensure that the world understands why we are doing it. This will be necessary so that world opinion, which is firmly on our side at the moment, should remain on our side and that we should be seen to have taken all reasonable measures in the negotiations to arrive at a satisfactory solution by negotiation, and that therefore it was only through lack of success (with our doing everything possible to bring about that success) that it is necessary to use force, and that that is the reason why we had to do so.

I think the moment will come when it will be necessary for the Government to say somewhat more. I am not saying that that moment has come today; but these matters can move quickly and I hope that this will be borne in mind. The moment may not be far off when it will be necessary for us to explain just how far we have gone to try to ensure that we arrive at a diplomatically negotiated settlement.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Soames for his intervention which is very important. He, himself, has had much experience of diplomatic negotiations. As he rightly says, secret diplomacy is probably the way of making most progress at the present time. What has been encouraging is the support that we have had from the rest of the world—and notably from our friends in the EEC and from other countries in the Commonwealth. I take his point and I think it is only right that I should reiterate that it is our hope still that we shall be able to be reach a diplomatic solution to this present crisis; although, as we have always indicated, we have not ruled out the use of force. Perhaps I might answer the very important intervention by the noble Lord, Lord Peart, and to confirm what I think is only just and right; that the Government are glad and grateful for the support of Her Majesty's Opposition in another place.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, did I understand the noble Baroness the Leader of the House to have said that we are not prepared to negotiate under duress? If that is the position, ought we not to say that the Argentinians should take their forces out of the islands and then we shall be prepared to negotiate? Is that not what it means?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I hope that that was the point that I made clear; we are negotiating, but we believe that the Argentines should withdraw their forces from the islands. That is part of the Security Council Resolution 502.

Lord George-Brown

My Lords, I took a slightly unpopular position the other day on the question of the use of force here. I will not repeat all that today, although I think we are still talking much too easily about the use of force to retake the Falkland Islands. May I follow up something said by the noble Lord, Lord Soames? If we are in fact to persuade the world that we are seeking negotiation and a peaceful solution before we arrive at any question of using force, is the noble Baroness able to get her right honourable friend the Prime Minister to "back off" some of the statements which have impaled us on a hook; and, in particular, the question of the islanders' views being paramount? So long as that stays so, genuine negotiations seem unable to take place. The world is not going to be persuaded that we are freely negotiating about a possible alternative solution—I have called it the two-flag solution—if in fact the power of veto is left in the hands of the 500 families, most of whom are share crofters of the Falkland Islands Company. Can we get a public statement that the Government are backing off from the statements which have boxed them and this country into a corner?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I have noted what the noble Lord has said. He is repeating the argument that he used in the debate the other day. I should remind him and the House that there have been two basic principles in this dispute. One is that aggressors should be deterred and the other is the right of self-determination of peoples—and those are two principles on which we have stood.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that even those of us who have been critical, and who remain critical, of the Government's policy in this matter must nevertheless admire the way in which this operation has been carried out? May I follow a point made by my noble friend Lord Shackle-ton when he referred to the United Nations? May I ask whether the Government will accept as an interim measure a United Nations peace-keeping force on the Falkland Islands?

Baroness Young

My Lords, we are always glad to have support for our policies, even from so unexpected a source, if I may say so, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, and I thank him for it. Regarding a United Nations peace-keeping force, I cannot at this stage go into any details about anything which is being discussed. It would he quite inappropriate to comment while diplomacy is still operating.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, I must correct the noble Baroness. It was not the Government's policies that I was praising but the operation which was carried out.

Lord Hankey

My Lords, will the Government bear in mind the lessons of the Suez affair, when we appreciated very much the importance of the United Nations, as was very right and proper, but we were strung along and ultimately time ran out on us? Will the Government agree that there is a time factor in this part of the South Atlantic, where winter is fast approaching and where the weather will be so shockingly bad in the months to come that an opposed landing will be very much harder to carry out? Will it not be wise to take account of the time factor in this matter in deciding what we should do?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I am sure that one can always learn lessons from the past. I have no doubt that notice has been taken over this particular matter. So far as military actions are concerned, again the House will not expect me to comment; but I have no doubt that the point that the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, has made about the weather has been taken into consideration.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness the Leader of the House whether the Government will be submitting a Motion to Parliament supporting what they are doing, or whether they will allow a debate upon these issues? Does she not agree that the brief comments which are made after a Statement are not a democratic way of taking the view of Parliament? Is she aware that many of us would like to contribute to such discussions—I hope in a constructive way—although we do not hide the fact that we do not support the policy which the Government are pursuing?

Baroness Young

My Lords, throughout this very difficult situation in the Falkland Islands I hope that I have correctly interpreted the wishes of the House, and that on each occasion when another place has been recalled we too have met for a debate. All Statements have been repeated in this House, and of course it is always open, if the House would like another full-scale debate on the Falkland Islands, for one to be arranged through the usual channels. I am sure that it will be the wish of the House that it should be kept fully informed of the situation as it develops. That is the wish that I have tried to interpret at each stage.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness whether she is aware that many of us are grateful for the fact that all the Statements made in another place have been repeated in this House? However, will she also be aware, looking back tomorrow morning on the text of what she said this afternoon, that on a number of occasions she has pointed out that it is impossible to answer particular questions because of the delicate nature of this situation? Could I not therefore come back to the point made by my noble friend Lord Aylestone: given the very difficult decisions that are likely to arise in the next two or three weeks, is it not highly desirable that the Government should offer to meet leaders of the other parties so that a number of these matters can be discussed, which clearly cannot be done on the Floor of either House of Parliament?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I shall certainly take note of what the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has said on the subject, as of course I said I would in the case of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Aylestone. The noble Lord—and I hope all noble Lords—will appreciate that while these very difficult negotiations are proceeding, and while we are in a very serious situation, it is most unwise to say publicly anything further than need be said. I am not declining to say anything for any other reason. Of course, I shall take note of the points that have been made.

Lord Buxton of Alsa

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend briefly whether the Government will now remove entirely South Georgia and the dependencies from the agenda of any further diplomatic negotiations, since Argentina has never in all history had any basis whatever for having anything to do with those territories?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I take note of what my noble friend Lord Buxton has said on this matter and I will see that it is conveyed to my right honourable friend.

Lord Forester

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the overwhelming support which Her Majesty's Government have from the people of the United States of America? I have returned from Washington this morning with a political group, and it was wonderful to know that the people of the United States support us as strongly as they do.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I am most grateful for that intervention from my noble friend Lord Forester. I am sure that the whole House is glad to hear it. I shall certainly pass that on, too.