HL Deb 26 May 1982 vol 430 cc1170-7

3.50 p.m.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Viscount Trenchard)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement which has been made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence. The Statement runs:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a short Statement.

"During the past 24 hours there has been a major increase in operational activity in the South Atlantic.

"On the Falkland Islands themselves, three successive raids were made by Harriers from the task force on the Port Stanley airfield. These raids were successful and all our aircraft returned safely. As a result of the actions of the ships and aircraft of the task force, the blockade of the remaining Argentine garrison on the Falklands remains effective.

"During last night and during the course of yesterday the loading of heavy supplies into the San Carlos area has continued. Five major supply ships left San Carlos during the night having offloaded their cargoes. The force ashore is fully established with sufficient supplies to carry out their tasks for an extended period—but the build-up will continue and 5 Brigade is on its way.

"Two war ships, including HMS Coventry ', were based to the north, outside the opening of Falkland Sound, to provide early warning of air attack and to provide an air defence screen for the supply ships unloading in San Carlos Water.

"At approximately 1.30 p.m. London time an aircraft, probably on a reconnaissance mission, was detected by HMS 'Coventry' and was shot down using her Sea Dart missile system. This was followed later in the afternoon by separate attacks by four Argentine Sky Hawks, which were shot down by HMS 'Coventry's ' Sea Dart, and by Sea Cat and Rapier missiles. This brings the total number of Argentine fixed wing aircraft destroyed to over 50.

"At approximately 7.30 pm London time a further raid of Sky Hawks approached HMS 'Coventry'. She was hit by several bombs and suffered severe damage. She later capsized. Initial reports are that 20 members of her crew died in the attack, about 20 were injured and the remainder of her crew of some 280 are now safe on board other ships of the task force.

"After this attack on HMS 'Coventry', at about 8.30 p.m. 'Atlantic Conveyor', a Merchant Navy ship protected by escorts and employed in the resupply task, was attacked by two Super Etendard aircraft, which fired Exocet missiles. She was hit and set on fire. She was loaded with supplies for British forces on the Falkland Islands. She had no Harriers embarked.

"In this attack four of those on board 'Atlantic Conveyor' were killed and a small number were injured. The remainder of those 170 who were on board are now safe on other ships.

"Mr. Speaker, yesterday's losses were tragic, for both the Royal Navy and the Merchant Marine. The House will join with me in expressing our admiration and gratitude for the bravery and dedication of all concerned".

And, my Lords, our thoughts are with the families of our men at this tragic time.

Several noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, the Statement goes on:

"Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a general comment on the conduct of operations to recover the Falklands so far.

"During the past seven weeks the Royal Navy has assembled, organised, and despatched over 100 ships, involving over 25,000 men and women, 8,000 miles away to the other end of the world. The task force has recaptured South Georgia and successfully accomplished a hazardous amphibious landing of around 5,000 men without a single fatal land casualty. The morale of our forces is high. By any historical standard this will be seen to have been one of the most remarkable and logistic and military achievements of recent times.

"In planning this operation substantial attrition of our ships, aircraft and equipment was both anticipated and expected. In spite of the loss of four naval warships, the task force has more escort vessels today than a week ago. Ten more destroyers and frigates have joined the force in the past two days. Attrition of our Harrier force has been much less than we had assessed and they have achieved complete dominance in air combat and land attack. Otherwise, in spite of massive movements of merchant ships in and out of hostile waters, the Atlantic Conveyor ' is the first supply ship that we have lost.

"When a setback occurs there is always a danger that it brings in train undue pessimism about the future, just as success sometimes creates needless euphoria. Neither are justified at the present time.

"Our forces on the ground are now poised to begin their thrust upon Port Stanley: behind them are another 3,000 men of 5 Brigade—while reinforcements and resupply are virtually denied to the Argentine garrison on the island. Generally the military objective to repossess the Falkland Islands has gone forward exactly as we planned it. We have had losses and there may be more on land and sea, but the people of the Falkland Islands can be assured that our resolve is undiminished: we intend to free them from occupation and to restore their democratic rights".

My Lords, that ends the Statement.

3.56 p.m.

Lord Peart

My Lords, we thank the noble Viscount for repeating that Statement. First, of course, we on these Benches wish to express our great regret at the tragic loss of life. Our deepest sympathies are with the families of those who have been killed or injured. We would especially like to express the admiration of the whole House for the courage and fortitude shown by our gallant merchant seamen. We welcome the announcement yesterday that compensation will be paid in respect of merchant seamen killed or injured in action.

May I ask the noble Viscount to clarify the position on negotiations? Can we be assured that the British landing on the Falklands has not excluded the possibility of a negotiated settlement?

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, we too would like to express thanks to the noble Viscount for repeating the Statement, and to express our admiration for and gratitude to our forces. Our deepest sympathy goes to the relatives of those who have been lost or injured in this action. I would like to ask the noble Viscount the Minister—because he said that there were no Harriers on:board 'Atlantic Conveyor' —if in fact our air dominance is going to increase and be kept up? I think that this would be very useful and very essential to the operation. We too would like to know what progress could be made or might be made towards an eventual long-term solution to put the whole world at peace and which would justify this brave and, so far, competent action.

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their comments, which are entirely in line with the Government's feelings. I said on Monday to the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition that all tragic disagreements and wars, and all military activities (as these are), have to end with negotiations and settlements. That is well understood by the Government, but each situation is a new one. But certainly we realise that in the end we need a settlement, and one that looks to the future as well. That does not mean, of course, that we are going to agree to a cease-fire which gives a tactical advantage to the Argentinians at the present time.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, with his distinguished air record, has immediately gone to the point of air dominance. This has been considered by the Chiefs of Staff from the beginning and, as the noble Lord knows only too well, there are degrees of air superiority. I believe it is true to say, against the losses of aircraft I have mentioned, that a very large degree of air superiority has been achieved, notwithstanding these losses. But it is still clearly possible for determined pilots, in the three-dimensional air, to get through on occasions. We believe that with the strength of the task force, which is virtually undiminished, and with the reinforcement of Harriers which have arrived, we shall be able to achieve a steadily increasing degree of air superiority. I again would assure the noble Lord that we look for a long-term solution which makes sure that these sacrifices are not in vain.

Lord Aylestone

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that we, too, would wish to extend our deepest sympathy to the relatives of the servicemen and the Merchant Marines who have lost their lives or were injured in the loss of these two ships? Despite our sorrow at these losses, we remember that the task force is there in a just cause, opposing and engaging an illegal aggressor who has been told by the United Nations to withdraw from the islands, and in our view no negotiations should be considered which do not include withdrawal.

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for those sentiments.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, is the noble Viscount the Minister aware that we too from these Benches would like to say how much we recognise with deep admiration the bravery and courage of our task force and have deep sympathy for those bereaved at this time? Is he aware that at the residential conference of the archbishops and the bishops of the Church of England yesterday a call for prayer went out from the bishops of the Church of England for wisdom for Govermment, sympathy for those who are bereaved, and a prayer for a just and lasting peace in the coming days; and that many dioceses will be saying special prayers on Sunday, 6th June, Trinity Sunday, in that context?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I take note of those remarks by the right reverend Prelate. We are grateful for the support of him and his colleagues over these difficult times, and particularly for their support in upholding the principles of international law and self-determination and freedom of people.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that many hearts are heavy this afternoon? Is he further aware that although the Government have been unwilling to listen to voices counselling moderation, or a cease-fire or a negotiated settlement, in this Chamber or in another Chamber, these voices are now heard elsewhere? Has the noble Viscount read the Financial Times today? Has he read the leader calling for a negotiated settlement? Has he read Mr. Samuel Brittan once again reiterating these calls for a cease-fire and stopping the killing straight away? Will he read these articles, draw them to the attention of his noble friends, and think again?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I have not read all those articles. I shall probably have read the Financial Times by tonight. I am well aware, however, of the many voices of anxiety, very sincere voices of anxiety, and I am aware of the feeling of I think all Members of this House at these tragic sacrifices. But in addition to the direct objective, from which we will not be diverted, of restoring the freedom of the Falkland Islands, I believe the sacrifices will lead to a world in which aggression is less likely to take place and a greater respect for the freedom of peoples will exist.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, bear to some of us a sickening familiarity with those who in the 1930s also sought to appease fascist dictators?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I think I have already said what I wanted to say on that.

Lord Blyton

My Lords—

Several noble Lords

Order, order!

Baroness Young

My Lords, I think the noble Lord, Lord Paget, has been trying to get in for a long time, and then I suggest the noble Lord, Lord Blyton, might put his point.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, could the noble Viscount tell us why the bases from which the Argentine air force is attacking troops on British territory and ships in British territorial waters—because that is indeed what the Falklands are—are not in their turn being attacked?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I think the task force commander is using ail practical means to attack enemy forces which are attacking us.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, has he got a free hand to do so?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, he has indeed got a free hand to do so, in accordance with any recommendations or agreements of the Chiefs of Staff as to what is militarily a useful way forward at the present time.

Lord Blyton

My Lords, is the noble Viscount the Minister aware that after six weeks of negotiation, through the United Nations and General Haig, to try to seek peace in this context, it has failed, and that we cannot give way and appease the fascist junta in Argentina? Not only that, we must encourage our troops now, and not let it go from this House that we are demoralising them in the fight that lies ahead. I have a grandson there and he asks me to tell Parliament that they are fighting for what is right, and hope that the British Government and the Houses of Parliament will support them.

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I am encouraged by the noble Lord's remarks. I would like to say that we had a Statement on Monday, when we had had a relatively good day, and Monday ended as a good day. I hope that, because one has in this kind of activity some days better than others, we will not see this House, at least, shift mercurially from views on Monday to views on Wednesday because we have a small setback.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, while being warmed by the wholehearted support just given to my noble friend who put the last question, may I ask the noble Viscount the Minister whether he would not also agree that our championing of freedom is better understood if we do not bay down those with whom we disagree? I was commenting on the fact that when a noble Member says something with which we disagree there is a tendency on the part of certain noble Members of this House simply to shout him down, and I think that is to be deprecated.

May I now ask the noble Viscount whether he would underline what he said about the Harrier aircraft? He did say that they now had complete dominance. Would he not agree that it is all the more remarkable that that dominance should have been achieved by an aircraft not exactly intended for the role that it is now asked to undertake?

May I also ask the noble Viscount whether he will do something to put into perspective what was said from this side of the House last week about the attractions of the Falkland weather? Would he not say that for a pilot in a vertical landing aircraft to land in present circumstances, in gusts of 60 to 70 mph on a platform which is moving, is nothing short of remarkable, and we should not underrate that performance by saying that the weather was no worse than it was at Bournemouth? May I also ask the noble Viscount whether he would also say something about the weather conditions as far as they affect the thousands of men who are now in bog-like territory, with no proper place to sleep, not properly supplied, in conditions that really are beyond the capacity of many of us to understand? I, like the noble Lord, also went through something in the last war. It is quite remarkable. When we are saying how well we are doing, I think that we should bear in mind some of these adverse circumstances.

If I may ask this finally, will he emphasise again how unwise it is to exercise this excessive euphoria? The euphoria of yesterday was quite frightening. I was very happy to hear what the noble Viscount the Minister had to say, and is he aware that I agree with him absolutely? We do not want the euphoria. We do not want defeatism.

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I would say to the noble Lord that I do not think there has been baying in this House. I think we have been a very calming influence throughout the whole period of the crisis, and I believe we will continue to be so. I said that the Harrier had secured complete dominance in air combat. That is to be distinguished from the degree of air superiority over the whole area that we have yet achieved. But we have lost no Harriers in air combat and they have shot down a large percentage of the total Argentine losses that I have mentioned. We have lost two Harriers in offensive operations, to ground fire.

I would rather be in Bournemouth than in the Falklands and I would rather be here than in the Falklands. We all understand and endorse the statements that the noble Lord has made about conditions. I do not think that the Government have expressed euphoria at any stage, and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has taken every opportunity to warn that there can be losses and that there may still be further losses of significance ahead. But we are satisfied that we can complete our objectives.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, would the noble Viscount not agree that, while we are expressing our great sympathy for those who have lost their lives and been injured, and while we are expressing our admiration for the fortitude and skill shown by our forces, the Government should always keep in mind the objective in the long term—that is, to get a secure, and not a permanently insecure, solution for those islands 8,000 miles away? Should not the Government avoide being carried away by any euphoria, and bear in mind always the need for a negotiated settlement that will achieve this end, and bear our sacrifices in mind with that objective in the background?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I think that my right honourable friends have made very clear on all occasion that in the end we want a permanent solution whereby the Falkland Islanders can live in peace in the area in which they are located. There is nothing that will divert the Government from that longterm aim. I am afraid it has become clear that with the people we are currently dealing with in the Argentine we are more likely to achieve that solution from a position of a greater balance of strength than we have been in the past by making major offers of concessions before our task force arrived.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that the ruling junta of Argentina are of the same ilk as those who trampled over Europe in the late Thirties and that, therefore there can be no question of appeasement whatever? Is the noble Viscount further aware of the probability that there are millions of Argentinians who, if they had the privilege which we have in this country of electing our Government, would in no way have elected such a Government? Is the noble Viscount further aware that, despite the present state of affairs and while there can be no question of appeasement, we ought to make it clear that British sovereignty is going to be restored to the Falkland Islanders—it is their island and they are our countrymen— but that, after that, in a sensible and civilised manner, we might find ways and means of co-operation with Argentina in both economic and perhaps democratic ways which will be to the benefit of us all?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I note once more the sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, with many of which we agree. But I would rather not move from the effort that I have tried to make in my previous answer as regards the balance and the absolute need in the end to reach from a position of strength a settlement which will be secure and longterm for the South Atlantic.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, with regard to the longterm solution, may I say how delighted I was to hear yesterday the Secretary of State for Defence say that the Government are actively considering a suggestion which I made in your Lordships' House three weeks ago, for a small sovereign state in the Falklands—a proposition which at first sight seems scarcely credible but the more one considers it the more credible it becomes. There could be a small sovereign state with adequate, permanent, irrevocable safeguards from a number of other nations about security, about longterm aid for development, about immigration and such matters. Will the Government really pursue this proposal, because it would remove from us any taint of colonialism and provide a really long-term solution agreed—maybe underwritten—by the United Nations?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I note the noble Lord's suggestion and my noble friend sitting by my side will make sure that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs takes note of the noble Lord's views as he has already taken note of a number of constructive suggestions from Members on all sides of this House for the long-term aim.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, may I be permitted to say that my record against fascism is one which I should be happy to have compared with that of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter?

Lord Milford

My Lords, I am sorry to ask this question but from the questions and answers that have taken place I am not clear about this matter. Are the Government not going to face negotiations or peace talks until there has been unconditional surrender from the Argentines?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I am not going to add to what has been said by my right honourabe friends in the other place and by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in this matter. So far as I know, no one has used the term "unconditional surrender" before. We intend to reoccupy the Falklands and to restore British administration to the Falklands, but we are ever ready to consider the situation from thereon of how we get to a permanent settlement in the area.