HL Deb 10 December 1984 vol 458 cc3-6

2.42 p.m.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, with the leave of the House and at the request of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, who is unable to be here because of illness, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they agree that the Captain of the Belgrano was entitled to believe on 2nd May 1982 that his ship was safe from attack outside the Falklands exclusion zone, as the Government's decision to change the terms of engagement was not conveyed to Argentina until 7th May 1982, and whether they further agree that this has been admitted by the Secretary of State.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Lord Trefgarne)

No, my Lords.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, in view of that very intelligent answer from the Minister, can he tell the House whether it is not the case that on 1st May 1982 the then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs stated publicly that: No further military action is envisaged at the moment except to keep the exclusion zone secure"? In view of the fact that the "Belgrano" was outside the exclusion zone and leaving the exclusion zone, would it not be reasonable to suppose—particularly as no state of war existed—that the captain of the "Belgrano" was entitled to assume that he was not going to be attacked, on the word of the Secretary of State?

Lord Trefgarne

No, my Lords. The captain of the "Belgrano" was not entitled to assume any such thing. He should have referred to the warning issued by the British Government on 23rd April and conveyed to the Security Council on 24th April. It stated: In this connection, Her Majesty's Government now wishes to make clear that any approach on the part of Argentine warships, including submarines, naval auxiliaries or military aircraft which could amount to a threat to interfere with the mission of the British Forces in the South Atlantic, will encounter the appropriate response".

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that Admiral Lombardo of the Argentine Navy has stated that the instructions to the Argentine ships were to attack the British Force—the British ships? In those circumstances, is it not probable that the captain of the "Belgrano" had that message in front of his mind rather than the dimensions of the exclusion zone?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I feel certain that my noble friend is right, and I hope that that observation will not be lost on those who think otherwise.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, may we pray that we shall never see the day when a warship carrying the ensign of an enemy of this country can ever feel safe?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I hope and believe that the noble Lord is right.

Lord Cottesloe

My Lords, is it not time that the "Belgrano" was sunk for good and all?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I look forward to that day with keen anticipation.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, if in the message sent by the Secretary of State to the Security Council it was said that any approach by warships would be treated as an act of hostility, it surely follows that any retreat by such a vessel would not attract action by Her Majesty's Forces. Was not the "Belgrano"' steaming away from the exclusion zone at the time when it was attacked?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, that is a bizarre interpretation of the words I have recorded, if I may say so. The operative sentences, of course, related to the threat which such vessels posed to United Kingdom forces. That was why the response was evoked which we offered.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, in view of the comments made by the Minister's noble friend below the gangway regarding the signals received by the Argentine Navy, would it not be in the interests of the Government, of Parliament and of the public if the Government were now to publish a full White Paper stating what communications were received and when—particularly by GCHQ at Cheltenham—which still remain a mystery and about which Ministers are telling different stories?

Secondly, is it not the case—as I asked in my original Question—that the then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs stated that no further military action was envisaged? Is it not further the case that both he and the Attorney-General expressed disquiet that the proposed action was not in accord with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter under which the British Government were defending themselves over their actions in so far as the Argentine Navy was concerned?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the noble Lord's imagination grows more vivid by the day, if I may say so. The fact of the matter is that the "Belgrano" posed a threat to units of the United Kingdom Task Force which could not be ignored. That is why we had to take the action that we did.

Lord Annan

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I, too, would very much like to see a White Paper on this subject were it not for the fact that clearly no amount of rational explanation as to what occurred is going to satisfy some Members of your Lordships' House? Would he not agree also that the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, shows a total lack of understanding of naval operations? Would he also not agree that the reference by the noble Lord, Lord Hatch of Lusby, to GCHQ betrays a total lack of understanding about the security arrangements of our intelligence in this country?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord on all three counts.

Lord Kinnaird

My Lords, would the Minister not agree that the only fact in which the public is interested is that we won the war?

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that I may not understand naval operations but that I can understand plain English and the distortion of it in the mouths of Ministers?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am not sure which distortion the noble Lord appears to have apprehended. Perhaps I may quote the second sentence of the same warning from which I quoted earlier: All Argentine aircraft, including civil aircraft, engaging in surveillance of these British Forces will be regarded as hostile and are liable to be dealt with accordingly". I cannot believe that there could have been any doubt in the minds of Argentine leaders.

Lord Diamond

My Lords, on a slightly ancillary point, in as much as the purpose—as I understand it—of Question Time is to elicit information from the responsible Minister; and in as much as there is never enough space on the Order Paper for all those Peers who are anxious to elicit further information, may I ask the Minister, or perhaps the Leader of the House, whether it is the Government's intention to encourage Questions which by their very form—that is, asking whether the Government agree—cannot be asking for any further information whatsoever?

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords—

The Lord President of the Council (Viscount Whitelaw)

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to reply to the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, as he asked me to do and as the House expects. Surely I am entitled to do that. The answer to the noble Lord must be that Questions are a matter for noble Lords. However, if I were to hazard a view based on the noises that I have heard recently in the House and the looks on many noble Lords' faces I would say that I think this subject is becoming a little bit tedious and perhaps the noble Lords concerned will consider it so.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Viscount the Leader of the House whose function I misunderstood at that point. Will the noble Lord who answered—or did not answer—my original Question explain why, if his last answer is correct that it was the case that the Government believed that the "Belgrano" was a danger to the British task force, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs could say that no further military action was envisaged, and why he and the Attorney-General put forward their reservations and their doubts as to the action that was proposed to be taken?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the views of my right honourable friend the then Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, or the Attorney-General, were not related to the threat which the Argentine vessels posed to the United Kingdom task force. That was a matter which fell to be assessed by the commanders on the spot.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend the Leader of the House if he would accept our congratulations on a miracle of understatement when he used the words "little bit tedious" in relation to the noble Lord, Lord Hatch of Lusby?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, in answer to my noble friend, I should say that I feel it is my duty always to be as courteous as possible at all times.