HL Deb 07 November 1984 vol 457 cc21-5
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I should like to repeat in the form of a Statement an Answer being given in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence to a Private Notice Question about the log of HMS "Conqueror". The Answer is as follows:

"During the Falklands campaign, HMS "Conqueror" kept an account containing detailed operational information which was used to compile the submarine's formal report of proceedings. This is a classified document and is in the possession of the Ministry of Defence.

"The submarine's navigating officer also kept a 'control room log', which records the latitude and longitude, distance run, course, speed and depth of the submarine at hourly intervals, together with other routine readings. This document contains no tactical information. It has been mislaid and, as it, too, is classified, a board of inquiry is being held".

Lord Boston of Faversham

My Lords, your Lordships will be grateful to the Minister for repeating the Answer as his Statement. Is this not a most bizarre turn of events?—I was almost tempted to say "change of course" in this saga, but it is a little too serious for that, I think.

I appreciate that the Minister must not prejudge the outcome of the board of inquiry being held, but certain questions do nonetheless arise now. Is it not the case that repeated calls have been made for the publication of these logs, and in view of that, even if there was no intention of publishing this one for what might be understandable security reasons, is it not extraordinary that the greatest possible care was not taken to keep it safe?

Can the Minister say whether this log contained anything after the "Conqueror's" Falklands duties, ' and, if so, up to what period? He has already explained about the two logs. I should also like to ask him whether the missing one covered any vital and significant matters, bearing in mind the interest in the entire "Belgrano" saga, which is not covered by the log which is still in the possession of Her Majesty's Government or the Royal Navy. If the Minister can answer that categorically I think it would certainly help somewhat.

Can the noble Lord say anything further about the circumstances of the disappearance of the log and when it was last seen? Also can he say how long the board of inquiry is likely to take and whether he will be making a further Statement when the outcome is known? Would he not agree that it is clearly very regrettable that this document is missing, because its contents could confirm or refute some of the claims which have been made about this whole matter? Does it not underline once again, as the Prime Minister herself has been good enough to state, that the Government should have been much more forthcoming than they have, much earlier on? Indeed, if they had been, this particular loss might have been far less worrying and of less significance than it now is.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, I also must thank the Government for repeating in this House in the form of a Statement the Answer to the PNQ asked in the House of Commons. Most of us on these Benches are not among those who believe that it is wrong to sink enemy warships in the course of a war, wherever they may be, so long as they are in the general zone of the war itself. On the other hand, it is the case—is it not?—that though the war went very well in most respects, everything has been going wrong in the "General Belgrano" matter since, and the loss of the navigator's log of the "Conqueror" at this point seems almost like a sick joke in what it tells us about the Government's precautions for preserving important documents.

Can the Minister tell us whether there are other records of the "Conqueror's" position from hour to hour and minute to minute during those days other than the navigator's log, and, if so, what they are?—because if there were no record for posterity at all it would be a grave matter.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords. I can confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Boston, that, so far as I can ascertain, the document contains no information that would be of the slightest interest to the noble Lord or, indeed, to any other politicians. It was purely technical information, including the matters which I recited during the Answer—the latitude, the longitude, the distance, the course, the speed and so on—and I do not think the information that it contains would be of any value in the discussions that have been proceeding since the incident took place.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, there is, of course, a narrative account of the submarine's activities, which is the document to which I also referred in the first part of theAnswer. That document, I am certain, gives all the information that is required, and it is, of course, in the possession of the Ministry of Defence. As for the board of inquiry, as I said that board is now sitting. It is expected to report within the next week or so, but, as is normal in these circumstances, it is not intended to publish its report.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, can the noble Lord tell us whether the missing log contained the information which has caused the Government to change their statement that the "Belgrano" was sighted by the "Conqueror" on 2nd May to, now, 1st May, with some suspicion of 30th April? If not, are there any other records from the "Conqueror" which substantiate this change in the information given by the Government? Secondly, does the missing log contain any information concerning the orders and the course taken by the "Conqueror" on the day after the sinking of the "Belgrano", on 3rd May, when it is reported it was ordered to return to the scene of the sinking?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I can confirm to the noble Lord that nothing in this document or in any other would cause the Government to change any of the answers that we have previously given.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether any of the items of a technical nature, which he has just told the House were in that log, were listed as either secret or top secret, and could they be of value to some other force? Can he also say whether, if by peradventure the log which is now mislaid were to be found, there will be a further Statement made in this House?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the document is a classified one; that is to say, it does indeed contain information of a secret or otherwise classified nature. As for whether or not an announcement will be made if the document is found, I am certain that the information will be weaseled out of us in one way or another.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, would it be correct to assume that a log of this nature is normally kept permanently on the vessel until it is decommissioned, and would a record have been kept of any orders given to the captain of the vessel for that log to be taken away from it? Will the noble Lord say whether the records of the Ministry of Defence have been searched to see whether any such order was given?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the document is, I understand, kept as a pro forma with spaces on it which are filled in at hourly intervals, as I said during the original Answer. HMS "Conqueror" is now undergoing a refit, and, of course, all documents are removed from it at that time.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, while the sinking of the "Belgrano", or indeed of any other enemy ship which comes within the range of the Royal Navy, has my entire approval, I am nonetheless astonished at learning that a ship of the Royal Navy just loses its log. It is an astonishing statement. Has any Royal Navy ship ever before lost its log? The logs of all those that served at Trafalgar are available to be seen at the Admiralty, and now the "Conqueror" just loses its log. Surely we need a little more than that.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I can only say that the noble Lord's astonishment is shared by myself.

Lord Wigoder

My Lords, what is the period covered by the log which has gone astray?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I understand from April to September 1982.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, will the Government consider whether they should follow the advice of the official Opposition and publish any of those secret records? Surely it is most unwise to consider publication. This should be utterly rejected. We should only be giving comfort and information of possible value to our potential enemies. Does it really rebound to the credit of both parties, and particularly perhaps to Her Majesty's official Opposition, that they should back every strike, every pay claim and every trivial incident, however dead it is?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I can confirm that we do not propose to publish this document.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, can the noble Lord very kindly give a "Yes" or "No" to the question: Are other contemporary records extant of the position and speed of HMS "Conqueror" while she was tailing the "General Belgrano" and sinking her?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, as I said in answer to the noble Lord a moment or two ago, all the information we require is available from the narrative log, to which I also referred.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister sure that he was the right person to take this Question? Perhaps it should have been taken by the Ministry of ag. and fish.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, further to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, can the Minister answer the questions which I put to him previously? Does this log contain any information concerning what has been a contrary assertion by the Government as to the original sighting of the "Belgrano" by the "Conqueror"? If not, are there other documents available which now pinpoint what the Government have been so ambiguous about?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the questions which the noble Lord put to me about the sightings of the "Belgrano" by the submarine have been answered on numerous occasions both in your Lordships' House and in another place. I have nothing to add to what was said on those occasions.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether or not it is true that the implication of some of these questions—whether or not they are directed to the loss of this log—is that there was something wrong or doubtful about the sinking of the "General Belgrano"? Is it not true, as the noble Lords, Lord Kennet and Lord Paget of Northampton, have said, that this ship, whatever its course, speed and destination, presented a potential threat to the safety of Her Majesty's ships? Was it not right therefore that the "General Belgrano" should have been sunk, as it was sunk?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for underlining the Answer which I gave to the noble Lord, Lord Hatch of Lusby, on 16th October.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the line between a legitimate action of war and a war crime is narrow and that, on the definition of the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, any shooting at all becomes legitimate? But that is not the case beyond a certain level when an action becomes a war crime. The question to be established here is whether or not this action was legitimate.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, if the noble Lord is suggesting that in some way we are involved here with a war crime it is a disgraceful suggestion to make.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, my concern relates to security: that there may be some information in the log which would be useful to a foreign power. Despite what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Paget of Northampton, and others, if that information is in the hands of those who are hostile to the Royal Navy it might place similar submarines of a similar status in some degree of danger.

Lord Trefgarne

Indeed, my Lords. Nowadays I am beginning to define those who are enemies of the Royal Navy in a rather wider way.

Viscount Mersey

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that this is not the first time that such a loss has occurred? Is he aware that round about 22nd May 1797 several pages were torn out of the log of HMS "Vanguard" shortly before the battle of Aboukir Bay, possibly by Nelson himself?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am sorry to hear my noble friend's question. I shall consider whether I need to make a further statement.

Lord Whaddon

My Lords, I understood the noble Lord to say that the log book, along with other documents, is normally removed from a vessel during a refit. Can he say whether or not the log book in question disappeared before or during the refit?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, that is a matter which the board of inquiry will have to determine.

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