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Falkland Islands

Volume 984: debated on Wednesday 14 May 1980

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asked the Lord Privy Seal if he will make a statement about the discussions which have taken place with the Argentine authorities about matters relating to the Falkland Islands.

I met an Argentine delegation for wide-ranging and exploratory talks in New York on 28 and 29 April. We had cordial and positive exchanges and were able to reach a better understanding of each other's position.

Was the subject of extending the Antarctic treaty to cover the dependencies of the Falkland Islands discussed? Are the Government considering such an extension? If so, will it affect Britain's sovereignty over those dependencies?

The talks were confidential. However, the subject was not discussed. Issues concerning Antarctica will be discussed soon at the Canberra conference on living resources. However, those issues were not discussed in New York.

Is the Minister aware that I welcomed, with some surprise, the two words " cordial " and " positive ", which appeared in his statement? Does the Foreign Office propose to make a statement soon about 200-mile fishing limits and about the islands in the South Atlantic? Better still, does the Foreign Office propose to make a statement about a joint venture with Argentina as regards commercial fishing in those waters?

Once again, I am in the same difficulty. The talks were confidential. However, I shall answer as I did before. The matters were discussed in a " cordial and positive " manner.

Although it is of great interest to know that the discussions were conducted in a cordial atmosphere, why has my hon. Friend been so coy? Why has he not told the House the precise nature of the subjects discussed? This issue has always been close to the heart of the House of Commons.

We agreed with the Argentinian Government that these talks should be confidential. They were exploratory talks designed so that each party could discover the position of the other. Having given an undertaking to the Argentinian Government, I would not like to break it.

Will the Minister at least give the House the assurance —given by the last Government—that there will be no change in the status of the Falkland Islands without the full accord of the islanders?

I utterly endorse that. Indeed, I have said it so often that I find myself saying it in my sleep.

When the Minister goes to Canberra no doubt he will discuss the future of the Falkland Island dependencies—a territory which is rich in mineral resources and in fish. Will he assure us that he will not sign anything there that would diminish United Kingdom sovereignty? Would not he be well occupied in consulting his right hon. and hon. Friends about questions of development and defence, because whatever international arrangements he makes will have very little effect unless we are pre- pared to defend and develop these territories on our own?

On the first point, the conference in Canberra is about the Antarctic region, of which we are a claimant State. It is not about dependencies. They are not included in the subject matter for the conference. Of course, the question of dependencies was mentioned at the talks to which I have just referred and that was the proper place for that. We do not have a claim to the dependencies, we have sovereignty over them.

On the second point, this is a matter for the Secretary of State for Defence but clearly, what my hon. Friend has said is very much in our minds.

Perhaps it is useful to know that the Minister talks in his sleep. However, his reply was bland and un-informative on an issue that is of public concern and of particular concern to the House of Commons. Will he at least tell us whether he has had useful conversations about economic co-operation and fishing matters because these could be of great benefit to the Falkland Islanders? Further, was the issue of sovereignty raised or discussed in these conversations?

On the second point, it is right to say that the Argentinian Government raised the matter and it was discussed. On the first point, one positive conclusion of the conference was that arrangements would be set in hand for the Falkland Islanders to have direct contact with people in Argentina, both in government and in the private sector, with whom they are co-operating on economic and supply matters. The arrangements have been set in hand to institutionalise those contacts to the satisfaction of the islanders and the Argentinians.