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Falkland Islands

Volume 21: debated on Friday 2 April 1982

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall make a statement on the situation in the Falkland Islands.

Over the past 24 hours the situation has become increasingly grave. There is now a real expectation that an Argentine attack against the Falkland Islands will take place very soon. It was for this reason that we sought an emergency meeting of the Security Council yesterday and associated ourselves immediately with a request from the President of the Security Council that both Britain and Argentina should exercise restraint and refrain from the use or threat of force, and continue the search for a diplomatic solution. There was no Argentine response to this; nor has the Argentine President responded to the many appeals that have been made to him to draw back from the use of force.

We are taking appropriate military and diplomatic measures to sustain our rights under international law and in accordance with the provisions of the United Nations charter. The House will not expect me to give details at this stage of the military steps we have taken to respond to the worsening situation. In the meantime, we continue to hope that the Argentine Government even at this late stage will reconsider their rejection of the diplomatic channel as a means for settling the differences between our two countries.

The Labour Party pledges full support for the right of the people of the Falkland Islands to stay British, as they wish, and we believe that it is our duty to defend that right. We pledge our full support to the men of the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines. We believe that the Government were right to inform the Security Council that there was a threat to peace. Nevertheless, there are some questions that we must ask.

First, did the Government misjudge the situation? Is it not a fact that whenever the tinpot Fascist junta that rules Argentina is in deep trouble at home it threatens the Falkland Islands, and were not the signs there to be seen some time ago? Secondly, did not the Secretary of State for Defence contribute, to some extent, to the possibility of an invasion by his talk of scrapping HMS "Endurance" and a large proportion of our surface fleet, thus perhaps giving the false impression that Britain might be willing, though she will not, to abdicate her responsibilities in the area? Are we confident that we can protect the islanders?

Thirdly, did the British Government consult other members of the Security Council before advising the Secretary-General of the threat to peace and have we any support inside the Security Council? Finally—and perhaps this is more a matter for the Leader of the House—the situation is incredibly fluid. Will the Lord Privy Seal be able to make further statements to the House during the day should that be necessary?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his expression of support, not only for the Government but for the people of the Falkland Islands, who, as he rightly said, are determined to remain British.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the Government misjudged the situation. The answer is "No". It has become increasingly evident over the past few days that the Argentine had assembled a fleet which was operating in the vicinity of the Falkland Islands. We have responded in the appropriate way, and I believe that taking the matter to the United Nations was the proper course. I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's support in that.

The right hon. Gentleman's suggestion in regard to HMS "Endurance" cannot be correct. If the Argentines had wanted to wait until "Endurance" was not there—which she is—they would not be acting now as they are.

We consulted our friends before taking the matter to the Security Council, and we have support there.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we fully support the Government in every measure that they see fit to take to defend the Falkland Islands and the interests of the islanders? I think that every hon. Member recognises the Lord Privy Seal's difficulties in questions of military and naval deployment. We all hope that contingency measures were taken some weeks ago to ensure that naval forces are in the area and are capable of intervening if necessary.

Is the Security Council to be called to another session later today? What action do we intend to take in the Security Council if an invasion takes place? Are we right in believing from the right hon. Gentleman's statement that, as he speaks, he is not aware of any invasion and that the report on the tapes that Argentinians have landed in Port Stanley is incorrect?

I fully associate myself with the remarks of the right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin) about the need for the House to be kept informed. The Leader of the House is listening to the exchanges, so may we have an assurance that, if necessary, the House will not rise at the normal time and that we shall have an opportunity to debate the issue later today? I think that it is the wish of the House that there should be no question of our adjourning if there is any possibility of an invasion taking place.

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's expression of support for the course that we are taking. The report on the tapes comes from an Argentine newspaper. We were in touch with the governor half an hour ago and he said that no landing had taken place at that time.

There are no immediate plans for another session of the Security Council, but it will be called together if the situation becomes worse. I undertake to the right hon. Gentleman and to the right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin) to keep the House fully informed.

While thanking my right hon. Friend for his readiness to keep the House informed, may I press the point raised by the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) and stress that, if an invasion materialises, today's sitting should be prolonged to enable a short debate to take place?

That is more a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who is listening to the exchanges.

At the risk of appearing inconsistent, may I ask whether the Government will give an undertaking that they will not lecture the Falkland Islanders on the Argentinian dimension or suggest that they need an inter-parliamentary council to find a solution?

It is not our business to lecture the Falkland Islanders; it is our business to sustain them.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of any change in the situation in South Georgia or in any of the other dependencies of the Falkland Islands?

No. The 12 or so Argentinian contractors who landed illegally in South Georgia are still there.

Can the Lord Privy Seal assure us that, in the event of an Argentinian invasion, we shall have the full support of all members of the Security Council in condemning such an invasion?

I should certainly hope so. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the President of the Security Council has already called on Britain and Argentina to refrain from the use of force. If force is used, I am sure that the Security Council will maintain its position.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that he has the unanimous support of the House in defending British interests, but that it is not opportune to discuss today the details of how those interests are to be defended?

Can the right hon. Gentleman give a specific undertaking that the rights of the Falkland Islanders will be defended by force if necessary?

As my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office told the House when he made a statement a few days ago, we shall sustain and defend the Falkland Islands to the best of our ability.

Would it be possible to invade the Falkland Islands simply by walking ashore, since the coastline is exposed, if perhaps rugged? Is it not right that the 1,800 or so people who live on the Falkland Islands should expect this country to defend them and their coastline?

I repeat our undertaking that we shall sustain and defend the Falkland Islands to the best of our ability.

As for the ease of any invasion, I do not think that it would be found to be at all easy.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, and I, too, assure him that he has our united support. However, does he accept that possession is likely to be about nine-tenths of the law, and will he assure the House that he has taken the factor of ground possession by ground forces fully into account in his plans?

No invasion has taken place. The Government of Argentina have been called on by the Security Council to desist from the use or threat of force. It is our hope that they will heed the appeals made to them from all over the world.

In expressing support for the action that my right hon. Friend has taken and acknowledging that he wishes to take into consideration the views of the Falkland Islanders before any other action is taken, may I ask my right hon. Friend to assure the House that anyone who might have settled on these islands in the meantime will not be allowed to participate in any referendum which might be called subsequently, in view of the small numbers involved?

That proposition does not arise at the moment. The British Government have no intention of having a referendum.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement and the support that it has had from all quarters of the House, but I hope that Her Majesty's Government will now give more serious consideration to the implementation of the Shackleton report on the future of the people of the Falkland Islands, especially its recommended construction of an airfield—a requirement which hon. Members on both sides of the House have been pressing on the Government and their predecessors for the past five years?

A great part of the Shackleton report has been implemented, but I take note of what my right hon. Friend has said.

Since time is an essential element, will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that he will not wait until there is condemnation by the Security Council before Britain takes action to protect the people of the Falkland Islands?

As I told the House, we have already been to the Security Council. If the position worsens, we shall go again immediately.

We all accept, of course, the logistical problems—they have become clear to us over the past few weeks—but will my right hon. Friend think again about the phrase that he used just now—"to the best of our ability"? Given the circumstances, I think that the House will agree that that is not the way in which we should approach this problem. Our words should match our deeds, and they should be forthright in the extreme.

I do not think that the Government, or anyone else, can take any action better than to the best of our ability. That is what we shall do.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that in some of the European press our country has been criticised for getting angry about a few scrap merchants? In the circumstances, is it not clear that their presence was merely a pretext and that these moves would have taken place whatever our reaction to them had been?

I do not think that it is possible to say exactly how this situation was planned to develop by the Argentine Government. But the problem that we are discussing today has nothing to do with the presence of 12 scrap merchants. The House is anxious about the possibility of an invasion of Port Stanley.

If the worst comes to the worst and military action is necessary, do the Government intend to see that we are able to tackle the problem alone and not involve any other country in the action?

As I said, we shall go to the Security Council; we shall seek to get the support of the Security Council. But we shall be taking the appropriate action ourselves at the same time.

Do not the Government feel a sense of shame and ridicule about spending billions of pounds on armaments but being unable to defend a small British possession?

The Queen's representative and the people there are in danger of having to suffer the humiliation of surrender to an Argentinian dictatorship. Should not the Government have taken a lesson from the Labour Government in defending these islands?

The threat to the Falkland Islands has existed for at least 15 years from a country which is a great deal closer to them than we are. Successive Governments have taken what they believed to be the appropriate steps to defend the Falkland Islands. We shall do the same.

The right hon. Gentleman said that he had been in touch with the governor of the Falkland Islands about half an hour ago—presumably he meant half an hour before he made his statement. Bearing in mind that the House is conscious that the position is highly sensitive, can he say whether the governor has asked for assistance of any kind?

No, Sir. The governor has been kept fully in touch by the Government with all the developments. It is now about three-quarters of an hour ago that we were in touch with him. No troops had landed at that time.

Will my right hon. Friend take note of column 1194 of Hansard of 16 April 1980, when I questioned the Lord Privy Seal about the Shackleton report? Will he accept the congratulations of the House on his comments about the position of the Falkland Islands in international law and agree that the sovereignty of the islands is not a subject for debate with any foreign power?

There is no doubt under international law who has sovereignty over the Falkland Islands. As the House knows, everyone living on the Falkland Islands, with virtually no exception, wishes that position to be maintained.

I shall of course look at what my predecessor said in April 1980.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, apart from any necessary military and diplomatic action, it is vital that we also win the propaganda battle and that no one throughout the world should doubt that we are acting in response to the wishes of the people of the Falkland Islands, who naturally would prefer to be linked with our diplomatic institutions than with a military dictatorship in Argentina? Will my right hon. Friend take any necessary action, especially affecting the BBC's external services, to ensure that our voice is heard loud and clear throughout the world?

My hon. Friend is right. It is necessary continually to impress upon the rest of the world the wishes of the people of the Falkland Islands, and we shall do that.

I take note of what my hon. Friend said about the BBC's external services. From what I have heard of them in recent days and before that, they give a very fair and balanced picture of the world scene.

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that adequate communications links can be maintained with the Falkland Islands in the current situation?

Yes, Sir. The links that we have currently with the Falkland Islands are very good. I repeat that we were in touch with the governor direct only about 50 minutes ago.

Will my right hon. Friend say what exactly are the consequences of our recourse to the Security Council? Will he assure the House that, because we have made that representation, it in no way limits our freedom to act in whatever way we think right?

No, Sir, it does not. The consequence of our recourse to the Security Council last night was that the President of the Security Council called on Argentina as well as us to abandon the threat of use of force. That is a beneficial consequence, and we hope that the Argentine Government will pay attention to it.

Will the right hon. Gentleman be more specific on one matter? I understand that discussions have been going on between the British ambassador and the Argentine Government in Buenos Aires. Are those discussions still going on, or have they ceased? If they have ceased, is that as a result of the intransigence of the Argentine Government, or do 'we regard the discussions and other diplomatic moves that we might be making as having been superseded by the approach to the Security Council?

Do the Government regret reducing the Spanish-language broadcast of the external services of the BBC, and have they any plans for extending them?

Our ambassador has been constantly in touch with the Argentine Government over the past few days and weeks. Unfortunately, they have rejected every suggestion that we have put forward for taking the matter forward by diplomatic means. The fact that our ambassador is not in touch with the Argentine Government at the moment is because they will not see him.

We have no immediate plans to change the BBC's external services.

Does my right hon, Friend accept that the people who live in the Falkland Islands are not just British by law, but that when one meets them one realises that they are British in fact, in nature and in every tradition? Does he also accept that it would not have been reasonable to maintain a large military presence thousands of miles from the islands? Can he assure the House that if, regrettably, force is used by Argentina the initial use of force would not be the end of the matter?

No, Sir, it would not.

I agree with my hon. Friend about the nature of the Falkland Islanders. They have made it extremely clear for many years that they want to remain British. I agree with my hon. Friend that the difficulty of maintaining a substantial force in the vicinity of the Falkland Islands is very great because of the enormous range between here and there.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would the Leader of the House care to respond to the request to extend the sitting if necessary?

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons
(Mr. Francis Pym)

I shall respond to the remarks of the right hon. Members for Deptford (Mr. Silkin) and Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen). Almost exactly 12 hours ago I undertook to keep the House informed. We have had a statement this morning. Should the circumstances develop in such a way that a further statement is appropriate, I shall make arrangements for one to be made. The situation is sensitive, but if a further statement seems to be called for and events develop in a way that makes that necessary my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal will come to the House again this afternoon.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The House is due to rise at 3 o'clock. The right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) and I wonder whether the sitting can be extended if necessary.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That can be discussed through the usual channels. If before 3 o'clock events develop in such a way that a further statement is called for or is appropriate, I shall make the necessary arrangements.