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Falkland Islands

Volume 23: debated on Tuesday 4 May 1982

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10.56 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should like to make a statement.

Order. Has the Secretary of State the leave of the House to make a statement?

In my statement earlier today, I said that we must expect further Argentine attacks on our forces. I deeply regret now to have to inform the House of such attacks.

In the course of its duties within the total exclusion zone around the Falkland Islands, HMS "Sheffield", a type 42 destroyer, was attacked and hit late this afternoon by an Argentine missile. The ship caught fire, which spread out of control. The order was then given to abandon ship. There were accompanying vessels in the immediate area which picked up those who had abandoned ship. Nearly all the ships's company and the captain are accounted for. However, I regret to say that initial indications are that 12 men are missing and there are likely to be other casualties.

Communications with the operational area are difficult at present and this information must be treated as provisional until further reports are received. Next of kin will, of course, be informed first as soon as full details are received.

Further air operations were also conducted over the Falkland Islands today. In the course of Sea Harrier attacks, one of our aircraft was shot down. The pilot has been killed. His name will be announced after we have confirmation that his next of kin have been informed. All the other Sea Harriers returned safely.

The task force is continuing with its operations as planned.

May I first thank the Leader of the House for having responded to many of the requests from hon. Members that a statement should be made? May I also thank the Secretary of State for Defence for coming to the House to make the statement? As I am sure we all agree, it contains grave and tragic news. All of us deeply deplore the fact that the right hon. Gentleman should have had to come to the House to make it.

When I first heard the news, I thought that it was right that the House should wait for a while because the next of kin had not yet been informed. That is absolutely necessary as the next stage.

For the House to make the right judgment about this matter, it is better that we should have a statement tomorrow. We can consider that, what the Government may say and what we may say. I do not seek in any sense, in this moment of what could be a tragedy for some of our people, to make any political comments, but I hope that tomorrow the Government will be prepared to make a statement on the whole matter. We can discuss through the usual channels whether we should have a debate.

There are implications that arise and reflect on some of the things that have been said in the debates over the past few days and to which some of us referred in the debate last Thursday. But I suggest that the best course for the House is that the Secretary of State or perhaps the Prime Minister should come to the House tomorrow and make a further statement in the full light of all these matters. That is the best way in which the House of Commons can give its judgment on the whole question.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks. It is of course grave and tragic news; I entirely agree with him. I am sure that the Government will wish to make a statement tomorrow.

One cannot help feeling that the Leader of the Opposition is the prize hypocrite on this occasion. [Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Member must address his question to the Secretary of State.

Order. And before he does so, will he please withdraw the comment that he made?

I am asked to withdraw my remark about the Leader of the Opposition. I must say to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that I had the privilege——

Order. The hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. Wells) must please withdraw the comment that he made.

I gladly withdraw the precise word, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I must say to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence that it is quite impossible for this House to conduct a debate across the Dispatch Box point by point in a conflict like this. Therefore, the remark of the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition——[HON. MEMBERS: Question.] May I put this to my right hon. Friend? Is it not right that we cannot debate a conflict like this point by point across the Dispatch Box? We must see it in the broader issue. While we cannot accept——

While we cannot accept the views of the Opposition, we appreciate most deeply my right hon. Friend's expression of sympathy with the loss of life of our own men.

I would say to my hon. Friend that we shall of course keep the House informed as best we can. As soon as further details come in, we shall do that.

Is the Minister aware that at this moment we would simply like to put on record our deep sympathy with the relatives and friends of those who have lost their lives in this tragic way?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. I am sure that the whole House shares his sentiments.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the whole House is bitterly distressed at what he has had to announce? Does he agree that probably the best thing, in the interests of all of us, is that we should pause on it until we can talk about it tomorrow, having thought about what has happened here? It is always difficult when one is opposing Fascist dictators, but let us think on it. I respectfully suggest, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that that might be the best course for the House to take.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend. We shall make a further statement tomorrow, and I hope that we shall be in a position to give more details then.

Can the Secretary of State tell the House now whether the missile was launched from aircraft or from surface ships?

I cannot say at the moment that there can be any certainty about that. It probably was an air-launched missile, but I would rather wait until tomorrow, until I get details of that kind.

As a Member with a constituency closely involved with the task force. may I say to my right hon. Friend that the men concerned and their families knew the issues involved and knew the risks as well, and this increases our respect for their courage and determination?

Is the Secretary of State aware that the city of Sheffield took a deep pride in this fine ship, this lead ship of the type 42 class of destroyer, as indeed it took a deep pride in its predecessor, which also filled a distinguished role in the Second World War? I am confident that the people of the city would want one of their Members, who has had the good fortune to be called by you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to express their deep sympathy with the families of those who may yet prove to be casualties.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's remarks will be much appreciated. She is the name ship of the "Sheffield" class of destroyer and was the first of her class to be launched. I am sure we all appreciate what the hon. Gentleman said.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that, tragic though the current situation is, it was unrealistic for anyone to expect that we could embark on this particular and very necessary course without suffering casualties? Will my right hon. Friend further accept that, provided that the Government neither over-react to this tragedy nor in any way weaken their resolve on the course they have set out on, they will have, and will deserve, the respect of the House and of the country?

It is the case that there has been a naval battle, if I can describe it as that, going on for several days and casualties to both ships and men are very likely to occur in that situation; so I agree with my hon. Friend in that respect.

In the midst of the grief which we all share and which has been expressed from both sides of the House, can the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether the Prime Minister is still inviting us all to rejoice, rejoice?

I shall not comment on that matter, but I am afraid that I must make one correction to the remarks I made earlier. I said in making my statement that initial indications were that 12 men were missing. I regret to say that the latest news, which I have just had, is rather worse. It is that the number of deaths may be as high as 30. But we really do not have sufficient information at this stage to give firm news to the House, and that is why I think it is better to wait until tomorrow.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In view of the tragic nature of the news that has been announced by the Secretary of State and the undertaking that there is to be a further statement tomorrow, would it not be better if we moved on to other business?

I sense that that is indeed the mood of the House. I therefore propose to call two more Members from each side of the House.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the eyes of the nation are upon this House tonight? As someone who has been here for only 12 years but who spent six years fighting in the war, I found tonight some signs of panic on both sides of the House. May I assure my right hon. Friend that those signs are only temporary and I am sure that tomorrow the House will be resolved that we should carry through what the Government are determined to do.

I have noted my hon. Friend's remarks. I would not wish to comment on them tonight.

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that from this Bench we would wish to associate ourselves with the sympathy that has been expressed with the families of those involved in these tragic events? We await with concern a further ministerial statement tomorrow.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that when many thousands of our Service men are on the high seas with the task force we should be showing our united support for them? The last thing that we should be doing is trying to put a series of questions that cannot find answers because the answers are not available.

We all share similar thoughts in this tragedy and we are profoundly concerned that further tragedies should not take place. Can we have the assurance that in the statement that will be made there will be no attempt on the part of the Government to compound the initial error that brought us to this situation and left the islands without defence? Can we be assured also that in the light of our obvious vulnerability there will be no absurd reiterations of the inviolability of sovereignty without considering other aspects? Will we be told that our men will not be put to further risks by being sent by the thousands in the "QE2" into areas where quite clearly there could be further tragedies and further deaths? We shall be expecting far more resilience and far more elasticity than we have experienced so far from this Government.

The operation has been going on for several weeks and there has been only one fatal accident on the way down and one other accident. This has been due very largely to the great skill of the men taking part. The hon. Gentleman's other remarks were of a wider nature and I do not think that it is appropriate for me to comment on them tonight.

Order. I think that it would be in the best interests of the House and of the nation that we await a further statement tomorrow. We shall now return to the consideration of the Local Government and Planning (Scotland) Bill.