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South Atlantic (Force Levels)

Volume 84: debated on Tuesday 22 October 1985

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asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement about the reduction of Her Majesty's forces in the south Atlantic.

The Falklands force level is maintained at the minimum size necessary to defend the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, but it has proved possible to reduce numbers steadily over the past year or so. Once the new airport at Mount Pleasant and the garrison facilities are complete we should be able to reduce still further the level of forces permanently stationed on the islands.

Against this lessening cost should we not set the splendid training facilities for all three services on the Falklands and the British stake in the vast economic potential of the region? Secondly, are there not naval and air forces which are admirably suited to police a fishing zone, which has been so unconscionably delayed by the Foreign Office?

I think that my hon. Friend will wish to pursue his second point with my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary. I endorse what he said about the training facilities on the Falkland Islands. The islands provide some near unique training opportunities for us, and that certainly should be put into the balance against the cost of the Falklands garrison.

Will the Minister formulate a considered response to the article in the Sunday Post on the conditions of the 3,000 civilian workers on the Falklands? The article alleges drunkenness, drugs and "wacky taccy" parties.

I think the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the conduct of the civilian work force is not a matter for Defence Ministers. I am not sure whether that is a matter for Ministers in any other Department, but, if it is, it would fall to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Will my right hon. Friend continue to emphasise that the garrison is purely defensive and represents no conceivable threat to the mainland? Will he emphasise also that it must not be considered to be a NATO base, because it is not one?

I assure my hon. Friend that the garrison does not represent any threat to the mainland. We seek to maintain the garrison only at the minimum size necessary to carry out our defence obligations to the Falkland islanders. The House will have noted the statement by the official Opposition spokesman that, for the first time, the Labour party apparently intends withdrawing out-of-area forces. This would, of course, include removing the defence forces from the Falkland Islands.

Will the Minister confirm, or deny, statements in the press about the possibility of a new aerodrome being built on the island of St. Helena? Is that, or is that not, the Government's policy?

I do not believe that the Government have reached any such conclusions on that matter.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that defence expenditure is well justified if it provides a framework within which the peaceful development of the resources of the Falkland Islands can be undertaken? If so, will he take note of the increasing puzzlement at the fact that we are allowing the vast marine resources that surround the Falkland Islands to be developed by nations other than Britain?

I understand my right hon. Friend's point. When I was in the Falklands during the recess the Falkland islanders expressed much concern about fishing exploitation. My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary deals with that matter. Our defence dispositions show our determination to provide a continuing free way of life for the Falkland islanders.