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Falkland Islands

Volume 462: debated on Wednesday 11 July 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

In this the 25th anniversary year of the British liberation of the Falkland Islands, I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to speak before the House about the islands, and in so doing to remember that victorious day on 14 June 1982 when the Union flag was once again raised above Stanley following the surrender of Argentine forces who had illegally occupied British territory. As well as reflecting on the events of 1982, I should like to highlight the importance of the Falkland Islands to the United Kingdom today as a British overseas territory, and also the enormous progress that the Falkland Islands have made in economic development a quarter of a century after the conflict ended.

On 2 April 1982, the Falkland Islands were illegally invaded by Argentina on the orders of the ruling military regime in Buenos Aires. As hon. Members will recall with pride, that invasion was defeated by a taskforce of brave men and women from Her Majesty’s armed forces, sent to liberate the islands by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who instinctively knew that it was Britain’s moral duty to free the islanders. She never doubted that victory and liberation would be achieved by Britain’s courageous fighting men and women. It was because of Mrs. Thatcher’s decisive, measured and unwavering resolve that the loyal British subjects of the Falkland Islands are today able to live in freedom and continue to call themselves British, as all Falkland islanders do with immense passion.

Britain’s victory in the South Atlantic not only restored freedom to the Falkland Islands but directly led to democracy in Argentina, which then spread throughout Latin America. It also restored our nation’s self-confidence. I could not put it better than to quote the words of Lady Thatcher:

“The members of our Task Force restored our nation’s spirit, they restored our nation’s standing, and they gave us back our nation’s sense of pride and purpose. We remember them. We salute them.”

Those British troops who made the ultimate sacrifice did so protecting British people—just like you and me, Mr. Deputy Speaker—who, although 8,000 miles away in the South Atlantic, are our kith and kin and had every right to expect Her Majesty’s Government to come to their rescue, which they did so gallantly. I also pay tribute to all the personnel who serve today on the islands at Mount Pleasant airbase, continuing to defend the territory 365 days a year.

I welcome the fact that all Governments since the 1982 conflict have upheld the rights of the people of the Falkland Islands to remain British and consistently refused to discuss the sovereignty of the islands with Argentina. I am grateful to Her Majesty’s Government for remaining steadfast and urge them to continue to rebuff all the hostile and illegitimate claims of the Government of the Argentine Republic.

I am proud to serve as secretary of the all-party Falkland Islands group under the splendid chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton). In that capacity, I have been privileged to attend many ceremonies and commemorative events over the past month to mark this important 25th anniversary. Most particularly, they have included the liberation day commemoration hosted by the Falkland Islands Government at Lincoln’s Inn, the dinner hosted by the lord mayor of London at the Guildhall in the presence of Lady Thatcher and, of course, the official Falklands 25 commemoration at Horse Guards parade on Sunday 17 June. Her Majesty’s Government should be commended on the organisation of such a great occasion.

All those commemorative events and many others held this year have rightly shown a sense of jubilation and celebration for the Falkland islanders, in being able to determine their own sovereign path. Those events have also provided a fitting opportunity to remember those 255 magnificent British soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians who, tragically, lost their lives in the conflict of 25 years ago. We should also not forget the sad loss of life endured by Argentine forces, all of which could have been avoided if the Government of Buenos Aires had chosen the path of democracy, rather than illegality and aggression.

Today, the Falkland Islands are a modern, self-confident and prosperous land, proud of their status as a territory of the United Kingdom and determined to uphold their right to choose to remain under the Crown, but increasingly self-assured in running their own affairs and making their own decisions about the future development of the islands. I pay tribute to the Falkland Islands Legislative Council and all its elected Members. They are making great strides in securing economic prosperity and a modern economy for the islands, as well as embarking on many forward-looking policies to develop them for trade, fishing and tourism, while ensuring the protection of the environment and wildlife that lives in abundance on the Falkland Islands.

I should also like to put on the record my thanks to the Falkland Islands Government representative in the United Kingdom, Miss Sukey Cameron MBE, who works tirelessly to promote the interests of the islands here in London and ensures that the Falkland Islands are never forgotten by hon. Members in all parts of the House. The Falkland Islands Association also continues to do sterling work in supporting the Falkland Islands, under the chairmanship of David Tatham CMG, who served as Governor of the Falkland Islands between 1992 and 1996. Every year in December, I attend the Falkland Islands battle day parade at the Cenotaph in Whitehall organised by the association, and I thank it for all the wonderful work that it does.

Now that we have celebrated Falklands 25, I hope that we can also celebrate the Falkland Islands as they are today—a modern democratic society, thriving on the fruits of its own ingenuity and enterprise—and that we in the House, together with Her Majesty’s Government, can all support the islands as they grow and develop in the future.

I have been lucky enough to visit the Falkland Islands on two occasions, the most recent of which was in 2005, when I travelled to the south Atlantic as part of my tour of duty with the Royal Air Force and the armed forces parliamentary scheme. On both occasions I could not fail to be struck by one unique feature of the Falkland Islands: the nature and the magnificent wildlife of land, sea and air. I am sure that hon. Members are aware of my keen interest in wildlife, conservation and animal welfare.

With that in mind, I should like to draw the Minister’s attention to a project that is under way on the Falkland Islands. Falklands Conservation needs help with an exciting project to establish a wildlife centre in the heart of the islands’ capital, Stanley. A permanent home for Falklands Conservation in this special year is, I believe, an appropriate and positive initiative, which will provide a real and lasting benefit to the islands.

Falklands Conservation hopes to expand and capitalise on the growing tourist economy that the islands are enjoying. People from across the globe are attracted to the islands by their natural beauty and exceptional wildlife. While such an active, growing and thriving tourist economy is welcome, we must consider the implications of a developing industry for future generations.

I ask the Minister to meet representatives of Falklands Conservation to discuss how Her Majesty’s Government might be able to provide assistance to the islands and help in the development of this excellent project. I believe that a wildlife centre in Stanley of the kind sought by Falklands Conservation could provide the necessary base where tourists, visitors, scientists, naturalists, schoolchildren and the islanders themselves could work together in the best interests of conservation throughout the Falklands.

One project spearheaded by Falklands Conservation is the albatross protection programme. The Falkland Islands hold the world’s largest breeding population of black-browed albatross, as I am sure the Minister is aware. Sadly, however, many of these majestic birds are being killed by long-line fishing. In fact, so many have died as a result of that industry that they are now listed by Birdlife International as an endangered species. The Falklands fishing industry is doing its best to reduce its impact on this migrating bird, and has dramatically cut the mortality rate in Falklands territorial waters, for which it should be commended. Falklands Conservation needs to undertake long-term studies to discover more about the scale of this problem and pinpoint where it is occurring. I urge the Minister to work with it and other international groups to reduce illegal fishing in the south Atlantic and to encourage fishing nations in the locality to adopt proven mitigation methods and legal practices under international guidelines, for the sake of protecting the species.

May I also ask Her Majesty’s Government to work with local conservationists on the islands to help to promote and protect the indigenous penguin population? In particular, there has been a significant decline in the number of rockhopper penguins, whose numbers on the island today are only a fraction of those of a century ago. This is especially worrying when we consider that the Falkland Islands still have the world’s largest concentrations of rockhopper and gentoo penguins.

I am sure that the Minister is well aware of the change in the law that has rightly strengthened the position of Falklands fishing companies by allocating 25-year licences, thus allowing attractive investment opportunities over the long term, especially in the lucrative Asian markets, where certain types of squid are extremely popular and toothfish can fetch up to £20 per kilo.

I am glad to say that further investment in the islands’ future appears likely. The prospect of oil and development drilling work now appears to be on its way. This is a positive step, and I commend the Falkland Islands Government on their decision not to allow any future prospecting to distort the islands’ natural beauty, wildlife or conservation projects by insisting that any oil must be loaded offshore.

It is unfortunate that I should have to return to the issue of Argentina’s false and illegal claims to sovereignty of the islands. Given the forthcoming presidential elections in Argentina, however, hot air is rising out of Buenos Aires again, which has made the Falkland Islands a topic of debate in Argentina once more. An example of this can clearly be seen in the decision to bar any company fishing in Falklands territorial waters from trading with Argentina. I hope that the Minister will reassure the House and the islanders that Her Majesty’s Government will not in any circumstances enter into any discussions or debate with the present, or any future, Argentine Administration on the subject of sovereignty. Furthermore, does the Minister agree that the Falkland Islands flag should be flown on Horseguards Parade every year for trooping the colour, alongside those of Commonwealth nations? Sadly, it was absent on 16 June 2007, even in this 25th anniversary year.

Does the Minister agree that a Falkland Islands representative should be invited to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph in Whitehall on Remembrance Sunday each year, alongside representatives from the other British overseas territories and Commonwealth nations, to mark their valuable contribution and to remember those who lost their lives in the protection of Her Majesty’s realms and territories?

I hope that the Minister accepts that those two small gestures would send a positive signal from Her Majesty’s Government to the people of the Falkland Islands, and a clear message of pride and patriotism to those who seek to undermine the British Falkland islanders’ right to self-determination, their right to remain subjects of the Crown and their right to have the same liberties and freedoms that we, as residents of the British isles and United Kingdom, cherish and defend.

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on securing this debate and I commend his efforts to maintain the profile of the UK’s overseas territories.

As the hon. Gentleman outlined, in recent months the Falkland Islands have been very much in our minds. The 25th anniversary provided a fitting opportunity for us to remember the determined efforts of our armed forces in 1982, and the sacrifices of those who gave their lives to restore freedom, democracy and the right to self-determination to the islands. It also provided an opportunity for Falkland islanders to demonstrate to the world their successful development of the islands over the past 25 years, exactly as the hon. Gentleman described. As he will know, the Falkland Islands Government held a well-attended showcase conference in London in April, and I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), in his capacity as Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, was able to attend and set out again the Government’s commitment to the islands.

More recently, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), former Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence, had the opportunity to see matters at first hand when he visited the islands last month.

The Falkland Islands today are a modern, thriving society—self-sufficient in all matters except the cost of defence. The islands have developed a sustainable fisheries industry, tourism continues to grow and the prospect of a hydrocarbons industry remains real. I might return to that point if time allows.

The economy has been carefully managed by successive Falkland Island Governments. Revenues have been put to good use in the development of education and health services, roads and communications, and most recently a wind farm, which will provide 20 per cent. of the islands’ energy requirements. It is regrettable that the Argentine Government continue to put economic pressure on the islands and political pressure on the UK in an attempt to force us to negotiate sovereignty. That will not work. Our position is clear: we support the islanders’ right to self-determination and we will not discuss sovereignty unless and until they wish.

However, we are keen to foster a constructive relationship with Argentina in the south Atlantic. We have made practical proposals to strengthen the mandate of the South Atlantic Fisheries Commission, including renewing efforts to establish a multilateral high seas fisheries arrangement in the region, in line with best international practice on sustainable fisheries. We have continued our joint work on de-mining, undertaking a feasibility study, and we expect to publish the final report soon. Falkland Islands councillors have agreed that members of the families of Argentine armed forces who fell can hold a special commemorative event at the Argentine cemetery at Darwin later this year.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments about the work of the Government and all those who put effort into the UK commemorations. They provided an opportunity for us to commemorate the conflict in a fitting and respectful manner, remembering the fallen on both sides. We are delighted that a national commemorative event held on Horse Guards Parade on 17 June was attended by more than 10,000 veterans and members of their families, and that it was watched by 2.3 million viewers on television. The live video link to commemorations on the islands was especially poignant and the weather at San Carlos served as a reminder to us all of the conditions that our forces faced in 1982.

The hon. Gentleman asked about flying the Falklands flag, and I am informed that it is not our practice to fly the flags of any of our overseas territories.

The South Atlantic Medal Association 82 and Combat Stress organise opportunities for British veterans to return to the Falkland Islands. In 2007, approximately 200 veterans will be able to travel, with priority given to those who have not been back to the Falklands. The pilgrimage will take place in November, during the Falklands summer, and I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence will accompany veterans.

As the hon. Gentleman said, it is important to remember that the Argentine people also suffered heavy losses in the conflict. We extended an invitation to Argentina to join a separate commemorative event in London, on a date that was acceptable to both parties. We regret that the invitation was declined. We have now, with the agreement of the Falkland Islands Government, offered members of families of the Argentine armed forces who fell in 1982 the opportunity to travel to the islands towards the end of 2007 to hold a private commemorative event at the Argentine cemetery in Darwin.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned several industries that now exist in the Falkland Islands, including the Falkland Islands fisheries. Since opening the conservation zones in the waters around the Falkland Islands in 1987, the Falkland Islands Government have developed one of the world’s best managed and most sustainable fisheries. Islanders hold long-term property rights for maritime resources and have established joint ventures with partners across the world to catch illex and loligo squid and fin fish. Revenues from fisheries now account for more than 40 per cent. of the GDP of the Falkland Islands.

The hon. Gentleman asked specifically about Falklands Conservation, which works specifically with the Falkland Islands Government to safeguard the unique environment of the islands. We support the project through the overseas territories environment programme fund and I am happy to receive representatives to discuss that. Indeed, tomorrow, I am meeting some Falkland Island councillors and will happily discuss any issues in more detail.

The hon. Gentleman asked about hydrocarbons. Seven companies currently hold licences for the second round of oil exploration that is under way in the waters around the Falkland Islands. One of those companies is now in a position to commence exploratory drilling and hopes to secure a rig soon. We support the offshore prospecting policy pursued by the Falkland Islands Government, which is entirely consistent with the United Kingdom’s sovereignty over the Falkland Islands.

I reassure the hon. Gentleman and all hon. Members that the Government take seriously their responsibilities to the overseas territories. We are committed to their security, good governance and economic and social development. We have no doubt about our sovereignty over the Falkland Islands and we will continue to uphold the right of Falkland islanders to self-determination. At the same time, despite potential diplomatic challenges, we will continue to look for opportunities for co-operation between the islands and their neighbours in South America.

Falkland islanders can be proud of their achievements. The sustainable way in which they have developed the islands is an example to us all. If the islands continue to develop confidently and sustainably, islanders should be optimistic about the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Nine o’clock.