Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Michael Fabricant.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I thank colleagues for attending the debate, given Select Committees and various other activities; I will take interventions.
In 1982, the Falkland Islands war saw the loss of 255 British troops; also lost were 650 Argentine troops and three female islanders. Today is a good day to begin with remembering each and every one whose lives were lost. We remember the families who lost their husbands, the children who lost their fathers and those who were left with severe disabilities because of their wounds. There is no such thing as a good war, and people died in 1982 because politics, Governments and individual people failed them. Our job in this House is to ensure that that does not happen again. I also welcome the efforts made on behalf of the islanders by the various Foreign Office departments to improve the lot of the islanders.
The purpose of the debate is fundamentally fourfold. First, we need to reiterate the House’s united position that the Falkland Islands has our full support in every way. Secondly, I wish to see a self-determination law, confirming that all overseas territories with a settled population have an unambiguous right to remain British. Thirdly, I wish the Minister to update the House on the efforts of our diplomats who are fighting the trade blockade that has been ongoing for some time. Finally, I will attempt a brief analysis of the legitimacy of the Argentine arguments under the various United Nations conventions and the agreements between the countries.
Many would argue that the 1982 conflict happened because a weak Argentine junta decided to try and regain popularity at home. The junta lost the war and power. The underequipped and poorly trained Argentines were clearly men governed by lambs.
Actually, some of the Argentines were not that poorly trained. The Mirage pilots who flew in across San Carlos water and took out our ships were, in everyone’s estimation, not only brave but well trained. The Argentines, therefore, were not entirely poorly trained—some of the marines were not bad either.
It is a brave man who tells the colonel whether troops were good or indifferent at a particular time, and I bow to my hon. Friend’s greater knowledge.
Thomas Mann, however, was right when he said:
“War is a cowardly escape from the problems of peace.”
Among the almost 3,000 inhabitants of the Falklands, there is an overwhelming desire to remain a British overseas territory. It is not up to Great Britain to decide on the fate of the Falkland Islanders; it is their own right to decide where their sovereignty lies, and that will not change.
I have great respect for President Obama, and he is truly a groundbreaking politician and a leader of men; he is taking things forward tremendously in America. On this particular issue, however, I do not respect his decision, and am most concerned that it appears to have been made without full assessment of the UN rules on self-determination.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. Britain asserted her sovereignty over the Falklands in the 1830s, about 50 years after she had been forced out of her sovereign territory in certain parts of north America. Despite the US stance on the Falklands, one very much doubts whether the US Government regard their administration of the east coast of America as simply de facto.
My hon. Friend referred to Hawaii and its original occupants, but one of the differences that I am sure he will confirm is that, in the Falkland Islands, the original occupants were not Argentine. In fact, throughout the whole history of the islands, only about three people from mainland Argentina have lived there. Does that not prove the point, but from a different angle?
I entirely agree, of course. We could get into a detailed and lengthy historical analysis of the origins of Argentina and its various provinces, as well as of the inhabitants of the Falkland Islands. It is worth remarking, however, that the ninth generation of the people of the Falkland Islands was recently born on the islands. Although the population is immigrant, that is also true in Argentina, and I will come to that at a later stage.
Returning to my point about sovereignty, it is not up to the House of Commons or Great Britain to give the Falklands away; it is the inalienable right of the Falkland Islanders to decide where sovereignty lies. That will not change today, tomorrow or for however long they choose to remain part of Great Britain.
Would my hon. Friend agree that, if there were greater and less aggressive integration between the Argentine and Falkland Islands populations, whether at the education or business level and over a period of 30 to 40 years, or perhaps longer, the hostilities would dissipate to some extent?
All of us would like to see the individual countries getting on to a greater degree, and one of my themes in the debate is to make it crystal clear that we regard Argentina, fundamentally, as a potential friend. It would be good if trade relations were better, fishing were better harmonised or hydrocarbons work was done together. At present, however, the Argentine stance is blocking that route. If the Argentine President is claiming a “hearts and minds” approach, I am sad to say that her argument is deeply flawed.
We have said that there is a need to increase and improve trade relations, but what about the 13,000 people who were murdered and disappeared in Argentina between 1976 and 1983, under the regime that fought the Falklands war? Is it not time for a human rights inquiry into that? Let us look at the bad things as well as the good things.
With no disrespect to the hon. Gentleman, I will not go down that route. One of the few good things to emerge from the Falklands war was the return of democracy to Argentina in 1983. It is entirely right that there have been various analyses of the history of Argentina but, with respect, it is not for me to lecture the Argentines on that history and on what they were involved with. Instead of looking to the past, I hope that we can look to a future of co-operation between these two countries, which already have plenty of trade and many common grounds. The Foreign Secretary, 10 days ago, wrote:
“There are many areas on which we can cooperate—on joint management of fish stocks, on hydrocarbon exploration, and on strengthening air and sea links between the Falklands and South America, as we used to do in the 1990s and ought to be able to be able to so again.”
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech and a good case, but does he agree that one of the problems with the uncertainty currently surrounding the Falkland Islands is that it is extraordinarily difficult for business people to get on and make sensible business decisions? I draw his attention to a British oil exploration company, which I know, that wants to invest but is unwilling to do so until the political uncertainty has been clarified.
I accept that there is a need for greater economic certainty, but we must understand that the islands have a strong economy and a profitable business community, and that they are effectively self-sustaining. I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the 1995 agreement between the Argentine and British Governments on oil exploration. In 1995, they signed a deal that identified a discrete area where there was to be joint hydrocarbon exploration. In 2007, the Argentines scrapped that deal to share oil found in that area. They effectively ripped it up, and there has been some uncertainty on development of the way forward on hydrocarbons and oil, but I believe that a robust approach from our Government will provide a better future for companies that want to invest there.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we are in a superb position to work jointly with Argentina on fisheries around the Falkland Islands because it does not have the complicated interference of the common fisheries policy? We can work jointly with such nations, when we cannot do so around our own waters.
I never thought that in a debate about the Falkland Islands I would become such an expert on squid and European fish embargoes, or that I would be trying to respond to an acknowledged expert on all fish matters, but I agree with my hon. Friend and accept entirely that there is great scope for the two countries to work together. If they do not, the story of some European waters will, sadly, be repeated in the south Atlantic, because fish stocks will decline.
Argentina claims sovereignty of the islands on an ongoing basis. Others may discuss in detail the historical argument, which is weak, but what would happen if Argentina retook the islands? Does it propose to throw the native islanders out? Does it propose to expel them by force from their homes and the land that they have tended and harvested, or to move them to a distant corner of one island? Let us be in no doubt that annexation of any small, peaceful and prosperous neighbour has no place in the 21st century. Whether that is done by negotiation or conquest, it equals colonisation, and occupation by a foreign power.
Many islanders trace their history, as others have said, back to the 1840s. They are men and women who were born on the Falkland Islands and have lived there for generations, had children there and made their lives there. Like most countries in Latin America, including Argentina, the population has grown through a natural flow of migration. The Falkland Islands now constitutes a nation of immigrants who have developed their own distinctive culture and identity. For Argentina to deny its right to self-determination is to question its claim to that self-same right. It would be surprising if the Argentines handed their land back to the Indian tribes who lived in the country before they arrived, and I doubt that that will happen. I will not attempt to pronounce the names of the Indian tribes who lived in Argentina before the immigrants settled there.
On the legal argument, the Falkland Islanders’ rights are recognised by international law. I never thought that I would cite favourably and support the Lisbon treaty, but I am pleased that it confirms that the European Union recognises the islands as a “full” associated territory, just like our other overseas territories, in part 4 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union. Apparently, our decision to sign the Lisbon treaty upset the Argentines, and some would argue that they joined a large club. On this issue, I am a confirmed Europhile—I knew that the Lisbon treaty was good for something. The truth is that we should be proud that a group of islands thousands of miles from our shores, and fully 700 km from Argentina’s, wants to remain part of our great nation, and shares our values and culture.
As my hon. Friend has touched on the European dimension and with the Minister in his place, is this an appropriate opportunity to reinforce the view of many hon. Members that our consistent approach to the people of the Falkland Islands should apply to the people of Gibraltar, who must not see their sovereignty negotiated behind their backs?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. We are no longer a colonial power. Those days are, rightly, distant history. As such, we will never force any dependent territory to remain part of our country, but we will also not let down a dependent territory. Let us take Scotland as an example. I would not, of course, call Scotland a dependent territory, notwithstanding the subsidy and the inequity of the Barnett formula, but the Scottish referendum is a prime example of the fundamental principle that it is for the native people to decide their fate. Rightly, we will always welcome and defend those who wish to remain part of Great Britain.
I am pleased that there is a cross-party selection of Members in the Chamber early on this Tuesday morning when they have many other matters to attend to. We are presenting a united front across parties and throughout the House to show adamant support for the individual rights of people who live in the Falkland Islands. I welcome my hon. Friend’s comment, and the support from his party.
I want a self-determination law. It is well known that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—to be fair, it has done excellent work in support of the Falkland Islands—is planning to introduce a White Paper in 2012 covering all aspects of the Government’s policies on the overseas territories. That is pending. I want all overseas territories with a settled population to have an unambiguous right to remain British, and to be defended from oppression in the absence of a majority voting for secession. All the 293,000 people in the Caribbean islands of Anguilla, Bermuda and Montserrat and the south Atlantic islands of St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, and the plucky 48 people who live a precarious existence on Pitcairn Island, need to know that self-determination will always be recognised by this country.
My hon. Friend is right to put self-determination at the centre of his speech. Some 255 British personnel died when trying to ensure that self-determination prevailed for the Falkland Islanders. Does he agree that anything other than self-determination would be an affront to the memory of those men and women?
My hon. Friend makes his point eloquently. I pay tribute to all our servicemen and women who are serving overseas, protecting our interests and striving to preserve other people’s freedoms. Most importantly, I pay tribute to the thousands of troops, led by the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, who are working on the Islands at this time. I know that many hon. Members here today represent constituencies with regiments that served or are still serving in the Falkland Islands.
People in Portsmouth whom I represent would want no hesitation in marking the 30th anniversary of the British victory in the Falklands war, and the posting of His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge to the Falkland Islands should not be underplayed. He will be there to do a job, but his destiny as a future king and the man to whom the Islanders will one day owe their allegiance, should not go unacknowledged in Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee year.
Argentina has described the royal visit as an inflammatory act, which is ridiculous. The gentleman involved, who happens to be the future king, is going as a search and rescue pilot. Were he to save the life of some hapless Argentine sailor, I hope that Argentina would be equally as grateful as, I am sure, the individual saved by the presence of the Duke would be. I support the fact that the Duke of Cambridge has been asked to go and that he intends to do just that.
I pay tribute to Able Seaman Derek Armstrong from my constituency who was a pupil at Prudhoe community high school. At 9 o’clock this morning I met with students from that school who are visiting the House of Commons today—all hon. Members know of schools that visit the House in order to understand its history. On 22 May 1982, Derek Armstrong was 22 years old and serving on HMS Ardent. He was sadly killed in the attack that sunk that ship, and Prudhoe community high school now presents a Derek Armstrong memorial award each year to the best sportsperson at that school. It was amazing to see the students this morning as that living history, and the relevance of the Falklands war to individuals and to their school, was explained to them.
When the Duke of Cambridge goes to the Falkland Islands later this year, I regret that he will find an island that is under a degree of trade blockade. The Argentine President has upped that blockade by taking the slightly unbelievable step of blocking ships that are flying the Falkland Islands flag from their ports, and she has persuaded other members of the south American trading bloc, which includes Brazil and Uruguay, to do the same. A ship is not allowed access if it shows the so-called “defaced” Falkland Islands red ensign. Provided it removes its flag, however, and denies its true origins, it is given access. Such denying of a recognised international ship that is carrying a recognised international flag runs contrary to international law and is, I suggest, a protectionist and retrograde step. There is no justification for such petty actions that are done only to intimidate a small civilian population and, with respect, such things are beneath the Argentine people. Let us be blunt: such actions merely harden the resolve of this House, strengthen that of the Islanders, and do nothing to endear the Argentines to the Islanders. It is hardly about hearts and minds.
Are we in 2012 really going down a route that sees civilised countries make ever increasing efforts to block free trade? This is about protectionism. Will the Minister update the House on the efforts made by our diplomats to end the trade blockade? I accept that the Foreign Office has done—and continues to do—a great deal to support the Falkland Islands over the past few years, but I hope that it will do yet more to increase support, both financially and in terms of manpower, in the Foreign Office itself and on the Falkland Islands.
I will attempt to address the principle of self-determination, which is set out in article 1.2 of the charter of the United Nations, and article 1 of the international covenant on civil and political rights. The Argentines continue to say that we should negotiate on sovereignty, but about what?
Let us analyse the claims. In 1965, UN resolution 2065 noted
“the existence of a dispute between the Governments of Argentina and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland concerning sovereignty over the said Islands.”
It invited the Governments involved
“to proceed without delay with the negotiations...with a view to finding a peaceful solution to the problem, bearing in mind the provisions and objectives of the Charter of the United Nations and of General Assembly UN Resolution 1514 (XV) and the interests of the population of the Falkland Islands.”
UN resolution 2065 must therefore be read in line with UN resolution 1514, which states:
“The subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, is contrary to the Charter of the United Nations and is an impediment to the promotion of world peace and co-operation.”
It adds—and this is key—that all peoples have
“the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”
The argument that anything other than self-determination is supported by the UN agreements is completely wrong. Self-determination is enshrined within the resolutions and supports our case.
UN resolution 1514 continues:
“All armed action or repressive measures of all kinds directed against dependent peoples shall cease in order to enable them to exercise peacefully and freely their right to complete independence, and the integrity of their national territory shall be respected…Any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
I could continue with an analysis of the various UN conventions and protocols, but under any interpretation, the argument supports the right to self-determination for the Falkland Islanders.
Thirty years after the Falklands war, we should be celebrating the culture of those special islands and investing in them in a variety of ways. We should also be promoting the fantastic tourism opportunities they could provide. The Mercosur countries of the south American bloc are our friends, just as we would like Argentina to be. We wish President Fernandez a full recovery from her operation. I am an MP from the north-east and my local football team, Newcastle United, is led by one Argentine and includes another, and those players are revered by thousands of people who support that team. In no way is Argentina our enemy; we wish to be trading partners and friends, and to take the relationship forward. This world has so much strife, but I say to the Argentines: let us work together for prosperity, not fall apart as fools.
The Argentine Government must understand that the future of the islanders does not lie with Argentina.
I agree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman says about the right to self-determination, and his analysis of how those rights are enshrined by the UN. I understood, however, that he was calling for such a measure to be encapsulated in British law. He has said that we need a law of self-determination for the overseas territories, but he has not explained why he feels that that is needed as an add-on measure.
Such a measure would confirm the rights of those individual islanders who live in overseas territories that have a settled population, and show the United Kingdom’s strong intention to recognise self-determination. There are references to that in the various United Nations conventions that have considered such matters repeatedly, and in what are called colonisation committees that sit from time to time. Such a measure would send out a strong message and signal from this country that the self-determination of individual peoples, where they choose to remain part of Great Britain, is paramount.
As I was saying, the future of the Falkland Islands does not lie with Argentina or with Britain as such, and such arguments are a futile war of words. The decision rests, and will always rest, with the settled inhabitants of the Falkland Islands. Gone are the days when colonial possessions could be disposed of by giving away power, regardless of the views of the inhabitants. Instead, let us celebrate the unique history and culture of a small island people that still choose to remain British—and so they shall, suitably supported by this country. That position, and their choice in the matter, is non-negotiable.
It is a pleasure to speak in a debate under your stewardship, Mr Crausby. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) for securing this important debate at this critical juncture for the Falkland Islands. I could not reasonably expect to be allowed to set foot back in my Gosport constituency if I did not take part in the debate, because the history of my town is indelibly linked in many ways with that of the Falkland Islands. We have many veterans of the Falklands war. Indeed, I share my constituency office with the indomitable Derek “Smokey” Cole, who runs the Falklands Veterans Foundation and who was responsible in part for raising the money to build Liberty lodge in the Falkland Islands. Even the iconic Gosport ferry is operated by Falkland Islands Holdings. We therefore have a very strong link to the Falklands.
As we approach the 30th anniversary of the Falklands war, there should be cause for joy in many ways. The Islanders should be able to celebrate their freedom, safe in the knowledge that their right to self-determination was protected by this country and always will be. The servicemen, many of whom lost so much, should remember the conflict secure in the belief that their sacrifices were not in vain.
This commemoration is marred by disappointment, given that it is taking place in the face of Argentine aggression. The islanders are suffering increased hostility and blocks on trade from neighbouring countries, while Argentina continues to misrepresent the situation on the world stage. I do not intend to recount again the challenges that Britain and the islanders face and that my hon. Friend so eloquently and fully outlined. Instead, I want to underline what I see as the most vital point in today’s debate—the islanders’ right to determine their own future should be absolutely respected by Britain, Argentina and the rest of the international community.
I intervene at this stage just to make one point. The Falkland Islands are defended by hugely capable royal naval assets at the moment. It is no secret that the Typhoon, one of the best multi-role aircraft in the world, operates from the all-weather airstrip. I will not go into the Army assets deployed. Let us be clear and send a message from this Chamber today—keep your hands off the Falklands; they are British and they will remain British.
My hon. Friend, as always, makes a very strong and valid point. A number of us in the Chamber were in the Falklands last year and got to meet many of our brave service personnel who work daily to keep the Falklands safe and independent.
The sacrifices and memories of the war are indelibly marked on the fabric of my constituency. Gosport’s role in the conflict was significant, with a great number of sailors and submariners coming from the town. Indeed, the Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Fieldhouse, is a local boy. The town proudly commemorates that in the Falklands memorial garden.
This year, we will again pay tribute in Gosport to those who served and, in 2005, were honoured with the freedom of the borough. As their Member of Parliament, I feel immense pride for what my constituents sacrificed for people living thousands of miles away from them. They were brought together by their desire to be British. Ultimately, both then and now, the inhabitants of the Falkland Islands want to be British. With not a single islander fighting to renounce its status as a British dependent territory, neither the British nor the Argentines have any right to dictate their fate.
As I have mentioned, I was fortunate enough to witness for myself the powerful connection that the islanders feel with Britain last year, when I visited the Falklands with the armed forces parliamentary scheme. It is a remarkably beautiful place, yet one in which the scars of war are still very apparent. Minefields are still cordoned off. On Mount Tumbledown, where some of the battle took place, there is an Argentine bunker with personal belongings still in it.
Unquestionably, however, the most striking aspect of the trip was the regard in which the Islanders held those British who fought for them. At the memorial site at Bluff cove for the 48 people killed when Royal Fleet Auxiliary Sir Galahad was attacked, I bumped into veterans from HMS Fearless, two of whom were from my constituency. When I got over the shock of meeting so far away from home people who were my neighbours, they told me of the experiences that they had had during their visit to the Falklands. When they had gone to pay in restaurants, their bills were waived. When they had gone to hand over their fare in a taxi, the taxi driver had said, “No charge.” Everywhere they went, the ongoing gratitude of the Islanders 30 years later for their role in securing freedom was indelibly marked in every aspect of what they did.
It is that freedom that we are again called upon to safeguard today. I reiterate the desire expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham to see the House united in full support of the islanders and I urge the Minister to commit to a self-determination law confirming the right of all our overseas territories to remain British for as long as they want to.
Thank you, Mr Crausby, for chairing the debate so well. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), who never misses an opportunity to speak up for the Royal Navy and for Gosport. I am delighted that she is serving as chairman of the sub-committee of the all-party group on the armed forces, of which I am chairman. In that capacity, she is looking after the Royal Navy and doing a very good job, too. I thank her for that.
I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who has laid out with barristeresque detail and clarity the case for the continuing independence and right to self-determination of the Falkland Islands. I will not attempt to repeat or to disagree with anything that he said, which was absolutely right. I will expand on it a little, but without the learned qualities that he was able to bring to his contribution.
My hon. Friend was right to start by paying tribute to the 255 British servicemen whose bodies lie in cemeteries in the Falklands to this day. I think that that was the last war in which the bodies of servicemen were not returned to the United Kingdom. In remembering them and the sacrifice that they made for the freedom and independence of the Falklands Islands, one should also remember the very many servicemen who came home but who suffer, because of the terrible injuries that they sustained as a result of their service, to this day. It was a great pleasure recently to welcome Simon Weston to Wootton Bassett town hall to turn on the Christmas lights in the high street. One need only think of the sacrifice and the efforts that Simon Weston and others have made to help servicemen like themselves.
Of course, in Wiltshire, we are very fortunate to have the home of Help for Heroes and, in Tedworth, the excellent home for servicemen injured in war, which is in the process of being completed and which I visited last week. At a time such as this, it is terribly important not only that we remember the 255 servicemen who gave their lives for the freedom of the Falkland Islanders, but that we think about and make efforts to help the very many servicemen—52,000 altogether in the United Kingdom—who will suffer for the rest of the lives as a result of the service that they have given.
In that context, I will, if I may, make a slight deviation to my own constituency. I am thinking particularly of the servicemen from RAF Lyneham, as it was. Sadly, thanks to the previous Government, it is no longer RAF Lyneham; it is to become a cross-service training depot. In those days, the Hercules fleet was based at RAF Lyneham and performed a magnificent service in ferrying people up and down to Ascension Island and onwards to the Falklands.
Also in my constituency, we were delighted last Thursday to give the freedom of the town of Chippenham to 9 Supply Regiment, the Royal Logistic Corps, which is the largest regiment in the British Army. Colonel Bob, my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), might be interested to hear that 9 Supply Regiment, based at Hullavington, was given the freedom of Chippenham. Its predecessor also made significant contributions in supplying all that was needed during the great conflict 30 years ago this year.
The thrust of the debate today is plain. People in dependent territories and, indeed, elsewhere according to the United Nations, must have the right of self-determination. There can no question about that whatever. Most of the wars that we have fought in the past 100 years have been in the interests of freedom and of self-determination. It is right that people should be able to say for themselves whom they wish to run their country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham mentioned, that principle lies behind the current debate about a referendum in Scotland, although that is beyond the scope of this debate.
It is right that people should be able to say that they wish to remain one way or another. I suggest that if we challenged the 3,000 people who currently live in the Falklands to do so, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary would receive 3,000 letters tomorrow morning indicating that every single one of them wished to remain British, to retain the British passport, to be part of Great Britain and to be a dependent territory of the United Kingdom. There is no question whatever about the unanimity and strength of desire of the people of the Falklands to do that.
With that background, it is only right that our nation should send the clearest possible messages to the Argentine Government that in no circumstances will we countenance anything like military action towards the Falklands. I must say in passing that military action against the Falklands is extraordinarily unlikely. There is not the remotest possibility that the Argentines will consider a replay of the war. None the less, they are choosing at this time for political reasons to make sabre-rattling noises, suggesting that they might do so. We should say that we will defend the Falklands to the last man—of course we would; there is no question about it, and it is impossible to imagine we would not. However, what is more important than that is what lies behind it, which is that we should be ready to say firmly and clearly to the Argentines—in saying this, we should echo it with messages to other parts of the world—that we do not believe it is right to say that the Falklands are part of Argentina, or to use the name the Malvinas. Just saying that and just making those noises undermines the right to self-determination of the people of the Falklands. It should not be allowed under international law. We should make it plain to them that we will not allow them to continue to do it.
Of course there are all sorts of ways in which we could persuade the Argentine Government of the wisdom of that view. They depend on us for all kinds of things. They want a sensible relationship with the rest of the world. The rude noises that they make about the Falklands should form an important part of negotiations that they might have with us about other things. It is outside the scope of this debate, but we heard this morning about strange remarks from Spain about Gibraltar’s independence and freedom. What we say in this debate about the Falklands is exactly mirrored in our approach to the independence and freedom of the people of Gibraltar, who have the right to decide whether they want to remain British—I am certain, having visited recently, that they do, to a gigantic extent. We must say to the Government of Spain, no matter what our relationship may be, that precisely what we did in the Falklands we would do with regard to Gibraltar, if they were to be foolish enough to tread on our toes in that way. We should reiterate the principle of independence and self-determination.
In congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham on calling the debate, I have only one slight regret. He may not realise that to this day 10 January is celebrated in the Falkland Islands as Thatcher day—and a good thing, too. It is a shame we could not have this debate on Thatcher day, the day on which she visited the Falkland Islands six months or so after the war was over. We should remember the part that she—a great woman—played in maintaining the freedom and independence of the Falkland Islands. Let us not forget it. I do not like “The Iron Lady”. It is not a particularly tasteful thing to have done. On an occasion such as this it is right that we should pay tribute to the great Margaret Thatcher for the wonderful work that she did in preserving the freedom and independence of the people of the Falkland Islands.
The question whether there is a risk of military intervention in the Falklands has already been touched on. I do not believe that there is a risk, or that the Argentines are foolish enough even to contemplate doing anything of the sort. I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham that the quality and strength of the defence that we have in the Falklands—my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport saw the evidence when she visited with the armed forces parliamentary scheme last year—is such that no one, whether the Argentines or anyone else, would possibly consider it.
I have a couple of minor concerns about the outlying islands. I am very much involved with South Georgia, which is of course the place where the Argentines first landed all those years ago. To this day, it remains exposed to some degree. It is of course a quite remote place, entirely populated by rats, which we are doing our best to eradicate at the moment. It is a place that we have to keep our eye on to ensure that no intervention is possible there. The Argentines have also made some foolish remarks about Antarctica. It is covered by the treaty and is no part of Argentina. We should preserve the international nature of Antarctica from any possible encroachment by the Argentines or anyone else. There are not only diplomatic reasons, but important commercial reasons for that. Mention has been made of oil, and Rockhopper is a fine Wiltshire oil company, which is currently considering what it can do in the south Atlantic. I am delighted to help in any way that I can to ensure that its rights of exploration—if, indeed, it decides to use them—are preserved against a possible commercial objection by the Argentines or anyone else.
Our forces in the Falklands, as has been said, are second to none. They are ready to repel any boarder. However, I have one concern. This matter was raised in the Chamber on Thursday, during the defence debate. By the end of the current strategic defence review, we shall have an Army of 82,000 people. In many parts of the world, and under many definitions, that is not an army but a defence force. The number above which a force is considered to be an army is normally 100,000. Our Army is now the smallest that we have had since the Crimean war. Our Navy has been decimated and the RAF has been cut in half. If there were to be an encroachment today of the kind that happened before, we would not be able to produce a taskforce as we did then, because we simply do not have the resources. As I said in Thursday’s debate, that is entirely wrong. If we have a moral duty as a nation, whether in the Falklands, Gibraltar or elsewhere in the world, we must have the resources to carry it out. I fear that the strategic defence and security review has resulted in a defence force for this country that is not sufficient to carry out the tasks that the Foreign Office requires. The Minister may want to consider whether the Foreign Office could make stronger representations to the Treasury about the amount of money available for the defence of the realm, so that if we ever have to, we can once again send a taskforce of the kind that we are remembering today.
We are sending a clear message to the people of the Falklands, and to the United Nations, the United States and the rest of the world, that we believe that the people of the Falklands have every right to self-determination. The people of the Falklands must be allowed to decide their future, and we will use military force if necessary—certainly military defensive force—to ensure that that happens. However, we should send a stronger message that we are determined to do the same elsewhere in the world. We are determined that people’s right to make up their minds about their future, a free and independent liberal economy and democracy are the things that our nation stands for. We demonstrated that we stood for them during the Falklands war, and we stand for them elsewhere in the world; but to do so we need sufficient defence forces and investment.
It is a privilege to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I want to thank my room mate, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), for this important debate. As I take every opportunity to say, I like to think I taught him everything he knows.
Many of today’s speeches have been poignant to me. I want to convey a feeling of what it was like in 1982, when I was 15—nearly 16—years old. My father, Captain Alan Lewis Morris, who retired many years ago, was then the age I am now. He was in the reserves and was due to command a minesweeper that was stationed in Liverpool, out to the Falkland Islands. As it happened, it was his 25th wedding anniversary year, and he had already booked a cruise on the Queen Elizabeth 2; we all know what happened there. As a young man at that time, watching what was happening on television, with both excitement and apprehension at what was unfolding before my eyes, I had a bit of a moral and patriotic insight, which was part of my wanting to be here in the House of Commons today. My father never went in the end, because the day he was called up was the day the conflict ended. However, I remember wondering whether, if he went away, he would come back. The conflict was very hard on both sides. The fact that we travelled to the other side of the world and fought off an aggressor on a small outpost speaks volumes about the spirit of the British people.
Such action also speaks volumes for the spirit and the quality of our armed forces who always multiply up their small numbers when they go into combat. In Afghanistan, their morale is outstanding despite what is happening out there. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) outlined the situation in his admirable plea for more money for defence. If necessary, our forces will fight a superior force and retake the Falklands, because of the quality of the people that we have in our armed forces.
I thank my hon. Friend for that eloquent and powerful statement. I agree with everything that he says.
Thirty years on, the Falklands Islands is still, quite rightly, being protected by British troops. It is regrettable that the US State Department referred to the Falklands as the Malvinas. Coming from a shipping family, I was enlightened to learn that racketeering in world trade is still going on against Britain in that sphere of the globe. We have even had to drop the red ensign, which I find insulting as an English man, never mind as a Member of Parliament.
We must look to the future. There is oil in the region, although I have no idea whether that has anything to do with the fact that Argentina has started rattling sabres again. The oil, which might explain this reawakening of interest in the Falklands Islands, is hard to get at and extremely difficult to drill and mine for. The nitty gritty of this debate is people. Nine generations of people who have settled and lived in the Falklands want to be part of the British people; they are the British people. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) so powerfully stated, the Falkland Islands is British. We shall defend the Falkland Islands just as we shall defend any other area of the globe that we represent. The islanders want to stay with us. We protect them and we are trading prosperously from their islands. Such facts speak more about our people, our sovereignty, their sovereignty and this Parliament.
I would like to have powerfully summed up this speech by saying how we would defend the Falkland Islands, but my hon. Friend, the colonel, has already said it for me and in a better way than I ever could. It is absolutely imperative that we protect our interests in the Falklands. We must protect the Falkland Islanders because the Falklands will always, and should always, remain British.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) on securing this debate.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) said, she and I went to the Falklands earlier this year with the armed forces parliamentary scheme. For the avoidance of doubt, I hasten to add that, unlike my hon. Friends the Members for Hexham and for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris), we were not room mates on this trip.
The excellent armed forces parliamentary scheme enables Members such as me who have no military experience or history to get a feel for what life is like in the forces. When we were in the Falklands, we visited the RAF, the Army and the Navy and we did exercises with them all. We also met the islanders, whose message to us was clear and consistent. Everywhere we went, they said, “We are British and we want to stay British for ever.” We must defend the rights of those islanders and send a clear message back to Argentina.
At one point on the visit, we spent the night on HMS York, which was an experience in itself. We were with the sailors, and not in the officers’ mess. I was with the stokers. [Interruption.] Yes, it was quite appropriate. It was an interesting experience. The ship was due to leave the Falklands and sail up the west coast of South America. As part of that detail, HMS York was due to dock in Chile to refuel and to give the guys some shore leave. While we were on the ship, though, the crew received notice that their shore leave had been cancelled because Chile would not allow them to dock or to go ashore. We can only surmise the reasons for that, but I suspect that it was due to the pressure that Argentina has been applying on the nations in South America. In particular, it has been using economic pressure. It has realised that military pressure will not work and so it has now turned to economic means. We were told that taxes are now being levied on companies that operate in and around the Falkland Islands if they want to operate in Argentina. Again, it is more economic pressure on the economic community that could help the Falkland Islands to survive and grow.
We have heard about the claims of inflammatory acts. The Argentines say that sending Prince William to the Falklands was an inflammatory act, but what about the pressures that it is applying to the other nations in South America? As my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) said, we need to send a clear message to the Argentines. This is a case not of posturing but of being clear and firm. The Falkland Islanders are British and they want to remain so. For as long as they wish to remain British, we will defend them and we will not sit back while Argentina gets up to its old games. At the risk of being controversial, I ask the Minister to take a look at our foreign aid budget and see how much is given to Argentina, because there is a tool by which we may exercise a little bit of extra pressure.
It is 30 years since the Falklands war. Simon Weston has been mentioned previously. By complete fluke, I had the pleasure of having lunch with Simon many years ago and I found his tales of the Falklands war both fascinating and harrowing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport said, while we were in the Falklands, we visited the Argentine outpost on Mount Tumbledown, which was remarkably well preserved and still carries personal artefacts. I saw a training shoe and other such things. It was a very sobering experience. We must remember that war 30 years ago. I was 19 when it happened; slightly older than my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale. Thirty years seems a long time ago, but we must never forget that many British soldiers gave their lives for the Falklands. The islanders respect, remember and appreciate that. We must maintain our level of defence for them. It is their right to remain British and we must defend them.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) on securing this debate. The good turnout today is a testament to the desire in this House to reiterate our support for the people of the Falkland Islands. As we mark the 30 years since the Falklands war, it is important to remember not only those who fought but the sacrifice of the 255 Britons who lost their lives. As we approach the anniversary, the increasing tension and the greater focus on the Falkland Islands must be particularly difficult for the families of those who died during the conflict. It is important that we use occasions such as this to reiterate our gratitude to them for their sacrifice and our commitment to protecting the Falkland Islands.
As I made clear earlier, Labour continues to support the islanders’ right to self-determination. It is a long-established principle that has been recognised by successive Governments and by the Falkland Islands constitution. Moreover, as we have discussed, it is set out in article 1.2 of the UN charter and in article 1 of the international covenant on civil and political rights. As the hon. Member for Hexham said, it has been reinforced by UN resolutions that deal specifically with the Falkland Islands and by the many other UN resolutions that reaffirm the commitment to the right of people to determine for themselves what their future should be. Therefore, I am not persuaded by him that there is a need to enshrine that principle in UK law. He has said that it would send out a signal that we are absolutely committed to upholding the right to self-determination, but I do not think that the purpose of legislation is simply to send out signals when the position is already clear. Indeed, I thought that the ideology that underpins his Government is that we should not go down the path of unnecessary legislation; that we should legislate only when there is an absolute need for it. Also, I am concerned that, if there were an attempt to enshrine that principle in UK law, it could be seen to undermine other principles of international and UN law that are not enshrined in UK law; it could seem that the principle were of a different status.
I agree with the hon. Lady about small government, but does she recall the occasion when her right hon. Friend, the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) entered into negotiations with the Government of Spain on the future of Gibraltar without consulting the people of Gibraltar? That shows that, on occasion, such things can slip. Is that not a reason for writing the principle into law?
I do not think that entering into negotiations or discussions with another country necessarily thwarts or flouts the right to self-determination. It is fairly well established that we will respect the right of the people in the overseas territories to determine their fate, and we have reiterated that over and again.
If the hon. Lady is saying that she could see no reason why the right hon. Member for Blackburn should not have discussed with Spain the future of Gibraltar without consulting the people of Gibraltar, is she saying that it would be perfectly reasonable for any other Foreign Secretary to enter into discussions with the Government of Argentina about the future of the Falklands without consulting the people there?
I am obviously not saying that at all. If we were having bilateral meetings with Argentina, or if there were a state visit to Argentina, and the issue of the future of the Falkland Islands were raised by the Argentine Government, we would of course have discussions with them about that. That is not the same as entering into negotiations or in any way at all committing to signing away the rights of the Falklands Islands without respecting its residents’ right to self-determination. As has already been mentioned, given that the Falkland Islanders are unanimous in their desire to remain British, I cannot see that as something that would in any way, shape or form be on the table in a serious way at any such discussions.
For the avoidance of doubt, I shall try to clarify the point that I was seeking to make, which I believe was supported by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray).
There have, down the generations, been examples—whether it is Gibraltar or the Falkland Islands in the late 1960s—where successive Governments have sought to negotiate on sovereignty in circumstances where that has palpably not been the will of the people. My proposal would allow the House of Commons and Parliament to send out a crystal-clear message that self-determination is part of the law of this country, and negotiations cannot be entered into without observation of the individual rights of those persons. That does not currently exist, and that is the right reason why we seek a law on self-determination out of the Foreign Office White Paper that will be discussed in the House this year.
Perhaps we can agree to differ on that matter, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say and whether he feels there is a need for the principle to be enshrined in UK law.
We share the Foreign Office’s disappointment about the decision to block ships that carry the Falklands flag. Developments since December have been particularly troubling, and we welcome the robust response from the Foreign Office. Although it is reassuring that ships have been able to get around that policy and continue to enter ports by carrying the British flag, it is obviously not acceptable for the Argentine Government, because they object to the Falkland Islanders’ choice to remain British, to seek to impose an economic blockade or to inhibit the Islanders’ way of carrying on their economic life.
It is also worrying that other south American countries have been brought on board in that decision. Will the Minister confirm which countries and representatives from south America have had direct discussions with the Foreign Secretary, who visited Latin America earlier this month, about the Falkland Islands? Was the blockade discussed with other countries? What was the outcome of the talks? Will the Minister assure us that the Foreign Office is using all diplomatic options to encourage Latin America to respect the Falkland Islanders’ right to self-determination? What assessment has the Foreign Office made of the impact of the tension with Argentina over the Falkland Islands on the UK Government’s efforts to strengthen the relationship with the rest of south America? Will the Minister explain to us what representations the Government have made to counterparts in Chile about protecting the one flight a week from Chile to the Falkland Islands, which President Fernandez has sought to stop?
We appreciate—I have reiterated this today—the need for a robust and unambiguous stance from the UK Government on our determination to protect the Falkland Islanders’ right to self-determination and, consequential to that, their British status. Is the Foreign Office concerned, however, that the Prime Minister’s choice of language might have unnecessarily inflamed the situation? I welcome the Prime Minister’s clear assertion in the House that the future of the Falkland Islands is a matter for the people themselves and that they will remain British for as long as they choose to do so, and we also agree that Argentina cannot disregard the Falkland Islanders’ right to choose. However, accusing the Argentine Government of colonialism, which was clearly an emotive choice of words, provoked a strong reaction from the Government and the Argentine people. Does the Minister think, with hindsight, that that was a wise choice of words? We are also concerned about the march on the embassy in Buenos Aires, in which protestors burned the Union flag. Will the Minister assure us that the welfare of the embassy staff is being protected?
Some suggestions have been made, not in this Chamber, but in the media, that the defence of the Falkland Islands would not be secure if there were attempts by Argentina to invade—although we note that the Argentine President has ruled out any military action. For example, in a recent piece in The Daily Telegraph, General Sir Michael Jackson said that Britain would not be able to reclaim the Falklands if Argentina invaded. I note that earlier in the debate the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who is well informed on such matters, assured us that that was not the case and that there was no threat, but I would be grateful to receive some reassurance.
It is absolutely the case that we would not be able to send a taskforce tomorrow in the way that we did 30 years ago; we simply do not have the resources to do that. That is quite different from saying that we have no resources to defend the Falklands—of course we do. In particular, the building of a runway at the airport has made defending the Falklands an entirely different matter from what it was 30 years ago, when that did not exist. Of course we can do it today, but we would not be able to lay on a task force as we did then.
Argentina has now named an ambassador to the UK, which is a step in the right direction. Will the Minister tell us whether he has had any contact with Alicia Castro since her appointment? Does he intend to meet her soon? Have his officials in the Foreign Office had any contact with her? We are all keen to hear from the Minister his response to the various points that have been raised in the debate, so I will hand over to him.
Thank you, Mr Crausby, for presiding effectively over this morning’s important debate. I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) for giving the House the opportunity to discuss in detail what is not only a topical issue, but a core issue of national importance, which has been receiving considerable media attention recently. It is quite right that we are discussing the matter in the House, and I pay tribute to all Members who have contributed to our deliberations.
In addition, Mr Crausby, I do not know whether this is improper in procedural terms, but I want to welcome Dick Sawle, a Member of the Falkland Islands Legislative Assembly, who is in Westminster Hall to witness our debate today. Other Members have quite rightly paid tribute to the British soldiers and Falkland Islanders who died almost 30 years ago in the Falkland Islands war, as well as to those who suffered lifelong physical and mental trauma as a result of the war. And as we approach the 30th anniversary of the war, it is also appropriate to reflect, as others have already done, on the deaths of Argentines during the conflict.
The Falkland Islanders have faced successive challenges from Argentina to their democratic right to decide how and by whom they are governed, but the British Government’s support for the Falkland Islands is unequivocal. So, for the avoidance of doubt, I say to the House today that we—the British Government—believe in the principle of self-determination for the Falkland Islanders, and our position has not changed and will not change. Our strong response to the statement by the Latin American bloc, Mercosur, last month, a statement which purportedly banned vessels that fly the Falkland Islands flag, was a clear demonstration of our position, and to Argentina itself we expressed our deep disappointment at its attempts to intimidate the Falkland Islanders. We condemned Argentina’s actions both in London and through our ambassador in Buenos Aires. From Argentina’s attempts to harass Falklands-bound shipping or its attempts to close south American ports to Falklands vessels, to its threats to cut off the air links between Chile and the Falklands or to damage companies that do legitimate business in the Falklands, there is a pattern of behaviour designed to blockade the Falklands economically, which is unacceptable and utterly counter-productive if the objective is to make the Falkland Islands part of Argentina.
I visited the Falklands in November, and I have been listening to the debate this morning with interest. I am slightly concerned that in this debate we are perhaps giving too much merit to the present-day posturing of the Argentines. I welcome the Government’s actions, which the Minister has been setting out, but does he recognise that it is important that we ourselves do not fall back on posturing or indeed on inflammatory statements?
I want to start my response to the hon. Lady by thanking her for going to the Falklands; we had a good meeting on her return to discuss her experiences and what she learned from that visit. I take her point that we should not exaggerate the effectiveness of the Argentines’ actions, and I will discuss that point later in my speech. At the same time, however, it is important that, without being inflammatory in our language, we are very clear and unequivocal in this debate about the position of the British Government and, I believe, the British Parliament, and do not leave any room for misinterpretation.
I want to reassure the hon. Member for Hexham and others who have contributed to the debate that the Government have been extremely active in condemning any attempts by Argentina to erect an economic blockade of the Falklands, and it is right that we call it what it is, which is an economic blockade. It is designed to try to hurt the Falkland Islanders economically, to disadvantage them and to reduce their standard of living. As I have already said, we have been very clear that we regard that course of action by Argentina as wrong. We want vital trade links to be maintained.
We are not in any way complacent about what is happening at the moment. We understand the tactics being adopted by the Argentine Government, and they may yet seek in the months ahead to intensify the pressure that they are applying. However, to expand on the point that I was just making to the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle), we should not exaggerate the success that Argentina has had. The Falklands economy continues to grow strongly, with a budget surplus and very healthy reserves. If the objective of the Argentine Government is to weaken the resolve of the Falkland Islanders through economic means, it is not an objective that they have achieved.
The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who speaks for the Opposition, asked what representations the British Government are making to countries across south America. The answer is that we make frequent representations at a very high level. As she said, the Foreign Secretary has just been to Brazil, where he specifically raised the issue of the Falklands at the highest levels of the Brazilian Government. We have also made unambiguous representations to the other Mercosur countries, Uruguay and Paraguay, and to Chile, which is associated with Mercosur. Indeed, right across Latin America, we have made our position clear, and I have made direct representations to Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and other countries right across Latin America, some of which instinctively support the Argentine position however many representations we make. Nevertheless, it is still important for us to make our position clear and unambiguous, and I think that other Latin American countries are more susceptible to reasoned argument than those that instinctively support the Argentine position.
I apologise for coming in late; I was detained, but I have been watching the debate downstairs. The Foreign Secretary was in Brazil, which is not a natural ally of Argentina, and yet Brazil is lining up with Argentina on the Falklands question. Did the Foreign Secretary obtain any reassurance that Brazil, which is now a major world power, is going to distance itself from what is, frankly, the very wrong position that Argentina is taking and that it would line up with the world’s democracies, including our own, or did he return empty-handed?
No, I would not see it in terms of the Foreign Secretary returning “empty-handed”. Brazil is keen to have a constructive relationship with its neighbour, Argentina—the relationship with Argentina is important commercially and politically for Brazil. At the same time, we are very pleased that Brazil is keen to have a growing relationship with the UK. The Foreign Secretary had an extremely valuable and productive visit to Brazil, and he had extensive talks in Brasilia with the Brazilian Foreign Secretary. The subject of the Falklands was not the only subject that was raised in the discussions between the two Foreign Secretaries, but it was raised. Not all of our diplomacy is so visible, because some of it is more discreet than that. I assure my hon. Friends and all Members present for this debate that we attach a very high priority to the issue of the Falklands, that the Brazilians and others understand our position and that, like ourselves, the Brazilians and others do not wish to see an economic blockade of the Falklands.
The hon. Member for Bristol East, who speaks for the Opposition, asked whether I thought that the Prime Minister’s position was appropriate. It is right that the Prime Minister is clear in this House—in Parliament—about the strong support that the British Government give to the status of the Falkland Islands. And on the military point that was raised by a number of Members, I assure the House that the Government continue to take necessary steps to maintain the security of the Falkland Islands.
More broadly, Members have talked about our wider relationship with Argentina. We have made it clear to Argentina that we are enthusiastic about having a more productive relationship and about addressing global issues together, including climate change or the global economy. Argentina, of course, is a member of the G20, so we have another opportunity in that forum to raise and discuss issues with it, and to build alliances with it where it is appropriate and in our shared interests to do so.
We want to work with Argentina constructively. There are areas where we share interests. We not only share economic interests, but wider trade issues, energy issues, transport issues, cultural issues, sporting issues and educational issues. There are lots of areas where we want to work more productively with Argentina than we are sometimes able to do at the moment, but only so long as Argentina understands that that process is not in some way part of a negotiation on the Falkland Islands. The status of the Falkland Islands is non-negotiable for us, but in other regards we wish to have a helpful and productive dialogue with Argentina.
I have not yet had the opportunity to meet Argentina’s new ambassador to the UK—I do not think that she has arrived in London yet. However, I certainly will meet her when she arrives and at the moment I have regular and perfectly amicable engagement with the Argentine chargé d’affaires, who will be replaced by the ambassador when she arrives.
I accept all that the Minister says concerning the desire of the UK Government to work hand in hand on so many issues with the Argentines. However, does he agree that no threat of conflict from any Argentine Government will pressure the British Government into any negotiations that would undermine the will and determination of the Falklands people to remain British?
Yes. I hoped that I had made that clear, but I will make the point again for the avoidance of doubt. Our position on the self-determination of the Falkland Islands is and remains non-negotiable. We have secured assurances from countries elsewhere in south America that they have no appetite for joining Argentina in attempts to damage the islands’ economy.
We have asserted our commitment to deepening and broadening Britain’s engagement with Latin America as a whole. To the Falkland Islanders, we have offered reassurance of our enduring commitment to their security and to their well-being. More than that, we have ensured that both in south America and in the UK their views are heard and their wishes are, increasingly I hope, respected.
The Prime Minister and others have voiced their support, and our embassies have worked tirelessly across Latin America and more widely in other countries around the world, to support the position of the Falkland Islanders. In some regards, that is already yielding dividends. At the recent UK-Caribbean Forum, for example, the Foreign Secretary and I were personally involved in making the case for the people of the Falkland Islands, and I am pleased that Caribbean Governments gave their unanimous backing to the rights of the islanders to self-determination.
The point has been made in this debate on whether we should have a self-determination law in the UK. The right to self-determination is already enshrined in law, as hon. Members know, via article 1.2 of the UN charter, and article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and it is worth emphasising that it is also written into the Falkland Islands constitution. The British Government already have a legal obligation to uphold both the principle and the practical consequences of self-determination, so we do not see the need for additional work in that area. We believe that point is clearly established.
We will continue all our work throughout 2012 and beyond in all those regards. The cornerstone of our policy will always be the islanders and their clearly expressed wishes. I have had many opportunities to meet representatives of the Falkland Islanders to discuss their concerns and to work closely with them. It is fair to say that I devote as much attention to the Falkland Islands as to any other part of the world. Despite the small population it is a part of the world of extreme importance to the FCO. We work closely with representatives of the Falkland Islands to ensure as best we can that their interests are met.
Indeed, I have been honoured with an invitation from the Falkland Islands Government, and I can announce this morning that I will visit the Falkland Islands in June as it commemorates the 30th anniversary of its liberation. The Government feel it is important to have a Foreign Office Minister present for that anniversary event. I am pleased to attend what will be an important and sombre occasion. I am also looking forward to taking the opportunity to get to know better the islanders and their home.
The House will welcome the fact that the Minister intends to visit the Falkland Islands in June, which is an important symbol of our support. While he is there, will he take the opportunity to nip down to South Georgia and have a look at the excellent work done by the South Georgia Preservation Trust to eradicate rats?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion. My programme has yet to be finalised, apart from the anniversary date, when I will participate in the commemorations. I am in the Falkland Islands for a number of days, so I will be taking the opportunity to gain a wider understanding of a range of issues that affect the Falkland Islands and possibly other islands in the area. I had in mind more clear-cut economic and social issues, but I am open to any suggestions that my hon. Friend wishes to send to my office.
I thank the Minister for giving way, and I apologise for not being present at the start of the debate. May I second the invitation to South Georgia offered by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) It makes a lovely canoeing trip: perhaps he could take the journey from the Falklands to South Georgia by canoe and see what the way of life is like.
On a more serious point, the Minister has gone through the relationships developed through the Foreign Secretary going to Brazil and through representatives here in the UK. However, will he put on record the contribution that the Falkland Islands representative in Britain, Sukey Cameron, makes to the agenda, and the work that she does through her office to ensure that the Falkland Islands stays at the top of the political agenda in the UK, and to ensure that trips, such as the one the Minister is to make in June, are well-organised and well-informed?
I am happy to pay tribute to Ms Cameron in the way that the hon. Gentleman asks. I meet her frequently, and she is a great champion of the Falkland Islands and islanders and makes an extremely compelling case for their interests. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), who visited the Falkland Islands last year and brings extra knowledge to the debate as a result.
It is understandable that this anniversary year will see much focus on the past. It is right, of course, that we remember and give thanks for the sacrifice of those who fought and died in defence of the islands. Their sacrifice secured the islanders’ future. Now, in 2012, that future looks brighter than ever for the people of the Falkland Islands. The economy of the Falklands is on a secure footing and the islanders will continue to build new enterprises and to explore new markets. Tourism is on the increase—around 65,000 cruise-ship passengers visited the islands last year—and the figure is set to increase in future years.
Oil exploration is continuing apace. Let me be clear, as the issue arose during our deliberations, that the resources around the Falkland Islands belong to the islanders. It is absolutely right that they should develop that aspect of their economy and they enjoy our full support in doing so in the future. It is not for us in Westminster to set out what the future holds for the Falkland Islands. That is the preserve of their people. They have that right to self-determination about which we have spoken at length in this debate. Only they can decide how to respond to the opportunities and challenges of the years ahead. The British Government are determined to ensure that they have the right to self-determination but they make their own choices about how to order their affairs. That is quite right and proper.
While is it for the islanders to determine their own future, it is for the UK to enable them to do so in a secure environment and without pressure or interference from others. That is why, apart from a range of wider considerations across Latin America to do with trade, politics and working together on matters such as climate change or cultural exchanges, we are very keen to ensure that the position of the Falkland Islands is understood in Latin America and further afield.
I also pay tribute to the members of the Legislative Assembly, who have been extremely effective in their meetings with other countries at explaining their position, in a way that many countries find compelling when they hear it directly from representatives of the Falkland Islands rather than just the British Government. I know those efforts are intensifying, and I welcome them.
The Falkland Islands will face many challenges in the future, ranging from the economic to the environmental. It is a remote part of the world and has a small population, which can present difficulties. However, one thing will not change: the UK will always be forthright in support of the islanders’ wishes and relentless in upholding their rights.
I finish by drawing attention to what the Foreign Secretary said recently on the matter. It will leave the House completely clear about the Government’s intentions and reassure hon. Members who have spoken before me:
“The future of the Falkland Islands is about people…Thirty years after the Argentine invasion, their right to self-determination remains, and will always remain, the cornerstone of our policy.”
Thank you, Mr Crausby, for chairing the debate so effectively, and thank you to all hon. Members who contributed to discussing this important issue in the 30th anniversary year of the Falklands war.