HC Deb 25 May 1982 vol 24 cc777-80
1. Mr. Buck

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the current situation with respect to the task force in the South Atlantic.

5. Mr. David Atkinson

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he has had any discussions with his North Atlantic Treaty Organisation counterparts on the strategic value of the Falkland Islands.

8. Sir William van Straubenzee

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he will make a statement on the current military position in the Falkland Islands.

18. Mr. Canavan

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he will make a statement about the Falkland Islands operations.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Nott)

I met my NATO colleagues at the beginning of May. Only last Saturday all members of the North Atlantic Council expressed solidarity with the action that we are taking in the Falkland Islands.

In my statement in the House yesterday I outlined recent action that had taken place in the South Atlantic leading up to the successful landing on East Falkland on 20 May by Her Majesty's forces and the establishment there of a secure base.

Since then our Harriers have carried out a further successful attack on Port Stanley airfield.

Separately, yesterday our task force came under attack from Argentine aircraft. Argentine losses as a result of that action are assessed at eight combat aircraft. Two of our support ships were damaged but they are being made good. I deeply regret the loss of HMS "Antelope", which sank yesterday.

Finally, I should like to deny the latest wild report from Argentina that the "Canberra" has come under attack.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call first those hon. Members whose questions are being answered.

Mr. Buck

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Is he satisfied that there is now an appropriate and balanced flow of information coming in from the task force with, hopefully, some of it getting through to Argentina?

Will my right hon. Friend say something further about the possible establishment of a fund for the benefit of the members of the task force and their dependants, which he mentioned yesterday?

Mr. Nott

We are getting information from the task force, sometimes not as rapidly as we would wish, but we must understand the serious problems that face our forces.

We feel strongly that there should be one fund, not many, for people who wish to give for dependants. The terms of the fund should be widely drawn so that too much money is not directed at only a few people. The trustees of the fund should have the flexibility to direct donations across the whole spectrum of those in need. The best way to ensure that is to use existing charities. However, we cannot allocate money between charities at this stage as we do not know the relative need. We propose to set up a South Atlantic fund, which will not in itself be a charity but will hold money on behalf of existing charities until we have a clearer idea of how best it can be used.

We should appreciate it if members of the general public, who understandably want to make donations, will direct them to this central fund. That will save a lot of confusion and difficulty.

Mr. Atkinson

Is not one of the main lessons to be learnt from the past eight weeks the sheer neglect of the vital strategic importance of the Falkland Islands within a global context, apart from the oil, gas and seabed resources that might exist in that area?

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that Britain has nothing to concede by way of sovereignty in any future negotiations on the territory? Will he now discuss with our Western allies what part they will play in the future defence of those islands?

Mr. Nott

As I said yesterday, and as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has repeatedly pointed out, British sovereignty is a fact and it cannot be removed by aggression. Of course we accept the very great importance of Antarctica and the Falkland Islands and the great promise that that part of the world holds out.

Sir William van Straubenzee

Does my right hon. Friend understand the not jingoistic but quiet pride felt by the vast majority of British people in the remarkable achievements of the Armed Forces so far? Does he accept that he will have widespread support for any tactical decisions made for strictly military, not political, reasons, whether those reasons are nationally or internationally motivated?

Mr. Nott

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his assertion of the pride that we all feel in our Armed Forces. The whole House and country share that feeling of pride with him. I assure my hon. Friend that tactical decisions will be a matter wholly for the task force commander. Of course, he will work within the broad political directions and the strategic aims laid down for him by Her Majesty's Government.

Mr. Canavan

Now that there is even more demand for a ceasefire, with British casualties amounting to 73 dead and about 100 wounded, and a total of 500 people already having lost their lives in the conflict, why does the chairman of the Tory Party say that diplomacy must now take a back seat? Has the Tory Party become so bloodthirsty that it is now hell-bent on using the crisis for the same reason as Galtieri created it—to distract attention from the problems of mass unemployment and the social and economic crisis here?

Mr. Nott

If Argentina had taken notice and acted upon Security Countil resolution 502, a ceasefire would have taken place.

Mr. Viggers

As one who represents a major naval centre, may I point out that we can be as proud of the families of the men of the task force as of the men themselves? On their behalf, may I ask whether it is necessary, for defence reasons, for news to come so slowly from the task force and to be so vague? The families of the men in the task force are left listening to Argentine broadcasts without knowing whether the information has any basis of truth.

Mr. Nott

There is a great problem about the dissemination of information from the task force. I recognise my hon. Friend's concern. We have to respond quickly to factual information as it is received from the task force to counteract the propaganda that so frequently comes out of Buenos Aires, which is both inaccurate and damaging. Therefore, even if the information that we have is sparse, as soon as we receive it we put it out in order to deal with propaganda from the other side. However, we have always informed the next of kin before making a full announcement to the public. There is a difficult balance to be struck between avoiding propaganda from the other side and informing the next of kin before anyone else.

Mr. John Silkin

The Opposition welcome the setting up of a South Atlantic fund. Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that yesterday he was asked about the pension rights of Service men who might be killed or injured? Is he now in a position to make a statement to the House?

Mr. Nott

The dependants of Service men will receive a full pension and a lump sum from the Ministry of Defence. In addition, there is, of course, a war widows' pension from the DHSS. The hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston) asked me about the Merchant Marine. Under an agreement with the National Marine Board, provision has been made for compensation for death and injury to be paid to merchant seamen engaged in war-like operations. The levels were enhanced in early April and apply to those merchant seamen sailing with the task force.

Mr. Robert Atkins

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Sea King helicopters being used in the extremely difficult conditions of the South Atlantic are performing as well as everyone expected? Will he also confirm that the manufacturers have been extremely forthcoming and helpful in supplying spares and technical advice during such a difficult time?

Mr. Nott

I confirm what my hon. Friend said about spares from the manufacturers. We have lost some Sea King helicopters by accident. It has been a tragic loss. However, the losses of helicopters in relation to the amount of flying time undertaken have not been great. Indeed, there have been fewer losses than we might have expected, given that the helicopters have been extremely busy.

Mr. Douglas

Does the Secretary of State accept that the South Atlantic fund should also embrace merchant seamen? Will he make that perfectly clear to all concerned? What will be the future loading on the naval dockyards? Given the strain on them now, some of those on shore are extremely concerned about future employment possibilities.

Mr. Nott

Through the fund, we shall look to the charities for the Merchant Marine as well as to the Service Charities. As a result of the action—and when it is over—there will be additional work in the dockyards. In due course we shall consider that but it would be wrong to make a premature decision about the amount of extra work required.

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