HC Deb 07 November 1984 vol 67 cc106-11 2.35 pm
Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Defence what has happened to the log book of HMS Conqueror.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Michael Heseltine)

During the Falklands campaign, HMS Conqueror kept an account containing detailed operational information which was used to compile the submarine's formal report of proceedings. This is a classified document and is in the possession of the Ministry of Defence.

The submarine's navigating officer also kept a "control room log" which records the latitude and longitude, distance run, course, speed and depth of the submarine at hourly intervals together with other routine readings. This document contains no tactical information. It has been mislaid and as it, too, is classified, a board of inquiry' is being held.

Mr. Davies

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for answering the question. His astonishing admission that he, his Department and the Navy, apparently, have lost—some unkind souls might say conveniently lost — the navigation log book not of some cross-channel ferry but of HMS Conqueror, is another extraordinary episode in the Government's pathetic attempts to explain away all the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the General Belgrano.

Will the Secretary of State agree that there are only two explanations of what has happened to the log book? The first is that it has been lost through gross incompetence on the part of the Navy, but very few people believe that the Navy loses log books of that kind. The second is that it has been stolen — and may have been destroyed — by someone who thinks that details contained in the log book are embarrassing not only to Her Majesty's Government but to the Prime Minister personally.

Is it not a fact that this highly classified document would contain all the details of the movements not only of Conqueror but possibly of the Belgrano as well, on 30 April, when the rules of engagement were changed; on 1 May, when, we are now told—although we were not told originally—Conqueror spotted the Belgrano; and on 2 May, when the Belgrano was sunk. Would not the log book — the Secretary of State tries to downgrade its importance — have contained all the details of the movements of those two ships, certainly for those three days?

Will the Secretary of State and the Government at last come clean, treat this House with some respect, and give us a full clear, honest and truthful account of all the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the sinking of the Belgrano?

Mr. Heseltine

The right hon. Member will realise that, once an inquiry is set up within the Ministry of Defence, it is incumbent on us to find out what the inquiry reveals before reaching judgments about it in advance.

The right hon. Member makes a more serious allegation in which he invites me to come clean about the sinking of the Belgrano. Unhesitatingly I do it. The decision was taken in order to protect British lives. [Interruption.] The House and the country are sick and tired of the way— [Interruption.]—that Opposition Members, for narrow and inexplicable reasons, pursue a campaign against British national interests.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

I agree that the loss of any classified document is a serious matter and worthy of an inquiry, but does not my right hon. Friend agree that the sinking of the Belgrano by HMS Conqueror in effect put the Argentine navy out of the war, and so protected British lives and ensured the success of the Falkland Islands operation?

Mr. Heseltine

There were undoubted consequences, although the House will be aware that we suffered serious losses after the sinking of the Belgrano, particularly the sinking of HMS Sheffield. Therefore, I very much accept the linkage made by my hon. Friend. The important point is that the Government took military advice in connection with the sinking of the Belgrano expeditiously and, in my view, unavoidably. What Opposition Members must ensure that the House understands is that, if they had rejected that military advice, they would have put our lives at risk.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

Does the Secretary of State accept that many right hon. and hon. Members have never sought and do not intend to seek to attack the decision taken by the war cabinet on 30 April to sink the aircraft carrier, which was the first and major military decision on the advice of the Chiefs of Staff? Secondly, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that many of us do not believe that by sinking the Belgrano on 2 May, there was any intention to sink any peace initiative that may or may not have been under way with the Peruvians? What we are not sick and tired of, and what the country will never be sick and tired of, is insisting that the truth be told to the House of Commons. We now find ourselves in a situation in which the Prime Minister, a Secretary of State and several junior Ministers in the Government are on record in Hansard as making statements in the House of Commons that we now know not to be true. We have the right and, indeed, the duty to demand that the Government correct the record of Hansard in any way that they see fit, preferably through a White Paper that can then be debated — and the sooner the better.

Mr. Heseltine

The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to draw the attention of the House to the fact that there are differing views about the sinking of the Belgrano, and I would in no way seek to associate him with the views of the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies), but he will have heard, as I did, the right hon. Gentleman clearly suggest that the log book to which I referred had been "conveniently" lost. There is only one clear implication in that statement. It was to that statement that I was addressing my reply.

I should like to deal now with what was said by the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), who, I totally accept, adopts a very different approach to the matter. As the Minister now responsible for advising the Prime Minister on these matters, I have been meticulously through the records, and wherever I felt that it was possible to advise the Prime Minister, having regard to all national interests, that the record could be changed, it has been changed to correct it. The Prime Minister, in letters that are well known, well documented and well publicised, has always accepted the advice that she has been given that, if inaccuracies have been found, they should be put right. She has been meticulous in adjusting the record immediately to come to the facts of the matter.

Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

Is it not a sign of the death wish in the Labour party that Labour Members should be so anxious to exculpate Argentina, the aggressor against our British fellow subjects in the Falkland Islands, and to damage the reputation of the Royal Navy and the British nation, which unitedly repelled that aggression from those British islands?

Mr. Heseltine

I totally accept my hon. Friend's views. It is extraordinary that so many Members of the House are apparently more interested in the views provided for them by Argentine sources than those provided by their own Government. But when my hon. Friend refers to a death wish on the part of the Opposition, I find one curious contradiction. It is difficult for corpses to die twice.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

I should like to return to the log, which I understand is the subject of this private notice question — [Interruption.] I shall deal with that later. Is the Secretary of State aware that when I asked the Prime Minister two parliamentary questions on 22 and 29 October this year, she apparently referred to and consulted the log before replying to them? Is the Secretary of State also aware that someone has been called to the board of inquiry from Orkney who has had no connection with the Conqueror for at least a year? Can the Secretary of State tell us exactly when he, or officers of his Department, last saw the log?

Mr. Heseltine

The Prime Minister, in replying to the hon. Gentleman, relied upon general classification rules which would apply to all such log books.

On the second point, I very much doubt whether Ministers have seen the log.

Mr. Foulkes

Or officials of the Department?

Mr. Heseltine

I would have to inquire into that. [Interruption.] I believe—I will verify this—that the log would be in the hands of the Navy and that it would not have come into the hands of officials of my Department. I will check on the situation. As I made plain in my first reply, the log is a routine document such as is carried by all submarines and ships, and I believe that as such it would not normally come to officials in the Ministry of Defence.

Mrs. Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

Will my right hon. Friend emphasise that, as he told the Select Committee in his evidence this morning, there is a vast difference between the navigator's log and the captain's log? Is it not quite extraordinary that Opposition Members seem to pay more attention to information planted or leaked by the Argentines than to our own officials, or our own Royal Navy?

Mr. Heseltine

My hon. Friend is perfectly right about the fact that Opposition Members seem more inclined to listen to information provided by former enemies of this country than that provided by their own Government.

She is also perfectly right to draw our attention to the distinction between the records that the captain would keep and the record in the log that we are considering, which would not include any tactical information or any references to the position of Argentine ships. The record in the commander's log would be very different, and that document is in the secure keeping of the Ministry of Defence.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

Is the Secretary of State aware that, as Argentina had engaged in unprovoked aggression, anything that happened to the Argentine armed forces, including war vessels, was brought on themselves? The course of the Belgrano is totally irrelevant. However, is the right hon. Gentleman also aware that certain questions remain to be answered and that, in those circumstances, the fact that the log is missing is more serious and may have sinister connotations? It is essential that the log should be traced as quickly as possible.

Mr. Heseltine

I very much support what the right hon. Gentleman has said. This is a serious matter, and that is why a board of inquiry is looking into the circumstances surrounding the loss. As soon as I can reach a conclusion which is based on what I am told by the inquiry, I shall be very pleased.

Sir John Farr (Harborough)

In my view, the sinking of the Belgrano was absolutely necessary and HMS Conqueror did a very good job. Nevertheless, the loss of a log book is a serious matter. Can my right hon. Friend tell me whether, with the modern electronic methods of communication with vessels under water anywhere in the world, it would not have been possible to track HMS Conqueror's passage under water at that time? If that is so, would a copy of such a record not be available in the Ministry of Defence?

Mr. Heseltime

I very much agree with my hon. Friend's first point. However, I doubt whether there would be sufficient certainty about electronic communications to enable them to replace the manual log records which we are discussing. To the best of my knowledge, manual methods are indispensable to the keeping of a routine record.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

Those of us who have been in war know what happens in war. However, statements were made to this House in good faith and then withdrawn, and that created the impression outside the House that something untoward was happening. The loss of the log book has added to that feeling. Would it not therefore be a good idea to publish a White Paper giving all the facts?

Mr. Heseltine

I have great respect for the role played by the right hon. Gentleman in the investigation of the surroundings of the Falklands war. I take seriously the point that he has made, which has also been made by other hon. Members. However, my conclusion reluctantly has to be that, having meticulously checked the information and in the light of the widest interests of national security, the Government have corrected—wherever possible and appropriate—the record of things said to the House with the best of intentions but without all the information which is often difficult quickly to obtain in wartime. Despite the fact that the record has been corrected and that the Prime Minister has set out the scene in the widest possible context, the same persistent inquiries continue to try and obtain information that the Prime Minister has rightly made it clear no responsible Government would consider publishing. It is in complete contrast with the way in which intelligence sources from Argentina are used by various parties in this country to try to illicit from the Government comments on such matters which could only be against the national interest, and no Government will do that.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

Unless my constituents are wholly different from those of the other 649 constituencies, they are—

Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North)

They are very lucky.

Mr. Adley

My hon. Friend, from whom I have acquired many of them, will confirm that that is not so. My constituents are not only disinterested in the matter, as a matter of current events, but they are appalled to think that Her Majesty's loyal Opposition, who are supposed to go under that name, spend their time doing nothing but denigrate the Government of the day who were doing what they were supposed to do, were they not, in pursuing a war started by our enemies? Does my right hon. Friend not believe that the biblical phrase "love thine enemy" has now reached ridiculous proportions in the way in which the Opposition appear to swallow everything in favour of Argentina, and do everything that they can to denigrate Her Majesty's Government and the Royal Navy?

Mr. Heseltine

Many of us have always had the most profound admiration for the judgment of my hon. Friend's constituents for sending him back here with one of the largest Conservative majorities in the country. I share his judgment that the overwhelming majority of people in this country believe that the Prime Minister acted correctly and would have had only one criticism—if she had taken any decision other than the one that she did.

Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

Does the Secretary of State agree that we are not dealing with the Prime Minister's judgment today; we are dealing with the loss of a log book? Does he further agree that, if he were on the Opposition Benches, he would not be describing it as a routine document; he would be lashing the Government of the day for the loss of a valuable document which he has described as classified? First, will he tell us what the classification was, and, secondly, will he confirm that he does not know when it was lost?

Mr. Heseltine

I can confirm that I do not yet have the full facts about the loss of this document. That is one of the matters to which the board of inquiry is appropriately addressing itself. I cannot be expected to define the document in the Ministry of Defence as though I were on the Opposition Benches, particularly as I happen to have the definition of the log books given to me by those people who know what log books are. It seems appropriate that, as Secretary of State for Defence, I should rely upon the Royal Navy rather than Her Majesty's loyal Opposition.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that we are talking about the navigator's notebook, which is a jottings pad used by a navigator for fixes and other relevant navigational information? We are not talking about the ship's log. The ship's log of HMS Conqueror has all the information as to what that ship was doing, where it was, where it was going and the exercises or undertakings that it was, on.

Mr. Heseltine

My hon. Friend is correct. I tried to make that distinction in the reply that I first gave to the House. I have already seen a pro forma copy of one of these documents. Indeed, I have one in front of me. It is a technical record kept by the ship's navigator and duty officers. It gives technical information and it is not a record from the captain or commanding officer dealing with the wider issues. [HON. MEMBERS: "Is it important?"] I am asked whether the document is important. Certainly it is important, and that is why it is classified. It is not important in the context of trying to see the tactical judgment reached by the commanding officer, but it is important to our enemies in trying to see the way in which the Royal Navy disposes of its ships at sea. If the Opposition's suggestion is that the Royal Navy should publish technical details of its military tactics, that would be a major breach of the national interest.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)

Will the Secretary of State make it clear that a helmsman's log of this type would be of vital significance in determining the position and manoeuvring characteristics of the ship when going into action? Does he agree that in any inquiry into the sinking of a foreign vessel such a document would be of the utmost importance to the Admiralty and to the Ministry of Defence in examining the conduct of the commander of the vessel? What instructions has the right hon. Gentleman now given to secure all logs of all the vessels in that campaign to ensure that there is no repetition of such vital documents being lost or misplaced?

Mr. Heseltine

The standing orders of the Department would be appropriate to secure the records of the Department. The fact that there has been a breach is a matter of concern and the subject of an inquiry. The hon. Gentleman's first question makes my point for me. A revelation of the way in which our ships negotiate pending an attack would convey nothing to the Admiralty, which would have designed the tactics, but it would tell enemies or potential enemies how we pursue that kind of activity.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that this is a private notice question. We have spent 20 minutes on it. As there is important business before us, I think that we should now move on.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you confirm that Select Committees of the House have a right to call for persons and papers appropriate to their inquiries? Will you give the House guidance as to the right of the Executive to withhold papers from Select Committees? On what classification can that be done? On behalf of the House and members of Select Committees, will you make inquiries of the Ministry of Defence as to the terms of reference of its inquiry and when it intends to make available all the papers requested by Select Committees?

Mr. Speaker

I think that the House is well aware of the rules governing Select Committees. If a Select Committee is not satisfied with the information provided or believes that information has been withheld, it is up to the Select Committee to make a report to the House. I have had no such report on this matter.