Orders of the Day — Foreign Affairs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:57 pm on 4th November 1982.

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Photo of Lord James Douglas-Hamilton Lord James Douglas-Hamilton , Edinburgh West 5:57 pm, 4th November 1982

The hon. Member for Aberdare (Mr. Evans) spoke with passion and at some length. I shall not follow him in many of the issues that he mentioned, but he spoke of the Falklands. It was refreshing to hear the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) say that this was not the time for direct negotiations with Argentina. However, he was a little premature in the way that he dismissed Lord Shackleton's report without discussing its merits, although I understood what the right hon. Gentleman was saying.

There is one aspect of that report to which I shall refer, and that is the question of having a runway on the Falkland Islands capable of taking civilian aircraft. On page 14 the report says: The establishment of regular civil air communications with the Islands is an absolute priority. Without it, little or no development would take place, the economy would decline further, and the sense of isolation would probably be unacceptable to the majority of Falkland Islanders.

Lord Shackleton goes considerably further later, when he says on page 99: A regular air service with the Islands must again be introduced if the Falkland Islands are to have a future beyond the short term. This is true for reasons of economic development and social welfare. For most of the development possibilities considered, particularly concerning natural resources and tourism, an air service is essential, and if one is not provided the morale of the Islanders will suffer.

That theme runs through the whole report, and the need to provide an air strip capable of taking civilian aircraft is extremely important for tourism. The Falkland Islands will never have a vast tourist industry, but Lord Shackleton suggests that it could be expanded from 200 to 300 people a year to 2,000 to 3,000 a year. This could bring more jobs, and Its attraction is that it offers organic growth of the economy which could be combined with and help to sustain the existing sheep farming activities on the Island.

There are two problems raised in this connection. The first is that the extension of the runway in its present form is neither long enough nor broad enough to accommodate civilian aircraft according to the strict and stringent regulations of the Civil Aviation Authority. The parliamentary answer from my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) last week stated that civilian aircraft would need a runway of 8,500 ft. The existing runway is merely 6,100 ft. It would therefore have to be extended, and Lord Shackleton estimated that the cost would be between £30 million and £35 million, and that if the existing runway were not extended another runway would cost about the same.

The second difficulty—apart from the considerations of cost and extension or of having a different runway—is that mentioned by the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow), when he said that there would be the problem, in cases of emergency, of diversion to other airfields in other countries—and, of course, the Civil Aviation Authority would not allow in-flight refuelling of civilian aircraft.

It is my contention that the problem can be solved. The French have a problem exactly like it in relation to the Austral Islands in the Southern Pacific. The French have what they call an island diversion scheme. The aircraft has the capacity to take more fuel, and with it the capacity to circle for more than 2½ hours until the weather clears so that it can get down. With modern navigational aids and weather forecasting now being so advanced, and with the capacity to circle for an extra 2½ hours with more fuel, there is no problem for the French in establishing a civilian air link.

Naturally, if the island diversion scheme were applied in the Falklands, a longer runway, or a different runway, would be needed. Without it, aircraft could not take off or land with the extra fuel required to enable them to circle for 2½ hours in the event of an emergency. If the French can do it in relation to their islands in the Southern Pacific, surely we could do it in relation to the South Atlantic. That is the simple point that I wish to put to the Minister. I ask him to look very carefully at the French experience in relation to the Austral Islands.

If we had the capacity to do it—and I believe that we could have—is it necessary and is it desirable? Having established that it can be done, I would argue that it should be done, for three reasons.

First, if the United States is to vote that the Argentine and Britain should have direct negotiations over sovereignty, that will represent a weakening of resolve to take the interests of the islanders fully into account in all circumstances, since the resolution, as I understand it, makes no mention of the rights and freedoms of the Falkland Islanders. If that is to be the position of the United States, it is all the more important that the islanders and the Argentine should be in no doubt of the weight of the British commitment to the Falkland Islanders.

There is reason to believe that the islanders and the Argentines see the full development of the runway, or of a new runway, for civilian aircraft, as a test of the strength of the British support for the islanders. A full development of the runway, or of a new runway, would be seen as an assurance of intent for the future. I hope that the Minister will regard it as of fundamental importance as an assurance of our intent.

Secondly, it will not have escaped the notice of the Ministry of Defence that a fully lengthened runway would also be of benefit in increasing the possibilities of reinforcing the islands with a brigade at very short notice, through the use of VC10 aircraft flying direct from the Ascension Islands in the event of any future potential threat. Although the existing runway has been slightly developed, the VC1Os cannot use it, and the islands are dependent on supplies from the sea, supported by flight-refuelled C130s. I contend that the use of VC10s, which could land on an extended or new runway, would be much more rapid and efficient and have much military advantage. The full extension of the runway, or a new one, would not only assist the economy of the islands; it would enhance the security, very much on the basis of the words of the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan), that an ounce of deterrence is worth a ton of defence.

The third reason for developing the runway is that from 1951 to 1973—more than 20 years—the outflow of funds from the Falklands to the United Kingdom was considerably greater than the inflow of funds to the Falklands. The Shackleton report, on page 33, states: One of the major findings of the 1976 Report was that there had been a continual outflow of funds over the years from the Falkland Islands to the United Kingdom, largely in the form of company dividends and undistributed profits which were not reinvested locally … It was pointed out that the United Kingdom Exchequer had gained substantial amounts from taxes on the outflow of funds and it was estimated that for the 1951 to 1973 period the United Kingdom direct tax take (about £1·9 million) on dividends and profits from this flow of funds was approximately twice the amount given as United Kingdom aid to the Falklands (£0·9 million).

Because more funds were taken out of the Falklands than were put into the islands over the years, we owe it to the Falkland Islanders today to redress that balance, so that neither they nor anyone else should be in any doubt as to our resolve and intent.

When Lord Shackleton's first report was published relatively little was done about it, and I hope that the publication of his second report will, at the least, lead to the runway being lengthened or to an alternative runway being built, in the interests of the islanders. Such a development would, I believe, be in accord with the spirit of the Queen's Speech.

I was delighted and proud that during the Falklands crisis some of my constituents, in the Ferranti factory in my constituency, worked literally round the clock to make certain that Royal Air Force Harriers would have the capability to fly off aircraft carriers with the most advanced avionics equipment in the world. We do not often have to work 24 hours a day ourselves. My constituents—and, I am sure, many others—believe that we owe it to the Falklanders, and to those who died for them in the Falklands, to do everything that we can for their well-being and their security.