Fortress Falklands Policy (Cost)

– in the House of Commons at 12:48 pm on 22 December 1983.

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Photo of Mr Willie Hamilton Mr Willie Hamilton , Central Fife

The third report of the all-party Select Committee on Defence, published earlier this year as House of Commons Paper 154, dealt with the future defence of the Falkland Islands. Chapter 10 of the report dealt exclusively with cost. I shall not go into the detailed figures provided by the Ministry of Defence, save to say that for the next three years the additional defence costs arising from the Falklands will be about £1,860 million. Moreover, the Government have stated that that extra sum will be added to the existing Defence Estimates when defence is already the main growth area in Government expenditure.

The Government constantly tell us that there is no money. There was a further demonstration of that less than five minutes ago. Conservative Members have appealed to the Government not to close their local hospital, but the Government say that there is no money for hospitals, just as there is little money for housing, nurses' pay or railway modernisation—but, by heaven, for an exercise such as that in the Falklands there is Literally no limit to the money available.

The additional funds for this fortress 8,000 miles away are enormous. Capital expenditure on infrastructure projects now being embarked upon — the building of barracks for the troops and the building of roads where none existed previously, not to mention more than £200 million for the building of an airfield and the additional cost of keeping forces there rather than in the United Kingdom—will amount to £424 million this year, £334 million in 1984–85 and £232 million in 1985–86.

Photo of Mr Willie Hamilton Mr Willie Hamilton , Central Fife

Yes, indeed, and I shall return to that. My hon. Friend knows a great deal about this, as he visited the Falklands with the Select Committee to see where the money was going.

In addition, the cost of replacing equipment lost in the Falklands war is expected to be £870 million in the next three years, followed by a further £200 million to be spent on completing the naval shipbuilding programme. Those are mind-numbing figures, but even they do not tell the whole story. Ministry of Defence figures never do. For instance, they do not take account of inflation, and no element is included for possible increases in the rate of depreciation of aircraft, ships and other equipment through intensive use in appalling weather conditions.

The Select Committee in its conclusions and recommendations expressed some fear — I put it no higher than that—that the vast sums to be spent in the south Atlantic would adversely affect our ability to meet more important defence obligations in the European theatre of NATO. That fear is widely shared by Members on both sides of the House—not least, I suspect, by the Minister himself. His response to the Select Committee's recorrunendations certainly seemed to imply that. Nevertheless, he echoed the Prime Minister's statement that, whatever the cost—we should mark those words—we must go on pouring taxpayers' money into this bottomless pit.

On the Government's estimates, about £2,000 million is to be committed over the next three years, but the waste will almost certainly be far more than that. The Financial Times of 2 February stated: On the Government's published sums the Falklands will however cost £2·52 billion until 1985–86. That £252,000 million of taxpayers' money represents more than £15 million per week until 1985–86. For what? To defend the rights of 1,800 folk in whom successive Governments hitherto expressed no great interest. It works out at about £1·5 million per head. In other words, it would have been cheaper for the Government and the taxpayer to offer the islanders £1 million each to go off to New Zealand, Canada or somewhere else rather than expect the British taxpayer constantly to write out blank cheques on their behalf.

At no time in the United Kingdom, or, I suspect, anywhere in the world, have any Government been so profligate with other people's money. Yet the same Government have the cheek to castigate local councils and, as we heard a few minutes ago, hospital authorities for waste and extravagance. Those bodies are tight-fisted Scrooges compared with the fecklessness of the Government in their Falklands exercise. The hon. Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) referred in the previous debate to the closure of local hospitals due to the "Lawson cuts". Even the Chancellor himself is worried about the enormous bills now being presented to pay for the Falklands folly.

There is great pressure on the Prime Minister from all quarters to unfreeze and to see the folly of her ways. She rode to power in June in large part as a result of the jingoism that she whipped up about the Falklands war. At that time, she uttered fine words direct to the islanders about their "paramount" right to decide what they wanted. That is what the war was all about. Now, however, only 18 months later, the air is thick with chickens coming home to roost, and it is not a pleasant sight for the British taxpayer. In an earlier incarnation the Minister made far more powerful speeches than mine from the Back Benches condemning the Government for their folly in these matters. He was very far-sighted then, but I suspect that he will make a very different speech today because he has been briefed by the Prime Minister.

The Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office must know that we are being hurt in several ways in this regard. The United States, for instance, is determined to go ahead and mend its fences vis-a-vis Argentina and South America generally. It intends to supply arms to Argentina. The Americans say that they are sure that the supplies will not be used in war. I do not know how they can draw the line. Our relations with the United States are being unnecessarily strained as a direct consequence of our inflexible attitude to the Falklands. The so-called special relationship is increasingly becoming nonsense, and the Falklands policy is making it even worse. The present inflexibility of the United Kingdom is also damaging our relations with almost every Latin American country, with no apparent offsetting advantage. As The Sunday Times stated on 11 December, the spending of the colossal sums to which I have referred is a Ruritanian folly, disconnected from any other British defence interests — indeed possibly harmful to more pressing commitments. We all say "hear, hear" to that.

The Falkland islanders are also suffering from these policies. They are living in cloud-cuckoo-land, but it is a cloud-cuckoo-land surrounded by guns, soldiers and war planes. Their way of life, which presumably we fought a war to defend, is being destroyed and can never be restored.

We are rapidly becoming isolated in the world community of nations by the Prime Minister's apparent inability, or unwillingness, to take the initiative that is there for the taking with the advent of a new democratic Government in Argentina. The Government should follow the rule of holes expounded by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey)—"If you are in a hole, for God's sake stop digging." For the sake of the taxpayers and the national interest, the Government should swallow their pride and talk to the new Argentine Government. It is not enough just to send Christmas greetings, as the Prime Minister has done. Let us exchange ambassadors and start talking without preconditions. Let us not say that sovereignty is not on the table. Whether we like it or not, sovereignty has to be on the table. We cannot for ever pretend to sustain a fortress 8,000 miles away which has no conceivable defence interest for us at all.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

My hon. Friend is not alone in holding those views. It is not only Opposition Members who feel that the Government should take the action that he suggests. Only last week, the South Atlantic Council was formed. It includes Churchmen of all denominations, academics and members of every party, including the hon. Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend), who is present today. We are urging the Prime Minister to take the action suggested by my hon. Friend. His views, which are widespread throughout the country, are held by an increasing number of Conservative Members.

Photo of Mr Willie Hamilton Mr Willie Hamilton , Central Fife

The Minister knows that that is so. I hope that he will concede that there is increasing pressure from all parts of the political spectrum and all areas of national life for a change in policy. We cannot continue to allow our resources to be drained away to the south Atlantic for no long-term or even short-term reason.

The Government accept that it is inevitable that the Chinese will soon be in control of Hong Kong. There is no question of sending a task force there, despite what the residents might want. Gibraltar is a similar case. So, too, we shall have to bow to the inevitable in the south Atlantic. If we do not, as revenues from North sea oil start to decline and hundreds of millions of pounds are drained away for the south Atlantic, the British economy will soon end up in the knacker's yard.

I hope that the Government will see sense before it is too late, talk about sovereignty with the Argentine Government, and tell the Falkland islanders that they cannot have a veto over what Parliament and the British Government may decide that their future shall be.

Photo of Sir Ray Whitney Sir Ray Whitney , Wycombe 1:15, 22 December 1983

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) for giving us an opportunity to review yet again a very important problem that the House should constantly consider. Despite his invitations, the hon. Gentleman will not expect me to accept his thesis. I shall try to show that in a number of areas he is in danger of allowing his own political prejudices to creep in and colour what is, I accept, his very sincere concern.

It was not our choice to develop what the hon. Gentleman is pleased to call—we believe it to be a misnomer — fortress Falklands. The development of adequate defences was forced on us by the action of the Argentine military junta in April 1982. The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to refer to the speech that I made on the day after the invasion. I am very happy to recall what I said on that occasion. I urged the Government, as our fleet steamed to the south Atlantic, to negotiate earnestly to find a way to a peaceful resolution of the problem, involving the removal of the Argentine forces and security for the future of the Falkland islanders. If the hon. Gentleman read once again the White Paper on the negotiations, even he would have to accept that, in the six or seven weeks following the launching of the task force, the Government negotiated with great seriousness and sincerity. Sadly, the Argentine military regime under General Galtieri decided, for very ill-advised reasons, that it was not necessary to pursue the path of negotiation. The Argentines believed that they could hold on to what they had gained by military invasion.

The British people fully supported the Government at that time in the action that they took. It was an incredible performance by the British people. In the initial debate, the Government were strongly supported by most Opposition Members. During the following weeks, as the series of Falkland islands debates unfolded, the position of the Labour party changed step by step. However, the basic proposition that we could not tolerate such an invasion without ensuring that it was brought to an end was at one stage accepted by the vast majority of people in this country and by most right hon. and hon. Members.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the sums involved in meeting the obligations that have been—I emphasise once again — forced upon us by the action of the previous Argentine Government. I confirm that in this year's defence budget there is an additional £624 million for Falklands costs, including £424 million for the extra cost of the garrison. The residue is for the continuing costs of the operation, principally, the replacement of equipment lost in the campaign. Next year, the corresponding figure will be £684 million of which £324 million—about 2 per cent. of total planned expenditure —is for the Falklands garrison. Those figures include the capital costs of the new airfield which, when completed, will facilitate the reinforcement of the garrison should, as we all hope will not be the case, it ever become necessary and the Falklands come under threat again.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will also accept that the development of the airfield will go a long way towards fulfilling one important recommendation of Lord Shackleton and his colleagues, that such an airfield is needed for the economic development of the islands. However costly the airport undoubtedly is, it must be accepted for the strategic requirement forced upon us. I hope the hon. Gentleman will take some cognisance of the impact that it will have on the island's economic development.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned anxieties about the effects on NATO. That is fully appreciated by my right hon. Friends, and it is precisely because of that that we have assured ourselves that our NATO commitment is not weakened by that additional expenditure. In many ways, there will be assets for the Ministry of Defence which we hope in the future will increase the overall effectiveness of our armed forces.

Photo of Mr Cyril Townsend Mr Cyril Townsend , Bexleyheath

My hon. Friend has made a serious point when he says that our NATO forces will not be weakened. Is that correct, bearing in mind that some five out of 50 surface ships are permanently engaged in defending the Falkland Islands and their immediate environment? Would it not be more realistic for the Front Bench to express some worry about that maritime commitment?

Photo of Sir Ray Whitney Sir Ray Whitney , Wycombe

I recognise that there is a problem. My right hon. Friends understand that. We cannot have it both ways. The complaint is of great defence expenditure being incurred. One of the problems it that we must ensure that our overall defence capability is being maintained It is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for

Defence rather than a junior Minister in the Foreign Office, but I understand that our NATO allies recognise the problem and are content that the overall NATO capability is not diminished.

The hon. Member for Fife, Central levied charges of fecklessness, profligacy and similar hyperbole against us. I do not believe that we can be feckless or profligate in defence of the important principle of freedom. I hope that the hon. Member will not pretend to put a price on that concept. The Government did not and will not. The hon. Gentleman used the term "Falklands folly". That was not a term recognised by his right hon. Friends speaking from the Opposition Front Bench a year or so ago. It was not "Falklands folly"; it was a necessary Falklands rescue operation.

The hon. Gentleman referred to developments in Argentina. I am happy to share his view of those, as is my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. On reflection, I hope that he will give significantly more weight to the Prime Minister's message than he was prepared to do. He suggested that it was an exchange of "Happy Christmas" messages to president Alfonsin on the occasion of his inauguration on 10 December. It went a great deal further than that. It was a manifestation of the wish that we have constantly expressed for a return to a normal, rational relationship with Argentina. That has been the Government's consistent policy. I remind the House of my right hon. Friend's message: On the occasion of your inauguration I wanted to let you know that, although we have many differences, we can all take pleasure in the restoration of democracy to Argentina, believing it will bring freedom and justice to all your people. Today brings new hope to your country.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister sent that message to President Alfonsin. Does the Minister accept that to encourage the development of democracy in Argentina we need to be seen to be working with that democratic Government in a way in which we were completely and rightly unprepared to work with the junta? To do that, sovereignty must come into the discussions. The Minister, his colleagues and the Prime Minister constantly say that any solution must have the approval and acceptance of the Falklands islanders. I do not dissent from the fact that they must be involved in the solution. With the changed circumstances of democracy in Argentina, and because the Falkland islanders must live in peace with their near neighbours, what initiatives are the Minister and his colleagues taking to talk to the Falkland islanders to find out what they now think?

Photo of Sir Ray Whitney Sir Ray Whitney , Wycombe

The hon. Gentleman cannot sustain the proposition that the development and flourishing of democracy in Argentina is relevant to doing something aginst the democratic wishes of the Falkland islanders. We welcome the elections and their result, as my right hon. Friend made clear to the world. We look forward to the continuing development of democratic institutions in the new Argentina, which has undergone 50 years of troubled constitutional history. However, that matter is essentially for the people of Argentina. We wish them well, but it is their responsibility and concern; it is not directly ours. Our responsibilities and concerns are for the people of this country and its dependencies, which include the people of the Falkland Islands. Our commitment to their future must and will remain, but that does not mean we are not looking for—to borrow a phrase from another context—a dual-track policy.

We must maintain our commitment to the Falkland Islands and at the same time seek a positive development of sensible, normal relations with the new Government of Argentina. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that that is sensible. I am certain that the British people accept it is sensible, as indeed, I am sure the Falkland islanders do. On the other point that the hon. Gentleman made, of course, we continue to keep in close touch with the Falkland islanders about all these important developments. I urge the House to recognise the fact that this was not of our doing. It is not fortress Falklands. It is the minimum response to a situation which was forced upon us. At the same time, we remain fully disposed to developing our relations with Argentina.

Photo of Mr Cyril Townsend Mr Cyril Townsend , Bexleyheath

Does my hon. Friend appreciate that many Conservative Members welcome the Prime Minister's recent statement, but believe that within the next few weeks the Government must go further and faster? Will he pay particular regard to the possibility of a visit by the relatives of the Argentine dead to the Falkland Islands?

Photo of Sir Ray Whitney Sir Ray Whitney , Wycombe

I am certainly happy to endorse the view that there should be a properly organised visit by the relatives of the dead, such as they have been offered. My hon. Friend will recall the activities of one Mr. de Stefanis who soured an earlier prospective visit in which the International Red Cross was involved. We would welcome any renewal of such an initiative.

In conclusion, I repeat that this is a dual-track policy. We also have responsibilities, which we shall not shrink from upholding. I am confident that in maintaining those responsibilities, we shall have the support of the British people.