Speech on the Franks Report on the Conduct of the Falklands War
Category: Falklands War
The House will recall that six days after the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands I announced in reply to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) that a review would be held of the way in which the responsibilities of Government were discharged in the period leading up to the invasion.
Following the liberation of the islands, I consulted the Leader of the Opposition, and Privy Councillors in other Opposition parties, about establishing a Committee to undertake the review. These consultations led to agreement both about the terms of reference of the review and its membership under the chairmanship of Lord Franks. Later, the House agreed without a Division a motion to approve the establishment of the Committee.
On that occasion the Leader of the Opposition, who proposed the names of two of the six members of the committee, said:
“The inquiry will deal with a serious and important matter, and it will be of great benefit to the country if the matter, is probed in the way in which the House is determined that it should be. I believe that the names of those appointed to the Committee are the Guarantee that that will be so.”[Official Report, 8 July 1982; Vol. 27, c. 476.]
The committee had access to all relevant Cabinet and Cabinet Committee papers and to a comprehensive collection of reports from the intelligence agencies. It saw not only the papers of the present Administration but those of previous Administrations also. Each member of the committee read these papers personally, and did not rely on summaries or extracts. They had access to and saw far more papers than anyone else has seen, and interviewed more people.
I shall follow the structure of the report, Mr. Speaker, dealing in turn, first, with the fundamental nature of the dispute and the way that successive Governments tried to deal with it; secondly, with the period preceding the invasion and some points that have been made about the Government's actions during that time; thirdly, with the main conclusions of the report and the Government's reactions to them. Throughout I shall try to follow Lord Franks' advice that his report should be read as a whole, and his warning against the dangers of hindsight.
The fundamental dilemma is plain from the report. Argentina was interested in only one thingsovereignty over the Falkland Islands and, if it could get it, over the dependencies as well. Successive British Governments recognised that any solution had to be acceptable to the islanders and sought to achieve that solution by negotiation. The inherent contradiction was evident. No solution which satisfied the Argentine demand for sovereignty pure and simple could possibly be reconciled with the wishes of the islanders or of this House.
Chapter I of the reporta valuable historical analysis of the period from 1965 to 1979illustrates clearly the recurrence of certain features in the policies pursued by successive British Governments, in the intelligence assessments they received and in the military assessments prepared by the chiefs of staff.
The year 1967 was a landmark in that the then Labour Government were the first British Government to state formally to Argentina that they would be prepared to cede sovereignty over the islands under certain conditions, provided that the wishes of the islanders were respected. Following agreement at official level with Argentina on a memorandum of understanding, Lord Chalfont visited the islands to explain the policy that the Government had been pursuing.
In the light of the reaction both in the islands and in this country, the Government decided not to continue to attempt to reach a settlement on the basis of the memorandum. Nevertheless, it was recognised even at that stage that
“failure to reach an understanding with Argentina carried the risks of increased harassment of the Islanders and the possibility of an attack.”
The Government therefore decided to continue negotiations, while making clear the British attitude on sovereignty, and that the islanders' wishes were paramount. Talks were resumed in 1969.
Following the change of Government in June 1970, a communications agreement was signed, but Argentina pressed for talks on sovereignty and in 1974 attention turned to the possibility of condominium which was explored with the islanders and then dropped.
Towards the end of 1973, the Joint Intelligence Committee assessed that Argentina attitudes were hardening and for the first time there were signs that Argentina might be preparing contingency plans for an occupation of the islands.
In 1974, official military action was considered unlikely as long as Argentina believed that the British Government were prepared to negotiate on sovereignty, but the JIC did not rule out that military action. In December 1974, an Argentine newspaper mounted a press campaign advocating invasion of the islands. This pattern of hardening Argentine attitudes, the possibility of military action and a press campaign advocating it would be seen again.
This historical background is important because a good deal of recent comment has suggested that the circumstances in early 1982 were entirely new.
In 1975, lease-back was proposed for the first time. It was an Argentine suggestion in response to a British proposal for joint development of economic resources of the south west Atlantic. The Argentine Foreign Minister also proposed that Argentina should occupy South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. That proposal was unacceptable to Britain, and the absence of talks on sovereignty was unacceptable to the Argentines. For some time following that, there were no negotiations.
The economic survey by Lord Shackleton in 197576 provoked a hostile Argentine reaction and relations deteriorated sharply in 1976. Our ambassador was told by the Argentine Foreign Minister that if the British Government refused to resume negotiations
“we were rapidly moving towards a head-on collision “ in the end he could only see one course open to Argentina irrespective of what Government might be in power “ Fortified by the support of the entire Argentine nations as well as all the other nations of the world assembled in New York, his Government could accept no responsibility for such a disastrous outcome.”
That was in 1976. No stronger threat was issued by an Argentine Foreign Minister throughout the period covered by the report. Ambassadors were withdrawn and newspapers in Buenos Aires advocated invasion, although in veiled terms.
In January 1976, the JIC assessed that a sudden invasion was unlikely but that there was an increased likelihood of Argentine political and economic action against British interests and that as the sequence of Argentine measures proceeded the possibility of military operations must be regarded as that much nearer. The pattern was similar to that in 1974 and was to be seen again.
On 4 February 1976, shots were fired at the unarmed research ship RRS “Shackleton” 78 miles south of Port Stanley, and an unsuccessful attempt by the Argentines was made to arrest her.
A week later the then Minister of State at the Foreign Office went to New York for talks with the new Argentine Foreign Minister at which, according to the report, he was instructed by the then Foreign Secretary [James Callaghan] to ask what proposals the Argentines had about discussions on sovereignty. Again, this is worth noting, for the Argentines were to be asked a similar question in September 1981, to which the Franks report also refers.
In February 1976 the chiefs of staff produced a paper on military options, the first of four such papers. According to the Franks report, all were similar in scope, and the language used was substantially the same. Having noted the limitation of the airstrip at Port Stanley and other difficulties, the 1976 paper continued:
“It would not be practicable to provide, transport and support the force necessary in the Islands to ensure that a determined Argentine attempt to eject the British garrison was unsuccessful”.
In December of the same year an Argentine military presence was discovered in the British territory of Southern Thule. The Labour Government took no steps to make that fact public, and it did not become known to the House until May 1978some 16 months later. Formal protests were made to Argentine at the time, but the Franks report states that the Argentine expectation had been that the British reaction would have been much stronger.
A JIC assessment in January 1977 concluded that the Argentine Government were unlikely to order withdrawal until it suited them to do so and, depending on the British Government's actions in the situation, could be encouraged to attempt further military measures against British interests in the area.
There was evidence at that time of an Argentine contingency plan for a joint air force and navy invasion of the Falkland Islands, but later intelligence suggested that that plan had been shelvednot because of any action by the then British Government, but because Argentina could not count on the support of the Third world or the Communist bloc.
In February 1977, some two months after the discovery of the occupation of Southern Thule, but without referring to it, Mr. Crosland told the House that the time had come to consider with the islanders and the Argentine Government whether a climate existed for further talks. At the same time, he announced that the Government did not accept the more costly recommendations in the Shackleton report, notably the enlargement of the airport and the lengthening of the runway. At a time when Argentina had just occupied British territory, what sort of a signal was that?
In July 1977, the then Labour Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), presented a paper to the Overseas and Defence Policy Committee which, as the report states
“argued that serious and substantive negotiations were necessary to keep the Argentines in play, since the Islands were militarily indefensible except by a major costly and unacceptable diversion of current resources”.
The committee decided that the aim should be to keep the negotiations going. The report continues:
“Broadly speaking, the Government's strategy was to retain sovereignty as long as possible, if necessary making concessions in respect of the Dependencies and the maritime resources in the area, while recognising that ultimately only some form of leaseback arrangement was likely to satisfy Argentina”.
In view of that, it was surprising, to say the least, that in December 1980 the then shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore), condemned the lease-back proposal when it was put to the House by my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary [Nicholas Ridley]some advertisement for collective decision!
We are told that in the talks the British side put forward the idea that the sovereignty of the uninhabited dependencies might be “looked at separately” from the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands themselves. The Argentine reaction to that further signal is not recorded.
Franks uses a similar phrase to that used to describe the position at the end of 1973
“the Argentine position was hardening.”
Indeed it was. Argentine naval units arrested seven Soviet and two Bulgarian fishing vessels in Falkland waters. Shots were fired at one of the Bulgarian ships and there were orders to sink the vessel if necessary. The British Government were officially informed that there would be a similar riposte to intrusions by any other flag carrier and at any other place.
The JIC concluded that if negotiations broke down, or if Argentina concluded that there was no real prospect of their resulting in a transfer of sovereignty, there would be
“a high risk of its then resorting to more forceful measures, including direct military action”.
Invasion of the Falklands was, in the JIC's view, unlikely but “could not be discounted”. That was a situation of unparalleled tension in the history of the dispute. Nothing comparable existed in March 1982, as the report itself points out.
I wish to say a word about the despatch of one nuclear submarine and two frigates to the south Atlantic by the Labour Government in November 1977. According to the report, Ministers accepted that
“Such a force would not be able to deal with a determined Argentine attack”.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian) rose
The Prime Minister
I wish to continue, as I am in the middle of making a point.
According to the report, Ministers accepted that such a force could not deal with a determined Argentine attack. What, one must ask, would that force have done if, wholly without air cover, it had met such an attack?
Mr. Dalyell rose
The Prime Minister
When I finish this section. I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.
Further, the report found no evidence that Argentina ever came to know of its existence. So I hope that the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) will tell us in the course of this debate what he meant when he told the House on 30 March last year that
“when the fact”
of this force
“became known, without fuss and publicity, a diplomatic solution followed”.[Official Report, 30 March 1982; Vol. 21, c. 168.]
If the Prime Minister is correct in saying that nothing comparable existed in March 1982, why is it that in paragraph 152 the Franks report refers to a telegram on 3 March from the ambassador in Buenos Aires, on which she wrote
“we must make contingency plans”?
How does the right hon. Lady square that?
The Prime Minister
I can square that easily. The hon. Gentleman will find a paragraph in the report dealing with press reports at that time suggesting that, while early action was thought to be such items as withdrawal of services, matters would become urgent as the 150th anniversary approached and that there could well be an invasion at that difficult time later in the year. The report said in paragraph 327:
“At that time there were signs of growing Argentine impatience, in the form of the bout de papier and the accompanying hostile press comment in Argentina, but in other respects the circumstances were different from those obtaining at the time of the 1977 talks. 1977 was a tense period in Anglo-Argentine relations and there was a sharper risk of Argentine military action”.
There were further negotiations with Argentina in February 1978 in Lima, in December 1978 in Geneva, and in March 1979 in New York. On none of those occasions was a force deployed.
Mr. Dalyell rose
Order. The hon. Gentleman must allow the Prime Minister to continue.
The Prime Minister
Chapters 2 and 3 of the report cover the period of the present Government. As with each previous Government, the full range of policy options was put to us at the outset. The second half of 1979 saw a visit by my right hon. Friend the present Financial Secretary [Nicholas Ridley] to the Treasury to the islands, two exploratory meetings with Argentine representatives, the restoration of ambassadors and the formulation of proposals to the Overseas and Defence Policy Committee, including both political and military assessment.
In exchanges in the House on 18 January, the Leader of the Opposition, referred to what he called the
“collapse of effective Cabinet government”.[Official Report, 18 January 1982; Vol. 35, c. 175.]
The fact is that in 1980, when the policy was being decided, there were no fewer than seven collective and often lengthy discussions of our policy towards the Falkland Islands, four in the Overseas and Defence Policy Committee and three in Cabinet.
In January 1981, a further meeting of that Committeethe eighth collective discussionwas held to review the position in the light of the islanders' reactions to the lease-back proposal and the comments in the House on the statement in December 1980 by my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary. The Committee endorsed Lord Carrington's proposal that the aim should be to keep the negotiations going with a view to finding an acceptable basis for a negotiated settlement. It agreed to the early  talks for which Argentina was pressing, and at which the islanders were to be represented. Those talks took place in New York in February 1981.
Thereafter, the policy having been decided in those eight collective meetings, my noble Friend kept his colleagues informed in detail through minutes circulated to all members of the Overseas and Defence Policy Committee. That is a well-known habit and custom of successive Governments once the policy has been determined.
To reassure the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East, let me tell him that Cabinet government flourished so well in 1981 that there were 18 meetings of the Overseas and Defence Policy Committee, to say nothing of all the other Cabinet and Cabinet committee meetings.
In 1982, following the New York talks, a meeting of the Overseas and Defence Policy Committee was planned for 16 March. It did not happen because my noble Friend wanted to consult the islanders on the response he was proposing to send to Mr. Costa Mendez about the unilateral Argentine communiqu following the New York talks; and the Island Council was meeting on that very day to discuss this matter.
The South Georgia incident, which changed the whole situation, began on Friday 19 March, and the Cabinet discussed that incident at its next meeting on 25 March.
There has also been comment, both in the report and outside, about the decision on HMS “Endurance”.
Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South-East)
I am much obliged to the right hon. Lady and I shall take up tomorrow the point she made. Is she not jumping rather quickly from January 1981 to March 1982? Does she not think that the Cabinet or the Overseas and Defence Policy Committee should have reviewed the policy when the ambassador wrote to the Foreign Secretary and said “All we seem to have is a state of Micawberism”? Should they not have reviewed the policy in the light of what the chiefs of staff had to say in August 1981? It really was a collapse of government that she should not have permitted a meeting between those two times.
The Prime Minister
A discussion could have been permitted at any time. A paper could have been submitted at any time, but we had eight discussions while the policy was being formulated. Lord Carrington carried out the policy and kept each and every member of the Overseas and Defence Policy Committee informed through minutes which are detailed in the report. Another meeting when things were changing had been expected on 16 March. I have given the reason why it did not take place. I shall refer to the reviews of the chiefs of staff later in my speech.
This was a collective Cabinet decision resulting from the 1981 Defence Reviewto withdraw “Endurance” at the end of her 1982 deployment. “Endurance”, as the Argentines well knew, has a limited defence capability and was only on station during the Antarctic summer months each year. Her presence in the South Atlantic at the time did not stop Argentina launching her invasion any more than her presence in the area deterred the Argentines from attacking RRS “Shackleton” in 1976.
Nevertheless, my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for Defence [John Nott] said on 7 April 1982, and the Franks report now states, that the decision to withdraw “Endurance” could have provided the wrong signal to the Argentinesone of a number. As the House knows, we have now decided that “Endurance” will continue in service.
It has been suggested that a large task force or a smaller force of ships should have been sent earlier than they were. Assessments by the chiefs of staff of possible military responses to the Argentine threat were received throughout the period under review and were similar in scope and content.
When the present Government first considered the position in 1980, we had a military assessment before us. The latest one reached me on 26 March 1982, in response to a request for contingency plans. It was virtually indentical to the assessment made in September 1981, and that was similar to the one prepared in 1977 which, according to the report, in its turn, was similar to that of February 1976.
Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)
If the Prime Minister is referring to the JIC report she ought to refer to the report presented on 9 July 1981 which warned that the Argentine might act swiftly and without warning. In such circumstances, military action against British shipping or a full-scale invasion of the Falkland Islands could not be discounted. Surely that was the rather more important JIC report.
The Prime Minister
I quoted the JIC reports up to the period with which I am now dealing. I shall quote that JIC report in association with this period about which I am now dealing.
The right hon. Gentleman will have noticed that the purpose of my quoting many of those reports is to understand the similarities of warning and progression. A constant similarity in the report of the chiefs of staff was not surprising because the fundamental circumstances of the distance of the islands, the airstrip, and Ascension Island did not change.
All the reports of the chiefs of staffI shall deal later with the intelligence reportswere substantially similar. The one I received on 26 March was similar to the previous one in September 1981. That was similar to the one in 1977, which in turn was similar to that in 1976 which was also very similar to the military assessment before us when we formulated the policy with regard to the Falkland Islands at the beginning of 1980 in the Cabinet and in the Overseas and Defence Policy Committee.
The Franks report itself points out that, although from 1975 the Argentine threat of military action increased, no Government were prepared to establish a garrison on the Falkland Islands large enough to repel a full-scale Argentine invasion, or to provide an extended runway for the airport, with supporting facilities.
The 1981 paper by the chiefs of staff, having recognised the strength of the Argentine air force, concluded that
“to deter a full scale invasion, a large balanced force would be required, comprising an Invincible class carrier with four destroyers or frigates plus possibly a nuclear powered submarine, supply ships in attendance and additional manpower up to brigade strength, to reinforce the garrison.”
“Such a deployment would be very expensive and would engage a significant portion of the country's naval resources. There was a danger that its depatch could precipitate the very action it was intended to deter.”
There followed an extremely important sentence:
“If then faced with Argentine occupation of the Falkland Islands on arrival, there could be no certainty that such a force could retake them. The paper concluded that to deal with a full-scale invasion would require naval and land forces with organic air support on a very substantial scale, and that the logistical problem of such an operation would be formidable.”
The Franks report concludes that it would not have been appropriate to prepare a large task force with the capacity to retake the Falkland Islands before there was clear evidence of an invasion. I agreeand of course as soon as the evidence became available, on 31 March, that preparatory action was taken.
Some argue that a small force should have been deployed earlier, as had been the case in 1977. Franks states clearly that the situation at the time of the New York talks in February 1982 was quite different from the situation in November 1977, the time of the deployment of a submarine and two frigates. I have already described the differences.
In November 1977 there had already been bellicose military action by Argentina in Falkland waters and an explicit threat to any of our ships which might enter those waters.
As Franks also concludes, the situation in February 1982 did not justify a similar, small naval deployment, but I would like to put another argument. To have sent two or three frigates at that time, without air cover, knowing as we did the strength and efficiency of the Argentine air force would have put men and ships in great danger[Hon. Members: “Oh”.] Oh, yes. To have stood them off several hundred miles away would not have helped against a full-scale invasion.
Then it is said that one or more nuclear submarines might have been sent on 5 March. The right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) has said that it was quite clear that the Argentines had by then given up hope of a negotiated settlement. Not so. At the talks in New York, Argentina had proposed a programme for monthly meetings, and that programme was specifically endorsed even in the unilateral communiqu issued in Buenos Aires on 1 March. The prospect was of continuing negotiations for several months ahead, not of an imminent military threat.
The committee questioned my noble Friend [Lord Carrington] on this point, whose concern was that if a submarine was sent and the fact became known, this would have jeopardised his objective of continuing negotiation. The committee found that this was not an unreasonable view to take at the time, and, as the House knows, the decision to sail the first nuclear-powered submarine was taken early on 29 March.
The Franks committee consider that there was a case for taking this action at the end of the previous week. This is a fairly fine judgment and depends on the interpretation of the developing situation in South Georgia which the Government had been trying to solve by negotiation.
Mr. Edward Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil)
Will the right hon. Lady confirm and remind the House that in November 1977 the chiefs of staff advised that covert submarines plus frigates 1,000 miles off was an effective and adequate force to deploy given the situation with which we were then dealing?
The Prime Minister
Paragraphs 65 and 66 are the relevant paragraphs, and I have quoted from them. They state:
“In the light of the intelligence assessment Ministers decided at a meeting on 21 November 1977 that a military presence in the area of the Falkland Islands should be established by the time the negotiations began in December. The objective would be to buttress the Government's negotiating position by deploying a force of sufficient strength, available if necessary, to convince the Argentines that military action by them would meet resistance. Such a force would not be able to deal with a determined Argentine attack, but it would be able to respond flexibly to limited acts of aggression. The Committee agreed that secrecy should be maintained about the purpose of the force. One nuclear-powered submarine and two frigates were deployed to the area, the submarine to the immediate vicinity of the Islands with the frigates standing off about a thousand miles away. Rules of engagement were drawn up.
Cabinet Committee papers show clearly that it was agreed that the force should remain covert. We have found no evidence that the Argentine Government ever came to know of its existence.”
But, of course, the covert presence of a nuclear submarine would not have deterred the eventual Argentine invasion. Had the junta known that we had despatched a submarine, its response could well have been to launch an airborne invasion supported by ground attack aircraft, a method, as the chiefs of staff had advised, well within its capability. Moreover, I remember that some Opposition Members criticised the sinking of the “Belgrano” by submarine after several weeks of actual hostilities. What would their attitude have been had Britain fired the first shot, had Britain attacked a ship on the high seas before hostilities? They would have been the first to condemn and to demand an inquiry, and we should have lost all support from our allies and the international community and should never have secured the passage of the famous Security Council resolution 502 which dominated international opinion for so long.
I can only repeat that had the two frigates been in the area when that invasion was mounted, I should have been very fearful for the safety of the crews, given that they would have been without any air cover with a formidable Argentine air force only 400 miles away.
Mr. Denis Healey (Leeds, East)
The Prime Minister's argument is interesting, and we shall consider it, but it fails to explain something for which I believe she deserves some credit. Following the warning from the British ambassador in Buenos Aires on 3 March, she herself asked the Ministry of Defence for contingency plans to deal with the situation. If we accept the right hon. Lady's argument, she knew that nothing was worth while except sending the sort of force which the chiefs of staff had previously advised her would be necessary to deter a full-scale invasion. Was that request an idle and capricious one, is that why she chose not to follow it up, or did she believe, as the Franks report says, that timely action on a smaller scale at that moment might have deterred action by the Argentines?
The Prime Minister
I once again asked for advice from the chiefs of staff in the situation which faced us about which I read in a press report. That is fully set out in paragraph 139 of the report. There were a number of press reports, but I saw the La Prensa report. Paragraph 139 states:
“La Prensa speculated, after conversation with Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials, that, if present tactics were unproductive, a first step might be to cut off services to the Islands followed by a progressive cooling of bilateral relations.”
The intelligence reports also suggested first steps of that nature, and that we would expect a whole sequence of actions to be taken long before further military assessment. Paragraph 139 continues:
‘“Sr. Ronuco quoted sources saying that Britain would have no more than three of four months to acknowledge Argentine sovereignty and agree on an early date for the return of the Islands to Argentina. There would be no flexibility in Argentina's minimum demand for restitution of sovereignty before the 150th anniversary”.’
There were two issues in that press reportwhich were referred to in others, including a report in the Buenos Aires Heraldin line with the JIC assessment and many previous assessments, which is why I frequently quoted them, suggesting that when things gradually got worse between Argentina and the United Kingdom a series of actions of mounting seriousness would be taken, but the likelihood was that we would have a good deal of warning. That press report suggested that the first step would be the cutting off of commercial supplies and services. Secondly, it highlighted that only a few months were left. In that position, I felt that I should again seek the advice of the chiefs of staff.
I have said that that was the same fundamental advice, and it was inherent in the fundamental situation that even to deter we needed a force with an aircraft carrier, about four frigates and a nuclear submarine. It was also clear that if such a force was sent and it actually arrived, it would not be sufficient to throw the invader off the islands. There was a fundamental difficulty, but I felt that it would be totally and utterly wrong to send less than was sufficient.
The advice reached me on 26 March, by which time there were changes in the South Georgia incident. On 29 March we sent a nuclear submarine, and on 31 March we sent seven warships from off Gibraltar. They were not to act on their own. They were to await the full aircraft carrier force. In view of the chiefs of staff advice that a deterrent force would require an aircraft carrier, and that to win would require a much bigger force, I was anxious that we should not put people in jeopardy. We should have sufficient forces to protect them the whole time.
Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North) rose
The Prime Minister
I shall not give way. I have given a long explanation. May I continue?
Mr. Jay rose
Order. The Prime Minister has said that she is not giving way.
The Prime Minister
It is obvious, but seems to need repeating, that the real cause of the conflict was not the misdemeanours of British Governments, nor of civil servants, nor a failure of machinery, nor of intelligence, but the decision and the gross misjudgment of a military junta to take by force British territory inhabited by people who had always wanted to remain British.
If the Government made no mistakes, why did Lord Carrington resign?
The Prime Minister
The reasons for Lord Carrington's resignation were set out in his letter which was published in full. The Franks report says many times that the view that he took was reasonable in the circumstances at the time. Many people are seeing that decision with hindsight. The Franks report attempted to judge the position as at the time.
Throughout this account I have referred frequently to intelligence assessments. In November 1979 there was a reassessment of the Argentine threat in language similar to that which had occurred several times previously.
A further assessment was made in July 1981. That assessment reviewed the options open to the Argentine Government if they decided to resort to direct measures in the dispute. It took the view that it was likely that in the first instance Argentina would adopt diplomatic and economic measures, including the disruption of air communications, of food and oil supplies. Next, Argentina might occupy one of the uninhabited dependencies, following up its action in 1976 in establishing a presence on Southern Thule; next, a risk that it might establish a military presence in the Falkland Islands themselves, remote from Port Stanley. In the committee's view, harassment or arrest of British shipping would not be a likely option unless the Argentine Government felt themselves severely provoked.
As in 1979, the assessment noted that there was no sign of diminution in Argentina's determination eventually to extend its sovereignty over the Falkland Islands area, but that it would prefer to achieve this objective by peaceful means and would turn to forcible action only as a last resort.
The final paragraph of the assessment stated that, if Argentina concluded that there was no hope of a peaceful transfer of sovereignty, there would be a high risk of its resorting to more forcible measures against British interests, and that it might act swiftly and without warning. In such circumstances, military action against British shipping or a full-scale invasion could not be discounted.
I have described this assessment in some detail because it dealt with the responses that Argentina would be likely to make in the order in which it thought they would occur. The right hon. Member for Leeds, East [Denis Healey], the then shadow Foreign Secretary, has selectively emphasised the final possibility ignoring all of the measures which the assessment thought would precede it. At the end of previous JIC assessments there has always been the phrase that invasion could not be discounted.
The principal suggestion made by Lord Franks for the future is that the machinery within Government for intelligence assessment should be reviewed. The committee expressed the view that, during the period leading up to the invasion, the Joint Intelligence Organisation might not have given sufficient weight to the diplomatic and other indications that the Argentine Government's position was hardening in the early months of 1982, as compared with intelligence reports.
The committee also suggested that the independence of the Joint Intelligence Committee should be emphasised by having its chairman appointed by the Prime Minister as a full-time member of the Cabinet Office, with a more critical and independent role.
These are matters which it is our custom not to discuss in public for obvious reasons. We have to remember that anything which we say on this subject is certain to be studied very closely by foreign Governments. We have therefore to be sure that nothing we say makes the tasks of our own security and intelligence people harder, or those of our adversaries easier. We must therefore avoid any reference to our own operations and techniques or those of our allies, but the House will expect me on this occasion to comment on the Franks' observations on the composition of the Joint Intelligence Committee.
I think it right to accept the proposal that its chairmanship should be held by a member of the Cabinet Office who is able to give more time to supervising the work of the assessments machinery. I therefore intend to appoint as chairman of the JIC an official of the Cabinet Office who will be engaged full time on intelligence matters. He will have direct access to the Prime Minister in the same way as the heads of the security and intelligence agencies.
Mr. Ure recorded that the Cabinet Office had said that the Prime Minister would like the next Defence Committee paper on the Falklands to include annexes on both civil and military contingency plans. By asking for military contingency plans on 5 March, how can the Prime Minister say that this crisis came out of the blue to her on Wednesday 31 March?
The Prime Minister
As there had been military contingency plans for a long time of the kind that described the number of ships that would need to go to the area in certain circumstances, I fail to see how the hon. Gentleman's question has any significance. That paragraph arose from my comment on a press report that I saw and to which I have referred. It said, first, that if any action were taken it would be commercial action, but that we were in jeopardy possibly. There is nothing as dangerous as the previous press report in the Cronica in about 1974 or reports of threats of invasion in 1976. I saw the press report and said that we must look at contingency plans. The press report was dated 3 March. It was communicated to the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence which referred to it at the meeting on 5 March.
The Ministry of Defence considered its previous documents and altered them in the light of the changing position. The contingency plans came to me on 26 March. In view of what I had seen, it seemed reasonable to ask for contingency plans. Although an invasion was not imminent, and Franks agreed that it was not and that we could not have known that one was imminent because the decision to invade was not taken, it seemed reasonable to take the view contained in the press report that there might be considerable danger in several months, and to seek the advice of the chiefs of staff and to decide what action should be taken.
The advice came. It still contained the fundamental dilemma which did not change because of the geography.
Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)
On this point
The Prime Minister
I shall not give way. I am coming to an end. I have dealt at some length with the comments made.
Mr. Faulds rose
Order. The Prime Minister has made it clear that she is not giving way.
Mr. Faulds On this point
Order. The Prime Minister must be allowed to continue.
The Prime Minister
I shall finish shortly.
I have dealt at some length with the comments made in the Franks report and by others outside. But the report sets them all in perspective. I quote:
“There is no reasonable basis for any suggestionwhich would be purely hypotheticalthat the invasion would have been prevented if the Government had acted in the ways indicated in our Report. Taking account of these considerations and of all the evidence we have received, we conclude that we would not be justified in attaching any criticsm or blame to the present Government for the Argentine Junta's decision to commit its act of unprovoked aggression in the invasion of the Falkland Islands on 2 April 1982.”
That is the unanimous conclusion, taking into account all the considerations and all the evidence. The question which the Opposition must answer is, do they accept or repudiate that conclusion? After all their efforts to paint in stronger colours this or that aspect of the account, do they accept this independent committee's final verdict? The House and the country will expect from the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition a clear answer to that question, which is not given in his amendment.
As a result of the events of last year and of the Franks report, the performance of Government machinery, of Ministers and of officials has been subjected to the closest scrutiny. That is our way in this democracy, and rightly so.
But I now pay tribute again to the outstanding service which my noble Friend Lord Carrington has given to this country, and also to the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Atkins) and my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Luce), whose skill in handling the New York talks in February 1982 is specifically acknowledged in the report.
Officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in the Ministry of Defence and in the intelligence organisation have been subjected to much criticism. The Franks report attaches no blame to the individuals and makes it equally clear that the mass of allegations made against the Foreign and Commonwealth Office were quite unjustified.
I would add that the Department which has been subjected to that criticism was the same Department which so brilliantly mobilised opinion and so skilfully promoted our cause at the United Nations, in the United States, with our other partners and allies and across the world. That needs saying and I am glad to say it.
Mr. Tony Benn (Bristol, South-East)
Will the Prime Minister give way?
The Prime Minister
I shall not give way. I have nearly come to the end of my speech.
I pay tribute as well to the work of the Ministry of Defence, which played such a notable part in the mobilisation and servicing of the task force.
It is not surprising that a thorough inquiry over six months by a committee with the distinction and calibre which has produced this report should have observations to make on the handling of this or that aspect of events. That would have been so whatever the subject of the inquiry. I believe that the Government can legitimately take pride in the final verdict of this review. Where it points to the need for change, change will, as I have indicated, be made. For it is now the future that mattersand in particular the future of the Falkland Islanders. The Government are determined, as are the British people, that everything necessary shall be done to secure for the islanders what they themselves want and deservea life of freedom and peace under a Government of their choice. That prospect was shattered last spring. It is now restored, and we shall do everything within our power to ensure that it is never again imperilled.