HC Deb 20 March 1989 vol 149 cc731-4 3.33 pm
Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 20 for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely, the handling of the Lockerbie incident by the Secretary of State for Transport. The matter is important, as the country and Parliament want to know the truth about what has happened. On 18 November last year, a warning was issued by the United States Federal Aviation Administration, alerting the authorities to the activities of terrorists who were likely to use a new type of bomb which could be concealed in a radio cassette player. That information was also raised at the Wiesbaden conference, following upon which the British Airports Authority was also alerted.

On 19 December, two days before the Lockerbie disaster, the Department of Transport received additional vital information concerning details of the radio cassette player, which included colour photographs, information about the wiring of the bomb, X-ray identification characteristics, and details of the arrangements for packing Semtex explosives within the cassette player. That information was not relayed to the airlines until after the disaster took place.

The Secretary of State, in a desperate attempt to hide his blunder, now says that the information was unimportant. He indicated his lack of concern at the time by posting this vital new information to the appropriate authorities by second-class mail, far too late, while adding the utterly irresponsible suggestion that suspicious packages should be placed in the holds of aircraft. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Transport has said that the Secretary of State for Transport could have given a full explanation on 10 January, yet he has singularly failed to do so. Indeed, he deliberately tried to block further questions in Parliament by telling an hon. Friend on 10 January: I am not prepared to go further than my earlier remarks about warnings being subject to the assessment process."—[Official Report, 10 January 1989, Vol. 144, c. 708.] This was a blatant attempt to hide the truth from Parliament by refusing to be drawn on the vital issue of his Department's failure to communicate. [HON. MEMBERS: "Order."] The public want to know why he refused in January to comment on details of the radio cassette bomb, when the German authorities were perfectly prepared to comment on details of the same device in Wiesbaden at the beginning of November. Hiding behind the police inquiry is no answer.

This matter is urgent because the Secretary of State insists on refusing to comment on it in the Chamber, while at the same time he makes statements to Lobby correspondents, who, last Wednesday, were told by him that the police were allegedly doing a brilliant job and that the whereabouts of the terrorists who had planted the Lockerbie bomb were known. His denial of this allegation, which he leaked with his ambiguous and misleading statement, "The only person I saw on the relevant dates were three journalists on the record," is quite outrageous.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member has had his time.

The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) asks leave to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order 20 for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that he believes should have urgent consideration, namely, The handling of the Lockerbie incident by the Secretary of State for Transport. As the House knows, under Standing Order 20, I have to take into account the requirements of the order and to announce my decision without giving reasons to the House. I have listened with care to what the hon. Member has said, but, as he knows, my sole duty in considering his application is to decide whether it should be given priority over the business already set down for this evening or for tomorrow. I regret that the matter that he has raised does not meet the requirements of the Standing Order, and I therefore cannot submit his application to the House.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you say whether the Government have indicated whether they are prepared to make a statement, before the Easter recess, on the early bomb warnings prior to the Lockerbie tragedy, in view of the statement, made today by the Daily Record editor, that "Mr. Channon", despite his denial, was the source of information that claimed that the arrest of the terrorists responsible was imminent? Will you make it clear, Mr. Speaker, that this House will not tolerate the denial of a debate on the importance of airport security before the Easter recess, as such denial will only feed the view that a cover-up is now being conducted by the Government?

Several Hon. Members

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Are they all on the same matter?

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Very well.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During the course of the diatribe by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), he accused my right hon. Friend of telling a lie to the House of Commons. He may have wrapped it up in parliamentary language of a sort, but that is what he said, and it should be withdrawn. You heard him, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I did not hear it, and if hon. Members wrap comment up in a certain way, I cannot interpret it. [Interruption.] Well, we are all honourable Members in this House.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Unlike most Opposition Members or those on this side of the House, my husband and I were actually present at Heathrow that evening, and we know very well that security was extremely tight. I very much hope that if there is a statement I shall have an opportunity——

Mr. Speaker

Order. Whether the Government come forward with a statement or volunteer a debate, or whether the Opposition gives time for a debate, is not a matter for me.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. There is here a matter that is directly for you, Mr. Speaker, because the country is beginning to wonder what on earth is happening when the House of Commons cannot get statements or answers on matters of clear and immediate public interest. I know that it is not customary procedure to refer to the fact that private notice questions have been asked or have not been asked, but if the Government are refusing to do that which they constitutionally should and that which the public is entitled to expect—to come to the House and explain themselves—we as a House look to you and the private notice question procedure to ensure that they do.

Mr. Speaker

Yes, but the right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that, in considering these difficult decisions, I must take into account the requirements of the Standing Order. It is not for the Chair to get involved in party political controversy. There are other methods of debating this matter.

Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. What is most important is that the perpetrators of this appalling crime are brought to justice. This sort of interference from Opposition Members, who are nakedly trying to advance their ambition and chances of becoming deputy leader of the Labour party, does no good whatever.

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that we can take the matter any further.

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Surely it is unacceptable for the House to learn through the drip, drip, drip of media leaks and briefings what happened in this serious incident. Is there no way that you can bring the Secretary of State to the House to answer to the public, as is his duty?

Mr. Speaker

I am well aware of the concern about this matter, but there are other ways of achieving a debate or statement, which do not go through the Chair.

Mr. Alan Williams

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You made a perfectly legitimate point when you said that you must stand aside from the party wrangling within the House. No one would challenge that. However, if you look at the quotations over the weekend in relation to Lockerbie and what has happened in the past few days, you will see that Tory Members as well as Labour Members have been asking for the statement that we have been denied, or for a private notice question on the subject. It is not a matter of party wrangling, but of general national concern on both sides.

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman knows that we do not discuss the criteria for private notice questions in the Chamber.

Mr. Alan Williams

Well, accept a private notice question.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, because he has indications of this, that there are other ways of raising this matter, and he should take them.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It would appear that there is a certain amount of arguing with the referee, which is not a very attractive situation. Can some of us on this side of the House express our gratitude to you in preserving the dignity of the House from the charm school of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) and his carrion ratbag as they seek to gorge themselves yet further on the blood of Lockerbie? This was an American aircraft exchanging cargo with another American aircraft. It was an American responsibility which tragically fell out of the skies in Britain. We want to seek the people who committed this atrocity and bring them to justice. I am sure that that is the overwhelming desire of my right hon. Friend. We are disgusted at the disgraceful behaviour of the Opposition in seeking to dredge into the entrails——

Mr. Speaker

Order. These points of order are also getting out of hand.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker——

Mr. Speaker

I cannot say any more.

Mr. Dobson

Mr. Speaker, on several occasions you have rightly said that you prefer important statements by Ministers to be made in this House rather than in other places, whether the Parliamentary Press Gallery or at unattributable briefings. Throughout the whole history of the sad business of Lockerbie, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) has asked the Secretary of State time and again to come to the House to make a statement. We have been told in various ways, "No that would be inappropriate," "There is nothing to say," "It would be a threat to the security arrangements," "It would upset our relations with the West German intelligence service," and so on. Then, later the same day, the Secretary of State, who will not come to the House, rushes to the newspapers and tells them everything that we have been asking him to come to speak about in the House.

Under the rules of procedure, if a Minister will not make a statement, a way of bringing him to the House is to get him to answer a private notice question, provided that you will authorise it, Mr. Speaker. I shall not discuss what private notice questions have been sought or refused, but it would make Labour Members happier if, when they were refused, my hon. Friend was the first to know. On two recent occasions the press have rung to tell him, from whatever source I know not, that his private notice question application has been refused.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am not having any more of this. We cannot have a debate on the matter now, and certainly not on private notice questions. I say to the House that I have an extremely difficult decision to make every day as to whether to grant private notice questions. In doing so, I must take many factors into account. As I have already said to the House, I must give no reasons for my decision but must simply stick to the criteria set down in the Standing Order. I invite the House to study those criteria; then it can make its judgment. Whether there is to be a statement or a debate is not a matter for the Chair.