HC Deb 16 July 1991 vol 195 cc221-9 3.32 pm
Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. A press conference is taking place at the moment to amplify an answer to Question 98 on today's Order Paper. It concerns the relocation or redistribution of responsibilities within naval bases in this country. It is of particular interest to Scottish Members and to Members in the south-west. The matter is sufficiently important to require the presence at the press conference of the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary of State for Scotland. They have already declined to come to the House to advise hon. Members of what is being said at the press conference. Do you consider that they should be required to come to the Dispatch Box to explain their actions?

Mr. Speaker

The whole House knows that I deprecate press conferences given in amplification of answers to questions. If I had had that knowledge before midday, I might have taken a different view when making my decision on this matter.

Mr. O'Neill

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Following up your helpful remarks, would you instruct the Leader of the House, who has answered questions today, to require his colleagues to come to the House? This is not a matter of party advantage. We do not know what the outcome of the question will be. The House is entitled to know and to have the same access to Ministers which members of the press have.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am dealing with a point of order already. The question was to me. I have no authority today to do what the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) asks, but I will look sympathetically at the matter tomorrow.

Mr. Bill Walker

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. If you examine today's Order Paper, you will see that the question is in my name. That will not surprise anyone because I have been campaigning in Scotland about the importance of the Scottish input in the defence infrastructure of the United Kingdom. It is quite proper that I, among others, should take an interest in having the question answered.

Mr. Speaker

That was not the thrust of the point of order. It is perfectly in order to answer a written question. The purpose of the hon. Member for Clackmannan was to seek my view about a press conference being given to amplify the answer. I have made my views clear.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I draw to your attention the fact that in the Scottish Grand Committee this morning, which did not finish until 1 pm, the Secretary of State for Scotland was pressed precisely on this issue and refused to give a reply? Does that not show contempt for the Scottish Grand Committee as well as for the House?

Mr. Speaker

I must ask the hon. Gentleman to repeat his last comment; I am afraid that I did not hear it.

Mr. Clarke

Several times this morning in the Scottish Grand Committee the Secretary of State for Scotland was asked a precise question. He refused to reply. He refused even to say whether a press conference would take place, although the Committee sitting finished as recently as 1 o'clock today. Does that not display contempt both for the Scottish Grand Committee and for the House?

Mr. Speaker

I do not know whether the Secretary of State had heard about the press conference; I certainly have not.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will know that in the last year or so hon. Members on both sides of the House have attempted to get an answer about naval bases. I understand from members of the press, who seem to have been told at about 12 o'clock today, that all the naval bases are mentioned. I wonder whether you, Mr. Speaker, have any power to ensure that an early statement is made to the House so that we can question Ministers. I understand that the news is good; Ministers may have felt that they had to come to the House only if the news was bad. We could offer them our congratulations—or, at least, we could find out where we are.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Allow me to deal with this matter first. The whole House knows my view that, if press conferences are to be held, a statement should first be made in the House. I feel strongly about that, and I have already made my views plain. I cannot do anything about the matter today, but I may seek to do so tomorrow.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that I raised this very point with the Leader of the House during business questions on Thursday. The right hon. Gentleman suggested that matters would be delayed—in effect, until the return of the House in October. I have no complaint about the use of written questions, but I have complained—and I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to take my complaint on board—that when hon. Members, assiduous in their duties, timeously ask during business questions what is likely to happen, it shows gross disrespect to the House if the Leader of the House does not exercise his responsibilities to the House as a whole and ensure that Ministers give us the information rather than giving it to the press.

I am not being wise after the event. I raised the question on Thursday. We need a strict undertaking from you, Mr. Speaker, that you will use your good offices on behalf of the House to speak to the Leader of the House, who has responsibilities to the House.

Mr. Speaker

I cannot say any more than I have said. I have already made it plain that tomorrow I shall look sympathetically upon any requests made to me.

Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sorry to prolong the points of order, but it is important to draw to your attention the fact that there were exchanges with the Secretary of State for Scotland on the subject during the Scottish Grand Committee this morning—they were most unrewarding in terms of information given. I should also draw to your attention the fact that I have just received a copy of a letter delivered today to the convener of Fife region from Vice Admiral Sir Hugo White, the flag officer, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which says: I am therefore writing to let you know that the Secretary of State for Defence will today announce a proposal to reduce progressively the base's capability"— that is, Rosyth base— and that it will eventually support only minor war vessels. The base infrastructure will therefore be subject to a planned rundown related to the dates to be agreed for the changes to Type 42 Destroyer base ports. This will sadly but inevitably lead to significant job losses and the prospect of accompanying redundancies. That information is being bandied about and supplied to people outside the House, which makes it doubly important that the House should be informed. We must be given the chance to hear the information today and to cross-question Ministers about what it means and why so many competing stories are being put about concerning the future of the base.

Mr. Speaker

I cannot say more than I have already said about it. If the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman thinks that the matter is so urgent that we must have a statement today, I remind him that that can be achieved only through the usual channels. I share the hon. Gentleman's view that the equivalent of press conferences should be given to the House by the Secretary of State, and not to outside bodies before us. If the Minister does not make a statement tomorrow, I shall look sympathetically on a private notice question.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. These are vital matters of national security and public defence. I understand that there is a possibility that, when President Gorbachev comes here, he will be accompanied by members of the KGB. In view of the recent evidence of KGB-type activities in the people's republic of Liverpool, where political dissidents have been subjected to clandestine photography and worse, if any statement is to be made, would it be possible to establish that these witch hunts are purely part of the digestive system of the Labour party and have nothing to do with the old guard in the entourage of President Gorbachev?

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In the light of what you have heard and the way in which you have responded to it, will you entertain the moving of a motion under Standing Order 20 so that the matter can now be properly debated on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Speaker

Not today.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. We all understand that you have repeatedly said that you deplore such situations and, equally, that you have no power to force Ministers to come before the House and make a statement, but may I ask you, Sir, to bear in mind the fact that you have powers that could influence Ministers' thinking very strongly? Ministers might well feel that a PNQ alone is an easier option than a full statement. But if you said now that you would consider sympathetically not just an application for a PNQ but an application under Standing Order 20 for an emergency debate the following day, it might have an effect on the Minister's disposition to come here tomorrow.

Mr. Speaker

That is hypothetical at the moment.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. We hear a great deal about parliamentary sovereignty and about how you are here to protect hon. Members. We fully accept that you are not responsible for Government business. However, we had the Leader of the House here a few moments ago, and he has now left. Would it not be appropriate to have some discussion behind the Chair that resulted in a statement being made on this matter at 7 o'clock tonight?

Mr. Speaker

I have already made my views about that clear. The hon. Gentleman is merely repeating what I have just said.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind hon. Members that we have a heavy day ahead of us on the Finance Bill.

Mr. Dewar

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sorry to prolong the points of order, but this is a matter of importance. Opposition Members are naturally reluctant to let the matter drift away without any firm understanding of what will happen. It seems to me that there is a firm view—which I think will be shared by Conservative Members with defence interests—that there should be a statement today, particularly in view of the letter that I read to the House from the flag officer. Would it not be possible to get some indication now—I know that the Leader of the House is not here—from a responsible Minister that there will be a statement later today, perhaps most conveniently at 7 o'clock?

Mr. Speaker

That would certainly be a possibility, but, as I have already said, it is a matter for the usual channels and not for me. I cannot force the issue.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) told the House that he had for a long time expressed a close interest in the developing plans for the rationalisation of the Royal Navy support infrastructure. No one would dispute that, Sir, but the hon. Gentleman happened to table last night the question that has been used as the reason for the press conference.

I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to look at the Order Paper. Questions 94, 95, 96, 97 and 98 were all tabled before 10.30 pm yesterday. All of them were tabled by Conservative Back Benchers and all of them call for statements from Ministers. I understand, Sir, that this is perhaps more appropriately a matter for the Procedure Committee, but it would greatly assist those of us on the Procedure Committee, and all those interested in good order, if you expressed your opinion about clearly planted questions being tabled the previous night, thus making it very difficult for Opposition Members to put in their four penn'orth.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is a member of the Procedure Committee and he can do that himself.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)

Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke), may I say that I had to be in Scotland this morning. At the same time that the Scottish Grand Committee meeting was held in this House, the news was broadcast at 12 o'clock in Scotland that the Government had confirmed, not the factual situation about Rosyth, but what we now know is a version of events. We are dealing not simply with contempt of the Scottish Grand Committee or contempt of the House, but with news management in order to present what by any standards is a partisan account of events to mislead the House and the public. There must be a statement at 7 o'clock to clarify matters.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will know that in order to run this show there has to be a careful balance between yourself, the usual channels and the House as a whole. It has been obvious for some time that the Government are trying to upset that balance by the use of planted questions, not only at Prime Minister's Question Time, which has been commented upon in most of the newspapers lately, but also in questions to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food a fortnight ago, who planted a question with a Conservative Member from Lancashire about the state of dioxin in milk in my constituency and nowhere else in Britain. We have seen a further usurpation of that balance today. There are occasions when Mr. Speaker must restore the balance

Far from just deprecating what is happening, it would make a great deal of sense today if the Speaker of the House of Commons made it clear to that bunch on the Treasury Bench that they should get someone to the Dispatch Box later today. You could say that, and it would help to restore the balance.

Mr. Speaker

I have already said it.

Mr. Bill Walker

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As it is obvious from questions put to you that I am under attack, I must stress that my interest in the matter arose primarily because we knew that we would be debating in the Scottish Grand Committee this morning the Scottish economy and employment prospects in Fife, which are tied up with the naval base and its future. Therefore, I deemed it prudent to approach my colleagues in the Ministry of Defence to see whether I could have an early response to my many requests about the decision on the future of the Royal Navy support, and they gladly agreed that that should be done today.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Time was when Ministers always made statements to the House before they made them outside. I hope that we can get back to that practice. This Chamber is the forum of the nation. This is where statements should always first be made, not to those outside.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

You have made your views perfectly clear, Mr. Speaker, and you have dropped the broadest of hints. In order that there may be some time for mature reflection on what you have said, I beg to move, That strangers do withdraw.

Notice being taken that strangers were present, MR. SPEAKER, pursuant to Standing Order No. 143 (Withdrawal of strangers from House), put the Question, That strangers do withdraw:—

The House divided: Ayes 23, Noes 235.

Division No. 212] [3.47 pm
Alton, David Beggs, Roy
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich) Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Carr, Michael Salmond, Alex
Cartwright, John Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Douglas, Dick Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray) Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Fearn, Ronald Trimble, David
Howells, Geraint Wigley, Dafydd
Johnston, Sir Russell
Kennedy, Charles Tellers for the Ayes:
Maclennan, Robert Mr. James Wallace and Mr. Andrew Welsh.
Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)
Molyneaux, Rt Hon James
Adley, Robert Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Evennett, David
Allason, Rupert Farr, Sir John
Arbuthnot, James Favell, Tony
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Fenner, Dame Peggy
Ashby, David Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)
Aspinwall, Jack Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey
Atkinson, David Fookes, Dame Janet
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley) Forth, Eric
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Franks, Cecil
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) Freeman, Roger
Batiste, Spencer Fry, Peter
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Gale, Roger
Bevan, David Gilroy Gardiner, Sir George
Blackburn, Dr John G. Gill, Christopher
Body, Sir Richard Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Boscawen, Hon Robert Glyn, Dr Sir Alan
Boswell, Tim Godman, Dr Norman A.
Bottomley, Peter Goodhart, Sir Philip
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Gorst, John
Bowis, John Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW)
Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard Gregory, Conal
Brazier, Julian Griffiths, Sir Eldon (Bury St E')
Bright, Graham Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's) Grist, Ian
Browne, John (Winchester) Grylls, Michael
Bruce, Ian (Dorset South) Hague, William
Buck, Sir Antony Hanley, Jeremy
Budgen, Nicholas Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')
Burns, Simon Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)
Burt, Alistair Harris, David
Butler, Chris Haselhurst, Alan
Butterfill, John Hawkins, Christopher
Campbell-Savours, D. N. Hayes, Jerry
Canavan, Dennis Hayhoe, Rt Hon Sir Barney
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Heath, Rt Hon Edward
Carrington, Matthew Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)
Cash, William Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Hill, James
Chope, Christopher Hind, Kenneth
Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Plymouth) Home Robertson, John
Clark, Rt Hon Sir William Hood, Jimmy
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe) Hordern, Sir Peter
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest) Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)
Cormack, Patrick Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)
Cox, Tom Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)
Cryer, Bob Irvine, Michael
Currie, Mrs Edwina Jack, Michael
Curry, David Jessel, Toby
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g) Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Davis, David (Boothferry) Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Day, Stephen Jones, Robert B (Herts W)
Devlin, Tim Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Dickens, Geoffrey Kilfedder, James
Dicks, Terry King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)
Dixon, Don Kirkhope, Timothy
Dorrell, Stephen Knapman, Roger
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Knight, Greg (Derby North)
Dover, Den Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)
Dunn, Bob Lamond, James
Durant, Sir Anthony Latham, Michael
Eggar, Tim Lawrence, Ivan
Emery, Sir Peter Lee, John (Pendle)
Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark Rowe, Andrew
Lightbown, David Ryder, Rt Hon Richard
Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant) Sackville, Hon Tom
Lord, Michael Sayeed, Jonathan
Loyden, Eddie Shaw, David (Dover)
Luce, Rt Hon Sir Richard Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
MacKay, Andrew (E Berkshire) Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)
Maclean, David Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
McLoughlin, Patrick Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Mahon, Mrs Alice Shersby, Michael
Malins, Humfrey Sims, Roger
Mans, Keith Skeet, Sir Trevor
Maples, John Skinner, Dennis
Marlow, Tony Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Marshall, John (Hendon S) Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel) Speller, Tony
Martin, David (Portsmouth S) Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)
Martin, Michael J. (Springburn) Stanbrook, Ivor
Maude, Hon Francis Steen, Anthony
Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Stevens, Lewis
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling) Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Moate, Roger Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Moore, Rt Hon John Stokes, Sir John
Morley, Elliot Summerson, Hugo
Morrison, Rt Hon Sir Peter Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Moss, Malcolm Temple-Morris, Peter
Mowlam, Marjorie Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Mudd, David Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Neale, Sir Gerrard Thorne, Neil
Neubert, Sir Michael Thurnham, Peter
Nicholls, Patrick Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Nicholson, David (Taunton) Tracey, Richard
Nicholson, Emma (Devon West) Tredinnick, David
Norris, Steve Trotter, Neville
Onslow, Rt Hon Cranley Twinn, Dr Ian
Page, Richard Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Patnick, Irvine Walker, Bill (T'side North)
Patten, Rt Hon John Waller, Gary
Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Ward, John
Pawsey, James Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth Warren, Kenneth
Porter, David (Waveney) Watts, John
Powell, William (Corby) Wheeler, Sir John
Price, Sir David Whitney, Ray
Raffan, Keith Widdecombe, Ann
Raison, Rt Hon Sir Timothy Wiggin, Jerry
Rathbone, Tim Wood, Timothy
Riddick, Graham
Ridsdale, Sir Julian Tellers for the Noes:
Roe, Mrs Marion Mr. Neil Hamilton and Mr. Sydney Chapman.
Rossi, Sir Hugh
Rost, Peter

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. When you consider, as you no doubt will, the stunt that we have just witnessed, I suggest that there are two points that you might like to bear in mind. The first is the time at which the television cameras stop showing the proceedings in the Chamber. There is a definite interest for those who do not wish good news to be announced in the House to prolong the proceedings so that there is no longer live coverage of them.

Secondly, bearing in mind what you said before the Division in relation to points of order, may I ask you to consider the rumours that have come to my ears at least that there might have been a statement this afternoon about the matter had the Labour party wished to have one —[HON. MEMBERS: "Not true."] Will you consider the matter, Mr. Speaker, remembering that if there is shown to be substance in it, that would shed an entirely new light on the behaviour of the Opposition?

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. With respect, I cannot deal with rumours.

Mr. O'Neill

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Are you aware, following that time-wasting smear from the right hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow), that had the Government wished, they could have made a statement in the House at 3.30 and announced what they would regard as good news in prime television time? We requested through the usual channels that such a statement be made, but that was declined. That is the truth of the matter.

The four-page answer to the question is of such complexity that it requires the House to give it its considered opinion and concern. So it is important that the Government business managers should come to the House and explain what they propose to do about this state of affairs.

From a rough reading of the answer, I am led to believe that there will be in excess of 2,000 redundancies, with a sizeable number of people having to be moved across the United Kingdom. This is a major issue of security, defence and economic significance and the Government cannot escape that fact.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Richard Ryder)

In the absence of the Leader of the House, may I clarify two points? First, it may be for the benefit of the House if the usual channels had discussions following the exchanges that have taken place in the last few minutes. Secondly, I shall report those exchanges to the Secretary of State for Defence. I must emphasise that discussions took place this morning and that it was understood that a statement would be required only if Rosyth was closed. Rosyth is not closed.

Mr. Douglas

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. With your permission, I should like to read the letter that I have received from the Minister of State. Without going into all of it, I wish to record how insulting the procedure adopted by the Government has been to the House. They held a press conference at 3.30 and the letter was put on the Letter Board for myself and other hon. Members. The letter, which partially explains the situation, says at the end: I would be grateful if you would treat this as in confidence until the announcement has been made. We are asked to treat in confidence matters that are in the public domain. That is an insult to the House and to all our procedures. We should receive from the Government a promise that a statement on the subject will be made this evening.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The right hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) referred to a stunt. I did not take part in the vote because, like several hon. Members, I hesitated to vote for a motion that would make people leave the Strangers' Gallery. Such motions and points of order—to which you have listened, Mr. Speaker, very courteously—would not have arisen had not the House been treated with utter contempt. If we are not to have the necessary statement, as a last resort hon. Members have a duty and responsibility to their constituents to ensure that their voice is heard by means of motions, points of order, or any other means.

Sir David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

Further to the point or order, Mr. Speaker. In the absence of the Leader of the House, the Government Chief Whip told us something about the past. Will he say what the Government propose to do and whether there will be a statement tomorrow, as the House wishes?

Mr. Wilson

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. My question arises from the smears of the right hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow). The rules of the House state that we should not refer to the Press Gallery or the Strangers' Gallery. Is it within the rules that, in such a serious matter, an hon. Gentleman can suggest that concern about thousands of jobs being at stake is expressed simply to play to the cameras in television prime time? That is an outrageous and offensive suggestion, especially by a right hon. Gentleman who is supposed to hold a position of prestige within his party. Can the rules relating to Galleries and the media be extended to television cameras?

Mr. Speaker

I think that I shall now close the debate by saying that this may serve as a lesson to the whole House and that, in future, important statements should be made in the House.