§ 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. 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 222 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.
§ 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: 223I 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. 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. 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.
§ 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. 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 225 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. 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.
§ 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 235.227
|Division No. 212]
|Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy
|Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
|Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)
|Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
|Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
|Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
|Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)
|Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
|Johnston, Sir Russell
|Tellers for the Ayes:
|Mr. James Wallace and Mr. Andrew Welsh.
|Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)
|Molyneaux, Rt Hon James
|Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd)
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael
|Farr, Sir John
|Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
|Fenner, Dame Peggy
|Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)
|Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey
|Fookes, Dame Janet
|Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)
|Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)
|Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
|Banks, Robert (Harrogate)
|Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
|Bevan, David Gilroy
|Gardiner, Sir George
|Blackburn, Dr John G.
|Body, Sir Richard
|Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian
|Boscawen, Hon Robert
|Glyn, Dr Sir Alan
|Godman, Dr Norman A.
|Goodhart, Sir Philip
|Bottomley, Mrs Virginia
|Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
|Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)
|Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW)
|Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes
|Greenway, John (Ryedale)
|Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard
|Griffiths, Sir Eldon (Bury St E')
|Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)
|Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)
|Browne, John (Winchester)
|Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)
|Buck, Sir Antony
|Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')
|Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)
|Campbell-Savours, D. N.
|Hayhoe, Rt Hon Sir Barney
|Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
|Heath, Rt Hon Edward
|Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)
|Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.
|Channon, Rt Hon Paul
|Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Plymouth)
|Home Robertson, John
|Clark, Rt Hon Sir William
|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)
|Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)
|Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)
|Currie, Mrs Edwina
|Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)
|Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
|Davis, David (Boothferry)
|Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
|Jones, Robert B (Herts W)
|Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
|King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
|Knight, Greg (Derby North)
|Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)
|Durant, Sir Anthony
|Emery, Sir Peter
|Lee, John (Pendle)
|Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
|Ryder, Rt Hon Richard
|Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)
|Sackville, Hon Tom
|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)
|Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
|Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
|Mahon, Mrs Alice
|Skeet, Sir Trevor
|Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
|Marshall, John (Hendon S)
|Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
|Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)
|Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
|Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)
|Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)
|Maude, Hon Francis
|Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
|Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
|Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)
|Moore, Rt Hon John
|Stokes, Sir John
|Morrison, Rt Hon Sir Peter
|Taylor, John M (Solihull)
|Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)
|Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
|Neale, Sir Gerrard
|Neubert, Sir Michael
|Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
|Nicholson, David (Taunton)
|Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)
|Onslow, Rt Hon Cranley
|Twinn, Dr Ian
|Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
|Walker, Bill (T'side North)
|Patten, Rt Hon John
|Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
|Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
|Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
|Porter, David (Waveney)
|Powell, William (Corby)
|Wheeler, Sir John
|Price, Sir David
|Raison, Rt Hon Sir Timothy
|Ridsdale, Sir Julian
|Tellers for the Noes:
|Roe, Mrs Marion
|Mr. Neil Hamilton and Mr. Sydney Chapman.
|Rossi, Sir Hugh
§ 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?
§ 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.