HL Deb 02 March 1972 vol 328 cc1182-4

3.18 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they can explain in more detail the answer given by Air Marshal Sir Harold Martin in paragraph 1737 of the second report from the Expenditure Committee 1971–72 when he said "the O.C.U. as a ' guesstimate' has about * * *"; and whether they can state how this compares with the corresponding figures for the five preceding years.]


My Lords, the Air Marshal was discussing the possibility of reinforcing the Harrier force in R.A.F. Germany, in an emergency, from the Harrier Operational Conversion Unit. It is not the practice to publish the size of operational squadrons or of the associated Operational Conversion Units.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, whom I hold in very high esteem, but does he not think that this Report treats Parliament with contempt when 69 of its pages are bespattered with asterisks which conceal information from Members and thus prevent them from intelligently debating the facts in issue? Furthermore, if the idea is to hide the information from secret agents, do not the asterisks themselves constitute a kind of spies' guide? Do not they really say to Moscow: We've marked several important secret matters with asterisks to show you that they are specially worthy of investigation by your agents"?


My Lords, the Sub-Committee in their Report—and probably the noble Lord has read it—acknowledged that they had received more classified information from my Department than anybody had ever received before. I think it is one thing to tell the Committee a number of facts: one has to be a little more careful in what one publishes. I accept that this is not a very satisfactory way of doing it. The other way, of course, was not to tell the Sub-Committee. I think what we must do is to examine carefully whether it was necessary to withhold all this information, but I think one should be a little careful not to get too much the other way.


My Lords, is it not slightly unfortunate that this gallant officer used baby language invented by the Economist newspaper?


My Lords, I imagine that my noble friend is referring to "guesstimate" as a word. I have always believed that a "guesstimate" was an estimate in the days of noble Lords opposite.


My Lords, surely the noble Lord is not naive enough to think that the Russians have not got all the information about the size of the Harrier force that was concealed from the readers of the Select Committee's Report. Why is it that we insist on retaining far stricter security control against the release of this information than the United States of America, whose contribution to Western security is of an order of magnitude greater than ours?


My Lords, as a matter of fact I am naive enough to believe that our enemies do not have all that information.


My Lords, does not the Question ask how one figure compares with another? If an Answer cannot be given in actual figures, can it not be given in percentages as between one figure and another?


My Lords, this Question was asked seriously because I thought it was a matter of importance, but as the noble Lord has said that he will examine it to see what happens next year, that closes the matter so far as I am concerned.