HL Deb 05 July 1978 vol 394 cc1003-7

3.40 p.m.


My Lords, with the leave of the House I should like to make a Statement repeating an Answer to a Private Notice Question being answered in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence, asking whether he has now taken a decision on which airfield is to be provided for the KC135 aircraft as requested by the United States authorities:

"After thorough examination of all the many factors involved I have concluded that RAF Fairford is the right airfield for this task. I have today placed in the Library of the House a detailed memorandum which explains the reasons for this choice. A copy of the memorandum has been sent to the local planning authorities with whom we shall discuss the proposal, which has the agreement of the United States' authorities."


My Lords, in view of the fact that the House debated this subject fully last night, I do not want to say anything about the content of this Statement, but I should like to comment on its timing. In replying to the debate last night the noble Lord, Lord Winter bottom, said. I regret that I am not able to say anything tonight about the Government's choice of airfield as the base for these tankers, or even about the list of airfields which has been considered. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence hopes to make an announcement in the very near future".—[Official Report; 4/7/78, col. 977.] Your Lordships have come to realise that "the very near future" may mean anything from next week to next Session. If they meant "tomorrow" why could not Her Majesty's Government have said so? To debate a subject on the day before such a Statement is to be made is ridiculous. The noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, has had this Question down on the Order Paper since the 14th June and it is apparent from the Statement that this decision has been made some time ago because a detailed Paper is being put in the Library of the reasons why it has been made. If the noble Earl had been warned that this Statement was going to be made today he may very well have wished to withdraw his Unstarred Question and put it down later, possibly in an amended form, so that it could have been debated properly. Five noble Lords took part in the debate last night: it might have been assumed that they had a more than passing interest in the decision that has been announced today. Why could they not have been warned last night?

Your Lordships will acquit the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, of any impoliteness, but I feel that over this matter Her Majesty's Government have treated this House with gross discourtesy and I hope the noble Lord and, indeed the Leader of the House, will take very firm steps to see that such a thing never occurs again.


My Lords, I have very great sympathy with what the noble Lord the Chief Whip for the Conservative Party has said on this matter. What I said last night was, in fact, the case. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence was not ready last night to announce his decision although, as I indicated, the announcement was imminent. Unfortunately—and speaking quite bluntly—there was a leak at the Ministry of Defence, and the first that I knew about the proposals was when I read The Times this morning. One can only apologise to the House and to noble Lords who may have felt that they wasted their time, but this was why there arose the situation we are speaking about today.


My Lords, can the noble Lord just explain one thing: Did Her Majesty's Government not know last night that a Statement was going to be made today?


My Lords, if we are speaking frankly, the intention was that the Statement would be made tomorrow.


My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord for reading out that Statement, I think he must agree that it was unfortunate that nobody could have said anything about it last night, particularly as his right honourable friend was present during the debate. I had seen him before the Question was asked, at a quarter to nine, and I asked him: "Have I got to make the speech?" and the answer was "Yes". Then the next thing I know is from reading The Times this morning at breakfast.

I should like to ask this: In the Statement it says, … the local planning authorities with whom we shall discuss the proposal". Last night I actually asked the question: Will there be a public inquiry? In what circumstances could objections from the planning authority concerned lead to the abandonment of a base chosen by the Ministry of Defence?"— [Official Report; 4/7/78, col. 964.] Is the noble Lord in a position to say whether there will be a public inquiry about this matter?


My Lords, perhaps I may tackle the last point first. A decision has been reached; however, a number of decisions are consequential upon it, including the housing of a very large number of American families in the area, which in fact will bring some prosperity to the district. This is a coin with two sides: 1,200 United States Air Force men and their dependants will benefit the local economy by between £3 million and £5 million a year and about 150 civilian jobs will be created. The decision has been reached but, of course, just reaching a decision does not mean that other corresponding decisions must not also be reached and this document, which I commend to your Lordships, will, in fact, produce information which will enable local authorities to base their adaptations on this decision, to the benefit not only of the Americans who are going to settle in that area but also the various trades and trades-people.

I can only say that one of the unfortunate results of dragging defence policy into an area of political controversy—and I understand it; I am not arguing against it, it has just happened —in fact works its way through to individuals, in this case the Ministry of Defence. There was a leak, and what should have been a planned announcement tomorrow appeared in The Times today as a result of that leakage from the Ministry of Defence.


My Lords, surely the House wants to retain some sense of proportion. Obviously, any Member of this House will regret any inconvenience caused to the House as a whole or to individual Members about matters of this kind, but I recollect only a couple of weeks ago coming here to listen to a debate on an Unstarred Question on pollution, and I found the House adjourned during pleasure because the noble Earl who was to ask it could not be found. I did not make a song and dance about it; I regretted it because I had come back specially and at some inconvenience. But this incident needs to be put into balance with that kind of happening. Then we should bear in mind that the decision which the Government have taken is an extremely delicate one. Do the Government not realise—indeed I am sure they do—that this is a matter of great confidentiality, indeed secrecy, because we have a statement today by the noble Lord that he knew nothing about it, because it involved matters of utmost importance in regard to defence for the stationing of United States personnel here, and for the security of all of us? That fact needs to be taken into account and weighed against that other incident which occurred in the House, while quite properly remembering that this involves the security not only of Britain but the United States, and indeed of Western Europe. Please let us get on with the debate on Wales.


My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for putting the matter in perspective. This is part of the cussedness of things which we in politics have to face up to.

The Marquess of HERTFORD

My Lords, the noble Lord used the phrase, "a decision has been reached". Does that mean that that decision is absolutely regardless of any subsequent protest by local people? I quite accept the fact that the decision may be the right one, but his statement was that "a decision has been reached". Is there no further appeal?


My Lords, a decision has been reached. That is the business of Government. What we want to do is to make certain that that decision, which can bring substantial benefits to the area, avoids unnecessary hardship to individuals. But a decision has been reached.

Viscount MERSEY

My Lords, the Minister, as usual, treats this House with great courtesy, and I think we all appreciate that he is not personally to blame. It has been stated that there was a leak in the Ministry. is it not time, this sort of excuse having been put up—and not for the first time—that the officials, it may be high officials, who are responsible should be named? Would he consider that suggestion?


My Lords, this is a matter which is being treated very seriously.

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