HL Deb 06 February 1985 vol 459 cc1082-5

4.12 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Lord Trefgarne)

With your Lordships' permission, I should like to repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence about the operation conducted last night at RAF Molesworth to clear the site of trespassers and to fence it. The Statement is as follows:

"The then Secretary of State for Defence announced on 17th June 1980 the Government's decision that Molesworth, a disused airfield in Cambridgeshire, had been selected as the second United Kingdom cruise missile base. The normal process of planning consultation was set in hand towards the end of last year against the requirement to begin major construction on the site this autumn if deployment by 1988 is to be achieved.

"As the House will be aware, RAF Molesworth is an unfenced and open site and has been the scene of continued trespass by individuals and groups opposed to its use as a cruise missile base. Their activities have given rise to much local anxiety. The anti-nuclear protest groups have made clear their intention to engage in a systematic programme of deliberate delay and disruption, not excluding unlawful means, in order to prevent this development. It would have been quite wrong to allow such a protest to build up on Ministry of Defence land and to accept that the serious inconvenience to local people would continue.

"I therefore directed that the necessary steps should be taken to end this as quickly as possible and with the least likelihood of danger to all concerned. To do so, it was necessary to act in secrecy and with speed in order to prevent the very serious problems which would have arisen from the reinforcement of the protesters that had been threatened. This could have led to a major confrontation, with all the risks that involved to both demonstrators and those responsible for the maintenance of law and order.

"This operation began shortly before midnight last night with the arrival of Ministry of Defence police to clear the site of trespassers and to take control of it. The civil police were responsible for policing outside the site itself. At the same time, 1,500 Royal Engineers began to fence off the whole site with dannert-type fencing. They are also providing observation platforms and perimeter lighting which will assist the Ministry of Defence police in their continuing task of guarding the site. In addition, members of the Property Services Agency and civil contractors moved heavy equipment onto the site to begin the construction of a permanent weldmesh fence for which planning agreement has already been given.

"Mr. Speaker, this House reaffirmed in October 1983 its support for the NATO twin-track decision on intermediate range nuclear forces. The Government very much hope that, now that the Soviet Union has returned to the negotiating table, it will be possible to make progress on the arms control element of that decision. But, until progress has been achieved which makes this unnecessary, we shall continue with preparations for the deployment of cruise missiles. That is a decision approved by Parliament. No responsible Secretary of State for Defence or Government could countenance such preparations being frustrated by a small, unrepresentative minority within our society.

"That is why the action I have described has been undertaken today. I have myself visited Molesworth this morning in order to pass on the Government's thanks to those concerned. The House will, I know, wish to join me in paying tribute to all those involved in ensuring that this major operation has proceeded so successfully".

My Lords, that is the Statement.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I wish first of all to thank the noble Lord the Minister for repeating the Statement which has been made in another place. But is he not aware that this is an extraordinary Statement? Is he aware that he has completely failed to justify the massive use of civilian and military police to deal with this situation? To use 1,500 military police and an unspecified number of civilian police to deal with 100 peaceful, unarmed civilians is surely overkill in the extreme. What in actual fact has been the estimated cost of this operation? In his Statement, the Minister made a number of remarks which I invite him to substantiate. He indicated that these actions have been taken because it was unacceptable to continue the serious inconvenience to local people. Does the Minister care to spell out what inconvenience to local people has occurred which merits such an extraordinary use of military and civilian police?

The Minister told us that the operation began shortly before midnight. Does he not realise that this will be construed by many as a most sinister method of carrying out this operation? Is he not aware that this smacks of the "knock on the door in the middle of the night", of the jackboot and of the secret police? Is he not aware that the Minister has, quite frankly, overreacted in the extreme?

The Minister talks in terms of the hopes of the Government now that the Soviet Union has returned to the negotiating table. Would he not agree that, at this time of all times, it might have been advisable just to pause and reflect on this particular point in order to demonstrate that we are looking for all other possibilities of reaching the maximum possible detente?

The Minister talks in terms of action to frustrate a small unrepresentative minority within our society. Is the Minister aware that by actions of this kind he is more likely to make the small minority into a larger minority, and perhaps eventually into a majority? Is he aware that the manner in which this operation has been carried out is likely to do more than anything else to make sure that CND's advertised marches at Molesworth at Easter will be a bigger success than they ever have been?

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that my noble friends and I do not share the casual attitude to law-breaking of the Labour Party, nor their prejudice against the police and the armed forces?

Lord Stoddart of Swindon


Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos


Lord Mayhew

My Lords, neverthless, will the Minister give this assurance to the House: that there will be no restrictions whatever on peaceful, lawful demonstrations at Molesworth by whoever wishes to conduct them? Will he make it perfectly clear that there will be no harassing? May I ask the Minister this? If the Government were going to take this action, would it not have been wiser to take it earlier, before these protesters had dug themselves in as they did? I should be grateful for clear answers to those two questions.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords for their response to my Statement. I am sorry that the Statement did not please the noble Lord, Lord Graham. In conducting this operation, we were determined to ensure that we avoided some of the confrontational scenes that we have seen elsewhere in this country in recent months and years. I am happy to say that that has been achieved. The temporary fence that we have constructed has now been virtually completed without the confrontation that we have seen, for example, at Greenham Common in recent months. I do not therefore agree with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Graham, that we have conducted some form of overkill.

As for local inconvenience, there was very considerable local inconvenience. There had been a significant rise in petty crime locally, for example, which many people put down to the presence of these people in the area. If the noble Lord has any doubt on that point, I invite him to visit the local people. Only yesterday, as it happens, quite fortuitously, a petition had been submitted to the local council, signed by, I believe, no less than 90 per cent. or so of the local population and complaining about the presence of the so-called "peace campers" there. They are really nothing of the sort because the activities which they choose to pursue make no contribution to peace whatever.

The noble Lord referred to the Geneva negotiations which are to take place before long. Whatever the noble Lord may think about the prospects of those negotiations, the fact is that, while we have been conducting our comparatively slow modernisaton of INF forces, the Soviet Union has been increasing its INF forces at an alarming rate. The number of SS20 warheads now pointed at us is something approaching 1,000, a figure with which the noble Lord will be familiar.

The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, asked me for an assurance that peaceful and lawful protesting would not be interfered with. Of course I readily give him that assurance.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, will the noble Lord withdraw any aspersion that he may have made inadvertently in the course of his remarks suggesting that the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament is not a body wholly devoted to protest within the law? It is true, of course, that when anything of this sort takes place, it is bound to upset and to offend local people in some degree. Nevertheless, having regard to that and having regard to what was made clear on the radio this morning by Bruce Kent, I should like to make clear on my own behalf that, so far as the CND is concerned, it is not its intention to upset or incommode local people. May I ask the noble Lord one question? Will he say what is the cost of erecting this enormous fence around Molesworth?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am happy to hear from the noble Lord that the CND has no plans for any unlawful activity. That would hardly square with some of the things that it has been doing in the past. Indeed, the very presence of members of the CND, if that is who they were, at the so-called peace camp at Molesworth was in itself unlawful because they were trespassing on Ministry of Defence land. However, the noble Lord perhaps regards that as of no account.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, may I have an answer to my question about the cost of the fencing?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord for not answering that question. The cost of the materials, at any event, for constructing the fence around Molesworth is about £1 million.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, will the Minister accept that many of those engaged in this peaceful protest are members of the Religious Society of Friends, who have a long record of peaceful protest spread over 300 years? To suggest that these individuals were involved in increased local crime is hardly justified and is not likely to ensure an acceptance of the Government's case.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord disagrees with that assertion, but it is unhappily the case. I am happy to hear that they intend to be peaceful. However, if it was they who were at Greenham Common in recent months, they hardly lived up to that aspiration. As for being lawful, a number of breaches of the law have occurred at Greenham Common recently—not only breaches of the civil law of trespass but also breaches of the criminal law. I hope that we shall see an end to that.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, the Minister referred to the fact that besides 1,500 military personnel inside the perimeter there were civilian police outside. I asked him whether he could say how many civilian police were involved in the operation. I assume that he will be able to tell me that now.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I do not have the numbers of the civilian police who were involved. That is, of course, a matter for the local police. We left it to them to provide whatever forces were necessary.

Forward to