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The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Gummer): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Cann: No. The right hon. Gentleman would not let me in on a previous occasion.
Mr. Gummer: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. The hon. Gentleman said that he has not had the courtesy of a reply. He wrote to me but did not include the letters that he claimed to include. He has given me no notice of tonight's debate nor informed me of anything else that he has done. Moreover, he has not apologised to me this evening. [Hon. Members: -- "He has."] He has apologised to you, Madam Speaker, but not to me. He has shown discourtesy throughout this whole performance, and he now suggests that I have not replied to his letter.
Madam Speaker: I dealt with that matter on a point of order earlier today.
Mr. Cann: I reiterate that the Secretary of State for the Environment has not replied to my letter. I understand that the Secretary of State for Defence has not replied, because he has a Minister here to respond in person, which I appreciate.
This Adjournment debate is an attempt to bring something out into the open which has been dealt with consistently behind closed doors in the Ministry of Defence. What we are dealing with is not what we initially thought it was--just a matter of economic regeneration in my area of the country. It is not only a matter of the future use of a base. We are talking about Her Majesty's Government, wide-eyed and open, selling the base to a cult which, as we all know, like all other cults, is inherently unstable.
Column 804If anybody had said that Waco meant wacko before it happened, they would have been accused of trying to scare everybody. If anybody had talked about Jim Jones and what went on in Guyana, where 400 people poisoned themselves with cyanide at the behest of the head of that cult, they would have been accused of exaggerating. Indeed, they would have said the same of what happened recently in Switzerland. Are we sincerely--this must surely go across the political divide--considering putting this property in the hands of a cult which will attempt to pull in 4,000 young people? If it is possible that the cult will pull in youngsters to be indoctrinated at Bentwaters, as has happened in the rest of the world, where the cult has pulled in 4,000 youngsters who did not quite make it to a proper university, who were desperate and whose parents could afford to pay, I cannot believe that the Government would dream of allowing that sale. I know that the Government cannot possibly say no to it tonight, but I hope that they can see their way clear, for goodness' sake, to reviewing the matter before the final signature goes on the contract.
Mr. Tim Yeo (Suffolk, South): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces for allowing me one minute to speak in this debate.
I have listened carefully to the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann), and I welcome the fact that he has apologised to you, Madam Speaker. I noticed, however, that he did not feel able to apologise to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, in whose constituency affairs the hon. Gentleman has been meddling for some time.
The hon. Member for Ipswich did not say whether this debate was just a publicity stunt, although that is the most charitable interpretation that we may put on his actions. The hon. Gentleman did not say why he did not advise my right hon. Friend of his visit to the constituency of Suffolk, Coastal, and I regret that he was so ill informed about the conventions of this House, after almost three years, that he waited until after he had been rebuked by you, Madam Speaker, before apologising to the House. Neither his predecessor, Michael Irvine, nor his predecessor's predecessor, Ken Weetch, who was a respected Member of this House, would have displayed such ignorance and discourtesy.
I wonder whether the real agenda is the Labour party's desire in Ipswich to dump Ipswich airport on to Bentwaters, against the wishes either of the local community or of the users of Ipswich airport. My right hon. Friend, to whom the arrival of the Maharishi has not been exactly welcome, is now doing his best to reconcile the local neighbourhood to the change of ownership of Bentwaters, and to ensure that any harm which may result can at least be minimised. I deplore the heavy-handed intrusion of the hon. Member for Ipswich, which can only inflame the local situation.
Such intrusion has obviously been undertaken for purely political purposes, regardless of the damage to the lives of the constituents of my right hon. Friend. The presence of three Labour Front Benchers in the House, which is extremely unusual for an Adjournment debate, shows that they approve of and connive at the disgraceful behaviour of the hon. Member for Ipswich, whose
Column 805manoeuvring will be remembered in this House and in Suffolk for some time to come. This is the face of the modern Labour party, which clearly has the full backing of the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair).
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames): May I start by saying that the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann) has made a thoroughly reprehensible, naive and foolish speech, showing a degree of malevolence and ignorance almost unparalleled in the time that I have had the honour of being a Minister? Despite the fact that he has offered you, Madam Speaker, an apology, his behaviour tonight is all the more reprehensible, because he has failed to apologise to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of the State for the Environment, in whose constituency affairs he is clearly meddling.
Mr. Cann: Will the Minister give way?
RAF Bentwaters is in the heart of the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment--the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). He has been working on the matters for nearly two years. He is the chairman of the consultative committee of the local authorities and parish councils concerned with planning the future of RAF Bentwaters.
He has been in constant touch with my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and my noble Friend the Parliamentary Under- Secretary of State for Defence. My right hon. Friend has been concerned with both the principles and details of this difficult case. By local meetings and postal surveys, he has represented with great diligence and care the views of his constituents.
Neither the borough of Ipswich nor either of its two Members of Parliament have been consulted--and quite properly not. The planning authority for the sale of Bentwaters is the Suffolk county council. Indeed, it was only when the Natural Law Foundation emerged as the lead bidder that the hon. Member for Ipswich decided to take an interest in his neighbour's business. I understand that he has a well-known reputation for doing that, and for trying to stir up trouble through the press.
No one could suggest that my right hon. Friend would be a pushover for oriental religion! There cannot be many in the House who could be better equipped to argue forcibly with the proponents of transcendental meditation. It is not for me to judge the hon. Member for Ipswich on such matters, but, between the two of them, I know where I would put my money.
Because of the bad faith of the hon. Member, it is not right for the Ministry of Defence to take sides, but it is right for me to reveal to the House that my right hon. Friend is deeply opposed to the views of the Natural Law Foundation. He has made that clear to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and other Ministers involved. He has had long and detailed discussions about the legal position, but once it became clear that the foundation was the likely purchaser, my right hon. Friend quite rightly sought to deal with it in the best interests of his constituents.
Column 806My right hon. Friend has met its leaders, and has secured the agreement to provide community facilities, the use of sporting facilities, and the ecumenical use of a Church building. He has maintained his own view with integrity, but, above all, he has sought to do all that is possible to secure good neighbourly relations. That is the proper activity of a highly diligent and active Member of Parliament.
Into that picture has come the hon. Member for Ipswich, who will not have to live with the people involved, who can walk away, having caused as much ill feeling as possible, and who has no responsibility for the future of RAF Bentwaters and its people. That is why I am surprised at this Adjournment debate, of which my right hon. Friend received no notice until he got his Whip and read it last week. The primary role of the MOD is, of course, to defend the realm. To allow us to do so, our armed forces must have sufficient land to train upon, and be adequately housed--as must the forces of our allies stationed on our soil.
A major objective of my Ministry has always been to ensure that, in restructuring the services and planning the current drawdown from overseas, we do not miss any opportunity to reduce the size of the defence estate, and thereby carry out our obligation to the taxpayer to ensure the best value for money.
The disposal of the United States Air Force base at Bentwaters, Suffolk, forms part of that programme, but it is an element that has generated considerable public interest, particularly as it is the first large American base to be placed on the open market following the recent rundown of the USAF in this country.
The base itself comprises more than 1,000 acres of land and just under 2 million sq ft of building space. It is situated in a rural area, and much of it is located in an area of outstanding natural beauty. The announcement of the USAF withdrawal was made in August 1992 and the closure date set for September 1993.
In the usual way, the most careful consideration was given to any other defence use which may have been appropriate for Bentwaters. We heard nothing from the hon. Member for Ipswich while those discussions were going on. No such alternative use was found for the site, and the whole station was therefore handed to the defence land agent for disposal.
The base, and its sister base at Woodbridge, were home to about 13, 500 service men and women, and civilian employees and their families. It was inevitable, therefore, that the closure would have a significant impact on the local economy. That, of course, could not affect our decision on closure, but it was a factor that was very much to the fore.
A working group was established as soon as the United States Air Force withdrawal was announced, and my Department liaised extensively.
In September 1993, an examination in public was held to consider changes to the Suffolk county council's structure plan. That was used as a public forum for the ideas of the working group. A revised draft planning brief was broadly agreed in June 1994. That was formally incorporated within the local plan and the county structure plan in September 1994.
Column 807From that explanation, it will be obvious that we sought to obtain the broadest measure of agreement concerning the issues in planning terms which could be considered for the site on leaving the Government's ownership. Early interest in the domestic site was shown by Suffolk college, based in Ipswich, and some preliminary discussions took place. However, Suffolk college did not pursue its interest further.
Other expressions of interest were received, and the marketing process was concluded, after critical examination, by the announcement on 8 February 1995 that the offer for the purchase of the whole of the former base made by the Maharishi Foundation had been accepted. The offer made by the Maharishi Foundation, which is a registered educational charity, was the best received and fully conforms with the planning brief agreed during the consultation process.
The foundation has said that it intends to establish a university based on the domestic site, using as many of the existing buildings as possible. In addition, I understand that the foundation intends to set up a related science and business park using other parts of the base.
It is also worthy of note that the foundation has consulted widely since the announcement that its bid had been accepted. It has had detailed discussions with Suffolk Coastal district council, and public meetings have been held to consult local communities around Bentwaters. The local residents in the privately owned houses adjoining the base have been consulted, and the foundation has said that community facilities will be made available on the former domestic site.
There has been some suggestion that my Department should have accepted one of the other bids that was made, and that the Maharishi Foundation is in some way an
Column 808unsuitable purchaser. On the first issue, I believe that the procedures that are followed allow all the prospective purchasers a fair and equal opportunity.
I can confirm that the foundation's offer was the best deal for the taxpayer. I also believe that the planned uses have the potential to be of significant benefit to the local community, as does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.
Nor can I find any basis for the opinion that the foundation is an undesirable organisation. It is a registered educational charity, which has operated in this country and elsewhere for about twenty years and is widely known. There is certainly no reason for rejecting its bid.
As I have said, we received several other offers for the purchase of the site, and some of the prospective purchasers have naturally lobbied hard in support of their bids. I am sure that the hon. Member for Ipswich will understand, however, that I cannot discuss those commercial details, as they are a matter of confidence.
In conclusion, I can confirm that the offer accepted from the foundation is a good deal for the taxpayer, and the normal criteria in assessing proposals made for the purchase of redundant defence property have been followed in full. I therefore remain of the view that the proposed disposal to the Maharishi Foundation should proceed.
I should not like to end without placing again on record my contempt for the disgraceful behaviour of the hon. Member for Ipswich, and my hope that the House will understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has done all in his power to ensure the very best terms and conditions for his constituents. Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.
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