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House of Commons

Tuesday 28 March 1995

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Northern Ireland

1. Mr. Merchant: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he last visited Northern Ireland to discuss the current security situation; and if he will make a statement.     [14624]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind): I visited Northern Ireland on 15 to 16 August 1994, when I met the General Officer Commanding, Northern Ireland and his senior officers to discuss operational matters.

Mr. Merchant: I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on being able to redeploy some troops out of Northern Ireland--an early dividend of the peace process. However, can he reassure the House that, whatever the results of troop redeployments, there will not be an overall reduction in the strength of the British Army?

Mr. Rifkind: Yes, I am happy to give such an unequivocal assurance. I can state categorically that, if the position in Northern Ireland were to permit further reductions in troop levels in Northern Ireland, that would not lead to any reductions in the size of the services. It would enable us to provide more time for training, create a position in which there was less pressure on our troops and enable them to have more time with their families.

Mr. Trimble: I urge the Secretary of State to proceed very cautiously in any rundown of troop levels in Northern Ireland, especially when there are so many uncertainties and while terrorist organisations remain in existence and continue to be active, as evidenced by the shooting in south Belfast at the weekend, by yet another savage beating-up in Strabane yesterday and by the attacks on the homes of five prison officers in my constituency last night. Those incidents demonstrate that the organisations are still there and that it is not enough to tackle the issue of decommissioning of weapons without dealing with the disbandment of the terrorists.

Mr. Rifkind: The hon. Gentleman is right to advise caution. He can take comfort from the fact that it is now, about six months after the beginnings of the ceasefire, that we have withdrawn the first roulement battalion. Any further changes will be based on the operational and security advice of the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and of the General Officer Commanding,

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Northern Ireland. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, if we err, we shall err on the side of caution, for precisely the reasons that the hon. Gentleman states.

Lady Olga Maitland: I accept the decision to bring the battalions back to the mainland, but does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is essential that they must be on standby duty, and that we must have the facility to return them to Northern Ireland, should the need ever arise?

Mr. Rifkind: Yes, my hon. Friend is correct. The Drummadd roulement battalion, which we have withdrawn to the mainland, was one of two roulement battalions first deployed to Northern Ireland as recently as 1991 and 1992. My hon. Friend can assume that, if it were necessary to redeploy it back to Northern Ireland, that could happen very quickly indeed. The battalion that has been withdrawn was due to finish its tour in April 1995. The successor battalion continues to train on the basis that it might be required, and would be available to go if that were necessary.

Ministry of Defence Police

2. Ms Rachel Squire: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the MOD police.     [14625]

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames): The Ministry of Defence police is a disciplined body of about 5,000 civilian police officers, who are also civil servants. It is a national police force with full constabulary powers and all its officers are trained to carry arms.

Ms Squire: Does the Minister agree that full and detailed information should now be provided about the future of the Ministry of Defence police, as members of the force have received only bland general assurances? Does the Minister further agree that the police force performs a unique dual-purpose function throughout the country, a combination of police and security roles? Will he assure the House that the future of the force at UK-wide defence establishments is secure?

Mr. Soames: I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and I understand completely her desire to resolve the difficulties at Rosyth. Although a number of MDP will remain at Rosyth, interim reductions are planned, as she knows, for October 1995 and January 1996, but no final decisions have yet been taken.

On the other half of the hon. Lady's question, I entirely endorse her opinions. Ministry of Defence police are essential protection for Ministry of Defence property, for equipment and for the men and women and their families who live and work on the defence estate. The recent Blelloch study firmly underlined the continuing need for the Ministry of Defence police, whose services we greatly value.

Mr. Key: Will my hon. Friend take it from me that the Ministry of Defence police will always be welcome in Wiltshire, where they perform an important function, not just within the Ministry of Defence estate, but at the vital

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interface between the civilian, the Home Office police force and the rest of the community? Their presence is welcome as a deterrent against crime.

Mr. Soames: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. The Ministry of Defence police are an important part of any of the communities where there is a defence presence. They constitute the sixth largest police force in the United Kingdom; they have full constabulary powers and they operate extremely effectively with our own ordinary local police. I am pleased to endorse my hon. Friend's views and am most grateful to him for drawing them to the attention of the House.

Officers (Ethnic Origin)

3. Mr. MacShane: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many officers of (a) Asian and (b) Caribbean origin above the rank of major or equivalent serve in Her Majesty's forces.     [14626]

Mr. Soames: Of the 57 per cent. of service personnel who have so far responded to my Department's survey, 23 officers above the rank of major are of Asian origin and 11 are of Afro-Caribbean origin. That survey did not include the Brigade of Gurkhas.

Mr. MacShane: I am grateful for the Minister's answer, which shows, I hope, that the Army is becoming sensitive to some of the statements that it was not fully reflecting our society. Given that the soldiers and officers whom most of the British public and overseas visitors see are from the Household Division and the Brigade of Guards, will the Minister assure us that this year's trooping the colour will be the last example of white supremacy in Her Majesty's forces?

Mr. Soames: The hon. Gentleman makes, in one sense, an important point. He is right to suggest that we need to encourage ethnic minorities to join the Household Division--we are conscious of the need to do that. A special Army youth team has been established to do just that and to make contact with schools, youth organisations and other groups to encourage the young to undertake adventure training and see something of Army life and Army establishments. The team's task is to target areas of high ethnic minority populations to show children in those areas the excitement of an Army career, particularly the possibility of the honour of guarding the sovereign's life.

Mr. Bill Walker: Will my hon. Friend confirm that, particularly in relation to the Royal Air Force, the only means of recruitment will be based on the individual's ability to do the job? One cannot fly a fast jet aircraft or carry out highly technical jobs or any of the other specialist activities unless one is competent. That is the only basis on which the Royal Air Force has ever recruited. It has never cared where people come from.

Mr. Soames: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good and valid point. The armed forces are fully integrated, non-discriminatory organisations that are subject to the Race Relations Act 1976. We are keen to encourage people from wherever they come, and whatever their colour, race or creed, to join the armed forces, where they will be warmly welcomed and will find an important, challenging and worthwhile role.

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Conference on Disarmament

4. Mr. Llew Smith: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what plans he has to respond to the speech made by the Russian ambassador, Grigory Berdennikov, to the 23 February meeting of the conference on disarmament.     [14627]

Mr. Rifkind: We noted the Russian ambassador's speech with great interest, and particularly welcomed the reaffirmation of Russian determination to secure the unconditional and indefinite extension of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Mr. Smith: Does the Minister agree with the Russian ambassador, who argued that all nuclear weapon states should be working towards the elimination of nuclear weapons and, in the meantime, should make a commitment not to increase their existing nuclear armaments or to put into service new sorts of strategic weaponry?

Mr. Rifkind: We recognise the desirability of working towards nuclear disarmament, but we must also be realistic and realise that nuclear technology cannot be disinvented. It is necessary to ensure that any progress in the direction recommended by the hon. Gentleman is based on a verification procedure that ensures that all countries observe the new requirements, otherwise the world would be much more dangerous.

Mr. Harry Greenway: Is my right hon. and learned Friend concerned about the dispersal of the nuclear arms of the former Soviet Union? Is he taking action with Russia to contain that?

Mr. Rifkind: After the break-up of the Soviet Union, there were nuclear weapons in Byelorussia, Kazakhstan and the Ukraine, as well as in the Russian Federation itself. Thanks to the measures that have been taken in the past few years, that situation seems to have been resolved-- particularly as a result of the Ukraine agreeing to carry out its obligations as a non-nuclear power.

Courts Martial

5. Mr. Galloway: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what plans he has to review the system of courts martial within Her Majesty's armed forces; and if he will make a statement.     [14628]

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Roger Freeman): The Service Discipline Acts are updated every five years by an Armed Forces Bill. The next such Bill is due in the forthcoming Session of Parliament.

Mr. Galloway: Is it not more urgent than that? A number of cases give cause for concern. My constituent Staff Sergeant John Menzies and his wife, who are in the Gallery today, are living evidence of that, as their daughter was murdered by a British soldier. The military police, who were soldiers with armbands, and the military prosecutor, who was a soldier in a wig, bungled the case and--for the interest of Tory Members--a murderer, Corporal Darren Fisher, walked free. He is still at large and is serving in Her Majesty's armed services. Is it not

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about time that we overhauled the archaic, anachronistic system of military justice which is widely discredited, even within the armed services?

Mr. Freeman: I think that the whole House will understand the grief and concern of the parents concerned and anyone who is a parent will share their deep shock at their tragic loss. Therefore, I join the hon. Gentleman in offering them my condolences.

It is not up to Defence Ministers to reopen that particular trial. The trial has been held and the hon. Gentleman has his deeply held views about its progress and conclusion. It is not for a Minister of the Crown to reopen that trial.

However, I believe that when we debate the Armed Forces Bill it will be perfectly appropriate--I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will take that opportunity--to raise the question of procedures used within the services, including the courts martial procedures. I am sure that it will be entirely appropriate to raise that matter on the Floor of the House or during Committee and I look forward to that occurring.

Mr. Gallie: Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of my constituents who was serving in Northern Ireland has been convicted of murder while undertaking an act of duty? Does my right hon. Friend sympathise with the trial judge who suggested that an option other than murder--that of culpable homicide--should have been given to the court? Does he agree that in such cases it would be more appropriate for soldiers on active service to come before courts martial?

Mr. Freeman: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out what he believes is an anomaly in the law. As he is aware, certain cases in Northern Ireland have been tried before the civil courts and not the courts martial. I am sure that my hon. Friend will take the opportunity, which I mentioned earlier in response to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway), of raising the issue during parliamentary debate on the Armed Forces Bill.

Mr. Martlew: In view of the Minister's announcement today and last week that the Armed Forces Bill will come to the House in the next parliamentary Session, will he use the intervening period to consult fully with regard to court martial procedures? There is no doubt that there is a great deal of disquiet about that issue--which has been expressed today in the House--in the community and within the military. Will the Minister use that time to consult the Opposition, as we would like to take a bipartisan approach to the matter? Will the Minister guarantee that he will consult us before he lays the Bill before Parliament?

Mr. Freeman: The Government are happy to accept that suggestion. The offer of bipartisan discussions is very much in keeping with the importance of getting the Armed Forces Bill and the service disciplinary procedures right. The legislation comes before the Parliament only once every five years, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his offer.


6. Mr. Jacques Arnold: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on British forces deployments in Angola.     [14629]

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Mr. Rifkind: The Government have agreed in principle to a request from the United Nations for a logistic battalion on a three-month deployment to support the peacekeeping operation in Angola. A final decision to deploy such a battalion can be considered only once we are satisfied that a ceasefire is in force and that the necessary facilities will be provided.

Mr. Arnold: My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that there was a small British contingent in Angola before the election which carried out precisely the services that he has outlined. It is clear that, as a result of its excellent work at that time, that contingent will be welcomed back to Angola. Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure the House that the commitment of that battalion will not become open-ended?

Mr. Rifkind: I most certainly can. I said in my initial response that we are considering a three-month deployment. My hon. Friend will remember the successful deployment to Rwanda, which was also on a three- month basis. The United Kingdom believes that it would be of great value to the United Nations if it considered as a matter of course that countries which contribute towards operations should contribute much more often on a time-limited basis and then be replaced by another country, if the mission continues, or that the task should be continued in some other form or fashion. Our contribution in Angola is strictly limited to three months. The United Nations understands and accepts that.

Mr. Foulkes: Will the Secretary of State join me in condemning the increasing isolationism of the United States Congress and, perhaps, the US Government? Does he also regret their condemnation and criticism of UN peacekeeping and their unwillingness to fund it? Will he take some action to try to persuade his counterpart in the United States Administration of the great importance of supporting the United Nations and its peacekeeping role for the future peace of the world?

Mr. Rifkind: The hon. Gentleman makes far too sweeping a condemnation in his remarks. I am entirely satisfied that the United States Government are very much aware of the need for them to support peacekeeping and to help fund those efforts. Indeed, even after the reforms that are to be introduced, the United States will still provide some 25 per cent. of the total United Nations cost of peacekeeping--a sum far greater than any other country. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that some members of Congress take a different view, and it is very important that they should fully realise the implications for the United States and for the western world as a whole if those matters are not satisfactorily resolved.

Sir Jim Spicer: Is my right hon. and learned Friend convinced that in Angola at the moment peacekeeping is the order of the day? Have both sides--the Government and UNITA--accepted that peace is what they both want, because all my information points the other way? Will he give an assurance that in no way will our troops will deployed in a situation where they might be involved in fighting?

Mr. Rifkind: A ceasefire has been in operation for some time and it has generally held, although not exclusively so. I can, however, reassure my hon. Friend that the proposal for any United Kingdom contribution is that it should be deployed to Lobito, on the coast, where

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there has been no military action for many years, and where it should set up a logistics support structure for the United Nations and should have little likelihood of penetrating into the interior of the country. My hon. Friend's concerns are well understood and can be responded to with confidence.

Procurement (Cost Overruns)

7. Ms Church: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what actions his Department has taken to reduce cost overruns in procurement purchases.     [14631]

Mr. Freeman: In the financial year 1980-81, 22 per cent. by value of our headquarters contracts were let on a cost-plus basis. Last year, the figure was 1 per cent. Hence, last year, virtually all contracts had fixed prices or arrangements to protect the Ministry against contractors' cost overruns.

Ms Church: I thank the Minister for his answer, but does he not accept that there are considerable cost overruns on a large number of projects, which show that his Department has lost financial control of much of the defence budget? Is that not another sign of the Government's failure in running the country?

Mr. Freeman: It is not the case, as I am sure the whole House will appreciate, that we have lost control of the defence budget. Far from it. Our procedures identify at an early stage where there are cost overruns, which can be due to a whole number of factors. In the development of the Eurofighter, which hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench support, with new technological development--the leading edge of new technology--that very expensive aircraft has already experienced some justifiable cost increases. The hon. Lady might wish to know that the National Audit Office recently reviewed our procurement policies. It compared the Ministry of Defence with 11 other Defence Ministries in other countries and concluded that, in Britain, the Department performed relatively well and particularly well in terms of pursuit of competition.

Mr. Brazier: Will my right hon. Friend take it from someone who worked with the defence industry before being elected that-- [Hon. Members:-- "Oh!"] I have no financial connection with any company in the defence industry now. Will my right hon. Friend take it from me that the transformation that has taken place in our defence procurement purchasing over the past 10 years has been remarkable? Does he agree that the only way to remove all risk of cost overruns is to give up altogether on taking any commercial or technical risk and accept second-rate, second- hand equipment?

Mr. Freeman: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out that it has been this Government and this Secretary of State for Defence who have announced an augmentation-- [Interruption.] Perhaps the Opposition do not want to hear this but, last July, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced an increase in the equipment budget to include highly capable aircraft and ships and artillery for the armed forces, which is among the best in the world. There is inevitably some risk in developing new weapons and weapons systems.

Mr. Fatchett: Does the Minister not realise that he sounds remarkably complacent? When the Ministry was

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asked to give information on projects to the National Audit Office, I remind him that it got the calculations wrong in eight out of its 10 responses. Is it not the case that there is an overrun of 2.7 years on projects, that 80 per cent. of them have failed to reach their targets and that, on many serious and important individual procurement projects, the Government have spent literally billions of pounds of taxpayers' money on overshoots? Is this not a catalogue of unexpected and unanticipated defence cuts, waste and inefficiency on the part of a Ministry that is better known for waste than for any other characteristic?

Mr. Freeman: I understand why the hon. Gentleman, as an Opposition spokesman, has to attack--that is his job--but it would be much more effective if he got his facts right and concentrated on specific projects to explain the reasons why he thinks the Government have got it wrong. Broad-brush comments about a Department of waste cut no ice. The truth is that, as I said, the NAO has given us a clean bill of health. It regards our procedures as competent and efficient, which it would certainly not do under a Labour Government.

Mr. Mans: Bearing in mind the less than satisfactory track record of GEC in the past few years in the production of defence equipment, and especially now that we know of the waste of public money involved in the Phoenix project, will my right hon. Friend consider carrying out an audit of that company's activities in relation to the procurement of military equipment, and pay particular attention to its involvement in the ECR90 programme?

Mr. Freeman: I would not share my hon. Friend's criticisms of GEC. It is a large and efficient defence manufacturer that employs many tens of thousands of people in the defence industrial base. As for the Phoenix programme, I assure my hon. Friend that proposals are shortly to come before Ministers to decide on the future of that project, which I know that the Select Committee on Defence is considering. We need to decide whether to cancel the project and to seek contractual damages from GEC or to continue with it but protect ourselves against any increase in costs and any diminution in our contractual position in relation to the company.

Nuclear and Chemical Weapon Proliferation

8. Mr. Flynn: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what new proposals he has to discourage nuclear and chemical weapon proliferation.     [14632]

Mr. Rifkind: We are currently working towards the indefinite extension of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and the effective implementation of the chemical weapons convention and are active participants in the work of the nuclear suppliers group, the missile technology control regime and the Australia group.

Mr. Flynn: Was not the attack in Tokyo by sarin gas a reminder of the catastrophic dangers of chemical weapons--even do-it-yourself chemical weapons--now that the materials and the technology are accessible to everyone? When will we join France, Germany and the

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many other countries which fully ratified the chemical weapons convention? Does not the new world chaos now need measures to build confidence and reduce fear?

Mr. Rifkind: Of course that is important. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that the chemical weapons convention has been signed by 159 states, including the United Kingdom, and ratified by 27. My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, who is responsible for questions of ratification in this sphere, attaches considerable importance to early ratification of that treaty, and I must ask the hon. Gentleman to await further developments.

Mr. Jopling: Is the Secretary of State content that, as the dangers of the proliferation of those weapons grow, together with the proliferation of biological weapons, his discussions with the Home Office on civil defence and on the possible use of those dreadful weapons here, and our preparedness in the event of such use, are adequate?

Mr. Rifkind: As my right hon. Friend would expect, of course we try to anticipate any threat that might emerge to the country's people or territory. The question of what might happen in relation to an incident in the United Kingdom is a matter for the Home Office primarily, but he can assume that if, unfortunately, any such attempt were made, the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces would be able to make a significant contribution, both in preventing and deterring any such incident, and in dealing with its consequences.

Mr. Menzies Campbell: Would we not be able to discourage nuclear weapons proliferation by others if we showed a little self-restraint? If the Polaris system provides an effective independent nuclear deterrent, why is it necessary to replace it with Trident and to have many times as many warheads? Would it not be right to limit Trident's deployment to the number of Polaris warheads that it is to replace, not least because it has approximately twice the range, is accurate within 250 m, and its warheads are capable of being independently targeted?

Mr. Rifkind: The hon. and learned Gentleman is characteristically uninformed as to the consequences for the UK's nuclear weapons overall of the implementation of the Government's policy. I am able to inform the House that when, in the next few years, Trident takes over the sub- strategic nuclear role and the WE177 free-fall bomb is withdrawn, the UK will have 21 per cent. fewer nuclear warheads than it did in the 1970s, after the non-proliferation treaty came into effect. The total explosive power of those warheads will be some 59 per cent. lower than the 1970s figure. That clearly shows that the UK is playing its full part in the objectives to which the hon. and learned Gentleman refers.

Dr. David Clark: Does the Secretary of State not understand that the chemical weapons convention, which the Government have singly failed to ratify, is vital not only for international security but for the country's chemical industry? Did he note that, in that most unusual presentation to the press last week of the surrogate Queen's Speech, no announcement was made of legislation to ratify the chemical weapons convention? Why not?

Mr. Rifkind: Her Majesty the Queen will announce the Queen's Speech and no such announcement has yet

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been made. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the ratification of the chemical weapons convention requires the laying of legislation before the House. The time to announce what legislation the Government have in mind is the Queen's Speech. That is not taking place today.

Mr. Fabricant: Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that proliferation is not the only problem in relation to nuclear weapons? The knowledge of how to produce such weapons is becoming more and more widespread. The genie cannot be put back in the bottle. Is it not right and proper, therefore, that we maintain our nuclear deterrent, and resist the siren voices of the Opposition?

Mr. Rifkind: My hon. Friend is correct. The Opposition's views continue to fascinate me. They were against nuclear weapons at the height of the cold war, but now that the cold war is behind us, they try to persuade us that they are in favour of them. I know that the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) will wish to take an early opportunity to clarify the Opposition's view on nuclear weapons, which is a shambles.

Armed Forces (Deployment)

9. Mr. Barnes: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what are his plans for the redeployment of armed forces when they are removed from Northern Ireland.     [14633]

Mr. Rifkind: The 5th Regiment, Royal Artillery returned from Northern Ireland on 22 March to its home base at Catterick. The prison guard force from the 1 Armoured Division Signals Regiment returned to its base in Germany in November.

Mr. Barnes: If peace in Northern Ireland is signed, sealed and delivered, is it envisaged that any British troops will remain in Northern Ireland? Has the Secretary of State had discussions with the Northern Ireland Office about the potential of the peace dividend that will come out of those developments?

Mr. Rifkind: The answer to the hon. Gentleman's first question is undoubtedly yes. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom; therefore, it should go without saying that the armed forces of the United Kingdom will continue to be based there, just as they are in England, Scotland or Wales. What we are anxious to achieve, when the security situation requires and justifies it, is a withdrawal of armed forces from the streets of our cities in Northern Ireland so that Northern Ireland can share the situation that exists elsewhere in Great Britain. However, the Royal Irish Regiment has its home base in Northern Ireland, so I am sure that it and other forces will have a presence in the Province, as they do elsewhere.

Mr. Churchill: Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that the progressive reduction in the number of battalions deployed in Northern Ireland over the coming months, assuming that the peace holds there, will not be used as an excuse to cut the infantry battalions of the British Army?

Mr. Rifkind: In answer to an earlier question I said explicitly what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have said on other occasions- -that there is no possibility of any reduction in the size of our armed forces as a result of progress in Northern Ireland. Therefore, any

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progress that allows us to reduce the number of troops in Northern Ireland will be as good news for the armed forces as for the people of Ulster.

Menwith Hill Station

10. Mr. Madden: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will arrange for right hon. and hon. Members to visit Menwith Hill station in north Yorkshire.     [14635]

Mr. Soames: No, I shall not, for the very good operational and security reasons given by my predecessor in the House on 25 March 1994.

Mr. Madden: Is it not disgraceful that Ministers refuse to allow Members of Parliament, who are elected public representatives, and all of whom take an oath of allegiance, to visit that American spy base in north Yorkshire? Is not that disgrace equalled only by the gagging order recently issued by the Secretary of State for Defence, stopping the courts and the public from hearing that the National Security Agency of America, which controls the base, is engaged in industrial and commercial espionage to the disadvantage of the United Kingdom, and that GCHQ staff also based there are illegally tapping telephones?

Mr. Soames: I must invite the hon. Gentleman to contain his entirely pathetic paranoia and to understand that the function of that important site is regarded by Her Majesty's Government as being of the highest importance to the United Kingdom's defence strategy. The work carried out there is extremely sensitive and valuable.

Mr. John Greenway: Will my hon. Friend disregard the outburst by the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) and recognise that the great majority of people in north Yorkshire welcome the presence of Menwith Hill, and also of RAF Fylingdales in my constituency, and that they appreciate the important part that those two installations play in upholding peace throughout the world?

Mr. Soames: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for underlining so well the great importance of those sites to the strategic security of the United Kingdom and to our allies. I know that they are valued by all who live near them and I am grateful, as those who work in them will be, for my hon. Friend's clarion support.

Royal Arsenal Site, Woolwich

11. Mr. Austin-Walker: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what plans he has to visit Woolwich to discuss the future of the royal arsenal site.     [14636]

Mr. Soames: My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has no such plans, although my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence visited the royal arsenal site on 1 November last year.

Mr. Austin-Walker: I am sure that the Minister agrees that that site, containing 75 acres of derelict industrial land, is probably one of the largest such areas in a town centre in the United Kingdom and that its development is crucial not only to the regeneration of the locality but to the Thames gateway strategy. What progress has there been on the redevelopment, and does his Department now

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accept responsibility for the restoration of the 15 listed buildings on the site? What liability does the Department accept for land contamination in the area?

Mr. Soames: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; as a constituency Member, he has rightly taken a close interest in the matter. As he knows, there are two sites at Woolwich, the east and the west. The west site covers the considerable area of 76 acres, and negotiations have commenced to transfer it to English Partnerships. I hope that they will be completed shortly, and that a development plan can be finalised in consultation with the borough of Greenwich. The smaller east site does not contain listed buildings, but it is possible that the ground is contaminated. The site will be sold on the open market, and a detailed investigation of the contamination has been commissioned.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Ministry of Defence accepts liability for site and building contamination where that is significant and has to be remedied up to the standard required by the development plan. We shall agree funding with English Partnerships, and I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman with regard to the listed buildings.

Mr. Devlin: Would not this site have been entirely redeveloped by now if the quality assurance unit at Woolwich had not so tenaciously resisted being relocated to the Preston Farm industrial estate in Stockton- on-Tees? Since the facility was disbanded by the Ministry of Defence, has not the site in Stockton-on-Tees been extensively redeveloped by Teesside development corporation, bringing more jobs than if the quality assurance unit had gone there in the first place?

Mr. Soames: I was not aware of that particular background, but, as my hon. Friend knows, an ugly queue is forming to stampede Stockton-on- Tees. Many people wish to relocate in such an excellent place, with such an admirable Member of Parliament.

Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty

12. Dr. Lynne Jones: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when his Department next expects to be able to make a contribution to nuclear arms reductions in furtherance of the Government's obligations under article 6 of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.     [14637]

Mr. Rifkind: We shall consider what further contribution we might be able to make to nuclear arms reductions in the light of changing international circumstances.

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