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Companies Act (Amendment)

Mr. Dafydd Wigley accordingly presented a Bill to amend the law to require directors of public companies, in cases where there is a takeover, to have regard to the interests of employees as well as shareholders: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 10 November, and to be printed [Bill 177].

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Defence and the Armed Forces

[Relevant documents: Second Report from the Defence Committee, Session 1999-2000, HC 158, on the Ministry of Defence Annual Reporting Cycle, and the Government's response thereto, HC 452;

Fifth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 1999-2000, HC 100, on the Defence Geographic and Imagery Intelligence Agency, and the Government's response thereto, HC 629;

Eighth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 1999-2000, HC 264, on European Security and Defence, and the Government's response thereto, HC 732;

Thirteenth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 1999-2000, HC 433, on the Iraqi No-Fly Zones, and the Government's response thereto, HC 930;

Fourteenth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 1999-2000, HC 347-I, on Lessons of Kosovo.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Sutcliffe.]

3.48 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): It is a privilege to come to the House for the second time in less than a week to debate defence issues. I take this opportunity to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie), to his rightful place on the Government Benches.

Last week, our focus was on procurement, and I will have still more to say on that subject in a moment. However, our debate today is on the armed forces, of whom we are all justly proud. They do an outstanding job for this country around the world and it is entirely appropriate that the House should devote this debate to a full and thorough discussion of their role and activities over the past year.

The last 12 months have been demanding for our armed forces, but they have responded to their many challenges professionally, with great dedication and with outstanding courage and personal sacrifice. British forces have continued to play an essential role in Bosnia and Kosovo. A year ago, the Kosovo campaign was still fresh in our minds, and our focus was on consolidating the peace that had been won through the allies' successful military campaign last summer. That meant returning more than 1.3 million refugees and displaced people to their homes and villages. Today, more than 800,000 refugees have returned home, the people of Kosovo have taken part in the country's first ever free and fair elections to choose their own representatives, schools in Kosovo have reopened with Albanian children being taught in their own language, and Slobodan Milosevic, who drove tens of thousands of Kosovans from their homes, has himself been driven from power by his own people.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): The Secretary of State will undoubtedly be aware that, this morning, it was revealed to the Select Committee on Defence that the extremely political attack by a senior uniformed officer, Sir John Day, on the Defence Committee report on Kosovo was made under pressure. Today, in an open sitting of the Committee, Sir John revealed that he had not chosen to give that interview, but was asked--indeed, pressed--to do so. Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether he intends to continue to use uniformed officers to fight his political battles?

Mr. Hoon: I know Sir John extremely well and, of all the people whom I can think of in the armed forces, he is

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one of those who are least likely to respond to pressure of any type. The hon. Gentleman is, therefore, absolutely wrong in that assertion.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): To settle any disquiet, will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to conduct an inquiry into the matter and to report back on exactly what happened?

Mr. Hoon: I do not see the necessity for an inquiry. I make it quite clear that Sir John--as anyone who knows him will confirm--is simply not a man to respond to that type of pressure. I am afraid that the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) is wrong in his assertion.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): It was me who asked Sir John whether he voluntarily instigated or was told to instigate The Sunday Times article. His answer was quite clear and specific: he was told to do so. I should be interested to know whether the Secretary of State or the Chief of the Defence Staff gave that instruction to Sir John. Sir John left the Committee in no doubt today that he instigated that article at the request of someone else.

Mr. Hoon: The two Select Committee members should get their story straight, because we are now hearing two different versions of events. [Hon. Members: "No."] Opposition Members are not thinking very quickly and carefully about what has just been said.

On the one hand, it has been suggested that a serving officer was subject to some type of pressure. That is an allegation that I most strongly resist. On the other hand, it is being suggested that a serving officer was made to respond to a request from the media for an interview. That is an entirely routine matter, occurring very regularly in the Ministry of Defence. I am really surprised that the hon. Member for Canterbury is raising that as an issue.

Mr. Hancock: The Secretary of State is being deliberately mischievous in trying to mislead the House even further. The point that I was making--

Mr. Speaker: Order. I should not think that the Minister, or any other right hon. or hon. Member, would seek to mislead the House. I take it that the hon. Gentleman wishes to withdraw that remark?

Mr. Hancock: Indeed, Mr. Speaker, on your advice, I certainly do. However, I should not like the impression to be given by any hon. Member that Sir John did anything today other than to confirm that he did not instigate the interview of his volition, but was asked to instigate it. He could have been asked to do that only by a senior politician or a senior person at the Ministry of Defence, such as the Chief of the Defence Staff.

Will the Secretary of State say whether he knew that Sir John had been asked to participate in the interview? If he knew, did he play a role in the making of that request? If he did not play a role, will he investigate who did ask Sir John to participate in the article--which was wholly inaccurate and totally misrepresented the Defence Committee's views.

Mr. Hoon: I make it quite clear to the House that I have no specific knowledge of who made the request.

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However, the hon. Gentleman is making heavy weather of a very basic situation. It routinely happens that uniformed officers are asked whether they are willing to speak to journalists. I do not regard that as surprising or remarkable in a democratic society. It is then a matter for the officer concerned to decide whether he or she will accept such an invitation. I make it quite clear that that is absolutely routine, and that there is nothing surprising about it at all.

I resisted the earlier suggestion that there was some pressure. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) is suggesting not that there was pressure, but that a request was made--of which I have no personal specific knowledge--and dealt with in the usual way inside the Ministry of Defence, and Sir John Day responded. That is not a surprising matter; indeed, it is entirely routine.

Mr. Brazier: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Hoon: If the hon. Gentleman will set the story straight, I will.

Mr. Brazier: The technology in the House does not yet enable us to have a hard transcript in front of us. However, if the Secretary of State looks at the televised proceedings, he will be left in no doubt that Sir John Day gave the impression that he was under pressure. Furthermore, Sir John gave the Committee information on a variety of matters concerning the Kosovo operation--which the Chairman of the Committee indicated we are likely to follow up later--that was significantly at variance with earlier testimony from Ministers and uniformed witnesses.

Mr. Hoon: I will invite Sir John Day to consider meeting the hon. Gentleman. If he chooses to accept my invitation, I will leave it to the hon. Gentleman to judge whether Sir John Day is a man who responds to that kind of pressure.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): I was not present and, therefore, like the Secretary of State, I will have to rely on the no doubt accurate transcript of what was asked and answered. However, there is another point which may give rise to concern. A Select Committee publishes a report and expects to have a Government response. Is there not some risk that, if senior officers begin to make comments before the Government have made a formal response to a Select Committee report, that will get in the way of the proper relationship between the Select Committee and the Ministers whom it holds to account?


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