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20 Jan 2003 : Column 46—continued

Mr. Hoon: No decision has been taken on the use of military force. I should make it clear to my hon. Friend that it is necessary to prepare for all contingencies. We cannot assume that military action will be easy and straightforward. We are potentially committing people to difficult and dangerous operations, and we must have regard to their safety and security while respecting the rules of international law that govern such deployments.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West): What proof has the Secretary of State found of collaboration between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda?

Mr. Hoon: We are aware of some contact between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda over a number of years, but as I have made clear to the House on several occasions, there is no evidence to link the Iraqi regime to the appalling events of 11 September.

Mr. Jenkin: We thank the Secretary of State for the answers he has been able to give, and recognise that there are some that he cannot give. He is, however, aware of the old adage that sweat saves blood, and he has failed to reassure us that none of the units now being deployed on this operation has been withdrawn from Operation Fresco. Can he assure us that none of the units being deployed is likely to be drawn on for firefighting duties?

Mr. Hoon: I said that 16 Air Assault Brigade, for example, would be withdrawn from Operation Fresco in stages. I made that very clear. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House, however, that it will be properly prepared for any military action, should that subsequently be required.

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20 Jan 2003 : Column 47

Points of Order

4.56 pm

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As you know, Mr. Speaker has often expressed his disapproval when Ministers have made important statements to the press before the House has been notified. In the case of the statement by the Secretary of State for Defence, the House was the last to be told. The statement was widely trailed in the Sunday newspapers and in today's media. This appears to be a recurring pattern with the current Secretary of State.

I do not know whether the leaks are motivated by vanity, or whether they result from incompetence or from a lack of respect for the House; but this is now occurring, if not daily, almost twice weekly. Will you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, convey to Mr. Speaker our anger about the fact that Ministers still seem more obsessed with spinning in the press than with reporting to the House? Will you ask him to look again at the problem, and see what action can be taken to halt this deplorable practice?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to that entirely scurrilous observation from the Opposition Front Bench—

Mr. Knight: It is in The Sunday Telegraph.

Mr. Hoon: The right hon. Gentleman refers from a sedentary position to The Sunday Telegraph, in which an interview with me appeared. If, rather than making generalised observations that anyone can come to the Dispatch Box and make, he can give specific examples of specific involvement in the practice on the part of Ministers, I assure him that they will be properly investigated. Instead of coming along and making this kind of—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Secretary of State, but this is developing into a debate, and I think I should respond.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I will take the hon. Gentleman's point of order in a moment. I must deal with this one first, unless the hon. Gentleman's is further to it.

The point made by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) will be on the record. Mr. Speaker is well aware of the matters to which he has referred, and is deeply concerned about them. I understand that he intends to take them up with the Ministers concerned.

Mr. Dalyell: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I raise a matter that extends beyond my interests, about which I have written Mr. Speaker a four-page letter?

On Friday, there appeared on the Order Paper Question 10, in my name, asking the Home Secretary if he would place in the Library unrestricted information about ricin from the laboratory of the Government

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Chemist. I displayed a legitimate interest in ricin. I asked the Chairman of the Select Committee on Science and Technology—my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson)—about the matter, and we agreed that we would ask about the actions of the laboratory of the Government Chemist. That was accepted by the Table Office, on condition that I was careful about supplementary questions because of sub judice rules. It was deemed a legitimate question. On Friday, I was rung up by the Home Office, by a Miss Anna Michael, to be told somewhat cavalierly that my question had been transferred to the Department of Health. I queried that and asked her to check it. The question was taken off the Order Paper and transferred not to the Department of Health, but to the Ministry of Defence on the ground that the work on ricin was done at Porton Down.

I concede that most of the work is done at Porton Down but I assert that, albeit that the laboratory of the Government Chemist is now privatised, there is constant reaction and relationship between the Home Office and the laboratory of the Government Chemist, which is quite proper. I also assert that certain personnel in the laboratory of the Government Chemist were perfectly properly consulted.

In those circumstances, is it right that a question, Question 10, which would certainly have been reached, is just taken off the Order Paper on the basis, frankly, of decisions by fairly junior civil servants? I ask for your protection in this matter.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I understand completely the points that the hon. Gentleman has made. I am sorry that he lost his place in the list of questions for today but it is a long-standing principle that decisions about the transfer of questions rest with Ministers and are not matters in which the Chair seeks to intervene.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hope that you can be helpful in this matter. I am sure that you will be. You will have observed over the weekend the many demonstrations, not only in this country but throughout the world, against a possible invasion in Iraq. Tomorrow, there will be lobbying of this House by people who are deeply concerned about a possible invasion and our participation in it. Today, yet again, a Secretary of State refused to say whether we could have a debate in the House and indeed a vote—[Interruption.] Well, the Secretary of State certainly evaded the question of whether we go to war against Iraq. Last—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I well understand the points that the hon. Lady is seeking to make. They have already been well aired and are perhaps matters that she could raise at other times in other places. It is certainly not a point of order for the Chair at this time.

Mr. Dalyell: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that I have dealt adequately with that point of order. We must now move on.

Mr. Dalyell: On an entirely different point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Is the hon. Gentleman sure that it is a different point of order? I do not want to deal further with the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon).

Mr. Dalyell: It is a different point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The House passed a devolution Bill and part of the understanding of the devolution Bill was that the Scottish Parliament would not discuss matters reserved to Westminster. I understand why the Scottish Parliament had a debate and a substantive vote on Thursday on Iraq but could Mr. Speaker reflect on the issues that are involved in this?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that I have heard sufficient to be able to deal with the point of order that the hon. Gentleman is raising. The matters that are raised, discussed, debated and voted on in the Scottish Parliament are not a matter for the Chair of this House.

Mr. Dalyell: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have dealt with that and I am not going to deal with it any more this afternoon. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat.

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Opposition Day

[3rd Allotted Day]

Occupational Pensions

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I must tell the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

5.4 pm

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): I beg to move,

It may be for the convenience of hon. Members on both sides of the House if I say that we intend to split the time that remains equally, and conclude the first Opposition day debate by about 7.30 pm.

The debate could not be more timely, because we face a wide-ranging crisis in the world of pensions. It is a crisis about the incentives to save, which has led to an estimated gap in savings of £27 billion; it is a crisis of increasing costs to pension funds; it is a crisis of confidence in the Government and employers; and above all, it is a crisis of escalating closures and wind-ups of pension schemes. Even when the wind-ups occur, there is a crisis of unfairness in the way that the assets of pension funds are shared. However, what the Government are offering is yet another Green Paper and yet another consultation. Today, we are asking for urgent action, but in one area alone.

This debate is about particular proposals for reform to achieve the fairer sharing of assets when occupational pension schemes are wound up—proposals that command considerable support in the House. Do we really have to wait perhaps for years, when this change could be made speedily?

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