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The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): I should like to take this opportunity to commend the service provided by the services Cotswold centre on behalf of service families. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the future of the centre is under review and we hope to make a decision about its future in the first half of next year.
Mr. Gray: Is there not a curious irony that the outstanding service provided at the centre for the victims of family breakdown--as well as education services for the local battered wives refuge and other services entirely for less-privileged people--which was preserved by the Conservative Government for 18 years, should now be under review by the Labour Government, who claim to be committed to persons of that kind? The Minister has been reviewing the centre for some three and a half years already. Will he at the very least agree to complete the review as soon as he can? Will he come and visit the centre with me--I shall welcome him there any day he cares to come--so that I can show him personally the excellent work that is carried out there?
Mr. Spellar: The hon. Gentleman has raised this matter with me before, and I understand his concern. However, I receive a considerable number of requests to visit establishments around the country. This is one that we are considering, but I cannot give him a guarantee.
The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): The total number of personnel employed directly by the Ministry of Defence in establishments in Scotland that undertake nuclear-related activity is 3,974. In addition, we employ private contractors. Also, the figure does not include service personnel ported at the Clyde naval base.
Mr. Tynan: Is my hon. Friend aware of the situation in Scotland, where the policies of the Scottish National party as regards the nuclear industry are causing tremendous concern to the work force? Will he ensure that he publicises the threat to the nuclear defence industry in Scotland? Will he seek to reassure the people working in the industry?
Mr. Spellar: My hon. Friend and I have met members of the work force, who are enormously professional and have an enormous pride in the skills that they employ, as well as in the contribution that they make to Britain's defences. The House will not be surprised that Scottish National party Members have chosen not to turn up today; there is nothing unusual in that. However, their views on this subject are at direct variance with the views of the great majority of people in this country and are very much at variance with the interests of the work force on the Clyde at Coulport and Faslane, the many other workers who depend on those establishments for their employment and the suppliers to the defence industry. I need no incitement from my hon. Friend to undertake to give the widest possible publicity to the difficulties that Scottish National party policy would cause not only for the people at Faslane and Coulport, but for the people of Scotland and the industry generally. [Interruption.] I cannot quite hear what the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) is saying with regard to this matter; I am sure that it is instructive.
Mr. Speaker: I have a statement to make. During the debate on defence procurement last Thursday, several points of order were raised with the Chair. Two issues in particular arose. The first issue was whether it was acceptable for a Minister to make policy announcements during a debate rather than through a statement to the House. That is a long-established practice, and announcements of the sort that were made last Thursday have been made in this way by previous Governments on a regular basis. I quite understand the anxieties that were expressed on Thursday about the practice, but it may equally be convenient for the House for announcements to be made during a debate. What is certain is that no rule or convention of the House has been broken, though I would expect Ministers to give careful thought to the matter when considering making announcements in this way.
The second issue is potentially more serious. An allegation was made that the substance of the Minister's announcement had appeared in the media before the House was informed. I must make it clear that if Ministers were to release information to the press before the House was informed of major policy developments I would regard that as an unacceptable discourtesy to the House. If that occurred, I would expect the Minister concerned to apologise to the House. With regard to last Thursday's announcement, it appears that some broadly accurate advance information reached the media. The Secretary of State for Defence has assured me that he is confident that the information did not come from his Department. I accept that assurance. Nevertheless, I expect Ministers to take measures to ensure that other authorities, who are privy to confidential information, protect it until the House has been informed. I hope that the Secretary of State will pursue the matter.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wholeheartedly welcome the points that you made, especially the second part of the statement, which dealt with information. In answer to Question 9, the Secretary of State appeared to make a statement about new policy on the deployment of troops to Sierra Leone. I wonder whether it would have been more appropriate for the right hon. Gentleman to have taken Question 9 at 3.30 pm.
Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. During last Thursday's debate, at column 448 of Hansard, I said that, if the Secretary of State had made the information available to the BBC website, as the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) suggested, he should apologise to the House. Even if not he, but someone from his office, were responsible for providing that information, would it be your ruling that he should apologise to the House?
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Having taken part in the proceedings last Thursday, and welcoming your ruling today, I accept, of course, that the regulations of the House were not breached. However, although the letter of our regulations may not have been breached, the spirit most certainly was. If there is a statement, right hon. and hon. Members have an opportunity to prepare and you, Mr. Speaker, in presiding over our proceedings, can ensure that there is sufficient time for questioning and that there is a proper balance of participation by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House. If the Secretary of State is incorporating what is, in effect, a statement into his speech in a debate, the intervention of hon. Members is purely at the Secretary of State's discretion. That is not appropriate.