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House of Lords

Wednesday, 18th February 1998.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Blackburn.

HMS "Cavalier"

Baroness Strange asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will withdraw the export licence to Malaysia of HMS "Cavalier", the only remaining RN destroyer which fought in World War II, and support her retention in Great Britain.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Clinton-Davis): My Lords, the export licence issued in connection with the proposed export of this vessel to Malaysia has been returned to my department. I understand that the former licence holder no longer intends to export the vessel.

Baroness Strange: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his, as always, courteous, if not helpful, reply. I, too, am aware that the first part of my Question has become overtaken by events. However, is the noble Lord aware that there is an HMS "Cavalier" Association which would be willing by public subscription to provide some funds towards the retention of HMS "Cavalier", perhaps at the historic maritime dockyard at Chatham, if other funds could be forthcoming?

Is the noble Lord further aware that 153 ships of this type were lost in the Second World War, with 30,000 members of their company giving their lives for us?

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I am grateful for that supplementary question from the noble Baroness. Yes, I am of course aware of the work of the association and of its aspirations. One also recognises the contribution made to the war effort by those who sailed in ships of this class. It is also true that this is the last surviving vessel of its kind. But the fact is, as my right honourable friend the Minister for the arts said yesterday when he spoke at the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, that, while the Government are aware of the emotional attachment which undoubtedly this ship gives rise to, they do have to make hard choices about the availability of funds for preservation. I have to say that the vessel is not a top priority for the department that my right honourable friend represents. However, if other sources of funding can be made available, and, if a suitable location could be found, the Government would be delighted.

Lord Dixon: My Lords, is the Minister aware that, until South Tyneside bought HMS "Cavalier" in 1987 from a company in Brighton which went bankrupt, that vessel might have been scrapped? South Tyneside Metropolitan Borough Council bought the vessel to be part of a national shipbuilding exhibition centre. The

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"Cavalier" was to play a main part. It was to be based at Hawthorn Leslies shipyard, which built some of the finest naval vessels ever to be put to sea. I spent many years there as a shipwright.

Is my noble friend also aware that the reason the project did not go ahead is that the previous administration cut back on local government expenditure? The former Department of the Environment ruled that urban money could not be used for projects which were covered by urban development corporations; and the Tyne and Wear Development Corporation was too interested in prestige projects in Newcastle to be concerned about the project at South Tyneside.

Is he also aware that we would welcome some finance, because it cost the council tax payers of South Tyneside, of which I am and have been one all my life, over £600,000 to maintain this vessel and that project?

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I was aware of most of that. I did not know that my noble friend had been a shipwright. I suspected that he probably was and still is a taxpayer. But I am most grateful to him for that information. Of course he is right in saying that the South Tyneside Metropolitan Borough Council did a stalwart job in seeking to maintain this vessel. I pay tribute to it in that regard.

Perhaps I may add this; it may help the House on the issue. At yesterday's Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, representatives of the National Heritage Lottery Fund indicated that it might be willing to consider an application for support for HMS "Cavalier" in its own right under its fast-track procedures. I thought that the noble Baroness in particular might be delighted to hear that.

Lord Ironside: My Lords, as "Cavalier" has given the country a very good run for its money over the years and as she is now on Tyneside, at the heart of the warship building industry, does this ship not symbolise more for the north-east than the fabricator's folly which has just been erected in Gateshead? Can the Government go that extra sea mile, as they did with "Britannia" and help find a proper home for this warship? She was never a first of class; she was never a flotilla leader, so far as I recall; but she is a survivor. I believe that she is worth a place in history.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I am not quite sure what the question was. It seemed more an assertion than a question. These matters are not within my area of responsibility. The noble Lord should write to the appropriate government department. As to the term, "fabricator's folly", no fabrications are known to this House as I understand it.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, will the noble Lord agree that answers to questions that begin with a statement that a matter is "not within a Minister's area of responsibility" are not good enough in this House?

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He answers for the whole of Her Majesty's Government. If he does not know the answer, could he perhaps write to the noble Lord?

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I am most grateful for that lesson, which the noble Lord imparted with his usual geniality. I do not seek to pass off responsibility. What I sought to say, perhaps inelegantly, was that the noble Lord would do well to write to the department concerned about this matter. If he wishes me to receive the letter in the first place, then I shall certainly act as a suitable postman.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe: My Lords, perhaps I may address the House as Able Seaman equivalent, Writer Cocks P/MX830065. I was very encouraged by the Minister's remarks. A great many people in the north-east pay into the lottery and there is a feeling that they have not received as much out of it as some other areas in the country. Will the Minister reinforce the plea and press the lottery fund? If this ship goes, coming generations will ask what on earth we were doing.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Able Seaman Cocks for that suggestion. I shall certainly pass on (and I hope that that will meet with the noble Lord's acquiescence) his assertion to those responsible for the lottery fund. I hope that the statement that I made yesterday before the Heritage Committee as to what the lottery fund had to say about the matter will prove helpful.

Baroness Strange: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his earlier Answer. I am very grateful indeed for his encouraging reply.

Vitamin and Mineral Supplements: Toxicity

2.45 p.m.

Earl Baldwin of Bewdley asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What importance they attach to the assessment of the toxicity of vitamin and mineral supplements, as announced in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food press release of 18th December 1997, in the context of overall food safety.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue): My Lords, the Government are concerned to ensure that products sold under food law, including vitamin and mineral supplements, are not harmful to health. The establishment of the new ad hoc expert group will contribute to that aim.

Earl Baldwin of Bewdley: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply. However, does he agree that this seems a rather curious use of public resources and expertise, given the enviable safety record that vitamins and minerals have and the absence of any scare,

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complaint or other indication of problems? Will he acknowledge the very real worry among the public that the same kind of inappropriate criteria will be applied in this exercise as have been applied to restrict Vitamin B6?

Lord Donoughue: No, my Lords. Concerns have been expressed about the safety of high dose vitamin and mineral supplements. As the noble Earl, with his long-standing interest in this area, will know, that goes back to a joint departmental report in 1990. COMA has expressed concerns; the Consumers' Association has contacted us with concerns; and the European Union has issued a consultation document aiming to move towards aspects of control. So there are concerns. With public health as our top priority, we are in the process of setting up a committee of experts to advise us. That does not prejudge any conclusions and is an entirely responsible thing to do.

The Earl of Clanwilliam: My Lords, whatever the Consumers' Association and the European Union may say, the Government are holding themselves up to public ridicule in relation to the argument about basic dosage. Should they not accept the findings of the National Poisons Unit, which has found no such dangers, against the evidence of either the ridiculous European Union or even the Consumers' Association?

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