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Diego Garcia (Naval Forces)

Volume 974: debated on Thursday 29 November 1979

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On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On 20 June this year the Lord Privy Seal answered a question that I had tabled. The question asked:

"What discussions with the Government of Mauritius have taken place over the past year on the issue of limiting militarisation of the Indian Ocean and the future deployment of British naval forces from Diego Garcia."
The reply stated that there had been no such discussions. It said:
"No British naval forces are stationed in Diego Garcia or elsewhere in the Indian Ocean."—[Official Report, 20 June 1979; Vol. 968, c. 578.]
I was surprised by that information but I accepted it as correct.

Yesterday I received a letter from the Lord Privy Seal stating that he understood my question to refer to ships and had answered accordingly. However, the right hon. Gentleman further informed me that a question had been tabled by the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter), which was to be answered by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy, and would give details about a small Royal Navy contingent stationed at Diego Garcia. He said that accordingly he was writing to me beforehand in order to clarify any possible misunderstanding. I was grateful to him and I do not wish to carp, and I am also aware that you, Mr. Speaker, are not responsible for the content of answers.

Nevertheless, I feel that Back Benchers have a right to demand that answers should not be deliberately or unconsciously misleading. It appears, both from this and from the point of order that was raised earlier this week by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), that it is not unusual for answers to contain serious inaccuracies. I have always accepted that parliamentary answers will be evasive and if possible give no information at all, but the idea that they should also be inaccurate is something that the House should take seriously.

Accordingly, I wonder what protection we can ask against this practice, which appears to be growing. This is a matter which must be of concern to Back Benchers on both sides of the House. We seem to be getting answers that are misleading. If this process grows, a point will be reached at which Question Time will be regarded as completely farcical. In these circumstances I think that we have a right to ask that information given in answers be accurate. Therefore, I seek your guidance on this matter, Mr Speaker.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Newens) for giving me notice that he intended to raise this matter. Perhaps I can help the House and the hon. Member. He asked me about the future deployment of British naval forces from Diego Garcia, which I took to mean vessels. Perhaps I was over-punctilious in writing to the hon. Member, but the House may be interested to know that stationed at Diego Garcia there are one lieutenant-commander and his deputy, eight radio and telephone operators, 11 engineers and mechanics, one medical assistant, one secretary and two cooks. I really cannot believe that that honestly answers the description of "naval deployment of forces".

Bills Presented

Social Security

Mr. Secretary Jenkin, supported by Mr. Secretary Whitelaw, Mr. Secretary Prior, Mr. Secretary Younger, Mr. Secretary Edwards, Mr. Secretary Atkins, Mr. Nigel Lawson, Mr. Paul Channon, Mr. Reg Prentice, Dr. Rhodes Boyson and Mrs. Lynda Chalker presented a Bill to amend the law relating to social security and the Pensions Appeal Tribunals Act 1943; And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow and to be printed [Bill 86].

Industrial Relations

Mr. Ronald Bell presented a Bill to implement the proposals contained in the White Paper "In Place of Strife" (Cmnd. 3888); and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 7 December and to be printed [Bill 87].