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Over-The-Horizon Radar

Volume 175: debated on Tuesday 3 July 1990

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

10.33 pm

I am somewhat surprised to be addressing the House an hour and a half earlier than I thought that I would be. I have had to run to the Chamber from the other side of the Norman Shaw building in order to do so. However, I am delighted to have the opportunity to address the House on a matter of such importance to my constituents.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement for all the work that he has done to assist me in the past few months, ensuring that my constituents have all the information that they need to make the right decision in the coming planning process.

It is always difficult for a Member of Parliament, on a major planning application affecting his constituency, to say that he will not make any decision on the issue until he has seen all the evidence. There is always a danger that one could be accused of calling for something in someone else's backyard but not in one's own.

It is important that I set out the criteria on which I shall judge the application when we have seen all the evidence. An issue that concerns national defence should be one on which people make a decision based, first and foremost, on the best interests of the nation. This application will stand or fall on whether it is of such national importance that it overrides local interests. All of us, wherever we may be, have a duty to our country to ensure that, if a matter is of overriding interest to the nation, it is not opposed for simply selfish local reasons.

I begin with the question of national defence and set a number of parameters within which I shall judge the planning application. First, is it the only site suitable for the radar installation? The Ministry of Defence says that 166 sites were examined before it decided on St. David's. From a parliamentary answer yesterday, I gather that none of those 166 sites were not in MOD ownership. That suggests that the first criterion of the MOD is whether it owns the site, and that it did not consider other sites, not in its ownership, that might have been suitable.

Secondly, we must ask whether, if the installation goes ahead, there is any other means by which similar radar cover could be provided. Could it be done by continuous use of aircraft carrying radar to survey the area that would be covered by the installation at St. David's? I shall be interested to hear my hon. Friend's reply to that.

Thirdly, in a period of lessening east-west tension, we must question whether there is a need for such a radar installation. I shall be interested to hear whether, in the light of improving relations with the Soviet Union, there is now a need for this defence installation. That will be of great importance to my constituents in coming months when they assess the importance of the application. Those are the questions to which my constituents will want answers.

The second issue of great importance to my constituents is whether the radar will cause health problems for those living in the area. I cannot pretend to be an expert on the scientific arguments put forward by both sides of the debate. We have 50 years' experience of the use of radar throughout the world, so it is strange that there are now arguments that radar is dangerous to health —that the electromagnetic waves can cause cancer and other illnesses. I do not know whether that is true, but if the independent environmental assessment that has been set up by the MOD to consider the health issue should report any danger to my constituents, there must not be any further debate, any further discussion of the planning issues, any further consideration of the planning application: the MOD must at once withdraw the application. The overriding concern of all hon. Members must be for the health of our constituents—

No. This is a half-hour Adjournment debate for a Back-Bench Member of Parliament representing his constituency. It is not a matter on which a Labour Front-Bench spokesman should intervene. The Opposition have all the time in the world; I have only half an hour of valuable Back-Bench time to raise this important matter.

I will not give way either.

If the health of my constituents is in danger, the MOD must withdraw the application. I set that as the overriding priority in judging the planning application. So we have the defence grounds and the question of health.

I draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister to an article published in Nature only last month, indicating a continuing debate on the issue and that it will be important both to consider the consultants' report and to examine closely any new evidence on the effect of electromagnetic waves on the human body.

The third issue of great importance, and one against which I shall also be judging the application, is the effect on the local environment. It is important to consider the proposed siting of the radar installation, in one of the most beautiful national parks in the country.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I attempted to intervene earlier because I understood that this is an Adjournment debate. As I see it, there is a cosy relationship between the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) and the Minister—

Order. I must ask the hon. Member to resume his seat. I have his point of order.

How can you have my point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when I have not made it?

I am sorry, but there is a cosy relationship between the hon. Member for Pembroke, the Minister, and yourself, Mr. Deputy Speaker—

I am not prepared to enter into that cosy relationship. I want to contribute to the debate.

I have the hon. Member's point of order, and I ask him to resume his seat.

I have the hon. Member's point of order. It is the duty of the Chair to protect the Back-Bench Member whose Adjournment debate it is. It is also the duty of the Minister to be present to answer the debate. I am sure that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) will realise, on reflection, that no other hon. Member can intervene in an Adjournment debate unless that has the agreement of the hon. Member whose Adjournment debate it is and of the Minister. It is evident to me that the hon. Member for Rhondda does not have that agreement. Therefore, I cannot call him.

It is quite appalling that I should be interrupted during a very valuable—

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When I tried to intervene in the speech of the hon. Member for Pembroke earlier, I accepted it when he refused to give way. That was not a problem. However, at the same time the Minister said to me from a sedentary position, "You might as well go home, because we are not going to allow the Labour Front Bench to interfere in this." If that is the view of a member of the Government, what is the point of the debate? I put it to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that this is an empty charade. A Conservative Member who is under great pressure in his constituency wants to bring his argument to the House, and he now has an answer from the Minister. The Minister has stated his position in the debate. I object to that, and I want the protection of the Chair.

I made it clear to the hon. Member that it is the duty of the Chair to protect what is a highly-prized right for a Back-Bencher in any part of the House to raise a matter on the Adjournment of the House and to hear the Minister's reply. It is also the duty of the Chair to ensure that no other hon. Member intervenes unless there is agreement. On this occasion, it is clear that there is no such agreement. I remind the House that valuable time is being taken up in the Adjournment debate.

I regret that, on a matter that is of grave importance to my constituents, the Labour Front-Bench spokesman sought, without asking me, to intervene in a debate that matters to my constituents and to take valuable time out of a half-hour debate which Back-Bench Members find so hard to obtain.

My constituents are rightly worried that the large numbers of people who visit the national park each year as tourists—about 300,000 people come to Pembrokeshire each year—may be driven away by the unsightly installation of 135 ft high radio masts on one of the most beautiful spots on the Pembrokeshire coast only one and a half to two miles from the historic city of St. David's.

The hon. Gentleman should either listen or get out. He should not attempt to interrupt the rights of a Back-Bench Member on an issue important to my constituents.

Several questions remain to be asked about the effect on the environment if the installation is erected. The noise of the wind whistling through the pylons, the lights on the pylons that would be necessary for aircraft navigation, and the security lighting which will be put around the installation will disrupt the beauty of the environment in this particularly important part of the Pembrokeshire national park. The effect on tourism would be horrific.

I have had almost as many letters from non-constituents as from my constituents complaining about the application and the effect that it will have on the environment. People say that it will drive them away from holidaying, as they have done year after year, in that spot.

The environment will be an important issue. I welcome the fact that the Ministry of Defence has not only asked one set of consultants to examine the health issue but set up a second consultants' inquiry to consider the impact on the environment. I shall examine carefully the report of the consultants on the environmental impact on that part of my constituency. I have told my constituents that it will be difficult for the Ministry of Defence to convince me and the national park planning committee that the impact on the environment of such an installation will be acceptable.

One of the important issues that must be taken into account is the view that people have about St. David's. St. David is the patron saint of Wales. The cathedral, which goes back to the 7th century AD, is seen as a monument of national heritage, a sacred place to which the patron saint has drawn pilgrimages for well over 1,000 years. People feel strongly about such an installation being put in place on that part of the pilgrims' route, close to the cathedral.

The hon. Gentleman keeps shouting and interrupting. I have made it clear to my constituents that I shall not come to a decision on the application until all the evidence is in. However, I believe that my constituents have every right to put their views, whether I agree with them or not. I am neutral until I have seen all the evidence. They have the right to have their views recorded in the House. My hon. Friend the Minister of State must be quite clear—he already is, but the message must be reinforced—about what their views are. These views must be put on the record. I am appalled that an official spokesman of the Labour party should attempt to disrupt a Back-Bench Member's right to put forward his constituency views. It is an absolute disgrace.

I now come to the planning issues. First, my hon. Friend the Minister made it clear in a public meeting at St. David's on 10 May that he would not use Crown immunity to override the decisions arrived at by the national park committee or the Secretary of State for Wales, if the committee went to appeal. If the national park comes out against the application, will the Ministry of Defence consider appealing to the Secretary of State for Wales? If it does, will the Secretary of State for Wales make his decision on the planning appeal on the grounds purely of environmental and planning issues, or will he be required to take into account national defence issues and any other applications made by the Ministry of Defence?

My constituents want the answer to that question. Perhaps because it is a matter affecting the Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement cannot give that answer. I therefore ask that he should write to me with it if he cannot give it tonight.

My constituents feel strongly about the issue and are concerned that it is not enough just to say that there will be Crown immunity; they are also concerned that the Secretary of State for Wales may have to override the normal planning procedures and to give an answer based on defence considerations and not normal planning grounds.

It is important further to consider whether there are alternatives on national defence grounds that could be examined in greater depth. I have on a number of occasions—

The hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) says that this is disgraceful. It is hypocritical of him to say that, given that he recently sabotaged an Adjournment debate.

The hon. Member for Pembroke—I think that he comes from Hampstead—said that a planning procedure had to be gone through. He is deliberately misleading the House—

The point of order is that the hon. Gentleman is deliberately misleading the House. This is not, despite what the hon. Gentleman is saying, subject to the normal planning procedures.

Order. I must strongly deprecate what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I expect him, from the Opposition Front Bench, to set an example and to assist the Chair. He is not doing so at the moment, and I greatly regret it.

The hon. Gentleman is speaking nonsense. This matter will be considered by the Pembrokeshire coast national park committee in September. The Ministry of Defence has set in train assessment procedures. The national park committee will make its decision on the basis of the planning applications before it. If the Ministry of Defence loses the planning application, it can appeal to the Secretary of State. It also has the right to claim Crown immunity, but we have the guarantee given by my hon. Friend the Minister before 700 people in St. David's city hall on 10 May that he will not use Crown immunity.

I cannot understand the nonsense being spoken by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers). It is a pity that Labour Members have wandered in here, knowing nothing about the issue and obviously after a good meal, to interrupt a Back Bencher's speech. Their ignorant remarks show that they are trying to disrupt a Back Bencher's speech on an important constituency issue. I want to draw my remarks to a close because I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is waiting to reply and my constituents and I want to hear his comments.

I shall finish by raising the issue of what is called the peace dividend. I have told my constituents that, first and foremost, it is important to consider the issue on national defence grounds, but it is right for my constituents to ask whether, in an era of glasnost and when tensions are lessening, we need this radar cover, whether it must be provided like this and whether there are other places where it can be provided. We are entitled to an answer to that.

If the application fails, the Ministry should consider whether it needs to retain the site. It owns about 560,000 acres of land on 3,000 sites. This site has remained empty since the second world war. It is used now and again as an emergency landing strip for RAF Brawdy. I have the gravest reservations and concerns about the application, but I shall not make a final decision until the evidence is before us from the environment assessment study. We should then ask that the Ministry of Defence gives up the site so that it can be returned to farming and be used for the benefit of the local community. It will then not remain sterile, as it has been for the past 45 years.

I regret that this important subject for my constituents has been interrupted by boorish and ill-mannered interventions from the Opposition. I look forward to hearing my hon. Friend's reply to this important debate.

10.54 pm

I listened with great attention to the lucid explanation of the case by my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett). I also listened with attention to the periodic interruptions from Opposition Members. We naturally welcome their presence in an Adjournment debate. They would give added flavour and quality to the debate if they conducted themselves properly. They seemed to be criticising my hon. Friend on the rather dodgy ground that he lived in Hampstead. However, that locality is a hot bed of socialist-inclined, chattering classes and I should have thought that the less said about that, the better. That is also the case with the domiciles of the leader and deputy leader of the Labour party. I am not sure of their addresses, but we know that the places where they eat, whether they are eating five-course meals or take-away curries, are not located in their constituencies.

To show the level of information of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers), I must tell the House that, although I was born in Hampstead, I have not lived there for 36 years. His information on that is as out of date as his information on everything else.

The hon. Member for Pembroke ( Mr. Bennett) does not live in his constituency.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Member for Rhondda to call me a liar? What he said is untrue. I live in Llanddewi Velfrey in my constituency. The hon. Gentleman has said a direct lie and I ask him to withdraw it.

Order. We are getting too many points of order. If the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) used an unparliamentary word, I am sure that he would wish to withdraw it.

That is very gracious of the hon. Gentleman.

I want to place on record in this place the undertakings that I have already given—to which my hon. Friend drew attention and which I readily confirm—during my visit to St. David's on 10 May. The first concerns the public health implications of the proposed installation. Contrary to several alarmist reports that have circulated in the press and elsewhere, we believe that there will be no hazard to members of the public outside the boundaries of the site from the electromagnetic radiation that it would emit. We are, however, well aware of the widespread public concern on the issue and we have ensured that the health aspects will receive especially close attention in the environmental impact assessment.

The Robens institute at Surrey university, a well-known and impartial authority on the subject, has been retained specifically to carry out the necessary studies. If, contrary to our expectations, the assessment revealed that there might be a hazard to public health from the proposed installation at St. David's, we should not proceed.

My second undertaking concerns the planning process. As I have made clear to my hon. Friend, the Ministry is committed to following the normal planning procedures on this issue. There is no precedent for my Ministry to plead Crown immunity if planning authorities object to our proposals once we have embarked on the planning process and I have no intention that we should set such a precedent in this case. I am glad to put both those assurances on record in this place, although, as my hon. Friend has said, I made them at a public meeting in his constituency.

I have had much correspondence on this subject, not only with my hon. Friend, but with others. I have today considered 140 questions in the House from him and from other hon. Members. However, I want to set out the background to the Ministry's proposals. They start with the continuing requirement, which is endorsed widely by all parties, to maintain the air and sea defences of this country. Of all our defence commitments, the direct defence of these islands is the last capability that we should seek to run down. In maintaining that capability, we need in particular to keep up, and if possible improve, our ability to provide early warning of any military activity in the large expanse of the Norwegian sea to the north of the United Kingdom. At present, our main means of providing such cover is by airborne early warning, supplemented by ship-borne and shore-based microwave radar, although those are of comparatively short range.

Even when our present AEW aircraft are replaced by the new fleet of Boeing Sentry aircraft, it will be time consuming and expensive to use them to give full coverage to the air defence regions of the north. In some circumstances, that could actually be regarded as provocative. Such circumstances do not attach to a purely static radar system on one's own territory.

For some time, the principle of over-the-horizon radar has offered in theory a solution to the problem of maintaining wide-area, long-range cover of the region. The idea of over-the-horizon radar is simple: radio waves of the right frequency can be made to refract from the ionosphere, which is the layer of atmosphere 200 miles up, to points well beyond the visible horizon. Those that bounce back off a target are refracted back to a receiver, which can detect position, course and speed.

For some time, we have been engaged in joint studies with the United States, aimed at determining whether the system could look northward from the United Kingdom. The Americans have already installed working systems in Virginia and Alaska, but looking southward.

We are all familiar with the stories abut the Woodpecker system from Russia; we have heard about it for many years. But with even a modest knowledge of geography, one is puzzled about why the system should be situated in Pembrokeshire rather than on the east coast. What sites were considered and what alternative sites did the Ministry have in mind?

If the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends had not consumed so much time in somewhat ill-mannered protests, I might have been able to deal with those details in my speech. But I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the whole question of the location of the site has been very carefully considered; it is a function of range and of the area that has to be covered. One does not start getting an image until one has a gap of approximately 400 to 500 miles between the transmitter and the area that one is intending to cover. That is why the system must be situated on a particular latitude. The problem is that the further north one goes, the less reliable the ionosphere becomes, and auroral noise effects could be significant.

Studies alone could not show whether the system would work in British latitudes. Only a full-scale trial can demonstrate that one way or another. We have therefore reached an agreement in principle, following on from our joint studies, that the United States will provide a fully working system for trial in this country.

No. I am afraid that I cannot give way. We have very little time and I have already given way to the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn).

We shall find and prepare sites for the transmitter and receiver facilities and the running costs of the trial and all the information coming out of it will be shared. We also agree in principle that, if the trial is successful, we will then consider whether to retain the system as an operational facility. I emphasise the words "in principle". The agreement was subject to appropriate national approvals being granted in our case, and that includes not only the necessary finance but the necessary planning permissions. The proviso was written into the memorandum of understanding between our two Governments signed on 20 April, a copy of which I have placed in the Library.

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at three minutes past Eleven o'clock.