Inside Parliament: Members in front line lob bouncing bombs at Rifkind: MPs defend constituency interests over defence cuts - Speaker urges banqueting bribery claim be referred to catering committee

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Indy Politics
Malcolm Rifkind was yesterday credited with achieving what Hermann Goering and the Luftwaffe failed to do as MPs on both sides protested at the closure of defence establishments the length of Britain.

Among bases to close as a result of the cost-saving Front Line First study is RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, home of the Red Arrows display team and from which the 'Dambusters squadron' flew to destroy the Mohne and Eder dams.

The Secretary of State for Defence said 18,700 service and civilian jobs would go, but he skillfully sweetened cuts of more than pounds 2bn over three years with orders for ships, tanks and other weaponry worth a total of pounds 5bn and capable of sustaining 10,000 jobs.

It was a statement which most MPs could accept in general but not as it applied to the base or depot in their constituency. David Shaw, Tory MP for Dover, was angered by the closure in 1996 of the Royal Marines music school in Deal, bombed by the IRA.

He recalled that in 1989 Margaret Thatcher had said that to remove the school would 'tear the heart out of Deal'. But Mr Rifkind said the Marines believed that training musicians at Deal had become 'prohibitively expensive'. It cost pounds 6m to train 16 to 20 musicians a year.

The run-down of the Rosyth Naval Base on the Forth with the loss of 700 civilian jobs and possibly 1,600 service personnel moving out was attacked by Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and one Tory.

Local Labour MP, Rachel Squire, said: 'Mr Rifkind's statement and his Government's defence policy amount to a betrayal of the trust, loyalty and commitment of the men and women who work at Rosyth and who have served their country so loyally for so many years.'

Heavy cuts fall on the RAF, due to lose 7,500 personnel and a clutch of bases in Germany and Britain, including Scampton and RAF Finningley, in Yorkshire. Both are used for training.

Edward Leigh, Tory MP for Gainsborough and Horncastle, appealed to the minister to reconsider the decision on Scampton - 'one of the RAF's most historic bases' - while his colleague John Wilkinson, MP for Ruislip- Northwood and a former RAF flying instructor, warned against closing centres of excellence. Both invoked the Dambusters memory. Finningley man, Peter Hardy, Labour MP for Wentworth, said Mr Rifkind had inflicted more damage on the RAF 'than Goering and Luftwaffe'. Mr Rifkind insisted that 'painful and demanding' though the cuts would be, the study was driven by the need to concentrate the pounds 23bn defence budget on the fighting strength of the armed forces.

Loyal support came from Sir Archie Hamilton, a former defence minister, who seemed genuinely impressed: 'This is a great achievement, because I have to confess there were doubters, me among them, who knew this ground had been trawled over so many times before, we doubted whether the savings were there.'

Former Chief of the Defence Staff Field Marshal Lord Bramall dismissed the equipment orders as 'largely cosmetic', in exchanges after the statement was made in the Upper House.

Requesting an assurance that there would be no further defence cuts to 'sap further the confidence and professionalism' of the armed forces - an assurance Mr Rifkind had avoided giving to MPs - Lord Bramall doubted whether manpower reductions were 'sensible in the real world we live in'.

Speaker Betty Boothroyd urged an MP to raise with the Commons Catering Committee allegations that a Member had been offered money to book banqueting rooms in the House and that American visitors were paying to eat there.

Raising the matter on a point of order, Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, said that in Wednesday's 'questions-for- cash' debate it was claimed 'that a Member of this House was offered a sum in excess of pounds 10,000 per year to book banqueting rooms in the name of a body that has not been identified'.

Mr Flynn asked the Speaker to ensure lists of bodies using the banqueting rooms were published and said that in the past he had been denied the lists. Miss Boothroyd said it was certainly 'something that might well be referred, and seriously so, to the Catering Committee. I hope Mr Flynn will do that'.