HC Deb 28 October 1970 vol 805 cc223-39
The Minister of State for Defence (Lord Balniel)

With permission, I will make a statement on the progress which the Government have made since taking office towards fulfilling their undertakings on defence.

We set ourselves three objectives: to enable Britain to resume within her resources a proper share of responsibility for the preservation of peace and stability in the world; to make good, so far as possible, the deficiencies we found in the Armed Forces and to create a better appreciation of their rôle; and to establish a sound financial basis for defence plans in the future.

Following a searching and critical review of the defence programme we inherited, we have taken a number of major decisions. N.A.T.O. remains the first priority, but these decisions reflect the Government's determination that Britain should also play her part in countering threats to stability outside the N.A.T.O. area. They cover a continuing British military presence in the Malaysia and Singapore area; major improvements in the capabilities of each Service; and, as my right hon. Friend announced yesterday, defence budget targets for the next four years.

First, South-East Asia. We have proposed to the Commonwealth Governments of Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore that five-Power defence arrangements should be established as soon as possible, to which we would contribute forces from the three Services which would broadly complement the contributions of the other four Governments. These arrangements would be based on a political commitment of a consultative nature, undertaken equally by all five Governments, relating to the defence of Malaysia and Singapore; they would replace the Anglo-Malaysian Defence Agreement.

The four Governments have welcomed our planned military contribution. The main components of this will be a number of frigates or destroyers, a battalion group, a detachment of Nimrod long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft and some Whirlwind helicopters. The four Governments have agreed to work out with us the new political arrangements. Consultation on this, and on other aspects of our proposals, is now taking place. We have proposed that there should be a meeting next year of the Ministers of the five Governments.

We are continuing discussions with leaders in the Gulf and other interested countries on how Britain can best contribute to the maintenance of peace and stability in the area.

Next, the capabilities of the Services. We found the Services deficient in both manpower and equipment. The Royal Navy would have been left with a most serious gap in its capability as a result of the plan of the previous Administration to phase out the fixed-wing aircraft carriers in 1972. We have, therefore, decided to introduce as soon as possible a surface-launched anti-ship guided-weapon system, EXOCET. This system is in an advanced stage of development by the French Government, with whom we are now negotiating an Anglo-French collaborative programme for its production.

We have also decided to run on H.M.S. "Ark Royal" until the late 1970s, thus contributing a valuable increase to N.A.T.O's maritime strength. This decision will not prejudice the gradual assumption by the Royal Air Force of the responsibility for the provision of fixed-wing air support for the Royal Navy.

The Army, as a result of poor recruitment in recent years, is seriously short of the men it needs. The rundown plan of the previous Administration failed to provide adequately for unforeseen contingencies and the Territorial and Army Volunteer Reserve has been reduced to a level where there is no longer any uncommitted element. As the demands of the Northern Ireland situation have shown, the Army's infantry resources are especially under strain.

The Government have already announced their decision to halt the rundown of the Army to the extent that the manpower shortage permits. Their plans for representative squadron and company units will provide a nucleus for potential expansion and enable the names of a number of famous regiments to be retained.

We have now decided to retain the Brigade of Gurkhas, whose future was put in doubt by the previous Administration. The retention of these splendid soldiers in the British Army will help to relieve the strain on the infantry.

We are also embarking on a gradual expansion of the TAVR by establishing an uncommitted reserve of initially about 10,000 men, armed with modern equipment though on lighter scales than existing TAVR units. We shall be opening discussions immediately with the Council of Territorial, Auxiliary and Volunteer Reserve Associations and with the associations themselves.

In addition, we intend to increase our contribution of reserve forces to N.A.T.O. by forming an additional TAVR armoured car regiment.

The Royal Air Force is short of frontline aircraft, particularly in Germany. We have decided to provide a further four squadrons of Jaguar close-support aircraft for N.A.T.O. in this important rôle. This will be achieved by reorganising our plans for the advanced training of pilots, without reducing the essentially high standard of training, and by revising our plans for the production of Jaguar aircraft.

More information about these decisions is set out in a White Paper presented today. They will have to be worked out within the constraints imposed by the current serious shortage of uniformed manpower; and within defence budget targets which, although higher than the provisional allocations to defence published last year by the previous Administration, will make a valuable contribution towards the Government's public expenditure objectives.

We shall not, however, be cancelling any major project now on order; but savings to be made will require us to cut or defer a number of projects of lesser priority mainly in the building and equipment field. The Government are satisfied that these reductions will not affect their ability to meet their planned commitments.

There is much work to be done to put these changes into effect. We are also still examining parts of the defence programme; and the streamlining of the headquarters and the introduction of improved management techniques will continue.

I shall be making a fuller report in the annual Defence White Paper early next year. But the decisions we have already taken will enable us to make a significant improvement in our military contribution to N.A.T.O. while, at the same time, fulfilling our obligations to our Commonwealth partners in South-East Asia. I also believe that they clearly demonstrate the importance which this Government attach to the security of the nation and the high value we place on our Armed Forces.

Mr. George Thomson

Is the Minister aware that when dealing with Malaysia and Singapore his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when Leader of the Opposition, talked about a presence that would cost £100 million, plus or minus, and that the White Paper talks about £5 million to £10 million? Is he aware, therefore, that in the light of this we are very glad within 100 days to have converted the Government to 95 per cent. of the historic shift that the Labour Government brought about in Britain's east-of-Suez presence? Is the noble Lord further aware that what is left is window dressing, and very dangerous window dressing, which is inclined to go back to the previous Tory policies of accepting implied commitments without either the capacity or the manpower to meet them?

May I ask the Minister a number of specific questions? Is he aware that the party opposite promised that it would go away from fixed ceilings? Is it not going back to this? Is not the ceiling fixed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer yesterday a ceiling which means that, instead of spending more on defence, a smaller proportion of the gross national product will be spent on defence?

What we would like to know, therefore, and what is not contained in the White Paper, is what economy the Government will make—it should be spelled out and costed—to meet the extra costs, modest in the case of Malaysia and Singapore, but more substantial in the case of EXOCET and of the Territorial Army. There again, the Government spoke about 25,000 and are now down, I think, to a figure of 10,000.

Can the Minister tell us a bit more about the "Ark Royal"? Is it really intended to keep a carrier force of one aircraft carrier? What is the military usefulness of this, especially when it is now so old as to require a great deal of maintenance? What effect will this have on naval manpower? Will it mean having to put frigates into "mothballs"?

Does the Minister have the agreement of the Government of Nepal about the new plans which he has announced for the Brigade of Gurkhas? In the light of this miserable White Paper, the only pacific glory that the Government will see this week is the one which is aground off the Isle of Wight.

Lord Balniel

The figures used by the right hon. Member in his opening remarks indicate that he has been brainwashed by the speeches of his own side of the House. They are certainly not figures that were used from this side. [HON. MEMBERS: "They were used by the Prime Minister."]

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the costing of our defence budget targets. They are related to the commitments which we have in defence policy. The relationship of this to the gross national product depends upon the growth of the national product in the years ahead.

So far as savings have been achieved, they have been achieved primarily in three ways: first, by most careful scrutiny of the long-term costs; secondly, by the deferment of projects of lesser priority—[HON. MEMBERS: "What are they?"] As I explained in my statement, the major area is in building and equipment of an ancillary nature. [Interruption.] There is, however—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot argue by ejaculation.

Lord Balniel

—one major decision which affects the long-term costs, and that is the decision not to proceed with the idea of purchasing the C5, the American aircraft which could have been the successor to the Britannia, which, sooner or later, will have to be phased out or refurbished.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

I should like to congratulate my noble Friend on taking the first step in restoring the Armed Forces to their proper position and, in particular, on his decision concerning the Brigade of Gurkhas. How many battalions does he hope now to have? Can he say whether the one-battalion group which it is intended to have in Singapore and Malaysia will be a Gurkha battalion, or whether the Gurkha battalion will be in addition to that, where it will be stationed and what level of strength the brigade will have?

Can my noble Friend say one last word concerning the equipment cuts which he intends to make? Will he make it clear that these cuts will have no bearing on the efficiency of any of the Armed Forces?

Lord Balniel

There are at present five Gurkha battalions. The exact number of Gurkha battalions will depend upon consultations which we are having with the Sultan of Brunei. Their primary deployment will be in Hong Kong. One Gurkha battalion will be deployed in this country.

Dr. David Owen

Will the Minister confirm that there will be no reduction in research and development costs for under-water weapons and that many people believe that this is the most serious gap in the forces? Will he also confirm that it was the previous Administration which began negotiations with the French on EXOCET, which is an expensive project?

Will he also say whether there will be any reduction in the modernisation of the Royal dockyards, which was also carefully costed by the previous Administration?

Lord Balniel

The decision to enter into negotiations with the French Government on EXOCET has been taken by the present Administration and was not taken by the previous Administration. There will be no cut in important research and development work undertaken on behalf of the Armed Forces, although there will be deferment—or, perhaps, alteration—of certain research and development of a subsidiary nature. Capital expenditure on the dockyards will be considered in the light of our plans for the future building of submarines.

Mr. Wall

While also congratulating my noble Friend on the proposals which he has announced so far, may I ask whether the figure of £2,300 million in 1974–75, which was mentioned yesterday, is a target or a firm pledge? Have we not had many examples during the past five years of the mistake of making firm pledges on defence expenditure five years ahead?

My noble Friend has not mentioned the Commando brigade, Commando carriers, and assault ships. Are these to be deployed east of Suez or in the Mediterranean?

Lord Balniel

The figures given in the Defence White Paper are defence budget targets and will be regarded as such, but they are targets which are related to our commitments. The deployment of commandos does not arise in the Defence White Paper. It is not related to the cuts or the increase in expenditure.

Mr. John Morris

The Minister tells us that he is not cancelling any major projects, yet additional weapon buying has been listed. Does this mean that the total amount of money for equipment is going up, or is the Minister putting more in the shop window and deferring other priorities to the right?

Will the Minister tell the House that even if no agreement had been reached with the French Government on EXOCET a great deal of work had been done by the Ministry of Defence between the two navies on this important aspect?

Thirdly, does what the Minister has said about the Jaguar mean that at the end of the day the same number of aircraft will be involved, but that there will be more operational and fewer on training?

Lord Balniel

The point of the Jaguar rearrangements is that there will now be four more squadrons in the front line. Surely this is something which is very welcome to the Royal Air Force and will certainly be welcome to N.A.T.O.

The decision to enter into negotiations on EXOCET has been reached by the present Administration and was not taken by the previous Administration. The whole theme concerning equipment is to equip the forces so that the front line will be more effectively equipped than it is at present.

Sir F. Bennett

Can my noble Friend elaborate on the Gurkhas in South-East Asia? Is the consultation with the Sultan of Brunei, to which he has referred, concerning the number of Gurkhas or whether there are to be any there at all? I understand that there is general anxiety that the Gurkha battalion should stay there. Will the other Gurkha battalion be in Malaysia, or will the only battalion in that part of the world be in Singapore?

My noble Friend has not mentioned the jungle school in Malaysia.

Lord Balniel

As the discussions with the Sultan of Brunei are about to begin, it would be wrong for me to elaborate on this. The infantry battalion in Singapore will be a British infantry battalion. The Gurkha battalions are more likely to be deployed in Hong Kong.

Mr. Crawshaw

Is the Minister aware that his statement merely pays lip service to pre-election promises, that any force which goes east of Suez is irrelevant and that if there are any extra forces they should be placed in Europe, which is our vital defence area?

As to the Territorial Army Volunteer Reserve, what makes the Minister think that he will get the recruits, having regard to the cock-eyed policy pursued by my party during the last few years, which made our reserve forces absolutely committed to reinforcing the regular forces, made it impossible for us to raise a reserve Army and committed us first of all to the use of nuclear weapons?

Lord Balniel

Perhaps I may deal first with the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Torquay (Sir F. Bennett) about the Commonwealth jungle training centre. This matter is under negotiation at the moment.

I echo entirely the words of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Toxteth (Mr. Crawshaw) about the territorial reserves, but I believe that, in this country, there is an enormous reservoir of people who want to give voluntary service to the community. With the plans we will implement after discussion with the territorial associations, I am confident our initial objective of 10,000 members of the reserves will be met.

Captain W. Elliot

Is my right hon. Friend aware that these measures will do much to repair the morale of the Services, which suffered so badly under the policies of the Labour Government, and as such will probably help in the recruiting process?

Is he aware that there will be a breath of relief throughout the Services that our obligations in Malaya will now be carried out by a joint treaty, with men on the ground, and not by the absurd proposition that we should reinforce that area from this country, with no base in Malaysia?

My right hon. Friend did not mention the Persian Gulf. Can he say anything about that?

Lord Balniel

I did refer to the Gulf. As my hon. and gallant Friend knows, Sir William Luce has been commissioned to undertake a study of the situation in the Gulf. We have not yet received his recommendations.

I agree with what my hon. and gallant Friend has said about the impact of the statement on the morale of the forces. I believe it is essential that the leaders of the country should make it clear to the country and the forces what an immensely important rôle we regard the forces as having to play in the defence of freedom. What was so sad was that the last Government notably failed to give that lead.

Mr. Thorpe

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the necessity for a British presence east of Suez will remain a matter for acute disagreement. Since the Government have conceded the value of joint Commonwealth defence in the Far East, is there any reason why this should not be extended to cover the Indian Ocean, on the ground, first, that the security of the trade routes to the Far East is of vital importance to those countries, and, secondly, that it is logical to defend freedom in alliance with those who practise it?

Lord Balniel

There is a great deal with which I agree in what the right hon. Gentleman has said. I think that there is a widening understanding throughout the countries of the Commonwealth of the importance of the Indian Ocean in relation to their own defence positions.

Dame Joan Vickers

Quite a number of newspapers, including the Sunday Times, have stated that the Royal dockyards are to be hived off. Can my noble Friend say what is to be the future of these dockyards?

Lord Balniel

There is no statement relating to them in the Defence White Paper.

Mr. Healey

While the noble Lord may have no difficulty in swindling his hon. Friends, what he has said will not bamboozle either the Services or our allies or partners in the Commonwealth. Is he aware that, for six years, he and his right hon. Friends have been saying that every reduction in manpower and money made by the previous Government was to put the security of the nation at risk, but that he is now accepting the monetary and manpower targets set by that Government, not only for now but for four years' time?

Is the noble Lord further aware that, in addition to accepting manpower and financial targets which we previously rejected as putting the lives of our soldiers and the security of the country at risk, he is also accepting additional commitments without providing either the men or the money to carry them out?

Lord Balniel

The right hon. Gentleman is quite correct—we inherited a very serious recruiting position, and I believe that the attitude of this Government, combined with other steps I hope to announce before too long, will make considerable improvements in recruiting for the forces. But when he refers to the targets, what he has an obligation to do is to explain to the House the immense disparity between the figures published in Cmnd. 4234 and the actual long-term costings of his own Administration.

Mr. Healey

If the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to start this process of education now, I point out that the figures in the White Paper on Public Expenditure last December were only £27 million lower than the figures for long-term costings for next year, and that the difference is more than met by the increased award made by the Committee on Service Salaries, which was made five months after the figures were published last December.

In fact, the right hon. Gentleman is confusing, deliberately so to deceive his colleagues, the targets set by the previous Government, which are identical with the targets set by the present Government, with costing figures which bear no relation to the targets set.

Sir R. Cary

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is this tirade from the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) in order?

Mr. Speaker

It is in order.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It will be within the recollection of the House that the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) accused my right hon. Friend of deliberately seeking to deceive. That implied a base motive and should be withdrawn.

Mr. Speaker

I did not hear the words "deliberately deceive". If the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) accused the Minister of deliberately deceiving his colleagues, he should with-draw it.

Mr. Healey

Whether any deliberation is possible for the right hon. Gentleman, I do not know, but the way in which he presented the figures today and in which the Chancellor presented them yesterday was inevitably liable to give the public, Parliament and his own colleagues a completely false impression of the facts.

Hon. Members

Now withdraw!

Lord Balniel

I am not sure that the right hon. Gentleman has withdrawn, but I am not prepared to press the point.

Mr. Healey

Very wise.

Lord Balniel

If that is the right hon. Gentleman's reaction to what I regarded as my courteous response to his failure to withdraw, he can pursue the matter further.

The figures are presented in the White Paper and they are there for all to read. What is needed is not the education of the House, but an explanation from the right hon. Gentleman.

Sir G. Nabarro

While rejecting absolutely that I have been swindled either by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister or by my noble Friend the Minister of State, I give a general welcome to the statement and I want to ask my right hon. Friend one specific question. My noble Friend referred to the retention of regimental names. Can he give some indication of the future of the Third Royal Green Jackets, of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and of the Royal Hampshire Regiment? Two of them have been reduced to only 120 officers and men instead of being abolished completely—and it was preferable to retain them. Is it intended to expand those regiments to normal battalion strength during the next few years?

Lord Balniel

I have written to my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro) about one of the regiments concerned. There are Questions about other regiments on the Order Paper and these will be answered by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State.

These regiments were to have been disbanded altogether by the previous Administration. We have preserved their identity in representative companies with a real military rôle, and our intention is that, when the divisions of the infantry are recruited properly, as we hope they will be, these will be the first units to be expanded to full strength.

Mr. George Thomson

For once I fully agree with the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro). Is the noble Lord aware that his proposals for the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders will be regarded as an insult to the Scottish people? Is he aware that to turn the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders into what is little more than a boy scout troop is not the saving the party opposite gave the impression that it was going to do?

May I, in addition, ask the Minister to tell us more frankly about the Persian Gulf? He has given firm defence targets here. He has said that no decisions have been taken about the Persian Gulf. Does this mean that the Government have decided to accept the withdrawal plans of this side of the House?

Lord Balniel

The answer to the latter part of the question is, "No, not at all". The answer to the former is that the previous Administration offered the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders the choice of amalgamation or disbandment. They chose to be disbanded under the previous Administration. We have retained them as a representative company and we look forward to the recruitment of the Scottish Division improving. When it has been proved to be fully manned we look forward to the day when the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders will be re-created as a full major unit.

Lieut.-Colonel Colin Mitchell

I welcome everything that the Minister has said, but at heart I feel that this issue is whether or not the decision that the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders should continue was taken on military advice from the Chiefs of Staff or was taken as a political gesture.

Lord Balniel

It was taken by the Secretary of State for Defence as the best service which we could render the infantry units of the Scottish Division.

Mr. Richard

May I press the Minister a little on the question of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders? Can he give any indication of any independent rôle that he can see one company of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders performing?

May I ask one other question on the Army? Will he confirm that his party's much vaunted east of Suez policy, so far as the Army is concerned, comes down to about 600 men, and no more, permanently stationed in the Far East?

As to the Gurkhas, would he answer the question which he refused to answer earlier, namely, do the Government have the agreement of the Government of Nepal to these proposals which have been put forward for the Brigade of Gurkhas?

Lord Balniel

The Government of Nepal are aware of the proposal—[HON. MEMBERS: "Are they agreed?"] As to the future rôle of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, they will be an air portable company.

Mr. Wilkinson

Will the Minister elucidate further on the Jaguar programme? According to my arithmetic, there were 110 Jaguar S version ordered for the Royal Air Force, for strike and air support. There were about 90 of the Jaguar B ordered for Flying Training Command, or Training Command, as it is now called. If we add some four squadrons of the Jaguar S, which could be between 48 and 64 aircraft, that leaves a shortfall which my noble Friend has not mentioned to the House.

On another point, may I ask my noble Friend how he intends to make good the gap between 1972, which is the date when the Jaguar B was due to enter service, and 1975 or so, which is the date on which the new jet trainer or the Hawker 1182 would enter service?

Lord Balniel

Under the exsting understanding with the French, 200 aircraft will be produced for each country. We shall still need 200 Jaguars, but the majority will now be the operational version. The training rôle will be undertaken by a completely different aircraft.

Mr. Healey

What aircraft?

Lord Balniel

That is under consideration. We shall, in fact, need a few of the Jaguar training version for the operational conversion units. Their numbers will be very limited.

Mr. Richard

On a point of order. The Minister totally omitted—I am sure that it was not a deliberate omission—to answer a question I asked him. Would he not confirm that his party's east of Suez presence amounts to about 600 British soldiers?

Lord Balniel

Certainly not.

Mr. Mayhew

Is it not clear that we shall now be deploying east of Suez a sufficient force to irritate our enemies but not enough to deter them or handle them if trouble comes? Is this not grossly irresponsible? If carrier support is needed in the Mediterranean and in the Atlantic, is it not needed far more east of Suez?

Will the Minister therefore answer the question that I put to him earlier: what provision are the Government making for air cover for our shipping east of Suez, especially when out of range of land-based aircraft?

Lord Balniel

Our forces east of Suez are, of course, to be taken in conjunction with the full Commonwealth military presence there. The hon. Gentleman is quite mistaken if he believes that our proposals have not been warmly welcomed by the Commonwealth countries. As I said, H.M.S. "Ark Royal", which was due to be phased out, and on which the previous Administration have just spent £30 million on refitting, will be assigned to SACLANT, but she can be deployed into the Far East if that is considered operationally desirable.

Major-General James D'Ayigdor-Goldsmid

Will the Minister confirm that the expansion of the TAVR, which is extremely welcome, will be based on the cadres which exist today and will be carried on in the names of famous regiments—regiments whose names apparently caused derision on the other side of the House—and that these names will be kept in being?

Lord Balniel

I believe that my hon. and gallant Friend echoes a sentiment which is very widely felt throughout the country. The exact arrangements for expanding the Volunteer Reserve will be discussed with the Territorial Associations themselves.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

In his statement the Minister said that a detachment of Nimrod long-range aircraft whose base will be in this country—and they will be two—will be based in the Far East. Could he say what they are to do?

Lord Balniel

Their base will not be in this country.

Mr. Michael Stewart

May I press the Minister on the question of Nepal? He said, as if it were a matter of firm policy, that the Gurkhas were to be retained. Surely he could not say that unless he first secured the agreement of the Government of Nepal. Otherwise, he would be seriously misleading the House. Has he secured it or not?

Lord Balniel

As a previous Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Gentleman ought to know the arrangement which we have with the Government of Nepal. I think that it is grossly irresponsible—

Hon. Members


The Prime Minister (Mr. Edward Heath)

Grossly irresponsible.

Mr. Michael Stewart

It was certainly never the practice either of the Foreign Office or of the Ministry of Defence in the last Government to state to the House matters of firm policy that still required the agreement of foreign Governments and before that agreement had been achieved. If the Minister wished to keep this as a private matter for the present, he ought not to have stated it as a firm policy.

May I raise a point of order? It is this. On more than one occasion in his answers the Minister, instead of answering the point at issue, has seen fit to cast doubt on the good faith of my right hon. Friends and now of myself. I want to know whether this kind of procedure is the right way of treating the House.

Mr. Speaker

This is not a point of order. It is a point of argument between the two sides of the House.

Lord Balniel

The recruitment of Gurkhas to the British Army is governed by an agreement, of which the right hon. Gentleman ought to be aware, between the Governments of India, Nepal and the United Kingdom. The Nepalese Government are aware of our plans.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must move on.