HC Deb 18 December 1973 vol 866 cc1124-8
6. Mr. Cronin

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the progress that has been made on improving the conditions of British soldiers in Northern Ireland.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army (Mr. Peter Blaker)

We are continuing to do all we can to improve the conditions of British soldiers in Northern Ireland. A mid-four break of 96 hours with free travel is now available to those on four-month emergency tours. Progress continues to be made in improving accommodation. Two new swimming pools were completed this summer and two more are under construction. We are also spending £100,000 on launderettes, bowling alleys, sauna baths and squash courts, some of which have already been completed.

Mr. Cronin

Does the hon. Gentleman recollect that about a year ago there were reports in the Press of very poor conditions for our soldiers in Northern Ireland? Can he assure us that our soldiers there are now living in decent and comfortable circumstances? Can he also give an indication of the maximum number of tours that any soldier is likely to do in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Blaker

It is not possible to give any assurance about the maximum number of tours which any soldier or unit may have to do. The maximum number of emergency tours that any unit has done so far in Northern Ireland has been five, I believe.

It is not possible to say that all soldiers are in satisfactory accommodation in Northern Ireland. This, as the hon. Gentleman will realise, is the necessary consequence of the operational situation, because units have to be where the action is and that may vary from time to time. Between April and the end of November, however, we spent £4½ million on improvements to and maintenance of accommodation.

Major-General Jack d'Avigdor-Goldsmid

Is any consideration being given to the X factor in the pay code for soldiers serving in Northern Ireland, as I suggested in last week's defence debate?

Mr. Blaker

My hon. and gallant Friend will recognise that the X factor is intended to be of general application and not particularly for a situation such as that in Northern Ireland; but this and other related matters are subject to review.

Mr. Peart

In view of the importance of our troops in Northern Ireland, and speaking as one who has seen them operating and has been struck by their fine morale, I ask the hon. Gentleman to resist any cut in expenditure which may be asked for by the Treasury on amenities and other matters for our troops in Northern Ireland which have been discussed already across the Floor of the House.

Mr. Blaker

I very much appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman has said. He has been a firm supporter of our troops in Northern Ireland, and I very much welcome that. We do not envisage that cuts in Defence Estimates for the coming year will have any effect on our capability in Northern Ireland. In bringing about further improvements, we shall continue to allot priorities where they are considered most appropriate.

11. Mr. Mather

asked the Minister of State for Defence if he is satisfied with the force levels currently deployed in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Ian Gilmour

I am satisfied that the current force level in Northern Ireland is right. As I said in the defence debate on 12th December, we watch the situation constantly and very closely and the force level will be adjusted to meet whatever operational situation should arise.

Mr. Mather

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that there is enough manpower available for operations on the border which take place over wide areas? Is he getting co-operation from his opposite number in the Republic on this matter? To make the best use of manpower, will he consider the formation of a Regular company for each Ulster Defence Regiment battalion, as this would be widely welcomed?

Mr. Gilmour

As my hon. Friend says, there is disquiet in the border areas about the incidents there, but they are the direct result of the success of the security forces in the Belfast area. The terrorists have been driven to making rather spectacular but less effective expeditions and excursions into the border area. I am sure that it would be wrong at this stage to move troops from Belfast to the border area, but we are certainly keeping this under review. We have looked at the formation of Regular companies for the UDR, but there are recruiting and other difficulties. We are continuously considering this, but we are not at present satisfied that it would be the right thing to do. Even the conrates are not fully recruited.

Mr. Molloy

Is the Minister satisfied with the standards of liaison and the assistance given to the families of our soldiers in Northern Ireland who are wounded or killed?

Mr. Gilmour

I do not know that we can ever be fully satisfied about anything. We certainly do what we can, and our general record is very good. If the hon. Gentleman has in mind any particular case where we have fallen down, I shall be glad to look into it.

Mr. Stokes

Has my right hon. Friend considered the possibility that some of our forces in Northern Ireland might be required over here to keep essential services running?

Mr. Gilmour

No, we have no plans at all at present to withdraw troops from Northern Ireland to this country.

17. Mr. Biggs-Davison

asked the Minister of State for Defence whether he will make a statement about the operations in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Ian Gilmour

The security forces have played an important part in the creation of a climate in which recent political developments could take place. The fight against terrorism will continue so that constitutional progress can be maintained.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

In view of what has happened in Horseferry Road, does my right hon. Friend believe that the people of Great Britain are even more squarely behind our forces and our people in Northern Ireland in a struggle against terrorism which has no border? Is he fully satisfied, despite the recent encouraging co-operation from the South, that there is the fullest liaison not only between the RUC and the Civic Guards but between the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom and the Republic? Has not the time come for staff talks?

Mr. Gilmour

I agree entirely with the first part of my hon. Friend's question, except that I think the British people were already fully behind our forces in Northern Ireland. There is a good deal of co-operation with the forces of the Republic, but obviously we always welcome any improvements that there might be.

Mr. Goodhew

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether supplies of Soviet arms into Northern Ireland for the use of the IRA are still continuing? If so, will he ask his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to see what he can do about the matter with his friends in Moscow?

Mr. Gilmour

We have no definite news of the arrival of Soviet arms in Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend will have seen Mr. Twomey's claim that he has sophisticated weapons. Naturally we are taking action against that eventuality.