HC Deb 10 December 1975 vol 902 cc469-586

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Speaker

Will it be for the convenience of the House if we debate the Bill and at the same time the motion seeking approval for the Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts (Continuation) Order 1975?

Hon. Members


3.59 p.m.

The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. William Rodgers)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The primary purpose of this Bill is simple. It seeks to renew and to revise the provisions which determine the day-to-day legal famework within which members of all three Armed Services live their Service lives. I put it that way because a narrow emphasis on discipline could be misleading.

The Bill is brought forward, as the preamble to it makes clear, in order that the Service Discipline Acts may be continued for a further five years. Its scope helps to ensure that as far as possible the rules that determine Service life reflect and keep pace with civil experience and practice.

The principle of civil control of the military has a long and rarely challenged history in this country. Others have not been so fortunate. As this is the season of recommended Christmas reading, I recommend Professor S. E. Finer's interesting book, "The Man on Horseback", to those who wish to study the circumstances and motives of military intervention in politics. The growth of parliamentary Government and the Cabinet system has enabled us to achieve a constitutional stability that the military have not sought in this country to challenge. I am not among those who see any evidence of a breakdown in this tradition.

It follows that Parliament has been jealous of its power to regulate the Armed Forces. On the one hand, it has attached great importance to its right to vote Supply: debates on defence expenditure have an honourable history. On the other hand, it has taken a close interest in all that comes under the heading of reform.

It is barely 100 years ago that Edward Cardwell, an underestimated figure among Victorian statesmen, judging by an informal straw poll that I conducted in the Smoking Room last night, abolished flogging in the Army in peace time and then went on to his more famous and controversial reform of abolishing the purchase of commissions.

I cannot claim that there is anything in this Bill as far-reaching. I simply make the point that the Cardwell reforms of the 1860s and 1870s were part of the parliamentary process of which this Bill can be seen as the latest stage.

May I refer to the future progress of the Bill if it receives its Second Reading today? My intention would then be to move to send it to a Select Committee, as on the last occasion in 1971. When the Select Committee has examined the Bill in the usual way and reported, it will be recommitted to the whole House.

At a time when the House is once more re-examining its procedures and timetables, I hope that I may draw attention to the course that this Bill will follow. Taking off my departmental hat, if I may do so, I see great virtue in the use of a Select Committee rather than a Standing Committee to examine the details of legislation that is not sharply controversial—as I believe this Bill not to be—between Government and Opposition. This Bill will give Members further experience of this alternative.

I do not propose on Second Reading to give to the House a detailed explanation of every clause of the Bill, because, of its nature, it lends itself primarily to detailed scrutiny. It is somewhat of a maze to a simple non-legal mind like mine. Nevertheless, I should draw attention to some of the more important points in it.

Clause I provides for the omission in future of the requirement to have the Service Discipline Acts renewed annually by means of an annual Continuation Order. This might appear to be a significant departure from historic practice, even weakening; parliamentary control over the Armed Forces. It may be that this is a constitutional issue which right hon. and hon. Members will wish to raise during the course of the debate, if they are fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker. But in fact it is a logical extension of the developments which have taken place in the parliamentary treatment of these matters over the last 20 years.

The House will recall that in 1955 the Army and Air Force Acts became quinquennial Acts subject to annual renewal by Order in Council, after affirmative resolution by both Houses, up to a maximum of five years, and that the Naval Discipline Act was placed on the same footing in the last Armed Forces Act in 1971.

I hope that the House will agree that the quinquennial review system has worked well. It provides the House with a suitably spaced opportunity for looking at these Acts in a thorough way to see whether and where they require changes or adaptation. The annual renewal of the Acts by Order in Council, however, now plays no part in this process. The Continuation Order was last debated, in less than a half-day, in 1972, and in 1973 and 1974 it was treated as a formality. On the last occasion it was tacked on to the end of a wider debate on defence. Such a debate—one of several we have each year—now marks the control exercised by Parliament over the provision of support for the Services.

Thus, although this Bill does not make provision for annual Continuation Orders after 1976, appropriate and frequent opportunities will certainly occur for discussion of matters of the kind which were once dealt with in debates arising out of the annual Continuation Order. If Governments proved negligent, successive Oppositions would, I am sure, remedy this. Meanwhile—that is why we are taking the Continuation Order today—there is a requirement this year, under the 1971 Act, to continue the Service Discipline Acts in an affirmative resolution to that effect.

I should like to deal now with the clauses in the Bill which propose some changes in the disciplinary arrangements of the Armed Forces. The Select Committee on the last Armed Forces Act said that the system of quinquennial reviews by Select Committees, although it provides the Services with valuable opportunities for revising their disciplinary legislation, could also subject them to continuous pressure towards change for the sake of change, perhaps against their better judgment. Your Committee therefore emphasise that in preparing the next Bill the Ministry of Defence should have only one object in mind; the best interests of the Services themselves". That injunction was delivered in the light of the fairly fundamental review of the Acts which was then undertaken and which resulted in particular in the offence-making sections in the Service Discipline Acts, and their related maximum punishments, being brought into line for all the Services.

The period of more than three years that these provisions have been in operation has been essentially a settling-in period. The new provisions have proved just and effective. Clearly, we would not seek to put forward such fundamental proposals on this occasion unless the need for them had been demonstrated. We have found no such need. We have, however, discovered some areas in which change is required.

I turn to Clause 4 and Schedule 2 of the Bill, dealing with the position of the Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service and the Women's Royal Naval Service. The latter is, described, I am told, perfectly properly as the QARNNS, just as the Women's Royal Naval Service is more familiarly known as the WRNS.

Members will recall that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Navy announced last July that we would be proposing to bring both the WRNS and the QARNNS within the ambit of the Naval Discipline Act. This proposal, which is embodied in Clause 4, is one of the results of a thorough review of the rôle and organisation of the WRNS. We believe that in future the WRNS should be more closely integrated into the naval service in matters of employment and training, which will enable them to participate both in the wider opportunities and also in the fuller obligations of the Service. It is therefore sensible that the members of the WRNS, and the QARNNS, too, should become legally members of Her Majesty's Naval Forces and be brought fully within the scope of the Naval Discipline Act.

This proposal would have the additional benefit of placing the women's Services of the Navy, Army and Royal Air Force on the same legal basis since, as hon. Members will be aware, both the Army and Air Force Acts have applied to the women's Services of the Army and Royal Air Force for more than 30 years.

The next item that I want to mention is contained in Clause 5 which is in Part II of the Bill and relates to the summary disciplinary powers exercised by commanding officers in the Royal Marines, Army and Royal Air Force. The Select Committee on the last Armed Forces Bill recommended that the possible need for an increase in these powers should be examined during the interval between then and the present Bill. I think it would be fair to say that the Select Committee, which had taken evidence from individual commanding officers, had an open mind about the possible outcome, and suggested only that any proposals should be considered on their merits.

The conclusion of our examination was that it would be of real value if commanding officers were given additional powers to deal summarily with breaches of Service discipline. The number of courts martial would therefore be reduced, which would be of benefit administratively and would avoid a Service man suffering the relatively greater stigma of a court martial for this kind of offence.

It is therefore proposed to increase the summary powers of commanding officers so that they may award 60 days' detention to private soldiers and equivalent ranks and to allow commanding officers and appropriate superior authorities to award fines of up to 28 days' pay in peace time in respect of all ranks with whom they can deal.

But before anyone suggests that this is a regressive change, damaging to the rights of the individual, may I add this: quite apart from the importance to the Service man of avoiding a court martial, provision is being made to limit the exercise of the new powers of detention to commanding officers of at least the rank of lieutenant-colonel or equivalent. In addition, we shall require the taking of legal advice on each case and its submission to higher authority before the extended award is made. These particular safeguards are not written into the Bill but will be arranged by way of statutory regulation in conjunction with the introduction of increased powers.

The Royal Navy will not be affected by these changes. The last Select Com- mittee expressed itself satisfied that the powers exercised by naval commanding officers were suited to the needs of that Service. This point has been looked at again in the present review, but no alteration is recommended.

Part II of the Bill also contains proposals to provide a new range of sentences which can be awarded to civilians under the 1955 and 1957 Acts, and, in the case of the 1955 Acts only, for the setting up of a Standing Civilian Court. These changes are again designed to extend the rights of the individual. They are proposed because we feel that military tribunals and the sentences available to them are not always appropriate for dealing with many of the offences alleged against civilians serving with the Armed Forces abroad or civilian dependants of either Service men or civilians abroad. These civilians are subject to trial under the Service Discipline Acts, and at present the only penalties available to deal with any offences which they commit are imprisonment or a fine. Such punishments have been found in practice to be much too inflexible, especially when dealing with juveniles.

The difficulties to which I have referred have arisen especially in relation to British Forces, Germany. I do not wish to give the House the impression that there is a grave crime problem at present among British civilians in Germany because there is not. But they have not entirely escaped the trends which have been apparent in this country of an increase in the rate of juvenile crime. The proposals in the Bill have been prompted chiefly by a desire to provide greater suitability of sentence and to seek to ensure, most especially in the case of juveniles, that each individual case can be dealt with in the most appropriate and helpful way.

I said earlier that the Bill as a whole sought to keep pace with civil experience and practice. In this case, the awards or sentences under the Bill are generally modelled, in respect of juveniles, on those available in England and Wales, and, for adults, on those which might be applied in a magistrates' court in this country. The magistrate in the Standing Civilian Court would be a lawyer, drawn from the staff of the Judge Advocate General, and provision is also made that, where juveniles are on trial, suitably fitted lay members may sit in addition. Some cases of a more serious nature would still require to go to a court martial, but provision is also made in Clause 8 for civilian Crown servants to sit as members of courts martial. A civilian will also always have the right to elect trial by court martial and to appeal, up to the Court Martial Appeals Court.

There is one other feature of Part II of the Bill to which it would, I think, be right for me to direct the attention of the House. We have been concerned to ensure that financial penalties imposed by Service tribunals can be recovered even after those against whom they were awarded have passed out of the jurisdiction of those tribunals. This can occur when men have left the Services or when civilians who have been serving overseas return to this country. The arrangements will be that these penalties can be registered for enforcement here with civil courts of summary jurisdiction. This will enable them to be enforced to the same extent that they would be if they had been imposed by an English court.

The House will have been glad to note from the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum that the Bill will have no significant effect on public service manpower. As for cost, some additional expenditure will arise as a result of care orders made under Schedule 5 of the Bill, but, apart from saying that it will be small, I cannot forecast it precisely.

Mr. James Wellbeloved (Erith and Crayford)

Before my right hon. Friend leaves this part of the Bill, will he say a word or two about the effect of the increase from 28 to 60 days' detention on the policy and control of military corrective training centres, especially Colchester? Has he any plans to ensure that, now that there is the additional possibility of more men serving detention, arrangements will be made for an independent element to be applied to the inspection of Army and Air Force detention quarters, as now exists for the inspection of Royal Naval detention quarters?

Mr. Rodgers

I hesitate to join my hon. Friend in his assumption that the provisions of this Bill are likely to lead to larger numbers of men going into detention. I think the contrary will be the case. But I remember my hon. Friend's distinguished contribution to the last Select Committee and his concern then with the problem of Colchester. He may remember that the Select Committee made certain recommendations in this respect, and I believe that they were followed by an inquiry conducted by the Ministry of Defence which reached a very similar conclusion to that of the Select Committee, of which my hon. Friend had been in favour. So I think that such anxieties as he has are unfounded in the light of his success in making a contribution to the Select Committee which considered the previous Bill. But I shall examine what he has said, and it may be that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be able to say something further to satisfy him.

Mr. Frank Allaun (Salford, East)

When the same part of the Bill was being drafted, did my right hon. Friend consider what takes place in the West German forces and those of other countries—that is to say, trade unionism for rank and file members of the forces? Does he think that this is a suggestion which could be considered seriously in our own country?

Mr. Rodgers

It would be wrong to say to my hon. Friend that this was a matter which crossed my desk in a significant way in the course of discussions on the Bill. I share with him the view that matters of this kind are proper subjects for discussion. Armed Forces in different countries follow different practices, and we should not, simply because of our own tradition, rule out consideration of ways which are unfamiliar or strange to us. I am sure that if my hon. Friend succeeds in catching your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he will seek to raise this matter with you. I do not dismiss it, though there is no provision for it in the Bill.

Today's debate is on one important, though totally limited, aspect of defence policy. I do not know the extent to which hon. Members may seek to widen the area of debate. I do not know whether they will wish to do so in the way that my hon. Friends have described or in some other way, and least of all whether any such attempt will succeed. But in view of recent comments on rather wider matters than those covered by the Bill, perhaps I should say this: any current review of defence expenditure is no more than part of the usual annual public expenditure survey conducted by successive Governments at this time of year when the future programmes of all spending Departments are subject to close scrutiny. The procedures are familiar to the House. The issues are ones we have frequently debated and the outcome of the survey is certainly not decided. In so far as the exercise is attracting more attention on this occasion, that reflects the extent to which the level of public expenditure in 1977–78 and beyond is agreed, on both sides of the House, to have important consequences for our economic recovery.

In due course we shall have the Public Expenditure White Paper and the Defence White Paper, quite apart from any earlier statement that may be made. No doubt these will give an opportunity for the overall debate to be resumed. For the moment, the House will understand that neither myself nor my hon. Friend who will wind up the debate this evening can usefully add to or comment on current speculation. Nor could my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, even were he not inescapably engaged today in Brussels on vital NATO business.

Nevertheless, I would point out that the debate about priorities for expenditure is an old one. It is part of the essential business of government. The need is to find a balance between public and private consumption and between spending on social programmes and other essential claims on the nation's resources, including defence. On 13th May last year, in the course of the first major defence debate of this Government, I said that any economies in spending likely to arise out of our defence review would be compatible with a realistic assessment both of our commitments and of the threat to our security, and I added that they would not otherwise be acceptable to me or to my right hon. or hon. Friends. I am sure that the position is precisely the same now in the case of any defence savings that may follow from current discussions.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

Can I tempt the Minister to go a little further than those general statements this afternoon? Will he accept that there is all the difference in the world between defence cuts which follow a political decision—for example, the withdrawal east of Suez—and defence cuts which are taken for financial reasons and lead to a change in the political structure of, for example, the Western Alliance and might convert NATO to an American-German alliance with trappings?

Mr. Rodgers

The hon. Gentleman can certainly tempt me to complete my speech and in so doing I may well say something relevant to his inquiry. Of course—this is implied by what the hon. Gentleman said—questions of judgment arise about the level of defence spending consistent with our obligations. There is room for two views, and perhaps for more than two. But for my part, for what it is worth, I would not remain a member of a Government which undermined the collective security of the West to which successive Governments have been committed for nearly 30 years through NATO under the Treaty which Ernest Bevin signed.

I believe that the Bill contains a series of modest but desirable proposals and I commend it to the House.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. George Thomas)

Before I call the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. George Younger), I should like to inform the House that Mr. Speaker has agreed that today's debate can go wider than the terms of the Bill itself.

4.25 p.m.

Mr. George Younger (Ayr)

The Opposition welcome the Bill in principle and most of its details. We also welcome what you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have just said about the scope of the debate. We are grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has presented the Bill and for the trouble he has taken to add some comments at the end of his remarks. We shall note those comments carefully.

We entirely accept that the Secretary of State could not be present today. We hope that he is having successful discussions in Brussels where he is taking a leading role. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will also accept that we are a little disappointed to hear that he will not be winding up the debate. We always welcome him at the Dispatch Box and, in view of the wider nature of the debate, as he has wider responsibilities, we felt that he would be able to contribute rather more in the winding-up speech than his hon. Friend, for all his skill. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will note that we had hoped the position would be the other way round.

It is also a pity—I do not blame the right hon. Gentleman at all—that the Government business managers have led us to the position where we have to have this debate when unavoidably the Secretary of State cannot be present. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will convey our view to the Leader of the House and the Patronage Secretary.

Mr. William Rodgers

The hon. Gentleman is being perfectly fair. I think that he knows that the expectation was that today we would deal with the Bill in perhaps rather less time than usual, and we did not anticipate any wish to take the debate wider. Moreover, it was always open to the Opposition, had they so chosen, to take a Supply Day for a wider-ranging defence debate. Indeed, I think that there might have been value in so doing. However, the matter was settled through the usual channels and we must all recognise the limitations of this debate for both sides.

Mr. Younger

I accept what the right hon. Gentleman says. On this occasion it is possible that the legendary usual channels have become somewhat clogged. I hope that we can avoid this in future. Through history, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, this has been the occasion for a much wider debate on defence generally. Indeed, the history of the renewal of the Discipline Acts goes back for hundreds of years and has its roots in the constitutional rights of the House to question and to control the Executive about particular aspects of the Services.

I noted what the right hon. Gentleman said about the acceptance, with which we now agree, that the annual re-enactment of these Acts by means of affirmative Order has probably now served its purpose and should be discontinued. We have no objection to that provided we can have, as the right hon. Gentleman assured us we could, the proper and appropriate number of general debates on defence spread throughout the year.

I am glad the right hon. Gentleman also mentioned that the Bill will be sent to a Select Committee for further con- sideration. That is a very good thing. Will the Minister when he winds up please add a little to what the right hon. Gentleman has said? Will the Select Committee have the usual, normal, fairly wide rights to visit places, if the need should arise, to call witnesses, and so on? Is it intended that there should be a Minister on the Select Committee? When asking that question, I make it clear that I am not suggesting that there should be a Minister on the Committee, because I do not think that that would be wise use of ministerial time. However, as this point has been raised in previous debates, it might be helpful if the right hon. Gentleman, or his hon. Friend, could comment on the intentions in this matter.

We welcome the change which includes in the Discipline Acts formally and properly the Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service and the Women's Royal Naval Service. That is a good tidying-up of what has been assumed to be the position for a long time. I am sure that it will be welcomed by the women's Services, because it is a change that they have been anxious to have for a long time. Will the Minister tell us whether any other members of the Services are not fully subject to the Discipline Acts? I hope that a proper search has been made of the byways of the Ministry of Defence to make sure that we have now finally tidied up this matter for good.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to comment upon the working of the single system of Service law which was brought in five or more years ago. We should like to know whether it is working as smoothly as was hoped at the time that it was brought in. My experience is that it is. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will comment on that.

Finally on these detailed points, will the hon. Gentleman tell us more about the proposal in the Bill to add to the disqualification of Members of Parliament and of the Northern Ireland Assembly from membership of the Ulster Defence Regiment? I am not necessarily saying that there is anything wrong with that proposal. However, I am curious to know why it has been put in at this time. I understand that membership of the Territorial Army, which is not the same as the Ulster Defence Regiment but has some comparable features, does not preclude one from being entitled to be a Member of this House. Indeed, for a time I was in such a position. I should like to know why this proposal has been made and what lies behind it.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to there being fewer courts martial in future because of the increase in the powers of sentence of commanding officers. That is a desirable reform and will, I hope, as does the right hon. Gentleman, reduce the numbers of courts martial. I think that all of us have experience of instances when courts martial have had to take place when it would have been better for all concerned if they had not.

I was a little puzzled by the remark that when the higher sentence is to be handed out, it will be necessary for the commanding officer to take legal advice in each case before passing sentence. If it is just that the commanding officer must communicate with some source of legal advice before hearing the case, I can see no objection, but if it means that the commanding officer has to make a determination in the case to the point of passing sentence and then has to remand the case for a further period to get legal advice, that would be a pity from the point of view of the accused and of the swifter administration of justice. I hope that the Under-Secretary will comment on that matter in his winding-up speech. We hope that the Bill will be passed, but during its passage other matters will be raised.

One vital and much wider issue must be raised. The Bill extends the disciplinary powers under which our forces work. I am sure the House will agree that discipline in our forces is of a very high standard, indeed, and is something of which we can be proud. Indeed, no forces could have tackled the immensely difficult tasks facing our forces, particularly in Northern Ireland, if that were not so.

But discipline is closely linked to morale. Although morale has been excellent in our forces, it cannot be taken for granted. It has already been hit twice this year and it is today seriously threatened again by rumours of still further defence cuts, rumours which have been sweeping through the Press in recent weeks and which the right hon. Gentle- man very properly mentioned in his speech. I very much hope that these rumours are ill-founded. If they were true, I should have grave doubts about renewing this legislation for the full five years without further parliamentary scrutiny.

I shall briefly describe why that is so. Last March we came at last to the conclusion of the defence review. On 3rd December 1974 the Secretary of State described it as the most extensive and thorough review of our system of defence ever undertaken … in peace time."—[Official Report, 3rd December 1974 Vol. 882, c. 1351.] Its whole purpose was clearly stated to be to put an end to arbitrary short-term cuts, which were inefficient and which caused great uncertainty, by firmly assessing our essential minimum defence commitments and needs, and to give our defence forces a stable and assured future upon which they could plan ahead.

Those were fine aims, indeed. But the conclusions of the review were not widely welcomed by all and were thought by many, incidentally, including every one of our NATO allies, to be cutting our contribution to the alliance to dangerously low levels, especially in maritime forces on the flanks of the NATO area. The vehemence of the protests of our allies was so strong that it had to be admitted and printed in the White Paper. The Opposition voiced the concern of many in opposing the White Paper and voting against it in the House. But even we felt that we could take the Government at their word and that the conclusions of the review, unpalatable though they were to us, were at least firm and definite and would provide a stable basis for the future.

How wrong we were! The ink was hardly dry on the White Paper when the Chancellor of the Exchequer stuck his oar in and coolly announced a further arbitrary and unplanned cut of £110 million in the already severely curtailed defence budget. The right hon. Gentleman announced that without a blush, although it flew straight in the face of everything that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence had been saying for the past year.

On 7th May, my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Whitelaw) said that announcement destroyed at a stroke the whole basis of the Government's White Paper."—[Official Report, 7th May 1975; Vol. 891, c. 1434.] We seem to have underestimated the Chancellor, who seems to have taken to bashing defence just as a fractious child can take to bashing his once favourite toy.

It is still far less than a year since the review was published and we now have Whitehall again buzzing with rumours and leaks which, alas, look to be only too well founded. However, I hope that what the right hon. Gentleman said will be true. The Press, expert opinion, and all our allies are once more expressing the deepest concern. If even half the rumours in the Press are true, the effects on industry and on jobs could be catastrophic. Such cuts would almost certainly affect the MRCA—a vital collaborative project involving Germany and Italy MRCA as well as ourselves. Undoubtedly, too, the maritime Harrier and the through-deck cruiser would be prime targets for cancellation, with serious effects on jobs in development areas. Rumours also abound of the threat of closure of one of the dockyards—possibly Chatham. That, too, would have grave consequences.

The Government and their supporters must realise before it is too late the dam age which will be done. The Opposition have a clear duty today to put on record the inescapable responsibilities of the Government before it is too late and before decisions are taken. I take it from what the right hon. Gentleman said that no decisions of that kind have yet been taken.

Mr. Frank Allaun

I take it that the hon. Gentleman and the Conservative Party are resisting cuts in arms spending. But am I not right in saying that they are pressing for cuts in almost everything else? [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] That is most educative. Therefore, may I take it that the hon. Gentleman agrees with his Back Benchers that we should cut housing, education, health, pensions, and the re-equipment of industry, but that arms alone should be sacrosanct?

Mr. Younger

I shall cover the hon. Gentleman's views at a later stage. When he started his intervention, I almost hoped that he had begun to see the light in this matter. It is a great encouragement to me. I hope that I am right.

I must spell out the Government's responsibilities. First, the Government are responsible in this matter not to the Tribune Group, or even to the Labour Party conference, but to the nation as a whole. We may have to put up with being ruined economically by the most incompetent Government this century, but we cannot allow them to destroy the future security of this country.

Secondly, there can be no justification whatever on defence grounds for any further reductions in our forces or the weapons that they need to defend us. The Government have spelt out our commitments and needs fully and clearly, and any further cut at all is, by their own definition, cutting into the "bedrock" so graphically described by the Chief of Defence Staff in a recent television interview.

Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)

Does my hon. Friend accept that the forces in Ireland are stretched to the utmost, that they are under great strain, that their commitments are far too regular even at the moment, and that any cut in Army personnel would make their commitment in Northern Ireland quite intolerable and unacceptable to their families?

Mr. Younger

I appreciate what my hon. Friend has said. He makes very good sense and is quite right. There is no argument whatever for saying that the world situation and the balance of power have so shifted in our favour that future reductions can now safely be made. The real truth is the absolute reverse of that. There is more insecurity, not less, in the Western alliance since last March, not to mention the continued massive build up of forces by the Warsaw Pact. The Government must give careful consideration to the effect that any further cuts would have on our allies.

Dr. Luns, Secretary-General of NATO, spoke clearly in his recent address to the North Atlantic Assembly. He spoke of the mutual balanced force reduction negotiations and all the facts which make up the balance between the West and the Warsaw Pact. Dr. Luns may have spoken out, but I am sure that Chancellor Schmidt, and many of our European allies, had harsh things to say to the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary in Rome last week. But what would be the effect on our American allies, with Congress anxious about the level of American involvement in Europe, and election year just beginning? Britain cannot afford to trigger off another round of force reductions throughout the alliance; still less can we allow ourselves to be considered a thoroughly unreliable ally.

The MBFR talks are still unresolved after a long stalemate. What sense is there in making one-sided reductions in our forces when the whole purpose of the talks is to achieve mutual and balanced force reductions? That is to throw away the whole Western bargaining position for nothing in return. If that is what the Government do, surely our allies can be forgiven for thinking that we have gone mad.

It is argued that as the economic crisis, which the Government have caused is so severe, the cuts they will have to make must include defence on grounds of fairness with other Departments. I do not know whether to laugh or cry at that argument. Over the past 15 years the percentage of public expenditure devoted to defence has fallen from 17 per cent. to less than 10 per cent., while that of most other Government Departments has soared upwards. Public spending has risen from £33 billion in 1973–74 to £53 billion this year. Even in real terms that amounts to a record 10 per cent. per year increase.

Yet on defence, let us see what has happened already, before the main weight of the White Paper's cuts have even been felt. We face cuts of from £300 million in 1975–76 rising to £500 million in 1978–79, added to which is a further £110 million in 1976–77, which I mentioned earlier. The latest rumour suggests cuts in public expenditure of over £36 billion a year, of which about one quarter, or £800 million, might come from defence by the end of the decade. So it looks now, if the rumours are correct, as though the further public expenditure cuts will hit defence about twice as hard as other Departments, none of which has been subjected to the rigorous review that defence has undergone over the past year. Even if there were any scope for further cuts, which there is not, on grounds of equity alone there would be an overwhelming case for defence to be the last to be cut on this occasion.

The Secretary of State in his talk to the Staff College on 27th November tried out another argument. He said: We can provide for Defence … only what we can afford to provide. And what we can afford to provide is ultimately a matter of judgment: of political judgment, reflecting, however imperfectly, the will of the people of this country. Fine words, indeed, but it seems to me that the Secretary of State was getting refreshingly near to the truth. Of course it is a matter of political judgment, but it is the political judgment of his Government which is both thoroughly faulty and reflects all too imperfectly the will of the people on this subject. He tried to bamboozle his audience by comparing the cost of an aeroplane with that of a school, and the cost of a frigate with that of a hospital. But audiences of that sort are not fooled by such facile comparisons. Why did he not cite the true comparisons?

Does the right hon. Gentleman really believe that the people of this country would rather spend their money on nationalising North Sea oil than on having adequate defences? Does he really think the people would rather pay for the Community Land Act and its new model army of bureaucrats than keep the Royal Navy up to strength? Does he really think the people would rather pay for the nationalisation of the aircraft and shipbuilding industries than help those same industries to produce the vital needs of our defence? I do not believe that they would.

Mr. Robin F. Cook (Edinburgh, Central)

It is with a sense of weariness that I make the point that I have made before. The hon. Member is trying to bamboozle his own audience by confusing transfer costs with defence expenditure which is a real resource cost to the economy.

Mr. Younger

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) has been listening too much to his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. No serious economist believes with the Prime Minister that there is no resource cost for nationalisation of North Sea oil. Of course there is. That is why the two are very much to be compared, certainly in terms of the Government's priority.

Before giving a Second Reading to the Bill we must make it crystal clear that we are convinced that further defence cuts would be a gross dereliction of the Government's duty, not only to the majority of people who did not elect them, and even some who did, but to all our NATO allies. Well may the corridors of NATO now be reverberating with the cry "With friends like these, who needs enemies?" We make this warning now before it is too late, so that there may be no doubt where we stand. The Government have done many foolish things, but I cannot believe that they will be so irresponsible on this subject as to fly in the face of virtually all responsible opinion throughout the Western world.

We demand three undertakings from the Government. The first is that no defence cuts will be decided without full prior consultations with our NATO allies. The second is that there will be no unilateral reduction in forces in advance of the MBFR talks. The third is that no cuts will be made below the critical levels in the Defence White Paper, which were said to be the minimum for our defence.

If the Government cannot give these undertakings they will no longer be able to claim to be steering a middle course between the Opposition and their own left wing. One would be forced to the conclusion that they were increasingly being influenced by those in their midst who seek to overthrow our Western way of life. If these rumours are true, the Government will stand condemned of complete dereliction of their prime duty—to ensure the safety of our land.

At this stage of the Bill the Government have a duty to the House to try to answer the simple broad questions that I have asked. I conclude by hoping that the House will agree to give the Bill a Second Reading.

4.50 p.m.

Mr. Alan Lee Williams (Hornchurch)

I think you will agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we are debating the Bill in the most exceptional circumstances. The outburst in Welsh that has just taken place in the Public Gallery seems to reinforce my view that we are debating the Bill in exceptional circumstances. I had not expected that to happen.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I hope the hon. Member does not think there is anything personal in what has happened. We are both Welsh.

Mr. Williams

I acquit you fully of any responsibility for what has happened, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I think there will be a general welcome in the House for the opportunity which the widening of the debate affords hon. Members to deal with certain speculations in the Press about defence expenditure. My right hon. Friend said today that this is the time of the year when it is normal for the Government to assess current expenditure for next year, and that this is part of the normal process through which the Government have to go.

We all know that this is a special occasion, because the Cabinet has been meeting for more than a week to assess expenditure for next year, and to judge from what has been published in the newspapers it seems that some horrendous figures have been quoted for the cut-back in Government expenditure. I am talking not merely about defence expenditure but about expenditure overall. Some of the figures that I have heard quoted seem to be overkill. I do not know whether this is so, and I think that the House must make its position clear, so far as it can, on the question of defence expenditure.

I wish that we could have had a similar opportunity to make our views clear on education, the social services, the provision for welfare services, and so on. We do not have an opportunity to do that this afternoon, but we do have an opportunity to say something about defence expenditure, and I begin my contribution to the debate by saying that defence falls into a special category. In a sense, it is elemental. The security of our nation and the rôle that we play in the Atlantic Alliance is fundamental to the well-being of the country as a whole, and therefore defence falls into a special category. I think that that has been accepted by every Government since the end of the war. They have all recognised our responsibility for collective defence, and I think that the need for that is recognised by the Opposition parties too.

The hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) referred to the last defence review and I, too, wish to say something about that because it has a direct bearing on my assessment of the future. The House will recall that that defence review was intended to reduce the share of our GNP devoted to defence to about 4½ per cent. to bring us into line with our European allies. It also resulted in a pattern of expenditure in which perhaps 95 per cent. of our effort is to be devoted to NATO, thereby ending for all time for any serious purpose any major British defence intervention outside Europe—something that I warmly welcome.

I have heard references to cuts in defence of £300 million to over £1,000 million. I know that some of my hon. Friends—and one or two of them are sitting on the Benches below me—have made a case for a cut of £1,000 million in defence expenditure. I have not always been clear about the time scale that my hon. Friends have in mind, but I assume it to be within the next year, or, at any rate, over the next three years.

As far as I have been able to assess from reports in newspapers—and that is the only way in which one can guess what is going on—there have been proposals for cuts in defence expenditure of a proportion that might alter the contribution that the United Kingdom makes to the North Atlantic Alliance. If some of these reports are true—and there is no way of knowing whether they are—such cuts are bound to have a profound impact on the overall strategy of NATO. This seems to me to be a matter that should not be looked at simply in terms of economy, because it raises profound questions, such as the lowering of the nuclear threshold. We have debated this matter many times, and it has always been my feeling that the view of hon. Members on both sides of the House is that we should do nothing that would lower the nuclear threshold.

There seems to be general agreement that there are industrial and manpower implications in major defence cuts, and I would not rule those out as major factors to be considered, particularly as we are at the moment in a deep recession. I warn the Government that if they are contemplating deep cuts in defence—I am not talking about modest cuts which most people would agree would call for a contribution from defence spending in these special and dangerous times which face the nation from an economic point of view—they will find themselves in serious trouble.

My argument is that the defence cuts should not be disproportionate. If the judgment of the Cabinet is that it can afford to make deep cuts in defence, I must tell the Government that there will be great difficulty in justifying such cuts to many working people throughout the country.

Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, North-East)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it would not be good for the nationalisation of the aircraft industry, in which Labour Members believe, if we were to start with major defence cuts there, because that would adversely affect the employment situation in that industry?

Mr. Williams

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and the same is true of the shipbuilding industry. I think that we had better name names so that people in the constituencies can be alerted. I am thinking of Vickers, Yarrow, Swan Hunter and Cammell Laird. Reference has also been made to the possibility of closing one dockyard. Could it be Chatham or Portsmouth? We do not know, but one thing that is certain is that if the Government were to start to make defence cuts in the range above £300 million to £400 million a year, or over three years, we should have to start thinking about the resulting unemployment situation.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

The hon. Gentleman mentions figures of £200 million, £500 million or £1,000 million and talks in terms of modest cuts and deep cuts. But the fact on which we should focus is that, whatever the Labour Party may feel that it has a mandate for, it has no manifesto commitment to restructuring those defences which would have a fundamental effect upon our capability within the Western Alliance and of the Alliance as a whole. That is the test that we should apply, rather than tests of crude figure—or even, one is obliged to say, tests such as those mentioned by the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer), relevant though they may be in local terms.

Mr. Williams

But we are committed in our manifesto—

Mr. Onslow

Not to ruining NATO.

Mr. Williams

I am not talking about NATO. We are committed to tackling the problem of inflation, and it would be foolish to pretend that we can do so without some further cut in defence expenditure. That is a fact of life which I accept. What I am arguing with my right hon. Friend about is the magnitude of that cut.

I am trying to spell out the fact that, if we moved into the range of a £1,000-million cut—that is what has been speculated about outside the House—we should face the serious situation that I am trying to describe.

Mr. Burden

I think that we would all agree with the hon. Gentleman, which makes it all the more important that the Government should make known their firm intentions as quickly as possible. There is great anxiety among many workers, including dockyard workers, on this issue, and their fears should be treated no less realistically and with no less haste than those of workers in other industries who might also be threatened with cuts. There is grave concern. The Government should act as quickly as possible and come out with a full statement on the issue.

Mr. Williams

I know that the hon. Gentleman has a special constituency concern.

What we must do is re-examine our whole attitude to defence. It is no good basing a policy on cutting defence expenditure every time there is an economic difficulty. That may sound sensible. When one makes a speech in a constituency meeting one can get cheap cheers, because it sounds easy and it does not appear immediately to affect any individual. But the truth is the opposite.

If we go on dealing with this matter piecemeal, we end up with no defence at all. If we are going to cut away and cut away until in the end we have no credible policy, or a strategy which even our allies question—the effect on fellow members of the Alliance must be considered, too—we shall end without a defence policy. We are moving dangerously close to that position. If that is so, it is about time that we on these benches had a profound look at defence.

We need to consider, for example, what we are defending ourselves against. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am pleased to hear some of my hon. Friends agree, because some of them have the most romantic notions sometimes.

Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham and Heston)

Do not be misled.

Mr. Williams

The hard and harsh fact upon which our policy must be based is that the Soviet Union is dramatically increasing its military strength.

Mr. Frank Allaun

So is America.

Mr. Williams

We need to examine the fact that the Soviet Union, with a gross national product no more than half that of the United States, spends rather more on arms in real terms.

We must carefully examine the proposition that the resources allocated to defence by several members of the Alliance must represent an exactly equal burden on their economies. I do not think that we can reach a sensible arrangement within an alliance if we apply a slide rule. So my right hon. Friends must make up their minds where they stand on this issue.

I think that economies are possible and desirable. If we are to make the cuts which have been mooted in other areas, which will affect our people directly and immediately, there has to be a contribution from defence expenditure. But this must be the last such piecemeal cutting of defence—

Mr. Burden

It is always the last.

Mr. Williams

If it is not, we are then moving into a situation in which we might even consider scrapping defence entirely. That is how I think that we are moving. Many hon. Members on this side would totally reject that.

Mr. Russell Kerr

We need it for the tourist trade.

Mr. Williams

So, in the end, when my right hon. Friend reflects on this matter—I hope that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has a chance to read what is said in this debate—he may bear that in mind in any discussions that he has in the Cabinet.

I want to end with a few words about the Chancellor. I was his Parliamentary Private Secretary for a number of years when he was Secretary of State for Defence. I was a great admirer of my right hon. Friend: I think that he was one of the finest Defence Secretaries since the end of the war I saw him at close quarters and could see that he fought in a tough and resolute way against the Treasury. He proved a good fighter for the needs of his Department.

Now, of course, he is Chancellor of the Exchequer, facing an appalling economic situation. He wants economies and he wants them quickly. I think that he is using his great influence to call for disproportionate cuts in defence. I would say to him, out of the immense respect that I have for him, that he should ponder deeply about this matter. We are talking about the very security of our nation and the future of the Atlantic Alliance, upon which all our prosperity depends.

5.7 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Rippon (Hexham)

I hope that I shall be in order, before beginning my speech, in paying tribute to the skilful and expeditious way in which our staff dealt with the brief but unexpected interruption to our proceedings a short time ago. I do not suppose—I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will be aware of this—that Welsh men or Welsh women are always so easily disposed of.

The whole House will be grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for saying that we can have a debate which goes wider than the terms of the Bill, a Bill which I think is generally welcomed. It is certainly necessary that the House should have an opportunity to express not only our concern about the present state of our defences, but our even greater anxiety about the threatened cuts of which we have all read.

I think that we all appreciated the speech of the hon. Member for Horn-church (Mr. Williams). Within the disciplines in which he necessarily has to operate, he has been brave and outspoken and has shown that these anxieties about defence are to be found in all parties, not just the Conservative Party.

The Minister of State said, by way of reassurance—I am sure that is how he meant it to be to us—that the current review of defence expenditure is no more than part of the usual annual survey of expenditure. I do not think that that was just a way of dodging the issue. I am sure that he did not mean just to express a few comfortable words. I took his statement—and I am sure other hon. Members did so, too—as an assurance that there would be no immediate announcement about defence cuts and that we could safely await whatever may appear in the course of next year's annual defence review. All hon. Members appreciated his assurance about his personal position in this matter. He could hardly have expressed it more clearly.

Commenting on the intervention of the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun), it is more than just the view of the Conservative Party that defence is the fundamental obligation of Government to the governed. That is not a principle from which we should be prepared to depart. It is the view of many of my right hon. and hon. Friends and of many of our NATO allies that the defence review cuts went too far, even before the Chancellor of the Exchequer imposed that arbitrary and inexplicable cut of over £110 million in this year's Budget. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger), in his robust speech from the Conservative Front Bench, has spoken for all Conservative Members and many others when he made it perfectly clear that we shall oppose as rigorously as we can, in this House and outside, any further reduction in our defence forces.

Our cuts have been in striking contrast to the constant growth, in both absolute and relative terms, in Soviet military capabilities. The hon. Member for Horn-church has exposed the fallacy in the argument of judging defence by percentages of gross national expenditure. Certainly that argument is torn asunder by the letter which my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) had published in The Times yesterday.

In terms of troops, tanks, guns and aircraft, the Warsaw Pact Powers now far outnumber those of the Western Alliance and the disparity is growing. We cannot fail to notice it. These forces, as Field Marshal Sir Michael Carver, Chief of Defence Staff, said at the end of July, are far in excess of what they need for their own defence". It is no wonder that at that time he said—and this is a warning which we must all heed, both inside and outside this House— Any further cuts, and the seriousness of our support for NATO would be brought into question. Only yesterday Admiral of the Fleet Sir Peter Hill-Norton gave a further warning against defence cuts. Speaking as chairman of NATO's military committee, he was in the somewhat invidious position of pointing out to our allies—and the warning must include Britain—that Unless they were prepared to pay the premium for stalwart conventional defence there would be an erosion of military capability leading to a lowering of the nuclear threshold. That is, indeed, a grim warning.

Nor can we be indifferent to the way in which Soviet naval forces now straddle all our vital shipping routes. The development of Soviet power politics at sea is, perhaps, even more alarming than the threat of confrontation and continual growth of Soviet strength in central Europe. The northern and southern flanks of NATO and the NATO command in the North Atlantic have already been seriously weakened. As this year's Defence White Paper points out: The maritime balance has shifted, and is continuing to shift, markedly in favour of the Warsaw Pact. In the Eastern Atlantic Area NATO's mainly British maritime forces at immediate readiness for forward defence are already outnumbered. The Soviet Navy has expanded out of all proportion to Soviet seaborne trade.

Mr. Frank Allaun

The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that I like Soviet armed forces no more than he does and no more than I like American armed forces. However, he is ignoring the question: is it not a fact that NATO spends more on defence than the Warsaw Pact, that its nuclear capacity far exceeds that of the Warsaw Pact and that its naval forces are nearly twice those, despite increasing naval forces, of the Warsaw Pact?

Mr. Rippon

I respect the hon. Gentleman's motive, but he lives in cloudcuckooland when it comes to military defence and the respective balance of power in the world today on land, in the air and at sea.

The British Government have to bear in mind that it is now admitted that the Royal Navy could not, on its own, in future provide any sort of adequate defence for our merchant shipping. That is our responsibility. We know that Soviet naval power is far in excess of what the Soviet Union needs for that purpose, whereas ours is far less than we need for that simple defensive purpose.

Against such a background, the Government's decision to abandon the Simonstown Agreement never made any sort of sense to me or to any of my right hon. and hon. Friends, any more than does their continual failure to recognise the threat that now exists in the Southern Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. It makes completely incomprehensible already the reduction in the Nimrod force by a quarter and the reduction in the RAF's helicopter force. I want to quote from the recently published "RUST and Brassays Defence Yearbook", which sums up the situation in this way: From an Air Force viewpoint, the reduction imposed and described in the 1975 Defence White Paper cannot fail to threaten its operational strength; reduce its logistic capability; and impair its flexibility, its attraction as a career and its morale. That is a devastating comment, but unfortunately it is manifestly true.

Meanwhile, we read in The Times of a NATO intelligence report which not only deals with the growing Soviet presence in Aden and Somalia and its activities in Africa but points out the increasing Soviet ability to exert power in distant areas. Apparently, during world-wide Soviet naval exercises last spring Soviet aircraft operated from Cuba, Guinea, Somalia and Aden. In face of those facts, the idealism, however well motivated, of hon. Members such as the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) simply makes no sense at all. It is true that we still retain—and this is all we can say—our treaty commitment to the British Army of the Rhine, perhaps because it is so clearly a treaty commitment. However, we have done so only by the constant reduction in our home-based mobile forces.

Against that background, we can say with absolute conviction to the people of Britain that there is no more room for any further reduction in our defence capability. Hon. Members have a duty to awaken the British people to the threat which now exists to their security. We have to do so, however unwelcome that truth may be. As the hon. Member for Hornchurch said, there are certain sections of the community in which some hon. Members can get a cheap cheer if they advocate defence cuts, but we know what was said about Governments that did not keep us adequately prepared before the last war—and then the state of our defences was immensely better than it is today.

No doubt we can still shelter under the umbrella of the United States' contribution to European defence, both in terms of its strength in Europe and—this is, perhaps, increasingly important—in terms of its growing capability to reinforce Europe. However, I do not believe that the American people will continue to pay such a disproportionately high amount of money per head compared with us in Britain and those in the rest of Europe if we do not show that we are prepared to do something more effective to help ourselves.

We must not be lulled into some false sense of security by all the talk of détente and the signing of the Helsinki Agreement. Of course, the seeking of détente is a precondition of the Atlantic Alliance. Nevertheless détente, however mutually desirable and sensible—and I think it is to the advantage of the Soviet Union as well as ourselves—remains an idea. But the tanks and submarines remain facts—awkward and uncomfortable facts, and facts that we cannot ignore. When those tanks and submarines are beaten into the ploughshares that the Soviet harvest shows that the Soviets evidently need, then, and only then, can we perhaps begin to relax.

Not even the publication in Pravda of the whole of the Helsinki Agreement has meant the keeping of the promise even of religious freedom. That was surely clear to anyone who heard the broadcast on Sunday morning. Moreover, the build-up of Soviet forces in Angola must strike something of a chill in the heart of even the hon. Member for Salford, East. The plain truth remains that in negotiating treaties with totalitarian regimes we can never afford to forget that the faithful are always bound and the faithless are always free.

I can understand why the hon. Member for Hornchurch—naturally, from personal reasons—paid his tribute to his former chief. I cannot share and never have shared his regard for that right hon. Gentleman. As Secretary of State for Defence between 1964 and 1970, he presided over a continuous process of retreat—against the pledges that had been made earlier—in South-East Asia and in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere. He claimed then, of course, to be a great European; there was the great future. He did not take such a view when in Opposition. There is no right hon. Gentleman in this House who has a better record, or a worse record—however one puts it—for rat, re-rat and rat again, than the present Chancellor of the Exchequer. No man in this House has done more to undermine British interests and British influence in the world.

This year, what has happened? No doubt following pressure from the Chancellor of the Exchequer—this great guardian of British defence interests—we have had the halving of our long-range air transport force, the withdrawal of the Nimrods and helicopters from Singapore, the closure of Gan, and the removal of the permanently-based squadrons in Cyprus in spite of all the difficulties that exist in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the further weakening in the strength and morale of CENTO. Now it seems that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the great guardian of British interests, is pressing for further cuts on top of those imposed first in the defence review and then in the Budget.

Therefore, let us not mince words at this stage. The Secretary of State for Defence and his colleagues in the Cabinet have a heavy responsibility to stop the Chancellor from pursuing what has long been his policy—an abject, squalid, shameless betrayal of British interests. So do the Opposition have such a responsibility. It is a duty that rests always, continually, on every hon. Member, regardless of party, to ensure that we pay this essential insurance premium—as Sir Peter Hill-Norton put it—for the survival of Britain as an independent nation. We all ought to stand firm against any sort of further erosion in our defence forces.

Mr. William Rodgers

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has been making a rather fierce and ill-considered attack upon my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He has referred, among other things, to my right hon. Friend's period of office as Secretary of State for Defence. I wonder whether he would tell the House what of the various things which the present Chancellor did while Secretary of State for Defence was reversed by the subsequent Government of which the right hon. and learned Gentleman was a member?

Mr. Rippon

The trouble about these withdrawals of forces is that it is very hard to put back the clock. There has been a continual erosion of defence. But certainly we did our best. I made my views about the present Chancellor perfectly clear when he was Secretary of State for Defence, and I have not changed my mind. It was not an ill-considered attack. It was deliberate.

The time has come for the Government and for this House to end what has been for too long the continual sacrifice of the future to the present.

5.25 p.m.

Mr. Frank Allaun (Salford, East)

The Bill before us is of great interest, but even greater interest has been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House in its context, that context being the bill for the military programme. I share that interest, but from a diametrically opposite angle to that of the Conservative Front Bench.

The Press reports acute controversy within the Cabinet over proposed cuts in defence expenditure. An extraordinary campaign is being waged in the Press, particularly the quality Press and even more particularly the Daily Telegraph. The Conservative newspapers are clamouring against there being any arms cut at all. Conservative Members, panting to cut almost everything else, are passionately against reduced arms spending. Even senior Service officers have participated—contrary to what I thought was a long-established practice that they, like senior civil servants, should not make public statements on politically controversial issues.

At present the struggle within the Cabinet has not yet been decided, appar- ently. Whoever wins the present round, in the end drastic arms cuts—and I emphasise the word "drastic"—will have to come. Harsh economic reality plus the pressure of the Labour movement and the trade union movement will see to that There will have to be a second defence review, and the longer it is delayed the greater will be the hardship that we shall have to endure.

Mr. Burden

I do not know whether it is because of a lapse of memory on the part of the hon. Gentleman or convenient forgetfulness of the facts, but he should know that the simple facts are that the defence forces have already been cut very drastically indeed whereas expenditure on other services has increased enormously.

Mr. Allaun

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman because in about two minutes' time I shall show that there have not been any cuts in the bill for the Armed Forces. The hon. Gentleman may interrupt me at that point.

I claim to speak for millions of ordinary people in this country and to echo the view of the Labour Party conference, that of the TUC, expressed only a month ago, and that of many other Labour Members, when I say that there must be a real and drastic reduction of spending on the military programme rather than reduction in spending on housing, health, education, pensions, the social services, War on Want and re-equipment of our industry. That is what our General Election manifesto declared. The Secretary of State for Defence was present at the meeting between the Cabinet and the National Executive of the Labour Party which drafted that statement.

Speaking for myself, I have to say that I am opposed to a single penny being cut from services which maintain the living standards of ordinary families. Conservative Members are clamouring for exactly the reverse. They want less for welfare and more for warfare. A few minutes ago when I said that they wanted these cuts they said "Yes" almost unanimously. I hope that that will be remembered. They are talking about reductions not only in the nationalised industries but in the areas that I have mentioned.

Labour candidates declared at the General Election that they would reduce the proportion of the nation's resources devoted to defence to bring it into line with that of our main European allies. I have the permission of Dr. Frank Blackaby, Director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, to quote from a paper that he has just written. He was asked to say what cut in United Kingdom military expenditure would be needed to bring down the United Kingdom percentage of military expenditure in terms of the gross national product to the average figure of our main European allies by 1979. His answer was that it would have to be cut by about a third in real terms from the 1974 level. Dr. Blackaby writes: That is a cut of £1,400 million, at 1974 prices, on the NATO definition of United Kingdom military expenditure. He points out that the German and French proportions have been trending down, and he has taken account of that trend in his calculations. His figure of £1,400 million in savings is also based on a central assumption of a United Kingdom growth in the domestic product of 2.9 per cent. per annum. If we fail to reach that rate of growth we shall need a further reduction in arms spending to come down to the same proportion as the other countries.

Mr. Neville Trotter (Tynemouth)

Is it to be assumed from what the hon. Gentleman says that eventually we shall have no forces at all? Is he advocating that we should have no armed forces? Is that what he wishes to say?

Mr. Allaun

It is clear that the hon. Gentleman has not been listening to my argument. I have been outlining what the result would be in cash terms if we came down to the level of our main European NATO allies. I think that he should have followed that.

What could not the present Government or any Government do with £1,400 million a year? What a transformation of life that would mean for the homeless, for those who cannot find a nursery school for their children and, for the housebound, the elderly and the disabled who are desperately seeking a home help. Instead, the public are faced with a threat of worsening living standards and conditions. Once again we are faced with the old question of whether we are to have houses or H-bombs.

I hope that Conservative Members will not think that it is a handful of Labour Members who say that if there is to be a choice the choice should be houses.

The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart), who has unfortunately left the Chamber, will no doubt reply, in view of his letter to The Times yesterday, that our gross national product is lower than that of either France or Germany. That is exactly my point. Our industry is doing badly and it needs to be devoted to productive rather than to military purposes. It is unfair and unrealistic to expect a poorer country to devote a higher proportion of its wealth to arms than a more prosperous nation. Surely not even the most reactionary Conservative Member would ask a man on a low income to pay a higher rate of income tax than someone with a top income.

To take up the point made by the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon), vast armed forces do not provide security. A dozen hydrogen bombs delivered on our country would decimate the centres of population and the dying would envy the dead. There is no weapon that the right hon. and learned Gentleman or anyone else on this earth has devised which can prevent the delivery of hydrogen bombs by missile. There is no military security to be obtained by doubling, trebling or quadrupling our arms expenditure and completely bankrupting the nation.

Mr. Geoffrey Pattie (Chertsey and Walton)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that what he has just said is the exposition of the deterrent argument? It is precisely appreciation of that very point by the Soviet Union—namely, the ability of the NATO forces to present a deterrent—that circumscribes its potential military aggression?

Mr. Allaun

No, I do not think so. The more nuclear weapons there are in the hands of more and more countries the greater is the danger to mankind of war by accident. Further, there is the danger of the bomb getting into the hands of a fanatical dictator who may well be prepared to use it even if he knows of the consequences in the form of retaliation.

Moreover, great armaments do not reduce the danger of war but increase international tension. If a Government of any nation slow down their arms spending, that helps towards detente. Conversely, the announcement of growth and expansion by any country helps to accentuate suspicion and antagonism, inducing other countries in turn to increase their military programmes. It is that sort of arms race which makes war inevitable, as Lord Grey, the Foreign Secretary in 1914, wrote about the outbreak of the First World War when writing in retrospect.

In all the propaganda now being unleashed on the Britsh public against the reduction of arms—and it is considerable—reference is persistently made to the cuts that have already been made. We have heard about these cuts several times this afternoon. We are told that a cut of £4,700 million will be imposed over the next 10 years. That is balderdash. To talk of further cuts is deliberate nonsense. Mention was made of those cuts in an Early-Day Motion a couple of days ago. That was complete and deliberate nonsense.

Mr. Rippon

Will the hon. Gentleman make it clear that he is quoting the Government's own figures and not anything that has been said by my right hon. and hon. Friends?

Mr. Allaun

But it has been said from the Conservative Benches. The Secretary of State has said it and it has been accepted as gospel, although we know it is untruthful, by Conservative Members.

Mr. Burden

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the Government are lying?

Mr. Allaun

I am saying that it is deliberate nonsense. I shall demonstrate that arms spending is increasing and not decreasing.

The Secretary of State has admitted that arms spending will be increasing by £200 million a year within two years. It is planned to remain at that record level for the succeeding seven years. That is arms spending in real terms. In cash terms, thanks to inflation, there is a colossal increase. In those terms it has risen from £2,768 million four years ago to £4,975 million so far this year. An increase of nearly £400 million was passed without any great commotion only a few days ago.

Mr. Russell Kerr

There was not a squeak from the Opposition.

Mr. Allaun

My hon. Friend is right. The alleged saving of £4,700 million in 10 years is spurious. It relates solely to what the Conservative Government considered three years ago in a different economic climate. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Yes, there has been an increase in the price of oil and other items since then. It also relates solely to what that Government considered three years ago, in a very different economic climate, might be spent on military programmes 10 years hence. I doubt whether even a Conservative Government could have fulfilled it.

Mr. Younger

Will the hon. Gentleman try to be fair in his argument? He is advancing a strange case. He says that the forward defence programme is being cut but the money is not being reduced and there is no actual reduction. Would he say the same about housing if the Government were to announce reductions in large forward programmes for increasing the housing stock? Would he say that that would involve no reduction in money terms, and would he say that the Government by adopting that course would not cut the number of houses?

Mr. Allaun

There is some point in the hon. Gentleman's argument. However, that does not answer my point that the arms bill in real terms is being increased rather than reduced. The reality lies in what I have said.

Finally, the men and women affected are entitled to be found alternative work. I think that there is much greater concern on that aspect among some Labour Members than among Conservatives.

Mr. Burden

Not at all.

Mr. Allaun

Recently the Shop Stewards Committee at Lucas Aerospace, who represent 17 factories, and at Rolls-Royce and Vickers have been carefully considering alternative civil work. Among the 150 projects they think could be useful and profitable are such items as battery-driven cars, buses and lorries; short take-off aircraft for civil use; advanced medical equipment; plant for the oil industry; and the adaptation of gas turbine jets for use in ships.

It would be far better that the £600 million a year we are now wasting on military research and development be transferred to those and other peaceful projects. It is mainly because Japan has devoted less than 1 per cent. of her gross national product to arms that she has become so powerful industrially and so successful in sweeping the markets of the world. We should learn from her experience.

5.43 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

I find it difficult to make up my mind whether the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) is sincere in his views. He sets them out in such a charming way that one does not at first appreciate how outrageous they are. Nevertheless, I am certain that his speech will be read with a great deal more attention in the Kremlin than it is here in London.

When the hon. Gentleman said that he speaks for millions of people, I ask him not to delude himself. He speaks largely for himself. The people of this country will not be deluded by cheap little slogans such as "Less for welfare, more for warfare". We know, and the country knows, that our arms are there to prevent war, not to wage it. I take it that in logic the hon. Gentleman favours the abolition of our forces, although he does not say so. It is not for me to defend Her Majesty's Government in the matter of reductions, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that reductions on the ground in the forces are very real. Even on his own calculations deployed in his speech if we are considering the expenditure level over a period of eight or 10 years, inflation will mean a large reduction in resources.

Perhaps I should make a genuflection in the direction of the Bill that we are supposed to be discussing this afternoon. I am sure the Minister in replying to the debate will wish to say a few words on the legislation.

I should like to mention one point about discipline. The discipline of the Gurkhas is on a slightly traditional basis compared to our other forces, although those forces are run on the same military lines. I wonder why we regard the Gurkha forces as being so different from our own domestic forces. I also wonder whether we can now justify, on racist or other grounds, not using the Gurkhas in the same way as we deploy our own forces. The Gurkhas are now based mainly in Hong Kong, but there is an argument that United Kingdom units sent to Hong Kong might provide a better political background. There is nothing peculiar about service in Hong Kong that so fits the Gurkha, to the exclusion of other forces. The excellent discipline and impeccable conduct of the Gurkhas in all circumstances would make them extremely good troops for use in other parts of the world rather than only in the specialised areas in which they ar now serving.

I have said before in these debates, anti I say again, that I believe the approach to defence by the Labour Government to be fundamentally wrong. They begin by judging what resources should be allocated to defence. They then go on to look at the dangers which these resources must confront. I am not saying that every threat and danger we face in the world must be met by the United Kingdom alone, but we must be given an estimate of that threat before we can sensibly allocate resources to it.

The Labour Government, in discussing defence matters, always seek to say that the threat is not as great as people think. Some people, such as the hon. Member for Salford, East, imply that the threat is virtually non-existent. How can they honestly take that view? Who could pretend that the Soviet Union's position since the Helsinki meeting has become any more accommodating to the West? The international scene, far from being more peaceful, daily grows more dangerous. The Russian navy continues to grow. It is not true to say that the Russian navy is less powerful than the Western navies. It is true that Russian units are not so numerous, but they have the most modern and the most powerful navy in the world. In regard to other Soviet forces the lethality of their weapons and the complexity of technique becomes greater every year. The Russians have large conventional forces. They also have a system of conscription lasting at least two years, and sometimes longer for specialised troops—far beyond what is needed for the defence of Russia.

Around the world the Russians have concentrated their forces in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Thus, they threaten our communications with North America and our supplies, especially oil supplies from other parts of the world. The Russians operate from bases in Africa, Aden, Somalia, Guinea and Cuba. They are today engaged virtually in active operations in Angola and Lebanon. Although the position in Portugal has temporarily improved, it is still uncertain. That is the real world in which we live. A world in which there is no danger of aggression is a dream world. Either it lives in imagination or there are ulterior motives for its alleged existence.

Therefore, I am anxious that the cuts we all know about will not be followed by other cuts. Already our forces are too small. They face all the difficulties involved in bung over-stretched, and there are also considerations of morale, training and general efficiency. Our reserves are far fewer—as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) said in his letter to The Times—than those of our allies. We rely on our allies far more than they rely on us. The training of our troops and their weapons, although there are some gaps in equipment, are excellent, but we cannot be satisfied with the overall state of our forces.

We are coming close to a situation in which, if there are any more cuts, the whole complex of our defensive measures will be called in question. Further reductions will mean that the Navy will hardly be more than a coastal force, the Army will become a gendarmerie, and the Royal Air Force, if denied aircraft and weapons in the next generation, will not be able to take the field at all because it will be totally ineffective and a waste of money. Our missiles are already well out of date compared with those of possible opponents.

Our armaments industry makes an important contribution to employment and exports. Drastic reductions will do enormous harm to one and possibly irreparable damage to the other. Who would wish to buy our arms if we do not buy them for ourselves? It cannot be maintained that we cannot afford even the little we do at present. The real measure of the burden of arms expenditure is not the absolute cash figure but what that means per head of the population, and on this criterion we are falling rapidly behind comparable countries.

It has been said in the past that the public takes no interest in defence, but I believe that that is changing. We are brought to realise more and more at home and abroad how the world is getting rougher. The police, the Armed Forces and the resolution of our people stand between us and anarchy. The people have the resolution. If the Government fail in their duty to provide protection, both civil and military, they risk the disintegration of society and will be judged harshly for their folly and neglect.

It would not be the first time that a British Government, in a long period of peace, had neglected our defences, but in this age when Britain is no longer a sea-girt fortress, gambling with our future in this way is something which honest and patriotic men would not do.

5.52 p.m.

Mr. John Carson (Belfast, North)

I wish to draw the attention of the Minister to some of the problems facing the Army and the Ulster Defence Regiment in Northern Ireland. At this festive season, the sympathy, thoughts and prayers of many hon. Members will be with the families and friends of the members of our forces and the part-time soldiers who have been killed or injured in Northern Ireland. Last week, there were headlines about detainees being released from the Maze prison. They call themselves the Irish Republican Army and have vowed that their fight against our soldiers will continue. These men of violence will have the privilege of being at home for Christmas. Many of our boys, our soldiers, will not be at home for Christmas, and if the men of violence had their way some of these men and boys would never come back to this country alive.

Every hon. Member should be made aware of the seriousness of the situation facing the Army and the UDR in Northern Ireland. I have visited soldiers at Albert Street mill, Flax Street mill and other places to see the conditions in which they have to live. The conditions are deplorable. We have heard about conditions in such prisons as the Maze, but I have not often heard hon. Members speaking loudly and clearly about the very bad conditions under which soldiers in Northern Ireland have to live.

The lives of these soldiers are at risk every day. Evil men lurk on roadsides and behind walls, setting explosives and trying to kill them. I am often out in my constituency and I see other dangers facing the Army, among them the difficulties of enforcing road blocks. I have often seen them manning road blocks on cold, wet nights without adequate lighting facilities. They frequently have only a small torch with which to signal cars to stop, and soldiers have been killed or seriously injured because of the conditions in which they have to work. It is important that they should have the proper equipment at road blocks and a proper lighting system for times when they have to stop and search cars.

The UDR was formed for the defence of Northern Ireland against terrorists who seek to destroy it as a part of the United Kingdom. It has been suggested to me that the regiment was formed to fill a vacuum or to compensate the majority community for the loss of the B Specials. Had the regiment been formed for that reason, I would say that it should be disbanded, for it would be a waste of money and of the men's time. In fact, the regiment is a very efficient force. I use my influence as much as possible in both the majority and minority communities to try to get people to join the regiment.

But I have visited some UDR barracks and I have found a feeling of frustration and helplessness from the rank of major right down through the ranks. They feel that they are like deep-litter hens, confined to barracks and unable to do their job properly.

The Government spent thousands of pounds on Press and television advertisements urging people to join the UDR to guard their own areas. Yet when UDR men from my constituency finish a hard day's work, they are asked to leave North Belfast and to travel five miles to East Belfast, an area with which they are not familiar. They do not know the residents or the layout of the district. They are helpless in trying to defend the area. I have been asked by UDR men to express their deep concern at being asked to go into areas which they do not know because that prevents them from carrying out their duties properly.

I am also concerned about the discharge of a number of UDR officers throughout Northern Ireland. Many of my constituents tell me that they have been discharged from the UDR, but have been given no reason. We are told that the information is withheld for their own safety, but in a place such as Northern Ireland, particularly in the country areas, everyone knows what everyone else is doing. People know when a man is in the UDR and they know when he has been discharged, and that prompts them to ask questions. I believe that it is in the interests of the men and their families that" they should be told why they have been discharged.

The deployment of the Ulster Defence Regiment has led to feelings of frustration and helplessness in the UDR in its attempts to carry out its duty. The UDR was formed to protect Northern Ireland from its enemies, and it should be used to do that job. I have here a document which details certain areas in which the UDR cannot operate. These areas include Newtown Abbey, Rathcoole, Whitehouse, Whiteabby, Bally Henry, Ballyduff, Monkstown and part of Green-island. Bawnmore is out, and that is a strong Republican area. The Girdwood areas are Antrim Road above Fort William, Ballysillan, Ballygomartin and Shankill away from the peace line. Hon. Members will have heard about the peace line. The UDR cannot go near it. The 10th battalion of the UDR, which is stationed at Girdwood barracks, is not allowed to go near the New Lodge Road. Its members must leave the barracks by the back gate and carry out a two-mile detour. The nearest they can go to the Antrim Road, which comes down to the New Lodge Road—another strong Republican area—is Fort William, which is about one mile away. It would take them no more than five minutes to go through the front gates and to use a more direct route, but that is contrary to their orders. This sort of restriction prevents the UDR from doing the job it has been given to do.

The Army has done a tremendous job in Northern Ireland and I support it in every way. I hope that the Government will consider providing better living conditions for the troops, and I hope, too, that people will give the troops every possible comfort during the Christmas period.

6.6 p.m.

Mr. John Roper (Farnworth)

The hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Carson) has spoken vividly of the situation in Northern Ireland. I do not have the experience to reply to his points in detail, but I believe that in the circumstances in which our troops are operating in Northern Ireland we can be proud of their high morale and their high state of discipline, both of which they maintain in the face of considerable difficulties.

I intend to be somewhat eccentric in the debate in that, unlike a number of other right hon. and hon. Gentlemen, I shall deal with the Bill.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Perhaps the hon. Member was not here earlier when I explained that Mr. Speaker had agreed—I believe with the understanding of both sides of the House—that this should be a wide debate.

Mr. Roper

I was in no way criticising those who have gone wider than the terms of the Bill, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My point was that those who had heard the rest of the debate might be somewhat surprised if I addressed myself to the Bill.

It is a measure of considerable importance, in which my right hon. Friend the Minister of State has adopted a Cardwellite manner that is appropriate to a Liverpudlian. I think that Edward Cardwell was also born in Liverpool. While those of us from Manchester have not agreed with everything which is done from Liverpool, certainly the Cardwellite precedents in these matters are good ones.

Mr. William Rodgers

Edward Cardwell also represented a Lancashire seat.

Mr. Roper

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that information, but we had better not pursue the history of the matter too far, or we might go beyond even the wide scope that Mr. Speaker has permitted for the debate.

This is an important Bill from a constitutional point of view and for the conditions applying to those who serve in the Armed Forces. They must always be the concern of this House. The Bill marks a further step in reconciling the individual rights of those in the Services and those associated with the Services—including the civilians, and all their families—with the necessities of Service life.

It is important that we have a quinquennial opportunity to examine these matters, and we have the rare opportunity to do it by means of a Select Committee rather than a Standing Committee considering a Bill. This is a very desirable method, which, perhaps, we could use more widely. I am glad that my right hon. Friend has announced that the arrangement will be repeated on this occasion. I believe it is right to have a Select Committee for these matters. This is something that was secured by my noble Friends Lord Wigg and Lord Paget of Northampton, when Members of this House, through various complicated manoeuvres in the early 1950s. The House should be grateful to them for what they did in creating a procedure that is singularly appropriate for matters of this sort.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State referred to the recommendation of the 1954 Select Committee about the procedure that should be followed in treating this matter. I understand that it recommended that there was no longer a need for an annual review, but that the matter should be treated by the quinquennial process, and this has been done. However, the Government in 1955, and successive Governments, have permitted the House, by means of the affirmative procedure, to have a debate each year if that is desired, and certainly to vote upon these matters.

This is an important constitutional matter. It goes back to one of the oldest principles of this House—the fact that the House should have the right not merely to vote Supply but to vote annually on the maintenance of a standing Army. My right hon. Friend will no doubt recall that when we were debating this matter last, in 1971, Mr. George Thomson, speaking from the Opposition Front Bench in the debate on 13th January 1971, quoted from "Erskine May"—an earlier edition, but the same words appear in the current edition—and made it quite clear that By the procedure laid down in the legislation of 1955, the Commons, in addition to their control over the number of the naval, military and air forces, and the yearly sums to be appropriated for their support, reserve to themselves the power of determining whether a standing army shall be kept in being in time of peace. Technically, we maintain that power, as we shall do tonight by passing the Order. Therefore, when the Select Committee considers Clause 1, which suggests a new procedure in future, I hope it will consider very carefully the historic precedents and not automatically accept the view put forward by my right hon. Friend earlier in the debate.

Turning from that constitutional point to more substantive points on the Bill, I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, in replying, will be able to reassure us on several points in detail. We have, in Clause 2, a new power whereby the Secretary of State can make Regulations that will enable a person's full-time or Reserve service not only to be extended but also to be reduced. At a time when there is a good deal of uncertainty in the Armed Forces as to how secure a career this is, the fact that the Secretary of State is taking power to enable the length of a person's service in the Armed Forces to be reduced may be misunderstood. It might appear that people, having assumed that they were serving for, let us say, 10, 12 or even 22 years, under the Regulations that the Secretary of State may make under this clause, would find their period of service reduced. I trust that I have misunderstood this point, but I think there is a danger that there could be uncertainty and doubt in the Armed Forces, and I hope that my hon. Friend will have something to say about that.

The major clauses are in Part II of the Bill—first in Clause 5, dealing with the increases in the sentencing powers available to commanding officers, and then in Clauses 6 to 9, dealing with the creation of a new structure of jurisdiction for civilians serving with the Armed Forces abroad. I should like to raise a number of points on those two matters.

As my right hon. Friend explained, the obvious intention of Clause 5 is to reduce the number of courts martial. There are many arguments in favour of doing this—not merely administrative arguments but arguments in the interests of the individual who is standing trial. But there are possible arguments in the other direction. As I understand it, while a Service man appearing before his commanding officer under summary jurisdiction is not allowed to have representation, when he goes to a court martial he is so entitled.

There is, therefore, a possible reduction in the rights of a Service man by this procedure whereby more matters will be considered under summary jurisdiction and fewer under the court martial procedure. I wonder whether my hon. Friend can give me some information on this point, or whether it is a matter that a Select Committee might wish to consider with more care. I noted what my right hon. Friend said about safeguards, but nevertheless I think that we ought to consider the matter a little further.

There is a further point in relation to the increase in the powers to fine—to increase the number of days' pay to be forfeited from 14 to 28. In the last decade there has already been, implicitly a rather significant increase in the real power to fine. In 1969, when the Armed Forces went across to the military salary there was a substantial once-and-for-all real increase in the value of a day's pay. Therefore, the forfeiture of 14 days' military salary was considerably more, as a penalty, than the forfeiture of 14 days pay was prior to the introduction of the military salary. I wonder whether, when my hon. Friends were considering this increase, they took into account the implicit increase in the fine that could be imposed when the military salary was introduced in 1969.

Turning to the clause dealing with the trial of civilians who are either serving with the Services or who are members of families of Service personnel, I am sure that the provisions are extremely useful and will ease the difficult situation which may sometimes occur. I shall however, be interested to know whether my hon. Friend can indicate which persons are likely to be selected to serve on the juvenile bench—whether they will be lay magistrates rather than the stipendiary magistrates who are referred to in Clause 6(6), and, also, which persons are likely to be the civilian members of courts martial referred to in Clause 8. Will they be people like the command NAAFI major, or will there be other civilians serving with the Forces overseas who will be appropriate to be included on these occasions?

Perhaps my hon. Friend will also tell me whether the appeal from the civilian courts which are being introduced in Clause 6 will be to a court martial, or whether there will be another method of appeal.

I have spent a little time on these matters because I think they are points of importance to which we should have answers before we give a Second Reading to a Bill which I believe hon. Members on both sides of the House regard as of considerable importance.

I should now like to spend a few minutes referring to the wider issues that have been raised in the debate. It is foolish and irresponsible to suggest that there can never be any more defend cuts. That decision would get any party that adopted it into a great deal of difficulty. I believe that what my right hon Friend said is indeed the view of the Government—and, I hope, of many on the Government Benches—that we must consider our forces in the light of the commitments that we have accepted together with our allies in NATO. Certainly our commitments under the Brussels Treaty must be honoured, and those of us who serve in the Assembly and in Western European Union know how seriously those are regarded by our partners within Western European Union.

I agree with a great deal of what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Williams), but I am a little less sure about my agreement with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun). I have not yet had a chance to read or study the interesting document to which he referred which has been prepared by Mr. Blackaby, the Deputy-Director of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research. I shall study it with great care when it becomes available.

It is somewhat dangerous for us to play overmuch with statistics in these matters. We have to consider what sort of forces we need in the light of our commitments and in the light of the threat that faces us. We must also be very careful about making promises on the sort of transfers that can be made between different sectors of public expenditure.

I am sure that my hon. Friend was not suggesting that the Chancellor of the Exchequer could allow spending to in- crease in areas such as housing or nursery schools, to the extent of incurring any reductions in defence spending. From all that one has heard from the Cabinet, that would seem to be most unlikely.

In talking to a number of trade unionists in my constituency, my experience is that they are more concerned about the possible effects of defence cuts upon jobs in a situation in which we already have far too many people unemployed. Certainly this has to be taken into account in attempting to come to a judgment.

I have confidence that my right hon. Friends will not be short-sighted in coming to a decision on these matters but will consider what is appropriate, and will not in any way put our country's security at risk.

6.20 p.m.

Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate)

I apologise to the Minister for not being able to be in the Chamber for the whole of his speech in opening the debate. Other pressing matters prevented me from being here. I also apologise in advance if I raise any points relating to the Bill that the Minister may have covered already in his speech.

My first point is that referred to by the hon. Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper) in relation to Clause 1, in Part I. His interpretation is somewhat different from mine, and I hope that some clarification will be given in the winding-up speech.

I understand that the Defence Council can, by Regulation, make provision under present legislation enabling a person to extend his service. Under the Bill it will be possible for a person to reduce the term of his service. I think that this can be welcomed in the context that it provides for special instances on compassionate grounds, particularly in cases where people with long-term engagements find that home problems prevent them from carrying out their duties properly. It would give them a chance to have their term of service reduced, thereby enabling them to deal with very pressing human and domestic commitments.

Clause 9, in Part II, relates to the trial and punishment of juveniles. Subsection (3) states that A person convicted of murder who was under 18 years of age when the offence was committed shall not be sentenced to imprisonment for life, nor shall sentence of death be pronounced on or recorded against a person convicted of any offence". That is an interesting provision. To my knowledge, sentence of death can be passed only in the case of treason. I hope that the Minister will deal with this point in winding up, and also refer to the wide powers which the clause vests in the Secretary of State in deciding on the type of sentence, the length of sentence, and where it may be served. The Secretary of State makes the final decision. I hope that the recommendation of the court will be considered and taken into account. Perhaps some comment will be made on that matter later.

I very much welcome the opportunity to debate defence in the wider context, because many people serving in our Armed Forces today are wondering what sort of future there is for them.

Press reports of further impending cuts in defence expenditure can only have a demoralising effect. The Government have a great responsibility to ensure that unfounded rumours are not only scotched, but scotched early enough to prevent the loss of morale and the demoralising effect that these rumours engender.

It is appropriate that we should be discussing a Bill dealing with discipline, because it is about time that the Government showed a bit more discipline themselves in sticking to their word. We have had what has been classed as one of the most far-reaching peace-time reviews of defence expenditure and defence commitments. That was followed by the comprehensive defence review, which is to cut our defence expenditure by £4,700 million in the next 10 years. This imposed a discipline on spending by the Armed Forces which, I believe, was one of the most arduous tasks the forces have had to face since the last war.

If the Government had put before the House a plan for cuts in Government spending right across the board in all other sectors at the same time as they made their comprehensive review of defence expenditure, I believe that we would have given them our support. We have now reached a situation in which rumours of further defence cuts are flowing again—something that would be quite intolerable in present circumstances. It would have been a very different matter if much earlier action had been taken to cut Government expenditure. We would not then be in our present situation of chronic financial mismanagement.

The letter that my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) wrote to The Times underlined the sort of expenditure that we are making per head. It is now equivalent to that made by Belgium.

Our forces derive their high esteem, their standards and their performance from long-term defence planning, with our Allies and with NATO, which provides them with their future pattern and enables them to see what sort of promotion prospects they have within the Services, as well as the respect that other nations have for our armaments programme and our long-term planning.

I regard these rumours of cuts—I hope they are only rumours—as a great blow to morale and to the confidence that other nations should have in the Government's handling of our affairs. But above all that, we reach the point, in regard to our finances, at which the nation is in peril. On the Conservative side we all agree on the need for cutting Government expenditure but, as was said earlier in the debate, defence has already taken a mighty cut in its expenditure. We want to see action taken to curtail some of the excess Government expenditure and to retain the level of expenditure on defence that we believe to be crucial to the safety of the country.

We shall be witnessing, I believe, the last mangled straw in the Chancellor of the Exchequer's tumbril if these rumours are substantiated later by further cuts in our expenditure on defence. I see through all this the spectre of insolvency walking the Government Benches with rumours that are allowed to go unchecked in the Press and elsewhere. If those rumours proved to be correct, what would be the cost to the people of our country? At a later date the sea lanes, which are vital for our supplies, could be blockaded by the submarine force that the Russian navy has been and is building. We should not have the necessary warships and naval manpower at our disposal, or the concert of action of our Allies in NATO, to meet that blockade, to break it, and to secure a police action to safeguard our supplies.

I believe that there are two vital questions which need to be answered today. First, the Minister should confirm that the MRCA project will not be affected by any considerations now being hatched on Government expenditure. This is a co-operative effort with other nations. It is significant in what we are trying to do, which is to see a greater standardisation of weaponry that can be designed and manufactured jointly, in order to keep down costs and to work more closely in partnership with our NATO allies.

The second vital question concerns the position of HMS "Invincible". Here we have the future capital ship of the Royal Navy. The Harrier commitment, which is part of the function of HMS "Invincible", in addition to the other operations that she will carry out, is crucial to our detection and central operational procedure in the Royal Navy. I hope that the Minister will give a firm undertaking that the building programme for HMS "Invincible" will continue, that we have a firm commitment to the naval Harrier aircraft, and that the building programme for the future through-deck anti-submarine cruisers will be undertaken to make provision for Harrier aircraft to operate.

I turn now to another important subject—that of the Reserves. I am glad to see the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy in his place, because it is he who, during the Navy Estimates debate, said that the Government valued most highly the enthusiasm, unselfishness and professionalism associated with the Navy Reserves. From all the information that I have, the Reserves are severely shaken by the cut-back that is now proposed.

In that same debate, the Secretary of State talked about a reduction in the number of seagoing minesweepers that would be available to the Reserve divisions for training. The number was reduced from 11 ships to six. However, the structure of the personnel is the most important aspect, and it is the number of personnel in the Navy Reserves that I should like to see expanded rather than reduced.

Here we have voluntary labour, which is cheaper than anything else we can get. I suppose that an officer receives a bounty of about £50 a year, with about the same, or possibly a little less, going to ratings. Many people serving in the Reserves would gladly forgo their bounty if it meant that the manpower and the Reserve divisions could be maintained at their present levels, if not expanded.

We all want to see cuts in expenditure where they are possible, but where a cut fundamentally changes the structure of, in this case, the Navy Reserves, we lose promotion prospects, we reach a point where fewer people are able to undertake the duties, and we end up by diminishing the Service.

The calibre of people serving in the Reserves is of the highest order, considering the training that they receive. I see reductions of the kind now proposed as a senseless extravagance, in that they result in the loss of enthusiastic volunteers who maintain a force that can supplement our Regular Forces in times of stress and who can play a useful part even in what is happening now. I have in mind, for example, the offshore oil rigs. Why should not it be possible for RNR officers to take part more than they do at present in operations of that kind, in order to supplement the work of the Royal Navy at weekends, and for longer periods of training? They could be ferried to the rigs by helicopter, where they could perform some of the arduous tasks at present carried out by Regular naval officers. It would also give them seagoing experience, which is most important.

We have this great problem looming ahead of us. I hope that the Minister will seek to turn away the rumours of further cuts in our defences. We have to get our priorities right. We have to get our safety right. We have to ensure that our integrity as an ally is upheld. Unless these rumours are reversed, that integrity and our word as a nation and as a crucial part of NATO will be called into question.

6.35 p.m.

Mr. John Watkinson (Gloucestershire, West)

I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks) refer to the Bill. It is important that we should consider the Bill because although it is of overriding importance to discuss the general defence posture of the nation it is, at the same time, important to consider the rights of individuals who are Service men and women, and the Bill provides some important steps in improving those rights while raising certain questions, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper) referred.

I am in the happy position of being able to assist the hon. Member for Harrogate in terms of the reference in Clause 9 to the death penalty. If he consults the Armed Forces Act 1971, he will see that it sets out certain offences which still carry the death penalty. It is to those that the Bill refers.

I wish to confine myself primarily to the Armed Forces Bill. However, I also want to take up some of the matters raised by Opposition Members on defence expenditure generally. They have spoken today, as they have done previously, of the problem of defence. Again and again they berate the Labour Government for their cuts in defence expenditure, as though there were some absolute total of defence expenditure that they considered essential for the defence of the nation—a figure that they never reveal to us. They resist cuts, but they never say what they think the level of defence expenditure should be.

Judging by the reaction of the Opposition to my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun), they are suggesting that we ought to spend more on defence. If that be the case, they must be prepared to set out those areas in which they would cut public expenditure in order to pay for the increases that they wish to see in the Armed Services.

There is no absolute level of defence expenditure that is desirable at any given time. It is an arbitrary figure, and it is reached by weighing in the balance all the other areas of expenditure that we have to face. With our public sector borrowing requirement as it is, and with the demands being made on the social services, the housing programme and the education programme, we have to give serious consideration to the level of defence expenditure in relation to the expenditure in those other areas. An intelligent appraisal of defence expenditure demands an intelligent appraisal of the whole of public expenditure.

Having said that, I go along broadly with the Government strategy set out in the White Paper, which limits our defence commitment to a European posture. However, I hope that the Government will extend the logic of their own argument and finally withdraw from our world-wide commitments. That may be unpopular among the Opposition, and I gather from the White Paper, that even if we cut back on our world-wide expenditure outside the European Mediterranean theatre, it will involve only £150 million a year. However, that amount is important in the context of trying to find ways of cutting back on defence expenditure.

I should like to refer to the expenditure that is presently laid out on Hong Kong. We expend the best part of £40 million a year there. The people who live there should be prepared to contribute more to the cost of defending Hong Kong, so that we would pay less.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)

Does the hon. Gentleman not think that there is a danger that he, and those who think like him, will adopt a Maginot Line approach to defence, bearing in mind that so much of our food and fuel comes from outside the European theatre?

Mr. Watkinson

I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but if we pursued that view to its logical conclusion we should have to defend our commitments world-wide, and we simply cannot adopt such a posture, for the reasons that I have set out.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East is one of my hon. Friends who would ask for an immediate cut of £1,000 million in defence expenditure. Certain inevitable consequences follow from that. Those consequences relate to the employment of ordinary working people. I understand that the Select Committee on Defence Expenditure considered this matter and took evidence about it. It reached the conclusion that if there were an immediate and drastic cut of £1,000 million it would involve nearly 300,000 people being put out of work, including Armed Forces personnel and civilian personnel associated with the Armed Forces. This is a matter to which the Committee should give serious consideration. At the same time, my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East is entitled to turn to my hon. Friends in the Ministry of Defence and ask them what sort of liaison is taking place between their representatives and the representatives of the Departments of Employment and Industry, to ensure that when military personnel, or civilian personnel associated with the Armed Forces, are no longer required, schemes are available to absorb them into our economy.

Further defence cuts may well be necessary. Defence cuts may also be necessary in other countries. We are not the only country with a public sector borrowing requirement of the proportions that we have at present. Given the appalling grain harvest in Russia and the appalling response to its agriculture effort, Russia may soon have to face the dilemma of guns or butter. It cannot go on much longer spending vast amounts on defence at the cost of its people.

I turn to the Bill. The Bill is important in the way that it affects the rights of people who serve in the Armed Forces. I welcome the creation of civilian courts. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Farnworth, I am worried to a certain extent about the increase in the powers which are being given to commanding officers under Clause 5.

When opening the debate my right hon. Friend said that we were trying to inject into the legal processes within the Armed Forces certain standards which exist within the courts outside. Under the Bill penalties of detention will rise from 28 to 60 days, and fines from 14 to 28 days' pay. If such penalties were imposed by an ordinary court, almost certainly the person faced with those penalties would be given the opportunity of being represented. There is no scope for representation in these provisions, and that is a defect. What is more, given the size of these penalties we should consider the possibility of injecting some form of appeal procedure into the legal processes. I accept that in the Services it may be necessary to impose penalties without delay. However, we are concerned with the rights of the individual. Therefore, I ask my hon. Friend whether there is a possibility of an appeal procedure being introduced.

I turn to the question of courts martial. I am concerned that legal aid in courts martial is not granted as of right. It is not granted basically as of right in the courts of the land, but anyone who appears before a court and is faced with a serious charge is given the opportunity to obtain legal aid and representation by counsel. Under the present Regulations legal aid may be granted to an accused only in certain circumstances, but that does not mean that if the offence is major it will not be granted. However, I am concerned that the individual who comes before a court martial and faces the possibility of imprisonment should be given the opportunity of being representing by counsel.

I have asked a Question about the payments that are presently offered to counsel to appear in courts martial. It appears that the figures that the Ministry has forwarded, which are apparently agreed between the Ministry and the Bar Counsel, are so low that they certainly would not attract the quality of counsel that might be necessary in some of the cases that are dealt with by courts martial. The matter needs to be reconsidered, and I hope that my hon. Friend will look into it.

I give a broad welcome to the creation of the civilian courts. The remedies available to the courts are entirely in keeping with justice as it exists in the country at present. I ask my hon. Friend whether there are persons in the Armed Forces who are concerned with what I broadly term probation work. Many of the remedies available to ordinary courts require reports from probation officers. Having read the Bill, I am not sure that such facilities are available.

It is right that when people enter the Armed Forces they should be told exactly what their rights are, especially concerning discharge. This is an opaque area. I believe that people are entitled to know exactly where they stand when they join Her Majesty's Forces.

It is important that the Bill should not be lost in the general discussion about defence matters. As I said in my opening remarks, it touches on certain fundamental rights and liberties of Service people. I hope that the House will give it serious consideration.

6.50 p.m.

Mr. Peter Blaker (Blackpool, South)

The hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Watkinson) complained that Conservatives never say precisely what they think the level of defence spending should be. My answer to him immediately is: not a pound less than it already is.

I suggest that it is sometimes useful to look at the picture through the eyes of Moscow. That is what I should like to do for the next few minutes.

I believe that if I were an official in Moscow reporting to Mr. Brezhnev I should make a report somewhat along these lines: "Comrade Brezhnev, we are making good progress towards the subjugation of Western Europe. The main characteristic of Western democracy is that Members of the Assemblies there have a great capacity to deceive themselves, and that is especially manifest on the Left. They are deceiving themselves now about the real nature of detente. They are deceiving themselves into thinking that it means that they can safely relax their guard. This is encouraged by the fact that in the West "detente" means the cessation of strained relations between States. That is what people in the West believe that we understand by detente. They do not realise that we do not even have a word for detente and that we do not mean anything like that. We mean a time for consolidating our hold over Eastern Europe. By detente we mean an opportunity for extending our influence in Western Europe, without war if possible, but with war if necessary. We certainly do not mean any slackening of political confrontation nor do we mean any lowering of military preparation.

"It is surprising, in view of the clear statements which have been made by senior members of the Soviet regime, that this misunderstanding in the West should persist.

"You will recall, Comrade Brezhnev, that, as long ago as July, at the very time that the Helsinki Agreement was being signed, Comrade Ponomarev said that 'in conditions of detente the front lines of ideological conflict do not become silent. On the contrary, they become deeper and wider.'

"You will recall that, on 6th August, in Pravda, Comrade Zarodov reminded Western Communist parties that they should establish their hegemony, if necessary by force. You will recall that, shortly after that article appeared, you made a point of meeting him and publicising the fact that you had met him and approved of what he said.

"You will recall that, not long ago, you yourself repeated Lenin's words: 'Be ready for any change of circumstances, to use any form of struggle, both peaceful and non-peaceful, legal and illegal.'

"All these words appear to be ignored by parliamentarians in the West. What is more, they seem to be ignoring the words of the traitor Sakharov who has recently pointed out that the West is too ready to grant unilateral concessions and gifts in the course of détente and gone on to point out the dangers for the West of unilateral disarmament and the fact that it is likely to encourage the Soviet Union to step up its military efforts in strategically important parts of the world, such as the Indian Ocean.

"What is perhaps even more remarkable is that people in the West ignore the warnings of their own military experts that our bases and our forces, by their location and composition, are designed for offensive rather than defensive use. Indeed, not only do they ignore these warnings, but they respond by helping us out when we have a shortage of grain and selling us their advanced technology.

"On the military front, they ignore the enormous increases that we have made in our tank forces since the preparations began for the Helsinki Conference a few years ago, the enormous increases we have made in our artillery forces, our combat aircraft, and in Warsaw Pact manpower.

"While we are making these increases, they are cutting their forces and we see a crumbling of the NATO posture in the Mediterranean. This is occurring at a time when it should be obvious to all the people concerned with defence in the West that the ability of the United States, on whom they principally depend, is weakened by internal doubts and by a conflict for power between the President and the Congress.

"So, Comrade Brezhnev, my advice to you is that there can be no better time to push on with the development of our network of bases in Africa, Conakry, Berbera, our base in Aden, our facilities in Cuba and now, of course, the prospect of obtaining bases in Angola.

"If present trends continue. I believe it is possible that, in a few years' time, we shall have such a preponderance of military and naval strength in Europe and on the sea lanes and that the West will be psychologically so disarmed that we may be able, by intimidation and pressure, to impose our will on one or more of the member countries of the NATO bloc.

"Taking particular countries, in Portugal our man Cunhal responds very well to our instructions. He has had setbacks recently, but his efforts to build up an organisation in the Armed Forces continues and, as you know, he is systematically distributing arms. I believe that the money we have been pouring into the Portuguese Communist Party, although it is large, is well worth the expense.

"As far as Yugoslavia is concerned, our preparations for bringing Yugoslavia back into the Soviet camp after the death of Tito, which cannot be long delayed, continue. It is true that the Yugoslays at the present time have launched a campaign to discredit our sympathisers there. It may be that Marshal Tito will have some success with his claim that what is at stake is not ideology but independence. However, we can take comfort from the fact that the Americans -appear reluctant to supply the Yugoslavs with anti-tank weapons or economic credits and that the EEC is also reluctant to come forward with credits.

"Moreover, the NATO countries, in my opinion, are totaly unprepared psychologically to meet any threat of military pressures against Yugoslavia, and it should be possible, after Tito's death, by judicious timing to create pretexts for intervention in that country without any serious danger of a NATO reaction.

"I turn now, Comrade Brezhnev, to Britain. Here I believe we have excellent prospects for a breakthrough. I have reported to you in the past on the alleged comprehensive review of defence which the Government carried out a year or more ago and the likely effect of that review on the flanks of the NATO bloc.

"I reported subsequently on the cuts of £100 million or more which the Government made, despite having just completed that review. I have reported to you also on the derisory efforts which the British Government are making for the protection of their North Sea oil installations.

"I must now report to you that there are reports in the Press in Britain that the Government are planning further cuts of between £600 million and £800 million, and I have reason to believe, from our usual sources and on past performance, that these reports have some substance.

"It may seem incredible to you, Comrade Brezhnev, that, although the British Government have conducted a comprehensive, fundamental review—the most fundamental review, they claim, which has been conducted for a generation, in the field of defence—there is no other field of Government spending in which they have conducted any similar review. They have not conducted a housing review, as far as I know."

Mr. Watkinson

There is one under way.

Mr. Blaker

"They have not conducted a health service review. They have not conducted an education review. The only field in which they have conducted such a fundamental review is that of defence.

"I must report to you that most politicians in Britain—and the same is true on the Continent of Western Europe—fail to understand that our whole strategy, the build-up of our naval fleet, the acquisition of bases in Africa and Asia, the boosting of our troop levels in Central Europe, are aimed at Western Europe. Western Europe is the target because, when we have control of Western Europe, our military and industrial strength will be greater than that of the rest of the world put together.

"It is also true that most British politicians on the Left fail to realise when they talk about spending more on hospitals, housing and schools, that if there were war, such spending would come to a dead stop and that those hospitals, houses and schools which they have now would be destroyed. All their plans for the greater comfort of their people would be irrelevant.

"I come now, Comrade Brezhnev, to my recommendations for action by the Soviet Union. First, we should go slow on negotiations in the MBFR because there is no point in continuing them in Britain's present mood. I expect the British Government to disarm without any concessions on our part. Secondly, we should concentrate our efforts to weaken the military strength and the will power of the West on Britain.

"I say this for four reasons. First, because Britain still has a good deal of prestige in the Western capitals. This may seem surprising to you, Comrade Brezhnev, but I suppose there are historical reasons for it, in spite of Britain's present condition. So her example is likely to be followed. Second, because Britain is the weakest country economically in the EEC, for which our sympathisers in Britain must take a great deal of credit, and it is evident that they are going to have to cut spending pretty severely. Third, because those in the ruling party in Britain who sympathise with our point of view are in a strong position—indeed they have never been stronger—and can be counted on to insist on the bulk of the cuts falling on defence.

"The fourth reason relates to the character of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister of Britain is a weak man whose main consideration is to keep his party together. He will respond to any pressure if the alternative carries a risk to the unity of his party and, if necessary, the interests of the nation will come second.

"Comrade Brezhnev, there is a substance sold in toy shops in Britain with which children play called Plasticine—a sort of putty which can be pushed into any shape. I would liken the British Prime Minister to Plasticine because he bears the imprint of the greatest pressure put upon him. There is a good chance that the pressure which the Marxists in his party are applying, and the apathy of many other members of his party, will have the effect that we wish. I therefore recommend, Comrade Brezhnev, that this course holds out the best of prospects of weakening the NATO Pact and of achieving our aims."

7.4 p.m.

Mr. James Wellbeloved (Erith and Crayford)

The hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Blaker) will excuse me if I do not join him in sending a message to the First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. Unlike him, I do not know the gentleman, but I am on nodding acquaintance with my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Defence and his colleagues so I shall be addressing my remarks to them.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State tried to assure the House that the present review of public expenditure, and particularly the part that has been played in that review by defence expenditure, was no more than the normal annual review of these matters. I was immediately reminded of Section 1 of the "Bluff and Persuasion Act" which says that it is not what you say that matters but the blush on your face when you say it. There can be no doubt that the review concentrates highly on the defence element. The whole House awaits with some anxiety the statement that will eventually come from the Chancellor of the Exchequer about proposals for reductions in overall expenditure.

I hope the Government will bear in mind two major factors. First, any reduction in defence expenditure which results in a weakening of our capacity to sustain the NATO alliance would be a disaster. Second, any reductions in defence expenditure which would bring about a further severe loss of job opportunities would also be a disaster because I am convinced that the success of the Government's anti-inflation policy and the adherence of the trade unions to the £6 pay limit depend entirely upon the Government's ability to halt and push back the unemployment figures. Any cuts in public expenditure, and in defence expenditure in particular, that aggravated an already unacceptable level of unemployment would be a disastrous blow to the main battle against inflation, which is without doubt the accord that we now have with the trade unions.

The Minister of State also referred to the Order that is laid before Parliament each year to continue the military discipline Acts for the three Services. He said that it was the Government's intention to abolish the requirement for the annual laying of the Order before Parliament. He argued that for the last few years there had been no debate on the Order and that it had gone through on the nod.

I think that is an argument in favour of continuing the present practice. I am against abolishing the requirement to lay the Order before Parliament. I am convinced that the constitutional relationship between Parliament, the civilian Government and the Armed Forces is an important principle to preserve. I do not believe that there will be a time in the foreseeable future when the contents of the discipline Acts will be severely challenged, unless there are genuine grounds, arising from circumstances which have actually occurred, which make it necessary for Parliament to debate the Order. Therefore, it is a safeguard to continue the requirement that the Order be placed before Parliament, so that there is absolute certainty that, in any year in which there may be grave public apprehension about the application of the discipline Acts, there can be a debate at some point about it without having to reply upon Supply Days or some other procedure. The Government should think again about discontinuing the existing practice.

I turn to the question how the Bill will be dealt with in its passage through Parliament. I welcome the statement by my right hon. Friend that the 1966 and 1971 practice is to be repeated in that we are to have a Select Committee to deal with the Bill. That is a much better way of dealing with these Acts than putting the legislation before an ordinary Standing Committee. I am more than satisfied, having been a member of the last Select Committee to consider this matter, that the Select Committee procedure provides an opportunity for that Committee to get around the country, if it wishes, to inspect on the ground the detention establishments, to take evidence from representatives of the Armed Forces and to examine witnesses. None of these things would be possible in an ordinary Standing Committee.

If, therefore, we are to minimise debate on the Floor of the House on these matters, we should be absolutely certain that the Select Committee has adequate power and opportunity thoroughly to examine the implications of the Acts. I am more than delighted that that is to be the case again with this Bill.

I have several questions on a number of matters which concern me. First, there is some apprehension by soldiers in Northern Ireland that under the Army Act they cannot be construed as being on active service because they are serving within the United Kingdom. Ts that the position? What would be the benefit to our soldiers in Northern Ireland if it were possible to place them on an active service standing while operationally engaged there?

Second, there is the question of extending from 28 to 60 days the power of a commanding officer to order detention. I recall that in the last Select Committee there was discussion about sentencing policy. My right hon. and learned Friend the present Secretary of State for Wales played a leading part in bringing the matter before the Committee, and I seem to recall that there was a document setting out comparisons of detention sentencing between the Royal Navy—whose commanding officers have always had much greater power than their counterparts in the RAF and the Army—and the other two Services. If my recollection is correct, there was a higher rate of detention sentencing in excess of 28 days in the Royal Navy than in the Army and the RAF, both of which relied more on the court martial procedure.

We need to be satisfied, therefore, that in extending the power of commanding officers to give longer detention sentences, we are not creating a situation in which there will be a substantial expansion in the number of serving men sentenced to detention quarters.

Third, I think that there is a success story in the Royal Navy in regard to detention quarters. The hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Kirk), when he was Under-Secretary of State for the Navy, appointed Brigadier Maunsell to carry out an inquiry into naval detention quarters. His report was reassuring, establishing that many of the Press reports and speculation about these quarters were completely unfounded. The hon. Gentleman then extended the system of visiting of naval detention quarters from that of ordinary naval visitors and quarterly inspection. He instituted an independent board of visitors to the quarters. My hon. Friend the present Under-Secretary of State for the Navy has further extended the system to include two hon. Members on the independent board. I am one of the Members of this House on the board. The other parliamentary Member is from the Opposition.

I believe that this process has had a tremendously beneficial effect, because it means that if there is any speculation about the conditions of rehabilitation in the naval detention quarters—complaints about the quality of food or anything else relevant—it can be established quickly by a statement from the independent board, following visits, that these fears are either unfounded or founded upon fact.

My worry is that, whereas this system is working satisfactorily for the Royal Navy, I am not aware that the Army has taken the same enlightened attitude. So far as I can ascertain from reading the rules and regulations on the administration of places of confinement of military personnel of the Army and the RAF, it is still a matter of military inspection without any independent element.

I believe that these military corrective training establishments would also benefit from the inspection of an independent board, preferably including one of two hon. Members from each side of the House, who could make regular visits and satisfy themselves, and this House if necessary, that things were being conducted in the proper manner.

I do not take the view that the Armed Forces are likely to act in any improper manner. I am more than satisfied that the standard of control is very high. But there can always be unfortunate incidents in which an individual is carried away by the power he possesses. We see it in Parliament, so it would not be surprising if we saw it in the Armed Forces.

Therefore, if we have an independent element of inspection, we minimise the risk of unfortunate incidents and ensure a wider degree of public confidence in naval detention quarters and military corrective training establishments. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will say something on this subject. I do not expect him to be able to make any startling announcement, but at least he should be able to tell us that he and his colleagues will think about the matter and perhaps come forward fairly rapidly with some proposals.

Finally, I want to say something about the whole question of defence. Unfortunately, I was not present in the Chamber when my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) spoke, but no doubt he laid before the House his well-established and well-understood view of events. As I said to him on previous occasions, I think that it is perfectly legitimate and reasonable to be a pacifist, and argue in support of one's view. But if one is not a pacifist, there does not exist the same degree of tolerance and understanding for the view that this country should be rendered naked in its defence capacity against any unforeseen eventualities.

It has always been my contention that defence is vital to our national well-being. Education is vital to our children, but without peace it has no meaning. The social services, however much they may be needed by people in desperate need, are again meaningless unless as a nation we live in security. Peace and security for this nation and for Western Europe is assured only by the maintenance of the NATO alliance and by a strong, positive and firm commitment by the United Kingdom to a capability to enable us to play a full part in that Alliance.

Therefore I say to my hon. Friends, as I say to my constituents, "Let us carry on the battle for education, for social services and, indeed, for Socialism but let us do it in an atmosphere in which through our defence commitment we shall have peace and security both to build up those desirable things and to defend and preserve them if the need ever arises".

7.20 p.m.

Mr. Antony Buck (Colchester)

Save for his exhortation that the battle for Socialism should be continued, I agreed with almost everything said by the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved). Very often a Member who is called to speak rises and says that he does not intend to follow the speech of his predecessor in the debate, but for a moment I should like to follow what the hon. Gentleman said.

The hon. Gentleman commended the decision of the Government to refer the Bill to a Select Committee, and I follow him in that commendation. As he said, the Select Committee will no doubt be able to pay visits to investigate the situation that exists relative to the maintenance of discipline throughout our Armed Forces. No doubt in due course the hon. Gentleman will find himself a member of the Select Committee, and in my capacity as the Member of Parliament for Colchester I look forward to welcoming him at the Military Corrective Training Establishment there.

The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that in certain respects the corrective system in the Army is perhaps not as enlightened as that in the Royal Navy. I say that with pride, as an ex-Navy Minister. The hon. Gentleman should not think that he would not be welcome at the excellent Military Corrective Training Establishment if he were to visit it as a Member of Parliament rather than in any other capacity. There are one or two hon. Members who have said that earlier in their careers they have been in the Colchester Corrective Training Establishment, and not in the rôle of a Member of Parliament. It is right that the Bill should be referred to in Select Committee. That will enable the kind of visits envisaged by the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford to take place.

I hope that the existence of the Select Committee will give a spur to the further implementation of the Maunsell report, which has so far been implemented only in part. That report envisages that eventually there will be at Colchester a consolidated corrective training establishment providing facilities for all the Services.

When the hon. Gentleman comes to Colchester to see the MCTE he will find that it is an admirably-run establishment, but not an economic one. I think I am right in saying that it is the only hutted camp still in permanent occupation, on any scale, by our Forces. It is a nissen hut establishment, and not, I think, even the revered spider system in its full glory of pinewood and central ablutions.

Mr. Wellbeloved

The hon. and learned Gentleman said that Brigadier Maunsell's report had not been fully implemented. To the best of my knowledge the report has not been made available in full to the House. Does he agree that it should be placed in the Library, so that we may all have the benefit of reading it?

Mr. Buck

My recollection is that the hon. Gentleman is right. Having been a Minister for Defence I have had the advantage of being able to read the report, and I hope that I shall not con- travene the Official Secrets Act if I say that I cannot recollect anything in it that should prevent its being published. Indeed, the Government, if in doubt, could publish what, in the jargon, is referred to as a sanatised version of the report. Perhaps the Minister will deal with that in replying to the debate.

The hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Watkinson) referred to the technicalities of the Bill and said that he would like further clarification of the increased powers being given to commanding officers. I share that view, and hope that we shall have further explanations in Committee.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West has left the Chamber. I found myself unable to agree with the remainder of what he said. He turned his remarks to the wider issues of defence and said that there is no "absolute"—and he is right—that we can assume is the right amount to spend on defence. However, we were told that that was precisely the purpose of the greatest review of all time. We were told that it was the most comprehensive review, and the Secretary of State said that its purpose was to set the path in respect of defence spending for the next 10 years. Despite that, one found that in almost less than 10 weeks that fundamental review had been revised and there was a further cut of £110 million in defence expenditure. The hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West is right in saying that there is no absolute, but the Government purported to have done as fundamental a review as was humanly possible, and having completed it they said that they had got things wrong and that there must be a reduction of another £110 million.

Today, we are considering a matter that affects the morale of our forces, because matters of discipline and morale are intertwined. I find it disappointing that there is not as crowded a House on an issue such as this as there will be tomorrow, when we consider the issue of the death penalty. It is my view that keeping our Armed Forces at a proper level and their morale at the highest is more important than the issue of the death penalty. The maintenance of the morale of our Forces, which is intertwined with there being the right numbers, is more important than the question whether we reintroduce the death penalty, yet we have a sparsely attended Chamber and little public interest in our deliberations.

Let us consider the situation of discipline and morale. First, as the Member of Parliament for a garrison constituency, morale in the Army concerns me particularly. The Northern Ireland situation dominates here. I hope that the Minister who replies to the debate will deal with force levels, because they are relevant to the maintenance of morale and, therefore, of discipline.

As earlier speakers said, the morale and discipline of our troops at the moment are very high, but are likely to be affected if the tours of duty in Northern Ireland become ever more frequent; if, for example, units find themselves spending their third or fourth Christmas in Northern Ireland.

We have had an indication of the Government's response to the Northern Ireland situation. We have heard their response to the fact that we are now out of balance with the Warsaw Pact countries. We have to try to contain a ghastly situation in Northern Ireland, yet by 1979 there is to be a reduction of 15,000 in the strength of the Army. We are not clear whether the figures in the White Paper are now able to be revised in an accurate way, because of the additional cuts that were announced just after it was published. Perhaps that matter, too, could be cleared up, because it is strictly relevant to the issue of discipline.

Many of us think it right that we should pass into law this measure, which reenacts the Army Discipline Act, but we should have some assurance about relative force levels, because I know, from seeing battalions pass through Colchester and visiting them in the Province, that it can have an effect on morale when it comes to the fifth or sixth tour of duty.

I should like to know whether there will be sufficient manpower for the offensive that we ought to take in South Armagh. Recently I wrote to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I sent a copy to the Secretary of State for Defence. In it, I dealt with the situation confronting some troops from the 3rd Battalion the Fusiliers, who were shot down brutally on the border. I called for a major initiative in South Armagh.

Our forces should not again have to be confronted with a quasi-no-go area—and it matters not whether it is in an urban area or in the rural context of South Armagh, which I have visited two or three times. We must be sure that there are sufficient troops to mount an offensive, so that the powers of law and order can be re-established in that part of the Province before there is a repetition of this kind of ghastly murder. The reputation of the 3rd Battalion the Fusiliers is rightly very high in my constituency, their permanent place of posting.

The Secretary to the Military Committee of NATO, Admiral Sir Peter Hill-Norton, who was Chief of the Defence Staff when I was at the Ministry of Defence, has thought it necessary to call world attention, again, to the imbalance in NATO and to issue an exhortation that there should be no further NATO cuts, especially in view of the situation over the MBFR negotiations. He reiterated the matters in the Government's White Paper concerning the military balance and brought them up to date.

The Under-Secretary will have noted that the Admiral gives particular attention to the balance of air power, pointing out that by the early 1980s most Soviet aircraft will be of advanced design, with the latest electronic devices. In the 1960s, as he points out, we held the advantage here, but that is no longer so. It is bound to affect morale if our forces know that their equipment is no better, and may be worse, than that of a potential foe.

The hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West asked where we would make our alternative cuts. I can point to one area immediately. Instead of nationalising the shipbuilding industry at vast cost the money should be used to build more ships and restore the Navy's building programme that we left behind. The immensely high morale of our sailors will not be maintained unless they know that they will continue to have the finest equipment. Surely, when our sailors are conducting themselves with such gallantry in Icelandic waters they are entitled to reassurance from the Government.

Certainty is necessary for morale. There is nothing like uncertainty to destroy it. Yet there is uncertainty throughout the Armed Forces because of the rumours of substantial defence cuts. When we are beset by perils from the external influences of the Warsaw Pact and internally from subversive elements, the forces are entitled to expect the Government not to miss this opportunity to reassure them.

Another matter that affects discipline is compassion in the organisation of our forces. I have never believed that the Opposition had a monopoly of patriotism or concern for the Armed Forces. Some Labour Members share that concern. We have heard from some of them today. There are others, however, whose defence policy would be to send the Politburo a telegram to accompany the letter drafted by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) which would be even more pleasing to that body. It would be like the Scandinavian idea of a tape recording that said "We surrender."

Mr. Alan Lee Williams

indicated dissent.

Mr. Buck

I do not accuse the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Williams) of that. But I am sorry that the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) and some others are not here. If they were, we could ask them to deal with that charge.

That is the difference—on the Government side of the House there are those whose defence policy consists of the words "I surrender". I hope that those Labour Members who share our concern will weed them out. It is time that the moderates, those who are patriotic, sorted out those of their hon. Friends whose policy is to socialise and nationalise everything, to build no ships but to nationalise shipbuilding and to send a telegram saying "We surrender" instead of having a defence policy.

We should organise our forces compassionately. A particular matter in my constituency affects discipline. Units go from my constituency for tours of duty to Northern Ireland. They leave behind their "married families", in the curious phrase that the forces use. They leave their wives and children to be looked after in Colchester, and I hope that we do it well. We have a superb military hospital here, which my Government had intended to keep open for at least 10 years. The Government have now announced that they will close it, which will mean, among other things, enormous additional burdens on the already hard-pressed civilian hospitals.

This hospital is a major facility in the Colchester area but its closing is also likely to affect morale and thus discipline. When a man goes on an unaccompanied tour of Northern Ireland he likes to feel that his wife and children will be well catered for, and the military hospital looks after their medical needs superbly. There are not the same civilian facilities in Colchester, which is long overdue for a new hospital. I exhort the Government to look at this matter again, to revert to our decision and to keep the hospital open for at least 10 years. Nothing is more disturbing to a man serving in Northern Ireland than the feeling that his wife and children back home are not being looked after as they should be.

This is an important and, on the whole, a good Bill. I welcome the fact that it will go to a Select Committee. There are certain matters, such as the increased powers to be given to commanding officers to impose penalties, that will need to be scrutinised. We shall look at those matters in detail.

As the Bill concerns the morale of our troops, I hope that the Government will not let this opportunity pass, and will give some words of reassurance, which will create a greater degree of certainty in the Armed Forces about future levels of manpower and their future equipment. There are many external and internal pressures on society in general, and we cannot afford to have Armed Forces with anything but the highest of morale. Unless the uncertainty is ended, that high morale will not long remain.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

Apart from Front Bench speakers who will reply to the debate, eight hon. Members wish to participate. I appeal to hon. Members to apportion the time in a reasonable fashion.

7.40 p.m.

Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

during the past 12 months the mournful experience of Portugal has reminded us that disciplined Armed Forces are essential factors in the well-being of the State, and that if the respect of the Armed Forces for the States cracks, society is put in jeopardy. For the past 200 years we have been exceptionally fortunate. The Government have always been able to rely upon the obedience of their Armed Forces. It is one of the few blessings that, perhaps, we can still take for granted.

However, let us recognise the strain that the Government are now putting on the discipline of our Armed Forces. Let us consider, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck) did, the question of Government policy in Northern Ireland.

For more than five years there has been a great parade of Ministers coming to the Dispatch Box, praising the morale of our forces and saying that no other army in the world could carry out duties such as this with such restraint and good humour. That is all true. Let us bear in mind also the additional strain that has been put on the Army in the past few months with the policy of restraint and the result that we have seen, alas, recently in South Armagh. Ministers come to the Dispatch Box and tell us that that is bandit country. Yet troops can open fire only in self-defence. They can apprehend those whom they suspect of leading terrorist activities only under quite exceptional circumstances. In recent months they have been unable to carry out organised searches and interrogations in the old way, and there have been areas into which they have been instructed not to go. Some 14 members of the forces have died in South Armagh, but, as the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) reminded us in Question Time recently, only one terrorist has been killed.

All this puts an enormous strain on the discipline of our soldiers. We have seen this happen in other parts of the world, and if it continues for too long something usually begins to crack. Sometimes the defence forces just give up. More often—and this has happened in parts of South America and in Algiers with the French "paras"—the Armed Forces do not believe that they have the backing of their Government and they take action on their own or pass information and weapons to para-military organisations which, they believe, will take the neces- sary action—action which they themselves are not allowed to take. That is unlikely to happen with our forces in Northern Ireland.

I am exceptionally alarmed by the Gallup Poll that was published recently in the Daily Telegraph. It shows that 64 per cent. of the population of this country believes that we should begin to withdraw the British Army from Northern Ireland. It is perfectly possible for the gang leaders of the IRA to look at that Gallup Poll and say, "Look what a few random bombs and a few assassinations in Great Britain have done. So rally round the bombs, boys. All we have to do is to plant a few more, shoot a few more public figures and the majority of public opinion will give in and demand that the boys should be brought back home."

That is a wrong interpretation of the poll. The British public are not saying that they want to surrender to the terrorists, or that the IRA can bomb them out of part of the United Kingdom, but they are expressing the opinion that the Army is being used in the wrong way. They are saying that a low profile policy is not the sort of policy that should continue indefinitely, that more active steps should be taken against the IRA and that they do not want our soldiers simply to be targets.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

Does my hon. Friend not agree that the response given to the opinion poll, which he quoted, may have depended very much on the way in which the question was worded? Does he not further agree that if the question had been put this way—"Do you believe that Northern Ireland and the Queen's subjects there should be abandoned to the tender mercies of the assassins of Mr. McWhirter?"—the answer would have been different?

Mr. Goodhart

I hope and believe that at least 95 per cent. of those who were asked would have responded in a positive way to a question of that sort. Yesterday I had a brief conversation with Norris McWhirter, who reminded me of a remark that was made by a former Conservative colleague in this House—a rather sharp-tongued colleague—Kenneth Pickthorn. Kenneth used to remind people, "Remember, dry rot always starts with wetness". One of the reasons for this Gallup poll result is a feeling that there has been too much wetness in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Government's wetness will not lead to the dry rot of discipline.

The Army has inevitably been involved in politics in Northern Ireland. Indeed, one of the minor clauses of the Bill tightens up the provisions for those in the Ulster Defence Regiment who might wish to become Members of this House of Commons. During the Committee stage of the Referendum Act the Minister of State came to the Dispatch Box and said that legislation had been prepared to change the registration procedures for soldiers, and he hoped that legislation would soon be introduced. I hope that that legislation will soon be introduced. I hope that when replying to the debate the Minister will give us some indication of the Government's intention on this matter.

In the course of the Committee stage of the Bill we shall have an opportunity to go in considerable detail into the exact powers that commanding officers have to give detention to the men under them or to fine them. However, I think that all of us in the House would agree that in practice the fundamental foundation of discipline within the Armed Forces is not the powers of the commanding officer but a question of pride—pride in one's unit or regiment, pride in one's equipment, and pride in one's role.

Here again, I am anxious about the Government's activities. We know that in this fundamental defence review, which is now, it seems, to be scrapped, the regimental system was saved, as it were, by a hair's breadth. We know that it was by cutting men from brigade headquarters that we were able to avoid cutting regiments. Trials have been carried out whether this particular innovation would work. One gathers that very many problems have arisen, as we expected and as we warned. If there is now to be yet a further cut in the manpower of the Army, I fear for the continuation of the regimental system. If the regimental system goes, discipline will be infinitely harder to maintain in the Armed Forces.

I fear for the advanced equipment—the multi-role combat aircraft and the through-deck cruisers—if the Chancellor of the Exchequer gets his way. I fear for the role of the Navy and for the Royal Air Force if the Chancellor gets his way. I have no doubt that our allies are at this moment sending messages of warning to the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence. I believe that it will be a disaster if we sabotage our contribution to the Alliance, as we would be sabotaging not only our allies but our Service men as well.

7.53 p.m.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

I intervene fairly brieflly in the debate to follow up two points that have been made. The first is the reference to Portugal. I believe that if we have any lessons to learn from Portugal, one very strong lesson is that a country should not spend more on its Armed Forces than it can genuinely afford. We have been in danger of doing that for a long time. I believe that we should be looking very hard at our defence expenditure.

On the question of the Gallup poll and the attitude of many people in England to the Irish situation, it seems to me that people wanted not an increase in the military profile in Northern Ireland but rather to see a political solution. People want to see either a political solution or clear evidence that we are working towards a political solution. It is the failure to produce a political solution which makes people want to wash their hands of the problem.

Mr. Alan Clark (Plymouth, Sutton)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there are also Gallup polls which show that the public want either capital punishment or clear evidence that we are working in this House towards the return of capital punishment? Does he believe that equal credence should be given to Gallup polls in both those instances?

Mr. Bennett

I was not about to give any credence particularly to Gallup polls. I was suggesting that the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) had used the Gallup poll to illustrate one point, and I wanted to illustrate the opposite. What people wanted was political, rather than military, solutions. However, I think that most hon. Members would agree that opinion polls are far too much of a simplification.

On the question of capital punishment, if one phrases the question as one straight question, undoubtedly one gets a certain result. As soon as one phrases slightly more detailed questions, people begin to back away. I believe that the general public are much more in line with the attitude of hon. Members on this subject.

On the question of producing a political solution in Northern Ireland, I am certain that that is what people here want. They do not want an increased military role there. They would prefer to see a rapidly reducing role. I am certain that people in this era have been convinced that one cannot find military solutions to most problems. One has to find political solutions. That is the lesson we must learn. We must find political solutions and we cannot now impose in any situation a military solution which will last for any length of time.

I should like to take up the subject of the Bill and the question of discipline within the Armed Forces. Our concerti ought to lie in the fact that our Armed Forces are composed of volunteers. What particularly disturbs me, from experience of a situation which has arisen in my constituency, is the number of young people who are recruited into the Armed Forces as young soldiers and young personnel in the other Services as a result, possibly, of pressure from parents who have served in the Army or the other Services, found the life enjoyable and persuaded their sons or, in some instances their daughters to try it. There is also the question of the advertisements that are put out and much of the material which goes into schools which suggests that the Services are extremely attractive as a career. Finally, sadly at present, there are the difficulties of employment for school leavers, which mean that some of them are led towards recruitment when they might otherwise go into other professions.

It is very unfortunate that many of these young people get into the Services, find that the initial training is still fairly enjoyable, but on reaching the age of 18 begin to find out what the Services are really about, and then they wish that they had never entered. We should be making things far easier for the groups of people who have discovered that military life is not for them to find their way out. Many of the problems of discipline which exist within the Forces arise because people are kept in against their will. From experience of talking to one or two of my constituents, I find that they very much regret that their right to get out of the Forces before they reached the age of 18 was not made very clear. Once such young people reach that age they lose their chance to leave.

There has been a committee of inquiry into this matter. I hope that in Committee we shall look at the way in which people recruited when under the age of 18 may have the opportunity to opt out when they find out what the Services are all about. I hope that this provision will be incorporated in the Bill.

7.58 p.m.

Mr. Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)

We are carrying out this debate supposedly to continue the duration of the Services Acts until 1981. However, in reality the whole debate is surrounded by rumour of impending cuts within the Armed Services. If those cuts are made, as some people are beginning to think they will be, it is quite possible that by 1981 there will be no need to re-enact this Bill yet again.

It seems to me that the centre of this matter was best put by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Blaker), who made his case so brilliantly as the Devil's advocate. There can be no doubt that every hon. Member who has spoken in the debate—not only Opposition Members—accepts fully that we are in a period of great danger and that the people of this country should accept that fact and be prepared to carry the cost of the necessary defence burden that that must involve for every one of us. I doubt whether that is the case. I quote briefly from a speech made by Mr. Harold Macmillan. He said: We must either retreat from our obligations and accept a policy of isolation, which will be mean, immoral and dangerous, or we must go on with all our force with a collective system, and so shoulder our responsibilities as honest people of a responsible nation. That would be an apposite speech to be making tonight, but in fact it was made in 1935. God knows that we must all regret the years following 1935, which brought us to war in 1939.

I turn now from the general to the particular. I had the honour and privilege to serve in the Parachute Regiment for six years. Exactly one week ago I put a question to the Secretary of State for Defence about the rôle of the Regular Parachute Brigade and the TA Parachute Brigade. The reply I received read: As was announced in the Defence White Paper, the concept of the United Kingdom Joint Airborne Task Force of two battalions and their support is to be abandoned, but a limited parachute capability is to be retained within the United Kingdom Mobile Force."—[Official Report, 5th December 1975: Vol. 901, c. 746.] No mention is made of the TA rôle or the future of the Regular Parachute Brigade. That is utter nonsense and poppycock. Hiding behind those words is the clear intention to destroy the Regular Parachute Brigade. That is the most dastardly thing for any Government of any complexion to do. I am certain that morale will be affected throughout the Services as these rumours grow. The Commandos and the Gurkha Brigades will take exactly the same view when they hear this news coming through.

I have met this business of limited airborne parachute capability before. The limiting factor arises when no aircraft are available. Given that limiting factor, the raison d'être of the Regular Parachute Brigade ceases.

Equally serious is the obvious intention of the Government to do away with the 44 Parachute Brigade. I believe that it was a Conservative Government in 1957 who reduced the 16th Airborne Division to one brigade. I thought that that was a stupid thing to do at the time. We then had a division on the cheap, each battalion being self-sufficient, each battalion being up to strength and with a waiting list. There was a reduction to one brigade, and now we have exactly the same position within that brigade. It is the only TA brigade in the United Kingdom that is capable of taking the field at anything like full strength. Each of the battalions has a waiting list of volunteers in the 17–19 age bracket. It is the sort of thing that we should be encouraging and not discouraging.

I hope that the Government will discount these and other rumours that are going about. If they are fact, let that be said loudly and clearly, so that we know where the Government stand, because we shall certainly stand on the opposite side, with much support from all sides of this House.

Another rumour is that the Government have made their decision to support Chrysler. If they have decided to do that and if the figures I have heard bandied about are true—they run from £100 million to £400 million or £500 million, in the long term—we are surely living in an Alice-in-Wonderland situation. It seems that we are giving aid to Chrysler to undercut British Leyland instead of giving direct support to defence, thus keeping jobs that we shall inevitably lose in the long run from the Chrysler situation. We should deplore the fact that we are living in cloud-cuckoo-land.

My final point is the one that I made in Paris, at the Atlantic Treaty Association Congress. I was told there that I was aiming far too high, but it seems incredible that we in the West are prepared to see the Russians turn out armaments on an ever-increasing scale when the Russian economy is incapable of supporting its armaments industry.

What do we do? We go in underneath and underpin the Russian armaments industry. The Americans pour in agricultural produce to back up the Russian economy. We make agreements with the Russians and return delighted when we have been able to conclude trade agreements which allow them to continue to give their people the minimum of consumer goods whilst they continue to pour out weapons. That seems to be an Alice-in-Wonderland situation.

If we are looking for ways of destroying the Russian capability—that is exactly what we should be doing—we should force them to turn their swords into ploughshares. It is obvious that the Government should turn their attention in that direction.

8.6 p.m.

Mr. Roderick MacFarquhar (Belper)

To take up the point made by the hon. Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Spicer), I was listening to a discussion on this very subject over the weekend and a fairly senior American official stated that it was his belief—I assume that it represented thinking in the American Government, to some extent—that it would be impossible for any American Administration, even if one were led by a President Jackson—if that were to come about—to adopt the kind of policy that the hon. Gentleman seems to be advocating.

This official said that he felt that not only the farming community but the great mass of the American people would find it difficult to accept an argument that attempted to deny selling grain to people who desperately needed it, espectially if they could pay for it. The sort of policy that the hon. Gentleman advocates the Government should pursue, given its limited resources, could not even be followed by the American Government.

I take the opportunity that is offered of discussing the wider issue of defence rather than the details of the Bill, which we shall discuss in Committee. I shall deal with the kind of attacks that we receive from the Opposition—I am sure that they are well-intentioned—which often do not take account of the sincerity, determination and sense of purpose of Ministers.

I take again the analogy of the United States. The ex-United States Secretary for Defence, Mr. Schlesinger, who is well known as a hard-liner towards the Soviet Union, was dismissed by a President who would not have been described by Senator McCarthy, in the old days, as a weak-kneed Liberal. The President who dismissed Mr. Schlesinger is a Right-winger. What is more, that Right-Wing President is running scared because he is afraid of an attack from the further right—from his competitor, Governor Ronald Reagan. Despite that danger from his right flank and despite the fact that he is a Right-wing President, he thought tit to dismiss Mr. Schlesinger. He did so partly because he apparently cannot get on with Schlesinger and partly because his Secretary of State did not like the ex-Secretary for Defence. But we can presume that he dismissed him because he decided in favour of the policies advocated by his Secretary of State as opposed to those policies put forward by Mr. Schlesinger. We know that the balance between the two men is that Mr. Kissinger believes in a policy of detente and a policy of greater trust of the Soviet Union, whereas Mr. Schlesinger was in favour of keeping the guard right up, keeping every defence in place and investing as far as possible greater amounts of money into further weapon development.

Conservative Members should reflect that if a Right-wing President of the United States is in favour of the softer line, as put forward by a member of his Administration, and sees fit to dismiss the fire-eating Secretary for Defence, then Ministers who say that we can reduce defences further and that we do not need the kind of total commitment that some hon. Members seem to advocate are perfectly sincere and are not bent on throwing over the defences of this country. It has been said that the last thing we want to do with our defence policy is to reshape it radically merely in response to economic contingencies. I agree with that point of view, but Government policies in many fields should be strategic policies, shaped over a long period of time. Those policies, too, could be dramatically harmed by radical cuts.

Let us take the social services departments. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services is not saying "I have a little more money, so I will build another hospital here, or there." My right hon. Friend has an overall strategy for her Department, as do other spending Departments. Major cuts mean that the strategies of those Departments involve as much heart-searching as do major defence cuts. Opposition Members should not always have such a preoccupation that it is only in defence matters that cuts may ruin the situation. Cuts have their effect in areas other than defence. We should not seek, as do some Opposition Members, to put defence on a totally different pedestal.

What is fundamental is to decide what is essential for the defence of this country. I took part in an interesting discussion in a sub-committee of the North Atlantic Assembly, of which I, like other hon. Members, am a member; but I am the only British member of that subcommittee. The sub-committee heard a report given by a German specialist on the Soviet Union. In the context of defence cuts he said that it was interesting that the West had lowered its guard year after year, ever since the creation of NATO after the initial build-up, and yet the Soviet Union had shown no signs of wanting to test the West's defences. He said the reason why the Russians would never test NATO lay in the involvement of the United States in the NATO arrangements in the defence of Europe. So long as the United States was committed in that way the Russians could be expected not to test our defences.

I have warned in a previous defence debate that Europeans would be foolish to feel that for the sake of some special relationship the United States would always stay in Europe, in contrast to their policy in Asia, from which they appear gradually to be withdrawing. I do not rule out the possibility of an American withdrawal from Europe, although Americans repeatedly reassure me that that is totally unlikely. I could argue that the essential minimum defence requirement—not just for Britain but for any European nation, and the European nations in concert, in the Eurogroup—is a defence commitment sufficient to ensure that the United States does not feel compelled to say "The Europeans are leaving everything to us. They have washed their hands of defence. They want us to take on the whole military burden. We shall not stand for it, and we shall withdraw." We cannot allow things to go that far. Up to that stage there is room for manoeuvre.

A healthy British economy is essential to the United States and other members of the Western Alliance. We can have a healthy economy only if we trim expenditure, such as that on defence. That was the reason for the fundamental review.

I hope that Opposition Members listened carefully to the thoughtful words of my hon. Friend the Minister of State regarding his attitude to defence cuts and what he would regard as going too far. Although we are still living in the realms of rumour, I believe that the Opposition should surely trust the good sense and good faith of Ministers in the Defence Department who will not stand for British defence falling below that necessary minimum.

8.15 p.m.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)

It is a great pleasure to be called to speak following the contribution made by the hon. Member for Belper (Mr. MacFarquhar). Given time, he and I could find a good deal of common ground on defence topics. I hope that living in rumour proves to be more painful than living in reality.

This debate is useful since it gives hon. Members the chance to try to influence events rather than react to them—to stop the crash rather than to concern ourselves with picking up the pieces. As we look at people on their daily rounds, doing their Christmas shopping, filling the football terraces, meeting in pubs, we wonder at this late hour whether they realise the way in which world events are trending. Those events may affect the way in which those people work and play and they may also affect their freedom and all they admire and love.

It is a chilling fact that the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries are arming more strenuously, more scientifically and on a larger scale than ever before. In recent years 200,000 more men have been recruited to the already massive Armed Forces of the Soviet Union. In the last four years 16 more divisions have been added, and the Warsaw Pact countries have produced 500 more aircraft. There are apparently three Warsaw Pact divisions for every one NATO division. The Warsaw Pact countries have 50 per cent. more men than we have under arms, they have nearly three times as many tanks—and so the story continues.

These are the facts we must put across to the country so that people know the truth. We must ask ourselves why, after 20 years, the Soviet navy is going in for attack carriers. Can the Russians claim that they must have those carriers to defend their internal communications? Of course they cannot. One can only suggest that those carriers are designed to threaten our sea trade bringing supplies, particularly petrol, round the Cape.

While the British Cabinet contemplates further reductions in defence expenditure—reductions of hundreds of millions without loss of commitment—the Russians maintain a two-year conscription and forces grossly in excess of any possible defence need. They have been carrying out large numbers of underground nuclear tests. Soon the Soviet forces will exceed those of the United States. Do they require all those forces for defence? The facts appear to be otherwise. The British military observers who watch the Warsaw Pact exercises report back that the Warsaw Pact troops endlessly carry out river crossing exercises with Snorkel tanks and shock armies. Is that an exercise of defence? Are we to believe that the Soviets are arming against China? Surely the equipment is too complex and is designed for activity against the West rather than on the Chinese front.

We should also take account of the cohesive nature of Russian society, coupled with the ability of the Soviet authorities to manipulate public opinion. Krushchev once said, The day that we Communists give up our struggle for the world will be the day the shrimp has learned to whistle on the mountain tops. I sometimes wish Opposition Front Bench spokesmen adopted such vivid phraseology.

The Soviet Union is now deeply involved in the war in Angola. It has sufficient power available to ensure that the MPLA could win major military victories in Angola. It knows that Congress will not authorise a full American military commitment to the opposing forces of the FNLA and UNITA. It has been encouraged by its success in turning Somalia into a Soviet colony on the east coast of Africa.

Admiral Gorshkov has made crystal clear the importance to Russia of sea power not only to fight wars but also to achieve political aims in peace-time. Yesterday Admiral Hill-Norton, in an important speech, noted improvements in the strategic and tactical ability of the Soviet nothern fleet. They appear to seek the ability to cut the lifelines between Europe and North America, and Europe and its vital oil supplies. Yet at this precise moment in world history, our Government contemplate options which could create a snowball effect within NATO—an alliance that has shielded the West during my lifetime.

NATO's success is its greatest problem. How do we put over to young people its essential role in the world? My grandfather saw the beaches of Gallipoli and my father was at Dunkirk. When I was a schoolboy at the time of the Korean War, it seemed highly unlikely that I would get by without being involved in a world war. NATO can claim a lot of credit for the fact that it has not happened.

I visited BAOR a few months ago and was desperately concerned at the conditions there. There was a shortage of ammunition, and vehicle and electronic spares were at a dangerously low level. When I recall what other countries are doing to protect themselves and their allies, I am frankly ashamed of my country.

In an interesting letter to The Times, my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) set out some figures. We devote 10.8 per cent, of Government expenditure to defence. In France the figure is 19.1 per cent. and in West Germany 24.7 per cent. In Britain 3.4 per cent. of the men aged between 18 and 45 are serving in the Armed Forces. In France the figure is 4.8 per cent. and in West Germany 4 per cent.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force (Mr. Brynmor John)

While I do not seek to quarrel with the figures the hon. Member has given, would he pay attention to the fact that his hon. Friend quoted figures in The Times from the military balance in which there were specific reservations on the proportion of Government expenditure because each country has a different public expenditure pattern?

Mr. Townsend

I take note of the Minister's comments, but my hon. Friend had a lot of other comparisons which were equally valid.

With many of my colleagues, I have been to Northern Ireland to see our forces there. One cannot help but be impressed by their professionalism. Their determination and courage is a source of inspiration to us all. But their morale cannot indefinitely remain so high in the face of such apparent indifference from many Left-wing members of the Cabinet. The dissettlement and division within the Cabinet today will be tomorrow's discontentment and dissatisfaction among our soldiers, sailors and airmen.

The Secretary of State has fought bravely in public and behind the scenes for a respectable size of defence budget. Let it never be said of him, as someone discussing South Africa's racial crime once said of Smuts, "He knew what was right, but he did what was wrong." The present Chancellor of the Exchequer, having played hard for an east of Suez rôle for the first half, then changed sides and played the other way round. Perhaps it helped his career, but it hindered the reputation of Parliament. Has the world forgotten the lesson of the events that led up to the Second World War? Are we once again putting present comfort before future safety and saying that war could never happen because we do not want it to happen? Are we believing in détente just because we want to believe in it?

Even at this late hour I appeal to the Government to trust the people and to tell them the truth—tell them about the altering balance of military power in the world, tell them why NATO must have a flexible response, tell them of the dangers of lowering the nuclear threshold and tell them that for these reasons, whatever else is to be cut, defence is to be cut no further. Safety lies beyond sacrifice.

8.25 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Brown (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

I was very sad when listening to the peroration of the hon. Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend). He spent a little time deploying his arguments about the possible capability of the Soviet Union and how they are going about things. But nobody in their Parliament stands up and denigrates their Armed Forces in the way which the hon. Member adopted tonight. He spoke about disgraceful conditions and shortage of resources and equipment. He might wonder what contribution he has made to the stability, credibility and morale of the Armed Forces. He has run it to a pretty low level. I am not saying that hon. Members should not criticise, but I find the terms he used pretty horrifying. The first part of his speech was quite interesting, but I regret the tone in which he finished.

Mr. Townsend

I criticised the shortage of electronic and vehicle spares in BAOR and had nothing but praise for the Service men using them.

Mr. Brown

I am sure the KGB will be very interested to hear what he said. They would employ him tomorrow. He would be an excellent PR man for them.

I do not normally intervene in defence debates. I like listening to the experts, but the more I listen to them the more discouraged I become. I do not believe that these experts understand the changing nature of our society, and if they believe that efficiency, effectiveness and readiness to respond must be equated with the amount of money spent, they are quite wrong. I defer, of course, to their expertise, but some of us understand that fact even though we do not claim to have any expertise.

I pay a tremendous tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. He is one of the best Secretaries of State for Defence we have had for a very long time. He is trying very hard—far more than his predecessors in the last Conservative Government—to get defence forces which knit in with our NATO commitments and are able to carry out our requirements. The continual haggling about whether he is spending enougn money begs the question whether we are efficient. From the assurances I have received from him, I am satisfied that he is ensuring that this country is adequately and properly defended and able to play its rôle within the NATO alliance.

I intervene on a more mundane matter. I declare an interest because I am Vice-President of the Welfare Committee of the 444 Squadron Air Training Corps—a little below the level of most experts here. All I do is glide. That is hardly what the hon. Member for Bexleyheath was talking about in his great forays abroad inspecting stocks or ammunition. In my area, the opportunity to serve in the ATC is a great opportunity for young men to learn self-discipline and to take part in a number of activities. The squadron which I support has one of the largest collection of Duke of Edinburgh Awards and other awards made by the Ministry of Defence. I am proud of them.

I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State of Defence for the Royal Air Force for his courtesy and friendliness in discussing many matters with me. I would not wish to put to him tonight questions we are due to discuss later. However, the Air Force provides a good deal of equipment for the ATC, but if the Corps wants a little more than the basic equipment, it can get it only from surplus stores. People have tried to explain to me, but I cannot understand why the Ministry cannot sell as job lots such items as helmets, goggles, flying overalls and jackets which are necessary for these young boys when they are flying.

It is cold at this time of the year, and the gliding school will be operating over Christmas. It is extremely cold in gliders with open cockpits. One cannot argue that the boys should have this equipment as of right, but surely the Ministry of Defence could make a different arrangement for the sale of surplus equipment.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has offered to discuss this question with me later, and I therefore do not press him for an immediate answer. But there must be a better arrangement available which would avoid the lads in the ATC having to buy their equipment at phenomenal prices from surplus store proprietors who get it at very low cost from the Department. I have a piece of equipment to show my hon. Friend which cost the ATC lads between £7 and £9 at a store for surplus equipment. I do not know why the Department operates in this way, and why it should sell to such stores when it could sell to the ATC and help that organisation.

There is another aspect of ATC activities which worries me. It is the insurance position of the gliding instructors, who are mainly civilians. I am not satisfied with the situation. These people, voluntarily and without pay, train young men to glide. If anything happens to the instructors while they are gliding there is no guarantee that their dependants will be taken care of. Will my hon. Friend confirm that that is the situation?

I understand that if in the event of an accident the instructor is found to have been negligent in terms of the Air Force manual, he will get no compensation. If that is true, something is radically wrong. We cannot expect men and women to help train young people if the instructors are to be treated in this manner.

I have listened to the discussions in this House about Diego Garcia and whether the Americans should have been given a licence to operate there. No one has ever referred to the island further to the north called Socotra. It is located in the neck of the Indian Ocean. My information is that it is bristling with weaponry and communications put there by the Soviet Union and that it is loaded with Soviet marines. I seem to recall that at some time in our history Socotra was British. Perhaps my hon. Friend will tell us what is happening on the island. If it is bristling with Soviet weaponry and communications systems, we must view the question of Diego Garcia in a different light.

At this time in our history, when we are attempting to get the maximum efficiency and value from the money we spend on defence, it is sad that we should debate this continuation Order only once in five years. I am not a great believer in the Executive—perhaps that is because I am not a member of it. I believe in giving the Executive only limited power, and that does not mean, in this case, power for five years. I hope that we shall take another look at this arrangement. I would rather have the Order dealt with once a year, because that arrangement would give the House much closer control over these matters, than leave it to the Executive and its advisers. I recognise that that might be inconvenient for Ministers, but the question of their convenience takes second place to the importance of ensuring adequate control, which is not provided by a five-year arrangement.

8.36 p.m.

Mr. Neville Trotter (Tynemouth)

Tonight's debate is supposed to be basically about discipline. I believe our Armed Forces to be the best disciplined in the world, and when the recruiting advertisements refer to "the professionals" they are accurate. However, a professional Service must be able to look to career stability, and that stability is now at stake for those who are serving their country with such loyalty and dedication in the Services.

The major review conducted earlier this year was supposed to have provided stability for the next decade, yet after only a few months we are hearing strong rumours that a further major review is now under consideration. These rumours are so strong that there must be some substance to them.

When the Government cut defence they tend to cut real strength, whereas with other services the cuts are rather in projected growth. The strength of the Services is being cut at the time when our need for them is greater than ever, given the seriousness of the potential threat which has been described by so many hon. Members today.

The members of the Services must sadly come to the conclusion that Labour Governments do not care. I except from that accusation the present Defence Ministers because I believe that they do care, but the Government generally have shown that they do not care about defence. In doing so they have followed the pattern set by previous Labour Administrations.

I should like to say a brief word about the effect of defence cuts on employment. As a result of the previous defence review, 50,000 or 60,000 jobs are to be lost—twice as many as are involved in Chrysler. What a tremendous uproar there would be if there were a similar decision in industry.

The rumour seems to be that the Chancellor's demands are for "the same again"—that is, for cuts of the same huge size as we had in the recent Defence Review. But this time the cuts will be far harder to achieve because we are now at the critical level, the minimum below which we cannot go. I was amazed to hear the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army say the other day that now we could not even provide for the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace on a daily basis. That is an incredible state of affairs.

I have carried out some research into the strength of the Navy and I find that the Government are reducing its manpower to a figure lower than it has ever been since 1895. At the same time, we see a rapidly growing and extremely competent modern Soviet navy, presenting a far greater potential threat than any threat we have faced at sea before.

The Minister of Defence is in Brussels at the moment attending a NATO meeting, and one must wonder what is being said to him by his colleagues. Does he believe that some special position similar to that of tiny Luxembourg, is necessary for us in defence as the Government have sought with oil.

What commitments can we cut? I suppose we could withdraw from the very few remaining overseas outposts. We could give Gibraltar to Spain, though I do not think that suggestion would find much favour on the other side of the House. We could give the Falkland Islands to Argentina. We could give Belize to Honduras. We could give Hong Kong to the Chinese. If we were to give away all our remaining commitments, it would make little difference to expenditure.

The matters which are now at issue are absolutely fundamental to the defence of this country. Should we give up the protection of the sea lanes in the Eastern Atlantic? We cannot rely instead on the American navy, which has itself been halved in recent years. We are the predominant Navy in the Eastern Atlantic and we could not find anybody else to fill that rôle. We could reduce our commitment in Central Europe an area to which the Minister of Defence has referred in the past as being vital. In Central Europe we are outnumbered by three or four to one by the Soviet Union in terms of conventional weapons.

There are two alternatives nearer home. We could reduce the air defence of Great Britain. I hope that the Under-Secretary will give an assurance that we would not do that, or that he would feel it necessary to resign from his office should there be any insistence that the air defence of Great Britain be reduced from its already low level. Or the Government could scuttle from Northern Ireland and save substantially by doing so.

The Secretary of State, in his speech at the Camberley Staff College to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) referred, seems to have come to recognise the dangers. But I think he is mistaken when he talks about the will of the people. I believe that it is the duty of the Government to lead the people and that the people are willing to be led. The common sense of the people of this country is perhaps underestimated by hon. Members opposite.

Mr. Kosygin has admitted that 25 per cent. of the whole of the income of the Soviet Union is being spent on armaments and military matters. If that country, with its enormous capacity, is spending 25 per cent. of its GNP on armaments, the people of Britain surely have the common sense to see that we must maintain our present level of defence at a much more modest level. The will of the people still exists, and they have more sense than have the left wing of the Labour Party. We cannot take risks in this matter.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer is generally cast in the rumours as the hatchet man. He is a former Minister of Defence and this makes it all the worse because he cannot plead ignorance. If he insists on mammoth cuts in defence beyond those which we have already seen, it shows that he is fundamentally wrong in his political judgment and certainly cannot be the champion of a free society.

It is the duty of any Government to defend the people and their way of life.

In the Naval Discipline Act, which is what we are supposed to be debating tonight, it is stated that every person who fails in his duty or is negligent in the performance of his duty is liable to be dismissed with disgrace from Her Majesty's Service. That would be a fitting end for any Government who neglected to do their duty in defending the country. I appeal to the Government to think again if not from the point of view of their duty, then for the sake of their own self-interest. They should remember that there are more votes to be had from defending this country than from leaving it defenceless.

8.45 p.m.

Mr. McCusker (Armagh)

In the dying moments of this debate I make no apology for drawing the attention of the House back to the brutal, squalid and bloody reality of the real cost of defence. The real cost of defence, in my eyes, is the cost in terms of the lives of the innocent boys and men who are dying in Northern Ireland, particularly in my constituency.

I hope that I shall not be accused of being provincial or of suffering from myopia if I concentrate on my own constituency. Over the past six months it has been the cockpit of the conflict between what the Provisionals call the "British war machine" and the Republican movement in Northern Ireland. I do not want to bore hon. Members, but I should like to bring the facts to their attention once again.

The equivalent of a company of men have been wiped out in County Armagh so far in this campaign. Fifty-six Regular soldiers have died and 14 members of the Ulster Defence Regiment—nine Regulars in the last six months and five UDR men. Is it not sad to think that on that green hill not so far away, outside Crossmaglen, three teenage boys lost their lives because, as a result of an attempt to placate the Republicans during the period of so-called cease-fire, a post was dismantled in which those three young men could have found refuge while performing their particular duty. The five UDR men killed were all shot in the back, in disgusting and cowardly ambushes.

When I consider the circumstances of the past two weeks and recall that the spearhead battalion, which was moved into my constituency at the beginning of September, following the beginning of these events, has moved out, to be redeployed elsewhere, I really start to worry again, because in some way we have to destroy the myth of the infallibility of the Irish Republican Army in South Armagh.

To some extent the House contributes to that myth of infallibility. It is not very often that I agree with Mr. Paddy Short, the Republican spokesman in Crossmaglen, but I agree with what he said last week, according to the Belfast Telegraph: We want someone to explode the myth of South Armagh. The impression the outside world gets is that you are tripping over gunmen when you come here, but, as you can see, I'm sure, everything's like a normal countryside. It is not quite like a normal countryside, but it is not bandit country. It is not South Vietnam. The total population can be measured in thousands, and the total number of active Service men of the IRA can be measured in tens rather than hundreds. That myth has to be destroyed—and destroyed by the same sort of initiative as the Metropolitan Police showed here last weekend.

As someone confronted by terrorism for seven years, I found it a tremendous boost and filip to see the security forces for once in front of the terrorists. Up to now we have always found ourselves struggling after the event. The initiative has always been lacking. This weekend we saw that the initiative can be grabbed from the terrorists. I hone that Her Majesty's Forces in South Armagh will show that sort of initiative.

Road blocking is essential. Do not let anyone try to convince us that it is not. But we must give the forces increased powers, so that if there is interference with their works, although they may not find it possible to take action at the time of the interference, they can, if it is possible to identify them, arrest the people concerned and charge them with interference with Army works. Such increased powers would be of assistance to the Army and a deterrent to the people who are interfering with Army works.

Mention has been made of the morale of our troops in South Armagh. It should be emphasised that the conditions under which these men exist is Forkhill and Crossmaglen are an indictment of every one of us here. They are having to wade through muck six inches deep before going out—frequently to sacrifice their lives.

Is it any wonder that the IRA can run that country with their tails up when our boys are suffering in those conditions? The Under-Secretary is, I know, concerned and has shown tremendous interest in the events in my constituency and in Northern Ireland generally. I ask him to look at this problem. We have to improve morale and provide the men with proper conditions and recreational facilities.

I deal next with the UDR, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Carson) was talking earlier. If we are to attempt to reduce the number of tours of duty that soldiers have to do and to reduce the number of Regular soldiers in Northern Ireland, we have to use our own local UDR. I pay tribute to their courage, their effort and their sacrifice. Recently, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said that the regiment had done and was doing magnificent work throughout the Province and that it had the fullest support of the Government. I endorse that statement and I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State will do the same.

This year, at a time when my constituents in the UDR are being murdered in disgraceful circumstances, 222 men applied to join the regiment. We have to set against that the fact that 166 men were discharged. But the increase of 60 shows the measure of support that the regiment has.

Of the 166 who were discharged, 84 resigned, leaving 82 about whom I am extremely concerned. I know that some of them were discharged for the best of reasons and deserved to be discharged, but I also know that others were discharged without being given a reason. If the reason was that they were involved in subversion, or in para-military organitions, they should have been told. No one wants them in the UDR. Other members of the UDR do not want them. Unfortunately, however, by not disclosing to them the reasons why they were being put out we created uncertainty amongst the remainder. We affected morale and, in effect, we branded them, because it may be that they are not members of the UVF, as was alleged by certain members of the SDLP.

Everyone has branded these men. Many of them were full-time workers in the UDR. If anything can be laid against them they should be charged with the offences alleged against them or told that they are being discharged, instead of their being brought before their commanding officer and told to leave their equipment and go, as happened in two cases brought to my notice. Many of them have no other source of employment. Having served in the regiment for two or three years, suddenly they are destroyed. It would not happen in any other employment and it should not happen in the UDR.

The situation could be helped if we formed more full-time units of the UDR, not to do static duty but to perform operational work. Because of the employment situation and because in agriculture at this time there is not the same pressure. It is time that an appeal was made to recruit men into full-time units of the UDR. I am sure that it would bring a favourable response.

Again, if these men are being shot at they need better practice. The only firing range is about 50 miles away, and that can be used only on occasional weekends, because there is tremendous pressure to use it. I know that the Government are considering a new range in County Armagh. I ask them to hurry it along. We have our priorities wrong when we close a range for amenity reasons. We should tell the weekend sailors who do not join the UDR that they must sail somewhere else when target practice is necessary.

I pay tribute to the Minister. At midnight on Monday night, on a lonely Armagh road, I was stopped by an Army patrol. After six years, I could not have been treated in a better fashion. I did not identify myself, but I was treated with every courtesy—I might almost say with kindness. The soldiers searched my car. I had a few words with them. I hope that it is reassuring to those people who are worried about the morale of the troops there to know that after this period of time these young men were all looking forward to going home for Christmas. I hope that they will enjoy themselves. I hope that they will be alive to do so. I congratulate them on their excellent work.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Will the hon. Gentleman direct his attention to the Ulster Defence Regiment and inform the House whether he has any information, by written or unwritten instruction, about any restrictions on members of the Ulster Defence Regiment engaging Provisional IRA terrorists if they are observed?

Mr. McCusker

I do not want to go into that matter in any detail. I shall discuss it with the hon. Gentleman afterwards.

8.55 p.m.

Mr. Robert Boscawen (Wells)

The hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) has brought a sense of frontline reality to the debate. He mentioned the way in which our young men in Ireland are perfoming their duties in great difficulty and danger. I should like to add that our feelings are with them as much tonight as every night and that we support them in carrying out their very difficult job.

The Bill and the Acts that we are renewing form the backcloth to the efficiency of our Armed Services. The Acts have been renewed for a long time. They were based on a great deal of experience in peace and war and contain a great deal of wisdom and humanity. I suggest that any changes need careful consideration and I have no doubt that the changes, especially those embodied in Clause 5 of the Bill, were introduced after a great deal of thought and con- sideration. I hope that the Select Committee will hear all the reasons for those changes.

It is right for the Bill to be sent to a Select Committee so that the Committee may go into the important backcloth to the efficiency of our professional volunteer Armed Forces. I and many other hon. Members on both sides of the House are anxious about the rumours, which are rife at present, that there may be further substantial cuts in the Armed Forces.

I should like to draw attention to the popular edition of the White, Paper on the Defence Review last February. That document, which was written in August this year, contains an introduction by the Secretary of State. I compliment—not congratulate—the Government's defence team for stating so clearly the threats that we face from the Soviet Union. It has clearly appreciated the full situation set it out in a popular document, and given lectures and talks throughout the country. The country owes it a debt. In the introduction the Secretary of State for Defence says: The need is not for an extravagant defence but an adequate one. It is not easy to reconcile conflicting objectives and the balance must be adjusted from time to time. But the Government believes that the course upon which it is now set makes best sense for Britain. Some hon. Members did not agree that it was the "best sense for Britain" because we did not believe that the cuts that were announced matched the threats and the imbalance between the NATO and Warsaw Pact forces. If it was the best sense for Britain why are we talking about further cuts now?

Many of our people are appalled at the possibility of further substantial cuts in our defences. At the time of the last defence review I disagreed with the Labour Party not on its appreciation of the threat but on the way it believed it could carry out, without risk, the severe cuts that it planned for the forces over the next few years. I felt that the cuts increased rather than decreased the chances that the Soviets might be tempted, without a major war, to seek to assert their will over our raw material interests or other interests in one way or another. I felt convinced that the proposed cuts would disturb our allies at the time and encourage them to seek ways of cutting their forces.

I was even more anxious at that time because I thought that the cuts that were made after the defence review would start to cloud the will of this country to resist the threats that we face, whether from blackmail, political pressure or even a major adventurous policy by the Soviets. People are bound to be more anxious today when they hear these rumours. But how much more anxious must be the Armed Forces. I can imagine the conversations that are going on today about these rumours, in wardrooms, gun rooms, and corporals', sergeants' and officers' messes. It would be extremely valuable if the Secretary of State came here tonight, denied the rumours, and said "Whatever we do, we shall not again severely cut our defences". The order of cuts that we have been hearing about during the last few days can only mean massive reductions in personnel, and that would be severely damaging to our interests.

Many hon. Members on both sides of the House take an honourable view about defence, believing that it must have priority over all Government commitments. However, some hon. Gentlemen on the Government Benches have challenged us to stand up and say whether we prefer to see cuts in welfare, education, housing and other areas for which the Government are responsible on behalf of the people of this country.

We certainly need to spend more money on welfare. I know as much as anybody else about the need to spend more money on the disabled. We need more money spent on nursery schools and the early education of our children. Of course we do. It is popular to offer to spend more on the good things that we need so much, but what good are those things to anybody if someone else is imposing their will upon us? That is what defence is about. The Government must seek to spend enough to prevent others imposing their will upon us. I am willing to stand up before any audience and say that, much as we want and wish for more to be spent on personal needs, the overall security of this country must, as always, have priority over all other needs.

9.4 p.m.

Mr. Cranky Onslow (Woking)

I mean no disrespect to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force, who is to wind up the debate, but in a sense this has been an anticlimatic debate for two reasons. First, the Bill, important though it is and carefully though the Select Committee will no doubt look at it, has been overshadowed in substance by the basic facts that discipline is about morale and that morale is about the rôle of the forces in our society and society's confidence in the ability of the forces to defend us.

That fact is coupled with the undoubted evidence we have had today that hon. Members on both sides are preoccupied with doubt, questions, uncertainties and fears which are also widely expressed outside the House. The anticlimax is inevitable when we realise the Government apparently intend to do nothing on this occasion, to allay these doubts, or to tell us that our fears are groundless. The Minister of State told us that the current expenditure review was no more than part of the usual process which goes on at this time of the year. I would have thought that he had sufficient perception to tell the difference between the sound of sleighbells and the ring of sharpening axes.

The hon. Member for Erith and Cray-ford (Mr. Wellbeloved) deserves to be congratulated on reading with a straight face quotations from the "Bluff and Persuasion Act". If that is the way in which the debate is to go, it will inevitably be a bit of an anticlimax because it may be that the Minister who is to reply will be unable usefully to add to or comment on current speculation. Perhaps the Secretary of State, were he here, could neither comment on nor add to the same speculation, but I hope that the Under-Secretary and the Minister of State will give the House an undertaking that they will report our mood faithfully to their colleagues in the Government and especially to their colleagues in the Cabinet, because there is no doubt that this has been an important debate on a most important theme.

There have been powerful speeches from both sides of the House including that from the other side of the House by the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Williams), who should be congratulated on his triumph in his election to the Defence Committee of the Parliamentary Labour Party—a rout of the Left if ever there was one. There was also the contribution from the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford and from my side valuable contributions came from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon), my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw) and for Harrogate (Mr. Banks), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck), my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Good-hart) and others.

I welcome the contributions made by the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Carson) and the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker). It is good to hear contributions from their Bench because it indicates the value which they place upon the forces of the United Kingdom. It contrasts well with the last occasion when we had a large-scale defence debate without any similar contribution from them. I hope that they and other hon. Members from Northern Ireland will not hesitate to make contributions of this kind. Let neither they nor our troops in Northern Ireland think that we have forgotten them. When I visited Crossmaglen I saw for myself the daunting task which our troops face and I drew encouragement from the high morale which they displayed in their task. I echo what was said by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester and by hon. Members from Ulster about sending our good wishes to the troops at this time of the year above all.

I come back to the main theme—cuts or rumours of cuts. I can make the point most effectively by listing, not necessarily in any particular order, the sort of cuts we are talking about, not in monetary terms but in terms of limbs to be lopped off our defences. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) and others referred to some of them.

One of the top priorities, I suppose, for any cuts must be the interceptor version of the MRCA. Another must be the "Invincible" and the maritime Harrier which goes with it. Another could be the number of troops we keep in BAOR. Another could be a dockyard. Another could be the Army's Lynx order. Another could be some of the ships which the Royal Navy mans at present. Another could be a decision not to replace the ageing Shackletons and Gannets with new early-warning aircraft.

If hon. Members think that I am being a little sensational, I ask them to realise that to remove £700 million from the annual defence expenditure means crippling cuts, which must include two or three or four of those I have listed, and not just one of them or some other easy option which might be cobbled up from the recesses of the Whitehall defence machine.

If hon. Members are prepared to take these possibilities seriously, as I ask them to, they will realise that the effects on industry of such cuts could be a disaster. To cut the interceptor version of the MRCA would gravely prejudice employment prospects at Preston and Filton. The production lines for the airframes, engines and avionics would begin to taper ominously away, and unit costs would go up. The whole project would be undermined. The Germans and Italians are our partners in the enterprise. What would they say?

Again, if the "Invincible" were to be scrapped, what would the impact be on the shipbuilding industry? The intervention of the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) was pertinent in pointing out what a curious celebration it would be if the first act of this nationalising Government were to cut prospects away from industries which they have taken into public ownership. What about the effect on overseas orders and the loss of confidence among customers abroad? The order books in the last 12 months have already begun to taper away because of the threat of nationalisation itself.

But that is the least important aspect. More important still is the effect on our defences in being, above all on the NATO Alliance, within which we must remain if we are to have any collective security. Without the MRCA, what happens to NATO's air capability? Would the Government buy another aircraft instead? Would they "go American", as they have done before? Would they buy the F15 or the F16, just as they looked for Phantoms to replace the British aircraft scrapped by the last Labour Government? I do not see the right hon. Gentleman relishing having to defend that action.

What about our Atlantic defences? If we scrap ships that we need if we are to maintain a defence capability in the approaches to the country's own waters, we shall, to quote from David Fairhall in The Guardian on Monday … be facing fundamental issues such as whether we can any longer operate a comprehensive naval force in the Eastern Atlantic. That is the dimension of the cuts talked about in purely numerical terms, but what is at stake is the whole credibility of NATO. We have had public warnings about this from Dr. Luns, Admiral Sir Terence Lewin and Admiral Sir Peter Hill-Norton. I would not be surprised to hear that the Prime Minister, on his recent unsuccessful travels, was given private warnings by the French President or the German Chancellor, or that he has had conveyed to him warnings from the President of the United States. Perhaps the Prime Miinster should be reflecting on the statement made by President Giscard d'Estaing before the Rome Conference that nations weak in defence can hardly expect to be heard on other subjects of international importance. It may be that he can see some connection there.

Given that that is so, there is one question which the House is entitled to ask the Minister tonight: was the statement by the Secretary of State in Brussels at a Press conference on Monday night just another bromide, or was it a serious undertaking? Both The Times and the Financial Times reported the Secretary of State as saying that he pledged Britain to consult our NATO allies on any defence cuts. I am sorry if I appear to be harsh in using the word "bromide", but we have heard phraseology such as that before. The term "consultation" has been used to cover decisions which have been notified ex-post facto and which have not involved any genuine consultation or negotiation in any way. Let us at least now have an undertaking that if there is any question in the Government's mind of making cuts in NATO's capability, there will be genuine, thorough and exhaustive consultation with our allies before the Government come to the House and tell us what they propose to do.

Indeed, I hope that the Government will go further and take the House into their confidence in the consultation pro- cess because they should by now have realised that most hon. Members see that there is a point beyond which defence cannot be cut and remain credible. If there is a difference between those who accept that proposition, it is over where that precise point should be. It may move up or down with circumstances. It is possible that conditions could require greater expenditure on defence in times of great tension or threat. It is possible that in terms of genuine peace and accord the point would move down the scale, and that surely is what we all wish to see.

I recognise that there are exceptions to the rule, and one is the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) who appears to hold to some curious conspiracy theory. He believes that the quality Press has been putting around an alarmist campaign. The hon. Gentleman and others who use the term "quality Press" in that sense usually mean the papers which they do not read, and I accept that the hon. Gentleman is not necessarily one of the most regular readers of the Daily Telegraph.

Mr. Frank Allaun

I am.

Mr. Onslow

I am glad that that newspaper's successful and sustained important campaign to draw attention to the situation that we face in defence has captured the hon. Gentleman's notice. It may be that he reads other papers besides the Daily Telegraph. It may even be that he reads the Sun. I should not, however, until this moment have thought that he was one of the readers of the Sun who never got beyond page 3. If he had opened his Sun yesterday and turned back to page 2 he would have seen the following comment in a powerful editorial, which I commend to him, on the subject of defence cuts: It is only a matter of months since we were being told that our defences were at bedrock. The defence of the realm must not be made a sacrificial lamb to please Labour's anti-NATO Left Wing. "Quality Press" is an accolade that Mr. Murdoch might be happy to have, but I do not think the hon. Gentleman should be so free in accusing the papers of a campaign of alarmism when we get words such as that in a paper such as the Sun.

The Daily Mail of 25th November carried a powerful argument headed: A stab in the back for Britain". The article set out the situation as seen from within the Services, and it did so in a purely factual way. There was nothing alarmist about it.

Mr. Frank Allaun

I hope the hon. Gentleman realises that he is helping my case, which is that there is a powerful and concerted campaign in certain quarters of the Conservative Press to prevent the reductions from taking place, and he is quoting the papers.

Mr. Onslow

The hon. Member's tortuous mind has led him to the wrong conclusion. The fact may simply be that many people are understandably worried. I believe that that is a great deal nearer the truth than the conspiracy theory which the hon. Gentleman, for reasons into which I will not go, may find more congenial.

At any rate, when the Press do speculate on this matter, they produce for us evidence of the extent of concern. In the hon. Member's reading, no doubt today's Daily Express was included. It contained a report about an alliance between Mr. Jack Jones and Mr. Hugh Scanlon and the Secretary of State for Defence to soft-pedal on defence cuts on the grounds that, if defence orders are axed, thousands of jobs may be lost. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I see that some hon. Members opposite do not regard this as a pure conspiracy. I see that they regard it as a genuine expression of concern. Perhaps the hon. Member for Salford, East had better have a word with his hon. Friends afterwards. I did not plant that report, and I do not suppose for a moment that they did.

We must know that the overwhelming majority of people in this country are deeply worried about the effect of any further defence cuts. That anxiety was well put into words by my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Boscawen) It was put very well indeed by the hon. Member for Hornchurch, who asked whether we were not moving towards a situation in which we might as well scrap defence entirely—the same proposition as I just formulated.

The hon. Gentleman also admitted a disillusion with his former ministerial master, the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, whom he admired and served as a PPS. I do not confess any similar admiration, looking back as I do on the long and ignoble roll-call of cuts executed during the right hon. Gentleman's tenure of the office of Secretary of State—piecemeal cuts, progressive cuts and all too often cuts which involved a breach of pledges upon which the ink was hardly dry. So the hon. Gentleman has allowed excessive loyalty to cloud his judgment here.

But at least I can commend to him and the House one statement made by the right hon. Gentleman in those faraway days. On 5th March 1969—this must have been about the seventh round of cuts in the series from 1964—he said: I am proud to have played a part in making these improvements and this change of priorities possible —the "Bluff and Persuasion" Act having force there again— … but I warn my hon. Friends —here, for once, truth breaks through— that once we cut defence expenditure to the extent where our security is imperilled, we have no houses, we have no hospitals, we have no schools. We have a heap of cinders."—[Official Report, 5th March 1969; Vol. 779, c. 551.] So when the hon. Member for Horn-church says that the Chancellor is now abusing his influence to call for disproportionate defence cuts, would he care to remind his right hon. Friend of those words of his? Would he care to tell him that many among us see great force in them, even if we have lost our confidence in the man who spoke them? And would he care to say that, if it comes to a crunch and the Secretary of State for Defence and his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence want to know whether they have allies, the answer is that they have allies on both sides of the House, allies on all sides outside the House and allies in Europe? That is something from which the Secretary of State will, I hope, draw some encouragement, and which will enable us to look back on this as a day when we debated fears which subsequent events proved groundless.

But we must not omit to judge the situation in the NATO, the European, context. In the current public anxieties, I do not believe that I am alone in detecting a remarkable similarity in public mood with the public mood during the political debate in the referendum campaign. Certainly whenever I spoke to audiences of all parties during that campaign, I detected a striking awareness in the mind of the general public of the need for us to combine with our partners in Europe to defend ourselves. It was not something that was within the particular and immediate orbit of the Treaty of Rome, but there was an awareness in the public's mind that we were a European nation and that our allies in Europe would provide us with the protective security which we must have to survive. That feeling was not confined to old soldiers or to those who were directly involved in the horrors of war. It applied pretty well across all classes and to people of all ages.

I am sorry that apparently the Secretary of State is not of like mind on this point, because when he addressed the Staff College recently the final point of his address was: To the extent that there is increasing political pressure on defence expenditure, this reflects an increasing disenchantment with defence. This is perhaps most marked amongst younger people. I don't think that there is anything mysterious or sinister about this. A large number of people in Western Europe have grown up with no experience of war, and cannot accept or even comprehend, the possibility of war taking place again in Europe, and the prospect of nuclear war is the most unthinkable of all. Unthinkable it may be, but that does not mean that we should not attempt to think about it. The Secretary of State is profoundly wrong if he believes that people in this country generally and in Europe at large are uninterested in defence or do not know its value.

The dangers of war are brought very close to most of us every day. Two-dimensionally and safely locked behind a glass screen, the television in our living room has brought violence right into our lives, far too often for comfort and far too often for any easy disbelief in the need for defence. The Great War, the Second World War and more immediately Vietnam, Angola, Ulster and the events in our own streets remind us of the importance of paying "an insurance premium", to borrow again the words of Sir Peter Hill-Norton, which is essential if we are to have protection.

The great majority of people in this country understand that, and the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford put the point more vividly than I can. Therefore, fundamental decisions on the defence of this country must not be taken in economic panic by a Cabinet pressured by an unholy alliance of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State for Energy and the other Members of the Left-wing Mafia.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud reminded us, the world is getting tougher. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Blaker) illustrated in a vivid opening of a window into the Kremlin, in his devastating, satirical and effective speech, the Russians have every reason at present to believe that they are on the brink of victory. That fact alone may explain to the hon. Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper) why it is that the Russians continue to put guns before grain and why they expect their people to accept sacrifices in food supplies, housing and social services. It is in order that they can maintain their defence expenditure at the grossly high level to which they have recently increased it—for reasons which are certainly not designed to do us any good. I hope that the Minister of State will agree that we must not allow the Government to gamble with the cohesion of the European alliance. When he says—and I applaud him for it—that he would "not remain a member of a Government which undermined the collective security of the West", I ask him to take back to his colleagues the message that this House will not permit a Government which did that to stay in office.

9.29 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force (Mr. Brynmor John)

This has been a combined debate in which we have debated both the Armed Forces Bill and more general defence matters. It is no mere formality, therefore, if in winding up I ask for the indulgence of the House, at any rate, if not for its wholehearted understanding, if I am unable to cover every point that has been made in what has been an extremely wide-ranging debate—so wide-ranging that I cannot hope to win in winding up.

I was rejected in advance by the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger), and described as anti-climatic by the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow). If I deal with the general defence issues, as the hon. Member for Woking did, to the exclusion of the Bill, those who have given a lot of thought to the speeches that they made and have probed many interesting points could fairly raise with me the fact that this is the only occasion for five years when we shall have a Second Reading debate on an Armed Forces Bill. On the other hand, if I deal with every point of detail on the Bill I shall run the risk of falling foul of those to whom the major strategic issues are paramount.

I intend to concentrate, first, on the Armed Forces Bill, for the reasons that I have mentioned. It is rather like Brigadoon. It appears only occasionally in our parliamentary life, and it affects rights and individual freedoms in a very real sense. I do not deny the importance of the many other issues that have been raised. However, we shall have an opportunity of debating those on other occasions, and I promise that before the end of my speech I shall try to cover as many of those points as possible.

I detected in the speech of the hon. Member for Woking a sense of disappointment at the way and the form in which the debate had gone. I think that this was inevitable, because the Bill is vital, as is the Continuation Order, and so it was imperative that the Bill and the Order be debated before Christmas. As I understand it, it was the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition who suggested, during business questions—and the suggestion gained ready assent—that the debate might be broadened. Therefore, if the debate has lacked form and disappointed the hon. Gentleman a little, that is because it was inevitable if one tacked two different aspects of defence into one debate. Nevertheless, I think that the hon. Gentleman will feel, as I do, that it has been a worthwhile debate and has raised many issues that concern us.

I am grateful, on behalf of the Government, for the general welcome that the Bill has received on both sides of the House. The procedure has been generally welcomed—particularly that of remission to the Select Committee. If there has been one point of procedure that has caused some concern to a number of hon. Members, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Erith and Cray-ford (Mr. Wellbeloved) and Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown), it is the proposed abolition of the annual Continuation Order. I should like to assure the House that it is not in any way the Government's intention to lessen the control that Parliament has traditionally exercised over the Armed Forces by this means. I take note of the points that hon. Members have made. This is most certainly a point which can usefully be pursued by the Select Committee.

I was asked a number of questions about the composition of the Select Committee. My understanding of it is that a Minister will not be a member, of the Select Committee but will, if necessary, give evidence, and the Select Committee will have the power to call witnesses before it, as it did on the last occasion.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Is my hon. Friend saying that if the Select Committee, having examined the situaton in relation to the Government's proposal to discontinue the Continuation Order, comes to a different conclusion, the Government have not taken any irrevocable decision and would be open to persuasion?

Mr. John

I can most gladly give that assurance. Our decision is by no means irrevocable. It has been dictated by what we believe to be the realities of the last two or three years—namely, that the Continuation Order was taken formally and that the debate on general defence matters was on the Adjournment of the House. However, if it is the will of the House that it should be so, we would not have closed our minds on the subject and would give serious consideration to that point.

Mr. Roper

Will my hon. Friend ensure that the motion which is put down to set up the Select Committee will give that Committee power to adjourn from place to place? When the Select Committee was initially set up last time, that power was not given and the Committee had to come back to the House to ask for it. On this occasion it might be preferable to do it all at once.

Mr. John

I shall bring that matter to the attention of those who arrange such things.

I turn to the point that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper) on Clause 2—namely, that the power now given to vary a term of service so as to reduce it might lead to insecurity. My hon. Friend's point led to some difference of interpretation between him and the hon. Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks). I believe that my hon. Friend will be completely reassured when I explain the reason for this provision.

This extra power is needed to deal conveniently with the comparatively few cases in which a soldier or airman is enlisted for a trade in which he is subsequently found to be unsuitable, when it is necessary to transfer him to another trade which has a shorter engagement. The way in which that is dealt with now is cumbersome and uneconomic, as it is necessary to discharge the Service man and then reattest him. The change will greatly simplify the administrative procedures. I can give an assurance to the House that the rights of the individual Service man will in no way be lessened by what is now proposed.

Mr. Ronald Brown

Does my hon. Friend mean that the individual Service man will still have the right to come out of the Service if he feels that the offer that is made to him is not that which he signed on for originally?

Mr. John

This must be a consent power. My hon. Friend must know that if a man proves unsuitable for a trade and does not wish to transfer to another trade it is necessary for administrative action to be taken, with his consent.

Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Farnworth and Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Watkinson), referred to the increased powers that are to be given to commanding officers in Clause 5 to increase from 28 days to 60 days their power of detention. This matter was considered by the previous Select Committee and it was left open for re-examination. Since then we have considered the matter and we believe that the increased powers have great merit. We commend them to the House.

First, the increased powers will have the merit of reducing the numbers of courts martial. The number of courts martial under the present scheme causes concern, in that they involve many people for long periods. Secondly, the increased powers—this amplifies what my right hon. Friend said in opening—will avoid at one and the same time the stigma of having been tried and convicted by a court martial. They will remove the strain from the individual who has to wait for a court martial to be convened. The individual will not have to feel that a court martial will be hanging over him for a long time.

The answer to my hon. Friends who feel that perhaps some right is being denied to the Service man is that the individual will still have the right to elect to go before a court martial. As with most elections to a higher court, that can be very much a two-edged weapon. Nevertheless, the Service man will still have that right.

In what was generally a welcoming speech the hon. Member for Ayr expressed concern about the legal advice that commanding officers will have to take if they propose to give punishment in excess of the previous powers. I think that we should leave a more detailed examination of these matters to the Select Committee. If that is one, the Select Committee will be able to consider exactly where and how the commanding officer should take legal advice.

I am at one with the hon. Gentleman in saying that any unacceptable delay should be avoided. It should be made abundantly clear that the primary charge to be considered under these extra powers will be disciplinary, and not the sort of civil charges which many of my hon. Friends may have in mind. I think that the certainty and speed of decision will be greatly welcomed by the Services.

I turn to the question of civilian courts and magistrates. The question arises whether the magistrates in the new standing civilian courts would be legally qualified. The answer is that they would be so qualified, because they would be appointed by the Lord Chancellor from members of the permanent judicial staff.

My hon. Friend the Member for Farnworth wanted to know the type of people who would be expected to take on the job of additional magistrates in juvenile cases and in courts martial dealing with civilian cases. The people I envisage acting as such magistrates would be headmasters and social workers who serve in the community overseas. They would be the most suitable people to serve as lay members of standing civilian courts dealing with juveniles. It would be appropriate, when dealing with civilians who are accused of more serious offences, to include a civilian in the court. That would normally be a Crown servant serving in that theatre or in any related department.

I was asked whether a NAAFI manager could undertake the task. Such a person would be inappropriate, because he would not be a Crown servant. I am sure that the hon. Member for Woking evinces considerable relief at that statement.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West asked about legal aid and sought to link it with the question of increased powers. I want to reassure my hon. Friend on this matter, but at the same time I do not wish to preempt the work of the Select Committee. The rules governing the application of legal aid in the Armed Forces are clearly set out in the Regulations. In addition, those rules are explained to a Service man who might be affected. In contrast to my hon. Friend's view, I can inform him that a very high proportion of applications for legal aid are granted. If there is any dissatisfaction about a particular case hon. Members should write to me, but I would point out that well-tried channels of complaint already exist.

There is a need for speed in disciplinary cases. The importation of legal aid arrangements could unnecessarily slow down the process. But we are always anxious to examine legal aid arrangements.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West also mentioned the scale of fees. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on his statement that they are at such a level that they will not attract the best barristers and solicitors to represent an accused. I hope that the Bar and the Law Society will continue a very proud tradition of affording representation to all those who need it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford asked whether we would extend to Colchester the arrangements for independent visitors—an idea employed in the Royal Navy. I can give him no assurance, except to say that we shall examine the situation to see whether it affords advantage. If we believe that to be the case, we shall consider the matter very carefully indeed.

The hon. Member for Ayr directed a number of questions to me. He asked whether, after the latest trawl through the Services, there were still any bodies of personnel not subject to the discipline Acts. We have thought carefully about the matter and can think of none at the moment. Should there be any, I shall inform the hon. Gentleman later and we shall ensure that their position is brought to the attention of the Select Committee.

The hon. Member for Ayr also asked about the provision to bar members of the UDR from membership of the House of Commons. When bringing the women's Services of the Royal Navy under the Naval Discipline Act, it was necessary to amend the Disqualification Act accordingly, and the opportunity was taken to clarify an uncertainty which had arisen in the case of the UDR. The proposed amendment is of a clarifying, though essential, nature. There will, as the hon. Member pointed out, be differences between members of the UDR and members of the TAVR. However, in the present circumstances in Northern Ireland the distinction made in this matter between the UDR and the TAVR is, we believe, fairly and correctly drawn.

The hon. Member for Ayr asked about how the reforms introduced in the last Armed Forces Act are working. I take it he was referring to the bringing into line of all offences and related punishment in the Service Discipline Acts. My right hon. Friend referred to these provisions in his opening speech and I am happy to underline what he said. When changes are introduced, it is inevitable that some time must pass before one can judge how they are working. There is a period when new arrangements have to be absorbed into the system. However, the reforms are working efficiently and making their contribution to the just and fair operation of the Services disciplinary system.

Mr. Wellbeloved

The hon. and learned Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck) and I referred to Brigadier Maunsell's report. Will the Government consider making that report available to the House?

Mr. John

We shall consider the matter. I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. [Interruption.] I am not sure whether some of my hon. Friends are more pleased when I disagree with them than when I agree with them.

Inevitably, there has been a good deal of discussion about levels of defence expenditure and I cannot let the occasion pass without making comments on the conflicting advice I have had from all parts of the House. There is concern and anxiety, and hon. Members of all parties have had a very narrow dividing line to draw between an expression of concern and anxiety and an undermining of confidence. I hope that will always be kept clear. We must never be complacent about the strength of the potential opposition. We, for our part, have never been complacent and we never intend to be, but neither must we be so alarmist about the strength of the opposition as to engender a sense of hopelessness in the military alliance. NATO is a strong and effective alliance and we are firmly committed to it. Mr. James Meacher wrote an interesting article in the October edition of the NATO Review in which he suggested that if one is unnecessarily alarmist one can produce the sense of hopelessness which should be avoided.

Mr. Onslow

I accept that point, but there is evidence that other members of the Alliance have been willing to increase their commitment to NATO—the Canadians are the most recent example. The Americans have committed more troops into Europe. They are not alarmist, but realistic in the face of what they see as a threat which is in no sense diminishing, but is, in a real sense, increasing.

Mr. John

I accept that that is the interpretation of both the American and Canadian action, and it is the reason that in the defence review we stated that NATO was the linchpin of our policy and that we could commit our forces best and expend our effort best in the central region and other NATO areas. The point I was trying to make, from which I do not think the hon. Member dissents, is that it is easy to go from there to a scenario which is all black, and which therefore engenders a sense of hopelessness about whether we can adequately defend the West, which would be counter-productive to our defence effort.

Mr. Rippon

Does the Minister agree that Admiral Sir Peter Hill-Norton was not being alarmist?

Mr. John

I have read the Admiral's statements and I have never in the past found him to be so, but there is a danger of overestimating the enemy as well as underestimating it.

There have been calls tonight for increased expenditure on defence and the Opposition have lent official support to that proposal. On the other hand, some of my hon. Friends have called for a cut in defence expenditure. In opening the debate, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State referred to the very real limitations placed on any Minister at this time in giving answers to the sort of comments that we have been invited to take up. The public expenditure survey is still not complete. Defence is not exempt from this scrutiny, any more than any other Department. It is no more exempt now than it was under the previous Conservative Administration. Since the survey is not complete, any sums mentioned or bandied about in the debate must be hypothetical. Nevertheless, if Christopher Isherwood described himself as "I am a Camera" I can give the hon. Member for Woking an assurance that I am a sounding board, and I shall pass on to my right hon. Friend the views of all hon. Members and ensure that they are drawn to the attention of those conducting the survey.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

I think the House would agree with the Minister's remarks about the importance of the NATO alliance. Will he therefore agree to publish the criticisms by our partners in NATO, which are now being put to his right hon. Friend, and will he further agree that the Government will act upon those recommendations?

Mr. John

No criticism has been directed to us on this aspect of the matter.

The hon. Member for Ayr asked for certain undertakings. I can give him two assurances. The Government still are firmly committed to maintaining a modern and effective defence system, and cuts, if any, will be judged in that light. Secondly, if the review were to result in an important quantitative or qualitative change in the United Kingdom contribution to NATO, we should of course consult our allies. I hope that that reassures the hon. Member.

The hon. Gentleman's second point related to the question of reductions in advance of the outcome of the MBFR talks. I further confirm that the Government continue to adhere to the principle adopted by the Alliance that there should be no reduction in the forces stationed in Europe in advance of the MBFR agreement. On the further assurance for which the hon. Gentleman asked, I wish to make it quite clear that the Government will retain modern and effective forces in order to meet our essential commitments to NATO. There is, therefore, no question of making cuts that would leave us with ineffective forces. I hope that those assurances will be recognised as going as far to meet the hon. Gentleman as I possibly can in the circumstances.

Mr. Younger

I am indeed grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for what he has said. When he refers to consultation with our NATO allies, does he mean that consultation will take place with them before decisions are taken, or that decisions taken could be open to alteration in the light of such consultation? Otherwise they would be meaningless.

Mr. John

I think that the consultations that took place last time were effective, and they would be engaged in again. If there has been no agreement on how much or how little we should spend on defence, I do not think there is any agreement either on the way in which we measure defence expenditure and its burden. Some have taken the percentage of GNP as being the correct formula. Some have taken the per capita expenditure as being the correct formula. Others have taken it as a proportion of public expenditure. This is a battle that is not resolved at the moment and, indeed, has not been resolved for a very long time.

Let me put a point to hon. Members on both sides of the House. Those who claim that massive cuts should be made in defence expenditure cannot, by representation, privately, informally or publicly, fairly claim that their constituency should be exempt from those particular cuts. I wish to make no accusation, but I must place on record that some who have shared the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) on defence expenditure have made such representation in the past year. At the same time, I cannot accept that members of the Conservative Party, who have said today as they have said before that defence is paramount, are then entitled to make representations to Ministers about the effects of defence activities on their constituencies. If those activities are essential to national defence, in my view they should explain to the people in their constituencies why they are necessary.

Coming to the reference to trade unions, one of my hon. Friends said that he speaks for the trade unions. All I can say is that in the past year we have had representations, formal and informal, from many trade union branches in the affected industries about defence cuts. The truth is that in a democracy defence is subject to consideration along with other items of public expenditure.

What we have said is that as a Government we are pledged to a modern and effective defence. That remains our posture, and I hope the House will regard it as such.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Select Committee.—[Mr. Dormand.]

Forward to