HC Deb 26 March 1984 vol 57 cc22-30 3.33 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Michael Heseltine)

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the Territorial Army.

The House will recall the Government's commitment to enhance our volunteer reserve forces. Two years ago my predecessor announced improvements in our support to the Territorial Army and our plans to expand it to 86,000 by 1990. I am now able to announce the second and more ambitious phase of these plans.

In considering where and how to enhance the Territorial Army, we have been guided by a number of principles. Most important is the operational requirement both in the European theatre and in home defence. We have also been conscious of recruiting potential, the availability of suitable facilities and, in particular, the importance of the regimental traditions and local affiliations.

Wherever appropriate, we have used the expansion plans to restructure and reorganise the Territorial Army infantry units. This will improve command and control, and reduce their geographical spread, which has long been a matter of concern.

Although final details remain to be decided, I can give the House an outline of our plans. We propose to raise six new infantry battalions: in north Yorkshire and Cleveland; Yorkshire; greater Manchester and Cheshire; Devon and Cornwall; Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire; and London. We intend to raise a new armoured reconnaissance squadron in the Newcastle area. A new air defence regiment will be formed in Scotland and a further battery added to each of the three existing regiments. All will be equipped with the Javelin guided missile.

The House may be particularly interested to learn that we plan to form for the first time a Territorial Army Air Corps Squadron, equipped with Scout helicopters. We shall also form new logistic and support units, including an ordnance unit in Bristol, a medical unit in Cambridge and a transport squadron in Wales.

We plan also to enhance the Territorial Army's equipment. The number of guns in field artillery regiments will be increased; the infantry will receive, along with its regular counterparts, the new anti-tank weapon LAW 80 and new small arms. TA battalions in the 2nd Infantry Division will be equipped with more mortars.

Our plans are to be implemented from 1986 onwards. They are set out in greater detail in an open Government document published today, which I have placed in the Vote Office.

These measures will significantly increase our conventional capability both in the United Kingdom and in Germany. They will strengthen the credibility of NATO's conventional deterrence. But for successful expansion the Territorial Army needs to recruit and retain its manpower. We are considering practical measures to assist in this, and have launched a major drive to increase employer support. I hope that the House will join me in encouraging the employers of reserve soldiers to help and support them where they can.

The Territorial Army provides over 25 per cent. of the Army's mobilised strength at a cost of only 4.5 per cent. of the Army budget. The House will wish me to pay tribute to those who are already serving members of our volunteer reserves, not only in the Territorial Army but in the Royal Naval Reserve, the Royal Marine Reserve, and the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. These men and women devote much of their spare time to valuable service in the defence of our country. Their dedication deserves the full support of this House and of the community at large. They are a symbol of the British people's commitment to NATO defence.

Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for making that statement and I join him in the well-merited tribute that he paid to the reserve forces and to the Territorial Army. Statements from the Ministry of Defence are coming thick and fast almost every Monday. The more cynical among us might say that a secondary purpose was perhaps to create a company of "Michael's own territorials" behind the right hon. Gentleman, ready for the day when the Prime Minister slips on that banana skin — [HON. MEMBERS: "Cheap."] — but to say that would be uncharitable.

I have three questions for the right hon. Gentleman. First, what will be the annual cost of the plans that he has announced and what will be the total cost by 1990 at today's prices? Secondly, what response has he received so far from employers? Is it not a fact that their enthusiasm has not been as great as he had hoped? Thirdly, while we welcome any steps to strengthen our conventional defences, why does the right hon. Gentleman not use his Monday spot to make a statement about the £2 billion increase in Trident which has caused far greater damage to our conventional defences than any benefit we might get from his statement today?

Mr. Heseltine

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his tribute to the members of our territorial services. The annual cost will be about £30 million and the capital cost about £140 million. If he aggregates those figures he will have the answer to his question.

The right hon. Gentleman was right to ask about the response of employers, because obviously they have a prior preoccupation to ensure that the people working for their companies are devoted full time to the success of those companies in what are difficult trading conditions, and I hope that the enthusiasm of large numbers of them will be reflected even more widely.

The answer to the right hon. Gentleman's question about why I did not announce the Trident additional costs in a Monday statement is that I chose to do so when the Department was top of the list for questions and when there were more Labour Members in the House than there are now.

Mr. Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that his statement today will be warmly welcomed by all those who care about the defence of our country? The last Labour Government wantonly destroyed the headquarters of 44 Parachute Brigade. Will my right hon. Friend give consideration in the coming months to reforming a small and inexpensive headquarters which would be able to co-ordinate the work of the excellent units that operate at present as individual parachute units?

Mr. Heseltine

I know of my hon. Friend's deep concern about this. Although I cannot undertake to give a favourable answer, I am sympathetic to the general thrust of his argument. Perhaps he will study the White Paper, which I hope will expand on some of these matters.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

As the Government are planning for only 0.5 per cent. real increase in defence expenditure from 1986, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that measures of the kind that he announced today will be vital to improve our conventional defence forces? I therefore welcome the six infantry battalions, especially the one for Devon and Cornwall, and the decision to equip them with anti-tank missiles.

Will the right hon. Gentleman say a little more about the youth training scheme and the extraordinary fact that only 670 people were accepted although there were 1,900 vacancies and 3,000 applications and many people hoped that the scheme would appeal to young people? Are not the conditions for entry too strict in insisting on the same requirements as for Regulars? Will the right hon. Gentleman consider that?

Mr. Heseltine

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his broad welcome for my statement. He asked about the 0.5 per cent. increase—it is, in fact, rather more—implied in the defence expenditure figure published for 1986. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to await the forthcoming White Paper, in which I shall have a good deal more to say about this important matter.

The youth training scheme is not central to my statement today, but I am considering that aspect. I am conscious that those accepted into the armed services have to train alongside Regular entrants and it is important not to get the balance wrong. It is a difficult issue and I am concerned about it.

Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson (New Forest)

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, but is he aware that there is great concern in the Territorial Army about the effect of TA membership on unemployment benefit? Given the importance of the TA role, to which he referred earlier, could not such service be exempted?

Mr. Heseltine

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have discussed the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services and I hope that he will be able to say something further about this in the next few days.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

I welcome the statement, but what was the point in it, when I read most of it in the newspaper yesterday? Was that a leak or a brief?

Mr. Heseltine

I am grateful to know that the right hon. Gentleman shares our concern about the prevailing practice of leaking documents. If it helps, perhaps I may tell him that it was probably neither a leak nor a brief, but it was more a leak than a brief.

Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

Is not this a most welcome statement of cost-effective policy? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it costs the taxpayer considerably less to train a Territorial soldier to high efficiency than to a train a Regular?

Mr. Heseltine

I very much appreciate my hon. Friend's view. He is perfectly correct, but his conclusion should not be taken a stage further. The valuable contribution of the Territorial service is based on the high degree of professionalism of the Regular forces, which are the essential core of our defence effort.

Mr. David Young (Bolton, South-East)

I pay tribute to the people who give up their time to this exercise, but will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the Territorial Army will not be used by the Department in a political or semi-political capacity, as the police have been used by his colleagues at the Home Office? May we have an assurance that this is not a back-door method of bringing in not Regular forces but forces which can be commanded by various Departments to enforce political dogma?

Mr. Heseltine

I think that the whole House will reject the assumption that the maintenance of law and order is the assertion of political dogma.

Mr. Keith Best (Ynys Môn)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that any expansion of the Territorial Army is greatly to be welcomed by the House and the country as a whole and that I especially welcome the extra availability of field artillery pieces to the Territorial Army? Is he further aware, however, that there is concern in the Territorial Army about whether money is being spent on administration or on genuine expansion of the number of places available? Is he satisfied that his announcement today paid sufficient regard to expansion of existing units so as to cut down on extra administration costs, rather than creating new ones?

Mr. Heseltine

My hon. Friend has touched on an important issue, which affects not only the Territorial Army but the whole of the administration of the defence budget. I am determined to see that generally the administration of our defence expenditure is kept to the necessary minimum. One must draw a balance between reinforcing existing units and going to other areas where the recruitment opportunities might be better. The document I have published reflects that balance.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Did the Secretary of State see the answer given last Monday by the Foreign Office that, whereas Norway spent £5.03 per head, this country spent only 16p per head on supporting the United Nations Children's Fund? How does the right hon. Gentleman justify—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sure that the hon. Member will seek to relate his question to this matter.

Mr. Dalyell

How does the right hon. Gentleman justify spending more money on the Territorial Army when there are starving kids throughout the world? Is not this matter all about his position in the Conservative party and about Tories playing soldiers? Britain has better uses for its money than to encourage that action.

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman would appreciate, if he had listened to my statement as carefully as he normally does, that my action was foreshadowed by my predecessor, Sir John Nott. This cannot be seen in any way as my personal initiative, although I am happy to be proudly associated with it. The House will appreciate that the Government believe it is as necessary to maintain the required levels of defence as to meet the other priorities on social matters, which are as important to us as they are to the hon. Gentleman.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton (Edinburgh, West)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement will be warmly welcomed? As an Army reservist, I ask him how he envisages the operations of the Air Corps. Is he aware that this decision is of particular interest throughout Britain?

Mr. Heseltine

I am grateful to my hon. Frend. We plan to form a new Territorial AAC squadron equipped with Scout helicopters. They are to be phased out of the regular units, but we believe that they still have a valuable and useful life. The squadron will be based at Netheravon. About 12 helicopters will be available to the squadron. To get the squadron into existence, we shall be recruiting from ex-Army aviation personnel.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

I welcome the statement by the Secretary of State. Does he accept that his statement has special significance because it strengthens the first-line mobility reserves of NATO and therefore acts in an area which is especially weak vis-a-vis the Warsaw pact? In that sense, does the right hon. Gentleman accept also that many Opposition Members will see this statement as providing the steps necessary to move towards a policy of no first use?

Why' will the plans be implemented from 1986 onwards rather than before? Is the reason a deficiency in money, organisation or manpower? What stage have we reached in achieving the target of 86,000 for 1990? Is recruitment up to the necessary level to achieve those targets?

Mr. Heseltine

At present, we have a strength of over 70,000, which is in line with our plans to move forward to a figure of 86,000 by 1990. We must take a slightly longer time scale than the hon. Gentleman and I would like, because it is necessary to build the capital facilities within which the training and various associated activities occur. That process will be getting under way. We already have a no-first-use policy. We will attack nobody.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement, especially as it forms part of the Government's commitment to increase the auxiliaries and volunteer reserves of all three services. Does my right hon. Friend intend shortly to form tactical transport Royal Auxiliary Air Force squadrons equipped with helicopters to provide specifically tactical transport for Territorial Army units?

Mr. Heseltine

I am aware of my hon. Friend's deep interest in and knowledge of these matters. I should be grateful if he would bear with me. This matter is still under consideration.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Mr. Young), I am assuming that this announcement is made in preparation for the social unrest that the Government's policies seem to be bringing about. I should like to ask the Secretary of State—[Interruption.]—when the fifth form opposite quieten down, whether he will give an assurance that, unlike the Norwegian troops on NATO exercises who use live ammunition on live animals, none of the Territorial battalions being formed or retained will be involved in such exercises or be involved in shooting live ammunition into live animals — unless it is into Conservative Members.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. In the interests of order and calmness in this place, the hon. Member should not say things like that.

Mr. Heseltine

I shall deal with the serious part of the hon. Member's question. If he would refer to the answer given by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, he would find that my Department has dealt fully with the subject of animals and experiments on animals.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, to ensure that the second phase of expansion is as successful as the first, he will have to pay attention to officer recruitment and retention? The recruitment of men has gone well, but the recruitment of officers at present is difficult. I hope that he will be giving money and attention to that aspect. Will he also ensure that the building of the new drill halls and the improvement of old ones continues, as it is vital?

Mr. Heseltine

My hon. Friend has a deep knowledge of this subject. As I have explained, the £140 million capital associated with the project is, in part, required for the building of new drill halls. I agree that one has to recruit officers as well as men.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the eastern district is the only one in England for which there are no proposed new units? Is that an implied tribute to the east midlands generally and the city of Leicester in particular, or is it the Government's usual failure to take note of the needs of that area?

Mr. Heseltine

When the hon. and learned Member has a minute to look at the document, he will find that a new field ambulance unit is to be raised in Cambridge in support of BAOR. We shall also increase the strength of existing medical units to enhance our capability.

Mr. Derek Conway (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement and in particular the creation of six additional Territorial Army battalions, by which my regiment, the Light Infantry, is likely to be enhanced. Bearing in mind the fact that the Government have accepted the importance of regionally placed battalions, will he give careful consideration to the use of training areas in future? While one accepts that there is a need for economical use of training areas, long travelling times for weekend training will severely limit the ability of people on Territorial Army training weekends to get in as much as possible during the course of their man-training days. Some assurance about future approximate training areas will be warmly welcomed.

Mr. Heseltine

I know that my hon. Friend will appreciate that, with training areas, a difficult balance has to be struck between military needs and the understandable preoccupation of the civil population with enjoying large areas of beautiful countryside in peace. I know that my hon. Friend will be pleased that the Light Infantry Volunteers is raising one new company in Shrewsbury which will replace two Yorkshire companies.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

What is the difference between this leak, which is helpful to the Government, and the Greenham common leak, which was not helpful to the Government? Do the Government intend to be consistent and pursue the source of the leak? As a supplementary to the question of—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member must ask a question of the Minister, not a supplementary to another hon. Member's question.

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Member will know that no Government, whether Labour or Conservative, can countenance wilful leaking of their confidential documents.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be widespread satisfaction about the way in which he is carrying out the Conservative election manifesto? Does he share the community's general wish that there should be improved and enhanced links between the Regular forces, the Territorial Army forces and the community, since otherwise fewer and fewer people will have knowledge of military life? What consideration has been given to retaining and bringing back the old and famous names where possible?

Mr. Heseltine

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. We have given much thought to names, and at the moment consultation is in progress. We want to take into account people's views on the matter. Therefore, I do not want to announce a firm decision, although we intend to do so relatively soon. At the moment, there seems to be agreement on two names. We shall adopt the name of the Royal Greenjackets in the south-east district and the Light Infantry in Yorkshire. However, that is not a firm decision. We shall consider it further. The relationship between the Territorial and the Regular forces is absolutely critical, nowhere more than in the 2nd Division in Germany, which has a large Territorial component. The other three divisions each have a Territorial Army battalion associated with them.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Secretary of State aware that when the Territorial Army was run down and the drill halls were sold under the 1964–66 Labour Government, the "Gang of Four" was included among the supporters for that measure, whether in the Government or as mere Back Benchers? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the conversion of the leader of the Social Democratic party has nothing to do with what that moderate Labour Government did but more to do with the doddering fortunes of the alliance and is not a matter of principle? Will the right hon. Gentleman give a guarantee that the Territorial Army, either in its present composition or in future, will not be used against those who are picketing to save their jobs?

Mr. Heseltine

My most vivid memory of that Government is that they were made up in significant part of present leaders of the Social Democratic party. Hon. Members such as the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) solemnly went through the Division Lobby in support of them.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call the four hon. Members who have been rising in their places.

Mr. J. F. Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)

I wholeheartedly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, which is very good news, but will he assure the House that the Territorial Army will receive up-to-date equipment, not clapped-out stuff coming from the Regular Army, which particularly applies to signals?

Mr. Heseltine

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. A balance must be struck. We are making some significant decisions about equipment. For example, from 1986 the Territorial Army will get the new rifle. We are increasing the number of mortars as well as the number of field guns for it. We have increased the number of 105 mm light guns per regiment from 18 to 24. We intend to keep up that process. I mentioned LAW 80 in my original statement as a piece of equipment that will be issued. We shall do our best to ensure that the Territorial Army has the best equipment that we can afford.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the enlargement of the Territorial Army, which we all welcome and which will be so important in helping our Regular forces, will give a wonderful outlet to patriotic and vigorous young people who wish to serve their country and who will have heard with contempt some of the remarks by Opposition Members?

Mr. Heseltine

As always, my hon. Friend makes a sound point. My only doubt is whether young people will not treat with contempt any remarks by Opposition Members.

Mr. Nicholas Lyell (Mid-Bedfordshire)

May I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, particularly for its potential benefit to home defence of the United Kingdom home base? Will my right hon. Friend clarify to what extent it will be improved and to what extent the forces are likely to be committed to the BAOR?

Mr. Heseltine

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend. Of the six battalions that I announced, three will be NATO role infantry battalions and three home defence infantry battalions. There will be a new air defence regiment and an additional battery for each of the three existing regiments. In addition, there will be two Royal Engineer airfield damage repair squadrons, although they have NATO implications.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

My right hon. Friend referred to the need for co-operation from employers towards men and officers in the Territorial Army when they want to fulfil their commitments. Following from that, will my right hon. Friend be so kind as to have a word with my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary to ensure that any Conservative Member who has Territorial Army commitments will be smiled upon favourably when he applies for leave to go on exercises in Norway, Turkey, or wherever our Territorial Army duties take us?

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. John Wakeham)

indicated assent.

Mr. Heseltine

My experience of my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary is that it is a great deal easier to get a favourable smile from him than a favourable decision.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

The Secretary of State made an important statement and I should like him to clarify some points. Perhaps he could clear up the issue of social security beneficiaries, as it is an important matter about which many people have written to him regarding its effect on Territorial Army recruitment and benefits. What are his plans for the defence force and the other volunteer reserves? There are also two important matters which he did not answer directly. First, is it ever envisaged that there will be any sort of law and order role in aid of the civil power for the new battalions?

Secondly, we all read with interest in the Sunday Telegraph yesterday the statements about the organisation, the new regiments and the rest, and the statement that was neither a brief nor a leak but more of a leak than a brief. Is that to say that if a Minister makes a statement, or one of his underlings makes one with his approval, it is no longer a leak? What is the difference between a press officer making such a statement to the Sunday Telegraph and a number 10 grade Foreign Office clerk making a statement to The Guardian?Is it not a case of the Government deciding precisely what they want to do? They are both matters of national security but in one case someone gets six months because the Government are embarrassed and in another the Secretary of State for Defence hopes to get some kudos out of making a statement that is generally supported throughout the country.

Mr. Heseltine

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Just to amplify what I said, it was a leak, but it was an inaccurate leak, so it could not be claimed to have been based on the availability of all of the documents which would go up to making such analysis possible. As to social security, I have already answered to the effect that I think that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services might make a statement shortly. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will wait for that. On the home defence force, we are now working to a target — we have not yet achieved it—of about 5,000. We believe that it will be achieved and are pleased with the way in which the issue is proceeding. The hon. Gentleman's question about the law and order role does not arise, because there is no change to the circumstances which exist and which existed under the previous Government in connection with the armed services in this matter.

Mr. McNamara


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sorry, but I cannot allow the hon. Gentleman to speak again. It is unusual to have questions from two Front Bench spokesmen, in any event.