§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Chapman.]
§ [Relevant documents: First Report from the Defence Committee of Session 1988–89 on the Future of the Brigade of Gurkhas (HC 68) and the Government's Reply thereto (Cm.700).]
§ Mr. Speaker
Before I call on the Front Bench I must point out that many right hon. and hon. Gentlemen wish to participate in this debate. I propose to put a limit on speeches of 10 minutes between 7 pm and 9 pm, but as we have had an early start, I hope that it may be possible to relax that limit. In fairness to all, I hope that those called before 7 pm will bear that limit broadly in mind.
§ 4.7 pm
§ The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton)
This year, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of NATO. During the past four decades, the collective strength and efforts of the Alliance have maintained peace in Europe in the face of the overwhelming military power of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. This year has also seen the 10th anniversary of a Conservative Government, who have not only provided this country with secure defences, but have also played a full part in NATO's search for dialogue and co-operation in East-West relations. Thankfully, NATO's approach has now evoked a response from the Soviets.
There are welcome signs now that the Soviet leadership is moving away from its past exaggerated reliance on aggressive military power as the basis of the Soviet Union's status as a world power. We are determined to encourage and build on this new mood, but we should not be blind to the massive military strength that the Warsaw pact still retains. The recent promises of reductions in its forces are a step in the right direction, but even after the reductions announced last December are implemented, the Warsaw pact will still outnumber the West by 2.4:1 in tanks and artillery in Europe and by 1.8:1 in combat aircraft. That is a huge imbalance which is inconsistent with the requirements of any "defensive doctrine".
§ Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)
Before the Minister leaves that point, will he tell us the ratios that normal military strategy requires to make no offensive attack worth while? Are we not talking about ratios of about 3:1 at least before commanders would consider that they had sufficient advantage to guarantee an offensive attack any chance of success?
§ Mr. Hamilton
I have certainly not heard the figure. The thing that matters is the concentration of forces for an offensive attack. That is the significant matter, and that is one of the factors that will have to be considered in the CFE talks. We must ensure that the forces that we are left with are dispersed widely enough to prevent a concentrated attack—the one thing that would undermine the security of the West.
If we are to be certain of preserving our freedom arid security, NATO needs collectively to remain able to show the Warsaw pact that it can gain no possible advantage by trying to pursue its objectives by the use of military force in Europe. The government are not prepared to abandon the policies that have kept the peace for so long. We will not abandon the nuclear element of Western defence, 381 which history has shown is the only way in which the aim of preventing all forms of war in Europe—conventional and nuclear—can be achieved, and which is accepted by all members of the Alliance. The Labour party wants to throw away the policy or flexible response which has ensured that Soviet leaders have never felt tempted to use their massive military strength against a NATO country.
Our deterrent policy ensures that any aggression would involve the prospect of unacceptable losses, disproportionate to any conceivable gain. That involves having available to the Alliance a range of options so that a potential enemy is faced with a series of possibilities that cannot be predicted with certainty. Creating uncertainty in the minds of our potential enemies about how, precisely, the West would respond to aggression is one thing. Creating uncertainty in the minds of our allies about our commitment to the agreed policies of the Alliance is another. With this Government, our allies can be certain that the United Kingdom will continue to provide the full range of effective forces and a full contribution to the mutual commitments of NATO membership that are necessary for our defence and that of our allies.
The Army plays a crucial part in this country's commitment to NATO's common defence, principally through its role in the defence of Europe's central region. The centrepiece of this contribution is the British Army of the Rhine, which provides armour, infantry, artillery and air defence units—as well as regiments of Lance missiles and artillery, which are capable of firing nuclear warheads—as part of NATO's Northern Army Group. In war, it would form a fully integrated part of the forces available to NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe to carry out NATO's agreed strategy of forward defence and flexible response.
Over the past 10 years the Government have spent about £20 billion more on our conventional forces than would have been spent if spending had continued at the 1978–79 level—its level under the last Labour Government. Because of that we have been able to provide the forces and the equipment necessary to maintain a full contribution to this strategy, and I shall today describe some of the ways in which we shall ensure that the Army can continue to play a full part.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
As a tank-crew national service man in the British Army of the Rhine—possibly it is a residual interest—may I ask the Minister whether the complaints about BAOR accommodation that some of us have heard are founded? Some of the SS barracks which were very good when I was a national service man must surely be deteriorating.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I did not receive many complaints about Army barracks when I visited the Rhine Army recently. We are constantly spending money on updating and improving them, and there is no question of their being left in their pre-war state. Even though some of the accommodation is not up to the standard that we would like, we find money for improvements whenever we can.
Over this period the capability of BAOR has been increased considerably, and we are continuing to provide for extensive improvements in each of the key areas of firepower, mobility and protection.
382 During the past year, a sixth regiment of Challenger I thanks has been introduced. A seventh regiment is on order, and in December last year we decided that all Challenger tanks will be retrofitted with the new Charm 120 mm main armament. The first regiment will be equipped in the early 1990s. We also intend to replace the Chieftain tank as soon as possible, and as my right hon. Friend announced on 20 December, we have given Vickers Defence Systems the opportunity to show that it can deliver Challenger 2 to specification, time and cost. The demonstration phase is due to end in September 1990. Vickers must also show that it is able to develop improved ammunition for the tank's main armament so that it can match the technical developments of the future. We also placed an order in January this year for a further batch of Challenger armoured repair and recovery vehicles which will significantly enhance the combat effectiveness of our armoured forces.
The multiple-launch rocket system will start to be deployed from next year. Three regiments' worth have been ordered. This system will increase the range and potency of the Royal Artillery, initially with a rocket which will dispense bomblets designed to attack personnel and lightly armoured targets. MLRS2, which will dispense anti-tank mines, is under consideration for the mid-1990s, and MLRS3, which will be designed to dispense terminally guided anti-armour munitions, is being developed as a multnational collaborative venture for the latter part of the 1990s. Phoenix, a remotely piloted vehicle which is nearing the end of development, will provide improved targeting information.
A new 155 mm self-propelled howitzer, due to enter service from the early 1990s to replace the Abbot self-propelled howitzer and some of our older M109 systems, will not only provide a significant improvement in the artillery's firepower but should also provide excellent value for money for the taxpayer. A decision on this will be made shortly.
We have continued to improve the equipment of the infantryman. The LAW80 man-portable anti-tank weapon has been in service since January last year. Some 90,000 SA80 rifles are now in service in two versions, the individual weapon and the light support weapon. The weapon is generally well liked and has significantly increased infantry firepower. It is much more accurate than its predecessor, it allows more ammunition to be carried for the same weight, it is more compact, and it has a higher rate of fire.
A development contract was awarded in September last year for the important TRIGAT missile project. This programme, on which we are collaborating with France and West Germany, is aimed at replacing our current anti-tank missiles with more powerful third-generation systems in the mid to late 1990s.
Deliveries of the Warrior mechanised combat vehicle, armed with the 30 mm Rarden cannon, continue. Two battalions are now complete, and two are in the process of receiving their new vehicles. In all, we have ordered 13 battalions' worth of the armoured personnel carrier version. Other versions will carry out more specialised tasks. Our initial impressions of this British-designed and built vehicle are very encouraging and it will enable the infantry to support armoured units more closely. Protection for non-armoured infantry battalions with a 383 NATO role has also been greatly improved, now that deliveries of the Saxon wheeled armoured personnel carrier are complete.
Our development of the use of helicopters on the battlefield continues. Our studies have shown that both tanks and helicopters armed with anti-tank missiles have an essential role on the battlefield. Although both can destroy armour, the greater range and mobility of the attack helicopter makes it more suitable for reserve operations and swift counter-attacks. Helicopters are, however, relatively vulnerable to enemy fire and cannot provide the same ability as the tank to hold ground for long periods, or provide firepower support for dismounted infantry.
We are still considering the next generation of attack helicopter for the Army, and we have continued to improve the TOW missile on the Lynx anti-tank helicopter and to develop the ability of the helicopter to fight at night using thermal imaging and image intensification equipment.
The conversion of 24 Brigade to the air-mobile role began in April last year. An Army Air Corps regiment, equipped with anti-tank and utility Lynx and Gazelle helicopters, will be part of the brigade and will begin to form at Dishforth this year. Further support for the brigade in the short term will be provided by RAF Chinook and Puma helicopters.
To strengthen the army's ability to defend itself against the air threat on the future battlefield, we intend to replace the current Rapier system from the mid-1990s with the new, advanced Rapier 2000, which is now under development. We have also decided to form a third air defence regiment armed with the new high-velocity missile currently being developed by Short Brothers.
§ Mr. Dalyell
Has the Minister read the interesting autobiography by his right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), in which he asserts that the Ministry of Defence was really completely unconcerned about the industrial future of Westland? I do not think that I distort it. Can we have the assurance that the Ministry of Defence is now extremely concerned about the industrial future of Westland and will gear its requirements to that industrial future?
§ Mr. Hamilton
It would be more accurate to say that the Ministry of Defence is most concerned about getting value for taxpayers' money. If, at the same time we can serve the British industry, that is a bonus. However, I do not believe that we are here exclusively to maintain any part of British industry. It would be a mistake for British defence manufacturers to work on that assumption. When it comes to helicopters, one of the problems is that we do not have a continuing demand for them and, therefore, Westland, if it is to have a good future, must look for export orders, as well as relying on the Ministry of Defence for orders.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
Will my hon. and gallant Friend clarify in greater detail the Government's policy on helicopter procurement? When the Government are considering the anti-armour role are they looking at aircraft other than the light attack helicopter, such as the Apache and the PAH2? On the question of the transport role for the brigade at Catterick, 384 is my hon. Friend considering aircraft other than the EH101 to provide troop lift in the longer term, or is the EH101 to be the aircraft to be bought?
§ Mr. Hamilton
When it comes to the light attack helicopter, we are indeed looking at alternatives, and the Apache is one that is under consideration. However, we must bear in mind that that is a fantastically expensive aircraft. I am sure that our consideration will be influenced by the cost of it.
As my hon. Friend knows, the difficulty with the EH101 is that although we have not reached anything like the position of having the aircraft, it is the only aircraft even in plan, of its size. Therefore, when considering carrying ability, we would have to think probably in terms of quite a different size of aircraft, if we were not to have the EH101. Certainly, our minds are open on that, too. We are hoping that the development of that aircraft will move ahead, but there are difficulties with it at present.
§ Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)
My hon. Friend made the point, with which I am sure we would all agree, that it is incumbent on any company, including obviously, Westland, to look for export orders. However, are we not truly in a chicken and egg situation, because export orders are bound to depend on the home Government being prepared to place their faith in the manufacturer and live up to the expectations that they have accorded a company in terms of placing firm orders? Until those firm orders are placed, it is almost impossible for any manufacturer, however good its product may be, to go out into the field and say, "We have a good product," because the first question that it will be asked is, "If it is so good, why have not your Government bought it?"
§ Mr. Hamilton
I take that point, but I believe that my hon. Friend would also accept that one of the advantages of the link that Westland has with Sikorsky is that it has a proven aircraft that it can manufacture under licence from Sikorsky. One would hope that that would improve its export opportunities. The role that the Army fulfils at home and abroad is to protect the people of this country and our allies, and to defend the way of life that we enjoy in the West. The skill and professionalism with which the Army carries out that task is worthy of the very highest praise, and is something that impresses me at each unit and exercise that I visit.
In the United Kingdom, the Army is, of course, deployed in Northern Ireland to support the RUC in combating the men of violence, whose aim is to kill and to destroy our way of life.
At present, there are 19 major Army units in Northern Ireland, of which nine are battalions of the UDR, which carry out their task with the utmost professionalism and dedication. There was one major change in 1988—the creation of Headquarters, 3 Infantry Brigade, at Armagh which now directs Army operations in the border area and allows the other two brigade headquarters to concentrate on supporting the RUC in other areas where there is a high level of terrorist activity.
Service men face risks both on and off duty in Northern Ireland. Regrettably during 1988 a naval recruiting officer and 33 regular army and UDR soldiers, most of whom were off duty, were murdered by terrorists, and 229 injured. So far this year six soldiers have been murdered and 73 wounded. The callous attitude of the IRA was typified last year by the murder of six off-duty soldiers who 385 were taking part in the Lisburn fun run in June, to raise money for charity, and an off-duty UDR soldier was shot down in front of his wife and children while they were on a family shopping trip.
Nor is this campaign of murder confined to Northern Ireland, as a number of incidents both in Europe and on the mainland of Great Britain since the last Army debate have shown. In Europe, one soldier and three RAF men were murdered last year in terrorist attacks. One soldier was killed in the bombing at Mill Hill. Thankfully, timely action by the security forces prevented the horrific carnage that the terrorists hoped to achieve at Tern Hill and in Gibraltar. I can assure the House that this Government take very seriously the need to maintain and, where possible, enhance the security of the Armed Forces and we shall continue to be vigilant.
§ Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East)
Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to congratulate the American ambassador Mr. Catto on his condemnation of the IRA and the clear message that he sent back to the United States not to support Noraid and help those murderers?
§ Mr. Hamilton
I shall certainly do as my hon. Friend asks. There has been encouraging support both from the Reagan Administration and, subsequently, the new Administration in condemning the activities of Noraid and in making the point to the American people that they are supporting a terrorist organisation and that nothing is served by doing that.
The resurgence of terrorist activity in 1988 has highlighted once again the outstanding dedication and courage of our service men and women in the face of dangerous and testing circumstances. There are no short-term solutions and the fight against terrorism will be a long one. However, last year the Army, with the assistance of both the Royal Navy and the RAF, achieved a number of notable successes in support of the RUC. More than 500 weapons, 100,000 rounds of ammunition and nine tonnes of explosives were seized by the security forces in 1988. Some 205 bombs were made safe through the extraordinary bravery and skill of our bomb disposal teams. There can be no doubt that those achievements have saved the lives of many civilians and service men who would otherwise have been added to the number already murdered by the terrorists.
In their futile campaign of murder, the terrorists have also brought imprisonment and death upon themselves. In Northern Ireland 127 people were convicted last year of serious terrorist offences. In addition, eight terrorists in Northern Ireland paid for their murderous activities with their lives—five when they were intercepted in the act by the security forces and three who killed themselves with their own bombs. Another terrorist was killed in February this year by a bomb that he was attempting to attach to a former workmate's car.
Those deaths, and the repeated murder of civilians by terrorists in Northern Ireland, illustrate all too clearly the bankruptcy of the terrorists who, after 20 years, have nothing constructive to offer, even to those from both communities whom they falsely claim to represent. The men of violence scar many lives with tragedy, not only those they murder and maim, but the families of their victims. They offer nothing but destruction and despair to 386 the communities of Northern Ireland. No one has the right in a democratic society to put aside the law or to use murder when they fail with the ballot box.
It is regrettable that it is clear that the IRA still retains large quantities of sophisticated arms and ammunition, and still intends to carry out a major campaign of violence and intimidation. As long as is necessary, therefore, the Army will continue to play its part in the vital task of maintaining the rule of law. Hon. Members on both sides of the House are keen to have the soldiers off the streets again; it is only the terrorists who keep them there.
I come to other matters and to other ways in which the Army is planning to meet the changing circumstances of the future.
Mr. Eric S. Heller (Liverpool, Walton)
I am not arguing with the Minister in any way over his remarks about terrorism, but before making those remarks he said that the role of the Army was to defend our way of life. Will he define that more clearly? What does he mean by "our way of life"? If he means the right to have free elections, to have freedom of speech, the right to demonstrate, the right to have a free press, to have free trade unions which have the right to strike, to have control over the armed forces and the police by the civil authorities and so on, I would have no argument with him.
The Prime Minister, however, tends to talk about freedom as though it meant freedom for the capitalist system. For her, apparently, it means nothing else. Certain people in Europe are simply putting forward a social document which seems to be hardly Socialist in character. But the Prime Minister gets all upset and says, "We do not want that Socialism here".
§ Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)
People were being killed while a Labour Government were in power, not just while we have been in power—
§ Mr. Heffer
If the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) will stop making a sedentary intervention in my intervention, I will be able to make my point.
Will the Minister define precisely what "our way of life" means to the Government, especially as the Tories seem to be making it almost impossible for workers to take strike action at any time and under any circumstances?
§ Mr. Hamilton
I should have thought that the main freedom being defended by the armed forces of the nation was the freedom to elect the Government that the people want. If life is as abhorrent to people as the hon. Gentleman makes out, they will decide that it is time for a change of Government. I do not see that as being remotely likely. Indeed, if the Labour party continues to be seen to support continual obstructive strikes across the country, the chances of us remaining in power indefinitely are very good indeed.
As the House will be aware, the Secretary of State announced on 22 May the Government's plans for the future of the Brigade of Gurkhas. Those plans make it clear that, despite the loss of their current main role in Hong Kong in 1997, there is a worthwhile and viable 387 future for these fine fighting men in the British Army, based on a viable brigade structure that would comprise about 4,000 personnel, serving in discrete units which will preserve their distinctive identity and traditions.
It is clear from some of the reactions to my right hon. Friend's announcement that a number of people have missed the point that we are talking about a decision which will not have full effect for another eight years. There will be no reductions in numbers overnight. Indeed, the earliest that any changes could start to he made is in 1992, and it will not be necessary to take decisions about that until well into next year.
The House will recognise that it would be neither prudent nor practicable to be categoric at this stage about the precise number of troops that will be in the brigade after 1997 or, as so much will depend on circumstances at the time, their exact roles or deployments. The Government have, however, given a clear demonstration of their commitment to the Gurkhas by giving them such an assurance about their future so far ahead.
We have also made it clear that a brigade of about 4,000 is open to review in the light of circumstances, including whether the Gurkhas could help to overcome any more general manpower shortages in the Army resulting from adverse demographic trends. When the first decisions on numbers become necessary, we should also be much clearer about the precise effects that demographic changes will have on the Army as a whole.
The Government believe it would be wrong to see the retention of the Gurkhas purely as a solution for demographic problems, with the implication that, if those problems disappear, so will the Gurkhas. The Government's plans are founded on the assumption that, regardless of demographly, we shall, on the basis of the information available at present, wish to retain a significant Gurkha force with roles within the mainstream of the Army's defence commitments. It is on that assumption that the figure of about 4,000 announced by right hon. Friend is based.
§ Mr. Hamilton
It will not meet its recruitment target this year and, on the whole, the trend gets worse as we progress.
§ Mr. O'Neill
I am not sure whether the House should welcome what the Minister said about the Gurkhas. Is he in any way moving away from the Secretary of State's statement of 28 May, or is he merely dressing it up in a different form?
§ Mr. Hamilton
I am merely elaborating on my right hon. Friend's statement. He said that there would be about 4,000 in the Brigade of Gurkhas and that is what I am saying. I am also saying, as has my right hon. Friend, that we will look at whether any extra people, above the 4,000 will be needed in terms of the demographic trends. All the signs show that they will be.
§ Mr. Sayeed
If, as proposed, we reduce each battalion to three companies rather than four, how will the Gurkhas deal with wartime attrition?
§ Mr. Hamilton
At the moment there are four companies in the battalions based in Hong Kong because of the heavy task which they have to perform. Therefore, they are at a 388 much higher level of strength than a British battalion over here. We reduced the number of companies from four to three purely because those in Hong Kong have much higher demands placed upon them.
But of course, the House would expect me to say all this. So perhaps I could quote from a letter to the The Times published on 31 May from Field Marshal Lord Bramall, who as well as being a distinguished former Chief of the Defence Staff is President of the Gurkha Association. In it he said:The Government's statement was a positive, helpful and sensible one. In the place of uncertainty the Government was planning firmly for the Brigade of Gurkhas to have a worthwhile and viable role after 1997, and to do so at a basic strength of a four-battalion group, instead of the existing five, and with all the Gurkha regiments intact.He went on:I believe the Government has kept faith with the hillmen of Nepal who, for over 170 years, have rallied to the support of this country, however adverse the circumstances or gloomy the forecasts; and who, in large numbers, have laid down their lives with the utmost gallantry for our security and our future.There is little further that I can add other than warmly to endorse that eloquent tribute to the Gurkhas. The Gurkhas are rightly renowned for their traditional infantry skills, but they are also very adaptable. They have an assured future as part of the British Army and I am sure that they will meet every new challenge that they will have to face in the future.
I have mentioned the potential effects of demographic changes, and I would like to dwell a little on this problem, which the Army, in common with all large employers will increasingly have to face. The Army is a very major employer of young people, recruiting over 20,000 each year. In future, the Army will be competing for a sizeable share of a reducing resource at a time when employment prospects for young people are forecast to expand. We expect that by 1994 the number of young men aged between 15 and 19 will reduce by some 20 per cent.
In response to this problem the Army commissioned a major study into the problems of Army manpower supply in the years ahead known as MARILYN. I have today placed an abridged version of this report in the Library of the House. The study explores a range of possibilities and will underpin much of our future work on this subject. It is not itself a statement of Government policy and not all the proposals identified will necessarily be implemented.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)
Why was not the abridged version of the report placed in the Library before today to give hon. Members the opportunity to look at it, consider its terms and, I hope, make rather more constructive contributions to today's debate?
§ Mr. Hamilton
I apologise to the hon. and learned Gentleman if he has not had enough time to look at the report. There was some work to do on abridging the original version, and we wanted to get the report into the Library before the debate took place. I am sorry that that could not have been done earlier.
§ Mr. Hamilton
A number of people asked me for an abridged version of MARILYN and I was able to send them a copy before the debate.
§ Mr. Hamilton
It was selective according to the numbers asked for.
We are now aiming to tackle the problem on two broad fronts—by improving recruitment and retention. Retention is important in providing continuity of experience and expertise, and in ensuring that we get the best return possible on our recruiting and training investment. Officer premature voluntary release, although more or less stable over the last two years or so, is running at about 650 a year, and soldier PVR is now about 3 per cent. These figures certainly do not amount to a stampede but they are higher than we should like.
Towards the end of last year, therefore, we provided around £1 million extra for the Army recruitment budget, with the aim of carrying out a couple of pilot television advertising campaigns in the regions. Those have proved very successful, increasing inquiries by 150 per cent. in those areas where the commercial was run. In March this year we launched a major television campaign, the first for eight years. Extra funding of almost £5 million will be provided to the recruiters this year, which will be spent on more television and other advertising as well as an up-to-date management information system to ensure that our efforts are properly and effectively targeted.
We have also looked closely at the way in which the Army runs its recruitment effort to remove unnecessary wastage and to encourage a more flexible and imaginative approach. For example, we shall be looking to boost officer entry by encouraging late entrants and reinstating reservists in specialist areas.
With soldier recruitment, I know that there has been speculation about whether we are planning to reduce our entry standards. In previous years we have been able to be very selective and take only the best—those who considerably exceeded our minimum requirements. We shall no longer have that luxury and so we are intending to spend more time in the early stages of training. We have, for example, instituted a physical development course for those who fail the entry fitness test. Over 250 have attended the course since last August, and most have passed into basic training. It is interesting to note that their wastage rate has been no higher than other recruits.
We need to turn as many inquirers as possible into applicants and as many applicants as possible into trained recruits. Everyone in the chain of command is being made aware of the problem and the need for them to make a personal contribution to reducing wastage and improving retention.
It is clearly important that we have a remuneration package which enables us to attract and retain the officers and soldiers that we need, but people do not leave the Army solely because of pay. Job satisfaction, worries about a second career, family pressures and a number of other factors play a part. I can assure thae House tht we are looking at all those areas.
Hon. Members will be aware that we are looking at the scope for widening the opportunities open to women in the Army. Although we do not envisage changing the long-standing policy of not employing women in direct combat roles, we believe that a significant additional number—I envisage that being well into four figures rather than three—of valuable and challenging jobs can be made available to women.
The House is also aware of our position on recruitment from the ethnic minorities. We have made clear our disappointment over the rate of applications from black 390 and Asian youngsters, who represent only 1.25 per cent. of our Army recruits. That is something that we must correct and we look forward to the results of the consultancy study that we have commissioned which will help us decide how to target our recruitment efforts to best effect.
In short, we do not underestimate the scale of the problem and the potential difficulties that we face, and those are being tackled now. There is much that we can do to help ourselves by identifying management practices appropriate to changed circumstances. The demographic trough will not go away, but I intend to ensure that the Army will be able to respond to it in a well balanced and sensible way.
Of course, we cannot consider the future of the British Army without taking into account developments in the international arena and, in particular, the conventional arms negotiations taking place in Vienna.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary set out the Western aims for those talks in March when he introduced the NATO proposal—in essence, a major reduction, to equal levels, in the key armoured forces essential for large-scale aggression and surprise attack. The recent NATO summit was able to extend that and, in addition, to propose reductions in aircraft, helicopters and manpower—a direct and speedy response to expressed Eastern concerns.
The opportunity is there now for progress towards an agreement. The timetable suggested by President Bush is an ambitious one, and represents a challenge to which everyone, not least Mr. Gorbachev, can respond. The negotiations have got off to a good start, and there is a greater degree of agreement on objectives and goals than emerged over many years in the mutual and balanced force reduction talks. The agenda, I might add, is a Western one, and the Soviets, here as elsewhere, are responding to Western initiatives and ideas. Of course, when Mr. Gorbachev claims that he is tabling a "bold new initiative" our media are liable to take him at his word and forget that we are seeing Western proposals being played back to us.
I am convinced that the Soviet response emanated from a realisation in Moscow that NATO was not prepared to be cowed or browbeaten by threats and that the Western Alliance remained cohesive and strong whilst forging ahead in advanced defence technology. Our steadfast adherence to sensible policies is now bearing fruit in the radical developments in East-West relations.
That commitment to strong defences in NATO was confirmed at the recent summit in Brussels. NATO also confirmed the continuing need for land, sea and air-based nuclear systems in Europe, including ground-based missiles; the rejection of a third zero in SNF negotiations in the clear statement that any negotiation should only lead to partial reductions in short range nuclear systems, and the unanimous view that negotiations on SNF should not commence until agreement on CFE has been reached and implementation is under way; and that there should be no implementation of reductions in short-range nuclear systems until conventional force reductions agreed under CFE have been completed. It was indeed an important summit, establishing a firm basis on which the Alliance can move forward.
Contrary to gloomy prognostications from the commentators, NATO emerged with a united and forceful view of its policies and vision. I recommend to hon. Members the full and unequivocal exposition in the comprehensive concept of the realities of Alliance security 391 which Opposition Members seem neither to understand nor to accept. That concept was fully endorsed by all our NATO allies.
Those same allies will be pretty depressed if they have bothered to read the latest policy statement on defence from the Labour party. They will learn that the Labour party rejects the NATO strategy of flexible response and wants to see the end of short-range nuclear systems altogether. The Labour party intends to stand alone in Europe and reject the cornerstone of NATO defence policy that has kept the peace in Europe for so long and has forced the Soviets to the negotiating table.
§ Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)
Is the Minister suggesting that France supports the doctrine of flexible response when he says that Britain is alone in rejecting it? Can he be serious?
§ Mr. Hamilton
I did not say that Britain stands alone; I said that the Labour party stands alone in rejecting flexible response as the keystone to the defence of the NATO Alliance. The French adhere to flexible response. They may not be military members of NATO, but they adhere to the concept of flexible response which is being rejected by the Labour party.
§ Mr. Heffer
Conservative Members complain about people standing alone in relation to Europe, but the Prime Minister constantly tells us that she is standing alone on issue after issue. I do not complain about that. If she thinks that that is the correct thing to do, she has every right to do that. If the Labour party is standing alone and standing up for something for once, I shall be delighted.
§ Mr. Hamilton
The hon. Gentleman may well be delighted, but my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was delighted with the outcome of the summit talks and with the fact that we reached an agreement that was shared by all our NATO allies.
§ Mr. Brazier
My hon. Friend has given way many times and I thank him for doing so again. For the benefit of the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) and for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), will my hon. Friend confirm that France not only supports the doctrine of flexible response but has just modernised its own short-range land-based weapon system with Hades?
§ Mr. Hamilton
I was making that clear to Opposition Members. France is very much a believer in flexible response and believes that we should not rely solely on ballistic missiles but should have a number of nuclear systems with which to reverse any attacks that we might receive.
But, of course, it is not only flexible response that is rejected by Labour. So is Britain's independent nuclear deterrent which, as our allies have once again explicitly stressed at the summit, contributes to the overall deterrence strategy of the Alliance.
We have heard much recently from the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) to the effect that he has rejected unilateral disarmament as Labour policy, but has he? The only thing that has changed in the Opposition's policy is that where before Labour would give away Britain's nuclear weapons now they will negotiate away our deterrent.
If a Labour Government were ever elected by the people of this country two things could be guaranteed. 392 First, the many CND members of the Labour party in this House would lobby furiously to see Britain's nuclear deterrent negotiated away. Secondly, President Gorbachev would be over here as soon as he decently could offering perhaps two or three times as many Soviet warheads in return for Trident—and the Labour party is committed to deal. As a result, Britain would lose all its nuclear weapons and the Soviets would be left with thousands. That may not be unilateral disarmament but the result is the same.
We live in an unpredictable world. Although no one can disinvent nuclear weapons, the Labour party is prepared to see Britain stripped of her independent nuclear deterrent. Labour's defence policy will be no less dangerous in the next election than it was in the last; it will undermine the NATO Alliance and threaten the security of these islands.
The British people realise this and that is why Labour has no more chance of winning the next election than it did the last.
§ Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)
The predictable format of the Minister of State's speech was followed almost to the letter: the 40 years of peace through NATO, the quick reference to the sterling work of the armed forces, to which we all subscribe, a little bit about morale, a bit about fighting terrorism and then a bash at the Labour party at the end—very much the usual stuff.
It is regrettable that it has taken so long for this debate to be held. Normally these debates are over if not by the end of the year at least by the end of January. While we have looking over our shoulder, as it were, the White Paper on the estimates, it would be unhelpful for us today to stray too far into that. I am quite happy to discuss at the appropriate time the relevant parts of the Labour party's defence white paper, which will be a green paper, of course, until it goes to our conference. But that is certainly not our purpose today.
My one regret is that this speech is not being made by my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. Hughes), who is sadly not with us today because he has recently had an operation and is still in hospital. I am sure that friends and colleagues hope, as I do, that he will make a speedy recovery.
I associate myself with the tributes paid by the Minister to the Army for the contribution that it makes to the defence of these islands, the role that it carries out in Europe and the work that it does in places such as Belize and Hong Kong. There are many examples of the kind of work done by our troops, very often in discreet and community-spirited ways. The Minister has already referred to the callous and heartless killing of soldiers who were participating in a fun run for charity last year. It is that kind of work that many of our young men actively participate in for the benefit of the community far beyond the 9 to 5 hours that many people seem to associate with work in many areas. Our young men are a credit to their regiments and to the youth of this country as a whole.
The most important contribution that the Army makes, however, is to NATO and above all to the British Army of the Rhine, including those troops in the United Kingdom who are deployed ready to be transferred to the continent at any time of crisis. Certainly in the last 10 days of the run-up to the NATO summit and the subsequent Government retreat, these questions of the size of our 393 armed forces have once again come under the scrutiny of the press, as I hope that they will today and in the weeks ahead come under that of the House. It will take some time for us all to appreciate the complexity of the comprehensive concept and the implications of the summit communiqué.
I was fortunate enough to be in Rome on Monday to hear Ambassador Lodogar and Ambassador Dobrynin talk about some of the difficulties which the summit will throw up, and the task of definition which the allies have set themselves over the summer is a very important one. We recognise that until 7 September it will not be possible to answer a number of the questions that we shall be asking today, but in this debate we shall raise some questions which the Minister should try to address in winding up. We want to know the implications for the British Army of the Rhine and for the other allied forces of the cuts which President Bush has announced with regard to United States forces. I do not think that it would be correct for us to say at this time that we should join the French in being counted in because I believe that the different arrangements which the French have with the Alliance are such that this would add an undue complication. We want to get cuts and we want to get them quickly.
Hon. Members who participate in these debates know that over the months and years I have been arguing that we should have been far more positive in response to some of the Gorbachev initiatives—so-called initiatives, because in many instances they were elaborate public relations exercises which looked very good and promised a great deal but were dependent upon a response which, sadly, was not forthcoming until President Bush's belated, I think, but highly welcome statement prior to the summit. We can see from the initial response from the Soviet Union that there are considerable grounds for optimism but at the same time certain uncertainties which we have to look at.
I hope that we can move quickly on this and that the September deadline can be met. It might be interesting if, in winding up, the Minister could share with the House some of the thinking. For example, the Prime Minister was adamant on Tuesday that no British Tornados would be involved in any of the cuts. On the other hand, if we set aside the Prime Minister's prejudices for the moment and look at the question of helicopters, will these be included? If so, will it be the Army's helicopters or the RAF's? Will the Army and the RAF still have joint control over helicopters? This is an old argument which always crops up. I notice in today's Jane's that the Australians have now grasped the nettle and taken away the choppers from the RAAF and that these are now solely under the control of the Army. I believe that in an Army debate of this nature this question should be addressed.
We have had a lengthy and rather depressing disquisition by the Minister on the various types of helicopters. I have listened to hon. Members on both sides of the House talking about the future of helicopter procurement and there seems to be a characteristic indifference by the Ministry of Defence to the industrial implications of a confused policy of procurement. We have to recognise that, if we are to sustain a manufacturing base in this country for any kind of helicopter, it is the 394 responsibility of the Government, as the main customer of those manufacturers, to create the circumstances in which exports can be obtained. As has been heard from the Government Benches, the weakest possible case that one can put to a foreign customer is to start by saying that our Government have yet to make up their mind what they want.
In one defence debate after another and in one Army debate after another a succession of Ministers—usually a different one each time, but the script is always the same—have said that they have not yet made up their minds what to do. We need far stronger assurances as to the intentions regarding this part of our manufacturing base, because we are running out of time. We must not forget that, come 1992, whoever is in the European Parliament and whoever is at the Government Dispatch Box, we need to ensure that we have a place in the manufacturing of helicopters. If we do not get it right quickly, we shall be considerably weaker when the appropriate section of the Single European Act comes into play—and defence procurement is one feature of the new arrangements.
As to the implications of the summit, traditionally we have heard that the argument for short-range nuclear forces in Europe is twofold. The first is that they bridge the conventional gap between the Warsaw Pact and NATO, and that because of the willingness of the Soviet and eastern European Governments to spend vast amounts of money on defence, those Governments were able to build up sizeable comparative advantages over the West in certain areas of conventional defence. As democratically-elected Governments in the West were not always as committed as British Labour or Conservative Governments have been to support defence expenditure, and have not supported the Alliance in the way that they should, they have hidden behind short-range nuclear forces.
If there is a positive response to President Bush's initiative, and if by 1992–93 the parity or below parity that we seek is achieved, one of the fundamental arguments for SNF forces in Europe—the gap to which I referred—will be removed.
The second argument for SNF has been inelegantly but precisely put—that the Americans are not prepared to have troops here if there is no nuclear guarantee. When we go to NATO, we hear the phrase, "No nukes, no troops." The Germans are still not satisfied, but their time may have been bought by the allies, at least in respect of the German short-range question. However, the problem will not go away. If Chancellor Kohl is returned to power, it will only be with the support of the Free Democrats, which means the presence also of Foreign Minister Genscher in the Cabinet. If he is in the Cabinet, there will be arguments in favour of the albeit step-by-step removal SNF. Genscher, ever the populist, and looking over his shoulder at the narrow margin between his political existence and non-existence under the German electoral system, will make continued calls for the removal of short-range nuclear forces. If the host country for the majority of SNF is not prepared to allow them, I cannot see the Alliance standing by last year's communiqué.
Since the Brussels summit last March, the situation has changed from one of discussing modernising Lance to debating the continued deployment of existing SNF, and to discussing those forces' possible removal in two or three years' time, subject to other developments. The confidence 395 with which the Americans view the prospects of a positive Soviet response to the Bush initiative suggests that that item will be on the agenda fairly quickly.
Although SNF will not be removed until 1992–93, discussions could take place by the end of next year. If agreement is reached on definitions and a deal is settled within six to 12 months, implementation will proceed, according to President Bush's remarks, as speedily as possible. If implementation continues apace, there will be considerable pressure in Germany to comply not least because there will be elections to the Bundestag in December 1990. From the point of view of Genscher and Kohl, there could be no better preparation for those elections than for them to be able to tell their electorate, "We are discussing the dismantling of short-range nuclear forces."
The British Government should not kid themselves as to the length of time that SNF will remain in Europe and the Prime Minister still be walking in step. People decided to leave that unfortunate and unpleasant topic to one side for a little while so that they could get out of Brussels last week as quickly and as safely as they could, but the Minister would be wrong to imagine that a flexible response will remain in its present form.
We also have an interest in the threat posed by SNF to the 55,000 British troops in the central region. Another element is the anxiety expressed to me last year by the German Foreign Minister, and acknowledged by the German Defence Minister, that SNF is no longer regarded as a viable political weapon. Germany sees it as quite possible that the force to space ratio argument to which the Minister referred will apply and that the commanders in the field—to whom the Prime Minister referred on Tuesday as being the people who must make fast decisions—will be left to decide whether or not to use nuclear weapons when confronted by a sudden invasion. Neither the Prime Minister nor the Minister may appreciate that argument, but many right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House do.
§ Mr. Michael Mates (Hampshire, East)
The hon. Gentleman is right about German anxiety, but he mentions only our short-range nuclear weapons and our modernisation plans. We have 88 systems, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that every one of the commanders in the British and American armies of the Rhine is much more worried about the 1,200 already modified Soviet short-range nuclear weapons. Is the hon. Gentleman not worried about them too?
§ Mr. O'Neill
Yes, and that is exactly the point I am trying to make. If and until our modernisation programme proceeds, that disparity between our forces and the overwhelming superiority of the Soviets will continue for a considerable length of time. It is thus in our interests to start negotiating for the removal of SNF as quickly as possible. It is argued repeatedly that we should negotiate only from a position of strength, but we cannot afford to wait until we can do that.
§ Mr. O'Neill
No, not give them up but talk about dismantling them—we should recognise that to do so would be to our advantage and that of the German people. There is a consensus across the political spectrum in the 396 Federal Republic that that action should be taken. That consensus is recognised by the American President, whose support for the present coalition stems from his wish not to see it out of power, because he would then have to deal with a coalition led by Social Democrats with which the Labour party would have considerable sympathy, as would a number of other Governments in the NATO Alliance. The Minister over-eggs the pudding when he suggests that everyone who signed the Brussels communiqué did so in a spirit of complete unanimity. I know of one right hon. Lady who signed it but who does not agree with every jot, dot and comma of it—and no right hon. or hon. Member believes that she does.
I believe that the flexible response strategy of the Alliance is out of date and should be changed, but that can be done only through serious discussion within the Alliance and disarmament talks of a kind that we can throw our weight behind. What worries me at present is that, although the Americans and the Germans are committed to the comprehensive concept and the implementation of the changed arrangement proposals in the summit communiqué, I have yet to see any clear and frank support from the Prime Minister, who was most unconvincing at the Dispatch Box on Tuesday.
The Prime Minister has said that she will have nothing to do with a sizeable or meaningful contribution to the initiative which probably above all else makes the package attractive to the Soviet Union—the inclusion of aircraft in the proposals. It is a mark of the statesmanship of President Bush that he identified that initiative as a breakthrough that would win over the Soviets, who had asked for it, and he should be given credit for that. The Prime Minister's response has been characteristically grudging and curmudgeonly, and it is fortunate indeed that the other 15 members of the Alliance are bringing good sense to the issue.
The Minister has not had much time to read the fine print of the communiqué, but it would be useful for us to have some idea of the Government's thinking about dual capability and what systems might be considered suitable candidates. Perhaps, for instance, he could give us his views on the 155 mm and 203 mm systems, which I certainly consider suitable.
There are tremendous grounds for optimism on both sides of the European divide—for instance, the election results in Poland, the encouraging developments in Hungary and, indeed, the Soviet Union itself, where the degree of openness in debate has surpassed even that experienced by Conservative Members at their annual party conferences. We have observed disagreements and we have seen the Soviet President being attacked, which is no bad thing.
I realise that in a number of other countries we shall have to wait a considerable time for the progress that is due. In Romania, "Socialism in one country" has been supplanted by "Socialism in one family". Czechoslovakia is perhaps a sleeping giant that has yet to turn. We have considerable grounds for hope in East Germany, but realisation of that hope is still some way away.
§ Mr. Wilkinson
Does the hon. Gentleman consider the 58 deaths and 500 injured in Uzbekistan, the gassing of 20 in Tbilisi and the unrest in Armenia, which has also caused deaths, a hopeful sign? Or does it suggest to him that the Soviet Union is prepared, if necessary, to use armed force within its own republics and might even do so outside?
§ Mr. O'Neill
It is true that a great deal remains to be done to improve the situation in the Soviet Union. It is encouraging, however, that at least some of the excesses—I do not say all—have been followed by speedy repudiation by the authorities and the arraignment of those responsible. That has happened in Georgia, although we do not know yet what is happening in Uzbekistan. I do not deny that the state of affairs in the Soviet Union is still patchy. It is very difficult to emerge in a short time from 70 years of tyranny. It is also difficult for a centralised empire to handle the ethnic problems that have emerged in some areas.
It is certainly encouraging that the Soviet Union now recognises that it is spending too much on defence. When I was there earlier in the year, I talked to some economists who said, "We used to think that we spent about 10 or 11 per cent. of our gross domestic product on defence, but we know that the CIA believed that it was more like 15 per cent; we now think that it is about 23 per cent., but we are not sure, and we would like to see the CIA's databases, which are probably more accurate than ours." Soviet expenditure on defence presents such a confused picture that attempts to cut that expenditure, although laudable, may take much longer than we would like. Nevertheless, the Soviets are endeavouring to make changes and we must give them every possible encouragement. President Bush has taken a worthwhile step along that road.
§ Mr. Sayeed
I accept that the economic argument has helped the Soviet Union to change its mind about building up its weapon systems. Would the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that the reason the Soviets have come to the negotiating table is that the NATO allies have remained firm? Had this country and others followed Labour party policy on cruise missiles, the Soviet Union would never have bothered to negotiate at all.
§ Mr. O'Neill
That is speculative in the extreme. [Interruption.] I am trying to answer the hon. Gentleman's question. The remarks of the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) are rarely helpful, and in this case they are simply a nuisance.
The Soviet attitude to talks on short-range and long-range nuclear weapons has been transformed by the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev and the relationship that he established with Ronald Reagan. That is the single fact that we can identify. Whether the movements within Europe, and indeed the United States, against the deployment of cruise and Pershing missiles and the arms race as it was then developing have been an important factor must be left to historians, but I believe that they have. The hon. Member for Bristol East (Mr. Sayeed) does not, but I think that we must agree to disagree. I do not intend to enter into an elaborate point-scoring exercise.
It is not to the Soviet Union or to the Warsaw pact but to China that I now wish to look, with some trepidation. We in Britain have a unique responsibility to Hong Kong, but what the Minister said about the Gurkhas does not strike me as particularly satisfactory. He seems to have said nothing more than the Secretary of State said in his recent statement announcing a 50 per cent. cut in the brigade. That is not reassuring.
In the past decade, we have learned to our cost that when wrong signals are given out to particular countries at the wrong time we pay dearly, as we did in the Falklands. Until we can obtain far better guarantees of the intentions 398 of the People's Republic of China for the people of Hong Kong after 1997 we should not talk about cutting the Gurkhas or withdrawing troops. I believe that hon. Members on both sides of the House will wish to argue that case today.
I thought that the Minister was going to say that in the light of changing circumstances the figure of 4,000 might be raised, but he meandered around the question and never reached a conclusion. If we are told in the Minister's winding-up speech that the Secretary of State's announcement is to be put on hold, many of us will be, if not satisfied, at least reassured of the strength of the Government's intent.
Members of the Select Committee will speak for themselves, but paragraph 305 of the Select Committee report states that there areno grounds for concluding that a cut in the number of Gurkha infantry battalions is justified.They were speaking not just from their hearts—this is a matter of tremendous emotion for many people in Britain but—also from their heads, after many months of well-researched work. The Secretary of State apparently found that work immensely helpful when he spoke on 22 May, but he did not pay very much attention to it. The British Army requires the Gurkhas not only for demographic reasons but because they represent a contribution to the armed forces that still has a place in the British Army. It is worth while for us to continue to support the state of Nepal by continuing to entrust the Gurkhas with the tasks that they have carried out with such distinction and valour for such a long time. We should not consider reducing our commitment to Hong Kong in any way at this time, least of all our commitment in the form of the Gurkhas.
The Minister has spoken about the security of mainland army bases where the experiences of this summer have been particularly distressing. I recognise that the Ministry has responded in a flexible and, one hopes, effective way and that the cessation of these attacks for the moment at least—that is all that we can ever say—is a tribute to the renewed and increased vigilance of our forces, and we welcome the arrangements that have been made. Car numbering may also have made a difference. Perhaps when the Minister replies to the debate he will give us some news of what has happened in that respect.
The increased threat outside Northern Ireland does not quite shape up with the Government's plans for the MOD police force. We understand that the MOD police force may well be cut in order to save money. In the past 10 years the force has been increased, but that was almost entirely due to greater demand as a result of the increased size of anti-nuclear demonstrations. While the MOD accountants see considerable opportunities to save money by substituting private security guards, those security guards have no constabulary powers of arrest, no right to bear arms where appropriate and no training in their use.
The MOD police force has a creditable record and there is considerable concern about the proposed changes to policing arrangements at the Colchester garrison. Military commanders are concerned about security and civilian police officers are worried about their capacity to take on the responsibilities of the MOD police at Colchester given the financial restraints under which the civilian police must operate. The MOD finally dropped the proposals in the face of considerable opposition. May we be assured that this bright idea will not re-emerge in other garrison towns 399 and that the increased activities of terrorists on the United Kingdom mainland will be countered by the increased commitment of resources, equipment and personnel to the safety of the bases? We need to ensure that financial reasons will not be advanced for any changes in security. We pay tribute to the way in which the Secretary of State and his Ministers responded to the events of last year, but we should like to think that such vigilance will be maintained, as we know that it will, and that the MOD police will not be involved in any cost-cutting exercises.
In regard to the Government raising funds, I should like briefly to mention Royal Ordnance, the supplier to the armed forces, and the sale of Royal Ordnance land. It appears that the care and attention that the MOD is giving to these matters is less than it should be. The Enfield site was valued at £3.5 million and subsequently sold for between £300 million and £400 million. That suggests that the MOD is not getting the value for money that many of us assumed the Government would have been anxious to achieve.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Tim Sainsbury)
The hon. Gentleman misled the House—inadvertently, I hope—when he said that it was subsequently sold for £300 million. The site to which he referred has not been sold, has no planning permission and has had no development carried out upon it.
§ Mr. O'Neill
We shall have to explore that later. I understand that British Aerospace will be selling the land very soon for something in the order of the sum that I mentioned. On a number of occasions the Minister has told us that he has experience in these matters, but his experience seems to have involved a different type of land sale as these sales appear to represent a particularly bad deal for the MOD and for the nation. Perhaps I am using the word "sale" wrongly, but the proposed sale to which I am referring at the price that I mentioned represents nothing less than a complete abdication of the Government's responsibility to the taxpayer.
The Minister referred at some length to the MARILYN report, which I have read about in the press. I believe that it has now been circulated to a select few Members of Parliament and that today, as an afterthought, a copy was placed in the Library. I understand that not even the Chairman of the Select Committee has received a copy, so its circulation must be extremely restricted. A number of right hon. and hon. Members take an interest in these matters and would have regarded it as a courtesy to be told that a copy of the report was available in the Library.
Had it been placed in the Vote Office, we would have seen quite clearly when it came out, but putting it in the Library almost as an afterthought is not the best way of securing all-party support for what may be a worthwhile and politically uncontentious issue. Such clumsiness is increasingly characteristic of the Ministry and was apparent in the announcement of a statement on the Gurkhas on a Monday on a one-line Whip when many members of the Select Committee, who had spent a great deal of time working on the issue, were not in the House and did not know about it. Normally, as a courtesy, I receive word about such statements in advance. The fact that I was not here and a colleague was able to handle it was not a problem for me, but for individual members of 400 a Select Committee who put in a great deal of time on a voluntary basis to be treated in such a disrespectful way by the Ministry was nothing short of shocking.
Perhaps the indifference of the Secretary of State is demonstrated by the fact that he is not here today to support his own Department. I do not blame him for not listening to me because I understand his discomfort at some of the things that I have to say, but it is a matter of courtesy to the House and to his own Department that the Secretary of State should take the trouble to be here and to speak on these matters, or at least to let right hon. and hon. Members know that there are good reasons why he is not here. Had he done so, it would not have been necessary for me to raise the matter in the way that I have.
§ Mr. Archie Hamilton
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is in Brussels having discussions with other Defence Ministers. He is sorry that he is unable to be present.
§ Mr. O'Neill
I accept that as an excuse, or reason. If an agriculture Minister visits Brussels, statements are always made, but if NATO holds a meeting about earth-shatteringly important matters, the chances of getting a statement from the Trappist Secretary of State for Defence are almost zero.
The Minister has usefully expressed the Government's concern about recruitment, which will be a problem in the 1990s. We recognise the demographic changes that are occurring in the country and much will have to be done to attract people from sections of the community who so far have shown little interest in joining the Army. We appreciate the Government's concern about recruiting more people from ethnic minority communities. We are along way away from ethnic minorities being represented in the Army in the numbers that the size of their communities requires. We shall have to watch this issue closely because it is as important for community relations as it is for the defence of this country.
§ Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)
My hon. Friend makes a good point about ethnic minorities in the armed forces. Surely it is wrong for the Government to refuse to monitor ethnic minorities in the armed forces when those minorities are simply not getting the promotions to which they are entitled. The Government should be checking that and doing something about it.
§ Mr. O'Neill
We have discussed this in a number of debates, in which my hon. Friend participated on behalf of his constituents. A case can be made for more scrutiny and greater monitoring. We must be assured that ethnic minorities will be attracted to the armed forces and that they will regard it as a worthwhile commitment with which they can identify.
It would be helpful if the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces said something about the success of the initiatives that his predecessor took in relation to bullying. He made great play of this issue in a debate last year, and it is important that hon. Members should be updated about the concerns that the former Under-Secretary of State expressed.
The House's treatment of the armed forces is somewhat sketchy. One-day debates are often too short and unsatisfactory. Labour Members have always complained that the time lag between debates is too long.
§ Mr. O'Neill
The Minister laughs and says, "A two day debate for the Army." Hon. Members should be allowed more than five days' debate on the Army, which is one of the biggest recipients of public expenditure. The Prime Minister recognises that it is one of the most important responsibilities of the state. Given that she does not recognise much as being the responsibility of the state, hon. Members should be allowed more than 10 or 11 chances to discuss the Army at Question Time and five days of debate. Regrettably, these debates occur as and when the Government have the time or nothing better to debate.
§ Mr. O'Neill
The Minister is well aware that Opposition time is already restricted enough. If the Government believe that the defence of the country and the time that hon. Members spend debating it are important, many hon. Members believe that more time should be allowed.
There are a number of possible developments in the defence of our country. This is an opportunity for all hon. Members to express guarded optimism for the future, but that optimism depends to an extent on what happens abroad. Our optimism for the future is mainly due to the fact that our armed forces, especially the Army, make a sizeable contribution, which we all support and believe benefits the people who serve in it and the country. I am therefore happy to participate in the debate.
§ Mr. Michael Mates (Hampshire, East)
If the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) thinks that these debates are too short, he could oblige us by speaking for slightly less than 45 minutes. We would also get better evidence of the keenness of the Opposition if more than five Labour Members were present.
It is impossible at times not to feel a twinge of sympathy for the hon. Member for Clackmannan as he struggles to square the circle of Labour defence policy, especially when he came to the difficult passage in his speech about nuclear forces. A skilled professional acrobat can walk a tight wire and an even more skilled one can walk a slack wire. However, he canot walk a tight wire if, half way across, it drops 3 ft, which is what happens every time the Labour party tries to put together a nuclear policy that is coherent, honest and acceptable to Labour Members. When the hon. Member for Clackmannan was saying "We shall not scrap short-range nuclear forces," Labour Members behind him were shaking their heads in disapproval. When the hon. Gentleman mentioned the German concern, he did not want to address the enormous Russian superiority. I do not want to follow the hon. Gentleman, whose speech would have been better made in a defence debate rather than one on the Army, which he mentioned only peremptorily.
When the Select Committee on Defence visited the Army over the past year it found it in good heart and professional, working well and offering a service of which we can be justifiably proud. We visited British elements of battalions and troops and staff in the far east. We visited the United Kingdom land forces headquarters in Wilton and I visited many other units. Most important of all, we visited our forces in Northern Ireland. I endorse everything that the Minister and the hon. Member for 402 Clackmannan said about how well they are doing. It is a paradox that the worse the conditions for soldiers, the higher their morale and the harder they work for a cause for which they have been professionally trained and which they believe is right. I am sure that they have the support of all hon. Members.
Never before have we concentrated as much on one section of the Army as we have this year on the Gurkhas. Most of the Committee's working time was devoted to them and they caused it to produce the longest and most thorough report in its history. It is an exceedingly comprehensive report and I am grateful not only to my colleagues for the work that they put into it but to the Committee staff, who worked hard on our behalf, assembling all the facts to produce it. I hope that it is as helpful to the House as the Government said that it was to them.
It was slightly disappointing that such a comprehensive report was met with such an uncomprehensive Government reply. I can understand the Government's difficulty about the time scale involved and their not wanting to commit themselves to a state of affairs that may apply in 1997. The Government made two announcements. The first, which was most welcome, was of a firm and definite future for the Gurkhas in the Army after 1997, and everyone welcomes that. Secondly, they produced a figure that amounted to more than a 50 per cent. cut. It would have been helpful to know the thinking behind it, rather than to have the vagueness that surrounded the response and the statement by the Secretary of State.
It was helpful that, during his statement, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State elaborated in reply to a question by me and said that it was a minimum figure, which was negotiable upwards but was unlikely to go down. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Minister of State has confirmed that. Having considered the subject so closely, we will not leave it alone. We are pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will come before the Committee on 26 June, when we hope that we can persuade him to flesh out the thinking behind his decision, to say how he envisages the figure being achieved and to give a more detailed response to some parts of the report.
I could talk at length about the report and elaborate on it, but I see at least five members of my Committee waiting to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not want to abuse the fact that you were kind enough to allow me to catch your eye first, so I will not take the House through the whole report. I should like to refer, in the context of the Gurkhas, to one serious subject to which both Front Bench speakers have alluded—the future manpower problem. The Committee covered that aspect closely.
It is axiomatic that, if we have 8,500 well-trained, loyal, well-motivated troops, our requirements for them—albeit in 10 years' time—must take account of what our needs are likely to be. When running an Army of a size that will meet the commitments of the Ministry of Defence and the Government, without fat in the system—presumably, that has been removed during the past few years—we must look first at current manpower levels and problems and then at the projections.
My hon. Friend the Minister was honest in expressing concern about the present position and how it could develop. If he had wanted to put it in exact words, he could have done little better that to turn to our report, especially the part that deals with the establishment and strength of the Army, in paragraph 129 onwards. The Committee 403 measured the shortfall according to the Ministry's figures, but they are now out of date. The latest recruitment figures which the Ministry produced in a press release on 2 March revealed a slightly worse position than the one on which we reported. We said:If this shortfall reflects a worsening trend, there is cause for concern.Ministry officials who spoke to us acceded to that point.
The Committee went on to look at shortages of infantry. It said:The infantry constitutes nearly one-third of the Army's manpower. It is here that the gap between strength and establishment is most acute, and is expected to be about 5 per cent. by 1 April 1989.The 1.5 per cent. shortage in the forces as a whole has been concentrated into a shortage of 5 per cent. in the infantry. It is from the infantry that the reserve of manpower in Hong Kong will become available when we pull out.
Although we welcome the Ministry's assurances, I hope that it will address more urgently the problem of future recruitment. The MARILYN assessment—manning and recruitment in the lean years of the nineties—is realistic. The recruiting drive that is under way may be successful, but it would be a sanguine person who, given the demographic problems and changes in attitudes to our armed forces, thought that by simply spending money on television recruiting campaigns we will make good the shortfall. I do not believe that anyone in the Ministry of Defence really thinks that. We must get the message across more clearly.
When I look around the Benches I see few Members of Parliament who have had a direct connection with the services, because we are 28 years from the ending of national service. In recruiting 16 to 18 year-olds, we are for the first time recruiting from families where the father has had no military experience—he has not been called upon to do his national service. Until four or five years ago, there was always someone in the family who had served. There was always a photograph on some sideboard of the service man, however much he hated his service while doing it. When those people finished their service, they were proud that they had contributed to our country. That element is missing from every part of family life.
The Ministry of Defence would do well to try a different recruiting approach from the one that assumes that everyone knows what military service is about, what it means and what it has meant in terms of the way that our society has been built up. There is no question but that there has been a sea of change. When one goes round one's constituency talking to people, one finds that it is now the early middle-aged people who have no concept of what service life means. That starts the prospect of a recurrence of the kind of divorce between the military and civilian communities that we had at the end of the 1930s, when there had been a similarly long period during which people had not experienced service life at first hand. I hope that the Government will consider producing a more general, less macho approach to the services. Much of a service man's life is spent on the ordinary facet of service to the community—he has to fight only if the politicians' policies fail, and under the Government that is less and less likely to happen.
I want to make a brief remark about the community charge as it affects the services. Before the Whips shiver, let me say that I am not fighting any old battle—I want to raise a different aspect.
§ Mr. Mates
The hon. Gentleman knows me better than that.
There is a real problem which I want to address and on which I hope to be given some elucidation by the Ministry of Defence. The Government have decided that service men were to be treated in the same way as their civilian counterparts. That is not the right answer, because service men are different. I hope that the Ministry fought his corner hard to get them treated differently. The sensible solution would have been to make service men pay an average community charge. That could be easily done.
I am not arguing that service men should not bear the same responsibility as their counterparts, but it is not right, and is sometimes downright unfair, that a service man should be subject to the community charge payable in the area to which the services—mainly the Army—sends him. He can be posted suddenly from a low-rated area to a high-rated area through no choice of his. He can show no democratic reaction. The argument used to support the community charge is that one can vote people out, but the service man can play no part in the way in which local democracy works. He just has to lump it.
The Ministry has an equalising mechanism whereby a service man can be relieved of part of the burden of a particularly severe charge. I hope that, on looking at the anomalies that will be thrown up, and that are starting to be thrown up in Scotland, the Ministry will return to what must be the right solution—a standard community charge for every soldier, sailor and airman, and their dependants, wherever they are.
A particular problem is already arising and I want the Ministry to consider it. More and more married soldiers and officers have bought their own houses, encouraged by us. When they end their service, they do not have to start at the bottom of the property ladder, and that is right and proper. Having encouraged them to do that, we then, for perfectly good military reasons, uproot them from Hampshire and send them to Scotland or Yorkshire. That must be. Because they want to keep the family unit together, they take quarters. They will then, in many cases, be liable to pay a double community charge by being charged at their home and then being told that because they are living in quarters in Catterick, that is their major residence. They will have to pay two charges because they will be liable for the charge in their own homes—
§ Mr. Mates
That is true, but I can go where I choose. The services are different from everyone else. Other disciplined forces, such as the police forces, the ambulance forces, nurses and doctors, can say that they will not go to Yorkshire, for example, if they think that the community charge there is too high. Service men cannot say that, so they are a different and unique case and must be treated as such. It must be unfair for a soldier to buy a house wherever he thinks he will spend his post-service life and then be penalised doubly under the community charge because of a posting. If the service demands him to move, it should compensate him for it.
I hope that that problem will be considered and that we shall receive a comprehensive answer, although I realise 405 that we shall not do so today. It is a problem that will bring the community charge into disrepute vis-a-vis the services if we are not careful.
I want to speak briefly about the Falkland Islands and our defence commitments there. I am not going to argue about why or how we are there; what is important is that we are there defending the Falklands. As a result of the considerable expense that the Government have put into the Falklands and the considerable drain on the defence budget at present as a result of the forces and assets there, the Falkland Islands have become rich, especially through the fishing licences that they are able to grant. They have become rich to the extent that income from fishing licences has risen from £650,000 in 1986 to £16 million in 1988. Would it not be right to ask the Falkland Islands Government to make some contribution to our defence costs out of that great wealth?
There is a precedent for that in Hong Kong. We have a defence agreement with the Hong Kong Government because our forces are committed there very much in the interest of Hong Kong's success as a free enterprise society. The same can be said about the Falkland Islands. They are able to receive that great income only because of the great time, effort and expense put, rightly, into defending them. Given how hard-pressed our defence budget is at present and how hard-pressed it will continue to be, it would not be unfair to ask the Falkland Islands Government to make a contribution to our defence costs. I hope that the Government will do that.
§ Mr. A. E. P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe)
I hope that the House will bear with me if I speak both in the light of the Statement on Defence Estimates for 1989 and in the context of recent momentous events. The defence White Paper addresses the role and equipment of the armed forces including the Army, in chapter three. It deals in its opening chapters with the recent and significant developments that must be in all our minds, such as the challenge of arms control. However, I hope that none of us will overlook NATO's 40th anniversary. In the treatment of arms control in chapter two, I can detect the welcome hand of Sir Michael Quinlan, permanent Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Defence. No one more experienced, more authoritative or more eloquent could have been called upon to perform this exacting and sensitive task.
It is hard for many of us to remember what Europe was like in 1949—exhausted and discouraged, with its economies in ruins. That was 40 years ago. Everyone born in north America and western Europe since then has been brought up under the strength of NATO's sheltering wings. Our vitality has revived and our common defence has been assured. That is no coincidence.
From the beginning, NATO was more than a security system. It provided the means of expression of a common purpose and a common vision. It established a community of values which bound together a growing number of nations in north America and western Europe. I am proud to say that I attended its anniversary ceremony in Brussels in April. Let us wish NATO in its 40th year many peaceful and happy returns of the day. In the immortal words of the great Sophie Tucker, might we not also say of NATO, 406 "Life begins at forty"? All of us wonder about the next role for NATO. I believe that it will have, not simply another lease of life, but a more meaningful one.
We are debating the Army at a time of growing optimism throughout the world, with the intermediate nuclear forces treaty and the opening of the Vienna negotiations. I am proud to say that I visited Vienna last month. I visited at least half of the arms control national delegations and I can testify to the new climate there. Unlike the mood at the time of the mutual balanced force reductions there is a sense of optimism, purpose and a determination not to get bogged down. We are going places in Vienna. I am confident that we shall get results and some people are now talking about results as early as a year hence—that is, the preliminary results, not the implementation. Is this not exciting, because clearly we are on the verge of a new chapter in the difficult history of East-West relations?
I found the Soviet arms control delegation just as anxious to get results as the United States delegation and our own. I went from one to the other and back again. However, it would be wrong to think that all has changed for the good in eastern Europe as a result of Mr. Gorbachev's policies. Many human rights problems remain, so as we go forward Alliance cohesion will prove critical if we are to shape a more promising world. We cannot possibly imagine that recent developments have changed everything. The Soviet Union will remain a heavily over-armed society. Without a secure Alliance defence, it could be increasingly tempted to believe that it has the risk-free option of using force or threatening to use force against us.
Intentions are not the same as capabilities and intentions can change overnight, at little cost. They have done so frequently in modern Soviet history. Furthermore, not all capability categories were covered by Mr. Gorbachev in his United Nations speech last December. He covered battlefield firepower, but not manoeuvrability—that is availability, readiness and deployment—air defence, air attack, combined forces, mobilisation and reinforcement.
Let us consider military industrial capacity, whatever the consumer constraints in the Soviet Union. Can the Minister confirm reports that Soviet tank production levels are actually rising? I am thinking of the FST1 and the T80. Yet at the same time Mr. Gorbachev calls for a reduction in tank deployment. Whatever may be true of justice, it is not true of peace thatIt droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven".We must work for it, with a stout heart and a cool nerve. Within the Alliance, we must work for peace together. Unity and determination must be our watchwords.
Last week the NATO summit demonstrated that there is much on which the Alliance agrees. It agrees that the Alliance continues to provide a framework of stability and that within that framework the 16 free European and north American nations should work together to pursue the Harmel guidelines. It also agrees that true security in Europe continues to require the presence of United States forces, both nuclear and conventional. However, beyond that we run into real difficulties—not new, but real, difficulties.
What level of forces do we require for deterrence? What type of nuclear forces do we need and where should they be deployed so that the risks, as well as the proven benefits, are fairly distributed? To what levels can we safely reduce, 407 and what would such adjustments imply for forward defence and flexible response? That is one kind of difficulty, which does not concern Opposition Members or the House exclusively; it is broadly based throughout the Alliance.
Another difficulty has to do with how we can make sense of the changes taking place in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. The North Atlantic Assembly believes—I know that my colleagues on both sides of the House will know that what I am saying is well founded—that parliamentarians, unconstrained by necessary adherence to formal Government positions, can bring a fresh perspective to NATO's deliberations, blending an understanding of, and concern for, military aspects of NATO's plans with a knowledge of the underlying reality of public opinion.
That is where we come in. No one is better placed to speak about public opinion than we are, and it is on the change. All parties represented in the North Atlantic Assembly are determined to question and confront even the most sacrosanct and sensitive elements of current NATO policy.
On the other hand, we also believe that the Western Alliance must test to the full the promises of current Soviet rhetoric. If the Soviets continue to invest heavily in military capability, that must say something about their long-term intentions towards us. As long as the Soviet Union's security and foreign policies are not subject to democratic control, NATO must keep up its guard. No defence means no détente, which, in turn, means no lasting change for the better.
The estimates show that spending is set to rise marginally. The increase is less than the rate of inflation and hence amounts to a real cut. Most concern today, therefore, will focus on the details of how the money is to be spent and how it will affect the Army. Real spending on equipment will be cut by perhaps 10 per cent., and this is the year when the uncuttable spending on Trident is near its all-time high, so conventional equipment will suffer badly.
No service will avoid going without some things that are needed. Some procurement programmes will be extended, which costs money in the long term. The White Paper does not tell Members of Parliament—never mind the voters—what they need to know. How will the equipment cuts be managed and how much will individual items of equipment cost? The White Paper does not say much about what is being done to deal with the manpower crisis to which the Minister admitted in his opening speech. That is crucial in present conditions. Are some combat units operating under strength for example?
The White Paper confirms that the Army will get its seventh regiment of Challenger tanks. But the Army also has a vital need for modern artillery and anti-tank weaponry. It is good news that the Army is to start to deploy MLRS—the multi-launch rocket system—next year, but when will the collaborative family of third generation anti-tank missile systems—TRIGAT—come into service? The Minister also confirmed that the improved Westland Lynx Mark 7 anti-tank helicopter is now being deployed in support of 1(BR) Corps in West Germany. But when will it receive infra-red TOW roof sight modules, secure radios and Ferranti AWARE radar warning receivers?
Evidence of overstretch can also be found elsewhere in the Alliance. Increases in defence spending by all our allies 408 are unlikely because of budgetary pressures. The need will grow for more cost-effective equipment procurement, more support for the European procurement group, IEPG, more efficient deployment of resources to improve the teeth-to-tail ratio, better use of reserves and more practical co-operation between allies—that is, an examination of appropriate roles, risks and responsibilities in the Alliance, not only in the NATO area but in other vital theatres such as the Gulf. Henceforth, all of us in the Alliance will have to think smarter, not richer.
There are other lessons of the past to be remembered and stringent conditions for our success that cannot conveniently be wished away. I refer again to strong defence. A strong defence is as necessary—perhaps more so—in times of movement such as we have witnessed, sadly, on the other side of the world in recent days as in times when the status quo prevails.
United, the Western Alliance will determine events. Having rebuilt western Europe and assured the strength and cohesion of the West, NATO can fulfil its second great historic task—to facilitate peaceful change in the East. I envisage a second and more meaningful lease of life for NATO. It is the best institutional device that could be created to fulfil a number of necessary functions: first, to co-ordinate joint verification; secondly, to monitor East and West compliance; and, thirdly, to provide sanctions for violations. If NATO did not exist, we would need to invent it. There is nothing available to us that can work so effectively for East-West reconciliation and ultimately the ending of the painful and grotesque division of Europe.
§ 6.8 pm
§ Dame Janet Fookes (Plymouth, Drake)
I wish to deal with only one theme tonight because I am aware of your injunction, Mr. Speaker, at the outset of the debate, that we should bear in mind the fact that others wish to speak. You, Sir, addressed your remarks to hon. Gentlemen; I like to feel that that was because you felt that a lady would not need such an injunction.
Both the Minister and the Opposition Front Bench spokesman touched on my theme, which relates to the future manpower requirements of the Army, bearing in mind the alarming trend in the number of young people which will become evident by the mid-1990s. The Minister said that by 1994 there would be 20 per cent. fewer 15 to 19-year-olds coming forward. Already concern is being expressed about recruitment in the Army and the problem likely to get worse unless urgent steps are taken. After all, it is not only the Army that is looking for bright young people—it is the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, the police and, of course, industry and the professions. I suspect that there will be something of a rat race and that we shall need more than attractive television advertisements to recruit.
I noted with pleasure the Minister's reference to making greater use of women in the armed services, particularly in the Army. I was not altogether surprised to hear him say that it was still not the intention to change the long-standing convention and rule that women should not be used in direct combat. I hope that my hon. Friend may consider the matter and perhaps come to modify his views in later years. It seems to me that in every sphere women are now treated on equal terms with men and it is a pity that they should not be given more encouragement in the Army. It will be an interesting race between the Army and 409 the Church of England. We shall have to wait and see which can hold out longest against admitting women to its innermost portals. More seriously, I think that we shall need to look closely at the role of women and make a greater role for them in the coming years.
If recruitment techniques are important, so also is retention. That brings me to the main burden of my remarks—the question of retaining those who have already been persuaded to enter the Army. The statistics are not favourable. My understanding is that over the past five years the early loss of trained personnel has increased by some 70 per cent. When one thinks of the wastage that that represents in public funds and of the wastage to the Army in losing those who have most to offer, it is most worrying.
What are the reasons? In my view, one of the outstanding reasons as it affects the Army is the concern and discontent felt about housing arrangements. It affects all the armed services, but the Army bears a disproportionate amount of the burden—far more than the Royal Navy and more than the RAF. It springs from the nature of Army service. At any one time, more than half our Army personnel are away from mainland Britain, and even when they are in Britain they may be widely dispersed, far away from their natural homes.
Reference has already been made to the encouragement by the Ministry of Defence for people in the services to own their own homes. That is put forward as an admirable aim, as no doubt in many ways it is, but I do not believe that sufficient thought has been given to the peculiar difficulties which arise for Army personnel. Because they are so often away from home, they are obliged to be in quarters for which they have to pay. If they cannot live in their own homes, they have to let them—assuming that they can find suitable tenants who will pay up and look after the property.
I know from my membership of the council of the Soldiers' Sailors' and Airmen's Families Association that innumerable horror stories are circulating about difficult tenants. What is more, the tenancies have to be managed, and often the agents take 15 to 20 per cent. of the rent. So the unfortunate soldier is squeezed between paying for his quarters on the one hand and all the difficulties of letting a property on the other.
The alternative—not buying at all—means that on leaving the service, whether prematurely or at the end of a full term of service, the soldier has the major problem of seeking to buy a home. When one thinks of the increase in property prices over the years, one realises that there is no way in which a service man can get easily into the market. It is not surprising, therefore, that under persuasion from wives and families generally a great many promising young men are leaving the service early.
I have here a letter from the controller of SSAFA, Major-General Charles Grey, who wrote to me as an MP and as a member of the governing council of SSAFA because SSAFA sees at first hand the difficulties which arise. I quote briefly from his letter:As you may know, SSAFA has about 6,000 volunteers in its UK network. They cover every town and village in the country and provide trained caseworker support for Service and ex-Service families in need, or difficulty of any description. These local workers have been representing 410 increasingly strongly about the number of homeless ex-Service families in their areas, particularly from the Army.He also refers to the network of services, professional and voluntary, retained by SSAFA overseas and adds:We are now regularly faced with evidence of a widespread sense of apprehension and insecurity—particularly among Army families. This is directly attributable to their perceived housing difficulties.Later he says:Service manning is not our problem; but no one in close touch with every variety of Service family, as we are, can doubt that vast sums spent on training are being wasted for want of the comparatively small investment necessary to allow families a sense of future housing security.That is the problem. What of the solution? I have worked closely with my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier)—I hope, Mr. Speaker, that he will catch your eye later in the debate—who has been instrumental in bringing forward an excellent scheme. He has even proposed a new clause for the Finance Bill as the proposed scheme has tax implications. Briefly, it is an armed forces house purchase savings scheme. It seeks to allow various savings institutions, such as building societies, banks and insurance companies, to take part in a savings scheme through which a service man could save money with the same tax incentives as people in civilian life, so that at the end of the day he will have sufficient money to enable him to buy a house. The rental portion of his accommodation charges would be treated as an interest payment and the relief that he would get on that would he paid to the institution, presumably on a monthly basis. He could also add voluntary savings which would attract the same tax relief as is given to a civilian buying a house.
That proposal seems eminently sensible, and far better than trying to devise elaborate schemes to support service men buying their own houses too early when it does not make sense for them to do so. I hope that I am pushing at an open door in relation to my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Ministry of Defence, but I am concerned about my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Treasury, who are not noted for their immediate espousal of imaginative schemes which in some way affect taxation—they have to be made to see that there is a real problem in retaining manpower in the services and that while they may be saving a small amount in immediate taxation, the millions that are being wasted on people who leave the services too early have to be set against that. So far as I can see, the Treasury is not fond of sums of that kind because they do not fit into its rigid thinking. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Ministry of Defence to make the strongest possible representations to Treasury Ministers to ensure that they understand the wider implications and not just the narrow concepts so beloved of that Department of State.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces will deal with that subject in his reply to the debate and that he will give us a word of encouragement. If there is one thing that could be done to retain much-needed Army personnel at a time of increasingly shrinking numbers of young people, that proposal would do a great deal to solve the problem. I commend it to the House and to the Government.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)
I am sure that I speak for many hon. Members when I say that we find ourselves totally in accord with the thoughtful and perceptive observations of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Drake (Dame J. Fookes).
In support of what was said by the hon. member for Hampshire, east (Mr. Mates), may I draw to the attention of Ministers the difficulties that the community charge is creating for serving men and women in the three armed services? I have a constituent who is a private in a Scottish regiment. He has chosen to buy his own house in my constituency, but he has recently been posted to a Scottish barracks. He pays a personal community charge in the district to which he has been posted but, because he has his own house which is unoccupied, he has to pay a standard community charge, that having been expressed in Scotland as a multiplier of two. That means that from the income of a private he pays three community charges.
That appears to be an extraordinary burden to put on someone who has to go where he is sent and who has taken the entirely responsible and, as I am sure the House would agree, reasonable step of buying his own home. I hope that that is a matter that the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence will look at with far greater sympathy and understanding than has necessarily been displayed in such matters up to now.
I shall say a word or two about the events of the past week, which have bulked to a certain extent in the speeches we have already heard. I am well aware that loyalty is at a premium on the Government Benches, but I am sure that even the Prime Minister's most exuberant supporters would find it difficult to consider that her conduct of events in the immediate period up to the 40th anniversary celebrations of NATO should be regarded as a model for others to follow or, indeed, for her to follow on some future occasion.
The strength of any alliance depends on the unity of its members and on the unity of its purpose. In the case of an alliance of democratic countries, having as its central purpose the preservation of democratic values, it appears all the more necessary that there should be tolerance and understanding amongst its members. Negotiating with one's allies as if they were one's enemies is hardly likely to cement an alliance. It may be emotionally satisfying, and even politically self-justifying, but it is much more likely to lead to decisions which represent the least common denominator rather than the highest common factor.
Nor in an alliance as diverse as NATO is such an alliance to be easily preserved if there is no sensitivity amongst its members about the domestic political circumstances of each other. Just as the British Army makes a substantial contribution of the highest quality to the military effort of NATO, so too should the British Government be willing to make a similar contribution to the joint political effort of the Alliance. I doubt very much that Chancellor Kohl, never mind Mr. Genscher, felt that our Prime Minister's attitude in the period immediately prior to Brussels was one that took account of the interests of Federal Germany or, indeed, the interests of NATO. We maintain such units of the British Army as we do in Federal Germany for the purposes of the Alliance. Anything that diminishes the strength of the Alliance, potentially or actually, diminishes the effectiveness of our military contribution.
412 Nor are we able now to ignore the geography of Europe and its history. Germany sits at its centre able to look east or west for expansion. In the past, such expansion took a physical form and a military one, but the strength of Federal Germany, at least today, lies in its economic capacity. It is little wonder then that President Bush pays attention to Chancellor Kohl's concerns. With the United States of America's balance of payments and budget deficits, he has little alternative. Defending a weakening dollar against a strengthening deutschmark requires a sensitivity to the political circumstances of federal Germany.
In the vacuum caused by the abnormally long running-in period of the Bush Administration, the United Kingdom had a remarkable opportunity to be a bridge between Europe and the United States. We did not take that chance; rather we used the time to take up positions from which ultimately we had to depart, even on the most optimistic Government interpretation of the comprehensive concept.
I believe that the whole House would join in applauding the initiative taken by Mr. Bush. It is an initiative that can justifiably be described as bold and imaginative, because, quite apart from its own intrinsic merit, it had the effect of putting to the test the statements and the offers previously made by Mr. Gorbachev. The initiative underlined that the key to arms reductions at any level in Europe is parity in conventional forces. That is self-evident from the terms of paragraph 48 of the comprehensive concept. However, there is an old rule of interpretation of documents, which is that one should always read them as a whole and not paragraph by paragraph or sentence by sentence. When one looks at the relationship between paragraph 48 and paragraph 49—the paragraph that provides that no decision about the follow-on to Lance will be taken until 1992—it is not difficult to comprehend that, if what is proposed in paragraph 48 has come to pass, or is even reasonably within grasp, there must be great doubt that there will be a political will in the United States to proceed with a follow-on to Lance. Paragraph 48, therefore, is not the end of the story. Indeed, it contains within it, when read with paragraph 49, the mechanism for its own obsolescence.
If the Bush initiative leads to a reduction in the number of United States troops stationed in western Europe, that inevitably will mean that in Europe we may have to assume, relatively, a larger responsibility for our own defence in the provision of conventional forces. That must have implications for all the armed services, but particularly the Army, and especially in the light of the demographic trends which have already been mentioned. Those trends work against the Army as much as they work against any other form of employment.
When the debate began, I like others, was minded to say that I was awaiting with interest the publication of the Government study on manpower, the MARILYN exercise, but we learned, almost as soon as the debate began, that an abridged version had been placed in the Library. I understand from members of the Select Committee that the abridged version has been available to some of them for several weeks. I believe, putting the matter no higher than this, that it is unfortunate that those of us who have an interest in these matters were not given an opportunity to make some study of that document in 413 advance of the debate. Apart from anything else, it would have helped us to make comments or observations which, if not any wiser, should at least have been better informed.
§ Mr. Archie Hamilton
I should put the hon. and learned Gentleman right on that matter. The Select Committee was given an abridged version of the MARILYN report, but that was a classified version. It is the unclassified version that is now in the Library.
§ Mr. Campbell
I accept the Minister's explanation, although I note that it did not come with an apology. I still think that it is unfortunate that those of us who have an interest in these matters were not able to be better informed before the debate began.
Those manpower difficulties make it all the more difficult to understand the Government's failure to accept in their entirety the conclusions of the Defence Committee on the future of the Gurkhas. The Minister said something about the Gurkhas when he opened the debate. However, although what he said may have been slightly different in tone, it was no different in substance from what was said when the announcement was made some weeks ago. It is notable to remind ourselves that the Defence Committee argued for the same number of men and for no reduction in the number of Gurkha battalions. The Government's proposal is to reduce the number of troops by half and to reduce the number of battalions from five to four.
Apart from any moral obligation, which quite a number of hon. Members feel we have towards the Gurkhas, the manpower demands of the Army—as the Chairman of the Defence Committee trenchantly pointed out—should surely dictate acceptance of the Defence Committee's entire recommendations. I add the rider, which to some extent has already been anticipated by the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), that recent events in Hong Kong, where the Gurkhas are stationed for certain specific tasks, should be the subject of careful analysis to establish clearly whether the decision—which, if not taken, has at least been proposed—is one to which the Government should adhere in the light of circumstances which may clearly be subject to radical change.
There appears to be some evidence that recruitment may be easier in areas of the United Kingdom where there is a traditional geographical link with particular regiments. I am sorry that the Secretary of State is not here today because I wanted to remind him of his notable participation in the campaign to save the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a regiment based at Stirling castle, of which he was a distinguished officer who saw active service. The regiment had a particular link with Stirling and the surrounding countryside. I hope that the Government will take account, in what I hope will be a sophisticated approach to the recruitment problem, of the fact that such local loyalty frequently can be a much more effective recruiting sergeant than simply giving opportunities to those interested in the Army to be assigned to a regiment with which they have neither family nor geographical ties.
I wish briefly to deal with two matters to which some reference has already been made. The first is the position of ethnic minorities within the armed forces. It would be folly to pretend that that issue could be easily resolved, but 414 it must be the case that admission to a particular regiment, however distinguished, and promotion within the Army should depend on ability and nothing else. Not only must that be the policy of the Ministry of Defence; it must be the reality. The House looks to the Minister to give us some reassurance on that matter.
With regard to the Territorial Army, if the demographic trends persist, that branch of the services will have to assume greater burdens. I hope that the Government will act to make membership of the TA as attractice as possible, not least to those who opt for early retirement from the armed services. I do not believe that the issue is necessarily simply one of money; it probably lies in a proper recognition of the role of the TA and the provision of up-to-date equipment and proper opportunities for training.
I do not expect the Minister to tell us this evening of the progress of the demonstration phase of the Challenger 2 project, but he knows that a number of hon. Members believe that the effect of the decision of 20 December 1988 was to put Vickers on probation. We await the results of the demonstration phase with great interest. It might be of some help if the Minister could say when he expects to be in a position to give the House some information; or are we to wait until the whole of the demonstration phase has been completed?
Like other hon. Members, I have been extensively lobbied by the companies bidding for the contract to supply 5,000 four-tonne trucks to the Army over the next few years. They have been generous with their briefings and modest with their hospitality. It is as well that they have not sought to transpose those adjectives. All the companies make persuasive cases. Those of us who do not have access to the results of the assessment tests, or who have no particular expertise, are undoubtedly at a great disadvantage.
I accept that a whole range of factors must be taken into account—the buy-back scheme, for example, that has been proposed by one of those competing for the contract; the proposal of another to make a large investment at Irvine, which lies close to the boundary of the Secretary of State's constituency—who would no doubt deal with that matter with his usual objectivity; others who make high claims for the United Kingdom content of the vehicles to be produced; others who emphasise the costs and others the ability of their company to fulfil the contract if awarded, thereby seeking to draw unfair comparisons with other companies. I suggest that the criteria to be adopted should be that the product chosen must be the best for the job. Financial considerations are important, but the Government should not be seduced by them into accepting a tender for a vehicle which, on capability grounds alone, they would not accept.
The men and women of the British Army are heirs to a long and valuable tradition. Their professionalism is recognised wherever they go. They can be called upon at any time to fight in dangerous conditions and they keep the peace in difficult and dangerous circumstances in Northern Ireland. They are often called upon when public services either decline or are unable to discharge their responsibilities. Those men and women deserve our commendation; they also deserve our practical support.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
Exactly three weeks ago, almost to the hour, I was struggling to get on an aeroplane to take me out of Shanghai to Hong Kong in what was clearly a rapidly deteriorating situation. I was told that flights were fully booked until the middle of this month. I did manage to get out of Shanghai, and I am conscious of the extreme stress of those who, in the worsening crisis of the past few days, must have faced a real emergency in trying to get out with their families and whatever belongings they could take.
On 22 May I was with the Gurkhas on the borders of Hong Kong. It was the day my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made his statement about the future of the brigade. My tour of China had been with the defence committee of the Western European Union, and had begun with a unit of the People's Liberation Army just outside Peking, although soldiers were not yet very much in evidence in the city. The students were much in evidence, as they were in Xi'an and Shanghai.
I do not wish to be too anecdotal, but when I reached Hong Kong I was struck by the optimism of the Brigade of Gurkhas and the strong feeling among its officers that the bottom figure of 4,000 quoted by my right hon. Friend would never be reached and that the Crown would have at least as much need of the brigade, probably in numbers almost up to its present strength, as far ahead as could be foreseen. Of course, the unit most under threat is the 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Gurkhas, but I was told that it had been under similar threat before and had twice escaped disbandment in recent years.
If we study what has happened in China in recent days, and if we coolly and rationally re-examine our policy towards Hong Kong, I am sure that we would all accept that it would be wise to heed the warning of the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) and not pursue the policy announced just as though nothing had happened.
The roles of the Gurkhas in Hong Kong—the 48th Brigade—include the maintenance of British sovereignty to 30 June 1997; support of the civil authorities and the Royal Hong Kong Police in the maintenance and stability of security; training for limited war operations; assistance to the civil community in the event of natural or other disaster; and the prevention of illegal immigration to Hong Kong. In 1987, no fewer than 22,000 illegal immigrants were arrested at the borders of Hong Kong.
The scale and dimension of the problem of the Vietnamese boat people has afflicted Hong Kong to a growing extent in recent weeks. Her Majesty's Government claim that this immigration problem is merely the result of economic pressures. Nearly all refugees in history have come, at least in part, to take the terrible decision to leave their homes as a result of economic pressures. We must also bear in mind the fact that the Government of the People's Republic of Vietnam have not condemned the action of the People's Liberation Army in brutally crushing the students and other freedom-loving people. Therefore, I should have thought that, at least in part, the motivation of the boat people was to escape a politically unacceptable regime.
We hope that sense will prevail and that peace will be re-established in the People's Republic of China. If it is not, there is the threat of a major immigration problem on the frontiers of Hong Kong. Undoubtedly, if that 416 movement of people were to persist into the future the Gurkhas would be very much needed. All the security forces involved in the apprehension of illegal immigrants would be required. The plans of Her Majesty's Government call from 1991 for the disbandment of the Royal Hong Kong Regiment, the Volunteers, who play an important part in the policing of the border. I hope that the timescale within which their disbandment is envisaged will also be re-examined.
I trust also that the Government—in view of the circumstances that have manifested themselves so horrifically in the People's Republic—will review their policy on the issue of British passports with the right of abode in the United Kingdom for ex-members of the Royal Hong Kong Regiment who, as former servants of the Crown, must prima facie view with considerable apprehension their future in Hong Kong under the sovereignty of the People's Republic after July 1997.
Another aspect of the plans of Her Majesty's Government is the withdrawal of the first of the Gurkha battalion of 48 Brigade from Hong Kong in 1992. You, Mr. Speaker, will have recollections of partition in India in 1947. You may still have been serving in the Indian Army in those dark days of mid-August 1947. The lesson of the past few days must be that it would be extremely unwise of the British authorities in Hong Kong to diminish the forces of the Crown available to support the civil power and police the frontier before the handover of power. Nature abhors a vacuum, and at a time of political uncertainty the vacuum created by the diminution of physical power could have alarming consequences.
On Sunday 21 May, my wife and I marched in Hong Kong with a huge and, at that time, apprehensive but not yet angry crowd of 500,000 people demonstrating peacefully in favour of the demands of the students and other freedom-loving people in the People's Republic. I felt then that the demonstrations in China could only end in tears. My other strong feeling at the conclusion of that march—it was the biggest demonstration ever in the colony's history—was that the peaceful manifestation of deep feeling on behalf of Chinese people in Hong Kong in favour of the aspirations of fellow Chinamen in the People's Republic could quickly turn to deep bitterness and to nasty anti-British kinds of riot.
Since then, sad to say, there have been some riots in Hong Kong but—thank goodness—they have not got out of control. Any diminution in the British military presence in Hong Kong too soon, however, could be extremely dangerous because in the last resort that presence is needed as an aid to the civil power.
Something else leads me to question the Government's decision, so far in advance of the handover of power in Hong Kong in 1997, to make at least outline decisions about the future of the Brigade of Gurkhas. The point was well outlined by the Chairman of our Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates). The so-called demographic trough is now extremely alarming. We have a shortfall of about 5 per cent. in the infantry and the very nadir of the demographic trough will occur when the rundown of the Brigade of Gurkhas is due to start.
Traditionally, 80 per cent. of Army recruits are taken from the 16-to-19 age range. That has been the consistent pattern. Of that age range within the population as a whole, in the last decade the Army has on average recruited 0–8 per cent. By 1993, the number of 16-year-olds 417 in the population will have dropped from the present 400,000 to 332,000, and in 1995 the low point for that age bracket will be reached. If the Army in the mid-1990s is still to obtain 80 per cent. of its recruits from that age bracket and maintain the target of recruiting it has set of 20,000 per year, the proportion of males recruited will have to go up from 0.8 to 1.2 per cent. per annum. Throughout the last decade, except in 1980, the figure has hardly ever exceeded 0.8 per cent. That is why it is rash for the Government even to suggest such a large reduction in the Brigade of Gurkhas.
Events in China have brought home to us the age-old lesson that the unexpected always happens. Not long ago we were looking to China and thinking that a magnificent reformist programme would transform the economy, that we could enjoy arms sales, have military exchanges perhaps and have a healthier relationship to our mutual good. Those hopes have been dashed and, undoubtedly, there are security policy remifications for the region—not least for Hong Kong.
There are also lessons for areas of potential instability nearer home. In an earlier intervention, I cited the ethnic unrest in Armenia, Uzbekistan and Georgia. We do not know how that pattern of ethnic unrest will develop. It could certainly lead to desperate Communist leaderships using force to suppress the national aspirations and, possible the aspirations for liberty and democracy within the countries of eastern Europe and the Soviet empire in Europe. If that were to occur, the instability could overspill and pose a threat to our security. Therefore, we should have at least the flexibility which a sensible manpower policy in our Army would allow.
In the past, we have been able substantially to increase the numbers in the Brigade of Gurkhas. In future, by closing the depot at Dharan in eastern Nepal, it will be made much harder. That is the kind of pettifogging, mean economy which absolutely baffles me. The Ministry of Defence wastes hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money without seeming to bat an eyelid, appearing to suggest that it is merely £1 billion down the drain on the Nimrod airborne early warning system. The Foxhunter radar, the alarm and anti-radiation missile, EH101, the command and control system for the type 23 have all overrun on cost. The number of examples is stupendous and horrifying. However, for an institution such as the depot of the Brigade of Gurkhas in Nepal, which costs £4 million per year to run and where the British military hospital carries out invaluable work for the local community at costs of only £2.5 million a year to run, the Government cannot find the money.
The Government have a disregard for the effect on the local community and the loyalty of the people of Nepal, particularly eastern Nepal, who have given sterling service to the Crown, which I find staggering. It could just be that the optimism of those officers in Hong Kong on Monday 22 May will prove justified. Events may turn out so that we need more Gurkhas than we think, and we may even conceivably need more than the 8,000 which are in the Brigade of Gurkhas now. If that is so, it will be difficult to achieve the necessary expansion without the depot at Dahran.
In case there are any fallacious ideas floating around that Gurkhas cannot cope with the sophisticated 418 equipment on the central front in Europe, if the average squaddie in Glasgow, Liverpool, Newcastle or London manages to cope with basic infantry skills and jump out of the back of an armoured personnel carrier I do not think that Gurkhas will find it any more difficult. As my right hon. Friend said,The Gurkhas are not only extremely good soldiers who fought extremely well in many different conditions and theatres, but are clearly very adaptable. I have no doubt that they can cope with any task that they are given."—[Official Report, 22 May 1989; Vol. 153, c. 1092.]I hope that Her Majesty's Government will respond accordingly.
§ Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)
I could not rise and catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, at a more appropriate moment, because I want to crave the indulgence of the Chamber and start where the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) left off. I wish to refer to the record of that statement and the questions of that day. You and hon. Members who were present will recall that I said:The Secretary of State will recall that at the time of press speculation and comment when the Select Committee was considering the Gurkha's future, one school of thought of questionable origin was that the Gurkhas may be suitable for one type of warfare but not for another. I refer not to Northern Ireland but to their role in high tech, modern rapid response situations. The suggestion made in the media was that perhaps the Gurkhas do not think quickly enough. Will the right hon. Gentleman put that argument to bed once and for all and counter it, here and now?"—[Official Report, 22 May 1989; Vol. 153, c. 691.]Thank heavens, the Secretary of State did so and graciously thanked me for the opportunity. Furthermore, outside the Chamber in the corridor by the Tea Room, he expressed particular thanks for my having given him the opportunity.
However, the very next day in a newspaper, the despicable opinions to which I referred were attributed to me personally without any reference to the fact that I pleaded with the Secretary of State to counter and dispel them. In addition, the said edition of The Times of 23 May edited in similar fashion the response of the Secretary of State. I do not mind an element of spite creeping into reports from time to time, but when it is quite so selective, judicious and partisan, I object to it. I hope that hon. Members will not mind if I correct the record today. Perhaps that newspaper will have the decency to tell its readership tomorrow, if only because it might correct the opinions expressed in some of the mail which I have received, which has been particularly critical of the wrongly attributed opinion.
To remove any doubt, not only myself, but colleagues within the parliamentary Labour party and those whom I have met on my military visits, have the highest regard for the ability, loyalty, allegiance, fighting and peace-serving qualities of the Gurkhas. It is despicable for newspapermen to allow their spite to boil over in such an uncontrollable way.
Much has been made tonight of the Select Committee report on the Gurkhas. The Gurkha units have always proved to be effective in a military sense and efficacious in a cost-saving sense. There is no doubt about that. At this time, when brigade commanders are being encouraged to 419 count their pennies carefully and control their own budgets, I should remind the House that the Gurkha units are competitive in that way.
Before we come to a definite decision on the future of the Gurkhas, leaving aside for the moment the proposals on paper, we should remember that we are talking about, not necessarily a "cheap" form of providing for defence, because that is the wrong word, but a cost-effective form. The Gurkhas can be used in most effective roles, not only in Hong Kong but throughout the spheres of influence in which we play a defensive role.
§ Mr. Mates
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. The Gurkhas are cost-effective not merely in the way that he described, but because they join the service for a full 15-year term. Therefore, the return on investment and the level of experience grows in each Gurkha battalion. That is in sharp distinction to the recruitment of the British Army, where the average length of service is only five years.
§ Mr. Cook
The hon. and gallant Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) terrifies the life out of me. I cannot allow this agreement to go too far. He steals the words from my mouth, but he says them with a great deal more elegance than I could. I thank him for his intervention. He is absolutely right.
I exhort the Minister to be careful before making any decision on the future of those Gurkha units because nothing could be worse than removing such effective combat units from our store.
Reference has also been made to NATO and its changing ideas and outlook. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy), the President of the North Atlantic Assembly, dealt with that in detail. I want to draw hon. Members' attention to some of the views expressed a fortnight ago at the spring session by the spokesperson for NIAG. For those who do not know what that stands for I shall quote its spokesperson. He said:The acronym stands for NATO Industrial Advisory Group, and the NIAG is one of the six main groups reporting directly to the Conference of National Armaments Directors … It is composed of delegations of industrialists from each of the NATO nations except Luxembourg and Iceland".Therefore, it is truly representative.
The spokesperson for NIAG said:all of NIAG's efforts are multi-national and collaborative … we would find ourselves being forced into collaborative programmes by the irresistible force of economics … no nation … can any longer afford to produce, by itself, all of the defence equipment that it needs … Just think of the number of programmes … which are being kept alive for political reasons only … The political life machine is going to have to be turned off, and 'political' programmes allowed to die … We must face the fact that, for the foreseeable future, the military budgets of NATO nations, at the very best, will be maintained at the zero growth level and, more realistically they are headed down … the trend is very definitely toward fewer programmes … not even the US can afford by itself to produce everything it needs … The military of the various countries are going to be forced to rationalise their requirements so that, hopefully, those weapons that are produced will be produced in larger quantities and unit costs can be reduced … the days have gone when the answer could be found within Europe alone. In the interest not only of affordability but of ensuring that the products that are built are the very best that technology can provide, the industrial collaboration has got to be transatlantic".The unasked question is not merely where do we get our arms, but how do we get them. The Government tell us that we must have competition in order to obtain 420 weaponry at the cheapest unit cost. Yet now, NIAG's logic tells us that we must reduce competition in order to reduce unit costs.
Questioned on those matters at the Dispatch Box earlier, the Minister said that he would ensure that the British taxpayer received value for money. How far will that value for money go if we are to have collaborative projects which span the Atlantic? If we engage in collaborative programmes with the American arms producers, to what extent will we be required to fund research and development? I am sure that the Minister will refer to this later if he takes up this line of challenge that I am throwing out.
Will that collaboration be of the kind that we were offered with Trident when the agreement was broken? The House will recall that we were promised that Trident would be maintained in this country, but now it will not. We were told that Trident would be our property, but now we find that we have joined a Trident library from which we can make withdrawals for refurbishments when necessary. I offer those thoughts to the Minister and I am sure that he will refer to them later.
Let me deal briefly with other changes that have taken place in NATO to which the President of the North Atlantic Assembly referred. There have been changes in outlook on the representation of the Armed Forces. Britain relies on the pay review board but other countries have other systems. Germany, the Benelux countries, Holland and Denmark, allow forms of trade unions. I use that term because I cannot think of a different word in the English language which will clearly describe what I am referring to. Those unions have come together to form Euro-Mil—the European military. They are staffed by responsible people.
The sergeant-major representing Euro-Mil at Antalya in Turkey this year was a Christain Democrat of fairly Right-wing political persuasion. He spoke persuasively of the need to establish a dialogue between serving men and women and the Ministries of Defence in their respective countries, and, indeed, across the NATO Alliance.
The hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) will confirm that representatives of Euro-Mil will be meeting officers of the military committee before the next plenary session in Rome in October. That shows a fair degree of responsibility and maturity. Those people are responsible, experienced and a source of pride for us. They are worthy allies. Why do not we accord our serving men and women the same kind of respect and the same opportunity to present their anxieties and needs in terms of pay and conditions instead of their having to go through the pay review board procedure or expecting us to speak on their behalf on the five meagre occasions that we get each calendar year?
§ Mr. Cook
That may be a further reason for allowing our serving men and women a more formal and structured way in which to represent their needs. I offer that to the House for serious consideration, not for frivolous comment.
Changes are not only taking place in the North Atlantic Alliance but in the Warsaw pact, as has been referred to tonight. The North Atlantic Assembly has acknowledged 421 that by meeting representatives of the Hungarian and Polish Governments for discussions and they will be invited to the Rome plenary session.
I can do no better than to finish with my concluding remarks to this year's plenary session. I drew attention to the fact that in 40 years much has changed within the Alliance and the Warsaw pact. If we are serious we must assess those changes clinically. We must declare our assessment honestly and adjust our policies cautiously and collectively. Above all, we must conduct our consideration courageously and with candour. We must make the most clinical threat assessment. Does the threat still exist, if it ever did? If it does, from which direction does it come, what form does it take, can it be countered and at what cost? Only when we have done this can we perhaps discuss sensibly the issues of burden sharing.
Mikhail Gorbachev extends to us the hand of warmer friendship. If we grasp that hand we grasp the hand of the Soviet people. If we reject or inhibit his gestures we fuel those elements in the Soviet Union which seek already to obstruct or reverse the moves towards glasnost and perestroika. We must encourage change carefully and with patience. We must welcome change magnanimously and without vindictiveness. Most of all, where necessary, we must be prepared to make changes ourselves.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. At the start of this debate I said that I would impose a 10-minute limit on speeches between 7 and 9 o'clock, but I think I would now be justified in relaxing that limit. If hon. Members will not speak for more than 12 minutes each, all those who wish to participate in this debate will be called.
§ Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)
I am delighted to hear your latest words, Mr. Speaker, but I promise you that I will keep to within my 10 minutes.
First, I pay a very warm tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), who put very cogently indeed and in words that I am sure we would all endorse the reasons why the Brigade of Gurkhas should remain at the higher figure. In saying that, he stressed—and it needs to be stressed—that he was talking in terms of possible aid to the civil power in Hong Kong and he was not, as the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), and also the spokesman for the Social and Liberal Democrats, the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), tried to highlight, suggesting that there might be some relationship between events in China and the retention of the Gurkhas at full strength. I know that that was not the intention, but he spelt it out in total detail. We are on dangerous ground if we start talking about the Brigade of Gurkhas being retained at 8,000 against a possible confrontation with the People's Republic of China.
Demography is a word that is very much in vogue and as we move towards the 1990s it will behove every person in this country to pay much more attention to it. Recruitment to the Civil Service and the Health Service, 422 but, above all, as has been made quite clear by every speaker so far, the armed forces will become very difficult indeed.
In every board room, and I hope in the Ministry of Defence as well, two items must be at the top of the agenda at all times. The first is: how can we attract new recruits and hold them? In that context I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Dame J. Fookes) for her speech tonight, because she highlighted one way in which we can stem the haemorrage of soldiers from our armed services. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) because it is at his instigation that we have a proposed new clause in the Financee Bill on an armed forces home purchase savings scheme. That could do a tremendous amount, and no one in the Ministry of Defence should walk away from the battle that must take place with the Treasury if we are to get a scheme such as that passed by the whole House. I would add that it has the support already of 119 Members.
That is the first question: how do we find recruits and hold them? The second is: what more can we do to make the most efficient use of our human resources when they are bound to be at a premium?
It will come as no surprise to my hon. Friend the Minister that I propose to move on and talk about the role of the helicopter on the battlefield. No one can doubt the totally defensive nature of our forces in Germany, but it must be right to question whether the present balance of equipment of those forces is the most cost-effective in terms both of the use of available manpower and of defence capability. In my view, the time is long past for making a decision. We have to go down the road of making available to our armed forces, particularly the Army, a much larger number of helicopters.
In that context, I was delighted to hear the intervention this afternoon which made it clear that the time is equally long past for us to see the end of divided control of battlefield helicopters. They should all be in the hands of the Army, not shared with the RAF.
Why do all our Western allies place so much more faith in the role of helicopters within their armed forces than we do? The figures speak for themselves. The French have about 600 battlefield helicopters, the Germans have about 800 and the United States have 8,600. I fully accept that the latter is a false figure because of the size of our armed forces when compared with those of the United States, but even if they are brought down to the same level the United States figure is 1,700 helicopters against a total figure for the United Kingdom of 380. That is quite shameful.
All the other armed forces within the Alliance have accepted the helicopter as a battle-winning factor because it is the one piece of equipment which provides real mobility, particularly on a battlefield which has become increasingly hostile and confused.
Also, anyone who has served in the armed forces must know that the helicopter is a force multiplier. The smaller the force deployed, the greater the importance of the helicopter because it can move the resources and fire power about the battlefield to meet the threat. Having a small but highly efficient and mobile Army, we need a strong helicopter force, and far more than many of the other armies in the NATO Alliance.
§ Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)
I have been following my hon. Friend's argument most carefully and I 423 warmly support it. Does he agree that it is not only in respect of the central front of the threat that we have traditionally supposed has come from the Soviet Union—and there is still a long way to go yet—but that one of the advantages of the helicopter for a country with forces of the size that we have is that it enables us to have greater mobility and adaptability for any out-of-area responsibilities that we might be called upon to fulfil?
§ Sir Jim Spicer
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has great experience in these matters, and I very much agree with him. I am going on to develop my argument and to say exactly how the other NATO allies deal with this problem and how they have built up forces which can be used on the main front but also in connection with the out-of-area concept.
It is this concept and need which have led the United States, France, Germany and the Warsaw pact countries to equip whole divisions and brigades with helicopters as their prime movers. In general terms, the French have an air mobile division, the Germans have three Luftlande brigades, and the United States has fully equipped combat aviation brigades. In stark contrast to this picture, we have just one air mobile brigade which we all know is in the process of being formed but is woefully short of helicopters and will remain so into the foreseeable future.
I am critical of this because there is not much point in having a air mobile brigade if it does not have the true air mobility to allow it to operate effectively.
In this overall scene, inevitably within the armed services battles and frictions develop and inevitably there is a battle about the tank versus the helicopter. It is a totally unnecessary battle because it should have been fought and done with already.
Some people within the Ministry of Defence and the Army should change their thinking. They should think of the helicopter no longer as a helicopter but as a low-flying tank. If they think of it as a low-flying tank, we shall ultimately reach the stage when the gallant soldiers in our armoured regiments will willingly move on a step and use the helicopter in the way that the tank was used in the past, with all the same logistical back-up but helicopter-borne as well. Although one or two right hon. and hon. Members dissent, the tank soldier is adaptable and could move to such a role.
§ Mr. Mates
Certainly tanks are as adaptable as the cavalry has always been, but to equate a helicopter with a low-flying tank is perhaps as odd as equating a tank with a grounded helicopter. They are totally different vehicles needing totally different tactical deployment, and they do totally different jobs.
§ Sir Jim Spicer
My hon. Friend and I are both aware of that. I have usually operated from an aircraft wearing a parachute, but I understand the difference between a tank and a helicopter. It is possible for the helicopter to replace a tank on the ground in an anti-tank role and with increase in mobility on the battlefield.
Do my hon. Friend the Minister and his military advisers accept the general view that we are lagging behind all our NATO allies and the Warsaw pact in the use of helicopters? Will he give an undertaking to re-examine, now or in the near future the role of the helicopter in our defence forces and, following such a review, bring our helicopter strength more closely into line with that of our NATO allies and the Warsaw pact forces?
§ Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)
Like other right hon. and hon. Members who have participated in the debate, I shall concentrate my remarks on the problems of demography and on the issue of the Brigade of Gurkhas. Before doing so, I wish to mention an issue that has caused considerable sadness to many of my constituents in Woolwich. I refer to the decision to transfer the headquarters of the directorate-general of defence quality assurance to Teesside.
My first point is that it has taken an incredible amount of time to reach that decision. In the early 1980s, a great deal of money and effort was invested in planning the reorganisation of the Woolwich arsenal site, including more than £300,000 on the design of a new headquarters building for the directorate-general. Early in 1984, rationalisation was proposed and detailed studies undertaken.
On 19 November 1986, the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Mr. Hamilton) was kind enough to write to tell me that the Secretary of State did not want to make a decision until sites outside south-east England had been considered, and that yet another detailed study was to be undertaken. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell commented, perhaps optimistically, that that study would defer a decision about the arsenal for another six months, but the decision was not announced until March 1989—almost two and a half years later.
The only argument made for transferring the directorate-general to Teesside was that that offered the best prospect of overcoming shortages of specialist staff, but at the end of February 1989 staffing levels did not show any dramatic shortage. There were 1,135 in post against a ceiling of 1,250. While it is true that there was a shortage of 52 staff in professional and technical grades, that situation is no worse than in many other Ministry of Defence establishments.
The Government have not produced any evidence to show that professional and technical staff will be easier to find in Teesside than in south-east London. They only point to higher levels of unemployment in Teesside, in the hope that vacancies will be filled.
The financial savings from the transfer will be minimal. On the basis of MOD assessments, the Teesside option will bring an overall saving of £10 million over 25 years by comparison with the concentration on the Woolwich arsenal west site. However, that calculation ignores the substantial sums spent at Woolwich arsenal over the past 10 years—£22 million on maintenance, repairs and improvements, and all of which will now go down the drain. Several million pounds were spent since 1985–86 on housing directorate-general units moved to Woolwich from other locations. That is another example of the way in which the Ministry wastes money, when forward thinking would have prevented it being spent in such a profligate way.
I cannot help but think that the Ministry of Defence's major concern is the value of the 94 acres of riverside land in Woolwich that will be released by the move. I am sure that that factor in the equation weighs more heavily than any other. The move will deal a considerable blow to an area that has now lost virtually all its industrial jobs and has a long history of service to the country's armed forces. The arsenal, which will close permanently in 1993, dates back to 1671, and was predated by Henry VIII's dockyard, 425 which was established in Woolwich in 1515. When the arsenal is moved in 1993, that link will be broken—but I hope that thought will be given to ensuring that the historic buildings remaining will feature in a lasting tribute to the contribution that the people of Woolwich made to the armed services over hundreds of years.
I turn to the demographic trough, and I am surprised that the Government have been caught unawares by it. It cannot be regarded as a sudden or unexpected problem. The downward trend in the birth rate has been in evidence since the early 1970s. The low point of the trough has been known since 1978. It was known that it would create problems for the armed forces, and that matter was referred to in the Defence Estimates statement in 1980 and in 1981. However, that was followed by total silence, until this year.
I can at least claim that I referred to that issue in a number of previous Army debates, in 1983, 1984, and 1987. But on none of those occasions did the Minister replying consider that the demographic trough was a serious enough matter even to be mentioned in his winding-up speech. I did rather better in 1988 when in a debate on the Army I again referred to the demographic trough and scored a bullseye. On that occasion, the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces acknowledged the problem and that I was right to draw attention to it, but added thatwe are convinced that our policy of fair pay, and of fair conditions and allowances … should ensure that we keep ahead of the game and cope with the demographic trend and the small number of youngsters available to join the armed forces."—[Official Report, 26 January 1988; Vol. 126, c. 254.]Given that shattering degree of complacency even as recently as January 1988, it is hardly surprising that measures to improve both recruitment and retention were not set in train much earlier. It is still strange that we have not seen the results of the MARILYN study until now, 10 years after the problem first became evident and nine years after the first reference to it in a defence White Paper. I appreciate the complexity of the problems and understand that they need studying carefully, but no one can accuse the Ministry of Defence of intemperate haste.
Other right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned the problems arising from the demographic trough and I shall not cover the same ground, but I emphasise that the 16 to 19-year-old group is declining, and that the reducing numbers available to the Army will reduce further if the Government are successful in encouraging more 16 to 19-year-olds to enter further and higher education.
For the forces, the problem is here now. The MOD set out to recruit 22,000 service men in 1988–89 and anticipated a shortfall of 2,000. The outcome was a good deal worse. The strength of the Army was expected to decline to 1.5 per cent., or by 2,000 people below establishment by 1 April 1989, but the number appears to be nearer 3,000. The Chairman of the Defence Committee reminded the House that the situation is much worse in the infantry, where the shortfall is around 5 per cent. and worsening.
The Government's proposal to improve retention is entirely sensible: clearly pay and allowances must keep pace with those in outside employment. I would argue, however, that it is equally important to ensure that the quality of life for service personnel keeps pace with that of 426 civilians, and that will be an expensive operation at a time when manpower, as opposed to the cost of equipment, is taking a growing share of the defence budget.
The recruitment of ethnic minorities is also absolutely right in principle, and I am glad that there is now a degree of monitoring, but it is not likely to produce dramatic results. To establish the same proportion of ethnic minorities in the armed forces as exists in the population as a whole would mean only 800 or so more recruits. Similarly, it is right that we should give women more interesting, exciting and perhaps demanding opportunities, but we should not ignore the fact that the fall in the number of young women in the population mirrors the fall in the number of young men, and the Army will face severe competition from civilian employers in attempting to attract the required quality of recruit.
Like other speakers, I hope that the MARILYN exercise and the Government steps resulting from it will bear fruit. Against the background of increasing competition for scarce manpower, however, I believe that the Army must run very fast to stand still. That is why I find it so hard to understand the Government's decision on the future of the Gurkhas.
I felt that the Government's response to the Select Committee report was extraordinarily sketchy. It contains some vague references to squadrons of engineers, signals and transport, without explaining what "squadrons" means in terms of numbers. That seems to imply a substantial cut in the number of Gurkhas employed in those specialist fields. The Committee went to some trouble to point out the folly of losing high-quality, experienced and motivated engineers and technicians whose skills are in such short supply.
The Government recognised that recruitment would inevitably become more difficult as a result of demographic changes, but did not say whether they accepted the Committee's interpretation of the forecast figures. If they accept that interpretation, it is hard to see how they can justify proposing a cut of more than 50 per cent. in the Brigade of Gurkhas. If they do not accept it, it would be interesting to know on what basis the cut was suggested.
Paragraph 17 of the Government's response leaves open a loophole in saying:demographic difficulties could lead to increased numbers of Gurkhas being retained.Surely, however, we are entitled to ask when the decision is likely to be made. The Minister accepted today that recruitment targets were not being met and that the position was worsening. How much will it worsen before a decision is made? Is the number to be 4,000, 4,500, 5,000 or what?
The response talks of progressive restructuring of the brigade over several years. Again, we are surely entitled to ask what that means. Does it mean natural wastage or redundancy, and what will the costs be? Far from removing uncertainty, the response creates more uncertainty. It gives the impression that we regard the Gurkhas as a reservoir and feel that we can turn the tap on or off to suit our convenience. If we can manage with 4,000 we will; if we need more, we will simply take more. That is not the right way to approach people who have provided us with such dedicated service.
Every speaker who has mentioned the Gurkhas has commented on the extraordinary value for money that they give to the British Army. The Chairman of the Select 427 Committee underlined the point about retention when he reminded us that 95 per cent. of Gurkha soldiers serve at least 15 years, whereas the average length of service for a British soldier is about five years. We make a tremendous effort to keep people in the British Army, while we find it extremely difficult to persuade Gurkhas to leave. Surely that makes the point about their effectiveness.
All of us who had the honour, privilege and pleasure of taking part in the Select Committee inquiry and who came to the problem for the first time were struck by the adaptability, dedication and enthusiasm of the young men who have come forward in such large numbers from the hills of Nepal to serve with the Brigade of Gurkhas. They represent a priceless asset to the British Army. The Government seem incredibly short-sighted in seeking, in the face of all the evidence, to reduce Gurkha numbers so sharply. I hope very much that they will think again, and will do so very quickly.
§ Mr. Robert Boscawen (Somerton and Frome)
My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Sir. J. Spicer) spoke with considerable knowledge and practical experience about the helicopter needs of the forces in Europe. I wish to mention only one feature of the speech by my hon. Friend the Minister of State which rather disturbed me, on the question of Westland. In answer to an intervention, he said—rightly, in my view—that the best approach to the aerospace industry was the commercial, competitive approach. What worried me was that he did not share the enthusiasm shown by his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State when he spoke in my constituency about the development of the vital EH101 collaborative project. The Government have expressed enthusiasm about proceeding with the project, and I trust that they will give the orders in future. I hope that in his winding-up speech my hon. Friend will convince us that the Government are still enthusiastic about a project that is so vital to the future of Westland and to a great many constituents.
I did not wish to talk about the general NATO position. I was, however, struck strongly by the wise comments that we have come to expect from the robust speeches of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy). He said what all Conservative Members believe—that intentions are very different from capability. We would be very unwise to trust entirely to intentions before we see the capabilities of the Soviet bloc actually change, and to change our doctrine of flexible response in advance.
The reason for the existence of that doctrine, and the reason it is such an enormous advance, is that we would have no such doctrine and no means of applying it if we were left with the massive response of the strategic deterrent only in the last resort. I hope that the Opposition realise that, and will think long and hard before returning us to the previous position.
Lastly, I wish to raise two or three points that have been mentioned by hon. Members on both sides of the House and are worrying many of our constituents and have been drawn to my attention on numerous occasions about the problem of recruiting and retaining trained men in our services. They are twin problems, but they run absolutely together. However much we improve and spend on recruiting programmes, we shall not be able to recruit 428 people when they see the people who are there already leaving in large numbers because they do not like the conditions.
Unlike some Opposition Members, I think that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Ministry of Defence are well aware of the demographic complications and have been aware of them for some time. They are acting on ways to retain service men. So far so good, but what about the rest of the Government machine? That is what worries me. Have other Departments really got the message that they have to make changes in service men's housing, particularly in the means by which service men, especially those who have been in the forces for some time, are able to purchase their own homes?
It is 40 years or more since I was involved in various forms of soldiering but one thing has never changed and is as true today as it was then. I refer to the acuity and speed with which service men learn and understand what conditions are like for their contemporaries and friends in civilian occupations and homes. They are quick to compare, and when the gap gets too wide they seriously consider leaving. My right hon. and hon. Friends in all Government Departments have to take that into account. If they are to retain fully and expensively trained manpower in our services, they must ensure that the gap between conditions in the services and outside is not so wide as to push those already in the services out into civilian life.
My colleagues have mentioned the problem of the community charge. It is time that the Government gave us a full explanation of exactly how the community charge will affect service men in England and Wales. There are ugly rumours about what is happening in Scotland. Already service men in England foresee that they will have to pay a good deal more than they now pay in rates and they feel that is not fair. One of the main purposes of the community charge is to make local authorities more accountable. But if a service man does not stay in his barracks for more than a year or two, how can he use that accountability and vote against the local authority that has increased his community charge? Will service men have to pay a flat rate community charge? If it has been announced I am not aware of it, but I believe that the sooner my right hon. and hon. Friends announce the way that the community charge will work for service men the better.
It was fortunate and bad luck that, as so often happens the announcement on the future of the Gurkha regiment had to be made only a few weeks before the terrible atrocities were committed in Peking. However, one has to recognise that the good thing about the Government announcement in my view—I have many connections with the Gurkhas, going back a long time—was that they are to be a part of the British Army in future. That secures the future of the Brigade of Gurkhas for a very long time ahead, although their numbers may be fewer. That was a major plus and should be welcomed and the Government should be given credit for that.
The lesson that we have always had to learn is that, if we cut our commitments, we shall have to look at the size of the forces needed for those reduced commitments. That is what I believe the Government were trying to do, having stated that inevitably our commitments to Hong Kong will reduce and there will have to be some cut in the number of in our forces. Nevertheless, the situation has changed and undoubtedly the Government are now in an exceedingly difficult position as a result of the atrocities last weekend 429 in China in determining the exact requirements in future. I notice that my hon. Friend made it quite clear that we are talking about what will happen at least 10 years hence, and has allowed for a great deal of flexibility, Therefore, I am not quite as concerned as other hon. Members.
We must not forget the lessons brought home to us so vividly in the Falklands campaign a few years ago when the wrong signal was given by the Government of which I was then a junior member, in announcing the withdrawal of the Endurance from the Falkland Islands. With the best will in the world the announcement at the time had not taken into account what might happen in Argentina. We should be aware of that lesson about sending a false signal in the proposals that have been made for the Gurkha regiment.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
I wish to raise two related issues—first, justice for an ex-soldier and, secondly, the operation of military intelligence.
A month ago The Scotsman newspaper reviews editor asked me to review a book called, "Who Framed Colin Wallace?" by Paul Foot, published by Macmillan. I therefore read the book extremely carefully. It reinforced the impression that I had formed some two years ago when Colin Wallace and his friend Major Fred Holroyd spoke to me for three hours in the House. I started sceptically but came to believe that they were telling the truth.
Before any Minister observes that Paul Foot is a loony lefty or makes some unfortunate comment on my own judgment in these matters, let me say that among those who have gone on record as believing Colin Wallace are His Grace the Duke of Norfolk, the Second Earl of Stockton, the publisher and Macmillan's grandson, Herbert Asquith's grand-daughter Laura Grimond, Anthony Cavendish, a friend of Sir Maurice Oldfield, the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile), and my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) who has done a great deal of work on the subject.
Basically, Wallace's troubles began in Northern Ireland when he began asking two awkward questions of the Army authorities. The first was, why, when we know it is happening, do we let young boys be sexually abused at the Kincora boys home?
The second question was, why do we allow Army-related intelligence services to harrass politicians? This was long before the world had heard of Peter Wright; it is the reason why Wallace was thrown out of Northern Ireland, and then harassed.
I want to ask some specific questions of the Ministry of Defence. Page 9 of Foot's book says:Looking back on his three years at Lisburn, Tony Yarnold"—who was a lieutenant-colonel—has nothing but praise and admiration for Colin Wallace. 'Let's face it, Colin was the linchpin of the whole operation. He was terrific—way ahead of us all in his knowledge, his skill with the press and his readiness for work. Everyone wanted him all the time, and somehow he was always available.'".That is what Lieutenant-Colonel Yarnold is alleged to have said. Does the Ministry of Defence accept that view and is it on their records?
I asked the Minister whether Paul Foot on page 14 of his book accurately quotes the head of public relations on 430 information policy, Peter Broderick, who took over as head of Northern Ireland Army Information in 1973. As I am constrained by time, the Ministry of Defence can read from the paragraph beginningThe Army by this time (1970)and the next paragraph starting "Consequently". The third paragraph says:Colin Wallace at first became a pawn in this game. Though on the staff of public relations, he was used by Information Policy as their outlet to the press. He also had a knowledge of the Irish situation which was totally unique in the headquarters and surpassed even that of most of the Intelligence Branch. As time progressed, he was not only the main briefer for the press, but also the adviser on Irish matters to the whole Headquarters and—because of his personal talents—contributed much creative thought to the Information Policy Unit. In order to do his job, he had constant and free access to information of the highest classification and extreme sensitivity.That was, allegedly, Peter Broderick's statement to the Civil Service appeals board in October 1975. I ask the Ministry of Defence to let me know by letter whether that coincides with its records.
Page 18 says:Peter Broderick's official report has a revealing sentence: `He [Colin] acted resolutely and to effect against anyone—Republican or Loyalist—who was destroying his country.'That was Broderick's statement to the Civil Service appeal board in October 1975. Does the Ministry of Defence accept that?
Page 259 states:The third allegation in the paragraph pooh-poohed Colin's claims that he had three times been recommended for decorations, with the single sentence: 'there is no record of this'.There was, however, a record of it. Tony Staughton"— who was a well-respected major in the army—head of the MOD Information Office in 1982, told me"— that is, Foot—on the telephone and in interview that he had twice recommended Colin for the MBE and was so certain he would get it that he went out and bought champagne to celebrate it. He wrote this down in a letter of recommendation of Colin to Arun District Council: 'I twice recommended him for an award for his exceptional services, and felt it was most unfair that he was not so recognised.' Colin was recommended a third time for the honour by Peter Broderick, Staughton's successor.Are those comments and those made on page 260 by Tony Yarnold true?
Is the long "TARA" memorandum beginning on page 96 at "Reference A" and finishingI would recommend therefore:—in Ministry of Defence records?
- (a) We make one final attempt to get the RUC to investigate the matter or at least discuss the matter with the RUC.
- (b) We obtain very clear and unambiguous authority from London to proceed with a press disclosure"
I am not in a hurry, but I ask for a letter within a reasonable time about this matter.
Is the episode of the lost pistol, outlined on page 125, accepted by the Ministry of Defence?
What was Colin Wallace's crime? I believe that it was breaking ranks about revealing wrongdoing.
That is related to what happened this week in relation to what I can only describe as the rubbishing of Labour Members of Parliament. Today's Daily Mirror says,What a source!Waldegrave makes a meal of smear story.FACT: The lunch—at London's exclusive Mijanou restaurant, near Victoria—was brought forward by Mr. Waldegrave's office for that day.431 Was it brought forward? And why? I believe, and I say this with care and the full knowledge of the House, that someone within Government must answer whether the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office was briefed on blackmail and Labour Members by the security forces.
On 1 June 1989, the Daily Mirror printed the following article for 4 million people to read:Control over MPs—homosexual and other blackmail.'This is followed by the names of four "Heathite" Tories, and four Labour politicians.
Another note says:'Former KGB agent—prostitute's links with Labour MPs in London. Cover up by the Home Secretary.'Colin Wallace tells me this week: 'We would pass these lies on to journalists with the authority of the intelligence services. The aim was to damage the Labour Party, and the Heath wing of the Tory party.The very right-wing people who ran intelligence thought that all these politicians were a menace.'I should like a comment on that from the Government.
It is no good hon. Members looking sceptical because Labour Members had to put up with this opening of the nine o'clock news on 25 May:Mike in vision. The British case against the Soviet spies—Russian diplomats were involved with Middle East terrorists, and trying to blackmail Labour MPs.I do not like this juxtaposing of Middle East terrorists and blackmailing of Labour Members. The nine o'clock news continued:Good evening. Senior British sources have been explaining WHY eleven Soviet diplomats and journalists are being expelled: HOW the tit-for-tat spy row with Moscow started. They accused the Russians of involvement with Libyan and Iranian terrorists, and trying to blackmail MPs.Again, some explanation must be given of this juxtaposing of Labour Members with a situation that never developed and which never stood up. John Sergeant's report says:The BBC have now learnt more details of the allegations made by British counter intelligence".Details from whom?It's alleged that Labour MPs were targets for possible blackmail threats. It's also alleged that the agents were involved with Iran and Libya.Before taking such a report from a lunchtime conversation with a Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who is not in the Cabinet, the BBC should have checked. And the BBC did. Yes, I understand that Mr. Checkland and Margaret Douglas have said that the BBC did indeed check. Did they check with the intelligence agencies? One of them at least we know is permanently represented, possibly, even still after Brigadier Stonham, in the BBC building. Some explanation must be offered in relation to that detail and checking.
They certainly ought to take account of how the programme finished. It said:Senior British sources have been giving reasons for the expulsion of Russian spies: they were believed to be involved with Middle-Eastern terrorists and blackmailing Labour MPs.No qualification was given, and my wife and I and others who saw it that night were very shaken and hurt by it.
Some explanation is due because it seems that we have returned to all that Wallace and Foot were writing about or have written about in relation to the 1970s. Foot's book deserves an extremely detailed response. Many of my colleagues in the parliamentary Labour party are extremely angry, continually, about the blackmail story. I 432 believe—I take this responsibility upon myself and do not put it on my colleagues—that it originated with elements of the security services.
Just who did frame Colin Wallace? If Foot's book is wrong, there must be some riposte and explanation. Detail must be given because I have named some of those who believe that Colin Wallace is telling the truth.
Just who originated the notion of Labour MPs being blackmailed? It did not come out of thin air.
I hope that the Minister at least can give some assurances in relation to his Department, the Army.
I realise that junior Ministers cannot speak for wider intelligence services, which nevertheless come under this vote.
§ 8 pm
§ Mr. Churchill (Davyhulme)
The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) will not be surprised if I do not follow him into the somewhat abstruse byways along which he has been perambulating.
I pay tribute to the forces of the Crown for the admirable way in which they fulfil the vital and necessary tasks assigned to them in the defence of Britain's and NATO's interests around the world—nowhere more than in Northern Ireland. I especially commend the men and women of the Ulster Defence Regiment, who have been subjected to relentless and cowardly attack in their homes while going about their civilian occupations and even many years after they have left the service and are in their retirement. The House owes all of them its gratitude.
I am very concerned about the desperate situation faced by service men, especially those in the Army, when trying to buy a home, particularly in the south or south-east of England, and the lack which has become apparent in recent years of any satisfactory scheme to enable them to do so. I warmly endorse the proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) to provide an armed forces house purchase savings scheme. I strongly urge my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to back this overdue scheme, which is provided for in amendments to the Finance Bill, which is now being considered.
I draw the attention of the House to the letter which my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Dame J. Fookes) quoted and which, no doubt, other hon. Members have received. Major-General Charles Grey, the controller of SSAFA, said:It is becoming an increasingly common habit amongst soldiers to leave the Service just as they are entering their most valuable period, at about the age of 25, so that they can emulate their civilian contemporaries, who are at that stage entering the housing market.The present situation is unfair not just to those serving in the Army. It is clear that it is un-cost-effective, too. This problem must be addressed.
Having had the privilege with the Defence Select Committee of seeing at first hand the Gurkhas in their various postings—in Hong Kong, Brunei, Nepal and here at home, at Church Crookham—I wish to devote my remarks to their future. Those remarkable fighting men from the hill tribes of Nepal have served the British Crown and nation for 174 years, since 1815, with the utmost distinction. In the first world war, 200,000 volunteered; 20,000 died. In the second world war, a quarter of a million volunteered; 9,000 died and a further 23,000 were wounded. Since the first world war, Gurkhas have won 13 433 Victoria Crosses, the most recent in 1965, and a further 13 have been won by British officers of the brigade. After that exemplary record of service, a question mark now hangs over their future following the United Kingdom's decision to hand over Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China in 1997.
In recent years, the principal employment and role of the Gurkhas have been the defence and border security of Hong Kong, and it is clear that that role is coming to an end. The Gurkhas' skills as riflemen and jungle fighters are legendary, but for me it was an eye-opener to see the incredible flexibility of the Gurkha soldier. I shall illustrate this by drawing attention to the first report of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, "The Future of the Brigade of Gurkhas". In part VIII, paragraph 171, the Committee says:A number of Gurkhas are parachute trained, and the battalion stationed in the UK is part of 5 Airborne Brigade. Judging by the way Gurkhas take to parachuting—in a typical recent P Company course 2 out of 27 Gurkhas failed, whereas the British failure rate is normally about 50 per cent.Paragraph 175 states:The Queen's Gurkha Signals already carry out many tasks similar to those of British Signals regiments, and could adapt to new ones as required. In this respect, it is worth noting the gradings achieved by Gurkha signallers on Royal Signals Training Brigade courses from 1982 to 1987.I shall not spell out the details, but the evidence showed that 67 per cent. of the Gurkhas scored grade A or B whereas only 23 per cent. of the rest of the British Army managed those scores. Let no one say that the Gurkhas are incapable of matching themselves to the exacting role required in the European theatre on the central front.
We have watched with horror the unfolding events in the People's Republic of China. Our hearts go out to the students of Peking and the civilians of China who, unarmed and peacefully, were asking no more than to build freedom and democracy in their land. Their courage in the face of ruthless and indiscriminate use of military power has commanded our admiration. As one who has had the unpleasant task of reporting wars of three continents, I pay tribute to the courage of Miss Kate Adie of the BBC and other war correspondents reporting from the front line in China.
Faced as we are with the chronic actual or potential instability of the Communist tyrannies as they stagger haltingly towards a measure of liberalisation, we are entitled to ask: is this the moment to talk of halving the strength of the Brigade of Gurkhas from over 8,000 to 4,000?
Not just China is susceptible to such instability as it tries to move towards a more liberal regime. It is not impossible by any means in the coming months that one could see similar horrors repeated within the Soviet Union, possibly in the Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia, and possibly they could happen in the Soviet republics themselves, such as Georgia or the Ukraine.
There is no question but that we are now in a period which, on the one hand, has never been more hopeful in my entire lifetime and the lifetime of my generation brought up in the post-war years, because for the first time we have a constructive dialogue between East and West, with genuine warmth. One sees the determination of Mr. Gorbachev to progress to constructive disarmament and to achieve a balance of power: we must all most warmly welcome that.
434 On the other hand, it would be a grave mistake if we did not see the enormous stresses and strains taking place within the Soviet and Chinese societies as they try to take off the cooking pot a lid that has been kept so firmly in place for 40 years or more. There is a great danger that one could see the upsurge of nationalism in one of the many parts of the Soviet empire and that could lead to ruthless repression, not necessarily by Mr. Gorbachev, but if he did not have the courage of those who have previously held power and who have been pushed to one side for the moment during this period of detente, he and the present regime might he pushed aside, so the tanks might be sent in to repress disorder.
I find it very unfortunate that we should be considering halving the strength of the Brigade of Ghurkas at this time, not only from the point of view of the world situation, but from the point of view of our worries about the demographic trough. Already the Army is 7,000 under strength and plunging ever deeper into deficit.
If my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State does not intend to impose redundancies on the Gurkhas in 1997, one can presume only that it is intended to begin a rundown in recruitment for the brigade in the near future. I must ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces to be frank with the House about the intentions of the Ministry of Defence in that regard. When is it intended to start the rundown to achieve the figure of 4,000 by 1997? Is it really wise to run down the Gurkhas at all through the early and mid-1990s when they may be required more than ever to provide stability in Hong Kong and to cope with the disorders that may arise, possibly on a massive scale, as the hand-over approaches?
I have no doubt that the Government are in danger of making a great mistake in their decision to halve the strength of the Gurkhas. That decision has been made without adequate reference to the impact on a loyal ally of halving the resources flowing to the hill tribes of Nepal, without adequate regard to the manpower crisis faced by the British Army as we plunge into the democratic trough and without proper consideration of the new instability in China and elsewhere in the world. The decision has certainly been taken without adequate consideration of the superb cost-effectiveness of the Gurkhas who, as has been pointed out, serve a minimum of 15 years, compared to an average of five years for the rest of the Army.
I seriously urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and the Government to reconsider this seriously mistaken decision and to reprieve the Brigade of Gurkhas at its present level of strength.
§ Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)
I hope that what I say will not be used against me in my party, but I must confess to having agreed with virtually everything said by the hon. Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill). I agreed with him especially on what he said about the Gurkhas and I hope that the Government, if they are sensitive, will appreciate that virtually every speaker from all parties has condemned their decision on the Gurkhas. If this House means anything, and if the Select Committee system means anything, I hope that the Government and the Ministry of Defence will not ride roughshod over the views of so many hon. Members, who have been urging them to reconsider their decision to halve the size of the Brigade of Gurkhas.
435 The hon. Member for Davyhulme also spoke about the enormous changes taking place in the Soviet Union. Once one opens a Pandora's box, it is difficult to close it, although the Chinese appear to have done so successfully—in their terms. If I may digress slightly, I want to follow the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Boscawen) who pointed out the Government's poor timing over Endurance and the announcement on the Gurkhas. I would add another example of bad timing. I saw a wonderful picture in the latest self-congratulatory document produced by Tory central office showing a smiling Prime Minister talking to a certain leader from the People's Republic of China, Mr. Deng. Perhaps the person who included that picture wants to be disciplined by Tory central office.
It is important when one views the momentous changes in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe not to say, as some in my party have said, that the cold war is over, that disarmament has broken out and that we must now throw caution to the winds and join in the spirit begun by President Gorbachev. I am sceptical of that view, as I am of the view that, because President Gorbachev is not completely in control of things, we should do little because his good work will be overthrown and we could be left in an equally bad situation. As a good moderate, I believe that there is a point equidistant from those two extremes. One must take advantage of the initiatives emanating from the Soviet Union, one must loudly proclaim the initiatives being made by our side of the negotiating fence and one should proceed with a degree of caution recognising that, should circumstances change, one would need to have the flexibility to reverse any changes we might have made. We should be neither over-pessimistic nor over-euphoric.
In the old days—that is, two or three years ago—national security decision making in Government was fairly simple. There were problems in getting defence budgets through and problems within NATO, but as there was a definable adversary, resources and unity largely secured eventually. Now the rules of the game have changed. Relations between countries in NATO are changing. Relationships between countries in the Warsaw pact are changing, as are relationships between the respective alliances. That requires a great deal of intelligence and rationality within the Alliance of 16 nations which, by definition, permits decisions to be made slowly and as a result of a great deal of compromise. I hope that we are on the right track and I personally welcome considerably the leadership shown, eventually, by the United States and the successful visit of President Bush to Brussels.
The question we have to ask is whether the Soviet Union has changed. Does it threaten us, or has that threat diminished? How serious is President Gorbachev, and how serious are his numerous initiatives? It is difficult to make a final judgment, but his unilateral cuts announced initially in December at the United Nations and the consequent cuts by his allies in the non-Soviet Warsaw pact countries are militarily quite significant. It is true that there was a public relations element and that to some extent the Soviet Union and its allies were scrapping aircraft and tanks that should anyway have been scrapped. Nevertheless, we should not be too dismissive of Mr. Gorbachev's gesture because it has some military significance. Many have said that it has given NATO an extra week or 10 days' warning time. I think that we should say, "Fine, we agree with what 436 you have done, as far as it goes. We shall wish to verify it but we congratulate you, nevertheless, on what you have done so far."
I wonder whether we should have been a little more smart in our own attitude to public relations. Let us be honest about it: in the past three or four years virtually all NATO Governments have unilaterally announced cuts that make the cuts announced by the Soviet Union and its allies seem almost marginal. Look at the cuts announced here. In the next few years our defence expenditure is to fall to 3.9 per cent. of gross domestic product. That is quite incredible. I urge Conservative Members, when addressing CND meetings, to tell them enthusiastically how structural disarmament has proceeded under them at a great pace in the past two or three years.
A recent authoritative American document, "Report on Allied Contributions to the Common Defence", shows the growth in defence spending in each NATO country. Britain emerges well—or badly, depending on one's perspective. Those who favour high defence expenditure will feel that the Government emerge badly as there are only four countries in NATO whose annual spending on defence has increased less over a 10-year period than that of the British Government. We are making what are virtually unilateral cuts and all our allies are doing the same. Perhaps in the propaganda game and to persuade public opinion we should have been more prepared to say that unilateral cuts are not the sole prerogative of the Soviet Union—that we have done our bit and made our contribution and that we should not feel embarrassed or left behind by the initiatives taken by Mr. Gorbachev.
I return to my main theme: is Mr. Gorbachev serious? He has made some dramatic changes in defence spending. He recently announced that 15 per cent. of GDP was devoted to defence in the Soviet Union. That is four times the amount to which the Soviet Union has previously admitted. Furthermore, he virtually admitted that that was not all—that it was merely the budget of the Ministry of Defence and did not include research and development and all sorts of other items.
When I was in eastern Europe recently I met a chief of general staff. I said to him, "You have recently announced cuts in defence expenditure, but from what base liner He said, "We do not know." How can we take seriously all the claims that defence expenditure is being cut? Nevertheless, I think that the Soviet Union has made a good start on defence expenditure.
Has doctrine changed? I believe that it has been changing, and was probably changing even before Gorbachev came to power. I feel strongly that the initiatives originally derived from Andropov and that when he died Gorbachev was chosen to implement the reforms. Military doctrine had begun changing a few years before. But before we accept that its military doctrine has become completely defensive and that it aims for a "reasonable sufficiency", we must ask the Soviet Union about it and exchange views on it. That process has begun. We must improve confidence-building measures and observing exercises. We must look, too, at Soviet training patterns. One good way of finding out whether the Soviet Union's doctrine has changed is to watch how it trains and exercises its armed forces. However, it is difficult to change training and exercising practice suddenly. A change in doctrine involves a change in training, equipment and strategy, and that is difficult to effect swiftly.
437 Dramatic changes are emerging—not just in the Soviet Union but in eastern Europe. A few weeks ago I travelled to Budapest from Vienna—by train as it happens, because I was paying my own fare. I said to someone in my compartment, "Now that we are passing the border between Austria and Hungary, have a look at the iron curtain." The train slowed down, and I looked, but I could not see it. It had gone. A few days before I had visited the national headquarters of Solidarity in Warsaw. Two months earlier, the organisation was still banned, yet here it was fighting parliamentary elections. That is a staggering example of how things have changed in eastern Europe —at least in some countries in eastern Europe. We must take advantage of circumstances. We must be neither over-optimistic nor over-cautious.
This is an important debate for me. It is the first for nine or 10 years in which the views that I have expressed have not been too far removed from those of my party. I am delighted to be able to speak in those circumstances. I recall reading about those who supported President Roosevelt. After he was chosen at a convention, everybody was for him. His organisers therefore distinguished between his supporters by adding an asterisk after the names of those who had supported him before the convention.
I have been a multilaterist for many years. I would say to my hon. Friends, "Welcome back." It has been a lonely nine years. The Minister expressed clear irritation at the fact that the Labour party will not be quite such a push over as it has been in the past two elections. If we can succeed in getting our policies through the party conference, it will be much more difficult to castigate the Labour party as an aberration.
A few weeks ago I was criticised in the House for expressing my disappointment that consensus had disappeared. I have no sense of shame in saying that I believe, as many do, that politics should cease at the water's edge. We should devise security policies with which all political parties and most of the population sympathise. I hope that we are going some way towards re-establishing a sort of consensus, if not an absolute consensus, on security so that the issue of defence can be removed in part from the cut and thrust of the political arena.
§ Mr. Churchill
Can the hon. Gentleman explain to the public at large how someone—not the hon. Member—can proclaim himself to be a multilaterist and yet retain membership of CND?
§ Mr. George
My time is almost up and I shall not follow the hon. Gentleman down that road.
I was serving on the Select Committee on Defence when it investigated security in military installations, and I have an obsession with the reform of the private security industry.
Royal Ordnance, which is owned by British Aerospace, has decided to throw out the Ministry of Defence police at its plant in Westcott near Aylesbury and replace them with its own private guarding force. I can think of nothing more stupid. The brochures produced by the Westcott plant—on which I shall not elaborate—show what is produced there. What is produced would be of enormous benefit to a potential terrorist. I fear what may happen once the Ministry of Defence police are removed. They are well 438 trained and well led. They have access to arms and they have back-up from Bicester nearby. They have a tradition of service in defending our military installations. They are to be replaced by largely untrained people with not so much as a truncheon between them. Bearing in mind the sensitive nature of what is produced at Westcott, this is a stupid, stupid decision.
The company has been less than honest with the Thames Valley police and with the Ministry of Defence. I hope that, bearing in mind my remarks and the information that I propose to convey to them, the Government will call in British Aerospace and the management at Westcott and review and change the decision. If the decision is not changed, the guarding force that will be employed will not be up the task. No one has been recruited yet. Will people be recruited from an area of low unemployment? It is a stupid decision. We cannot play games with the security of national assets. I hope that even at this late juncture the Ministry of Defence will seek to retain the MOD police. The Ministry will be applauded if it intervenes and achieves that objective.
§ Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)
It is a great pleasure to take part in the Army debate, particularly as I have been associated with the Anglo-Nepalese all-party parliamentary group for the last 10 years, first as secretary and now as chairman. I was delighted when my colleagues on the Select Committee on Defence agreed that we should consider the future of the Gurkhas. That was an innovation because the majority of Select Committee reports are about actions that have been taken by Government rather than recommendations to Government as to what action should be taken.
I regret, therefore, that the Secretary of State, for whom I have the highest regard, could not be more positive when he made his recent statement on the future of the Gurkhas to the House. I appreciate that he was talking about the position post-1997. Of course, it is difficult for any politician to bind himself or a successor that far ahead. Nevertheless, I took some comfort from his remarks because I interpreted them to indicate that the 4,000 that he mentioned was the basic minimum, below which the Government would not go.
1 should like to think that, because of the demographic trough about which we have heard so much in this debate, and for other reasons, we may find that post-1997 we shall require more Gurkhas rather than fewer. I hope that by that time we shall be thinking in terms of 10,000 Gurkhas. We know that there are 30 competitors for every Gurkha place. That means that the quality of the troops that we obtain from Nepal is extremely high.
It has already been mentioned that we have had a relationship with the Gurkhas since 1815. Next year is the 175th anniversary. The service that we have been given has been unstinting, and we should be profoundly grateful for it. Therefore, the aid that we give to Nepal is really paying back in a small way what we have taken from the country in its manhood over those many years. I look upon aid to Nepal in a different light from aid to any other country for the very good reason that we are paying for services rendered. It would be a tragedy if we were to give the impression that we did not intend to carry on doing that.
We must ask a number of questions of the Secretary of State about the future of the Gurkhas. In the past the 439 Gurkhas have been considered to carry their own reserves because they have had four companies. Is it intended that British reservists will in future provide that element? Will we be looking perhaps to the Territorial Army to give that support? That would certainly be an innovation. If the Government propose to cut numbers, they must state fairly soon whether they intend to do that entirely by natural wastage or whether they propose redundancies. If there are to be redundancies, on what basis would they be made and how would redundancy affect pensions?
At the moment there is a permanent cadre of British officers. Four infantry battalions of a smaller size would have a significant effect upon that. Can we be assured that there will be sufficient left to sustain an appealing career structure for the remaining officers? I remind my hon. Friend that Gurkha officers have been a source of the leadership of the British Army for many years and that they have been able to maintain a very high profile.
One of the bases of Gurkha service is the family permission whereby the Gurkha soldier above a rank of staff sergeant can have his family with him at all times. Below that rank the soldier is accompanied by his family for a certain proportion of his service. That is important to the Gurkha soldier because he tries to manage his affairs in such a way that the birth of his children takes place during the period when he has family permission and has the benefit of using hospitals run by the British forces. The future of family permission must be made clear.
We would also like to know where in the United Kingdom the brigade is to he based. I hope that we shall soon have information about that. Will the training depot be situated in the United Kingdom when there is a move from Hong Kong? That is another important question to which we need an answer.
Dharan has been referred to already. It is a source of great sadness to me that, a year before the Select Committee went to Nepal to make its report, a decision had been taken and announced that Dharan was virtually to be abandoned. Some backtracking has taken place since, but in my view the decision was wrong because we make a valuable contribution to the infrastructure of that region of Nepal. Anyone who has been to that part of the world will be aware of the position. I cannot imagine that any politician who had been there could have made such a decision. I feel certain that the decision was taken blind because I do not think that there would have been such a decision otherwise.
I hope that my hon. Friend can assure me that the welfare facilities, and the personnel and stores transiting facility will continue there, as well as the agricultural resettlement training, which is very important to the economy of Nepal. There is a very good agricultural school and a building trades school there for retired soldiers whose future is in question. We must have answers about their future and about the financing of the hospital once the British military hospital closes. We need an assurance about long-term funding.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have been concerned about the future of Hong Kong after the British leave in 1997. My hon. Friend should consider whether it would be possible to reassure the people of Hong Kong by coming to an arrangement whereby the Chinese Government fund a residual presence of Gurkha soldiers in Hong Kong, over at least part of the 50-year guaranteed period post-1997. We have such an arrangement in Brunei whereby the troops still serve under the British Crown. If 440 the Chinese are serious about their guarantees to the people of Hong Kong, I cannot see why a similar arrangement could not be entered into with China I am sure that that would give a great deal of reassurance to the people of Hong Kong that their future was not likely to be turned upside down by the presence of Chinese forces behaving as they have so recently in Peking.
A completely different point of great concern to me is the future of battlefield communications. In the past we have been extremely well served by battlefield communications in the British Army, which has a reputation second to none in the world. One reason is that we can communicate on the battlefield so expertly at all levels. In order to do that, we have relied upon a number of companies in this country bringing forward their expertise.
One of those companies was founded in my constituency—the Plessey company. At present, the Plessey company is under the considerable cloud of a possible takeover from a predator, which is partly foreign, Siemens, and partly from home, GEC. There is no way under these conditions that the Plessey company can continue to carry out its extensive research and development programme efficiently, on which it spends some 22 per cent. of its turnover, this being about twice as high as any competing company. I fear that, if this state of affairs is allowed to continue and that company is subjected to that kind of pressure much longer, we shall not retain our edge over other troops in the battlefield.
I believe that it is in the national interest, and national security in particular, for the Ministry of Defence to say that, if the conditions that were laid down by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission cannot be carried out to the letter, it has a duty to the country to announce that quickly and remove the cloud as soon as possible. The staff of the MMC are not security cleared so they cannot be told exactly what is going on in research and development.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on so steadfastly pursuing his home ownership scheme. Undoubtedly that is one of the keys to recruiting and retaining Army personnel. I hope that the Ministry of Defence can get the message over to the Treasury that we must be more flexible and we must take bold decisions before it is too late.
I remind my hon. Friend the Minister that the Territorial Army is a key issue in the defence scenario. I spoke in a debate a few days ago concerning the TA, and I referred specifically to the need for the TA messes to be the best possible clubs in every area in which they are present. If that is not done, we cannot expect to train and retain the personnel that we need. Will the Minister assure me that that matter is receiving his attention? We should ensure that this is the case not only for 36 Signal Regiment which is to have a new headquarters built in my constituency during the next few months, but for all others throughout the country. They must all have excellent recreational facilities for Territorial soldier at all levels.
I hope that my hon. Friend can answer at least some of those questions tonight.
§ Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)
I am pleased to speak after the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne), as I did on Tuesday night on his Redbridge market Bill. After that debate, our former colleague Matthew Parris in his 441 excellent article in The Times described the hon. Gentleman as the "monocled Colonel Thorne, OBE, TD". It is thus absolutely fitting that he should be speaking in this Army debate.
This could be a very wide-ranging debate. A number of issues have not so far been touched upon, for example, forces' widows who are treated abominably by the Government. Indeed, women in other countries have to go round with begging bowls collecting money to support their sisters in this country. That is a scandal. Another example is the ex-service men who have been exposed to radiation. The Government are dragging their feet and refusing to give proper compensation to the victims or their families. Indeed, we have hardly touched upon the Government sell-off of the Royal Ordnance factories, which was a planned £100-million-plus rip-off of public assets for which the Government were responsible and which they are now trying to cover up. Those are other important issues, to which we shall return.
This is a debate on the Army, and I pay tribute to all those individuals who perform their tasks effectively and efficiently. It is the policies that are imposed upon them and which they are forced to implement that are too often wrong. It is the Government's fault, especially in the field of nuclear and conventional weapons.
There was an excellent cartoon in Tribune showing a couple of men walking past two billboards. The first billboard said, "Gorbachev's new arms cuts" and the second said, "Mrs. Thatcher's new nuclear weapon". One guy turned to the other and said, "She will be telling us next that we need these nuclear weapons to defend ourselves against disarmament." That is the situation we are in.
There has been a whole list of defence initiatives from President Gorbachev. The INF agreement is a great tribute to his will in getting a reduction in a range of nuclear weapons—some 4 per cent. of the world's nuclear weapons. Other initiatives are his unilateral cut in conventional weapons, and his action to try to cut back and remove chemical weapons. Russia has announced the first factory to crunch and destroy chemical weapons, which is an important new factor.
President Gorbachev has put into practice the concept of asymmetries. It is time that the West joined in that concept and made some asymmetrical cuts, too. As a result of those initiatives, the Soviet threat, which so many of us thought was a myth in any event, has diminished, certainly in the public mind. It is now down to single percentages. It is only the Conservatives who live in a bygone age, who still cling to that cold war notion of the Soviet threat. The reason for President Gorbachev's initiatives is, of course, economic—perestroika. He wants to bring money to his own people instead of wasting it on military and nuclear costs.
Another reason is the risk of accident. President Gorbachev has the experience of Chernobyl and he knows that there will be more nuclear accidents in the nuclear arms race to create weapons. He knows, too, the danger that lies in their use. Indeed, the Pentagon produced a report—
§ Mr. Cohen
No, I shall not give way.
442 The Pentagon produced a report, "Discriminate Deterrence", which talks about using nuclear weapons in a limited way against some Third-world countries.
Then there is the danger of proliferation. In the past few weeks we have seen, for example, that India has its new intermediate range weapons, AGNI, which could have a nuclear capability. Indeed, the Prime Minister, in her discussions with President Bush, talked to him about the United States providing nuclear weapons in Argentina. Such a proliferation poses a great threat. President Gorbachev has recognised that threat and that has prompted the promotion of his initiatives. Those are reasons for us, too, to run down our nuclear weapons in the context of the arms race.
President Gorbachev's latest proposals should be considered by the House. His proposal of 1.35 million troops on each side within six years should receive a positive response from the Government. So, too, should the common ceiling in tanks, artillery and armed troop carriers, combat aircraft and helicopters. President Gorbachev has suggested a three-stage proposal with elimination in two to three years of asymmetries and reductions to equal collective ceilings—10 to 15 per cent. lower than the lowest level possessed by either alliance. The Government should also consider President Gorbachev's proposals for cuts of 25 per cent. on each side and the establishment of a purely defensive conventional arms posture.
Then, of course, there is the proposal for the thinning out of the front line in Europe. That, of course is directly counter and opposite to NATO's backward strategy of so-called forward defence, which is a much better strategy.
Another proposal which has not been touched on by any Minister or anyone in the West is that the Soviets have offered to remove their entire nuclear ammunition from their allies if the United States does the same. Yet that has not even been referred to by NATO. There are opportunities to pick up those initiatives and to obtain parallel reductions in both nuclear and conventional forces.
The proposals made by President Bush must be viewed against those initiatives. His offer to cut United States troops in Europe by 30,000 to 275,000 is very welcome, but it ignores a couple of factors. It ignores all European armies, which I believe should also be substantially reduced. It also does not take account of America's increasing number of nuclear weapons in Europe, such as those at Upper Heyford, where a direct increase in the number of F111s is planned.
NATO adopted the comprehensive concept, and the Prime Minister quoted from it on Tuesday. Paragraph 27 states:The Allies' sub-strategic nuclear forces are not designed to compensate for conventional imbalances.Paragraph 44 states:But the sub-strategic nuclear forces deployed by member countries of the Alliance are not principally a counter to similar systems operated by members of the WTO.What are they for, if they are not to counter conventional imbalances or nuclear forces? What are they for, other than to be kept, come what may, despite there being no cause to keep them? It would be difficult to be more provocative towards other countries.
The NATO communique states about dual-capability aircraft that it will 443include reductions by each side to equal ceilings at the level of 15 per cent. below current Alliance holdings of helicopters and of all land-based combat aircraft in the Atlantic-to-the-Urals zone.That is very welcome, but the Prime Minister has now said that Britain's dual-capability aircraft will not be included in the discussions. That makes NATO's commitment rather hollow.
The comprehensive concept ignores France. Tucked away in an footnote on page 4, the NATO communiqué states:France takes this opportunity to recall that, since the mandate for the Vienna negotiations excludes nuclear weapons, it retains complete freedom of judgment and decision regarding the resources contributing to the implementation of its independent nuclear deterrent strategy.France is saying that it is out of the discussions. NATO certainly is not coming to terms with Gorbachev's initiatives, let alone matching them.
The summit was an enormous defeat for the Prime Minister. It was a blow to her modernisation, block negotiation stance. The replacement for Lance has probably been delayed indefinitely and negotiations will commence on strategic nuclear forces. The Prime Minister is not a multilateralist. When a Conservative Member said during Question Time that the Government were the true multilateralists, the right hon. Lady was embarrassed. She does not want to get rid of nuclear weapons—she favours using the INF agreement to re-arm. She wants modernisation and a new arms race. She is out of date, irrelevant and dangerous. She is also two-faced—she smiles with President Gorbachev, but there is great hostility and opposition beneath the smiles.
The Gorbachev initiative provides a great opportunity to rid Europe of nuclear weapons and to reduce conventional forces. There could be stability at a much lower level of arms. Britain could play its role by getting out of the nuclear arms race, which would release resources from warfare to welfare and for the needs of mankind throughout the world. We need to get rid of the Tory nuclear-wild Government before Britain can play its proper role.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)
Order. Three hon. Members are still seeking to catch my eye. I understand that Front Bench spokesmen hope to begin their replies at 9.25 pm. I hope that hon. Members will pay regard to the arithmetic.
§ Mr. Norman Miscampbell (Blackpool, North)
I am sure that there will be no difficulty in all three hon. Members contributing to the debate in the time available.
I wish to follow the splendid speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Dame J. Fookes) and discuss not overall Army responsibilities or materials supply, but the most pressing matter of how we are to man the equipment in future years. There is a vital need for the Army to retain its personnel and to recruit those needed to man our defence forces. The Minister's speech clearly recognised the problem. It has certainly been recognised by every unit that I have visited during the past year and a half, and there were quite a number of them. We recognise, not only the demographic decline but the 444 inevitable civilian competition from those who want to employ the very people that the Army needs, such as specialists and personnel of intelligence and initiative.
The manning of missiles and tanks depends on retaining the personnel. To achieve that, we must provide the soldier with a good career—and that means not just satisfying the soldier, but satisfying his wife and children so that they will want him to stay in the Army. The foundation of that satisfaction must be the knowledge that, after whatever length of service, the soldier will have a happy resettlement—to use current economic jargon, a soft landing. To achieve that a number of issues must be tackled. A better degree of training both for the soldier and his wife is required. Of course, SSAFA helps with training and others also lend a hand. The soldier and his wife need to learn the skills to allow them to set up home in civilian life with a great more ease than is currently the case.
In home postings, especially in the south of England, it is relatively easy for wives to get jobs, but a great deal of hardship occurs in away-from-home postings. I saw this clearly when I visited Holywood in Northern Ireland, where a regiment had gone for two years. The wives had followed their husbands and found that there was no work there for them. Wives with skills who had had good jobs in Aldershot found themselves offered the most menial tasks on the Down coast, and of course they found that disconcerting.
Something must be done to help the wife who must give up her job to follow her husband, and we want wives to accompany their husbands. I cannot see why, for those who have been in employment, some unemployment benefit could not be payable when they move overseas or to Ireland. Nor do I understand why, alone among those who serve the state, we ask them to pay for accommodation overseas. Perhaps we should consider—the Navy appears to be doing this with great success—initiating the custom of periodic bonuses for those who stay on as their service progresses.
I am anxious to keep my remarks short and will leave out much of what I would otherwise have said. I must, however, refer to the problem of housing and the growing feeling of discontent among people as they progress through their service lives and feel that they will riot be able to get a home when they come out. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) made a number of suggestions. Those and similar proposals have been made time and again, but tonight I have time only to commend them.
As one who has not given a vestige of support to the community charge from beginning to end, for Scotland or anywhere else, I feel that what we propose for the Army by way of the community charge needs thinking through. When a regiment is told that at the appropriate time it will move to inner London on guard duty, its reception to that news must be like the sepoys' reception in the middle of the last century to being given greasy cartridges, which they did not like. I do not know what a soldier will do when told that he is to go into Westminster where, whatever is said, the community charge will be £500 to £600 a head. How will soldiers pay that, and why should they pay it? I need say no more about homelessness or the community charge.
We spend enormous sums retraining people, and we lose those who are trained at enormous cost. Any rational application of economics and cost-effectiveness must show 445 that a tiny proportion of money spent on making life better for those who are already in the services would pay handsomely.
It is a question of making the wives feel not just that their men are contented husbands. We want them to continue to want to help them remain contented. In that way they will be content to be the wives, and families, of soldiers. Unless we tackle the matter in that spirit we shall have losses, and they will be inexcusable.
§ 9.2 pm
§ Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)
I wish at the outset to thank the Minister for at last allowing the rebuilding of Victoria barracks, Windsor, for which I have been pressing for eight years. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman) was good enough to come with me to see the site and, following that, the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces announced in a written reply that he had givenApproval to proceed with the rebuilding of Victoria barracks on the site of the old barracks at Windsor",—[Official Report, 18 May 1989; Vol. 153, c. 274.]That has given great satisfaction not only to the Household Division but to the colonel of the regiment, Her Majesty.
Paragraph 46 of the Defence estimates gives an excellent analysis of the disparity that exists between ourselves and the Warsaw pact. Even if satellites such as Hungary and Poland split off, the Warsaw pact will have enormous superiority. So we must continue with our policy of having a flexible response and we must retain the nuclear capacity. Who knows what may happen? What happened in Peking could happen in Red square.
We must face the problems of the demographic trough, combined with the possible loss of 35,000 United States troops. Somehow we must fill that gap. Our special relationship with America still exists. Even so, the removal of 35,000 troops presents a problem with which we must deal.
That will be done by ensuring that we recruit enough people, and to do that we must offer them the right terms of service, always remembering that we are competing with industry, espcially in technology. Unlike other countries, we do not have a system of national service. I suggest that we must find an alternative, and perhaps we should press employers to make it compulsory—with, of course, sufficient allowances being provided—for people to do service. They could become Territorials or former Regulars could retrain at frequent intervals, so enabling us to have a strong reserve.
I was impressed by the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Dame J. Fookes) for the further use of women in the services, which would give even more flexibility. We shall still need the Gurkhas.
The Defence Estimates show that the volunteer services have risen from 73,000 to 90,000 but that is still not enough. I must also refer to the important issue of the SSAFA letter, which was mentioned by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell). It was written by General Grey, whom I telephoned to discuss the matter. The issue was also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier). We must recognise what the SSAFA letter says. I am sure that all hon. Members would agree with that.
446 Chemical weapons are the most dangerous of all because they are so difficult verify, even by satellite. The comparison between our openness and that of the Russians is well illustrated in paragraph 226 of the Defence Estimates. The imbalance which would result from the proposals of the Soviet Union is insufficient. As the Prime Minister said when she reported on the NATO summit, short-range missiles must remain until the Soviet Union has carried out its arms reduction policies. West Germany objects to short-range missiles but they would land in East Germany, the home of the Soviet allies. We should not relax our grip or drop our guard.
I am convinced that if we continue to negotiate in a strong and tough way we shall be able to achieve a settlement with the Soviet Union. We should always remember that policies could change if Gorbachev were beaten and the same were to happen in Russia as has occurred in China. We must always watch these points, be on our defence and ensure that we are never below the strength of Russia, which can pull hidden troops from the Urals. Let us always remember to negotiate from strength to obtain the security we need.
§ 9.7 pm
§ Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)
I am most grateful to hon. Members for speeding up their speeches to fit me in, and to Ministers for compressing their speeches. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Dame J. Fookes) and my seven other colleagues who spoke in support of my armed forces house purchase savings scheme.
I have been encouraged by the constructive discussions that I have had with the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) on the subject. Both have shown considerable flexibility of mind in the solutions which they are willing to look at.
Of the householders in this country, 63 per cent. are home owners. All householders with mortgages are entitled to tax subsidies in the form of mortgage interest relief. A further 28 per cent. of households are either council or housing association tenants and, through their rent payments, they can, if they choose, attract a different form of subsidy: an accumulating discount on the purchase of that property. Sadly, the Army and parts of the Royal Air Force are shut out of that system and are firmly in the other 9 per cent. Comparatively few soldiers—the last figure I saw was 26 per cent.—own houses. Those who do have serious difficulties of the sort already covered by my colleagues.
I wish to stress one simple point, and read out some of the letters which I have received to illustrate it. The solution to the Army's house purchase problems does not lie with encouraging soldiers to buy houses while serving. Unlike the Navy, and part of the Royal Air Force, whose families are comparatively static, about half the Army's families are outside mainland Britain and the rest are extremely mobile. House ownership for a serving soldier does not mean home ownership or owner-occupation, but rather the absolute nonsense of trying to run two households with all the problems that being an absentee landlord entails.
§ Mr. O'Neill
Does the hon. Gentleman know whether service men living in service accommodation can acquire credits which could be used if, for example, they bought a council house allocated to them after they left the service?
§ Mr. Brazier
I am delighted to confirm that the hon. Gentleman is right. Should a service man subsequently obtain a council house, thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) those credits can be taken into account. However, the difficulty is that that very measure has resulted in councils being even more reluctant to allocate council houses. In many cases service men simply cannot get them at all, especially if they do not have children.
The message is simply that the solution to the Army's housing problem does not lie in encouraging people to become involved in buying houses during their service. The purchase of a house should be at or near the end of their service.
At the moment a soldier has no alternative, and I wish to read out a number of letters to illustrate the problem. The first comes from a flight lieutenant from one of the branches of the Royal Air Force, which has a similar problem. He said:While stationed in England I bought my own house. It is the only property I own. On being posted to Germany I rented my house and moved into married quarters at a cost of £180 a month. Almost half of the monthly rent I am receiving for the house goes in expenses—rates, agent's fees, insurance etc. This means that I am £75 a month short after paying my married quarters rent. Yet the law does not allow the married quarters rent to be offset against the let house so that the whole of the net income on that house is treated as though it is profit, meaning a still further loss of £26 a month.Of all those who have written to me, that man is the best off because he has a letting arrangement which works.
The Federation of Army Wives has sent me a long brief with case after case of lettings that have turned into disaster. I quote just one. A major with three children was posted to BAOR. His tenant cleared out owing rent, electricity bills, telephone bills. He left the house in a dreadful state. The major travelled back to the United Kingdom at his own expense, decided to cut his losses and sell. He is now not able to enter the housing market again.
The next letter comes from a serving officer, who wrote:I have shown this paper to the six military serving members of my staff and to some of the retired ones. All with one voice have said 'If only a scheme like this had been in operation when I got married.'The crucial sentence comes at the end of his letter.Anything would be better than the present moral blackmail to follow the drum and accept the very real problems of letting one's own property.That is the nub of the problem. Officer and soldier are faced with the moral blackmail of either having to buy a house and go down the hideous route of trying to run two households with all the hassles and problems that tenants bring, which in most cases they resolve by leaving the Army, or to do nothing at all and end up homeless.
All those cases concern officers. Comparatively few NCOs even try to buy at the moment. Let me quote a letter from the wife of one:My husband is an NCO in the Army and I am stationed in London. As we have no children at the moment and I am earning a good salary in London, we decided the time is right for us to purchase a flat.Then news of the posting came, along with all the problems that have been referred to—the loss of the wife's job, and so on. She ends the rather sad story by saying:It is because of my feeling of being penalised because of my husband being in the Army and our subsequent loss of our flat that I felt that I had to write to you and applaud your fight on our behalf. I only hope that we, along with many other families in the armed forces, will benefit from your campaign.448 The last letter that I wish to quote is particularly sad. It comes from a lady I know whose husband is a major and would have been classified as a high flier. He has all the right credits to go up to very senior service in the Army. The extract is this:Some years ago we managed to get a foothold on the property market and now struggle to maintain a mortgage while paying for a married quarter. We have a mortgage of £40,000"—comparatively small; they got in before the latest rise in prices—but unlike many other service families we suffered the inevitable problems of letting. For a period of six months we received no rent and for a further six months we had a tenant who did not pay and who stole or damaged so much that we incurred yet more expense. We then had one year of trouble-free letting but of course we had to pay agent's fees and tax on the rent received then.She goes on to make the same point as has just been made about wives. She ends by saying:If a scheme like yours were to be introduced this year we would be able to sell our home, put the money into it and we could then stay on in the Army.Then comes the saddest sentence of all:Sadly, the Army is an anachronism; it looks as if we will no longer be able to afford to subsidise it.My hon. Friend the Member for Drake quoted a statistic from a brief that went round earlier which showed that premature voluntary release had risen by 70 per cent. in the Army in five years. In reply to a parliamentary question a few days ago, I discovered that in the latest quarter of this year, taking it back six years now, the figures having just become available, it has risen by 140 per cent. between the first quarter of 1983 and the first quarter of 1989.
We cannot go on saying to our soldiers that their alternatives are to do nothing and be homeless or get involved in this hopeless arrangement. We cannot keep people much past the age of 25 in the Regular Army and the age profile of the Army reflects that.
My hon. Friend has been most flexible and willing to listen to my suggestions and I know that he and his officials have worked extremely hard in this matter. I will end by giving him a shopping list of items which it seems to me are essential to make any scheme work—there is no reason why he should take my proposal off the shelf. There are four. The first is the easiest of them because since the Budget it is available already. It must be a fully tax-exempted scheme as a house is fully tax-exempted. The new PEP scheme in the Budget is fully tax-exempt; no tax of any sort is paid on money generated within the scheme.
The other three items are new. The second is that it is very important that a soldier going into this scheme, which is in lieu of a house—and he is only shut out from buying a house because he is in the Army—should be able to get the equivalent of mortgage interest tax relief, a benefit for which the 63 per cent. who are home owners are eligible if they have mortgages. It is in lieu also of accumulated discount on a council house.
The third is that he must get some return out of his existing housing payment. Most of these are single-income families and the difficulties in getting work for wives in some parts of England have been referred to. There are hardly any jobs for wives abroad. They are the only category of public servant, indeed almost the only category of people of any sort, who are made to pay accommodation charges when they are abroad.
449 The fourth is a detailed but important item. It is very important that there is no upper limit on contributions to the scheme. Obviously there is an upper limit on tax relief but, just as civilians when they buy a house group together what bits of capital and income they can raise, so people should be able to put whatever capital they want to into this nest egg to accumulate in this tax-free environment, subject to the same tax exemption limits as their civilian counterparts have on mortgage interest relief.
We owe it to all the members of our armed forces to enable them to have a secure housing future. The MOD has shown imagination in the schemes that it has brought forward in encouraging those members of the armed forces who can be owner-occupiers, the Navy and part of the Royal Air Force by making it possible for them to do so, but I must leave my hon. Friend with the thought that such measures are a complete and utter mistake for the Army. They are not only a waste of money but a delusion leading people down the wrong route. We must instead provide our soldiers with an alternative so that those with 22 years' service do not need to write to me again saying that they are on a five or 10-year waiting list for a council house when they would almost certainly be owner-occupiers otherwise.
I commend those thoughts to my hon. Friend the Minister.
§ Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)
I will utter just one or two sentences. I wish to place on record that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) has widespread support on the Conservative Benches for his remarks, and I know from the nodding heads of Opposition Members that they support him too. I am sure that my hon. Friend's comments were listened to with great respect by my hon. Friend the Minister.
§ Mr. O'Neill
With the leave of the House, I may say that tonight's debate has been wide-ranging in some respects but has featured several recurring themes. The subject of the Brigade of Gurkhas was raised in almost every contribution except the last two. It is rare in defence debates for there to be a consensus, but it is the unanimous wish of right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House to retain the Gurkhas at their present level of strength.
Tonight's debate would have occurred regardless of what happened in Peking, but recent events in the People's Republic of China have given it an extra edge. It is significant that senior Members such as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Boscawen)—who does not make regular speeches in Army debates, partly because of his many years of service in the Whips' Office—forcefully made the point that we all remember what happened when the signal went to withdraw the Endurance. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome made that point in a straightforward way but most graphically.
I do not envisage Hong Kong being another Falklands but I do not want to take any risks. The presence of the Gurkhas in Hong Kong sends signals not only to those outside the colony but to those living there, which is of 450 equal importance. We owe them a substantial responsibility. Just because Hong Kong is far away and its culture is different from ours does not mean that our responsibilities there will begin to end some time around 1997 if circumstances are not as we should like them to be.
I ask the Government to take on board the fact that every right hon. and hon. Member who has spoken on that subject is of one mind. The Minister of State for the Armed Forces somewhat disingenuously commented at the beginning of the debate that he is trying to shift with the situation, to try to point up the possibility that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will think again. The House is asking the Secretary of State to think again, and when he reads Hansard he will discover time and again that right hon. and hon. Members are not happy with what has been said. I am sure that that view is held in all parts of the House.
It is significant that the only person who could be prayed in aid of the Government's view is Field Marshal Lord Bramall, in his letter to The Times. However, during the course of the evening I have been able to find something else said by Lord Bramall which may be of interest to the House. It appears that Lord Bramall can be prayed in aid by a number of people, and certainly I have tremendous respect for his judgment and views.
In last year's debate on the Defence Estimates in another place, Lord Bramall referred to the £20 billion that the Government spent on conventional defence since 1979, which was also mentioned in the Minister's speech today. Lord Bramall commented:The Government can be proud that as a result of seven years of sustained growth between 1979 and 1986, induced both by the Falklands campaign and by the Government's adherence to the NATO 3 per cent. growth target (an intention, I have to say, which was first announced, as the noble Lord. Lord Mulley, will know, by the last Labour Government)".He continued:The Government would always want to see themselves as strong on defence. Indeed, they have done much, first to get forces' pay on a proper basis—and here I give credit to the noble Lord, Lord Mulley, who started the process when he was Secretary of State."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 July 1988; Vol. 499, c. 727–8.]I do not want to start an exchange of "Oh no you didn't—Oh yes we did." I am merely trying to put the record straight. The Minister of State has been in the House for long enough, and has been connected with the Ministry of Defence for long enough as a Whip, a junior Minister and a Minister of State, not to insult the intelligence of the House with obviously misleading items of information to the effect that the increase in the Government's conventional spending is wholly attributable to decisions made by them. Many were set in train long before the present Government came to office. [Interruption.] The Minister is careful enough to say from a sedentary position that he did not say that, but that is what he meant to convey, as anyone with half a brain would have worked out when he said it. I wanted to use the right quotation, and I consider evidence from someone of Lord Bramall's seniority more than worth praying in aid.
In his speech on the Estimates last year, Lord Bramall drew attention to the deep-seated anxieties shared by many people about aspects of procurement. I will confine my remarks on that subject to one or two points that have arisen in today's debate. Everyone was relieved, I think, at the decision to go for a British tank, and no one disputes that the arrangement with Vickers is probably the most 451 sensible option. We shall be buying a tank that is not yet in operation in our own or any other army—it is often forgotten that the Americans and Germans do not have such tanks in service yet and that we are going through the process of testing and trying them.
This summer once again sees the Canadian army competition, and I am not sure that it was sensible to arrange for the British not to be present. I may be wrong, but I was under the impression that British Army teams would not be competing this year. The Minister nods to confirm that. I think that that is regrettable. In my view, our armed forces can only benefit from such participation. That they will not do so well because their kit is not what it might be is a matter for speculation. As they lost a place a couple of years ago, I would expect them to try their damnedest to make the impact that their professionalism requires. I ask the Minister to think again, and to let us know the Ministry's current view.
Will the Minister also tell us why we are not replacing the Milan anti-tank missile, as the French and Germans are replacing its counterparts in the 1990s? We also seem to be slipping behind the French and Germans in battlefield air defence. For every two main battle tanks that we have, there is one air defence system, but for every two that the Germans have there are 1.5 air defence systems—that is to say, 50 per cent. more—while the French have almost one air defence system for every tank. I realise that what I have said is open to criticism on the grounds of over-simplification; nevertheless, the authors of Jane's "Battlefield Air Defence" were concerned about the matter, and I feel that it is legitimate to raise it in a debate of this nature.
Another aspect of procurement has not been mentioned today, perhaps because one or two hon. Members who have made it their hobby horse are not present. There is still a good deal of anxiety in the House about the demountable rack offloading and pickup system, known as DROPS. BAOR requires trucks capable of loading and off-loading supplies in the field. We know of the complaints about the equipment which was lent to the MOD and the problems in getting them investigated. The Comptroller and Auditor General has looked into the matter, but he has been hampered by the fact that it appears that the National Audit Office does not have the right technical advice to reach a judgment, so the matter has still not been settled. There is a strong case for looking very closely at DROPS and for there to be a proper statement in the House at some stage.
We have discussed Ptarmigan and raised the need for effective communications for BAOR, particularly as the amount of information that needs to be distributed on the modern battlfield is increasing rapidly. The Ptarmigan tactical communications network is supposed to fulfil those requirements, but there have been reports that the system does not have the capacity to meet the Army's future needs. The introduction of BATES, the battlefield artillery target engagement system, and ADCIS, the air defence command information system, will substantially increase the demands that will be made on Ptarmigan.
It was originally planned to purchase 32 mobile trunk nodes, but in the end only 26 were acquired and there is substantial doubt as to whether that will be sufficient. Just a few weeks ago in Jane's Defence Weekly a communications commander called for the number to be restored to 32. Certainly the Ministry should look at a number of matters relating to Ptarmigan.
452 It may be that all the answers on procurement are not available tonight, but I understand that before the summer we shall be debating the Estimates. I should like to think that when we debate more detailed matters of procurement, the Minister will be able to give the House more information. If he can give us some information tonight, so much the better, and if he cares to write to me I shall be happy to receive his letters. I give notice that we shall be returning to these detailed matters in the Estimates debate relating to procurement for the Army and particularly BAOR. It is legitimate that we raise the matter tonight and receive some information.
A number of interesting points have been raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) expressed concern about the security arrangements for Westcott and his longstanding concern about MOD security. He deserves an answer. The speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) requires a substantial reply. The House will benefit, perhaps not this evening but certainly in future, from a substantial answer to those serious questions. If the Minister chooses not to put them on record but to write, I know that my hon. Friend would like to hear from him as quickly as possible and I should like to see the replies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) made an extremely thoughtful speech. I know that he could not be here for the wind-up and he has apologised. My hon. Friend takes his duties as President of the NATO Assembly very seriously. He raised a number of serious questions and made a useful contribution to the debate. He raised serious issues about the problems of joint procurement and collaboration and co-operation within NATO. We are all grateful to him for his remarks and I hope that the Minister will be able to meet many of his requests.
He raised one point of response to the speech by the Minister of State. Perhaps the Minister could tell us whether the new MLRS sytems will be purely conventional or whether they will be dual-capable and whether they will use nuclear shells or merely conventional shells. That information will be of some assistance when we come to assimilate the significance of the communique produced last week in Brussels.
The hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) made passing reference to the bid for Plessey. The silence of the Ministry of Defence about the bid has been almost deafening, although its previous position about the takeover of Plessey was well known and its representations were a matter of public debate. A clear statement will have to be made soon giving the Ministry of Defence's view, as it is critical to consideration of the bid.
A number of issues have been raised, and I have touched on only some of them. I and other hon. Members believe that President Bush's offer and NATO's response to it merit consideration. We shall doubtless return to the subject in the summer and autumn. Understandably, we have been discussing more basic and fundamental issues, but consideration of the Gurkhas enabled us to debate demographic trends and future recruitment.
Many useful contributions have been made about pay and rations and Army life. At times, we tend to leave these matters to bodies such as the pay review board. It is desirable that such issues are removed from the political arena and left to a group of experts, so that neither one side nor the other deals with the cash element. It has emerged from the debate that there are serious potential 453 social problems under the surface among the armed forces. They are emerging because of the dramatic changes that have recently occurred in the property market.
From my own constituency experience, I am aware that non-commissioned officers and men in the ranks do not experience some of the difficulties that have been alluded to in obtaining council accommodation. It may be that I deal with a Labour authority which has bigger housing stocks and that in other parts of the country, where housing stocks are smaller, the problem assumes different significance. There is worry among all ranks about accommodation.
The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), whom I am wont to criticise and bash whenever I can, for once is right. I have not looked at the fine print of the amendments to the Finance Bill that he has tabled. I am not trying to damn him with faint praise, but I appreciate the vigour with which he is pursuing the matter. Like the Gurkhas issue, there is no division across the Floor of the House about the principle of this. We may disagree about the fine details, but they can be ironed out, which is what the House, at its best, is supposed to do.
We have had a useful debate. Some issues have not been considered as closely as they might have been. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South is coming out of the cold, or other people in our party are coming out of the cold—I am not sure which, and I will not say one way or the other. There has been an uncharacteristic degree of unanimity among Labour Members and broad agreement across the Floor of the House on a number of issues. The Government would be well advised to pay close attention to what has been said because it is not party advantage that is at stake but the good name of the Army, the morale of the men and women who serve in it and, ultimately, the defence of this country. I urge the Government to think seriously about what hon. Members have said today.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Michael Neubert)
As a veteran of no fewer than two single service debates since taking up my post, I have been struck again by the diversity and authority of the contributions by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I shall try to respond to as many points as I can in the time left available to me, but the House will understand that I shall also want to make some comments of my own.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces spoke of the encouraging signs of change in the Soviet Union, but not all news that comes from the East is encouraging. While a massive military capability exists in the Soviet Union, the West must retain the wherewithal to deter aggression. The Government will continue to ensure that this remains so. To succeed, we must maintain the support of the British public and recognise the debt owed to those men and women in our armed forces. For that reason, I am particularly pleased that tribute has been paid on both sides of the House to their sterling work.
We welcome the Bush proposals at the recent NATO Alliance summit and we now await the response of the East. As always, there is much detailed work to be done within NATO and it is too early to assess the implications for the United Kingdom in general and for BAOR in 454 particular. It is worth pointing out that reductions envisaged for NATO are small compared with those being sought from the Warsaw pact to remove the existing large conventional superiority. I am afraid that I must disappoint the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) in giving that response at this early stage in the development of arms control.
We do, however, share in the triumph that we believe the NATO summit represented. I regretted, but was not surprised by, the rather sour comments made by the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) on the part played by our Prime Minister in those negotiations. It may be that by his choice of party and policy he has condemned himself to a role of spokesman that is about as effective as trying to light a match in a force 10 gale. He naturally resents the dominant role that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister plays in world councils. We are prepared to pay tribute to the part that Britain has played in reaching this advantageous arrangement, which has taken the initiative in arms control for the first time for some months.
The Army continues to play key roles in the defence of the United Kingdom and in the forward defence of the European mainland. In addition, it continues to provide vital assistance to the forces of law and order—against the men and women of violence in Northern Ireland—as well as assistance to communities and Governments all over the world. This year has seen the Army in action in all these guises and the House is right to applaud them. From the jungles of Belize to the streets of Northern Ireland, our service men and women serve with great distinction and professionalism.
In this latter context, the hon. Member for Clackmannan asked about measures taken to counter the terrorist threat. He was good enough to acknowledge that the Government have in hand extensive new work to improve the security of service establishments. In this, the Ministry of Defence police will continue to play their part. This does not mean that every civilian-guarding task requires its specialist skills, but I can assure the House, especially the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), that any adjustments to the size of the force will have full regard for its value in the security context. In addition, the Army is continually refining and improving the organisational and operational arrangements to support the RUC in Northern Ireland. These have been successful and, together with measures taken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, have frustrated the IRA in any attempts to make greater use of the large quantities of arms and ammunition that it possesses.
I should like to dwell on some of the more newsworthy activities in which the Army has taken part over the past 12 months which illustrate the variety of tasks that the service may be called upon to perform. I shall give examples of the Army in action which may be unexpected to the public at least, if not to Parliament. In Nepal, British military staff treated almost 900 casualties and carried out more than 300 operations in the wake of the earthquake there last August. Following hurricane Gilbert in Jamaica in September, Royal Engineers from the Belize garrison carried out much-needed repair on hospitals and children's homes. In Vanuatu, another team of sappers is working to repair cyclone damage under the auspices of the Overseas Development Administration.
455 Closer to home, and perhaps the most difficult and distressing work carried out this year, was at the sites of the tragedies at Lockerbie and Kegworth. Up to 500 service men were present at Lockerbie on any one day, and some 8,000 man days of service assistance were provided. Some of the work was especially harrowing and those involved deserve the highest praise.
The army responded to many other calls for assistance, such as in the clearance of unexploded ordnance. Some 200 calls were answered in Great Britain, involving, for example, several world war 2 German 500 lb bombs. Those at Stanford-le-Hope and near Billingsgate fish market in London required the evacuation of large numbers of local residents.
Assistance was also given to the Home Office in the past year in manning temporary prisons at Alma Dettingen barracks and Rollestone camp. The soldiers involved demonstrated very well the sheer adaptability of the modern service man.
Perhaps the most under-rated of all the Army's commitments is the contribution it makes to the various international peace-keeping forces. For many years, we have provided contingents for the United Nations force in Cyprus and the multinational force of observers in the Sinai. Our garrison in Cyprus has provided support for the United Nations there and for United Nations forces in Lebanon, that terribly troubled country. Most recently, we have provided the signals staff for the United Nations transition assistance group in Namibia. Despite serving in conditions of virtual turmoil in this case, British personnel are highly regarded for the work they have done.
It has become clear that one of the main issues exercising the House—and that can be judged by the contributions of many of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members—is the question of the Gurkhas. My hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill), in particular, spoke feelingly and forcefully about that. I hope that tomorrow, hon. Members will reread what my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces had to say at the beginning of the debate about the Gurkhas. The hon. Member for Clackmannan raised the question of the future of the Brigade of Gurkhas and the current position in China. The Government are well aware of our security obligations to Hong Kong.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces made it clear that no reductions in Gurkhas would be made before 1992 and that no decision on the matter need be taken until well into next year. Surely that is the way to look at the statements made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in the House about the future of the Gurkhas. As he himself said, the figure of 4,000 is a minimum. Surely what is significant—this is a point to which insufficient importance has been given tonight—is that the brigade structure will remain and all the Gurkha regiments will be intact. If that is encouraging to the President of the Gurkha Association, my hon. Friends and other hon. Members might also take encouragement from it. We are talking of some years ahead, not next month or next year. A commitment has been given not only to 4,000 men, but to the brigade structure of the Gurkhas. Surely that should be some reassurance to my hon. Friends and others tonight.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) spoke about the Vietnamese boat people—another tragic problem which has intensified in recent weeks. We are seeking to assist in a number of ways in 456 Hong Kong. Troops of the Hong Kong garrison have already erected several temporary tented holding camps for the boat people. We are providing stocks of tents, water and water purification equipment, which are being used to help to set up these facilities. Troops are currently building a large tented camp to house Vietnamese boat people at Sek Kong military airfield.
Another issue mentioned in a number of speeches, notably that of my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer) was the question of helicopters I repeat that the Government fully recognise the importance of helicopters on the battlefield. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces said in his opening speech, our development of this capability continues. I shall not repeat my hon. Friend's remarks about our existing plans for improvement. The key point is that we should ensure that the balance of systems is for the destruction of armour is maintained. Helicopters and tanks both have a role to play, as we and our allies recognise.
I agree that helicopters are of considerable use out of area but, as with other equipment, our priority must be to meet NATO requirements while building in the flexibility necessary for out-of-area operations where appropriate.
The command and control of helicopters has recently been studied by the Ministry of Defence and it has been concluded that no significant changes should be made to the current arrangements.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West described helicopters as "low-flying tanks". As the House knows, one of my responsibilities is for low-flying training, so the concept of low-flying tanks did not immediately fill me with enthusiasm, in that context at least.
§ Mr. Cohen
The Minister referred to command and control and said that he did not think that there was any need to change the arrangements for the communications system. One problem is that the system cannot distinguish between friend and foe. Does not the Minister think that that makes it worth altering?
§ Mr. Neubert
I think that the hon. Gentleman is on another point. It might be better for him and the House if I moved on to my next subject, which is training.
To maintain the level of professionalism that we have all come to expect from the British Army it is necessary that training is as effective and realistic as possible; exercises are vital in that respect. In 1988 Exercise Iron Hammer, which took place in Lower Saxony, involved 3 Armoured Division together with some 3,300 regular arid Territorial Army personnel from the United Kingdom.
In the United Kingdom there was a series of military home defence exercises in the autumn. These tested our preparation to defend ports, airfields and other facilities, essential to our ability to sustaining war on the continental mainland, and the exercises involved not only Regulars from all three services, but Regular reserves, the TA and the Home Service Force.
In the United Kingdom, the Army needs large areas of land for training. We are determined to ensure that the size of the defence estate is kept to the minimum necessary to support the armed forces and, where possible, we take steps to rationalise our holdings and to dispose of land that is no longer essential to our purposes. Nevertheless, our current holdings cannot satisfy fully the training needs 457 of the Army and we must continue to acquire additional land for training, usually by extending existing training areas.
Why do we need the land? All soldiers require the use of small arms ranges and local training areas within easy reach of their barracks, and large areas of land are needed for exercising whole units or groups of units. Modern weapons require larger danger areas than before to accommodate their greater range and power and new tactics for increasingly mobile units demand wider areas of land over which to conduct realistic manoeuvres.
We are assessing carefully the scope for using computer weapon simulation techniques but, although the introduction of weapon simulators can help to develop individual military skills and reduce some of the pressures on training land, they can never replace the need for training in the field in conditions resembling those that might be encountered in war. Moreover, simulators do not remove the need for soldiers to handle and fire the real weapons that they would use in battle.
In his opening speech, my hon. Friend described the positive response that the Army was making to the challenge posed by the demographic trough—a recurring theme of today's debate. I make no apology, therefore, for returning to the subject. The Army is by far the most manpower-intensive of the three services, employing roughly as many as the other two put together. The message that I should like to leave with the House—especially my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates)—is that we are not planning to fail. We need to ensure that resources are deployed to maximum efficiency in order to meet the manpower challenges of the next decade and beyond.
In deference to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth Drake (Dame J. Fookes) perhaps I should add the word "womanpower". We take seriously the wider role of women in the armed forces. We noted my hon. Friend's reference to women being assigned to combat roles in the Church of England. Being Conservatives on this as on other matters, we hope that that was not her bid for a bishopric—although, if it came to it, I think that she would make a very good bishop.
Pay and conditions of service play a vital part in ensuring that sufficient manpower of the right quality can be recruited and retained. The Government accepted in full the recommendations of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body both in 1988 and 1989. We also announced during last year major changes to the allowances paid to members of the armed forces, designed to ensure that they are up to date, cost effective and appropriate to the needs of service life. The policy is to encourage accompanied service, and the package of allowances, of which I will say more in a moment, reflects that policy.
Turbulence is an inescapable feature of army life. But this can on occasion conflict with family responsibilities. In an era when so many women, including Army wives, quite rightly expect to pursue careers of their own, there can be difficulties. We have devoted quite a lot of time recently to thinking how we can accommodate this change in expectations.
That brings me to the major topic of housing that was mentioned by so many of my hon. Friends, and in 458 particular by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) who has made it very much his personal campaign.
Difficult choices can arise for the individual who will naturally want his family with him but who will also, like his civilian counterpart, want to become a home owner. We recognised these difficulties in last year's review of armed forces allowances when we introduced the home owner's relocation package.
Under these arrangements, a service man living in his own house who decides to move home when posted to a new station some distance away is reimbursed the cost of estate agent's and legal fees up to a maximum, at present, of £2,500. In addition, he will be entitled to removal at public expense and to receive disturbance allowance. Equally, those who prefer not to relocate their home but elect to let their houses and move into married quarters are entitled to financial help with the costs of tenancy arrangements. These changes represent significant improvements to the conditions of service of the service man and woman.
We also offer surplus married quarters for sale to service men at a 30 per cent. discount. This has proved popular and since the scheme's inception in 1983, nearly 2,000 married quarters have been sold under these arrangements and a further 440 sales are in the pipeline. Clearly there is a finite number of surplus married quarters that can become available but we shall continue as long as possible to identify and release surplus quarters for disposal in this way.
The Army has also been considering other ways in which it can assist its personnel to enter the housing market. At the beginning of the year, we launched the buy, let and settle options which have been developed by private companies in conjunction with the Army and are designed to meet the specific needs of Army personnel. Under these schemes, service men will be offered a comprehensive package which will include help with finding a suitable property arranging mortgages and, when appropriate, making arrangements for property management and tenancy agreements. While these schemes do not necessarily meet everyone's requirements, they do, nevertheless, offer a useful and welcome service, particularly to the service man stationed abroad.
We have also been giving serious consideration to the establishment of a scheme to house ex-service men through the medium of housing associations in order to address the difficulties arising from the contraction of council housing stock to which reference has been made. We are currently looking at two sites in the south of England which might be suitable for a trial scheme, and are obtaining external advice on how such a trial might be taken forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury and others have made suggestions as to how the current position might be improved. As my hon. Friend said, we have had discussions with him. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has played an enthusiastic part in those discussions and we have been considering a number of different measures. We are attracted to a scheme in which service men, who are not home owners because of the mobility required of them by their service career, might benefit from a saving scheme linked to the eventual purchase of a property. But there are a number of detailed considerations and a great deal of work to be undertaken before a scheme of this kind can be established.
459 From what I have said, I hope the House will agree that there is a considerable degree of assistance already provided to assist Army personnel with their housing requirements. We shall continue to examine ways in which we can provide further assistance in this area.
§ Mr. Neubert
Of course, I shall hope to write to all hon. Members whose points have not been answered in my closing speech.
I shall return to the theme of recruitment and retention, which has played such an important part in the debate, and talk about the Army career. With the clock ticking against me, I can only allow myself the very shortest time in which to do this. I would say, however, and I am sure that I would be joined in this by all hon. Members, that life in the Army remains a fine career. We commend it to young men and women now and through the 1990s.
§ It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.