HC Deb 11 March 1991 vol 187 cc783-90

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Patnick.]

11.32 pm
Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

The Ministry of Defence is properly reviewing the structure, personnel and assets of the three armed services in the light of envisaged defence needs, following the ending of the cold war and the reunification of Germany.

This evening I wish to draw attention to the concern in Scotland about the speculation which has been rife over the future of Scotland's regiments and military bases. In an early-day motion I drew attention to the fact that, in the 300 years since the Act of Union, Scotland has contributed massively towards the British armed forces. Scottish regiments have a record of being in the thick of battle in defence of our British national interests. I also drew attention to the fact that the vast majority of Scots have welcomed the many military bases located in Scotland.

The points that I wish to make this evening are political, economic and strategic. The Ministry of Defence should reject the current conventional wisdom that the United Kingdom no longer needs to maintain a viable, European theatre, credible, conventional and nuclear deterrent capability. The idea is that somehow there is a peace dividend that will produce massive cuts in the defence budget and substantial reductions in manpower and equipment. The conventional wisdom was wrong about the Falklands and out-of-theatre naval operations. Thanks to the existence of the through-deck cruiser, now known as the mini-aircraft carrier, and the Harrier aircraft, linked to the skill and courage of our professional military, the politicians' chestnuts were pulled out of the fire and the Falklands were retaken.

Conventional wisdom was also wrong about the middle east, and was again spectacularly wrong about Iraq and the Gulf. Does anyone seriously believe that the United Nations will not look again to the United States and Britain for military support to prevent further military aggression; or that in this dangerous and unstable world, we shall not again be forced to act militarily to defend our national interests; or that a nuclear-capable and politically unstable Soviet Union may not be more dangerous than a stable cold-war Soviet Union? Can we ever be sure that the Soviet military, which has transferred more tanks than the British Army possesses to the Soviet navy in an attempt to circumvent conventional arms treaties, may not be tempted to indulge in risking military adventures against democratic neighbouring states or former COMECON states, even if only to divert attention from its domestic problems?

Events in the Gulf have clearly shown that our Community partners cannot be guaranteed to make common cause against a dictator, even when the dictator, as in the Gulf, is threatening vital European interests. At first, Germany was against the United Nations moves, while France and Italy, at the beginning, can best be described as having dithered and wobbled. Belgium's refusal to co-operate and supply ammunition demonstrat-ed that common weapons and ammunition are of 'value only when they are available. Belgium's refusal was a poor reward for our having freed that country twice this century, and it contrasted badly with the ready United States assistance given to the United Kingdom during the Falklands war.

I believe that there is sufficient evidence to show that, instead of making defence cuts, we should invest in new technology and smart weapons. We cannot ignore the low casualties and the importance of aerial supremacy, linked to control of the sea lanes, which produced a massive military victory in the Gulf.

There are sound military and British reasons for changing "Options for Change" to "Options for Improvement and Capability". Such a policy would call for modern, flexible, out-of-theatre rapid deployment forces, with a European conventional and nuclear capability. There are also sound strategic and economic reasons, as well as military reasons, for maintaining Scotland's military bases and regiments. General Schwarzkopf is reported to have told the Jocks that the Gulf war could not have been successfully concluded without them. The Prime Minister said in Scotland last week that the Jocks were in the Gulf because they were the best troops to do the job.

One lesson of the Gulf is that modern, highly trained professional soldiers can be in battle in battalions made up from a number of different regiments. I hope, however, that that important experience will not lead Ministers into making the mistake of believing that regimental loyalties and traditions are no longer important in battle conditions. First, commanders must have troops from different regiments under their command. Consequently, in peace time, recruitment and retention are essential ingredients if adequate wartime numbers of professional and trained troops are to be available. In that respect, Scotland's regiments have a contribution to make as their record of recruitment and retention is of the best. If one excludes periods such as last year, when recruitment was frozen the Scottish regiments have always been able to find enough recruits of the right quality. If mixed battalions are to be used, it is better to reinforce success and to keep the regiments with the best records of recruitment and retention.

There is an old military axiom, "back success", and that axiom will apply even if the cavalry of the future operates helicopters instead of tanks or if the mechanised mobile infantry go into battle in helicopters instead of armoured personnel carriers.

My message is simple—back success. Cap badges and traditions, coupled with local community support, will be even more important in the future. If we keep Scotland's regiments, we shall keep Britain's ability to respond to unplanned-for military needs. My hon. Friend the Minister has a good Scottish name and it will not be lost on him that the very existence of the unique Scottish regiments will contribute greatly to maintaining the Union. That Union is constantly under threat from narrow nationalist and socialist nationalist political activists—some in this House. For that reason alone, we should not abandon the regiments, and we should have no truck with the conventional thinking that claims that we no longer need the regiments in a modern professional Army.

I cannot envisage a British Army without the highland and lowland regiments. I cannot imagine circumstances when there would be no Black Watch, Gordons, Royal Scots, Argylls or King's Own Scottish Borderers—the list of regiments is endless. Their absence would be unthinkable, as it would mean no Union, no Britain, no future for us from north of the border in the House.

The Royal Air Force bases in Scotland made a great contribution to the Gulf air force. Leuchars, Lossiemouth and Kinloss all made their respective contributions with the Tornado, Jaguar, Nimrod and Buccaneer. The various helicopter and RAF regiment units also played a distinguished part in the Gulf war and less well-known bases contributed specialist contingents to the Gulf.

I trust that the lessons of the success of all three versions of the Tornado aircraft will not be lost on the Government. Although all the aircraft and crews made their own unique contributions, the Tornado made a particular one. Aerial supremacy was achieved first by the low-level sorties of the GR1. That supremacy was maintained by a mix of low and medium-level attacks against airfields and radar sites.

The Tornado crews vindicated the need for low-level practice missions throughout Scotland's glens. Many such exercises take place in glens in my constituency, but my hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that I have never criticised the need for low flying.

We owe a massive debt to the RAF air crews. I remind my hon. Friend that RAF pilots who are able to execute battle sorties cannot be produced at the drop of a hat. It is important to remember that a pool of experienced, combat-capable pilots and air crews are essential for more than just low-level flying.

In that respect, search-and-rescue crews must also be available and capable of operating behind enemy lines. Privatised search and rescue crews would not and could not be available for such tasks. There may be short-term financial arguments in favour of such privatisation, but there are even more compelling strategic reasons for maintaining an RAF and Royal Navy search-and-rescue capability. Is it not about time that the Wessex flight at Leuchars was re-equipped with the all-weather Sea Kings?

I should also mention the contribution made by the royal naval helicopter workshop in my constituency. The Almondbank workshop may not be well known outside the Royal Navy or Perthshire, but it has a work force of highly skilled and highly motivated people who made an important contribution to Royal Navy helicopter serviceability and availability.

I should also mention the Royal Marine base at Cawdor. The home of 45 Royal Marine Commando is also an important base in Tayside, and the people of Angus welcome the continuing existence of the base.

My hon. Friend the Minister will not be surprised to hear me speak next of Rosyth naval base. The leaks about the future of that base were at best disturbing and at worst a kick in the teeth for the crews of the minehunter flotilla that performed so magnificently in the Gulf. It is no secret that the Rosyth mine-hunters were the only effective mine-hunters in the Gulf. Without them, the United Nations coalition naval force would not have been able to operate in the northern Gulf, and that would have had profound consequences on the conduct of the campaign.

I trust that my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Ministry of Defence will accept that we in Scotland do not believe that it is sensible—militarily, politically or economically—to contemplate closing the base. Instead, Ministers should be arguing the strategic importance of location, the economic importance to central Scotland and the political contribution to maintaining the union through the continuing operation of the base.

I understand that different studies have shown that savings can be made simply by a reallocation of responsibilities and a reduction in staffing levels, leading to as big a saving as would be achieved by putting the base into care and maintenance. During this short debate, I do not have the time to deal in depth with the huge pile of facts which show that the Government would be unwise to contemplate closing Rosyth.

This is an argument not between the Labour and Scottish National party Members of Parliament and a Tory Government, but between the political logic of recognising the contribution made by the Scots to the maintenance of the union through Scotland's regiments and military bases. It is politically unwise to ask the Scots, who represent 9 per cent. of the population, to accept the presence of nuclear-capable submarines in the Clyde and the Forth and also to accept the loss of regiments and bases, when their contribution both in personnel and bases has always been well in excess of the 9 per cent. That fact was recognised by the Prime Minister on his recent visit to Scotland.

Let me make my position crystal clear. I accept that there must be change, that modern, smart weapons are expensive, that we may require smaller, more technically capable armed forces, and that highly complex weapons platforms, be they ships, tanks or aircraft—fixed wing or rotary wing—will probably call for a radical change of procurement policy and maintenance. This in turn will call for greater specialisation, both in bases and the rationalisation of suppliers. In many instances, there will be no opportunity to obtain competitive tenders and Rosyth, for example, could become a minehunter and fishery protection specialist base with another base, say, specialising in aircraft carriers and another in nuclear submarines.

I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will see that I expect them to reject the original "Options For Change" and instead to argue for a military capability based on recent. real, hot war experience—not on political or military theory, but on the realities and logistics of moving, deploying, supplying and, in the end, of fighting a war with smart weapons and the latest technology. Scotland has a contribution to make. We want to make that contribution both in the regular forces and in the territorial reserves and the auxiliary forces. At a later date, I hope to be able to enlarge on that. We shall fight to retain our regiments and bases. There are no soft options, and the Scottish Conservative party, of which I am a vice-chairman, is determined to maintain the unique Scottish contribution to the armed forces, because we recognise its value to the Union and to Scotland's economy.

11.49 pm
Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

I warmly support what my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) has said. It is an interesting coincidence that, in the 1960s, I initiated an Adjournment debate with a view to saving the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. We won that battle, and I hope that we are setting out to ensure that the remaining Scottish regiments retain their full position. My family has a long relationship with the highland regiments—a relationship stretching over many generations. Tonight, I speak for all the Scottish regiments, including the King's Own Scottish Borderers —my constituency regiment.

When the "Options for Change" were announced, I urged caution. Later, I asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to pause while the international situation was so involved and so uncertain. It seemed to be quite the wrong time to proceed with a major reorganisation of our services. Certainly, we want to see some peace dividend, but we must proceed carefully. I think that all Members of Parliament want to have some influence on the "Options for Change". We know that work is going on apace, and we are very concerned about it. Positions are being taken up, and before we know what is happening, announcements will be made and the machinery will swing into motion.

We have seven battalions in Scotland, plus, of course, the Scots Guards. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North said, they are the best recruited in the Army. The Scottish regiments have a particular family tradition. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will recall the sad event at Brize Norton on Friday to honour the three young Jocks brought home from the Gulf—three soldiers who had very close family connections with the Queen's Own Highlanders, one of the most distinguished regiments.

I hope that my hon. Friend will bear in mind the training situation in Scotland. We have only Glen Corse. If we lose it, we shall be left with Ouston, near Newcastle. It is very important that Scottish recruits should be able to go to a training depot in Scotland.

I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North said about Royal Air Force and Royal Navy facilities in Scotland—with particular emphasis on Rosyth. We often hear that 15 to 20 battalions may have to go. Is it to be a question of equal misery, or are certain regiments to be chosen, and the situation to be worked out on the basis of merit and recruiting standards? We could probably get rid of 15 battalions without losing a cap badge. Sadly, that may mean losing some of the Gurkhas and the second battalion of the Guards Brigade. In that situation, we should not be far from achieving the reduction that seems to be required.

But it would be a sad reward for magnificent service in the Gulf if our soldiers were to come home and find that some of their regiments were to be disbanded or amalgamated. There would be serious political and military consequences. We should not underestimate the effect in Scotland of a drastic reduction. It would have a serious impact on morale and on the effectiveness of our services. I ask my hon. Friend to proceed with the greatest caution and the maximum consultation.

11.53 pm
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) on securing this debate and on raising this issue. I welcome the opportunity to reassert the continuing importance of Scotland to the operational effectiveness and support of the armed forces. The Scottish people have a long association with our armed forces—a tradition of which they have every right to be proud. I should like first to outline the range of defence activities undertaken by the three services in Scotland. I shall then, insofar as it is possible at this stage of our work on "Options for Change", say something about the future, which is, of course, the principal concern in this debate.

Recent events in the Gulf are stilt very much in our minds. Scotland has made a significant contribution to the international community's campaign to liberate Kuwait. I hope that there will be time, later in my speech, to describe something of the scale, breadth and quality of the effort devoted by service and civilian personnel both to meeting operational emergencies such as the Gulf conflict and to discharging a wide range of peacetime tasks.

Starting, as is traditional, with the Royal Navy, at the Clyde submarine base at Faslane, the contribution of the work force towards ensuring that we have been able to maintain at least one of our Polaris submarines on patrol since 1969 cannot be overestimated. It is a task that it will continue to fulfil when Trident replaces Polaris in the mid-1990s. The work force also provides invaluable support to a number of nuclear and conventionally powered submarines which operate from the Clyde base. The building work that has been going on at both Coulport and Faslane comprises one of the largest construction projects in western Europe, which must have brought inestimable benefit to that part of Scotland.

On the east coast, Rosyth naval base currently serves as the home port for a squadron of destroyers as well as for most of the Navy's minor war vessel flotilla, which carry out a myriad tasks, including mine counter-measures and fisheries protection.

Aside from the two naval bases and the royal dockyard at Rosyth, Scotland also supports the Navy by providing bases for the Marines and the Reserves, armaments, stores and fuel depots, training and research establishments and the naval air station at HMS Gannet. Scotland therefore makes a full and varied contribution to all aspects of naval operations.

As for the Army, Scottish regiments are among the oldest in the United Kingdom. Two good examples of the strength and length of this tradition are the Scots Guards, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) referred, which can trace its history back to 1642, and the Royal Scots, the First of Foot, originally raised in 1633, which is the senior British infantry regiment. Scottish regiments have distinguished themselves in battle time and again for over 300 years, from Waterloo and the Crimea—where the Sutherland Highlanders formed the thin red line—to the major campaigns of both world wars.

All Scottish regiments have elements on operational tours at the moment. Indeed, 72 per cent. of the Scottish divisions' manpower is currently on operations. For example, the 1st Battalion the Gordon Highlanders returned from Ulster last December and is at present the spearhead battalion, which means that it is on reduced notice for worldwide deployment. Both the 1st Battalion the Royal Highland Fusiliers and the 1st Battalion the Queen's Own Highlanders are on their second operational tour in Ulster in under 12 months.

The Royal Air Force is strongly represented in Scotland, with four main bases. It was no surprise to me that my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North macle reference to that. With its two squadrons of Tornado F3 aircraft, RAF Leuchars has long played an important role in the air defence of the United Kingdom. Since the 1970s, RAF Kinloss has been home to three squadrons of Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft, carrying out antisubmarine and anti-surface shipping roles. RAF Lossiemouth has two squadrons of Buccaneer maritime strike attack aircraft and the Shackleton airborne early warning squadron. Lastly, RAF Buchan, in conjunction with the facilities at Benbecula and Saxa Vord, provides ground-based air defence radar coverage for Scotland and the area to the north of the United Kingdom mainland.

As for the future, I am of course aware of the strength of feeling attaching to the options for change work announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State last July. I recall that when it was necessary in 1968 to announce a reorganisation of the structure of the Army, the reaction of Scottish Members showed clearly that Scotland is fiercely jealous of its regiments, and rightly so. I assure the House that Scottish regiments will get the same fairness and impartiality of treatment that will be given to all units in the British Army when we plan for change.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State told the House during the Gulf debate on 21 January, we are continuing to study the broad proposals for change with our allies. In view of the collapse of communism in eastern Europe and the end of the cold war, it remains our intention to move towards the new force structures by the mid-1990s. However, we are not yet in a position to take final decisions on the size and shape of the armed forces. I wish to make it clear that, contrary to recent speculation in the press and elsewhere, no decisions have yet been taken regarding Scottish regiments, or indeed any other regiments.

Of course, we are still examining the scope for rationalisation, especially in the support area—for example, a study is under way into the possible closure of Rosyth naval base, but I must emphasise that here again no decision has been taken. The whole range of fleet support activities is being examined as part of the restructuring of the Royal Navy under "Options for Change". There should be no doubt that we need to achieve substantial savings in support costs if we are to sustain appropriate force levels. The present round of studies should be completed shortly, and their recommen-dations will obviously need to be considered carefully before any decision is made.

Initial work showed that the closure of Rosyth naval base might contribute significantly to the support savings for which we are looking under options. Further work into the implications of closure was therefore Commissioned to provide some of the evidence needed for an informed decision. In reaching a decision, we shall wish to consider all relevant factors, including the post-options force levels, the MOD's financial position, strategic and operational requirements and the implications for employment, the local economy and naval and civilian personnel.

Final decisions on options for change will depend on many factors, including lessons learned in the Gulf, discussions with our NATO allies and developments in our relationship with the Soviet Union. I am sure that the House will understand that we need to draw the correct lessons from the Gulf conflict, assess the risks remaining elsewhere in the world and plan carefully for cautious and measured change.

I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the significant contribution which Scotland has made to the successful participation by our forces in the international community's campaign to liberate Kuwait.

The five Royal Navy mine counter-measures vessels, HMS Hurworth, Cattistock, Atherstone, Dulverton and Ledbury, which have played a leading role in countering the mining threat to allied ships in the northern Gulf, are all based at Rosyth. Their success is in no small part due to those at the base who helped in preparing the ships for this difficult and dangerous task in a very short time. The naval supply and transport office at Rosyth, the armament depots at Crombie and Beith and the NATO armaments depot at Glen Douglas have all given superb support to forces in the Gulf through the efficient provision of armaments, food, fuel and general naval stores.

Scottish regiments were well represented in the Gulf, although I have seen some rather exaggerated estimates in early-day motions and in the press. They provided Challenger tanks and M109 guns for 7th Armoured Brigade, Warrior armoured infantry fighting vehicles for 4th Brigade and manpower for special tasks such as casualty evacuation, handling of prisoners of war and reinforcement of field hospitals. We estimate that about 9 per cent. of the total of Regular Army soldiers who served in the Gulf were from Scottish regiments. Of course, not everyone serving in a Scottish regiment is necessarily Scottish, and the figure of 9 per cent. does not take account of the fact that many other personnel of Scottish origin will also have served in the Gulf in units with no specific ties to Scotland such as the Royal Engineers or the Royal Corps of Transport.

I emphasise that the strong representation from Scotland was purely coincidental——

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at two minutes past Twelve o'clock.