HC Deb 03 March 1992 vol 205 cc147-50
4. Mr. Loyden

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a further statement on "Options for Change".

Mr. Tom King

The "Options for Change" exercise was completed in July 1990. Since then, we have been concerned with implementing proposals to create the structure for "Britain's Defence for the '90s". The House is aware of a number of recent announcements, particularly for new equipment, to ensure that our forces, though smaller, will be more flexible, more mobile and better equipped than ever before.

Mr. Loyden

Does the Secretary of State recognise that the Government's inaction on this matter has resulted in "Options for Change" being a shambles? There has been no positive action to give hope to those communities and workers involved with the defence industry. The Government have failed to take the opportunities before them. Will we have to wait for a Labour Government before positive action is taken? [Interruption.]

Mr. King

I apologise, Mr. Speaker, I do not usually have by breath taken away. But for the hon. Member to make such a statement, particularly today when, if I catch your eye, I shall make a statement about equipment procurement for our forces, leaves me breathless. I have made statements from the Dispatch Box announcing new tanks, new helicopters, new frigates, and new packages for the air force, our amphibious forces and our commandos. We have made our policies absolutely clear, not just by asserting that we have it in mind to take action, but by stating what we have planned and by making announcements for new equipment and new forces. I also hope to have something more to say on the reserves, which is an important development. For the hon. Gentleman to have the nerve to ask such a question when he was undoubtedly one of those who voted successively for large cuts in our defence expenditure, is mind-boggling.

Sir Jim Spicer

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that our infantry is second to none in the world. Does he also agree that a large part of the excellence stems from the fact that its members have the right training from day one, when they join the armed forces? Will he make certain that, in no circumstances, will there be an mismatch in terms of that basic training? Will he ensure that any suggestion of parachute recruits going to Lichfield to train with Royal Army Medical Corps recruits of both genders would be ruled out of court immediately?

Mr. King

My hon. Friend is ever vigilant of the interests of the parachute regiment. I do not think that anybody seriously believes that we can get much legislation passed in the House without his close observance and approval of it. We are looking at the training arrangements and are anxious to ensure that our future forces receive the best and most relevant forms of training in the most efficient and cost-effective way. There may be further announcements shortly.

Rev. Martin Smyth

While welcoming the briefing that is continually taking place, may I press the Secretary of State to bear in mind that the reserve forces are always an important aspect of our national forces? In an earlier reply he suggested that in Northern Ireland, those who wanted to volunteer for the Territorial Army Volunteer Reserve could volunteer for some other service. Does he accept that some people prefer to prepare for international emergencies and not necessarily be involved in the local scene? Will he bear that in mind as he considers further recruitment for the TAVR in Northern Ireland?

Mr. King

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. He will recall that when I made the announcement about the TA I made the point that even with the proposed changes the people of Northern Ireland will enjoy some of the best opportunities in the United Kingdom to take part in TA service. There are changes—the numbers were exceptionally high, as the hon. Gentleman graphically indicated just now—but still no one could claim that Northern Ireland was badly placed in respect of our proposals.

Mr. Cormack

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the anxiety that still persists in Staffordshire about the fate of the Staffordshire regiment is not mere local and parochial concern but is based on a wider concern for the strength of the infantry? Can he say anything this afternoon that will enable me to reassure my very worried constituents?

Mr. King

I entirely sympathise with the feelings described by my hon. Friend. I was met by a very respectful group of Gordon Highlanders when I visted Aberdeen recently, when I said that I would have been on the line as well had I been in their position.

We have made our plans; they involve change; they involve striking a balance. The Army has reached its decisions. My hon. Friend is concerned about what the strength of the infantry will be in three years' time. We are steadily working towards the plans that we set out. which we believe are right. Were the world to change significantly, we would of course have to look at them again.

I do not want to be misunderstood. We have no plans to change: we believe that these proposals are right. We believe in smaller but better, which means a choice between the numbers of people and the quality of the equipment that they can enjoy. My hon. Friend will concede that we have more than lived up to our promise that our Army of the future, as the Select Committee report said, will be outstandingly well equipped. We intend that to apply to the Navy and to the Air Force as well.

Dr. Reid

The Secretary of State pointed out in his last answer that on 21 February he expressed sympathy with some of the supporters of the regiments, and he said that he would have been standing outside under the same banners. He did not mention, however, that his answer on the same occasion made it absolutely clear that the proposed regimental cuts would proceed irrespective of the findings of the Defence Select Committee report. How could the Secretary of State dismiss so lightly and in advance a report which had not even been written at that date? Is not that a discourtesy to the Select Committee, which is made up mainly of Conservative Back Benchers? Will it not be regarded by them and by the regiments as an admission that he is unable to justify on security grounds the cuts that he has made?

Mr. King

Is the hon. Gentleman quoting a newspaper report on this matter? If that is the report to which he is referring, when asked how I would react to a Select Committee report I said that it would depend on what it said. It is not mandatory on any Government or Minister automatically to accept every Select Committee report. We will respond constructively; if we believe that the report's criticisms are right and constructive, we will take them into account. If we disagree with them, we will say so in the most courteous and, I hope, respectful way we can.

Mr. Robert Hicks

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the high degree of dependence of the Plymouth travel-to-work area on defence-related activity? Does he agree that it is therefore essential that the area be involved meaningfully in future in our nuclear submarine programme and in the Devonport-based surface ships?

Mr. King

Not only am I aware of that dependence; I am aware of the debt that we owe the area and of the real contribution made by the people of Plymouth to the Royal Navy and the Royal Marine Commandos, among other units involved. They would be the first to show their appreciation.

We have made it absolutely clear that we are determined that Plymouth should have a good future. I do not want to go into detail now, but that is certain. How good that future is will depend in part on the performance of the dockyard, which is competing right now. I hope that the dockyard will be in a position to make a significant contribution to the work in future—our budget provides for that. Indeed, we are the only party to have made the financial provision to ensure that that happens.

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