HC Deb 23 November 1993 vol 233 cc318-20
10. Mr. Simon Hughes

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what plans he has to initiate a full-scale review of the United Kingdom's defence commitments; and if he will make a statement.

12. Mr. Olner

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what discussions he has had with his North Atlantic Treaty Organisation counterparts concerning a British defence review.

Mr. Rifkind

I have no plans to initiate a defence review and therefore have not discussed the matter with our allies.

Mr. Hughes

None the less, will the Secretary of State review that part of Britain's security that would be affected if we were to go ahead with the nuclear waste reprocessing plant at Sellafield in the light of a recent Pentagon report that said that, if we were to go ahead, it would put other countries within days of acquiring the nuclear bomb? Will the Secretary of State consider whether a British decision to go ahead is compatible with the statement in the Queen's Speech that we are against nuclear proliferation and increasing the risks of it occurring?

Mr. Rifkind

The report to which the hon. Gentleman refers was not a Pentagon report, but a report by a private company that was presented to the Pentagon.

The hon. Gentleman also refers to the matter of plutonium processing by the thermal oxide reprocessing plant, if that were approved. It is our intention that any plutonium that is processed will be made available only to countries that are signatories to the non-proliferation treaty and meet the International Atomic Energy Agency's guidelines. I believe that the plutonium in question could not in practice be adapted to nuclear use without considerable expense and difficulty.

Mr. Olner

Surely the Secretary of State will recognise that it is gross negligence on the part of the Government—[HON. MEMBERS: "Reading."]—not to match the resources and capabilities of our armed forces—[HON. MEMBERS: "Reading."]—with their commitments? Perhaps if Conservative Members would listen instead of chanting, "Reading", they would understand that the defence of this nation is most important.

It is grossly incompetent of the Government not to recognise that a full defence review of the capabilities of our armed forces is needed. When will the Government recognise that America is now turning towards the Pacific rim as its sphere of influence, and that that will leave a gaping vacuum within the Atlantic area? When will the Secretary of State look at our commitments, introduce a defence review and do something for defence of this country?

Mr. Rifkind

I have always understood that whenever the Labour party calls for a defence review it is because it does not have the faintest idea what defence policy it would like to propose. Whenever the Labour party is asked to state what it believes should be the ingredients of a Labour Government's defence policy, it simply parrots the phrase, "We must have a defence review." That proposal is simply an attempt to mask the nakedness of the party's own thought, and should therefore be treated with derision.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

May I reduce the temperature in the House, Madam Speaker? Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the military band is one of the successes of this country's armed services' tradition? Does he further accept that the cut in military bands by some 56 per cent. and in the number of bandsmen by 43 per cent. is causing concern? Will he review the decision, which has apparently been taken, to do away with regimental military bands? Do not those bands bring tremendous benefits, not only to individual regiments but to the morale of the people of this country?

Mr. Rifkind

I share with my hon. Friend the view that regimental bands can make an important contribution to the morale and the motivation of our armed forces. He will be aware that the background to the review that was announced some time ago was that the vast majority of such bands were greatly under strength because of their inability to recruit to their ranks. We have therefore proposed an alternative system of regimental bands which, while reducing the number of bands, will enable their links with regiments to be maintained in a credible and effective fashion.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn

Will my right hon. and learned Friend remind the Opposition that, of the hundreds of millions of people who died in war in his and my lifetime, almost all were killed by conventional, and not nuclear, weapons?

Will my right hon. and learned Friend also please save the Gordon Highlanders—founded by my ancestors—from amalgamation?

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. and learned Friend is undoubtedly correct to emphasise and to remind the House that conventional weapons can cause many millions of deaths, as we have seen to our cost throughout the centuries.

With regard to the latter part of my hon. and learned Friend's question, I believe that the Gordon Highlanders is a fine regiment. I believe that it will continue to have a proud identiy when it merges with the Queen's Own Highlanders. The process of amalgamation can be taken forward in a way that will enable both regiments to preserve much of their identities, as has occurred with previous amalgamations in previous years.

Dr. Reid

The irony of the Secretary of State accusing anyone of lacking planning, forethought and strategy in defence will not be lost on the people who serve in the British armed forces. Does not the MOD now have three sets of statistics—one to deceive the public, one to deceive Parliament and one to deceive itself? When will the Secretary of State accept that he cannot keep increasing our forces' commitments while reducing their resources at the same time?

Before the right hon. and learned Gentleman tells us that we have got it wrong, does he recall that we told him that he would cancel the tactical air-to-surface missile? He said no, but he has done so. Does he recall that we told him that he had too few regiments? He said no, but then reinstated them. We told him that he could do without nuclear testing. Although he said no, he has now admitted that we could. We told him to back a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. He said no, but has now done so. We told him that we needed more infantry. He said no, but we now have them.

Today we are telling him that he needs a defence review. Why does he not stop wasting everyone's time and accept that we and the British armed forces are right and that we need a full comprehensive defence review?

Mr. Rifkind

If the hon. Gentleman wants to carry credibility with his expostulations, he should remember that when the Labour Government left office they left our armed forces with their poorest morale at any time since 1945. Recruitment to our armed forces was in a parlous state and, as usual, it required a Conservative Government to restore the armed forces' confidence in the Government.

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