§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Conway.]3.38 pm
§ The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Jeremy Hanley)
At a time when pictures of Army personnel are seldom out of the papers or off the television screens, I very much welcome the opportunity to debate their role. I do not need to remind the House that the Army continues to be heavily engaged in operations throughout the world. I am sure that all hon. Members will wish to join me in paying tribute to the quiet professionalism of Army personnel in the many difficult environments in which they find themselves.
I have no doubt that there will be references during the debate to the defence costs study, especially following recent media speculation. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement intends to report in his closing speech on the progress of the defence costs study, but it may help if I remind the House now that it is not aimed at reducing our military capability or our commitments. Its real aim is encapsulated in the alternative title of "Front Line First".
As my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State explained when he announced the study at the beginning of December, we were confident that a radical review of our support and management arrangements could produce the required savings without reducing our military capabilities or effectiveness. The defence costs study was intended to confirm that and to develop specific proposals, and I believe that it is now in sight of both objectives. That is a tremendous achievement by all concerned. But I remind the House that any further comment about individual items would be pure speculation, as no ministerial decisions have yet been taken. A full report will be made to the House by the Secretary of State in July.
The operations of the British Army in Bosnia and in Northern Ireland are often conducted in the glare of media interest. Many other operational deployments, often involving hardship and danger, take place unnoticed and unsung. I should like to give three examples.
In July last year, major flooding in Nepal killed more than 1,000 people and destroyed many roads and bridges. Katmandu was almost completely cut off from the outside world— the source of all its food and fuel. In response to a request from the Nepalese Government, we deployed a squadron of Queen's Gurkha engineers, who erected three major bridges and successfully reopened communication links.
Also last year, British elements of the United Nations force in Cambodia were caught up in a number of serious incidents orchestrated by the Khmer Rouge in the run-up to the successful elections. Actions by British Army personnel were recognised in the recent gallantry awards.
Since September 1991, we have had a small military team in northern Iraq as part of a coalition presence in the security zone created to enable Kurdish refugees to return to their homes in the mountains. The two officers who died in the tragic accident on 14 April were our contribution to that coalition effort. They were performing a most valuable task, and I wish to record that the Government do not underestimate how much we rely on the skills, resilience and versatility of our service personnel in these and similar 724 tasks. I wish also to convey my condolences publicly to the families of the two officers so tragically and publicly struck down in the course of their duties far afield.
The Army has also been engaged in the important task of providing aid to the civil community here at home. As hon. Members will remember, the Army came to the rescue of people affected by the floods in the south of England last winter. Thousands of sandbags were filled by troops from various units to reinforce flood defences. In addition, in October the Household Cavalry Regiment gave shelter to families in the Windsor area. In January, following the extensive flooding around Chichester, 36 Engineer Regiment was asked by West Sussex county council to restore road communications, which it did by building Bailey bridges at West Hampnett and Merston and leaving them in place for several weeks. Members of the Territorial Army, from 127 Field Squadron Royal Engineers (Volunteers) at Brighton, gave valuable assistance to their Regular colleagues in this operation.
§ Mr. Winston Churchill (Davyhulme)
I should like to join in the tribute that my hon. Friend has paid to our armed forces worldwide for the excellent job that they are doing and, specifically, to the families of the men who recently lost their lives in northern Iraq and in Bosnia.
With regard to the deaths of the young officers in the unfortunate incident over northern Iraq, may I ask my hon. Friend whether the Government will look once again at the levels of compensation payable in such cases of bereavement? It would be a scandal of enormous proportions if the families of officers in the prime of their earning capacity who have been struck down in the line of duty were to get a penny less than an Army major who chooses to become pregnant.
§ Mr. Hanley
My hon. Friend speaks for many people. This is a most difficult issue. Other hon. Members may raise the subject, but I can assure my hon. Friend that the sad incident in Iraq is being investigated very carefully. A British officer and a British Treasury solicitor are involved in the investigation, and all aspects will be very carefully considered by the Ministry of Defence.
Having dealt with some smaller issues— smaller but, none the less, important to hon. Members on both sides — with regard to the Army's role during the last few months, I should like to refer to some more weighty matters, such as the events in the former Yugoslavia.
When we last debated Army matters, the first British battalion group to deploy to Bosnia, the Cheshire Regiment, was just four months into its tour. It was relieved last May by the Prince of Wales Own Regiment and a squadron of Light Dragoons from Germany. A third roulement took place last November when the 1st Battalion of the Coldstream Guards and another squadron of Light Dragoons took up the mantle. In March this year, we deployed a second battalion group, the 1st Battalion of the Duke of Wellington's Regiment, and a further Light Dragoon squadron in response to General Rose's request for additional troops to monitor the Sarajevo and Muslim-Croat ceasefires.
The whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to those who have served and those who are serving in that theatre of operations. Although today we are focusing on the Army's contribution, let us not forget the important role of the other services in, for example, the humanitarian airlift to Sarajevo, the provision of close air support and the 725 naval operations in the Adriatic. Invaluable assistance has also been provided by reservists from all three services, mainly with linguistic and public information skills, who have been called out for service. On 1 April, the Territorial Army element comprised 27 personnel serving in the UK as part of the defence debriefing team, and one officer based in Split, Croatia.
The UK contribution to current UN operations in former Yugoslavia is second to none in terms of its professionalism, efficiency and effectiveness. Our two battalion groups on the ground, with their supporting units, comprise some 3,300 personnel. Only the French contingent is larger. The composition of the two battalion groups and their support reflects the many different capabilities and skills which their formidable task and its logistic back-up demand.
The Royal Engineers have played an essential role in opening and maintaining vital supply routes, both for humanitarian aid and support of UNPROFOR as a whole, in mountainous and muddy terrain in severe weather. Other specialist troops, for example in transport and communications, are involved, and those troops at the logistics base in Split are vital to the success of the whole operation.
Inevitably, however, the two battalion groups in central Bosnia have tended to capture media interest. Since the first deployment in the autumn of 1992, BRITBAT 1, as it is now called, equipped with Warrior and Scimitar armoured fighting vehicles, has been escorting humanitarian convoys taking supplies from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees warehouses to destinations throughout central and north-east Bosnia. In that primary role, the British contingent has assisted with the delivery of over 120,000 tonnes of aid. That is a remarkable achievement in difficult and often dangerous conditions in the face of obstructions and, at times, outright hostility from all three parties.
Our troops have shown tremendous courage under fire, determination, tact in negotiating access for humanitarian aid, and the sheer will to get the job done and done efficiently, which is the hallmark of the British Army. The contribution of the UK contingent is warmly appreciated by the UN and fellow troop contributors alike. Hundreds of thousands owe their lives to the supplies provided by the UN's humanitarian operation, and British service personnel can feel justifiably proud of the part that they are playing in it.
Success, however, has a price. Following the sad death of Lance Corporal Edwards in January 1993, this year has seen four further British fatalities in Bosnia. On 19 March, Corporal Barney Warburton of the Royal Engineers was killed while preparing to destroy a mine handed in at a UN checkpoint. On 15 April, Corporal Fergus Rennie, who was serving as a joint commission officer, was killed as a result of Bosnian-Serb fire at Gorazde. The following day, Marine Timothy Coates, who was serving on attachment to the UNHCR in Sarajevo, was shot dead by personnel manning a Bosnian Government checkpoint in the city. On Friday 29 April, Captain Stephen Wormald of the 2nd Royal Anglian was killed and two other British Army personnel were injured when the Land-Rover in which they were travelling struck an anti-tank mine.
I am sure that the House will join me in expressing deep condolences to the families of those five brave men 726 tragically killed while attempting to relieve the suffering of the ordinary people caught up in that dreadful, senseless conflict.
The recent Sarajevo and Muslim-Croat ceasefires in Bosnia have added to the roles and responsibilities of British troops. In addition to their primary role of escorting humanitarian aid convoys, they have been extensively involved in monitoring the ceasefires, patrolling buffer zones and confrontation lines, manning observation and check points, weapons collection points and liaising between the warring factions. I pay particular tribute to Lieutenant General Sir Michael Rose who has made such an impressive and successful contribution to the developments and in many other areas since his appointment as UN Commander, Bosnia-Herzegovina Command. He is a real model of a modern general.
The House will not expect me to predict how long the tragic situation in the former Yugoslavia will continue. Earlier this year, the ceasefires that I have mentioned resulted in the return to a semblance of normality of life in Sarajevo and generated a mood of optimism that a Bosnia-wide ceasefire would be achieved. All three parties seemed sufficiently war-weary to negotiate seriously towards an overall settlement. The events at Gorazde in recent weeks have been a setback to those hopes.
However, the NATO ultimatum to the Bosnian Serbs has led to an end to their attack on the safe area and a withdrawal of their heavy weapons from the exclusion zone. Let us hope that that will set us back on the right road which, with the establishment of new arrangements to draw together the efforts of the European Union, the United States and the Russians on the peace negotiation front, will lead to a lasting peace settlement in the region.
§ Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way at that important juncture. Bearing in mind that a considerable movement of Serb men and equipment is advancing on Brcko, what plans, if any, do Her Majesty's Government have for our own troops in that area under the control of the United Nations?
§ Mr. Hanley
My hon. Friend is right to say that there are movements of troops throughout the theatre in Bosnia. We keep a daily watch over their safety, because the safety of our troops is paramount. They are being deployed by UNPROFOR, which keeps in touch with us if there is a requirement for any major diversion of our troops. Therefore, the answer is that we are keeping an eye on the situation daily.
§ Dr. David Clark (South Shields)
We in the Labour party completely associate ourselves with the Minister's statement about the bravery and professionalism of our soldiers whom I visited last week. We also associate ourselves completely with the Minister's commiserations to the bereaved families of the soldiers who have died.
As the Minister said, in bringing some form of peace to central Bosnia under which 1.5 million people now live a life of some normality, the British Army's role there has changed from escorting humanitarian convoys to patrolling the battle zone. That means that a new risk faces the British soldier in the form of land mines. I know, having spoken to our commanders and General Rose out there, that probably tens of thousands of land mines pose a threat to our soldiers. What is the Government's approach to that and what role do they see the British Army playing in the 727 defusing of those land mines? For example, is it the view of the Army—[HON. MEMBERS: "Come on."] This is important because it affects the lives of British soldiers.
What is the Government's line on those land mines? Are our soldiers expected to defuse the land mines to try to ensure that civilian communication lines are kept open? I ask that out of helpfulness. I simply want to know the position, as does the Army.
§ Mr. Hanley
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that important issue. Before I answer, I welcome him back from his recent visit to Bosnia. I am pleased that he is showing no long-term harm from the injury that he suffered while he was there. Obviously, the matter that he raised is of grave importance to our troops. Land mines pose a great danger. We have already heard of the death of one of our contingent while he was trying to defuse a land mine.
We are acting there for the benefit of the United Nations in trying to help the people to receive aid. Obviously, the decision whether it is safe to defuse an item has to be taken on the ground. We keep the matter carefully under consideration, but ultimately it is for commanders on the ground to decide whether it is safe for an item to be dealt with. I assure the hon. Gentleman that, because of his recent experience, about which he has told the House, I shall consider most carefully the point that he has raised.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)
May I raise another matter? It may not be of such immediate importance as the other two that have been raised, but I suspect that it concerns hon. Members on both sides of the House.
I refer to the way in which our forces, acting on behalf of the United Nations, are remunerated while serving in the former Yugoslavia. There is some unrest because soldiers from other countries serving under the same UN mandate are remunerated rather more generously than British forces. I appreciate that that is a complicated matter, but if there are to be further such operations the question of how British forces are remunerated while doing the same job as other soldiers in the same theatre is likely to become more acute.
Can the Minister comment on the Government's attitude towards those matters and say whether any long-term thinking is taking place on the problem?
§ Mr. Hanley
Some individuals in the House—I do not accuse the hon. and learned Gentleman of being one of them—have tried to exploit the subject of our soldiers' pay in Bosnia for political purposes. They have tried to undermine the morale of our forces for their own political ends. I am sure that the House knows about the way in which we pay our soldiers: we give them what is called the X-factor—a sum to take into account what another nation might call danger pay—on a regular basis throughout their careers. In other words, when they go to a place such as Bosnia they are not paid extra for the additional dangers; they have accepted the bargain of being paid the same amount even when they are back in barracks in England —and that is higher than the basic pay of soldiers from other nations.
If one were to compare the pay of one of our soldiers with that of a French soldier of equivalent rank and ability, one would find that the French soldier would be paid much less when not in Bosnia, but more, because of the element of danger, when he was in Bosnia. I believe that so long as we ensure that our soldiers are not overstretched in terms 728 of deployments to such theatres, most of the armed forces will regard what they receive as a fair bargain, and as fair recompense for the services that they perform in the interests of the nation. Of course, a review of pay and allowances will be carried out during the coming year and no doubt such matters will be considered then.
In the meantime, I make it clear to the House that our soldiers are paid well. Those based in Germany receive an element of local overseas allowance, too, while they are in Bosnia, even though they may not be incurring some of the expenses that they would incur were they in Germany. We do not receive complaints from soldiers on the ground about the level of their pay, because they understand the issues. The complaints come from Members of Parliament who try to exploit the position.
I was coming to the end of my comments about Bosnia, and I was saying that we hope that the European Union, the United States and the Russians will continue the negotiations and that they will lead to a lasting peace. That would be the best way for our troops to return home. In the meantime, the British contribution to the United Nations operations will continue. The fourth roulement of BRITBAT 1 is taking place this month, with the second battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment replacing the Coldstream Guards. I have no doubt that they will uphold the outstanding example set by all their predecessors, and I am sure that the House will join me in wishing them well.
§ Mr. Churchill
Before my hon. Friend leaves the subject of Bosnia, may I ask him a question? He rightly said that the safety of British forces there is paramount. Will he say what steps are being taken to provide our combat pilots and Hercules crews with missile approach warning systems, which are standard in many of the air forces of the world? Those would provide them, for instance, with full protection against a SAM 7, which is probably what caused the downing of the Sea Harrier the other day.
§ Mr. Hanley
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) for raising the issue. I shall not answer him today because he wrote a detailed letter to the Secretary of State, which my right hon. and learned Friend received only yesterday. My hon. Friend will receive a full reply, of course, as soon as possible. The issue is important and we have it on our agenda for answer.
It is one of the many privileges of my present appointment that I have been able to maintain my connection with Northern Ireland, and to improve my knowledge and understanding of the work of the armed forces there. I draw the attention of the House to the essay in "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1994" that explains the role and organisation of the armed forces in Northern Ireland.
Although the majority of the tasks related to providing effective support to the Royal Ulster Constabulary fall to the Army, we must not forget that vital support is also provided by elements of the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines and the Royal Air Force. The House will join me in acknowledging the value of the contributions of all three services to this joint operation, under the leadership of the 729 General Officer Commanding, Lieutenant General Sir Roger Wheeler, who is the first member of the Royal Irish Regiment to fill that appointment.
The armed forces have supported the RUC for nearly 25 years. During that time, more than 300,000 service personnel have served in Northern Ireland, many of them on repeated tours of duty. They have made an immense contribution to the maintenance of law and order in Northern Ireland, and their efforts have prevented countless terrorist murders and outrages. The whole House understands that and admires the sheer professionalism and bravery with which our service men and women carry out their duties, year after year. They fully deserve—and receive—our whole-hearted support.
Force levels are kept under continual review to ensure that they remain appropriate to the prevailing level of terrorist threat. We are satisfied that the present force levels are right. I assure the House that we can and will maintain forces at the present level for as long as the terrorists make it necessary.
Although it is the infantry who make the most obvious contribution to supporting the RUC, they simply could not operate without the Royal Engineers, the Army Air Corps, the Royal Signals, the Royal Logistic Corps and the other arms and services. I take this opportunity to remind the House of the essential contributions which these personnel make, which are often not sufficiently recognised.
Both the full-time and part-time elements of the Royal Irish Regiment continue to provide an essential contribution to the Army's support to the RUC. I never cease to admire the bravery and commitment, especially, of the part-time members. They continue every week to meet the demanding training and operational requirements of the Army, in addition to their civilian employment. Many of them have carried out that dangerous task for years on end. We owe them a great debt.
It is with sadness that I have to remind the House of the continuing terrorist campaign to murder serving and former personnel of the Royal Irish Regiment and of its predecessor, the Ulster Defence Regiment. Last Thursday night, terrorists murdered a man who had left the UDR nearly four years ago. In the early hours of Saturday morning, three soldiers from the 5th Royal Irish were killed in a fire in their base in Magherafelt and eight were injured, one of them very seriously. The House will wish to join me in extending profound sympathy to the next of kin of those who were killed and good wishes for the recovery of the injured.
§ Rev. William McCrea (Mid-Ulster)
I join the rest of the House in expressing appreciation for the professionalism of our soldiers in every war zone in which they are involved and for the service and professionalism that they display in Northern Ireland. On the latter point, last weekend I visited the base that the Minister mentioned a moment ago. I visited those soldiers who, thankfully, had escaped and whose lives were saved by the excellent work of all the services that were at hand.
Does the Minister understand the grief in the hearts of many people in the Province? Three young soldiers who had retired to the resting bay were burnt to death. Will he assure the families that an in-depth inquiry will be carried 730 out to find out not only what happened and how the fire started, but whether there was any negligence? Will the matter be looked into in depth?
§ Mr. Hanley
Yes, I give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. There is a full inquiry being carried out at the moment. It needs to be very thorough because of the extent of the tragedy that has occurred and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall keep him informed as the inquiry continues. I also spoke to the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) last night about the matter.
I know that the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea), who represents the constituency in which the awful tragedy took place, has taken an interest in the matter. As I say, I can assure him that the inquiry will be very deep and thorough. If we have anything to learn from the incident, we will most certainly take action.
There are good relations between the armed forces and the community in Northern Ireland. Indeed, that is essential. One important aspect of relations with the local community is the existence of a credible and effective complaints system. The armed forces have made continuing efforts in recent years to ensure that the complaints system is as effective as possible.
The Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1991 established the office of independent assessor of military complaints procedures in Northern Ireland. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has today published Mr. David Hewitt's first report as independent assessor. Mr. Hewitt finds much to commend in the present arrangements, but makes a number of recommendations for improvement, which, I can assure the House, we will consider very carefully.
None of us takes any satisfaction from the need for the armed forces to continue to support the RUC over 25 years, but there are no short cuts to eradicating deep-rooted terrorism in a democracy, while acting, as we must, within the law. The armed forces have no desire to continue in the task for a moment longer than necessary. Once the terrorists on both sides renounce violence, and fully demonstrate their commitment to doing so, the armed forces will progressively be withdrawn from the streets and return to their normal peacetime role. In the meantime, it is only the actions of the terrorists on both sides that keep soldiers on the streets of the Province. It is up to the terrorists whether soldiers continue to patrol the streets for a further 25 years. For the terrorists must make no mistake —so long as their criminal attacks make it necessary, the armed forces will continue to support the RUC steadfastly and professionally, as they have done for the past 25 years.
§ Lady Olga Maitland
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way a second time. In the battle to combat terrorism in Northern Ireland, does not he agree that it is absolutely essential that our armed forces in Northern Ireland should have close co-operation with the Irish Army and conduct joint exercises and joint patrols? Is he aware that, at the moment, we are unable to carry out any helicopter surveillance on the border and certainly not over the border?
§ Mr. Hanley
I am aware of the views of my hon. Friend, but I should say that relationships between the forces on both sides of the border have never been better. We are making very constructive progress in a number of areas, but I shall willingly raise the issue with the GOC when I next see him.
731 May I turn to the size of the Army? With the Army heavily engaged in operational commitments throughout the world, it is right that we should keep its size, especially its front line, under review. Hence, in February last year, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced that we would be increasing the size of the Army by 3,000, compared with previous plans for the mid-1990s. As part of that, we decided not to proceed with the amalgamations involving four infantry battalions, thus increasing the number of infantry battalions planned by 1998 from 38 to 40. As a result, by next year, even if we were to continue to have two infantry battalions in Bosnia, average emergency tour intervals for the infantry would meet the 24–month target. Any reduction in our current level of emergency tour commitments would permit a significant increase in that figure.
However, the Army comprises more than just the infantry, and the decision that we made in December to make available an extra 3,000 personnel to increase the size of selected field Army units had, as a principal objective, increasing the resilience of operational logistic support units. About 1,000 of the extra posts will be allocated to front-line Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, Royal Logistic Corps, Royal Army Medical Corps and Royal Signals units.
As I have already mentioned in the context of Bosnia and Northern Ireland, the profile of such units may not match that of the teeth arms, but I am sure that the House would wish me to state that we acknowledge the vital contribution that they make to the success of operations and our overall military capability.
We have not reached final decisions on the allocation of all 3,000 posts, but I would expect the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers also to be enhanced as a result of this addition to the front line.
The Government are committed to sustaining and, where possible, enhancing the Army's front-line capability in accordance with the plans set out under "Options for Change", as subsequently adjusted by the announcements to which I have referred. The overall strength of the Army that is required to sustain this capability will continue to be kept under review, and will be informed by progress in achieving greater efficiency in the support area, not least as a result of the defence costs study.
§ Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)
Is my hon. Friend aware of the dismay in the armed forces, and especially in the Army, at the way in which we seem to have one study after another, continually reviewing structures and continually moving goal posts? Is he aware that last year an infantry battalion had 223 nights away from home without spending even one day on an emergency tour? That happens as various commitments continue to expand, as the goal posts move and as the Army continues to shrink.
§ Mr. Hanley
I accept that when we talk about overstretch we tend to talk about entire battalions. When considering the pressures that we impose on individual soldiers and officers, we must ensure that they are not overloaded. Almost all the soldiers and officers whom I have met relish the tasks that they are given. Indeed, they joined up to be able to help the nation in that way.
I know that there are few in this place who are as experienced in Army matters as my hon. Friend, but whenever he speaks in the House on Army affairs he asks 732 us not to use the Army for something. The best morale is achieved when soldiers are busy doing what they joined up to do. Of course, families must be, and are, taken into account. We will continue to ensure that we do not overstretch any individual soldiers or officers.
§ Mr. Brazier
Soldiers do indeed join up to undertake operational tours. I shall give my hon. Friend a specific example of another battalion, the 2nd Battalion of the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment, a fine regiment. It provides an example which could be applied across the board as it applies to any infantry unit. Why is it that on returning from an operational tour—the sort of tour which men joined up to undertake—and before moving on to an exercise of the sort that men joined up to participate in, they spend months and months on end away from their families performing buckshee tasks that have nothing to do with operational purposes or training? One such task is several weeks as administrative extras at the Royal Tournament.
§ Mr. Hanley
My hon. Friend is, therefore, giving notice that he would not mind if the Royal Tournament were scrapped. Many members of the armed forces greatly value the Royal Tournament and the ceremonial and other tasks that are part of the fabric of our society. According to my hon. Friend, they would rather spend perhaps the 24 months between active operations blancoing boots and painting stones white. I am sure that my hon. Friend will recognise that to be a member of the armed forces is to engage in a multi-faceted role. The training and other tasks that are taken on are taken on willingly.
I say to my hon. Friend—I shall do so again and again —that we will ensure that we do not overstretch any individual units. There are, however, many tasks that our soldiers wish to carry out. I believe that my hon. Friend, while exercising what he believes to be the conscience of our armed forces, will find that most of our men are engaged happily on the tasks that they are asked to carry out.
§ Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I do not take upon myself the consciences of the armed forces. He might consider whether his comments about blancoing boots and painting stones white are worthy of a man in his position. I assure him that young men and, these days, young women join the armed forces for action. They relish action, involvement and the duties that they carry out in the name of the House, among other institutions. They do not relish being treated as skivvies and being made to work every hour that God gave, without much appreciation. Furthermore, they feel that, having been in Northern Ireland, as the Coldstream Guards were until the middle of last year, it would be reasonable to have some opportunity to speak to their wives, or to find a wife if they are single, before being sent out to Bosnia. They relish being in Bosnia, but they want some time to enjoy themselves as well.
§ Mr. Hanley
I do not believe that anyone could disagree with my hon. Friend, except for one thing: I am sorry if I made a mistake, but one blancos belts and polishes boots.
My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) makes an important point. We shall not allow our forces to be overstretched or to be put at risk. We take their families, their private lives and the times when they can 733 relax seriously. The Army is an excellent employer and has the good will of the forces well in mind, as do the House and the Government.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)
As my hon. Friend is having brickbats thrown at him, I thank him for his excellent work in consolidating the 18 base workshop in Bovington in my constituency and for accepting the excellent management bid. The workshop is trying to increase civilian management. How many uniform personnel have been released back to the Army as a result of administrative jobs being performed by base workshops? Are not the Government ensuring that people who sign up for the armed forces are used in active duties rather than in back-room jobs?
§ Mr. Hanley
I cannot give my hon. Friend the exact answer that he wants, but I can say that, because of the changes, it now takes 18 weeks instead of 34 weeks to service a main battle tank. We are seeing, therefore, the benefits of that policy.
The Labour party keeps calling for a defence review. I am sure that it will not be lost on my hon. Friends that if there were a defence review, the front-line capability of the armed forces would be almost equivalent to the number of Labour Members in the Chamber. Under our policy, consider the talent that we have paraded here. I think the importance that the Conservative party attaches to defence is shown by the number of Conservative Members who are in the Chamber.
It would be right to dwell on "partnership for peace." The changed strategic environment is reflected in the partnership for peace initiative, launched by NATO at the January 1994 Brussels summit to develop military and political co-operation with central and eastern Europe. Fourteen states have joined the partnership and we hope and expect that Russia will join soon. Plans for PFP activities are still being developed by NATO and we hope to see at least one land-based and one maritime exercise under the auspices of PFP this year, both with British participation.
Nationally, we are pursuing a vigorous and comprehensive programme of defence-related co-operation with central and eastern Europe. Details were set out in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1994", which were published last week.
I should like to highlight our plans for a military exercise later this month in Poland. It will involve the deployment of a company from the 1st Battalion, Devonshire and Dorset Regiment, which is stationed in Germany, to Poland for five days of peacekeeping-related exercises with the Polish armed forces in the near future. It will be the first time that British forces have exercised on the territory of a former Warsaw pact country.
The initiative is important not only in terms of the United Kingdom-Polish defence relationship, but as being very much in the spirit of PFP. Later this year, elements from 5 Airborne Brigade will exercise with their Polish opposite numbers.
We are also looking at exercising in Hungary, both on a bilateral basis and with the Germans, and during his recent visit to Moscow my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agreed in principle with President Yeltsin to the idea of exercising with the Russian armed forces. There is 734 also a continual and wide-ranging series of exchanges involving small delegations from the Ministry of Defence and various other units.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
Before my hon. Friend finishes his point about the Germans and the Russians, will he consider seriously the future of Britain's land commitment to the central front in Europe? Is it reasonable or right that after 31 August this year, if the Russians leave the eastern part of Germany on time, we should continue to deploy a large, static, inflexible Army in Germany at a cost of £1.3 billion a year and employ more than 10,000 local German civilians as cooks, mess stewards, batmen, gardeners and so on? Would not the money be much better spent on stopping mergers of good regiments like the Gurkhas and the Gordons and on securing the very best equipment for our armed forces?
§ Mr. Hanley
My hon. Friend raises an important point which is certainly part of an on-going debate. However, we have NATO commitments which must also be considered in conjunction with our own national interest. NATO is a partnership which has served us extremely well over the years and I believe that our NATO commitments are very important. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) that we will consider exactly what he has to say.
§ Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton)
I agree with the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Minister about our past relationships within NATO. However, does he agree that NATO is now increasingly called on to act outside what is traditionally known as the NATO area of operation? In looking at procurement and the future needs of the British armed forces, is not it time that we sat down with our NATO partners and put together a new framework to determine exactly the future role of NATO and, in particular, the NATO area of operation? Until we have defined that, we are asking NATO to act in an ad hoc way around eastern Europe as well as within the NATO area of operation.
§ Mr. Hanley
My hon. Friend has raised an important matter of current debate. However, such matters are more the concern of my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to define NATO's areas. All I can say is that we had a successful summit. The nations that are part of NATO have confirmed the importance of NATO and the fact that we believe that the United States and Canada are vital to the security of Europe. Through the partnership for peace programme, we have shown a way of bringing nations from central and eastern Europe into NATO over a period. Therefore, I believe that NATO is evolving and changing. We must ensure that we keep NATO's strengths and do not damage them as we continue to debate the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning).
I want now to consider the Territorial Army. Hon. Members on both sides of the House attach great importance to the TA. The Government also continue to attach importance to a well-trained, well-equipped and deployable Territorial Army. Hon. Members will be aware of our plans to introduce new reserve forces legislation aimed at making it easier to call out the volunteer reserves in circumstances short of war.
Individual members of the TA have, of course, regularly joined the Regular Army on short-term engagements to fill 735 particular posts. Currently, we have 43 officers and 61 soldiers from the TA serving with the Regular Army, including those I mentioned earlier called out for service in support of our operations in the former Yugoslavia.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State announced two weeks ago an important development of that concept in the form of a pilot scheme for the use of composite TA units in support of operational commitments undertaken by the Regular Army. We plan to deploy a TA platoon to the Falkland Islands garrison from July to November this year. That platoon will be drawn from the TA in Northern Ireland and will operate in support of a regular company of the Royal Irish Regiment deploying on a four-month unaccompanied tour. We plan to follow that up with a company-size deployment from March to July next year.
That trial of the utilisation of the TA demonstrates the confidence of the Government in the ability of our volunteer reserves to play a greater part in our overall defence effort. If the trial is successful—as I fully expect it to be—it will open the way to the use of the TA in support of the Regular Army in a wide range of operational deployments, including those under UN auspices.
I hope that it is unnecessary to add that the choice of the Falkland Islands for the trial does not indicate any lessening of our commitment to the defence of our dependencies in the south Atlantic. Our investment in the infrastructure at Mount Pleasant has long enabled us to minimise our in-place forces without affecting our responsibilities. There will remain a substantial Regular element to the garrison during the period of the trial. The Falkland Islands offer excellent training facilities, and the tour length is four months—rather than six on operational deployments elsewhere—which should make it easier to recruit volunteers and permit the results of the trial to be assessed more quickly.
We have not yet reached conclusions on the future size and shape of the Territorial Army, but I hope we shall be able to make announcements on this before too long. I realise that many hon. Members have strong views on the matter and I assure them that we will be taking those into account before reaching any final decisions.
§ Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)
Will the Minister say something about the removal of the mines sown during the Falklands war?
§ Mr. Hanley
All I can say now is that the matter is being dealt with. I think that we have found a sensible compromise for clearing the remaining mines. I will write to the hon. Gentleman if there is anything that I might want to add to that. I believe that the details of the plan are acceptable to the Falkland Islands Government and to us.
Finally, I pay tribute to the many civilians of all grades who work both at home and abroad in support of the Army. They are often much maligned or forgotten. Some people even forget that they are part of the armed forces at all. Life as a civilian in the Ministry of Defence is certainly no sinecure these days, if it ever was. Far from spending their days leisurely writing minutes to each other while sipping tea, they are very much involved with all aspects of Army policy and operations. The pace can be—and often is—fast and furious. Without them, the Army would find it extremely difficult to undertake the tasks that I have just been outlining.
736 Civilians have been involved in all areas of risk in which the Army has recently been engaged—the Falklands, the Gulf and, currently, in Bosnia; as well, of course, as Northern Ireland. It is our policy to employ civilians, either directly or on contract, in tasks which do not require military skills. That is not because one is better than the other, but simply because it makes obvious good sense to concentrate the deployment of highly trained service men in roles that only they can perform.
§ Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford)
Can my hon. Friend explain the Government's position on "Front Line First"? The name clearly necessitates a definition of where the front line starts—all else follows from that. If my hon. Friend cannot give us a definition, which group will be charged with defining the notion?
§ Mr. Hanley
The concept is easy to understand, but not straightforward to define. In essence, the "front line" refers to the overall operational capability which our fighting units, such as warships, battalions, combat aircraft and so forth, need to fulfil the military tasks allocated to them, as set out in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1993". For that capability to be maintained, of course our fighting units must be properly supported, directly or indirectly, by the remaining parts of the services and by the MOD.
Support areas make a vital contribution to the front line. It would be wrong for us to think that there is either front line or support. We must be careful that, in reducing unnecessary support, we do not hollow out to the extent that the front line collapses, particularly in a transition to war.
The difference between front line and support is, by their nature, that they are capable of engineering a separate analysis. That is why the defence costs study is looking into areas of support to maintain our front line. We want to make sure that our front-line units receive the essential support which they need, but that there is no money being spent unnecessarily on support. Any penny that is spent on support is money wasted from the front line.
I hope that that has helped my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Duncan Smith)—it has certainly helped me. I can assure my hon. Friend that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement and I have spent many hours during the past three months dealing with the defence costs study. In each area of support we are conscious that the front line is dependent on that, and we must make sure that we do not undermine our front line in that way.
§ Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, as I know that he has been putting up with a lot of interruptions. If that is the definition of front line—and therefore of "Front Line First"—can he tell the House what is second?
§ Mr. Hanley
That one is easier. "Front Line First" means that we will spend our money first on maintaining our front line. The Labour party wants a full defence review, which means that it wants to question every commitment and the way in which we carry them out. If necessary, it wants to reduce our front line and our capabilities. The Government want to preserve our front line because we believe that every single one of the commitments that we have been given can only be carried out properly with the equipment given to us for that job.
737 There were 50 tasks set out in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1993", and those tasks are vital to the interests of our nation. We believe that we should preserve those tasks with the men, the training and the equipment to do those jobs. We believe that, in preserving our front-line capability, we must maintain our commitments. We believe, therefore, that money must be spent first on equipping our troops properly to do the job. The Labour party believes in querying everything and putting the whole of our nation's forces into a period of instability; we are not prepared to accept that.
§ Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)
Will the Minister tell us whether nuclear weapons are in the front line? If they are not, and if the policy is to put resources into the front line, should not this country be cutting seriously—much more seriously than the Government are doing—its nuclear weapons?
§ Mr. Hanley
I am always grateful for giving way to the hon. Gentleman, because it is through him that we hear the authentic voice of the Labour party. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the nuclear deterrent, which is the minimum necessary to deter, is very much in our front line, and that is why we are investing so much training and money in its creation and maintenance.
We are fortunate to have in the British Army probably the most respected army in the world. It is the Government's intention to ensure that, through proper equipment and training, it retains its capability to operate in the full spectrum of military activity from high-intensity conflict to peacekeeping. I believe that our plans will ensure that that is the case.
We are the best peacekeepers in the world, but one becomes the best peacekeeper by being the most credible and best soldier. I believe that our plans will make sure that that continues, and that the Army of tomorrow will be as well able to meet its challenges as the Army of today. It is evident that it is able to confront the challenges of which I have spoken. It is a credible Army, it is a great Army and it is one of the best armies in the world.
§ Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)
It is a sign of the times that we are debating the Army on the eve of the local elections in Scotland, England and Wales. Ministers have obviously chosen today because they knew that the House would be full.
I have to congratulate the Minister on the attendance on his Benches. Conservative Members have undoubtedly come along here to give him uncritical support for his reconstruction of the British armed forces. Alternatively, I was thinking earlier that, if I was a Conservative Member with the choice between sitting here today or going out and meeting the voters, I would probably sit here.
§ Dr. Reid
Perhaps I can answer the hon. Gentleman's question before he asks it. If he was about to ask why so few Labour Members are present, I can tell him that there are good reasons.
One is that there is a political war going on outside, and one of the first rules of war is to concentrate one's forces where one's enemies are weakest. We have done that 738 today, by sending them out to meet the great British people. The second reason is that my colleagues have absolute faith and confidence in my ability to deal singlehandedly with the massed ranks of, as a senior member of the 1922 Committee would say, "that lot on the other side". Therefore, they did not feel compelled to come along today.
If I have not answered the question of the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), I shall give way to him.
§ Mr. Robathan
I should just like to point out that many of us here have already been out canvassing in support of our local candidates, but felt that the debate was an important enough occasion to come back to the House to listen to the hon. Gentleman's pearls of wisdom, which I am sure we are about to receive.
§ Dr. Reid
Absolutely. I thought that the hon. Gentleman's colleagues, having canvassed, had retired to the seclusion of this place in despair.
It is a bit of a cheek for the Minister to attack my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen), who normally makes helpful interventions in support of those on the Front Bench. If the Minister cares to read the "Statement on the Defence Estimates" issued by his Department less than a couple of weeks ago, he will see on page 19 in paragraph 3 an unqualified, absolute statement about nuclear disarmament:Complete and general nuclear disarmament remains a desirable ultimate goal".I can see no difference between that and the expressions of the Labour party conference. So let us have less of it from the Minister.
Conservative Members may be concerned about the prospect of a Labour Government taking over, but let me tell them that they have an even more worrying prospect ahead of them. In the context of the remarks that I am about to make, I can give a relative welcome to the fact that both junior Defence Ministers are still at their post, and that the Secretary of State for Defence is still at his.
All things are relative. The qualification of my welcome is the rumours now sweeping the House that, as an outcome of the internecine warfare in the Conservative party, the Secretary of State for Defence might soon be replaced. That first hit the leader columns of the newspapers this morning, although it has been doing the rounds for some time.
I notice that, in considering the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Portillo), The Guardian has blown the gaff:Why not, then, give Mr. Portillo a proper, grinding job? And top of the list, surely, would be defence.So The Guardian and one or two others are beginning to suggest that the Chief Secretary might be put in charge of defence. That comes as a revelation to me. I thought that he had been in charge of defence for the past two years.
I warn Conservative Members. When we told the Government that they would need to put the infantry back, they said that they would not, and then they did. When we told them that they would cancel the tactical air-to-surface missile, they said that they would not, and then they did. Indeed, in the last debate, when we told them that they would start to purchase cruise missiles to put in their submarines, they laughed. I understand that they are now considering purchasing cruise missiles.
Let me make another prediction: Conservative Members, many of whom consider themselves to be on the 739 right of the Conservative party, will rue the day that the present Chief Secretary to the Treasury transferred to the Ministry of Defence.
I do not know what the Chief Secretary does to the enemy, but he frightens the life out of me, and I know that he will frighten the life out of members of our armed forces. If he assumes that post, it will no longer be a case of someone from the Treasury emasculating the armed forces of this country from a safe distance. He will be stationed at the Ministry of Defence, making it even easier for him to wrap his hands around the neck of the British armed forces. It will be a sad day if that person ends up in charge of the British armed forces. [Interruption.] The Minister thinks that this is a despicable personal attack. I am not concerned about the merits of the individual; I am concerned about the British Army. The only thing worse than lions led by donkeys is lions led by a Treasury hyena who will pick over the bones of what is left of the defence budget.
§ Mr. Hanley
In no way was I commenting about any attack that the hon. Gentleman might make in his speech. I merely said that it was surprising that, in the first five minutes of his speech about the British Army, the hon. Gentleman should take a small snippet from a newspaper, pile conjecture upon all sorts of guesswork and then try to base the future defence policy of this nation upon something which he had picked up as a fag end from a political journalist. It is not worthy of the hon. Gentleman.
§ Dr. Reid
Is it not funny how the guesses from this side of the House, based not on the tremendous back-up of 100,000 civil servants but on fag ends and snippets, almost inevitably turn out to be correct; whereas the Minister, with all his advice from across the road—whether it is about the infantry, a strategic nuclear weapon, mismatch, overstretch, continual defence cuts or the lack of a defence review—inevitably turns out to be wrong?
I raised this subject precisely because I believe that the politics represented by the right hon. Gentleman will be bad for the armed forces. Time will prove the Minister or me correct. I will be gracious enough to apologise to him if my guess is wide of the mark, as he will apologise to me. Should it happen, I warn our colleagues on the Back Benches that it is a mid-19th century political trend.
It is a political trend which, unlike the last Prime Minister, is not only committed to the free market but absolutely opposed to any form of Government expenditure. It is particularly opposed to unproductive forms of public expenditure such as expenditure on the armed forces. I place that warning on record. As I said earlier, Back Benchers in the Conservative party will have time to judge that trend when it arrives.
§ Mr. Brazier
The hon. Gentleman has been on his feet for nearly eight minutes. Is he going to touch on the subject of today's debate at all?
§ Dr. Reid
I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will. Incidentally, the Minister was on his feet for 57 minutes, and said nothing. I hope that I have been slightly more substantial in seven minutes than the Minister was in 57. At the beginning of such debates, it is customary to dispense with party politics.
§ Dr. Reid
The right hon. Gentleman laughs. I am about to pay tribute to those who have served and died in the British armed forces. In the annual service debate, it is customary for hon. Members on either side of the House to begin their contributions with a tribute to service men and women. I reiterate what the Minister said earlier: I believe that we possess not one of the finest armed forces in the world but the finest, as the British Army continues to demonstrate in Bosnia, Northern Ireland and elsewhere.
We are fortunate to have at our disposal officers of the highest calibre, who command men and women with a sense of discipline and skills that are truly exceptional. It should be a matter of pride for everyone in this country that those qualities of professionalism and dedication are recognised the world over.
That fact was reflected most recently in the decision of South Africa's transitional executive to request British military advice on how to reform its security forces for the post-apartheid era. I hope that the Minister and the Secretary of State will be able to give that request speedy and sympathetic consideration. I understand that it is being considered at present.
In paying tribute to the men and women of the British Army, it is also important to remind people, as the Minister did, of the human cost attached to the dangerous and demanding commitment associated with serving in the armed forces. Since the last Army debate, about 130 soldiers have died while in service other than from natural causes. In choosing to risk their lives for their country, they deserve our abiding respect and, as the Minister said, our sympathies are with their friends and relatives.
The Minister also referred to the tragic deaths last week of three young soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment, following a fire at their base in Northern Ireland. I am glad that the Minister was able to assure us today that a full inquiry into the incident has been instigated. I also hope that a safety review of all British Army bases will be conducted in an effort to ensure that there is no repetition of this dreadful incident.
I know that the capital costs of renovation and reconstruction are extremely high—particularly in Northern Ireland, because of threats to contractors and so on—but I hope that, apart from the investigation of the specific incident, a review will be conducted of the construction and fire safety of Army bases throughout Northern Ireland.
I turn from those tributes to Bosnia, a subject which I think will feature most prominently in tonight's debate. It is now 19 months since British troops were deployed as part of the United Nations protection force in Bosnia-Herzegovina. My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) has just returned from meeting our troops in Bosnia, where he discussed current events with them.
At the beginning of our intervention, the British contingent numbered about 2,300 personnel. It has now grown to about 2,350. The mandate of our troops has been revised to include the protection of designated safe areas as well as the protection of humanitarian aid convoys.
There are many views in the House about the situation in Bosnia. They range from those who believe that we should not intervene in the conflict, to those who think that our limited and carefully defined intervention has been insufficient and would like to see a massive intervention of troops. I know that my colleagues will make their views 741 known tonight, but I will confine my remarks to certain general areas which I think all of us—wherever we stand in that spectrum of views—will agree are important.
It is vital that we think through the implications of our involvement in Bosnia, both in terms of how we can encourage a resolution of the conflict and in terms of how the United Nations should respond to similar conflicts in the future. This process of reflection is necessary because it seems to me that important lessons are not being learned and that some of the serious flaws in the United Nations operation in Bosnia have not been rectified.
The blame for this failure does not lie with the officers and soldiers serving with UNPROFOR. They have done a remarkable job in what are, by any standards, extremely difficult circumstances. The real problem has been a failure of political leadership.
§ Dr. Reid
It would be helpful if hon. Members opposite did not assume that I was attacking them, either personally or collectively, but listened to what I have to say.
At the most fundamental level, the United Nations has failed to establish a clear and achievable objective or set of objectives for its intervention in the Balkans. It has thus made the formulation of a coherent strategy well nigh impossible. The result is an operation which, for the most part, has been hastily improvised, with the United Nations responding to events rather than shaping them.
Of course, it would be unfair not to recognise the enormity of the challenge confronting the United Nations. It would also be over-simplistic not to recognise that the United Nations is nothing more than the collective will of the international community.
But peace support missions of the kind being conducted in Bosnia are much more ambitious and difficult to execute than the traditional peacekeeping missions of the past, when monitoring forces were deployed after a ceasefire had been established. In seeking to respond to civil conflicts on a more active basis, the international community is, quite frankly, on a steep learning curve. Even so, it is clear that the United Nations has been too slow in adapting to the new environment.
I have two major concerns which affect the British Army and our armed forces in general. First, there appears to be a distinct reluctance to make difficult decisions about the role of the international community in resolving civil conflicts within states as opposed to conflicts between states. At times, the United Nations operation in Bosnia has borne all the hallmarks of an unhappy compromise between those who wish it to remain a humanitarian mission and those who wish UNPROFOR to take sides and assume an active combat role. That tension has been ever present. The most damaging consequence of that confusion is that insufficient resources have been provided to secure the operational objectives established by the United Nations. Nowhere was that failure more apparent than during the attack on Gorazde.
I fully understand the complexities of an issue such as that of the operations around Gorazde. I do not know whether the phrase is "good fortune", but I had the opportunity to visit Gorazde last November to speak to the Serbs on their front line and to the Muslims inside Gorazde.
742 One of the horrible examples of the complexity of that civil war was the fact that the Muslim commander and the Serb commander, who met once a month to try to agree some access to supplies to Gorazde, called each other by first names when they met at that monthly meeting, because not only had they been to the same school and the same class, but they actually played in the same football team. That small illustration shows the complexity and intensity of the conflict.
The establishment of designated safe areas without the deployment of the ground forces required to make them a reality is typical of the wishful thinking and extemporisa-tion that have characterised the United Nations' involvement in Bosnia. First, that is, above all, a failure of the international will, but it is in that context that our soldiers are being asked to conduct their operations.
Secondly, the process of policy formulation is far too incoherent and cumbersome. Military operations require clear, unambiguous command structures, yet it is often difficult to determine who is calling the shots in Bosnia. As an experienced organisation with an established military command structure, it made sense for NATO to assume a role as an operational arm of the United Nations in Bosnia.
However, the paralysis of the UN decision-making process during the Gorazde crisis forced NATO into an entirely different role—that of issuing ultimatums. Even though NATO continues to act at the behest of the United Nations, it is in danger—I put it no higher—of creating an impression of becoming an independent factor in the conflict. We should all be aware of that danger.
§ Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)
Is not the real danger of involving NATO in the conflict in Bosnia that it will be sucked into a war that it cannot possibly win, the result of which will be great demoralisation among the nations who support NATO, and it will then be acting very much against the defence interests of the west? Until now, NATO has never had to declare its hand. It has been the veiled threat—or should I say the mailed fist?—which deterred Russia. As a result of being drawn into the conflict, NATO may be seen as the emperor without any clothes. I will not ask the hon. Gentleman to comment on the effect on our American allies of the lack of determination that is currently being displayed.
§ Dr. Reid
That was not a unilateral decision on NATO's part. NATO was asked to go in by the United Nations, as an instrument of the United Nations, and therefore, provided that the objectives of the intervention and the rules of engagement and the operational definition are clear, I do not think that that danger exists. However, where there is muddled thinking at the political level in the United Nations, the danger exists.
I shall say a third thing about NATO and its relationship with the UN in Bosnia, which to some extent echoes some of the fears of the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill). A debate is taking place in Europe about the future architecture of European defence structures, and some of our allies seem to believe that, if the NATO alliance failed to pass the virility test of Bosnia, it would fail to justify its existence in the post-cold-war world. Action at any cost by NATO seemed to be the order of the day.
I believe that the opposite is the case. In the absence of a clear political strategy, clearly defined military objectives, adequate resources and unambiguous command and control structures, it is not non-action of NATO but 743 ill-considered botched action by NATO which carries the greatest risk for the future of NATO, and for its acceptance as an effective organisation.
§ Sir Archibald Hamilton (Epsom and Ewell)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that, however good the command structure was of NATO in a military adventure in Bosnia, the acid test of whether NATO held together or not would be the number of casualties that were subsequently incurred? Does he believe that there is the political will among nations in Europe to incur substantial casualties in Bosnia and not pull out their troops, which is what I believe would happen?
§ Dr. Reid
That is one of the imponderables. It is like asking, "How long is a piece of string?" to ask how many casualties NATO would have to suffer before the will of countries was undermined. I take the hon. Gentleman's point. All that I can say to him is that the Opposition fully supported the intervention of British troops, and subsequently the involvement of NATO in pursuit of a clearly defined military objective with clearly defined political objectives.
However, the problem with a complex situation such as that in Bosnia—a fluid and dynamic situation—is that, in the United Nations, especially if there is not an unambiguous command and control structure from the politicians down to the operations, sometimes there are shades of grey between a clearly defined defensive position and a partisan position.
The perfect example of that is safe areas. All hon. Members in the House would be committed to the safeguarding of civilians and the protection of safe areas. It becomes more complicated when, in the safe area, there are not only vast numbers of innocent civilians but significant numbers of military on one side or the other. Without adequate troops on the ground to act as a buffer between the two sides, it is almost impossible to make out, among the propaganda and the fog of war, who is carrying out the initial aggression.
I think that there is a will in the west for intervention to take place, but I do not think that there is a will in the west to go beyond the position in which we are now to a massive military intervention of several tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of soldiers, to impose a peace on a three-way civil war. Should there be a ceasefire between the parties, I think that there would be considerable will in the House and throughout the country to put troops in to monitor that ceasefire. That is quite different from trying to impose one.
Moving away from NATO but still on the subject of Bosnia, on a wider scale it is apparent that some contingents of UNPROFOR are failing to accept the authority of the multinational command structures, and are continuing to take orders from their national Government rather than from UN-appointed commanders. The alleged incident last week—I use my words carefully because it has not been confirmed, although there is allegedly some substance to it—when French forces were reportedly joining a British contingent relieving Gorazde and were apparently unilaterally withdrawn following consultations with Paris, shows an unacceptable degree of political interference. I believe that the integrity of the UN operation and the lives of British service personnel will be in danger 744 unless the command and control procedures are rigorously adhered to. I hope that the Government have been at pains to make that clear.
Whatever the outcome of the tragedy that has been played out in that beautiful but unblessed land of Bosnia, it is abundantly clear that painful military lessons must be learned by political and service decision-makers. We ignore those lessons at our future peril because we may well have to confront many more Bosnias, although not necessarily on the same scale, if we are to play a full part as a member of the Security Council of the UN.
I want to turn to something that is less tragic and more entertaining. I refer, of course, to the "Statement on the Defence Estimates". The publication last week of the 1994 statement was an event of little significance except in so far as it revealed the cynicism of the Government's approach to the management of British defences.
In this connection, I should like to refer to some comments of Professor Keith Hartley. In the case of last year's defence estimates, Ministers told us that we were being presented with the most open-minded, fulsome and statistically comprehensive series of estimates that had ever been issued. We were told in 1993 that we now faced a challenge. Such was the information given in the defence estimates last year that no one with a brain in his head could fail immediately to absorb it and, on that basis, produce his own defence review.
At that time we queried what we were being told. Referring to those estimates, Professor Hartley, who, as some hon. Members may know, is the director of the centre for defence economics at the university of York, says:
An obvious starting point is the 1993 statement on the defence estimates and the details of expenditure shown in the defence budget. Unfortunately the 1993 defence budget is shown in terms of the new management strategy, compared with the economists' functional costing approach used in previous years. As a result, it is no longer possible to cost specific force elements, such as the Navy's aircraft carriers, its Polaris submarines and its destroyers and frigates. Nor is it possible to cost the RAF's strike forces —they are now combined with transport aircraft—or the allocation of research and development expenditure between major air, land and sea systems.On this basis it is misleading to claim that the 1993 SDE provides more and better information for economists and for Parliament. It provides less and worse information. Without more information on the costs of different force structures and the various defence roles, it is not possible to have a sensible debate on UK defence and the implication of smaller defence budgets.That is precisely what we said at this time last year. It is precisely why we criticised the Government for the figures that they produced—this was not done in a meaningful fashion—and precisely why we criticised them this year again. It takes tremendous ingenuity to produce a 105–page statement on defence estimates and say practically nothing. Anyone reading through the statement will find any number of expressions such as "we hope to", "we expect to", "we may" and "at some stage we shall decide". It must be the largest-scale exercise in procrastination that anyone has ever seen.
We said last year that the statistics provided were largely meaningless. Even in the Government's own terms, the figures did not add up properly. Assuming correct arithmetic, however, the method of triple-hatting and the new management strategy manner of presenting the statistics made it almost impossible to carry out any meaningful costing.
§ Dr. Reid
The Minister of State shakes his head. I have just read, for his benefit, comments by the professor at the centre for defence economics at the university of York, and I could quote a dozen other defence economists who have said precisely the same thing. There must be something wrong if, on this subject, the Minister is the only person out of step.
I thought of the hon. Gentleman the other night when I was considering ways of handling statistics. Perhaps I should pay the hon. Gentleman a compliment by referring to a similarity that came to mind. I refer to the person whom some people regard as one of the finest Secretaries of State for Defence we have had since the end of the second world war. Certainly, with the benefit of hindsight, people in the military see Denis Healey—now Lord Healey —in that light.
I do not want to be too flattering to the Minister, but I should like to quote from a small piece in a very neat little book called "Brief Lives" by the illustrious correspondent Alan Watkins. Speaking of the early life of Healey, Watkins says:He returned to the Army. He ruptured himself on a field training course and, after an operation, was sent to a depot in Woolwich to await posting. He was dispatched from Woolwich to replace a drunken bombardier as a railway checker at Swindon station. It was here that he acquired a distrust of statistics. He was expected, apparently, to count the number of service men and women getting off every train, getting on every train and, for some reason, getting off and back on the train. He decided he would make up the figures. Assailed some weeks later by conscience, he asked the ticket collector at the barrier to give him the numbers of people who were getting on and off the train. After three weeks he discovered that the ticket collector was making the figures up too. He was duly commissioned in the Royal Engineers, in movement control.Nothing changes. I suggest that both Ministers present—the Minister of State for Defence Procurement and the Minister of State for the Armed Forces—have all the qualifications to be moved to movement control of the Royal Engineers. The statistics given in the current defence estimates are indeed vacuous—though perhaps that is too substantial a word.
With the conclusion of the defence cost studies in July, the simple question is this: why did the Government choose to publish such a vacuous, empty White Paper in April instead of waiting until they had some announcements to make? The answer is quite simple: by publishing the White Paper in April, rather than in July as in previous years, Ministers will be able to get the annual two-day defence debate out of the way before announcing another round of swingeing cuts, thus allowing them to evade the embarrassment of having to explain themselves to Parliament. Every hon. Member knows that that is precisely why the details have been announced now.
Furthermore, by postponing until the July the announcement of further cuts, the Government hope to avoid the wrath of the electorate in the run-up to the local and European elections. In other words, they are running scared both of the electorate and of Parliament.
§ Dr. Reid
The Minister shakes his head in denial. Well, he is not convincing anyone.
A couple of weeks ago, I was in the constituency of South Dorset, where everyone suspects—probably because of a suspicious nature—that the current review of sea systems will report in July, not by coincidence but because 746 that will be after the local and the European elections. The situation is exactly the same with regard to the White Paper.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce
The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to come to my constituency, and I know that he was listened to avidly, as I have been listening avidly to him for about half an hour. But the people of South Dorset are in exactly the same position as myself, in that they do not know exactly what Labour's policy on the Army is. I should be most grateful if the hon. Member would get to that part of his speech.
§ Dr. Reid
One of the reasons for the hon. Gentleman's remaining in a state of blissful ignorance—presumably by choice—is that he did not come to the meeting in Weymouth that was attended by many of his constituents. He might at least do me the courtesy of saying that I did not attack him personally when I was in the constituency. I can assure him that I shall remedy that omission the next time I am there.
The hon. Gentleman's constituents who came to the meeting not only expressed concern but also, to a man and a woman, went away delighted at the next Labour Government's commitment to a defence diversification agency and to matching resources to commitment, as well as to a full defence review.
Is it not a tragedy that the Tory Member of Parliament for the constituency that has the Portland naval base and sea systems and the Defence Research Agency—the former soon to go; the latter soon to disappear to Bristol —as well as Bovington camp, has to ask a Labour Member of Parliament what his own constituents think about defence issues? If I were in that position, I should not be here; I should be knocking on doors and listening to constituents.
§ Mr. Bruce
If the hon. Gentleman reads Hansard tomorrow, he will realise that he has been misquoting me. My constituents, many of whom vote Labour, would like to know the Labour party's policy on defence—not on diversification or on criticism of the Government. The hon. Gentleman owes it to the House to state what that policy is.
§ Dr. Reid
I hear a few "Hear, hears" from Conservative Back Benchers. I thought that I was starting to do precisely what the hon. Gentleman has asked of me. Perhaps I started at too high a level with the United Nations. I am beginning at one side and working across.
I was putting forward what I regard as genuine problems concerning our soldiers and armed services in their United Nations involvement, which over the past two years has been a fairly big aspect. In a previous debate, I dealt with Northern Ireland, and I shall come to a number of other issues relating to the British Army. In response to some comments from the Minister, I have said that there is nationwide concern about the Government's plans. That concern exists in the hon. Gentleman's constituency as well as in others.
This debate is about not the Labour party's defence policy but the defence statement, so it is appropriate that most of my remarks should be on that subject.
§ Lady Olga Maitland
It would help the House enormously if the hon. Gentleman clarified one point. Given that the Labour party has committed itself to a 747 reduction of £6 billion a year in defence spending, which force will it take a slash at: the Army, the Navy or the Air Force?
§ Dr. Reid
The hon. Lady will understand that, if one starts with the wrong premise, one inevitably reaches the wrong conclusion. The Labour party has not committed itself to such a cut. The Labour party conference passed a resolution calling for a reduction in defence expenditure. As Conservative Members do not know the Labour party's constitution, they constantly make that mistake.
May I therefore explain that, to get into the party programme, a conference decision must have a two-thirds majority. If it is included in the party programme, it may be selected for the party manifesto by a meeting of the National Executive Committee and the shadow Cabinet, who have the final decision. The results of their decision were contained in the last Labour party manifesto, which represents the decision of the whole Labour party. If the hon. Lady cares to read the last Labour party manifesto or the next one, she will find no mention of a £6 billion cut.
The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) has, however, fortuitously landed on a figure of £6 billion, which happens to be the precise amount by which the Government cut the defence budget between 1985 and 1995–96. So, although she wrongly accuses the Labour party of reaching a theoretical decision at a conference to cut the defence budget by £6 billion, her party has in practice cut the defence budget by exactly that amount. I hope that I have clarified the matter for the hon. Lady.
On the "Statement on the Defence Estimates", it has been suggested that another 25,000 service and Ministry of Defence jobs may be axed as a result of the defence costs study, and that many important military support services will be either cut or privatised. Given the size of the savings that need to be made, sizeable cuts are clearly in the offing.
Conservative Members know that. As they retire to Bermuda, the Bahamas or wherever in late July or August, they will know that more sizeable cuts are coming. I am astonished at the looks of surprise on the faces of Conservative Members. They must have forgotten the last day of school term last year. Suddenly, once all the debates on the defence estimates had taken place, it was announced that another 5,000 jobs would be cut in the Royal Navy. That will happen again this year.
Despite the Government's claim that they seek to put the front line first, it is transparently obvious that they are putting their electoral interests first. The origins of the study lie in the Government's desire not to find more resources for our badly overstretched front-line combat units, but to provide the funds needed to repair some of the appalling damage which they have done to their public finances, and to reverse last month's betrayal on tax. That is the real reason why further cuts are being made to the armed forces.
The defence costs study is fraudulent, for two reasons. First, if substantial savings could be made in military support costs—the Government say that those are less important than the front line—which do not compromise the combat effectiveness of our armed forces, according to the Government's declared reasoning, they should have been the first target for cuts in 1990. If substantial cuts are to be made in non-essential areas, why were not they made at the beginning rather than now?
748 Instead, the front line units of the infantry of the Royal Armoured Corps and the Royal Artillery bore the brunt of "Options for Change", which the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton) introduced. Had it been possible to save billions of pounds by cutting ancillary services, cutting a few cars or privatising catering, the right hon. Gentleman would have done it. He would not have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous Back-Bench Members by cutting front-line infantry forces, the Royal Armoured Corps and so on, if billions of pounds could have been saved on non-vital services.
Secondly, the study is a fraud because it is erroneous to draw a simple distinction between the front-line forces and the services that support them. If anything today has symbolised the confusion of the Ministry of Defence, it is the vain attempts of an articulate and able Minister of the Crown to define what he meant by "front line" and "support". If the Minister does not even know the meaning of "front line", how can he put it first or anywhere else?
I should have thought that the Ministry of Defence, which has placed so much emphasis on this matter, would have briefed the Minister on the meaning of "front line". We were told that the Minister and his hard-working colleague, the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, had spent months discussing the matter, yet, when the Minister of State for the Armed Forces was asked the simple question, "By the way, what is the front line?", his answer went round in circles. Conservative Back Benchers smile, because they know that what I am saying is true. I do not intend to spoil their careers, so they may straighten their faces again.
If the Ministry of Defence does not know what the front line is, how can it claim that it is putting it ahead of anything else? No one is likely to object about staff cars being leased in future rather than purchased, or medical provision for the three services being integrated. But many of the suggested cuts would have a direct and detrimental bearing on the operational effectiveness and, equally important, on the morale of our armed forces. Reductions in ammunition stocks and spares would be particularly damaging.
During the Gulf war, we managed to keep the Challenger tanks of the 1st Armoured Division going only by cannibalising the rest of the British Army's units for spares. Similarly, the problems that we had procuring sufficient ammunition for operation Granby in the Gulf, even from friendly powers, should alert us to the dangers of becoming dependent on the largesse of others for our military needs.
It must be remembered that that comes on top of market testing and contractorisation. When I was in Cyprus recently, I discovered that the maintenance for our Army trucks is to be put out to the local garage.
§ Dr. Reid
The right hon. Gentleman takes the words out of my mouth. I also doubt whether they would keep to the 749 initial contract in that situation. We may find that, during a crisis, either we cannot depend on private contractors or that we shall pay through the nose for their services and lose any potential savings. I have nothing against the private sector. I am sure that the quickest and most efficient people are the Kwik-Fit fitters, but I doubt whether they would turn up in the middle of a battle in the Gulf to repair tanks. The right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell seems to believe that they would.
§ Sir Archibald Hamilton
The hon. Gentleman talks about fitters not appearing in the Gulf. There seemed to be no shortage of fitters from British Aerospace and GEC prepared to work in the Gulf at the time of that war.
§ Dr. Reid
Absolutely, and I pay credit to their courage and the wages paid to them. But they were not exactly in the front line fixing tanks.
Have Conservative Members suddenly abandoned their commitment to the principles of the free market, believing that, no matter how pressing the demand of the customer, the producer will produce at the same price? If they believe that the price will not rise according to market demand and wish to abandon their principles, that is fair enough. I happen to think that they are probably correct. When there is urgency and demand, the price at the very least will go up and the risk may not be taken unless we pay through the nose for it.
Similarly, it has been suggested that, in future, the supply of military hardware should copy the just-in-time method used in the private sector, whereby materials are provided as they are needed rather then held in stock. That idea shows a fundamental ignorance of the realities of military power. The Government have to understand that the British Army cannot be run like a branch of McDonald's. It requires high levels of preparedness, and an ability to respond to unforeseen events at short notice.
In March, the Secretary of State said that military vehicles would in future be leased rather than purchased; he even refused to rule out the possibility that the British Army's tanks might one day be provided on that leaseback basis. Again, that shows a complete failure to understand the practicalities of defence procurement. Items of modern military hardware, such as tanks, armoured fighting vehicles and combat helicopters, are state-of-the-art equipment, made to order. They require large amounts of capital investment and secure orders. They are not like Ford Escorts, rented from Avis or Hertz. It is naive and dangerous to shape defence policy on the assumption that they either are or can be.
Other leaked conclusions of the defence costs study would be equally damaging. The suggested 50 per cent. cut in the size of the defence intelligence staff would be a bizarre move, given that the Government have repeatedly stated that the nature of the security threat facing Britain has become more unpredictable since the end of the cold war.
Let me say one word about those who work in Britain's defence industry. They serve the country no less than those who serve in uniform. They make an essential contribution to our nation's security. Last week, I walked to Downing street with workers from the Royal Ordnance factories, who accept that defence expenditure will be cut and that jobs will have to go, and who ask one simple thing of the 750 Government—that they play some role in intervening, in helping diversification and conversion. The Government sit and wash their hands.
Even if we assume that the Government's free market philosophy applies in every sector of the economy, the one area where it cannot possibly apply is in defence production. The reason is simple: that the only customer in Britain for the purchase of defence goods from our manufacturing sector are the Government. There is no free market inside Britain. For the Government, as the only customer, to say that they will withdraw and leave it to a supposed free market to take over is a complete abdication of our responsibility and our obligations to those who work in the defence industry.
§ Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)
The hon. Gentleman has referred to diversification. In these debates—I have sat through many of them—we continually hear about diversification and about what the Government are not doing. Why is it that Opposition Members, when their Benches are full, which they are not today, continually attack defence sales and, in particular, the work done by my hon. Friend the Minister of State in selling our goods overseas and creating and maintaining precisely the jobs about which he is talking?
§ Dr. Reid
There is a brief three-part answer to that. First, we do not attack defence sales per se. Secondly, we are against defence sales to countries that are controlled by dictators. Thirdly, we are even more against defence sales when the British Government sell to countries which are run by horrendous dictators and then lie to Parliament about whether they are doing so, as they did in the case of Iraq. [Interruption.] I cannot be more specific. Machine tools were sent to Iraq. No doubt the hon. Gentleman will say that that is just like selling a screwdriver; they would never sell arms. The Scott inquiry, which was meant to sideline the issue, has been a dripping roast of the Government's perfidy when it comes to the sale of arms abroad.
We are objecting not to the sale of arms, but to the sale of arms to dictators who will use them for the suppression of human rights, particularly when it is done under a cover of deceit, not only to the British people but to the British Parliament. We stand by that.
The Government must give a commitment that the conclusions of the defence costs studies will not be implemented until two conditions have been met—first, until a proper strategic defence review of existing military commitments and capabilities has been conducted, and secondly, until the Government produce a plan for managing proposed reductions in a way that minimises the damage to our industrial base.
Opposition defence spokesmen have stood at the Dispatch Box and tried, until we were—I almost said blue —pink in the face, to demand that the Government carry out, to persuade the Government, to beg the Government to carry out, a full defence review. It is now being said so often from this Dispatch Box that Ministers groan when it is brought up.
We have said that such a review is a way not of avoiding hard decisions but of confronting hard decisions. There are few people left in Britain, inside or outside the defence community, who, after three years, do not agree with what the Labour party has been saying. The Select Committee on Defence has argued for it. [Laughter.] Conservative 751 Members laugh, but I do not know how much more evidence for a defence review I have to put before the House.
Let us take an academic, an ex-field marshal, and a Tory newspaper, The Sunday Times. First, I shall take the academic, Professor John Baylis, of the department of international politics, university of Wales. I shall read only his first and last paragraphs. He said:Ever since John Nott's courageous but abortive attempt to re-assess the whole basis of British defence policy in June. 1981, the Conservative government has been reluctant to embrace the term 'defence review'. The embarrassment caused by the Falklands war and the partial reversal of policy has resulted in the term being exorcised from Whitehall vocabulary.The final paragraph says:muddling through, salami-slicing, and increasing 'multiple ear-marking' will increasingly make the task of balancing foreign and defence policy more difficult. Sooner or later, a defence review will become necessary, whatever title it is given. The primary task of such a review will need to be the development of a clear conceptual framework for strategic policy, which at present seems to be absent.An academic may be easily dismissed, but Field Marshal Lord Bramall, speaking in another place, said:When I was Chief of the Defence Staff eight years ago"—under a Tory Government—I led the Defence Staff in a number of strategic studies on all the various parts of the world, trying to establish what was important, what was of special interest and what was of less concern and of lower priority. All that would have been a great help in establishing the sort of guidelines that have been mentioned this evening."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 March 1994; Vol.553, c. 293.]
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)
Order. May I inquire of the hon. Gentleman whether the remarks of Lord Bramall that he is quoting were made in this Session? If so, it is not open to him to quote them.
§ Dr. Reid
Those remarks were made in this Session, but they have been quoted at considerable length in a newspaper, so I shall continue reading not from Hansard but from a newspaper article which Field Marshal Lord Bramall wrote, where he quoted himself as saying:All that would have been a great help in establishing the sort of guidelines that have been mentioned this evening.Then—this is the significant part—he added:Although those exercises were treated with polite interest, no Minister was prepared to sign up to them, so they never saw the light of day.That is not an academic; that is a field marshal.
Finally, I come to the modern equivalent of Pravda, that well-known left-wing newspaper run by the well-known Marxist-Leninist from Glasgow, Mr. Andrew Neil. I believe that he has gone to somewhere called Fox—I make no further comment. He said:A proper defence review is needed.This is The Sunday Times, not the Labour party. He continued:The Foreign Office fears it, because it would mean Britain's withdrawal from areas such as Cyprus, where we maintain a post-imperial pretence. The government as a whole resists it because it fears the political consequences.[HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish."] Hon. Members need not tell me that it is rubbish; they should tell Mr. Neil of The Sunday Times: he wrote this.
He went on:The government as a whole resists it because it fears the political consequences.[Interruption.] The anger coming from the Conservative 752 Benches shows that there is nothing worse than a lover spurned when The Sunday Times turns on the Tory party. Mr. Neil continued:France, more historically aware of its vulnerability and fearful of the dangers of Islamic revolution close to home, has carried out such a review and increased its projected defence spending as a result.Note the wordshas carried out such a review and increased its projected defence spending as a result.The quotation from The Sunday Times continues:Britain should follow suit. We are still a military force to be reckoned with, as Bosnia, the Gulf and the Falklands conflicts show. But the rot in Britain's armed forces has gone on for too long. There are no generals or admirals still in command who believe Britain has the right forces to perform all the duties currently demanded of them. Simply reducing a layer of top brass does nothing to remedy that. This time, a U-turn in policy really is needed.Admirals, field marshals, academics, leader writers, politicians, pundits, experts, service men, service women, the Select Committee and every major political party all know that a full defence review is needed, yet the Government stand against it.
§ Dr. Reid
I shall finish my point, and then I shall let the hon. Gentleman in, as he is the Chairman of the Select Committee.
I could understand the Government's attitude if making a U-turn was an extraordinary exception to their normal course of action, but U-turns have now become the norm. What is so different about a defence review? The Government have U-turned on everything; the Prime Minister has changed his mind on everything. For the sake of service men and women in the British armed forces, why can he not change his mind on the defence review, and let us make a rational attempt to analyse our commitments and to match them with our resources?
I now give way to the hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor).
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not want inadvertently to mislead the House. The current Defence Select Committee has not called for a defence review, and will not do so.
§ Dr. Reid
The Minister wants me to withdraw. If what I have said offends anyone, of course I withdraw it.
What the hon. Member for Upminster says means that there are at least four people in Britain who agree with the Minister—or perhaps more; I do not know what the majority on the Select Committee is: there may be six. The fact remains that everyone else has called for a defence review. And anyone who reads the reports of the Select Committee, written by the hon. Member for Upminster and his colleagues, cannot but come to the conclusion that the Committee would at least see a defence review as beneficial.
753 What astonishes me more is the absolute commitment by the Chairman of the Select Committee that the Committee never will call for a defence review. If it is not discourteous for me to say so, that seems presumptuous.
While the Minister sets about dismantling our military support structures, nothing is being done to relieve the growing burden on our front-line forces. I shall not labour that point, because it was made earlier by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier). For the Minister to stand at the Dispatch Box and say that there is no overstretch flies in the face of everything that everyone knows, including —I hope that the Minister is listening—the Select Committee, which has probably been the Government's biggest critic on that subject.
According to the analysis produced by General Sir Martin Farndale last October—I presume that Ministers have seen it-48 battalion-sized units would be required to cover the commitments in the emergency tour plot, which at that time did not include the extra battalion sent to Bosnia, and to provide a 24–month tour gap, which the Government say they want.
A further 16 battalions are required to cover other garrison and training duties, and to act as a force reserve for Northern Ireland. That means that a total of 64 battalions are required to meet all commitments. The hon. Member for Canterbury raised the matter earlier, and Sir Martin Farndale laid it out in specific detail.
Although the British Army will have 67 infantry, Royal Armoured Corps and Royal Artillery battalions, only 45 of them will be large enough to complete tours without being significantly reinforced. That will have two consequences. First, the Government's claim to be able to achieve a 20–month emergency tour gap will be little more than a cruel fiction. Secondly, at any given moment, units from each of the British Army's eight brigades will all be in the middle of completing an emergency tour.
In summary, Farndale argues that the minimum number of battalions is 64, and the minimum number of troops required is not 119,000, as the Government say, but 132,000, which I believe is much nearer to the figures suggested by the Select Committee. [Interruption.] I do not know whether the Chairman of the Select Committee agrees with me about that.
§ Mr. Hanley
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that it is a Labour commitment to add those numbers back?
§ Dr. Reid
I absolutely confirm that it is a Labour commitment to provide resources to match our commitments. [Laughter.] I should have thought that that was what all hon. Members wanted—to match our resources to our commitments. If we do not do that, the people who suffer will be not Members of Parliament but those who have to suffer the demoralising working practices that the hon. Member for Canterbury, a member of the Minister's own party, has described.
Even the Minister must know that there is a complete lack of morale in the armed forces. It is often said that the Queen must think that the world smells of fresh paint; no doubt, when the Minister makes his visits, his world, too, smells of fresh paint. But during his visits to units of the Army throughout the country, even he must have detected 754 the sense of demoralisation, uncertainty and overstretch. It does not stop the soldiers carrying out their duties in a professional manner, but it is dangerous in the long run.
§ Mr. Hanley
May I tell the House and the hon. Gentleman yet again—I believe that I have told the House the same thing on five separate occasions during the last six months—that, on the basis of current commitments, we expect infantry tour intervals to be 17 months in 1994–95 and 24 months in 1995–96. That will be after the completion of draw-down.
If the second battalion in Bosnia were not replaced, intervals would be 20 months in 1994–95 and 30 months in 1995–96. On the assumption that the second battalion is replaced—we have not made that decision yet—the target of 24 months is still achievable. When I replied to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury earlier, I acknowledged that of course certain units and individuals are overstretched, but it is not our policy for that to happen, and we shall continue to investigate every time we hear that it is happening.
§ Dr. Reid
That is the argument between us. The Minister says that he expects something to happen, or that it is the Government's policy for it to happen, but I say that it will not happen on the basis of the present figures. That is the bone of contention between us, so it is no good the Minister saying, "I repeat what I have said before." I am producing the figures based on the calculation made by Sir Martin Farndale, who goes through all the figures and shows a shortfall of about 12,000.
Perhaps for once the Minister is right; time will tell. If we achieve the 24–month tour interval, I shall accept that graciously. But we both agree that, in the meantime, there is overstretch. That goes without saying, because we have not met the target—and I doubt whether it can be met.
I have spoken at considerable length—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I know that many hon. Members, especially Conservative Members, want to speak. They always complain that few Opposition Members speak on military matters, so I know that they would be more than happy for me to continue for another hour. [Interruption.] Their cries of abuse make me think that perhaps they do not want to tempt me to do so.
It is a cliché to say that we live in a changing and challenging world, but it is true. That world is also fantastic and yet fraught—but it does not pay to be too pessimistic, as we sometimes are. Over the year that has passed since the previous Army debate, two glaring examples have given us reason for optimism.
At the time of the previous debate, in view of the long and apparently intractable problem in the middle east, few would have thought that we should see the Prime Minister of Israel and the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation standing side by side on the White House lawn. We can take heart from the thought that the long struggle to reconcile the security of Israel with the national rights of the Palestinians, while by no means over, is at least now being conducted within a framework of peace.
Secondly, we can take heart from the fact that the long dark night of apartheid in South Africa has apparently ended. Although there are still many hills to climb in the search for full democracy, reconciliation and reconstruction in that country, at least the foothills of freedom have been scaled.
755 There are reasons for optimism, but there are many reasons why we should not be complacent either. Earlier today I saw, as no doubt many hon. Members did, television pictures of what is happening in Rwanda. I was staggered by those photographs. I am also slightly staggered by the apparent indifference in the west to what is going on in Rwanda.
I do not suggest that there is a racial element, but I and my party believe that the appalling slaughter of innocent people in Rwanda must be stopped. We believe that the United Nations and the Organisation of African Unity need to organise the immediate deployment of military forces to try to end the genocide. The death of a Rwandan child is just as tragic as the death of a Bosnian child, and we must not allow either to be ignored.
There are problems elsewhere in the world, such as Somalia and the Maghreb, with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. There are problems in Asia, where there is now a huge arms race, disputes over the Spratney isles, potential conflict with North Korea, and friction between India and Pakistan.
There are problems in the Transcaucasus, such as the forgotten war involving Azerbaijan. It does not reach our television screens, yet hundreds of thousands of refugees have been thrown off the land, supposedly because of the issue of Nagorny Karabakh. There is the problem of Georgia where any spark could once again ignite the civil war between the Georgians and the Abkhazians. All those are indications of an insecure world.
In central America, we are withdrawing troops from Belize. We ask the Government to reiterate our commitment to Belize at every possible stage. There is genuine concern on both sides that we should not make the mistake of allowing the troop withdrawal from Belize to fall into the pattern of the withdrawal of HMS Endurance. There are signs that, once again, Guatemala is flexing its muscles. Anything that can be done to reiterate our commitment to Belize, even if only ensuring that, when Harriers go to South American air shows, they stop over in Belize, would be welcomed by the Opposition and by many Conservative Members.
With all those issues, not to mention Bosnia, there has never been a greater need—I come back to the point about the United Nations with which I starteed—for clarity of thought, definition of strategy, provision of resources and resolution of will. Tragically, none of those qualities has been provided at national level under this Government.
Britain is therefore completely unable to play its part at the heart of international decision-making—where it should be—on these issues. We believe that the Government are failing the House, the country as a whole and, above all, the men and women who are the subject of today's debate—the men and women who serve in the British Army.
§ Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)
The hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) has addressed the House for one hour and eight minutes. I have heard him make shorter speeches; I have to tell him that I do not think that they suffered from being shorter.
I appreciated the anecdote that the hon. Gentleman told about one of my predecessors in office—Lord Healey. It confirmed a lot for many of us when he told the story about the way in which Lord Healey made up the figures when 756 he was asked to count the numbers getting off trains at Swindon station. The story showed the sublime indifference to the facts that marked some of his later utterances in the House, including those made during the period when he was on the Back Benches. The feature that many of us appreciated about Lord Healey was the way in which he boldly faced out any suggestion that there was any tiny weakness in Labour defence policy at any time. Referring to the Labour party conference at which motions that he did not like were passed, he spoke of party members being out of their tiny Chinese minds.
The hon. Member for Motherwell, North was speaking in the fine tradition of Lord Healey when he described Labour defence policy as though the decisions taken by overwhelming majorities at Labour party conference were of no interest to the Labour party and the House, and of no consequence to the shadow Cabinet, whose members had blithely dismissed those decisions. Labour defence policy is as hollow and empty as the Benches behind the hon. Gentleman today. I am sure that he is more than relieved that this debate is taking place on a day when most of his hon. Friends—or all his hon. Friends—who profoundly disagree with him about defence policy can be absent from this place. It is symbolic that the Conservative Benches are packed with hon. Members who take a close interest in the defence of this country and that the Opposition Benches are virtually vacant. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday in the House, the issue of a strong defence for our country is one on which Conservative Members are wholly united.
I pay the warmest possible tribute—hon. Members will understand that, coming from me, that is no platitude—to the men and women of our armed forces. As today's debate is on the Army, I pay the warmest possible tribute to the Army. This is a difficult time for the Army's leaders and commanders, it is a difficult time for morale and it is a time of change which poses particular challenges. I have the greatest respect for the professional way in which the Army has addressed the challenges that it faces. I also pick up the tribute paid by my hon. Friend the Minister to the way in which General Sir Michael Rose is carrying out his duties in the eye of the storm and under the eye of world public opinion. He is doing no harm to the profession of arms as it is recognised in this country. I had the privilege of having him as a brigadier with me in Northern Ireland when I first went there, so I know something of the great quality and calibre that he brings to his task.
I apologise to the House for the fact that I am about to quote some words that I wrote on 23 July 1991 in the foreword to the White Paper, "Britain's Army for the 90s":Our commitment remains clear; an Army for the 90s and beyond, smaller but better-equipped and supported, fully manned and well able to meet its commitments at home and abroad, and to provide for our security in the future as it has done so well in the past.The assessment on which that foreword drew was the recognition that we had changed from the previous structure of our forces, which was designed primarily to cope with the threat of a massive surprise attack in Europe.
I wrote of our forces:Now they need to be designed to respond to a wider spread of risks, normally acting in concert with our NATO or Western European Union allies in a coalition of the kind assembled to deal with Iraqi aggression, or in other ways in support of the United Nations. Our forces can be smaller than now, but they must be flexible and mobile, and well-equipped to deal with a range of military capabilities, including the most sophisticated, both inside and outside Europe.757 I wrote that, in doing the reshaping, we had taken accountof our Gulf experience which clearly demonstrated the greater value of all-professional forces and the flexibility they offer … The Gulf also demonstrated the vital roles of the supporting Arms and Services, and the need to maintain a proper balance between them and front line armoured and infantry units.I resile from not a word of those statements in the White Paper.
I draw attention in particular to the importance of fully manned and properly equipped units. It was not always like that. The hon. Member for Motherwell, North referred to the fact that at the time of the Gulf crisis the units that we had were not fully manned. When the reduction in the number of battalions was announced and the suggestion was that we went from 55 to 38, and then to 36, we had the man-strength only for 51 battalions. We were pretending to have a larger front-line force and a larger traditional line of regiment than we were maintaining. The story of the Challenger tanks and the problems that we had in operating at that time were well known. There were also problems of stretch in finance which led to problems on the training side.
The options programme had two factors that helped its reception among our armed forces. First—this was not always the case—once the changes were made, the new structure was fully funded. I attached great importance to that full funding at that time because I had made an announcement of changes, which, over the four-year period under the options programme, were intended to reduce our defence expenditure by 6 per cent. in real terms. Over the previous five years, our expenditure had been reduced by 11.5 per cent. in real terms, not on the basis of making any changes in structure but by significantly reducing the funds available. That is called salami slicing. I sought to stop that and—I say in all seriousness to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench who are facing very difficult challenges—we must ensure that that problem does not reappear. We may change commitments, we may alter structures and we must define where those economies will fall and how they will fall, but we owe it to our smaller armed forces to ensure that they have the proper level of equipment, the proper level of training and the proper level of resource needed in support of their activities.
We kept our promise on the full funding of the programme. I believe that we kept the promise—it is now in the good hands of my hon. Friend the Minister and I look to him to maintain that promise—of properly equipped forces. We have opportunities today because of the Challenger programme, with the Warrior, with the AS90, with the Starstreak, with important logistic support such as DROPS—the demountable rack offloading and pickup system—which proved itself so significantly in the Gulf, with the new communications system, with the light attack helicopters and with heavier lift capability. Those resources, with their new capabilities and with the new quality of equipment, can make our Army of the 1990s the best equipped that it has ever been. That is an undertaking and a pledge that I know my hon. Friends support and which the Government—I am pleased to see—have continued to maintain.
May I also draw attention to the implication that flows from "Front Line First"? The supporting arms are vital. In 758 opening the debate, my hon. Friend the Minister referred to the quality of the logistic troops in Split and said that they were vital to our operation in Bosnia.
Let us consider the capabilities shown in the Gulf. Of course media attention focuses on the teeth arms, but the teeth arms know that back-up support is absolutely vital, whether in the signals, the ordnance or in the catering corps —the latter, incidentally, was vastly superior to anything that our allies had, with the possible exception of the French, who were too far away for accurate comparison, and certainly enormously superior to anything that the United States could offer. That combination of proper support facilities comprises both those in uniform and those in civilian clothing. I know that the hon. Member for Motherwell, North studies these matters, but I do not think that he was as familiar as he should have been with the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton).
One particular point about the Gulf conflict concerns the amount of good technicians and capable civilian support out there, whether they worked for Rolls-Royce, British Aerospace, Vickers, GEC Marconi or Racal. I told the various companies before the conflict started, when we first saw the possibility of being involved in deploying substantial resources in the Gulf, that there was no point in spending a lot of money on expensive shows, stands and demonstrations and on entertaining those responsible for procurement decisions—or in whatever ways they spent their money on sales promotion after it was all over. I told them that the biggest show of military equipment was about to be launched, that the Gulf conflict was the biggest practical exhibition and that it was vastly in their interests, in the national interest and in the interest of our international responsibilities to ensure that their equipment served our forces as it was expected to do.
That message clearly got home. I said that to the chairmen of all the major companies and they responded magnificently. The people working with them gave outstanding support. That was not a one-off; I judge that it will be a continuing feature. With the increasing sophistication of military equipment, there will undoubtedly be a call for additional support for our forces from the civilian side.
When we consider the structure of our armed forces, it is, I suppose, not very difficult now to be persuaded of the case for flexibility. There is a continual tension over planning in the Ministry of Defence—a tension between the need to plan for high-intensity operations and the constant pull of the more frequent, low-intensity operations. There is the pull of Northern Ireland, which continually draws us into low-intensity operations. We do not deploy artillery in Northern Ireland; we do not deploy tanks there. It is not that sort of operation.
Of course, Bosnia and peacekeeping in its various forms are taking us in that same direction. In that sense, and only in that sense, I thank God for the Gulf war, which reminded us or warned us that suddenly one may find the need for high-intensity conflict and the ability to organise and combine all the arms, which are needed for such a sophisticated military operation. On the day on which the European fighter aircraft is taking its first official flight in Britain and when people may be inclined to challenge the need for more sophisticated equipment, it is worth noting that the Gulf war also taught us and warned us that we may not be fighting or facing the full might of the Soviet Union, with all its sophisticated arms programmes, but that those 759 arms and others like it are sold to many other countries with which we may find ourselves in conflict and which we may need to face.
I listened to the comments that the hon. Member for Motherwell, North unwisely launched into at the end of his speech about the Scott inquiry and I recalled that, at the start of the Gulf war, the French Mirage jets were not able to fly in the opening aerial exchanges because the French had already sold Mirage jets to the Iraqis. The hon. Gentleman referred to the arms that we sold to Iraq. We do not sell a single weapon to Iraq and he knows that. Yet other countries did. It is no secret about the Mirage jets. I have a photograph of myself standing on the dock in Al Jubail next to a large load of missiles marked with the label Aerospatiale and stamped with the date February 1990 and the code number AM38. Any Conservative Member who is familiar with the military will know that they are Exocet missiles which had been recovered from the Iraqis.
That warns us that sophisticated weapons can fall into other hands and is why we must always ensure—it is a heavy responsibility for my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench—that our service men are not at a disadvantage if we ask them to stand up for international peace and justice. We must ensure that they have the equipment to give them the protection which they need and which is able to compete against anything that they may meet.
§ Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)
We shall wait for the outcome of the Scott inquiry. However, there is no doubt that at my local airport, we trained Iraqi pilots who flew against us during the Gulf war.
§ Mr. King
There were Iraqi Airways pilots. I flew with them. That was the only way in which, as I remember, one could get in and out of Baghdad. Over the years, we traded with Baghdad businesses when we did not have sanctions. Many British companies were actively involved in trade with Baghdad and we certainly trained Iraqi pilots. When I flew into Iraq at that time, I was slightly reassured by the fact that their pilots were well trained. They were civilian pilots doing their work. The hon. Gentleman is trying to use that diversion to excuse the casual description and quite incorrect allegation of his hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North that we sold arms to Iraq. I am glad that we have made that point quite clear.
The Ministry of Defence and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State have produced a document that sets out helpfully the way in which commitments arise and the way in which they are met. There is a trap in that approach because, if some of the commitments come to an end and there are changes—Belize is one example, Hong Kong is another and Germany, and numbers in Germany, could be another—the inference might be drawn that it would be right further to reduce the level of our armed forces.
In terms of the options programme, I always regarded the end of the cold war as a move to the position in which we now find ourselves. Broadly speaking, we are where we should be in peacetime post cold war.
We would be foolish to anticipate or expect an end to the violence in Northern Ireland. We all know of the British Army's commitment and of the tremendous role that it has played in Northern Ireland. If there were a ceasefire and a permanent cessation of violence, some voices would no doubt suggest that there was an 760 opportunity for a further significant reduction in the Army. I know that my right hon. and hon. Friends would not be so foolish as to anticipate in any way a change in Northern Ireland. The future is far from clear, and the responsibility, as it were, for change lies elsewhere: it is for the IRA and Sinn Fein to cease their campaign of violence. Were there to be a cessation of violence, I would strongly urge my right hon. and hon. Friends not to see that as an opportunity for a further significant reduction in our armed forces.
The approach of the Government and of individual Ministers in seeking to identify savings where they can be made is the right one. I urge them to announce the results of their investigations and examinations as soon as they conveniently can. We heard the flippant remarks of the hon. Member for Motherwell, North, but he has never had the responsibility of government. He does not know the range of considerations that are involved in the massive exercise that the Government are undertaking.
It will be an impressive achievement if the results of the exercise can be produced as early as July. It is important that the Government strive for that early date, precisely for the reason outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier).
We are entitled to expect from our armed forces discipline and good co-operation at difficult times. In all my dealings with the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence I found that they understood the need for change, but they looked for guidance. They needed to know where they were going—where their path was leading and where it would end. Given the need to make further savings, and bearing in mind the changes that are in hand, I urge that an announcement should be made as early as possible so that those involved know clearly how things stand.
I stand second to none in my admiration of the way in which our forces have coped. I recognise the problems in relation to adequate tour intervals and the related problem of stretch, which I realise will arise during the period of change and with the amalgamation of some units and the reforming of others. The problems raised by Bosnia are less than welcome because they are clearly an additional burden. I understand that the present situation is extremely difficult and places a heavy responsibility on our forces —a responsibility greater than I would have wished them to carry. It would not be acceptable if we did not see an end to the present state of affairs. As I see the period of change coming to an end, I hope that we shall move towards the tour intervals that are essential for our forces.
As I have said, we ask much of our forces and they discharge their obligation superbly. We owe it to them to provide the clearest possible programme for their future. They should know that they have the overwhelming confidence of the House and that we support them in the tasks that we ask them to undertake.
§ 6.4 pm
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)
I yield to no one in the importance that I attach to single service debates of this sort. I cannot resist the view, however—it may be shared elsewhere—that to some extent our discussions take place in a vacuum. We know, for example, that in July further announcements are scheduled to be made which may well affect the Army. However, I do not propose to go down the road followed by the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid), who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench. I am content to wait until the 761 announcements are made. We shall then be better able to test ministerial assertions that capability will not be affected.
On this occasion, as on virtually every occasion since the "Options for Change" announcement was made in the House in July 1990, there is a dispute about whether a defence review is desirable. The hon. Member for Motherwell, North cited several authorities—academics and others—in support of his proposition. I can add to them the Financial Times of 27 April 1994. Perhaps it is not quite the compelling authority that it once was in the view of Conservative Members following the position that it adopted shortly before the general election, but we find in a leading article on 27 April the following:In short, there is no cohesion of European thought or action, and little underlying agreement on the future presence in Europe of US forces. A proper white paper would set out the foreign policy options and the defence decisions that flow from them. The starting point would be to focus British eyes on both Nato and the European Union. That is more important"—the writer continues with a degree of cynicism that I would not necessarily support—
than the defence of Tory seats in a borough or two.An article in The Economist of 30 April 1994 stated:
With the world changing fast, and war apparently as popular as ever, Britain sorely needs a fresh review of its military commitments. Such a review, for instance, would decide whether Britain should continue equipping itself for every type of warfare. A possible alternative would be for Britain and its NATO allies to plan together so that each specialised in particular strengths. Thus Britain might maintain a sizeable fleet and amphibious ability, but leave heavy armour to others. In any case, much deeper Treasury cuts would probably make such specialisation inevitable.It is inevitable that the intellectual argument will continue about whether what the Government are proposing to do is based on a rigorous analysis of commitment. In due course we shall have a debate on a White Paper—after the defence costs study announcements have been made, I hope—and there will be an opportunity for a more wide-ranging discussion of strategic issues of the kind to which I have referred briefly. Today, however, I shall concentrate—I consider this to be appropriate—on the Army. I am surprised that so far—to some extent this was contradicted by the right hon. Member for Bridgend—
§ Mr. Campbell
Yes—the right hon. Gentleman would not make much of a Welshman at Cardiff Arms Park.
I am surprised that we have not concentrated more on procurement. If flexibility and mobility are truly to form the basis upon which our Army is equipped to meet future tasks, surely procurement lies at the heart of that approach. I believe that there is an overwhelming moral obligation on the House to ensure that when we send men—and, increasingly, women—into circumstances in which their lives are at risk, they are properly equipped.
As the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) said, there are practical considerations. Events in the former Soviet Union have brought significant amounts of military equipment—some of it highly advanced—on to the market. That equipment has become widely dispersed. One of the factors is the effect of the conventional forces in Europe treaty, which has only added to the volume of equipment coming on to the market. I think that no one in 762 this place would depart from the principle on which the right hon. Member for Bridgwater took his stand—that it is essential that United Kingdom forces are never at a disadvantage, wherever they have to be deployed.
We have not always acquitted ourselves well in procurement policy. There should be a sign reading, "Remember the SA80" above the desk of every civil servant and every service man or service woman in the armed forces with responsibility for procurement. We can hardly be proud of the history of that weapon's development, production or experience under battle conditions. It is generally accepted that it has become an extremely effective weapon, but there is little doubt—the report of the Select Committee on Defence made this eloquently clear—that it could hardly be regarded as a paradigm of good procurement.
I hope that the Minister will tell us how close he is to making an announcement on the attack helicopter and the support helicopter. If flexibility and mobility are to lie at the heart of the Army that we seek to fashion for the remainder of this century, early decisions on those two important projects, which have considerable consequences for employment and the leading edge of technology, would be highly desirable.
Some hon. Members have referred to the lessons of the Gulf. I agree with the right hon. Member for Bridgwater about the civilians who assisted the effort in the Gulf. The hon. Member for Motherwell, North might have been on stronger ground if he had told the House that the civilians who assisted in the Gulf were British citizens and were taking part in an operation which had almost universal political support in the United Kingdom. He might have said that it would be unwise to rely on local support in Cyprus, just as some of us feel anxiety about the need to rely on merchant shipping sailing under flags of convenience for the transport of equipment in time of war.
The whole of the 1st British Corps had to be stripped to field the armoured division in the Gulf. I hope and trust that we have learnt the lesson of that experience. In addition, we had become so committed to the central front that much of the equipment was suitable for a land battle in western Europe but unsuited to the climate or terrain in the Gulf. In the procurement of equipment, therefore, one should bear in mind that equipment may have to be used in various scenarios and theatres.
The United Kingdom has command of the rapid reaction corps. I think it is fair to say that that appointment was accorded a considerable amount of political significance. Certain obligations go with that command. The UK has an obligation to provide most of the corps' headquarters staff and to contribute substantially to its forces. A strong body of opinion believes that the decision to accept that command and its obligations has to a substantial extent shaped the size and nature of the Army for the foreseeable future. If we are engaged in a radical review of commitments, as I believe that we should be, we should ask whether the continuing command of that corps is justified.
Events have moved on since September 1990, when the UK was first asked to take up that command. The original anxiety about the Eurocorps has substantially diminished and its commitment to NATO now seems unequivocal. As the NATO summit in January authorised joint task force operations, whereby European members can use the full facilities of NATO without the involvement of the United 763 States, one must again ask what is the justification for the rapid reaction corps and why Britain should continue to command it.
Another feature is the continuing deficiency in strategic uplift capacity, which has an effect on the potential effectiveness of the corps. The fundamental question to which the House and, I hope, the Government should address themselves is whether it is right that the shape of the Army should be so dependent on the fact that the United Kingdom has command of that formation.
The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) speaks with great authority on defence matters and I am sorry that he is no longer in the Chamber. I had to disagree with him on the issue of the tactical air-to-surface missile, but there have been many occasions when I have agreed with him. He made a telling point when he raised the issue of the continued presence of the British Army in Germany. I wonder whether he feels so strongly and so radically about the Royal Air Force. The Minister of State for Defence Procurement will remember that I raised that subject in the Royal Air Force debate earlier this year.
The Government should embark on such radical thinking. Unlike others, I do not lay great stress on what appears in The Sunday Times, but there was a hint of such radical thinking in that newspaper last Sunday. If that hint reflects what is being thought in the Ministry of Defence, I applaud that thinking because it is the type of radical thinking that is now required.
In the course of his observations, the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood referred to what seemed like a possible amalgamation of the Gurkhas and the Gordons. I do not know the Gurkhas that well; knowing the Gordons, however, I think that it would be a pretty curious amalgamation. To some extent, the hon. Gentleman's argument was borne out in the figures quoted by the Minister. It is notable that if the second battalion continues to be deployed to Bosnia, the effect will be to neutralise the withdrawal from Belize.
We all want the 24–month interval between emergency tours—that is generally accepted by the Army as being a suitable period—but even on the figures produced it seemed to rest on a pretty fragile foundation. For that reason, the hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to learn that those who are anxious to preserve the Gordons and the Queen's Own Highlanders are arguing, even at this stage, for a reprieve for both regiments. The amalgamation is scheduled to take place on 17 September this year, so the Government still have time. If that reprieve were granted, it would go a long way towards assisting the fragile basis on which the 24–month figure is proposed. Far be it from me to offer political advice to the Government, but it would also do no harm to their political reputation north of the Tweed.
§ Mr. Gale
I fear that I have to take the hon. and learned Gentleman back a little. I was waiting for a natural break in his speech, but it did not happen; it has been a seamless speech. He referred to the allied rapid reaction corps and he read from an article in the Financial Times which seemed broadly to suggest that there was no cohesive European approach to defence. As the allied rapid reaction corps represents probably the epitome of what is regarded as modern response to modern needs, is the hon. and learned Gentleman seriously suggesting that the ARRC is not 764 necessary? If he is not, it is surely right that it should be led by one of the best generals from the best Army in the world.
§ Mr. Campbell
The military academies in France might dispute the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's comments. If he is saying that, within a common foreign and security policy leading a common defence, to echo the words of the Maastricht treaty, there may be something approaching a rapid reaction corps, there is some substance in his view, but I argue that the British assumption of the responsibility of command has had the effect of substantially skewing the Army's shape for the foreseeable future.
When we are considering radical and long-lasting decisions, the continuing responsibility for that and the consequences for the British Army must be the subject of considerable review. I believe that there are military and political implications. It may be, for aught yet seen, that there is no military justification for that. However, there may be a political justification. If that is the case, we should have that debate so that we understand precisely why such a substantial part of our resources is being moved in that direction.
In the past 12 months, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, who I am sure will endeavour to catch your eye later, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I had the opportunity to visit Northern Ireland and the former Yugoslavia and I want to say a word about each.
One of the things that struck me in Northern Ireland —I am not sure whether others have had the same experience—was the maturity of the relatively young men and women who were essentially in the front line of the Army's operations there. As one might expect, I was impressed by the quality of leadership of the senior officers. However, I was particularly impressed by the quality of leadership at non-commissioned officer level. Very frequently, the NCOs leading patrols on the street face the most difficult decisions which require judgment, maturity, common sense and good humour. We rely substantially upon those people. One of the features of my visit to Northern Ireland was that I came away lost in admiration at the quality of people whom we are still able to find to fulfil dangerous and demanding tasks of that kind.
The right hon. Member for Bridgwater was right to say that if there is a political settlement it will have consequences for the Army's commitments in Northern Ireland, though for my part I find it difficult to envisage circumstances in which there would not still be the resident battalions, but perhaps that is a discussion that we can have on another occasion. As the right hon. Member for Bridgwater rightly said, the consequence of a political settlement should not be the justification for yet another financial raid on the defence budget. Instead, it should be the means of providing greater flexibility on the emergency tour plot and, if necessary, of enabling us to meet further calls upon us, as a permanent member of the Security Council, to provide forces for United Nations operations.
In the meantime, I repeat a point which I believe will find some sympathy with the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton). There is surely an extent to which some of the tasks currently carried out by the military in Northern Ireland could be undertaken by the civilian authorities without prejudicing security. That must 765 be the determining factor. If steps could be taken in that direction, that could well have the consequence of creating greater flexibility.
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces very properly drew attention to the fact that, while much is made of the quality of the infantry battalions in Bosnia, the quality of the logistical support is not often sufficiently recognised. Having visited Split with the Defence Select Committee, it was clear to me that a substantial part of the success that the infantry battalions have enjoyed has been due to the quality of that support. While we were in Split, we were told of a battalion, offered by a country whose anonymity I should preserve, which Brigadier Reith was unable to accept or to deploy because it came without support and, as a consequence, would have been not an advantage to his effort, but a disadvantage. The importance of support and the point at which support and the front line run together are clearly matters of considerable significance.
I welcome the fact that reserves will be deployed to the Falklands. If we argue that such deployment is a contribution to the overall defence of the United Kingdom, we must allow people of sufficient quality who are sufficiently well equipped and trained the opportunity to deploy in the kind of circumstances in which we might ask them to deploy if an emergency arose. I hope that the Government will take as many opportunities as possible, consistent with the civilian obligations of members of the reserves, to allow people that experience.
I understand that an effort is being made to extract something from the budget of the War Graves Commission. If that is true, I do not care much for the timing of the proposal, given that we are about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of D-day.
The two principal war grave cemeteries that I have visited are Arnhem and Alamein. There is no doubt that the quality of maintenance of those graves and cemeteries is remarkable to behold. One could argue with some justification that that is intrinsically right and proper. There is another more practical and perhaps less theoretical argument. When the friends and relations of those who died in battle visit those cemeteries, they derive some comfort from the fact that their sons and husbands and friends are still being properly looked after. I hope, therefore, that the Government will think very carefully before embarking on any argument about a reduction in the War Graves Commission budget which might be seen as cheeseparing and an insufficient reflection of the fact that in this year, of all years, there is a considerable sense among the citizens of the United Kingdom that many people gave their lives so that we could continue to enjoy our freedoms.
On these occasions, there is a ritual of congratulation in respect of our armed forces and, in particular, in respect of the Army. However, we should never forget that every day, somewhere, men—and, increasingly, women—in the Army are at risk of their lives. It is sometimes easy to forget that fact in our abstract discussions of concepts such as force structures and deterrence. If the risks run by those who serve are not constantly in our minds, they are surely constantly in the minds of their families—and those who serve are entitled to expect of us not just good wishes but sound judgment as well.
§ Sir Archibald Hamilton (Epsom and Ewell)
May I begin by declaring an interest in that I work as a consultant to Litton Industries which, among other things, makes navigation and guidance systems, and for Saladin, which is in the business of personal protection and security.
I pay tribute to the soldiers who serve in our Army across the world. We undoubtedly have the finest soldiers of any country today. They put themselves at very great risk and one is full of admiration for the discipline and very high professionalism that they demonstrate.
I want to refer to the defence cost studies which are now under way and about which we hope, as this was expressed earlier in the House, we will hear an announcement before we rise for the summer recess. I must confess that I was a rather doubting Thomas about those cost studies. It struck me that much too much money would have to be found. As the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) observed, we have tried to find savings before. I thought that it would be very difficult to find the quantities of money that were being talked about.
I am happy to say that I have probably been proved wrong and I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State on the way in which he has managed to get the services to work with him on what has amounted to a quite significant review of our support elements in the three armed services. He has managed to do that quite subtly. He is using their ideas. There is no doubt that an awful lot of the initiatives have come from the services themselves and that makes them that much more acceptable to the people who will ultimately be affected. He has also taken advantage of the fact—under the "Front Line First" measures—that the service boards have always been made up primarily of front line people. So there is not much affection for the support units but there is a great deal of affection for the fighting units, and if it comes to a choice the service boards will be more than happy to look stringently at what economies can be made in support areas to preserve front line units.
We have been over this ground before, and some of the old excuses are probably starting to slip away. One of the difficulties that we always used to face was the idea of transition to war, which was the reason given for keeping large numbers of men in uniform. The idea was that if we started thinking of going to war it would be possible to call up these men and to ensure that they came under military discipline if we entered a war zone—there would be no problem with people refusing to go. That problem can be finessed by changing the Reserve Forces Act 1980, and I sincerely hope that the Government will introduce legislation to that effect as soon as possible.
If the Act is updated, there is no reason why any civilian company performing the task of maintaining aircraft or tanks should not have a reserve liability. Then, if we went to war, these people could be called up and subjected to military discipline just as if they were in uniform all the time. That would be a significant step forward. The Gulf war showed the readiness of civilians to operate in support roles. The hon. Member for Motherwell, North need have no anxiety that tanks could not be maintained by civilians close to the front line, because their reserve liability would be invoked. That is a way around many problems.
In the past we faced enormous difficulties because the single service ethos often meant that people fought their own corners. I attempted to get the Royal Naval technical 767 college at Manadon moved to Shrivenham, so that all three services could undergo their technical training there. I encountered a certain resistance from the Navy, which explained to me that the move was not possible because people at Shrivenham all wore plain clothes and went around like civilians, whereas there was a great naval tradition that everyone should wear uniform.
I took the idea back to Shrivenham and asked what could be done about it. I was told, "No problem; we will ensure that everyone here wears uniform from now on." I went back and told the Navy, but the Navy said, "We must go away and think about this." In the end the Navy returned and agreed to Manadon being closed down but suggested that the alternative should be a technical course at Southampton university, where all naval trainees would be in plain clothes.
I should not have thought, either, that there was too much problem about bringing all the padres together. They could all be trained in the same place, surely. It is not too presumptuous to think that they all believe in the same God, although they may serve different arms of the forces.
The same can be said of doctors. I am greatly concerned about the costs associated with the military hospitals around the country—and they are even more expensive in Germany. A hard look should be taken at those costs. We do not need very many doctors to go off with our units abroad; we do need doctors if ever we go to war. So the whole idea of reserve doctors should be looked at carefully. I question whether we need the massive medical corps that we have in the Army and the number of military hospitals that go with it.
I am glad that it is proving possible to take a look at the staff colleges. In the past people felt strongly, in the single services, that they had to be preserved at whatever cost. The RAF never stops telling me about how unique Bracknell was, although there was no shortage of money men to remind us of the development potential of the significant number of acres in Berkshire on which it sat. I hope that the Government will carefully consider consolidating the staff colleges in one place. Admittedly, Greenwich presents a maintenance problem; it has so many preserved and listed buildings. But perhaps it can be moved to some other Department.
There are rumours in the newspapers, which I have no reason to disbelieve, to the effect that a close look is being taken at the support elements of the RAF. I should like to enter a caveat as follows: if they are civilianised—I am sure that there will be opportunities for that—the MOD should not allow a monopoly to a civilian supplier so that it becomes difficult to conduct subsequent competition for the work. It is most important that the work be put out to tender again in a few years' time, and that there should still be a viable competition for it.
§ Mr. Brazier
May I put an allied point to my right hon. Friend? When we consider contractorising military functions, with sponsored military units, both for that reason and because of the lack of surge capability in civilian industry, is it not essential that units should not be sponsored by the very defence suppliers who supply their equipment? That could lead to a monopoly in peace time, exercised by a supplier which, in time of war, will be exceptionally busy producing spare parts and so on.
§ Sir Archibald Hamilton
That is certainly a viable point: there is probably a case for splitting the two functions. What is important is maintaining competitiveness so that there can always be competitive tenders.
I recall the fact that, for a very long time, there were serious problems in the MOD over agreeing about the training of dogs. The RAF maintained that its dogs had to be trained completely differently from Army dogs—it was impossible to bring them under the same roof. I gather that an agency deals with the training of dogs now, so it is highly likely that they will all be trained together at last. It just goes to show what problems there can be.
I must tell those who talk of bringing back the Rhine Army that, although there are theoretically enormous savings to be made, we must face up to the fact that there is not a great surplus of barracks in this country. A massive building programme to house the Rhine Army in the United Kingdom would render any savings illusory for a long time to come, while the capital costs of rehousing the men were absorbed.
I must also tell the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) that there are 300 tanks in the Rhine Army. I am not sure how their return would fit in with the environmental concerns of the Liberals. If they trained in Britain, they might cause a certain amount of difficulty. [Interruption.] Perhaps Fife is the place to put them. I have always taken the view that there are large areas of Scotland where more training could be done.
We have to accept that a third world war is becoming much less likely. Most of NATO's structure and organisation was based on the idea that we might be pitched back into a massive European war—our support structures certainly reflected that possibility. Now, warning times are very much longer, and we cannot dismiss what is happening in Russia either. Today no one believes that Russia's economy will allow it to rebuild its armed forces to the point where they threaten our security—at least, not for a long time to come. It is thus possible to take some risks with the amount of support that we keep, and it is right to examine it in a draconian way, as the Government are doing.
It seems to me likely that savings will be found, and that is extremely encouraging. Let us ensure that they are ploughed back into better equipment and into all the things that lead to "smaller but better", just as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) has always advocated. We must accept that the role of our armed forces is changing, and that there is a much greater emphasis on peacekeeping. When we consider what role we should be playing in other parts of the world, we must never forget that we have a massive peacekeeping commitment in Northern Ireland which, I think, is standing at some 18,000 troops.
I was unhappy when the decision was made in 1992 to send two extra battalions to Northern Ireland. The reason for that has been well rehearsed. Those were two enroulement battalions, so we were not just talking about another two battalions, but about eight to 10 battalions which are needed to support them. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement will have an opportunity to give an answer when he sums up, but does he have any statistics in terms of terrorist incidents or what has happened in Northern Ireland which prove that those two extra battalions have achieved anything in military terms?
769 I have yet to meet any general who does not want more troops for whatever it is that he happens to be doing, but it is important that we weigh up the effectiveness of those troops. They are not just a free and easy option. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces made clear, we may—if we are lucky with our existing commitments—get to a two-year interval between tours. On the other hand, if there is the slightest change and extra commitments are taken on, we will not get to the 24–month interval. The whole situation is being held tightly.
I was glad to hear that the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East backs my view that we should be looking strongly at the civilianisation of a number of jobs which are taken on by the military in Northern Ireland. One classic example is the Maze prison, where an extremely boring guarding job must be done which could easily be done by locals recruited in Northern Ireland where unemployment is astronomically high.
I must tell the hon. and learned Member that it will never happen as long as the job is carried out on the defence budget, as it is at the moment. I cannot see the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland volunteering to take the cost of hiring people locally on to his budget, and that is one of the great difficulties. I have been laughed out of court in the past by saying that the whole of our Northern Ireland commitment should come on to the Northern Ireland budget, and should not be part of the defence budget. There would then be some financial incentive for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to look at a reduction in the number of troops. The Secretary of State wastes no time in ganging up with the GOC in Northern Ireland and demanding more troops and, if he gets them, he knows that they will not cost him anything because they will not come out of his budget.
That leads one to Bosnia, where once again there are two enroulement battalions. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces said that there is every intention of getting one of those battalions back. I was glad to hear that, but I have a great suspicion that in years to come we will still have at least two battalions in Bosnia. One knows the nature of the UN—it is extremely easy to put troops into those areas, but it is very difficult to get them out.
Once again, those are enroulement battalions, so it is not just a question of the two battalions but eight to 10 battalions which are needed to support them. We want flexibility to carry out any tasks relating to peacekeeping or the defence of our interests anywhere in the world, but that flexibility does not exist today. Therefore, we must look hard at our commitments.
I would like to pay great tribute to General Sir Michael Rose for doing absolutely miraculous things with very limited resources in Bosnia, and he has shown enormous courage and resourcefulness. However, I do not think that it would have made any difference to Gorazde if, instead of the maximum of 150 UN troops which were there, there had been 1,500 UN troops. The fact remains that the Serbs had every intention of taking that town back.
We must not believe that there is some magic number of troops which we can put into Bosnia which will stop the Serbs from doing what they want. The great problem is that those who know absolutely nothing about defence, both in 770 the House and particularly in the media, are the ones who tell us that there is a military solution to the problems of Bosnia.
§ Mr. Duncan Smith
My right hon. Friend has touched on an extremely important issue. During the Gorazde affair, there was a garrison of Bosnian Muslim soldiers in the town who were constantly making forays. Not once was that reported, as far as I could see, in the press. Does not that demonstrate that the situation is much more complex than is so often touted both here and in the press?
§ Sir Archibald Hamilton
I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. The press has a great responsibility in this, and there has been enormous pressure for us to deploy troops in Bosnia. I do not think that anybody could know what the final outcome of that would be. I find it worrying that there are still people talking in terms of a massive deployment of troops, as if somehow there was a military solution to the problems.
There is a direct comparison with the 500,000 American troops who were put into a not totally dissimilar situation in Vietnam. There was a civil war, and the troops incurred enormous casualties, got nowhere and had to come back totally defeated. Exactly the same thing happened to similar numbers of Russian troops in Afghanistan. We must learn that we cannot impose solutions on countries which are at war.
We also must accept something which is extremely unpalatable, and it is not something that one wants to say. However, the fact is that since we went into Bosnia we have fed some starving people, but we have also fed the fighting forces in Bosnia. We have kept soldiers alive, and they have been able to continue the fighting. If we had deprived them of food, maybe the whole conflict would have come to an end quicker and maybe fewer people would have died. We may have prolonged the conflict and made it worse.
There are people who say that we should use NATO or lose it. I think that that is the most incredible nonsensical rubbish that I have ever heard. The fact is that NATO has never been used—thank God it has not—but it has acted as an effective deterrent and has maintained peace in Europe for a long time. If we were move to the opposite scenario which some are suggesting of a massive deployment of NATO troops in Bosnia, one can imagine what would happen if serious casualties were incurred there.
What would happen to the NATO alliance? There are many partners in NATO who are not in the business of having large numbers of casualties and bodies coming home because of their involvement in a civil war somewhere in Europe which in no way threatens their security. If we were not careful, the NATO alliance could disintegrate if those troops were deployed.
I hope for heaven's sake that we avoid massive deployments. I have every sympathy for President Clinton who is showing reluctance to get American troops involved on the ground, and we must be wary before we become more involved than we are today. I hope that we do not have to see a ghastly accident involving the deaths of a large number of our service men before the decision will be taken to withdraw.
§ Dr. David Clark
I wish to associate the Opposition with the right hon. Gentleman's comments on and tributes to General Rose. Will he join me in paying tribute to Brigadier John Reith, the commander of BRITFOR, who is 771 just retiring, for his magnificent work—far beyond his military role—in banging together the heads of the Bosnian Government and the Croats to get peace in central Bosnia? Now, 1.6 million of the population live in relative peace. I believe that he has done a brilliant job there as the commander of BRITFOR. Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in that?
§ Sir Archibald Hamilton
Of course, and I also pay tribute to the diplomatic efforts which have gone into ensuring that that peace is maintained. We must do everything possible to ensure that the Serbs eventually agree to some form of peace also. However, that seems regrettably to be some way off.
§ Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles)
The right hon. Gentleman has made clear his view that European and British forces should not be involved in trying to impose peace in Bosnia. Does he therefore agree with those who advocate the lifting of the arms embargo so that, at the very least, the people of Bosnia can defend themselves? If we will not defend them, surely they have the right to defend themselves.
§ Sir Archibald Hamilton
The arms embargo makes total sense so long as there are UN troops on the ground. If UN troops were withdrawn, there would be little justification for maintaining an arms embargo against one of the factions in Bosnia, bearing in mind that the Croat and Serb elements have less problem in obtaining arms.
One should not imagine that there is some simple solution to the problem in Bosnia. If the Muslims were to be supplied with arms, the arms would have to come through Croatia. There are certain logistic problems in getting in any more heavy armaments than can be brought in by aircraft.
Let us deal with the question of a review. It is a little facile to believe that some wonderful review could be carried out which would identify all the future threats to the United Kingdom, tell us in what wars we would be involved in the future and allowed us to plan the armed forces as a result. Of course, we carried out the Nott review, which somewhat emasculated the Navy. The next thing we knew, we were involved in the Falklands war, which no one had foretold. If we are to rely on defence intelligence to tell us where the next war will come from, let us remember that it got the Falklands wrong and the Gulf war wrong. People swore that Saddam Hussein would never invade Kuwait.
I do not know on what premise we are to work out where the next war will come from, so it seems sensible, in broad terms, to keep a wide range of technologies and capabilities that one might need in any sphere of life. The only way in which we would undermine that position is by being drawn into more and more peacekeeping activities around the world. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater alluded to that. If we did so, there would not be any more money for the defence budget. We would end up with a larger and larger lightly armed Army and we would sacrifice the Navy and the Royal Air Force to pay for it. We would also sacrifice the Army's capability to fight high-intensity conflicts. If we did that, we should ultimately undermine the defence capability of the United Kingdom. That is something that we should not entertain, whatever happens.
772 I pay tribute to our Army and our soldiers. I know that they want to be a professional, superbly equipped force. They do not want to incur casualties all round the world peacekeeping in areas where little can be done.
§ Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles)
I begin with a constituency point. I do so without apology because, as both the Secretary of State and the Ministers are aware, the Royal Artillery range at Benbecula in my constituency is of vital economic and social importance to the southern isles in terms of the work that it generates for the local population and in wider general terms—the income that it brings into the islands.
The Secretary of State knows that I have made representations over the past months about the future of the artillery range at Benbecula. Concerns continue to be expressed, particularly in the present climate of talk of swingeing cuts in the defence budget which will affect bases up and down the country.
I shall not rehearse the arguments that I have already put to the Ministry of Defence and the Government about the economic and social importance of the range. I merely make the point that in my seven years as a Member of Parliament, I have never once had to approach any Defence Minister with any complaint from my constituents about the range at Benbecula.
The relationship between the range and the people of the southern isles is excellent. It has always been extremely good. It is a tribute to that relationship and to the people who work at the range that never in seven years have I had to take a complaint to the Minister from a constituent about any individual or anything that has happened at the range.
The same is true of the recent large-scale exercise at Lewis involving the Royal Marines. The exercise normally takes place each year in Norway, but, because of the winter Olympics this year, it had to take place in the United Kingdom. The location chosen was in my constituency. Thousands of soldiers made amphibious exercise landings near Stornoway. I have not received one complaint from my constituents about the scale of the exercise or the behaviour of the soldiers. I pay tribute to the Royal Artillery and the Royal Marines in both respects. It is my hope that, at the end of the extensive accounts exercise that the Government are undertaking, the relationship that has been established over past decades will continue for an equal period of time to come.
I shall not rehearse the arguments about the merits of the Royal Artillery range from a defence point of view. As the Ministers and the Secretary of State know, the deep range is a unique facility which cannot be duplicated anywhere in the United Kingdom or, indeed, in Europe. I also emphasise that the short range, which provides the bread and butter of the work of the range, cannot easily be added on to ranges elsewhere in the United Kingdom. It provides a specific type of training and practice for the teams who train there. Such single-purpose training facilities are vital. I know that the Royal Artillery wants it to be retained. I hope that the Ministers who make the decision will listen to the voices of those in the Royal Artillery.
Although I appreciate that the Ministers involved have to make some tough choices in the months to come about where expenditure can be deployed most effectively from an overall defence point of view, an essential element in such ministerial decision making is the thought that, wherever possible and everything else being equal, defence 773 spending should be directed to regions of the country that face serious economic difficulties and have high unemployment rather than to regions that do not face such deep-seated economic structural problems.
The Government can use defence expenditure to achieve two goals. One is the immediate goal of defence value for money. The other goal, given that the expenditure will take place in any case, is to bolster the regions that are economically depressed. If the Government can marry those two objectives—I believe that it is possible—they will genuinely achieve value for money. I hope that that perspective informs the thinking of Ministers and the Secretary of State when they come to take their important decisions.
A wider theme appears in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1994". I am struck by the references in the statement to the European dimension. It has not crept into the debates thus far. None of the speeches that we have heard from Conservative Members touched on it.
The European dimension is becoming more and more apparent in defence thinking. The "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1994" contains striking paragraphs and phrases which would have been inconceivable a few years ago. For example, on page 15 of the paper in a section entitled "The European Union", paragraph 210 states:We have declared … our intention to contribute to work towards a common European defence policy which may, in time, lead the European Union to a common defence.I know that such aspirations are expressed in the Maastricht treaty, but I am pleased that the Government have seen fit to include that phrase in the statement. A major change has occurred in Government thinking in the past few years and I welcome it.
Another reason why we need to think along these lines is given on page 11 of the "Statement on the Defence Estimates". Paragraph 207 states:The Combined Joint Task Forces"—which were broached at the last North Atlantic Treaty Organisation summit—will be able to operate under the control of the Western European Union"—not just under the control of NATO—in circumstances where the European NATO nations perceive a need for action but the United States and Canada, for whatever reason, do not wish to be involved.That is very important recognition of a problem which has arisen in the former Yugoslavia, and I believe that we are likely to see it elsewhere in Europe beyond NATO's immediate area of operations in the years to come.
I warmly welcome the Government's recognition that there will be circumstances when members of the Western European Union will need to work together without the immediate direct assistance of the United States or Canada in the form of ground troops. I hope that they will provide assistance in other forms, such as logistical intelligence and so on. We will need to operate outside NATO's immediate area of operations in order to achieve objectives which are important to European interests, but which may not be important to the United States or Canada.
I believe that the statement will be seen as a seminal statement, as it recognises the necessary European dimension in British defence thinking. Given the sentiments expressed in the statement, I regret that the Minister did not refer to the European dimension in his speech, although he talked about many other topics. This is 774 an absolutely crucial issue because it is a fundamental perspective which conditions all other thinking. I hope that the Minister who is to reply to the debate will address it.
The statement refers to how various European countries will work on the European dimension through the combined joint task forces and through the WEU planning cell, which is now up and running. Page 16 of the statement says:The WEU Planning Cell … is drawing up lists of forces which could be made available by nations to the WEU for operations on a case-by-case basis.I do not find the last point encouraging. I do not think that we should bring together forces on a case-by-case hasis, but should seriously try to develop, in an integrated way, European defence capability which will be able to respond to a broad variety of situations.
The United Nations has had difficulty in responding to the crisis in Yugoslavia in an ad hoc way. When a crisis occurs it tries to pull together the forces it needs to respond to that crisis. Likewise, I think that that is one of the lessons that we learnt from the Gulf war. Because of a lack of anticipation and thinking about developing a combined European force, there was a last-minute scramble to put together the forces necessary at the time of that war. Some countries, such as France, were plainly not adequately prepared for such a deployment.
I urge the Government to talk to our partners in the Western European Union and begin to organise more systematically the planning of European defence capability. Future generations will be astonished to learn that each member of the European Union undertook major cuts in its armed forces, while subscribing to the notion of a common defence capability. European Union members are making defence cuts in isolation; there does not seem to be any co-ordination of the cuts which they are implementing.
In the current climate, it would surely make sense for European Union countries to sit down and plan together the kinds and shape of forces that they will need to meet future emergencies. We do not need just a British defence review; we need a European defence review. A review of British defence made in isolation is inadequate, given our commitments in the Maastricht treaty and the challenges that we are likely to face.
I welcome the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) about the situation in Rwanda, which has been largely ignored by the media in the past few weeks. Carnage has occurred in Rwanda on an horrendous scale and it should concern us deeply. I welcome particularly what my hon. Friend said about the need for the United Nations and the Organisation of African Unity to get together to consider the urgent deployment of military forces to Rwanda to try to stop the slaughter in that country.
Obviously, we need there, and shall need in similar situations in the future, not only peacekeeping, but peacemaking. It is also clear, as my hon. Friend implied, that when that type of crisis occurs in different regions of the world, although there must be a UN dimension and a UN authorisation of international action, we should look to those countries most closely involved—the countries in the region—to be in the front line in resolving the problem.
I believe that the same is true in Bosnia, which is for Europeans as Rwanda is for African countries. We, and especially my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North, are willing to call on African states to intervene 775 militarily to stop the slaughter in Rwanda. We should be equally willing to call on European states to intervene to stop the slaughter in Bosnia. The moral imperative is obviously the same, the interests of the international community are the same, but the interests of those countries bordering the trouble spots are obviously much greater than the interests of countries at a large distance from them.
Therefore, I believe that Bosnia must be regarded as primarily a European responsibility, and that in the future we shall need to develop a European defence capability to intervene in places such as Bosnia much more effectively than we have been able to on this occasion.
§ Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)
When I look back on my military service, I count myself fortunate to have served at a time when there was always an identifiable enemy and we usually knew what we were about and the dangers that we were walking into. That is why I should like to echo all the tributes that have been paid to our service men today.
Going into action, seeing the enemy in front of one, is quite a different matter from going out on the streets of Belfast or going down those roads in Bosnia, and many other places where our service men are now committed. They never know how long they will be there. What is more, they are under restraints under which only an Army of the quality of ours would possibly operate. No other army in the world would behave as well as our Army has behaved, and suffer the casualties that we have suffered over the years, yet hold back from action which many of its members, I know, from time to time would wish to take.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) has made it clear over the years that change was inevitable. I do not think that anyone in the House would not accept that it is time for change, against the background of the events that have taken place in the Soviet Union, or what was the Soviet Union, in the past five years.
No one can defend the need for an army or armed forces at the level at which they were required before the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was followed by the splintering of its armed forces and, in my view, by an almost total collapse of its morale. I would not wish to be engaged in the Russian army today, against the background of what has happened to those armed forces over the years.
I have a fairly long memory in the House. I sit here through every defence debate. I watch, and I have listened to what has been said from the Opposition Benches over the years. Throughout the cold war period, when this country and the NATO alliance were under threat from the Soviet Union, we never heard anything from the Opposition parties in the House except the need to cut our defence forces. Most hon. Members on the Opposition Benches—only five are present tonight—know that, throughout that time, they were being led by people who supported CND and its aims and objectives.
I am very sorry that the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) has left the Chamber, because I should especially like to draw attention to the role that the present leader of his party played in 1985 when he turned the Liberal party, against the wishes of then leader, the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) and, I am quite sure, the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East, against the deployment of cruise missiles in this country at a crucial 776 time when the future of the country hung in the balance. Let us never forget what was done by the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) at that time and the damage that it did to the credibility of his party.
Therefore, we should take no talk from Opposition Members about what they want to do and the way in which they would maintain our armed forces. This is our debate because through those dark years we kept our armed forces intact against the attacks that were being made on them by Opposition Members.
We all know that change and cuts are inevitable, but they must be soundly based and in line with long-term strategic priorities, not based on annual Treasury demands. I am anxious that decisions may not be taken quickly enough—that there may be a blurring of "Options for Change" into putting the "Front Line First", without the right action being taken quickly and rationally.
Probably the most unhappy time that I spent in the Army was in the canal zone from 1951 to 1954. We had thousands of service men locked into that canal zone and they were all in a no-win situation. The result was inevitable. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of them—always the best—junior officers and NCOs, said, "Enough is enough; I am off." They left the Army in droves at that time and it took us many years to make good the loss of that hard core of people who were the best in our armed forces.
I have to say to the Secretary of State that morale was brittle then and it is brittle now. Once again, many of our brightest and best feel insecure and they—the ones whom we can least afford to lose—will always bail out first. So my first message to the Secretary of State is to ask him please, please, please to end the uncertainty as soon as possible, live up to the slogan that he has rightly put before us, "Front Line First", and ensure that our Army, and especially its leaders at all levels, regains its confidence and morale. Uncertainty about the future destroys morale most, and that is the anxiety that I have now.
That means more than providing a good and worthwhile career structure. It means ensuring that the best Army in the world has the best equipment in the world, is not starved of proper training, and has ammunition and spare parts always available. In pursuit of that, radical changes can, and should, be considered.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton) made an argument about the difficulty of bringing back the Army from Germany because of the cost of finding barrack accommodation here, but I would say that the same does not always apply with the Royal Air Force. Air stations here are being vacated by the United States air force and our air force as they retrench, and I cannot think of any reason why we should not redeploy the RAF stations, or some of them, back here, leaving only an essential small element in Germany. Why do we need the RAF in Germany now, when even the most likely potential armed forces lie about 760 miles to the east of the German border? We have airfields being mothballed or decommissioned, so why not bring them home?
I was delighted to hear that the Devon and Dorsets are to go to Poland. We could not have a finer regiment making initial contact with the Poles. I hope that this is the forerunner of trainee exercises in Poland. I do not see why much of our training should not be translated to that country, with its marvellous training grounds, which I know it would love us to use following their vacation by the Soviet army. I imagine that they are in a pretty messy 777 state and that a hell of a lot of cleaning up would have to be done. A good deal of money could be saved, however, and we would be welcoming back on board our allies of the last war. I know that they would welcome our being there.
No one can predict where our Army will be called on to serve in the future. However, we can say with absolute certainty that any conflict will be based on this principle: "Come as you are, not as you would like to be." Never again will there be a situation of slow build-up in which we can mobilise. In future, when there is action anywhere in the world we shall have to go as we are. Thus, we need balanced forces, properly trained and equipped— not for a slogging match over years but for rapid deployment anywhere in the world. Many hon. Members have already said that, to that end, we need air mobility, rapid deployment capability and the right sort of air support. These are essential ingredients of such a British Army.
I end as the Secretary of State and, in particular, the Minister of State for Defence Procurement would expect me to—with a plea about equipment. First, will Ministers please get on with ordering some attack helicopters now? We need them desperately. Secondly, will they press ahead with a firm order for the utility EH101 to replace the totally inadequate support helicopter force?
The current helicopters were all designed in the 1950s or the 1960s. It is quite frightful that, with our capability and with the best Army in the world, we should still rely on helicopters that were designed in the 1950s or the 1960s and are really not up to the job. I realise that an order is on the way. It is grinding forward, and the Minister of State will want to push it as much as possible. Let him give it a little extra shove and, in particular, make sure that it goes to Westland.
I have great confidence in the Secretary of State and his team. On many occasions, I have pulled my right hon. and learned Friend's leg about what a joy it is for serving personnel and ex-service men to have at the Ministry someone who does not pretend to be a military man. He brings a clear mind to the job, and he and his team are the best people to build up the Army that we need in the 1990s and beyond.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster)
I welcome the return of the SDE programme to its proper timetable. It is very good to have the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1994" before us. I welcome the fact that the programme is back on schedule, and I hope that this will apply to future reports.
What we have this year is, of course, something of an interim report, as we are waiting for the results of the defence costs study, which I hope will be before the House early in July. What is presented to us will be the result of the work of 33 study groups, which I understand have already reported to my hon. Friend the Minister of State, and of some 5,000 extra recommendations from within the services and the Ministry of Defence.
Sieving through those recommendations, adopting the sensible ones and rejecting the bad ones, is a mammoth task, and I wish my right hon. and learned Friend and his ministerial colleagues well in their decisions. I shall not try to anticipate the conclusions of the study groups, but I want to make some general points.
778 First, with regard to "Front Line First", it is essential that the front line be extended behind. It must not be merely a thin red line, with no support and no replacements. My hon. Friend has already acknowledged the truth of this assertion, but the Select Committee on Defence will be looking very closely at the way in which it is put into effect when the defence costs study groups' recommendations are put to the House.
As I have said, I hope that this will happen in July. I have written to my right hon. and learned Friend to remind him that the Select Committee on Defence will sit during the recess if necessary. I hope that my reminder will help the timing of the report's production in such a way that it will not be necessary for us to do so. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend and his colleagues have taken well on board the underlying message of my letter.
I do not intend to reiterate the many points that have already been made. However, I shall try to add to them and, in the case of some, express thorough disagreement.
The hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr Reid) is very keen that there should be a defence review. I have told the hon. Gentleman that the current Select Committee on Defence has never recommended such a review and that it will never do so. That will certainly be the case so long as I am Chairman. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Committee has an admirable record for unanimous reports. We do not air our disagreements in public, and I think that I can guarantee that the Committee will not recommend a defence review.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer) and other hon. Members have said, certainty and continuity are very important to our armed forces at present. One reason for the low morale is that we have had so many changes over such a short time.
A defence review at this time would increase and prolong uncertainty. It is unthinkable that such a review could report within 18 months. It would simply elongate the uncertainty suffered by our troops and other service men.
If the hon. Gentleman has not already done so, he ought to read the paper on defence reviews that is obtainable in the Library. That shows in great detail the shortcomings of all the defence reviews of the past, and illustrates very nicely a point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton)—that defence reviews are wildly inaccurate and do not help forward planning of defence structures.
§ Dr. Reid
I have read the paper to which the hon. Gentleman refers, as he recommended during our last debate on the subject. The fact that we have always got it wrong in the past should not prevent us from trying again. [Laughter.] When I said "we", I was being generous; I should have said "they". I do not claim that we can predict everything, but that does not mean that we should not make an intelligent attempt to analyse what might happen.
This is not a question for polarisation. I believe that all hon. Members share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the uncertainty and the undermining of morale caused by the continual process of piecemeal review. I understand why the hon. Gentleman, like service men and women, does not want another 18 months of this. However, there will have to be a review. Eighteen months will be added either at the end of this period or in two or three years' time. There is no way out of that.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
That was a rather long intervention. Sometimes, a period of 18 months seems quite short. The hon. Gentleman was wrong to correct himself for having said "we". His "we" was perfectly correct. However, I do not want to get dragged further into a debate on the question of a defence review. My opinion is that, at the moment, such a review would be very damaging to the morale of the forces. In any event, I do not accept that it would assist us in our forward planning.
I should like now to deal with some general points arising from SDE94. I very much welcome the reiteration of the division of the role of the armed forces into three separate categories. This first occurred in the last review. The armed forces' first task is to protect the security of this country and that of our allies when there is no major threat. Their second task is to protect us when there is such a major external threat; and their third task is to represent this country's wider security interests through the maintenance of peace and security internationally. I wish briefly to consider whether our current forces can fulfil those three tasks, or whether a shortfall needs to be addressed.
On the major external threat, I profoundly disagree with both my right hon. Friends the Members for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton), who were the architects of "Options for Change". I opposed that move, because I felt that it was wrong to assess the threat from the former Soviet Union as diminished by the changes that occurred there. I now believe that my fears were fully justified.
The Select Committee on Defence is currently undertaking a study of the role and strength of NATO and where it should go in the future. I shall not try to pre-empt what the Committee's report might say, but in the course of that study we have met leading defence experts and politicians, particularly Defence and Foreign Ministers, from most of the countries that border Russia—Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Baltic states and Georgia—and we shall shortly visit Russia and the Ukraine. Everything that I have seen and heard so far leads me to conclude that this world is much more dangerous than it was five or six years ago.
We cannot discount the threat from Russia just because its current leadership is benign and the strength of its forces has been run down. A brief look at SDE94, which compares the level of equipment and resources still available to Russia today with what is available in the west, shows that, whatever the rundown may have been, we still have a formidable potential enemy that is equipped in such a way that Europe could not resist it, were the threat to be renewed. Mr. Zhirinovsky may or may not come to power in Russia; but if he does not, some potential dictator may do so.
As an hon. Member has already said, the Russian economy is extremely weak, but it was concluded that that lessened the risk of Russia becoming aggressive again. My conclusion is that Russia's economic weakness is a real reason why we should fear her most greatly.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion. He has already drawn my attention to the treaty between Russia and Spain. He is right. The Russians are diplomatically trying to network bilateral treaties in order to undermine western security, which is another reason why we should fear their long-term intent.
§ Sir Archibald Hamilton
Does my hon. Friend accept that a main component of the deterrence provided by NATO that stopped the Soviet Union invading western Europe was nuclear weapons? Given that we still have nuclear weapons today, why should not that deterrence be as effective tomorrow as it has been in the past?
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
Because there is now an area of total uncertainty that did not exist in the past. So long as there was a stand off between the west and the east with no middle ground over which we were likely to fight, the nuclear deterrent, backed up by a substantial conventional capability, was adequate. If Russia were to fall into the wrong hands, I fear that she would not be content merely to reconstruct the old Russian empire of the Ukraine, Byelorussia, Georgia and the Baltic states, but would look again at the "near abroad"—Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
If Russia does that, it will be for the west to decide whether to go to war to defend those countries. I do not know what the future holds, but, given the instability of central Europe and the fact that it is now open for them or us to compete over, the position is infinitely more dangerous than during the cold war.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell
I intrude on the speech of the Chairman of the Select Committee, of which I am a member, with all due deference. He seems to argue that treaties between western countries and Russia were destabilising. What, then, is his response to "partnership for peace", which we understand the Russians are willing to sign?
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
"Partnership for peace" is a treaty between the west collectively and individual eastern states. The idea is to have a partnership of defensive alliance. The difference between the partners is that the west does not intend to attack eastward. But if that position is reversed and an aggressive Russia attacks westwards, and alliances prevent a western European country from acting against Russia in such circumstances, that would be a much more dangerous position. The Defence Select Committee should look at that matter, and I reserve my final judgment on the treaties until we study them in detail.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
I am sorry, but I must move on, as I know that many other hon. Members wish to speak. Perhaps we can debate the matter later outside the Chamber—[Interruption.]—over a drink, not in a boxing ring.
NATO must remain the linchpin of western strength. For the foreseeable future, this country must look to NATO for our security in terms of major external threats. Many matters flow from that, including our presence in Germany, which is an important part of our commitment to NATO and of maintaining America's commitment to NATO, and many other ways in which we become involved in 781 defensive alliance action, such as Bosnia. Were those matters left entirely to our national Governments, we might not necessarily wish to become so involved.
On protection and security when no major threat exists, we have already heard a great deal about Northern Ireland. The fact that I do not propose to add to what has been said on that topic does not reflect my view of its importance. I endorse what has been said. It is unlikely that we shall be able to reduce the strength of our forces in Northern Ireland in the near future, except perhaps in marginal areas where we could safely hand over jobs currently done by military personnel to civilian or Northern Irish personnel. We cannot, however, substantially reduce the number of troops currently deployed there, which stands at 19,000.
On the Army's peacetime use, the main weakness is in our training schedules. I hope that that weakness is temporary. It is the result of emergency tour plots that are very close to each other, so that our troops can never train at brigade, divisional or substantial strength level because somebody is always busy doing something else. When my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement winds up, will he say something about our plans to send troops to BATUS for training in the near future? I seek his assurance that we shall be able fully to use the UK's allocation of time in that training area.
Will my hon. Friend also say something about an exercise called First Crusade, which took place in March? I hope that it was more successful than the exercise after which it is named. It was supposed to be at brigade strength, but there was a substantial shortage of infantry. The 1st Duke of Wellington unit, which had been allocated to that exercise, was not there because it was in Bosnia, and there was a shortage of both Saxon and tank regiments because of other operational duties which they were either engaged in or training for.
Will my hon. Friend assure us that, in future, brigade-strength exercises will be planned as part of our regular training exercises, so that we do not reach the stage where we can operate only in small groups, and lose the vital cohesion that gives our Army such potential strength in times of substantial conflict?
The third heading is the wider security interests, about which I have spoken before, so I can be brief. I am profoundly concerned that Her Majesty's Government do not seem fully to deploy the great ability of our troops in the national interest on the wider scale. Our presence abroad is not given the value that it has outside purely security reasons. When we deploy troops, trade and goods will follow, and our international diplomatic relationships are tighter and closer. The way in which we exercise and deploy our troops should be considered on a much wider basis than merely whether there is an immediate defence need or an immediate training benefit from their presence.
We have deployed troops in many cases, particularly in Nepal when we helped with the hurricane, and in Guatemala, when we helped with a natural disaster, in both cases earning substantial good will.
However, the withdrawal from Belize was wholly wrong, taking it on the broad base of national interest. On page 40 of the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1994" the Government report on the excellent anti-drug work done in that region by the West Indies guard ship. I am glad 782 that there is no current intention to remove that ship from station, as it would be disastrous for our presence in the West Indies and that part of central America.
But the troops on the ground could also have a useful role in anti-drug operations. More importantly, they have become vital again for the security of Belize itself. The justification in the defence estimates for the removal of the troops would be described by my—I almost said right hon. Friend—ex-right hon. Friend Alan Clark as being economical with the actualité.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
There is a lot about a bit of the truth and all of the truth.
Page 48 of the defence estimates says:At the request and with the agreement of the Belize Government, the British military presence in Belize will take the form of a jungle training operation for troops from the United Kingdom.On the face of it, that is not untrue. The Belize Government did ask for, or did agree to, the removal of British troops. But the Belize Government were then replaced in an election and the new Belize Government asked us please to stay, to which the answer was no. At the same time, there was a revolution in Guatemala, just as the Government were announcing what a wonderfully safe place Guatemala had become. Ever since, there has been an increasing threat to Belize from the Guatemalans.
The outrageous conduct of the Greeks, backed by the Guatemalans, to the high commissioner of Belize during the conference over Easter in Greece was something about which I hope Her Majesty's Government made a vigorous protest, not least as the high commissioner for Belize also happens to be a viscountess in Britain. The insult to this country and to Belize was intolerable, particularly from a country currently purporting to be President of the European Union.
I deeply resent what happened to the high commissioner at that conference. We shall be making a grave error if we fail to give backing to the Belizean Government and to the security of Belize. The Guatemalans are becoming more and more aggressive. There is a settlement within Belize of Guatemalan citizens which the Belizeans cannot currently get rid of, and the situation out there is looking increasingly bleak.
The response of Her Majesty's Government, again on page 48 of the defence estimates, is to say that the Belizean Governmenthave been assured that the British Government is fully prepared to play its part in consultations which would lead to the appropriate response should the security of Belize be threatened in future.Frankly, if the Guatemalan forces invaded Belize, we would not have time to call an international conference to see what the appropriate response would be.
We are in grave danger of repeating the error we made in the Falklands, of showing an apparent weakness where, in the event, there would be strength. I have no desire to see British forces sent to Belize in order to defend it, but I would rather see that than see Britain's name in the mud for having betrayed yet another of our friends.
I hope that Her Majesty's Government will review the way in which they approach the whole Belizean issue and, if they do nothing else, at least ensure that there is in place, 783 not in future as a dream, an alliance which would guarantee the security of Belize against any aggression from Guatemala or any other neighbour.
There are other examples of our withdrawing when we should not be. We have taken the platoon from South Korea. There cannot be any great defence saving in removing a platoon from South Korea, but the Americans, to whom I spoke, deeply resented the symbolism of the withdrawal of support that we were giving to the American effort in South Korea.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State will not need reminding that the position in North Korea is becoming increasingly hazardous, and the whole of that area is looking dangerous. I accept that a platoon, even of our splendid British soldiers, will not make an enormous difference to the defence of South Korea if invaded, but it is a symbol of the backing we give the United States m that part of the world and, as such, I believe it to be valuable.
We have also withdrawn prematurely from Hong Kong. In the same way, we are sending signals of weakness when there is no need to be weak, and we are withdrawing our troops when their presence there would be a continual reminder of Britain's determination to stand up for the rights of the Hong Kong people up to 1997 and, by diplomatic means, thereafter.
We have prematurely withdrawn the troop levels that we had in Hong Kong. The House knows perfectly well why. It is because the emergency tour plot had become unsustainable without overstretch, so we have reduced our commitment, or at least our presence, in such places as we ought to be committed in order to relieve the emergency tour plot overstretch.
That has been done, but it is the wrong way round. The hon. Member for Motherwell, North gave a slightly parsimonious answer to, I think, my hon. Friend the Minister, when asked whether he would guarantee a higher level of troops in Britain, saying that he would match troops with commitments. Of course it is important to match troops with commitments, but if that is done simply by discarding all commitments, that is not the answer In the interests of the nation.
What my hon. Friend was seeking from the hon. Gentleman, and did not get, was an assurance that the commitments would be continued, and that the troop levels necessary for those commitments would be provided in the terms that the hon. Gentleman himself says are necessary. I await with interest the hon. Gentleman's future speeches —preferably not now—in which he will feel able to give the assurances that were sought.
I do not intend to say a great deal about Bosnia, but my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Duncan Smith) made one critical point. NATO has been conned by the Muslims in Bosnia into a position where we are in the gravest danger of moving into that war on a partisan basis —Muslim against Serb. It is well known that, in many instances—particularly, probably, the marketplace mortar —the Muslims have deliberately committed acts of appalling cruelty to their own people and have acted in a way that is against the rules of international conduct—for example, by placing artillery in hospital grounds, as my Committee was told early on in the conflict, and by other means—in order to bring NATO and the United Nations into the conflict against the Serbs.
Sir Michael Rose expressed his fury when he got to Gorazde and found that what he had been told about the 784 Serbian attack on that town was bluntly untrue, that it was Muslim propaganda. That is just one example of a series of ways in which NATO is being drawn into a partial action.
It is my firm belief that, if we are to have safe havens and to threaten to bomb in order to secure them, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and the hon. Member for Motherwell, North said, they must not be used as bases for Muslim sorties, from which they can come out, raze a few Serb villages, go back, put their hands up and say, "This is a NATO-guaranteed safe area. You cannot attack us here." If we are to have such safe havens, they must be policed on the ground so that Muslims cannot go out and in with armed forays, and secured by air support and, if necessary, air attack. If we cannot do both, clearly we should do neither.
I view with some concern future plans for extending and widening the areas to be given air cover, backed by threats of air action, especially by our United States allies, in places where we have either no troops on the ground or, worse still, a small number of extremely vulnerable troops, who may suffer the consequences of retaliation.
My message to my right hon. and learned Friend and his ministerial colleagues is to ask them to use all the influence that the Government have in NATO and the United Nations to ensure that the impartiality of UNPROFOR is maintained and secured. Will they please try to ensure that we do not get drawn into the war in such a way as to become a party to it, with all the dreadful consequences to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell rightly drew attention? Those consequences would ensue if we had to expand our forces and effectively entered a war—quite conceivably with us on one side and Russia on the other.
I know that many of my hon. Friends wish to speak, so I shall finish by making four brief points to my right hon. and learned Friend and his colleagues. My first point concerns the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which has already been mentioned by the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell). It must have sent a dismal signal to our veterans to see that the War Graves Commission had 5 per cent. cut from its budget this year, just as we are commemorating D-day.
Perhaps my right hon. and learned Friend will be able to assure the House that that can be done with the full consent of the commissioners—
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
If my right hon. and learned Friend will let me finish my point, I shall certainly give way to him.
I hope that he will be able to assure the House that the cut can be made in such a way that the wonderful standard to which the war graves are maintained can be sustained with the lower funding.
§ Mr. Rifkind
It would be helpful if I responded to that question. My hon. Friend and the whole House can feel entirely assured that we recognise the need for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to have all the funds it requires, both to maintain the graves in its usual excellent fashion and to carry out various other new projects.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will be relieved to know that, when representatives of the commission came to see me about the proposed reduction in its budget, they 785 accepted that the only consequence would be a reduction in its operating surplus. They gave me a categorical assurance that there would be no effect whatever on the maintenance work or on the projects that the commission wishes to implement.
The cut will simply mean that the operating surplus that the commission has enjoyed, which is carried forward from year to year, will be slightly less than it would otherwise have been. On that basis, and that basis alone, I felt it proper and responsible to accept that the commission could absorb some modest reduction.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
I am extremely grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. I am sure that all who share our concern that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission should continue its valuable work will be equally reassured by what he has said.
I cannot resist adding that, a few years ago, I took my young son out to see the first world war graves and memorials, and in particular the grave of my great uncle, which I discovered with the aid of his father's memoirs. We found the grave, beautifully maintained, at Vimy ridge; it was a moving moment. Incidentally, hon. Members can see my great uncle's shield now; it is the fifth from the right as one goes out of the Chamber towards Central Lobby. I believe that almost every family in the country has a similar tale to tell. The value of the work of the War Graves Commission is inestimable, and we should pay tribute to it.
Secondly, representatives of the Royal British Legion have recently been to see the Defence Select Committee, and they are keen that there should be a Minister with a sub-department to look after the interests of the people whom we call ex-service men—in the United States, they are called veterans. I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to consider that proposal closely.
Ex-service men have to register their interests with many departments, usually immediately on coming out of the services rather than many years later. They do not have the direct links that civilians would have, especially in matters relating to local authorities, because they are not attached to a particular local authority for the purpose of getting the benefits that people who live in a particular area can claim. Many such detailed problems could be alleviated by a sub-department of one of the Ministries, designed to look after service men's interests. I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to revisit that possibility.
Thirdly, I must mention the reserves. There will soon be a report before the House on that subject, so I shall not dwell on it for long. However, my opinion, which I believe is widely shared, is that, as the Army is cut, the reserves should be increased. Reserves are a wonderfully cheap form of extra capacity to back up the limited resource that our small number of soldiers, sailors and airmen can provide.
I hope that, when the report on the reserves appears, there will be no attempt to cut them in line with the front-line forces. Were that to occur, our overall strength would be well below any reasonable capacity, especially for the first of the commitments that I emphasised at the beginning of my speech.
I finish as I started, by saying that, unfortunately, the morale of our armed forces is low. The Minister of State 786 for the Armed Forces said that, whenever he made visits, he was always greeted with joy, and that everyone was extremely happy with what the Government were doing.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
I am slightly paraphrasing what my hon. Friend said, but I am sure that that is what he meant. Indeed, I am sure that, whenever he arrives somewhere, there is joy. None the less, morale is generally low, because of the uncertainty and the feeling that, for the past two or three years, we have been overstretched. There is not the certainty that I should like, that that overstretch will now come to an end.
I hope that, when my right hon. and learned Friend produces the defence costs studies, he will ensure not only that the front line remains as capable as it now, and is properly backed up with logistics and encompasses adequate and substantial reserves, but that there is no further threat of cuts to our forces in the foreseeable future. I am not confident that, once my right hon. and learned Friend has succeeded in making the present round of cuts, the Treasury will not try to impose yet another. Any such attempt would be unacceptable, and were one to be made, there would be enormous resistance to it.
§ Mr. Robathan
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will know that I am relatively new to the House, so I should be grateful for your advice. I understood that in this debating Chamber the idea is to listen to the whole debate before contributing to it. I do not understand how hon. Members can drift in, make their speeches and then drift out again—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)
Order. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that is not uncommon in this place, whatever is supposed to happen.
§ Mr. Cohen
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If that point of order was an allusion to me, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I was here for the opening speeches, and for some of the speeches that followed.
May the fourth is an appropriate date for a defence debate. My researcher, who is a bit of a wit, said that it should be called national star wars day. He was talking about the film "Star Wars" rather than President Reagan's defence fantasy, and he added, "May the fourth be with you." That is a very bad joke; he deserves the sack for making it, but he is a good researcher.
The Army is all about force. The potential for force is of course necessary, but I want to pay tribute to the humanitarian peacekeeping effort, especially in Bosnia, which is of the highest quality. I add my tribute to those already made by hon. Members on both sides of the House to that aspect of the Army's work.
In any debate on the Army there will be an amalgam of issues that hon. Members want to mention, and that applies to me too. I shall try to deal with all those issues quickly. First—I shall try not to take up too much of the time of the House on this subject—I missed the Navy debate because I was on a parliamentary trip to Kazakhstan, where I was examining matters relevant to defence. So this will be my only chance to put the record straight on my exchange 787 about Trident with the Minister of State for Defence Procurement. During Question Time on 8 February I said that there had been a doubling of strategic warheads—
§ Mr. Robathan
The hon. Gentleman may have failed to attend any more of the debate than the first 20 minutes or so—I noticed him here then—but he must realise that this is a debate on the Army. However much he would like it to happen, the Army is not yet reduced to being armed with tridents. Trident is a naval project.
§ Mr. Cohen
I am amazed that the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) has elected himself in your place, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall have plenty to say about the Army. I was here for much longer than 20 minutes; I heard the bulk of the opening speeches and the subsequent speeches as well.
I said to the Minister that 96 strategic warheads for Trident submarines had replaced 48 for Polaris submarines. The Minister replied:the hon. Gentleman has got his figures seriously wrong."—[Official Report, 8 February 1994; Vol. 237, c. 131.]I wrote to the Minister, who replied courteously on 10 March. He said:Malcolm Rifkind did indeed announce on 16 November 1993 that each Trident submarine would deploy no more than 96 warheads"—the figure I mentioned—a revision of the previously declared maximum of 128 … As regards Chevaline, we have stated publicly that this upgrade to the Polaris system did not involve any increase in the number of warheads associated with the Polaris force, and we have also made clear that when Polaris entered service each submarine carried 48 warheads.Again, that is the figure I mentioned in the debate. Far from being seriously wrong, I was seriously right. I want to make that point for the record because it is my last chance to do so.
I now turn to the scandal of the PINDAR bunker which the Ministry of Defence is building under Whitehall. The Ministry has spent more than £120 million on that hole in the ground. The Government are revealing information about the full extent of that scandal—that waste of money. As usual, the information that they have given is full of paradoxes. I give the House an example of how two pieces of information from the Ministry of Defence are contradictory.
A memorandum deposited in the Library front the Ministry to the Public Accounts Committee states that one of the reasons for the cost escalation of PINDAR was that there was only one access point of any size to the bunker. The Comptroller and Auditor General said:The difficulties were compounded by the relative inaccessibility of the site which resulted in all the equipment having to be lowered through an aperture, at ground level, which was just 12 ft by 6 ft.It has been said in the press that there is only one entrance.
However, in a written answer to me only last week, the Minister said that a variety of routes existed which would enable the occupants to escape from the facility in the event that the building above it had collapsed. The Minister may query my figures on Trident and on other matters, but he can agree with me on this matter: one is not the same as a variety. Were more access points built since the work began? If so, why were the additional access points not built to take the larger equipment which had to be forced down the small hole, as the Ministry described to the Public Accounts Committee?
788 I have one suggestion about the future use of PINDAR now that £120 million has been wasted on it. The Ministry's bill for overnight accommodation in London for members of the armed forces and civil service personnel based elsewhere who are visiting headquarters is not inconsiderable. Why not save that money and use PINDAR as the Ministry's guest rooms—bed-and-breakfast accommodation? Perhaps bed and breakfast for the homeless would not be too bad there. The bunker is supposed to have sufficient beds already to support a complement of 400 to 500 personnel. I am sure that more beds could be added, especially now that there are additional access and egress points, to which the Minister referred in his answer.
While I am on the subject of the waste of money, I draw the Minister's attention to an article in The Guardian on 22 April which is entitled:Rhine Army withdrawal 'in chaos"".I shall read it to put it on the record. In my experience, defence reporters often get their information from sources within the Ministry of Defence. In this instance, the information came from last month's National Audit Office report on the Ministry of Defence, the British Army in Germany, and the draw-down of equipment and stores.
The Guardian article says:Britain's Rhine Army withdrawal from Germany—the largest peacetime movement of troops and equipment in modem times —is at 'risk of serious breakdown in control"".The article is quoting the National Audit Office report here. The article continues:Perfectly usable equipment is languishing in fields, records of potentially dangerous ammunition and detonators have gone missing, and vehicles are being cannibalised unnecessarily … As a result, promised savings of £177 million to the Treasury will not be met.That is a waste of money. The article continues:
The auditors discovered 1,800 surplus vehicles stored in the open with no plans on how to use them. Some 1,100 were unserviceable, a third had been left on site for a year, and 23 had been stored there for seven years … The report reserved its strongest criticism for closure of a base workshop where £65 million of stores were held. One third of the items stored there were missing … the auditors expressed concern that missing equipment included firearms and ammunition … The report points out that of 116 units which had been closed, only four accounts have been cleared".The report describes a scandal which the Minister did not even address in his opening speech. Millions of pounds have been wasted, as outlined by the National Audit Office. Before Conservative Members start talking about their objections to cuts, they should get their own house in order and stop wasting such sums—and more.
We are to have a defence costs study. I shall not say much about that; I shall wait until the report comes out. However, I shall refer to the fact that one person involved in the study—he has been brought into the Ministry of Defence as a special adviser—is Mr. David Hart. It has been pointed out in a written answer to me that he has access to classified information. David Hart is the man who, for the previous Prime Minister, coined the phrase, "the enemy within". That phrase was aimed particularly at the miners. In effect, the phrase launched a war against the miners and anyone who opposed the Government at that time.
I shall give one quotation from the book "Misrule", written by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), which raises many issues about David Hart's role. I refer to the occasion when a notice was to be served on Arthur Scargill. As the book says, with a Daily Express photographer lined up, the lawyers
789sneaked into the Labour Party Conference with a borrowed press pass (a gross abuse), and I saw the notice of motion and legal documentation being served on an astonished Arthur Scargill, to the sheer fury of delegates at the Party conference. What would Mrs. Thatcher have said about the activities of anyone, after the Brighton bombing, who got into the Conservative Party Conference under false pretences? Yet David Hart was doing her general bidding.A man with that record has access to classified information and may change Ministry of Defence policies. He is an unwelcome character in this delicate study and in the Ministry of Defence. The Ministry of Defence has considerable power, both real and potential, in our society and such a person should not have power within it.
I received a letter today from Mr. Mick Jones, the national chairman of the Defence Police Federation. He refers to an article in The Times on 10 March which had the headline:3,000 MoD police may lose jobs to redundant troops".In his letter, Mr. Jones says:If approval is given to this"—the creation of an armed home guard battalion, known as the military home service engagement, using the troops that the Ministry of Defence is getting rid of to replace the Ministry of Defence police armed guarding role—up to 3,000 MoD policemen—some 75 per cent. of the Force —could lose their jobs. Needless to say, we are very concerned about the implications of this 'favoured option', in terms of both the threat that it holds to standards of policing and security at MoD establishments and bases and, of course, our members' jobs.… the option has not been favoured for financial reasons, as the interim report claims, but because service chiefs have been placing pressure on Sir John"—Sir John Blelloch, the man in charge of the report—to come up with a solution to provide jobs for some of the 13,000 servicemen and women facing redundancy over the next twelve months.Obviously, some sort of provision must be made for those service men and women, but it should not be done at the expense of the Ministry of Defence police. By doing that, the Government would, in effect, be saying to the MoD police that they are second rate. That is a deplorable thing to say and I urge the Government to think again.
The next point that I want to make is on the issue of pay because I think that it is an obscenity that the Government are to award a 4.4 per cent. pay rise and beyond for the top brass, while other public service workers are limited to a 1.5 per cent. rise or, for many, even less. Some workers will not receive anything at all. Again the Government are giving big pay-outs to those who are already well paid, while cutting back on other public service workers and those at the lower end of the scale. The excuse that the Government are using to give even more money to the top brass is that they are applying performance-related pay.
Some Members of another place have referred to that idea of performance-related pay. Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone said:performance related pay would be inconsistent with the general ethos to be attached to a uniformed and disciplined service".Baroness O'Caithain also made the point:the whole concept of performance pay, will it take note of the experience in the private sector? To my certain knowledge, the whole concept of performance related pay has been brought in as a buzz-word to hide a certain amount of avariciousness."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 27 April 1994; Vol. 554, c. 660–61.]That is what the noble Lady said and that is what it is about. In even considering that, the Government are 790 dealing in avariciousness for the top brass. How does one judge performance-related activities in the armed forces? Is it by how many people one shoots or, while on peacekeeping duty, by how many one does not shoot? How does one compare the performance of soldiers when they are given entirely different tasks? The Government should abandon that idea and abandon those differential pay rises which are just a blatant fiddle.
I shall now turn to the issue of landmines— anti-personnel mines—because they cause death and mutilation around the world, including areas in which British soldiers are on peacekeeping duties. There have been moves for a worldwide moratorium on the export of such mines, including a resolution accepted by consensus at the United Nations General Assembly calling for the trade in those foul weapons to be halted. The Government say that they export mines to countries that will use them reasonably. I do not quite know how countries use such landmines reasonably. We have exported cluster bombs, which have an anti-personnel mine element, to the Yugoslavian army in the past. Those bombs are now in the hands of soldiers who do not have a reputation for reasonableness—the Serbs. That is one reason why UN forces in Bosnia have been told to watch out for cluster bombs. The Government should realise that such mines have a life expectancy much greater than those of the Government to which we export them. Until they recognise that basic fact, civilians across the world—not to mention British troops on peacekeeping operations—will be vulnerable to those weapons.
The Army legal department also had a hand in drafting another United Nations convention on the use of inhumane weapons. I have been pressing the Government to ratify that convention. They have announced an intention to ratify it in due course, but are dragging their feet about bringing the legislation before the House. They should get on with it and do it immediately. Again, that would act as a safeguard for many of our troops from things such as napalm and phosphorus bombs.
I shall make two more brief comments before I sit down. One is to ask the Minister about medals. I have tabled a parliamentary question, but, while the Minister is here, perhaps he can answer it. What is the difference between EC and UN medals for our troops serving in Bosnia? What is the difference in the rules for wearing those medals? I have been told that there is no problem in our service men wearing UN medals, but that they are not allowed to wear EC medals publicly, openly or on ceremonial occasions. I put that down to the Government's muddle over the EC and their not having a proper policy. It is ludicrous. Those soldiers have served with distinction in Bosnia. If they get a medal from the EC, they should be able to wear it openly and publicly in exactly the same way as UN medals may be worn.
Secondly, I want to comment on the D-day anniversary. I shall not make a long comment because the muddle that the Government got themselves into spoke for itself. There should be a number of lasting tributes to our soldiers who fought and fell in that war. One lasting tribute that I want to bring to the attention of the House pertains to what those soldiers fought for and what those who came back had on their minds—to change the world and to change Britain to a better place. They were determined to create a health service, a welfare state, public education and put an end to unemployment and that it would be enshrined in our society. The one fitting tribute to those who fell on D-day 791 that this Government or any Government could pay would be to ensure that those principles of free health care, free education and full employment are properly maintained. The Government are sorely lacking in providing such a lasting tribute.
§ Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)
I hope that the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) will acquit me of any discourtesy if I do not follow the many points that he has raised or if I do not pick up on one or two, which I would dearly like to do, as I know that some of my hon. Friends want to take part in the debate. I always find his speeches interesting, including those at the North Atlantic Assembly, of which we are both members.
There are two points that many hon. Members have made in the debate. First, they have paid tribute to the quality of the men and women who serve in the British Army and, secondly, they have suggested that morale is not as good as it ought to be. In fact, there has been quite serious criticism directed in that way. The two points may seem somewhat incompatible. How can we have such a good Army if morale is not so good? However, the points can be reconciled. There is no doubt that my hon. and right hon. Friends who form the ministerial team and who are very assiduous in their duties must be aware that cuts in defence, however carefully phased, are bound to have a down side. There is no question of that. In their early phase, cuts mean disbandment, amalgamation, a loss of well-tried skills, and a sense of loss and I suspect that if they go on for long enough, they lead to a feeling and state of mind of "where will it all end", which is bound to be depressing. So I add my voice to those of Conservative Members who spoke earlier. The time has come to end that uncertainty.
Much of the blame, of course, has been attributed—and still is by some people—to the "Options for Change", the defence White Paper published in 1990, which set out clearly the changes in the structure and strength of our armed forces in response to the change in the political scene following the end of the cold war. It was immediately criticised for being Treasury-driven. Of course, financial savings came into it because "Options for Change" rightly recognised the profound changes in foreign security policy following the end of the cold war, the imminent collapse of the Warsaw pact and the withdrawal of Soviet forces from eastern Europe, which threatened—of course—the security of the west.
The analysis that was set out in "Options for Change" in 1990 was carefully followed and accepted. It anticipated NATO's new strategic concept of 1991. There was no disagreement about our approach to the security and defence needs of our nation and the approach of our allies through NATO's new strategic concept. That concept emphasised—this is still accepted—the need for more flexible conventional forces that would be well armed and well equipped. NATO stated the need to develop a European security and defence identity within the NATO alliance. It accepted at the same time that with the withdrawal of much of the threatening posture of the cold war there would be a reduction in the size of the NATO forces.
The message for the United Kingdom was of particular interest. It spelled out that our forces in future would rarely be expected to act alone. The job will be to contribute to 792 multinational formations with forces equipped to face high-intensity conflicts. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, expressed his views about how he thought that Russia could pose a serious threat to us. I do not want to go into the matter and debate the issues with him—but there is no doubt that Russia, although economically weak, has strengthened its armed forces considerably. It still manufactures extremely powerful weapons, some of them with the most advanced technology.
I strongly endorse the view that has been expressed by my right hon. and hon. Friends that a British Army that is to carry out its duties to the nation along with international responsibilities must be equipped to fight high-intensity conflicts.
NATO's stategy meant that allied forces—not only British forces—would be smaller. Everyone expected some sort of peace dividend. I make no apology for that. We all felt the same way in this country. The same goes for Europe generally and for north America. Every treasury in the countries in those areas responded to the deep wish that expenditure on defence should be reduced. The question we must ask ourselves is whether we have gone too far and too fast. It is worth considering what that means in terms of our own expenditure.
In the years 1980–84, our average expenditure on defence ran at about 5.2 per cent. of gross domestic product. By the end of 1992, we had reduced that expenditure by about 23 per cent. There was a fall from 5.2 per cent. to 4 per cent. For some, that was the peace dividend. Of course, we have gone further. The White Paper that is before us tells us that in 1992–93 expenditure will fall by a further 14 per cent., ending up at 2.5 per cent. of GDP. It is that further reduction that has caused us so much concern.
The hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid), who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench, referred to General Sir Martin Farndale. I have heard him speak on one or two occasions, and as a master gunner his is a voice to be respected. He is a man who, along with others with experience of the Army, has gone into some detail to study the impact of expenditure reductions on the efficiency of our armed forces, and especially the Army. It is particularly interesting, in view of our command of the rapid reaction corps, which has a valuable role still to play in NATO, that he could say that we already have a generation of brigade commanders who have never experienced the full pressure of hard, all-arms training. He has stressed that those officers will soon become generals. He observes that brigades, let alone divisions, seldom train together with their own units. He takes the view that the capability to conduct combat effectively at short notice at the higher level is quickly being lost.
If we do not have training at the higher level, as time passes our fitness to command the rapid reaction corps will be challenged. If we are to be equipped with high-tech weapons and equipment, all-arms training is vital. As the general pointed out:It is a complex business to bring together on a widely-spread, fast-moving battlefield, armour, artillery, armoured infantry, helicopters, engineers and high-tech communications and logistics, not to mention the need to train with the Royal Navy.It is possible, of course, that as we look to the future we may not feel that it is necessary to have a rapid reaction corps. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East 793 (Mr. Campbell) talked about that. Somewhere along the line, however, there must be a unified force within the NATO alliance with a European identity. If it is to carry any conviction, it must have the necessary degree of acceptance and unity of command. Surely there is no point in our playing our part unless we all have the same objectives. If it is thought that we should bail out of the commitment, we shall contribute to the downfall of the NATO alliance and the weakening of European security, and confine ourselves to having a seriously reduced Army.
It is useful that we should be able to show the flag, as it were, and to have Royal Engineers contributing to the welfare of people in under-developed countries. No doubt there are responsibilities in Belize and elsewhere that we can carry out. In my judgment, however, it is a fundamental mistake to confuse the real role of a well-led, well-armed and well-trained British Army.
Unless we are reaching the end of the road of cuts, there will be increased concern among those who normally would expect to support us.
§ Mr. Martlew
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that to come down to 2.9 per cent. of gross domestic product is too great a cut?
§ Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith
No. I am saying that if we move down the path of cuts we are in great danger of finding that it will be too little. That is what I am suggesting. I do not see how we shall be able to meet some of our responsibilities if we continue on the present path unless, of course, there is an increase in GDP. If that happens, the problem will, to some extent, be solved.
I do not want to go into too much detail because I am aware that others wish to speak. However, in a letter that I received about the Territorial Army from Colonel Sir Greville Spratt, who is in command of the Territorial Auxiliary and Volunteer Reserve Association for greater London, he emphasises that if the TA is to carry out extra responsibilities when there has already been a cut of about 30 per cent., its numbers should not be further reduced. That should not happen unless, of course, it can be argued that efficiency will be increased and there will be better equipment and more training. In my judgment, there is no cheap option.
As for cuts in the tail, it would not surprise hon. Members to know that there are those who wonder whether we are rigorous enough in cutting the civilian side of the Ministry of Defence. A letter that I received today referred to what the author described as the "delaying tactics" of a Minister. The letter states that the savings that have so far been introduced or proposed in the "MOD Civil Service" amount to only nine redundancies in what is described as theOpen Structure MOD Civil Service staff'.The gentleman who wrote the letter suggests that there are no fewerthan sixty five Civil Servants in the MOD who are ranked and paid as generals; fifty at 2 Star, eleven at 3 Star and four at 4 or 5 Star.I do not know whether that is true, but if people who are normally well informed think that that is the position—those who are in the TA or those who are no longer connected with the armed forces—their criticisms need to be answered. I hope that that will happen when my hon. Friend the Minister replies to the debate.
794 Many hon. Members have expressed concern about the impact that uncertainty can have, especially during a period of running down our armed forces. We all understand why that process had to be implemented. However, if we believe that we have some special skills within our nation that we can call upon—some special resolve or some special characteristics in our national make up—that makes us proud of our military history, I hope that we can recognise too that during the course of our history there have been tremendous lapses that have let down those who would willingly sacrifice their life for the cause of protecting our country and helping to preserve peace. That happened in the 1930s.
I recall the troops returning from Dunkirk. If anything, Dunkirk certainly was a demonstration of national resolve and resilience, but it was hardly our most glorious military achievement. On the whole, the Army was badly equipped, badly trained and not well led. It took someone of the calibre of Monty, and others, to get hold of the British Army and pull it together again. It took some years to build up the quality that made possible the successes at Alamein and on D-day.
It is easy to run something down, but very difficult to pick up the pieces. The message, therefore, is that we understand that, like other Governments, the Government had a job to do, but a line has been drawn in the sand, which signifies that after Ministers have completed the tail and front-line exercises we want no further cuts that may undermine the efficiency of our armed forces. I suspect that, given their quality, Ministers will come up with the right answers.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)
I rise to speak unashamedly about my constituency, which has felt the sharp edge of what has happened to the armed forces and to the Army in particular. Many hon. Members will have heard me speak about the Navy in my constituency, which has experienced many cuts in recent times, but just as many of my constituents are with the Army at Bovington and Lulworth and many of them work at the signals establishment at Blandford.
We have been pleased by the recent concentration on achieving efficiency in the tail. The 18–base workshop has shown that it can refurbish tanks much faster and cheaper. People often overlook the fact that, if the workshop takes in one tank a week, which is the norm, instead of taking nearly 40 weeks and having 40 tanks out of service at a time and doing it in 18 weeks, about another 20 tanks are available for the front line; that shows the efficiency savings that can be achieved.
I have always supported Ministers' efforts to ensure efficiency and value for money, but nothing lowers morale among my civilian workers and within the armed forces, who want to achieve efficiency, more than waste. It was disappointing, therefore, to see the Opposition deploying their usual tactic. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid)—I know that he is not in his place at present—who is clearly a man of the new Labour party. He could take any portfolio without being criticised by the Labour Treasury team because he did not make a single commitment that would cost a penny or save a job in my constituency. Interestingly, the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), contemplating government before the last election, said that cutting the 795 armed forces in the 1990s would match the bonanza that the Conservatives had from oil in the 1980s. That really is the truth of what Labour is saying. It wants to hide behind the fig leaf of the defence review.
Another fig leaf behind which Labour wants to hide is the diversification agency. The Employment Select Committee investigated how we should regenerate employment once the defence work has gone. It said specifically that a diversification agency was not the right route and that we must seek new industries and new jobs, which is what we are doing in Dorset.
I pay tribute to the excellent work of the front-line and tail forces, but their morale is at its lowest point. Dorset, like the rest of the country, is about to remember D-day. All the political parties in Dorset, and people of no political party, spent much time compiling a D-day brochure and planning other events in the area only to find that the Labour party was trying to make party political capital out of unfortunate remarks made by The Sun. We were all criticised for describing D-day as a celebration. I have the NEC's action advice note dated March 1994—circular 14/94, headed "D-day Celebrations"—in which Larry Whitty, Labour's general secretary, writes to all Labour council leaders on the imperative of the Labour party being involved in the D-day celebrations. I am sure that the Labour leaders wanted to be involved in the D-day celebrations for the right reasons, but the only reason Larry Whitty gives is that such involvement would be politically significant, as the date falls three days before the European elections. Yet the Labour party has tabled an early-day motion condemning the Government for trying to do the right thing by our forces and our home front by commemorating events on D-day.
§ Mr. Martlew
Will the hon. Gentleman explain why the Royal British Legion was upset by the Government's proposals?
§ Mr. Bruce
It got hold of the wrong idea. It believed that people might suggest that the street parties did not have a serious purpose, but the "Kilroy" programme showed that the organisers of the street parties are doing exactly the right thing. They asked veterans and widows, "Would you like us to arrange for you to get out on the street and to meet our children so that they can find out what D-day was all about?" The educational effect would have been extremely good, and a number of my constituents wrote to me, especially those who were out in Burma, asking, "Are we being forgotten?" They wanted to ensure that something was happening for everybody. That is what we have done in Dorset, and I believe that we have done it particularly sensitively.
Defence employees working in my constituency, especially those in the Procurement Executive, have grave concerns. Initially, the Procurement Executive had about 12,000 employees—clearly, that was too many—but now 10,000 are employed. It was suggested that 7,000 of them could be located in a Procurement Executive headquarters north of Bristol. Newspaper reports now suggest that the figure might have fallen to 5,000. We need to find out what is happening. Those employees are not happy to hear that shops, swimming pools, gymnasiums, landscape gardens and ornamental lakes will be available when they get to their new high-tech headquarters; they are even less happy to hear that the budget for the ASPECT computer system, which was to be installed to ensure that everybody could 796 work together, has not been approved or might not be proceeded with. Computer people in the armed forces to whom I have spoken suggest that no new money will be found to install the system for the Procurement Executive.
It is perhaps even more surprising that the MOD decided to spend £250 million on CHOTS—the corporate headquarters office technology system. That system was designed specifically to allow departments scattered around the country to talk to each other. About £300 million is to be spent to put the Procurement Executive on a single site, and I believe that that is a waste of money. If we are to keep morale high, we must demonstrate that we can save money. We should not waste it.
When I consider the professionalism of our armed forces, I am reminded of my attempt to windsurf off Weymouth last weekend. I was up to my neck in the waves wondering how I could get on to a windsurfer which kept going in the wrong direction while the experts whizzed past me. The MOD headquarters is probably up to its neck in it as I was then.
We have excellent people in the armed forces. We should tell them that we have to trim our budgets. However, we should have targets for them. Perhaps we should even give them incentive pay to get the results. We should certainly tell them not to spend more money than they are going to save. We must ensure that our armed forces are left with their morale intact and that they save money, but that our armed forces have the teeth that we require.
§ Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)
I am conscious of the fact that other hon. Members wish to speak and that one of them has just exclaimed in frustration. To them, I apologise for not being in the Chamber at the beginning of the debate. I was attending a sitting of the Transport Select Committee and have come straight from there to participate in this debate, in which Labour Members have a legitimate interest.
I join in the tributes paid to the skill and dedication of our armed forces and particularly to the skill and dedication of members of the Army who continue to face peril in many parts of the world. In particular, I pay tribute to the Royal Anglian Regiment which is associated with my constituency and which is currently serving in Bosnia, where it has made great sacrifices.
A Conservative Member claimed that change is inevitable. That is true. Hon. Members on both sides of the House may find uncomfortable the fact that there is, to a large extent, a convergence between the policies of the parties on defence and foreign affairs—in contrast to the position a decade or more ago.
Although Conservative Members ridiculed and dismissed Opposition suggestions for a major defence review, it was clear from the content of Conservative Members' speeches—and particularly those of the hon. Members for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer), for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) and for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith)—that they had 797 grave concerns about the development and direction of our armed forces. They emphasised the need for a major review of our defence commitments.
I was particularly impressed by the hon. Member for Upminster. He demonstrated that need when he referred to an apparent arbitrary withdrawal of a platoon from Korea. He also expressed grave concern about our withdrawal from Belize. That shows that, no matter how much Conservative Members protest, there is clearly a need, which was reflected in their speeches, for a review of our commitments and resources.
The situation is changing rapidly around the world and particularly in Europe. We must recognise that if we are not to be stretched and so ensure that we can meet military and political commitments, we must have the armed services resources to match those obligations and commitments. That is clearly not the case at the moment. The MOD is making knee-jerk reactions and interim decisions by deploying stretched military resources. That is not healthy for the armed forces or in the best interests of the United Kingdom.
I have referred to the dynamic situation in Europe and other hon. Members have referred to their perception of a dangerous situation in central and eastern Europe. There is a danger of over-exaggerating the problem. However, we must recognise that some very fragile democracies are emerging in central and eastern Europe. There are historical anxieties in those democracies. Many see a threat from the east, from what was the Soviet Union and what is now Russia.
We in the west are not doing enough to buttress or reassure those democracies. In parenthesis, we are not doing enough for their economies either. I am particularly concerned about the Visegrad group of countries—Poland, Hungary and the Czech republic—which clearly have a legitimate claim to admission to NATO. The partnership for peace programme was a sop. We in the west have been somewhat dishonest. For 50 years we said, "Look over the wall." After the collapse of communism, the wall came down but we still have not allowed them to join the club.
It is argued that the armies of those countries are not equipped to western standards and that there is no democratic control of those armies. It is argued that their technology and armaments do not match NATO standards. Those are feeble and bogus excuses. We should do much more to help those countries to join the NATO club. I deeply regret the fact that we have not fulfilled our commitments to them.
Many corners of the globe have been mentioned in this debate but there has been no reference to Gibraltar since I have been in the Chamber. I am deeply concerned that the Chief Minister of the Gibraltar Government has had to flag up the anxiety of his state that its economy would be greatly jeopardised if, as he fears, there is an arbitrary and fairly immediate withdrawal of MOD resources and personnel from Gibraltar. He legitimately fears that that would have an enormous impact.
We have obligations to Gibraltar. In addition, the defence and political interests of the United Kingdom are such that we should maintain commitments there. There should certainly be no arbitrary withdrawal which would 798 jeopardise the economy in Gibraltar. That would send the wrong signais to other countries with an interest in Gibraltar.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) referred to the Blelloch review of the MOD police. It is appropriate to raise that point today because we understand that Blelloch and the Minister are contemplating replacing or reducing the MOD police by a new force referred to as the Military Home Service Engagement. That would be a way of diminishing Government embarrassment at the cost of making redundant members of the Army, Navy and Air Force. It would keep them in uniform. They would have to fulfil duties currently carried out by MOD police.
It would be wrong to go down that road for several reasons. We must be much more sensitive to the needs of our armed forces personnel who the Government decide they need to shed. If the Labour party's view of a major defence review were adopted, many of those redundancies would, in any event, be put on ice.
To go down that road would also be to misunderstand the role of the MOD police officers. They are constables. They are specially trained and have special skills. They are civilian police officers. They need to be in terms of legislation passed by this House such as the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and that governing the police inspectorate. Their role cannot be fulfilled sensitively or according to existing legislation by service men who would be under the control not of the MOD or a police committee, but of the generals. I do not mean any disrespect to the generals; it is just not right to put the new force under the control of anyone besides the existing police committee.
I hope that the Minister will reassure the public, who are concerned about policing policy, and the MOD Police Federation on this score. I trust that he will not adopt the suggestion of the Blelloch committee.
The Government need to instigate a thorough review of all non-Home Office police forces. It is not good enough to ignore such forces, including the MOD police, while passing legislation relating to Home Office police forces.
Soon after we elected Madam Speaker I tabled early-day motion 2, which called for a veterans Minister. I am pleased to say that interest in the subject was renewed in this Session of Parliament in the form of an early-day motion which attracted many more signatures and which has been fully endorsed by the Royal British Legion. Recent events have shown that this country is out of kilter with others in this respect—we lack a Minister with a responsibility dedicated to promoting the interests of veterans. Not surprisingly, there has been a considerable increase in the number of people claiming war pensions of late, and that trend will continue as those who fought in the second world war reach old age. In the next decade, therefore, the needs and interests of those who fought in that war will become more apparent, and we will need a Minister dedicated to looking after their interests, not to mention those of the war widows, orphans and dependants. Some of the embarrassment—I put it no more strongly than that because I do not want to score points—and misunderstanding that surrounded the events marking D-day might easily have been avoided had there been such a Minister in post.
The cut in the grant for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission also bears on this point. Earlier, the Secretary of State intervened in an endeavour to reassure his hon. Friends that the cut could be absorbed by the commission. 799 That did not satisfy me. Frankly, I was amazed to learn of the cut. All the evidence suggests that it was done without consultation with the other principal participants m the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. That was discourteous to say the least. The underlying fear of those of us who frequent the war graves is that if the Government get away with cutting the grant this year, they will follow that up with more reductions in future years. I would deeply regret that.
I should also like to mention the disappointment felt by those who did national service at the fact that they are not allowed, if they work in any uniformed public service, to wear the medal struck by the Royal British Legion to mark their national service. This is no small issue; I and others have raised it with the Ministry. The Ministry seems to have adopted a rather petty, mean-minded attitude to this issue—or was it the Prime Minister? It should and could have been recommended to the Queen that a medal be struck for people who did national service, enabling them to wear it when on duty in a uniformed service; there are many such people in the police force, the traffic warden service, the ambulance and fire services, and in voluntary organisations such as St. John Ambulance, who should be allowed to wear a medal and ribbon because they gave this country dedicated service of which they are justly proud. Alternatively, if a new medal cannot be struck, the Queen should be advised that they should be allowed to wear the one that the Royal British Legion has already struck.
The Government should recognise the widespread view of hon. Members—no matter how Conservative Members dress it up—that we should stop making piecemeal decisions about our armed forces and related political matters, and should step back and look at them in the round. Such decisions are foolhardy in the extreme.
Secondly, hon. Members on both sides of the House have drawn attention today to the need for a Minister who will be dedicated to promoting the best interests of war veterans, and of their widows and dependants. Such a Minister would also be responsible for commemorating their service on behalf of the Crown in years gone by, and for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, inasmuch as the Government contribute to it. The new Minister could also deal with the VE-day and W-day celebrations, and would marshal resources on behalf of former service men and women and liaise with their organisations. He or she would promote all these interests at arm's length from those in charge of operational matters, which should clearly remain the responsibility of the defence team.
§ Sir Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)
I have been attending Army debates for more years than I care to mention. Unfortunately, in some respects they always seem to take a similar form: very lengthy opening speeches, lasting well over two hours today, and far too little mention of the Army.
I noted with interest that the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) hinted that our Army is too small in some ways, but that he refused to commit the Labour party to any increase in its size. Nor would he be drawn on defence expenditure in general. Of course I understand his dilemma; he handles it skilfully if somewhat lengthily.
800 I am anxious not to fall out with the Minister of State, but I strongly suspect that somewhere in the MOD there is a computer program marked "Minister of State's opening speech for Army debate". It seems to come up on the word processor fairly often—I have heard it many times. It would certainly do no harm if the official concerned were to suggest a few more matters pertinent to the Army of today—perhaps less self-congratulation and a little more explanation.
Morale in the Army unquestionably is not at its height, and the Government should have addressed that today. Recruitment is a matter of concern, and the redundancy programme has been grasped with such enthusiasm by many of those who have been made redundant that the Army has been short of certain grades of officers and NCOs. That is a fault in the Army, and is not the fault of Ministers.
Training areas are already being ground up by the increase in the weight of equipment and because there are more training regiments in the United Kingdom at present. There is a lamentable shortage of barracks, which is an historical failure by the Army to provide its own home in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, large sums of British taxpayers' money are spent on building expensive barracks in Germany to a higher standard than we have here.
I hope that, as the Army considers its withdrawal from Germany, there will be a substantial financial settlement. We have put a great deal of money into works programmes in Germany and it would be wrong for us simply to give that away because there been some change in the strategic scene.
Another subject about which my constituents are bothered and which I would have expected to be mentioned is the ridiculous payments made to women who joined the armed forces on the strict condition that if they became pregnant they would leave. They are now going to tribunals and subsequently being awarded huge sums of money. The taxpayers and the armed forces resent that. I would have expected some explanation from the Government on some of those subjects.
I am one of those who take the view that we have no business being in Bosnia. I also acknowledge that I was wrong in imagining that little good could be done, as I believe that a great deal of good has been done. Many of the convoys would not have got through without the assistance of our troops. No doubt there are plenty of different arguments about the subject, but the British public are certainly not being given an all-encompassing view of the complexities of the situation. The media have been incredibly one-sided without giving the historical facts and the detailed knowledge of what is going on. I believe that that view is shared across the Floor of the House.
With regard to the length of time which troops may spend in Bosnia, I recall that when troops first went into Northern Ireland it was to be a short police operation. Twenty-five years later, they are still there. Not only that; they are there in much larger numbers. Unless a firm decision is made shortly—it will have to be shortly—we will find ourselves in exactly the same quagmire in former Yugoslavia as we have in Northern Ireland, as the Americans did in Vietnam and the Russians did in Afghanistan. It is a historical fact, and we never ever learn. We really must recognise the problem.
I read with pleasure a report in The Sunday Times—my experience of that newspaper is that much of what it prints 801 is not necessarily accurate—on "Front Line First". It seemed to have several commendable points. The first was the subtle, but long-overdue, request to serving personnel to "tell us how you think we can be more efficient". I am delighted that that exercise has been carried out and I only wish that "Front Line First" had come before "Options for Change". I think that that would have been the right way round.
There were so many subjects where things could be done. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) will not be happy with the suggestion that there should be a co-ordination of the teaching of music. I tried to do that when I was at the Ministry of Defence and my hon. Friends may care to discover the Gale report on the teaching of music. The Army and the Navy hire marchers and teach them to play music. The Royal Air Force hires musicians and teaches them to march, and that is much cheaper. If the music school is to be under the flight path of London airport, so be it. One music school would be better than three.
It has been suggested that the three staff colleges should be put together. I tried to argue in favour of that also, not just for cost reasons but for military reasons. If my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces reads Sir Peter de la Billiere's book on the Gulf war, he will see Sir Peter comment on the fact that many of the senior officers who were coming together in his tri-service headquarters had never met each other before. That is totally inefficient and wrong. However, the question is—where do we put the staff college?
Greenwich is a nice place, but it is expensive to maintain and contains a small nuclear reactor—believe it or not—which is expensive to move. The Army has been carrying out exercises from Camberley for so many years that it did not think that it could learn new ground, and the RAF—as was pointed out in the debate—is very fond of its base at Bracknell. Ministers must put their foot down and say that the time has come for tri-service training at that level. It should be possible to find a home for that training.
As to the question of medical resources, the British Medical Association makes it an absolute requirement that a limited number of doctors are trained each year, and that is a long-standing practice. There is a finite medical resource, whether in or out of uniform, and the same applies to a large extent to hospitals. At the time of the Gulf war, a lot of soldiers went off as Territorials to work as medics, and having a large number of uniformed medical officers in all three services is a complete waste of money.
I give much encouragement to my hon. Friends in those exercises, which are long overdue. My right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton) went over many of the things which I did 10 years before him, and I hope that at last somebody will tackle many of those things.
As to the Procurement Executive needing 7,500 civil servants, I am bemused as to what they do. The fact remains that there are three people watching one to make sure that one does not pinch anything. The actual cost is completely uncommercial and unrelated to the practice in every large company. It is time that there was a huge shake-up in simple terms of numbers. Although we 802 welcome the idea that the civil servants should come together and that they are coming to Bristol, there is a case for reducing the numbers.
My favourite hobby horse is the Territorial Army. My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) was not entirely right when he referred to the TA. The proposition is that there should be a further cut in the numbers. The TA has already been reduced from its target figure of more than 70,000 to 63,500. I repeat, as has been oft repeated by anyone who has given any thought to the matter, that at a time when we are cutting our Regular forces, we should improve, increase and strengthen our reserves. They are a cheap alternative. Common sense demands that that should happen.
I give credit to my hon. Friend the Minister. I know that he has questioned the advice that he has been given. I assume that that is the reason for the delay in making his announcement. I am rooting for him in the hope that he is battling with the Regular soldiers, who are only too keen to cut out the reserves for all the wrong reasons. I hope that he is winning his battle to retain the TA much as it is today. It is already too small.
I also want to know what has happened to so much of the equipment that has been drawn out of Germany. Radio sets have been taken out of tanks. Yet my Yeomanry have radio sets that are out of date and cannot communicate with other units. The equipment must exist because it was in Germany. I suspect that it is sitting in some warehouse and that it is beyond the capacity of the Army's administration to move it from Germany or wherever to TA units.
I am not as enthusiastic as many other commentators about the pronouncement that Territorials should go to the Falklands to take part in that garrison. I have consulted some senior officers in the TA and they are extremely worried about it. The only men who will be able to find a month, or more than a month—
§ Sir Jerry Wiggin
I am sorry, four months. It will probably be four months for the first manoeuvre. The only men who will be able to find that amount of time will be the unemployed or those who feel that it is possible to give up their civilian job. They will go at platoon strength so they will not operate as part of their unit. I suspect that the Regular Army will judge that particular platoon and apply their judgment to the whole of the Territorial Army. That is a worrying point.
§ Mr. Brazier
Surely the point is that we should look for much shorter commitments such as providing the enemy in BATUS. We need commitments that could be done over a period of, say, two, four or six weeks by a formed sub-unit or a sub-unit from a formed unit.
§ Sir Jerry Wiggin
That sounds an excellent idea. The other point is that the Falklands in the relevant months are extremely unpleasant to be in. The rain raineth every day. It is the middle of the winter.
§ Sir Jerry Wiggin
As the hon. Gentleman says, it is bloody cold. It is likely that that training could not be carried out for about half the time. Ministers should have a look at the timing of the move of Territorials to the Falklands. In the margins of that, will they also have a look at the infrequency of the RAF service to the Falklands? 803 Obviously, I can only ask questions about the flights that are available to the public, but the reliability of the RAF airline is so poor as to be deplorable.
"Front Line First" is the message, and I think that we would all support that. It means that the Territorial Army —our reserves—[Interruption.] "Front Line First" means that we have to keep our fighting forces in good order. The truth of the matter remains that if the Territorial Army is abolished—the naval reserve has already been abolished and the RAF reserve has effectively been abolished—we shall not carry out the "Front Line First" policy which the Government rightly propound.
In referring in a previous debate to the EH101 helicopters, my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement said:The saga of support helicopters for our armed forces has been Wagnerian in its length and Shakespearean in its complexity." —[Official Report, 26 July 1993; Vol. 229, c. 919.]If it goes on much longer it will soon be like a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. I suggest yet again that, as we watch our forces immobilised by the fact that they have not received these helicopters which were promised 10 years ago, we are seriously reducing the fighting effectiveness of our forces. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) propounded the views that he put forward at the time of "Options for Change"—which I did not vote for —and said that the idea was to have our equipment as up to date and as good as any in the world. That means mobility and it means helicopters. It is time that a decision was taken.
I welcomed the Secretary of State's intervention on the subject of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The commission costs as much as it has to cost. As I understand it, at present the various Commonwealth countries concerned—a large number contribute to funding the pool—are simply told what it costs to pay the gardeners and keep the gardens and graves in order, and that cost is borne in an agreed percentage by all of the countries concerned.
I should be very alarmed if that principle were to be breached in any way. I have visited the cemetery at Lae in Papua New Guinea—one could not go much further away than that—and it is a beautiful place. Anyone who has spent the night in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission hut on the beach at Gallipoli will know that it is an emotional experience. I do not think that I or anyone else would tolerate messing with that marvellous organisation.
§ Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I give notice that I wish to apply to raise on the Adjournment a matter which is of great concern to my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Deva) and myself—British Army bands, military music and Kneller Hall.
§ Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)
I share the frustration of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) who has been trying to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I thought that we could speak for as long as we liked in the debate, but at the end of the day someone has lost out.
I register my dismay that the Government business managers decided to schedule the Army debate for today. 804 It was obvious that the debate would be poorly attended, but it was agreed to by the usual channels—I suspect that the Opposition Whips Office may have had something to do with it as well.
We always thought that more Tory Members than Labour Members would be present for the debate—obviously those people who have been out on the streets realise why that is so. This is a very safe bunker for Tory Members at the moment. They would all like to say, "I can't get back to my constituency—I'm speaking in the army debate". But we have managed to bring out enough troops to keep many of those on the Benches opposite tied up.
It is obvious that Government Ministers do not like debates about the services. I suspect that they will use this experience to say some time in the future that because such debates are not well attended they should perhaps be axed. They have axed everything else and I think that they would now like to axe service debates. Another reason why they have these debates on such days is that the Government do not want any publicity about what they are doing with the armed forces.
I want to chide the Minister of State for the Armed Forces a little. I am glad to see that he has been present for the debate today. During the debate on the Royal Air Force he made a speech, then left the Chamber and did not return. I am sure that that will not happen again.
§ Mr. Hanley
Just to set the record straight, I could not stay to hear the closing speeches on that occasion because I was attending an Army function and the people at that function would have been extremely disappointed if I had not been there. I asked the permission of the House for that to be taken into account and I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman finds it unacceptable.
§ Mr. Martlew
I understand that members of the RAF were not too happy about the situation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) has knowledge and enthusiasm. The hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) said that my hon. Friend could adopt any brief, but I do not think that that is true. My hon. Friend has a genuine affection for, and knowledge of, the subject. I suspect that in many ways he is a frustrated soldier, but the Army's loss is the Labour party's gain. He will make up for that when he becomes a Minister. I think that he will make a good Minister for the Armed Forces in the next Labour Administration.
The right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), rather sadly, seems to spend his time haunting the Back Benches, defending the policies that he made when he was in charge of the Ministry of Defence. He possibly has a feeling that history will not treat him well in terms of his stewardship of the Ministry of Defence, and he is probably right.
The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) again made an excellent speech, with which we could not disagree in any detail. My only suspicion is that if his hon. Friend the Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) had made a speech it would have been very different. That tends to be the case with the Liberals: we all know that one says one thing while another says something else. However, it was a good speech and it referred to what will happen to the troops who are brought back if we have peace in Northern Ireland. I shall discuss 805 that later. The hon. and learned Gentleman also made an argument about the War Graves Commission, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay).
I was glad that the Secretary of State was here. I thought that we were going to have an Army debate at which the Secretary of State would not be present, but I understand that he was at the public showing of Eurofighter 2000. Many of us regret the fact that it was scheduled for today and we could not go. I am not sure that the Minister said that the budget of the War Graves Commission would not be cut: I suspect that he actually said that it would be cut but that it would not make any difference. He should have obtained the view of the House on that, which is that it would not be tolerated. Any reduction in standards of war graves will not be tolerated by either side of the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for the Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) made a good constituency speech about the firing range in his constituency and the need to keep Benbecula open. He has great knowledge of it. He took the opportunity, as always, to remind us of the need for European defence security, on which he is an expert and for which he is an enthusiast. He seemed to be saying that Europeans should intervene in Bosnia and Africans should interfere in Rwanda. I do not agree with that. If one gets into that situation, it could be dangerous.
The hon. Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer), who had a distinguished service career from 1943 to 1957, was rather churlish about the Labour party. He gave no credit to the Labour Governments from 1974 onwards, who looked after the armed forces very well. He let the cat out of the bag when he said that his worst time in the Army was when he was serving in the Suez canal zone between 1951 and 1954. That was under a Tory Administration. He said that the situation was similar to that today, which again is under a Tory Administration.
I always tend to agree with the hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, but today I thought that he was being a bit of a political dinosaur. I hope that what he said about the power of Russia is not correct. His speech gave one the feeling that if we still had troops in India he would want them to stay there. He is known as one of the best friends of the armed forces in the House and on some occasions that can be a disadvantage.
On the question of Belize, I agree with the hon. Gentleman—as, I believe, does the Labour party. I agree also with much of what he said about the very difficult situation in Bosnia. There is a great deal of disinformation coming out of Bosnia. I do not believe that we can rely on the British media, and I do not expect that the hon. Gentleman will be called to discuss the Bosnian situation on the "Today" programme.
Regrettably, I was not in the Chamber to hear the speech of the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton), which I understand was very entertaining. Indeed, one of my hon. Friends has said that it was better than the speeches that he made from the Dispatch Box. The reason could be that today he was saying what he believed, whereas on other occasions he was expressing Government policy. I see that the right hon. Gentleman has just arrived in the Chamber. For his benefit I should repeat that, while I missed his speech, I understand that it was very enlightening and entertaining and that one of my hon.
806 Friends thinks that it was better than the ones he made as a Front Bencher. The point is that on this occasion the right hon. Gentleman was saying what he believed.
When history comes to be written, my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) will be credited with putting down the questions which resulted in the Scott inquiry. There is no doubt that my hon. Friend is very diligent. Ministers know how many questions he puts down. It is one means of securing information that Ministers do not normally divulge in debate.
I disagree with my hon. Friend's remarks about the pay of the armed forces. There has been an increase of about 4 per cent., but the Government have welched on it to the extent that only 2.7 per cent. was paid on 1 April and personnel will have to wait until next January for the rest. In fact, there will be no more money in their pay packets this month. Indeed, there will be less, by virtue of increased national insurance contributions and the extra income tax imposed by the Government. The truth is that, so far, people in the armed forces have had no increase at all.
The hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith), who is not in the Chamber at present, made a strange speech. I thought that my intervention would be helpful. I asked the hon. Gentleman whether he thought that a cut from 5.2 per cent. of gross domestic product in 1990 to 2.9 per cent. in 1996 was too great. He said that it was, in fact, too little. I do not know whether he did not understand my question or whether he was advocating further defence cuts. If he were in his place now, he could perhaps explain himself.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock carried on his campaign with regard to the health and welfare of war veterans. He also mentioned the War Graves Commission and brought up the issue of the wearing of medals. A Member of Parliament who takes such a specific interest in these matters is to be congratulated.
I have a great deal of affection for the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin). I always remember the favourite words that he said to me when, as a member of the Select Committee, I was to go on a foreign trip: "Young man, we never go anywhere that isn't civilised." Unfortunately, since taking on the Army brief I have been to both Macedonia and Bosnia.
I took exception to the hon. Gentleman's attack on women. Women in the armed forces had to agree to the conditions. There was no option: the duty was imposed by the Government. I shall return to that matter later. I found myself agreeing with the hon. Gentleman, however, when he pointed out that the Government are not increasing but cutting the numbers in the Territorial Army. No one listening to the debate would have thought so.
In some ways this debate has been too wide ranging. The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare was right when he said that we do not often talk about the Army. Perhaps I should now try to concentrate on that aspect of the subject. In his opening remarks in the debate on this year's defence estimates, the Secretary of State for Defence said that we have world-class armed forces who are held in high regard throughout the world. Although that statement is still true, it is in spite of, not because of, Government policies. If it is to remain true, how long can we continue to have a Ministry of Defence that is run by the Treasury and takes defence cuts every time that it is asked?
In last year's debate on the Army, it was said that further redundancies would be made. The Army took the brunt of those, with 7,000 redundancies in the armed forces this 807 year, 1,000 of which were compulsory—despite the phantom army of 3,000 troops that have appeared. I was not convinced by the Minister's explanation on that. The Government were criticised for making compulsory redundancies because they are an easy way to destroy morale. Other options were available, one of which was to look at the redundancy package. That package may have been considered generous, but with nearly 3 million unemployed and redundant soldiers facing years on the dole queue it was not generous enough.
When I asked the Minister of State for the Armed Forces how many people had volunteered for redundancy, he answered that those records were not kept centrally.
§ Mr. Hanley
Perhaps I may help the hon. Gentleman. More people volunteered for redundancy than there were redundancies available, but the redundancies were not necessarily in the right places for the particular skills. On the replacement of jobs, 80 per cent. of those made redundant in the second phase were in jobs within two months of leaving the armed forces.
§ Mr. Martlew
First, the Minister is complacent about the fact that 20 per cent. of those who left the armed forces are without a job. Secondly, although I am grateful to him for that intervention, why did he tell me that the figures were not available when I put down a written question? The reason must be because there were many more volunteers than the Government wanted to admit, which was a measure of morale in the armed forces.
§ Mr. Martlew
The Minister says that I could not run a whelk stall. When I worked in the private sector I ran a better redundancy and personnel policy than the present Government.
§ Mr. King
Although "Options for Change" involved redundancies, we set in place the most generous package that the armed forces has ever had and the services took terrific trouble over the arrangements for resettlement and retraining. What the hon. Gentleman said is a gross affront to the people in the services who have devoted tremendous effort to that and have had considerable success. Instead of scoring cheap political points, will he pay tribute to the people in the services who have done that work?
§ Mr. Martlew
I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman was not here when I referred to his speech. I said that he spends most of his time justifying the decisions that he took when he was Defence Secretary. When he intervened, however, I was discussing the decisions of the present Defence Minister.
Northern Ireland has been discussed and I pay tribute to the work of our soldiers there. My local regiment, the King's Own Border Regiment, is just completing a two-and-a-half-year tour in Deny, where it has no doubt kept up the regiment's fine tradition. We hope that there will be peace. We sometimes see a glimmer of hope, but then there is a false dawn. Last November, some people hoped that peace would come by Christmas, but that: has not happened.
If we have peace and the soldiers are brought back, the defence statement says that they will return to a peacekeeping role. After 25 years, I am worried about the peacekeeping role of those extra troops. Might not the 808 Treasury see that as an opportunity to say, "We have won the peace—here is your P45." I do not want to make a political point out of that, but Ministers must bear in mind that peace in Northern Ireland would mean perhaps another 20,000 troops made redundant.
The hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) made fun of defence diversification. There is no mention of it in the defence estimates. They mention the fact that the Army has discovered a way of freezing blood plasma. That was done for military purposes, but it will now be used for commercial purposes. The Ministry of Defence has signed a contract for that work with a Dutch company. The process was invented in Britain, but the product is to be manufactured abroad. Nothing changes, does it?
I am glad to see that the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), is present. I am sure that he will agree that if one wants a success story of defence diversification one need go no further than Cumbria. On the west coast, there was a royal ordnance factory called Sellafield. It was used after the war for making plutonium for nuclear bombs. Now it employs 12,000 people, only 5 per cent. of them for a military purpose, the rest for peaceful purposes. Whether or not one agrees with nuclear power, that is a success story of defence diversification and it was Government directed.
We need a defence diversification agency so that we can start to exploit the peaceful aspects of the defence industry rather than giving such work to the Dutch, as the Government appear to do.
I have done some research on the position of women in the armed forces. I know that Conservative Members are upset about women being compensated for unfair dismissal. I contacted our NATO allies. The French said that they had never dismissed women because they were pregnant. The Greeks have not replied, which may have something to do with the fact that I went to Macedonia. The Italians said that they do not have such a problem because they do not allow women in their armed forces. The Netherlands said that it never dismisses women for being pregnant, as did Canada. The Norwegians said that it is illegal to dismiss women for that reason. The Portuguese said that they have never dismissed women because of pregnancy and the Belgians said that it is illegal for them to do so. The Danes said that female personnel had never been dismissed and the same situation applies in the Republic of Germany.
§ Mr. Martlew
I am sorry, but I will not give way. I have only three minutes left and I want to wind up.
Spain does not dismiss women because of pregnancy and even Turkey does not do it. The United States does not do it. In 1990 a European judgment required the United Kingdom to change the law. The bill is coming in now and it will be £20 million, £30 million or £40 million. The Government are to blame. They should have taken the advice of their NATO allies and changed the rules.
With regard to the D-day debacle, we were in great danger of changing a ceremony to honour the 10,000 people who died into some sort of fun day. Now it is back in kilter. I wrote to the Secretary of State on 16 November on behalf of the veterans in Carlisle asking for financial help and received a reply from the then Under-Secretary of State, Lord Cranborne. They were given £500 by Carlisle 809 city council, but nothing by the Government. The letter from Lord Cranborne mentioned the Royal British Legion once, but gave the Southern tourist board's address. There were six more references to tourist boards, but only one to the Royal British Legion. The Ministry of Defence gave the job of organising the affair to the tourist boards of Great Britain. That is where it went wrong.
We now have a Government who do not want a policy review, a Government run by the Treasury and its Chief Secretary. Not only that—they have been played about by the tourist boards. We now have the weakest Ministry of Defence for many years: it is a good job that the Ministers who are there now were not there when the original landings were being organised, or D-day would never have got off the ground.
§ The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Jonathan Aitken)
Running like a silver thread through the six and half hours of the debate has been a steady flow of tributes from hon. Members on both sides of the House to our Army and to its service men and women. I am glad to add my own accolade and that of the Government to the high and well deserved praise already expressed. I shall return to that theme at the end of my speech. In the meantime, I am happy to associate myself with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) at the beginning of his speech, when he said that our armed forces are the finest in the world. They certainly deserve that proud title.
However, that was the only point on which I agreed with the hon. Member for Motherwell, North, who spent 68 tedious minutes boring the pants off the House with the most feeble of knockabouts and the most flaccid of knocking copy. The only interesting moment came when he took a leaf out of someone else's book and read us a great encomium of praise for Lord Healey. I found that rather illuminating. Labour's most disastrous Secretary of State for Defence has suddenly become an icon and a guru for the new Labour Front-Bench spokesmen.
In his career as a politician, Lord Healey defied the law of averages by always getting it wrong. He predicted disaster for our armed forces in the Falklands. He was wrong about that. He predicted disaster for our forces in the Gulf war. He was wrong about that. Lord Healey scrapped the TSR2; let us remember that on the day when Eurofighter is flying proudly. He was wrong about that too. It was Lord Healey, too, who inflicted the most savage defence cuts in recent history between 1964 and 1970. He was wrong about those too. And he is the new source of inspiration for Labour Front-Bench policies.
The Opposition spokesman fell back on two slogans, both pretty familiar. One was, "Give us a proper defence review," and the other was "Down with the Treasury-led exercise, 'Front Line First'." Then he dug out a polished phrase from the Walworth road admen and said that the Government were running the British Army like a branch of McDonald's. All I can say is that when I have finished with him tonight I hope that he will feel like a sliced hamburger.
After the monotony of the opening Opposition speech, it was refreshing to hear a much shorter, more serious and statesmanlike speech from my right hon. Friend the 810 Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), who reminded the Government of their promise to give the Army adequate resources for first-class equipment. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) touched on that subject too, and spoke of our moral obligation in that regard.
I shall return to the subject of the Army's equipment programme later, but we can be quietly proud of the fact that we are placing a Challenger 2 order and negotiating a further extension to it, we have the AS90 order, and the Warrior order is completing. The attack and support helicopter bids are also now under negotiation or evaluation. That all adds up to a first-class equipment programme.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater was right to remind us of what can fairly be called the tension in Ministry of Defence planning between resources for peacekeeping duties and those for high-intensity conflict. It is important to realise that we are equipping our Army with a careful eye on the long term, so it is a wide-ranging capability-based Army, which has to balance its manpower-intensive peacetime operational commitments with its more fundamental role involving war-fighting capability.
§ Mr. Brazier
I share the concern that was eloquently expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), to which my hon. Friend the Minister is referring. I put it to my hon. Friend that, while the individual orders he mentions are welcome, we are now spending the lowest proportion of the defence budget on equipment since shortly after we took office. It is difficult to see how that can be compatible with a better-equipped, high-intensity capability.
§ Mr. Aitken
I feel that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) is letting his understandable frustration at having sat through the debate for six and a half hours without getting called make him say things that are rougher than are justified. The Army is pretty satisfied with the equipment programme, as I know from all levels. It is important that, whatever the money spent, we give the Army the equipment to run a high-intensity, all-arms capability at formation level—a formation that can go to war as part of NATO or some other coalition, as was the case in the Gulf.
Without that war-fighting capability—perhaps this is what my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury is afraid of—the British Army would become a mere gendarmerie, capable of providing a battalion here or a battalion there, but without the ability to go to war in a high-intensity conflict. That latter scenario is no part of the Government's vision. As my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) eloquently reminded us, the world is a dangerous place and the British Army must be prepared for the most serious of conflicts, as it has been in the past.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton) asked me about the new Reserve Forces Bill. We hope to introduce legislation in the 1994 Session. He asked whether the two battalions in Northern Ireland were really necessary. They are required by the General Officer Commanding in Northern Ireland, although, as my right hon. Friend well knows, force levels in Northern Ireland are kept under constant review to match the changing nature of the threat.
811 The hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) raised a constituency point about Benbecula. He will know from my visit to his constituency and from the fact that I was glad to receive a delegation of his constituents that I am well informed on the issue and I take his points seriously, as will the Government before reaching any decision.
My hon. Friends the Members for Upminster and for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) raised the issue of training, which is most important. If the Army is not well trained, it will not have high morale and it will not for long keep its position as top of the first division of premier fighting forces of the world. Proper resourcing of the programme of Army training is a high priority for the Government. We have a major package to develop our two key training areas of Salisbury plain and BATUS. I assure my hon. Friends that we shall continue to make full use of the excellent training facilities at BATUS and to utilise all the slots available to us.
The hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) made points about what went on in the miners' strike and about Polaris; he said almost nothing about the Army. I can make one point to him. There is no question of our finding posts for redundant service men by dismissing Ministry of Defence police, and I am glad to set the record straight there.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) did the House a service by revealing the exciting contents of Mr. Larry Whitty's circular. It did, indeed, prove that the Labour party has been making an extraordinary amount of political capital out of D-day, both outside the House and inside the House, where it has tabled early-day motions criticising the Government. That is a real case of facing both ways and of humbug, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for revealing that. In response to my hon. Friend's exhortations about being more businesslike at Ministry of Defence headquarters, I can tell him that we are doing just that in the defence costs study, to which I shall turn in a moment.
I was grateful for the compliments to the Royal Anglian Regiment made by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). I agree with his point about the importance of extending the hand of military friendship and co-operation to the emerging democracies of eastern Europe, including Poland and Hungary. We are trying to do that through the partnership for peace programme.
I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) feels that there can be reductions in the Procurement Executive and rationalisation of the medical services. That point was also raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell. However, I thought that my hon. Friend was being unfair when he spoke of the unsatisfactory nature of the new Territorial Army commitment to the Falklands. Contrary to his gloomy forecasts, recruiting for that particular TA platoon is going extremely well. There have already been more than 53 volunteers for the 40 places available. That is a signal that this is quite a popular move.
Many speeches tonight have dealt with the defence costs study exercise, known as "Front Line First". Indeed, almost every speaker touched on that in some way. I am glad to tell the House something about it and to turn, with some relish, to the Mutt and Jeff act on the subject from Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen. Their speeches were so bereft of constructive criticism, let alone originality of thought, that we can safely assume that Labour's shadow ministerial team has spent the past few months deeply 812 immersed in an ideas-cutting internal exercise known as "Front Bench Last". Even further behind are their own Back Benchers. When the debate started, there was the amazing total of three Labour Back Benchers in the House, compared to 32 Members on this side, indicating that we take defence 10 times more seriously than do the Opposition.
As a substitute for any sort of understanding or comprehension of what we are about, the two Opposition spokesmen performed predictably as a couple of rather loud-mouthed, old sailor's parrots. They opened up their beaks to screech out two tired old cliches that we have heard 100 times: give us a proper defence review and down with the Treasury-led exercise. I shall deal with those two hoary, old, ornithological squawks once and for all.
As for the parrots crying "Give us a proper defence review", let me remind the House that we have had our policy review. It was called "Options for Change". My right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater reminded us, in a fine speech, that our policy is just as valid today as it ever was. We keep those policies and commitments as set out in "Options for Change" under review and the results of our analysis have been published in greater detail than ever before in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1994". That White Paper shows that the "Options for Change" policy remains fundamentally valid, although, of course, there are changes in the plans and in some of the plan details in accordance with changes in the strategic environment.
Turning to "Front Line First", I am amazed at the noises from Opposition Members suggesting that they are totally hostile to the study. Surely they do not oppose our efforts to study new methods for saving the taxpayer money and for spending it more effectively on the front line. Surely they are not opposed to the principle of trying to concentrate resources at the sharp end of defence—the front line. When they demand instead a wider defence review and they go on about the need to review our commitments, does that mean that they want to give up certain policy commitments? In which case, let them say which ones they want to give up. We wait with bated breath to hear the announcement. Or do they want to use the cloak of a defence review to fulfil their conference resolutions to make cuts in the front line? In which case, we need to be told which cuts in the front line they have in mind.
As usual, we did not get a single policy idea, except one. We did get one policy. Here it comes. Was it a bird? Was it a plane? Was it a missile? No. It was a defence diversification unit. That was the only new, original idea that the Labour party had for defence policy. For the Government, the whole point of "Front Line First", as the very name makes clear, is not to cut or diminish the operational military capability effective as the front line. I believe that we are going to succeed in that objective.
That is why I feel confident in also dismissing the Opposition's second parrot cry, which simply denounces the whole exercise as Treasury-led. Anyone who has been following "Front Line First" from the inside would gladly give credit to the best and brightest minds in the services and in the Department for the radical and lateral thinking and new ideas that have led the whole exercise internally from within the system.
I was glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell was well informed on that point and paid tribute to those internal efforts. It was our own idea to take 813 an across-the-board look at the way in which we do business in the support and administrative areas of defence to see whether we could not only makes sensible savings, but shift resources from tail to teeth.
It was our plan not only to hand pick 33 study teams, but to invite suggestions from individuals, service men, service women and departmental officials who felt that they had proposals to contribute. Those individual contributions provided the teams with a rich harvest of reforming ideas. That is not surprising because it is our own people who best understand the need to cut the costs of administration and support, to put the greatest possible resources into the front line.
§ Dr. Reid
May I remind the Minister that the definition of "Front Line First" and of the front line was asked for not by a Labour Member but by one of his hon. Friends, the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), who is now here? Perhaps the Minister can explain to his hon. Friend, as his colleague could not, what the Minister means by the front line.
§ Mr. Aitken
My hon. Friend gave a very good answer and I shall give my own answer later. I was saying, to remind the House, that it was our internal people who seized the opportunity to tell us about the things that they thought that we were doing less than efficiently. Well over 3,000 individual suggestions have been received from within the services and the Ministry. Those range from suggestions about packaging standards and better uses of fax machines and computers to proposals for tri-service rationalisation, civilianisation and privatisation.
All those suggestions were passed on to the appropriate study team and many of the suggestions will be followed up in the normal course of business. Those 33 teams have been looking across the board at the defence environment and at every aspect of the way in which we manage and support the front line to see whether we can do it better and more economically.
The teams have been considering big issues such as the management of spares, on which we spend £4 billion each year, and the central organisation of the Ministry, but, at the same time, they have been examining more routine activities that do not normally receive high-level scrutiny, or certainly did not during the cold war. There are a multitude of examples, but I shall give only one or two. I have mentioned such matters as staff travel arrangements, the provision of fire cover to the three services, internal financial management, the management of our scientific research and development budget and new information technology systems.
Many clear messages have emerged from the evidence that has been given to the teams. Message No. 1 is that the Ministry of Defence and headquarters at all levels were widely seen as excessively bureaucratic, despite recent reductions in bureaucracy. Several teams have been addressing the problem in different areas and have proposed significant reforms.
Message No. 2 is that future defence operations, and hence command, training and support, are seen as being increasingly carried out on a joint service basis. In many areas, therefore, the proposed programme of reform and 814 rationalisation will follow from that. Emerging from the studies is the prospect of scope for savings and better defence solutions.
Message No. 3—
§ Mr. Aitken
The parrot is on again about the front line. Let the hon. Gentleman listen to the messages and he might learn some new cries.
Message No. 3 is that reductions in the state of readiness requirements following the end of the cold war could be further and safely exploited to achieve important savings in some support areas.
Message No. 4 is that we need greater delegation. The process of delegating responsibility from the centre has not yet reached as far down the chain of management as we intended. We need to give our commanders and managers more freedom about how they meet defence objectives.
As the summarised messages from the study group show, the sheer depth and weight of the in-house activity gives the lie to the Opposition's parrot cry, "Treasury-led exercise."
§ Mr. Aitken
The hon. Gentleman keeps on about the front line. It is extraordinary that he does not know where it begins.
§ Mr. Aitken
I shall tell the hon. Gentleman exactly. In essence, the term "front line" refers to the overall operational capability that our fighting units—warships, battalions and combat aircraft, for example—need to fulfil the military tasks placed on them. They are set out in detail in the White Paper. For that capability to be maintained, our fighting units have to be properly supported, directly or indirectly, by the remaining parts of the services and by the Ministry of Defence itself.
Support areas make a vital contribution to front-line capability. That contribution is, by and large, distinct in its nature and susceptible to separate analysis. That is precisely why we set up the defence costs study. We wish to ensure that front-line units receive the essential support that they need, but with the best value for money and at the least possible cost. I think that that is a pretty sensible definition that meets the points raised by the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Duncan Smith).
I have been asked a great deal about timing and when we shall make our announcement. I understand that there is a natural impatience and a natural urge to end uncertainty. Those points were well made.
A massive study that aims to improve efficiency and administrative support areas to enable our armed forces to discharge their military tasks to the full surely deserves a welcome in principle from the whole House, as it has received a welcome in principle from the services and the Ministry of Defence. They understand what we are trying to do and, on the whole, the exercise has been well supported. It certainly does not deserve to receive the sort of parish-pump whingeing and parrot cries that we have had from the Opposition. I recognise that the House will be disappointed—I hope that it will be understanding—that I am constrained from giving further details tonight. That is because the study process has not yet been completed.
815 I must emphasise that, contrary to some speculative press reports, no final decisions on "Front Line First'' have yet been reached by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State.
The final phase will take a few more weeks to complete. I expect my right hon. and learned Friend to announce the outcome of the study well before the summer recess. We shall make the announcement as early as possible to end the uncertainty that my right hon. and hon. Friends have mentioned. I am confident—
§ Mr. Aitken
I am confident that "Front Line First" will achieve the objective of making substantial savings. It will achieve the objective of improving the efficiency of defence support and administration while not diminishing—it may even succeed in enhancing—the front-line capability of Her Majesty's armed forces.
§ Mr. Martlew
I am grateful to the Minister for saying that the results of "Front Line First" will be announced before the recess. Does he agree that the House should have an opportunity to debate that announcement before the House rises?
§ Mr. Aitken
I have no doubt that the "Front Line First" proposals will be debated by the House, but: the arrangement of such a debate is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. It does not help good relations between parties when, after the usual channels have arranged a debate on a date suggested by the Opposition, an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman repudiates his own Whips and says that it is unfair that the debate should be held today. That was a deplorable performance by the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew).
It follows from what I said that the "Front Line First" process will not have a negative impact on the Army. One positive aspect of our financial restructuring is that the Army's equipment programme is in robust shape. I refer particularly to the Challenger 2 tank order. I remind the House that 127 of the new, impressive Challenger 2 tanks are on order from Vickers. In December, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State announced that we expected to place an order for up to 259 more, subject to contractual negotiations. The tender for Vickers has been received and is under negotiation.
The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East asked me a specific question about attack helicopters.. Six companies have responded to our invitation to tender with strong bids and we expect to place a contract with the winner in the middle of next year.
Several hon. Members, notably my hon. Friends the Members for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer) and for Weston-super-Mare, asked the familiar question about support helicopters and the EH101 helicopter. The invitation to tender has been issued to Westland for the EH101 helicopters and to Boeing for Chinooks. We hope to have a mixed fleet, but its number and composition must depend on prices, which are under negotiation. We hope to make an announcement before the end of the year.
I am not able to go through the full equipment programme, but I should like to say that we have ordered the AS90 and that we are coming to the end of an order for about 750 Warrior vehicles. We have placed a £200 million 816 order for long-term orders of ammunition, which has been a great boon to Royal Ordnance, although one would not think it from the comments of the hon. Member for Motherwell, North.
We shall introduce the high-velocity missile for the Army's close-air defence capability and we hope to introduce the new Rapier field standard C short-range missile system, which is expected to enter service in the Army next year. The comprehensive equipment programme for the Army is impressive and it fits the Army for the high-intensity conflict scenarios that I mentioned.
Vital though the Army's equipment programme is, its service men and service women most deserve the compliments and congratulations of the House. Some of us have had the privilege to see the Army on active service in recent months, particularly in the often perilous environments of Northern Ireland and Bosnia. I was privileged to travel with General Michael Rose for some days just before Christmas. We know that the superlative professionalism and dedication to duty of our forces earns them their unequalled high reputation and respect.
I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater that, even if the Northern Ireland commitment comes to an end, the Army is at its right strength. I do so not least having recently read David Fraser's fine biography of Rommel, in which he mentioned that the German army, even at the nadir of its fortunes after the first world war, had to stay at a strength above 100,000 because that was the minimum required for it to be able to revive and increase in number at a later date. The Army is at the right level today.
I remind the House about one particular episode that to me, and I think to many others, caused a lump in the throat and symbolised all that is finest in the ethos and achievement of the Army. I am referring to that astonishing moment on Sunday 20 March this year when the band of the Coldstream Guards, immaculate in full dress uniform, marched out in the football stadium in Sarajevo playing "The Peacemakers."
That scene was not only an imaginative and colourful initiative by a remarkable general, General Rose, about whom many tributes have rightly been paid tonight; it was a signal that peace and normality were beginning to creep back to the hitherto bombarded and beleaguered city of Sarajevo thanks to the fine generalship of General Rose. Above all, it was a spectacle that shone around the world because it symbolised the British Army's long tradition of military excellence and its proud record of getting difficult tasks well done.
Here at home, the British people responded instinctively with uplifted hearts and spirits at that Sarajevo episode because it reminded us that in today's international turbulence and strategic uncertainty—
It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.