HC Deb 28 November 1995 vol 267 cc1040-1
4. Sir Anthony Durant

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what assessment he has made of the effect on recruitment of reducing United Kingdom defence spending to the European average. [813]

Mr. Soames

If any British Government were to reduce our defence spending to the European average, that would have a devastating impact on the size of our armed forces and the Government would never consider it.

Sir Anthony Durant

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Bearing in mind our commitments in Northern Ireland and Germany, and now heavy commitments in Bosnia, will he ensure that we have enough personnel to deal with those issues, and with any others that might arise?

Mr. Soames

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and he is quite right to draw attention to the recruiting difficulties that we have, in the Army in particular—the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force are satisfactorily recruited. We are doing everything possible to ensure that we overcome those difficulties and are able to continue to recruit the high-grade young men and women that we need in the armed forces today.

Mrs. Anne Campbell

Is not one way of reducing defence spending, which would not have any effect on recruitment, to buy the British-made Land Rover military ambulance rather than the Austrian Steyr that has been recommended to the hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Soames

The hon. Lady makes a fair point. I am able to tell her that no decision has yet been taken, but my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement will have heard what she said and noted her interest.

Mr. Brazier

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a certain inconsistency between wanting to reduce defence spending to the level of the European average on one hand and the special pleading by individual Members who are concerned about orders for their constituencies?

Mr. Soames

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who makes a good point. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement said, a reduction to the average level of European expenditure would be about £4 billion, which would represent a down-sizing of about two thirds in any one of the individual services. That is a totally unacceptable proposition and is one of the reasons why this country knows that it can never trust the Labour party on defence.

Mr. Spellar

Can we thank the Tory Whips for having planted that question so that we can ask the Minister how the Government have managed in the past year to spend £500 million on redundancies and £100 million on recruitment, to make a number of troops compulsorily redundant yet still be short of troops in the armed forces and to have to call up reservists? What level of incompetence is that?

Mr. Soames

The hon. Gentleman has no idea what he is talking about and is clearly suffering from paranoia. The question of recruiting should be understood. We are having difficulties recruiting for the infantry and it will not be easy to continue to recruit people to be match fit for 365 days a year for a demanding job. We need to spend more money on recruiting and we need to do it better. The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong to speak as if reservists were second-class. We have called up reservists to do jobs for which they provide extraordinarily important specialisations, and we badly need their help.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Will my hon. Friend accept that Her Majesty's forces are the finest military personnel in the world? They are envied for their expertise and their skill. Will he further agree that, without adequate defence, no country has the credibility to play any role in the world today?

Mr. Soames

My hon. Friend is entirely right. The British armed forces are renowned throughout the world for their competence, skill and courage and the plain, understated way that they just get on with the job. My hon. Friend is also right that having formidable armed forces give our country strength and sinew and a far greater sense of nationhood than would otherwise be the case, and, sadly, is not the case in other less favoured countries.