HC Deb 26 November 1996 vol 286 cc134-5
1. Sir Michael Neubert

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many armed forces personnel are currently deployed outside the United Kingdom; and in how many countries. [4309]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Michael Portillo)

Over 44,000 British service personnel are currently deployed in 18 countries outside the United Kingdom.

Sir Michael Neubert

Is it not a remarkable tribute to our resolute defence policies and the professionalism of our armed forces that our participation is sought in so many parts of the world? Would not that be put at risk by the "painful consequences" of a Labour defence review?

With regard to Zaire, now that the Canadians have scaled down their estimate of the number of troops required by a factor of 10, to about 1,000, what are the prospects for the British contingent? Are they required at all?

Mr. Portillo

It is indeed a matter of great satisfaction that our forces are so highly respected around the world. That is partly due to the fact that it is known that the Government give them full support. The Government have always been committed to sound defences; and the alternative Government, the Labour party, now pays some sort of lip service to our armed forces, but over a long period has been committed to sharp reductions in our defence.

The situation in Zaire has changed considerably since I last spoke to the House about it, although my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces brought the House up to date last week. Large numbers of refugees have gone home. We have little intelligence about the refugees in the southern part of the Lake Kivu area. We are seeking further intelligence at the moment.

There has also been a withdrawal of consent from a number of states in the area which we had supposed would be supportive of a multinational force. I think the correct posture for us is to continue to plan on a contingency basis and to make the most of the intelligence that we are busy gathering from the area.

Mr. Cohen

The Minister told me in May that the cost of these overseas garrisons was £360 million a year. After excluding that amount, and other exceptional payments for nuclear weapons and for Northern Ireland, our defence budget is still £5 billion more than the average of our European NATO partners' budgets. Where does that money go?

Mr. Portillo

It goes to maintaining the posture that is suitable for a country that takes its international responsibilities seriously. I know that the hon. Gentleman and many others in the Labour party—many who declare themselves and many who do not—want to cut our defences. As the hon. Gentleman says, he wants them cut to the European average, which would mean £4.5 billion or £5 billion off the present defence budget. I see a Labour Member nodding in agreement. Many Labour Members want our defences cut, and if there were a Labour Government I believe that the pressure in that direction from Back Benchers would be irresistible. If a Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer were standing at the Dispatch Box this afternoon, we know that defence would be a soft touch—that is where the cuts would come, as the hon. Gentleman has clearly told me today.

Mr. Colvin

As some of those deployments were on NATO missions, and as NATO is an organisation that has fulfilled its mission—the ending of the cold war, hardly a shot having been fired—and in the light of proposals to enlarge NATO, when will the countries concerned get together and decide NATO's new mission?

Mr. Portillo

I believe that there will be a very significant summit on NATO's future in summer next year. I think that that would be the right time for NATO to decide on its new missions and restructuring, to begin negotiations with those countries that are applicants for membership of NATO, to begin serious discussions with them and to unveil a new partnership for peace for those countries that are not going to be members of NATO or are not going to be members of NATO at once. I believe that it will also be the occasion for NATO to strike a new relationship with Russia and probably write down what that new security relationship consists of.

Mr. William O'Brien

Can the Secretary of State give the House a reason why members of the Gurkha regiments, which must leave Hong Kong to come to the United Kingdom, are not allowed to bring their wives and families with them? Is there a reason why the Secretary of State is taking that attitude?

Mr. Portillo

I have taken no attitude beyond saying that the Gurkhas find themselves in a completely new position. Now that we are leaving the colony of Hong Kong, Gurkhas will be deployed in the United Kingdom. Those circumstances have not obtained before, so we must investigate carefully what their conditions of service should be.

We have not declared a position on that. We have said that we must review their conditions of service. That review is under way, and it must address several important topics that have been raised, including whether the Gurkhas can bring their families with them. I give the hon. Gentleman an undertaking that that will be considered thoroughly and without any preconceived position on my part.

Back to